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John Evans '64 on Greenblatt's The Swerve

Stephen Greenblatt was a classmate of mine at Yale but I never even knew his name until a few months ago when he was nominated as a possible speaker for our next Class reunion and several classmates said that The Swerve should be required reading. 

This book has its roots 50 years in the past when Steve bought a book for summer reading at the Yale Coop for 10 cents and found a set of ideas that obviously touched him deeply.

He is now a Professor of the Humanities at Harvard.  As such, he says, "I am committed by trade to urging people to attend carefully to the verbal surfaces of what they read."  This advice also holds for Greenblatt's writing, which is in many places worth savoring for the presentation as well as the substance.  For example, he notes that one of Poggio's rivals wrote that Poggio was a common farm laborer and a thief to boot, not a person of substance and not worth listening to and certainly not someone who should be given a position of responsibility.  Greenblatt tosses this off as no more than the "boundless loathing of squabbling scholars."  Wonderful stuff.

So this is a story of history, a story of ideas, and one set of ideas specifically: the philosophy of the Greek Epicurus (300 BC) as presented — celebrated — in a poem by the Roman Titus Lucretius Carus, written about 50 BC: De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things).  That poem was lost for a thousand years and rediscovered by the Italian scriptor and apostolic secretary Poggio Bracciolini in 1417 in a monastery in Germany.  It is really the only substantive record of Epicurean philosophy that existed at the time, although some further writings of Epicurus have subsequently been found.

We start in early 15th century Europe, at the early stages of the Renaissance.  All of Europe and the regions around the Mediterranean had once been the powerful Roman Empire but that Empire had collapsed upon itself and suffered for almost 1000 years through the Dark Ages.  Europe was fragmented politically, with separate warring countries and regions.  Italy, for example, was a set of five city states (Milan, Venice, Florence, Rome, and Naples) that fought regularly.  There was still a Holy Roman Emperor, but that was more of an honorary title than one of substance. While supposedly all under one church, the Christian religion was also fragmented and rife with conflict.  Much of the original territory had been overrun by Islam, leaving Rome in the West and the Greek Orthodox Church in the East (at odds with Rome).  At the time the story opens, there were three different Popes in the West (all of whom were deposed and are now listed as anti-popes).

So the story begins with Poggio Bracciolini, a humanist, a scriptor and, for the moment, an out-of-work apostolic secretary, riding through the southern German countryside,  visiting monasteries that might have ancient Roman manuscripts in their libraries. 

Discussion topics for The Swerve

15th Century Europe: Setting the Scene of the Discovery

  • Monasteries
    • Dumping ground
    • Breaking the spirit, punishing the flesh
    • Scriptoria
  • Manuscripts
    • Papyrus, parchment and vellum
    • Scrolls and Codices
    • Reuse, water soluble inks
    • Bookworms
  • Humanists
    • Petrarch
    • Salutati
    • Poggio, Bruni, Nicoli
  • The Church
    • Corruption, hypocrisy, greed
    • Papal Dispensations
    • Indulgences
    • The Council at Constance
    • Treatment of heretics (Hus, Jerome, Bruno,…)

The Greek Philosophers: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Zeno

  • Time Line of Hellenic Period
    • Golden Age of Athens (5th Century BC)
    • Alexander the Great
    • Alexandria
    • Rome, then Christianity destroys the Hellenic heritage
  • The World according to Plato and Aristotle (400 BC)
  • Epicurians and Stoics: different views of the gods (300 BC

Rome, Lucretius' Poem

  • Roman Republic then Empire
  • Herculaneum and the Villa of the Papyrii
  • Lucretius Poem
  • Key tenets of Epicurus, as captured by Lucretius
    • Atoms and Void and Nothing Else (Democritus)
    • Gods could not care less (pp 183-4)
    • Universe not made for Man
    • Humans began in primitive battle for survival, not a golden age of innocence and tranquility
    • No afterlife, soul dies with body
    • Pursuit of pleasure, avoidance of pain
    • Organized religions are superstitious delusions
    • The world is in constant motion, "not made insignificant but made more beautiful by its transience, its erotic energy, and its ceaseless change."
  • Hymn to Venus
  • The Teeth of Time: intentional distortion and destruction
  • Pleasure as a sin: God punishing Man
  • Poetry vs Substance: a safe way to read Lucretius

