The Swerve: How The Renaissance Began And World Became Modern
Stephen Greenblatt introduced by Tom Holland
“I am going to talk about an obscure event, of which I make an extravagant claim. No single event actually changes the world decisively; it’s always a succession of occasions. However, there was this very odd and neglected occurrence, that turned out to have an extraordinary and rippling set of consequences,’’ Stephen Greenblatt had the audience tightened to their seats at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival 2020 as he told the story of what happened in 1417, when a man called Poggio Bracciolini found the last copy of the Roman poet Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things. Greenblatt was introduced by historian Tom Holland.
When philosophy began in the ancient world, it caused “surprise and bafflement which led to a desire to know”, even to know things that could have caused chaos. For the longest time, On the Nature of Things was taught in schools, since its Latin was par excellence. “It was beautiful but unbearable!”- unbearable, since it claimed things that the world didn’t want to hear. In 1417, Christianity was the “overwhelming vision of the world”, so ask yourself this: how happy would a Pope then be if he got to hear that “praying is futile”? An ardent supporter of Epicureanism (an ancient Greek philosophical thought), Lucretius’ ideas were considered subversive in his age and beyond.
For the Christian world of the 15th century, the ideas in Lucretius’ poem- that “the world has no creator, no designer; that atoms have not been made and cannot be destroyed, and that nature functions without divine control”- were problematic. Even in the Hebrew bible, the belief that all species were created by God was foundational and hence, the discomfort with a figure like Lucretius was obvious. For humans, ‘survival’ meant to procure enough food to eat and to reproduce, On the Nature of Things said, and only then “is it possible that the species will thrive and will last for a while.” This idea of the ‘survival of the fittest’ was not fully observed in the European world until Darwin’s time in the 19th century.
Lucretius’ argument was that this universe was not created only for humans and that this was not “our story”. Human beings had to stop thinking of themselves as the pole around which the world revolved. “If humans survive, they must survive the way other creatures do.” Lucretius believed that early humans were speechless and only slowly developed the skills that enabled them to “construct civilisations”. We won’t last forever either, neither are we unique – we are made of the same atoms in different configurations that “make up the stars, make up dirt”.
Poggio, a book-hunter, found this beautiful poem of the most dangerous idea. It violated everything that Christians of the 15th century believed. It was the last surviving copy he found at a library shelf and he spent his life mastering On the Nature of Things. This “changed the course of history”.
Greenblatt ended the session with his powerful words: “My book is about what happened when this uncanny book came back into the world. What happened is a very complex process of aversion and attraction because in some sense, many of the things that Lucretius was saying, however outrageous, also corresponded with something many people had felt but could not articulate for themselves.”