Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve
An accessible window into the evolution of modern thought
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern is no lightweight listen. It is, after all, an examination of the 2000-year-old, 7400+ word Latin poem “De rerun natura” (“On the Nature of Things”) and the effect it has had on philosophy and history since its rediscovery in 1417 in the archives of a German monastery. Despite this dense subject matter, Greenblatt, a major figure in academia, has accomplished a truly remarkable feat: he’s made his discussion not only eminently understandable to those of us not in the midst of a dissertation on Renaissance philosophy, but immensely fascinating and relevant to the 21st century American experience.
The comforting voice of narrator Edoardo Ballerini takes us through a papal emissary’s initial discovery of the text by Roman writer Lucretius, as well as its unfriendly reception in the Catholic Church. Along with a discussion of the Roman understanding of physics, Lucretius’s work proposed a truly radical idea: the gods were so absorbed in their own lives that they gave little thought to the acts or morality of mortals — and with that lack of attention came a lack of ultimate judgment after death. From this understanding came the conclusion that without that sort of final accounting, man had nothing to fear from death, and that one’s only goal should be to live in the pursuit of personal fulfillment.
At the time, the Church was the leading school of science and philosophy, and Lucretius’s thesis was borderline heretical to its teaching of faith and moral order. Greenblatt posits that because of the distribution of this one poem, a shift occurred in the philosophical community, and contributed a great deal to the Renaissance’s push towards modernity and greater diversity of thought.
Taking his title from one of the lines of “De rerun natura” in which “the swerve” refers to an unpredictable change, Greenblatt draws a line from ancient Rome through the Renaissance and Enlightenment to the Declaration of Independence’s “pursuit of happiness,” while his discussion of Lucretius’s zen-like treatise on life and death doubles as a meditation on the modern fear of mortality. So no, it’s not a beach book, but it is a fascinating — and extremely accessible window — into the evolution of modern thought.