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ISSN 1749-8155

The Swerve: How the Renaissance BeganPrinter-friendly versionPDF version

The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began
Stephen Greenblatt
London, Bodley Head, 2011, ISBN: 9780224078788; 368pp.; Price: £20.00
Professor John Monfasani
University at Albany, State University of New York
Professor John Monfasani, review of The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began, (review no. 1283)
Date accessed: 27 May, 2024


David RundleFri, 06/07/2012 - 07:46
We might not guess it from the balance of words between review and response but this is a fascinating exchange. Who would have imagined that somebody would be willing to be consider a Burckhardtian nowadays? I remember a session in which I was involved in 2010 that celebrated the 150 years of the publication of The Civilization -- the papers are available on the Medium AEvum website (hidden in the Medieval Links section) -- and while there was respect for the work within the cultural context in which it was written, the praise did not extend to wishing the book to be exhumed for modern use. It is seen (to steal John Monfasani's words) as entertaining but wrong-headed. What surprises me more is the balance of Stephen Greenblatt's two points here: a willingness to be a Burckhardtian and then a claim for the importance of a doctrine learnt from Lucretius's work. As I pointed out when commenting on The Swerve on bonae litterae, Burckhardt's contribution to intellectual history was to attempt to divest that nineteenth-century German coinage, 'humanism', of its classicising core: he would not have allowed the possibility that a single ancient work could have the Promethean qualities that The Swerve attributes to De rerum natura. I thought I was complimenting Greenblatt when I said he was anti-Burckhardtian. Behind this, of course, there is a more fundamental question: if we dust off our copies of Civilization and see it as becoming once again a useful guide to the Quattrocento and early Cinquecento, must we also unlearn our suspicion of his intellectual influences? It was in the shadow of a liberal revanche against totalitarianism that Hegel became unfashionable. Now -- in our contemporary context, in which The Swerve is so embedded, of battling against fanaticism -- are Hegel and Herder our allies? Must we resurrect them?