Share via Email Searcher for monastic treasures: Poggio Bracciolini. This event is vividly described by the renaissance scholar Stephen Greenblatt in The Swerve. He sees it as the origin of the renaissance and, in effect, of modernity. What was the poem that Poggio rediscovered?

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Share via Email Searcher for monastic treasures: Poggio Bracciolini. This event is vividly described by the renaissance scholar Stephen Greenblatt in The Swerve. He sees it as the origin of the renaissance and, in effect, of modernity. What was the poem that Poggio rediscovered? Lucretius was a passionate follower of the Greek philosopher Epicurus.

He believed that the gods did not concern themselves with mortal affairs and did not create the universe, which was composed of minuscule particles. These atoms move perpetually and randomly through a void. As they do so they "swerve" from a direct course, and may strike against each other. Life is one result of this swerve, as atoms assemble themselves into forms that enable us to see and breathe.

At some point our atoms will break free and move on in their eternal course through the void. That meant there was no afterlife, no eternal reward for virtue, and no perpetual punishment for vice. As a result human beings should not fear death. For the short period in which we live and feel desire, pleasure is the only end we should seek.

Nothing else matters. De Rerum Natura contains passionate arguments against the fear of death, as well as some amazing descriptions.

Lucretius describes an entirely god-free origin of life, in which living creatures simply heave themselves from the earth, not through the actions of a creator, but as a result of the vital forces of the universe. Other pagan philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle, allowed for a creator. Their ethical systems could, with some whittling and squeezing, be fitted to Christian doctrine. Epicureanism, however, simply would not fit. Although it was in fact an austere philosophy in which "pleasure" meant freedom from pain and fear rather than self-indulgence, epicureanism became identified among most Christian writers with swinish self-indulgence.

St Jerome even claimed in the fourth century that Lucretius about whose life we know almost nothing went mad with love, and then killed himself. Eventually, but unsurprisingly, the great medieval monasteries that preserved classical texts by patient copying of manuscripts came to neglect him. Most of The Swerve is devoted to this story of loss and retrieval.

In the early 15th century there were two popes, one at Rome and the other at Avignon. In a council was held at Constance in Germany to resolve the dispute.

He set off to scour German monasteries for the classical texts that he was expert at finding and copying. Niccoli kept the manuscript for 12 years, and then finally allowed further copies to be produced. From these copies Lucretius found his way into print. With this spread of secularist and atomist thought, Greenblatt argues, the renaissance began. He brings the silent labours of a medieval scriptorium to life by describing the elaborate sign-language that scribes used to indicate which manuscript they needed to consult: a scribe called for a particularly offensive pagan text such as Lucretius by putting two fingers in his mouth "as if he were gagging".

In order to show how the Roman elite valued epicureanism he takes us beneath the ash at Herculaneum into the so-called "House of the Papyri", where fragments of Lucretius and other epicurean writers have been discovered, and uses that setting to evoke the richness of Roman philosophical life. He conveys the passion for texts and for the classical past that drew humanists such as Poggio to scour monastic libraries because he himself shares their fascination with retrieval and discovery.

But is it right to identify the recovery of Lucretius with the beginning of the renaissance? When Poggio found De Rerum Natura, Greenblatt argues, he discovered "a book that would help in time to dismantle his entire world" by bringing a concern for worldly pleasure to the moral life.

The story told by the book — epicureanism flourished at Rome, was lost, and then was suddenly rediscovered and transformed the world — reflects the historical outlook of the humanists themselves.

It was common for 14th and 15th-century scholars to claim that there was a destruction of classical learning in the middle ages, or, as Greenblatt calls it, "a Great Vanishing", and that they were bringing the classical past back to life. As Francesco Barbaro wrote to Poggio: "You have revived so many illustrious men and such wise men, who were dead from eternity. It more or less works for De Rerum Natura, which was indeed "lost" or at least not often recopied between the 13th and 15th centuries and then found on a particular day by an individual humanist.

But the story that the renaissance suddenly began with a great rediscovery of the pagan past does not work so well in relation to other classical authors. Virgil, Ovid and Aristotle were more or less continuously read from antiquity until the age of print. In many cases humanists found more reliable manuscripts, and they sometimes discovered whole texts. But they did not simply end the "ignorance" of the dark ages. Indeed they tended to exaggerate that ignorance to emphasise their own novelty.

The reason for this is obvious. To have a "renaissance" or rebirth of classical learning, you have to imagine that it died. His descriptions of medieval monasticism emphasise the strict discipline of monastic orders, the erasure of personal identity among scribes and the mortification of the flesh. From this they needed Lucretius to set them free. Centuries before the rediscovery of Lucretius many Christians incorporated philosophical accounts of pleasure and love from the classical philosophers into their theology.

They are among the many strands of thought that lie behind "renaissance" thinking, and indeed behind humanism too. The Swerve is, though, a dazzling retelling of the old humanist myth of the heroic liberation of classical learning from centuries of monastic darkness. The light of Rome fades into gloom, sheep graze in the Forum; then the humanists rebel against the orthodoxies of the church, bring about a great recovery of classical texts and generate a new intellectual dawn.

This book makes that story into a great read, but it cannot make it entirely true.


Stephen Greenblatt

Holding back tears, Greenblatt thanked, among other people, his publishers at W. Five months later, The Swerve won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. The book remains a strong seller on Amazon. Clearly, The Swerve spoke to far more than a handful of people. Simply put, The Swerve did not deserve the awards it received because it is filled with factual inaccuracies and founded upon a view of history not shared by serious scholars of the periods Greenblatt studies.


An Unearthed Treasure That Changed Things

By Dwight Garner Sept. In the mids, when he was a student at Yale and searching for summer reading, Mr. Greenblatt writes. Greenblatt bleat. This is a warm, intimate start to a warm, intimate book, a volume of apple-cheeked popular intellectual history. Greenblatt, a professor of humanities at Harvard, is a very serious and often thorny scholar, a founder of a discipline called the new historicism. Greenblatt in his more cordial mode.

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