Thursday, December 15, 2011

Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern has been among the books that I’ve most enjoyed reading over the past couple of weeks.  I liked Greenblatt’s Will in the World, a speculative effort to tell the largely unrecorded life of Shakespeare, and consider him one of the best contemporary non-fiction writers. Still, I think Greenblatt’s rich historical imagination sometimes carries him to views that are entertaining but dubious.
The Swerve tells the story of the loss and rediscovery of one of the world’s great literary treasures, De Rerum Natura [On the Nature of Things], written by the Epicurean Roman poet Lucretius. Greenblatt’s account begins with the recovery of a medieval copy of the poem by the Italian humanist Poggio Bracciolini, and moves back and forth between the fifteenth century Italian Renaissance and the ancient world in which Epicurus formulated and Lucretius poetically expounded an atomistic, materialistic world view. In the course of the story, Greenblatt makes stops in the decay and end of the Roman Empire and in the Middle Ages.  He displays an impressive ability to carry a clear and compelling narrative through so many diversions.  The book is a fascinating reminder of how little of the vast body of ancient literature remains to us today and how tenuously what we have survived. For me, also, it implicitly posed a question of current importance: what happens to the culture of a civilization when people lose interest in reading?
As much as I like the book, though, I question the claim that somehow this single philosophical poem played much of a part in making the world modern. While materialism did indeed become one of the major philosophical currents of modernity and atomism became part of modern sciences, I don’t see any evidence that the reading of De Rerum Natura played much of a part in these trends.  Greenblatt appears to suggest that because the poem contained ideas widely associated with the post-medieval world, the poem was somehow the source of these. That’s not a very sound approach to historical causation.
The Swerve also offers a somewhat simplistic view of what modernity is. Even the Renaissance, which the book portrays in somewhat conventional fashion as the origin of modernity, carried diverse and sometimes conflicting trends. The literary movement that later became known as humanism was distinct from the scientific Renaissance, which may well have owed more to late medieval scholastic Aristotelianism than to the rediscovery of ancient writings. Many of the later political and economic trends, including the rise of representative democracy and the market economy, were arguably much more closely connected to theological currents than to materialistic thinking. Greenblatt tells such a good story that readers need to watch that the narrative does not sweep them across some big gaps in its claims.

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