Review of “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern” by Stephen Greenblatt

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

Many scholars of history or art consider the Renaissance to be a relatively short period of time (roughly the 15th and 16th centuries) when educated Europeans experienced a substantial and sudden change (a “swerve”) from a deeply religious weltanschauung to one more secular or scientific. In The Swerve, Stephen Greenblatt, the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard, writes eloquently about Western Europe as it underwent that change of worldview. He begins with describing the (largely religious) preconceptions generally held prior to the swerve. He detours through the history of book collecting, papermaking, medieval libraries, the importance of penmanship before the invention of the movable type printing press, and the sociology of monasteries and the monastic movement. [This may sound dry, but it contains much interesting information, such as the extreme value of writing material and the fact that monastic scribes used a mixture of milk, cheese, and lime as “whiteout” for mistakes.]


The central figure of the book is Poggio Bracciolini, a secretary to the first Pope John XXIII. In 1417, Poggio unearthed in a German monastery a copy of “De Rerum Natura” (“On the Nature of Things”) by Lucretius, a 7,000-line epic poem which had been lost for more than a thousand years. Lucretius, born in 99 BCE, was not the most original of thinkers, but he wrote in beautiful Latin, and he rearticulated the theory of atomism first posited by Leucippus and Democritus and further developed by Epicurus. As Greenblatt tells it, Poggio’s rediscovery of Lucretius introduced to 15th century Europe the concept of that all things were composed of combinations of eternal, indestructible atoms moving about in the “void.”

Lucretius circa 55 BC

Lucretius circa 55 B.C.

The Roman Catholic Church at first thought atomism was a dangerous concept because it was thought to contradict (or at least make less tenable) the concept of transubstantiation, which had been so painfully analyzed and articulated by Thomas Aquinas. Borrowing from a distinction made by Aristotle, Aquinas argued that the host consecrated at mass maintained only the “accidents” of bread, while its “substance” underwent a change into the body of Christ. The Church officially adopted Aquinas’s concept at the Council of Trent (1545-1563). But atomism absolutely denied the distinction between “substance” and “accidents,” and thus threatened Aquinas’s intellectual edifice. If the host were merely a specific arrangement of atoms, just how could it be turned into the body of Christ, which had been an entirely different arrangement of different atoms?

De Rerum Natura

De Rerum Natura

“De Rerum Natura” also contradicted another seminal church theologian, Augustine of Hippo, whose view of man’s status in the world dominated medieval perceptions. Augustine had emphasized man’s “fallen” nature. He wrote that the road to salvation required men to overcome their natural desires, to refrain from seeking pleasure (especially the sexual kind), and to perform nearly constant penance. On the other hand, Lucretius, picking up from Epicurus, taught that there was no afterlife and that happiness could be obtained only by seeking pleasure. [It should be noted that Epicurus was not a total hedonist or debaucher—his notion of pleasure was a modest (one might say “sensible” or “temperate”) one, something like Aristotle’s search for eudemonia.] Lucretius wrote that humans can and should conquer their fears, accept the fact that they and all things they encounter are transitory, and embrace the beauty and pleasure of the world.

Roman marble bust of Epicurus, 341 BC - 270 BC

Roman marble bust of Epicurus, 341 BC – 270 BC

Greenblatt contends that right about the time Poggio returned to Italy from Germany with his copy of “De Rerum Naturum,” Western Europe underwent what Lucretius called a “clinamen” [the word is derived from the Latin clīnāre, to incline] or swerve —an unexpected, unpredictable movement.” He avers:

“Something happened in the Renaissance, something that surged up against the constraints that centuries had constructed around curiosity, desire, individuality, sustained attention to the material world, [and] the claims of the body. The cultural shift is notoriously difficult to define, and its significance has been fiercely contested….[I]t helps to account for the intellectual daring of Copernicus and Vesalius, Giordano Bruno and William Harvey, Hobbes and Spinoza.”

Discussion: It should be noted that many experts take issue with Greenblatt’s contentions. They decry his depiction of the Middle Ages (at least after the 12th century) as overwhelmingly dark, ignorant, and superstitious. His portrayal may be vivid and fascinating, but closer to caricature than fact.

From Britannica:  A French scholar works on a manuscript in a monastery, in a painting from about 1480. During the Middle Ages, monasteries and cathedrals were the guardians of classical learning, and many had large libraries.

From Britannica – A French scholar works on a manuscript in a monastery, in a painting from about 1480. During the Middle Ages, monasteries and cathedrals were the guardians of classical learning, and many had large libraries.

More critically, Greenblatt’s suggestion that Poggio’s discovery led to the Renaissance is anathema to some thoughtful historians. While Greenblatt makes some modest disclaimers about one poem causing an entire movement, he gives mixed signals in that regard. He writes, for example:

“A short, genial, cannily alert man in his late thirties 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.”

And certainly the subtitle of the book, “How the World Became Modern”, lays bare his mind set. The publishers’ blurb, for which we probably should not blame Greenblatt, goes even further:

“The copying and translation of this ancient book, the greatest discovery of the greatest book hunter of his age, fueled the Renaissance, inspiring artists such as Botticelli and thinkers such as Giordano Bruno; shaped the thought of Galileo and Freud, Darwin and Einstein, and had revolutionary influence on writers like Montaigne and Shakespeare, and even Thomas Jefferson.”

