The OF Blog: 2011 National Book Award non-fiction nominee: Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

Thursday, November 17, 2011

2011 National Book Award non-fiction nominee: Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

But atheism – or, more accurately, the indifference of the gods – was not the only problem posed by Lucretius' poem.  Its main concerns lay elsewhere, in the material world we all inhabit, and it is here that the most disturbing arguments arose, arguments that lured those who were most struck by their formidable power – Machiavelli, Burno, Galileo, and others – into strange trains of thought.  Those trains of thought had once been eagerly explored in the very land to which they now returned, as a result of Poggio's discovery.  But a thousand years of virtual silence had rendered them highly dangerous.

By now much of what On the Nature of Things claims about the universe seems deeply familiar, at least among the circle of people who are likely to be reading these words.  After all, many of the work's core arguments are among the foundations on which modern life has been constructed.  But it is worth remembering that some of the arguments remain alien and that others are hotly contested, often by those who gladly avail themselves of the scientific advances they helped to spawn.  And to all but a few of Poggio's contemporaries, most of what Lucretius claimed, albeit in a poem of startling, seductive beauty, seemed incomprehensible, unbelievable, or impious. (Ch. 8, e-book edition)

Imagine a world where our internet has crashed and petabytes of data about our lives, worldviews, and histories are irretrievably lost.  Envision the scientific method rejected out of hand due to its dangerous potential to undermine certain philosophical views of the world.  Such a place would be radically different within a few generations of this massive change.  Then try to picture someone discovering a long-lost fragment of this past society and realizing that this little scrap piece might overturn currently-accepted views of religion, cosmology, and the very nature of things.

Such a thing did happen in the early 15th century when a former secretary to the disgraced anti-Pope John XXIII, Poggio Bracciolini, discovered a long-lost manuscript of the 1st century BCE poet/philosopher Lucretius' On the Nature of Things, which until that point had appeared only in a few fleeting references in other works.  Discovered only a generation before Gutenberg developed his movable type press, this work was a slow-release detonation that rocked the foundations of late-medieval/Renaissance thought.

Professor Stephen Greenblatt, one of the founders of the literary New Historicism movement, which seeks to contextualize literary works with their times and Zeitgeist, steps back a bit from his main research area of Elizabethan literature to explore the ramifications of this book-length poem/philosophical piece being reintroduced after a millennium.  He breaks his book The Swerve:  How the World Became Modern into a historical component that revolves around Poggio's time and his motives for searching for lost manuscripts and a philosophical one that examines Lucretius' transmission of Epicurean thought and how that philosophy was so alien and enticing to several leading thinkers of the 15th century and beyond.

The eponymous "swerve" is an explanation of ancient Atomist thought.  The world is, according to Lucretius, is composed of a countless number of atoms, which interact in strange ways:

But because throughout the universe from time everlasting countless numbers of them, buffeted and impelled by blows, have shifted in countless ways, experimentation with every kind of movement and combination has at last resulted in arrangements such as those that created and compose our world. (On the Nature of Things, 1.1024-28)

This "swerve," which according to Greenblatt Lucretius variously referred to as declinatio, inclinatio, or clinamen, involves only minute motions.  But what waves are created from these motions!  Nearly-infinite particles merge and mate and clash and rip themselves apart to create new beings, new forms.  This belief, which is derived from some of Epicurus' thoughts on cosmology, has little room for gods (or God).  It is little surprise, as Greenblatt surmises at several points throughout the book, that anything with a hint of Epicurean thought to it, particularly the more "atheistic" ones that focus on the material, concrete world to the near-complete dismissal of the spiritual, was going to be denounced and destroyed by the Church leaders in the immediate aftermath of the rise of Christianity to state religion in the late Roman Empire.  Greenblatt does an excellent job centering the "lost" status of Lucretius' poem, not to mention other fragments of Epicurean thought, around the potential danger they held for the dominant philosophical/religious system in Europe after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the late 5th century.

It is hard to find fault in Greenblatt's presentation, as he builds a persuasive case for the importance of Poggio's discovery through the use of early chapters devoted to reconstructing the dominant religious ideology and the constraints many philosophers of the time operated under (or against) before he lays out in detail just how the rediscovery of Lucretius' poem introduced new ways of thinking into a society that was seeing the reemergence of long-distance markets, both commercial and philosophical alike.  Perhaps Greenblatt could have provided more counter-evidence to test his argument that exposure to Lucretius' Epicurean-influenced work irrevocably changed European thought, but that would be splitting hairs, as most historians would readily admit that the rediscovery of works such as that of Lucretius and other ancient poets and philosophers did have a profound impact on the course of modern philosophy.  In fact, if it weren't for the discovery of such works, it would be almost impossible to imagine our modern world-views developing in the patterns that they did.

The Swerve is one of the best cultural/philosophical histories that I have read in recent years.  Its scholarship is superb and Greenblatt eloquently argues his points without neglecting to provide evidence to support his arguments.  If I had written this review before last night's awards announcements, I would have listed more reasons why I felt this was by far the best of the nominees for the 2011 National Book Award for Non-Fiction, but it did win the award and it certainly is a very deserving winner.

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