The Swerve: How the World Became Modern–Stephen Greenblatt

I read and was a fan of Will in the World.  So when I heard Maureen Corrigan’s glowing review of Stephen Greenblatt’s new book on Fresh Air, I became excited.  Yipee–another Stephen Greenblatt romp through history and this time an archival-based romp that began in the Renaissance, went to ancient Rome and all the way to the Enlightenment.  I began to see all sort of possibilities for how I could use this book.  I ordered it and waited with the same level of anticipation I had as a kid when we sent away for something on the back of a cereal box.  It just had to be as good as advertised.

When I began reading, I was about as disappointed as when my cereal box item arrived.  Greenblatt’s vision of the premodern (read medieval) world is trite and flawed.  Everything was dark, gloomy, and superstitious.  Christianity harshed everyone’s mellow.  Greenblatt’s arguments are flawed.  I felt betrayed that, even though she is not a historian and so not immersed in the evidence base or the professional squabbles of that discipline, Corrigan did not call Greenblatt out at least on his flawed use of logic and argumentation.

So I wrote all over the darn thing and dialogued with Greenblatt in the margins.  I loved the book and I hated it all at once.

In the preface, Greenblatt establishes his view that the medieval world strangled curiosity, particularly as it revolved around the material world.  Instead, medieval people focused on a false world of angels and demons, which, comically, evoked the very Dan Brown ethos of a the lone scholar hunting for the truth that Greenblatt then used in chapter one to introduce us to Poggio the Book Hunter (and papal secretary and humanist).  Like Brown, Greenblatt is willing to overstate the facts for dramatic effect and to run crashing from one conclusion to the next to advance his line of argument.  In the first chapter Greenblatt further reveals the medieval world as highly communal, a world in which everyone knew their place and was expected to stay there.

Chapter two takes Poggio into the monasteries in search of old manuscripts and looks at the scribal culture of the monks.  Greenblatt manages to tell us they are the reason these classical texts survived while arguing that they feared and hated classical culture because it raised questions that challenged the Christian tradition (which grew out of that fertile field of classical literature, a point past which he gently glides).  He paints monks as the weak and unwanted fobbed off on monasteries by their rich families who can’t be bothered with them, but then describes the skill necessary to copy these texts.  When Poggio finds Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, it’s not clear that he knew what he had found, but he felt the need to “liberate it from the monastery” (50).  Why?  Because, of course, the very men and the very institution that had preserved it for centuries were holding it in bondage, locked away from the world.  Why, then, they allowed Poggio to make a copy and leave with it is not entirely clear.  Probably because the monks were so weak-minded they were unable to fully understand their devious conspiracy to keep this pagan intellectual bomb from the innocent masses they were so busy oppressing.

Greenblatt returns to the methodology of Will in the World in chapter three, “In Search of Lucretius.”  Because we know almost nothing about Lucretius, Greenblatt uses archaeological evidence from Pompeii and other written sources from that time to paint a picture of elite Romans daring to ask questions and to sit around and have intellectual conversations for fun.  Once he paints the picture, he explains Lucretius’ ideas and his connection to the philosopher, Epicurus.  Greenblatt situates Epicurus’ ideas as a challenge to traditional order, but does not address the real threat it posed as it counseled believers to retreat from public life at a time when the Empire most needed political engagement in order to survive. Greenblatt continues this refusal to confront other historical realities or possibilities outside the main thread of his argument throughout the book.

