You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Humanism As Revolution

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
By Stephen Greenblatt
(W.W. Norton, 356 pp., $26.95)

Midway through the greatest literary work of the Italian Renaissance, the paladin Orlando, the hero of Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso, which appeared in 1516, goes crazy with unrequited love and jealousy. His poet creator is in no better shape: he is writing, he winkingly tells us, in a “lucid interval” of his own lovesickness. Ariosto alludes to a story told by Saint Jerome about an ancient Roman poet: “After a love philtre had turned him mad, and he had written, in the intervals of his sanity, several books which Cicero revised, he killed himself by his own hand in the forty-fourth year of his age.”

The poet was Titus Lucretius Carus, of the early first century B.C.E., whose six-book epic, De Rerum NaturaOn the Nature of Things or, perhaps better, On the Nature of the Universe—is one of the towering classics of Latin literature. It had been rediscovered almost exactly one century earlier, in 1417. In that year, the Italian humanist scholar and book-hunter Poggio Bracciolini found a ninth-century manuscript of the ancient poem in the library of a German monastery. He had a copy made that he brought back to Florence to his fellow enthusiast for all things classical, the wealthy Niccolò Niccoli, who copied it out in the outstandingly beautiful handwriting that became the basis for what we have come to know as italic script. By the 1450s, Lucretius’s poem was being read and studied in learned Florentine circles. The new media of moveable type produced the first printed edition in 1478, and the work circulated outside of Italy.

De Rerum Natura expounds in epic verse for Roman readers the science taught by the Greek philosopher Epicurus in the third century B.C.E., much of which sounds astonishingly up to date to modern readers: that the gods exist but have no care for humanity, nor are they the creators of the universe (and so they may as well not exist); that the universe is infinite, eternal, and ever-changing, formed by the chance collision of atoms, the basis of all things animate and inanimate; that our particular part of it came into being in time and will fall apart again to reform in another configuration of atomic matter; that the human soul dies with the body, and there is no afterlife, and men and women should free themselves from the fear that religion inculcates of punishments or rewards after death. They should free themselves from the fear of death itself: when you are dead you will not know the difference. No wonder the Christian saint said that Lucretius was mad.

That the Renaissance poet should have identified himself and his own masterpiece with Lucretius attests to a major shift in Western cultural history. This shift was the Renaissance itself, the “swerve” of Stephen Greenblatt’s title, which refers as well to Lucretius’s doctrine of the “clinamen” or sideways turn, which, however random and infinitesimal, could trigger a chain reaction in atoms otherwise falling through the infinite void of space, and thereby form our world: the Earth and stars and their inhabitants. It is the Lucretian version of the Big Bang.

The swerve is as good a metaphor as any for the mysterious process of cultural as well as physical change, where small events can have far-reaching and unintended consequences. It departs from Greenblatt’s earlier notion of cultural subversion and containment that he developed in a discussion of Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays and which has influenced a generation of scholar-critics. That model, inspired by Foucault, suggested that the expression of new and apparently revolutionary ideas played into a game of power that allowed the cultural orthodoxy of a dominant social order to reassert, and even to strengthen, itself. But in that reactionary scenario, how do things change, except by some unexplained epistemic leap? In his book Greenblatt approaches the idea with some distance: “Which is it: subversion or containment? It is exceedingly unlikely that at this distance anyone will discover the evidence that might definitively answer this question—if such evidence ever existed.” Things are always changing, Lucretius teaches: that is their nature.

GREENBLATT TREATS the central narrative thread of The Swerve, his engaging retelling of Poggio’s discovery of the manuscript of Lucretius, as an exemplary story of how the world became modern in the Renaissance. It did not happen solely by means of the recovery and the re-circulation of Lucretius’s poem and its ideas, however explosive and scientifically prescient they might be. Rather, Greenblatt suggests, the single case of Poggio and Lucretius stands in for the larger collective discovery by humanist scholars of classical antiquity in its historical otherness and as an alternative to the received ideas of medieval Europe, whose own spectacular intellectual and artistic achievements—Dante!—the upstart humanists consigned to the dark ages of “gothic” ignorance. This textual scholarship produced a tectonic shift in Western culture and thought that preceded and contributed to the Renaissance discoveries of the New World and the Copernican universe. It prepared the way for modern science—the new philosophy that, as Donne wrote in the period’s later stage, called all in doubt, the universe “crumbled out again to his [Lucretian] atomies.” We are still grappling with its legacy.

