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The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by…

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (edition 2011)

by Stephen Greenblatt

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Title:The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
Authors:Stephen Greenblatt
Info:W. W. Norton & Co. (2011), Hardcover, 320 pages
Collections:Your library, Read, Recently Read, Kindle, Greenwich
Tags:history, nonfiction, nonfiction-reference, Europe, literature, lit/crit/theory, Italy, science, classics, cultural-studies, Roman-civ, ancient-civ, books, publishing, Rome, read

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The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

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Discovery of a thousand year old manuscript by Lucretius shaped modern thought ( )
  JackSweeney | Jan 9, 2017 |
Here's another rambling biography about a fascinating time in history. Like Shorts' biography of Geologist Saint Nicolas Steno, or Cutler's treatment of Descarte's bones, Stephen Goldblatt is all over the place, and it works. Philosophy, European history, religion, and natural history, -- it's all there. And best of all, the story is wrapped like a scroll of Herculaneum papyrus, around a love of books. ( )
1 vote Sandydog1 | Jan 6, 2017 |
I thought this book was riveting and eye-opening. It's a must-read if you are at all interested in intellectual history. And well-written, too. ( )
  gayla.bassham | Nov 7, 2016 |
What do atoms and hedonism have to do with the inquisition and the American Constitution? Stephen Greenblatt traces the development of those lines of philosophical/political thought in an extensive study of the millennia-long wars that have been waged for control of our minds and the salvation of our souls. That war continues to this day.

Greenblatt begins by introducing to Poggio Bracciolini, papal secretary to Pope Martin V. Although most likely unfamiliar to most readers, Poggio was an Italian scholar and humanist who is credited with the recovery of a great many classical Latin manuscripts. Foremost among these was a copy of an epic philosophical poem written by Titus Lucretius Carus' (c. 99 BC – c. 55 BC), De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) is the intellectual gold mine that Greenblatt credits with setting in motion the intellectual revolution that shaped modern society.

After a brief introduction to Poggio and the ideas expressed in De rerum natura, Greenblatt backtracks to explain how and why the work, and many other works by classic Latin humanists, was systematically destroyed. De rerum natura, in particular, challenges the core beliefs of Christianity: that the universe functions without the aid of gods; that religious fear is damaging to human life; that pleasure and virtue are not opposites but intertwined; and that matter is made up of very small material particles that are in eternal motion and randomly collide and swerve in new directions. Christian leaders regarded these ideas as heresy.

Greenblatt follows the efforts of numerous advocates of the ideas expressed in De rerum natura; many were burned alive at the stake for their efforts while others such as Galileo were imprisoned. Even an established figure like Darwin who lived in the more tolerant United Kingdom, cautiously withheld publication of his work for years in anticipation of vehement opposition from organized religion. Thomas More, for example, advocated that there be no tolerance for those who do not believe in an afterlife or do not believe that the gods concern themselves with the doings of mankind. Those people, he believed, are less than human and unfit to remain in society.

Greenblatt concludes The Swerve with a brief note on Thomas Jefferson, who owned five Latin editions of De rerum natura as well as translations in English, Italian and French. In one of the earliest acts of the fledgling United States Jefferson, insured that a central tenet of Lucretius' philosophy became a bedrock principle upon which the country was founded. Lucretius' philosophy, through Jefferson's work in drafting the U. S. Constitution, expresses the belief that all humans have an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness.

One minor criticism I have is that Greenblatt ends The Swerve with Jefferson and the U. S. Constitution. The Swerve provides a front row seat to a centuries long battle between those who want to suppress Lucretius' thoughts and those who find them compelling. I suppose he wanted to end on a positive note, but the battle continues. Examples include the religiously motivated wars consuming the Middle East; the intolerance of gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender/questioning life styles; the unceasing efforts to outlaw abortions; the intolerance of divorce; and other efforts to limit individuals' right to pursue happiness. Greenblatt's thesis that Lucretius' philosophy exerted a profound impact on modern society, and I think that is clearly evident in numerous ways. ( )
  Tatoosh | Oct 24, 2016 |
Many Greek and Roman classics are known to modern scholars only from references in other classical works. On the Nature of Things, a scientific poem by Lucretius, was almost one of them. Renaissance scholar Poggio Bracciolini discovered a copy of Lucretius' poem in a monastery library in the early 15th century. As Poggio's copy began to circulate and more copies spread, Lucretius' poetic explication of the Epicurean philosophy of science shifted the worldview of its new audience. Poggio, a career papal secretary, had opened a Pandora's box that led to a decline in the church's authority in secular matters such as science. Greenblatt's narrative loses some of its momentum when his own focus swerves from Lucretius, his work, and its influence both in his own day and after its rediscovery, to an extended biographical section about Poggio. Greenblatt speculates about details of Poggio's early life in the absence of documentation. Those details don't appear to have much relevance to the history of On the Nature of Things. An author of an earlier generation might have confined such speculations to footnotes. ( )
  cbl_tn | Oct 17, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 95 (next | show all)
Every page of the book strives to present the Renaissance as an intellectual awakening that triumphs over the oppressive abyss of the Dark Ages. The book pushes the Renaissance as a rebirth of the classical brillance nearly lost during centuries mired in dullness and pain. 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.”

