The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

by Stephen Greenblatt

Paperback, 2012




W. W. Norton & Company (2012), 356 pages


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)

Media reviews

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
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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.
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8 more
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
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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.
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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
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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.
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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
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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.
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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
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of "modern" culture and philosophy.
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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,
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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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This concise, learned and fluently written book tells a remarkable story. It may not quite tell us "how the Renaissance began", as the subtitle rather rashly promises, but the episode it describes is certainly resonant. Highly skilled, close-focus readings of moments of great cultural significance
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are Stephen Greenblatt's speciality, whether in "new historicist" studies such as Marvellous Possessions, about the European encounter with the New World, or in his more populist biography Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare.
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"More wonderfully illuminating Renaissance history from a master scholar and historian."
"In this gloriously learned page-turner, both biography and intellectual history, Harvard Shakespearean scholar Greenblatt (Will in the World) turns his attention to the front end of the Renaissance as the origin of Western culture's foundation: the free questioning of truth."

User reviews

LibraryThing member richardderus
Rating: 5* of five

The Book Report: De rerum natura was a long narrative poem expounding Epicurean philosophy that was written in the first century before the common era. I am told by those possessed of sufficient Latin fluency that it is beautiful. I am not possessed of that level of fluency, and
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to me it seemed agonizingly impenetrable and obscurantist.

But author Greenblatt, in this fascinating Pulitzer Prize-winning history and analysis of the poem and its influence on the world, focuses not on the merits of the poem but on the genesis, development, survival, and influence of De rerum natura, arguably the foundation text for the mental construct that you and I share, and that diverges widely from the mental construct of earlier times.

Why is this so? Because we accept a material explanation of the existence of things as our prevailing orthodoxy, even in the face of religious challenges to the primacy of logic and evidence and just plain good sense. It's down to Lucretius's poem's astounding clarity of thought, persuasiveness of rhetoric, and miraculous survival and rebirth.

What Greenblatt did was to provide a brief history of Epicurus, his actual philosophy, and the cultural currents that distorted and misrepresented his philosophy, together with the whys and wherefores of that misrepresentation. Then Lucretius, a shadowy figure whose biography is unknown to modern readers except for a calumny heaped on his memory by a man who did not know him and in fact lived centuries after his death, wrote in poetry...a form of expression not to Epicurus's taste or, in his opinion, a good and useful tool of communication, he preferring plain and simple and direct prose...broke down the Epicurean vision of the world, and argued in support of it. Greenblatt then traces the survival of manuscripts from antiquity to the Middle Ages, the resurgent interest in their contents during the run-up to the Renaissance, and the incalculably valuable role of obsessive individuals in hunting down, copying, and disseminating the surviving antique texts to a world then, as now, hungry for more and better and different views and experiences and thoughts and ideas.

My Review: I give this book one of my rare five-star ratings because it has solved a problem of identity for me: I am, as Thomas Jefferson said before me, an Epicurean. Not the debased view held of that noble philosophy thanks to “Saint” Jerome, who in the course of ramming his ignorance-celebrating religion down the throats of humanity, hit on the perfect misstatement of Epicurus's actual materialist philosophy: Hedonism! Hedonism and vice and licentiousness and gluttony! The pursuit of pleasure can only mean these things, shouted Jerome, and the chorus of baying dogs was off after the fox.

We all know how that ends.

Chapter eight of The Swerve, “”The Way Things Are,” breaks out the point-by-point reality of Epicureanism, and is the prime motivating factor for my five-star rating. (In fact, I dislike Poggio Bracciolini, the discoverer of De rerum natura, quite intensely, and suspect that had I met him in life, I would have been repulsed by him.) I list here the bullet points Greenblatt is at pains to provide with clear, concise, and satisfying explication:
--Everything is made of invisible particles. This is called “atomism.”
--The elementary particles of matter...are eternal.
--The elementary particles are infinite in number, but limited in shape and size.
--All particles are in motion in an infinite void.
--The universe has no creator or designer.
--Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve. (Another word for this is collision.)
--The swerve is the source of free will. If there is no preordained pattern, how can there be a preordained result?
--Nature ceaselessly experiments. Evolution by natural selection, anyone?
--The universe was not created for or about humans.
--Humans are not unique. We are animals, literally not figuratively, like all the others.
--Human society began, not in a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival.
--The soul dies. There is no afterlife.
--Death is nothing to us. It is merely a fact. There is no personal component to death.
--All organized religions are superstitious delusions. Religions are, invariably, cruel.
--There are no angels, demons, or ghosts.
--The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.
--The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain, it is delusion.
--Understanding the true nature of things generates deep wonder.

I have never seen in print or heard with my ears a clearer, more concise, or more complete statement of my own personal worldview than this. It rang me like a bell. It sounds like Lucretius was sitting inside my head and copying down my responses to the world.

