How the World Swerved toward Science

Article excerpt

A review of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt.

New York: W. W. Norton

356 pages, $26.95

ISBN-10: 0393064476


WHAT DO ATOMS, EVOLUTION, ATHEISM, and sex have in common? One answer is in De Return Natura (On the Nature of Things, sometimes translated as On the Nature of the Universe). This ancient Roman poem by Lucretius has inspired intellectuals for centuries and is a prime source for our knowledge of Epicurean philosophy, which added the pursuit of pleasure to Deomcritus's theory of atoms, while extending the anti-theistic implications of the atomic theory. Unlike the other philosophers' writings at the time, De Rerum Natura survived and, according to contemporaries, explained Epicureanism more eloquently. The poem's 15th century rediscovery and controversial implications are the subject of a surprisingly engaging and intellectually wide ranging new book by Stephen Greenblatt (author of Will in the World), The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.

The Preface opens, appropriately, with Greenblatt's own discovery of the poem, which begins erotically (with Venus in the lap of Mars), but continues on to philosophy, death, and life, including the theory of atoms and evolution. "I marveled--I continue to marvel--that these perceptions were fully articulated in a poem written more than two thousand years ago"(6), writes Greenblatt, praising the poem's "scientific vision of the world ... with a poet's sense of wonder"(8). This personal sense of discovery is also the theme of the first two chapters of The Swerve in which the controversial text of De Return Natura is rescued in 1417 from centuries of neglect by Poggio Bracciolini, a man who personifies the Renaissance ideal of the rebirth of classical learning. Greenblatt explains that many classical Greek and Roman texts that survived the collapse of their civilizations, decay, neglect, and fire, were preserved in monasteries but tragically later lost when monks scraped the ink from the pages of the scrolls they were indifferent to, to sell the paper for scrap or use it to copy religious texts. In 1417, on a cold January day the ancient text Poggio finds in a remote monastery, and gets permission to have copied, is Lucretius's De Return Natura. Poggio's excitement is conveyed in quotation from letters he wrote, with Greenblatt masterfully filling in context to make the scene vivid without slipping into the invention of detail.

Greenblatt then takes us back 1500 more years, reconstructing what little can be known of the man who created De Return Natura, and marveling that such a fragile piece of parchment survived at all. Lucretius is known to have written only one work, and less is known about him than about other ancient writers (according to The Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 211: Ancient Roman Writers, 154). Approximate contemporaries of Lucretius, the great Roman intellectuals Cicero (d. 43 BCE) and Ovid (d. 17 CE) praise the poem as Greenblatt reflects on the irony that the ancient eruption of the volcano Vesuvius, in destroying a city, preserved portions of it for future scholars including, it was recently confirmed, an original fragment of the Lucretius poem.

Greenblatt then returns to the early 15th century, discussing the historical context of the Florentine Renaissance, the early life of Poggio, and then his profession as Papal secretary and scriptor (part executive assistant, part intellectual counselor, part lawyer). Greenblatt then gets to the heart of Lucretius's poem: atomism and what we would now call the scientific worldview, which turns out to be a scathing critique of religion and the supernatural, and a plea to live life responsibly but with pleasure. It is from the theory that invisible particles called atoms make up the universe that the other arguments in the poem follow, and it is thus fitting that the title of Greenblatt's book, The Swerve, refers to a key passage saying that it is when atoms swerve from their straight course that life and change happen, including free will (188-189). …