Greenblatt, The Swerve

This will be an unusual review. Stephen Greenblatt’s book The Swerve. How the World Became Modern has received very favorable reviews; the author has even received this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction. I am very surprised. If this is a good book, there is something seriously wrong with our quality standards.

But first, what is it about? About the influence of Lucretius’ powerful poem De rerum natura. In it, the poet says that all matter is made up of atoms, that the universe was not created, that the gods are not interested in human life, that after death the soul decomposes into its constituent atoms, that there is no life after death, and that we may allow ourselves to enjoy life. This is all based on the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270).

Initially, Lucretius was lauded, among others by his contemporary Cicero. His popularity must have diminished, however, in the second half of the second century CE, when the literary and philosophical tastes started to change. Other schools of thought, like Pythagoreanism and Neo-Platonism, became more influential. When, in a library, books had to be copied, poems like Lucretius’s were no longer the first priority. In the ninth century some copies were made, but the De rerum natura was no longer very popular.

This changed in 1417, when the Italian scholar Poggio Bracciolini found a copy in a monastery in Germany. In The Swerve, Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt describes how this happened and how the text gained influence. Our modern world view is, in his view, formed by this poem.

That is a bold claim and The Swerve is an adventurous book. As a matter of fact, the book is written like a thriller, with all kinds of digressions to heighten suspense. Greenblatt tells about copyists, about the Council of Constance, about the discovery of scrolls in Herculaneum, and about the lives of ancient philosophers. When he discusses Poggio’s career, he is at his best. But a well-written book is not necessarily a convincing analysis.

My first point of criticism is, essentially, a standard complaint. Greenblatt knows a lot about the Renaissance, but is less well-informed about other periods. There are many unhappy phrases. In one single section about the Library of Alexandria, I counted four errors. As long as books are not written by large teams, this is inevitable. Books by one author are hybris. (My own books usually have about ten collaborators, which is not enough.)

The second point is the thesis itself, that the modern view was created by the encounter with Lucretius. This means that Greenblatt has to prove several things.

  • He has to prove that the ideas of Epicureanism were only accessible through the De rerum natura;
  • He has to prove that the De rerum natura was not read in the Middle Ages;
  • He has to prove that there were no other ways to invent the modern world view.

In his introduction, Greenblatt addresses the last point. He admits that there were other factors that contributed to the rise of the modern world view, but he does not digress upon them, and he does not even explain why the discovery of the De rerum natura was representative of a larger movement. Stated differently, he claims the discovery was important, but does not explain why. This is, as an omission, just as strange as his neglect of the experiments that proved atomism. I wonder what physicists will think of a book that deals with experimental science as something negligible.

The second item on our list: were the atomic theory and Lucretius’ poem really forgotten in the Middle Ages? Greenblatt does not mention that Bishop Isidore of Seville, the author of the incredibly popular Etymologies, often quotes from the De rerum natura, and describes the atomic theory (13.2). In Medieval intellectual life, this was a key text; any monk might have known about atomism. Another example is the French author Pierre de Blois, who offers a catalogue of study subjects from which it is clear that he has read Lucretius. Greenblatt does not mention it. In other words, only by ignoring evidence can he prove the second item of our list, that the De rerum natura was unknown prior to 1417.

As to the first item, Epicureanism being only available through the De rerum natura, Isidore’s Etymologies are again counterevidence. We may add texts like Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Philosophers.

Summing up: Greenblatt does not prove that the discovery was sufficient to give rise to the modern world view; he does not even prove that it was necessary. Had I been his publisher, I would have sent back the manuscript, demanding a more profound analysis.

But there is something else. When describing Christianity, The Swerve resembles an indictment. Greenblatt claims that the Church was hostile towards the poem, and there is indeed something to be said for that. Lucretius’ remarks about the gods being uninterested in humans are incompatible with belief in Providence, and the idea that the soul decomposes is indeed at odds with Christian beliefs about eternal life. Nevertheless, monks did copy Lucretius’ poem.

Greenblatt’s proof that Christianity was hostile towards the De rerum natura is weak. For example, he offers a description of literary life in Alexandria, which he assumes – without further evidence – to be typical of ancient literary life in general. In other words, he takes the largest library in Antiquity to be representative, essentially confusing the extreme with the typical. This is a text-book example of the Everest Fallacy, which any ancient historian reviewing this book ought to have noticed.

We also read about the murder of Hypatia, by Christians. According to Greenblatt, this is evidence that Christians were hostile to non-Christian philosophers. Again, no discussion about representativeness.

Discussing various sections from the fathers of the Church, Greenblatt suggests how deep Christian hatred was towards anything unchristian. I fear I have to become repetitive: the author fails to prove why the sections he has chosen are typical. This is even more urgent as early Christianity was extremely diverse. The fathers were in fact divided about the value of classical texts: some of them were against those pagan writings, while others accepted them. I wonder what Greenblatt would have written if he had read Cameron’s The Last Pagans of Rome; he might have learned that Christians were responsible for much of the reproduction of pagan texts.

Greenblatt claims that the Christians did anything to make Lucretius look ridiculous; there was a “grand design” – his words – to discourage reading the De rerum natura, and to show that what is in fact natural, enjoying pleasure, was in fact unnatural and to be avoided. Medieval Christians are presented as loving castigation and chastisement. Unfortunately, some of the examples are not annotated, and – as usual – Greenblatt offers no evidence why the examples are typical of Medieval Christianity. The best he can prove is that there were texts that recommended a particular belief.

The book is a lot better when Greenblatt reaches Renaissance papacy. His account of the situation in 1417, with three popes and a chaotic Council at Constance, is certainly better than his chapters about Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, the Council has nothing to do with Lucretius, the De rerum natura, the atomic theory, or the modern world view.

Greenblatt’s systematic error is that he seems to think that the writing of history is telling a story and offering a set of anecdotes as evidence. This is the well-known confirmation bias: adducing evidence for a thesis and not looking for evidence against it. It is a profoundly unscholarly approach.

Personally, I do indeed believe that the study of ancient texts is extremely important. I blogged about it here, and if you are new to this little blog, I recommend you read it. Men like Scaliger sowed the seeds of the Enlightenment; the discovery of language families has redefined how we look at nations; Darwin benefited from the Lachmann Method; and so on. I am certainly sympathetic to books trying to show that modern science is partly based on humanist scholarship. But The Swerve is unconvincing. The idea that there was a “grand design” to keep an ancient poem away from sight, with the Vatican as the arch-villain, might be nice in a Dan Brown novel, though.

One Response to Greenblatt, The Swerve

  1. dgalbi says:

    Galen, one of the most influential thinkers in western Eurasia continuously from the fifth through the fifteenth centuries, was a harsh critic of Epicurus and the ideas of De rerum natura.

    Greenblatt’s book is indeed Brown-quality scholarship.

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