The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
|The Swerve: How the World Became Modern|
|Publisher||W. W. Norton & Company|
|Publication date||September 26, 2011 (hardcover)
September 3, 2012 (paperback)
September 19, 2011 (kindle)
Greenblatt tells the story of how Poggio Bracciolini, a 15th-century papal emissary and obsessive book hunter, saved the last copy of the Roman poet Lucretius's On the Nature of Things from near-terminal neglect in a German monastery, thus reintroducing important ideas that sparked the modern age.
Greenblatt noted how unpopular the irreligious nature of the poem was even before Christianity spread:
- Once… you start thinking what the implications of a world made of atoms and emptiness and nothing else, lots of things, potentially at least, follow. And the things that follow can be extremely dangerous -- [dangerous to pagan, Jewish] or Christian orthodoxy…
The New York Times review by the literary critic Dwight Garner found that Greenblatt "wears his enormous erudition lightly". Garner describes the author's approach to Lucretius through Bracciolini as "an ingenious idea." The Swerve's details are "tangy and exact", says Garner, but the book's "pumping heart is Mr. Greenblatt’s complicated reckoning with Lucretius’ masterpiece." Regarding the central thesis, namely the "secular miracle" of the poem's rediscovery and significant contribution to the onset of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, Garner notes that On the Nature of Things is:
- "recognized as a bold work of philosophy, one that helped recalibrate thinking when it began to recirculate during the Renaissance. Among those who admired and drew from it were Galileo, Freud, Darwin and Einstein. Thomas Jefferson owned at least five Latin editions of “On the Nature of Things,” as well as translations into other languages.":
Garner notes Greenblatt's contention that this was a secular revival in conflict with Christianity: "“On the Nature of Things” was filled with, to Christian eyes, scandalous ideas... Religious fear, Lucretius thought, long before there was a Christopher Hitchens, warps human life", comments Garner. On the author, "It’s possible to admire Mr. Greenblatt’s book while wishing it contained more of the boldness and weirdness he admires in Lucretius."
Writing for an interreligious institute whose "purpose is to advance a religiously informed public philosophy", R. R. Reno takes issue with the book's approach to Christianity, characterizing it as elitist: "The Swerve [blusters] again and again about the beauty-loathing, eros-denying evils of Christianity… sighing in the usual postmodern way about pleasure and desire. But on one point Greenblatt is true to On the Nature of Things, and this is the therapy of disenchantment. 'Human insignificance—the fact that it is not all about us and our fate—is, Lucretius insisted, good news.' Indeed it is good news for Harvard professors, and for anyone else in positions of power. As materialism disenchants, the principles and norms and standards by which we can hold the powerful accountable melt away." However, several critics, among them an atheist, have criticized the work as a full-throated Burckhardtian, or, perhaps more accurately, Voltairean caricature of the Middle Ages, a Whig interpretation of the period as a pleasure hating time of darkness, superstition and illiteracy in which classical culture was lost, this in spite of monks copying classical works, the foundation of major European universities, the building of medieval cathedrals, and the works of Dante, Aquinas and Chaucer. Other deficiencies are lack of evidence and documentation on key points, failure to attend to neo-Platonism and skepticism, and the absence of references to key works such as Charles Henry Haskins’s The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century. To all of this, Greenblatt has pleaded guilty.
- The 2012 Pulitzer Prize Winners: General Nonfiction, Columbia University, retrieved 2012-05-28
- 2011 National Book Award Winner, Nonfiction, National Book Foundation, retrieved 2012-05-31
- 'The Swerve': When an Ancient Text Reaches Out and Touches Us, PBS, 2012-05-25, retrieved 2012-05-31
- Garner, Dwight (2011-09-27), "An Unearthed Treasure That Changed Things", The New York Times, retrieved 2012-05-31
- Owchar, Nick (2011-11-20), "Book review: 'The Swerve: How the World Became Modern'", Los Angeles Times, retrieved 2012-05-31
- Garner, Dwight (2011-09-27). "An Unearthed Treasure That Changed Things". New York Times.
- Reno, R.R. (2011-12). "A Philosophy for the Powerful". First Things. Retrieved 2013-01-16.
- Hinch, Jim (2012-12-01). "Why Stephen Greenblatt is Wrong — and Why It Matters". Los Angeles Review of Books.
- O’Neill, Tim (2013-01-27). "The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt". Amarium Magnum.
- Greenblatt, Stephen (July 2012). "Author's Response to Review of The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began, (review no. 1283)". Reviews in History. Institute of Historical Research.