In Lucretius’ poem De Rerum Natura the “swerve” is an irregularity in the movement of atoms that compose the universe. That small irregularity gives rise to the variety and shape of the universe as well as to free will in humans. The swerve is analogous to the irregularities in the background radiation left over from the Big Bang some 14 billion years ago—the same irregularities that gave rise to galaxies, stars, plants, and us. Lucretius had a somewhat different notion of atoms, and of universal laws, than do scientists today. But the congruence between Lucretius and modern science on this and other points is remarkable. There are plenty of differences, however. By modern terms, Lucretius was not a scientist. He was an observer and Epicurean philosopher, and his poem is all the more remarkable as a result.
In his book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (Norton, 2012) Stephen Greenblatt narrates the history of the recovery of Lucretius’ poem, hidden away in a monastery library for eight hundred or so years, recovered by a scribe named Pollius Bracciolini, famous for his beautiful handwriting and for his recovery of ancient texts on the verge of being lost. Greenblatt’s account of the world of Pollius, his involvement as a high-ranking official in the Vatican, as apostolic secretary to several Popes, and as someone who helped develop not only modern cursive script but also the concept of libraries, of the humanities in general, of the preservation of culture and history, is fascinating. Greenblatt summarizes the important points in Lucretius poem and argues that its reintroduction to the intellectual world in the 14th century worked a major influence on the development of the Renaissance and of western world thinking. It was a highly controversial poem when it was written, and even more so when it was recovered. It argues that the Universe operates according to natural laws, that there is no life after death, that individuals should seek to enjoy their lives while they are able. It undermined Roman and Christian religion by its insistence that, although allowing that the gods do exist, they had no interest or role in human affairs. Greenblatt’s book is highly readable. Its argument for the poem’s influence seems to be less compelling than the account of Pollius and the poem itself, but it’s fascinating nonetheless.