Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Swerve: Off course

It's nice to have a few clear days over Christmas. In between airplanes and turkey I read The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt. I have mixed feelings about it, though.

I liked the evocation of late medieval and early Renaissance culture. The book centers on the rediscovery of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura on a monastery library and subsequent impact on thought. The book gives insight into the timeless nature of bureaucracy and court politics, as represented by the "lie factory" of the Vatican Curia at the time. And there is a wistfulness about the loss of so much from the ancient world, all the classics that must have been lost.

But I found the book to be a little shapeless on the whole. Some reviewers have been bitterly critical of its factual claims.

There seems to be an underlying strain of anti-Christian bigotry. The book represents the redscovery of Epicurean atomistic doctrine as a liberation from Christianity, which apparently for Greenblatt represents everything cruel and backward and fearful. As other reviewers point out, classical wisdom had never been as wholly lost as Greenblatt implies, and many of the advances of learning at the time came from the church.

Of course, the medieval church has much to answer for. But so does modern progressivism, murkily bound up with eugenics in the early few twentieth century, let alone socialism or other anti-Christian ideologies.

There seems to be a kind of liberal who believes giving offense is wrong, except when it comes to attacking Christianity. I am not a regular churchgoer, but I feel the hypocrisy in this kind of attack. Liberalism should not be established as an official state religion, prone to its own inquisitions. The deeper rhythms of Western history are resonant with Christianity, and telling early modern history as a simple black and white tale of the revalidation of ancient Epicureanism is shallow. I get increasingly irritated at what seems to be prejudice on these matters.

That should not stop criticism of the church or Christianity, of course. But Harvard professors ought not to indulge in crude cartoonish history either. For all the erudition on display in the book, it sometimes swerves close to shallow caricature.

I doubt the book was worth a Pullitzer.


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