How the Renaissance began
The winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction, this book was recommended to me during our Sicily trip a year ago, in the course of a rather splendid dinner-table conversation. It tells the story of Poggio Bracciolini, an Italian humanist who worked at the papal curia and who, during the upheavals after the Council of Constance, sought to distract himself by going book-hunting in the monasteries of Germany. Poggio dreamed of finding previously unknown classical texts in these monasteries, preserved by chance through years of copying as part of the monastic discipline. He and his fellow humanists had already uncovered fragments of letters and treatises, but the discovery that Poggio would make in 1417 would come to have a powerful impact on the very roots of Western philosophy: the full text of De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) by Lucretius.
Greenblatt conjures up the thrill of discovering these ancient texts, and the lottery of their survival. As a book-lover I found it almost distressing to think how little has survived, whether through natural disintegration, periodic cultural cleansing, or the destruction of the Library of Alexandria… Even texts that managed to survive to (almost) the modern day have been lost. I winced on reading that the earliest excavators of the Villa of the Papyri, at Herculaneum, assumed that the little black cylinders they’d found were Roman briquettes, and threw a few hundred of them on a fire to keep themselves warm. They were actually preserved Roman books. (Just think what went up in that smoke! It’s enough to make you mad.)
Greenblatt’s point is that it’s miraculous anything has survived at all: most of what we do have is thanks to the anonymous copyists of the European monasteries. I’m still not entirely clear on why, if vellum was so expensive, the monks chose to use it copying contentious pagan works rather than texts on Christian theology; but that’s a minor query. And it’s important to put Poggio’s story in some kind of historical context. For most readers, Poggio Bracciolini probably feels like a figure lost in the mists of time, discovering texts just as misty and just as lost. It’s important to remember, however, just how much time separated Poggio from the authors he was discovering. Poggio was unearthing books which had survived for more than fourteen hundred years – it would be like a modern academic discovering previously unknown texts from the middle of the 6th century. No wonder he was delighted.
So what was in this poem that Poggio had discovered? The first thing to emphasise was that it was actually the elegant quality of the Latin, as much as the contents, that excited him; because the contents themselves were rather troubling. Lucretius’ poem was based on the philosophy of Epicurus, whom I’ve always imagined as a rather jolly fat man who spent a lot of time throwing very good parties. But it seems I’m fundamentally wrong. Epicurus believed that pleasure was the highest pursuit of life, certainly, but he argued that pleasure was gained through moderation – not through an excess of food, drink and sex but through a measure of each, in a life enriched by good company and conversation. He believed that it was important for us to enjoy ourselves in life because this was the only chance we got: there was no afterlife; no divine plan; no reward or punishment. On the contrary, our lives were part of the glorious natural process of the universe.
Following Epicurus, Lucretius explained that everything in the universe, ourselves included, is formed from tiny particles called atoms. These come together to form our bodies and everything around us and, after we die, our bodies dissolve and our atoms disperse and are absorbed into other things. Nothing is eternal except the atoms themselves: the building blocks of life. Thus there is no point in living in fear of divine judgement. We must live the best lives that we can, free of fear instilled by religion and free of fear of death. What is the point of being afraid of death, when it is merely a cessation of being: a natural process ordained by the laws of the universe? It is nothing to fear. It was a powerful and (from a modern perspective) rather compelling argument. Lucretius didn’t actually deny the existence of the gods: he just thought that they were unlikely to bother themselves with the insignificant, trivial details of mortal life. But you could certainly read it as an argument for atheism; and that’s why its rediscovery, in the midst of a devoutly Christian Europe, posed a danger.
I would argue that the subtitle chosen for the UK edition of this book is actually rather misleading (the subtitle of the American edition is ‘How the world became modern’, which sums up Greenblatt’s argument much more neatly). Greenblatt specifically does not argue that the discovery of De rerum natura was responsible for kickstarting the Renaissance. The Renaissance had actually already begun, if you count the early humanists like Petrarch and Salutati, whose engagement with classical ideas was fuelled by a passionate desire to transform ancient codes into a modern philosophy for living. This active engagement with the text died away in Poggio’s generation, by which point the humanists had become more pedantic, too fixated on meaning and style and reconciling errors, and not as committed to implementing their discoveries in civic life. Perhaps that’s because they were more alert to the dangers inherent in doing so.
