By Chet Yarbrough
By: Stephen Greenblatt
Narrated by: Edoardo Ballerini
“The Swerve” won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction and 2011 National Book Award for Nonfiction. This is high praise for Stephen Greenblatt which one may guardedly agree with; i.e. the
guardedness is in the suggestion that the story reveals “…How the World Became Modern”.
“The Swerve” is a book about books and the prescient insight of ancient philosophers that believed something to be true before science could prove it. Greenblatt’s thesis is that Poggio Bracciolini’s discovery of an ancient text changed the direction of human thought. Like suggesting that Lucretius’ insight forged modernity, Greenblatt overstates Poggio’s discovery as the re-direction of human thought. “The Swerve” is not a reflection of “How the World Became Modern”; i.e. it is an iteration of history that hits upon truths based on thoughts that pre-date science. Science is the real beginning of “How the World Became Modern”. Similarly, human thought is an evolutionary; not revolutionary process; i.e. to believe that Poggio’s discovery of Lucretius’s fragmentary poem changed the direction of human thought, though provocative, is simplistic. This is not to denigrate the fascination of Greenblatt’s story in “The Swerve” but to temper the claim that a “Swerve” is “How the World Became Modern”; after all, Lucretius poem, in the end, is a factoid of history, like Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for mankind”.
“The Swerve” refers to misdirection in life; i.e. the formations of ideas that occur by chance that induce a re-direction of thought–Greenblatt’s book tells of an ancient belief in humanism that pre-dates 19th century’ humanism by nearly two millennia.
Humanism is a philosophy of life that questions belief in the divine as the pre-eminent foundation for ethics and morality in mankind. Greenblatt tells how a well-educated papal scribe, with an obsessive interest in ancient texts, manages to find fragments of Titus Lucretius Carus’ (aka Lucretius) writing that 1) denies the uniqueness of man 2) denies creationism 3) predicts the conclusions of Charles Darwin 4) and suggests that the universe is made up of invisible particles that combine in unpredictable ways to form living matter. Not bad, for a person that lived ca. 99BC to ca. 55BC. Lucretius goes on to write that matter survives death as particles in new combinations, totally unrelated to the form of matter that has died (sounds like–Lavoisier’s (1743-1794) theory of the conservation of matter). The journey of discovery for Lucretius’ writing is a story of the fascinating life of Poggio Bracciolini.
Poggio is a scribe for an unscrupulous Pope of the 15thcentury that loses his job when the Pope is imprisoned in Germany. The Pope’s name was Baldassarre Cossa; he became Pope during the Catholic Church’s schism. Three Popes, with different territories, existed during the schism; they competed for hegemonic control of the wealth and power of the Church. Cossa, one of the three, was
Pope John XXIII. He used his position to sell indulgences; i.e. a practice that eventually led to Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation. Pope John XXIII was accused of many crimes and sentenced to prison but was set free by the wealth of his sponsor, the Medici family. Cossa became a cardinal after his release from prison and died soon after.
With Poggio’s loss of employment, he leaves the church to look for a sponsor that would support his book collecting and transcribing obsession. Poggio eventually returns to the church as a scribe of future Popes while continuing his search and transcription of ancient texts. In the course of his journey to, from, and back to the church, Poggio visits a German monastery that has fragments of a poem written by Lucretius.
Greenblatt points to Epicureanism as a precursor of Lucretius’ incredible poem and vision of human life. To this critic, Epicureanism is only a step, a swerve, in the evolution of thought. Epicureanism is associated with living life with pleasure as its objective. Greenblatt denies that Epicureanism is a license for debauchery; i.e. he explains that Epicureanism is liberation from religion’s control of life and one’s fear of death. Greenblatt suggests that Epicurus was not a hedonist but a modest liver of life that practiced moderation in all things.
Of course Epicurus claims the goal of life is pleasure which is the creed of the hedonist but Greenblatt believes that interpretation is a misreading of Epicurus’s practiced philosophy. Walt Whitman said, “Happiness, not in another place but this place…not for another hour, but this hour.” which could be the motto of an Epicurean but it remains as one “Swerve” in an evolutionary thought process that leads nowhere as easily as somewhere.
“The Swerve” is an interesting book that suggests humanism pre-dates 19th century humanist philosophy by 2000 years. Considering Lucretius beliefs in man’s relationship to all things, the absence of a Prime Mover, a prescient belief in evolutionary selection, and particles that make the universe–he seems to pre-date Darwin, 16th century atheism, 18th century philosophy, 19th century science, and 20th century physics. “The Swerve” is quite an amazing story. Hopefully, there are many more swerves in humankinds’ evolutionary journey.