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The SwerveThe Swerve: How the World Became Modern

Stephen Greenblatt

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern is a case of popular history done well. It’s intensely well-researched, but written for a popular audience. It tells a particular story, but nests that story well in the broader historical context. Stephen Greenblatt isn’t afraid to do a lot of heavy lifting, but doesn’t need to show off that he’s done the lifting. I get the sense that he’s done ten thousand pages of work and distilled that out into 400 pages of readable story, and left pointers to the rest in the citations and footnotes. It’s the way scholarship is supposed to work.

That said, The Swerve is nonetheless storytelling. Broadly, it traces a single work – On The Nature Of Things by Lucretius – as its ideas re-entered the European canon thanks to the rediscovery of the text by one Poggio Bracciolini of Florence. Greenblatt makes the case that the atomism of Lucretius and the Epicureans gave the Renaissance world a portrait of a mechanistic universe — one ruled not by gods and demons and incomprehensible forces of whim, but rather by discrete particles operating within natural laws. Lucretius didn’t necessarily argue that the gods didn’t exist; he merely argued that they could have no interest or influence in worldly affairs. According to Greenblatt, as the ideas of On The Nature Of Things spread across the world of the European Renaissance, it enabled thinkers like Galileo to probe the natural universe. If the world operates according to natural laws and not supernatural whims, then it can be studied and understood. Predictions can be made and reliably tested. In short, the Dark Ages could finally end.

Of course, there’s a lot more to the story than that. There were rival popes, earthly empires, political intrigues to influence and survive, patrons to satisfy and heretics to burn. One of the great ironies of the story is that while the Epicureans would eventually be decried as heretics, the survival of the Epicurean texts was due almost entirely to the efforts of religious copyists who toiled in secluded monasteries to copy and preserve the ancient Latin texts, despite often having little understanding or sympathy for the texts they copied. While they may have considered the pagan ideas expressed within to be dangerous, as aspiring Latinists they couldn’t deny the value of the classical Greek and Roman texts as far as language and rhetoric went. (Even the great church fathers like Thomas Aquinas had spilled massive amounts of ink trying to get Aristotle to square with Christian doctrine.)

There are an awful lot of details lost to time that Greenblatt just needed to invent. We know that Poggio found On The Nature of Things in the scriptorium of some monastery, but we don’t know which one. For the sake of the story, Greenblatt sketches in the missing details, tells us where Poggio may have found it, how the conversation with the abbot might have gone, how Poggio may have handled getting access and copying the text. It’s a lot of speculation, but to his credit Greenblatt frames it as speculation, and provides the citations that serve as the basis for that speculation.

Nonetheless, that kind of speculative storytelling is the way that history gets written, for better or worse. Our stories of nearly all significant historical figures depend heavily on imagined reconstructions, simply because the mundane things they did in their youth didn’t seem worth recording; they only became history in the retelling once the world had been changed. That’s the nature of history, and The Swerve does no worse than any other history in that respect.

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