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The Most Charming Pagan

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.

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