Swerves, Curves, and the Conceits of Scholars Tadit Anderson
(( update this chapter has expanded into two chapters. What follows here is centered around essentially a review of the book The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt. I have used this book to demonstrate a number of problems within academia relative to deficient aspects of how material related to western cultural history and development tend to diminish a comprehensive understanding particularly of ancient western history. The next chapter will review the history of the ancient and classical west relative to the genuine development and resistance to functional democracy. Once I complete the next chapter which will more directly to a re-clamined history of western democracy, I will come back and polish this out a bit more. The former version expanded beyond a reasonable length. Today is Dec 18th 2014)).
Within the academic realm of European Renaissance Studies professor Stephen Greenblatt of Harvard University has written a book entitled The Swerve: How The World Became Modern, copyrighted in 2011. Greenblatt's major premise seems to be that history sometimes operates in swerves or "unexpected" patterns. In particular the "swerve" that is central to Greenblatt's book is used toward validating his explanation how the "West" became "modern." This becomes problematic because readers are left to assume that the "Swerve" by Greenblatt refers to the "indeterminate will" of individual atoms as proposed by Democritus's atomic theory and as adopted by Epicurus and thereby by Lucretius in his didactic poem of the Epicurean philosophy.
Another possible or additional application of the Democritean "Swerve" as describing the behavior of atoms. Greenblatt's story-line is largely presented as a heroic cultural quest of a former papal scribe in returning to circulation of On the Nature of Things by Lucretius. This seems to be Greenblatt's own extension of the "Swerve" principle to explain, to put it in Greenblatt's subtitle was "how the west became modern." This appropriation of the "swerve" principle largely destroys much of the scholarship presumed by Greenblatt in his book. If we accept that this is all a consistent storyline, then we must also accept the necessity of ignoring the major inconsistencies of the assumption that western "civilization" swerved toward modernity in the indeterminate manner of Democritus, rather than how Epicurus adopted Democritus's atomic theory, and then adopted a relatively determinate sort of causality for human communities, then Greenblatt has invested in multiple misappropriations of the "Swerve" as a basis for explaining "...How the West Became Modern."
This seems to be an incomplete or deux ex machina premise of causality, considering the then increasing interest in classical literature and its acceptance in that era by the Roman Catholic Church and later in the Protestant Reformation. As a heroic tale this framing has some value as the gathering of indeterminacy to in the manner of an atom. By extension this also describes a social movement as an aggregation of nominally indeterminate wills in the determination of a common agenda. This would reduce history to a social physics of carom pieces with totally blind, deaf, and numb players, absent any meaningful communal presence, intention, or culture.
The difference of kind between the atomic version of the "swerve" and the "swerve" applied by the communal intentionality of Epicurus is substantial. As such the historical narrative of Poggio's finding and re-distribution of Lucretius's poem/book is a worthy narrative in itself but it leaves unexplained or without an appropriate historical narrative for "...How the West Became Modern." Further, to be an adequate description of how the West remained despotic, as in contrary to a process of modernization the principle of the Swerve should have been also been used to narrate how the west remained archaic. As a book that was marketed to a popular and a less discerning audience it perpetrates a dis-service in favor pop-level mystery story with the incentive of book royalties as primary basis to measure success.
Better ways to use the swerve of atomic theory would range would include as a basis for defining the edge of a relatively determinant world view will and social interactions, where the indeterminate nature of the "free will" of atoms becomes determinant in identifying social and cultural change. This would also define where Democritus's theory of atoms, parts in favor of social determinacy and then also as the collective indeterminacy of individual choices. In Greenblatt's narrative of "Swerve" Poggio represents both the individual and his historical context. If Greenblatt is defining "swerving" as: "unable to be foreseen," then perhaps the applied nature is in the swerving of a prevailing explanatory model and its component assumptions. Better still, using Democritus's theory of atoms and the definition of the material and "natural" world, he then provides the point where Epicurus departs from Democritus, within life in the social and cultural world.
