This is a book about a book, De Rerum Natura or On the Nature of Things written by Titus Lucretius Carus over 2,000 years ago. Lucretius was born nearly a century before Christ and nothing much is known about him. He was an accomplished poet; he lived during the first century BC and he was devoted to the teachings of Epicurus all of which he wrote eloquently about in his magnificent poem, De Rerum Natura.
The Swerve is an account of the rediscovery of this poem after it had been forgotten for centuries after the birth of Christ and the revolutionary impact it had on the writers, artists and scientists of the time when it was discovered in a monastery in 1417. This epic poem is presented in six books and it undertakes a full and completely naturalistic explanation of the physical origin, structure, and destiny of the universe. Included in it are ideas such as the atomic structure of matter and the emergence and evolution of life forms over the millennia.
On the Nature of Things laid out what is a strikingly modern understanding of the world. Every page reflected a core scientific vision—a vision of atoms moving constantly in an infinite universe, coming together to form first one thing and then another. The poem claimed that atoms are at the core of everything in the universe, from the trees to the oceans to the animals to the stars to human beings. It claimed that there is no such thing as an afterlife, no heaven or hell and that it is foolish to believe in an all powerful, all seeing God who is so minutely concerned with human affairs that he sees everything we do and will eventually reward us or punish us for it.
All of these ideas were of course, considered heresy back in the 15th century and the Church tried its best to denounce Lucretius and to prevent the circulation of his epic poem. But despite their best efforts the poem was copied again and again and it was circulated fairly widely. The ideas in the poem inspired the Renaissance. It influenced artists such as Botticelli and thinkers such as Giordano Bruno; shaped the thought of Galileo and Freud, Darwin and Einstein; and had a revolutionary influence on writers such as Montaigne and Shakespeare and even Thomas Jefferson.
That, briefly, is the story behind this book. It is interesting in itself, but it becomes more so in the hands of Stephen Greenblatt who takes a tremendous amount of information and brings it all together in a very engaging narrative. Despite the wealth of information here and the many different threads of the same story, the narrative never gets dense or heavy.
Greenblatt paints a vivid picture of pre-rennaisance Europe. There is a reason why that period is referred to as the dark ages. It was a time when every word and every thought had to be censored and where intellectual curiosity was deemed a crime…The author writes about it all very casually and that more than anything else, makes it a chilling portrait.
We all know that Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake and that Galileo was persecuted for stating that the Earth is not the centre of the universe. All of that is brought to life vividly here. And when taken against the thought of all the knowledge and wisdom of ancient Greece and Rome that was lost for over a thousand years and had to be painstakingly learned and rediscovered …it is almost as if the world went backwards for a thousand years before it found its way again.
I knew all of this already, but Stephen Greenblatt paints such a vivid picture of the people and the time that I found myself feeling an acute sense of loss.
I took my time in reading this book, forcing myself to go slow because I didn’t want to miss anything. But much as I learned, it made me want to learn more…both about ancient Greece and Rome and about the Renaissance. This is a wonderful book and must read for anyone interested in history.