Book Review: Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve

Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt’s pleasant ramble through Renaissance Europe, but that’s all

Lucretius’ De rerum natura threatened the Church | Image: Vatican Library

Lucretius for Dummies

I have a little story of my own about the discovery of Lucretius’ philosophical poem On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura). Like Stephen Greenblatt, I came across a cheap copy in a secondhand bookshop, and like him, I dipped into it with surprise and delight.

A couple of days later, expecting a pat on the back for making a start on a text which had not so far appeared on our high school syllabus, I showed the copy to my Latin teacher, a Polish nun. She met my enthusiasm with a stern reprimand. “You’ve no business to be reading that,” she said. “We don’t need ideas of that kind.” And she instructed me to throw the book in the rubbish.

I didn’t, and later, puzzled, I began leafing through it again. I had regarded it as something of literary value, yes, but mainly as a glimpse of the way the ancients thought, without any particular current relevance. It’s true that if you take it seriously, On the Nature of Things is “an abomination to right-thinking Christian orthodoxy,” as Greenblatt suggests and as my Latin teacher surely knew.

But I didn’t take it seriously. Like Greenblatt’s hero, Poggio Bracciolini, who discovered a manuscript copy of it in 1417, I didn’t see, or didn’t want to see, that Lucretius’ poem “threatened [our] whole mental universe.”

Titus Lucretius Carus (ca. 99-55 BCE) was a Roman follower of the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE), the original abomination to Christian orthodoxy avant la lettre. Epicurus, and Lucretius after him, taught that pleasure is good and pain bad, that death is the end of us and there’ll be neither reward nor punishment in any afterlife, that if the gods do exist they don’t care about us, that religion is a delusion designed to keep people simple, that we are not the centre of the universe, that it is infinite, eternal, and purposeless, and that it and we are made up of infinitesimally small and constantly moving, constantly reconnecting (swerving) entities called atoms.

Life is often hard, and this we must accept, but we should enjoy what we can, including sex, intellectual pursuits, and friendship. Essentially, said the philosophers, this mortal world is all we have, and it is enough.

Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) was a scholar and scriptor, a high official at the papal court, and eventually Chancellor of Florence; more significantly for us, however, he was a man with a passion for tracking down the manuscripts of long-lost ancient texts. Greenblatt describes his possible journey to the German monastery of Fulda where he may have found the Lucretius. It is a picturesque, fictional account, and it sets the tone for much of the book, which is long on claims about the world “becoming modern”through the rediscovery of Lucretius, but short on the details of how this might have happened. Early circulation of the poem was apparently very limited, and even the enthusiastic Bracciolini “never associated himself or even grappled openly with Lucretian thought.”

Stephen Greenblatt is a Humanities professor at Harvard, and the book has a friendly undergraduate feel to it, as if the reader were encountering the world of Renaissance Europe for the first time. It is in fact largely a collection of digressions, in themselves not uninteresting, about individuals and events of the time, some of them apparently chosen almost at random.

So, for instance, we hear quite a lot about the snowy isolation of mountain monasteries, papal rivalries, Christian enthusiasm for blood-spattering self-flagellation, the work of notaries in 14th-century Florence, and even the famous buildings that did not actually exist in the period under discussion, but which would one day be built there. Perhaps the book derives from a series of university lectures: this would at least account for its many repetitions, as if the students needed constant reminders that the Catholic Church was powerful in those days, and that a scriptor needed exceptionally good handwriting.

But it doesn’t have much to do with the supposed subject, which is Lucretius’ philosophy and how it became, in Greenblatt’s phrase, “a midwife to modernity”. It’s not as if there weren’t enough to say. The astonishing brilliance of classical philosophy, the determined neglect and, later, the vicious suppression of it in the name of a monstrously corrupt Catholic Church, the heroism of those who fought and in some cases died – hideously – for the right to read and teach the ancient thinking, its eventual re-emergence to engender almost all of modern science, giving us everything from fridges and antibiotics to the exploration of space – what a story this might have made! The disappearance of classical philosophy arguably held us back a thousand years.

But of more than 300 pages, Lucretius’ work itself, or rather, as Greenblatt admits, “a brief list of its elements” occupies fewer than twenty. We are told that it was “eagerly debated in thousands of books”, but we don’t hear any of the debates, and only a handful of books are named which show signs of its influence. It is interesting to know that both Ben Jonson and Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of it, and that “Lucretius’ fingerprints are all over Montaigne’s reflections on two of his favourite subjects: sex and death.” For good measure, Greenblatt includes a couple of Dryden translations of the passages in question, and they’re lovely. But he goes too far in asserting that, under the influence of Lucretius, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet “conspicuously abjure any prospect of life after death”.

Though he writes of the ninth-century Carolingian Renaissance and its “miniscule” script which Bracciolini used as the basis for his own beautiful handwriting, Greenblatt oddly ignores the more important twelfth-century Renaissance, and the role played then by Arab and other Muslim scholars in reintroducing Greek and Roman scientific, philosophical and mathematical manuscripts to Europeans. One half-sentence mentioning Averroës (the Aristotelian philosopher Ibn Rushd) is all he has to say about this mighty moment in Western intellectual history – a cultural swerve if ever there was one.

My old Latin teacher notwithstanding, in our own age of loud, proud narrow-mindedness, a book revealing the origins and continuing relevance of a secular humanist understanding of the world may be exactly what we do need. lists dozens of translations of Lucretius’ brilliant and beautiful poem; you can get one for as little as a dollar. If you don’t need digressions on the development of the italic typeface or the practice of self-flagellation in Renaissance monasteries, you might be better to give Stephen Greenblatt a swerve, and read the original for yourself. ÷


The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
by Stephen Greenblatt
Norton & Co. (2011), pp. 356   

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