The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

I’ve always had a fondness for books about other books. But I’ve even have a greater fondness for books about books that had been lost for hundreds or even thousands of years before, as a result of blind luck or odd circumstances, they were later rediscovered. Whether it’s Elaine Pagel’s The Gnostic Gospels or Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone’s Out of the Flames, these kind of books have always been favorites of mine, causing me to be constantly on the look-out for more of them. Therefore, back in September when I heard NPR’s Fresh Air review Stephen Greenblatt’s latest book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern I vowed to read it, should I ever come across a copy during one of my frequent library visits. Later, upon learning that The Swerve won the National Book Award for Best Nonfiction Book, naturally my desire to read Greenblatt’s book only increased. Just before the Holidays, at my sister’s prompting I included the book on my Amazon Christmas wish list and hoped for the best. But sadly, while several excellent books did magically appear on my Kindle Christmas morning, unfortunately The Swerve was not one of them.

But all was not lost. One Saturday afternoon at the library what did I happen to spot sitting on the shelf but The Swerve. With my heart a flutter I quickly pounced on it and made my way to the automatic check-out machine. Feeling victorious and rather pleased with myself I eagerly dived into The Swerve only moments after I walked through my front door. As expected, I burned though it in what felt like only a few days. But was it worth the anticipation? While I enjoyed it very much, honestly I’m not sure.

The Swerve tells the story of the Lucretius’s ancient Roman poem On the Nature of Things and how it was lost for almost 1,500 years before a long forgotten copy was found in a German monastery by a former Papal secretary turned antiquarian. According to Greenblatt, after the manuscript’s discovery it was quickly copied only to be later shelved and forgotten for over 10 years. Rediscovered once again, it was again recopied over and over, and additional copies of the ancient poem were slowly dispersed across Europe. Eventually, its radical ideas concerning religion and the physical universe would influence a host of Renaissance era luminaries such as Botticelli, Bruno, Montaigne, Galileo, Shakespeare and Sir Thomas Moore. Centuries later On the Nature of Things would find favor with some of the greatest minds of  the modern era, influencing the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin. Not bad for an old Roman poem that came dangerously close to vanishing forever into the mists of antiquity.

So what exactly made On the Nature of Things so radical? Fortunately in his book Greenblatt does a great job laying all this out in nice, organized bullet points. According to Lucretius it’s doubtful that any gods exit and if they do, they’re completely unconcerned with our well-being and therefore cannot be petitioned through prayer or appeased by sacrifice or any other forms of worship. Unfortunately, there’s no afterlife, but on the bright side there’s no hell or purgatory either since we have no souls. I guess you can only imagine what the Church thought of all that.

And that’s not all the Church didn’t like about On the Nature of Things. When commenting on the physical universe, according to Lucretius all matter is composed of nothing but tiny atoms. Likewise, there are no supernatural happenings but only naturally occurring phenomena. Much to the Church’s consternation this outlook would clash mightily with its dogma of eucharistic transubstitution, as articulated by St. Thomas Aquinas. Once again, with such a completely materialistic and nondualistic view of the universe, in Luctretius’s world people have no souls in need of saving. Again, one can only imagine what Church officials thought of all that.

While I enjoyed The Swerve, two things about Greenblatt’s book bothered me a bit. First of all, even though it’s fun to read, while telling this remarkable story Greenblatt tends to wander off the path from time to time with little side stories which distract from his main story. To quote Michael Dirda from his review in the Washington Post, this “scattershot” style of storytelling causes Goldblatt to “meandering away from his thesis about ‘how the world became modern’ “, making his writing come off like “elegant padding”. Sadly, I find myself nodding in agreement with Dirda.

Secondly, I’m slightly skeptical that one, solitary rediscovered manuscript could have jump-started the Renaissance and helped shape the modern age. It assumes that our “dark ages” were really so dark that any rediscovery of lost Classical knowledge could almost single-handedly ignite the Renaissance. Could Lucretius’s poem help bring about such a wide-ranging and long-lasting impact?  Since I’m a layperson and therefore not an academic versed in fields of European history, philosophy and the like, I will happily step aside and let more intelligent and better educated minds debate such perplexing conundrums as these. However, I completely agree that the story which Goldblatt tells of loss and rediscovery is an engaging and fascinating one. But in the end, I’m tempted to agree with Colin Burrow, who in his review for London Guardian wrote,”this book makes that story into a great read, but it cannot make it entirely true.”

True or not, The Swerve has inspired me to read other books about ancient books lost and found. Fortunately, I’m happy to say that one of those books my sister gave me for Christmas happened to be Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza. Speaking of Christmas presents, as a present to myself about a week before Christmas I bought The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels. Last but not least, ever since I saw a copy of The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh several years ago in the window of a local bookstore I’ve been meaning to read it. Inspired by Goldblatt’s The Swerve, perhaps now I finally will.

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6 Comments

Filed under Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic, Christianity, History, Science

6 responses to “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

  1. Pam

    It is one of my personal pet peeves when nonfiction writers go off on tangents from their main story. It just bugs me. I agree with you that it just probably adds pages to a book that would have been fine, or even better, without them. Sometimes I think they do it just to prove how smart/well read they are, and it’s unnecessary!

    • Me too! Fortunately with this book they happened to be interesting tangents. But still, it took away from the flow of the narrative. Sadly, in this day and age I think authors and editors feel it’s necessary in order to “pad” a book so it will fit a particular page count.
      Thanks for dropping by !

  2. I do get bothered by nonfiction books that attribute too much influence on one person or book. I get that it makes for an interesting organizing principle for a book, but sometimes the evidence seems stretched to support to the book’s central conceit.

    • Sorry Christy, your comment got stuck in my spam filter! I agree with your points. In the end, such an approach can take away from a very promising book.

  3. This does sound really interesting, especially how controversial that original was. However… to think it single-handedly jump-started the Renaissance… yeah I’m doubtful too!

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