Posted by: Dominic | February 14, 2012

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

Here is a lovely interview with the author and scholar Stephen Greenblatt about his book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.

The book is a popular history, part adventure story and part intellectual history, and it centers on the poem De Rerum Natura – “On the Nature of Things” – by the 1st century BCE Roman Lucretius. The adventure part traces the life of Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini, a 15th century Papal bureaucrat and bibliophile, and his discovery of the Lucretius manuscript in a German monastery. Greenblatt’s intellectual history traces the influence of this text, made available to the wider Western world because of Bracciolini, on the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and even modern thought.

The poem contains surprisingly modern ideas. Most notably, Lucretius propagated the theory that all matter was made up of indivisible, invisible particles called atoms. This concept had first been formulated four centuries prior to the writing of De Rerum Natura by Greek natural philosophers now called the Pre-Socratics. Lucretius’ contribution to his Hellenic predecessors is “the swerve” (clinamen in Latin) – the idea that these atoms move around in space and collide with one another and this random movement affects and determines what happens. This is where the book takes it title.

Because of Bracciolini’s effort to publicize De Rerum Natura, Lucretius would eventually find admirers in Galileo Galilei, Michel de Montaigne, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein.

Not every critic has been pleased with this book. The New York Times criticized its bland but adequate style, while the Washington Post took a more serious dig, complaining that Greenblatt’s work is largely synthesis with little original thought. Other critics believe that Greenblatt implicitly and inappropriately plays up the religious-Medieval/secular-Modern dichotomy, though the interview does not give that impression to my ears.

The Swerve won the 2011 National Book Award. Stephen Greenblatt is a Professor of English at Harvard University and a co-editor of the Norton Anthology of English Literature.

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