Swerving

From faculty.nmu.edu
  • Stephen Greenblatt. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. Norton, 2012.

While reading Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, I realized that an older book, one I had encountered in the past and debated in younger days, was groping its way out of my memory. The book whose specter had been raised by The Swerve was Hans Blumenberg’s The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (1966). But why was the one book calling to the other? This question remained with me for weeks.


In The Swerve, Greenblatt traces the history of an ancient manuscript written in poetic meter that argues for the materialist doctrines of the Hellenistic Greek philosopher Epicurus. The poem, known as De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) was written in the first century BCE by the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius. Unfortunately, we know next to nothing about Lucretius; his personal story has been lost to history. His manuscript was almost lost as well, in the great obliteration of ancient knowledge that came with the fall of Rome. Centuries passed and classical documents lay largely overlooked in neglected monastery libraries until, as the Middle Ages drew to a close, people started to become curious about the knowledge of a previous era. Greenblatt puts it like this: “Something happened in the Renaissance, something that surged up against the constraints that centuries had constructed around curiosity, desire, individuality, sustained attention to the material world, the claims of the body.”

For some scholars, this curiosity became an obsession. Petrarch’s discovery of a lost collection of Cicero’s letters in 1345 fired the minds of many manuscript-seekers. Greenblatt’s book focuses on a less widely known figure: the 15th-century Italian scholar, writer, and humanist Poggio Bracciolini. Poggio was an incredible book hunter, and one of his greatest discoveries was the poem by Lucretius, which had been lost for more than a thousand years. Simply on artistic merit, it was an important find; with its blend of Latin poetry and densely argued philosophy, De rerum natura is a beautiful work. But Greenblatt thinks there was a much greater significance to the rediscovery of the poem. “[A]t the core of the poem,” he writes, “lay key principles of a modern understanding of the world.” Among those principles are the ideas that “there is no master plan, no divine architect, no intelligent design. All things, including the species to which you belong, have evolved over vast stretches of time.” The best way to come to terms with these truths, Lucretius argues, is for human beings to “conquer their fears, accept the fact that they themselves and all the things they encounter are transitory, and embrace the beauty and the pleasure of the world.”

Greenblatt argues that De rerum natura, in its espousal of Epicurean philosophy, already contained a modern, secular way of thinking, and that “many of the work’s core arguments are among the foundations on which modern life has been constructed.” Thus, a paradoxical and startling notion: it took a poem written fifteen hundred years before the birth of modern thought to help bring that conception of the world into being.

Greenblatt tells his story as a heroic one, in which the forces of intellectual freedom battle against ignorance and dogma. Poggio and other Renaissance humanists were, after all, digging up ideas that were inherently threatening to the established order, and which the Church was particularly interested in suppressing. A modern way of conceiving the world did not simply come to be, Greenblatt reminds us; it had to be fought for within a society founded on intolerance and outright repression.

The period from late antiquity through the Middle Ages was, for Greenblatt, an extended historical error, making the birth of the modern world that began with the Renaissance a giant project in historical correction. With the rediscovery of Lucretius’s poem, it became possible to get back to a better way of thinking and living, one that had been unfortunately interrupted by the Middle Ages.


It is this point that reminded me of Blumenberg’s seven-hundred-page tome The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, a book I hadn’t looked at for at least a decade. Blumenberg wrote Legitimacy primarily as a response to the so-called “secularization thesis” put forward by Karl Löwith and others, according to which the modern age took its central idea of progress from Christian eschatological theology. There was, from this perspective, little originality in modern thought. The modern era got its ideas, more or less, from sleight of hand, rearranging concepts and values that had been bequeathed from a previous age.

To refute the secularization thesis and reclaim for the modern age its uniqueness and dignity, Blumenberg went back to ancient thought to tell a long and complicated story about the emergence of modernity. Over the course of his narrative, Blumenberg considers a position similar to Greenblatt’s in The Swerve:

Hellenism, with its scientific and technical achievements, can appear to be a sort of ‘impeded modern age,’ which in its very onset was thrown back by Christianity’s breaking in and only got going again with the rediscovery of its texts by the Renaissance. The modern age would then be the normalization of a disturbed situation, taking up once again the interrupted continuity of history in its immanent logical sequence. The Middle Ages would again be a senseless and merely annoying intervening period in the historical process.

