In late 2011 an intriguing work of non-fiction entitled The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began appeared in my local bookshop, although it was marketed to American readers under the even more grandiloquent subtitle, How the World Became Modern. Written by Harvard scholar Stephen Greenblatt, a doyen of New Historicism, or “cultural poetics” as it’s sometimes obscurely called, The Swerve swept all before it.
After not one but two positive reviews a day apart in The New York Times – “a warm, intimate book, a volume of apple-cheeked popular intellectual history” – and an excerpt in The New Yorker, the book vaulted into the NYT bestseller list. It went on to reel in a Pulitzer and a National Book Award. While The Swerve picked up these laurels in the non-fiction category, its freewheeling approach to the historical record and its allegiance to well-worn fictional cliches – the coming-of-the-prophet, the triumph-against-odds, the quest, the discovery – make it hard to place. Greenblatt, in essence, took a small truth and made of it a big falsehood; one that many people, given The Swerve’s critical and commercial success, are inclined to believe.
Greenblatt’s big reveal is that the Renaissance was triggered by the rediscovery of a 1st-century-BC Latin poem titled De rerum natura (“On the Nature of Things”). The poem’s author, Titus Lucretius Carus, is known for this sole work – a philosophical poem that expounds and celebrates the Hellenistic philosophy of Epicureanism, which first emerged in Athens around 300 BC in the famous garden of Epicurus. The poem is long – at some 7,400 lines of Latin hexameter verse – and challenging. It’s a little like a collaboration between a physics prof, a pop philosopher, and a nature poet with Whitmanesque or Wordsworthian tastes. Worse still, the epic either finishes badly or is unfinished; it’s hard to tell.
The animating hero of Greenblatt’s tale is Poggio Bracciolini (1380–1459), an early Renaissance Florentine humanist and avid manuscript hunter. While attending the Council of Constance (1414–18), in present-day Germany, Poggio discovered the sole surviving copy of Lucretius from which the Renaissance Italian versions derive wholly or in part. For Greenblatt the discovery caused the world to swerve “in a new direction” – a.k.a. modernity. Poggio thus becomes a “midwife to modernity”.
On The Nature of Things contains a lot of good sense, and a lot of nonsense. Its fame rests largely on its lush Latin verse and its earnest moral message. Epicurus conceived of the world and the cosmos as a whirl of bodies and atoms adrift in a soup of void; an inbuilt “swerve” in the downward path of atomic particles, breaking the deterministic chains of causation, allows for unpredictability, chance, and human agency. Interestingly, though, Lucretius avoids using the Greek term atomi for atoms (literally “uncuttables”), preferring instead terms such as rerum primordia (“first things”), semina rerum (“seeds of things”), materies (“matter”), and corpora prima (“first bodies”).
In the original Epicurean system the gods exist in a state of pure perfection, out there in the space between worlds, but they are powerless – a little like celestial models. As there is no post-mortem afterlife, no heaven and hell, the Epicureans believe there is no reason to fear death. They were big on the banishment of superstition and other disturbances of the soul, particularly greed.
Greenblatt likens the lost-and-found Epicurean poem of Lucretius to the dominant feature of the Florentine skyline: the elegant rust-coloured dome of Santa Maria del Fiore. “Lucretius’s great poem may not have stood out against the sky,” he writes. “But its discovery permanently changed the landscape of our world.” He suggests that the recovery of Lucretius was as impactful as the fall of the Bastille (1789), the sack of Rome (410/1527), the discovery of the New World (1492). Only quieter.
This is a move with enormous stakes and a high degree of difficulty. To make it stick, Greenblatt needs to show that Poggio’s sole copy of Lucretius revolutionised Renaissance Florence, or, at the very least, shook it up – caused a stir. He hasn’t. Because it didn’t.
Greenblatt is never able to identify an influential Renaissance champion, let alone champions, of Lucretius. And despite more than a decade of truffling in the manuscript tradition by his acolytes, there is no convincing evidence of a Lucretian stamp of any kind on the Italian Renaissance. The dominant historical school of the Quattrocento, established and maintained under Medici patronage, was a kind of Christianised Neoplatonism. The proposition that Poggio sparked a Lucretian counterculture, which somehow became the dominant culture, is about as plausible as Dan Brown’s Jesus bloodline theory. In fact, the two bear an uncanny resemblance.
