I have some free time on my hands this summer, so I’m making a concentrated effort not to completely waste all of it on the internet–no small feat, but I’ve had some success in forcing myself to read some words off actual paper. The first collection of words I’ve had the pleasure of reading was, as you might have guessed by now, Stephen Greenblatt’s 2011 nonfiction work The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.
I approached this book with high expectations as a result of all the honors bestowed upon it; not only has it won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Non-fiction AND the 2011 National Book Award, but I read it on the glowing recommendation of a professor I admire a great deal. Needless to say, this book had better be pretty fucking good to merit those accolades.
The Swerve tracks the historical arc of On the Nature of Things, an epic poem of the philosophical school of Epicureanism penned by a Roman poet named Lucretius, by way of the exploits of 15th century humanist and book-hunter Poggio Bracciolini. After the poem was lost for centuries, Bracciolini rediscovers Lucretius’ work in a German monastery and releases it into the world, allegedly leading to the epistemological shift from a focus on the “spirit world”/afterlife to a focus on the material world/present life that would characterize the Renaissance and by extension, modernity.
Upon completion of the book, my mind was thoroughly blown. First of all, the amount of intricate detail that goes into Greenblatt’s account of Bracciolini’s life and the descriptions of 15th century Vatican court life is truly astounding. Novice of history that I am, I would not have even guessed that it were possible to so thoroughly reconstruct the life of a single person of that time, but Greenblatt does it in impressive fashion. His retelling is not only impressive, however, but fascinating and engaging. It’s the sections on Bracciolini that have earned the book the “Dan Brown page-turner” descriptions, for they are quite entertaining and make for very enjoyable reading.
I was even more fascinated by the ideas contained within Lucretius’ poem itself. Amongst other things, On the Nature of Things (a poem written by a Roman, remember) posits a theory of evolution, the notion that all matter is made of atoms, the absence of an afterlife for humans, the idea that humans are decidedly insignificant in the universe, that there are no gods and that we should seek to maximize pleasure (within moderation) and minimize pain to attain happiness. Obviously, these are concepts that many of us hold dearly to be true today and it was thoroughly shocking to find that they were articulated by a Roman thousands of years ago. Reading The Swerve, I was struck by the peculiar feeling that all that is true about the world might be contained in On the Nature of Things. The holy book of the modern (atheist, educated) man, in a way.
Naturally, unable to contain my bubbling enthusiasm for this book, I told all my friends about it and decided to scrape the internet for further reading on the work (this is what I do when I enjoy something, read it about it on the internet…whence this blog). To my surprise, all I found was a gaggle of negative reviews of the book. “What the fuck?”, I thought.
Yes, indeed, as one can see here and here and here. Baffled as I was, I found that all of these reviews had one common critique: in The Swerve, Greenblatt espouses an antiquated and incorrect notion of Medieval history. If you think about it, we are thoroughly inundated with the narrative of the “Dark Ages” as a time of intellectual and artistic paucity, where the evil Catholic Church stifled new scientific and philosophical ideas and people suffered immeasurably in squalid ignorance. Then, people became interested in the classics, rediscovered works such as On the Nature of Things and were reminded that there is a material world in front of them to study and live in, and then things were okay again. This idea of medieval history is essentially the foundation of Greenblatt’s work, resonating in everything from his portrayal of a pleasure and idea-hating Church to his glorification of Lucretius’ poem itself in bringing about an end to these horrors.
Given a bit of thinking, it is fairly obvious that such a cleanly sliced and diced narrative cannot hold to be completely true. As it turns out, before Bracciolini “rediscovered” On the Nature of Things in the 15th century–forming part of the renewed interest in the classics that characterized the Renaissance–there was another Renaissance in the 12th century…and before that, another one in the 8th century, during which Lucretius’ poem was actually copied and studied. This is obviously a bit problematic for Greenblatt, who seeks to not only represent this particular poem as completely forgotten since the fall of the Roman Empire, but to represent the whole of the 5th-15th centuries as a period of intellectual darkness and collective amnesia of classical ideas. In reality, there is plenty of evidence that these works continued to be copied and studied by monks and theologians throughout the so-called “Dark Ages”.
I will leave further comment to the critical articles I linked to above, for as medieval historians, they are far more knowledgable on the subject. I tend to think that in their efforts to dispel popular notions of a Dark Ages/Renaissance dichotomy, these critics tend to overcompensate by denying that any shift at all between the two epochs and claiming that the Middle Ages were just as (or at least nearly as) prolific as the Renaissance in terms of secular art and scientific innovation. I thoroughly doubt this, and I also still view the Catholic Church as an intellectually restrictive institution at the time, given its persecution of “heretics” who dared to dissent from its religious doctrine (although accusations of the Church stifling scientific activity are certainly overblown). To help sort these things out, I’ve undertaken reading Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, a history of the 14th century, as a follow-up to The Swerve; it is not ideal, but it turns out that books on medieval history are not always easy to find.
Ultimately, The Swerve is a fascinating but flawed book: well-written and worthwhile for its account of Poggio Bracciolini and examination of the ideas contained within On the Nature of Things, but extremely problematic for the reasons described above. Read it, but with a grain of salt. It probably remains as the ultimate lesson that one should always do some research before drinking the Kool-Aid of any one idea too completely, whether that idea be espoused by the Catholic Church in 1400 or by Mr. Greenblatt today. Watch out, kids.