Stephen Greenblatt is a literary mandarin --editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, The Norton Shakespeare (etc.), and author of Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare and other well-received works on early modern culture and the beginnings of "modernity." The Swerve turns to Titus Lucretius Carus (99-55 BCE), and the extraordinary story of Lucretius himself, the career of his poem De rerum naturae, ancient Epicureanism, its eclipse and return in early modern culture.
The critical link, Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459), was a papal secretary, humanist, and adventuresome bibliophile extraordinare. He discovered an obscure medieval manuscript of Lucretius' only work in the aftermath of the Council of Constance, 1414-1418, where his boss, Baldassare Cossa (the first Pope John XXIII) lost his job. With an ability to copy quickly and beautifully (his handwriting was a significant source for Roman type-font), Poggio was a natural manuscript-hunter. The beauty of Lucretius' language matched the power of Lucretius' critique of religion and other ancient philosophies such as Platonism and Stoicism (which contributed so much to Christianity). This critique in turn contributed to writers as diverse as Shakespeare, Niccolò Macchiavelli, Montaigne, and Thomas More --as well as exposing many others to condemnation by the Inquisition or other guardians of orthodoxy. Whether Poggio himself really understood the power of the text he unearthed is an open question.
Greenblatt's makes very clear his sympathy with epicurean-tinged atheism and distaste for mainstream varieties of Christianity. He is occasionally tone-deaf to options within Christianity as well unaware of Christian critiques of theologies of substitutionary atonement (what is means to say that "Jesus died for our sins--Abelard's, for example) --theologies which have been enormously influential but that have never had an exclusive lock on Christian self-understanding. Occasional trivial errors mar Greenblatt's text, such as the slightly snarky "As every pious reader of Luke's Gospel knew, Jesus wept ..." (p. 105) --no, an accurate reader of Luke's Gospel knows that Greenblatt is referring to John's Gospel, 11:35 --couldn't a fact-checker have caught this?
Greenblatt's account of the murder of Hypatia at the hands of thugs clearly inspired and maybe ordered by Cyril of Alexandria brings further public light to re-assessment of a complex and violent Patriarch too often given a pass. The gradual disappearance of the great Library of Alexandria (Museon and Serapeon) has to force a re-assessment of the passage from late antiquity to Christian and Muslim medieval worlds (beautifully rehearsed in Matthew Battles' Library: An Unquiet History, 2004). As a scholar of the Renaissance, Greenblatt has a vested interest in narratives of ancient decline, and more than once he tiptoes on the edge of caricature.
Greenblatt's fascinating story becomes marred, in his later pages, by his tendency to claim too much for Lucretian influence. Such influence is conclusive and well-documented in works by later Renaisance figures noted above. But later influence --Galileo, Newton, Jefferson, Darwin-- seems over-emphasized. Those were all complex figures with layers and layers of divergent pulls at work in their thinking and writing. Even if Jefferson owned five copies of Lucretius, does that really demonstrate influence? He was also very fond of Tacitus and Cicero, two writers quite unsympathetic to the Epicureans, and he owned multiple copies of their works as well.
Greenblatt also commits intellectual slight-of-hand when he occasionally links ancient atomism and modern atomic physics. He correctly notes that ancient atomism was completely theoretical, and that Einstein's work in particular was founded on quite different sources. Did Epicurean speculation really set the stage for atomic physics? (page 262) --that's quite a claim and needs further exploration. Readers of Hawking, Brian Greene, and Leonard Susskind might indeed be led to think that ancient atomism in fact obscures those elements of modern physics which suggest worlds, influences, and physical motifs that move well beyond atomistic reductionism. Only when influence such as Lucretius was overcome could ninetheenth-century physics move on.
I enjoyed this book immensely. I came away unconvinced that a reductive atomism explains very much about the world and what makes a human life worth living. What about genuine philosophical problems of language, the existence of other rational minds, and character of justice? How are or is mathematics possible? The Lucretian episode in early modern Europe was a fascinating stage and important stimulus for enormous creativity --but ultimately was superseded by a world of Scottish philosophies, Keynesian economics, and quantum physics. As an undergraduate I read Lucretius in the Latin (well, some of it) and never forgot the hypnotic beauty of the poetry. The philosophy that animated the poetry I always found as unconvincing as many of Plato's myths. They were brilliant thinkers, but have no more monopoly on truth than anyone else. Things have moved on, even for atheists.