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December 1, 2012

A Swerve Too Far

Marshall Poe on The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

Stephen Greenblatt. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. W.W. Norton and Company. 356 Pages. $26.95.

Stephen greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern attracted me for a number of reasons. First, I live in the modern world. Most people don’t. They’re dead and so live somewhere else, at least according to some. But I live in the here-and-now, so I want to know what the here-and-now is, existentially speaking. Second, I’ve spent much of my career trying to figure out how the world became modern. For good or ill, most historians don’t worry too much about this question. It’s too big, and it certainly won’t win you a job in a well-balkanized history department. But I read Marx with too much enthusiasm in my youth and thereby acquired a professionally unhealthy desire to know how most of us got from nasty, brutish, and short to pleasant, cultivated, and long. Finally, I really want to win a prestigious award for my book-writing efforts. Most humble authors don’t, or at least say they don’t. But I do, probably because my mother didn’t love enough or some such. I thought that by reading The Swerve, which won the National Book Award, I might learn how to write a book that would make my mother love me.

Now that I’ve read The Swerve, I can say this. I did not learn what the modern world is, nor did I learn how it became modern. I did, however, gain some insight into how to win the National Book Award. Allow me to explain.

The Swerve tells the story of how an Italian manuscript-hunter found an ancient Latin text — Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura) — in 1417, how that text was passed around over the next several hundred years, and how it helped the world become what Greenblatt thinks it is today. In short, it’s a story about the origins of something. The something in question is “the modern” or “modernity.” If you haven’t spent a lot of time in humanities seminars at prestigious universities, you probably have no idea what these words mean in the sense intended by Greenblatt and all the other seminarists. Webster’s Dictionary tells us that the primary meaning of “modern” is “of, relating to, or characteristic of the present or the immediate past.” But that strictly temporal sense of “modern” is not at all what Greenblatt and his colleagues mean by “modern.” I’d like to tell you exactly what they do mean, but I can’t. That’s because they themselves don’t know what they mean. The term is, as they say in the land of LitCrit, a “site of anxiety,” which is to say people who do what Greenblatt does fight a lot about what it means.

Greenblatt never tells us what his understanding of “modernity” is. He does, however, say that “key elements” of it are found in the Lucretius’s 2,000-year-old poem. What are those “key elements,” you ask? Well, it’s a long poem, and it’s full of all kinds of strange things that no “modern” person in his or her right mind would believe. But the part that stands out for Greenblatt is Lucretius’s materialism, in the philosophical sense. According to this theory, you, me, and everything else is made of the same, lifeless stuff. Over time, that stuff randomly combines in various ways and new things appear, only to disappear over more time. There is no beginning or end, no plan or planner, no blueprint and no builder.

Lucretius’s universe, therefore, has no meaning, at least in the religious sense. But Greenblatt tells us that he personally found great meaning in the poem when he discovered it as a young man. He writes, breathlessly:

In a universe so constituted, Lucretius argued, there is no reason to think that the earth or its inhabitants occupy a central place, no reason to set humans apart from all other animals, no hope of bribing or appeasing the gods, no place for religious fanaticism, no call for ascetic self-denial, no justification for dreams of limitless power or perfect security, no rationale for wars of conquest or self-aggrandizement, no possibility of triumphing over nature, no escape from the constant making and unmaking and remaking of forms. On the other side of anger at those who either peddled false versions of security or incite irrational fears of death, Lucretius offered a feeling of liberation and the power to stare down what had once seemed so menacing. What human beings can and should do, he wrote, is to conquer their fears, accept the fact that they themselves and all things they encounter are transitory, and embrace the beauty and pleasure of the world. I marveled — I continue to marvel — that these perceptions were fully articulated in a work written more than two thousand years ago.

This burning-bush encounter with Lucretius, Greenblatt reports, enabled him to overcome his fear of his mother’s death and to accept that her passing is natural part of life.

Greenblatt is hardly alone having converted, if I may, to atheism as an undergraduate. I did the same, though my godlessness came from Lennon rather than Lucretius.

Imagine there’s no heaven

It’s easy if you try

No hell below us

Above us only sky

Imagine all the people

Living for today

Greenblatt is, however, somewhat unusual in persisting in his empty-sky faith. For my part, I figured out pretty quickly that Lennon and those like him did too many drugs to have all the answers to life’s big questions. So I abandoned self-righteous atheism for a kind of “whatever” agnosticism. But not Greenblatt. He came to believe that Lucretius did have all the answers to life’s big questions or, as he puts it, offered “an astonishingly convincing account of the way things actually are.” That’s right, “the way things actually are.” One of those ways is that there is no God, just stuff. Having received the Truth on the matter, Greenblatt never looked back.