Chapter four is an all-out polemic against Christianity in which Christians hatch grand conspiracies and in which Greenblatt elides time, definitions, and evidence to push his vision of Lucretius and Poggio bringing atheist light to a dark  Christian world.  He correctly states that Constantine did not make Christianity the official religion of the empire, but later in the chapter credits him with doing so.  After Constantine’s reign, Greenblatt envisions a world in which the pagan world that welcomed open inquiry was dying, but does not give credit to the role of Christians, Christian monks particularly, in preserving the written monuments of that world.  He follows a Christian martyr tradition in his retelling of the execution of Hypatia and places the blame for this horrendous scene at the doorstep of the rise of an intolerant Christianity without examining the historical, economic, and social contexts outside of religion that contributed to her terrible death.  Then comes the Great Elision.  Directly on the heels of Hypatia’s death Greenblatt relates the disappearance of the Alexandrian library.  “Where,” he says, “did all the books go?  the answer lies not only in the quick work of the soldiers’ flames and the long, slow, secret labor of the bookworm.  It lies, symbolically at least, in the fate of Hypatia”(93).  He does not explain or support this comparison, but leaves us with the idea that Christians must have destroyed the books the same way they destroyed Hypatia.  Ancient learning is under siege and it survives through the momentum of history as much as from any concerted effort by Christians to preserve it.  Jerome and other Christian scholars feared classical tradition as much because they feared derision as because they feared falling into sin (97).  Greenblatt notes that even Julian the Apostate fought Epicurianism, but comes back to say that Christians found it a particularly “noxious threat” (101).  This makes me wonder if the fight against Epicurius was due to his ideas about pleasure or his counter-cultural, anti-institution positions.  Greenblatt does not even entertain such a possibility.

“What had to be undertaken,” Greenblatt writes, “was the difficult project of making what appeared simply sane and natural….seem like the enemy of the truth” (102).  It took centuries to accomplish this “grand design,” and its roots were in the third and fourth centuries in the rise of Christianity.  Greenblatt’s evidence is Lactantius, tutor to Constantine’s son, whom Greenblatt now identifies as the man who established Christianity as the religion of the empire.  Greenblatt’s bending of the evidence to suit his argument becomes clear if you replace his historical inaccuracy with the truth:  Constantine, the man who issued the edict of toleration that ended the persecution of citizens of the empire due to their religious beliefs.

Greenblatt again ignores a broader historical context, outside of hatred of the truths of classical culture, as he explains the move from pursuit of pleasure (Epicurianism) to the pursuit of pain (Christianity).  His strongest argument in this chapter comes when he finally places this focus on pain within the context of a centuries-long crumbling of the Roman empire (105).

I could go on with the problems with argumentation in this chapter, but I’ll conclude with Greenblatt’s contention that the survival of Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things was due entirely to chance.  The “grand design,” the grand conspiracy that he outlines in this chapter leaves no room for the chance that he pulls out of his hat in his concluding paragraph.  One might almost call it a “deus ex machina” move.

Chapter five praises the Carolingians for their salvation of Roman handwriting while quietly de-emphasizing the fact that the Carolingians were early medieval and very much Christian.  Charlemagne’s school was run by a leader of those drooling conspiring foolish monks,an abbot named Alcuin.  Having established the handwriting, Greenblatt traces its revival in Renaissance Florence, a Florence occupied by Petrarch and Salutati, Bruni and Niccoli.  Petrarch dreamed of using antiquity to create something beautiful in his own time.  Poggio and Niccoli, Greenblatt says, were purists who saw no value in anything contemporary.  This, half way through the book, is the first critique of the humanists Greenblatt allows and the first disruption of his medieval/modern, religious/reasonable dichtomies that are the foundations of his story.

His next two chapters, “The Lie Factory” and “A Pit to Catch Foxes,” are masterful narratives that establish the corruption of the Renaissance papacy while allowing for contradictions, such as the willingness of many popes to allow dissenting voices from the heart of their own court.  One such voice was Poggio, who wrote a joke book about life in the church.  Greenblatt argues that Poggio was spiritually bankrupted by having to serve a court that was so corrupt and that so violated his humanist principles.  “A Pit to Catch Foxes” relates the tale of the Council of Constance, the execution of Hus and the downfall of Pope John XXIII.  Once again, however, Greenblatt makes some comparisons and some elisions that bear further examination.  He invites comparison of heretics and humanists as persecuted truth seekers, but does not examine key distinctions between them, such as their views of Scripture.  In Greenblatt’s hands, heretics become almost areligious.  He elides religion and corruption which, while understandable for a freshman history student, is not so here.  His own vibrant example of the difference between the two is the trial of John XXIII for his multitudinous crimes.  Even if the council suppressed 16 of the worst charges, they were charges made against him and for which he was held fully accountable.  The Catholic Church in the fifteenth century was not an institution that lightly deposed the vicar of Christ.