There is not one fully articulated public espousal of either Lucretius or Epicurus during the period. The closest thing is a preachy private letter written in 1429 in defence of Epicurus by humanist Cosma Raimondi (1400–35/6) to a friend. The Neoplatonist Marsilio Ficino (1433–99) in his youth wrote an essay On Pleasure, only to repudiate it, and a short commentary on Lucretius, which he condemned to the flames. He later confessed:
I have always taken so much care not to spread any impious doctrine, that even my little commentaries on Lucretius, which I wrote – I do not know how – when I was still a boy, I did not save then; in fact I gave them to Vulcan.
In his multi-volume Platonic Theology (written 1469–74) Ficino scorns “Lucretius the Epicurean who wants the world to come about and be borne along by chance…” Lorenzo Valla (1406/7–57) also wrote a philosophical dialogue titled On Pleasure in his mid-twenties. The work articulates the Epicurean position – without once mentioning Lucretius – only to reject it in favour of a hedonistic Christianity.
The Single Thread
What makes Poggio’s discovery such a hinge moment, for Greenblatt, is that he sees the manuscript as a unicorn – the last fragile link between pagan Epicureanism in exile and modernity. He writes:
Apart from a few odds and ends and second-hand reports, all that was left of the whole rich tradition was contained in that single work. A random fire, an act of vandalism, a decision to snuff out the last traces of views judged to be heretical, and the course of modernity would have been different.
This is the moment the orchestral strings swell and the poignant drama is laid bare: a secret history hanging by a slender thread.
None of it – neither the assertion nor the inference – is true. At the time of Poggio’s discovery two other intact ninth-century manuscripts of Lucretius, in different formats and in different monastic libraries, had managed to survive the chaos of the centuries.
The most likely source of Poggio’s manuscript, known as Codex Oblongus (O) on account of its shape, is held today in the Library of the University of Leiden in Holland. So, too, is Codex Quadratus (Q). These two Lucretian manuscripts, dating from the early-mid 9th century, were in separate monastic libraries several hundred miles apart in the 15th century. (A third, incomplete manuscript also survives from the 9th century, partly in the Royal Library of Copenhagen, Denmark, and partly in the Austrian National Library in Vienna. It is a sibling of Q, but only preserves 45 per cent of the poem.) Poggio doesn’t divulge the hiding place of his Lucretius, although Fulda in central Germany and Murbach in Eastern France are possibilities. So let’s imagine that monastic fires, or simultaneous acts of sacerdotal vandalism, managed to destroy all three complete manuscripts: O, Q, and the manuscript unearthed by Poggio that would in time be copied as L (Codex Laurentianus, written in the 1430s and now in the Laurentian Library of Florence).
Would “the course of modernity… have been different”, to use Greenblatt’s words, if Lucretius had, like Umberto Eco’s lost book of Aristotle on comedy, perished in a monastic conflagration or three? That’s certainly the implication of his overloaded History Channel-style prose. We are concerned with nothing short of an “epochal change”, Greenblatt writes, one that has “affected all of our lives”. But it’s not how things would have gone, for a rather simple reason.
In 15th-century Florence the “rich tradition” of Epicureanism was amply and accessibly represented, and disseminated, by a quirky yet remarkable work that arrived in Italy from Constantinople around the same time as Poggio’s discovery.
The Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, written by one Diogenes Laertius, is a set of 3rd-century AD biographies of Greek thinkers that brought into circulation, for the first time, the letters of Epicurus to his disciples, his last will and testament, and his principal doctrines. The doctrines, a collection of 40 articles of Epicurean faith, were famous in antiquity. These pithy maxims distil, for example, the Epicurean rejection of a post-mortem existence: “Death is nothing to us; for the body, when it has been resolved into its elements, has no feeling, and that which has no feeling is nothing to us.”
Nor are the letters casual jottings. They are instructional essays that set out the philosopher’s thoughts on subjects such as the Epicurean arts of life (Letter to Menoeceus), physics (Letter to Herodotus) and celestial phenomena (Letter to Pythocles). Diogenes’ book on Epicurus, the largest in his collection, runs to about 11,000 words. The entire work was translated into Latin some time before 1433 by the monk Ambrogio Traversari, and was printed in 1472, a year before the first printing of De Rerum Natura. The British Classicist Michael Reeve makes the point that by the time Poggio’s copied manuscript was in circulation “Traversari’s Latin translation of Diogenes Laertius was opening up an easier route to Epicurus’ life and thought”.
Renaissance readers of Lucretius knew his poem to be an expression of the Epicurean system, but they understood at the same time that in the surviving letters of Epicurus – preserved by Diogenes Laertius – they had access to the Master’s original voice. Lucretius’ poem, by contrast, is a versified mash-up of several Epicurean sources including Epicurus’s own 37-book magnum opus On Nature (Περὶ φύσεως), together with some borrowings from the Pre-Socratic philosopher poets Empedocles and Parmenides, all of it fashioned and adapted for a Roman audience.