Swerves and Afterlives

  • Art
  • Astronomy, science, mathematics
  • Religious and Political freedom

Time Line for The Swerve

The Greeks, Pre-Christianity

  • The Age of Pericles or The Golden Age of Athens: 480-404 BC.  Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Democritus (and Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Hippocrates).  Also Zeno of Elea, author of Zeno's Paradoxes. 
  • Phillip of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great) conquered Greece in 338 BC
  • Alexander III [The Great] ruled the western world 332-324 BC; founded Alexandria which became the great center of learning for half a millenium
  • Ptolemy I, General under Alexander, King of Egypt 323-283 BC
  • Cleopatra, last of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, 69 BC-30 BC
    Note: Egypt became a Roman province in 30 BC when Octavian defeated Mark Anthony and Cleopatra at Actium (start of Roman Empire)
  • Epicurus (Epicurians) 341-270 BC
  • Zeno of Citium (Stoics) 334-262 BC

The Greeks/Egyptians, Post-Christianity

  • Theophilus, following Theodosius' orders in Alexandria, destroyed Serapeon
  • St. Cyril, nephew of Theophilus, persecuted Jews and killed Hypatia
  • Hypatia (d 415) Greek mathematician and philosopher in Alexandria.  Death of Hypatia generally considered the end of Alexandria as a center of learning.  The final end of the library came in 646 when the Arabs captured the city.  It is reported that their general Amr ibn-al-As wrote to his Khalif to ask what to do with the books… the reply was that if the books agreed with the Koran they were superfluous; if they disagreed they were pernicious.  So they were burned. — from Beckman, A History of Pi.

The Romans, pre-Christianity (Roman Republic)

  • Lucretius 99-55 BC
  • Cicero 106-43 BC
  • Lucius Calpernius Piso, counsel of Rome and administrator of Macedonia, father-in-law to Julius Caesar and probable owner of the Villa of the papyri at Herculaneum (105-43 BC)
  • Julius Caesar (d 44 BC) and Mark Anthony (d 30 BC)

The Romans, post-Christianity (Roman Empire)

  • Herculaneum (Vesuvius 79 AD)
  • Constantine 272-337 Converted to Christianity 312
  • Theodosius 391 ordered end to sacrifices and pagan worship
  • Tertullus 160-225
  • Lactantius 240-320 Advised Constantine
  • St. Jerome 347-420 Claimed Lucretius was mad and committed suicide
  • St. Benedict 480-547
  • Justinian I, 529 ordered all philosophical schools closed

The Dark Ages, 500-1400

  • In 1400 the three major civilizations were the Ottoman Empire, India, and China and Europe was just beginning to emerge from the darkness.  Over the next 500 years those civilizations decayed and Europe conquered the world.

Florence and Rome, 14th-15th Century

  • Poggio Bracciolini, b1380 in Terranuevo, near Florence
  • Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca) 1304-1374 Early Humanist
  • Salutati (Coluccio Salutati) 1331-1406 Chancellor of Florentine Republic, disciple of Petrarch.  His students: 
    • Leonardo Bruni of Arrezo
    • Poggio
    • Niccolo Niccoli
  • 1403: Poggio off to "The Lie Factory" with Salutati's letter of recommendation
  • Popes for whom Poggio worked:
    • Bonifice IX 1389-1404
    • Innocent VII 1404-1406
    • Gregory XII 1406-1415
    • Alexander V 1409-1410 (antipope)
    • John XXIII (Baldassare Cossa) 1410-1415 (also antipope, along with Benedict XIII and Clement in Avignon)
    • Martin V 1417-1431 (Poggio returned to Rome in 1422)
    • Eugeniu IV 1431-1447
    • Nicholas V 1447-1455
  • 1416: Trips from Constance: Baden-Baden, St. Gall
  • 1417: Discovery at Monastery at Fulda (NE of Frankfurt)
  • 1418-1422: in England, secretary to Henry Beaufort, bishop of Winchester and uncle of Henry V.
  • 1422-1453: back in Rome
  • Chancellor of Florence 1453-1458, Died 1459