Greenblatt also does not provide the historical context for the rise of Epicurean-ism as a counter philosophy to Plato's conservatism favoring the elites in post Periclean/Pelopennisian War Athens. Here Greenblatt has also trimmed the value of ONT to serve his limited academic scope, rather than also contextualizing Epicureanism and Lucretius within their broader historical context. Greenblatt provides little contextualization of who Lucretius's was other than the very limited knowledge of Lucretius as an individual which is factual. However, in addition to being an accomplished poet, he was a participant within the contemporary network of Epicurean "Garden" communities of his era and was responding to the institutional culture of the contemporary Roman Empire and to the general historical context to which ONT was also a response. There is no apparent effort to explain how it was that Epicureanism was in its reproduction during the European Renaissance the basis for the modernization of the "western" European cultures. The least that could been by Greenblatt said is that Epicureanism was about three centuries old as a socio-spiritual community at the time of the writing of Lucretius's On the Nature of Things, and it was presented as an alternative to the state associated temples and priests.
Obvious aspects of the writing of the Epicureans include Epicurus's Little Epitome and Big Epitome, and then On the Nature of Things which served as scripture, science, and political philosophy. It was written in a time and context when the state religion and the state was failing as a democracy. People looking for a alternative spiritual and communal culture was on the rise. In the rise of the influence of the Catholic Church Epicureanism was a well established cosmology and culture within the region his ONT circa 30 BCE in Rome. He also had a strong devotion to the craft of poetry, and he felt compelled to produce both a masterpiece of Latin literature, but also a masterful didactic presentation of the Epicurean Philosophy, approximately 300 years after Epicurus was born.
Obviously Lucretius had a substantial connection to the Epicurean circles and "garden" communities existing in the then known world. It is doubtful that the content would have been produced in isolation from an active Epicurean network. Also obvious is that this material had reason to take their politic outside of the boule, as the formal council of public governance in Athens during Epicurus's Life span. The Athenians had a bit of nasty political history by which it was not unusual for politicians whose advocacy threatened particularly conservative ideas of class entitlement to be assassinated. The audience for such a manual bridged oral and script based communications and cultures.
It also seems likely that ONT was written in part to share through script literacy and for public relations purposes during the rising hostility from the established political and religious elites which both came from aristocratic families in the decline of the Roman Empire. Superstitions were an important basis for controlling the majority. Given the date of the writing of ONT (approx. 30 BC ) and its content as a poetic compilation of natural science/philosophy and social precepts. Epicureanism of the first century BCE shared a similar desire for social functionality that was also advocated by the Gracchi brothers as Tribunes approximately 100 years previous to Lucretius in the late second century BCE. There is also substantial scholarship available which demonstrates the borrowing by the Jewish apostle Saul of Tarsus of Christianity from Epicurean-ism during the first century BCE. FN-De Witt. This indicates that Epicureanism was judged to be a competing world view and still popular among people seeking an alternative to the Roman state religious culture.
There is also nothing within Greenblatt's "Swerve" about the swerve which caused the Epicurean movement to be suppressed as a social movement of certain communal and modern principles. This includes the opposition by the Epicureans to superstitions, and thereby also to state conceits (cf Vico's 1725, New Science). To make modernity possible in Greenblatt's terms there has to be a reproducing of superstitions and fictions concerning the past in the present, then a repudiation of those beliefs in favor of rationality, natural science, a communal critique, and humanistic values. Apart from the point that even in the present day, modernity often seems to be more of a conceit and pretense rather than a certainty. Attempting to assert modernity without thorough historical contextualization seems like a poor way of measuring political and economic functionality or relative modernity. The criteria for modernity must also be tethered to levels of relevance and participation. What in particular makes the recirculation of ONT important is that the recognition of its importance also derives from Epicurean-ism being explicitly discouraged at one point as impious and heretical in favor of at least democratic functionality beyond the adoption of Ionian natural science during what is acclaimed to be the European Renaissance.