In the letters of Epicurus, on the other hand, Renaissance intellectuals could find Epicurus uncut. If Lucretius had never, for whatever reason, emerged from darkness into light, Epicurus would have been reborn in the form preserved by Diogenes. Three random monastic fires and we might not have had the poetic elaboration, but we would certainly have the philosophical articulation.
Greenblatt, to his credit, briefly notes the letters of Epicurus preserved by Diogenes Laertius, but he is determined to ignore its devastating implications for his single thread – “all that was left of the whole rich tradition was contained in that single work” – theory. He also makes mention of the two other complete manuscripts – O and Q – of De Rerum Natura. “But by the time these manuscripts surfaced, Lucretius’s poem, thanks to Poggio’s discovery, had already long been helping to unsettle and transform the world,” he writes. And yet there is no evidence that Poggio’s discovery unsettled, let alone transformed – revolutionised is Greenblatt’s opening gambit – Florentine society.
Palpable traces of Lucretian influence on the Renaissance are limited to a few curious readers, and they are not without interest. Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) is the best-known, and most sophisticated, Renaissance reader. The political philosopher, who copied, corrected and annotated his own manuscript of De Rerum Natura (now in the Vatican Library), may have developed his astringent political realism from the Lucretian vision of a godless universe. And yet we have no evidence of Lucretian clubs or societies, no Lucretian manifestos, no emulators, no figures of secular power or influence with Lucretian sympathies. A number of Renaissance paintings, such as Botticelli’s Primavera, may contain Lucretian natural motifs, but this is conjecture. The Primavera, with its abundant floral imagery, was painted for a Florentine client, and Florence was named by the Romans for Flora the goddess of all flowering things.
Greenblatt would like to recruit the 16th-century martyr to science, Giordano Bruno (1548–1600), as a kind of Lucretian martyr. But as the University of Chicago historian Ada Palmer succinctly puts it: “Giordano Bruno has been appropriated as a modern icon of scientific secularism battling a backwards Church, but those who use him this way employ a carefully curated version of his story, one which ignores… the actual content of the trial documents, which show the Inquisition’s alarm at Bruno’s heterodox theism and Aristotelianism, not his materialism or Lucretianism.” In a similar vein, Greenblatt recruits Michel de Montaigne (1533–92) into his circle of Lucretian influence. The French philosopher and antiquarian certainly mined De rerum Natura and the Lives of Diogenes Laertius, but his Christian faith was unshakeable despite his old soul and sceptical cast of mind.
When Greenblatt conjectures that “the culture in the wake of antiquity that best epitomized the Lucretian embrace of beauty and pleasure and propelled it forward as a legitimate and worthy pursuit was that of the Renaissance”, he reveals either an astonishing ignorance of the therapeutic philosophy at the heart of his tale, or a weakness for rhetorical flourish over sober fact.
The Epicurean tradition doesn’t so much urge the pursuit of pleasure as the avoidance of pain, one of the key causes of which is runaway desire. Lucretius saw deeply into the acquisitive psychology that spins the rat wheel of insatiable desire long before our own culture of rampant consumerism. At the end of Book 3 he writes: “But while we have not what we crave, that seems to surpass all else; afterwards, when we have obtained that, we crave something else.” Contemporary people know the feeling well.
Epicureanism is, in fact, a philosophy of minimalist living. It was green when the world was young. In the strict sense of philosophical nomenclature, the school and famous Garden founded by Epicurus is ‘hedonistic’. But that’s only because it’s concerned with pleasure (Greek ἡδονή, hēdonē). The school’s great innovation was to apply a rational calculus to pleasure, distinguishing between those pleasures that are natural, or necessary, or neither. The pursuit of unnatural and empty pleasures – including power and luxury – is as likely as not to cause pain. So, too, does the amplification of pleasure: the more-more impulse. The greatest enemy of peace of mind, for the Epicurean, is runaway desire.
In the category of unnecessary and empty pleasure the Epicureans, Lucretius included, placed material luxuries. And it was to these luxuries – particularly the gold and silver brocaded cloth that was as much a part of Florence’s fame as its banking acumen – that the Medici city in the Quattrocento was dedicated.
Lucretius catalogues the arts and luxuries scorned by the Epicurean: “golden images of youths about the house”; “crossbeams panelled and gilded” echoing the lyre; and he contrasts these pointedly with the simple enjoyment of a “rill of water” while reclining on the “soft grass” when “the weather smiles”. To drive home the Epicurean preference for simple natural pleasures over material man-made luxuries, he counsels: “And no quicker do hot fevers fly away from your body, if you have pictured tapestry and blushing purple to toss upon, than if you lie sick under the poor man’s blanket.”
