Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: Did Lucretius’s Poem Really Bring Us Modernity?

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 29 2011 2:53 PM

The Poem That Changed the World

Stephen Greenblatt thinks he’s found it, but has he?

Titus Lucretius Carus, ca. 99 BC.
Titus Lucretius Carus, the Roman poet and philosopher, ca. 99 BC.

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.”

The Swerve is powered by Greenblatt’s evangelical enthusiasm for this message. Indeed, he is more interested in explaining Epicureanism, and its intellectual and emotional ramifications, than he is in reading De rerum natura, and the reader learns little about the literary qualities of the poem. It appears in Greenblatt’s story, rather, as a symbolic time capsule, protecting its ancient secular wisdom through the Dark Ages and the Christian Middle Ages—periods Greenblatt depicts in highly conventional terms as poisoned by religion, uniformly grim and ascetic.

When Lucretius was rediscovered—ironically enough, in a monastery library—in 1417, by the Italian humanist Poggio Bracciolini, Greenblatt imagines the moment as the birth of the Renaissance: “There were no heroic gestures, no observers keenly recording the great event for posterity, no signs in heaven or on earth that everything had changed forever. A short, genial, cannily alert man in his late thirties reached out one day, took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. That was all; but it was enough.”

In fact, of course, it was not nearly enough. Greenblatt knows that any such claim for De rerum natura is absurdly overblown—“one poem by itself was certainly not responsible for an entire intellectual, moral, and social transformation,” he grants early on. Yet the subtitle of the book is “How the World Became Modern,” and the implied answer is that it became modern by reading Lucretius and learning to think like him. Greenblatt's brief final chapter, "Afterlives," does show that De rerum natura influenced on some seminal modern writers, including Montaigne, whose annotated copy of the poem was discovered in 1989. More often, however, what Greenblatt finds is not so much direct influence as a general similarity of outlook—as when he associates Lucretius's materialism with Galileo's, or his rational hedonism with Jefferson's "pursuit of happiness." To say that "the atoms of Lucretius had left their traces on the Declaration of Independence" seems at best poetic license.

A more important problem with The Swerve is that Greenblatt’s account of Epicureanism makes it sound rather more consoling than it really is. Greenblatt dwells at length on the way Lucretius's thoroughgoing materialism cleanses the human conscience of specters like "religious fanaticism" and "ascetic self-denial" and "dreams of limitless power." "In short," he writes, "it became possible—never easy, but possible—in the poet Auden's phrase to find the mortal world enough." Yet this is not only not easy. The worldview Lucretius proposes—atoms and void and nothing else—is the very one that has driven many other modern writers to despair and rebellion. From Leopardi to Kierkegaard to Camus, modern literature can be seen as a document of what happens when humanity is liberated into a void. It is not nearly as pretty a picture as Greenblatt optimistically suggests.

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