Applying this sort of metaphor, the "swerve" is fundamental to the Epicurean philosophy presented in Lucretis's On the Nature of Things. a major part of Lucretius's presentation of the Ionian natural philosophy/world view originated with Democritus. A conceptual problem when the swerve as a feature of atomic behavior is applied to social and institutional behavior rises in determining among social individuals when there is an apparent determinacy and relevance. The utility of even using the concept of a "swerve" in the narration of history is highly suspect in its nullification of historical and sociological analysis. In a post hoc application it is difficult to understand how causality can be assigned based upon superstitions and ideology. Greenblatt's "swerve" becomes a modern-ist investment in cultural conceit.
The raising of animacy from the atomic level to the oikos (community) requires detailing varieties of cultural indeterminacy and zones of intention. This is a weighing process that sometimes produces perverse results in ideological "mechanical turks" operating within a narrow band of superstitions. This also places a measure of certainty in official narratives, collective movements and in a nominal mass of individuals rather than a more complex process. The "Swerve" that Greenblatt seems to propose is that the western world "swerved" toward "modernization." This swerve can only be a relative comparison between a proposed simple storyline and an actual compound trajectory. It also contradicts the cultural nature of social movements. The indeterminate nature of the atomic many does not easily translate into social movements, cultural change, or resistance to either.
Greenblatt attributes his premise of "the west" swerving toward modernity to the recovery of a copy of Lucretis's poem-book On The Nature of Things in 1417 CE. as a historical "swerve" toward functionality as modernization. In essence Greenblatt projects that it was a swerve, an unexpected and significant event, that brought about the modernization of "western" culture. How this actually represents a "swerve" is mostly a conflation posed as a platform for "modernization." Modernization as commodified process tends to be also an incremental and relatively variable process. The problem is that Greenblatt has substituted an atomism for an integration of most varieties of social science.
Pertaining to modern mechanical physics a body in motion tends to stay in motion except for the effects of the nature of numerous types of friction. In terms of semantic command Greenblatt mixes his metaphors frequently as if he regarded history generally being filled with inexplicable swerves, analogous to Democritus's atoms, and yet when it comes to individual humanists and book finders there is a clear heroic sense of causality attached to his narrative of how nearly lost manuscripts were returned into circulation. This is not to diminish Poggio's contribution within a more adequate and comprehensive historical narrative. Greenblatt's text has a sort of breathless anticipation in his recounting of the recovery of ONT which he uses to validate the recirculation of ONT as the historical point when the west recovered its path to modernity, seems at one level to be reasonable.
He does a modest job of introducing On The Nature of Things, but does not include that Epicureanism was a product of the political and moral philosophical discourse regarding the ideal state that occurred in Athens in about fifty years or so following the demolition of Pericle's Athens by rival city states and by the neo-Myceneans. He also supposes that the neo-Myceneans were those political and class conservatives who wanted to restore as "history" the heroic mythology of the Illiad, as borrowed from Mahabharata through an Asia Minor bardic tradition. They also shared the objective to restore governance based upon practices and standards prior to Solon's reforms. Plato as philosophical playwright represented the neo-Mycenean political agenda.
It seems curious that such an author would omit the political nature of the epicurean philosophy in its historical context of origin. The obverse implication of Greenblatt's swerve is that both Athens and then Rome chose to swerve away from a more modern frame of reference and social functionality. It seems odd as well to not integrate the substance of the Epicurean political philosophy and make note of the modern nature of Epicureanism, and of the institutional conceit of state religions.
