The purpose of art, if art can ever be said to have a purpose beyond the simplest form of giving joy, is to reveal the way the artist views the world. Sometimes that point of view, rather than just being a stark reminder of how some fear the world is, or a beautiful peek at how things seem to be, can open up plateaus that people had not realized existed until that moment. Like a blind person seeing for the first time, a glimpse of a work by da Vinci, Van Gogh, Picasso, or Ansel Adams can open the eyes to new ways of seeing.
Like a deaf person hearing their first tweet of a bird, the first time someone hears the strains of Beethoven, Mozart, Benny Goodman, or the Beatles can teach that music is more than just noise. Art, be it music, paintings, literature, poetry, movies or whatever form it might take on, can be very powerful, and in the right circumstances it can change the world.
In his book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern that is exactly the argument that Stephen Greenblatt makes. He pulls together correspondence, the writings of other authors, and even ancient artifacts to piece together the history of how Lucretius’ poem On the Nature of Things was created, became lost, was found, and was ultimately dispersed into the world. Along the way he explains that the poem was more than just a work of breathtaking beauty, but was responsible for creating the world as we know it today. Along the way he tells the stories of a corrupt pope’s fall from grace (if he ever had grace to begin with), the hellish life of a monastic scribe, and a curiously frank obsession with sex that seems to be eternally present in humans.
Greenblatt is well known for his works regarding William Shakespeare; he is the editor of The Norton Shakespeare and the general editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature. His Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, was New York Times bestseller, and a book which I thoroughly enjoyed. He is also a professor of humanities at Harvard University. Not a professional historian, which might be a plus when it comes to writing a well-crafted narrative, Mr. Greenblatt often uses very disparate sources to craft an interesting story.
How a humanities student with an interest in Shakespeare came to have such a deep affection for the long poem On the Nature of Things is one of the first things he discusses. He discovered the poem during his college years when he picked it up for some reading over his break. The poem connected with him because of his interactions with his mother, but also because he felt that it was a perfect example of how things are. More importantly to him, he felt that “. . . at the core of the poem lay key principles of a modern understanding of the world.” (Page 5.)
Botticelli- Primavera. Source:
He proceeds to explain the importance of the poem, how well the subject matter resonated with The Renaissance. How, as he put it, “. . . the world swerved in a new direction.” (Page 11.) In his opinion the world was changed by the re-emergence of a poem lost to antiquity, a less dramatic image than the barbarians at the gate, or the discovery of a new land.
Thomas Cole – Destruction. Source.
The less than dramatic moment was a hand reaching out to take “. . . a very old manuscript off a library shelf.” (Page 12.) Regardless of the drama of the moment, he makes it clear that was the seed of change for the world.
Introducing the reader to the owner of the hand that changed the world is next on the author’s to-do-list. So we are told of Poggio Bracciolini riding through the winter woods of Germany. With an assist from Alexander Pope, Greenblatt makes it clear that this was a world in which the best thing people could do was “. . . humbly to accept the identity to which destiny assigned you . . .” (Page16.) However this bit of doggerel seems unsuited for Poggio, an ex-apostolic secretary who is traveling Germany looking for ancient manuscripts that he can salvage from the ravages of time. This seems a particularly hard fall for a man who once had the ear of the pope, but Greenblatt deftly explains the dangers of the schism on the Catholic Church, and how Poggio came to be there.
Where that “there” was is an equally interesting story and one that Greenblatt devotes several pages to. He lovingly details the inner world of the monasteries where these relics could be found out. As important to him as where the manuscript was found at is the work that the scribes are put to do. The ongoing work of scraping the manuscripts, washing away old writing and then copying the assigned text, all without ever reading them, because they were pagan texts after all, and not to be read. This is the world Poggio finds himself in, the world that is a few decades away from emerging into the light of the Renaissance.
Greenblatt spends quite a bit of time talking about the when of Poggio’s discovery, because the time before he found the manuscript and the time that followed after were very different times. He found the manuscript shortly after the corrupt Pope John XXIII was removed from office and imprisoned. A time of great personal turmoil for Poggio because he had lost his job and favor with the Papacy. At the same time, it was a time of birth for the humanists, people interested in recovering the works of the great philosophers of antiquity: Cicero, Epicurus, and of course the great lost work of Lucretius that had only been hinted at in other works.
Unfortunately, it was also a time of great repression. The Church had spent a thousand years convincing the people that pain was good for the soul and pleasure was to be avoided; that the ultimate reward was guaranteed in Heaven and the ultimate punishment in Hell. This was in stark contrast to the great poem, which stated that pain was to be avoided and pleasure sought after; that there was nothing after death and that the gods did not care at all if you were good or bad. Lucretius philosophical beliefs were too far removed from the dogma of the Catholic Church.