In the brief explications Greenblatt attaches to the bullet points, he makes it clear that these ideas, while they never wholly vanished from the world, were seen by the dominant world-view as a challenge to the idiotic legendary nonsense that had come to replace them, and were thus strongly condemned, to the point of burning people alive as a punishment and a warning to others inclined to think for themselves, to view the world as it is instead of through a warped fantasy construct that demonstrably causes harm and pain and facilitates much evil-doing.

So on that basis...five stars, and a ringing huzzah, to Gentile Signor Poggio Bracciolini; to Greenblatt for digging deeply enough in the humus of scholarly debate and historical records to make these connections for us, in a less scholarly age than the Renaissance, to find and use for ourselves as we see fit (ie, to exercise the free will we've got); and to WW Norton for publishing the resultant text as an under-$30 course in humanism. I am also grateful to the Pulitzer Prize board for awarding this book its non-fiction encomium, and to the Catholic News Agency for remaining consistently wrong by grousing about the book's anti-Catholicism and misinterpretation of the Church's anti-intellectualism. It's kind of hard to misinterpret burning people at the stake, guys. Own up: Your religion requires ignorance and prefers stupidity in its adherents.

Books such as this one do nothing to enhance religion's role in human affairs. It is best avoided by those of religious bent.
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LibraryThing member jnwelch
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt, is an intellectual romp. It tells the tale of the creation of Roman Lucretius's revolutionary, non-conformist poem On the Nature of Things, its ties to Epicurus and Epicureanism, its loss for centuries and then finding in the 15th
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century by a fascinating book hunter, its gradual dissemination and then growing influence on artists, writers, philosophers and political leaders, the attempts at suppression, and the curious schizophrenic reaction of the many Christians who loved it as a poem but denounced its content.

Greenblatt describes On the Nature of Things as a difficult work and only occasionally directly quotes it, preferring instead to translate its general propositions for the reader. He obviously expects that those interested will track down the poem elsewhere. Here's how it begins:

Mother of Rome, delight of Gods and men,
Dear Venus that beneath the gliding stars
Makest to teem the many-voyaged main
And fruitful lands- for all of living things
Through thee alone are evermore conceived,
Through thee are risen to visit the great sun-
Before thee, Goddess, and thy coming on,
Flee stormy wind and massy cloud away,
For thee the daedal Earth bears scented flowers,
For thee waters of the unvexed deep
Smile, and the hollows of the serene sky
Glow with diffused radiance for thee!

Sounds a bit Homeric, doesn't it? And from that you wouldn't guess what it proceeds to divulge, an extensive, clear-eyed, scientific, anti-religious world view remarkable in both scope and detail. The references to Gods and Goddess certainly are surprising, given what we come to understand about the poem. What follows might be a little SPOILERY, but there's so much in this book, I think it will only help you get grounded a bit.

In a chapter titled, "The Way Things Are", Greenblatt explains the ideas in Lucretius's poem in a way I can only urge you to read. Some examples: "Everything is made of invisible particles." Going back to Greek ideas, Lucretius sees our universe as being made of tiny, eternal, uniform particles that combine in different forms and eventually dissolve into their original state only to combine again into new forms. Yup, atoms. From this he reaches many dangerous conclusions, including that "The universe was not created for or about humans", and "All organized religions are superstitious delusions." You can see why this would cause a ruckus among devout believers. To boot, "Religions are invariably cruel." Hmm. He of course has some basis to say that, and seems to get some unfortunate vindication after we read about the double-crossing torture and death inflicted by the church's leaders in the 15th century against those espousing contrarian views.

So what's it all about for us? "The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain," and "The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain, it is delusion." At times I found myself thinking, this guy is a Buddhist! :-) Substitute in as the highest goal "experiencing the moment and the absence of suffering" and it seems like a pretty darn Eastern view. Lucretius found his foundation in Epicurus's ideas (which turn out not to be what we think they are).

Among the many pleasures of this book are following book hunter Poggio, who actually was a deftly successful secretary to several Popes in Rome (his low point comes when his Pope, during a time of multiple Popes, gets dismissed and imprisoned). Among the depressing skulduggery, Poggio's refuge was books, and his greatest enjoyment was traveling to monasteries and discovering ancient manuscripts thought lost forever. In 1417 he finds Lucretius's poem and eventually transcribes it. All copying was by hand back then, and Poggio's script was renowned as a beautiful one. Gradually the poem gets hand-copied by more and more people (including, eventually, Machiavelli!) and its influence spreads. Botticelli, Leonardo DaVinci, Montaigne, Moliere, the list goes on and on. Lucretius's poem was even a favorite of Thomas Jefferson.

