Saturday, March 18, 2023

Review: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

The Swerve: How the World Became ModernThe Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Greenblatt’s The Swerve purports to explain how Epicureanism, in the form of Lucretius’ great poem, De Rerum Natura, created the modern world. This overstates, however, both the impact that Lucretius’ rediscover probably had as well as what Greenblatt actually shows. Nevertheless, it’s a wonderful book.

It is far more about the intellectual and theological world of the 15th and 16th centuries than it is about anything else. This is not the book to turn to in order to learn Epicurean philosophy, though Greenblatt provides a adequate sketch. The claims made about Epicurean influence on the early modern thinkers are interesting and provoking, but all together to thin. Lucretius’ work obviously had an influence and was important in helping to shape the thought of this period; but the extent of it is less clear. That is, Greenblatt is not able to make the counterfactual claim that had Poggio Bracciolini not found the manuscript in the early 15th century, the course of history would have been all that different. That said, it was discovered and did influence thinkers such as Giordano Bruno, Galilee, and Jefferson, among many others.

What makes this book so wonderful, though, is the tale Greenblatt weaves. His narrative explains how the ancient works found their ways into monasteries, how and why they were copied, and how they were lost. And then, of course, how they were rediscovered by likes of Bracciolini and other humanists. Greenblatt ends the book with discussions of how the Church responded to the growing influence of the work. As Greenblatt tells it, the Church saw Epicureanism as a particularly threat, in a way it didn’t see the other ancient others. The physics of Epicureanism as presented in Lucretius’ beautiful lines of poetry seemed to them utterly incompatible with Church dogma and thus merited special attention. So, while Aristotle, Plato, and the Stoics could all be made to fit in some way, Lucretius’ poem was stubbornly indigestible by Christian theology. Greenblatt doesn’t come right and out and say it, but I think he sees this utter inconsonance with Christianity as why it is the set of ideas so central to the making of the modern world.

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