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How Did the Modern World Come to Be?

Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011)
How Did the Modern World Come to Be?

“Swerve” may seem to be a strange word to use as the titular noun of a book with as sweeping a prospect as to try to explain how the modern world grew out of the religious—specifically Christian—world of the middle ages. Stephen Greenblatt does not back down from that challenge, however, and tells what he means by the word in the first few pages of his book. He likens it to a secular version of “miracle” and attributes its use to the principal subject of The Swerve: Titus Lucretius Carus, otherwise simply known as Lucretius. Lucretius wrote a highly influential poem entitled de rerum natura, or “On the Nature of Things” in which he proposed a completely materialistic universe, and calls the odd thing that does not seem to be a part of the natural order, a clinamen, an “unexpected, unpredictable movement of matter”.

The small point is not unimportant. Greenblatt seeks to show that the entire structure of modern, secular thought is found in the work of this first century BC poet, whose poem shaped the thought of Vergil, Cicero, and probably a number of other ancient thinkers. de rerum natura posits a world that is completely atomistic. Drawing on the thought of Epicurus, Lucretius argues against the existence of God, proposes that most morality in the world stems from the fear of judgment in the afterlife (a concept he also finds anathema) and suggests that they should be built around the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Like so many other ancient works, de rerum natura is lost during the middle ages, and for a thousand years is only accessible through references and very brief quotations in other books.

But in AD 1417, the book surfaces again, due to the ingenious work of the real hero of Greenblatt’s story, a papal monk known as Poggio Bracciolini. Greenblatt’s telling of the story of the discovery of the manuscript, the way in which it probably was lost in the first place and the ensuing influence it had in western thought in the wake of the Renaissance and the Reformation makes up the substance of the book. It is a story masterfully told, and instructive of medieval church ways, ancient and renaissance book production, and especially of the rise of classical learning in the church, as the west moves out of the middle ages and into the modern period.

The history alone would be worth the reading, but Greenblatt’s elucidation of Lucretius’s poem and his linking of it to modern thought states as clearly as anyone where the west has gone intellectually, and what the driving intellectual ideas have been that have dominated our thinking since the enlightenment. The book won last year’s National Book Award for non-fiction, and is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the intellectual climate at most modern universities in America.

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