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Book Forum   |    
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

by Stephen Greenblatt. New York, W.W. Norton and Company, 2011, 356 pp., $16.95.

Reviewed by Roberta Payne, Ph.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2013;170:1501-1502. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2013.13091207
View Author and Article Information

Denver, Colo.
Dr. Payne is affiliated with the Department of English, University of Denver.

Accepted September , 2013.

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Poggio Bracciolini’s handwriting was among the best in all of Europe in 1417. Stephen Greenblatt observes that the importance of handwriting before Gutenberg is not easy for us, today, to understand. But Poggio’s elegant, easy-to-read hand and equally elegant classical Latin opened doors for him, first to the Vatican (where he served eight popes, most often as apostolic secretary), then to libraries of monasteries.

Poggio’s tale stands at the crossroads between the Middle Ages and the new humanism of the early Renaissance. The Middle Ages were full of angels and demons and immaterial causes and preoccupation with postmortem rewards and punishments. Furthermore, “curiosity was said by the Church to be a mortal sin” (p. 16). Humanism, on the other hand, was interested in desires and achievements of this world and thus drawn to the science, philosophy, and art of ancient Greece and Rome. Book hunting and translating had, by Poggio’s time, grown to near-obsession among humanist intellectuals.

When the first Pope John XXIII was deposed in 1415, Poggio Bracciolini found himself temporarily out of work. So he went from papal court duties and intrigues to book hunting. Successions of monks through the centuries copied codices of ancient texts. The monks themselves, as Greenblatt portrays them, were permitted no inquiry into the texts they ceaselessly worked on in the scriptoria. Finished codices were stashed away or even forgotten in the libraries of monasteries throughout Europe.

It was in this context that Poggio approached central Germany, probably the remote Benedictine Abbey of Fuldo, and its library—the more out of the way a monastery was, the greater the likelihood its holdings were still intact. He probably gained entrance easily because of his papal background and literary skills. Fortuitously, he discovered there what was apparently the only copy of Lucretius’ De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) to survive from ancient Rome. It is not known whether Poggio had any inkling of the importance this first-century B.C. poem would have in the making of the modern world.

The structure of Greenblatt’s book is enticing. He portions out morsels of Lucretius’ tenets from the very beginning of The Swerve as he describes, in turns, the world of the medieval manuscript; Lucretius’ own environment as suggested by the ruins of Herculaneum; the world of Lucretius’ intellectual forerunner, the fourth-century B.C. Greek Epicurus; Poggio’s life in early-Renaissance papal courts; and his return to the republicanism of Florence. And we are told almost immediately that Lucretius posits a universe composed of identical, eternal, invisible particles that he called atoms. Greenblatt reports that George Santayana called the resultant ceaseless mutation of forms “the greatest thought that mankind has ever hit upon” (p. 186).

Stephen Greenblatt then describes Herculaneum, a city which, like Pompeii, was buried by ash during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Archaeologists have meticulously unearthed there a world likely well suited to intellectual freedom, especially discussion of ideas in Greek and Roman literature. In the ashes were found scrolls of De rerum natura. Here, Greenblatt mentions in passing that De rerum natura’s tenets were diametrically opposed to those of Cicero and the Roman concept of duty to the State. I would have welcomed a short digression at this point on the tenets of Stoicism because Stoicism and Epicureanism were the two major rivers of thought in both Greece and Rome, and they opposed each other in all their fundamentals.

Moving again to the history of the Church, Greenblatt describes two basic scenarios. One is the ultra-Stoic medieval thinking of the early Church fathers, as expressed by Jerome in the late 300s: “O Lord, if ever again I possess worldly books or read them, I have denied thee” (p. 96). The other—jumping ahead to the 15th century—is the Renaissance, filled with a series of worldly popes surrounded by the most gifted humanists of Europe.

The world made a swerve toward modernity with the Renaissance and its humanism when Poggio rediscovered Lucretius. Greenblatt emphasizes that Lucretius was certainly not the only force behind this. But The Swerve is the perfect title for this book because Lucretius held that “nature ceaselessly experiments through the motion of atoms,” and he called this motion “swerve.”

The initial reception of Lucretius’ book by early humanists reminds me of tricklings over the huge dam of the Middle Ages. But after the reactionary movement of Savonarola was over in the late 1400s, rivulets were pouring through holes in the dam, and Thomas More’s Utopia, a vision of reaching mankind’s ideal society through human reason, appeared. The river nearly flowed free when Copernicus hit upon full Epicureanism by proving, once and for all, that the universe is not all about us. With Giordano Bruno (in the late 1500s), it was a broken down dam; for Bruno “might have been the first person in more than a millennium to grasp the full force…[that] the universe, in its ceaseless process of generation and destruction and regeneration, is inherently sexual” (p. 237).

In fascinating detail and with wit, Stephen Greenblatt is in complete control of a complicated journey through four civilizations, an unlikely main character, and an ancient poem both aesthetically and intellectually rich. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern was awarded the National Book Award in 2011 and the Pulitzer Prize in 2012.

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