Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began by Stephen Greenblatt




A few thoughts about Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began.

This book is about Lucretius' two-thousand year old poem 'On the Nature of Things' (De rerum natura); a poem which follows and develops the philosophy of Epicurus.  Greenblatt charts how Epicurus' philosophy fell to wasteland as the intolerant rise of monotheism squashed the more tolerant and freethinking intellectual pursuits of scholars (Greenblatt's description of the flaying alive of Hypatia, keeper of the Museum at Alexandria, makes for grisly reading.)  In the Renaissance, book hunters, known as humanists, such as Poggio Bracciolini, scoured monasteries hoping to discover copies of ancient texts.  In 1429, papal secretary Poggio Bracciolini, after a convoluted process of discovering Lucretius and then lending him without first reading, finally reads on 'The Nature of Things'.

Greenblatt begins with a framing narrative of how as an undergraduate he first found his copy of Lucretius at a university book sale and how his childhood was shaped by his overbearing, death-obsessed mother. 'How the Renaissance began' begins with how the Renaissance began for Greenblatt. In fact, the book doesn't deliver a satisfying answering to the question of the Renaissance's origin. Greenblatt's pitches his book at the general reader--nothing wrong in that--but the quest narrative of Poggio hunting for his book and the whole notion that one text 'started' the Renaissance is, well, a little contrived and I have to wonder why this book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 2012. (Does the courtier have friends at court?)  Greenblatt's a fine storyteller but I'm not convinced by the simplicity of his tale.  The shining hook of the title is a bit of a swizz.

Here are some of the key ideas--Greenblatt rightly calls them 'challenges'--in Lucretius:

* Everything is made of invisible particles.

* The elementary particles of matter--the 'seeds of things'--are eternal.

* The elementary particles are infinite in number but limited in shape and size.

* All particles are in motion in an infinite void.

* Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve. (Swerve means a small unpredictable shift in movement; a tiny deviation.)

* The swerve is the source of free will.

* Nature ceaselessly experiments.

* The universe was not created for or about humans.

* Humans are not unique.

* Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival. 

* The soul dies.

* There is no afterlife.

* Death is nothing to us.

* All organized religions are superstitious delusions.

* Religions are invariably cruel.

* There are no angels, demons, or ghosts.

* The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.

* The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion.

* Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder.


Where Greenblatt's book does succeed is in its understatement and implications.  With none of the bombastic tub-thumping of Dawkins, Greenblatt's story raises the probing question of the cost of religious orthodoxy; what's the cost to us of following religious creeds and believing in an afterlife? What's the cost of thinking that the world is but a plaything for us humans?  If 'understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder' then Greenblatt has tapped into a key line of thought in our culture: we did not always unquestioningly believe in God or the divine right of humans.  Such questioning and love of free thought, along with the belief that there is but one life, although we are in some sense broken down and recirculated, is not an entirely modern invention. Such ideas and values have deep, powerful intellectual roots and have been already been potent forces in our history: the ending of the book at Thomas Jefferson is a masterstroke.  This could be considered a fragment of the untold intellectual history of America.

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