From there, Greenblatt goes on to explain the difficulties of finding out about Lucretius. Beloved by Cicero and Ovid, he nevertheless, remained a bit of an enigma, with but a brief biographical sketch that did not present him in a positive light. While he points out that he is skeptical of that negative view, Greenblatt also makes it clear that nothing else is known about Lucretius. Much of what he goes on to explain about the times of Lucretius are derived from the excavations done at Herculaneum, a town that suffered the same fate as Pompeii when Mount Vesuvius blew up. From an extraordinary cache of manuscripts sealed up in a villa, he imagines a world in which people read these great works and discuss them.
Next is his discussion of Democritus and Epicurus. Their views and discussions of the physical universe, and by extension the spiritual universe, are the cornerstones of Lucretius’ work. It is also an important exploration of how Epicurus was taken from being a philosopher to a glutton who would become the butt of jokes. That attitude, as undeserved as it was, helps to explain the negativity that was aimed at On the Nature of Things.
GIACOMO ZOFFOLILATE – Epicurus. Source.
From here, Greenblatt begins discussing the hazards of time on works of the writers of antiquity. With how important the writers are considered, it is shocking to realize just how little of their output has actually survived the ravages of time. The evil bookworm raises its head as he talks about the dangers of climates and pests. More interestingly, he goes on to discuss the book trade of the ancient world, which mostly depended on copying, providing the receptive reader with the image of hundreds of men and women bent over their paper scratching out the words that were dictated to them. Unfortunately, such a golden age was not to last.
Greenblatt shifts his attention, and by extension, ours to the fall of the Alexandrian Library. Rather than nature taking its course, this becomes a story of a religious war on a small scale; a war between Christians, pluralist, and the Jewish, who were all living side by side in the city. As tragic as it is to think of the horrific loss of life; the story of Hypathia stands out in frightening detail; an equal tragedy is felt at the loss of knowledge that just seemed to vanish. Thankfully, despite the attempts of the early Christian Church, some scant few of the manuscripts did survive their purging.
The backstory of the poem told as well as it could be Greenblatt now moves on to discuss the backstory of his hero, Poggio. This is the story of his journey from an unremarkable backwater to the city of Florence near the dawn of the fifteenth century. The son of pharmacist notary, he journeyed to Florence and because of his excellent handwriting was able to become a scribe. What follows is a very interesting discussion of the changes that handwriting was undergoing at that time. As he says, handwriting in the modern era is slowly slipping more out of favor, and it is very intriguing to be reminded just how important it was at one time.
Like the importance of the handwriting, most modern Americans do not understand what it is like to be surrounded so completely by the past. Poggio lived in an Italy saturated in the past, and the dream that he followed, the dream of Petrarch, was a revival of those classical elements of the ancient world, a “. . . dream of walking in the footsteps of the ancients.” (Page 117.)While trying to establish himself, Poggio learned to become obsessed with the dream of recovering the past. In talking about Pretarch and Salutati, Greenblatt is promoting the idea of the birth of Humanism. This humanism seems to present itself as a collecting of relics from the past, something that Poggio greatly longed to be able to do.
When Poggio journeyed to Rome, the main draw was the court of the pope, but he was also drawn by the noble families who could always make use of a young man with excellent handwriting. Still he entered into the Roman Curia, because it could easily serve as a step-up to bigger and better things. Poggio’s rise led him to the very center of the court, which he called the Lie Factory, a truly spectacular name. From here he produced a book of jokes he called Facetiae, which contained a litany of ribald jokes. Clearly this is a part that Greenblatt enjoyed, because he spends quite a bit of time telling the jokes that can be found in the book. This laughter seems to be a way for them to deal with the backstabbing and “. . . the sickness of the whole environment.” (Page 146.)
Poggio rose to his highest level, that of apostolic secretary, at a relatively bad time. Rome was in decline, “. . . a pathetic shadow of its past glory.” (Page 156.) It was hard for the people of Rome to hold onto their morality under the rule of Pope John XXIII. Cossa, the birth name of Pope John, was regarded with fear and admiration; people suspected that he had poisoned his predecessor. Still, it was hoped that he could bring an end to the schism that had been damaging the Church.
Pope John XXIII (The AntiPope.) Source.
Whether or not Pope John XXIII had any chance of doing that, which seems highly unlikely, it became clear that he had no desire to end the stalemate. He found himself called to Constance in an effort to win support from the council. The end result for Cossa was that he found himself stripped of the title and imprisoned. Poggio found himself without a master.
Poggio witnessed the trials of two men accused of heresy, Jan Hus, a Czech priest, and Jerome of Prague. These trials seemed to have a powerful effect on him and so, leaderless, he again immersed himself in his search for books. There was no real hope that he could find anything except scraps, and yet in January of 1417 he found the manuscript that would change the world.
