in conversation with Alex Shephard

Stephen Greenblatt’s latest work, The Swerveexamines the implications of the rediscovery of Lucretius’ poem On the Nature of Things by Poggio Bracciolini, an Italian Papal bureaucrat, in the 15th century. The book was recently nominated for a National Book Award. Greenblatt, one of the most important figures of the past 40 years of literary theory, argues that the radical ideas contained in Lucretius’ poem — such as a universe without the existence of providence; that religion is damaging and absurd; that matter is made up of tiny particles called “atoms,” among other things — jump-started the Renaissance. He also argues that the poem ultimately (and subtly) influenced a number of important figures, including Galileo and Thomas Jefferson.

There should be more books like this in the world — a well-researched (the notes alone are fascinating) accounting of popular history, by a historian.We need more Stephen Greenblatts in the world. I talked to Greenblatt on the phone about 15th-century social networks, satire in the Catholic church, and studying culture as a dynamic, rather than static, force.

What first drew you to the story of Lucretius and Poggio?

About 15 years ago, I was invited to a conference in Scotland about books. (All I remember from the conference is that it had a whisky tasting!) [While there,] I began to think about things in movement: what if you imagined culture not as something rooted deeply in the ground, occasionally disrupted, but as being constantly in movement? That the normal state was mobility, and that every once in a while, things quieted down for a while and stayed where they were? That the normal condition was becoming, not being?

I wondered what would be an emblem of that; something that would suggest what was at stake, in mobility and circulation. I didn’t know much about Lucretius — just that it was a text that hadn’t survived from the ancient world. It had gone under for a while and then come back. So I dug around to find out who found it. Then I began to ferret around about [Poggio] and became interested in him.

I was amazed at the amount of primary documents that are available. When it comes to Poggio, there’s very little speculation in the book — you were able to look through hundreds of letters to piece together his experience. Was that uncommon for the period? 

He was a kind of self-promoter, truth be told, but he was also a very passionate letter writer. Lots of people were — Petrarch, in the previous century, gave everyone the itch to write constantly. He had a circle of correspondents. Without pushing the parallels, there is some parallel to the networking of the world that you live in; that we all live in now. In fact, in the 14th century, with Petrarch, you have the creation of the idea of the network – the network of correspondents, the network of people checking in with each other and circulating ideas. So there’s a kind of comical connection between all of this and Full Stop.

What attracted you to Poggio? Did you see him as something of a kindred spirit, with his interest in the distant past?

I certainly don’t have fantasies of living back in the 14th or 15th century, let alone [ancient Rome] — though that may be worth indulging, because of that fantasy series, Rome. (Even that, I don’t dream of.)

Ever since I was quite young I’ve been fascinated by the idea that something would hit you — not just that you would find something, but that something would find you. My whole experience of what matters in literature, why it’s worth spending grown-up time on, is that you can feel that even though you know that this thing was written long before you existed by someone who couldn’t possibly have imagined your existence (let alone know you), that nonetheless it was written for you. If a work of literature works, it works that way, in my opinion. I think Poggio had his own very powerful version of that.

I love that Poggio and his associates would refer to a text as a living thing or, in some cases, as the person itself.

You’re not supposed to think that the text is a person, but that the person is a text!

You spoke earlier about being interested in art that captures the sense of human experience as being in a state of becoming, rather than being. How does Lucretius’s On The Nature of Things represent that vision?

It’s a philosophical poem, so it captures it as a magnificent, overarching vision. That is its account of the world — that everything is constantly in motion; nothing is still. There’s no scientific experiment (in our sense) behind it, but there are lots of things that fascinated [Lucretians]. One thing was looking at dust motes in a beam of sunlight: what looks like a completely still scene is actually filled with hundreds of thousands of particles in motion. From there, they made the huge leap to: “That’s what this table is, that’s what we are, that’s what everything is.”

There’s also some sense that the poem, because of its inherent interest in breath — in speaking and rhythm — is itself linked to the idea of movement.

