The Swerve

The Swerve

How the World Became Modern

Book - 2011
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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.
Publisher: New York : W.W. Norton, c2011.
Edition: First edition
ISBN: 9780393064476
Branch Call Number: 940.21 GREENBLA
Characteristics: 356 pages, [8] pages of plates : color illustrations ; 25 cm.


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Nov 06, 2018

‘Swerve’ does not propose one single origin of modernity, but is a suite of stories about the career of the poem that illuminated Buddhism’s smarter cousin--Epicureanism. ‘De Rerum Natura’ is cast in the role of the beautiful maiden in a drama, rescued by a hero Just In Time. Poggio discovers the only known copy in a monastery and makes it available to the world again, where it begins to inspire forward thinking ideas among Renaissance humanists. But the infernal villains, implacable adversaries of Light and Reason, burn ‘Natura’ when they can, and sometimes the humanists too. The controversy lies in Epicureanism’s atomic materialism, denial of life after death, proposing that there is no divine order etc. Greenblatt’s bad guys are fanatical Christians, but it seems to me that the actual dichotomy is between two philosophic styles: One says that the brain’s proper function is to give pleasure by believing in whatever is pretty and feels good (ie. not just supernatural stuff, but the oversimplifications of most kinds of certainty). The other says that the brain’s proper function is to take disinterested account of the world as it is, no matter how pleasant or unpleasant. Epicureanism says we’re all dust, that our souls don’t survive death, and that we are motivated by pleasure. So it’s confusing that the self-indulgent thinkers are scandalized by this talk about the pleasure principle, whereas disciplined thinkers consider it obviously true. But that’s my own take on Epicurus, not Greenblatt’s. When they say we only use 10 percent of our brains, is this what they mean? Using the brain for self-delusion is like using a porpoise for a doorstop. I understand that Epicurus also suggested that people can shape their appetites according to reason. Clearly this is not the direction that humanity went in, but if we had been able to save ourselves, it would have been so.

Dec 05, 2017

This book of the history and philosophy that paved the way for the Renaissance is not a book to be read lightly: it requires commitment and patience. It does, however, feature extensive notes ans a voluminous bibliography.

Feb 24, 2017

An interesting book and premise that the Epicurean philosophy as described by the Lucretius poem On the Nature of Things that was rediscovered in the early 15th century by Poggio Bracciolini was the impetus for the Enlightenment and the change to modern thinking. The story of Poggio and the Catholic Church of the time is worth reading,. The premise that this poem was the impetus to modern thought is tenuous at best. Surprisingly the universal language of mathematics which had the most to do with a change in thinking is given short shrift along with no mention of the knowledge that was fleeing repression in the Middle East and coming to Renaissance Italy. Interesting story that is worth reading but not a groundbreaking revelation.

Harriet_the_Spy Dec 06, 2016

Engaging, accessible read that explains how ideas and knowledge can get lost, and how society can change quite suddenly when old knowledge is re-discovered.

May 11, 2016

While I enjoyed the book, I know some have criticized its premise and research. I found this to be a well-thought out piece on the problems with the book:

I did like his Shakespeare book better. If you liked this one, make sure to pick of "On the Nature of Things" by Lucretius.

Mar 23, 2016

A gushing and self-conscious doorstop than starts weak and continues to it's false conclusion: that Lucretius was the core of enlightenment. That philosophical gulf between a life of ethics and morality and one that "get's mine" has no place in a civilized society.

Jun 05, 2014

An excellent history/exploration of how the world transitioned from the ancient or medieval way of thinking to the modern thought. A history of how one classical piece of literature, and one school of ancient philosophy came to shape the modern conceptualization of the world.

Feb 11, 2014

Excellent book. A wonderful combination of history, biography, adventure, and philosophy. The end of the book should settle once and for all the fantasy that the founding fathers of the USA were all Christians.

Feb 06, 2013

At first the book seemed to have a soporific effect, but when the story focused with more detail on the life & historical context of Poggio Bracciolini, it became very interesting ~ with colorful accounts of events & people. Also, it was informative to learn the original tenets of epicurism. For help with names (like the long Italian ones), I recommend the good website, for pronunciations of words from foreign languages. Mr. Greenblatt's concluding pages are very powerful, worthy of rereading.

Dec 10, 2012

A great telling of the story of Lucretius' "On the Nature of Things" and the influence it had on thought, philosophy and religion. A difficult and challenging subject presented in a highly readable manner. Loved the sweep of history and the links across time. The Catholic Church does not fare well. This book will make you want to learn more.

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