First,"Epicurus" is probably a name taken as an adult, because as a word it translates as "friend" or "ally," and "friendship" was one of the primary principles of his philosophy. As a naming, his philosophy was something that he lived on a daily basis. In the centuries following Epicurus's lifetime Epicureanism was described by its detractors as centered upon "pleasure," though as a philosophy it was more an advocacy favoring living in freedom from want, fear, or pain. Later in conflict with the state religion of the Roman Empire, and then with Christianity under the dictates of the Roman Catholic Church, it was misrepresented as seeking exotic forms of worldly pleasure. Also rejected was the Epicurean assumption of the absence of an afterlife and that the gods had no interests in human affairs or religiosity. This deism was cast by the Roman Catholic Church as a form of impiety and challenge of the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.
Epicurus's "Garden" can be placed as kindred to 18th and 19th century communes having an educational program. One example would be the New Harmony community which was located circa 1825 in northern Indiana, US. Notable residents included Robert Owen, patron to part of the English cooperative movement, and Josiah Warren. Warren is often misrepresented as an "individualist anarchist," but that identification is only credible if his scope is reduced to only his rejection of oligarchy as the primary political standard, particularly as posited by the European "enlightenment." His description of his economic advocacy was "Equitable Economics," which seems easily relate-able to economics based upon a social principle of friendship.
The metaphor of history "swerving" could be a useful entre if it is followed by more thorough historical context and analysis. It could serve in describing certain historical transitions and toward examining periods more deeply in which cultures moved toward or more distant from more direct forms of social functionality. Greenblatt draws it from Democritus's atomic theory, and applies it to historical change. Attributing the concept of a swerve to proposed periods of presumed importance as transitions should involve a closer contextualization and analysis than simply presuming the indeterminancy of free will. The indeterminancy of atoms by Democritus the Ionian atomist was not intended to describe either the collective behavior of a mass of atoms in a relatively solid state or of the collective behavior of a culture through time or of the deviance of individuals within a collective absent consideration of the influence and inertia of prevailing definitions of societal stability and social order.
The concept of a "swerve" within Lucretius's didactic poem (50 BCE) describes the indeterminate nature of individual atoms at the atomic level. Greenblatt extends this indeterminancy to the premise of free will within a historical context absent consideration of the intrinsic logic of the particular historical context, related cultural implications, and the prevailing definition of social order. This is in contrast to both the pre and post hoc "determinism" of theistic narratives of divine intervention. Planetary eclipses were assumed to be divine omens particularly in the nominal west where planetary observatories were a late feature compared to the Babylonian culture.
Epicurus could be reasonably be described as a "deist," similar in a limited way to a few of the nominal founding fathers of the United States. It would seem that without the moral code of Epicurus, this sort of deism could enable exemption from a moral standard, which perhaps was one b asis upon which chattel slavery was validated. The apparent popularity of Epicurus's philosophy during classical antiquity spanned from roughly 315 BCE to approximately 300 CE which is longer than the life span of most western empires. It should be noted here that based upon his doctoral dissertation Karl Marx apparently identified authentic Epicureanism, based upon communal freedom from want and structural scarcity, as an important precedent to modern socialism. This as a proposition is much stronger that Greenblatt's appropriation of the Ionian atom-ists "swerve."
The idea of a "swerve" within Greenblatt's book is also borrowed to describe the history by which Greenblatt frames the re-discovery of Lucretius's "ONT" in 1417 CE by Poggio Bracciolini, as a significant factor in the "modernization" of particularly western culture. Greenblatt's "swerve" becomes a simplistic way of reducing the details and complexity of western classical history as well as European renaissance history. The major implications are that the contemporary understanding of "modernity" represents an end point intended by transcendent intentions, and that Bracciolini should be regarded as a hero. Despite the commercial success of the book, critical reviews by academic peers within the renaissance studies domain assert that many of Greenblatt's assertions are selective, over blown, and poorly substantiated.
As a process it would be significant if the interpretation of an historical event or events would change based upon this additional information being available. Even so, the main use of the "swerve" metaphor here is toward describing a discontinuous re-framing of historical, political, and institutional processes. In the context the golden age of Athenian history Socrates, Plato, Aristotle et al represent a major "conservative" swerve away from the democracy and economic functionality of Periclean Athens. Greenblatt gives no noticeable attention to the swerves by which the western history of philosophy and the western classical antiquity discourse related to the "ideal state" swerved away from the means and manner of communal functionality and from "humanism" as fundamentals.
