Book Review: The Swerve

The Swerve by Stephen GreenblattThe Swerve: How the World Became Modern
by Stephen Greenblatt
W.W. Norton & Company, 2011
356 pages (Hardcover)


Some ideas are heralded with the blast of a trumpet and brazenly ushered in, but some are stumbled upon. In Stephen Greenblatt’s (John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University) now Pulitzer-winning (2012) The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, it is a case of the latter.

Greenblatt’s story of a changing world begins with an inquisitive and yet unsuspecting read of Lucretius’ one-time lost-to-history poem, On the Nature of Things. A dangerous poem, Greenblatt discovered something far ahead of its time—“an account of the way things actually are.” While Lucretius was not a man totally displaced from his context (e.g., “he believed the sun circled around the earth”), he still proposed that which appears to anticipate the modern world.

The stuff of the universe, Lucretius proposed, is an infinite number of atoms…when you look up at the night sky and, feeling unaccountably moved, marvel at the numberless stars, you are not seeing the handiwork of the gods or a crystalline sphere detached from our transient world. You are seeing the same material world of which you are a part and from whose elements you are made. There is no master plan, no divine architect, no intelligent design. All things, including the species to which you belong, have evolved over vast stretches of time.

Lucretius was a firm believer in the laws of nature, that which he thought nothing could violate. Instead “he posited what he called a ‘swerve’…an unexpected, unpredictable movement of matter.” For Greenblatt, the “reappearance of his poem,” which had vanished from time, “was such a swerve.”

Lucretius’ poem was rediscovered by an Italian book hunter, Poggio Bracciolini, who like many book hunters of the Renaissance made his name through the craft of convincing (or as it may be, tricking) monasteries to part with some of their rarest treasures. It is the story of Poggio’s discovery of On the Nature of Things that serves as a canvas for painting the Renaissance world, which was itself also a type of swerve.

The world suddenly, and perhaps unpredictably, took a new direction.

Greenblatt’s voice is vivid and lively, overlaying Poggio’s story and Lucretius’ poem over a rich, ancient, and medieval contextualized history. The reader may be introduced to the occasional Latin phrase, key figures and events, but The Swerve moves smoothly, pulling the reader gently along with its ebb and flow. The book is never burdened by the details.

Greenblatt’s evident and honest passion for Lucretius is what brings the story to life and we are keenly aware of the peril On the Nature of Things faced. “Lucretius’ verses did almost perish,” writes Greenblatt, and “the survival of his work hung by the slenderest of threads.”

No doubt there will be those who find his writing ready-made for a bestseller list or who will object to Greenblatt’s New Historicism. Not all of Greenblatt’s book covers undiscovered ground. However, if you want a fresh way to get at the familiar story elements of the Renaissance and the rise of the modern world, or if you are interested in the underdog story of marginalized ideas, then The Swerve is for you.

On the Nature of Things was not readily embraced.

In December 1516—almost a century after Poggio’s discovery—the Florintine Synod, an influential group of high-ranking clergymen, prohibited the reading of Lucretius in schools…Violators of the edict were threatened with eternal damnation and a fine of 10 ducats.

It is this last part that has a familiar ring to it and is another reason to read about Lucretius; he is imminently relevant. He did not believe in a soul. He did not believe in an afterlife. Perhaps no conversation is more ubiquitous today than those made of the same material that fueled Lucretius’ ancient perspective.

…Lucretius argued, there is no reason to think that the earth or its inhabitants occupy a central place, no reason to set humans apart from all other animals, no hope of bribing or appeasing the gods, no place for religious fanaticism…What human beings can and should do, he wrote, is to conquer their fears, accept the fact that they themselves and all the things they encounter are transitory, and embrace the beauty and pleasure of the world.

This resonated with Greenblatt. “Hidden behind the worldview I recognize as my own is an ancient poem,” he writes, “a poem once lost, apparently irrevocably, and then found.” In a declining religious world, I might add, where the next generation may not be known as Christian or Muslim, but simply and sometimes vaguely as “nones,” Lucretius’ poem will again and unquestionably resonate.

Lucretius did have a “profession of religious belief,” but, insists Greenblatt, he “was some sort of atheist, a particularly sly one perhaps, since to almost all believers of almost all religious faiths in almost all times it has seemed pointless to worship a god without the hope of appeasing divine wrath or acquiring divine protection and favor.”

One can see why Lucretius was considered dangerous and why he is sometimes cited as a forerunner of atheism. And if recent polls are right, then perhaps a new swerve toward atheism is just around the corner.

Patron saint Lucretius will be waiting.

In search of belief changing ideas