Stephen Greenblatt’s Swerve

Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the world became modern (Norton 2011)

This book tells of the rediscovery in 1417 of a copy of Lucretius’ poem De rerum natura (Of the nature of Things) as a key moment in the transformation of European culture – in the Renaissance. The preface begins promisingly with a moving account of the author’s own first encounter with the poem as an impressionable young man, but my antennae started twitching when, describing the contents of the poem, it said:

All things … have evolved over vast stretches of time. The evolution is random, though in the case of living organisms it involves a principle of natural selection. That is, species that are suited to survive and to reproduce successfully endure, at least for a time; those that are not so well suited die off quickly.

Hmm, I’ll bet London to a brick that the phrase ‘natural selection’ wasn’t around long before Darwin: even Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of the mechanism, didn’t use the term. And that paragraph manages to suggest the very Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’. It looks awfully as if Mr Greenblatt is a bit over-keen to claim modernity for the poem, and to read the past through an excluding modern lens. A passing reference two pages later to ‘Robert Burton’s encyclopaedic account of mental illness’ (melancholy=mental illness? Really?) confirmed my distrust.

Sure enough, the book’s thesis, that the discovery of De rerum natura changed everything, comes across as a marketing hook rather than a serious argument. But then if you’re writing about something as dry as an ancient Roman philosophical poem, the temptation to play up any conflict or drama (mediaeval monks stupid and repressed / Renaissance humanists bold and clever) and to gloss over inconvenient complexities must be so great as to seem a necessity. In a deeply unsympathetic account of the early development of Christian theology, for example, Greenblatt comes close to saying the theology was formulated as a way of fighting off challenges from Epicureanism in general and Lucretius’s poem in particular, an implausibly narrow claim I would have thought. For the mediaeval Christian church, he tells us in other examples, curiosity was a mortal sin, and the silence during monastic meals was imposed for the purpose of preventing discussion. These assertions probably aren’t flat-out wrong, but it took five seconds with Google to find Thomas Aquinas going on about ‘the vice of curiosity’ in a nuanced way that makes it clear that the phrase has been taken out of context, and I’d like to see a debate about mediaeval monasteries and literacy between Greenblatt and Thomas Cahill, author of How the Irish Saved Civilization.

The book tells a good story. It gives a lively, heart-rending account of the destruction of the vast body of written work built up during Greek and Roman antiquity, and brings home with great force the way it was sheer chance that De rerum natura and many other works survived and were recovered – sheer chance plus the prepared mind of book-hunter Poggio Bracciolini, who knew what he’d found when he saw it on the shelves of a monastery somewhere in Germany. Poggio was fairly famous in his own time as a humanist writer and discoverer of ancient texts. Greenblatt has done us a service in giving us a lively portrait of him.

I’d just written that last paragraph when a link turned up in my Feedly reader to a review by Morgan Meis in n+1. As opposed to this blog post, it’s a proper review which gives a good account of The Swerve‘s argument and then gets stuck into its slipperiness from a better informed position than mine. I recommend the review as a whole, but here’s a quote for those who won’t click through to it:

The end of all Lucretius’s observation and wonder is to reach ataraxia, the point at which we look with indifference at the natural world. We realize we have no control over it and that it doesn’t matter what happens to us anyway. […]

A tremendous amount of desire is expressed in The Swerve. It is the desire, first and foremost, to present the modern age as a definitive solution to the human problem. Greenblatt wants Lucretius to be telling us it is OK to love the world and to be engaged with one another in the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. There is immense joy to be found in that pursuit, Greenblatt thinks, and it is one that human beings have foolishly denied themselves again and again. Greenblatt finds great satisfaction in the fact that a two thousand-year-old poem expresses, in his view, this exact desire. Coming back to Lucretius is thus coming back to ourselves.

But Greenblatt can only make this argument by ignoring ataraxia, the whole point and purpose of Epicurean philosophy.

In other words, someone who knows quite a bit more about the subject than I do has confirmed my sense that the book should be treated warily. Greenblatt is a scholar writing for the masses, and he simplifies, which sometimes leads to distortion. He’s a secularist Jew writing in a US where self-righteous fundamentalist Christians are increasingly prominent in public life, and he goes in to bat for a different point of view, which sometimes leads to significant omissions and distortion. He’s witty, has an eye for the telling anecdote, paints a convincing picture of  life among the humanists employed in the courts of the more or less corrupt popes of the late 14th and early 15th centuries, reminds us that the renaissance didn’t just happen but had to be fought for, and above all whets the appetite for reading Lucretius (whose name, I now remember, was often on the lips of my high school Latin teacher).

Added much later: There’s a heartfelt smackdown of this book by Jim Hinch in the Los Angeles Review of Books of 1 December 2012.

2 responses to “Stephen Greenblatt’s Swerve

  1. Greenblatt defines 17th c Sir Thomas Browne as part of the Renaissance,v. late Renaissance if it all . He also advertises his unfamiliarity with the author’s artistic vision in his editing ‘Urn-Burial’ without its diptych companion ‘The Garden of Cyrus’. Dislike these USA academics who imagine the perspective of everything can only ever be through the narrow prism of their tunnel-vision USA perceptions.

    • Kevin Faulkner: I think you’ve just confirmed my own impression that Steven Greenblatt isn’t primarily interested in writings from the past in their own terms, but in how they relate to (his) current concerns. Is this a distinctively US thing, though? If so, Stephen Jay Gould was a remarkable exception – he argued in many cases that it was a mistake to judge the scientists of the past in the light of our current understandings: a closer look very often gives the lie to quick judgements.

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