Clay Kallam's Reviews > The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt
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Jun 11, 12

Read in June, 2012

So the swerve referred to in the title is a key element in the philosophy of Epicurus, and it is the unexplained motion Epicurus (a younger contemporary of Alexander the Great) needed to add to his belief in a rational universe in which atoms follow nature's laws in order to allow for, among other things, free will.

"The Swerve," on the other hand, is a mess of a book in which Stephen Greenblatt kept swerving in different directions hoping to find a topic that would justify 262 pages. Unfortunately, the thesis that drives the book could be covered pretty completely in a few thousand words -- and that thesis is that Epicurean philosophy was an integral part of the development of Renaissance thought and the modern world, and it was only luck that allowed it to survive the long centuries unscathed.

Fine as far as it goes, but it doesn't go very far, so Greenblatt then had to write a whole lot about one Poggio Bracciolini, a 15th century Roman bureaucrat who, like many of his peers, had a passion for antiquities. While out of favor, he discovered a copy of "On the Nature of Things," a summation of Epicurean philosophy written by a man named Lucretius -- and Greenblatt wants to claim that discovery was a pivotal moment in the development of the Western mind. And perhaps it was, but that still doesn't justify the 262 pages Greenblatt spends flailing away searching for a topic.

Sometimes, "The Swerve" is a biography of Bracciolini (after fathering 14 children with his mistress, he then, at age 56, married an 18-year-old and had five more children). Other times, the book discusses why and how monasteries copied ancient Greek books, and then are brief forays into the lives of other historical figures, such as Giordano Bruno.

Again, all well and good, but hardly the stuff of a cohesive work, and barely worth reading. It only gets two stars because I've always liked the philosophy of Epicurus, and Greenblatt is a competent writer. "The Swerve," however, is simply not a very good book.
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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Molly (new)

Molly I agree ... It didn't hold together well, felt like a padded essay. He never made much of a case that the poem was what made the world modern.

Jeremy Maybe I'm more accustomed to less thesis-driven history, but those kinds of sidetracks into the details and context of events and the people involved are what history is all about. I agree that The Swerve's subtitle suggested a more thesis-driven book and that Greenblatt barely even tried to make a case for De Rerum Natura's singular centrality to Modernity, but I found the content fascinating and well-written regardless of the packaging.

message 3: by Molly (new)

Molly I like sidetracks but these were boring and felt like bromides and caricatures, IMO.

Clay Kallam Perhaps one of the things that made me react negatively was the expectation that I was going to get a book about Epicurus and how his thought impacted the modern world, and instead I got a book that had a lot more about Poggio Bracciolini than I really wanted to know. Of course, if the book had been more accurately publicized, I probably wouldn't have read it ...

Jeremy I can see the frustrated expectations on the basis of the subtitle alone, and have to wonder about the reviews that suggest Greenblatt totally sold the Lucretius-as-world-shaper angle. The book was recommended to me for the detailed account of an early Renaissance book-hunter, with no hype attached aside from the awards, so for me it delivered three stars worth.

With little knowledge of the period other than what Greenblatt presented, I still find his thesis weak; it looks more to me like Epicurus and Lucretius anticipated Modernity than had too profound an influence upon it. Then again, Greenblatt is only proposing a "swerve," which by definition would show itself only subtly, if at all.

Clay Kallam An excellent point about anticipating modernity rather than fueling it ...

Democritus' atomic theory wasn't that popular in his time, but now is trumpeted as an example of Greek genius foreshadowing the future. Of course, some Greek was bound to be right as there were many, many philosophers and many, many theories.

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