The suppression and oppression is sobering and fascinating, but the "I love it, I hate it" effect on devout Christians is often very funny. One Jesuit order had an "anti-atom" prayer they had to recite every day. One writer who did a popular translation of the poem and also "refuted" it, said, "even though the poem itself is alien to our religious beliefs, it is no less a poem . . .an elegant poem, a magnificent poem, a poem highlighted, recognized and praised by all wise men." With time, the unsuccessful attempts at suppression became even more difficult: "As Thomas More discovered when he tried to buy up and burn Protestant translations of the Bible, the printing press had made it maddeningly difficult to kill a book."

The title has to do with the small movements of atoms that create our world - if they simply "fell through the void in straight lines, pulled down by their own weight like rain drops, nothing would ever exist . . . Whatever exists in the universe exists because of these random collisions of minute particles." It's a pleasure to take a ramble with this author through the centuries, and the side trips are as invigorating and thought-provoking as the central tale.
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LibraryThing member edwinbcn
Stephen Greenblatt is the main proponent of New Historicism, the branch of literary criticism which argues that a literary work must be studied and interpreted while analyzing the history of its author. In contrast with Historical Criticism, which only aims to demonstrate how a work rflects the
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time in which it was created, New Historicism "evaluates how the work is influenced by the time in which the author wrote it. It also examines the social sphere in which the author moved, the psychological background of the writer, and the books and theories that may have influenced him or her. Beyond that, many critics also look at the impact a work had and consider how it influenced others."

In The swerve. How the world became modern, Greenblatt applies the principles of New Historicism to the evaluation of De Rerum Natura by Lucretius. The description of the life and ideas of its author, the social circles he (may have) moved in, particularly describing the history of the Villa of the papyri in Herculaneum make for very interesting reading. There are descriptions of the history of books, and an extensive biography of the Renaissance notary Poggio Bracciolini and how he rediscovered the single extant manuscript of De Rerum Natura in a German monastery in 1417. Subsequent chapters describe the significance of the text and its impact, particularly in terms of the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, suggesting that it was the cornerstone to the development of the modern world.

It is at this point that Mr Greenblatt seems to be overplaying his hand. The conclusion that Lucretius' De Rerum Natura hold the key to the development of the modern man implies that this development could not start until after the discovery of the manuscript in 1417. This conclusion in clearly wrong.

Common knowledge sees the beginning of the Renaissance in the early 1340s with Petrarca. Rather than suggesting that De Rerum Natura was a contributing factor, or katalysator of a movement which had already begun, Greenblatt's book suggests that Petrarca was a precursor of that movement. Other authors of political movements, such as the revolt of the Ciompi in 1378 are marginalized and downplayed. The most important omission is the revolt of Cola di Rienzo in 1347, which suggests that Greenblatt is selective in his choice of sources and facts to the extent of distortion or oversimplification. Long before Poggio Bracciolini expeditions to hunt for ancient texts, Francesco Petrarca and Giovanni Boccacio were contemporaries and friends who collected and studied ancient texts.

The swerve. How the world became modern has many characteristics of a work of popular science. Sources and references are not noted in the text, but listed as end notes, however, without clear reference in the text. Although not exlicit in the text, the book suggests that a the turn from the Middle Ages to the Rennaisance can be pinpointed to a particular year, and even a particular moment, namely the moment Poggio picked up the book from the shelf. This type of suggestion is very reminiscent of recent history bestsellers such as 1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance by Gavin Menzies.

The swerve. How the world became modern is a very readable and very interesting book, but should certainly be read critically.
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LibraryThing member Devil_llama
The author sets out to demonstrate that the rediscovery of the poem, On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, was responsible for the Enlightenment and the swerve that took us toward modernity. He credits it for much of science, art, and philosophy in the modern period, which is a big claim. The main
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problem is that he doesn't support that claim very well. He provides an interesting history of the time of the poem, and another history of the time during which it was found, then he goes into mentioning Enlightenment authors who were influenced by the poem. He makes some links, but does not do more than establish that the poem was read and enjoyed, and at times quoted, by these authors. There is nothing in this work to indicate whether the popularity of the poem was cause or effect of the trend toward science and freethinking. Read it for the history, but don't expect to be convinced.
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LibraryThing member kukulaj
This is a great book to learn some history in an enjoyable way. We learn about about the time of Lucretius back with Julius Caesar and that gang. We learn a little about the centuries from then up to the Renaissance, when book culture got rather thin. We learn quite a bit about Renaissance times -
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our hero is Poggio, who recovered the poem of Lucretius but was also secretary to five popes. Then we learn a bit about the spread of atomism and epicureanism, through Bruno and Montaigne to Jefferson.

For my taste, this book has too strong a flavor of scientistic triumphialism. It reads like a Dawkins screed.

