The Most Charming Pagan

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

by Stephen Greenblatt
Norton, 356 pp., $26.95
Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (Vatican), Vat. lat. 1569 fol. 1 recto medbio04 NAN.13
Frontispiece to On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, copied by Girolamo di Matteo de Tauris for Pope Sixtus IV, Italy, 1483

Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve celebrates an ancient Latin poem. So, as he shows, did the scholars and scribes who brought it back into circulation in Renaissance Europe. The frontispiece of one manuscript suggests something of what they found in it (see illustration on this page). On it stands a classical arch, adorned with colored marble and sculpted capitals, standing before a landscape with river, cliffs, and a spindly, towering tree—the kind of imaginary country you usually see in fifteenth-century paintings of saints receiving the stigmata. On the pediment and in front of the base, naked putti run about. Two of them hold a giant compass: a hint that the text that follows may hold secrets about how the universe was made. Two more hold up a tablet, with a Latin verse written on it in classical capitals:

ENEADVM GENITRIX HOMINVM DIVVMQVE VOLVPTAS (Mother of the descendants of Aeneas, delight of men and Gods)

Four more cherubic stagehands, two at the top and two at the bottom, use cords to stretch an enormous piece of what looks like skin across the entire opening of the arch. This bears thirteen more lines of Latin verse: a marvelous description, charged with passion and energy, of spring, as the earth becomes fertile once more, and breezes and flowers herald the erotic dance in which all creatures will soon join.

Standing on the top of the arch, two more putti hold up another tablet that identifies the book for which this humanist fantasia is merely the extravagant title page: “The first book of Titus Lucretius, the celebrated Epicurean poet.” Go (virtually) through the arch and you’ll find On the Nature of Things, the remarkable Latin poem in six books that is the only surviving work of the Roman poet Titus Lucretius Carus, written in a handsome script. This manuscript was copied by an Augustinian friar, Girolamo di Matteo de Tauris, in 1483, for Pope Sixtus IV. It now belongs to the great library that he did so much to create, where it holds the unromantic shelfmark Vat. lat. 1569.

The story seems simple enough. In the fifteenth century, the new culture of Renaissance humanism, with its sense of new possibilities inspired by the past, filled rulers throughout Italy with enthusiasm. Clever manipulators like Cosimo de’ Medici and ruthless soldiers of fortune like Federigo da Montefeltro appointed fluent Latinists to write propaganda for them, studied the ancients themselves, and collected as many classical texts as they could. Contemporary popes, scions of aristocratic Italian families and Renaissance princes in their own right, followed suit. Pope Nicholas V created, and Pope Sixtus IV expanded and institutionalized, the Vatican Library: a humanistic collection, stuffed with newly discovered Latin texts and newly translated Greek ones, which they made available to all the members of their large entourages who took an interest in antiquity. “The whole court of Rome” supposedly browsed there. Certainly Leon Battista Alberti did so when he collected from dozens of texts the vast amount of information about ancient buildings and cities that he compressed into his pioneering treatise The Art of Building.

It seems only natural that Sixtus’s handsome manuscript of Lucretius should have found its way into the Vatican Library. The work of a brilliant poet and ambitious philosopher, the text had earned the praise of the greatest of Roman poets, Virgil himself. Except for its title and opening line, the manuscript was written in the handsome, rounded script that the humanists of fifteenth-century Italy thought of as appropriate for ancient Latin texts—though they had derived it not from ancient books, which were written very differently, but from manuscripts of the classics written in Carolingian Europe, seven hundred years before their time.

Yet there is something troubling about the manuscript. Lucretius, as it proclaimed, was an “Epicurean” poet—a follower of the Greek philosopher Epicurus. Like his master, he believed that the universe consisted of invisible particles, or atoms, that fell through the endless void until one of them “swerved” and struck another one. The stars, the planets, and the animals and people that inhabited the earth had all come into being by chance, as particles collided, and would eventually fall apart again into nothingness. The gods formed a separate order of being, and took no interest in the fates of humans. Hence it was pointless to fear them or invoke their help.

After surveying the disasters and miseries of human life—which included the plague, vividly described in terms that Lucretius adapted from the Greek historian Thucydides—a wise man would devote himself not to the service of divinities but to the pursuit of true and lasting pleasures: above all the state of ataraxia, freedom from disturbance, which could be attained by contemplation—but also friendship. This was a magnificent vision, as Stephen Greenblatt shows in The Swerve, one that taught the votary of wisdom how to abandon fear and take pleasure in the beauty of the world—but also one impossible to reconcile with Christian ideas about God, the cosmos, and the duties of mankind. How did this most pagan of the pagans gain entry to the papal library? And what did his presence there mean?