The world wasn’t quite ready for Lucretius when it was discovered. Its central message was too radical for a society which was still deeply religious; and, although manuscript copies were circulating in the 15th century, Lucretius was very carefully admired for his elegant poetry rather than the inflammatory content of that poetry. He was put to one side by the Florentine humanists of the 1470s and 1480s, who found Neoplatonism a much less incendiary and more convenient way to reconcile an admiration for antiquity with a passionate commitment to Christian faith. In the following century there are hints of a fuller engagement with Lucretius’ philosophy in the works of Machiavelli, who managed to hint that religion could be effectively used as a weapon of fear – but even he didn’t dare take the argument to its fullest extent. Greenblatt explains that Thomas More, admiring the Epicurean claim that the pursuit of pleasure was the highest good for a community, created a hybrid kind of Utopia in which his citizens worked together towards a state of happiness, but in which it was obligatory to believe in the rewards or punishment of an afterlife. (More had a point: how do you prevent a pleasure-seeking society from descending into anarchy? He didn’t believe that laws and customs and social pressures would be enough to control people. It was necessary to keep the fear of divine judgement hanging over people’s heads so that they would feel compelled to behave well.)
So how can we honestly say that Lucretius sparked off the Renaissance? It seems to me that Lucretius was actually more responsible for the Enlightenment: a slow-burning fuse that quietly fizzled beneath the intellectual life of Renaissance Europe until its time was right. There was no way that these ideas could be expressed in Counter-Reformation Europe, as one man discovered to his cost. Giordano Bruno comes out of these pages as a staggeringly precocious figure, and one I’m determined to learn more about (time to attempt Frances Yates again, I think). Interestingly, he published many of his most daring arguments while he was in England in the 1580s – one of the only places in Europe where he was protected from the reach of the Inquisition. He denied Divine Providence, pointing out that it was ridiculous to expect God to busy himself in the trivial minutiae of everyday life. Life has rules and order, but these are natural laws built into the way the universe works, and not the active engagement of a divinity. He argued that divinity, if it exists, is within ourselves. And he argued that Copernicus was right in saying that the Earth orbited the Sun.
But Bruno took it one step further – astonishingly, for someone writing in the 16th century, he argued that even the Sun wasn’t the centre of the universe. Every star that we see in the sky, he argued, was another sun and there would be other worlds in which the conjunction of atoms would result in other creatures and civilisations. We are not the centre of the universe; we are not the beings for whom the universe has been made; on the contrary we’re part of something massive and thrilling. Of course, this was all very forward-thinking. Too forward-thinking. Bruno was burned at the stake on his return to Italy, but the ideas had been articulated – and Greenblatt looks forward to Montaigne and Descartes and Darwin, to look at how Lucretius’ ideas became a central aspect of European thought and enabled the scientific and philosophical advancements of the Enlightenment.
I’ve become hugely carried away by this. It’s intelligent and erudite but also very readable. I was never a philosophy student and to be honest I’m easily daunted by it, but Greenblatt explores the topic so clearly that I found it very easy to follow. There were just a couple of things that jarred with me: the chapters (particularly six and seven) jumped around in time and didn’t always flow logically from the previous ones. Some of the colour plates weren’t directly relevant – rather than photos of the bronze statues from the Villa of the Papyri, gorgeous though they are, I’d have preferred to see photos of some of the recovered texts. And I would have liked to learn a bit more about the contents of the poem. But perhaps Greenblatt has very cleverly crafted the book so that you’re left itching to read De rerum natura itself. I’m tempted.
Update: I thought I should share some information that’s come through to me since I posted this. A friend has alerted me to the academic controversy sparked off by The Swerve, which of course I was completely unaware of. If you’re considering reading this, you should perhaps make yourself aware of the caveats. Here are a couple of links you can follow: a reaction to the book’s prize-winning success at In the Middle, which offers links to other medievalists’ responses to Greenblatt’s theories. And then this more thorough critique at Armarium Magnum. Despite all this I still think that The Swerve is a good way to ease yourself into the period and orientate yourself. And I wish that these critiques had spent a little more time explaining what actually happened in their opinion, and less simply ridiculing Greenblatt’s arguments. However, it’s a salutary reminder that a book can dazzle and be a good read without necessarily being reliable history (in the opinion of the scholars cited here). Obviously this just makes me doubly, triply eager to get more of a sense of what you thought if you’ve read it.