Book review: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

The Swerve isn't a book about space or astronomy, but it is about exploration.  Exploration of the natural world is replaced with that of the philosophical one.  I don't know why it first caught my eye in a bookstore (remember those things?), but it didn't take long before I was engrossed.  Let me say right up front, if you like historical nonfiction, read no farther.  This book is for you.

In The Swerve, author Stephen Greenblatt chronicles the loss and subsequent rediscovery of an ancient Roman poem called On the Nature of Things.  In the poem, Roman poet Lucretius lays out a philosophy of the world which differed vastly from other contemporary ideas.  While not overtly disavowing the gods, he rejects the notion that they influence our world.  In their place, he describes a system for creating and destroying  worldly objects and beings through ideas such as atoms, atomic (chemical) reactions, and evolution.  While Greenblatt rightfully cautions the reader against reading too much into these ideas, I found the breadth of connection to modern science astonishing.

Were it not for the efforts of a determined book hunter, however, we may never have known about this remarkable poem.  This former papal secretary discovered the book deep in the library of a remote monastery and had it copied, saving it for posterity.  He was just one of an entire movement in the late 15th century to seek out and preserve the works of ancient writers. 

While it may be overreaching to credit Lucretius and others of his school with discovering many of the principles of modern science, the author does not hesitate to cite On the Nature of Things as one of the catalysts of the Enlightenment.  It brought forth a paradigm so different than that of Middle Ages Catholicism, sparking the imagination of those who would eventually begin the scientific revolution.  If it wasn't directly responsible for our modern scientific ideas, it certainly spurred their creation.

My lasting impression from The Swerve is how narrowly we avoided losing this groundbreaking work of philosophy, and how many other works must have not been so lucky.  Who knows what wisdom ancient cultures could have passed down, if not for the impermanence of paper...