Further, Greenblatt neither mentions Benjamin Farrington's, as a well respected scholar who has appropriately contextualized Epicurus The Faith of Epicurus in the text of his book. Likewise he does not mention or list the work of Norman Wentworth DeWitt also a well respected scholar of Epicurus. The Swerve(2011). His book does list a number books related to Marx, yet there are no mention or contextualization of Marx relative to Epicurus. Marx's interest in Epicurus by his dissertation was toward establishing early concerns for communal functionality as a root for his principle of socialism, as having little necessary relationship to the forms of state "socialism" which developed later. An important part of the posited modernization process requires a comparison to medieval Europe. Of approximately the 400 entries in the "selected bibliography" about 11 include "Marx" in their titles, and Marx is not mentioned at all in the index of topics. The largest category of titles is easily "renaissance" and related titles which is to be expected from a Renaissance scholar. To this it seems that the basis of source selection was less about Epicurus, and more to fortify the Renaissance studies perspective upon Epicurus and the recirculation of Lucretius's ONT. The major point is that Greenblatt's narrative would have been much stronger without the appeal to marketing niches, royalties, and inflated heroic stories, and with more concern for the details of the relevant historical contexts.
It is also true that the popular audience needs to be introduced to history as it has shaped our collective understanding of both cultural history and cultural capacities. This objective also requires turning away from several varieties of superstitions used to control the population majority. The tendency has been to project a variety of hero stories and supposed divine interventions. These were and are used to advance what Giambattista Vico named "conceits," and to confuse people toward believing that the selective occupation of media production of "celebrities" is necessary to even imagine societal change. The popular audience needs to also be reminded of the controlled "swerves" of the official narratives of culture and history. This politicized re-scripting has replaced more honest and adequate narratives which install various supporting superstitions and conceits that are reproduced over and over and over again. This is particularly true within corporate media serving for profit interests, and thereby the same self-serving narratives are adopted also within the "public" media, the collegiate academy, and also the general public discourse. The nature of state or church sponsored religion is such that there is a built-in incentive to fortify the conceits of "nations" and of "scholars"(cf Vico) contrary to a more transparent and adequate interpretation of historical transitions.
This rewriting of history to serve economic and political agendas has been going on in the west no doubt even before languages were able to be recorded within the heroic narratives. The reforms toward democracy began with the establishment of the city/state polesis model from the consolidation of multiple villages for the sake of security and economy. This process began soon after the collapse of the manoral culture around 1200 BCE, sometimes described as the Greek "dark age." Depending upon the source this dark age is credited to either a sudden climate change due to Icelandic volcanic eruptions, or a collapse of the Greek Mycenaean manoral economy, or Doric invasion of the current Grecian land masses, or a combination of several of these factors. The bardic "history" of the Homeric tradition became the defining narrative of numerous tribal group identifying themselves as Hellenes.
The period of cultural ferment which followed the Greek Dark Age, was described by Karl Jaspers as the Axial Age on multiple continents, roughly 600 to 200 BCE, India, Pakistan, Iran, Greece, and the Middle East as a period of similar cultural transitions though they were separated. over great distances. One probable explanation is that it was a side effect of increasing commerce and personal travel on the Silk Road. Parmenides's Poem "At the Edge of being" includes conceptual principles very similar the Maya. Pythagoras's theorem was very similar to Vedic Sutras detailing "string science" applied to the proper design of altars. Epicurus's philosophy has aspects of both Dharma and Tantra. The origin of Buddhism came in about 500 BCE, and theree remains a strong similarity between Homer's Trojan Wars and the Mahabharata/the Great Story of the Bharata Family (as India). The demonstrated intra-cultural exchange between the nominal West and East was made routine under the consolidation of the protection and administration used to consolidate the western portion of the Silk Road commerce.