Florence in the Renaissance was ruled by a family of merchants. The city prized luxury, wealth, status, and ostentatious display, and this was true of all social classes. It may well, in fact, have been the culture in the wake of antiquity that least epitomised the Lucretian embrace of beauty and pleasure.
Lucretius vs Plato
The Lucretius manuscript discovered by Poggio is now lost to us, but a copy made by his friend, the wealthy Florentine Niccolò Niccoli (1364–1437), was in circulation in the 1430s. There’s no evidence, on the other hand, of a readership for Lucretius before the middle of the century, and the 50-plus manuscripts that were copied wholly or largely from Niccoli’s are spread across the 15th and early 16th centuries. Lucretius, though, wasn’t printed in book form until 1473 (at Brescia). The second edition of De rerum natura came 13 years later (in Verona); the third, nine years after that (in Venice). As Catherine Wilson points out in Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity: “Though the poem enjoyed twenty-eight further printings before 1600, Lucretius still lagged considerably behind other poets in popularity.” In fact, the first commentary on Lucretius, by Johannes Baptista Pius, wasn’t published until 1511 (in Bologna) almost a century after Poggio’s rediscovery. That’s a pretty slow burn for a supposed world-shaker.
Compare this with Plato’s rediscovery around 1438, the year that Greek-speaking intellectuals from Constantinople, like Magi bearings gifts, brought to Florence several Greek texts largely unknown in the Latin West for a millenia. One of these was a complete codex of the Platonic dialogues. Within a decade the Florentine intelligentsia was aflame with a Christianised Platonism. Cosimo de’ Medici (1389–1464) set up a Platonic Academy – some, though not all, scholars believe it had a formal presence at the Villa Careggi – and he placed Marsilio Ficino at his head. Cosimo commissioned Ficino to translate all of Plato. That task wasn’t completed before 1470 because Ficino had been busy at the same time with his 18-volume Platonic Theology. On his deathbed the devout Cosimo had Ficino read some passages from Plato, a measure of the deep conviction in humanist circles of the unity of Platonism and Christianity. Where Plato was quickly and decisively adopted by the Florentine power elite as the presiding pagan intellectual, Lucretius was at most a curiosity.
A Subversive Lucretius?
Unable to set his thesis on firm ground, Greenblatt is reduced to the rhetorical fattening of the smallest morsels. Noting that the fundamentalist Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonarola (1452–98) had joked about atomism, Greenblatt takes some solace from the fact that “atomism was sufficiently present in Florence to make it worth ridiculing”. Sufficiently present for a joke, though not, it seems, sufficiently threatening for one of Savonarola’s more characteristic fiery denunciations. Given that Lucretius conspicuously avoids the Latin loan word for atoms (atomi), and that the atomism of Democritus and Epicurus was known from other sources, it’s not altogether clear that De rerum natura was the actual target of Savonarola’s barb.
Following on from this is a fictionalised dramatization of demotic Epicurean grouches and complaints, such as “The preachers who tell us to live in fear and trembling are lying”. These are telepathic creations, not quotations from the written record. Greenblatt’s point is that Epicurean ideas were too subversive, too dangerous, to be written or recorded. It’s an audacious example of an argumentum ex silentio –deducing a positive from a negative, a presence from an absence.
Greenblatt concludes this passage with an observation that “these subversive, Lucretian thoughts percolated and surfaced wherever the Renaissance imagination was at its most lively and intense”. No evidence is provided in support of the remark. It’s semantically vapid. Absolute piffle. The “Renaissance imagination”, in any event, was saturated in Christian dogma. It’s the reason Savonarola came to power in the first place, establishing a kind of democratic theocratic state. His vision of communal sin, communal punishment, and communal renewal found strong purchase in late-15th-century Florence.
The dream of a dangerous De rerum natura that could only spread its subversive message samizdat style is of a piece with Greenblatt’s assertion elsewhere that Lucretius’ poem “for centuries could not without danger be spoken about freely in public”. Which centuries? It was in the 9th century that our extant surviving manuscripts of Lucretius were copied, disseminated, and, presumably, discussed. In the Renaissance? In 1557 the Vatican published its Index Librorum Prohibitorum banning more than 500 books, but Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura was not among them. The Church had more important fish – in the form of unorthodox expressions of Christianity – to flame grill. In a letter of 1557, the future Pope Pius V, an enthusiastic Church disciplinarian and for a time Inquisitor General, instructed fellow inquisitors to beg off Lucretius and other authors he regarded as harmless fabulists.
