When Atoms Collide

By Stan Persky | February 2, 2013

Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2011).


In Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, the renowned Shakespearean scholar and Harvard prof tells a fast-paced intellectual detective story about how, in 1417, an Italian Renaissance book-hunting humanist, Poggio Bracciolini, rescued a key work of ancient Roman thought from a remote German monastery and delivered it to a world that was on the verge of becoming “modern.”

The nearly-lost work in question is Lucretius’s 1st century BCE book-length poem, On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura), and its ideas pose exactly the sort of challenges about the nature of reality and human fate that we’ve been attempting to respond to ever since the book’s rediscovery. What’s more, in this tale of palimpsests and copies, Lucretius’s book  is itself a paean to the earlier ideas of the 4th century BCE Greek philosopher, Epicurus, a thinker whose own almost completely lost works advocated, at the metaphysical level, atomism, and ethically, a life of reasoned pleasure.

At one point in his story, Greenblatt reflects, “It is possible for a whole culture to turn away from reading and writing.” One of the major themes of The Swerve is that culture and learning can be forgotten for centuries, or even permanently lost; that occasionally it is fortuitously rediscovered; and that it is almost always imperilled. Greenblatt is thinking of the Roman Empire, where “the literacy rate was never high, and after the Sack of Rome in 410 CE. it began to plummet… As the empire crumbled and Christianity became ascendant, as cities decayed… the ancient system of education fell apart. What began as downsizing went on to wholesale abandonment. Schools closed, libraries and academies shut their doors, professional grammarians and teachers of rhetoric found themselves out of work, scribes were no longer given manuscripts to copy.” What remained of books was scattered among isolated medieval monasteries, and preserved in Arabic centres of learning outside the former empire. By the time Poggio began his quest, “Lucretius’s ideas had been out of circulation for centuries.”

But perhaps Greenblatt is not only thinking of antiquity. In an upside-down-reverse-mirror sort of way, the threat to learning is still with us today. In Poggio’s day, it was the secret knowledge of the crumbling, about to be lost ancient manuscripts that was in peril. Today, the “secret knowedge” of  books is ubiquitous, but is strangely invisible to people not particularly interested in reading books. The present technological revolution makes more information more quickly available to more people than at any time in history, yet the data we have of internet usage suggests that for the most part, users are primarily interested in Facebook exchanges, video games, incessant texting, and tidbits from the world of celebrity culture. Although Greenblatt doesn’t directly say so, at least one critic suggests that while “The Swerve presents itself as a work of literary history…  really it is a salvo in the culture wars.” Greenblatt’s portrait of the Middle Ages “bears a strong resemblance to America’s present era of superstitious know-nothing-ism.” (Jim Hinch, “Why Stephen Greenblatt is Wrong… and Why it Matters,” Los Angeles Review of Books, Dec. 1, 2012.) That’s meant as a criticism of Greenblatt’s approach, but I think it’s unintended praise.

Greenblatt, one of the founders of the so-called New Historicist approach to literary criticism, is professionally known for his academic scholarship, but The Swerve, like his previous book about Shakespeare, Will in the World (2004), is written (and in my view, succeeds) as popular cultural history. As such, it became the most-honoured American non-fiction book of 2011, winning both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, as well as making its way to the New York Times bestseller list. Given the current state of reading and writing (at least in North America), as well as widespread popular ignorance of how we got to be the people we are (i.e., how we became “modern”), Greenblatt’s efforts to explain some of this to a general readership is particularly welcome at this time. Of course, as with much popular history — just to anticipate a critical discussion I’ll get to shortly — it courts the charge of being too popular, i.e., over-simplifying or even distorting history in order to weave its particular tangled web.

Possible criticisms aside, Greenblatt’s narrative is a surprisingly gripping page-turner about what after all is no more than the story of a trip to the library. But in the winter of 1417, a visit to the nearest book collection could take a man hundreds of kilometres on horseback “through the wooded hills and valleys of southern Germany toward his distant destination, a monastery reputed to have a cache of old manuscripts.” Along the way, we learn quite a bit about rutted hard-packed roads, villages, peasants, knights, skilled tradesmen, merchants, priests, and travellers wandering off the beaten path. Since it’s the second decade of the 15th century and since Poggio is a high-ranking but temporarily out-of-work secretary to the Pope, we get a colourful, detailed report of the 1414-18 Council of Constance (or Konstanz). In that town on the German side of what will become the German-Swiss border, the eminences of the multi-national Roman Catholic Church, and a cast-of-thousands entourage (among them, Poggio), tried to sort out a papacy in disarray. Three contending candidates claimed the holy seat; Poggio’s boss, John XXIII, lost out and was put under castle-arrest, and his apostolic secretary was out of a job. Matters of doctrine were also taken up at the conclave, and two dissidents, John Hus and Jerome of Prague, proto-protestants a century before Luther, were tried, convicted, and burned at the stake.