Aiming for a general reader, Greenblatt tells this story as a series of fables for our own times. The virtually miraculous survival of Lucretius’s poem—while so many other classical texts have been lost, including dozens of plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides whose titles alone have come down to us—allows him to reflect pointedly on the fragility of human civilization, and of the scholarly enterprise in which he is himself occupied: his book is tirelessly self-reflexive. The eruption of Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii in 79 C.E. also buried in ashes the Villa of the Papyri in neighboring Herculaneum, a dwelling given its name from the large private library that was discovered inside it. Its charred papyrus scrolls fell apart into dust in the hands of eighteenth-century excavators, but some survived, among them scrolls in which modern scholars in 1987 were able to detect fragments of De Rerum Natura. It has been possible to speculate that the wealthy Roman owners of the doomed villa had made it a center for philosophical discussion, a kind of actualization of the garden to which Epicurus urged his followers to retreat from the cares of worldly business.

GREENBLATT’S STORY proceeds from natural catastrophe to the human disasters that brought an end to the classical world. He lovingly reconstructs the world of ancient manuscript production: the making of papyrus scrolls from reeds; the scriptoria in which texts were mass-produced by copyists, most of them slaves; and the gathering by enlightened Hellenistic kings, Roman statesmen, and emperors of books into great public libraries. Roman bath complexes could have adjoining reading rooms: mens sana in corpore sano. But this world started to collapse in the late fourth century C.E., as Rome’s empire began to crumble and as Christianity, which gradually became the official state religion between Constantine’s conversion in 312 and the edict of Thessalonica by Theodosius in 380, grew increasingly intolerant of pagan culture.

In 415, a Christian mob in Alexandria horribly murdered Hypatia, whom they accused of being a witch: she was a renowned mathematician and philosopher, what we could now call a research scholar, at the Museum, the city’s great library and center of learning, which at its height had housed a half a million manuscripts that (in Greenblatt’s words) “represented a global cosmopolitanism, a determination to assemble the accumulated knowledge of the whole world and to perfect and add to this knowledge.” The murder of this intellectual by a know-nothing mob abetted by the sainted church father Cyril—who knew better—“signified more than the end of one remarkable person.... The Museum, with its dream of assembling all texts, all schools, all ideas, was no longer at the protected center of civil society.” Such ancient libraries and their collections would vanish in the next century of faith and barbarian invasions. The fate of institutions of knowledge, Greenblatt’s grim fable admonishes, is precarious: funding cuts by an overextended empire or attacks on science by evangelical politicians who imagine the garden of Eden as a Jurassic park may take ours down sooner than we think. Or we might think of the great public library in Baghdad that our Christian empire failed to protect.

Hypatia is the first of three cases of murder in the name of Christian orthodoxy that Greenblatt’s book recounts. There follow the betrayals and burnings of the reformer Jan Hus and his associate Jerome of Prague at the Council of Constance—Poggio witnessed the trial of the latter in 1416 before he went out on the book-hunting trip that would bring him to the manuscript of De Rerum Natura—and the burning in 1600 by the Roman Inquisition of Giordano Bruno for the profession of heretical ideas, some of them drawn from Lucretius’s poem. These murders exemplify Lucretius’s view, expressed at the very beginning of De Rerum Natura, that religion and priestcraft persuade men and women to crime and deeds of impiety.

Together they lend a Gibbonesque flavor to Greenblatt’s story of the decline and fall of antiquity, and to his juicy account of ecclesiastical skullduggery at the Council of Constance that deposed Pope John XXIII in 1415. John, whom Poggio was serving as a lay apostolic secretary, was only one of three anti-popes then claiming the throne of Peter. Institutional Christianity is the villain of the piece, and it is caricatured, in the book’s most outré pages, as a cult of bodily pain—in order to contrast it more starkly with the Epicurean ideal not of pleasure as such, but of absence of pain—and even, as Greenblatt details monastic practices of flagellation, as a Swinburnian worship of the rod. Elsewhere Greenblatt trenchantly explains why the thought of Epicurus could trouble cultural conservatives, whether Christian or not. Behind attempts to reduce Epicurean doctrine to mere (and excessive) sensual indulgence

lay a half-hidden fear that to maximize pleasure and to avoid pain were in fact appealing goals and might plausibly serve as the rational organizing principles of human life. If they succeeded in doing so, a whole set of time-honored alternative principles—sacrifice, ambition, social status, discipline, piety—would be challenged, along with the institutions that such principles served.

So the doctrine of De Rerum Natura exposes nothing less than the discontents of civilization.