In the early days of Christianity, the Church didn’t view Epicureanism as much of a threat. That changed, however, in the 4th century, in what you describe as a “moment when the pursuit of pain triumphed over the pursuit of pleasure.” What did post-Constantine Christian leaders find to be so abhorrent about Epicureanism?

There were always certain aspects of Epicureanism that could resonate for Christians. Early Christians didn’t reject the body; on the contrary, their religion is based on incarnation. They made an important move when they rejected the idea that you could mutilate yourself — that you could, for example, castrate yourself as a way of fighting the temptations of the flesh. They accepted the idea of your bodily existence. The Bible’s a complicated document, but nothing in the canonical books of the Christian Bible – and even more, the Jewish Bible — suggests that you have to hate the body and reject the flesh. So the Epicurean embrace of pleasure wouldn’t, by itself, immediately call up warning signals.

[However] Epicrueanism carried with it a set of propositions that were totally unacceptable from the very beginning: a rejection of providence; a rejection of the idea that the soul survives the body; a refusal of belief that the world was created by a providential, creator god.

Not only a rejection, but also a focus on the absurdity of many of those beliefs. 

They sensed it was incompatible with nature. Plus, as Christianity developed, the prestige of the monastic communities – which were fundamentally ascetic communities –created a shift toward the valorization of pain. There was a very intense focus on Jesus’ physical sufferings and an attempt to understand those physical sufferings as bearing a crucial burden of meaning for human believers. There was an attempt to reconstruct, in your own flesh, something of those pains. Like all of the major religions, Christianity is fantastically complicated, with lots and lots of Catholic arms, but there is a very powerful, central rise —all during the Middle Ages — of this penitential idea of life on Earth, which is totally incompatible with the pursuit of pleasure.

Despite working within the Catholic Church, Poggio and his friends seem, in many ways, like proto-Secular Humanists. Is that a fair characterization?

Poggio was secular in the sense that he didn’t take religious orders. But not secular humanist in the modern sense. Poggio was a good Catholic. As part of his position as a papal courtier he would have taken Communion every day. It’s a mistake to imagine that this is the rise of a godless universe. At least not any kind of direct way – everything is indirect in life. Lucretius himself believed that there were gods — or said he did.

For me, the fascination is not the rise of secular humanism as such, but the extraordinary notion of the survival of fundamentally intolerable, unacceptable ideas during periods of quite ruthless persecution. How do they make it? And not only how do they make it during the very, very long periods during which the text disappears and somehow survives as a ticking bomb on a monastery shelf, but how does it survive after 1417 when it comes back, carrying a set of propositions that are utterly unacceptable — more unacceptable than they were in the early years of Christianity?

That’s why my book ends with Jefferson, not with Einstein or Marx or Freud or Darwin — all of whom lie in the future, but at a time when the ideas are still controversial but they’re no longer grounds for execution. I’m interested in that period when it looks like these things should go under. It’s still obviously the case that no Democrat — let alone a Republican — currently could run for office embracing these propositions entirely. The absence of providence? Politicians are always invoking providence. Politicians are forced in America to behave as the political equivalent of those baseball players who hit home runs and run around, waving their hands up to heaven as if God was actually worrying about whether they were going to hit a home run or not, helping one team rather than the other! It’s a fantastic idea, but it’s somehow part of our popular culture and our politicians pay lip service to the same notion.

To me, one of the most surprising parts of The Swerve is its depiction of internal criticism within the Catholic church. Poggio and many of his colleagues wrote scathing satires of the church while being in its employ — in fact, many of them were promoted after criticizing the rampant corruption within the church. How much internal criticism was there before the Protestant Reformation?

A huge amount of internal criticism! It allowed it, within certain parameters. More amazing, from that point of view, than Poggio is Lorenzo Valla, who wrote the Donation of Constantine — which basically exposed the fraudulence of the entire claim for the authority of the Catholic church — and wound up as a papal bureucrat himself. That’s unbelievable!

How was Valla affected? Some were able to use their satiric and/or critical works to garner promotions. And when and how did that change? 

He didn’t use it that way. In fact, he was in trouble for it. But a pope came in that was so tolerant – if that’s the right word for it – of intellectual dissent within the church, that he embraced him. The key watershed is the council of Trent in the mid-16th century.  There are certain things that are risky — not Epicureanism, that’s too far away on the horizon — but the fate of certain kinds of criticism that were not tolerated.

