a review by Edd Doerr
Yaakov Malkin’s 2007 book Epicurus & Apikorsim (which I reviewed in ARL’s Voice of Reason No. 128, page 15, at arlinc.org) tells the fascinating story of how Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE) and his Roman poet/”publicist” Lucretius (95-50 BCE) vastly influenced thought in the Greco-Roman empire and may be considered the forerunners of today’s naturalistic humanism. Epicurus was so influential that Jewish religious leaders of the period used his name in Hebrew, Apikoros, to mean “heretic” (plural “apikorsim”) to this day. Malkin then showed that Epicurus and Lucretius, author of the long Epicurean poem “De rerum natura” (On the Nature of Things), influenced such influential post-Renaissance thinkers as Spinoza, Locke and Thomas Jefferson.
However, even before the collapse of the Roman empire in the late fifth century the recently “established” Christian church began extirpating Epicureanism wherever it possibly could. After the empire’s collapse all that was left of the work of Epicurus and Lucretius were references to their work buried in various Greek and Latin texts. For all practical purposes the two philosophers’ thought and writing were blanked out for a thousand years, an entire millennium. So, how did their work come to influence the modern world?
That is the story that Harvard humanities prof Stephen Greenblatt tells in The Swerve, the story of Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459), Florentine scribe, scholar of Greek and Latin literature, “book hunter”, and lay (emphasis on “lay”) aide to several popes. In 1417, after his boss, Pope John XXIII, was deposed by the Council of Constance, Bracciolini took the time to search through German monasteries for ancient Greek and Latin books written on papyrus or vellum or whatever he could find, books that were endlessly and mindlessly copied for centuries by monks who paid no attention to the content of what they were copying. The Florentine, who knew of Epicurus and Lucretius from their frequent mentions in classical literature but had never actually seen De rerum natura, was elated when he actually found a copy of it. He had the it copied and sent off to Italy, where more copies were hand reproduced. After Gutenberg invented the printing press in mid-century the book “went viral”, as we would say today, in Latin and in French, German, English and other languages.
Try as it might, the church was unable to dam the flood, and Epicurean/Lucretian thought spread unstoppably. And that, writes Greenblatt, is what stimulated the Enlightenment, modern thought, science, and political and philosophical thinking and writing. Greenblatt refers frequently to Bracciolini and other scholars of the period as “humanists”, defined as “the scholars in the Renaissance who pursued and promoted the study of the ancient Greek and Roman cultures, and emphasized secular, individualistic, and critical thought.” Not once, though, does he refer to what today we call naturalistic humanism. In the book’s very last paragraph, however, he does write this: “’I am,” Jefferson wrote to a correspondent who wanted to know his philosophy of life, “an Epicurean.”
While we can be thankful to the monasteries for preserving many ancient books that time, chemistry and “bookworms” (literally) would not have allowed to survive, however unintentionally, the church itself does not come off looking good at all. Greenblatt does not hesitate to air a great deal of very dirty laundry.
The Swerve is a great read, a book one can’t easily put down, with little sparkles of wit and a wealth of historical knowledge. Let’s give it five stars.