Friday, September 26, 2014

Non-Fiction Review: The Swerve

Nearly six hundred years ago, a short, genial, cannily alert man in his late 30s took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. The book was the last surviving manuscript of an ancient Roman philosophical epic, "On the Nature of Things," by Lucretius -- a thrillingly beautiful poem of the most dangerous of ideas: that the universe functioned without the aid of gods, that religious fear was damaging to human life, and that matter was made up of very small particles in eternal motion.

The copying and translation of this ancient book, the greatest discovery of the greatest book-hunter of his age, fueled the Renaissance, inspiring artists such as Botticelli and thinkers such as Giordano Bruno, shaping the thoughts of Galileo and Freud, Darwin and Einstein, and influencing writers from Montaigne to Thomas Jefferson.

The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began
Greenblatt, Stephen (2012). [Genre: History]

For me, the beauty of The Swerve is that it is many different stories under the guise of one. Greenblatt argues that Poggio Bracciolini’s rediscovery of ‘On the Nature of Things’ by Lucretius is what spurred the Renaissance and our entry into modernity. He does a fairly convincing job too – though I’ve done enough academic study on the Renaissance to not entirely fall for it. However to me his academic argument came across more as a thread to tie whatever else he wanted to explore together, rather than a pillar.

At first The Swerve is a biography of Bracciolini, the 15th century manuscript hunter. His life story alone would make it worth the read. The man served under seven popes and was famed for having beautiful handwriting. Can you imagine anyone being famous for having beautiful handwriting today? Plus, the idea of manuscript hunting in itself is fascinating to me. Although Greenblatt’s descriptions of the world of manuscript rediscovery are a little disjointed, it was still great fun to imagine a time where adventurers were seeking lost books rather than gold.

Then we touch on ancient history and modern archaeology, with an exploration of how the great Classical works were lost and how we are re-discovering them even today (as modern archaeological techniques make it easier to access discovered ancient manuscripts without destroying them. Many of those found in the 19th and 20th centuries fell to pieces as we unwittingly tried to pry them open and were remanded to storage until technology advanced). The examination of the place of Philosophers in the ancient world, using evidence from libraries in Pompeii, was particularly interesting.

Greenblatt moves back to the Renaissance era to touch on the influence of the Church on society, and the fine balancing act early humanists struck between their deep-set religious convictions and new knowledge. This is off-set by vivid depictions of Church corruption. Greenblatt does a subtle job of highlighting the hypocrisy of a Church that prosecuted knowledge while condoning immoral behaviour and nepotism.

We then move forward again, into the scientific ideas that the rediscovery of ‘On the Nature of Things’ bought back into the light (the concept of atomism particularly, which led directly to modern atomic theory) and the impact this has subsequently had both in the scientific community and in relations between science and the Catholic Church.

Overall, this interconnected story of ancient, modern and Renaissance history, science, philosophy, the Church, ancient rediscovery and modern archaeology really worked and I found myself turning the pages at speed – a rarity in academic works of this type, which although immensely fascinating are often hard reading.  

The Swerve and Greenblatt have received some criticism regarding the anti-religion tone taken at various points. On the whole, I have to agree with the critics on this one and it was my one small complaint about the work. I can understand Greenblatt’s criticism of Church structure and perpetuated prosecution of scientific thought, but to use the mistakes of the Church combined with atomism to deride all belief (not just Christianity) as pointless did seem over the top (and a little immature).

Despite this though, The Swerve is still a stunning exploration of one of the lines of thought which has truly impacted humanity’s transition into the modern and is well-deserving of its Pulitzer Prize winning status. 4/5 stars.

The Swerve crosses another book off my 2014 TBR challenge list. Which means I'm actually on track to finish this year!

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