Later beginning around 600 BCE there was a succession of reforms and expansion of popular participation in the realms of political and economic democracy. This is particularly noticeable in discourses as occupied to subvert public conversation about what assumptions, factors, and limitations might produce the "ideal state." The reduction of public concern for the democratic functionality of the prevailing ideology of governance remains as the primary objective. Closely associated is the use of religion by the state to valorize the institutions supporting the ideologies and theologies favoring oligarchy and plutocracy.
Giambattista Vico described this process very well in his New Science (1725) as produced from the conceits of nations and the conceits of scholars. It is also curious how Greenblatt's The Swerve makes no mention at all of Vico's ground breaking work though the patterns identified by Vico which describe essentially a diversion process favoring elite capture of primary institutions. Epicurus did acknowledge the "swerve" of atoms in the composition of various phenomena as described by Democritus and the Ionian atom-ists. Greenblatt invests in an extension of the atomic "swerve" to refer to apparent cultural and historical societal behavior to explain the subversion of expected outcomes. More precisely, the west became "modern" largely in spite of efforts through institutional control to suppress the Epicurean political philosophy in favor of superstitions and class privileges.
"Clinamen" is the Latin word used by Lucretius to described the same semi-random process which gives rise to various unforeseen results of the unseen trajectories of atoms. The "swerve" as a metaphor in social historical narratives tends to be more about expectations and ideologies swerving apart. Greenblatt adopts Democritus's theory of material atoms to also apply to the communal "many." He oddly seems to not acknowledge that swerves under Epicurus's principles of friendship and the pleasures of freedom from want. The Epicurean swerve is and was more than a physics of social atoms, than a running hermeneutic of the many and of social functionality. This is not to declare an absence of friction among the shifting ontologies parameters, paradigms, conditionalities, advocacy, and self interest as by products of the prevailing enforcement of presuppositions and norms.
Outside of the containment of supposed capacities, these communal "swerves" still share a cultural continuity. Within a specific social or societal context the assumption of entitlement tends to serve the prevailing political and economic conceits. They are socially constructed within a universalized narrative. There also are moments in history which were greatly influenced by environmental swerves of circumstances including sudden bad weather often credited to the claims of post hoc soothsaying and superstitions. As an example the defeat of the Persian naval coalition in the first Greco-Persian War was due in significant part of unexpected severe weather in unfamiliar waters serve as an example of an environmental "swerving" though it offers little support for popular narratives acclaiming heroic virtues and divine intervention. This sort of swerve prior to the point of conflict or injury would seem to be an entirely reasonable alternative to producing enigmatic claims to suppose the conceits of divine intervention, aristocratic entitlement and exemplary heroism.
In the Athenian philosophical discourse in Athens toward defining the ideal state following the Pelopennesian War the primary positions were represented by Socrates/Plato and Epicurus.. Greenblatt also makes no mention at all about the participation of Epicurus who as Plato was a student of Socrates though Epicurus departed from the more conservative perspective in the Athenian political discourse. Athens prior to the Pelopennesian War was divided between a progressive majority following Pericles's leadership and a "conservative" group who were intent on reversing the development of Athenian democracy. This advocacy, so that the power and privileges held by the wealthy would be restored to what it was prior to Solon's reforms. ????
This became a rather artificial process when major participants in this discourse really had no interest in sustaining functional democracy, and as was often the case these major participants, such as Plato, were subsidized by interests hostile to functional democracy. At the core it is a "Democracy" that was steered or swerved to accommodate actual plutocratic oligarchy, governance by the few in service to the wealthy posturing as a "conservative" form of democracy. The typical economic assumptions and social functionality hidden under the embedded assumptions will produce only a selective sort of functionality without regulation or management. As such it represents at least a set of superstitions being used to validate implicit economic and fiscal assumptions in place of a communal critique.
(onto the next chapter)