“The Way Things Are” outlines the modern beliefs found in Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things and leaves us to marvel at his prescience.  Atomic theory.  Evolution.  A vast universe in which humans are not unique.  A great scepticism of religion, an afterlife, and the soul.  The idea that pleasure is worth pursuing and that the pursuit of pleasure will bring common good.  All of it challenged Christianity’s deepest precepts, but, Greenblatt argues, the poetry is so beautiful, so seductive, the monks copied it anyway.  What happened to the grand conspiracy to destroy the classical legacy like the Christians destroyed Hypatia?

Greenblatt’s ninth chapter is ineffective at establishing that Lucretius created any swerve for Poggio.  Greenblatt traces the life of the copied text after it left the monastery and Poggio’s subsequent career and the two seem to have little to do with one another.  Poggio, supposedly set adrift by John XXIII’s demise and clinging to the freedom of books, returns eagerly to the papal court to serve a new master.  He buys property, marries and procreates again after abandoning his long-time mistress and their many children.  He writes on what I would term medieval topics:  the unhappiness of princes and the wretchedness of the human condition.  These two works do not have the hope and the light of the Renaissance in their subject matter.

To me, the heart of Greenblatt’s book comes in chapters ten and eleven, “Swerves” and “Afterlives.”  Here he traces the influence of Lucretius’ ideas on later thinkers and writers:  Machiavelli, Thomas More, Giordano Bruno, Shakespeare, Galileo, Montaigne, Newton, and Thomas Jefferson to name some big hitters.  If I were Greenblatt’s editor, I would have told him to scrap the story of Poggio’s life and the polemic against Christianity and to do what Greenblatt does best–study literature and literary lives.  This is not the story of the little treatise that could, for which Greenblatt has to construct enemies that mount conspiracies against its survival.  It’s the story of how ideas travel and how they change the world.  Poggio is a player in this story, but he seems to simply take a Latin poem from a monastery library and ask for it to be copied.  He does not spread it.  He does not demonstrate its influence through his own life or writing.  If there is a hero here, it may be the printing press, which allowed the text to spread and amplify in ways and degrees simply not possible through handcrafted manuscripts.  Poggio’s spiritual journey does not explain the rise of the modern world.  Poggio wanted to preserve the classical world in a hermetically sealed case.  What happened to Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things was truer to Petrarch’s humanist vision: the ideas of the classical world created fertile discussion ground for creative thinkers in subsequent generations who helped construct their world as modern.  So why not tell this story?

In discussing the afterlives of Lucretius, Greenblatt identified Newton’s seemingly clever use of Lucretius’ title in a discussion of particles.  I wonder if Greenblatt was taking a page from Newton’s playbook when he summarized Lucretius’ arguments and used the word delusion repeatedly–“all organized religions are superstitious delusions” (193) and “the greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion” (196).  I know my mind went each time to Dawkins’ The God Delusion.  Greenblatt’s seeming need to construct the modern world at the expense of what went before it, even when the evidence does not suit that argument, detracts from the glory of what happened to Lucretius’ text.

Greenblatt may have been spurred to write the story of this treatise by the desire to share with the world his discovery that this anti-religious text survived centuries of religious oppression and emerged on the other side to shape a world that could embrace its basic tenets about the world.    Many students start research projects with a similar fervor.  What Greenblatt does not seem to have done, but which would have created a stronger, more compelling and intellectually honest narrative, was to let the history tell the tale.  Where it took him was just as miraculous as where he tried to drive it.  I hope others, and Greenblatt’s name on this book ensures a wide audience, will pick up the gauntlet and follow the story.

Finished 10/11

The books has won the Pulitzer for general writing.  Ugh!  The writing, fine.  The content, a tired tale.  Oi veh! 4/17/12

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