I have thought and argued, for some time now, that we are the same people that we always were – i.e., that aside from various technical innovations, were we to meet someone from ancient times we would have more in common as human beings than we might think. After all, if we got into a time machine and went back only 100 back-to-back 60-year life spans, we would find ourselves in 4,000 something B.C. Only three of those sets us down in 1836.
Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve validates this point in spades. The roots of our own era had its beginnings in a poem written in the first century A.D., as we count our years. Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, On the Nature of Things, (according to Greenblatt) laid it out this way:
The stuff of the universe is an infinite number of atoms moving randomly through space, like dust motes in a sunbeam, colliding, hooking together, forming complex structures, breaking apart again, in a ceaseless process of creation and destruction.
Lucretius was an Epicurean, and the book provides an interesting and, to my mind, solid defense of that much-maligned philosophy. Hint – it’s not for hedonists. As to the meaning of “the swerve,” I don’t think I can do better, in my own words, than this paragraph from the Wiki:
“The title and the subtitle of the book are explained in the author's preface. "The Swerve" refers to a key conception in the ancientatomistic theories according to which atoms moving through the void are subject to clinamen: while falling straight through the void, they are sometimes subject to a slight, unpredictable swerve. Greenblatt uses it to describe the history of Lucretius' own book: "The reappearance of his poem was such a swerve, an unforeseen deviation from the direct trajectory—in this case, toward oblivion—on which that poem and its philosophy seemed to be traveling." The recovery of the ancient text is seen as its rebirth, i.e. a "renaissance". Greenblatt's claim is that it was a 'key moment' in a larger "story.. of how the world swerved in a new direction.
The book recounts the recovery of the text through the determination of a papal clerk, Poggio Bracciolini, trudging the dusty roads of 15th Century Europe, searching doggedly through musty archives of ancient monasteries, for lost gems of the ancient world. The treasure hunt alone is worth the read.
De Rerum Natura was nearly lost again when it was rejected wholesale by the Church, not so much for the atomic theory but for what the Church saw as its Epicurean hedonism and disregard of heavenly beings of any kind. Lucretius himself did not so much argue against the existence of the Gods – in fact, he opens the poem with an invocation to Venus – as he does insist that they really could care less about us. As Greenblatt puts it,
Imagining that the gods actually care about the fate of humans or about their ritual practices is a particularly vulgar insult – as if divine beings depended for their happiness on our mumbled words or good behavior…Nothing that we can do (or not do) could possibly interest them.
Still, looking at the almost miraculous discovery and continual re-discovery of De Rerum Natura, who’s to say that every once in a while the Gods don’t toss us a crumb or two. If only to amuse themselves watching us fight over it.