Swerve: A Swing and a Miss

The Swerve

The Swerve

An associate of mine is fond of telling a Thanksgiving story from a few years back, when he was invited to the home of his parents’ wealthiest friend, a classic Southern lawyer and, apparently, a tremendously pretentious git. After several psychically exhausting rounds of egotistical quizzing over current events and semi-obscure vocabularic items, my associate excused himself to the living room in order to lighten his mood by means of a fantastic device he kept in his coat pocket, known in the West as a ‘flask.’ While there, he noticed lying on a shelf with about twenty pages read, a book that piqued his fancy. Its cover displayed classical bust, and the all-caps, italicized title stirred him, as well as the words ‘National Book Award’ and ‘Pulitzer Prize.’

The man who had, five minutes earlier, seriously said to my associate “So you go to Dartmouth, huh? You must be pretty smart. Say, do you know what the word ‘autodidact means? You do? Here’s a harder one: How about ‘sesquipedalian?’”—this buffoon was apparently the type to buy a best-selling book subtitled, ‘How The World Became Modern.’

I am impressed with this fellow’s story every time I hear it, and so had extra reason to pick out The Swerve this holiday season and give it a critical shakedown. I was initially skeptical that The Swerve would really be a compelling argument about how the world “became modern” mostly because I am not sure whether that claim on its own has any tangible meaning. I was more interested to read the book while simultaneously carrying out a mental construction of the type of person who would read this book and think it deserved a prize, and whether any of it was truly warranted.

What is The Swerve, anyway? That was a question I didn’t explicitly ask myself until I’d finished the book, mostly because most books I read answer the question of their purpose naturally. That makes it difficult to introduce except in the most pedestrian terms: “It’s about this ancient poem by a Roman man named Lucretius based on some even more ancient ideas of this Greek man named Epicurus all about how everything’s made of atoms and we should seek pleasure, and how this poem disappeared but this one monk rediscovered it and now it’s a huge deal. But it’s also about a whole lot of other stuff.”

It’s not even clear if The Swerve is even truly a work of history, at least not as I am accustomed to conceive of history. Sometimes the book poses as an actual, evidence-based argument about how the influence of De Rerum Natura (the aforementioned Epicurean poem, penned by Lucretius) actually brought about the modern era—at least, that’s what the subtitle and certain phrases in the introduction appear to indicate. But, in fact, there is absolutely nothing in the book that actually backs up the claim that the rediscovery of De Rerum was responsible in any significant way for the Renaissance. Author Stephen Greenblatt doesn’t present any concrete obstacle that essentially characterized the Middle Ages and hindered the peoples’ enlightenment that was effectively surmounted by the proliferation of De Rerum. He only paints this portrait of the West in the sixteenth century as being this huge, awful place where everyone hated themselves and no one had done anything beautiful or smart since Rome fell. This is a scheme of history that contemporary scholars, especially Medievalists, no longer take seriously, and there has been some vitriolic backlash against Greenblatt for perpetuating the myth.

Greenblatt can’t be wrong about some basic facts, like when De Rerum was written and the fact that no one read it for some hundreds of years and then all of a sudden it showed up in a bunch of people’s libraries after it was rediscovered. But all those people were readerly wealthy people; there’s no evidence that De Rerum became part of popular, pan-European culture such that it could be properly said to have had an effect on the ‘world.’ Nor is it even convincing that De Rerum had any special effect on those individuals. Greenblatt picks out a few examples of later authors, like Thomas More and Montaigne and even Shakespeare, and tries to show how they were influenced by Lucretius’ poem in his later chapter titled ‘Afterlives.’ However, these relationships are highly tenuous at best and, as an avid reader of Montaigne, I can verify that he didn’t get his modernism from Lucretius—he just liked to quote Lucretius a lot to make himself look smart. Montaigne got his modernism from himself, possibly with a little help from Seneca the Younger.

The fact that certain ideas that are found in Lucretius are now part of the modern mindset is interesting to point out, but has no historical value unless you can trace those ideas to Lucretius as their source, such that they aren’t just independent developments. Skepticism about religiosity is, according to Greenblatt’s reading, a major theme of De Rerum, and it was also a big deal in the Renaissance. To me, this is not enough to conclude that these themes had any genetic connection. Lucretius was a vehicle for one of the earliest atomic theories (i.e., simply, that things are made of atoms). But, as Greenblatt admits very hastily, Lucretius did not inspire modern atomic theory. Unsurprisingly, a theory of atoms is not a rare notion and it seems inevitable that even if De Rerum had never been discovered, we would have thought of it anyway.

