The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

  • Author: Stephen Greenblatt

  • Published: September, 2011


The Swerve, by Stephen Greenblat, is a thoroughly researched, often engaging but ultimately exhausting non-fiction account of how the revolutionary poem “On the Nature of Things” impacted modern thought and the history of the world. In short, this book is every English professor’s wet dream. At times it feels like it was expressly written for dusty old intellectuals in moth-eaten sweaters. Corduroyed men who tote dog-eared poetry collections and leave trails of unwashed coffee mugs and shriveled tea bags in their wake. After all, The Swerve hinges upon the simple actions of one such romantic academic, and it’s the rare book that chooses such a character as a protagonist. 

The book focuses on Poggio Brochioulini, an Italian book hunter from the fifteenth century. Poggio is an intellectual humanist living in an age of religious fanatics and illiterate peasants. He pines for the days when Greek philosophers held court upon airy hilltops, and elequount Roman senators used reason and critical thinking to vanquish superstition, fear and ghosts of the underworld. Poggio takes it upon himself to scour the monasteries of the Europeon countryside in a quest for ancient texts that have all but disappeared from the Earth, saved only by the laborious hand written copying of servile monks. Through his doggedness, he stumbles upon a long forgotten poem of rare and dangerous ideas, entitled “On the Nature of Things” by Lucretious. Written entirely in Latin, the elegant prose expounds on a myriad of topics, the most alarming being that the Earth is made up entirely of the tiniest of particles forever in motion, that the world functions without interference from God, and that suffering does not lead to eternal happiness, but rather pleasure itself is the noblest pursuit. This is pretty heady stuff for a world shackled by the tyrannical frothings of the church. Mr. Greenblat walks us through Poggio’s successful quest to bring these abandoned ideas back to the world, while detailing the dangers and improbable circumstances that lead Lucretious’ words to once again flicker to life and spread through the ages. 

The poem went on to influence many of the world’s greatest minds, from Galileo to Thomas Jefferson, and thus helped light the way for advances in science, philosophy and government. Greenblatt builds a convincing case that we may have lived in a very different world had Poggio not liberated Lucretius’ prose from the darkness of lost history. But while it's a compelling argument, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the point could’ve been made in less than 263 pages. Perhaps it could've worked better as a New Yorker article, but then it wouldn't have been eligible for the Pulitzer Prize (which it won). Despite the long-winded treatise, one has to admire Greenblat, a modern day Poggio himself, who reaches into the past to help illuminate our present.