Renaissance writers knew the seductive power of swerving. John Milton, in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649), sensed the English people baulking at the killing of the king: "Another sort...begin to swerve and almost shiver at the majesty...of som noble deed, as if they were newly enter'd into a great sin." By the time of Paradise Lost (1667), with things taking another turn and monarchy restored, Adam tells Eve: "Firm we subsist, yet possible to swerve." For Milton, a writer of singular political vision, swerving was a sin, but as Stephen Greenblatt shows in The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began, swerves are seeds of change as well as signs of backsliding.
The Renaissance itself started with a swerve - the discovery by Poggio Bracciolini of a lost manuscript by Lucretius, On the Nature of Things. Greenblatt, consummate storyteller in his anecdotage, bounded in a nutshell but counting himself a king of infinite space, can pick up a stray thread and worry away at it until he's made himself new clothes fit for an emperor. Here he recounts Poggio's recovery of Lucretius through his own discovery as a student looking for summer reading of a prose translation of the classical text in the bargain bin of a Yale bookstore. Greenblatt's act of shelf-fashioning intertwines with memories of his mother's morbid fixation: "Lucretius' words therefore rang out with a terrible clarity: 'Death is nothing to us.'"
The great insight of Lucretius was that: "The atoms must a little swerve at times." And, notes Greenblatt, "Lucretius' principal Latin word for it was clinamen - an unexpected, unpredictable movement of matter." The big claim arising from an Italian humanist turning up an ancient text in 1417 is that the lost Lucretius triggered a turnaround in knowledge: "The recovery has the virtue of being true to the term that we use to gesture toward the cultural shift at the origins of modern life and thought: a re-naissance, a rebirth, of antiquity. One poem by itself was certainly not responsible for an entire intellectual, moral, and social transformation...But this particular ancient book, suddenly returning to view, made a difference." Greenblatt's new historicism is a kind of chaos theory, a butterfly flap reverberating a continent away, two inches of ivory leading to an elephants' graveyard: "The finding of a lost book does not ordinarily figure as a thrilling event, but behind that one moment was...a great culturewide explosion of interest in pagan antiquity. The act of discovery fulfilled the life's passion of a brilliant book hunter," who "became a midwife to modernity".
Published in the US with the subtitle How the World Became Modern, this may be a big bang based on a small book, but then splitting the atom is more effective - and explosive - than splitting hairs. Greenblatt ends by linking Thomas Jefferson's twilight observation, "I feel: therefore I exist" - one step behind Descartes, two behind Jacques Lacan - to the revolutionary spirit of Lucretius. Jefferson "had given a momentous political document, at the founding of a new republic, a distinctly Lucretian turn...toward a government whose end was not only to secure the lives and the liberties of its citizens but also to serve 'the pursuit of Happiness'. The atoms of Lucretius had left their traces on the Declaration of Independence."
Writing on that Declaration, Jacques Derrida tells the tale Benjamin Franklin told Jefferson, of the hatter advised to strip his shop sign down to the bare essentials, leaving only his name. Greenblatt's book is a ten-gallon hat with a big name behind it - and I don't mean Bodley Head. It's for the reader to decide who it memorialises - Lucretius, Poggio, Jefferson or Greenblatt. Those occupying Wall Street in pursuit of that happiness promised before the bankers swerved - and the Republic long before them - may wonder what happened to res publica, the "public good" advocated by Thomas Paine, and earlier by Milton.
Those for whom Greenblatt's confessional mode is beguiling will find much to admire here, not least the panache with which he traces the imprint of Lucretius in the work of artists and thinkers from Botticelli to Galileo and beyond. Those sceptical of scholarship with more padding than the Dynasty wardrobe will want to body-swerve this book. Yet UK academics concerned with "impact" in the upcoming research excellence framework may see all kinds of possibilities in Greenblatt's patient elaboration of the reach and significance of a lost manuscript for an entire world. They also swerve, who only stand and wait.
The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began
By Stephen Greenblatt. The Bodley Head, 368pp, £20.00. ISBN 9780224078788. Published 1 September 2011