The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Reviewed by Costa Valettas

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In 1417, Poggio Braccolini, ex-papal secretary, seasoned book-hunter and humanist par excellence, discovered a forgotten copy of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura tucked away on the shelf of a German monastery. This epic poem articulates in beautiful Latin the Epicurean philosophy, an ancient Greek intellectual tradition that holds that the world is composed of tiny, indivisible, indestructible atoms in constant motion. The trajectory of these atoms is not linear, but instead very slightly swerved, causing them to combine and collide with each other and to form the complex and ever-changing structures that constitute the material world.

Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve is so named because it argues that Poggio’s discovery was itself a swerve, not this time in the realm of the material, but in the realm of the metaphysical. The discovery of De Rerum Natura, according to Greenblatt, helped to usher in the Renaissance and its intellectual turn to empiricism, thus making Poggio a “midwife to modernity.” A work of masterful storytelling, The Swerve also showcases the tensions between various forms of knowledge production in the course of the development of European intellectual history, while reminding us that much of what we know, or think we know, about the past originates from the intersection of chance and human agency. Aside from these theoretical considerations, The Swerve immerses us in world of Poggio, his contemporaries, and his Roman predecessors, while the immensely entertaining narrative allows us to share the thrill that Poggio himself must have felt as he first laid eyes on that dusty manuscript.

It might come as some surprise that a papal secretary could be so instrumental in the diffusion of a school of thought whose philosophical implications, such as the “pleasure principle,” which holds that one’s goal in life should be to maximize pleasure, and the notion that the soul is material and dies with the body, were considered anathema by the Catholic Church. The contradiction becomes less perplexing when Greenblatt explains that the pre-Counter-Reformation church that was more tolerant of dissidence than its later incarnations, and when we learn that Poggio’s devotion to God was exceeded only by his devotion to classical philology.

The book does, however, have a tendency to oversimplify its analysis. For example, there has in recent years been a great deal of debate about the centuries before the Renaissance. The conventional narrative maintains that there was a “Dark Age,” during which the literary, cultural and scientific inheritance of Antiquity was forgotten and very nearly lost, only to be snatched from the jaws of oblivion by Renaissance humanists and returned to the light of the world by their philological labors. Greenblatt appears to harbor some sympathy for this more romantic view of the Renaissance, though it is now much more frequently argued that it was a much less significant break from the Middle Ages than had previously been thought (if indeed it is possible to delineate these two periods at all). The Swerve seems to attribute excessive influence to the effect of De Rerum Natura alone on the evolution European thought. Though the poem was certainly a monumental find, Greenblatt himself tells us that it was “certainly not responsible for an entire … transformation – no single work was” (12).  Instead, he states that he has “tried in this book to tell a little known but exemplary Renaissance story” (12). Yet he goes on to say immediately thereafter that his book is “the story of how the world swerved in a new direction,” “the key moment” being when Poggio “reached out one day, took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. That was all; but it was enough” (12).

It is difficult to believe that Greenblatt, professor emeritus of history at Harvard, could genuinely subscribe to such a simplistic narrative. It seems more likely that in trying to craft an appealing story for the reader, the author has taken certain liberties with the historical record. There is no doubt that the clever title has come at the cost of some historical precision, but as long as the careful reader interprets Grenblatt’s book in light of his initial warning, rather than his subsequent deviation from it, the central message remains much more faithful to the evidence in question and much more balanced.

The Swerve also serves, if somewhat inadvertently, as a study of the phenomenon of knowledge production. In its simplest form, the concept of knowledge production implies that instead of “rediscovering” the past, historians “construct” it in the present. According to this view, historical knowledge has always been constructed in this way, and has, and likely always will, contain some sort of bias. Historical knowledge depends on the evidence analyzed, the point of view from which the historian approaches their work, and a host of other factors inherent in the process of historical research. In effect, the concept involves breaking with the notion that there can exist an objectively true account of the past. Moreover, Greenblatt’s account of the process by which humanist knowledge developed (through the intentional search for texts, some of which were preserved by the toil of monastic scribes, and others of which were lost in what was essentially process or random selection) reinforces the importance of chance in shaping the parameters for the creation of historical knowledge. Had Poggio and his contemporaries stumbled upon other, now lost manuscripts, the evolution of European intellectual culture might have followed a markedly different path.

In his own narrative, Greenblatt implicitly describes the conflict between a number of processes of knowledge production. Most notable among these is his account of the clash between Catholic “official knowledge,” and humanist knowledge, the latter of which has its roots in classical philosophy. As the humanist challenge becomes increasingly pressing, the Church finds itself on the defensive, creating more knowledge to counter the uncomfortable assertions of humanism. For example, Greenblatt treats in significant detail the process by which the Church entrenches in the minds of its adherents the knowledge that pleasure is sinful, in order to diminish the appeal of Epicurean philosophy and to defuse the threat it poses to the Church’s spiritual monopoly.

The reader might also observe that Greenblatt himself produces a particular narrative (or “knowledge”) of intellectual history for the reader by emphasizing the importance of De Rerum Natura at the expense of many other factors. Moreover, the fact that Greenblatt casts what is essentially a European narrative in a universal light suggests to the reader that the intellectual history of Europe is the intellectual history of the world, a statement whose absurdity needs no refutation. Finally, the author sets up a dialectical opposition between Classical philosophy, as interpreted through the humanist prism, and Catholic dogma. However, the work of authors like Carlo Ginzburg suggests that there were likely other perspectives involved in shaping the intellectual character of Europe during this period. In sum, Greenblatt himself becomes an example in his own study of knowledge production.

The book is by no means a flawless work. For one, the narrative itself, for all its merits, is very misleadingly framed. Moreover, Greenblatt at times provides the reader with some information that is not strictly necessary to support his thesis, and while the interested reader might appreciate the additional context, other readers might find the extra information cumbersome. To this author’s mind, at least, these little anecdotes help the reader envision the cast of historical personages less as abstractions, and more as flesh-and-blood human beings. Indeed, this is one of The Swerve’s winning qualities: it renders tangible the world of the past in a way that few other works can. Moreover, it is visually appealing – while the casual reader will appreciate the color gloss photographs for their vividness and detail, the scholar will be relieved that there are any pictures at all.

 

Though the reader should bear in mind that The Swerve’s focus is skewed by a catchy subtitle, a misleading metaphor, and an ill-advised addendum to the introduction, the book is nevertheless highly recommended. When read with the above qualifications in mind, The Swerve book proves an astute study of an “exemplary” case in the history of European thought. It is eminently readable, witty sometimes, and informative almost always. What’s more, it is suffused throughout with the author’s sense of wonder at the complexity of the human experience, echoing, no doubt, the sentiments of Lucretius himself. It is rare feat indeed to create an experience that is both intellectually rewarding and aesthetically pleasing, but the careful reader will find that Greenblatt has done just that.

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