I read an interesting book called The Swerve: How the World Became Modern last week. It won a Pulitzer and National Book Award, but I wasn’t that impressed.1 There were some really interesting points, however, and a couple of them reinforced this lesson that I feel like I keep learning again and again and again but never fully internalize: the world isn’t the way you think it is. Let me give you two examples.
First, the book introduced me to Thomas Harriot. Who’s he? Well, you’ve never heard of him, but in a nutshell he came up with all of the ideas that Galileo and others are credited with before they did but–since he didn’t want to get vilified–he kept his ideas to himself.2 Here’s the passage from the book describing him:
Thomas Harriot…constructed the largest telescope in England, observed sunspots, sketched the lunar surface, observed the satellites of planets, proposed that planets moved not in perfect circles but in elliptical orbits, worked on mathematical cartography, discovered the sine law of refraction, and achieved major breakthroughs in algebra. Many of these discoveries anticipated ones for which Galileo, Descartes, and others became famous. Bu Harriot isn’t credited with any of them. They were found only recently in the mass of unpublished papers he left at his death. Among those papers was a careful list that Harriot, an atomist, kept of the attacks upon him as a purported atheist. He knew that the attacks would only intensify if he published any of his findings, and he preferred life to fame. Who can blame him?
I know this isn’t new, but it just reinforces this notion I have that if we ever got access to a giant library in the sky where we could see who came up with what when, we’d find that the list of famous people credited with major discoveries and the list of people who actually thought them up first would be almost entirely distinct. But it’s not as simple as just lazily saying, “everything’s been thought of before.” As far as I can tell there really are a few singular geniuses–Newton and Einstein come to mind–who made breakthroughs that are unambiguously their own. So there is such a thing as being the first person to discover something. It’s just that the record we have is really, really inaccurate.
Another example was the long, long list of ideas from Epicureanism that show modernity is a hoax. I talked about this in my review, and here’s what I said:
I was also utterly shocked–once again–at how many of the core tenets of modernity from evolution by natural selection to materialism are actually retreads on philosophy that’s thousands of years old. I don’t know if they still teach this way, but when I was in school we learned about progress. In order to make the progress narrative stick, they had to go out of their way to ridicule caricatures of Greek thought that–without the ridicule and the caricature–would be so similar to modern thought that the progress narrative would go out the window. So, while we believe in atoms today, of course that’s much different than the atomism of Democritus, right? Well, yes and then again no.
I transcribed a lot of the list of core principles from Epicureanism (in The Swerve) today, and on top of evolution by natural selection and materialism, we’ve got all the core tenets of New Atheism (e.g. ” The universe has no creator or designer,” “The soul dies,” ” All organized religions are superstitious delusions,” and ” Religions are invariably cruel.”) and many more basic scientific tenets, including the idea that there is an underlying set of physical law that govern the interactions of atoms to generate all material phenomena.
I think some of this is overblown. My biggest complaint about the book is that it’s too partisan in favor of New Atheism, and so it’s easy to suspect that Stephen Greenblatt read his own ideology back on top of the ancient Epicureans (intentionally or not). I completely lack the training to have a strong opinion on that. But it seems abundantly clear that–of not a carbon copy of New Atheism–quite a lot of the raw material for cutting-edge pop philosophy is literally thousands and thousands of years old. Which, again, is not the message that I got in school.
So–like I said–nothing is the way you think it is. The more you read and learn, the more you realize just how fragile and provisional all your beliefs truly are.