Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part series about the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Swerve.”
As soon as I saw the word “swerve” in the title of Stephen Greenblatt’s latest foray into Western intellectual history, I said to my wife, “Greenblatt will get both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for this book that he didn’t get for ‘Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare’ (though it was nominated for both).” Sure enough, he did. “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern” is a page-turner, an intellectual thriller and an adventure story about the Renaissance thirst for knowledge, and its thesis is at once both compelling and controversial.
Latin clinamen “swerve” is a technical term in Epicurean philosophy. Lucretius’ first-century B.C. didactic epic poem (it’s written in dactylic hexameters) titled “De Rerum Natura” (“On the Nature of Things”) is still the most readily accessible introduction to Epicurus’ philosophical system, but that text was, for all practical purposes, lost to history for a millennium or so. Greenblatt’s hero is Poggio Bracciolini, a Renaissance humanist, apostolic secretary to seven popes and indefatigable book hunter who discovered a manuscript of Lucretius’ poem in 1417. The text transmitted by that manuscript becomes the academic or intellectual linchpin of humanism and thereby changes the course of history by inspiring many of the Renaissance achievements that, in turn, usher in the modern world — or so Greenblatt argues.
Greenblatt’s absorbing tale of Poggio’s discovery introduces us to many of the greatest Renaissance scholars, the so-called secular humanists (most of whom were devout Christians) who espoused the rebirth — that’s what “renaissance” means — of classical learning. Greenblatt’s “vivid renaissance characters” include Coluccio Salutati, Florence’s most effective and most famous chancellor; Niccolo Niccoli, who invented italic script but whose methods of acquiring books were not always above reproach; and Leonardo Bruni, arguably the first modern historian and a Florentine chancellor, too. Greenblatt also describes the moral failings of the Church at the time, mainly by quoting contemporary members of the Curia, including Poggio himself, of course, whose first patron and boss was Antipope John XXIII, who was formally deposed in 1415 and whose name was stricken from the roster of official popes and, though made available for future popes, wasn’t adopted again until 1958.
The book is more about Poggio and his contemporaries in the forefront of the Renaissance than Epicureanism, and thus the contents are a de facto introduction to the Renaissance. So we meet classical literature, mediaeval scriptoria and their monks and manuscripts, the invention of that beautiful humanistic script we still read today in its printed form and, of course, early Renaissance intellectual history, including art history, as well as book history and Church history. We also meet Savonarola and his bonfire of vanities, heretics being tortured and burned at the stake and, ultimately, Galileo, Freud and other intellectual giants acquainted with Epicureanism, including Thomas Jefferson, who famously proclaimed, “I am an Epicurean.” No wonder, then, that the book has been described as “illuminating, entertaining, surprising and exciting” and its prose as “wonderfully engaging.”
In fine, “The Swerve” is a magnificent read, one of the best and most thought-provoking books I’ve read in a long time. Both the author and his thesis have their critics, however, and I will turn to those in the second part of this review in two weeks.