Lucretius was taught, up until the early 16th century, in Florentine schools. But in 1517, a century after Poggio’s discovery, the Florentine church council explicitly banned the publication and teaching of De rerum natura. The edict targeted “lascivious and impious works” in general, and Lucretius – who “endeavours with all his might to show the mortality of the soul” – in particular. The phrasing of the decree is an acknowledgement that the poet’s considerable verbal powers – totis viribus (“with all its force”) – had in a sense weaponised his heretical vision. The wonder is not that a poem with these qualities was banned from Florentine schools, but that it was taught to adolescents in the first place.
Surveying the critical response to The Swerve in 2011 and considering the broken-backed nature of its central proposition – that one recovered manuscript from Classical antiquity made the renaissance and the modern world – it’s remarkable that the voices of more scholars like John Monfasani, who reviewed the book critically for the Institute of Historical Research, weren’t heard at the time. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Anthony Grafton praised Greenblatt’s “beautiful” book while adding: “We never quite learn, in the end, how the world became modern.” He kindly suggested a paperback edition that might deal “in more detail with the ways in which Epicurus and Lucretius were read — and thus live up more fully to the promise of the book’s subtitle…”
Grafton went on to question, in rather courtly language, the book’s accuracy. “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.” He added: “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.” Grafton’s reluctance to offer a full-blooded critique is surpassingly strange. The Swerve was aimed at a mass market, and what people think about the origins of modernity surely matters.
The upshot of the largely compliant critical response to The Swerve is that many people are inclined to believe that the modern world began when a single copy of a lost Latin poem – materialist, secular, hostile to religion – was discovered and brought to Renaissance Florence by a manuscript hunter named Poggio. And that, to put it bluntly, is bosh.
The rediscovery of Lucretius was certainly felt at some level in the second half of the Florentine Quattrocento, although it had no discernible impact on the intellectual milieu. The impact that Epicureanism did have at this period is as much, perhaps more, to do with the near-simultaneous discovery of Diogenes Laertius. In Book 10 of Diogenes, dedicated to Epicurus, Renaissance intellectuals found an explicit articulation of atomic theory.
This theory had its strongest influence not in the Renaissance but in the Enlightenment, a century or so later, when philosophers such as Frenchman Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655) passed the baton on to Isaac Newton (1642–1727) and Robert Boyle (1627–91), that he had received from Lucretius, Epicurus and Democritus. Gassendi, a mathematician, scientist, and dutiful Catholic priest, was no subversive atheist. He managed, at least to his own satisfaction, to reconcile Epicureanism and Christianity, but his chief conduit to Epicurus was not Lucretius; it was Diogenes Laertius. Gassendi had translated Diogenes’s Life of Epicurus, with its three canonical letters, and it was largely through this source that he was able to reconstruct the Epicurean world view, and pass it on to the philosophers and scientists who really would make the world modern.
Luke Slattery is an Australian writer, editor and critic. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, LA Times, Times Literary Supplement, Philosophy Now, and the Spectator. He is the author of four books of non-fiction including Reclaiming Epicurus (Penguin, London, 2012) and a novel titled Mrs M (Fourth Estate, Sydney, 2017). He is working on a book about Pico Della Mirandola.
Among many favourable reviews of The Swerve were Colin Burrow in the Guardian, Buzzy Jackson in the Boston Globe, John Timpane in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Michael Dirda in the Washington Post (“by no means a bad book”).
In 2011, Anthony Grafton gently signalled disappointment in the New York Review of Books, before more critical reviews appeared in 2012 from John Monfasani in Reviews in History and Jim Hinch in LA Review of Books. In 2013, a forum of medievalists shared their frustrations about the book in Exemplaria,and in 2016 Laura Saetveit Miles gave a robust counterblast on Vox.
A detailed account of the transmission of Lucretius from antiquity to the Renaissance is given in David Butterfield’s The Early Textual History of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (Cambridge UP, 2013); further details about Epicureanism in the 15th century may be found in Catherine Wilson’s Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity (Oxford UP, 2009), Alison Brown’s The Return of Lucretius to Renaissance Florence (Harvard UP, Cambridge, MA), and Ada Palmer’s Lucretius in the Renaissance (Harvard UP, Cambridge, MA, 2014). My own book Reclaiming Epicurus (Penguin, London, 2012) offers a broader survey of Epicureanism, For those wanting something a little different, Karl Marx’s doctorate on Epicurus and Democritus may be read here.