"The Swerve: How the World Became Modern" by Stephen Greenblatt is the biography of a man named Poggio Bracciolini, and the history of a poem titled "On the Nature of Things."
Bracciolini began adult life as a scribe, which is the 15th Century version of a notary public. It was a useful, but not unique, position in what is now Italy. Despite his humble beginnings, Bracciolini used his intelligence, charm, and exceptional penmanship to become the personal secretary to Pope John XXII. That was quite an achievement for a person of common birth. But, it was Bracciolini’s avocation as a book collector that gave him a place in history.
Bracciolini spent much free time - and money - searching for rare manuscripts in the monastic libraries of Europe. In particular, he looked for manuscripts containing the works of ancient Greek philosophers. In January 1417, he found a manuscript of the poem, "On the Nature of Things.”
Written by Titus Lucretius Carus around 50 B.C.E., "On the Nature of Things" describes a school of thought founded by Epicurus around 300 B.C.E. Today, an Epicurean is defined as one who is hedonistic. But in ancient Greece, the pleasure that Epicurus and his disciples sought were the joys that came from acquiring knowledge, being free from superstition, and having a profound sense of awe for the Universe. According to Greenblatt, our current definition was created by the medieval Church to denigrate any ancient Greek philosophers whose ideas couldn't be assimilated into Christianity.
Greeblatt goes on to highlight several other major points in the poem. The first one is that everything is made of invisible particles. And the second one is that nature ceaselessly experiments. Incredibly, the poem anticipates the existence of atomic structure and evolution thousands of years before the tools and knowledge existed to support these concepts.
The poem's resurfacing, and subsequent circulation throughout Europe, is the source of the book's title. A "swerve" in this context is defined as a significant change or discovery that impacts a culture or society. "On The Nature of Things" was published during the Renaissance in an attempt to separate science and civil government from religion.
"The Swerve" gives great insight into the past. Unfortunately, that insight includes exposing a sad history of persecuting, and at times executing, thoughtful people in an attempt to kill their ideas. Galileo's lengthy house arrest by the Catholic Church comes to mind. As does Friar Giordano Bruno’s suggestion that the Bible is a better guide for charting morality than it is for charting the Heavens. For this, Bruno was burned at the stake for heresy.
After reading Greenblatts book, I can’t help but wonder how different the world would be today had the geniuses of the past been allowed to flourish unimpeded by fear, ignorance, and superstition.
David Bross lives in Williamsport. He’s a retired elementary school teacher.