Imagine a quaint Benedictine Abbey, nestled between the Rhône and Vogelsberg Mountains of Central Germany. The year is 1417, and the abbot, a prince of the Holy Roman Empire, presides over a small coterie of monks silently copying ornate books. Occasionally, one of them uses sign language to request a psalter or pagan book for his reference. Knife and brush in hand, he scrapes the ancient writings of Virgil, Ovid, or Seneca from the parchment before him, copying St. Augustine’s meditation on the Psalms onto his newly cleansed palimpsest. “The parchment is hairy,” he grumbles to himself. “Thin ink, bad parchment, difficult text…now I’ve written the whole thing…for Christ’s sake give me a drink,” his neighbor tacitly whines. Neither of them dares voice these complaints, nor do they question the text before them, for the Benedictine Rule forbids scholarly inquiry, “lest occasion be given.” Occasion? For what? To whom? The Devil? Into this rarefied scene comes an Italian book collector. Abbot and monks alike are wary of him. If he’s a “light-fingered Italian humanist,” this curse awaits him: “let bookworms gnaw his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, and when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him forever.”
Harvard Renaissance scholar Stephen Greenblatt’s lucid, lively narrative, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, braids together the story of the book collector, Poggio Bracciolini, with the philosophical poem he borrowed from the Benedictine Abbey of Fulda, Titus Lucretius Carus’s De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things). Penned in 50 BCE, and
divided into six untitled books, the poem yokes together moments of intense lyrical beauty, philosophical meditations on religion, pleasure, and death, and complex theories of the physical world, the evolution of human societies, the perils and joys of sex, and the nature of disease. The language is often knotty and difficult, the syntax complex, and the overall intellectual ambition astoundingly high.
Structural and ideological wonders aside, this “dangerously radical text…would help in time to dismantle his entire world.”
To understand the dual resonance of these dangers, we must look both to Poggio and to the text he unveiled. Born in Florence at a time of tremendous cultural vibrancy, he trained as an amanuensis. His prim handwriting, which resembled Carolingian minuscule, from which modern-day italics derive, coupled with his humanistic gifts, won him the Florentine Chancellor’s recommendation to go to Rome, where he took a position as apostolic scriptor to Baldassare Cossa, the newly elected Pope John XXIII. Initially a Julien Sorel of sorts, Poggio found himself in the service of a pontificate under great strain, for the thirty-year Great Papal Schism, when rival popes jockeyed for power, was drawing to a close. When the General Council of Constance declared John XXIII a reprobate, he abdicated the papacy and fled town by night. Once privy to “the meaning of the pope’s smiles and frowns,” Poggio became a cipher, “a masterless man. To be masterless in the early fifteenth century was for most men an unenviable, even dangerous state. Villages and towns looked with suspicion on itinerants; vagrants were whipped and branded; and on lonely paths in a large unpoliced world the unprotected were exceedingly vulnerable.” He channeled his intellectual curiosity into book collecting, becoming an incongruous visitor to Fulda, where “curiosity was to be avoided at all costs. The complete subordination of the monastic scribe to the text—the erasure, in the interest of crushing the monk’s spirit, of his intellect and sensibility, could not have been further from Poggio’s own avid curiosity and egotism.”
The survival of De rerum natura was miraculous. Monasteries such as Fulda were veritable treasure troves, protecting manuscripts from destruction during barbarian invasions, sparing them from falling into desuetude by requiring monks, often the only learned men in town, to read and copy them. Written on scrolls before the modern-day codex came into use, manuscripts were fragile, and
the ink was a mixture of soot (from burnt lamp wicks), water, and tree gum: that made it cheap and agreeably easy to read, but also water-soluble…A spilled glass of wine or a heavy downpour, and the text disappeared…Rolling and unrolling the scrolls or poring over the codices, touching them, dropping them, coughing on them, allowing them to be scorched by fire from the candles, or simply reading them over and over eventually destroyed them.
1417, then, was an annus mirabilis, a year of wonders for Poggio and Lucretius. Newly put into circulation by Poggio, De rerum natura “eloquently dismantled” many tenets of Christian thought. It famously contravenes the popular conception of Epicureanism as upholding a merely hedonistic or sybaritic lifestyle. Instead, it is one of the cornerstones of modern science and philosophy, enabling us to trace what Harold Bloom would call the agonistic influence over modern metaphysical ideas of free will, fate, religion, atheism, sex, life, and death. The arguments stem from “a single incandescent idea: that everything…is put together out of…atoms. The notion of atoms… was only a dazzling speculation; there was no way to get any empirical proof and wouldn’t be for more than two thousand years.” Rather than moving linearly, these particles randomly collide. Their deflection from their path, the “swerve” of Greenblatt’s title, suggests an alternative to preordained movement, an exposure to free will and the laws of chance.
Additionally, De rerum natura upends the idea of gods appeased by worship or sacrifice, the idea of an afterlife for the soul, and the belief in human superiority over animals. It does advocate seeking present gratification, but without the illusion of possession of anything infinite. This holistic philosophy, while reassuring in its promotion of contentment and its suggestion that vital elements were held in balance, was disquieting to Christians for the same reasons that monks debating religious texts troubled them. Wasn’t a text characterizing deities as indifferent to religious practice essentially pagan? In an era when heretics were still being burned at the stake, a traveling book collector stripped of his title and patronage endangered himself by championing such a poem.
While the entire literary heritage of the poem is difficult to trace, Greenblatt name-checks Cicero, who extolled its “near-perfect integration of intellectual distinction and aesthetic mastery” in a letter to his brother Quintus; Ovid, who called him “sublime”; Dryden and Molière, who attempted to translate it, the former successful in a partial translation, the latter’s verse translation not extant; Botticelli and Spenser, inspired by the opening praise of Venus to paint and write a hymn to the goddess respectively; Montaigne, who shared its line of argument on bodily pleasure and free will, and included over one hundred direct quotations to it in his “Essays”; Savonarola, who mocked its case for atomism; Newton, who became an apologist for it; and Thomas Jefferson, who owned at least five Latin editions, as well as English, Italian, and French translations.
A fine list indeed, but surely a cicerone of Renaissance letters like Greenblatt might have detailed the poem’s historical antecedents further, justified such claims as “Lucretius was for Montaigne the surest guide to understanding the nature of things and to fashioning the self to live life with pleasure and to meet death with dignity,” or expounded on Lucretius’s influence on Shakespeare. Then there are the unmentioned Renaissance poets whose verse hewed to the poem’s theory of atomism: “I am a little world made cunningly/Of elements and an angelic sprite,” from Donne’s Holy Sonnets, comes to mind. If the book pivots on the enduring legacy of the poem, such expanded inquiry would have rounded out its scope.
Then again, perhaps keeping De rerum natura as the focal point rather than exploring the recondite channels of literary influence was a judicious authorial choice, as it keeps the tale squarely within the general reader’s purview. The strands of religion and paganism, of preservation and destruction, and the continual collision between these forces that Greenblatt does include are dexterously woven into a marvelous, protean narrative. This richly synthetic intellectual history will captivate readers.
This piece was published in Bookslut here.