Revisiting Greenblatt’s The Swerve: The Morality of Scholarship

“Can a book with bad politics be a good book?” An April 26th column in The New York Times asked this question in all sincerity. Most of my progressive friends gave a scornful “no,” and my conservative friends probably would have done the same, had I had a chance to gauge their reactions to it. Since I’m neither a good progressive nor a good conservative, I disagree. An author’s politics can limit a book’s utility but don’t necessarily destroy its usefulness. That is an entirely contextual, and in many cases a personal, decision on the part of the reader.

This stance stems both from a reluctance to judge lest I be judged, but also from the empirical observation that books with troublesome politics can be useful. Robert McNamara’s books on Vietnam have very troubling politics, and yet they are useful. Noam Chomsky’s and Alan Dershowitz’s politics are both troubling, and yet I read their works with interest. In my own field of medieval history, examples abound: Percy Schramm’s politics were questionable (as in, he liked the idea of National Socialism and went on to be a Major in the Wehrmacht), but scholars have been unable to disregard his written corpus, though much of it is now outdated (Norman Cantor’s Inventing the Middle Ages is largely schlock, but parts of the Schramm/Kantorowicz chapter were OK). Latterly, progressive historians have taken shots at Joseph Strayer for consulting for the C.I.A. in the 1950s and 1960s (the references have escaped me); yet Strayer’s work remains indispensable for those interested in statecraft and a constant source of mental stimulation for me personally (full disclosure: I’m an “intellectual grandson” of Strayer, so to speak). Even the recent controversy over Allen Frantzen’s “femfog” writings (a controversy which mysteriously died out on social media right before the annual Medieval Academy meeting and has only recently been reignited with the progression of a festschrift volume) left most issues unresolved: how many people found no fault with Frantzen’s work until they knew he was posting anti-feminist drivel (even though apparently his general misogyny and other faults were well known)? Jo Livingstone’s recent post captures well the what-do-I-do-now dilemma.

More directly concerned with my own areas of expertise, think about the political, religious, and philosophical background of crusades scholars: Carl Erdmann; Jonathan Riley-Smith; Jean Flori… And yet we still read their works, as well we should. Should I stop reading David Perry’s writings on crusading because I feel his progressive politics lead him to craft an interpretation that is wide of the mark, just as Thomas Madden’s conservative politics lead him to gloss sources in a positive way, again not sustained by the sources themselves? Of course not.

But what about a book that is simply bad–by way of its being factually untrue, philosophically warped, shoddily researched, and dishonestly presented? Can it be a good book then? And if not, what is my duty as a historian and teacher?

Back in 2012, I chimed in with my two cents’ worth on the general medievalist panning of Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. At the time, I opined that “its damage will be minimal,” largely because, well, what’s one more book in the “Dark Ages” catalog? Put another way, I’ll wager far more people saw episode 1 of Neil Degrasse Tyson’s Cosmos than have read The Swerve. And I would suggest that Tyson’s attempt to do history is far more pernicious than Greeblatt’s.

At the end of May, Laura Saetveit Miles wrote a thought-provoking column on The Swerve in the wake of its winning another major literary prize. In it, she drew attention, with great passion and skill, to the ethical dimensions of a book such as Greenblatt’s which is so flawed in its portrayal of the Middle Ages as to be false, focusing particularly on monks, books, and Greenblatt’s conflation of himself with Poggio, the protagonist. The book invents modernity in ways that resemble good fiction rather than history:

This invention of modernity relies on a narrative of the good guy defeating the bad guy and thus a glorious transformation. This is dangerous not only because it is inaccurate but more importantly because it subscribes to a progressivist model of history that insists on the onward march of society, a model that allows moderns like us to excuse our crimes and injustices because “at least we’re better than those medievals.”

She concludes:

There is no agon; there is history without transition.

What I teach, what I hope they [students] learn, is that there is always nuance to history. History is paradoxical. It’s the cruxes that make history spark and come alive. And what I hope they take away is that we have an ethical responsibility to respect belief and not to belittle it (especially if we don’t share it), and that we have an ethical obligation to listen to what the evidence tells us, and not write what we want to believe, or what other people will buy.

As I said in a conversation with my friend Kate, Miles’ column persuaded me that The Swerve was more than a mild annoyance.

But embedded within Miles’ writing is a reflexive positivism of its own, Sartrean in its simplicity–the belief that you  are sticking to the evidence, but they are not. So… What do you do when he actually believes his own book? In his response to Monfasani, all Greenblatt said was “I plead guilty to the Burckhardtianism of which John Monfasani accuses me. That is, I am of the devil’s party that believes that something significant happened in the Renaissance. And I plead guilty as well to the conviction, regarded by my genial and learned reviewer as ‘eccentric’, that atomism – whose principal vehicle was Lucretius’ De rerum natura – was crucially important in the intellectual trajectory that led to Jefferson, Marx, Darwin, and Einstein.”

At that point, what do you do? Do we treat Greenblatt as an enemy and target his work as often as possible? If this work is so unethical, and after reading Miles I think it is quite compromised, what am I supposed to do, aside from teaching my students as I’ve been teaching them? Is more required?

I do not think more is required, unless you’re going to argue that Greenblatt’s work is on an ethical level with Frantzen’s writings and, from what I have heard, behavior. There does come a moment when, after certain kinds of behavior, the reservation of “But he does good work” no longer suffices. Personal behavior can cancel out the quality of one’s work. Whether one’s politics or philosophy should also do so is another point entirely.

I think, in the last analysis, that applying a totalizing ethical discourse to scholarship is dangerous and should be done sparingly, and only after considerable reflection. If a scholar politicizes his or her own work, saying in effect “I disrespect my peers” or “THIS is the only correct way” or “All who disagree with me are less than equals” and so on,  I think they take whatever professional consequences come to them (I am thinking of Frantzen and, perversely, a couple of his leading critics).

But I am far less sure about transforming into a righteous crusade the case of a scholar who publishes a deeply flawed book. What exactly am I expected to do in that situation? Wage war against said scholar at every opportunity? Cast their books into a bonfire? If a scholar writes a bad book, and it is panned, yet it continues to receive prizes, perhaps you should interrogate the larger structures of power and the way knowledge is transmitted–image and reality–to understand why and continue to press your case.

To do more than that is to weaponize the scholarly sphere in a way that I find even more ethically compromised than a book like Greenblatt’s; it becomes a zero-sum game rather than a marketplace of ideas, and encourages intellectual totalitarianism, whether of the left or right. My favorite historian, Veronica Wedgwood, wrote of the personal necessity of maintaining a “moral center” in one’s writing. It gave one the point of view essential for effective historical analysis. She had less to say concerning using that moral center to wage intellectual warfare on those of a different opinion, however wrong it might be.

Of course, if you are righteous, perhaps you see no other option. Personally, I’ve always thought a little humility and doubt in one’s own moral clarity goes a long way: nolite iudicare ut non iudicemini.

But I could be wrong…