“The Swerve: How the World Became Modern” by Stephen Greenblatt is a book that holds special significance for me. It is a book about a book hunter who lived in the 15th century, Poggio Bracciolini. It resonates with me because I too am book hunter.
I know how Poggio Bracciolini must have felt when he came across a dusty scroll hidden away in the library of the Benedictine Abbey of Fulda in Germany. This scroll was one of the few remaining copies extant in the world and the only copy that had surfaced to that point. It consisted of an important poem, “On the Nature of Things,” written by Lucretius in 50 BCE. This book would change the course of human events.
“On the Nature of Things” is a poem about the philosophy of Epicurus. Epicurus, a Greek philosopher living in Athens in the third century B.C.E, was a proponent of the theory of atomism. This theory rests on the idea that the basic building blocks of matter are tiny invisible particles called atoms. Epicurus was also a proponent of the pleasure principle. He believed one’s primary aim in life should be enhancing one’s pleasure and avoiding pain. The pursuit of happiness should be the goal of life. Liberated from superstition, you would be free to pursue pleasure. Peace of mind is the key to enduring pleasure. The Church of the 15th century however, thought otherwise. “On the Nature of Things” was considered to be a radical and dangerous document.
“The Swerve: How the World Became Modern,” is a book about books. Greenblatt goes into the history of writing books and bookmaking, libraries, and book storage. He discusses the readers of books and the owners of books from antiquity. He describes these readers to be few in number and usually the wealthy elite. They were a cultivated society of men and women whose homes had rooms designated solely for the purpose of reading books.
“The Swerve” is also a history of the times in which Poggio lived. He lived in Florence during the 15th century. He became secretary to Pope John XXIII. These were wild times for the Church. There were actually three Popes at the time all claiming legitimacy. Pope John XXIII (Baldassare Cossa) was eventually deposed after being accused of simony, sodomy, rape, incest, torture, and murder.
After the Pope was deposed and imprisoned, Poggio unemployed, considered himself to be free. Free to hunt books. Free to read and free from all cares and worries of worldly affairs. He withdrew into the quarters of his private library in his castle. Books delighted him. According to Poggio, time spent with books takes our minds away from our troubles.
The most important impact the book had for me was to answer two burning questions: Is the world determined? And, do we have free will?
Determinism conflicts with the doctrine of free will. Lucretius suggests that atoms tend to swerve randomly (Clinamen). When atoms fall straight down through space they deflect a bit here and there, at uncertain times and places, slightly changing their motion. This swerving action creates the free will that we all take advantage of in our daily lives and allows us to have purpose.
The other important legacy Lucretius leaves us with is the idea that the highest goal of life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain. Life should be all about the pursuit of happiness.
We find the echoes of these ideas in our own Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776. In it he declared man’s right to life, freedom, and also to “the pursuit of happiness.” Jefferson owned many editions of “On the Nature of Things in various translations. It was one of his favorite books.