It is not at all uncommon for humans, egoists that we are, to think that our experience is everyone’s experience. And so it is with Greenblatt. As a tormented underclassman, he found the Truth in Lucretius and it freed him from the bonds of superstition and the fear it engendered. Just so our world, according to Greenblatt, for it too found the Truth in Lucretius and was thereby freed from the bonds of superstition and the fear it engendered. Lucretius made Greenblatt “modern” and Lucretius made the world “modern.”

I have no reason to doubt that Lucretius helped make Greenblatt “modern” in the sense of believing that there is no God, only stuff. But I do wonder how he can believe that Lucretius did the same for the entire world when the vast majority of it believes God made all the stuff. The numbers are striking. Let’s take the United States, admittedly a more religious nation than most of its peers. Over 90 percent of Americans believe in God. Over 80 percent identify with a major religious denomination. Almost 60 percent pray weekly. Around 40 percent attend church at least once a week.1 Now, if you accept Greenblatt’s premise that religion and “modernity” are antithetical, then you must conclude that most “modern” Americans are not “modern.” That, of course, is nonsense on two counts. First, even the students in Greenblatt’s seminar would probably admit that the United States is a “modern” country in the nontemporal sense. Americans invented, or at least perfected, popcorn, pop tarts, and pop rocks — those are all very “modern” things. Second, unless one is clumsily equivocating, something can’t be “modern” and not-“modern” at the same time. That’s the “Law of the Excluded Middle,” and as far as I know it holds.

Perhaps Greenblatt doesn’t believe that the United States, with its masses of superstitious believers, is “modern.” And perhaps he doesn’t believe the laws of logic hold in the postmodern age. I don’t know. But I do know his definition of “modernity” is not terribly sound. The empirical fact of the matter is that most “modern” people in the temporal sense are religious. This being so, it’s hardly logical to exclude them from the definition of “modernity” in the nontemporal sense. Admitting that “modern” religious people are “modern” would not only have allowed Greenblatt to avoid the above-mentioned nonsenses, but it also would have permitted him to ask a really important question: How has religion helped make the world “modern”? But Greenblatt has no interest in this question because he thinks religious people are essentially ignorant throwbacks to the bad old days when superstitious bumpkins were easily conned by corrupt priests who “peddled false versions of security or incite irrational fears of death.”

In fact, Greenblatt is not really concerned with “how the world became modern” at all. Rather, he’s interested in how the Truth was revealed to his “modern” people, which is to say people just like him. Who are they? Well, they tend to live and work in well-known zip codes in the American Academic Archipelago, for example, 02138 (Cambridge, Massachusetts), 06520 (New Haven, Connecticut), and 94720 (Berkeley, California). Greenblatt has spent a lot of time in each of these places. As it happens, so have I. And I can tell you that many and perhaps most of their residents are very “modern” in Greenblatt’s sense. They do in fact have Lucretius, Lennon, and even Lenin rattling around in their heads. They are not religious in any traditional sense. And they cannot understand how any really reasonable person can be religious in any traditional sense. For them, the antithesis of religion and “modernity” is an article of faith, part of their very sense of self. They cannot admit “the way things actually are” — namely, that religion is part of “modernity” — for to do so would be to admit that their Truth might not be the truth. Happily, they don’t have to consider this scary possibility because they live among “modern” people who all believe in the Truth, that is, in 02138, 06520, and 94720.

So how does Greenblatt do explaining “How People Just Like Me Became Modern in My Peculiar Narrow Sense”? Not very well. The story Greenblatt tells about the origins of “modernity” is not very original. In fact, it looks a lot like the one the Renaissance humanists told about themselves so many centuries ago. It goes like this. There were the Greeks and Romans. They were pagans, but they were also really smart and wrote all kinds of good things. Then there were the fanatical Christians. They received the Gospel, but they were really mean and suppressed most of the good things the Greeks and Romans had written. Then there were the daring humanists. They fought the evil clerics and recovered all the good stuff. Thus was Western Civilization “re-born” and the march to “modernity” begun.