POGGIO BRACCIOLINI, who was born in 1380 and died in 1459, restored Lucretius to the cultural patrimony of antiquity. Searching in northern monasteries, he also recovered most of Cicero’s orations, the epics of Silius Italicus and Valerius Flaccus, the architectural treatise of Vitruvius, the astronomical poem of Manilius, the historian of the fourth century Ammianus Marcellinus, the lyrics of Statius, and the complete text of the grammarian Quintilian’s Institutes of Oratory. The news of Poggio’s discovery of this last text caused his fellow humanist Leonardo Bruni to compare him in a congratulatory letter to Camillus, the “second founder of Rome after Romulus, who established the city, while Camillus restored it after it was lost, so you will deservedly be called the second author of all the works which were once lost and now returned to us by your integrity and diligence.”

Poggio was also a writer—all his works are in Latin—of considerable achievement. His Facetiae, a collection of jokes, was a runaway international bestseller of the early printing press, published throughout Europe and rapidly translated into French, German, English, and Italian. The jokes are frequently dirty and tinged with an anti-clericalism that exposes the venality and the hypocrisy of Poggio’s workplace, the papal curia in Rome. For all his sympathy for Jerome of Prague, Poggio expressed in his dialogue On Avarice his dislike for the Italian version of reform preached by the charismatic Franciscan St. Bernardino of Siena, who incited anti-Semitic riots and the burning of homosexuals, and who inveighed against usury, that is, against the mercantile commerce that gave the Italian cities their greater material prosperity relative to the rest of Europe, the financial lifeblood of the Renaissance. A minor classic of humanist letters, the artful, ironic On Avarice contains a justification of the acquisition of wealth, which, together with Poggio’s On True Nobility—of virtue rather than birth—laid out the groundwork of a meritocratic bourgeois ideology.

Poggio was himself a self-made man, and the story of his career loosely frames Greenblatt’s book. One senses Greenblatt’s identification with his subject, whose scholarly and literary talents allowed him to rise through the bureaucratic and backbiting ranks of the curia to singular distinction. In the last years of his life, Poggio became the revered chancellor—something like a secretary of state—of the Florentine Republic. Greenblatt knowingly depicts this career and the ambition that fueled it at cross-purposes with the Epicurean detachment taught by the great poem that Poggio rediscovered in the Alpine monastery.

POGGIO KNEW AS MUCH himself. The rhetorical climax of The Swerve describes three incidents recorded in Poggio’s letters that took place in 1416, one year before he came across the Lucretius manuscript. When the Council of Constance dethroned John XXIII, Poggio found himself without a job and chose to embark on his remarkable adventures in search of lost classical texts. He also allowed himself to take the waters at Baden. There he was amazed to see men and women bathing in proximity and tolerating, with no apparent shame, their partial, even total nakedness. And he was even more impressed by the sheer good humor and fun that was being had by the visitors who came there “not for health but for pleasure.” “What a great center of the Epicurean way of thinking this is,” he exclaims, and then goes on to contrast the happiness he found there with his professional life and its future-driven anxieties: “For fear of becoming miserable, we never cease to be so, always panting for riches and never giving our souls or our bodies a moment’s peace.” What vacationer has not contemplated giving up the rat race and looked at the real estate ads with the idea of buying into paradise? Greenblatt catches Poggio flirting with Epicurean retirement on the very eve of finding the most important exposition we have of Epicurus’s teachings.

Back from Baden, Poggio witnessed the trial and the burning at the stake of the Hussite Jerome of Prague and wrote a celebrated letter in which he did not conceal his admiration for the reformer’s courage and for the skill with which he answered the charges made against him. At first he is careful to report what he represents as Jerome’s words: Jerome’s complaint that he had been held for nearly a year in the harshest of prisons, in squalor and filth, and his comparison of himself to other martyrs for the truth unjustly sentenced to death, first the ancients Socrates and Zeno, then John the Baptist and Christ himself. But then Poggio likens Jerome at the stake to the stoic Cato, to Mucius Scaevola (the Roman republican hero who willingly placed his hand in a fire to prove his willingness to die), and to Socrates drinking his hemlock: he has made the heretic into a classical hero. Poggio bows to the church authorities, but he cannot be convinced of Jerome’s guilt.

