Friday, January 08, 2016

Review of Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve

In The Swerve: How The World Became Modern, Stephen Greenblatt has penned an recounting of the Renaissance through the story of how the 15th century humanist Poggio Braccioloni discovered a copy of the Epicurean poet Lucretius's On the Nature of Things. The project is astoundingly erudite and beautifully articulated, and that is what one would assume with a book that won both a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

Titus Lucretius Carus, a Roman who wrote about the the last half of the century before the time of Jesus, held to materialism. He taught--or better, set in stunning hexametric poetry--that all that exists is the tiniest, indivisible, foundational particles, which we call "atoms" (from Greek, "that which is indivisible"), but which Lucretius called "first things," "first beginnings," the bodies of matter," and "the seed of things." (see pp. 185f.) This means that reality is matter in motion Thus, there is no afterlife, nothing spiritual, as it's usually defined. But also implies there's no free will, as it's usually defined. 

So Lucretius described "the swerve" (188f.) of these atoms, which was "the most minimal motion," but which set off a change of events, and which allowed for freedom, change, novelty, and things that most human beings prize, but that seemed to be stolen by bald materialism.

Back to the Italian humanist Poggio. He was a tireless searcher of ancient manuscripts, and when he found Lucretius, Poggio, who was a specialist at this sort of thing, immediately copied the manuscript in stunningly elegant and legible script and sought to distribute its Epicurean doctrines. 

The reasons behind Poggio's search, the story of a particularly corrupt and dissolute Catholic hierarchy in the times, among many other tales (I was particularly enthralled and horrified by the story of the burning of the early reformer Jan Hus), as well as the general tenor of the Renaissance are expertly recounted by Greenblatt, the Harvard humanist and Shakespearean scholar. Ultimately, he clearly adores the glories of Lucretius. This is no mean feat. 

Unfortunately, adoration almost inevitably leads to overstatement. That Lucretius not only offered a central impetus for the Renaissance, motivated Galileo's science, and gave insight to Einstein's view of the atom--and especially, that this poem's "recovery permanently changed the landscape of the world" (218), as examples of several grand assertions--are overblown.

Still, the reader is enthralled. And if these overstatements are pardonable, then readers can revel in this story of the revival of western culture, the wonders of books, and the power of radical ideas. I know I did when I read The Swerve.


Steven Bollinger said...

The Swerve is unfortunately not erudite at all. Lucretius' poem was never lost, Poggio did not singlehandly rescue it -- the text of the poem today is based primarily on two 9th-century manuscripts known as O and Q. The Medieval copy which Poggio found, and then lost! was a copy of a copy of O -- and those are just today of the major misconception which are now very widespread thanks to Stephen Greenblatt.

Greg Cootsona said...

Thanks for your comment, Steven. I don't have any expertise in the manuscript of The Swerve and so I'll take your word for it. That's disappointing then. I will say, however, that your comment that the book is "not erudite at all" is overstated. Greenblatt can still be making erudite comments in general about the Renaissance, humanism, intellectual history in general, etc. And it was those things that impressed me about the book.