Some years back one of my coffeeshop pals wanted to read some Bruno, thinking that Bruno was a great pioneer of science. Well, if you dig into Bruno, it's not that simple! Greenblatt admits that Epicurus himself was an odd type of epicurean, i.e. not any extreme hedonist but adhering more to the wisdom of moderation.

So I think the book is OK on history, but shallow philosophically. And really you can dig deeply into the history of philosophy without digging into the philosophy. There is a much richer tapestry here and Greenblatt is picking his path to make a simple story. Ah, it was in an Oscar Wilde essay, Critic as Artist or something like that.... Wilde discusses Bruno as a satirist and his indebtedness to the Hellenic satirist Lucian. Go read Lucian! It's a total blast! Lucian has some stories about travels to the moon, etc. Remarkably modern! But here is also the revival of the skepticism of Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus.

Yeah we hear more in this book about the horrible tortures by the church as it suppresses any kind of nonconformity. What we get here is too much of a tale of good and evil, the good guys and the bad guys, for my taste! It's too polemical and too shallow. If you don't like depth and mystery, you'll probably like this book!

In any case, it's a fun read and covers a lot of fascinating history!
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LibraryThing member EpicTale
"The Swerve" was a terrific book, which seamlessly integrated about 2000 years of European intellectual history, religion, literature, and philosophy from the Ancient Greeks to the Renaissance. The book brims with interesting stories, descriptions, and information. In particular I really enjoyed
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Greenblatt's homage to Poggio, as much for the back story of his life as a rags-to-riches, fast-on-his-feet, free-thinking papal amanuensis as for his determined sleuthing for lost Latin texts. Greenblatt's fascinating stories about Plutarch, the pre-Gutenburg written word, and the ancient Romans' love for literature went so far beyond the relatively narrow focus of my Latin courses in college. (Why the Classics Department didn't offer a course on Lucretius, I can't fathom. I look forward to reading De Rerum Natura -- albeit, at this stage of my life, in the form of an English translation.) In addition, I was riveted by the author's accounts of life in the fast lane of the Vatican -- a corrupt, ego-driven, power-hungry political enterprise if there ever was one. It would take pages to catalog all the interesting facets which this book contains. It's a worthwhile and well-written read, which any interested generalist will savor and should learn lots from.
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LibraryThing member Caomhghin
A very disappointing book. It concentrates strongly on the find of the manuscript by Poggio and details a great deal of his life but all with a tendency to pop history. This becomes more marked when he moves into classical, late antique or medieval history when you can either not rely on his
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history or will find he is very, very selective of factoids which support his case. I would have liked more of an enthusiastic coverage of Epicurus ideas, and of On the Nature of Things as a work of literature and philosophy. Instead we get a few potted facts. A work like this should send you off wanting to read the original work.

The thesis that this discovery made the world modern is probably an add on from his publishing house. Greenblatt presents no evidence to speak of. Post Poggio the book ambles off into Utopia and a lady who translated the Lucretius but never had it published. I never did work out why she was given so much space. Perhaps because Greenblatt is the only person who has ever read her. Now John Dryden is an interesting and important writer and translator of Lucretius but Greenblatt barely mentions him. Strange.
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LibraryThing member reannon
This is the kind of intellectual history I love. Greenblatt takes one small event, the discovery of a copy of the poem On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, and uses it to tell how the works of the ancient world were lost, how a handful of humanists rediscovered much of the writings of the
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classical world, how this impacted the medieval world, helped create the brilliance of the Renaissance, which in turn led to modern science and the Enlightenment. Beautifully written and engaging.
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LibraryThing member jwhenderson
The fifteenth century was one of discovery and reinvigoration of culture. It is rightly known as the Renaissance. Stephen Greenblatt has written a book, The Swerve, about one of those discoverers who remade culture and gained fame in particular from one book, On The Nature of Things by Lucretius.
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This work by a Roman of the first century BC is an extended poem about philosophy and science. The extent to which Lucretius covers things and described them in a way that is very modern is breathtaking. Added to that is the beauty of his poetry. Yet, in spite of this, the book had been lost for more than a thousand years hidden away in a remote monastery.

Greenblatt provides the background of the discoverer, one Poggio Bracciolini, a classicist who for a time became secretary to the Pope. He scoured the Italian countryside for old books and with Lucretius found a book that would influence thinkers from Machiavelli to Montaigne and beyond into the twentieth century. The Swerve derives its name from one of the most important concepts in Lucretius' poem, that everything is made of small particles called atoms by the Greek philosopher Democritus, and that everything in the Universe is informed by the movement of these particles - the "swerve" - and not by the gods of the Romans or the god of the Catholic church. Perhaps more importantly Lucretius was a follower of Epicurus whose philosophy taught that one should take no part in the struggle for wealth and power, one should attach the greatest importance to friendship, and thus achieve tranquility of mind. All of this to be achieved without a reliance on gods (although he did not deny the existence of gods, rather that they did not interact with humans). Cicero, while disliking Epicureanism, read On the Nature of Things and thought well of Lucretius' poetry.