It is an outspoken letter, the more so because Poggio intended it for eventual publication. That was in late May 1416. In December of that year, Poggio wrote another letter back to Italy announcing his discovery of the complete text of Quintilian. Poggio personifies the tattered but still intact manuscript as its author Quintilian, “who could not much longer have endured the filth of that prison, the squalor of the place, and the savage cruelty of his keepers. He was sad and dressed in mourning as people are who are condemned to death. His beard was dirty and his hair caked with dust.... He seemed to stretch out his hands and beg for the loyalty of the Roman people, to demand that he be saved from an unjust sentence.” Greenblatt connects the two different episodes and their identical language. 

“A man worthy of eternal remembrance!” So Poggio rashly exclaimed about the heretic Jerome whom he could not lift a finger to save. A few months later in the monastery of St. Gall, he rescued another man worthy of eternal remembrance from the barbarians’ prison house.
It is not clear how conscious the link was in Poggio’s mind between the imprisoned heretic and imprisoned text. At once morally alert and deeply compromised in his professional life, he responded to books as if they were living, suffering human beings.

It is an electric intuition. Poggio’s three letters were published as a group by the great Italian scholar Eugenio Garin in one of the foundational source texts of modern Renaissance studies. They have not lain hidden in a remote library, but in scholarly plain sight. Greenblatt makes his own discovery by acute close reading. He finds in the letters the layered motives that drive the humanist to study the past. Doing justice to bygone texts may be reparation for the unrighted wrongs of the present day: the objectivity of scholarly hindsight restores a moral clarity clouded in the muddle of current events in which we are caught up and implicated. The scholar may indulge in escapism and respite from his own time, dwelling in a past that is a lost paradise as appealing as the vacationer’s Baden. Or a past of sterner stuff may yield heroes and exemplars, such as Cato and Socrates, by which to judge and to challenge the present. And the scholarly pursuit itself may become an act of heroism, already one-upping Bruni’s return letter that compares Poggio to Roman Camillus. The dirty beard and the dust-caked hair of the personified Quintilian in Poggio’s letter is a citation of Virgil’s Aeneid, where, on the night of Troy’s fall and while the city is already burning, the ghost of the slain and defiled Hector appears to the sleeping Aeneas and tells him to gather up the remnants of his civilization and transport them to Italy and the future great city of Rome. Now this remnant of Rome’s culture calls on Poggio to be a new Aeneas—not to bring him back to life, but to transmit his words and ideas against the universal death sentence of time and oblivion.

is the highpoint of The Swerve. Its final chapters, especially once Poggio is left behind, are less compelling. Greenblatt expounds the doctrine of De Rerum Natura, and he takes us on a brisk walk through various works of the Renaissance imagination influenced by Lucretius. Machiavelli copied out the entire poem in his own handwriting; Montaigne covered his printed copy with annotations. Greenblatt does not venture far from his comfort zone of Renaissance literature, and he leaves it for others to chart the complicated pathway by which Lucretian atomism would eventually become part of modern science. The brief retelling of the trial and the burning of Giordano Bruno adds drama and repeats the book’s moral that culture and free inquiry must repeatedly be rescued from the gothic prison of Christianity, with today’s would-be wardens lining up on the religious right. With an eye on the latter, Greenblatt ends his book by citing Thomas Jefferson, so as to remind us that this Founding Father of the United States envisioned a materialist universe and called himself an Epicurean, even though he wrote about a “Creator,” and that the pursuit of happiness to which we have inalienable rights bears a Lucretian tinge. Jefferson owned eight copies and translations of De Rerum Natura.

The concept of happiness, however, is where modern ideas that were born in the Renaissance diverge from the ancient Lucretius, and where the arguments of Greenblatt’s book do not fully line up. When Poggio’s younger contemporary Leon Battista Alberti asserts in his book On the Family, around 1434, that “man is by nature suited and able to make good use of the world, and he is born to be happy,” we can feel an undeniable and momentous change in Western attitudes toward the earthly here and now, no longer viewed as a vale of tears or as a preliminary to the main event, eternity in heaven or hell. But such happiness—and the energy with which the Renaissance man Alberti embraced the active life, by turns a humanist scholar, an architect, a theorist of painting, a writer of fables and satires, a poet, a mathematician, an expert on horses—is quite distant from the apathetic, contemplative calm that characterizes Epicurean happiness in De Rerum Natura.

Greenblatt finds more good cheer in the poem than most readers will. Lucretius famously compares his verses to the honey that one puts around medicinal wormwood: its Epicurean doctrine is a bitter pill to swallow. Greenblatt acknowledges, following Cicero, that “to be told that one perishes completely and forever, soul as well as body, is hardly a robust consolation”; but you would not know from his account that the poem’s depiction of worlds randomly forming and falling away again in the infinite, lightless void of space is as chilling as it is sublime. Neither the gods, nor anyone else, cares about us.