Blumenberg rejects this argument because it fails to recognize what is truly unique about the modern age. “If I turn a part of my efforts to the refutation of this thesis,” he writes, “it is not because this reasoning in itself alarms me but because it conceals the singular situation of provocation and self-assertion from which springs the incomparable energy of the rise of the modern age.”

Blumenberg does not want to reduce the modern age to a repetition of Epicureanism because he thinks that misses both what was singular about Epicureanism and what is singular to modern thought. The modern age, Blumenberg posits, was not a simple return to ancient models but rather a radical response to the worldview of the Middle Ages, one that created a new sense of human agency and a drive for world-transforming knowledge the ancients could not have imagined.

It helps to think about some of the ways that Epicureanism is deeply incompatible with modernity, which Greenblatt leaves out of his series of bullet points summing up the basic Epicurean doctrines advanced by Lucretius:

Everything is made of invisible particles.

The elementary particles of matter—“the seeds of the things”—are eternal.

The elementary particles are infinite in number but limited in shape and size.

All particles are in motion in an infinite void.

The universe has no creator or designer.

Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve.

The swerve is the source of free will.

Nature ceaselessly experiments.

The universe was not created for or about humans.

Humans are not unique.

Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a  primitive battle for survival.

The soul dies.

There is no afterlife.

Death is nothing to us.

All organized religions are superstitious delusions.

Religions are invariably cruel.

There are no angels, demons, or ghosts.

The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the  reduction of pain.

The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion.

Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder.

These points make it easy to see how Greenblatt finds a template for a modern way of thinking in Lucretius’s poem. But Greenblatt omits to mention the ethical doctrine ataraxia, which was central to Epicureanism and rooted in the life-world of the Hellenistic milieu from which it emerged.

The Greek word ataraxia is difficult to translate into English: it’s often rendered clunkily as “unperturbedness.” But the gist of it is that Epicurean inquiry into atoms and the void and the “elementary particles of nature” is meant to lead not to further inquiry but to a state of indifference. Blumenberg writes the following about Epicurus’s Physics, one of the texts upon which Lucretius based De rerum natura:

[Epicurus’s] treatment of meteoric and stellar phenomena rejects every claim of theoretical curiosity and poses for itself, as its overriding purpose, the elimination of the emotional infection of the still more or less mythically associated realm of the heavens. This philosopher . . .  wants above all to convey ataraxia, a dispassionate ease in the world, and not science.

According to Greenblatt, the Renaissance humanists discovered a relentless curiosity about the building blocks of nature in Lucretius’s poem, which helped rekindle curiosity about the world at large. But if Epicureanism leads to a dispassionate attitude about our place in the world and a suppression of theoretical curiosity, as Blumenberg suggests, then Greenblatt is getting something very wrong.

The source of the misunderstanding comes from the way that Greenblatt interprets the concept of wonder in De rerum natura. Greenblatt writes:

More surprising, perhaps, is the sense, driven home by every page of On the Nature of Things, that the scientific vision of the world—a vision of atoms randomly moving in an infinite universe—was in its origins imbued with a poet’s sense of wonder. Wonder did not depend on gods and demons and the dreams of the afterlife; in Lucretius it welled up out of a recognition that we are made of the same matter as the stars and the oceans and all things else. And this recognition was the basis for the way he thought we should live our lives.

Lucretius does speak about wonder, but that wonder is not meant to stimulate further engagement with the world. Instead it is meant to stun us into inactivity, to encourage us to hold ourselves at a distance from the strange and wondrous things that come from the random interactions of atoms in the void. The end of all Lucretius’s observation and wonder is to reach ataraxia, the point at which we look with indifference at the natural world. We realize we have no control over it and that it doesn’t matter what happens to us anyway, since, as Greenblatt puts it, “there is no afterlife” and “death matters nothing to us.” The attitude of modern science is utterly foreign to anything argued by Epicurus or Lucretius. The idea that we could “improve” nature and thereby improve the lot of mankind is one they never even consider.

