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The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

In The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Stephen Greenblatt tells the story of the most important person you’ve probably never heard of: Poggio Bracciolini.

Although Bracciolini’s contribution to society can’t be measured directly, we feel the effects of it to this day. He was, perhaps, the greatest book hunter in the world. And one of his finds would significantly alter the course of history. Located in a German monastery, Bracciolini found the last surviving manuscript of Lucretius’ poem On The Nature Of Things, which had been lost for more than a thousand years. It’s survival was pure luck.

What is astonishing is that one magnificent articulation of the whole philosophy—the poem whose recovery is the subject of this book—should have survived. Apart from a few odds and ends and secondhand reports, all that was left of the whole rich tradition was contained in that single work. A random fire, an act of vandalism, a decision to snuff out the last trace of views judged to be heretical, and the course of modernity would have been different.

The twin pillars of the poem were the denial of the afterlife and the denial of Providence. To Christians the book was filled with scandalous ideas.

…the recovery and recirculation of Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things had succeeded in linking the very idea of atoms, as the ultimate substrate of all things that exists, with a house of other, dangerous claims. Detached from any text, the idea that all things might consist of innumerable invisible particles did not seem particularly disturbing. After all, the world had to consist of something. But Lucretius’ poem restored to atoms their missing context, and the implications—for morality, politics, ethics, and theology—were deeply upsetting.

“In a universe so constituted,” Greenblatt writes, “Lucretius argued, there is no reason to think that the earth or its inhabitants occupy a central place, no reason to set humans apart from all other animals, no hope of bribing or appeasing the gods, no place for religious fanaticism, no call for ascetic self-denial, no justification for dreams of limitless power or perfect security, no rationale for wars of conquest or self-aggrandizement, no possibility of triumphing over nature, no escape from the constant making and remaking of forms.”

Anyone arguing “there is no master plan, no divine architect, no intelligent design,” could not expect a warm welcome in ancient Rome. “The difficulty was not in reading the poem but in discussing its content openly or taking its ideas seriously.” Bracciolini, without having read the poem, had “unleashed something that threatened his whole mental universe,” something that helped abate the power of the very institution he once served.

By the time the clergymen prohibited the reading of the poem it was too late. Editions began popping up all over from Paris to Bologna. And the rest, as they say, is history. Today, much of what Lucretius claimed in On The Nature Of Things seems deeply familiar.

Here is Stephen Greenblatt talking to Big Think about the book: