The Swerve: Stephen Greenblatt


How the Renaissance began

The winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction, this book was recommended to me during our Sicily trip a year ago, in the course of a rather splendid dinner-table conversation. It tells the story of Poggio Bracciolini, an Italian humanist who worked at the papal curia and who, during the upheavals after the Council of Constance, sought to distract himself by going book-hunting in the monasteries of Germany. Poggio dreamed of finding previously unknown classical texts in these monasteries, preserved by chance through years of copying as part of the monastic discipline. He and his fellow humanists had already uncovered fragments of letters and treatises, but the discovery that Poggio would make in 1417 would come to have a powerful impact on the very roots of Western philosophy: the full text of De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) by Lucretius.

Greenblatt conjures up the thrill of discovering these ancient texts, and the lottery of their survival. As a book-lover I found it almost distressing to think how little has survived, whether through natural disintegration, periodic cultural cleansing, or the destruction of the Library of Alexandria… Even texts that managed to survive to (almost) the modern day have been lost. I winced on reading that the earliest excavators of the Villa of the Papyri, at Herculaneum, assumed that the little black cylinders they’d found were Roman briquettes, and threw a few hundred of them on a fire to keep themselves warm. They were actually preserved Roman books. (Just think what went up in that smoke! It’s enough to make you mad.)

Greenblatt’s point is that it’s miraculous anything has survived at all: most of what we do have is thanks to the anonymous copyists of the European monasteries. I’m still not entirely clear on why, if vellum was so expensive, the monks chose to use it copying contentious pagan works rather than texts on Christian theology; but that’s a minor query. And it’s important to put Poggio’s story in some kind of historical context. For most readers, Poggio Bracciolini probably feels like a figure lost in the mists of time, discovering texts just as misty and just as lost. It’s important to remember, however, just how much time separated Poggio from the authors he was discovering. Poggio was unearthing books which had survived for more than fourteen hundred years – it would be like a modern academic discovering previously unknown texts from the middle of the 6th century. No wonder he was delighted.

So what was in this poem that Poggio had discovered? The first thing to emphasise was that it was actually the elegant quality of the Latin, as much as the contents, that excited him; because the contents themselves were rather troubling. Lucretius’ poem was based on the philosophy of Epicurus, whom I’ve always imagined as a rather jolly fat man who spent a lot of time throwing very good parties. But it seems I’m fundamentally wrong. Epicurus believed that pleasure was the highest pursuit of life, certainly, but he argued that pleasure was gained through moderation – not through an excess of food, drink and sex but through a measure of each, in a life enriched by good company and conversation. He believed that it was important for us to enjoy ourselves in life because this was the only chance we got: there was no afterlife; no divine plan; no reward or punishment. On the contrary, our lives were part of the glorious natural process of the universe.

Following Epicurus, Lucretius explained that everything in the universe, ourselves included, is formed from tiny particles called atoms. These come together to form our bodies and everything around us and, after we die, our bodies dissolve and our atoms disperse and are absorbed into other things. Nothing is eternal except the atoms themselves: the building blocks of life. Thus there is no point in living in fear of divine judgement. We must live the best lives that we can, free of fear instilled by religion and free of fear of death. What is the point of being afraid of death, when it is merely a cessation of being: a natural process ordained by the laws of the universe? It is nothing to fear. It was a powerful and (from a modern perspective) rather compelling argument. Lucretius didn’t actually deny the existence of the gods: he just thought that they were unlikely to bother themselves with the insignificant, trivial details of mortal life. But you could certainly read it as an argument for atheism; and that’s why its rediscovery, in the midst of a devoutly Christian Europe, posed a danger.

I would argue that the subtitle chosen for the UK edition of this book is actually rather misleading (the subtitle of the American edition is ‘How the world became modern’, which sums up Greenblatt’s argument much more neatly). Greenblatt specifically does not argue that the discovery of De rerum natura was responsible for kickstarting the Renaissance. The Renaissance had actually already begun, if you count the early humanists like Petrarch and Salutati, whose engagement with classical ideas was fuelled by a passionate desire to transform ancient codes into a modern philosophy for living. This active engagement with the text died away in Poggio’s generation, by which point the humanists had become more pedantic, too fixated on meaning and style and reconciling errors, and not as committed to implementing their discoveries in civic life. Perhaps that’s because they were more alert to the dangers inherent in doing so.