Swerves and Afterlives

  • Lorenzo Valla 1407-1457, rival of Poggio, first published support of Epicurian ideas (De Voluptate); best known for claiming "Donation of Constantine", which gave all of Western Europe to Rome, was a forgery
  • Savonarola 1452-1498, "Bonfire of the Vanities" 1497; puritanical, opposed Rome, kicked out the Medicis. Ultimately burned at the stake.
  • Niccolo Machiavelli, 1469-1527, secretary to the Chancery when Medicis were out of power, deposed when they returned to power (although The Prince is dedicated to Lorenzo Medici)
  • Desiderius Erasmus 1466-1536, Dutch humanist, wrote "The Epicurean"
  • St. Thomas More 1478-1535, wrote Utopia 1516
  • Copernicus (1473-1543) Heliocentric solar system
  • Council of Trent 1551: Aristotle's philosophy adopted to explain Eucharist
  • Giordano Bruno 1548-1600, Dominican Friar, reformist, claimed Earth not the center of the universe (following Copernicus), burned at the stake
  • Galileo Galilei 1564-1642, recanted heliocentrism 1616, retried, found guilty of heresy (for espousing atomism!) and placed under house arrest 1633
  • Thomas Harriot 1560-1621
  • Lucy Hutchinson 1620-1681
  • Sir Isaac Newton 1642-1727
  • Thomas Jefferson 1743-1826

Background: Stoics

Zeno of Citium, taught in Athens starting in 301 BC.  He taught on the "stoa poicile", the "painted porch" which was a colonnade overlooking the Agora (central marketplace).

God as Nature

According to the Stoics, the universe is a material, reasoning substance, known as God or Nature, which the Stoics divided into two classes, the active and the passive. The passive substance is matter, which "lies sluggish, a substance ready for any use, but sure to remain unemployed if no one sets it in motion." The active substance, which can be called Fate, or Universal Reason (Logos), is an intelligent aether or primordial fire, which acts on the passive matter.

Since right Reason is the foundation of both humanity and the universe, it follows that the goal of life is to live according to Reason, that is, to live a life according to Nature.

Ethics and Values

The ancient Stoics are often misunderstood because the terms they used pertained to different concepts in the past than they do today. The word 'stoic' has come to mean 'unemotional' or indifferent to pain, because Stoic ethics taught freedom from 'passion' by following 'reason.' The Stoics did not seek to extinguish emotions; rather, they sought to transform them by a resolute 'askēsis' that enables a person to develop clear judgment and inner calm. Logic, reflection, and concentration were the methods of such self-discipline.

A distinctive feature of Stoicism is its cosmopolitanism: All people are manifestations of the one universal spirit and should, according to the Stoics, live in brotherly love and readily help one another.

The major difference between Stoicism and Christianity is Stoicism's pantheism, in which God is never fully transcendent but always immanent. God as the world-creating entity is personalized in Christian thought, but Stoicism equates God with the totality of the universe, which was deeply contrary to Christianity. Also, Stoicism, unlike Christianity, does not posit a beginning or end to the universe, nor does it assert that the individual continues to exist beyond death.


The Stoics developed a system of propositional logic (which became predicate calculus in AI) that was different than Aristotle's Term Logic.  This became the basis of much of their teaching and publication.

From its founding, Stoic doctrine was popular with a following throughout Greece and the Roman Empire, including the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, until the closing of all philosophy schools in AD 529  by order of the Emperor Justinian I, who perceived their pagan character as being at odds with the Christian faith.

Background: Epicurians

In modern popular usage, an epicure is a connoisseur of the arts of life and the refinements of sensual pleasures; epicureanism implies a love or knowledgeable enjoyment especially of good food and drink.

This can be attributed to a misunderstanding of the Epicurean doctrine, as promulgated by Christian polemicists. Because Epicureanism posits that pleasure is the ultimate good (telos), it is commonly misunderstood as a doctrine that advocates the partaking in fleeting pleasures such as constant partying, sexual excess and decadent food. This is not the case. Epicurus regarded ataraxia (tranquility, freedom from fear) and aponia (absence of pain) as the height of happiness. He also considered prudence an important virtue and perceived excess and overindulgence to be contrary to the attainment of ataraxia and aponia.

Epicurus (325-255 BC) was an atomic materialist, following Democritus. His materialism led him to a general attack on superstition and divine intervention. Following Aristippus — about whom very little is known — Epicurus believed that pleasure is the greatest good. But the way to attain pleasure was to live modestly and to gain knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of one's desires. This led one to attain a state of tranquility (ataraxia) and freedom from fear (particularly fear of death), as well as absence of bodily pain (aponia).

Epicureanism was originally a challenge to Platonism, though later it became the main opponent of Stoicism. Epicurus and his followers shunned politics.


