Friday, March 15, 2013

Book 34: The Swerve

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt
Greenblatt is most famously known for his books on Shakespeare, or at least, that's why I know the name even though I haven't read any of them.  This book explores the rediscovery of antique works in Christian Europe around the time of the Renaissance, and the premise reminded me of Petrarch, a name I vaguely remembered from college history classes.  This book focuses specifically on Lucretius' poem On the Nature of Things and the book hunter Poggio Braccioloni who lived about a generation or two after Petrarch.  I definitely enjoyed the book but I also think the back cover and the title in itself may be a bit misleading regarding the book's topic and argument.
 For example, this is straight from the book description section on Amazon: "One of the world's most celebrated scholars, Stephen Greenblatt has crafted both an innovative work of history and a thrilling story of discovery, in which one manuscript, plucked from a thousand years of neglect, changed the course of human thought and made possible the world as we know it."  However, while Greenblatt choose to focus on this particular manuscript, he doesn't make the argument that it alone changed the world or caused modernity - he makes an argument that it had an influence and a role, but so did several other things.  While I don't want to argue about the importance of Lucretius's work specifically, to me, the book read less as an argument of how Lucretius changed thoughts, and more of an example of how things were changing in general, and this particular poem was used to show the journey that many others would have been taking at this point in time.  On the Nature of Things has some unique viewpoints and perspectives it brought to the table, but the story of its discovery is probably representative of many other works.
The book begins with a personal anecdote of how Greenblatt himself first came to read the ancient poem, and then tells the story of how Poggio Braccioloni discovered the manuscript in an unnamed German monastery in 1417.  From here, Greenblatt backs up to tell the story of Poggio's life, to explain life at the Vatican at this time period (Poggio was a papal secretary; his refusal to take vows meant certain avenues of power were closed, but he still did well for himself), and provide context to the renewed interest in ancient texts, beginning with Petrarch, the Humanist and the elite of Florence, where Poggio rubbed shoulders with several scholars before moving on to Rome.  He also puts the piece in its proper historical context.  Lucretius was a follower of Epicurus, and Epicurean philosophy.  The simple idea is that the most important thing in life is pleasure but not in the way that one would now think upon hearing that term - the emphasis isn't on crazy over the top luxury, but simple pleasures such as doing good, being with loved ones etc.  There is also a big science aspect to it, including the idea that the universe is composed of an infinite amount of atoms that rearrange themselves to create new things.  The philosophy also isn't too concerned with gods - it doesn't say they don't exist, but says they have no interest in humans, and that there is no such thing as an afterlife.  However, while Lucretius (approximately 96BC-50BC) may have been read, this philosophy didn't even necessarily sit that well with ancient beliefs so he was known but not necessarily incredibly well known or influential even in his own time.  From here, Greenblatt discusses the spread of Christianity, and the changing priorities - the libraries of places like Alexandria were partially destroyed, and partially allowed to fall apart as the men and women responsible for maintaining them and their ideas fell out of favor.  It was disheartening to read how in the focus on religion, early Christianity appeared to toss aside the ancient knowledge as seductive and/or distracting.  As a result, many pieces were lost - even now, after concerted efforts of recovery there are many ancient authors who are only known due to being mentioned or cited by other authors though none of their pieces survive.  On the Nature of Things was almost lost, but Poggio happened to discover a copy of a copy of a copy that had been moldering away in a monastery.
After giving all this context, Greenblatt explained what Poggio most likely did with the piece, and notes that he does not appear to have referred to it again beyond telling his friend he'd like it back to read it.  A few people may have read it and it appears to have circulated a bit in Florence and forward from there but it is hard to tell what the initial reactions were or if the poem made much of an impact.  After a chapter that breaks down in very easy terms exactly what scientific and philosophical beliefs On the Nature of Things expresses, Greenblatt focuses the last sixty pages on some philosophers and great thinkers that appear to have been influenced and familiar with the ideas expressed in Lucretius's work.  While it was generally interesting, I'm not sure if I was ever entirely convinced of this poem's importance, partially because many of its ideas are now seen as basic science.  As a result, I'm not sure if the examples used in The Swerve were influenced by On the Nature of Things specifically or other similar works, though Greenblatt doesn't mention the existence or absence of such works.
Overall, I thought it was an informative snapshot of a particular moment and movement in history, and it isn't a story I've read elsewhere in the same detail so I quite enjoyed that part.  My major complaints are the aforementioned misleading statements regarding the marketing and advertising because I don't feel like the book argued how the world became modern or how this poem specifically was the catalyst for such (at least, not a very strong case).  Obviously, Greenblatt showed some people had been influenced by some of its beliefs, but slowly, and as I said, only a few (such as Jefferson) directly quoted or referenced Lucretius or Epicurean philosophy.  My other complaint was the lack of footnotes.  The book had end notes but since they weren't cited or marked in any way on the page, I didn't realize this until I flipped to the end.  This isn't a complaint exclusive to this book, though - it seems like editors or publishers of some of the popular history books don't think the audience care about citations or where information came from, so they just hide it all at the back.  Personally, I would love to have footnotes so I can get those extra details, and I don't have to flip back and forth, but at the least they should make sure the reader is aware that a particular point on a page has a citation or end note.  However, (and I may be wrong) I don't think this was Greenblatt's decision so I can't blame that or even the way the book was marketed given that he even stated in the beginning that Lucretius wasn't the thing that set modernity in motion, just one important piece of many.

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