These are some of the questions that Greenblatt poses, and tries to answer, in his book. Lucretius, he argues, offered Christian readers a vision of the world so radically alien that it called all their assumptions into question. Recognizing this, the authorities did their best, ultimately without success, to suppress his work. Jerome, Church father and influential historian of ancient literature and culture, recorded his disapproval in a strangely equivocal biographical note—the only surviving one from antiquity:

Titus Lucretius the poet is born. Later on, he was rendered insane by a love potion. When he had written some books in the intervals of his madness, which Cicero later corrected, he killed himself in his forty-fourth year.

Few librarians stocked, and few learned men cited, the work of this ancient madman—even if, as Jerome suggested, he had apparently been sane enough while writing to gain Cicero’s editorial help.

In 1414, however, a swerve worthy of Epicurus himself brought On the Nature of Things back, not just to life but also into the cultural swim. Poggio Bracciolini, a humanist scholar who worked as a secretary for Pope John XXIII, accompanied his master to Konstanz, to attend a council of the Church, which was deep in trouble. The council had to deal with the fact that there were three rival popes, each with followers, as well as the Hussite heretics in Bohemia, one of whom it executed, breaking a promise of safe conduct. When John realized that his support was gone, he fled the city. Arrested and deposed he capitulated, bringing his papal name into such discredit that none of his successors would adopt it until Angelo Roncalli did so in 1958. Poggio found himself for the moment without a job. A passionate book hunter, he took refuge from his troubles throughout his life by hunting for truffles in libraries.

Now he decided to brave the difficulties of traveling in German lands, where he did not speak the language, and of hunting for books in dusty, cobwebbed monastic libraries guarded by obdurate and suspicious monks, whom he did not like. (In a tradition that went back to Boccaccio and before, Poggio suspected them of corruption and hypocrisy.) In 1417, in one of the collections that Poggio explored—probably that of the great Benedictine house of Fulda, in south Germany—he found the text of Lucretius. Poggio read the shocking book and changed the world. Or at least he let loose a text powerful enough to frighten some readers and fascinate others. Greenblatt lays out, in a disappointingly dry series of bullet points, some of “the elements that constituted the Lucretian challenge”—e.g., that “Religions are invariably cruel”—and he writes suggestively, though all too briefly, about the work’s “compellingly, seductively beautiful” poetry. But his central argument has to do, again, with swerves: what happened when the particle of De rerum natura, newly set in motion, began to strike readers.

Changing the world always takes time, and the way in which a book can be the agent of change needs a fair amount of explaining. Before Greenblatt tells the story of Lucretius and the Renaissance, he pulls back from his granular, close-up account of the discovery and lays out vivid panorama after panorama. The story begins with Lucretius and his contemporaries. The worldly philosophers of the late Roman Republic, men like Cicero, sought the truth not by isolating themselves in book-lined cells but by bringing together good company and staging debates. They looked for wisdom in their villas on the Bay of Naples, where they found refuge from the stench, graffiti, and raging crowds of Rome. Modern archaeology has recreated one of these realms of high living and high thinking, from a few generations later: the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum. Destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius, the rooms and treasures of this great house have been brought back to life by more than two centuries of archaeological effort.

Great scholarly and technical ingenuity, which Greenblatt vividly describes, have made it possible to open and read many of the carbonized scrolls once stored in the villa’s library. They include the works and notebooks of an Epicurean philosopher and erotic poet named Philodemus, a contemporary of Lucretius (fragments of his work have also been found there). Drawing on Cicero’s vivid accounts as well as these materials, Greenblatt evokes a critical, sophisticated world in which cultivated men could develop a skeptical attitude toward the personal existence of Rome’s ancient gods.

Here as elsewhere in the book, the reader may feel that Greenblatt is alluding to personal experiences, allegorically: in this case, perhaps, the reading groups and seminars of Berkeley, another city of villas by a lovely bay, where Greenblatt taught for many years, before joining the faculty at Harvard. The core of Greenblatt’s discussion, however, is directed to the Epicureans themselves. He eloquently conveys their conviction that their master had led a truly exemplary life, capped with a courageous death, even though he had remained secluded in the austerity of his Athenian garden, avoiding the temptations of fame and political engagement.

