The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

Book review by Deane Barker tags: history

This is a book about a poem. It follows a book-hunter in the 15th century named Poggio, while he manages to save the last remaining copy of On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, which is an explanation of Epicurean philosophy.

The poem makes lot of secular claims. In the middle of the book, they’re summarized like this:

  • Everything is made up 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

It’s important to get the timeline here:

  • Epicurus lived in 300BC
  • Lucretius lived a couple hundred years later (100BC - 50BC); he wrote about Epicurus’s philosophy
  • Poggio, our book hunter, was prowling around Germany about 1,400 years after that when he found the poem

The book argues that by saving this poem, Poggio enabled modern ideas like science and evolution to return to public discourse.

The title of the book comes from this passage in the poem:

When atoms move straight down through the void by their own weight, they deflect a bit in space at a quite uncertain time and in uncertain places, just enough that you could say that their motion has changed. But if they were not in the habit of swerving, they would all fall straight down through the depths of the void, like drops of rain, and no collision would occur, nor would any blow be produced among the atoms. In that case, nature would never have produced anything.

This “swerve” sounds a lot like a genetic mutation which is the basis of biological evolution.

The book is a bit of a slog. I kept waiting for something amazing to happen to explain the modern world, and I felt like I was still waiting at the end.

Hanging all of the modern world on a single poem seems like a bit of a stretch. The argument is that Epicurus had this all figured out long before Jesus Christ walked the Earth, but no one else knew it until some guy found a record of his philosophy almost 2,000 years later.

I don’t know – the book literally won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011, so who am I to argue with it? But it was still a bit tedious. I feel like the subtitle set it up to be a broad examination of the times of the Italian Renaissance, and instead we got 400 pages of this one guy named Poggio, and a summation that a poem he recovered changed the world.

Not what I expected.

Book Info

Stephen Greenblatt

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