It was actually rather tricky — and sometimes even tricky for them! — to figure out in what circumstances you’d get killed, and in what circumstances people would laugh or shrug it off or enjoy it. Things change profoundly in the church after Luther. The church becomes much more embattled. It makes some attempts at internal reform. But it also makes very vigorous attempts to silence dissent. With some exceptions — I’m no historian of the Catholic church — but it seems to me that the church has never entirely, as it were, come out from the other side on the Council of Trent. It’s not an accident that the current Pope was the head of the [Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith], the ideological wing of the church [that led the inquisition].

There were exceptions, of course. The most vigorous and remarkable exception would be Roncali, who called himself John XXIII, who took that name back in the late 1950s and 60s and was responsible for Vatican II. Again, I’m no church historian – it’s a very complicated topic. But for our purposes, there was this molten time where it was possible for there to be astonishing currents of criticism. It probably was what enabled — at least I try to suggest in the book — it helps to explain how Poggio, a restless intellectual explorer, could spend his life as a bureaucrat in this very regressive institution.

In many ways, the Catholic church doesn’t seem like a horrible idea if you were a culturally astute, upwardly mobile, educated man in the 15th century. 

If you were an intellectual that had a curiosity about culture, there were very few other places you could go. You could teach at one of the nascent universities, but for reasons Poggio explains, he doesn’t want to do that, he doesn’t want to spend his life in this extremely tiresome job. And there’s no money in it.

The risk of all of this, as happens with lots of people, is that you become desperately cynical. Despairingly cynical. As I try to suggest in the book, that’s always hovering very close to the center of Poggio’s life — to just go under. In a way, that’s very familiar in our world. There are people that make compromises, thinking that they’ll keep some other identity in their spare time — they’ll write screenplays while they write for a form, but it’s actually very rare to be able to do that. So often, you go under.

Reading about Poggio in Rome, I was reminded of a number of my friends working in government in Washington D.C.  and, on a somewhat different level, of some (like myself) who write while holding down other jobs. 

It’s extremely unusual. People have contradictions in their lives all the time, obviously, but the person that decides that during the day she’ll work for Fox News, but at night she’ll keep her secret identity, are few and far between. It’s hard, but it can be done.

Poggio is someone who did it, but he did it through this weird obsession with finding ancient books and copying them. For me, the absolute center of this book is something extremely simple: it’s trying to understand the moment in which someone reaches out and takes a book of the shelf – not in a grand way, there’s no orchestral chord that’s struck at that moment. It’s a tiny thing, but it’s like the butterfly’s wing motion that changes the world.

Eventually, in very complicated ways, this [discovery] has huge consequences. It’s an easy criticism of the book — one that I was very much aware of as I was writing — to say, “Look, the rediscovery of Lucretius and the recovery of robust notions of Epicureanism had no appreciable impact on the world at all.” In some obvious way, that’s true. This is not the Communist Manifesto. It wasn’t circulated in a revolutionary context. But it was — or I argue, at least — that it was an even more profound, transformational document than the most remarkable ones we can think of. Not quickly, not instantly — but in a subtle way.

For Lucretius, the idea of a “swerve” was what secured the idea of human freedom. All you needed was the tiniest movement of the atoms; in a way, what current particle physics seems to think — which is that atoms are not actually stable. All you need is the tiniest movement, and everything follows from that. The atoms are not simply falling in a straight line, but moving. The moment in which the book comes back is a swerve of that kind. It’s tiny, but it actually turns out to have huge consequences.

The ideas follow a somewhat subtle trajectory, as they slowly infuse our sense of the universe, though they do show up in some phenomenal figures.  Shakespeare, Gallileo…

There are big figures in whose lives it shows up — I write about Montaigne or Gallileo. But they are the extreme cases of much, much subtler things that are oddly floating around, without anyone fully taking in. Did anyone in Shakespeare’s audience really take in why Mercutio should speak of atoms? It’s under the radar.