Early in the 15th Century in a monastery locked away from view and the public, a secular servant of the church touches a manuscript. And the world swerves into modern times.
In this fascinating read Stephen Greenblatt does a masterful job discussing the manuscript the book hunter found and why it changed the world ever after.
Prior to reading The Swerve I had no idea there were book publishers in antiquity. No notion that the learned people in Greek and Roman cultures collected manuscripts. No realization that ancient Rome had at one time 28 public libraries.
Read The Swerve if for nothing more than to fill some of the blank spots in your understanding of ancient western culture, should you have any.
Yet there is far more.
The author depicts how our hero, Poggio Bracciolini, becomes an expert book hunter, part of the tribe of self-appointed sleuths searching the dark spots of Europe to recover works from centuries prior. How he managed simultaneously to rise to papal secretary without taking the vows of the priesthood is an adventure in and of itself. Blessed with intelligence and beautiful handwriting (before the advent of Guttenberg’s press this was a tremendous advanatge) Poggio combines these skills to become a integral part of the papal curia or court, rising to its highest level, literally at the right hand of the Pope.
Yet in discovering the hardly known work, On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura), Poggio shakes the foundation of the very institution he works for. For all time hence.
Poggio’s desire for the truths of antiquity lead him on a life-long search for forgotten works and in his quest he alters the path of society.
In the first Century BCE, Lucretius, a Roman philosopher, devotes six untitled volumes to explaining Epicurean philosophy. In this time before Christ some five centuries before Christianity begins its ascendance in the Western world, people of antiquity are in fear of the wrath of the gods. On the Nature of Things explains in detail why these fears are not only unnecessary but why in fact nature is the ruler of the physical world. Thus there is no need for fear – or discussion – of any god.
In order for the modern Christian church to begin its rise to dominance such notions cannot be allowed to coexist with its own canon. So the powers that be commence a thousand year campaign to reengineer the ruling class by removing Epicureanism and any allied thought from the world. And the books they’re written in disappear as do discussions of their thoughts from salons all across the settled world.
Mr Greenblatt’s intense and well-documented study shows the ancient argument in the context of its own times, and more importantly, the unending swerve that follows Poggio’s discovery as these arguments were rediscovered and revisited in modernity.
An exciting and illuminating work and, for me, a terribly thought-provoking.