Thursday, September 22, 2016

Book Review: The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt

This book is the closest thing we’ll get to the Gospel of Lucretius. It makes for an invigorating internal discussion in the vein of C.S. Lewis’s “second friend" (i.e., that friend who has read all the right things but gotten all the wrong ideas out from them). In Lewis’s case, he was referring to Owen Barfield’s fascinatingly flawed obsession with Rudolph Steiner and Theosophy, but the same sentiment applies to this book’s fascinatingly flawed obsession with Lucretius’s Epicurean philosophy.

It’s not that Greenblatt sees Lucretius’s influence in too many places – it’s that he sees them in too few. In this telling, Lucretius wrote On the Nature of Things, it had some influence but was all too soon eclipsed by Christianity, with the typical secular narrative example of "St. Hypatia" as told in the movie Agora.  Then, in this telling, Lucretius disappears until a chance discovery resurrects his ideas into glorious, enlightening victory.

But this ignores the central fact that Lucretius has always been around. Even in the "darkest" of Dark Ages, every Christian has an internal debate with doubt. It also ignores Stoicism’s constant presence in different guises throughout history. In my view, the writings of Augustine and Aquinas show the marks of struggle with Lucretian/Epicurean ideas and Stoic ideas. All writing that goes deep enough shows that each mind has a debate to settle between Lucretius and Christ, even if the ideas don't go by those names.

Exactly why Lucretius was eclipsed by Christianity in the first half of the first millennium is not convincingly explained; Greenblatt thinks the right ideas “lost” the intellectual battle but, to me, never explained why they lost (not convincingly at least). Greenblatt leans on explanations of a Christian emphasis on pain over pleasure, but if so I have no idea why anyone would take the Christian option ... yet that’s what happened historically. Something’s missing.

Then Greenblatt goes into great detail as to how a particular Italian rose to a certain clerical power and eventually found Lucretius through a string of luck. (Never mind that if I heard correctly, 50 copies of On the Nature of Things existed, and it seems that one would see the light of day eventually.) This story is told in so much detail that it takes up too much of the book. Rather than telling us exactly how convoluted (socially and morally) 15th-century Italy was, the story should have focused on why that situation existed and how the people thought. Instead of ideas we get a string of names.

But then, it does get interesting. The final chapters are the best, because once The Nature of Things emerges through the Renaissance, the influence of Lucretius can be traced all the way to Darwin (Erasmus, that is) and Jefferson. I'm not convinced that Lucretius is as central to these thinkers as Greenblatt seems to think he is, but at least we're talking about ideas here as ideas. This is where the history of ideas happens, and there should be more of it. (The chapter explaining the context of Lucretius and his early readers is also good and idea-rich.)

What stood out to me is how Lucretius’s ideas may have held back science in some cases. Atomism is right, but the Big Bang scenario is objectively closer to creation ex nihilo (at least on the surface) than it is to Lucretius’s endlessly cycling universe. Einstein resisted the Big Bang because he was too Lucretian, and reality turned out to look awfully medieval in this respect.

 I understand that you have to leave something out to write a book this short, but in that case, leave out the 15th-century Italian intrigue and talk about the ideas and the science more. I’d like something that could stand up to Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern, but instead, The Swerve is more on the level of The Purpose-Driven Life for people who don’t believe in purpose. Don't get me wrong -- it’s very worthwhile on that level, but it’s more about reaffirming the “faithful” than changing any minds. Obviously it didn't change mine!

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