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The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

by Stephen Greenblatt

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
3,6141443,538 (3.89)265
In this book the author transports readers to the dawn of the Renaissance and chronicles the life of an intrepid book lover who rescued the Roman philosophical text On the Nature of Things from certain oblivion. In this work he has crafted both a work of history and a 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.… (more)
Recently added byEMSKavitsky, CJDavis1980, tomhed, private library, JoeB1934, umbet, otheraudra, jummama, Agryphon42, Abcdarian
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» See also 265 mentions

English (139)  Spanish (3)  French (1)  Catalan (1)  All languages (144)
Showing 1-5 of 139 (next | show all)
Jessa Gamble gifted Away
  aquamari | May 29, 2024 |
Would have made a good magazine article. The preface and chapters 8, 10 & 11 were the interesting parts for me; all the rest was a too academic review of 15th century Italian whatever. It was not what I expected from the title.

I was not previously aware of the content of Lucretius' poem but am always blown away by how the ancient Greeks, just by thinking about things, had everything figured out, right down to atoms & evolution. ( )
  Abcdarian | May 18, 2024 |
This book is subtitled “How the Renaissance Began”, which is a heck of a stretch. Setting that aside, this is an absolutely fascinating history of the re-discovery in the early 1400s of a long-lost work from antiquity, and about the life and times of its discoverer. Whether this work really helped trigger the Renaissance is another matter, but it certainly contributed.

The work was Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”), and it was written some time in the first century BC. Only a very few copies (literally copies which had been made and remade by scribes in monasteries over the centuries) survived until the 15th Century.

One of those copies was found by a remarkable man, Poggio Bracciolini. A great deal of The Swerve is about this man and his life, who acted as principal secretary to a series of Popes over a period of 50 years.

Lucretius was a follower of the philosopher Epicurius, who lived two centuries earlier, and his poem De Rerum Natura is perhaps the most beautiful expression of the Epicurian philosophy.

Among the many radical thoughts which Lucretius expressed were (as set out by Greenblatt in The Swerve):

• Everything is made of tiny invisible particles.

• These particles are indivisible and eternal.

• The particles are infinite in number but come in a limited number of shapes and sizes.

• All particles are in motion in an infinite void.

• The universe has no creator or designer.

• Nature ceaselessly experiments with different shapes and configurations of animals.

• The universe was not created for humans.

• Humans are not unique. We’re similar to other animals.

• Human society did not begin in a Golden Age from which it has declined, but in a battle for survival.

• There is no afterlife.

• Death is nothing to us, because experience ceases.

• All religions are delusions.

That these ideas are remarkably modern, even though set out more than 2,000 years ago by a Roman citizen, should be obvious. What is also obvious is how subversive they were to the mediaeval scholars reading them, contradicting the prevailing Judeo-Christian view of the world.

That nevertheless these ideas were able to spread in those times once Lucretius’ poem was rediscovered is perhaps even more remarkable.

There’s much, much more in The Swerve. A really excellent and fascinating book. A candidate for my best read of the year so far, competing with The Vital Question and A God in Ruins.

I’m glad I unearthed it in a second-hand bookshop in Bendigo, at least faintly mirroring the unearthing of De Rerum Natura in the library of a mediaeval monastery by Poggio Bracciolini. ( )
  davidrgrigg | Mar 23, 2024 |
Going into this book, I suspected that I would not find the author's conclusion (that Lucretius' poetic explication of Epicurean philosophy, On the Nature of Things was a keystone of modern materialistic thought) compelling. And that suspicion was correct. But the book was enjoyable, nonetheless.
[Audiobook Note: The reader, Edoardo Ballerini, was great. He deftly handled all the Latin, Italian, German and French text. (Although I do have one quibble. Like most English-speakers, he put the emphasis on Epicurus' name on the 3rd syllable, instead of the 2nd where it belongs.)] ( )
1 vote Treebeard_404 | Jan 23, 2024 |
Fascinating book. It's the kind of book that made me want to dog-ear pages and underline sentences so I could re-read particular paragraphs, but since it's a library book, I couldn't do that.

I really enjoyed this book even though some parts of it were slow reading for me. Some reviewers have said it's a polemic against the church but I didn't take it that way. If nothing else, I discovered that I'm an Epicurean. Also, it's made me want to read Lucretius' poem "On the Nature of Things." The ideas expressed in Lucretius' poem are 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 in eternal motion, randomly colliding and swerving in new directions." (from the book jacket)

The Swerve is the story of how the ideas in Lucretius' poem threatened the church and so was almost lost to history until a book hunter, Poggio Bracciolini, found it almost a thousand years later and translated and copied it. The Swerve is filled with wonderful and weird stories e.g. copyists in the scriptoriums had to maintain complete silence so in order to request a new volume, they developed an "elaborate gestural language" which included putting fingers in their mouths as if gagging to indicate they wanted a dangerous pagan book. There's also a section on "the Lie Factory" (the papal court) about which Poggio wrote the Facetiae where he recorded all the gossip and conversation (including the slanderous and obscene) that went on. Lots of interesting stuff here.



( )
  ellink | Jan 22, 2024 |
Showing 1-5 of 139 (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 rybie2 | editHumanitas, Jeffrey Polet (Sep 3, 2013)
 
Why Stephen Greenblatt is wrong and why it matters. Unlike other non-fiction potboilers, The Swerve claimed for itself, and received, huge moral and cultural authority it simply didn’t earn. Armed with that authority, the book went on to fool unsuspecting readers (like a reviewer for The Philadelphia Inquirer, who called The Swerve “a chapter in how we became what we are”) into believing that Lucretius, who wrote of placidly watching others suffer secure in the knowledge that all phenomena in the universe are merely a wondrous rearrangement of atoms, somehow symbolizes all that is bright and new in the origin of modern life.
added by rybie2 | editLA Review of Books, Jim Hinch (Dec 1, 2012)
 
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)
 
In "The Swerve," Stephen Greenblatt, a professor of the humanities at Harvard University and the author of "Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare," provides a delightfully engaging, informative and provocative account of Bracciolini's discovery and its implications for the emergence of "modern" culture and philosophy.
added by bookfitz | editSFGate, Glenn C. Altschuler (Dec 18, 2011)
 

» Add other authors (4 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Greenblatt, Stephenprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Arnaud, CécileTraductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ballerini, EduardoNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Binder, KlausÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Botticelli, SandroCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
De Smet, Arthursecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fenton, RogerCover Photosecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Galindo, Caetano W.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lincoln, RoseAuthor Photosecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lozoya, Teófilo deTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Maroja, RodrigoCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Melnick, MarkCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rabasseda-Gascón, JuanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Zsuppán, Andrássecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Zuppet, RobertaTranslatorsecondary 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.
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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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In this book the author transports readers to the dawn of the Renaissance and chronicles the life of an intrepid book lover who rescued the Roman philosophical text On the Nature of Things from certain oblivion. In this work he has crafted both a work of history and a 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.

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