And even if we hadn’t, it just doesn’t seem like the layman’s belief in atoms plays a big role in his outlook on the universe and his human nature. If we owed atomism entirely to Lucretius, we would still owe him nothing of modernity. Now, Greenblatt points out how Lucretius used atomism to draw some conclusions about life, like how we’re all just made of matter, so nothing matters so we can settle down and stop fretting so much about money and work. But those implications aren’t what you hear about when you learn about atomic theory in class. If you stopped someone on the street and asked if they’d ever thought about how we’re all just made of atoms and isn’t that just the trippiest thing, nine-hundred and ninety-nine out of a thousand respondents would say “Oh yeah, like that thing Neil DeGrasse Tyson says about how we’re all stardust.” One person would say, “Oh yeah, like Lucretius”—and that one person is an ancient philosophy major.

So if Greenblatt was trying to make some profound argument here about how this poem made this profound impact and we all just totally missed it until now, I was profoundly disappointed by his case. I kept waiting as I waded through the nearly four hundred pages for the “and then it HAPPENED” moment, but it never came. This leads me to consider that this isn’t really a work of history at all—after all, Greenblatt isn’t really a historian, he’s a Professor of ‘Humanities’—whatever that means. The book is called ‘The Swerve’ because, according to Greenblatt, the Renaissance represented a rapid turn from one world to another, and even if you are one of the increasing number of scholars who are disputing the credibility of that exaggerated theory (since the Middle Ages were in fact rife with rich intellectual and artistic activity and the oppressive Catholic church didn’t really make everyone hate themselves for being human), then perhaps you’re still willing to concede that the rediscovery of De Rerum was emblematic of that little period in history, even if it wasn’t responsible for it.

Now that sounds fine, but it’s hardly newsworthy. Another thing seems to be happening in The Swerve though: We all know the famous humanists of the Italian Renaissance, like Leonardo and Donatello and all the other Ninja Turtles. But have you heard about Poggio Bracciolini? Probably not, but it seems like Stephen Greenblatt thinks you should. Poggio is, after all, the very man who rediscovered the old copy of De Rerum in a cold German monastery. He also was the author of a number of philosophical essays, many preserved letters, and, owing to his privileged status as a papal secretary, a kind of joke-book sourced from his experiences in the court of the pope. So much of The Swerve is centered on Poggio, his family, his education, his bibliomania, and his political career that it seems at times that maybe the entire purpose of the book is to serve as a kind of vindication for a brilliant Italian thinker who was tragically overshadowed by overrated folks like Da Vinci and Michelangelo.

Even when you add the weak historical strain with the vindication bit, all that’s there is perhaps ten pages of material, and we’re once again left with the question ‘What is The Swerve?’ or, the question I asked myself when I finished, “What did I just read?” In fact, the rest of the book is just a lot of information. Not evidence—this information does not really build a case in any direction or relate itself to a thesis or to subtheses. It’s just a lot of cool stuff: papal intrigue, summaries of the basic ideas of Epicureanism, little vignettes into the history of book production, the story of the charred scrolls containing Greek philosophy found in the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum (one of the other cities obliterated by Vesuvius’ eruption), schisms in the Church, the Library at Alexandria and the legend of Hypatia—it’s all there, and it’s all very cool.

But it’s also a lot of stuff that almost any sophomore classics major who’s taken an introductory Hellenistic philosophy course knows, or a high-schooler who spends a lot of time on Wikipedia. Which betrays the ‘type’ of person I guess The Swerve is really written for: someone who needs to have a ton of background filled in because he or she doesn’t actually know much about the subject of the book. But absorbing and retaining and being stimulated by all that background information makes it difficult to read critically, and so it becomes easy to miss the weakness of the logical joints of The Swerve.

I think that The Swerve is worth reading, if only because you can learn a whole lot of neat facts about papyrus and the inner world of the Catholic Church by doing so. But a reader shouldn’t take it too seriously, nor should a reader let him or herself become susceptible to any enormously broad claims made by a single author in a single book that Western history is the kind of thing that can swerve on the pivot of a single poem.