Once there – and “there” may have been the monastery of Fulda in central Germany, we’re not certain – we learn an equally fascinating amount about monasteries, manuscripts, copy-making, the importance of penmanship in the period before Gutenberg’s press, and the excitement of finding old books and rescuing them for a world becoming interested in new ideas. We also learn something about the fragility of books. In a chapter headed “The Teeth of Time,” Greenblatt asks, “Where did all the books go?”

Of the vast literary output of the distant past, apart from a few charred papyrus fragments, “there are no surviving contemporary manuscripts from the ancient Greek and Roman world. Everything that has reached us is a copy, most often very far removed in time, place and culture from the original. And these copies represent only a small portion of the works even of the most celebrated writers of antiquity.” We have less than 10 per cent of the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles, barely 20 per cent of Euripides and Aristophanes.

Apart from the editorial decisions of a millennium’s worth of gatekeepers (which left us a considerable amount of Plato and Aristotle, but lost all of Epicurus and dozens of others), “the actual material disappearance of the books,” Greenblatt explains, “was largely the effect of climate and pests.” Though papyrus and parchment were long-lived, “books inevitably deteriorated over the centuries, even if they managed to escape the ravages of fire and flood. The ink was a mixture of soot (from burnt lamp wicks), water and tree gum: that made it cheap and agreeably easy to read, but also water-soluble.” Further, “rolling and unrolling the scrolls or pouring over the codices, touching them, dropping them, coughing on them, allowing them to be scorched by fire from the candles, or simply reading them over and over eventually destroyed them.” As if that wasn’t bad enough, there were the bookworms, not metaphorical avid readers, but literal insect eaters of books.

Beyond that, there was a cultural issue about reading and writing. As far back as the end of the 4th century CE, the historian Ammianus Marcellinus was complaining “that Romans had virtually abandoned serious reading.” As Greenblatt notes, “What he observed, as the empire slowly crumbled, was a loss of cultural moorings, a descent into febrile triviality.”  Or as Ammianus himself put it, “In place of the philosopher, the singer is called in, and in place of the orator the teacher of stagecraft, and while the libraries are shut up forever like tombs, water organs are manufactured and lyres as large as carriages.” Hmm. Sound familiar?

Books and reading retreated into the scriptora of the monasteries during the long period we are today discouraged from simplistically thinking of as “the Dark Ages.” When Petrarch and the other pioneers of the revival of learning in the early 1300s emerged, one of the first places they gently ransacked were those monastic libraries where copies of works from antiquity might be discovered.

At the unnamed monastery in question, our wandering scholar, Poggio, found something unusual. Greenblatt’s book tells the “little known but exemplary Renaissance story” of that particular find, a 9th century copy of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things. “The recovery,” says Greenblatt, “has the virtue of being true to the term that we use to gesture toward the cultural shift at the origins of modern life and thought: a re-naissance, a rebirth, of antiquity.” Much of The Swerve is a discussion of the remarkable materialist content and implications of the book Poggio rediscovered. The eponymous “swerve” of Greenblatt’s account refers to Lucretius’s theory that the universe is made up of tiny bits of matter, atoms, in constant motion, that from time to time swerve and collide with each other to produce the things of our world, everything from the starry heavens to humans themselves. Greenblatt doesn’t pretend that in focusing on both Poggio’s rediscovery, and the ideas in Lucretius’s poem, he’s in possession of the key that will unlock everything. “One poem by itself was certainly not responsible for an entire intellectual, moral and social transformation – no single work was… but this particular ancient book, suddenly returning to view, made a difference.” How much of a difference is a matter of dispute that we’ll get to in due course.