The world wasn’t quite ready for Lucretius when it was discovered. Its central message was too radical for a society which was still deeply religious; and, although manuscript copies were circulating in the 15th century, Lucretius was very carefully admired for his elegant poetry rather than the inflammatory content of that poetry. He was put to one side by the Florentine humanists of the 1470s and 1480s, who found Neoplatonism a much less incendiary and more convenient way to reconcile an admiration for antiquity with a passionate commitment to Christian faith. In the following century there are hints of a fuller engagement with Lucretius’ philosophy in the works of Machiavelli, who managed to hint that religion could be effectively used as a weapon of fear – but even he didn’t dare take the argument to its fullest extent. Greenblatt explains that Thomas More, admiring the Epicurean claim that the pursuit of pleasure was the highest good for a community, created a hybrid kind of Utopia in which his citizens worked together towards a state of happiness, but in which it was obligatory to believe in the rewards or punishment of an afterlife. (More had a point: how do you prevent a pleasure-seeking society from descending into anarchy? He didn’t believe that laws and customs and social pressures would be enough to control people. It was necessary to keep the fear of divine judgement hanging over people’s heads so that they would feel compelled to behave well.)

So how can we honestly say that Lucretius sparked off the Renaissance? It seems to me that Lucretius was actually more responsible for the Enlightenment: a slow-burning fuse that quietly fizzled beneath the intellectual life of Renaissance Europe until its time was right. There was no way that these ideas could be expressed in Counter-Reformation Europe, as one man discovered to his cost. Giordano Bruno comes out of these pages as a staggeringly precocious figure, and one I’m determined to learn more about (time to attempt Frances Yates again, I think). Interestingly, he published many of his most daring arguments while he was in England in the 1580s – one of the only places in Europe where he was protected from the reach of the Inquisition. He denied Divine Providence, pointing out that it was ridiculous to expect God to busy himself in the trivial minutiae of everyday life. Life has rules and order, but these are natural laws built into the way the universe works, and not the active engagement of a divinity. He argued that divinity, if it exists, is within ourselves. And he argued that Copernicus was right in saying that the Earth orbited the Sun.

But Bruno took it one step further – astonishingly, for someone writing in the 16th century, he argued that even the Sun wasn’t the centre of the universe. Every star that we see in the sky, he argued, was another sun and there would be other worlds in which the conjunction of atoms would result in other creatures and civilisations. We are not the centre of the universe; we are not the beings for whom the universe has been made; on the contrary we’re part of something massive and thrilling. Of course, this was all very forward-thinking. Too forward-thinking. Bruno was burned at the stake on his return to Italy, but the ideas had been articulated – and Greenblatt looks forward to Montaigne and Descartes and Darwin, to look at how Lucretius’ ideas became a central aspect of European thought and enabled the scientific and philosophical advancements of the Enlightenment.

I’ve become hugely carried away by this. It’s intelligent and erudite but also very readable. I was never a philosophy student and to be honest I’m easily daunted by it, but Greenblatt explores the topic so clearly that I found it very easy to follow. There were just a couple of things that jarred with me: the chapters (particularly six and seven) jumped around in time and didn’t always flow logically from the previous ones. Some of the colour plates weren’t directly relevant – rather than photos of the bronze statues from the Villa of the Papyri, gorgeous though they are, I’d have preferred to see photos of some of the recovered texts. And I would have liked to learn a bit more about the contents of the poem. But perhaps Greenblatt has very cleverly crafted the book so that you’re left itching to read De rerum natura itself. I’m tempted.