Now this is a fine tale, and part of it is even true. But it’s pathetically stilted. The Renaissance humanists and their followers had, well, an agenda. They wanted to investigate things — Roman manuscripts, the orbits of the planets, the foundations of law — that the many ecclesiastical authorities wanted left alone. First they argued that the Church’s rules on speculative endeavors might not apply to them because they were just good Christians in search of God’s truth. Think about Galileo. That tactic worked up to a point. But eventually they proposed that the Church’s rules on speculative endeavors should be changed so most of them wouldn’t apply to anyone. Think about Locke. That, too, worked up to a point. And finally they said the Church did nothing but oppress ignorant people. Think about Marx — and Greenblatt.

What does this story of light triumphing over darkness miss? Primarily the role of the Church itself. According to Greenblatt’s tale, church hierarchs are almost always the bad guys. They destroy ancient texts, excommunicate wandering minds, and burn a lot of people at the stake. Indeed, they did all these things, as Greenblatt’s intellectual forebears — the humanists, philosophes, free thinkers, radical socialists, and university professors — groped toward the Truth found in Lucretius. But Christian leaders did a lot more, much of which contributed to the eventual formation of the mindset of the American Academic Archipelago. Most significantly, they actively adapted to changing intellectual circumstances and thereby helped create Greenblatt’s “modern” mindset.

There can be no better example than Martin Luther. Luther was a very devout, totally God-fearing Augustinian monk. He was also a deadly serious thinker armed with a quiver full of humanist arrows. He knew as much as anyone about ancient, medieval scholastic, and “modern” philosophy. It was by reading this material that he arrived at a theological doctrine that would essentially open the door for modern science to flourish in much of Europe. Luther said that all knowledge is revealed by the senses and that the only knowledge of God that had been so revealed was the Scripture. The only way to know God, he proposed, is to know the actual words of God, that is the Holy Writ; empirical investigation of anything else was for the most part irrelevant from a religious point of view. This doctrine (sola scriptura) created a reasonably clear and very important distinction between theology and all the other disciplines: The former focuses on Scripture, while the latter focuses on man, the natural world, and the universe itself. Luther’s doctrine spread until it was accepted in one form or another, implicitly or explicitly, by nearly every Christian faith, even the Catholic Church. Every scholar in 02138, 06520, and 94720 owes the Augustinian monk a debt of gratitude.

You won’t read about any of this in The Swerve. Greenblatt mentions Luther in passing three times in over 300 pages. No, his attention is fixed on how Lucretius’s worldview was transmitted by the plucky humanists to later generations of “modern” thinkers. But even here he falls down. Greenblatt tells us that “more than fifty” 15th-century copies of On the Nature of Things exist. This, he says, is a “startlingly large number.” Maybe it is, maybe it’s not. How can we know when he gives us no point of comparison? He tells us that “Once Gutenberg’s clever technology was commercially established, printed editions [of Lucretius] quickly followed.” He fails, however, to reveal exactly when On the Nature of Things was first printed or how many editions were produced over the next several hundred years. He tells us the book was translated, but he doesn’t relate how often or into what languages. He mentions 30 people (I counted) in the 15th through 18th centuries who were purportedly touched by the book. Some owned it, some wrote about it, some seem to have knowledge of what was in it. Some are famous (Montaigne), some are not (Thomas Creech). If, after careful investigation, this is the only evidence Greenblatt could find of Lucretius’s influence, one has to wonder how he reached the conclusion that On the Nature of Things was crucial for the birth of “modernity” as he understands it. And let’s be clear, that’s what he says: “A random fire, an act of vandalism, a decision to snuff out the last trace of views judged to by heretical, and the course of modernity would have been different.” Had Greenblatt said this about the writings of Plato or Aristotle, he would have an arguable point. But Lucretius? Poor, forgotten, neglected, and almost entirely unread Lucretius? I don’t buy it.

The folks at the prestigious National Book Awards, however, did buy it. They gave The Swerve the prize for the best nonfiction book of 2011. Bear in mind that thousands of serious nonfiction books are published each year. Many represent years of work by excellent writers, researchers, and scholars. Many are published by top-notch presses and win acclaim in peer-reviewed publications. I read a lot of them. And so I can tell you in all sincerity that many, many of them are better than The Swerve on almost any measure of quality you like. How, then, did The Swerve end up taking home the big prize? The answer has several parts.

