Courtney Johnston's Reviews > The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt
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Jan 10, 12

bookshelves: big-ideas-made-accessible, books-about-books, borrowed, history
Read in January, 2012

I think Stephen Greenblatt is a tremendously intelligent man, and a gifted writer. I also think 'The Swerve: How the Renaissance began' is frightfully oversold by its title and blurb.

One of the world's most celebrated scholars, Stephen Greenblatt has crafted 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.

...

The copying and translation of this ancient book, the greatest discovery of the greatest book-hunter of his age, fuelled the Renaissance, inspiring artists such as Botticelli and thinkers such as Girodano Bruno; shaped the thought of Galileo and Freud, Darwin and Einstein; and had revolutionary influence on writers from Montaigne to Thomas Jefferson.


I'm not arguing against the importance of the manuscript, Lucretius's poem On the Nature of Things, a discourse on Epicurean philosophy that includes some startling statements and insights. Everything is made of invisible, eternal particles, that are in motion in an infinite void. This particles don't travel in straight and predictable lines - instead, they 'swerve' (are miniscule but unpredictable deflection that sets up a random and significant chain of collisions, from which arise everything). The swerve is the source of free will. Humans are not unique, the centre of the universe, or endowed with an eternal soul. Death is nothing, and should be neither sought out nor feared. Religions are superstitious delusion. The highest goal of a life is to seek the enhancement of pleasure and reduction of pain: the greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain - it delusion. And finally: 'understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder'.

My beef with this book is that I never achieved deep wonder. The points above are ticked of in less than 15 pages. In 266 pages (followed by 85 pages of end notes, bibliography and index, and prefaced by a less than endearing introduction where Greenblatt describes himself as being blown away as a teenager by Lucretius's (notoriously difficult) poem), Greenblatt gives us:

- a primer on the creation and survival of papyrus scrolls and illuminated manuscripts
- a speculation on the potential circumstances of Lucretious's writing (extremely little is known about the author)
- biography of apostolic secretary, bookhunter and humanist Poggio Braccolini
- a study of the rise of humanist thinking, and how it shaped the period we call the Renaissance
- a description of the political maneuvering inside the Catholic church in Poggio's lifetime (including the schism between three claimants to the papacy)
- a rundown of how 'pagan' texts were received, treated and intellectually managed by the Catholic church
- a quick recap of the contents and style of Lucretius's poem
- a gloss of how Lucretius's poem - specifically, its fine Latin, its Epicurean theory, and the ideas around atoms - influenced later thinkers, writers and artists.

It's just too much. Every time you get intrigued by something, you're carried off in another direction. I got particularly peevish over the opening chapters (in particular the spectacularly speculative recreation of a possible symposia in Pompeii) and took until the middle of the book to regain my equilibrium. Even with Greenblatt's fluid writing, I felt shortchanged. I would read a 260 page book on almost any of the points above, and I wouldn't have minded a 500 page book that gave more space to Greenblatt's interweaving of history and interpretation. But as it was, I know enough to know that there's more to know about almost every point that Greenblatt made, and that niggled away at me throughout.
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JimS I agree with everything you say, and I think it supports my critique that Greenblatt's central thesis - that the rediscovery of the poem was central to the historical turn that characterized the Renaissance -- doesn't hold up. However I loved the book precisely because it covered so much territory in a short space v


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