Books do furnish a room.” The scrolls of the Epicureans decorated what must have been a lovely library, its walls mounted with wooden shelves, in the villa. But books also led a precarious life, in antiquity and after. The teeth of time gnawed continually. Individual scrolls were menaced not only by volcanoes but also by theft, damp, and hungry animals too tiny to see with the naked eye (Greenblatt quotes a wonderful description of bookworms from Robert Hooke’s treatise of 1655, Micrographia). Whole collections were damaged or destroyed by the fires that broke out in times of civil war or civic disturbance—both of which took place at Alexandria, home of the greatest of ancient libraries, and led to destruction.

Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (Vatican), Ms. lat.224, 2 recto
Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini, portrait from a manuscript of his work De varietate fortunae, written when he was sixty-eight years old

The classical heritage as a whole, finally, was threatened in a more comprehensive way by Christianity. Learned Christians like Jerome struggled to free themselves from their passion for the beauty of the ancient texts. In Jerome’s case, the pursuit of virtue became an obsession. It inspired the famous nightmare described in one of his letters in which he was dragged before the judgment seat of God and accused of being a Ciceronian, not a Christian. Other Christians feared the ridicule of cultivated pagans, who despised the crude Christian scriptures and what they saw as the bizarre nonsense of Christian theology. Augustine recalls with exquisite relief, in his Confessions, how much it meant to him to learn from Ambrose, bishop of Milan, that he did not have to take everything in the Bible literally. Like a learned pagan, he could use allegory and the spiritual sense when the texts that mattered most to him proved impossible to understand.

All Christian authorities, finally, denounced the idea that virtue could lie in the pursuit of pleasure. In the monasteries that embodied the virtuous Christian life most clearly, athletes of holiness sought the opposite of what Epicurus and Lucretius had aimed for. Virtue, for Christians, meant not the pleasure to be found in a quiet life devoted to the pursuit of wisdom, but the pain, frequent and extreme, that could atone in part for the sinful nature all had inherited from Adam and Eve.

The monasteries, in Greenblatt’s account—a curious blend of Gibbonian irony and Sadean relish—were not quiet, dignified centers for the performance of the liturgy and the copying of texts but “theaters of pain.” Their inmates vied to torment themselves more effectively than their rivals, wielding everything from whips and chains to iron crosses fixed with nails into their bodies. In these houses of self-punishment, classical texts naturally aroused relatively little interest, and pleas for the pursuit of pleasure were stigmatized as especially evil. Only a swerve or two—the fact that a copy survived in a library that Poggio happened to explore—saved On the Nature of Things from the extinction suffered by most of Epicurus’ own works.

Poggio, however, did far more than just have the text copied. He was the fifteenth-century equivalent of those expert consumers who nowadays inspire thousands of imitators when they choose a pair of jeans or a device from Apple. A poor but ambitious boy from the Tuscan countryside, he had made a name at Florence in culturally advanced circles. The chancellor of the Republic, Coluccio Salutati, was a learned scholar and a book collector, and he offered Poggio support. He arranged for a learned Byzantine, Manuel Chrysoloras, to teach Greek in Florence for three years, and opened his library to Poggio.

Niccolò Niccoli and Leonardo Bruni cultivated more avant-garde tastes. Niccoli, an aesthete and antiquary who collected ancient works of art and dined off crystal, choreographed the search for lost and unknown classical texts on which so many younger scholars were engaged. He built up in his own house the magnificent collection of books that eventually became the nucleus of the library of San Marco. Bruni, in a brilliant dialogue, recorded the scorn with which Niccoli dismissed the Latin written by moderns like Petrarch and Boccaccio. These men insisted that earlier scholars retained far too many traces of the Middle Ages. They had not realized that letters must always be written in the first-person singular, as the ancients had written them. And they had misspelled many words, writing nichil, rather than nihil, and the like.

To the modern reader, arguing about the spelling of nihil may sound like much ado about nothing. To these devoted aesthetes, the way such questions were decided mattered deeply—as deeply as the choice of color, centuries later, to another classicist, Oscar Wilde. Choices of spelling and script could exemplify true civilization or reveal barbarous ignorance. It was in their company that Poggio devised the plain text block of printed words, written with exquisite clarity, that became first the proper form for classical texts and then the standard modern format for books in general (as it has remained). And it was from them that he took direction as he became a skillful book hunter.

Eventually, Poggio found his way to Rome, where the pope and the cardinals needed highly literate staffers to create and sell the official documents—marriage annulments, for example—that brought in much of the Curia’s income as well as to draft and preserve the papacy’s official correspondence with other powers. The Curia was a strange and inward-looking world, then as now a center of anticlerical humor. Many of the learned laymen who served as secretaries liked nothing better than retreating to their “chamber of lies,” where they told nasty stories about arrogant prelates, ignorant priests, and lustful friars, in the manner, though usually without the wit, of Boccaccio. “Nobody was spared,” Poggio recalled. He himself climbed to the top of the pole, becoming the pope’s domestic secretary—the highest office someone like him could aspire to.

