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Customer Review

806 of 899 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great topic - thesis questionable, October 3, 2011
This review is from: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (Hardcover)
The thesis and tone of The Swerve echo Jacob Burckhardt's now somewhat discredited 19th century characterization of the Italian Renaissance with its celebrations of life and beauty as a "return to paganism" (as though the Middle Ages didn't have its festivals and gai savoir). Burckhardt's book may be outdated as history but is nevertheless a masterpiece of Romantic historiography that repays rereading. Greenblatt is no Burckhardt, but it sounds like his book will also be valuable - even only insofar as it is successful in familiarizing contemporary readers with the role of characters like the colorful Poggio Bracciolini, Lorenzo Valla and their manuscript-hunting Humanist confreres, many of whom were employees, like Poggio himself, of the Papal court.

Greenblatt seriously overstates the role of Lucretius, whose influence, until the mid to late 18th century was arguably quite marginal. Peter Gay's The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism, unfortunately not mentioned by Greenblatt, deals at length with the influence of Lucretius on French Enlightenment thinkers, many of whom really were "pagans", i.e., materialists and epicureans. The standard view, of course, is that a revival of Platonic idealism, not of "pagan" materialism, was responsible for the Renaissance preoccupation with beauty and harmony.

Poggio's fifteenth century discovery of the manuscript of Lucretius's De rerum natura was not commented on much by Renaissance humanists, who confined themselves to remarks about Lucretius's grammar and syntax. It was printed in 1511 with a commentary by Denys Lambin, who termed Lucretius's Epicurean ideas "fanciful, absurd, and opposed to Christianity" -- and Lambin's preface remained standard until the nineteenth century. Epicurus's unacceptable doctrine that pleasure was the highest good, writes Jill Kraye, "ensured the unpopularity of his philosophy". See Jill Kraye's "Philologists and Philosophers" in the Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism [1996], p. 153-154.

If Renaissance Humanists such as Valla and Erasmus seemed to paradoxically endorse Epicureanism, it was in a Christianized and Platonized form in which love of God and life of virtue were seen as the highest pleasures. They certainly did not endorse Lucretius's materialism and they probably didn't even see the significance of his belief in atoms. Montaigne in his Essays, on the other hand, quotes Lucretius repeatedly, often without attribution, indicating that Lucretius's naturalism, if not his Epicureanism, was appealing to him.

In The Swerve, Greenblatt describes the fascinating 1989 identification of Montaigne's personal annotated copy of Lucretius. Greenblatt also cites Pietro Redondi's controversial portrayal of Gallileo as a closet materialist, while gliding hurriedly over the many objections that have been raised to Redondi's assertions. As a liberal and believer in science, myself, I fully sympathize with Greenblatt's predilections. He is a lively writer, but I think the public would have been better served by more balanced presentations, such as can be found, for example, in the writings of Anthony Grafton, who is especially good on humanism during transitional period between the Renaissance and the French Enlightenment. Grafton also traces the interrelationship of humanism and modern liberal ideas in a way that is attractive and convincing.
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Showing 1-10 of 43 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Oct 5, 2011 12:11:28 AM PDT
a reader says:
Nice scholarly analysis. Thanks. After reading some favorable reviews, I found the book disappointing. Your scholarship would seem to suggest that Greenblatt's book is derivative at best, inaccurate at worst.

Posted on Oct 9, 2011 1:12:26 PM PDT
Gregory says:
Excellent, excellent, excellent review -- I hope that my reviews could someday match it!

Posted on Oct 13, 2011 3:29:32 PM PDT
Bachi says:
Great review. Very thoughtful and informative. I am planning on reading the book myself, and I knew absolutely nothing about Greenblatt's thesis before reading your review. I will keep your points and citations in mind.

Posted on Nov 8, 2011 4:25:38 PM PST
I agree almost verbatim with Mr. Kirkpatrick's comment. But how does he so generously give Greenblatt 3 stars, when it deserves minus 3 stars?

Posted on Dec 21, 2011 9:45:03 PM PST
Lucretius anticipated Boltzmann in what has come to be known in physics as "the arrow of time."
He did so using almost precisely the same reasoning that Boltzmann used more than 2,000 years later and long long before there was any shred of scientific evidence for the existence of atoms.

That fact alone should be enough to refute your assertion that Greenblatt overstates Lucretius' influence.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 23, 2011 11:53:57 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Aug 21, 2012 8:47:19 PM PDT
Greenblatt jumps the gun. Lucretius was very influential during the Enlightenment. Not so much in the Renaissance (the people of the Renaissance had no idea that Boltzman would confirm Lucretius's insights about physics). The reason for Lucretius's popularity was because of his famous exclamation that religion drives people to do evil deeds, a statement resonated with thoughtful people of all persuasions after the horrors of the sixteenth century wars of religion, especially the massacre of Saint Bartholomew (1572) and the European witch craze of the seventeenth century. For example, Montaigne, who fought on the Catholic side, withdrew from public life after the Saint Bartholomew Massacre to write his essays in which, among other things, he praised the cannibals of the New World for being less cruel than the Europeans. Lucretius had been out of favor during the Middle Ages not so much because of censorship by the Catholic church but because of the influence of Cicero, who preferred the Stoics to the Epicureans. Not only Christians, but also pagans preferred the idea of a harmonious universe. The Christian position during the Middle Ages and Renaissance alike had been that it was all right borrow and adapt pagan positions of all kinds, as long as they could be subordinated to Christianity in some way. The big break came with Francis Bacon, who recommended discarding the "idols" of the past and starting anew, thus inaugurating modernity.

The story of Poggio and the other Italian early humanists is vividly told in John Addington Symonds (1840-1893) multi-volume (but very readable) "History of the Renaissance in Italy" (1875-86) which Greenblatt references and apparently drew on for some amusing anecdotes. Though of course dated, the Symonds is highly entertaining and still well worth reading for anyone with even a slight interest in the period. I remember enjoying it immensely. Symonds' own memoirs, incidentally, are the "earliest known self-conscious homosexual autobiography", according to wikipedia.

Posted on Dec 30, 2011 8:03:04 AM PST
Your call for a 'more balanced' presentation is rooted in nothing more than disagreement--you review recapitulates most of the information Greenblatt also offers, just that you conclusions differ from his. So rather than try to denounce, I would suggest that you simply acknowledge that his conclusions differ from the ones you believe and make you review more reliable for understanding it's true basis of objection.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 2, 2012 8:40:50 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 2, 2012 8:41:53 AM PST
Good review. I enjoyed this book as a 'good read' but Greenblatt vastly overstates the impact of Lucretius. The Renaissance began long before the discovery of Lucretius and he was only one small current in a much greater flow of ideas, some of which, Platonism, for instance, ran in a different direction. Read this as enjoyable yarn, not as a serious work of intellectual history.

Posted on Jan 18, 2012 5:51:33 PM PST
learning says:
Thank you, Mr. Kirkpatrick. Excellent review.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 21, 2012 6:03:57 AM PST
I looked forward to reading this book, a Christmas gift. However, after reading only the Preface and a bit of the first chapter, I sense a strained premise here and quickly developed the same doubts that are fully expressed by Mr. Kirkpatrick. Excellent incisive review.
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