Book review: ‘The Swerve: How the World Became Modern’ by Stephen Greenblatt
How the World Became Modern
W.W. Norton: 356 pp., $26.95
On the Nature of Things
Lucretius, translated by Frank O. Copley
W.W. Norton: 177 pp., $15.95 paper
Can a single book really change the world?
There are plenty of candidates, including Lucretius’ “On the Nature of Things,” and W.W. Norton has reissued Frank O. Copley’s translation of this wondrous poem to coincide with Stephen Greenblatt’s “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern,” an equally wondrous book about how this classic was nearly lost and why Western civilization would be much poorer if that had happened.
Winner of this year’s National Book Award for nonfiction, which was announced during a Wednesday night ceremony in New York, “The Swerve” triumphed over an impressive field of finalists including several books on major historical figures. Greenblatt’s subject is equally vast, and he examines it by focusing on Lu
cretius’ marvelous work and the adventures of Poggio Bracciolini.
Bracciolini was a 15th century papal emissary and book hunter who rescued Lucretius’ work from a German monastery shelf where dampness was guaranteed to destroy it if the bookworms — called “the teeth of time” — didn’t feast on it first.
“The prime hunting grounds for Poggio and his fellow book hunters were the libraries of old monasteries, for good reason,” Greenblatt explains. “For long centuries monasteries had been virtually the only institutions that cared about books.”
Such hunters risked beatings by the monks — if they tried to steal the monasteries’ books — and often they used gold and flattery to win over a stern abbot and receive permission to make a copy on parchment.
Their interest in the classical past, Greenblatt notes, was fueled by far more than money. There was a growing fascination with antiquity, and collectors paid fabulous sums for old objects overlooked as junk. People were eager to enter the mind-set of the past, and a text like Lucretius’ provided a luminous doorway into a glorious, distant world. This growing cultural attitude was unexpected and signaled the coming of the Renaissance — Lucretius referred to unpredictable changes with the word “clinamen,” which Greenblatt says refers to “a swerve.”
For Poggio, however, part of the reason for his book hunting did involve money. His years of maneuvering as a secular member in the Roman Curia amounted to nothing. He rose to become apostolic secretary to the wily, corrupt Pope John XXIII, who was deposed in 1415 (his name was erased from the books until Giuseppe Roncalli, the architect of Vatican II, claimed it for himself in 1958).
Out of a job, Poggio turned to book hunting and began recovering invaluable works, like those by the Roman rhetorician Quintilian.
Soon his friends were hailing him as the great “restorer of antiquity” and, on a journey to a German monastery (believed to be the Abbey of Fulda), he retrieved Lucretius’ “On the Nature of Things. Of course he didn’t know, Greenblatt tells us, what he was preserving: “a book that would help in time to dismantle his entire world.”
Born more than 2,000 years ago, Lucretius belongs as much to our day as his own. This might sound surprising, but take a closer look at “On the Nature of Things” — you’ll discover that he’s writing about a world that feels modern.
He speaks of tiny, indivisible bits called atoms (“all/are sundered into particles of matter”) and something that even sounds like a description of DNA (“each thing has but one substance/marked and designed to bring it into being”).
And how about this cautionary attitude to religion: “More commonly/religion has prompted vile and vicious acts.” His viewpoint, unfortunately, is all too familiar to us.
As Greenblatt did in “Will in the World,” his 2004 study of Shakespeare, he writes with great charm and cinematic flair as much about the times as about Lucretius and Bracciolini. He introduces us to weary monastic scribes who spent long hours copying books (and sometimes complaining of their weariness in the margins). We learn about the avid collectors Petrarch and Niccolo Niccoli; the hypocrisy and obscenity of the papal court; and the teachings of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, whom Lucretius championed.
“Epicurean” has long been used to describe anyone who indulges in sensual pleasures. But as Greenblatt points out, this was an exaggeration by Christian writers — an early smear campaign, perhaps? — who wanted to steer attention away from Epicurus’ godless view of nature, a view that Lucretius explores in his poem.
What Epicurus, and Lucretius, argued for wasn’t freedom from God, Greenblatt explains, but freedom from fear. They opposed the notion of a lightning-bolt-wielding judge hovering over our heads, demanding supplication and worship. It wasn’t that either thinker denied the existence of a god or the gods: Instead they believed that the gods would be “utterly indifferent to the doings of any beings other than themselves.…"
This might alarm die-hard believers, but, as Greenblatt points out, it also encouraged artists and thinkers to shake off fears of eternal torment and approach the natural world with a renewed sense of wonder.
Without a divine overseer protecting each person’s destiny, though, Lucretius knew the fate of his own work was uncertain. That may be why, early in “On the Nature of Things,” he makes a theistic-sounding appeal to the goddess Venus to watch over what he has written: magis aeternum da dictis, diva.
In Copley’s translation, the line is “Grant then to my words, Lady, a deathless charm.” (“Deathless charm” is a gorgeous invention.)
Considering the turmoil after the Roman Empire crumbled, Lucretius needed more than just “deathless charm” to guarantee the survival of his words. He needed Poggio to find them.
From the Oscars to the Emmys.
Get the Envelope newsletter for exclusive awards season coverage, behind-the-scenes stories from the Envelope podcast and columnist Glenn Whipp’s must-read analysis.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.