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The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by…

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

by Stephen Greenblatt

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Showing 1-5 of 109 (next | show all)
A pretty fun book that ties together topics that one wouldn't think are connected at all.

The book is essentially about the Renaissance rediscovery of an ancient Latin poem, "On the Nature of Things"by Lucretius, an Epicurean poet. The striking features of the poem are how modern the its themes are. Lucretius argues against the existences of an afterlife, against caring gods, against fear of death and against denial of happiness. This poem rests on the theory that all things were combinations of atoms in constant motion, that combine and recombine to make everything. He argues that there is no meaning or divine guidance beyond that, and that we should not fear death, which is just our atoms moving into another combination. Rather, we should enjoy our lives, not in a hedonistic fashion but living in quiet withdrawl and true happiness. The bulk of the book is about the Italian humanist Poggio's rediscovery of the poem, which Greenblatt portrays as an analogy for the birth of modernity.

The only gripe I have with the book generally is its historical narrative. It takes a conventional view of medieval history (Dark Ages, religious intolerance of the Church, dogmatic Church, suppression of ancient texts) which doesn't incorporate much scholarly nuance. His portrayal of the death of Hypatia for example, as caused by a henchman of Cyril (an early Christian bishop) plays to this narrative that early Christians were particularly intolerant, but the role of Cyril in Hypatia's murder is heavily contested by scholarship. Additionally, the narrative of the burnings of Bruno and Hus disregards the complex political background that their persecutions occurred in, and favors a more simplified theme of the general dogmatism of the church. The book dredges up the much-cited prosecution of Galio, and like most other narratives depicts his trial as a struggle between the dogmatic teachings of the church and his science, without delving deeply into the complex interpersonal conflict that precipitated his trial.

My favorite part of the book has to be the last two chapters, on "Swerves" and "Afterlives". Here Greenblatt shows the incredible impact that Poggio's discovery had on the intellectual life of Europe. On the Nature of Things is quoted by Thomas More in Utopia, Montaigne in his Essays, Shakespeare, and even scientists such as Newton. Apparently even Jefferson owned 5 copies of the poem and alluded to Epicurius frequently. The connections and swerves of the poem in the intellectual direction of Europe was far more interesting to me than the simplified historical background of the work. ( )
  vhl219 | Jun 1, 2019 |
Fascinating true story of the rediscovery of Lucretius's De Rerum Naturae, perhaps the most unknown and most influential poem / treatise that helped launch the Renaissance. ( )
  geza.tatrallyay | Apr 10, 2019 |
Greenblatt tells the story of how Lucretius' epic poem, De Rerum Natura, was rediscovered in the early 1400s by a former scribe to the pope, and how that rediscovery changed the course of human thought. I loved the account of Poggio Bracciolini's life and his passion for unearthing ancient manuscripts, and also how Lucretius, after so many years unknown, made a major comeback in such a fascinating way. The bits describing Lucretius's work itself I admit to skimming, because I'm already fairly well-versed (ooof, apologies) there. Greenblatt tells us that Lucretius' Latin can be quite difficult but also so fantastically beautiful and impressive, and he's absolutely right on both counts. ( )
  scaifea | Mar 25, 2019 |
Well, I am not a nonfiction lover, but I read the first 100 pages. This reads well and is full of interesting information...who knew! ( )
  SusanGeiss | Mar 24, 2019 |
Before this book I vaguely thought of Epicureans as ancient foodies. Now I'm a little less ignorant. And turns out I'm an Epicurean! ( )
  badube | Mar 6, 2019 |
Showing 1-5 of 109 (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.

» Add other authors (7 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Greenblatt, StephenAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ballerini, EduardoNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Binder, KlausÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lozoya, Teófilo deTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rabasseda-Gascón, JuanTranslatorsecondary 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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