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Greenblatt/Photo by Chtose Suzuki/AP

Analyzing a bestseller

Books | A closer look at Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

Issue: "Beyond the body count," Nov. 5, 2011

"Mesmerizing" (Newsweek). "Fascinating" (Salon.com). "Thrilling" (The Boston Globe). And here, from NPR, is my favorite sentence about a new book written by Stephen Greenblatt and published by Norton: "The Swerve is one of those brilliant works of non-fiction that's so jam-packed with ideas and stories it literally boggles the mind."

The literal, Merriam-Webster meaning of boggles (functioning as a transitive verb, not the plural of a game name) is (1) "mishandle, bungle" and (2) "overwhelm with wonder or bewilderment." Greenblatt skillfully does both. He mishandles two minor historical personages by exaggerating their importance (and by doing so makes them interesting, larger-than-life, novelistic characters). He overwhelms critics who should know better by beautifully using specific detail about thin ink and hairy parchment.

One of Greenblatt's heroes, the 1st-century B.C. poet Lucretius, a Roman contemporary of Julius Caesar, left behind only one work known today, De rerum natura ("On the nature of things"). Lucretius was an Epicurean materialist, fighting the polytheistic dregs of his day and arguing that both normal and strange happenings could be explained by naturalistic phenomena rather than by, say, Poseidon and Athena squabbling.

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Harvard professor Greenblatt's other hero, Poggio Bracciolini (1370-1459), is to him an academic role model: scholarly but rugged, with a long-term mistress who reportedly bore him 12 sons and two daughters, until he moved on at age 56 to marry an 18-year-old with whom he sired five more sons and a daughter. Bracciolini, Greenblatt tells us, was the Renaissance's greatest hunter of ancient manuscripts, hitting out-of-the-way monasteries and repositories as Lara Croft, tomb raider, might-yet becoming so revered that when he was 75 Florence gave him a prestigious post as the city's chancellor.

One problem with the book is Greenblatt's claim that "the world became modern" through Bracciolini's finding of De rerum natura. Greenblatt himself acknowledges in the preface that his claim is overblown-"One poem by itself was certainly not responsible for an entire intellectual, moral, and social transformation"-but over the next 250 pages seems to forget his own concession as he tries to show the importance of that one poem.

For instance, Greenblatt claims Lucretius influenced William Shakespeare because (1) the playwright's Latin was good enough so he could have read De rerum natura, (2) Shakespeare "seems to have personally known" the friend of an Italian monk who liked Lucretius and visited England, (3) Shakespeare "could also have discussed Lucretius" with fellow playwright Ben Jonson, who had read Lucretius, and (4) Shakespeare read the essays of the French writer Montaigne, who quoted Lucretius. Four conjectures do not make a fact.

But Greenblatt's argument suffers from more than cutting scholarly corners in pursuit of a good yarn. Echoing Lucretius and Montaigne, Greenblatt argues that convinced atheists do not fear death-yet, as Albert Camus and others knew, we all rebel against nonexistence. The 20th century was a century of millions trying to find alternatives to meaninglessness by embracing ideologies like Communism and Fascism. Tens of millions died.

The New York Times heaped adulation on Greenblatt for channeling Lucretius-style hedonism to a modern audience (and thus sticking it to evangelicals): "Religious fear, Lucretius thought, long before there was a Christopher Hitchens, warps human life." The irony is that Christians should not disagree with such a formulation. Religious fear (what happens if I forget to make an offering to Athena in ancient Greece, or to Shiva in modern India?) does warp human life. The good news is that Christianity is not a religion like that, and in some ways not a religion at all.

Christianity is about God's grace. Christianity, as one of its best contemporary expositors, John Piper, explains elegantly, shows us the pleasures of belief in God, and thus gives us the desire to embrace Him: Piper's "Christian hedonism" means that "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him." That's not fear. That's love.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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