Update: I thought I should share some information that’s come through to me since I posted this. A friend has alerted me to the academic controversy sparked off by The Swerve, which of course I was completely unaware of. If you’re considering reading this, you should perhaps make yourself aware of the caveats. Here are a couple of links you can follow: a reaction to the book’s prize-winning success at In the Middle, which offers links to other medievalists’ responses to Greenblatt’s theories. And then this more thorough critique at Armarium Magnum. Despite all this I still think that The Swerve is a good way to ease yourself into the period and orientate yourself. And I wish that these critiques had spent a little more time explaining what actually happened in their opinion, and less simply ridiculing Greenblatt’s arguments. However, it’s a salutary reminder that a book can dazzle and be a good read without necessarily being reliable history (in the opinion of the scholars cited here). Obviously this just makes me doubly, triply eager to get more of a sense of what you thought if you’ve read it.

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13 thoughts on “The Swerve: Stephen Greenblatt

  1. Heloise says:

    If you're feeling adventurous – in my opinion still the best book on the shift from the Middle Ages to Renaissance to Modernity from the perspective of the history of ideas is Hans Blumenbergs The Legimitacy of the Modern Age. It's a big book and really comprehensive, and not easy to read, but in my opinion well worth the effort for the scope and the audacity of Blumenberg's thinking. They're also beautifully written (something you don't find that often with philosophers), although I'm not sure how well that is preserved in translation.

    Greenblatt seems rather more lightweight, but does have the readability going for him, so I'm feeling tempted to maybe give him a try… well, at least get the book and put it somewhere into my TBR shelf (maybe right beside the Robin Hobb novella that I still haven't gotten around to…

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Clareangela, what did you think of it? Interestingly, in the wake of writing this post I've heard from a friend that there was a lot of academic debate when the book came out. It was felt that Greenblatt was trivialising history and making sweeping statements about a period that he wasn't expert on – reducing the medieval period to the cliched Dark Ages whereas in fact there was a lot more speculation and exploration going on. Now, as I don't know much about the history of philosophy, I hadn't really picked up on much of this (apart from some of the queries I noted above), but I would love to know your feelings about it.

  3. The Idle Woman says:

    Yeeees… See my response to Clareangela's comment above and the edit I'm going to be adding at the end of my post. It seems Greenblatt is rather more lightweight than I'd imagined, although I still think it's a good way in for those of us who don't have an established philosophical background. Part of the reason I've shied away from it before is because all the books just look so daunting and impenetrable. I think I'd like to give your Blumenberg a go. Scope and audacity are good – though I'm going to have to wait until my brain is back in gear.

  4. Heloise says:

    Good thing I ended up getting Will in the World instead, then. 😛 – Although I wouldn't worry too much about the academic controversy – controversy is what academia thrives on, after all, and of course academics are going to swoop down en masse on anyone who garners fame beyond the field. At least in the humanities it tends to be the case that you're making yourself unpopular if you write books for the popular market, I think the sciences have a completely different (and, in my opinion at least, much more commendable) attitude about that.

    Blumenberg wrote some more accessible books, too, but unfortunately none of them seems to be translated into English – the one I recommended is an early work of his and I'm afraid “daunting and impenetrable” might describe it quite aptly. Well, it is penetrable, but it's an effort – one worth it I think, but don't say I didn't warn you. 😉 And probably not a lot more so than Francis Yates…

  5. The Idle Woman says:

    Fortunately Greenblatt IS meant to be very good on Shakespeare! I've had my eye on “Will in the World” for a while so do let me know what your thoughts are (or is it on your TBR list?!). And yes, you are completely right about academic controversy. Part of the reason I want to read more books on this now is because I'd like to find out how strong a point the critics (linked above) actually have. Particularly in the case of the second link, there was a lot of mockery going on but not quite as much careful correction as I'd have liked. Fortunately I discovered last night that I have a book by Holmes on “The Florentine Enlightenment 1400-1450”, which I obviously bought optimistically at some point and still haven't read, so I'll give that a go before attempting Blumenberg, Yates and all their daunting and semi-impenetrable friends. A quick flick through Holmes showed me that there's at least a chapter about Poggio and the Council of Constance, although I didn't immediately spot any references to Lucretius. Still, it should help to lay a little more of the foundations before I embark on anything too ambitious.

