Friday, March 8, 2013

The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt

The Swerve is the story of the fifteenth century rediscovery of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura and how knowledge of Lucretius' atomic theory, disbelief in the gods, etc brought the world out of a long period of intellectual decline and "laid the groundwork for the modern world." The Swerve begins with four pages of quotes of positive reviews from all the most important American newspapers and reviewers and on the cover we are told that the book won the 2011 National Book Award AND the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for non fiction. And yet, somewhat ironically considering its subject matter, The Swerve itself is a symptom of the decline in our own culture and the fact that so many learned people could fall for such a shallow book is actually pretty depressing. 
...
The problem with the Swerve, of course, is that it doesn't remotely make its case. The rediscovery of Lucretius' wonderful Epicurean poem in the fifteenth century was not - to quote the subtitle - "how the world became modern". The rediscovery of Lucretius by an Italian monk - Poggio Braccolini - was a tiny contributing factor to a European-wide Renaissance that was much more influenced by a post Black Death economic boom, increased trade with the Ottoman Empire, the invention of the printing press, the invention of modern banking methods, the cultural revolution brought about by Petrarch, Dante and their circle and finally the impact of Christopher Columbus' ill fated trip to Japan during which he bumped into an entirely different landmass.
...
If the critics who reviewed The Swerve so favourably had gone to law school or studied analytic philosophy perhaps they would have noticed that Greenblatt starts making his argument (for the significance of Lucretius in modern thought) about twenty pages from the end of the book and his references in these pages are scant. In the whole history of modern ideas he manages to dig up a couple of letters from Thomas Jefferson (an utterly overrated philosophe in my opinion) and of course he mentions the tragic case of Giordano Bruno. It's not nearly enough I'm afraid. We can run a simple thought experiment: what if Poggio Braccolini hadn't rediscovered the "last remaining copy" of Lucretius in a German monastery in the early 1400's? Well probably the world wouldn't have looked that much different. The Renaissance would have continued on its merry way, Byzantium would have fallen, modern Italian banking methods would have developed, weaving and industry would have prospered in the low countries, printing, painting, Columbus. Near the end of the book Greenblatt confesses in an aside that Poggio didn't in fact find the last remaining copy of Lucretius at all: there were 2 other complete copies of De Rerum Natura that surfaced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries! Sheesh.
...
I was listening to the Nerdist podcast interview with the Warchowski siblings just before Christmas and Lana Warchowski was raving about The Swerve telling the host that she was a big reader (always a clue that someone doesn't read much) and that this was the kind of thing that she liked to read: the story of how one man saved Europe from the Dark Ages. It's a nice story but it's completely bogus: a perfect bogus story for the Whig "great man theory of history" and for those who like their history heroic and linear and simple. Look, I didn't hate The Swerve, it's elegantly written, it's got some wit, but it is slight and if this is the best we can do (as evidenced by the Pulitzer and the National Book Award) then it's another scintilla of proof that the guardians of our sad distracted culture lack any real depth of knowledge at all.