How the World Became Modern—and Stephen Greenblatt Won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize
Stephen Greenblat’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2011) can be usefully compared to Edgar Allan Poe’s Eureka (1848).
Greenblatt celebrates modernity, and what can be called modern liberalism, in an ancient text, Lucretius’s On The Nature of Things (1st century), rediscovered by a pope’s secretary during the Renaissance—an era also celebrated by Greenblatt for its love of “beauty,” “pleasure” and “curiosity.”
The Swerve is your typical ‘science/philosophy/literature-for-the-layperson’ sort of book, the kind that wins prizes and dominates high-brow sections of bookstores; the language and message are simple:
The stuff of the universe, Lucretius proposed, is an infinite number of atoms moving randomly through space.
There is no master of plan, no divine architecht, no intelligent design.
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.
What human beings can and should do, he wrote, is 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.
I marveled—I continue to marvel—that these perceptions were fully articulated in a work written more than two thousand years ago. The line between this work and modernity is not direct: nothing is ever so simple.
Laid out for us in a nice, tidy package, Greenblatt informs us of the enlightened, ‘There’s no Santa Claus,’ scientific view of Lucretius which we modern, secular, intellectuals ought to call our own.
Or should we?
Should the modern view really be about following historical mankind’s long and winding “line” to modernity?
If so, this begs the question: what is this holy grail of modernity, anyway? Is it a slow waking up to atheism and pleasure?
Is Greenblatt giving us real wisdom, real science?
Or is The Swerve destined to disappear in a few years to make way for the next tome in the multi-billion dollar, science-for-the-lay-person, book industry?
The science-for-the-lay-person book is ubiquitous in our day, but we wonder whether its popularity is because it’s informative in a truly meaningful way, or rather because its food is illusionary, and it mass-feeds an increasingly empty need.
What if modernity, as Greenblatt and others use the term, is nothing but today’s prejudices?
What if what we call ‘the modern’ is merely wrong playing out now?
Are we certain that a world controlled by atheists, for instance, will be a better world than one controlled by priests?
And what does this question have to do with whether there is an afterlife, or not, or whether one believes in an afterlife, or not?
Or whether the universe is “an infinite number of atoms moving randomly through space,” or a reflection (to whom?) of an “intelligent design?”
If, as a mortal on this earth, one ‘puts one’s eggs’ in the basket of today, or the basket of next year, or the basket of a thousand years from now, does it matter, finally, whether one is an atheist, or not? Isn’t this a more practical matter of one’s personality?
Can any of us, no matter what our science, religion, or philosophy, escape momento mori?
And who is better equipped to escape it? A severely depressed pessimist? Or a happy-go-lucky optimist? And who is to say which personality happens to be the Protestant, the Jew, the Catholic, the Buddhist, the Hindu, the Muslim, or the atheist? And which matters more? The religion—or the personality? We think the personality does.
Is it the only valid, modern, scientific view, then, to think modernity, liberalism, progress, and enlightenment equal a movement through history away from all the major religions towards the holy grail of atheism, and the acceptance of “an infinite number of atoms moving randomly through space?” Can this ever be demonstrated to anyone’s satisfaction?
Greenblatt certainly thinks so:
I marveled—I continue to marvel—that these perceptions were fully articulated in a work written more than two thousand years ago. The line between this work and modernity…
Greenblatt “marvels” that what he calls “modernity” is not modern (not such a marvel if we rip the shroud from that word, modern). Note also how Greenblatt registers with surety “the line between this work and modernity” (modernity, Greenblatt’s holy grail: a blithe “infinite number of random atoms”).
The line between this work and modernity is not direct: nothing is ever so simple. There were innumerable forgettings, disappearances, recoveries, dismissals, distortions, challenges, transformations, and renewed forgettings. And yet the vital conneciton is there. Hidden behind the worldview I recognize as my own is an ancient poem, a poem once lost, apparently irrevocably, and then found.
The worldview I recognize as my own… And why is this Greenblatt’s worldview? Is it for all-important scientific reasons? Or for the vaguely fashionable idea that Greenblatt considers himself, and this worldview, “modern?”
Greenblatt traces the progress of the Lucretian, modern worldview:
When it returned to full circulation after a millennium, much of what the work said about a universe formed out of the clash of atoms in an infinite void seemed absurd. But those very things that first were deemed both impious and nonsensical turned out to be the basis for the contemporary rational understanding of the entire world.
What is at stake is not only the startling recognition of key elements of modernity in antiquity, though it is certainly worth reminding ourselves that Greek and Roman classics, largely displaced from our curriculum, have in fact definitively shaped modern consciousness.
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.
The Swerve is not a scientific work; Greenblatt is not interested in presenting any thing resembling a unified view of how the universe might actually work.