In Greenblatt’s view, this is not only a story about swerving atoms, but also “of how the world swerved in a new direction.” What’s more, “the agent of change was not a revolution, an implacable army at the gates, or landfall on an unknown continent.” Rather, when this epochal change occurred, nearly 600 years ago, “the key moment was muffled and almost invisible, tucked away behind walls in a remote place. There were no heroic gestures, no observers keenly recording the great event for posterity, no signs in heaven or on earth that everything had changed forever. A short, genial, cannily alert man in his late thirties reached out one day, took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. That was all, but it was enough.” The copy was shipped off to Poggio’s friend in Italy, Niccolo Niccoli, himself a famous copyist, and the rest is Renaissance history. Niccoli’s own copy still exists and in the succeeding half-century, some 50 or more reproductions of Lucretius were made before mechanical printing took over.

Finally, there’s the poem itself. About its author, Lucretius, we know next to nothing, other than that he was a follower of the Greek philosopher Epicurus. In Greenblatt’s chapter on the implications of On the Nature of Things, he makes clear why the poem was so subversive of the Christian theology that had succeeded Greek and Roman thought. Epicurus and Lucretius weren’t “pagans” in the sense that they believed in other gods. If gods exist, Lucretius argued, they don’t concern themselves with mortal human affairs and they didn’t create the universe. That universe and everything in it is “made of invisible particles… Immutable, indivisible, invisible, and infinite in number, they are constantly in motion, clashing with one another, coming together to form new shapes,” swerving from a direct course, colliding, and among other things, causing life. In Greenblatt’s reading, Lucretius believes “nature ceaselessly experiments… the universe was not created for or about humans… humans are not unique…” It’s a reading of the natural world that would appeal to Montaigne, Hobbes, Galileo, and even Darwin. In the end, the atoms of which we are formed break free of us, moving on through the void, and individual lives end. Thus, there’s no afterlife, no eternal rewards or perpetual punishments for virtue or vice, and religion is little more than superstition. If this is the way things are, says Lucretius, there’s little reason for humans to fear death, and for our brief lives, there is no end other than pleasure. Some of Lucretius’s original readers may have found the passages about our atomic dissolution consoling, but later more existentially-inclined lecteurs, while persuaded by the facts of dissolution, are likely to find that the taste of ashes remains bitter.

Lucretius’s idea of pleasure is not the stereotyped unrestrained orgy he–and Epicurus–were frequently accused of advocating, but the peace of mind that comes with sensible living, tending one’s garden, and discoursing with friends. Greenblatt has some qualms that Epicureanism is a little too quietist in that it doesn’t leave much room for the public life of social creatures, but he doesn’t dwell on those doubts. So, “How the World Became Modern,” The Swerve’s sub-title, is through a combination of the revival of ancient learning, and the use of some of antiquity’s ideas (especially those undermining the Christian theology of the Middle Ages), along with newly-developed Renaissance notions of science, culture, and social life.

For Greenblatt, “Something happened in the Renaissance, something that surged up against the constraints that centuries had constructed around curiosity, desire, individuality, sustained attention to the material world, the claims of the body. The cultural shift,” he admits, “is notoriously difficult to define, and its significance has been fiercely contested… The key to the shift lies… in the whole vision of a world in motion, a world not rendered insignificant but made more beautiful by its transience, its erotic energy, and its ceaseless change.” On the whole, Greenblatt makes a persuasive case, his claims are tempered by appropriate caveats and cautions,  and his book offers a lively, popular account of a part of intellectual history aimed at a general readership.


In the year and a half since The Swerve’s publication, and its garnering of rave reviews, honours, and commercial success, there’s been a noticeable ripple of “push-back,” as the media currently likes to term disagreement, about its claims, which is one of the reasons I’m belatedly re-reviewing it. The most passionate of Greenblatt’s negative critics is Jim Hinch, whose “Why Stephen Greenblatt is Wrong –- and Why It Matters” turned up in the online Los Angeles Review of Books (citation above) just a couple of months ago. The author’s bio-note provided for Hinch doesn’t explain why he’s a credible expert on the medieval period, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. He’s furious at the blinkered National Book and Pulitzer prize committees who awarded Greenblatt their laurels. “Simply put, The Swerve did not deserve the awards it received because it is filled with factual innacuracies and founded upon a view of history not shared by serious scholars of the periods Greenblatt studies,” Hinch charges. He allows that the story of Poggio’s quest, “brimming with vivid evocations of Renaissance papal court machinations” as well as “a fascinating exploration of Lucretius’s influence on luminaries ranging from Leonardo Da Vinci to Galileo… is wonderful,” and prizeworthy.

