Review of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt
By PAUL D. MILLER
On one level, The Swerve is the biography of a minor figure in Renaissance Florence (Poggio Bracciolini) and an entertaining story of how he recovered a lost work of Roman poetry (Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things). This part of The Swerve is well-written and –researched and surprisingly gripping. I especially enjoyed the descriptions of the technology of reading—papyrus versus vellum, scroll versus codex, and so forth—and the vivid portraits of ancient and Renaissance life.
But the author, Stephen Greenblatt, wants The Swerve to be much more than that. He wants to argue that the recovery of Lucretius’ poem—a famous work of Epicurean philosophy opposed to almost every tenant of Christianity—inspired freethinking across Europe and thus gave birth to the modern world. Along with this, he wants to argue for the superiority of Epicureanism over Christianity. In this part of The Swerve, Greenblatt rehearses a very old, discredited tale of the enmity between Christianity and science, faith and reason, church and enlightened individual. In this sense, The Swerve is a discredit to Greenblatt and to the Pulitzer Prize he was awarded for this book.
Greenblatt paints a shallow caricature of Christianity drawn from the extremes of ascetic monks, imperial Popes, and the Inquisition. In Greenblatt’s representation, Christianity is opposed to pleasure, science, reason, knowledge, rational inquiry, sex, beauty, and a lot of other things. He repeats in graphic detail the example of monks who flagellated themselves, and then ludicrously claims that such masochism was characteristic of Christianity as a whole. He condemns Popes and the Catholic Church for their hostility to scientific discovery, while ignoring that early scientists were almost all professing believers—some very devout. He cites well-known abuses and hypocrisies in the medieval church, but fails even to mention a very large historical movement by pious Christians to reform the church. It was called the Reformation.
What is most galling is that Greenblatt never attempts to argue that Christianity is hostile to science and pleasure. He just cites examples of specific Catholics and imputes their behavior to the religion as a whole. He never cites Scripture, never explores Christian theology, and never recognizes that Christians have differed among themselves on the very issues Greenblatt is upset about.
To set the record straight, God made the world—including beauty, sex, and human reason—and called it “very good.” There is a whole book of the Bible—the Song of Solomon—dedicated to rejoicing in romantic and sexual love. Another whole book—Proverbs—sings the praises of wisdom and knowledge. Jesus commands us to love God with our minds, which suggests we aren’t to be unthinking automatons.
Where Christianity and Epicureanism differ is in what we understand the purposes of joy, pleasure, and knowledge to be. For Greenblatt, Lucretius, and the Epicurean philosophy they admire, pleasure and knowledge are their own ends, because there is nothing else in life. Epicurus taught that the universe is “atoms and void, and nothing else,”—that is, the material universe is all there is. If there are gods, they couldn’t possibly care about humans. Our lives have no meaning other than what we give them. Greenblatt spends a chapter of the book expositing these and related doctrines of Epicureanism, but he avoids the obvious conclusions: that there are no rational or necessary limits on the pursuit of pleasure and that knowledge has no real purpose. Epicurus teaches the same whimsical nihilism characteristic of our postmodern age, which perhaps explains why Greenblatt and others find in him a kindred soul.
Christianity is different, but not in the way Greenblatt thinks. Christianity isn’t masochistic. Self-mutilation is a distortion, not expression, of Biblical truth. Christianity isn’t repressive. God made sex—and he made it very good—but he also gave it limits (marriage) and purpose (procreation and marital bonding). Neither is Christianity stupid. God made knowledge—but not for its own sake: he made it so that we might know him and his creation and give him glory. Epicureans are not wrong for prizing pleasure, they’re just too quick to settle for such low and fleeting forms of it. Christians are the smartest Epicureans because we are pursuing true joy, found in peace with God. John Piper calls this “Christian hedonism.”
It is a shame because Greenblatt is an otherwise talented scholar and writer. The book is a pleasure to read for a fan of the English language; Greenblatt, a Shakespeare scholar, wields the language with relish. He clearly knows his subject—Epicureanism, Lucretius, and Bracciolini—well. But he thinks his subject is more than that, and that is where the book goes awry.