  6. Heloise says:

    I checked out the reviews you linked to (anything to put off doing any work today 😛 ) and am somewhat annoyed at the second one – not being a scholar of the period in question myself, and it being too long ago that I read anything on the subject, I can't say anything about the factual errors he claims Greenblatt makes. However, the biggest axe he has to grind does not really seem to be those errors anyway but something he calls “presentism” and which in his opinion deviates from the Only True Way of regarding history, namely taking a period exclusively on its own terms. Which, I would argue, is an epistemological impossibility as there is no way around the fact that we are stuck in our present, and any claim to be able to just ignore that and jump right into the true mind of the medieval way of thinking is sloppy methodology at best and sheer delusion at worst. I strongly suspect that this really for the most part is about some academic infighting between different schools of historical scholarship that is going on here to which the book by Greenblatt is really only incidental.

    Also, ouch for “Francis” Yates 😛 It should of course have been Frances.

  7. The Idle Woman says:

    You may well be right.

    As I understood it part of the criticism was that Greenblatt was being too much of a Whig historian, in that he was reducing history to the Acts of Great Men. He was thought to be positing Poggio's rediscovery of Lucretius as responsible for the philosophical development of the Renaissance in Europe. That is a slight simplification of course. And even so I don't think that's actually what Greenblatt was doing. As I said in the post, the subtitle about the Renaissance is misleading. 'How the world became modern' is a much better subtitle. And really he's looking at how the intellectual climate of the time gradually allowed Lucretius / Epicurus to be absorbed back into the philosophical mainstream as a legitimate, rather than potentially dangerous, train of thought.

    The second part of the criticism seemed to be that Greenblatt was reducing history to a puerile good and bad, e.g. the Middle Ages were Bad because they were full of superstition and monks didn't properly read what they were copying and no one had any curiosity. And on the contrary, isn't it Good that Poggio rediscovered Lucretius and enabled them all to become rational so that they were more like modern people and not so enslaved by the Church? Again, a simplification. Greenblatt does have a bit of a weird thing going on about monks (was curiosity REALLY a mortal sin in the medieval period? I have never heard that before and it strikes me as extremely strange if it were true). But nevertheless I don't think it's really a Good vs Bad argument. It's just that slightly tricky dichotomy of 'traditional methods of thought' versus 'more modern methods of thought'. Then we get into all sorts of difficult arguments, such as, how do you trace the development of modern thought in a way that *doesn't* imply that philosophies closer to our own are somehow making 'progress'?

    I agree with you in that I don't think it's possible or advisable for a historian to try to write from the supposed mindset of the period they're writing about. I don't think it's possible for us to recover that. And I don't think we can entirely divorce ourselves from the perspective of our age. On the other hand there are ways to avoid being anachronistic as far as possible. As I understand it, a lot of the people who complained about Greenblatt were medievalists who were upset at the thought that 'their' period was once again being brushed off as a dark age of superstition that was little more than the waiting room for the main feature of the Renaissance. I can see why that would be annoying.

  8. Tim O'Neill says:

    Since my lengthy critique of Greenblatt's book that's being referred to here, I should note that Heloise has completely misunderstood the approach to history I'm advocating. Nowhere did I say we have to somehow try to be medieval people or see things as they saw them – of course we can do neither. The idea is rather to try to examine the past for what it was, not as some kind of imperfect or flawed variation on or deviation from the present. We look at it on its own terms and try to understand it, as opposed to using the present as our ideal and seeing how a period in the past does or doesn't measure up to us.

    And the fact that Greenblatt's narrative is based squarely on this outdated Presentist approach is only part of the problem. His plain errors of fact, vast omissions and patent distortions also serve to make his childish black and white, good vs bad cartoon so appalling to anyone with any detailed knowledge of the relevant periods. Add to this the pure fantasy of wicked monks “suppressing” the very poem that he can only read because they PRESERVED it and the whole book becomes a total farce.

