The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt is subtitled “How the World Became Modern” but I don’t think that’s accurate.  The Swerve is a history of a book, On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, born 99 BCE and died 55 BCE.  And On the Nature of Things is about Epicureanism, which is based on the teachings of Epicurus, a Greek philosopher born 341 BCE and died 270 BCE.  The Swerve is about the evolution of an idea that’s taken a long time to emerge.  I would have subtitled the book, “The Evolution of Atheism” – although that wouldn’t be a perfectly accurate subtitle either.  Epicureanism is not atheism, but the roots of atheism lies in Epicureanism.  Epicurus and Lucretius figured gods might exist, but they also thought the gods didn’t care about us, and religion was all a bunch of hooey that people used to fight their fear of death.

swerve

What The Swerve tries to chronicle is the idea that religion has held a tyrannical grip on mankind for thousands of years and Epicurus and Lucretius were among the first to say, “Hey, religion is all nonsense and reality is much different from what religion says it is.”  Lucretius wrote all this up in his book On the Nature of Things, but the Catholic Church suppressed his ideas and the book became forgotten for 1400 years until On the Nature of Things was rediscovered in January 1417 by Poggio Bracciolini.  Bracciolini was a humanist scholar and papal secretary, and The Swerve is his story too.  Bracciolini made copies of On the Nature of Things that went on to inspire many of the great men of the Renaissance, and many more great thinkers since then.  Thus, the subtitle, how the world became modern, or how I would think of it, how atheism took root.

I’m an atheist, so this is a thrilling history for me.  If you are a theist, and among the faithful, The Swerve might be more challenging to your faith than The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, even though it’s not about atheism and skepticism.  I’ve always found studying the history of the Church to be more undermining of its ideas than attacking its cherish beliefs directly.  The Catholic Church does not come off well in this story, and Greenblatt isn’t even trying to be critical.

Just the stories of Hypatia (d. 415), who was murdered by a Christian mob, and Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) who the Inquisition burned at the stake is enough to make me judge the Church harshly, but the stories on several of the Popes and practices at the Papal Count are downright damning.  And the history of Catholic Church destroying libraries, burning books and suppressing ideas are acts of evil against humanity in my mind.

Most people think of early Christians as those meek folk eaten by lions in the Roman coliseum.  The reason the Romans persecuted Christians was because those early Christians refused to coexist with other religions and demanded their religion be the only true one.  And for the first four centuries of the Christian era, it was about one group of Christians stomping out other Christians in a survival-of-the-fittest theological free-for-all.  The orthodox Christianity we know today exists because of it’s aggressive tactics on fighting heretical Christian sects.  Not only did they use book burning, but they also used forgery, smear tactics and killing to get rid of the ideas and thinkers they didn’t like.

In terms of thought control, the Catholic Church makes Communist regimes look like children at play.  And I don’t want people think I’m attacking just the Catholic Church, but it was the only church during this time period.  The Catholic Church inspired violent fanaticism like we see in Islamic countries today.  The mob that attacked Hypatia acted just like the Islamic mob in Afghanistan recently when they went on a rampage after the Koran was burned.

It’s a miracle that a copy of On the Nature of Things survived 1400 years of the Catholic Church, and when it was rediscovered that it wasn’t immediately destroyed and all the people who had read it killed.  If the church leaders at the time had known what it really meant they would have done that.  However, it was seen as a ancient poem from Classical Rome that reflected Greek philosophy.  After Islam was pushed out of Spain, Greek philosophy was rediscovered by the Catholics and re-interpreted for Christian philosophy.  Stephen Greenblatt does cover how some of the faithful tried to re-interpret On the Nature of Things to make it Christian, but it took them awhile to realize what an explosive book they had to deal with, and they failed.

A good portion of the narrative in The Swerve is about Bracciolini’s book hunting, and about the rise of humanism in the early days of the Renaissance.  Smaller portions of the book deal with Rome at the time of Lucretius and how On the Nature of Things influenced people after its rediscovery.   One of the more fascinating parts of the book deals with the Villa of the Papyri library at Herculaneum.

This kind of book history is delicious reading for me, and I wouldn’t have minded if the The Swerve’s 263 pages had run to a 1,000.  Greenblatt provides almost 70 pages of notes and bibliography for those who want to read deeper into this history, and I do.  This is one of those books I wish PBS would make into a 10 part series.

The Ideas of Epicurus and Lucretius

It is hard to separate the ideas in On the Nature of Things from originating with Lucretius or belonging to his philosophical hero Epicurus.  And it will hard for me to separate the details I learned from reading The Swerve and the actual details in On the Nature of Things.  I bought an audio edition of On the Nature of Things to listen to, but I haven’t heard it yet, plus I’m going to listen to an English translation.  This is one time where I wished I knew Latin so I could read the original and decide for myself.  The concepts Lucretius puts forth are amazingly modern and even prophetic when you realize that science wouldn’t back him up for more than sixteen centuries.  His basic beliefs were:

  • The universe is a physical reality made of atoms and there are no metaphysical worlds
  • Everything that happens in the physical world have explanations that can be understood – there is no magic
  • Religion is make believe and a delusional system to sooth people’s fear of death
  • We are not immortal.  We die.  The universe is eternal, but not everything in it.  There is no heaven.
  • Everything in the universe is made of atoms and their properties dictate the nature of things
  • We should accept that we are going to die and learn to appreciate the life we have
  • Avoiding pain and pursuing pleasure is natural – but he didn’t advocate hedonism.

You can read the poem here at Gutenberg, but it takes effort.  Here is a sample of the English translation.

                            Whilst human kind
     Throughout the lands lay miserably crushed
     Before all eyes beneath Religion—who
     Would show her head along the region skies,
     Glowering on mortals with her hideous face—
     A Greek it was who first opposing dared
     Raise mortal eyes that terror to withstand,
     Whom nor the fame of Gods nor lightning's stroke
     Nor threatening thunder of the ominous sky
     Abashed; but rather chafed to angry zest
     His dauntless heart to be the first to rend
     The crossbars at the gates of Nature old.
     And thus his will and hardy wisdom won;
     And forward thus he fared afar, beyond
     The flaming ramparts of the world, until
     He wandered the unmeasurable All.
     Whence he to us, a conqueror, reports
     What things can rise to being, what cannot,
     And by what law to each its scope prescribed,
     Its boundary stone that clings so deep in Time.
     Wherefore Religion now is under foot,
     And us his victory now exalts to heaven.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a nice summary of Lucretius and his ideas from On the Nature of Things, and how the book is structured.

Alternate History

What would life be like in the 21st century, if Lucretius’ ideas had caught on 2,000 years ago instead of Christianity?  That instead of getting caught up in a heaven craving fantasy we all started studying reality to see how it works.  What if the age of science had begun sixteen centuries earlier?  Greenblatt wants to subtitle his book “How the World Became Modern” but we’re not all Epicureans yet.  Religion still controls the minds of the majority of the human minds on Earth.  It keeps the faithful from seeing reality. For example, global warming.  We’re on a self-destructive path, but the faithful refuse to see that because they are still blinded by reality distortion field of religion.  People who believe like Lucretius are a minority.  But what if they were the majority?

JWH – 3/10/12

3 Responses

  1. I’m guessing that the poem was better in the original Greek. :)

    Seriously, that does sound like an interesting book, Jim.

  2. I’m currently reading it and enjoying it! A French professor would probably have written a dry text about the whole affair ; this is as lively as the time it describes.

  3. [...] The Swerve (2011) – Stephen Greenblatt [...]

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