Now unlike most of those thousands of innocent believing readers, I see the deep problems of such an approach, as have the last dozen generations of historians. History does not fit such cookie-cutter narratives. Having studied medieval culture for nearly two decades, I can instantly recognize the oppressive, dark, ignorant Middle Ages that Greenblatt depicts for 262 pages as just… fiction. It’s fiction worse than Dan Brown, because it masquerades as fact.
The distortions in Greenblatt’s narrative may have slipped past the Pulitzer committee, but they won’t slip by someone with even a basic knowledge of church his­tory. St Jerome, to be sure, is no inconsequential figure, but Greenb­latt focuses most of his attention on Lactantius and Peter Damian. He is more interested in the latter because he reformed the already self­abasing
Benedictine order in the eleventh century, making voluntary self-flag­ellation “a central ascetic practice of the church” and thus accomplishing the thousand year struggle “to secure the triumph of pain seeking” (107). If this is genuinely how Green­blatt understands the significance and nature of the Benedictine order, one can only wonder why Harvard retains him.
added by 2wonderY | editHumanitas, Jeffrey Polet (Sep 3, 2013)
Why Stephen Greenblatt is wrong and why it matters.
Greenblatt's story of the unleashing of the pleasure principle on the European world after the discovery of Lucretius conveys his own passion for discovery, and displays his brilliance as a storyteller. The Swerve is, though, a dazzling retelling of the old humanist myth of the heroic liberation of classical learning from centuries of monastic darkness. The light of Rome fades into gloom, sheep graze in the Forum; then the humanists rebel against the orthodoxies of the church, bring about a great recovery of classical texts and generate a new intellectual dawn. This book makes that story into a great read, but it cannot make it entirely true.
added by 2wonderY | editThe Guardian, Colin Burrow (Dec 23, 2011)
The ideas in “The Swerve” are tucked, cannily, inside a quest narrative. The book relates the story of Poggio Bracciolini, the former apostolic secretary to several popes, who became perhaps the greatest book hunter of the Renaissance. His most significant find, located in a German monastery, was a copy of Lucretius’ “On the Nature of Things,” which had been lost to history for more than a thousand years. Its survival and re-emergence into the world, Mr. Greenblatt suggests, was a kind of secular miracle.

Approaching Lucretius through Bracciolini was an ingenious idea. It allows Mr. Greenblatt to take some worthwhile detours: through the history of book collecting, and paper making, and libraries, and penmanship, and monks and their almost sexual mania for making copies of things.

The details that Mr. Greenblatt supplies throughout “The Swerve” are tangy and exact.

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Stephen Greenblattprimary authorall editionscalculated
Ballerini, EduardoNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Binder, KlausÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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(Preface) When I was a student, I used to go at the end of the school year to the Yale Coop to see what I could find to read over the summer.
In the winter of 1417, Poggio Bracciolini rode through the wooded hills and valleys of southern Germany toward his distant destination, a monastery reputed to have a cache of old manuscripts.
But the extravagance and bitterness of the charges – in the course of a quarrel over Latin style, Poggio accused the younger humanist Lorenzo Valla of heresy, theft, lying, forgery, cowardice, drunkenness, sexual perversion, and insane vanity – discloses something rotten in the inner lives of these impressively learned individuals. (p. 146)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0393064476, Hardcover)

Winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction
Winner of the 2011 National Book Award for Non-Fiction

One of the world's most celebrated scholars, Stephen Greenblatt has crafted both an innovative work of history and a thrilling story of discovery, in which one manuscript, plucked from a thousand years of neglect, changed the course of human thought and made possible the world as we know it.

Nearly six hundred years ago, a short, genial, cannily alert man in his late thirties took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. That book was the last surviving manuscript of an ancient Roman philosophical epic, On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius—a beautiful poem of the most dangerous ideas: that the universe functioned without the aid of gods, that religious fear was damaging to human life, and that matter was made up of very small particles in eternal motion, colliding and swerving in new directions.

The copying and translation of this ancient book-the greatest discovery of the greatest book-hunter of his age-fueled the Renaissance, inspiring artists such as Botticelli and thinkers such as Giordano Bruno; shaped the thought of Galileo and Freud, Darwin and Einstein; and had a revolutionary influence on writers such as Montaigne and Shakespeare and even Thomas Jefferson. 16 pages full-color illustrations

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:43 -0400)

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A humanities professor describes the impact had by the translation of the last remaining manuscript of On the Nature of Things by Roman philosopher Lucretius, which fueled the Renaissance and inspired artists, great thinkers and scientists.

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