Cosmogonies which rival and far surpass On The Nature of Things, most notably, Plato’s Timaeus and Poe’s Eureka, earn not a single mention in Greenblatt’s book. The omission is glaring, since Poe’s Eureka is Lucretian to its very core (only far more accurate due to scientific advances made during two millennia) and Plato’s Timaeus is edifyingly and powerfully logical in the way it describes the underlying micro and cosmological forces of the universe in a purely scientific manner.
Greenblatt’s attempt to convey Lucretius’s wisdom in a general way fails, as well. Greenblatt has Lucretius renouncing war and rejecting “triumphing over nature.” But nature, ‘red in tooth and claw,’ is the basis of war. So how can one conform to nature and also be against war? By presenting a laundry list of anti-religious points, Greenblatt is only fighting a religious war of his own, fueled by the very ignorance “modernity” supposedly exists to refute. If “atoms randomly moving in an infinite universe” is the basis of Lucretius’ “vision,” why should this (or any other arrangement) make any difference to Hitler, Stalin, or Mao? It’s never clear how “atoms” which are “random” have anything to do with those evils (both accidental and otherwise) which Greenblatt’s “modernity” (secular, wise, liberal, etc) is supposedly equipped to overcome as we travel in history towards this Lucretian vision of “modernity.”
The point here is not to argue with Professor Greenblatt’s politics, but to ask: What does a belief in “a universe formed out of the clash of atoms in an infinite void” have to do with reason, science, or modernity?
Greenblatt uses the word “infinite” in describing the Lucretian universe, whether he is talking of an “infinite number of atoms” or an “infinite void.” And this is indeed how Lucretius described the universe: infinite.
Poe’s Eureka, a prose poem of imaginative force, argues that no atom could move if there were an infinite number of atoms. Gravity, the force which holds the universe together, is, as Poe points out, nothing less than every atom attracting every other atom—the consolidating principle of attraction, the basis of all the orbits; all the moons, planets, suns and stars, the very spheres themselves; all entropy; all centrifugal, all centripedal, movement; all rectilinear, all deviatory movement in the universe. Is the universe “infinite?” Here’s what Eureka says:
Grant the abstract tendency of any one atom to any one other as the inevitable result of diffusion from the normal Unity:–or, what is the same thing, admit any given atom as proposing to move in any given direction—it is clear that, since there is an infinity of atoms on all sides of the atom proposing to move, it never can actually move toward the satisfaction of its tendency in the direction given, on account of a precisely equal and counterbalancing tendency in the direction diametrically opposite. In other words, exactly as many tendencies to Unity are behind the hesitating atom as before it; for it is mere folly to say that one infinite line is longer or shorter than another infinite line, or that one infinite number is greater or less than another number that is infinite. Thus the atom in question must remain stationary forever. Under the impossible circumstances which we have been merely endeavoring to conceive for argument’s sake, there could have been no aggregation of Matter—no stars—no worlds—nothing but a perpetually atomic and inconsequential Universe. In fact, view it as we will, the whole idea of unlimited Matter is not only untenable, but impossible and preposterous.
One cannot step into the river of Eureka without drowning in its one idea: the original Unity—of Nothing (since the True Unity has no Relation and thus no Matter) exploding into the Many (a finite, and finally discontinued explosion, in order ‘to work’ most simply—always the m.o. of the Creator, the Deity, the Design) which leads to the Great Return Back to the Original Unity (manifested as the Ubiquitous Law of Gravity)—returning, gravitationally, not to a place but to unity itself which gives rise to the Great Counter-force: Electricity (and its various attributes: Luminosity, Electro-Magnetism, Thought)—the Force of Resistance or Repulsion which makes Gravity’s Great Return back to the Original Unity tortured, lengthy, yet inevitable.
Greenblatt’s “enlightened” enthusiasm for “infinite atoms” cannot help but strike the reader of Eureka as slack—Greenblatt’s The Swerve is modestly attempting partial historical observations; Poe’s Eureka is focused and ambitious in the extreme and is perhaps the most remarkable essay/prose poem ever produced by an American; yet we cannot help but note that Greenblatt is anxious to celebrate the details of a cosmogony he is quick to imbue with “modern” significance for the lay reader, yet the details of which are scientifically lax, in direct ratio to the intensity of its anti-religious, anti-human, anti-design philosophy.
Poe was no religious fanatic; Poe admired Epicurus and believed in the truism that the end of life is pleasure (happiness). There is nothing religious, per se, about Eureka, and it did offend the church in Poe’s day, even as some secular purists in our day might blanch at Eureka’s “intelligent design.” The belief—by certain ancient Greeks and Romans—in an atomistic universe, as opposed to a universe ruled by colorful gods, would certainly have been approved by Poe, and in this spirit, Greenblatt’s cheerleading for Lucretius is indeed heart-warming.
But Greenblatt is presenting the entirety of an ancient text, with all its scientific errors, as an easy model for what he calls “modernity,” and also a model for a certain kind of political philosophy of which he (Greenblatt) approves—a political philosophy not perfect in itself, and far from perfect in its false link to a less than perfect science.
After reading The Swerve, the swerve one needs to make is towards Eureka.