Last time we checked in with The Swerve, we were complaining about typos. I’ve now finished the book, and I enjoyed it (maybe because I didn’t encounter any more typos). The plot is straightforward: a 15th-century Italian humanist named Poggio went in search of ancient manuscripts, and in an old monastery he came across De Rerum Natura by the ancient Roman poet Lucretius. The poem celebrates the philosophy of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, which was not a good fit (to say the least) with Christianity. The rediscovered poem then plays a role in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment: it helps Montaigne write his essays; it helps Jefferson write the Declaration of Independence. (It also helps Giordano Bruno get burned at the stake.) The Western world swerved from its accustomed course, and the poem was part of the reason why.
The book could have been shorter–I started skimming when Greenblatt went into the details of Poggio’s employment history at the Vatican and elsewhere. But he could also have brought the story forward to the present. Here is Greenblatt’s summary of what Epicurus and Lucretius believed:
Everything is made of invisible particles.
The elementary particles of matter are eternal, infinite in number but limited in shape and size. All particles are in motion in an infinite void.
The universe has no creator or designer.
Everything comes into being as a result of a “swerve”–a random, indeterminate change in motion that changes everything.
The swerve is the source of free will.
Nature ceaselessly experiments.
The universe was not created for or about humans.
Humans are not unique.
Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival.
The soul dies.
There is no afterlife.
Death is nothing to us.
All organized religions are superstitious delusions.
Religions are invariably cruel.
There are no angels, demons, or ghosts.
The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.
The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion.
Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder.
Well, some of the science is wrong, but it’s closer to the truth than what Thomas Aquinas had to offer. And 600 years after Poggio rediscovered Lucretius, Richard Dawkins and others are making many of those same points; and if they aren’t getting burned at the stake, maybe it’s because their critics lack the power. They face many of the same arguments that were lodged against Epicurus and Lucretius: How can people be moral without religion and the fear of Hell? How can you view the universe with wonder if there is no God behind it and in it?
If Rick Santorum is a legitimate candidate for president, how much have we really swerved?