De Rerum Natura concludes with an account of the great plague in Athens. Wholesale deaths and desperate attempts at burial rites ironically echo the most prestigious model of an epic ending, the funeral of the individual hero Hector in the last lines of the Iliad. Greenblatt argues that Lucretius redeems this explanation of the nature of things by a sense of wonder, not so much at the vast structures of the universe but at the human mind’s ability to understand them. Wonder is a favorite motif in Greenblatt’s writing, the key term of Marvelous Possessions, his study of Europe’s encounter and transactions with the lands and peoples of the New World. But the matter is more complicated. Lucretius evokes wonder—what would it be like if we could see the earth, sun, and stars for the first time?—to describe a first exposure to the truths of Epicurus that reason will quickly make us accept as second nature.

Greenblatt also insists on an erotic happiness that is hard to find in Lucretius’s poem. He rounds out his account of Poggio’s life with the humanist’s late marriage—he was fifty-six, his bride was eighteen, the age disparity not at all abnormal in marriages among the Florentine well-to-do. Greenblatt wants to see this marriage and Poggio’s acquisition of a villa in his provincial Tuscan hometown as the achievement of a domestic contentment that one might call Epicurean, a piece of paradise at last. It is entirely possible, and to be wished for Poggio and others—but it is not Lucretian.

In spite of its magnificent opening hymn to Venus as the creative principle in nature, De Rerum Natura treats sex as a bodily compulsion and does its best to disenchant it, comparing the mutual pleasure of men and women in coitus to dogs unable to uncouple themselves. Its description of the habit that can create marital affection in the final verses of Book Four sounds like Chinese water torture. Romantic love is quite simply madness: the Latin terms Lucretius uses to describe it, rabies and furor, do not need translation. St. Jerome’s yarn of a Lucretius driven crazy by a love philtre finds some support in the poem: love is the source of care, which is what the anaesthetized Epicurean seeks above all to avoid. One can agree with Greenblatt’s assertion that the Renaissance embraced beauty and pleasure, but that embrace was not adumbrated in De Rerum Natura. Greenblatt makes the way things are in Lucretius into how he, and many of us, would like them to be.

and women understood the disparity between their culture and outlook on life and those of the ancients whom they revered. The age’s greatest intellectual achievement may have been their discovery that the past was past, and that they were indeed moderns with respect to a very different ancient world. Greenblatt repeatedly professes surprise in The Swerve that humanists, born or professed Christians, sought to recover and scrutinize classical texts in spite of the doctrines they contained, such as those found in De Rerum Natura, which questioned or directly contradicted the articles of their faith. But humanists consciously read the works of antiquity for the sake of those doctrines, more than for the beauty of their poetry and prose. With its multiple popes and councils, Western Christianity had become dysfunctional at the beginning of the fifteenth century; the papacy recovered politically, if not spiritually, by its end. Thinking men and women were hungry for something different.

Some, like Wycliffe and Hus, sought church reform, and Luther would eventually inherit their mantle. Poggio and others like him devoted themselves to the study of classical antiquity. Many humanists were also reformers, sharing a common impulse to find alternatives to what their culture had to offer them. They knew that they could not re-create an ancient world from which they had been separated for a thousand years, and for an antiquarian such as Poggio’s friend Niccoli this seems to have meant that nothing modern could be worthwhile. But most humanists—as Poggio’s own extensive literary production suggests—thought that they could reuse the classics to make something new for their own age, a culture that would be hybrid and sometimes consciously anachronistic. (We may think of the difference between Mantegna painting ancient gods in archaeologically correct classical garb and his fifteenth-century contemporary Botticelli depicting them in Florentine costumes that give the effect of being classical.)

This has been the humanist enterprise, and the dilemma of its historical self-awareness, ever since. The analogies drawn between past and present to which we have become accustomed in Greenblatt’s scholarship will make The Swerve resonate for current readers; but they smooth out significant differences between antiquity and the Renaissance, and between the Renaissance and us. His story of the Renaissance as part of an ongoing emancipation of reason from religion and superstition has a venerable pedigree, going back to the Victorian John Addington Symonds and even earlier to Voltaire and Hume, who regarded Renaissance Italians as their forbears. Subsequently much contested, the story still has legs. But this account of how we became modern is haunted by its own modernity, the ghost that stares back when we wish to look into the mirror of the past.

David Quint is Sterling Professor of Comparative Literature at Yale University. This article appeared in the October 20, 2011, issue of the magazine.