Greenblatt's prose is a delight to read and his history reads like a novel. Some critics think that he speculates too much and does not provide enough evidence for some of his claims, but that is part and parcel of writing about the world that is removed from our current age by more than a millennia.

After providing the story of Poggio's life and his discovery Greenblatt concludes the book with a discussion of the impact of Lucretius in the centuries after the discovery. The book was reprinted with copies spreading throughout Europe. Greenblatt writes: "Once Gutenberg's clever technology was commercially established, printed editions quickly followed. The editions were routinely prefaced with warnings and disavowals." (to placate the ecclesiastical authorities).

This is cultural history that proves both entertaining and enlightening. It may encourage some to read Lucretius' poem which this reader has enjoyed reading more than once. It is accessible and worth the effort to discover for yourself what an ancient Roman poet had to say about the way things are.
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LibraryThing member Shahge
A wonderful account of the discovery of an ancient poem "On the Nature of Things" written by a Roman poet Lucretius. The poem stayed hidden from the eyes of humanity for almost a millennia when, in some remote monastry of current Germany, it was found by Poggio Bracciolini in 1417. Poggio
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Bracciolini, a Florentine humanist, was one of the famous book hunters of the fifteenth century who went to extremes to find ancient pagan literature from remote corners of continent Europe. Their struggle usually did not end with finding the book, but they had to go through the painstaking process of copying the book by themselves or by somebody else who was willing to do it with for some money or other incentive. The writer, Stephen Greenblatt, accounts in much detail how and why were such works forgotten, what part early Christianity played in their being limited only to monasteries, and how this book (and others) managed to go back into circulation despite the censorship imposed by strict church, and how the return of this book (and others) to the circulation changed the course of history. "On the nature of things" is an emblem, according to my understanding, of Epicurean Philosophy. The poem is extravagant on many scales, first and foremost is the way it combines the mesmerizing poetry with deep radical philosophical and perhaps scientific ideas that were way ahead of their time and most of these are now proven to be true scientifically. Second is range of arguments it encompasses, list includes subjects such as physics, philosophy, theology, atheism, death, love, sex, soul, afterlife, cosmology, and ethics among others. Third is the way this poem was able to circulate under the wary eyes of church despite being contradictory to all teachings of not only Christianity but whole of theology. Last but not least is the influence it had on the geniuses of our times including Galileo, Freud, Darwin and Einstein (among multitudes of others). Overall, it was a pleasure to read this book. I think it emphasized the point, which I used to think by myself, that knowledge in general or scientific discovery in particular is not a spontaneous process but a gradual and perhaps very slow process that rests on or is dependent on, one way or the other, previous scientific discoveries or knowledge. I mean I used to think that discovery of "atoms" was a very recent "de novo" idea, but it turns out it was being theorized long time before Copernican Revolution or early modern science. Anyway "The Swerve" is an excellent read, especially if you wonder like me about the ancient culture, art and history.
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LibraryThing member mbmackay
Greenblatt tells the story of the preservation of a philosophical text book by Lucretius, a Roman epicurean. The book was held in the library of a German monastery in the 1300s and was identified by a papal secretary, Poggio. Poggio had copies made, and the text became broadly circulated.
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Greenblatt makes the point that some of the views put in the text, that life goes on without input from the gods, for example, found fertile ground at the start of the enlightenment, in spite of the obvious objections of the Church hierarchy.
Good stuff.
Read August 2012.
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LibraryThing member muddyboy
I have taught Western Civ. for 20 years and I learned a lot from this book. The Swerve is both a Pulitzer and a National Book Award winner and I can see why.. It follows a man name Poggio who unearths and popularizes a book by Lucretius called On The Nature of Things. Greenblatt argues that this
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book was fundamental in "the swerve" that changes the world from the deeply religious middle ages to the much more worldly Renaissance . It is packed full of interesting details on book making, libraries etc. in ancient times. I only wished he would have directly quoted from On the Nature of Things directly more often. Long live Epicurius. A must read for history lovers.
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LibraryThing member atortorice001
"A romping good piece of intellectual history centered around the rediscovery of Lucretius's 1st century BC poem De rerum natura, or On the Nature of Things. In the 14th century, a high-ranking Vatican official temporarily out of office (new Pope, new offiiclals), begins a search through
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monasteries in Germany and Poland for classic Latin manuscripts. He finds and copies Lucretius's On the Nature of Things and distributes it to a few of his humanist friends,s starting an extraordinarily subversive three-century process of changing the way we see the world. Notions we take for granted today (that substances are composed of minute, irreducible particles called atoms, were notions people killed and died for. Demonstrates that history is very nonlinear. Highly recommended."
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LibraryThing member Treebeard_404
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,
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[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.)]
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LibraryThing member MlleEhreen
This is one of those "Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it," moments for me. After finishing John M. Barry's excellent THE GREAT INFLUENZA I was in the mood for something shorter and broader. Something closer to my usual wheelhouse but, I hoped, still exciting. And here was
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this Greenblatt book, with it's shiny National Book Award and 12 hour unabridged running time.