What he doesn’t like is the “second” Swerve, which is little more than “an anti-religious polemic,” riddled with historical errors. Greenblatt is merely using the story of the lucky fate of Lucretius’s poem as a “proxy” for a story “of how modern western secular culture liberated itself from the deadening hand of centuries of medieval religious dogmatism… In other words, The World Became Modern when it learned to stop believing in God and start believing in itself.” Hinch thinks Greenblatt’s got it mostly wrong, especially about the character of intellectual and material life between roughly the 4th and 12th centuries. He objects to Greenblatt’s cartoonish view that “western Europe endured a long, suffocating era dominated by an obscurantist pleasure-hating religious ideology.” Greenblatt’s vision, he insists, “is not true, not even remotely.”

Hinch then proposes to “go through Greenblatt’s portrait of the Middle Ages point by point” to show how wrong-headed it is. He starts with reading and writing. Contrary to Greenblatt’s remark about a whole culture turning away from literate activities, Hinch asserts that “that didn’t happen in medieval Europe,” which was the continent’s “most bookish era.” The most he allows is that there are “declines in written evidence during the centuries following the wane of Rome but that’s not because medieval people suddenly became illiterate or bullied by church culture police.” True, there were a couple or more centuries in which maurauding non-bookish folks “did not pay attention to books while plundering medieval monasteries.” Still, “it is simply untrue to assert that classical culture was ever lost, ignored or suppressed during the Middle Ages.”

Hinch isn’t especially persuasive in making his corrective counter-claims. Yes, of course, there was intellectual life in the Middle Ages, but much (or maybe, most) of it is focused on theology and is to be found in those monastery libraries Poggio and others would scour centuries later. Although the works of Plato, Aristotle and the neo-Platonists continue to circulate, they are primarily tailored to be in accordance with Christian theology. When we think of medieval writers, the names that spring to mind are Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. So, while the decline of reading and writing is neither sudden nor absolute after the fall of the Roman Empire, what there is to read in, say Charlemagne’s day (c. 800 CE), doesn’t look much like the best-seller lists of antiquity or anything, starting with Dante, Chaucer, and the troubadours, in the Renaissance and succeeding centuries.

The rest of Hinch’s refutation of Greenblatt is similarly inchoate. His main objection seems to be to Greenblatt’s disdain for religion, and his claim that “a hatred of pleasure-seeking, a vision of God’s providential rage and an obsession with the afterlife” characterized medieval culture. I’m no more than a casual reader of medieval history, but looking recently at Tom Holland’s Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom (2011), a popular portrait of the complex church-state power politics of the 11th century, the picture he draws is fascinating but is hardly an account of intellectual flourishing.

Hinch may be right that Greenblatt pays a tad too much attention to the self-flagellation of fearful penitents during the Middle Ages, but his remark that “The Swerve’s primary achievement is to flatter like-minded readers with a tall tale of enlightened modern values triumphing over a benighted pre-modern past” is as much a misreading as  any distortion attributed to Greenblatt. Despite the fervor of the critique posted on LARB, it’s not the least bit clear that Greenblatt is dead wrong, as Hinch asserts, or that he can be faulted for offering what is no worse than a contested reading of medieval history in his efforts to understand the modern mind.

A more interesting critcism of The Swerve (which Hinch cites) is State University of New York history professor John Monfasani’s review of Greenblatt’s book in Reviews in History. Monfasani is also critical of Greenblatt’s adherence to the 19th century notion “of the Renaissance as an outburst of light after a long medieval darkness,” a view attributed to historian Jacob Burckhardt, but more to the point he’s dubious about the direct influence of the rediscovered Lucretius. Certainly, it didn’t appear to much affect Poggio or his fellow humanists. (By the way, Poggio, after his rough patch during the Council of Constance, eventually re-secured his posting at the Vatican, and went on to a long and happy life, including a late marriage and honorary offices in his native Tuscany.) I think Monfasani is right to call into question Lucretius’s impact, although Greenblatt hedges some of his bets by presenting the Poggio-Lucretius tale as emblematic rather than immediately causative of the development of modernism, and certainly much of Lucretius’s materialism is in accord with the ideas of the new science of the 16th and 17th centuries.   

