Book Review: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

This book has won all sorts of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.  Personally I sort of steered around it because it’s not the sort of thing I am usually interested it, but I was delayed on my recent trip to New York helping my son after his accident and I ran out of reading material.  I took the subway to the local Barnes and Noble and looked around.  That’s another story:  how poor the selection of books was at Barnes and Noble, and how expensive they were compared to online bookstores.  But anyway, I found this one, remembered that I had been mildly interested when I initially heard about it, cruised around some more and came back to it, and finally decided to give it a try.

To be honest, the subtitle is deceptive.  The book does not at all explain how the world became modern, unless by modern you mean atheistic.  What the book is, is a history book that aspires to be something more.  As its core it takes the discovery in 1417 in an obscure monastery in Germany by book hunter Poggio Bracciolini of a manuscript of the lost text of Lucretius’ “On the Nature of Things”, and stresses the importance of this discovery to the evolution of western thought.

The book begins with an image of Bracciolini, the book hunter, on horseback, riding through German forests on the way to the monastery.  From there it zooms back to give the reader a picture of the historical era in which the story takes place.  Bracciolini was an apostolic secretary in the service of the pope, and it describes the corrupt papal court, the personality of the pope he worked for, the state of Christianity in Italy and the rest of Europe, monastic life and how it developed, the censorship of books and how monasteries became the last bastions of manuscript protection, Bracciolini’s personal life and rise to prominence, the circle of humanists of which he was a part.  It pans back even further and tells us of classical Rome and its writers, the ancient city and library of Alexandria, the background of Lucretius and Epicurus and their radical ideas of atomism and atheism, and how these ideas were suppressed in the Middle Ages.  One chapter is a summary of the key points of “On the Nature of Things”.

The background history described in this book is fascinating, well-researched and well-written.  As it zooms back and back and back, centuries into the past, we understand clearly who Bracciolini was, where he came from, and why he was searching for books.  We understand who Lucretius was and why his poem was radical for the time.  We understand the poem itself and what it means.

In “On the Nature of Things” Lucretius espouses the Epicurean concept of atomism, that is, that the universe is made up of a specific number of atoms, and that these tiny particles shape everything in the universe.  These particles are eternal and in constant motion.  Instead of falling through the void in a straight line, which would mean that nothing would ever exist, they deflect from their courses and collide; these deflections are called swerves, and the collisions create whatever exists in the universe.  From this basic premise Epicurus and his student Lucretius conclude that there is no creator, that humans are not the center of the universe, that humans are engaged in a fundamental battle for survival, that there are other worlds and other beings, that when the body dies the soul dies, that there is no afterlife, that all religions are superstitious and cruel, and that humanity’s highest goal is the pursuit of pleasure and the reduction of pain.

In later chapters of the book Greenblatt explains how these ideas conflicted with the established church and how the church tried to suppress the ideas by banning the book and torturing and killing its adherents.

As history, “The Swerve” is a great piece of work.  Where it fails is in its exaggeration of the importance of Lucretius and his book.  Life goes on, with or without Lucretius, and Greenblatt did not at all convince me that Lucretius was germinal in the shaping of modern thought.  It was inevitable that as all other facets of human existence evolved, certain concepts that drive our thought processes would evolve as well, and a good portion of the modern church has adjusted to this change.  Dwelling as it does on the Christianity of the Middle Ages, which in fact was much more political than it was theological, “The Swerve” turns a blind eye to many factors involved in the shaping of modern thought and society.  I would say that whether or not Lucretius had ever existed, and whether or not Bracciolini had ever discovered the manuscript of “On the Nature of Things” in that far-off monastic library, the world would nevertheless be pretty much what it is now anyway.  So for me, the subtitle “How the World Became Modern” is an irritation.  However, as a book that takes an isolated bit of history and uses it as a focal point to present a fascinating panorama of the past, the book succeeds admirably.  All in all, it is an interesting read, and for the sake of the unique historical insight it provides, I am willing to agree to disagree with the author on some of his conclusions.

I’m a professional writer; I make my living by my words.  I’m happy to share these essays with you, but at the same time, financial support makes the words possible.  If you’d like to become a patron of the arts and support my work, buy a few of my available books or available stories.  Thanks!

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