As it turns out, however, THE SWERVE was too broad and too familiar for me to enjoy.

Here's the central thesis of the book: the modern world is made possible by a focus on our earthly existence in the material world instead of the afterlife. And, Greenblatt further argues, the switch from a religious and pain-centric "life is prelude" paradigm to the Renaissance's burgeoning fascination with the material world can be traced, at least in part, to the rediscovery of the Epicurean poet Lucretius' work, ON THE NATURE OF THINGS.

A more interesting, and somewhat more nuanced, thread runs through the book, namely: what is morality without fear of the afterlife - is a "good life" inherently moral - basically, how do atheists orient themselves in a moral universe.

Greenblatt starts by pointing out that Epicurus himself defined "pleasure" in surprisingly moral terms - simple and rustic, full of friends and ideas, far from excess, luxury or power. On the other hand, the character that we spend the most time with is Poggio Bracciolini, a Renaissance scholar who Greenblatt repeatedly characterizes as a terrible hypocrite and all around jerk.

Anyway, the ideas are interesting enough for, like, at least one good late-night convo at a coffee house but really THE SWERVE is a book full of vast generalizations. Greenblatt plays with his big ideas, exploring none thoroughly. I don't feel like I have a better understanding of the medieval world, ancient Greece or Rome, or the Renaissance than I did before...which, hey, no surprise, because those are some pretty vast subjects and this book was of moderate size.

I listened to the audiobook. I suspect I would have gone nuts if I'd tried to actually read it, and that I'd be much angrier. Instead, I feel like I got about as much exposure as I could handle - though I absolutely loathed the voice of the narrator, which I found portentious and, whenever he read a quotation, weirdly mocking.
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LibraryThing member jcbrunner
Coming late to the game with all the hype about this book, I was a bit disappointed with it. Some of it is probably due that I have always hated Lucretius' De rerum natura. Facts are best presented in prose not in rhyme. The life of Poggio Bracciolini serves as the background for a sweeping
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portrait from antiquity to the renaissance with one digression after the other so that the final pages have to rush to present Bracciolini's actual life and career. There it is revealed that the supposed monumental find of Lucretius' work was actually kept under wraps for many years by one of his acquaintances so that the key thrust of the swerve collapses like a bad soufflé.

The main protagonist was but one among many, many humanists whose eagerness of rediscovering antiquity was in part made possible by the economic take-off happening as a consequence of the Black Death. Many of these texts were trophies for the newly rich (like Bill Gates buying Leonardo da Vinci's workbooks).
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LibraryThing member wirkman
I read a lot of negative reviews of this book prior to buying it. I figured: Typical reactions to a book about Epicureanism and its partial revival upon the Renaissance discovery of Titus Lucretius Carus's masterful didactic poem ON THE NATURE OF THINGS.

And I was right. This is a fun book. The
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author provides a portrait of the age that moderns forget: Just how pain- and death-obsessed Dark Ages Christians were. Horrifying. Every time I read a conservative defense of medieval Christianity, I want to retch. This book is, in part, a good antidote to such nonsense.

The author, contrary to many of his critics, does make a case for the book's influence. And it's not a bad case. It was one of the crucial sparks to light the fires of both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. It had subtle influence. And some not so subtle influences on writers like Michel de Montaigne.

This book has a somewhat polemical purpose, as is apt for a book about the Epicurean revival. Epicurus always wrote with a sense of purpose: to extinguish fear from readers' souls. Christian Europe, prior to the Enlightenment, was a horror, and Christianity fed the fires of fear: Fear of "the Lord"; fear of punishment in the afterlife; fear of persecution, torture, and execution. Modernity was a necessary way out of Christianity's horrible death grip on the minds of Europeans, rich and poor, educated and ignorant.

