Amy Pratt's Reviews > The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt
Rate this book
Clear rating

F 50x66
's review
May 01, 12

The Swerve
Stephen Greenblatt

There is a question that haunts this book; why is it so hard for humans to believe they may, even should, strive for happiness? This is never directly stated, but rather implied by the story of Lucretius and his poem based on Epicurean philosophy. Lucretius makes two key points. First, everything is material, made of atoms that circulate and create form in a “random” way, following a “law” somewhat like evolution in that what can be sustained is that which survives. Secondly, the greatest good is pleasure, defined most broadly as a celebration of bodies – these surreptitious physical marvels, from the largest things, like the earth, to the smallest living creatures upon it. The principle of this kind of creation is eros – endless reproduction, the force of life, celebrated as the force of love, the drive toward pleasure not portrayed as lust but conceived as a realization of one's nature, which, if human, includes, as one of the greatest pleasures, understanding the nature of the universe. The pleasure is seated in the liberation this affords: to know what is real means you no longer must fear the wrath of god, the dread of something after death. “Men suffer the worst evils for the sake of the most alien desires,” Epicurus wrote. By this he also meant the evil of the feverish pleasures of sensuality, which cannot lead to peace of mind. “It is impossible to live pleasurably,” his disciple Philodemus wrote, “without living prudently and honorably and justly, and also without living courageously and temperately and magnanimously, and without making friends, and without being philanthropic.” To consider these as rational principles by which to live meant overriding the alternatives: sacrifice, ambition, social status. Discipline in the name of an abstract ideal (god, city, state, perhaps even family, as well as fame or riches) is suspect when it turns men against their true nature.

Romans grudgingly tried to make peace with the Greek intellectual tradition of which these ideas are a part. The fall of the Roman Empire began the hegemony of a world order set against Epicurean ideals. The apex from which it falls is epitomized by the fall of Alexandria and its Library and Museum, whose name, as Greenblatt reminds us, notes it as an institution dedicated to the Muses,the nine goddesses who embodied human creative achievement. It is replaced by the institution of The Inquisition to police the continued demise of the open intellectual tradition in general and any notions of materialism in particular. Greenblatt's book traces the story of the survival of these “radical” ideas despite the efforts to repress them. It is told mostly through the story of Poggio Bracciolini, who unearths the manuscript of On The Nature of Things in a monastery, in 1417. After highlighting the many ways in which this philosophy has been misunderstood and reviled, Greenblatt goes on to show how it is reinvented and made central to modern life, permeating the work of thinkers from Shakespeare, Montaigne and Thomas Jefferson. (His book may be first to argue that all modern thought can all be traced back to this one, heretofore, unrecognized source.) What I found most compelling was the attention it brings to the question of human happiness. The topic, arising with particular force at particular moments in history, appears to be itself always a swerve from dominant thought. What is most haunting is the mystery of why and how the goal of happiness does or does not get traction.

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read The Swerve.
Sign In »

No comments have been added yet.