It may look to us in 2011 as though the icons of the modern world are automobiles, airplanes and iPhones, or, indeed, girls in short shorts, boys on snowboards and an unprecedented drought in Texas.
But Stephen Greenblatt is here to tell us that these physical manifestations of modernism all grow from a single seed, a manuscript of a lengthy poem by Titus Lucretius Carus (about 100 BC to about 55 BC), titled De Rerum Natura ( On the Nature of Things), lost in the early Christian era and unearthed in a southern German monastery in 1417 by an out-of-work papal scribe named Poggio Bracciolini.
Bracciolini was a classicist, not a modernist, and, as Greenblatt puts it, "he was unleashing something that threatened his whole mental universe." How Bracciolini came to the monastery, and what it was he unleashed forms the riveting (and, for non-specialists, entirely clear and beautifully written) narrative of The Swerve.
Greenblatt is an academic superstar, the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard, and the author of many books, most important a sturdy biography of William Shakespeare, Will in the World (2005), which attempts to set what we know of Shakespeare's own life into the context of what we know of his era. His most recent work (2010) is Shakespeare's Freedom, a set of essays about Shakespeare's ways of challenging the orthodoxies of his era.
Though Greenblatt is not a classicist, it is not surprising that he has taken up the turning point between the medieval period and the modern period and mastered the facts so thoroughly that his book is not an essay, but a vivid story, or set of stories, first that of Bracciolini, but also that of his patron, the disgraced and defrocked Pope John XXIII (no, that isn't a misprint; he is now known as an "anti-Pope"), Lucretius himself and his inspiration, the Greek philosopher, Epicurus (347 BC-270 BC).
It is no coincidence that Bracciolini, Lucretius, and Epicurus were all self-made men, not born into the upper classes of their respective eras. They understood and contemplated power from the outside, and were made to suffer for that. Dry and academic this book certainly is not.
We forget what it was to live in the medieval world; not only did every respectable person visibly belong to some hierarchical organization, such as the church, the nobility or a guild, "curiosity was said by the Church to be a mortal sin. To indulge it was to risk an eternity in hell."
But Bracciolini was persistently curious, about classical manuscripts, about how to get ahead, about penmanship and literary style. He negotiated his masterless condition skillfully enough to stay out of trouble, and he talked his way into many monasteries where monks had been copying and storing ancient works for hundreds of years. Greenblatt makes sure that the reader understands not only styles of handwriting in the ancient and medieval worlds, but also the differing qualities of papyrus, parchment and vellum (made from the hides of stillborn calves), and also that the reader can picture how the system for copying manuscripts in medieval monasteries operated.
He also details the ideas put forth in De Rerum Natura. To us, the notion that "Everything is made of invisible particles" is a routine part of our education; in 1417, it was profound heresy. We easily accept that "All particles are in motion and in an infinite void," though, thanks to Newton, Einstein and many others, we have a more populated sense of that void.
Lucretius also asserted that "The universe has no creator or designer," punishable by death then, but acceptable now, at least in some places. Perhaps Lucretius's own experience taught him that "All organized religions are superstitious delusions" and, more important, that "religions are invariably cruel," as demonstrated by the core myth of all the religions Lucretius knew, a parent's sacrifice of his (or her) own child (Agamemnon and Iphegenia, Abraham and Isaac).
Lucretius understood and explained how withdrawing drama and personal agency from nature freed humans to contemplate the universe, accept death as normal and make the most of life. To read Greenblatt's explanation of these 2,100-year-old ideas is surprisingly moving – they add up to a logical but still unorthodox world view that feels hopeful as well as peaceful. But we all know what happened next: not only science, but more religious wars, fed, indeed, by the technologies that science made possible.
Still, the lesson of The Swerve is hopeful – that anything can happen, including but not limited to a 37-year-old man losing his job, venturing into the treacherous unknown and coming up with the only remaining copy of the one poem that changes history.
Jane Smiley is the author of Private Life and many other works of fiction and nonfiction for adults and young adults.