I just finished reading The Swerve by the eminent Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt (whose wonderful Will in the World I enjoyed so much a few years ago). The new book describes an intellectual and historical adventure, which has nothing directly to do with Shakespeare; its subtitle is "How the World Became Modern." Greenblatt examines the time when the iron grip held by the Church over intellectual inquiry began to be eroded not only by new ideas but by the rediscovery of old ones.
The heroes of his story are the ancient philosopher Lucretius (a follower of the still-earlier Epicurus) — about whom almost nothing is known — and a man named Poggio Bracciolini, an Italian of the 15th Century and an avid bibliophile who managed to discover in a monastery a copy of Lucretius' masterpiece, On the Nature of Things, which had not been seen or heard of for more than a thousand years. The discovery was one of the seminal moments of the Renaissance and established a connection with the glories of Greek and Roman antiquity, so many traces of which had simply vanished over time.
Disastrous as these events must have seemed to Poggio, when he fled from the Papal administration — convinced that his association with John XXIII would prevent his being employed by any successor — he began his wanderings through Europe in search of ancient manuscripts, which led him eventually to discover Lucretius' great work.
On the Nature of Things was explosive because its content was such a departure from traditional Christian theology. As Greenblatt tells us, Lucretius believed that the "stuff of the universe...is an infinite number of atoms moving randomly through space, like dust motes in a sunbeam, colliding, hooking together, forming complex structures, breaking apart again, in a ceaseless process of creation and destruction." Human beings, too, are constructed precisely out of such atoms which come together at the moment of birth and dissolve at the moment of death; because this would rule out any afterlife, indeed any divinity at all, it was anathema to the medieval church and indeed would have been to the church of Poggio's time. Nonetheless once it was copied and brought back into circulation it seemed to have had an astonishingly liberating effect on the early Renaissance thinkers trying to cultivate a new way of looking at the universe from the rediscovery of Greek and Roman antiquity. The fact that Lucretius' book was written in poetic verse of course added to its stature.
The "swerve" of Greenblatt's title is the unpredictable movement of the atoms, causing, according to Lucretius, ceaseless chains of collisions. "Whatever exists in the universe exists because of these random collisions of minute particles." In addition, "the random swerve of elementary particles is responsible for the existence of free will." And, Greenblatt tells us, "The reappearance of [this] poem was such a swerve, an unforeseen deviation from the direct trajectory — in this case, toward oblivion — on which that poem and its philosophy seemed to be traveling."
Greenblatt describes his own encounter with Lucretius when he was a college student and the wonderfully liberating effect it had on him. His enthusiasm for the poem and its subject matter carried him into his search for the mystery of its survival and discovery; erudite as he undoubtedly is, his enthusiasm carries the reader forward into this amazing process of intellectual discovery, which will inform and excite anyone who becomes immersed in it. This is a wonderfully readable work of scholarship and discovery which will open new worlds to every reader as it did for me.
— Jeremy Nussbaum