The Poem That Changed the World
Stephen Greenblatt thinks he’s found it, but has he?
When Stephen Greenblatt, the eminent Renaissance scholar and Harvard professor of English, titled his new book The Swerve, it’s a safe bet that he wasn’t thinking about the current slang meaning of the word, which according to Urban Dictionary is “used most often as a sexual reference,” as in “get your swerve on.” The swerve Greenblatt has in mind, rather, is the abrupt, unpredictable movement of atoms that, according to the ancient Roman poet Lucretius, makes possible the creation and destruction of everything in the universe. “The swerve—which Lucretius called declinatio, inclinatio, or clinamen—is only the most minimal of motions,” Greenblatt explains. “But it is enough to set off a ceaseless chain of collisions. Whatever exists in the universe exists because of these random collisions of minute particles.”
There is, however, a nice symmetry between the ancient and current senses of the word. For the universe Lucretius portrays in De rerum natura, the 7,000-line epic poem that is the main character of Greenblatt’s story, is definitely one that likes to get its swerve on. Or, to use the Roman’s preferred terminology, it is governed by Venus, the goddess of Love. The poem (quoted here in Frank Copley’s translation) begins with a an invocation to Venus:
For soon as the year has bared her springtime face,
and bars are down for the breeze of growth and birth,
in heaven the birds first mark your passage, Lady,
and you; your power pulses in their hearts …
in every creature you sink love’s tingling dart,
luring them lustily to create their kind.
All this makes Lucretius sound like a pious polytheist, about to offer up a hecatomb to the goddess of love. In fact, Greenblatt explains, the core doctrine of De rerum natura is an uncompromising atheism, which understands the gods as nothing more metaphors. While Greenblatt has several stories to tell in The Swerve—there are vibrant descriptions of the lifestyle of ancient Roman aristocrats, the corruption of the medieval Papacy, and the backbiting of Renaissance scholars—his real subject is the intellectual revolution of Epicureanism, the Greek philosophical school to which Lucretius belonged. Epicurus, its fourth-century founder, taught that the universe was completely material, made up of nothing but atoms and space. The power that drove life to multiply and evolve was irresistible but blind, the result of purely physical forces. It followed that there was no afterlife, no divine punishment, and no purpose to human existence except the cultivation of pleasure and the avoidance of pain.
For this reason, the word “epicurean” came to mean a seeker of luxury, a sybarite; but in fact, Greenblatt shows, the original Epicureans led a modest lifestyle. Their philosophy was intended not as a license for indulgence but as a therapy for the fear of death. “Against other things it is possible to obtain security, but when it comes to death we human beings all live in an unwalled city,” Epicurus said, and this message is at the heart of De rerum natura.
In his remarkably personal introduction, Greenblatt writes that it was this promise of equanimity toward death that first drew him to Lucretius’s poem as an undergraduate, when he picked up a copy for 10 cents in a bargain bin at the Yale Coop. The fear of death, he writes, “dominated my entire childhood,” thanks to “my mother’s absolute certainty that she was destined for an early death.” This fear was, happily, groundless—she lived to be almost 90—but “she had blighted much of her life—and cast a shadow on my own—in the service of her obsessive fear.” Greenblatt was thus a perfect audience for Lucretius’s rationalist message, which he summarizes: “If you can hold on to and repeat to yourself the simplest fact of existence—atoms and void and nothing else, atoms and void and nothing else—your life will change.”
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at the New Republic.