Engraving of Poggio Bracciolini - prime mover, or one of many?

Engraving of Poggio Bracciolini – prime mover, or one of many?

That encomium clearly jumps the shark. All those great thinkers were influenced by many movements and thinkers besides Lucretius. It could even be argued that Greenblatt saw the impress of others, such as Cicero, and somewhat arbitrarily (or at least unjustifiably in terms of the evidence) attributed them to Lucretius. Many historians, for example, have credited the onset of the Renaissance to the discovery of Cicero’s letters by Petrarch in the 14th Century.

Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106 BC to 43 BC

Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106 BC to 43 BC

Cicero’s writings on Greek philosophical systems not only profoundly affected European ideas in the early Middle Ages, but are said to have inspired Lucretius! In fact, Petrarch is considered by many to be the “father of the Renaissance” by stimulating much of the humanist philosophy that characterized it. The list goes on: in the mid-16th Century, the works of Sextus on skepticism were translated into Latin, and these ideas too were said to have profoundly modified the course of religious thought in the late Renaissance.

Italian scholar Francesco Petrarch 1304-1374 takes the prize for headgear...

Italian scholar Francesco Petrarch 1304-1374 takes the prize for headgear…

The point is that many factors went into the gradual efflorescence that characterized the Renaissance and inspired later thinkers. Greenblatt’s reliance on the shoulders of just one giant isn’t warranted.

Evaluation: When I first encountered this book, I thought the author had overemphasized the importance of the discovery of “De Rurum Natura,” merely using it as an excuse to write a book about the Renaissance. I still think he overstates his case, but a second reading showed that his thesis was somewhat more nuanced and measured. Greenblatt doesn’t contend that the discovery of Lucretius caused the Renaissance, but he does say, “This particular ancient book, suddenly returning to view, made a difference.” With that, I can agree. The book is well-written and replete with interesting philosophical analyses. If it inspires readers to read more about medieval history and philosophy, so much the better.

Rating: 3/5

Published by W. W. Norton & Company, 2011

Note: This book received the 2011 National Book Award, the 2011 James Russell Lowell Prize, and the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.


About rhapsodyinbooks

We're into reading, politics, and intellectual exchanges.
This entry was posted in Book Review and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Review of “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern” by Stephen Greenblatt

  1. Beth F says:

    I’ve been wanting to read this but finally passed it along to my family, realizing that I just can’t read everything. Sounds like a worthwhile read but that I’m not missing too much.

  2. Stefanie says:

    I read this not long after it came out and very much enjoyed it. Greenblatt is good at telling a story and making all the players come to life I think. Could it have been a little more nuanced? Sure. But its audience isn’t an academic one so I didn’t mind. Nice review!

  3. BermudaOnion says:

    I can’t believe Jim read this twice! I have a feeling I’d have to read it more than that, though, to really understand it. I can just imagine the conversations you two brains must have!

  4. sandynawrot says:

    It says something that Jim read this twice. Definitely as you talk about it, it sounds interesting, but I’m not sure I would have picked it up. I need to read more books like this though, I might learn something.

  5. Cipriano says:

    What an amazingly thorough review of this book that I, too, recently read. I must say that you reflect my feelings about it pretty much exactly — namely that the premise itself is a bit overstated or exaggerated. There is no doubt that De Rerum Natura was a prescient and influential work of art — but so often I had the feeling that Greenblatt was running a bit amok when it came to the alleged magnitude of its effect.
    For me, by far the most important chapter was the eighth one, where he sort of distilled the CONTENT of the poem itself — I found myself more interested in learning about the ORIGINAL author’s ideas, than in the [seemingly] overly speculative conjecturing of the current one. I don’t know how to put it, and I’m aware that any modern author must employ a fair amount of interpretive embellishment when discussing such remote historical “fact” — but too often I was suspicious that Greenblatt’s own reason[s] for writing The Swerve superseded or even supplanted the material in question.

    • Cipriano says:

      By way of just adding to what I have said above, I thought of the book I’m currently reading [The Name of The Rose, by Umberto Eco]. It made me think that certain elements of The Swerve would do well as a novel. In the preface to Name of The Rose, Eco tells of how he discovered, in the late 1960’s, a book written by a certain Abbe Vallet which “claimed to reproduce faithfully a fourteenth century manuscript that, in its turn, had been found in the monastery of Melk….” etc.
      This discovery [of Eco’s] led him to write his fictional account of a series of murders that take place in a Franciscan abbey in Italy. [Interestingly enough, the events of Name of The Rose take place around a century before Poggio would have unearthed, in a monastery, De Rerum Natura.] I guess my point is that Eco makes no claim to be faithfully reproducing history, but in his fictionalization of something he originally read [as Greenblatt’s book also opens with his own discovery of an obscure copy of De Rerum Natura]… in his fictionalization, Eco recreates for us the gist of the Abbe Vallet’s “original” re-telling. And we learn all about an actual piece of history without having to be suspicious of accuracy, etc., knowing that it is fiction, up front. Perhaps the gist of The Swerve could have been tackled along these lines.

  6. Whoa! Way over my head 🙂

  7. stacybuckeye says:

    My husband might like it.

  8. JoAnn Grasso says:

    I bought this book last month but haven’t read it. After reading this excellent review (with awesome photos), I’ve decided not to read it — ever. Life is short. Thank you! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s