August 11th, 2019


Review of "The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began" by Stephen Greenblatt, pub. Vintage 2012

A book about a book: what it says, how it came to be written, lost and rediscovered, what far-reaching effects it had on human thought, and about the man who hunted it down.

The book is Lucretius's De Rerum Naturae, pretty much the sole remaining repository of the beliefs of the great atomists Leucippus, Democritus and Epicurus; the book-hunter is Poggio Bracciolini, who spent the early years of the fifteenth century traipsing around Europe trying to hunt down ancient classical manuscripts. (He even got as far as England, but was disappointed, advising his friends "you had better give up hope of books from England, for they care very little for them here".)

Poggio was book-hunting because, like so many humanist scholars of his day, he worshipped the writers of classical Greece and Rome and thought his own time could not equal them. Whether he realised how radical the world-view of Lucretius actually was in its contentions - that matter consisted of atoms constantly in flux, that if there were gods, they could not possibly care two hoots about the doings of humans and that pain was a thing to be avoided, all diametrically opposed to Christian views of the day - is an interesting question. It is possible that he simply admired the style and elegance of Lucretius's Latin without paying too much attention to the message, and that is certainly the defence humanist scholars tended to put up when accused of preferring "heathen" works to those of the church fathers. On the other hand, Poggio did not much like the monks among whom, of necessity, he sought his ancient treasures; the monastic libraries were where old manuscripts were to be found, but he thought monks fairly useless people and declined to take holy orders himself, despite the career advancement this would have brought him. He also expressed, in a letter to a friend, such unstinting admiration for the "heretic" Jerome of Prague, whose trial and execution he witnessed, that the alarmed friend advised him to be more careful with his language in future.

The organisation of this book is pleasing: it begins with the book-hunt and progresses through an account of the book itself to its effect on its own and later times. It is a proper history, with notes and bibliography, but is written in a readable style and is never less than fascinating. It makes Lucretius's own book sound even more so, and will surely cause me to rectify my ignorance of the man. Since I enjoyed it so much it seems a shame to have to end with my usual complaint against so many modern non-fiction works, namely their inclusion of a preface in which the author witters on about his reasons for writing the book and its personal significance in his life. Please, editors and publishers, spare us the bloody "journey". I don't care why the author wrote the book; since he is a Harvard professor I would assume he did so out of a love of scholarship and that's fine. I certainly don't need to know about his mother's neuroses, as if he were Leonard in The Big Bang Theory. As usual, I must advise Gentle Reader to ignore the preface completely and dive straight into the text.