The only time Greenblatt raises the subject of ataraxia directly is when he addresses Epicurus’s so-called “quietude.” Greenblatt writes: “In his secluded garden in Athens . . . Epicurus, dining on cheese, bread, and water, lived a quiet life. Indeed, one of the more legitimate charges against him was that his life was too quiet: he counseled his followers against a full, robust engagement in the affairs of the city.” But even this downplays the radical nature of ataraxia. Epicurus did not just advise his followers to keep a low profile. His philosophy, at its very core, is about quieting the desire to know how things work and disengaging from the world. The answer to every question of “why” comes down, for Epicurus and Lucretius, to one answer: “A random arrangement of atoms and void.” This answer does not stimulate a desire to conduct scientific experiments; it stimulates a desire to quell one’s curiosity about all phenomena. Eventually, the goal is to stop inquiring altogether.

Greenblatt is aware that something about Lucretius’s ethics does not quite jibe with his own interpretation. He calls one famous passage in De rerum natura “disturbing.” In it, Lucretius writes, “It is comforting, when winds are whipping up the waters of the vast sea, to watch from land the severe trials of another person.” Lucretius’s point is that if we are truly consistent in our thinking, we should be indifferent to the suffering and death of other people, just as we should be indifferent to our own suffering and death. After all, suffering and death are simply a rearrangement of atoms and void.

This argument—that our response to another person’s pain should be to recognize that the pain doesn’t mean anything —is disconcerting for modern readers. When the winds whip up the waters of the vast sea, we cannot help but watch the distress of the passengers aboard the sinking ship “as if” the outcome is “better” if they survive and “worse” if they do not. A rigorous application of the ethics resulting from Lucretius’s atomism forces us, however, to conclude that this caring is unwarranted. There is no standpoint in Lucretius from which to argue that one outcome is better than the other, nor is there a standpoint from which to argue that one combination of atoms and void is any more beautiful and wondrous than another. In this view everything is equally beautiful, making the adjectives “beautiful” and “wondrous” more or less empty. The point of Lucretius’s poem is to cure us of the need to use adjectives at all.


A tremendous amount of desire is expressed in The Swerve. It is the desire, first and foremost, to present the modern age as a definitive solution to the human problem. Greenblatt wants Lucretius to be telling us it is OK to love the world and to be engaged with one another in the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. There is immense joy to be found in that pursuit, Greenblatt thinks, and it is one that human beings have foolishly denied themselves again and again. Greenblatt finds great satisfaction in the fact that a two thousand-year-old poem expresses, in his view, this exact desire. Coming back to Lucretius is thus coming back to ourselves.

But Greenblatt can only make this argument by ignoring ataraxia, the whole point and purpose of Epicurean philosophy.

Greenblatt’s unacknowledged striving to square the Epicurean circle is a moving thing to behold; one can sympathize with his desire to write the history of Lucretius’s poem as the secret document for the happiness of the modern world. But Greenblatt has, in fact, written a book that shows how difficult it is to be happy and how torn the consciousness of the modern age really is. He has written a book that describes what it would be like if the Epicurean life did not include ataraxia, if it were not a withdrawal into the garden.

The Swerve reveals a key tension at the heart of modern life. Our materialism frees us from living in constant terror over the condition of our immortal souls, yet we are not content to withdraw into the life of disengagement and simple joys recommended by Epicurus. Modernity, as Blumenberg reminds us, leads us to confront the world within the context of a scientific attitude that is profoundly active and profoundly engaged, and this attitude comes with its own inherent tensions and regrets.

Greenblatt is correct to think that an Epicurean mindset lingers in the modern age. But the little Epicurean within does not play the role Greenblatt thinks he does. He is not reassuring. “What is the point of it?” he thinks. “Isn’t it all just a matter of atoms and void anyway?” The Epicurean reminds us that our atomism and our physics reveal a root futility in our attempts to change things, since the atoms do not care. This is where the ataraxia in Epicureanism comes back to haunt the modern mind. Although we are pulled equally in both directions, we cannot love the world and be indifferent to it at the same time. The only way to be a modern Epicurean is to be split down the middle.

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