Thanks, Poggio of Florence, for finding Lucretius's classic. And thanks to Stephen Greenblatt.
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LibraryThing member TanyaRead
This was a really interesting book about a "book hunter" in 1417 who goes around to various places (like monasteries) seeking old manuscripts that had been lost for centuries. It talks about old books and the risks to their survival, both from storage and from reading, and why so many are gone
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forever (at least so far...). The main subject is a hunt for On the Nature of Things by Lucretius. I knew a little about the work but had no idea of its effect on what happened in history and science after it was found. It was a Pulitzer Prize winning book and got me looking for other winning books, figuring (somehow this had never occurred to me before) that could be a source of other interesting books. And it was.
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LibraryThing member TiffanyAK
This book recounts a fascinating new version of the evolution of Western Civilization since 1417, and links its modernization to a rather unexpected source. Essentially, this book has two narratives, one regarding the life of Poggio, and the other regarding Lucretius's poem and the way it worked to
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shape civilization as we know it. The first of these is extremely well done, but can be rather boring, while the second is more interesting to a general bibliophile but leaps to conclusions at times without sufficient support. Together, the two actually form a rather cohesive and interesting whole, flawed but still worthwhile. I cannot comment on the historical reliability and such, but can certainly say that if one has an interest in history from the period, Roman civilization, Latin, or the impact literature can have upon societies, then this is certainly not a bad choice in reading material.
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LibraryThing member Sandydog1
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
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there. And best of all, the story is wrapped like a scroll of Herculaneum papyrus, around a love of books.
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LibraryThing member LynnB
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member EmreSevinc
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
For the first time I can remember, reading LibraryThing reviews has affected my opinion of a book. Many of the lower-rated reviews here seemed to confirm my suspicions about "The Swerve," so I'm knocking off half a star. It's not that Stephen Greenblatt's "The Swerve" isn't enjoyable: it is. The
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writing is fluid and the story that Greenblatt puts together is compelling: it's a page-turner about manuscript hunting. The problem is that I feel he's worked a bit too hard to make Poggio Braccolini a hero for our age, a modern secular humanist avant la lettre. I suppose that people that write history books have to balance their desire to make the past seem familiar with their desire to make the past seem like a strange and exotic place, but I feel that, in accentuating his modern tendencies, the author has probably pushed his comparisons between his subject and the way we think today a bit too far. It's not that Poggio wasn't modern, it's that he may not have been modern in the exact same way that we are. As a non-religious citizen of a 21st century democracy of liberal political sensibilities, I felt that "The Swerve" pandered to me in ways that I can't put my finger on, and that's not really a good thing.

There are probably other reasons that "The Swerve" would make academic historians tear their hair out. While it seems that a good deal of Poggio Bracciolini's paper's survive, "The Swerve" is probably a bit too eager to put its reader in his shoes. This sort of close identification, while certainly effective from a narrative standpoint, probably reduces the book's value as a work of serious history. In my opinion, the book's most interesting passages are what other reviewers have described, uncharitably, as detours or distractions. There's a lot in here about paper-making and relic-hunting and papal politics and ancient libraries, which, while it might not have a direct connection to Lucretius's work, is fascinating to read about. It's in these portions of the book where Greenblatt gives his readers some idea of the intellectual lassitude that had taken hold of Europe before the Renaissance: Romans, in many cases, literally lived among the ruins of a more glorious civilization. It's a bit of a shame that the author tried so hard to close the circle by promoting his main character, as I'm tempted to call Poggio, as a perfectly formed citizen of the modern world. Not a bad book, perhaps, and lots of fun, but I'd hesitate to take this one entirely at its word.
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LibraryThing member Mducman
An engaging book that covers a range of fascinating historical moments and milieus. The central character of Poggio Bracciolini and his discovery of an ancient text by Lucretius serves as a vehicle tracing the rise and fall of cultures and the slow progression to modernity. Very enjoyable read.
LibraryThing member nbmars
Many scholars of history or art consider the Renaissance to be a relatively short period of time (roughly the 15th and 16th centuries) when educated Europeans experienced a substantial and sudden change (a “swerve”) from a deeply religious weltanschauung to one more secular or scientific. In
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The Swerve, Stephen Greenblatt, the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard, writes eloquently about Western Europe as it underwent that change of worldview. He begins with describing the (largely religious) preconceptions generally held prior to the swerve. He detours through the history of book collecting, papermaking, medieval libraries, the importance of penmanship before the invention of the movable type printing press, and the sociology of monasteries and the monastic movement. [This may sound dry, but it contains much interesting information, such as the extreme value of writing material and the fact that monastic scribes used a mixture of milk, cheese, and lime as “whiteout” for mistakes.]

The central figure of the book is Poggio Bracciolini, a secretary to the first Pope John XXIII. In 1417, Poggio unearthed in a German monastery a copy of “De Rerum Natura” ("On the Nature of Things") by Lucretius, a 7,000-line epic poem which had been lost for more than a thousand years. Lucretius, born in 99 BCE, was not the most original of thinkers, but he wrote in beautiful Latin, and he rearticulated the theory of atomism first posited by Leucippus and Democritus and further developed by Epicurus. As Greenblatt tells it, Poggio’s rediscovery of Lucretius introduced to 15th century Europe the concept of that all things were composed of combinations of eternal, indestructible atoms moving about in the “void.”

