February 18, 2012

'The Swerve' swerves into the ditch

The Swerve: How the World Became ModernThe Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


This book is OK overall, no more, and IS deserving of the criticism Greenblatt has gotten, for overstating his case and more.

Greenblatt's good part is explaining how Poggio came across the book, his general hunting for books, what it was like to be an early Renaissance non-clerical humanist and similar things.

The not so good is overstating his case, and getting some things wrong, incomplete or unexplained.

First, the inventors of atomic theory, Democritus and Leucippus were pre-Epicurean and even pre-Socratic. Greenblatt never mentions this. Nor does he mention that Greek philosophers in general were anti-empirical, and therefore antiscientific, as we know science today. (Indeed, one could argue that Archimedes and Eratosthenes were the only two real scientists the Hellenistic world produced.)

Ergo, especially if we start "modernity" with the Enlightenment and not the Renaissance, Epicureanism was not "how the world became modern." Not even close.

Second, he cherry-picks who was influenced by Lucretius, and how much, and how much influence they had. The late Renaissance world didn't see a flowering of Giordano Brunos.

In this way, the book reminds me of a Ph.D. these written by either an English lit or a psychology grad student, trying to find something semi-outrageous to "break through."



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