THE SWERVE: How the World Became Modern
$26.95 hardcover, available now
Reviewed by Richard, 5* of five
The Publisher Says: One of the world's most celebrated scholars, Stephen Greenblatt has crafted both an innovative work of history and a thrilling story of discovery, in which one manuscript, plucked from a thousand years of neglect, changed the course of human thought and made possible the world as we know it.
Nearly six hundred years ago, a short, genial, cannily alert man in his late thirties took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. That book was the last surviving manuscript of an ancient Roman philosophical epic, On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius—a beautiful poem of the most dangerous ideas: that the universe functioned without the aid of gods, that religious fear was damaging to human life, and that matter was made up of very small particles in eternal motion, colliding and swerving in new directions.
The copying and translation of this ancient book-the greatest discovery of the greatest book-hunter of his age-fueled the Renaissance, inspiring artists such as Botticelli and thinkers such as Giordano Bruno; shaped the thought of Galileo and Freud, Darwin and Einstein; and had a revolutionary influence on writers such as Montaigne and Shakespeare and even Thomas Jefferson.
My Review: De rerum natura was a long narrative poem expounding Epicurean philosophy that was written in the first century before the common era. I am told by those possessed of sufficient Latin fluency to appreciate it that it is beautiful. I am not possessed of that level of fluency, and to me it seemed agonizingly impenetrable and obscurantist.
But author Greenblatt, in this fascinating Pulitzer Prize-winning history and analysis of the poem and its influence on the world, focuses not on the merits of the poem but on the genesis, development, survival, and influence of De rerum natura, arguably the foundation text for the mental construct that you and I share, and that diverges widely from the mental construct of earlier times.
Why is this so? Because we accept a material explanation of the existence of things as our prevailing orthodoxy, even in the face of religious challenges to the primacy of logic and evidence and just plain good sense. It's down to Lucretius's poem's astounding clarity of thought, persuasiveness of rhetoric, and miraculous survival and rebirth.
What Greenblatt did was to provide a brief history of Epicurus, his actual philosophy, and the cultural currents that distorted and misrepresented his philosophy, together with the whys and wherefores of that misrepresentation. Then Lucretius, a shadowy figure whose biography is unknown to modern readers except for a calumny heaped on his memory by a man who did not know him and in fact lived centuries after his death, wrote in poetry...a form of expression not to Epicurus's taste or, in his opinion, a good and useful tool of communication, he preferring plain and simple and direct prose...broke down the Epicurean vision of the world, and argued in support of it. Greenblatt then traces the survival of manuscripts from antiquity to the Middle Ages, the resurgent interest in their contents during the run-up to the Renaissance, and the incalculably valuable role of obsessive individuals in hunting down, copying, and disseminating the surviving antique texts to a world then, as now, hungry for more and better and different views and experiences and thoughts and ideas.
I give this book one of my rare five-star ratings because it has solved a problem of identity for me: I am, as Thomas Jefferson said before me, an Epicurean. Not the debased view held of that noble philosophy thanks to “Saint” Jerome, who in the course of ramming his ignorance-celebrating religion down the throats of humanity, hit on the perfect misstatement of Epicurus's actual materialist philosophy: Hedonism! Hedonism and vice and licentiousness and gluttony! The pursuit of pleasure can only mean these things, shouted Jerome, and the chorus of baying dogs was off after the fox.
We all know how that ends.
Chapter eight of The Swerve, “”The Way Things Are,” breaks out the point-by-point reality of Epicureanism, and is the prime motivating factor for my five-star rating. (In fact, I dislike Poggio Bracciolini, the discoverer of De rerum natura, quite intensely, and suspect that had I met him in life, I would have been repulsed by him.) I list here the bullet points Greenblatt is at pains to provide with clear, concise, and satisfying explication:
--Everything is made of invisible particles. This is called “atomism.”
--The elementary particles of matter...are eternal.
--The elementary particles are infinite in number, but limited in shape and size.
--All particles are in motion in an infinite void.
--The universe has no creator or designer.
--Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve. (Another word for this is collision.)
--The swerve is the source of free will. If there is no preordained pattern, how can there be a preordained result?
--Nature ceaselessly experiments. Evolution by natural selection, anyone?
--The universe was not created for or about humans.
--Humans are not unique. We are animals, literally not figuratively, like all the others.
--Human society began, not in a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival.
--The soul dies. There is no afterlife.
--Death is nothing to us. It is merely a fact. There is no personal component to death.
--All organized religions are superstitious delusions. Religions are, invariably, cruel.
--There are no angels, demons, or ghosts.
--The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.
--The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain, it is delusion.
--Understanding the true nature of things generates deep wonder.
I have never seen in print or heard with my ears a clearer, more concise, or more complete statement of my own personal worldview than this. It rang me like a bell. It sounds like Lucretius was sitting inside my head and copying down my responses to the world.
In the brief explications Greenblatt attaches to the bullet points, he makes it clear that these ideas, while they never wholly vanished from the world, were seen by the dominant world-view as a challenge to the idiotic legendary nonsense that had come to replace them, and were thus strongly condemned, to the point of burning people alive as a punishment and a warning to others inclined to think for themselves, to view the world as it is instead of through a warped fantasy construct that demonstrably causes harm and pain and facilitates much evil-doing.
So on that basis...five stars, and a ringing huzzah, to Gentile Signor Poggio Bracciolini; to Greenblatt for digging deeply enough in the humus of scholarly debate and historical records to make these connections for us, in a less scholarly age than the Renaissance, to find and use for ourselves as we see fit (ie, to exercise the free will we've got); and to WW Norton for publishing the resultant text as an under-$30 course in humanism. I am also grateful to the Pulitzer Prize board for awarding this book its non-fiction encomium, and to the Catholic News Agency for remaining consistently wrong by grousing about the book's anti-Catholicism and misinterpretation of the Church's anti-intellectualism. It's kind of hard to misinterpret burning people at the stake, guys. Own up: Your religion requires ignorance and prefers stupidity in its adherents.
Books such as this one do nothing to enhance religion's role in human affairs. It is best avoided by those of religious bent.