It just wouldn’t do it right away. While Poggio might have found it easy enough to read, the average person would not. Most troubling, it brought the plague of atheism with it, dangerous in a time when Christianity was at arguably its most powerful. The views found in the poem would lead a “. . . contemporary who espoused them into the most serious trouble.” (Page 184.) The aspects of it that seemed so dangerous to the Church and to the people, seem very prosaic in the modern world; ideas such as everything being made up of invisible particles. Greenblatt does a wonderful job of detailing the elements that were so challenging to the Church at the time, helping those of us in the modern world understand what they found so offensive.
After discovering the manuscript that would eventually change the world, and sending it off to be transcribed Poggio ultimately traveled to London to try and find new books there. He was absolutely miserable there, which seems in reality to be the English condition, and after four years finally journeyed back to Italy to take a new secretarial post at the Vatican. Here he found himself struggling to reclaim his copy of the poem so he could finally read it. Finally, after a millennium, Lucretius’ grand work ventured out into the world.
Poggio picked up the pieces of the life he had before the fall of Cossa, continuing in the Lie Factory just as he had before. He married, fathered children, and became the chancellor of Florence, a post he served at for five years. He died, never seeing the impact that his discovery would have in creating the modern day world.
The poem took on a life of its own after that, being banned, being absorbed into a defense of Christianity. The difficulty was not in the reading of the poem, “. . . but in discussing it openly or taking its ideas seriously.” (Page 225.) Portions of the philosophy were taken and detached so that they could be used for other purposes. Yet, it was still engaged with by Catholics as a fable, and used as a basis for stories that both mocked its ideas and promoted them with strange twists that actually dismantled the primary basis of the philosophy.
A Dominican monk, Giordano Bruno, followed in the path of Lucretius telling stories of the heavy obsession the gods would have to have to be aware of every detail of human lives. He found courage in Copernicus, who championed the idea that the Earth was not the center of the universe, and idea that was not in keeping with the Catholic beliefs. The ultimate punishment for Bruno, after reading through the downfall of so many others in the book, should be obvious.
Greenblatt finishes up his book with the most basic of ideas; once the poem was out, there was no way to put it back in the bottle. It showed up in the works of Renaissance artists such as Botticelli and da Vinci. Ideas of Lucretius found its way into the works of Shakespeare, who probably learned of it through the works of Montaigne. Lucretius’ poem was read even in Spain at the height of the Inquisition. “. . . printed copies carried across the border from Italy and France and in manuscripts that quietly passed from hand to hand.” In the seventeenth century, the Jesuits developed a prayer designed to ward off the temptation of atomism, the principle idea that summed up Lucretius’ poem. In a perfectly reasoned question, Greenblatt asks why some people during the Renaissance found atoms so frightening. He then provides an excellent explanation for what they were so threatened by.
Lucretius’ ideas lived on in Galileo, who finally received a verdict of heresy against him. The Church failed in its attempts to suppress it, but were successful in having it labeled with disclaimers about its immorality. As science spread along with intellectual thought “. . . the lure of the great poem itself became too great to contain.” (Page 25.) The poem was reluctantly translated into English, but long before the translation was sent out, the idea “. . . had long penetrated the intellectual imagination of England.” (Page 260.) Scientists found no trouble with reconciling their Christianity with their beliefs in atomism. Even before the complete absorption of the Lucretius poem there was another person who used it as a guide. Thomas Jefferson would follow in the footsteps of Lucretius to help found a nation, set forth under the principal of “the pursuit of happiness.”
That was the point that Stephen Greenblatt ends his history of a troubling poem that changed the world. At the very beginning, he promised that he would tell the story of a swerve, which Lucretius credited with the creation of the universe. He succeeds in this premise quite handily, delivering an enjoyable book that informs and entertains. The one negative that can be attributed to his work is his ongoing use of suppositions. The book is filled with “must haves,” and “probablys.” This extends from what people must have thought upon seeing Poggio to what Lucretius’ life probably was like, all the way to one of the most important elements of the story, which is an unknowable, as Greenblatt freely admits.
While this method may be frowned on by the more staid historical writers, it works in this book. Without these the story would have been dryer to be sure, but more importantly, it shows the skills of an author who has used other sources to put himself in the minds of the people that inhabit the world he is creating. The suppositions never extend further than how strange something must have looked to others; he never uses it to jump to conclusions about what might have happened, and that makes all the difference.
Much like Will in the World, Stephen Greenblatt has created another book that focuses on the importance of art in the world. Not only does it brilliantly show how a piece of art can change the world, he introduces you to a work that may have been unfamiliar without overwhelming the reader. As always, his prose makes it easier to understand the impact that poetry can have, not just on the world, but on your life.