Monfasani points out that it was the triumph of Platonism and Neoplatonism in late antiquity that doomed Epicurianism, and not the opposition of the medieval church, and that Greenblatt fudges that development. More important, Monfasani thinks that Greenblatt is backing the wrong horse. The “startling omission in Greenblatt’s book is any discussion of the Sceptics and scepticism… They and not the Epicureans were the arch-subversives.” If Greenblatt “wanted to write about the subversion of medieval verities,” says Monfasani, “he should have written about the recovery of classical sceptical texts and the spread of scepticism,” namely the recovery of the ideas of Pyrrho and his populariser, Sextus Empiricus, which were rediscovered about a century after Poggio’s trip to the library.

Fortunately, notes Monfasani, that story has already been told by historian of philosophy Richard Popkin in his History of Scepticism from Savonarola to Bayle (2003). I won’t attempt to reprise the very complex philosophic debate Popkin traces, but Monfasani is right to fault Greenblatt for not so much as mentioning it, a clear instance of “popular” history oversimplifying the complex development of modernity that Greenblatt is supposedly trying to explain. Greenblatt rightly notes the importance of Lucretius to a thinker like Montaigne, but he ignores Montaigne’s “large hand” in popularizing scepticism in the later 16th and 17th centuries, which leads to the intellectual crisis that Descartes addresses in the mid-17th century, and which is now regarded as the start of modern philosophy. True, Scepticism and Descartes’s engagement with it is focused on epistemology, questions of what and how we know anything, while Lucretius is oriented to metaphysics and ethics, but that’s no excuse for Greenblatt not addressing the issue. Compared to Popkin’s “work of serious historical scholarship… Greenblatt has penned an entertaining but wrong-headed belletristic tale,” Monfasani concludes. Well, I don’t think it’s as bad as all that. Greenblatt could have easily retained his story of Poggio and the rediscovery of Lucretius as emblematic of the rise of modernity, while at the same time deepening the account by pointing to the later developments of epistemological questions. It would have made the point about Lucretius far less intellectually neat, but there’s no reason that the more accurate, more complex account couldn’t have been rendered in popular terms.

Finally, a related cogent criticism (also mentioned by Hinch) is made by Morgan Meis (Morgan Meis, “Swerving,” n+1, July 20, 2012). For Meis, Greenblatt’s book is a shallower and possibly misguided echo of a much deeper, scholarly work also trying to figure out how the world became modern, namely critical theorist Hans Blumenberg’s The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (1966). The focus of this criticism is on Epicurean ethics. Blumenberg considers and ultimately rejects the view that Greenblatt will later popularise: “Hellenism, with its scientific and technical achievements, can appear to be a sort of ‘impeded modern age,’ which in its very onset was thrown back by Christianity’s breaking in and only got going again with the rediscovery of its texts during the Renaissance. The modern age would then be the normalization of a disturbed situation, taking up once again the interrupted continuity of history in its immanent logical sequence. The Middle Ages would again be a senseless and merely annoying intervening period in the historical process.”

Instead, says Meis, “Blumenberg rejects this argument because it fails to recognize what is truly unique about the modern age. ‘If I turn a part of my efforts to the refutation of this thesis,’ Blumenberg writes, ‘it is not because this reasoning in itself alarms me but because it conceals the singular situation of provocation and self-assertion from which springs the incomparable energy of the rise of the modern age.’”

Meis argues, “Blumenberg does not want to reduce the modern age to a repetition of Epicureanism because he thinks that misses both what was singular about Epicureanism and what is singular to modern thought. The modern age, Blumenberg posits, was not a simple return to ancient models but rather a radical response to the worldview of the Middle Ages, one that created a new sense of human agency and a drive for world-transforming knowledge the ancients could not have imagined.” I think the point is nicely made by Meis.

 “The Swerve reveals a key tension at the heart of modern life. Our materialism frees us from living in constant terror over the condition of our immortal souls, yet we are not content to withdraw into the life of disengagement and simple joys recommended by Epicurus. Modernity, as Blumenberg reminds us, leads us to confront the world within the context of a scientific attitude that is profoundly active and profoundly engaged, and this attitude comes with its own inherent tensions and regrets.” Again, point taken.

The justified criticisms of Greenblatt are hardly fatal to his project. Again, I’d underscore the virtue of Greenblatt popularising cultural history at a time when knowledge of history is often confined to contemporary pop culture and the latest doings of minor celebrities. For all its alleged shortcomings, Greenblatt’s entertaining (but not merely entertaining) story of Poggio and Lucretius alerts us, in an accessible way, to the relevant question of how we became the modern people we are, to say nothing of how that inheritance of modernity is (always, it seems) in present danger.


Berlin, Feb. 2, 2013  










  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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