Book 3; Continent: Europe

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

  • 356 pages (263 without Acknowledgments, Notes or Index)
  • Manageable chapter lengths for a cup of coffee, but not a great read for bus or train commute because the content is honestly not as interesting as people-watching

Well, I had said I wasn’t going to write a negative review because I don’t stick with books I don’t like. I stuck it out with this one because I was at least exposed to some ideas and writing that I didn’t know much about.

Greenblatt’s book is about the recovery of one specific poem by an ancient Greek philosopher by the name of Lucretius, whom I had never heard of. Much of the book is about the philosophy embraced by Lucretius and his teacher, Epicurus (yes, as in “epicurean”). Now, I dropped my college philosophy class after the first session (during which the instructor had asked the class if it would be ethical to eat chickens if they were sentient). Consequently, this book was rough going for me.

Lucretius wrote a very long poem called On the Nature of Things about the makeup of the universe by minute, discrete particles called atoms and all the consequences of having everything be composed of atoms. Since Greenblatt understandably only gives us the Cliff’s Notes version of “atomist” thinking, it’s not 100% clear to me how Lucretius concluded from matter being made up of atoms that:

  1. No divinity , if existing, pays any attention to mortal man.
  2. There is no afterlife, so pursuit of pleasure is the only reasonable goal for humankind.
  3. The Earth is not the center of the universe.

That said, he outlined some very important ideas (many more than the few above) that influenced his contemporaries and other thinkers for generations, until his work was lost during the medieval period.

Enter Poggio Bracciolini, personal secretary to the pope and book-hunter in the early 15th century. Book-hunters like him were learned men whose excellent Latin and Church connections allowed them access to the monastery libraries where much of the recorded thinking by the ancients lay in decay. Poggio found and copied On the Nature of Things in 1417. In doing so, he was midwife to the rebirth of this poem’s ideas, many of which sparked thinking by names we know today—Copernicus and Machiavelli, for example.

What made this book a struggle for me was the author’s unbridled enthusiasm for Lucretius’ work and how much of the book is spent describing the myriad ways church leadership over the centuries has suppressed this particular work and others like it. Nothing he said is untrue, I should point out: Christian church leadership has absolutely burned books and executed heretics of various sorts over the centuries.

It’s just that a substantial chunk of the book has a strong “shame on Christians for being closed-minded” undercurrent. As a modern Christian, I was starting to feel a bit defensive about other people’s bad behaviors from as much as a millennium ago and a continent away. Let me state for the record: I am absolutely not going to come over to your house and burn whatever I don’t like on your bookshelves (possible exception being Dan Brown novels—but for reasons of taste, not heresy).

At any rate, what I did get out of the book was at least a nodding familiarity with some of the more important schools of thought among ancient scholars. Plus, Greenblatt does a nice job of connecting several Renaissance thinkers with the ancient bodies of work they tapped for their own inspiration. Basically, the “swerve” to which Greenblatt refers in the title is this connection of ancients to thinkers centuries later, and it is meant to be a wordplay, as Lucretius’ Latin terms for a “swerve” influenced how matter organized itself. My head hurts, and I’m never going to read it again, but at least I learned something.

Photo credit: Lawrence OP / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

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3 thoughts on “Book 3; Continent: Europe

  1. We studied Lucretius’ work in Jack Simon’s “Great Books Club”, when in high school.

    When teaching chemistry, I shamelessly borrowed from Lucretius for my “little elf theory.” It’s only slightly involved, but attempts to clarify just exactly what a theory is and isn’t.

    Nice piece of writing…

    —Dad

    • Leave it to Mr. Simon to come up with that as a “great book” since it wasn’t going to make the reading list for the school district. Naturally, had no exposure…ignorance of Lucretius probably factored into my happy childhood. Yuck.

  2. Pingback: Another Favorite from 2012 « History Reading Challenge

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