Greenblatt emphasizes the curial humanists’ spite and jealousy, which found expression in everything from vicious written attacks on one another to actual scuffles. After one of these, George of Trebizond, a fellow scholar, wrote to Poggio: “I could have bitten off the fingers you stuck in my mouth; I did not. Since I was seated and you were standing, I thought of squeezing your testicles with both hands and thus lay you out: I did not do it.” Greenblatt finds these quarrels “grotesque,” evidence of “something rotten” in the humanists’ lives. To me, these grumpy scholars look like normal avant-garde intellectuals, caught in a pressure-cooker environment that forced them to spend time together even as they fought to reach their patrons’ ear trumpets: not so unlike the young playwrights of Elizabethan London, or, for that matter, the young New York writers of a few generations ago, who resorted to knives as well as fists at the sort of party where, in John Berryman’s words, “Somebody slapped/Somebody’s second wife somewhere.”

What does seem clear—and though Greenblatt does not bring this out very clearly, Alison Brown does in her excellent short book The Return of Lucretius to Renaissance Florence (2010)—is that the humanists of Rome and Florence actually formed something like a coherent group of cutting-edge thinkers, some of whom moved back and forth between the two cities. After the Romans expelled Pope Eugenius IV, the connections became even closer. The Pope and Curia spent years in Florence and nearby, attending—among other great events—the dedication of Florence’s new cathedral. Most of these men shared a distaste for what they saw as the corrupt church that some of them served and a taste for new classical texts. It was only natural, then, that Lucretius would interest them.

One more swerve took place. Poggio did not copy the manuscript of Lucretius that he found. Instead, he ordered a copy, which took some time to reach him, and which he then sent on to Niccoli—who simply held on to it: “You have now kept the Lucretius,” the exasperated Poggio wrote at one point, “for fourteen years.” But finally the text came back. Copies began to circulate: more than fifty manuscripts descended from Poggio’s copy survive. In the 1430s, the Florentine scholar Ambrogio Traversari translated the Greek Lives of the Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius: a gossipy work, but rich with information, which included the full texts of three letters by Epicurus himself. Gradually, humanists in the Roman-Florentine world realized that Lucretius and the Epicurean philosophy he espoused were good to think with. Soon intellectual experiments were going forward.

Take Alberti—the brilliant papal secretary, classical scholar, and architect, who makes only cameo appearances in The Swerve. An illegitimate member of a family banished from Florence for political reasons, Alberti returned to the city in the 1430s. Filled with enthusiasm by the new work being done by Florentine artists, he wrote—first in Italian, and then in Latin—the treatise On Painting. The Italian version began with a prefatory letter to the architect Filippo Brunelleschi. Here Alberti confessed that he had long believed that nature had become old and tired, since she no longer produced geniuses or giants. Coming to Florence, however, he saw Brunelleschi’s new dome—big enough, he claimed, to shelter the whole population of Florence (and, as he noted in another work, to create its own gentle climate). Suddenly Alberti realized that nature still had power: the course of history and the cosmos was not necessarily downward to destruction.

The only thing Alberti did not say—as Greenblatt’s Harvard colleague Christine Smith has pointed out—is that he had learned his pessimism from Lucretius, who described the world as degenerating from its primitive fertility. The Epicurean poet gave Alberti powerful ideas, which he enjoyed testing—in this case to destruction—against his own experience. It was in this same period that Lorenzo Valla—another brilliant, iconoclastic humanist—wrote his dialogue On Pleasure, which included a powerful statement of the Epicurean position—one so strongly put that it shocked Poggio, who took it as Valla’s true belief even though the dialogue included a Christian refutation.

For two centuries to come, Lucretius would serve as an intellectual fire-starter. Some, like the Neoplatonic philosopher Marsilio Ficino, would feel the attractions of Epicurus, only to recoil. Others, like the humanist and public official Bartolomeo Scala, would explore Epicurean tenets over and over again. The Medici and the scholars and artists who worked for them, who dominated Florence from 1434 to 1494 and again after 1512, loved to evoke the Golden Age—the paradise at the beginning of time, when Justice ruled the earth, which the Medici claimed to restore.

