Stephen Greenblatt, perhaps best known for his Shakespeare biography Will in the World, now takes readers on a journey to the philosophical heart of the Renaissance in his latest book, The Swerve.
At the center of your book is the Roman philosopher and poet Lucretius and his poem De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”). What led you to focus on this poem?
I’m fascinated by the fact that the great ancient speculations about the nature of the material world—the existence of atoms, the creation of the universe through random collisions, the absence of a providential design, the absurdity of any fear of the gods—were carried by a magnificent poem.
What do you mean by “the swerve”?
Lucretius uses the term (his favorite Latin word for it was clinamen, as in the root of English words like inclination, declination, etc.) to describe a shift in the direction of the atoms. It only takes the tiniest such swerve—as in the famous example of the wings of butterfly—to bring about enormous and unexpected changes. For Lucretius the existence of such swerves is what makes human freedom possible—since otherwise, everything would move in lockstep.
The Swerve takes up in many ways from your groundbreaking earlier book, Renaissance Self-Fashioning. What led you to write this new book now?
You are certainly right that in one way or another I’ve been thinking for many years about the strange events that lead from one cultural epoch to another. How does a whole culture alter its deepest assumptions about the world? What happens to change the way men and women live their lives? Such questions are at once tantalizing and very difficult to answer—so I’ve returned to them again and again.
The other hero of your book is a little-known Florentine notary and papal secretary named Poggio Bracciolini. How did Poggio discover Lucretius’ manuscript, and how did he preserve it?
Poggio was a book-hunter, the greatest of his age, perhaps the greatest who ever lived. He discovered a 9th-century manuscript of the poem in the library of a German monastery. He ordered a scribe to transcribe it and send the transcription to Florence, where it was copied more carefully by a learned friend.
Did you follow in Poggio’s footsteps in your research? What were some of your favorite places for research?
I did spend time in some of the places dear to Poggio: his birthplace Terranuova (now Terranuova Bracciolini), though that is now, thanks to World War II damage, a sad relic of what it once was; nearby Arezzo; his beloved Florence (including Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library); the Vatican. My favorite place for the writing was the elegant library of the American Academy in Rome, on the top of the Janiculum Hill overlooking the whole city.
Did you learn anything that surprised you while writing The Swerve?
I was constantly surprised: by the way in which ancient books were copied; by the organization of the great classical libraries; by the monastic cult of pain; by the vitriolic loathing of early humanists; by the intellectual daring of a few Renaissance readers of Lucretius who were willing to risk persecution and death.
You first read Lucretius on a summer vacation from college. What led you to pick up the poem after all these years?
I had actually had it in mind to work on Lucretius for many years, but I always held back because I felt I did not know enough. I still don’t, but I knew that I was running out of time!
How has “On the Nature of Things” influenced the thinking of writers and artists beyond the Renaissance?
Probably the most direct influence was on the writers and artists of the Enlightenment, people like Diderot or Voltaire or Locke who were able to encounter the excitement of the poem without so intense a fear of imprisonment and death. But the influence has extended well beyond the 18th century. For example, in the modern era, Lucretius was a powerful influence on the great Portuguese poet Pessoa, the Italian novelist and short story writer Italo Calvino, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges and the French intellectual Michel Foucault.
What does Lucretius have to say to us today?
I will not try to say in a sentence or two everything that it has taken me a whole book to write. But perhaps at the center of what Lucretius has to say—to me at least—is a calm acceptance of mortality conjoined with the enhanced experience of wonder and pleasure.
What’s next for you?
At the moment I’m writing a short book about Shakespeare and the idea of life—a book influenced more by contemporary evolutionary biology than by the ancient Lucretius.