Jim Leffert's Reviews > The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt
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May 04, 12

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Read in February, 2012

Greenblatt takes us back to 15th century Europe, and especially, Italy, for a case study in how the pietistic ethos of the Middle Ages happened to morph into the humanistic spirit of the Renaissance. A key turning point, Greenblatt argues, was when Poggio Bracciolini, a newly unemployed high level Vatican bureaucrat, uncovered a manuscript—a copy of a copy of a copy made by monks—of a 1500 year old philosophical poem, Lucretius’s On The Nature of Things, on the dusty shelves of a German monastery library.

Poggio, as we come to know him, was one of a group of Humanists, that is, people who looked back to classical antiquity as the source of valuable philosophy, wisdom, and art. The Humanists made it their business to search out this material and share it with others. Lucretius’s poem, On The Nature of Things, presents Epicurianism, the thought of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, in highly poetic Latin. Among other things, Epicurus taught that the gods are indifferent to what goes on here on earth, and that everything is made up of atoms: earth, man, and heavenly bodies alike. He also taught that major changes occur not because of divine intervention but rather because the atomic material, interacting over time, simply “swerves”. When the Roman Empire turned Christian, the authorities viewed this pagan philosophy as subversive and suppressed it. (Jewish authorities were equally down on it; to this day, the Hebrew and Yiddish word for freethinker is “Apikoros”.)

I found Greenblatt’s description of how the content of Lucretius’s poem influenced the Renaissance world view and found its way into the work of people such as Botticelli, Montaigne, Thomas More, and Shakespeare to be possibly tendentious and wearying at times. Furthermore, Greenblatt’s habit of meandering from his main point to offer interesting tidbits from his primary sources may annoy some readers. Also, surprisingly, little of Lucretius’s poem is excerpted in the book.

However, I was captivated by the sharply etched portrait of Poggio and his contemporaries as they engaged in their passionate intellectual pursuits, often within the precincts of the Vatican, and also by the inside story of how the Church operated in the 14th and 15th century. The Church was a hotbed of corruption, immorality, and power politics. No wonder that the Protestant Reformation eventually occurred!

It was also surprising to discover that in its early decades, the Church did not consider Humanism to be a dangerous threat. High officials, including one Pope, were among its proponents. Greenblatt suggests that it was only when pagan philosophy made the leap from the humanities to science (e.g., Giordano Bruno and Galileo) that it became a threat. A bonus: If you want to know more about John Hus and Giordano Bruno and to learn why each one met a grisly end, this could be your book!
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