Every so often a book comes along that helps to organize a great deal of what we’ve learned about the world. Such books show us how news events, historical shifts, wars, peace, technological changes, literature all occur and influence each other, showing that what Walter Cronkite used to call “the way it is,” is actually a pretty complicated and interconnected network of ever-shifting things. I took a course in college co-taught by faculty from various departments including history, literature, philosophy, and they taught us how the science, art, and politics of the Elizabethan world all influenced each other. Steven Johnson’s work, particularly his virtual trilogy, The Ghost Map, The Invention of Air, and Where Good Ideas Come From, (I reviewed the latter book here) is another example of that kind of integrative work that makes one gasp for air in delight.
Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2011) is that kind of book. It is beautifully written, erudite, and informative. Most important, it’s very relevant to our own polarized times, when “Christian” fundamentalists seemingly want to wage permanent war against every other kind of fundamentalism and science, in a time when, faced with cataclysmic climate change and other urgent problems, we are once again witnessing a stupid, time-wasting War of the World Views.
The Swerve is the story of how an Italian scholar and humanist, Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini, managed to find and get back into circulation a famous ancient book that had disappeared from history, Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things. Greenblatt shows how this long lost book, a philosophical treatise on the physical world and the implications for how one lives, became, after its rediscovery, a key source of ideas that propelled us into the modern world. How, in short, a book you’ve probably never read and never heard of, had a massive effect on not just the world you live in, but on how you view and understand that world — and yourself.
I enjoyed this a lot; started reading it idly in spare moments on my iPhone’s Kindle app, and it soon forced its way past other things I’ve been reading and became the main thing on my mind. The kind of book that you find yourself thinking about when you should be doing other things.
It wasn’t quite balanced the way I expected from the reviews, in that it’s largely a biography of Bracciolini, the guy who managed to find and copy and get Lucretius’s book back into circulation; but I later decided that understanding the intellectual, political and practical world Bracciolini lived in was background I needed, in order to grasp the importance of the book in his world and time. This was blended with a fascinating discussion of the clash between the outlook of Lucretius and the Epicureans, with other established views, both in ancient times (culminating eventually in the suppression and deliberate destruction of such works by the early and already intolerant and violent Church), and during the entire period leading up to and through the Renaissance, the Reformation, and beyond.
Greenblatt’s book shows how the basic scientific concepts of the ancient philosophers led to the ethical and psychological implications of their world view. For if “the nature of things” or “the way it is,” is that all of reality, including us, is composed of atoms and nothing else; if even our “souls” (or we might say, “minds”) are made up of, and organzied by those ever-moving atoms, then the belief structures, ancient and modern, involving the fear of hell and fantasy gods, has no reality basis, and is both unnecessary, and unnecessarily harmful. In which case, the only sane thing would be to ditch the scary old gods and repressive theologies, and to find ways to appreciate and enjoy our brief time alive. (I personally don’t believe one has to do without a mystical or religious view of reality to accept and learn from such a philosophy, but perhaps I shall indeed order that hot tub!)
Greenblat shows how the blowback by the Church from Lucretius’s ideas helped fuel the fires of the Inquisition, and how the book and its outlook was a challenge both to the Church, the established political powers, and to probably, the dark, fear-based world views of many ordinary people. He finally discusses the importance of the book in helping to launch the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, all the way through (in an astounding ending) the nearly certain reference to Lucretius and his Epicurean philosophy in the Declaration of Independence, where Jefferson (who considered On the Nature of Things to be among his favorite books) declared that a main purpose of a government is to assist its citizens in their “pursuit of Happiness.” (That was not, and at the time of the writing of the Declaration could not possibly have been a goal listed by a “Christian” Continental Congress, at least not one as fantasized by modern right-wing evangelicals.)
As a psychologist, this book represents the retrieval of an important chunk of my profession’s “intellectual history.” As a human being, it’s simply a wonderful tickle and challenge to one’s outlook if one grew up “churched” and still finds oneself pondering, as the world turns to desert and the darkness looms, about one’s life, what it all might mean, and whether leasing or buying a hot tub makes the most sense. At the very least, hot tub or not, it certainly inspires me to read the original source of all these fireworks, Lucretius’s Nature of Things.