The Swerve: How the World Became Modern - Articles

All Content

Posted by: Ernest Petroff on Jun 1, 2014

Journal Issue Date: Jun 2014

Journal Name: June 2014 - Vol. 50, No. 6

By Stephen Greenblatt | W.W. Norton &?Company | $16.96 | 368 pages | 2012

In the winter of 1417, an unemployed Italian papal secretary and book hunter was searching for lost classical manuscripts in Southern Germany when he discovered a manuscript written 1,500 years earlier by the Roman poet Lucretius. Lucretius’s manuscript, On the Nature of Things, gave little hint of the content and eventual impact of this work but its
dissemination shook the foundations of learning and critical thought.

Lucretius, a contemporary of Cicero and Virgil, wrote some 50 years before the birth of Christianity asserting such radical ideas as the universe consists of matter that cannot be made or destroyed, there was no afterlife, no master plan or intelligent design and nothing that would set humans apart from all other animals. In fact, humans should accept that they are transitory and their highest calling should be to embrace the pursuit of happiness and pleasure. While not so startling today perhaps, the mere consideration of such ideas in a world burdened by ignorance, intolerance and cruelty created a “swerve,” or turning point, opening the door to the Renaissance.

The discovery of Lucretius’s monumental work and its subsequent impact is described by Harvard Professor Stephen Greenblatt in his highly regarded book, The Swerve, which won the 2011 National Book Award and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2012. His book opens a door to the ancient world of Roman literature, the state of medieval learning and Christian religious practices through the “dark ages.” The latter is not a pretty picture as the goal of the Church was to violently suppress learning and any hint of intellectual discourse. Professor Greenblatt explores such varied topics as the manufacture of scrolls and paper, 1,000 years of religious intolerance, the restrictions imposed on learning and intellectual freedom, the preservation of manuscripts, the harsh daily life of monks, and finally the revolution in critical thought that On the Nature of Things initiated.

Tennessee lawyers seem to have widely varied interests in historical writings and events, and this work opens up a time and situation that are much less familiar to most of us. Professor Greenblatt postulates a thesis that the circulation of the opus written by Lucretius significantly impacted the intellectual history of Europe. Of particular interest to attorneys is his description of the religious and legal systems in existence from the fall of Rome to the Reformation. Hint: there was not much of a legal system; the Church dictated in matters of faith what constituted a crime and was even quicker in imposing torture and punishment.

Ultimately, the manuscript of On the Nature of Things survived because the copy in its complete form discovered in a remote German monastery had been put aside and forgotten for several hundred years. Lucretius’s work totaled 7,400 lines and was divided into six untitled books and very few individuals could even read the text or understand the origin of the writing. Those who could read the Latin were transported 1,500 years earlier into the Roman world of Lucretius and his meditations on religion, pleasure, death and theories of the evolution of human societies, the joy of sex and even the nature of disease. Lucretius was not an atheist but he asserted that while gods existed they could not possibly be concerned with the lives of human beings. He wrote further that all organized religions were superstitious delusions.

It’s not much of a stretch to imagine the horror of the medieval Church to the ideas expressed by Lucretius and the efforts of religious leaders to stamp out such thoughts. While his work was prohibited reading, there appeared complete editions of On the Nature of Things, painstakingly copied by hand, in cities throughout Italy, England and Germany. According to Professor Greenblatt, the ideas and language influenced the writings of Sir Thomas More, William Shakespeare, Sir Isaac Newton and Galileo, and ultimately contributed to the Protestant Reformation 100 years later.

In The Swerve, Professor Greenblatt describes in a compelling way the origin and discovery of this 1,500-year-old work and its contribution to the survival of critical thought and its eventual spread across Europe. This story is clearly a departure from those topics of American history so familiar to most of us, but therein lies its appeal.

ERNEST A. PETROFF is a lawyer in Huntsville, Tennessee.