When the city expelled the Medici in 1494, great convulsions followed, as the Dominican prophet and reformer Girolamo Savonarola helped convince the Florentines to rebuild their republic. Almost two decades of struggle followed. No wonder, Brown argues, that Florentines began to see the uses of Lucretius’ haunting description of the primitive world, which he portrayed as an age of savagery and violence, and applied it to their own world. No wonder either that one eager reader, who not only copied a manuscript of Lucretius, now in the Vatican, but adorned it with unusually perceptive notes, was a young man named Niccolò Machiavelli. For this dark, materialist political thinker—as, a century and a half later, for Thomas Hobbes—Lucretius offered a mode for understanding the political, as well as the physical, universe.

Yet as Alison Brown shows, there were other strands to the Florentine response to Lucretius. During the arduous voyage that brought him Lucretius and so much more, Poggio visited Baden-Baden. He was charmed by the sight of diaphanously clad Germans swimming and playing ball, men and women barely separated—a custom, he noted, that his fellow Italians would never have tolerated. And he described what he saw in a wonderful, light-hearted set piece of a letter, in which he praised the “Epicurean thinking” of the Germans. Something about this connection between foreign customs and Epicurus proved attractive. When the Florentine Amerigo Vespucci wrote his description of South America’s inhabitants, who went without clothing and shared property and wives, he described them as “Epicureans”—a point that would, in turn, inspire Thomas More. The citizens of his Utopia, as Greenblatt notes in a short but insightful discussion, were also Epicureans.

Though Greenblatt offers striking observations about More and about Montaigne—whose heavily annotated copy of Lucretius was discovered some time ago and published in an exemplary edition by Michael Screech—his accounts of these and later students of Lucretius lack the brilliantly marshaled details that light up his accounts of Lucretius and Poggio. The most influential Epicurean philosophers of early modern times, Giordano Bruno and Pierre Gassendi, receive a brief treatment and a passing mention respectively. Of the larger Epicurean tradition, the reader learns little. Like Lucretius’ own cosmos, in other words, the little world of The Swerve ends up less reaching a conclusion than falling apart, as Donne wrote, “into its atomies.” We never quite learn, in the end, how the world became modern.

For all its verve, and all the brilliance of its portraits of Lucretius and of Poggio and his world, The Swerve is not always as accurate as one would wish. The learned men of the Middle Ages were far more tolerant—and far more steeped in classical texts that challenged Christian values—than Greenblatt argues. After all, they called Aristotle “the philosopher” and built their fundamental approach to philosophy and theology on his methods. Yet Aristotle argued that the world was eternal, not created: an idea that challenged a fundamental Christian tenet. Still, all efforts, both Catholic and Protestant, to remove him from the university curriculum failed, and his works more than once stimulated thoughts as heterodox as those of the Renaissance Lucretians. A look at Richard de Bury and other medieval bookmen would have shed more light on what was genuinely new about the humanists than Greenblatt’s strange excursus on flagellation.

More important, Lucretius was not so completely unknown before Poggio’s discovery as Greenblatt suggests. Virgil, after all, exuberantly praised him: “Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas” (Happy was he who could know the causes of things). Lucretius provided a model for Virgil’s didactic poem, the Georgics, and had a powerful, complex impact on the Aeneid. Every learned person read Virgil. Most of them read not only Virgil’s works, moreover; they read them against the immense late-antique commentary by Servius, which offered vital information and guidance, and made clear that Lucretius and Epicurus were serious thinkers. Indications like these were what guided Niccoli and Poggio in their quest for ancient texts, and belong in their story. A paperback edition that dealt in more detail with the ways in which Epicurus and Lucretius were read—and thus lived up more fully to the promise of the book’s subtitle—would be welcome.

But that paperback, even if unrevised, will be most welcome for other reasons. Greenblatt’s career has included a long series of dazzling feats. Again and again, he has devised ingenious and unexpected ways to give urgency to the study of Renaissance texts that had bored students and repelled readers for generations. In The Swerve, he has done something even more remarkable: he has reached the best-seller list with a detailed, searching, and original account of an ancient book and its afterlife—an account so vivid and persuasive that it will induce thousands of readers to learn how books were produced and read in the ancient and medieval manuscript worlds, and to see what it felt like to live in a society in which books held the answers, or were thought to do so, about life, the universe, and everything. Moreover, he has brought Lucretius a good many new readers, to judge from the fact that A.E. Stallings’s wonderful Penguin translation of the poem is now Amazon’s best-selling title under Poetry. Like Lucretius, Greenblatt has written a seductive, beautiful book that will inspire wonder, reflection, and the pursuit of pleasure.