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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
And I was right. This is a fun book. The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Read August 2012.
The poem itself is fascinating, but there is little reference to it in the Renaissance. It is not the 'tipping point' that Greenblatt describes, but one merely interesting atom of an incident out of many in the storm of the Renaissance.