History, written well, can be just as thrilling as a fast-plotted action novel. I have read many books that treat history like a detective novel and that are able to hold the reader’s attention all while educating him. Books like,Guns, Germs & Steel, First Family: Abigail & John Adams, The Mother Tongue: English & How it Got That Way and Tyndale all manage the balance between page turner and academic work. While many books can master one of the two, most cannot combine both.
My most recent historical read is The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt. The book chronicles the story behind the 15th century discovery of an ancient text. In 1417 a papal secretary, Poggio Bracciolini, made an amazing discovery in a German monastery. What he found was a manuscript of a long-lost classical poem, Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of the Universe”). Greenblatt tells this tale as a way of supporting his primary thesis: that Lucretius’s poem is the origin of the Renaissance and, in effect, our modern world.
This connection has some merit. Lucretius was a student of the Epicurean philosophy which famously intuited the existence of atoms and believed in a very scientific view of the world. I remember reading Lucretius in college where we used his poem as translation material, and his talent as a writer is clear. His poetry can be ranked among the other classical giants, Homer, Virgil & later, Dante. However, unlike his celebrated compatriots, the Epicurean influenced Lucretius was often shunned rather than honored. In fact, Epicureans were often persecuted because their beliefs essentially made them atheists in very religious society.
Greenblatt is an excellent writer and he clearly knows his material. The Swerve is a short and fairly quick read for the everyday reader. He seems to have the page turning aspect of historical writing down pat. The discovery of Lucretius reads like part Indiana Jones and part Dan Brown novel. While this book was an easy enough read, and parts of it were genuinely interesting, some things kept getting in the way of my giving it a completely positive review.
The Swerve commits two fatal errors in this reviewer’s opinion. First, he delivers an essentially “pop” version of history. By this I mean it acts as a brief survey course rather than provide any real new insights. Second, Greenblatt lets his obvious biases color his interpretation to the point where one has to question some of his thesis. His veneration of Classical Greece and Rome and clear disdain for Christianity becomes an overarching meme of the book. (Full disclosure- I was a classics major in college and grew up Catholic, so I can sympathize with both sides here. What I find most egregious is Greenblatt’s utter one sided argument.)
First, I kept getting the feeling that what he had was a really strong essay dressed up as a book. He uses the basic framework of the discovery to go off on a few different didactic tangents, such as how ancient libraries work, how codexes were created and how the Vatican did business during the Great Schism. All these topics are interesting in and of themselves, but Greenblatt uses his time here to give the most cursory of glances. It is a meandering paraphrase of others’ research. For instance, if you are interested in the development of the ancient library, the birth of codexes or how books were saved you’d be better off reading Libraries in the Ancient World by Lionel Casson. Greenblatt does no more than provide Cliff Notes summaries of vaguely connected histories to fill out his text.
All of his side bar history clouds the fact that his premise- that Lucretius’s poem brought with it the modern secular world view- has some significant holes in it. The Epicurean worldview held that there was no soul, no afterlife, and that the best life one could live was essentially one that revolved around the study of philosophy and the striving for pleasure over pain. We can certainly see how modernity is influenced by this way of thought, but the Renaissance that followed fast upon the discovery of On the Nature of Things, was one of striving and progress, not one of gentle and refined pursuits.
The author subscribes to the oversimplified view that the Dark Ages lost all that was perfect and beautiful from the classical world and once the classics were rediscovered the world was once again on the path to perfection. Reality is rarely as simple as that.
The other issue I had with the book was the author’s clear bias against the Catholic Church and his blind adoration of the classical world. He often went out of his way to describe a kind of infamous “greatest hits” of all of the abuses which lead to The Reformation. Greenblatt is a professional and his facts are certainly accurate, but his continuing diatribe against the evils of the church get in the way of his main objective, and to be honest get a bit heavy handed.
He goes on at length about a Christian revolt that lead to the eventual destruction of the famous Alexandria Library, complete with graphic details of violence done to the pagans. All of this is true and clearly disturbing, but no more disturbing than the horrors perpetrated against the early Christians by Greenblatt’s revered Roman aristocracy. He enjoys romanticizing how the ancient philosophers lived, enjoying a simple and refined life behind their garden walls, but never once mentions the enormous issue of slavery that buttressed and made possible this lifestyle. History is not a case of good guys versus bad guys, but flawed humans on all sides striving to understand how to live best.
The author’s clear contempt for religion clouds his theme. It causes him to overlook important aspects of history in order to make the Lucretian discovery the pivot point to modernity, when in fact history is far less linear. Hundreds of years before the rediscovery of Lucretius many Christian writers like St. Thomas Aquinas and Dante incorporated philosophical rationals for pleasure and love from classical philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato. One can easily imagine these trains of thought leading to the Renaissance just as easily as Lucretius, since they were certainly better know to scholars at the time. Yet Greenblatt makes no mention of this.
Overall, The Swerve is an OK read as far as pop history goes. I think if he narrowed his focus a bit it would have been better. With this in mind I am actually looking forward to reading his earlier book on Shakespeare as I think his style and persuasive powers will be better suited to that singular focus. However, The Swerve, as a serious study of the birth of modernity is just falls short.