The Swerve: Ancient Manuscripts, A Dangerous Poem, and The Battle Over The Soul

The Book "The Swerve" by Stephen Greenblatt

As I read through the ancient classics, I don’t normally dwell on how it is that this particular epic poem or that drama came to rest in my hands after thousands of years. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Swerve: How The World Became Modern, Stephen Greenblatt offers a detailed view into how the manuscripts that we have today survived, despite all the natural and cultural odds against them. With that also comes the realization that thousands of manuscripts have been lost to us over the millenia, and one can’t help but feel that much more grateful and appreciative of the ancient classics we do have.

But while Greenblatt sheds light on surviving manuscripts in general, he does it by telling the story of a particular poem that was almost lost to us: Lucretius’s On The Nature of Things. And we have Poggio Bracciolini, a 15th century book hunter, to thank for its discovery.

Poggio & The Monasteries

Poggio was an early Renaissance Humanist who traveled to remote monasteries in search of literary treasures within their libraries. He was interested in old manuscripts that were written four or five hundred years earlier, although what he was truly interested in is what had been written hundreds of years earlier still: “[The] scribe, Poggio hoped, was dutifully and accurately copying a still older parchment…If the near miraculous run of good fortune held, the earlier manuscript, long vanished into dust, was in turn a faithful copy of a more ancient manuscript, and that manuscript a copy of yet another.”

Monastic libraries were a gold mine of lost ancient works because “for long centuries monasteries had been virtually the only institutions that cared about books.” It all began with an official rule from the 4th century Coptic saint Pachomius: “The fundamentals of a syllable, the verbs and nouns shall be written for him and even if he does not want to, he shall be compelled to read. (Rule 139)” From then on, all monks were expected to read and, in the 6th century, St. Benedict created an official required period each day for “prayerful reading.”

But before the modern lover of books thinks that this is wonderful for the monks, there was a catch: monks were compelled to read but systemically prohibited from thinking about what they read. They were made to read in silence and generally forbidden to ask questions. This ensured that there was no room for discussion or debate.

What all this means is that two things took place:

  1. monasteries, to follow through on the edict that they must read, built libraries of their own. In a world that cared nothing for books, they collected books from everywhere they could and copied them over and over again to preserve them.
  2. because they were to read and not think, the monks copied books perfectly. Without imbuing words with their own thoughts, there was no risk of their “correcting” books as they copied them (they were strictly forbidden to “correct” mistakes)–they copied things exactly, errors and all. That means that copies of copies of copies over hundreds of years were true, genuine copies of their original source hundreds of years before.

And so we have these monks to thank for having made accurate copies of the ancients that we hold within our hands today.

But, the one thing about this whole process that Greenblatt fails to explain, is why any pagan works were copied. The monasteries were run by the Christian churches, all of whom were very determined to destroy such “dangerous” works. Many pagan works were purposely erased and written over–such palimpsests have been discovered. But since “scribes were not allowed to choose the particular books that they copied,” that means those above them were, at times, specifically ordering copies of pagan works that were abhorrent to the church. I can only assume that those Christian leaders–who, unlike the monks they presided over, had freedom of thought–were secretly sympathetic to such works, and maybe even admiring of them. The monks, copying mindlessly and following orders, were in no position to judge what they were ordered to do.

In the end, we also have some pagan-sympathizing Christian leaders to thank as well.

On The Nature of Things

Poggio had made several important discoveries throughout his book hunting career, but the one to, arguably, cause the most cultural impact was Lucretius’s Poem On The Nature of Things. Because of what it contained, it was a vital catalyst for launching the world out of the Dark Ages and into the Renaissance: “There is no single explanation for the emergence of the Renaissance and the release of the forces that have shaped our own world…But this particular ancient book, suddenly returning to view, made a difference.”

The reason it made such a difference was because it wasn’t just a poem. It was natural philosophy (i.e. scientific philosophy) draped in rich poetic language. It was an empirical way of looking at the world; a way of thinking which states that everything in the world can be explained in natural terms, not supernatural ones. It was a mindset which struck its 15th century readers-entrenched as they were within the church-run European culture-as highly unusual.

The poem was written ~50 BCE, and so most of its scientific explanations miss the mark (although there are a few that, while still not right, begin to get close). But from our modern perspective, it’s not fair to judge the soundness of Lucretius’s scientific hypotheses. What’s more important, is the inquisitive attitude with which such observations of nature were made in order to come up with hypotheses in the first place. That attitude, to Poggio and his contemporaries, was a novel way of looking at the world.

