THE SWERVE by Stephen Greenblatt (Vintage, 2012)

This Pulitzer Prize winning book is “the story of how the world swerved in a new direction” when  enlightened thinkers began to reject religious delusions in favor of humanist principles. The book’s subtitle is , according to which edition you read, either ‘how the Renaissance began’ or ‘how the world became modern’.

Harvard professor, Stephen Greenblatt argues persuasively that the foundation for much of the meaningful progress we take for granted  stems from the epic poem ‘De rerum natura’ (On the Nature of Things) by Lucretius which was written in the 1st century BC and rediscovered by an Italian book hunter named Poggio in 1417.

Greenblatt shows that Lucretius’ radical beliefs provided a vital alternative to the dark, deluded dogma which decreed curiosity to be a mortal sin and viewed pleasure as a vice.

Lucretius’ totally rejected the assertion that redemption would only come through abasement.

The inherently random swerve of the title is thus defined as “an unforeseen deviation from the direct trajectory” and “a source of free will”. Lucretius is portrayed as a key agent of change in the human pursuit of beauty that reached a peak during the Renaissance.

The book gives a fascinating historical insight into the nature of monastic libraries in which monks were required to sit for long hours copying texts as “an exercise in humility and a willing embrace of pain”. Subsequent copies were made in more civilised conditions by gifted scribes like Poggio.

Stephen Greenblatt

Much of the historical detail has to be speculative since virtually nothing is known about Lucretius. Greenblatt has to make informed guesses about the poet’s identity just as scholars have to imagine what the life of Shakespeare was like.

Lucretius’ poem does, however, reveal that the poet was not an atheist. Nevertheless he believed that the soul died with the human body, that there is no afterlife and that gods were “entirely removed and separated from our world” . Since these higher beings were completely uninterested in humankind their function was not to punish evil or reward goodness.

Greenblatt concludes in the starkest terms possible,  that for Lucretius “There is no end or purpose to existence, only ceaseless creation and destruction, governed entirely by chance”. 

By recognising that this is the true nature of things, he concurs with Lucretius that it is only we who can fashion our surroundings.  In the absence of guiding principles “we should embrace the world in wonder and gratitude and awe”; working  towards a collective pursuit of happiness.

Greenblatt’s bold claim that a single, and still relatively obscure, poem has “permanently changed the landscape of the world” seems exaggerated to me but there is no denying that the work of the visionary poet has had a widespread impact on furthering a more secular, less blinkered way of thinking about the meaning of life.

Yet the fact that so many of the world’s religions are still cruel and repressive means that the goal of a world free of superstition and delusion is still a long way off.