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the swerve

3 october 2012

I instinctively distrust books about how the world became modern, because the whole question of how we got the way we are today is so massively overdetermined. Hundreds of thousands of reinforcing dynamics got us from Chartres to the Dynamo, and to pick out one in "for-want-of-a-nail" and call it the sine qua non of the waning of the middle ages is simplistic at best and truly misleading at worst.

So imagine how delighted I was by Stephen Greenblatt's Swerve: when a book so overcomes one's initial prejudices, within pages of its opening, to become an exciting and absorbing read, and deeply get into your thought about huge historical phenomena, it probably has something going for it.

Greenblatt identifies the philosophy of the Roman poet Lucretius with a host of differences between the medieval and the modern world. The changes are, as I've said, overdetermined; without Lucretius, we might have become modern anyway. But Lucretian philosophy (a branch of the tradition founded by the Greek philosopher Epicurus) is such a pervasive (if often indirect) influence on modernity that we might well say that Lucretius's big poem De Rerum Natura framed the "swerve" away from the order of things that had dominated medieval thought in Europe.

Most of Greenblatt's book isn't about Lucretius, of course, but about his rediscovery, which we owe entirely to a single discovery made by 15th-century Italian humanist Poggio Bracciolini. A relentless careerist who survived decades in the service of various popes to become a highly respected chancellor of Florence in his last years, Poggio was a workaholic, cynical about his profession – and addicted to books as the ideal escape from its demands and its petty struggles. (Hmmmnn.) In one of the spells of pontifical infighting that characterized the 15th-century Vatican, Poggio was briefly unemployed, making a tour of monastic libraries in the south of Germany. In one of them (Greenblatt describes it as Fulda, but acknowledges that's only a best guess), Poggio found the first surviving manuscript of De Rerum Natura. Ancient when he found it, it preserved a poem far more ancient – and one that had been "lost" for over a thousand years, in the sense of removed from general intellectual circulation as well as abandoned unread on a shelf. Other manuscripts of Lucretius would later come to light (204-205), but Poggio's discovery, and the copies he sent into the humanist world, were the crucial intervention in the transmission of the poem.

When I was in college, my two favorite Latin writers were Lucretius and Catullus, both known to the modern world almost by accident. Lucretius we owe to Poggio; Catullus, evidently, to a single manuscript, now lost, that was copied by late-medieval humanists. Saturated with texts that can be infinitely multiplied by a few clicks on a mouse, we almost can't understand any more how whimsical fate was in allowing a few minds to reach ours across the centuries, while so many vanished virtually without a trace.

Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the world became modern. New York: Norton, 2011.