Stephen Greenblatt’s Pulitzer Prize Winning Book “The Swerve” a Joy.

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The Swerve

The title of  Stephen Greenblatt’s latest book The Swerve, which won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 2012, is a reference to what is arguably the single most extraordinary idea human beings have every had.

It charts the life of Poggio, a 15th century book hunter who chanced upon the only surviving copy of Lucretius’ justly famed poem De Rerum Natura, or On the Nature Of Things.

Aside from being a magnificent poem in its own right, it is also the most complete description we have of the philosophy of Epicurus, who Lucretius was a devout follower of.

Epicurus was a 4th century B.C Greek philosopher, who became increasingly convinced that we fail to live our lives to their fullest because we’re paralysed by our fear of death. Or more precisely, of what happens to us after. So he wrote, famously:

Where we are, death is not, Where death is, we are not.

The soul, he declared, is as mortal as the body. And whatever Gods there are would hardly be bothered one way or the other with what we mere mortals got up to here on Earth. He’d been able to arrive at these ideas because he himself had been a follower of the 5th century Athenian Democritus.

Plato and Aristotle

Plato and Aristotle

If you cut bread up into smaller and smaller pieces, the Greeks had wondered, what happens? Can you chop it up indefinitely, into smaller and smaller bits of bread? Or is there a basic stuff, that can be chopped up no further?

It was from this that Democritus formulated his extraordinary idea; his atomic theory.

Not only is everything made up of atomic matter – atom is just Greek for indivisible. But absolutely everything in the universe is made up of the same basic atomic matter. Trees, people, the planets, sand, everything was and is made up of the same  stuff.

By convention hot, by convention cold. In reality, atoms and the void.

How on Earth do you look around you and logically conclude that everything in the universe is made up of the same, invisibly small but identically indivisible stuff?! Before microscopes or telescopes, and with nothing more than your mind and a few equally curious contemporaries to bounce ideas off of?

It took science over two thousand years to catch up with this idea. And it’s hardly Democritus’ fault if John Dalton then used the term “atom” in the 19th century to describe the wrong stuff.

Atoms can be divided. They have at their centre a nucleus, and that can be divided into protons and neutrons. And they in turn can be divided up into the quarks that form them. So we should have saved “atom” up and used it for what we now call “quarks”.

It’s Democritus’ atomic theory that banishes superstition from our lives by insisting that everything, even our souls, are material, and made up of the same, basic stuff.

But it also does something else. It describes a mechanistic universe, determined by universal laws. And a deterministic universe does not allow for free will. This troubled Epicurus hugely. And so he came up with a slight modification; the swerve.

Will In The World

Will In The World

Atoms do not come together because of the laws of gravity and motion, he said. Predictably in other words. They swerve. So matter is produced randomly. And it’s this that allows for free will.

The Swerve is Greenblatt’s follow up to his magisterial book on Shakespeare Will In The World. Which is not merely the best book on Shakespeare, but the only one you’ll ever need to read. And this is equally good.

It describes how the Middle Ages was transformed into the Renaissance. And it does so by giving us a window on 1st century B.C Rome – Lucretius was a contemporary of Cicero and Catullus, and was admired by Virgil and Ovid. And on 5th and 4th century B.C. Athens. Which is of course where the renaissance came from. And it manages to be effortlessly erudite and gloriously readable. Read it.

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Trackbacks

  1. […] The 4th cen­tury Greek philoso­pher Epi­cu­rus was extolled by the Roman poet Lucretius in the first cen­tury BC. And the redis­cov­ery of the only copy of Lucretius’ On the Nature Of Things, and there­fore our only source on Epi­cu­rus, was bril­liantly charted by Stephen Green­blatt in his won­der­ful The Swerve, reviewed ear­lier here. […]

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