The Swerve: How the World Became Modern is a non-fiction book by Stephen Greenblatt and winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction and 2011 National Book Award for Nonfiction.
Greenblatt tells the story of how Poggio Bracciolini, a 15th-century papal emissary and obsessive book hunter, saved the last copy of the Roman poet Lucretius's On the Nature of Things from near-terminal neglect in a German monastery, thus reintroducing important ideas that sparked the modern age.
The title and the subtitle of the book are explained in the author's preface. "The Swerve" refers to a key conception in the ancient atomistic theories according to which atoms moving through the void are subject to clinamen: while falling straight through the void, they are sometimes subject to a slight, unpredictable swerve. Greenblatt uses it to describe the history of Lucretius' own book: "The reappearance of his poem was such a swerve, an unforeseen deviation from the direct trajectory—in this case, toward oblivion—on which that poem and its philosophy seemed to be traveling." The recovery of the ancient text is seen as its rebirth, i.e. a "renaissance". Greenblatt's claim is that it was a 'key moment' in a larger "story.. of how the word swerved in a new direction"
The New York Times review by the literary critic Dwight Garner found that Greenblatt "wears his enormous erudition lightly". Garner describes the author's approach to Lucretius through Bracciolini as "an ingenious idea." The Swerve details are "tangy and exact", says Garner, but the book's "pumping heart is Mr. Greenblatt’s complicated reckoning with Lucretius’ masterpiece." Regarding the central thesis, namely the "secular miracle" of the poem's rediscovery and significant contribution to the onset of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, Garner notes that Lucretius' poem is:
- "recognized as a bold work of philosophy, one that helped recalibrate thinking when it began to recirculate during the Renaissance. Among those who admired and drew from it were Galileo, Freud, Darwin and Einstein. Thomas Jefferson owned at least five Latin editions of On the Nature of Things, as well as translations into other languages.":
Garner notes Greenblatt's contention that this was a secular revival in conflict with Christianity: "On the Nature of Things was filled with, to Christian eyes, scandalous ideas ... Religious fear, Lucretius thought, long before there was a Christopher Hitchens, warps human life", commented Garner. On the author, he said: "It’s possible to admire Mr. Greenblatt’s book while wishing it contained more of the boldness and weirdness he admires in Lucretius."
As a Renaissance scholar Greenblatt has little sympathy for the Middle Ages which serve as a background for his study. His treatment of the period had been met critically by medievalists and conservative thinkers in general. The theologian R. R. Reno observes that "The Swerve [blusters] again and again about the beauty-loathing, eros-denying evils of Christianity ... sighing in the usual postmodern way about pleasure and desire".
The book has been described as "a full-throated Burckhardtian, or, perhaps more accurately, Voltairean caricature of the Middle Ages, a Whig interpretation of the period as a pleasure-hating time of darkness, superstition and illiteracy in which classical culture was lost". To these charges Stephen Greenblatt has been more than willing to respond 'guilty'.
In the Los Angeles Review of Books a critic saw in Greenblat's work "two books... one deserving of an award, the other not" and suggested that the first "book" is an exciting exploration of the Renaissance rediscovery of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura, deserving of an award, while the second book amounts to nothing more than "an anti-religious polemic."
Scholars interested in the Renaissance have written favorably of the book.
- Stephen Greenblatt, (variant), as Lucretius' poem "On the Nature of Things" in The New Yorker, 2011-08-08