Review: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve is quite a fun read, but he falls short of fulfilling the promise of the book's title.

This is a book about a poem, written in Roman times by the poet Lucretius, then mostly lost to history, only to finally be rediscovered in the 1400s by Poggio Bracciolini, a "scriptor" in the papal bureaucracy. Poggio's boss the Pope has been dethroned and imprisoned, leaving Poggio with time to pursue his passion for ferreting out books and manuscripts from Roman times by visiting monasteries where these works have been painstakingly copied and recopied over time. Most of these books contain content antithetical to the thinking of the Medieval Church and State, so have rarely been seen outside monasteries. Poggio and others like him who search out these works, are in somewhat of a race to find these books and make them once again available to the wider world.

Let me back up a bit. The author, Stephen Greenblatt, tells us in the introduction how, while he was in college, he first came across Lucretius' poem On the Nature of Things, and how this beautiful work, marrying poetry with an Epicurean discussion of philosophy and science, had a profound impact on him. This book then, is told through the lens of Greenblatt's love of the poem and his desire to discover as much as he can about how it came to be rediscovered.

Taking the title apart - "The Swerve" refers to a notion within Lucretius' poem on how atoms swerve into one another to form matter. For a good part of the book, Greenblatt tells us about Lucretius and his philosophy, and about Poggio and his search. It is this part of the book - the larger part of the book actually - that is quite a fun read. Greenblatt does a great job of summarizing Lucretius' philosophy, and paints a vivid picture of Poggio and his times.

The second part of the title - "How the World Became Modern" is Greenblatt's argument that Lucretius' poem had such an impact on Poggio's times that it became a spark lighting up the Renaissance. This part of the book - just the last couple of chapters - is rather tepid stuff compared to what came before. Let's just say that the author's contention is at best partially supported. I would think that Lucretius' work, like many others rediscovered by Poggio and his peers, did indeed provide tinder for the fire. In these last chapters, Greenblatt points to a couple of Renaissance figures who lit the flames, and notes that they owned a copy of the work and were influenced by it. I'm exaggerating a bit, but that's about the whole argument.

I rate The Swerve 3 Stars ⭐⭐⭐ - I liked it. If your interests include the history of the late Middle Ages, or Roman poetry and philosophy, I think you'll find a lot to like about this book, even if you find, as I did, that it doesn't really tell you "How the World Became Modern".

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