Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: Did Lucretius’s Poem Really Bring Us Modernity?

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 29 2011 2:53 PM

The Poem That Changed the World

Stephen Greenblatt thinks he’s found it, but has he?

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The Swerve is powered by Greenblatt’s evangelical enthusiasm for this message. Indeed, he is more interested in explaining Epicureanism, and its intellectual and emotional ramifications, than he is in reading De rerum natura, and the reader learns little about the literary qualities of the poem. It appears in Greenblatt’s story, rather, as a symbolic time capsule, protecting its ancient secular wisdom through the Dark Ages and the Christian Middle Ages—periods Greenblatt depicts in highly conventional terms as poisoned by religion, uniformly grim and ascetic.

When Lucretius was rediscovered—ironically enough, in a monastery library—in 1417, by the Italian humanist Poggio Bracciolini, Greenblatt imagines the moment as the birth of the Renaissance: “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.”

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In fact, of course, it was not nearly enough. Greenblatt knows that any such claim for De rerum natura is absurdly overblown—“one poem by itself was certainly not responsible for an entire intellectual, moral, and social transformation,” he grants early on. Yet the subtitle of the book is “How the World Became Modern,” and the implied answer is that it became modern by reading Lucretius and learning to think like him. Greenblatt's brief final chapter, "Afterlives," does show that De rerum natura influenced on some seminal modern writers, including Montaigne, whose annotated copy of the poem was discovered in 1989. More often, however, what Greenblatt finds is not so much direct influence as a general similarity of outlook—as when he associates Lucretius's materialism with Galileo's, or his rational hedonism with Jefferson's "pursuit of happiness." To say that "the atoms of Lucretius had left their traces on the Declaration of Independence" seems at best poetic license.

A more important problem with The Swerve is that Greenblatt’s account of Epicureanism makes it sound rather more consoling than it really is. Greenblatt dwells at length on the way Lucretius's thoroughgoing materialism cleanses the human conscience of specters like "religious fanaticism" and "ascetic self-denial" and "dreams of limitless power." "In short," he writes, "it became possible—never easy, but possible—in the poet Auden's phrase to find the mortal world enough." Yet this is not only not easy. The worldview Lucretius proposes—atoms and void and nothing else—is the very one that has driven many other modern writers to despair and rebellion. From Leopardi to Kierkegaard to Camus, modern literature can be seen as a document of what happens when humanity is liberated into a void. It is not nearly as pretty a picture as Greenblatt optimistically suggests.

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at the New Republic.

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