Epicurus was an early thinker to develop the notion of justice as a social contract. He defined justice as an agreement "neither to harm nor be harmed". The point of living in a society with laws and punishments is to be protected from harm so that one is free to pursue happiness. Because of this, laws that do not contribute to promoting human happiness are not just. He gave his own unique version of the Ethic of Reciprocity, which differs from other formulations by emphasizing minimizing harm and maximizing happiness for oneself and others.  Epicureanism incorporated a relatively full account of the social contract theory, following after a vague description of such a society in Plato's Republic. The social contract theory established by Epicureanism is based on mutual agreement, not divine decree.

Background: Skeptics

The third school of Greek philosophy about 300 BC was Skepticism.

The Greek Sophists of the 5th century BC were for the most part skeptics. Greek skeptics criticized the Stoics, accusing them of dogmatism. For the skeptics, the logical mode of argument was untenable, as it relied on propositions which could not be said to be either true or false without relying on further propositions. This was the regress argument, whereby every proposition must rely on other propositions in order to maintain its validity.  Truth was not, however, necessarily unobtainable, but rather an idea which did not yet exist in a pure form. Although skepticism was accused of denying the possibility of truth, in fact it appears to have mainly been a critical school which merely claimed that logicians had not discovered absolute truth.  Sextus Empiricus (c. A.D. 200), the main authority for Greek skepticism, developed the position further, incorporating aspects of empiricism into the basis for asserting knowledge. (Contrast with Existentialism).

The "Trilemma" [God is Good, God is Omnipotent, Evil exists] is a subject of skeptical discourse.  Epicurus answered this by concluding that gods existed but had no interest in or involvement in human affairs.  As documented by Greenblatt, the Christian church found a different answer in the Dark Ages:  God is furious with humans and constantly punishes them.

Background: History of the Catholic Church

Catholic doctrine teaches that the Catholic Church was founded by Jesus Christ. It interprets the Confession of Peter as acknowledging Christ's designation of Apostle Peter and his successors to be the temporal head of his Church. Thus, it asserts that the Bishop of Rome has the sole legitimate claim to Petrine authority and the primacy due to the Roman Pontiff. The Catholic Church claims legitimacy for its bishops and priests via the doctrine of apostolic succession and authority of the Pope via the unbroken line of popes, claimed as successors to Simon Peter.

In 313, the struggles of the Early Church were lessened by the legalisation of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine I. In 380, Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire by the decree of the Emperor, which would persist until the fall of the Western Empire, and later, with the Eastern Roman Empire, until the Fall of Constantinople. During this time (the period of the Seven Ecumenical Councils) there were considered five primary sees according to Eusebius: Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria, known as the Pentarchy.

After the destruction of the western Roman Empire, the church in the West was a major factor in the preservation of classical civilization, establishing monasteries, and sending missionaries to convert the peoples of northern Europe, as far as Ireland in the north. In the East, the Byzantine Empire preserved Orthodoxy, well after the massive invasions of Islam in the mid-7th century. The invasions of Islam devastated three of the five Patriarchal sees, capturing Jerusalem first, then Alexandria, and then finally in the mid-8th century, Antioch.

The whole period of the next five centuries was dominated by the struggle between Christianity and Islam throughout the Mediterranean Basin. The battles of Poitiers, and Toulouse preserved the Catholic west, even though Rome itself was ravaged in 850, and Constantinople besieged. In the 11th century, already strained relations between the primarily Greek church in the East, and the Latin church in the West, developed into the East-West Schism, partially due to conflicts over Papal Authority. The fourth crusade, and the sacking of Constantinople by renegade crusaders proved the final breach.

Substantial conflict between religious and temporal authority regularly emerged in the West.  When an Emporer disagreed with a Pope, he often appointed another Pope to do his bidding.  These became known as "antipopes".  There have been 266 popes and 40 antipopes, last being Felix V 1439-49.  The fact that there were none after that is probably due to the Protestant Reformation siphoning off discontent, Luther being the first to succeed in 1515. 

In the 16th century, in response to the Protestant Reformation, the Church engaged in a process of substantial reform and renewal (and repression) known as the Counter-Reformation. In subsequent centuries, Catholicism spread widely across the world despite experiencing a reduction in its hold on European populations due to the growth of Protestantism and also because of religious skepticism during and after the Enlightenment.