The Roman Catholic Church at first thought atomism was a dangerous concept because it was thought to contradict (or at least make less tenable) the concept of transubstantiation, which had been so painfully analyzed and articulated by Thomas Aquinas. Borrowing from a distinction made by Aristotle, Aquinas argued that the host consecrated at mass maintained only the “accidents” of bread, while its “substance” underwent a change into the body of Christ. The Church officially adopted Aquinas’s concept at the Council of Trent (1545-1563). But atomism absolutely denied the distinction between “substance” and “accidents,” and thus threatened Aquinas’s intellectual edifice. If the host were merely a specific arrangement of atoms, just how could it be turned into the body of Christ, which had been an entirely different arrangement of different atoms?

“De Rerum Natura” also contradicted another seminal church theologian, Augustine of Hippo, whose view of man’s status in the world dominated medieval perceptions. Augustine had emphasized man’s “fallen” nature. He wrote that the road to salvation required men to overcome their natural desires, to refrain from seeking pleasure (especially the sexual kind), and to perform nearly constant penance. On the other hand, Lucretius, picking up from Epicurus, taught that there was no afterlife and that happiness could be obtained only by seeking pleasure. [It should be noted that Epicurus was not a total hedonist or debaucher—his notion of pleasure was a modest (one might say “sensible” or “temperate”) one, something like Aristotle’s search for eudemonia.] Lucretius wrote that humans can and should conquer their fears, accept the fact that they and all things they encounter are transitory, and embrace the beauty and pleasure of the world.

Greenblatt contends that right about the time Poggio returned to Italy from Germany with his copy of “De Rerum Naturum," Western Europe underwent what Lucretius called a “clinamen” [the word is derived from the Latin clīnāre, to incline] or swerve —an unexpected, unpredictable movement.” He avers:

"Something happened in the Renaissance, something that surged up against the constraints that centuries had constructed around curiosity, desire, individuality, sustained attention to the material world, [and] the claims of the body. The cultural shift is notoriously difficult to define, and its significance has been fiercely contested….[I]t helps to account for the intellectual daring of Copernicus and Vesalius, Giordano Bruno and William Harvey, Hobbes and Spinoza.”

Discussion: It should be noted that many experts take issue with Greenblatt’s contentions. They decry his depiction of the Middle Ages (at least after the 12th century) as overwhelmingly dark, ignorant, and superstitious. His portrayal may be vivid and fascinating, but closer to caricature than fact.

More critically, Greenblatt’s suggestion that Poggio’s discovery led to the Renaissance is anathema to some thoughtful historians. While Greenblatt makes some modest disclaimers about one poem causing an entire movement, he gives mixed signals in that regard. He writes, for example:

"A short, genial, cannily alert man in his late thirties reached out one day, took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. That was all; but it was enough.”

And certainly the subtitle of the book, "How the World Became Modern", lays bare his mind set. The publishers’ blurb, for which we probably should not blame Greenblatt, goes even further:

"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 revolutionary influence on writers like Montaigne and Shakespeare, and even Thomas Jefferson.”

That encomium clearly jumps the shark. All those great thinkers were influenced by many movements and thinkers besides Lucretius. It could even be argued that Greenblatt saw the impress of others, such as Cicero, and somewhat arbitrarily (or at least unjustifiably in terms of the evidence) attributed them to Lucretius. Many historians, for example, have credited the onset of the Renaissance to the discovery of Cicero’s letters by Petrarch in the 14th Century.

Cicero’s writings on Greek philosophical systems not only profoundly affected European ideas in the early Middle Ages, but are said to have inspired Lucretius! In fact, Petrarch is considered by many to be the "father of the Renaissance” by stimulating much of the humanist philosophy that characterized it. The list goes on: in the mid-16th Century, the works of Sextus on skepticism were translated into Latin, and these ideas too were said to have profoundly modified the course of religious thought in the late Renaissance.

The point is that many factors went into the gradual efflorescence that characterized the Renaissance and inspired later thinkers. Greenblatt’s reliance on the shoulders of just one giant isn’t warranted.

Evaluation: When I first encountered this book, I thought the author had overemphasized the importance of the discovery of “De Rurum Natura,” merely using it as an excuse to write a book about the Renaissance. I still think he overstates his case, but a second reading showed that his thesis was somewhat more nuanced and measured. Greenblatt doesn’t contend that the discovery of Lucretius caused the Renaissance, but he does say, “This particular ancient book, suddenly returning to view, made a difference.” With that, I can agree. The book is well-written and replete with interesting philosophical analyses. If it inspires readers to read more about medieval history and philosophy, so much the better.

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National Book Award (Finalist — Nonfiction — 2011)
Pulitzer Prize (Winner — General Non-Fiction — 2012)
James Russell Lowell Prize (Winner — 2011)
Cundill History Prize (Longlist — 2012)


Original language

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