Morgan Meis on Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, in n+1:
While reading Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, I realized that an older book, one I had encountered in the past and debated in younger days, was groping its way out of my memory. The book whose specter had been raised by The Swerve was Hans Blumenberg’s The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (1966). But why was the one book calling to the other? This question remained with me for weeks.
In The Swerve, Greenblatt traces the history of an ancient manuscript written in poetic meter that argues for the materialist doctrines of the Hellenistic Greek philosopher Epicurus. The poem, known as De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) was written in the first century BCE by the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius. Unfortunately, we know next to nothing about Lucretius; his personal story has been lost to history. His manuscript was almost lost as well, in the great obliteration of ancient knowledge that came with the fall of Rome. Centuries passed and classical documents lay largely overlooked in neglected monastery libraries until, as the Middle Ages drew to a close, people started to become curious about the knowledge of a previous era. Greenblatt puts it like this: “Something happened in the Renaissance, something that surged up against the constraints that centuries had constructed around curiosity, desire, individuality, sustained attention to the material world, the claims of the body.”
For some scholars, this curiosity became an obsession. Petrarch’s discovery of a lost collection of Cicero’s letters in 1345 fired the minds of many manuscript-seekers. Greenblatt’s book focuses on a less widely known figure: the 15th-century Italian scholar, writer, and humanist Poggio Bracciolini. Poggio was an incredible book hunter, and one of his greatest discoveries was the poem by Lucretius, which had been lost for more than a thousand years. Simply on artistic merit, it was an important find; with its blend of Latin poetry and densely argued philosophy, De rerum natura is a beautiful work. But Greenblatt thinks there was a much greater significance to the rediscovery of the poem. “[A]t the core of the poem,” he writes, “lay key principles of a modern understanding of the world.”