First, Greenblatt’s book was published by a big New York trade press. In each year from 2001 to 2011, the big New York houses managed to publish the best nonfiction book in the nation. Perhaps this remarkable run was just luck. Or perhaps the New York presses just publish the best books. Or perhaps the fact that the heads of big New York houses run the foundation that sponsors the National Book Awards has something to do with it. I’m not at all sure. But one has to wonder why nobody else ever wins. Some university press in the hinterlands has to occasionally print a nonfiction book worthy of consideration, right? Or is it the case that any press can publish a book that wins a National Book Award — as long as it’s a New York trade press?

Second, Greenblatt is famous within the New York smart set. Most Americans, of course, have never heard of Greenblatt and never will. But if you are a member of the “nation” that reveres the New York Times, worships the New Yorker, and either lives or hopes to live in Manhattan (below 110th Street, of course), then you may just know who Greenblatt is and think he’s a genius. In each year from 2001 to 2011, darlings of the New York intelligentsia like Greenblatt have managed to write the best nonfiction book in the nation. Again, this astounding winning streak could just be good fortune, an odd concentration of talent, or the fact that people in the New York smart set run the National Book Awards. I don’t know. But why is it that authors from the provinces almost never win? Someone in flyover country has to be writing excellent nonfiction, right? Or is it the case that any author, anywhere, can win a National Book Award for nonfiction — so long as they are in, around, or of New York?

Finally, Greenblatt wrote a book that appealed to the judges. Who are they? Well, they’re the kind of people who win the National Book Award: people who were educated in the upper reaches of the Academic Archipelago (Harvard, Yale, etc.); who live in New York or someplace like 02138, 06520, and 94720; and who have received a certain notoriety by writing books that appeal to the New York smart set. The year The Swerve was covered in glory the judges were Alice Kaplan, Yunte Huang, Jill Lepore, and Barbara Savage. Kaplan teaches at Yale; Huang taught at Harvard before moving to Santa Barbara; Lepore heads the same Harvard program that Greenblatt used to run and she also writes for the New Yorker; Savage got her Ph.D. at Yale and now teaches at Penn. These are Greenblatt’s people. There’s a fair chance that he knew all of them before they crowned him with laurels. Whether he knew them or not, we can be sure that they are very “modern” in Greenblatt’s sense and therefore loved the underlying message of The Swerve: “We” — the rational, left-leaning, traditional-religion-loathing humanists of the Academic Archipelago — know the Truth about the universe, while “they” — the superstitious, right-leaning, traditionally faithful — do not.

Apparently in order to win a National Book Award for nonfiction I’m going to have to make a lot of changes. I’ll need to move to New York, become a darling of the New York smart set, get a contract with a big New York publishing house, and write a book that says something the New York intelligentsia wants to hear, like there is no God, only stuff. I wouldn’t mind doing the first three of these things: New York is nice, I’d love the attention, and I need the money.

I’m not, however, going to do the fourth because I have given up on patronizing, knee-jerk, academic anticlericalism. I confess that kicking the habit was hard; I want to think I’m smarter than the next guy as much as the next guy. But as concerns the most fundamental questions of human existence, I’m not and neither is Stephen Greenblatt. I don’t know whether there is a God or not. I do know, however, what stridently claiming there is no God has done over the past century or so. It has offended, alienated, and confused countless believers. It has created a huge gulf between intellectuals and the people they claim to serve. And, most significantly, it has fueled at least one fanatical political movement that resulted in the oppression and murder of millions of completely innocent religious people. That’s a bad record.

And what has been won in the hundred-year academic attack on religion? I imagine Greenblatt would say those who abandoned their faith gained “liberation and the power to stare down what had once seemed so menacing.” If that’s what Greenblatt got, I’m happy for him. But it’s very hard for me to understand how rejecting the idea of an all-loving God is going to bring freedom and comfort in the face of death to most folks. If atheism could work that magic, then people would be disavowing their religious traditions in droves.

They aren’t, and the reason is clear: Even “modern” people need answers to life’s most basic questions and a community in which to consider them. If we weren’t questioning, social animals, perhaps we could get by in Lucretius’s meaningless, material universe. But we are questioning, social animals; our religious impulse is an evolved characteristic, like bipedalism or consciousness. And just as we can live without walking or even waking, we can live without spiritual beliefs. But, having lost these things, we generally don’t do very well for very long. Eventually we want to walk and we want to wake, and eventually we want to understand why we are here and to believe that there is a special place for us in the universe. And once we do these things, we begin to do better. Religion is not, as Greenblatt and company claim, a passing phase out of which that humanity should and will grow. It is a part of human nature itself.


Marshall Poe teaches history at the University of Iowa. He is also the editor of the New Books Network (http://newbooksnetwork.com).