  9. The Idle Woman says:

    Tim, thank you for taking the time to comment and explain your approach further – I'm grateful because I'm beginning to feel rather at sea in all of this (indeed, I think many of us are!). Heloise and I are just trying to find our way through the forest of opinion that's grown up around this book, and as such it's great that you've kindly stepped in to offer your thoughts on the issue. It's my misunderstanding, or more properly lack of understanding, that's at the heart of all of this, of course – and I'm keen to understand more of the different views on this matter.

    I think we're all agreed that the explanation for the preservation of manuscripts and the whole monks side of the business is not as clear and convincing as maybe it could be. However, I'd be very interested if you could help us out by explaining some of the 'errors of fact, vast omissions and patent distortions' that you refer to. Part of my confusion about the reviews I've linked to, which we were discussing, is that I would like to know more about the factual errors, rather than just seeing Greenblatt criticised. I unfortunately don't have enough detailed knowledge of the period to be able to spot all of these for myself, because my own academic studies were some years ago and focused on a slightly later period.

    Perhaps you would be kind enough to point us towards a couple of (accessible) books for the slightly baffled general reader that would help to give us a more balanced idea of the period? Speaking for myself – and I think the same is true for Heloise – we're certainly not predisposed either for or against Greenblatt. But I found the book interesting, and our discussion was based around trying to get to the root of the matter and understand, if something is wrong, exactly *what* that is so that we can focus in on that and gather some other opinions. And also so that I can share as much information as possible with my friends here. So any further recommendations would be much appreciated to balance the scales, as it were. Thank you in advance!

  10. Tim O'Neill says:

    “I'd be very interested if you could help us out by explaining some of the 'errors of fact, vast omissions and patent distortions' that you refer to. “

    I thought I'd detailed plenty in my review. Greenblatt claims monks simply copied manuscripts and were not encouraged to read them, though how the hell you copy a manuscript without reading it I have no idea. He claims that “intellectual curiosity” was condemned. He claims that all medieval copying was done by monks and that all this copying was only done as a kind of penance. This is all so laughably wrong it's hard to know where to begin.

    The word he mistranslates and then claims meant “intellectual curiosity” actually meant “idle gossip” and had nothing to do with learning. Scholarship was encouraged and enjoyed. We have abbots writing learned letters to each other making wry allusions to Classical poetry, monks entertaining each other with puns based on lines from Virgil and at least two early medieval abbesses writing satirical plays in the style of Terrence. And Greenblatt manages to mention medieval universities twice – which should ring a warning bell to anyone paying attention. If there was no intellectual curiosity until Poggio and the Renaissance, what the hell was going on in those hundreds of institutions of higher learning?

    The answer is intellectual curiosity and lots of it. A regular (usually annual) event in most universities were no holds barred multi-day debate tournaments called “quodlibeta” where any student could tackle any master on any subject in a display of logical disputation. And I mean any subject – questions like “could God cause himself to cease to exist” or “was Judas cheated by Christ?” got debated for days on end.

    And nowhere in his ridiculous catalogue of flagellating monks is the side of medieval life that these penitents were trying to distract themselves from – the world of bawdy goliardic songs, riotous carnivals, the beginnings of European theatre, feasting, courtly poetry, chivalry, pageantry etc. His chapters on the medieval period was a joke.

    I'd need to recommend a major library as an antidote to his biased nonsense. A few that might start to give a glimpse of how wrong his picture is would include Harris and Grigsby's Misconceptions About the Middle Ages (2007) and Regine Pernoud's Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths(2000). They'd be a good place to start clearing away the centuries of bigotry about this misunderstood period.

  11. The Idle Woman says:

    Thank you very much, Tim, for these two recommendations – I shall certainly try to track them down in the New Year. Although I looked at Greenblatt's book primarily as a way to learn more about Lucretius's philosophy feeding into Renaissance humanism, I'm going to be doing a lot more reading around the medieval period and it would be good to be aware of the broader debates and issues I should look out for. One final question (and I'm sorry to take up your time): where would you recommend – and perhaps it's in one of the books you've suggested above – an overview of early humanism? As I said above in my discussion with Heloise, I have Holmes, “The Florentine Enlightenment”, but that was written quite a while ago and for all I know may have flaws and shortcomings of its own.

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