October Book Review

Oct 14, 2015 · D. Marron

Have you ever wondered how things got to be this way? And how things were before things got to be this way??

In The Swerve author Stephen Greenblatt treats us to?a masterfully told?tale of how and why an unemployed Florentine humanist named Poggio Bracciolini followed his bibliomanic instincts, recovered an ancient Greek?text, and in so doing,?caused a historical swerve that resonates into our present?age.?

The work, written in?50 BCE by Lucretius and?titled De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things),?is a philosophical poem that explains how the physical world is constituted of invisible, constantly moving?particles in an infinite void. It celebrates the pursuit of pleasure as an end in itself. ?It explains the genesis of free will, the constant experimentation of nature, the death of the body and soul, and the delusions of organized religion.?

And what is it that swerves? Invisible particles! (Greeks of Lucretius's time called them atoms.)?Their motion?causes an endless chain of events that, in turn, causes the existence of everything?in the universe. Greenblatt pauses midway through the book to flatter his readers in knowing language:?

"By now much of what On the Nature of Things claims about the universe seems deeply familiar, at least among the circle of people who are likely to be reading these words. After all, many of the work's core arguments are among the foundations on which modern life has been constructed." ??

What did this?Poggio do to cause all this fuss??

Poggio?was a gifted young man who wanted to recapture a golden Roman era of perfect Latin and beautiful architecture.? He found employment in the Vatican as apostolic scriptor (a scribe for the papacy). He?had a?fine hand;?a script that was???a graphic expression of the deep longing for a different style of beauty, a cultural form that would signal the recovery of something precious that had been lost.? The style that Poggio and his contemporaries originated came to be called lettera antica.??

In the papal court, he landed at the center of what he called the Lie Factory: a place where the scribes got together to exchange jokes and stories and invective. They talked about the monumental hypocrisy of the clergy. It was a place of cynical, corrosive laughter. A?fascinating discussion ensues about the role that Poggio's book craving plays in saving him from the despair and anger of the Lie Factory.

Poggio eventually becomes the apostolic secretary to?a Pope?who had talents of his own. This Pope was the original John XXIII, a man who went from the family business of piracy to his own tenure in the papacy. When this?John XXIII was deposed and imprisoned by his enemies, Poggio knew well enough to hit the road.??

He spent the next years of his life traveling to monasteries throughout Europe to see what he could find, and?one of his trips took him to a monastery, probably in Fulda, that had a copy of De Rerum Natura. When he saw it, he knew what he had.

The historical swerve that?the recovery and circulation of this work caused cannot be understated. It took the Western world away from a culture of Christian pain and sacrifice to an understanding of existence where the pursuit of pleasure, a pursuit that is natural to all sentient beings, was something to be desired. In the final chapter ("Afterlives") Greenblatt traces the profound?influence that?these startlingly modern ideas?had on figures such as?Vespucci, Machiavelli, More, Montaigne, Galileo, Shakespeare, and Santayana.?

In the recent?week's celebration of the freedom to read, it must be added that libraries and librarians played a significant role?in the protection and dissemination of?On the Nature of Things. It is noteworthy that the work?was almost (but not quite!)?included on the Index of Prohibited Books?books that Catholics were forbidden to read, a prohibition?in effect until?1966.?

Greenblatt's writing is succinct and engaging. The reader doesn't have to know a lot?about this slice of history?to enjoy the book. It just takes a curious mind and an appreciation?of the results that small actions by a single, sometimes invisible?actor (or atom) can produce.?

My own curiosity about the story in?The Swerve leaves me wondering: if Poggio lived his life in a culture of Epicureanism, would he have been driven to find Lucretius's poem? Or was there something, contrary to what Greenblatt tells us, about the culture of sacrifice that motivated him, despite the pain and hardship he endured in his travels, to continue to look for evidence of a lost age of beauty and pleasure??

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