Saturday, October 4, 2014

THE SWERVE by Stephen Greenblatt (non-fic)

Two thousand years ago a Roman philosopher poet named Lucretius wrote a masterpiece of poetry called, "De Rerum Natura," "On the Nature of Things."  For over 1000 years this beautiful, lyrical poem was lost to the world until Poggio Bracciolini discovered the lost manuscript in a German monastery.  This is the fascinating story that Stephen Greenblatt, a Harvard historian, has chosen to write about.  His story is one of intreague, a quest, philosophy, humanity, and scandal.  Greenblatt has written a number of entertaining non-fiction books.  You may remember "Will in the World" about Shakespeare which came out several years ago.  Greenblatt subjects are varied and always readable.

Poggio was a medieval scribe and scholar of the law who worked his way though the system of the Roman clerical world. Eventually he became secretary to more than one Pope, the most famous of them, John XXIII.  Pope John was a corrupt and venal man who was eventually deposed by a decision of the Council of Constance which voted in favor of a second Pope who was residing in Avignon.  Poggio was in Constance, Germany when he found himself out of a job in 1417.  Being an intellectual interested in ancient manuscripts, he began a quest to find any undiscovered writing from the early Roman era.  Poggio was well-known enough as a master of manuscript writing himself that his name opened monastery doors, and he was given the opportunity to search among rooms of preserved writings.  Among other talents, Poggio was responsible for copyists to move away from the intricacies of Gothic handwriting to a more legible style of penmanship.  In one of the many monasteries he visited, Poggio hit pay-dirt.  He came upon Lucretius' lost poem and recognized it as valuable and important.  He also knew because of its content, it was in danger of being destroyed.

Even in his own times, Lucretius' subject matter was scandalous, and it certainly went against all medieval Christian teaching.  He believed the sun circled the earth; he believed in evolution; and, most amazingly, Lucretius theorized that the world and everything in it, was made up of tiny atoms in constant motion which formed complex structures when they collided against each other.  He also was a follower of the philosophy of Epicurus who believed in living a full life, and that included philanthropy and strong friendships, not just the meaning which has come down to us of eat, drink and be merry.  Though it is true that both Epicurus and Lucretius believed that there is no life after death, and there is no divine intervention in the affairs of mankind.

"De Rerum Natura" is made up of six books of beautiful poetic language.  Because of Poggio's efforts 50 manuscripts from the 15th century survive today.  He had the original copied over and over by himself and others who believed in the value of preservation.  When Herculaneum was excavated, a burnt copy was found in the ruins.  Thomas Jefferson had several copies as did Galileo and Darwin.

This is such a readable book, if you have any interest in history and philosophy, you will want to delve into Greenblatt's narrative.  I recommend this book to all readers.

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