The Swerve

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?

Can books be forever?

I’ve started reading The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt, author of Will in the World, a book I enjoyed very much. (How did they come up with a price of $9.43 for the Kindle edition of this thing?  Did someone just pick a number out of a hat?)

The Swerve is about the discovery, at the dawn of the Renaissance, of a long-forgotten copy of the great poem De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”) by the ancient Roman writer Lucretius, who otherwise would have been totally lost to history.  The book has a lot to say about science and religion, which you may have noticed are topics of some interest to me.  But for now I just want to talk about how it relates to my post “Is the Internet Forever?”

Greenblatt talks about how few books have come down to us from the ancient Greek and Roman world.  And, until some manuscript fragments were found at Herculaneum (next door to Pompeii), all we had were copies:

Apart from the charred papyrus fragments recovered in Herculaneum, there are no surviving contemporary manuscripts from the ancient Greek and Roman world.  Everything that has reached us is a copy, most often very far removed in time, place, and culture from the original. And these copies represent only a small portion of the works even of the most celebrated writers of antiquity.

Depressing.  Greenblatt recounts the sacking of the great Library at Alexandria by Christian mobs in the early fifth century.  This is also the subject of the really fine movie Agora, which pretty much disappeared in the US.  (What genius thought a movie that presented Christians as a bunch of crazed book-burners would be a box-office winner in this country?)

Anyway, this brings us to a guy I used to work with named Brewster Kahle.  He subsequently made a lot of money at a startup and is using it to digitally preserve old web sites and lots of other stuff at  Now, the New York Times reports, he wants to save physical books as well.  So he has a huge warehouse in California where he hopes to collect 10 million physical items, mostly discarded from libraries or personal collections–just in case.

“We must keep the past even as we’re inventing a new future,” [Kahle] said. “If the Library of Alexandria had made a copy of every book and sent it to India or China, we’d have the other works of Aristotle, the other plays of Euripides. One copy in one institution is not good enough.”

Is Brewster nuts?  Some people quoted in the article don’t sound especially enthusiastic about his project.  But it seems to me there are worse ways to spend your Internet millions.  Lucretius would probably think so, too.