The Swerve

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to review this book. On one hand, I found it frustrating to read. On the other hand, it was a good exposure to a topic I know very little about. In the end, I’m hoping writing about it will help me in my own thinking about the book.

The main thesis of The Swerve is that the discovery of the ancient poem, On the Nature of Things during the Renaissance was instrumental in shaping the thoughts and ideas that ultimately changed the world and ushered in the modern era. The poem, written by Lucretius had been lost until discovered in a monastery by Poggio Barccciolini, a Renaissance book hunter.

First, two disclaimers, of a sort. One is that I am not that knowledgable about the Renaissance so although there were some things in this book that I had issues with, I’m not really able to argue the points confidently. The second is that the worldview of Lucretius is about as diametrically opposed to my own as it is possible to be. I tried to judge the book on its own merits and not because I disagreed with the ideas in the poem.

As to the second point, the author, Stephen Greenblatt made it difficult. The book is very much an ode to the ideas in the poem. So before discussing further, here are some of those ideas as outlined by Greenblatt:

*Everything is made of invisible particles.
*The elementary particles of matter are eternal (neither created nor destroyed) This is the idea that at death our atoms become part of the rest of the universe.
*The universe has no creator or designer.
*The universe was not created for or about humans.
*Humans are not unique.
*Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival.
*The soul dies.
*There is no afterlife.
*Death is nothing to us.
*All organized religions are superstitious delusions.
*Religions are invariably cruel.
*The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.

I disagree with most of those, except for the world being made of tiny particles. However, I’m not going to discuss them in detail here, as I want to focus more on the book itself.

The first issue I had was that Greenblatt equates these ideas with being modern without every really defining modernism. I would define them as a good summary of atheism but I’d argue that atheism does not necessarily equal modernism.

The second issue is that Greenblatt is clearly writing this not only from an athiest perspective but an anti-religious perspective. I will freely admit that many horrors and injustices have been perpetuated in the name of religion. However, Greenblatt chooses to highlight only the parts of church history that go along with his story. So the monks are all anti-intellecutal, hypocritcal or obsessed with self-mutilation and flagellation. Other than just being annoyed by this anti-religious polemic, I found that it made his arguments weaker. For example, his claim is that ancient pagan texts were lost in monasteries but copied over and over by monks who didn’t know what they had. At the same time he emphasizes that if the monks knew what they had they would get rid of it. He never really addresses why if the monks were as close-minded and stupid as he portrays why they put such a priority on copying and keeping texts. Did they know what they had and think it evil but still recognize that it was important so keep it? Did they not know what it was but copied it over and over and kept it out of recognition of the importance of books and learning in general? Or were they just dolts that for some reason spent an enormous amount of effort on copying and preserving ancient texts? And why was it that the rest of the world had allowed these texts to disappear and only the monks had kept them if the monks were the driving force of anti-intellectualism? All of this is sort of glossed over in favor of a story that depicts the worst of the church in every way.

When Greenblatt does admit to a religious person reading Lucretius and responding thoughtfully but in a way that still honors their faith (for example accepting the idea that the world is made of atoms but still believing that there is a creator), he always attributes their adherence to their faith to fear of persecution. He cannot seem to accept that a person could be intelligent, thoughtful, read Lucretius’ ideas and still believe in a God.

The other main problem I had with this book was at the other end of the story, when supposedly the poem is one of the major influences on modern thought. I was greatly disappointed in this part of the book. I never felt that Greenblatt proved his point that this particular poem was really all that important. He mentions figures in history from Newton to Michelangelo to Darwin to Einstein that were supposedly influenced by this poem. However, in only two examples (Montaigne and Thomas Jefferson) does he directly show that Lucretius influenced the person’s thought. In the others he makes assumptions that they would have read the poem or that it was talked about at the time they lived.

A final complaint I had with the book was that the style of endnotes was very frustrating to me. There are no superscipts in the text, only a list at the end of the book of notes with a page number and a snippet of text preceding the note. I hadn’t seen this style before, but then I read another book right after it with the same style so perhaps it’s an accepted (and modern) style. To me it made reading frustrating as I often wanted to look up references for claims that the author was making but had to flip back and forth to even see what text had references. I often found that the things I was looking up wanting to know more about or see a reference for, had no note.

Whew. That’s a long review and if you stuck with me to the end, I’m sure you’d guess that I would not recommend reading this book. On the contrary, I do recommend it. I think it’s important to know about ideas that differ from one’s own. It also has gotten a tremendous amount of press and won the National Book Award. I don’t think its necessary to read award winning books just because someone else said they were award worthy but I do think it’s good to know what ideas are popular or thought laudable in the culture.

2 thoughts on “The Swerve

  1. The idea of reading this appeals to me, though my last attempt to read a book by someone who came from a very different set of beliefs failed miserably. (It was Consilience, by E O Wilson.) I found the arrogance insufferable.

    I dislike endnotes too. They’re so interruptive, and they seem evasive: “Maybe if I hide my notes back here, no one will bother to look too closely at them.”

  2. Pingback: On My Nightstand | Supratentorial

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