Book Review: The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt

Awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction, Stephen Greenblatt’s new book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern gives us a fascinating, if somewhat disjointed, history of the suppression, unlikely survival, and subsequent effect on the Enlightenment of what may be the primary humanist document from ancient Greece: On The Nature Of Things by Lucretius, an extended work of poetry recognized at the time of its writing around 60 B.C.E. as the foremost expression of Epicurean philosophy.

Depending on how you count, this fairly short book (263 pages) tells four to six different stories, although all are related. Greenblatt starts with the story of Poggio Bracciolini, the book hunter who rediscovered the Lucretius manuscript in 1417 in a nearly forgotten German monastery, some 1000 years after it had been thought lost. Greenblatt then explains why so many ancient manuscripts were lost due to a combination of a dedicated effort by the Church to stamp out any teachings that conflicted with its own teachings and the more natural effects of time and physical disintegration.

The story of Greek philosophy is also told with special emphasis on the philosophy of Epicurus (born 342 B.C.E.) – a philosophy based on two pillars of insight that humanists will recognize and now hold dear: first, that Gods play no part in the daily life of human existence, and second, that there is no life after death and therefore what is important is how we live this life. Epicurus fashioned a well-balanced and appealing philosophy based on these insights, and Greenblatt does a solid job of explaining it. This philosophy had real strength in Greek and Roman life for the next 500 years, finding its most famous voice in Lucretius’ On The Nature Of Things. The strength and widespread appeal of the Epicurean philosophy makes the story of the Church’s pointed suppression and physical destruction of manuscripts that espoused it all the more poignant.

Greenblatt’s discussion of Poggio’s rediscovery of the manuscript, its subsequent distribution among the burgeoning intellectual class, and the effect that had on bringing about the Enlightenment and Renaissance is in itself enlightening. After reading about Epicurus’ philosophy and its importance in shaping the humanist movement of the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, one understands why Thomas Jefferson, when asked what his philosophy of life was, responded, “I am an Epicurean.” Indeed one can see that many of the phrasings of our own Declaration of Independence owe their eloquence to this philosophy, something which would shock (and probably be denied by) those today who espouse that the building blocks our nation was founded on were distinctively Christian ones.

Along with Poggio’s story of discovery, Greenblatt also gives us a biography of Poggio himself, a self-made man who worked as basically a chief of staff to a series of Popes, and then goes off into an extended portrait both of the times Poggio lived in and of the years immediately after the discovery of the manuscript.

Greenblatt’s book is written in a clear and engaging style, avoiding the type of academic parlance that could easily have made it a dull read—it is anything but. However, in telling so many different stories it does come across a bit disjointed. One gets the impression that as he tells one story Greenblatt gets caught up in the next before finishing, and then after telling that story goes back to the first, only to be pulled off in yet another direction. But all the stories are fascinating and much of them cover new ground (at least to me).

Most interesting to humanists will be the strength and clarity of the Epicurean philosophy espoused by Lucretius in On The Nature Of Things and just how popular it was in Greece and Rome. Its popularity made it an early target of Christian leaders and historians, leading to a very direct campaign to erase it from history altogether once the Church took over the reigns of power in the 4th and 5th centuries, a campaign that very nearly succeeded until Poggio made his rediscovery in 1417.

Reading Greenblatt’s book made me immediately buy a copy of the original work itself (still not an easy task without the Internet). Hopefully The Swerve will cause others to do the same, and more generally restore into public discourse the simple fact that a broad, strong humanist philosophy is not a new phenomenon, but has existed almost as long as philosophy itself has.