On Epicureanism

The end goal for all the scientific inquiry contained within the poem is really to conquer two things: fear of the gods and fear of death. This is the root of the Epicurean philosophy, as it seeks to relieve its followers from such suffering.

As Lucretius explains within his poem, the Epicureans do believe that the gods exist, but they live in such perfect, divine harmony in the universe that they have no need for us. To think that the gods meddle within our affairs, that the world was intelligently designed for us, or that humanity is special in some way, is egotistical. “There is no master plan, no divine architect, no intelligent design.” In fact, the gods simply created a world made of atoms (just as they, too, are made of atoms), and then left the world alone to the chance movements of atoms determined by the laws of physics. Since the gods exist in some far off place in the universe and do not intervene, there is no point in praying to, sacrificing to, or fearing the gods–they’re not listening!

The other essential Epicurean belief that Lucretius takes pains to explain, is that everything in the world is made up of physical atoms that move in predictable cause-and-effect motions save for the occasional “swerve”: a random swerve of the atom away from the fateful chain of cause and effect, the existence of which necessitates free will. Since everything is composed of such atoms, there are no such things as ethereal objects. This means that the mind and the soul are also made up of atoms that are dependent on their physical attachment to the body to live. Once one dies, one’s mind and soul die as well. Hence there is no eternal punishment to fear; once one is dead, one will cease to care about pleasure or pain. Ultimately, “the core of Lucretius’ poem is a profound, therapeutic meditation on the fear of death…”

The Epicureans then, were monists, not dualists like most of humanity was (and still is). In other words, they believe the soul is a physical part of the body, made of atoms, no different than a nose or an arm. To them there is no body/spirit duality. And this monist, atomic view of the world is what led them into trouble.

The Soul: Christians vs. Epicureans

Christian leaders found Epicureanism to be especially threatening compared to other pagan views, since Epicureans did not believe in the immortality of the soul. The church could not accommodate a worldview that didn’t believe in an afterlife of everlasting reward or punishment. Another point of contention: Epicureans welcome pleasure and avoid pain—the natural things for sentient creatures; Christians conquer pleasure, a vice, through pain and suffering—just as Jesus suffered: there was even a while in the 11th century where “voluntary self-flagellation [became] a central ascetic practice acceptable to the Church.” And so the Christian church attacked Epicureanism, engaging in a smear campaign to paint its philosophy in a false light.

And it worked: today, over a thousand years later, we still associate Epicureanism with drinking, sex, and general debauchery.

But here is what Epicureans really mean by “pleasure”: “‘When we say, then, that pleasure is the goal,’ Epicurus wrote in one of his few surviving letters, ‘we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality.’ The feverish attempt to satisfy certain appetites–‘an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry…sexual love…the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table’–cannot lead to the peace of mind that is the key to enduring pleasure.” In other words, pleasure simply means tranquility.

Survival After The Great Vanishing

For many years, Christians were steeped in the pagan classics. Such an education had been an entrenched part of the culture: “Platonism contributed to Christianity its model of the soul; Aristotelianism its Prime Mover; Stoicism its model for Providence.”

But, slowly, a culture of education was abandoned. Beginning in the fifth century, the great Church Father St. Jerome forced himself to abandon his addiction to such great works as those of Cicero, Pliny, Quintilian, and Virgil: “‘What has Horace to do with the Psalter,’ he wrote to one of his followers, “Virgil with the Gospels and Cicero with Paul?'” Finally, “in the sixth century did Christians venture to celebrate as heroes those who dispensed entirely with education.”

Studying pagan literature–works by “Gentile authors”–came to be viewed as sinful. And so began The Great Vanishing; a great decline in books and literary culture, leading us into the Dark Ages: “Then, not all at once but with the cumulative force of a mass extinction, the whole enterprise came to an end. What looked stable turned out to be fragile, and what had seemed for all time was only for the time being.”

It seems astonishing and wondrous to me, that after such mass persecution of pagans–especially that of Epicureans–and the Great Vanishing, a copy of On The Nature Of Things managed to survive and come down to us, through the hands of Poggio. It was as though a “swerve” occurred on a cultural scale, rushing in the Renaissance and bringing the classics back into the light.

And as I continue to engage in my classical self-education, I will keep all this in mind and try not to take any of it for granted.