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The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by…

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (edition 2012)

by Stephen Greenblatt

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Title:The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
Authors:Stephen Greenblatt
Info:W. W. Norton & Company (2012), Edition: 1, Paperback, 368 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:nonfiction, fascinating account of renaissance book hunter and scribe who discovers long lost Roman treasure, difficult read, some of the philosophy lost me but loved the history, Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, 2012

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The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt


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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 |
Can a book change the world? (Or at least the part that represents a good chunk of human culture.) I'm sure you can think of a couple that qualify, but can a book that claims no divine authority do so? The Swerve is an account of one that may have.
In 1417, Poggio Bracciolini had been the personal secretary of the pope, but when that pope was deposed, Poggio found himself in Europe, far from Rome and out of work. It was definitely a blow to his career, but he made the most of it by turning it into an opportunity to indulge in his hobby, his passion—finding and preserving old books. He roamed Europe, seeking out ancient and remote monasteries hoping to find copies of books lost after the fall of Rome a thousand years before. And he found one.
Poggio did not intend to cause a philosophical revolution. It seems his main concern was to preserve the beautiful Latin of bygone writers. But with the selection and arrangement of words came the ideas they expressed, and those in De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), written by the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius before the birth of Christ, challenged the common beliefs of Poggio's day and (more dangerously) the dictates of the Church. This was a time when curiosity was a sin and questioning authority was a crime. Lucretius encouraged both. He suggested that everything is made of atoms; that a divine creator did not make the universe for man, and several other ideas about the nature of man and reality that may seem like common knowledge today but were heretical then.
In The Swerve, Greenblatt contends that the rediscovery of Lucretius had a significant impact on European thought and helped loosen the iron grip of theological dogma that controlled almost every aspect of human life in medieval Europe. He goes on to suggest that Lucretius's later influence on thinkers from Galileo to Thomas Jefferson was instrumental in shaping the modern world.
It's impossible to say, of course. No one today can ask Jefferson, for example, how much influence Lucretius had on him when he was drafting the Declaration of Independence, or on his decisions when he was President (although Jefferson did have copies of De rerum natura in Latin, English, Italian, and French in his library and said it was one of his favorite books). Even if it were possible to ask him, Jefferson might not be able to say. Everything we read, everything we experience can have some effect on us. Assigning any particular action or inspiration to a single source may not be possible.
It is safe to say, I think, that the rediscovery of Lucretius was significant. If nothing else, it shows that the modern way of viewing nature as, well, natural (rather than supernatural), is not exclusive to our times or a result of science. That it is a necessary precursor to science, however, seems undeniable, and perhaps Lucretius deserves a more prominent place in books about the history of science because of this.
The story of Paggio's discovery might also provide a good foundation for a work of historical fiction. The Swerve almost starts out as such, narrating the wandering scribe's search for lost books much as a novel might. This draws in the reader before the author goes on to summarize some points of Lucretius's Epicurean philosophy. When Greenblatt does pause to relate major ideas in Lucretius, it almost seems disruptive to the story of Paggio.
I enjoyed this book. I had known of Lucretius, but I had never heard of Paggio Bracciolini before reading this. Without him, Lucretius may have remained unknown, and, perhaps, history would have unfolded differently as a result. The Swerve provides an important reminder of how individual actions can have significant impacts. It also reminds us of how repressive the Middle Ages were and how those in positions of power at the time actively (and often brutally) discouraged the open sharing of ideas, which we now recognize as not only a fundamental right but also essential to human progress. It's a good read. I recommend it.
( )
  DLMorrese | Oct 14, 2016 |
All in all, I'm glad I read this book because I learned a lot about Epicureanism, humanism and book production in the pre-printing press days. It was also an interesting story of the life of Poggio, the book hunter who finds an obscure ancient poem that, argues the author, made a significant contribution to the renaissance.

However, despite having over 70 pages of notes and sources, there are no footnotes or mention of sources of information in the text. While this makes for a smoother flow (the book often reads like a novel), it does make the ideas presented sound speculative. I found the flow of ideas sometimes hard to keep track of. Most importantly, the author doesn't really prove his thesis that the featured document played a large role in modernizing the world. I would have liked more of how the work was influential. ( )
1 vote LynnB | Sep 1, 2016 |
The pleasure of reading and discovery take another dimension in this beautiful and exciting book: You witness a man's passion for the times long gone, for the literature lost in the past, for the dangerous ideas buried within the shelves of the libraries of hard to reach monasteries. The man in question is the famous Italian humanist Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini. He is the one to discover the only surviving work of the great Roman poet and philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus. Thanks to Poggio, we can enjoy "De rerum natura" (On the Nature of Things), about 2000 years after it had been written.

The book's title is a little misleading: do not expect to learn about many aspects of the Renaissance in all its glory. But rather be prepared to engage with the personal history of a man who brought us back one of the greatest poets from the dead. As you learn more and more about the times of Poggio, and the cunning atmosphere in which he worked as a papal secretary, you also get to know about the Lucretius, and how his poem conveys the core ideas of Epicurean philosophy. As expected, there's a huge tension between those ideas and the Christian way of life, and it'll probably make you smile reading the accounts of various translators; how they appreciate the glorious language of Lucretius while at the same time repeating how they are hundred percent against the ideas laid out by the great poet, because, you know, they are good Christians, and also, nobody wants to mess with the Catholic Church, especially during the period of 15. to 18. centuries (because, you know, being burned at stake is not a very Epicurean way to go).

In a sense, this is a book about the passion for beautiful books, books that contain the primary examples of literature, philosophy, arts, and history. By sharing with us the stories people who dedicated most of their lives to the search and study of ancient wisdom, this book manages to instill in the reader a passion to learn more: More about the Roman Empire, more about its civilization, its great poets, orators, writers, and philosophers, and its great books. And of course, more about "De rerum natura", as well as more about the nature of things. ( )
1 vote EmreSevinc | Aug 2, 2016 |
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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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Stephen Greenblattprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ballerini, EduardoNarratorsecondary 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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