The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

4.3 96
by Stephen Greenblatt

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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

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

Have you read the plays of Sophocles? No, you haven't -- or at any rate, you have at best read an extremely small selection them, for only seven survive of the hundred-odd plays that came from Sophocles' pen. And Sophocles was one of the lucky ancient authors who managed to pass some of their works down to present-day readers. As Stephen Greenblatt, author of a hugely entertaining biography of William Shakespeare (Will in the World), reminds us in his fascinating book, it ought to seem astonishing that we can still lay hands on any of the classics when we contemplate the profound fragility of parchment, paper, ink, and other vessels for the written word:

At the end of the fifth century CE an ambitious literary editor known as Stobaeus compiled an anthology of prose and poetry by the ancient world's best authors: out of 1, 430 quotations, 1, 115 are from works that are now lost.... The actual material disappearance of the books was largely the effect of climate and pests. Though papyrus and parchment were impressively long-lived (far more so than either our cheap paper or computerized data), books inevitably deteriorate over the centuries, even if they manage to escape the ravages of fire and flood. The ink was a mixture of soot (from burnt lamp wicks), water, and tree gum: that made it cheap and agreeably easy to read, but also water- soluble. (A scribe who made a mistake could erase it with a sponge.) A spilled glass of wine or a heavy downpour, and the text disappeared. And that was only the most common threat. Rolling and unrolling the scrolls or poring over the codices, touching them, dropping them, coughing on them, allowing them to be scorched by fire from the candles, or simply reading them over and over eventually destroyed them.
Against the background of this immense and heartbreaking cultural loss, The Swerve offers a portrait of an unlikely hero, a fifteenth- century humanist author, manuscript copyist, papal secretary and book hunter named Poggio Bracciolini. Bracciolini spent much of his life in the employ of the Catholic Church during a particularly tumultuous period -- the so-called Papal Schism, during which multiple contesting popes claimed authority over the Church. Bracciolini, who remained a layman throughout his life, kept himself somewhat apart from ecclesiastical affairs, gazing back longingly on an idealized vision of ancient Greece and Rome and spending much of his energy attempting to discover and restore relics of those lost worlds. He was particularly interested in manuscript copies of works by ancient authors. These manuscripts were mostly to be found in the libraries of Europe's monasteries -- outside of these secure havens, few survived -- where they tended to languish for centuries, untouched and largely unread. But if they were inanimate objects of little interest to most of the monks who served as their guardians, they were, to Bracciolini, something else entirely -- literal embodiments of their authors:
All Poggio could hope to find were pieces of parchment, and not even very ancient ones. But for him these were not manuscripts but human voices. What emerged from the obscurity of the library was not a link in a long chain of texts, one copied from the other, but rather the thing itself-wrapped in gravecloths and stumbling into the light.
The Swerve pivots on the fateful moment when Bracciolini, exploring the shelves of a monastic library in Germany, happened upon a manuscript of a work that was thought to have disappeared centuries ago: Lucretius' visionary poem, On the Nature of Things. This was by far Bracciolini's greatest discovery, for the poem was to exert a profound influence on the thought of Renaissance Europe. As Greenblatt puts it -- borrowing a metaphor, the "swerve, " from Lucretius himself -- the result of Bracciolini's discovery was that "the world swerved in a new direction."

Why was Lucretius' poem so influential? The work, which dates from the first century BCE and is essentially an exposition of the philosophy of Epicurus, describes a universe in constant flux, composed, at the fundamental level, of atoms -- atoms that were in themselves eternal but were constantly assembling, disassembling, and reassembling to form the physical objects encountered on a daily basis. Those physical objects included human beings, and because humans were made of nothing but atoms -- there was no soul or other immaterial substance added in to give us permanence or let us transcend the limits of materiality -- it followed that human beings were as fragile and ephemeral as the rest of nature. (In what was perhaps his most impressive act of intellectual precocity, Lucretius described humans, and other living things, as resulting from an essentially Darwinian view of evolution by natural selection.) Moreover, the Epicurean/Lucretian view was not only a physical vision of the cosmos but also a vision of how human beings ought to live:
In a universe so constituted, Lucretius argued, there is no reason to think that the earth or its inhabitants occupy a central place, no reason to set humans apart from all other animals, no hope of bribing or appeasing the gods, no place for religious fanaticism, no call for ascetic self-denial, no rationale for wars of conquest or self-aggrandizement, no possibility of triumphing over nature, no escape from the constant making and unmaking and remaking of forms.? What human beings can do and should do, he wrote, is to conquer their fears, accept the fact that they themselves and all the things they encounter are transitory, and embrace the beauty and the pleasure of the world.
Predictably enough, the Catholic hierarchy saw such ideas as deeply pernicious and made efforts to stop the poem from being disseminated. "Faith must take first place among all the other laws of philosophy, " wrote a Jesuit spokesman in 1624, "so that what, by established authority, is the word of God may not be exposed to falsity." And the accounts promulgated and approved by that authority had little room for the atomism or implied atheism of Lucretius' worldview. A Latin prayer recited by Jesuits at the University of Pisa actually contained explicit denials of such views, including the lines "You, O Democritus, form nothing different starting from atoms. / Atoms produce nothing; therefore, atoms are nothing."

Despite their efforts, it did not take long for the poem and the ideas it contained to spread throughout Italy and the rest of Europe. As Greenblatt argues, On the Nature of Things profoundly shaped the Renaissance; it may even have been, to a considerable extent, the initial spark that ignited it. Greenblatt mentions Montaigne, Molière, and Thomas Jefferson as among the thinkers who were deeply and directly influenced by Lucretius; but by the dawn of the twentieth century his ideas had so pervaded Western thought that it was impossible to be a serious thinker and not be influenced by him: "That the ancient poem could now be safely left unread, that the drama of its loss and recovery could fade into oblivion, that Poggio Bracciolini could be forgotten almost entirely -- these were only signs of Lucretius' absorption into the mainstream of modern thought."

It is difficult, in the end, to evaluate claims about just how much difference Bracciolini's discovery made. As it turns out, at least two other copies of On the Nature of Things also survived, so even if Bracciolini had never found his copy, the poem would still, in all likelihood, eventually have entered into European intellectual life. One might point out, moreover, that precisely because Lucretius' predictions were so astonishingly accurate, our picture of the cosmos would have ended up being the same even if every copy of the poem had perished. The world is made of atoms, after all, and life is the result of a process of evolution by natural selection; eventually, even if not spurred by a poet's vision, we would have figured these things out.

Even if this is true, though, of Lucretius' scientific claims, one wonders whether it is equally true of the ethical views expressed in On the Nature of Things. And even if we confine ourselves to the former, it is surely impossible to deny that, even if we would eventually have arrived at the same scientific view of the world, without Epicurus, Lucretius, and Bracciolini it might have taken us a great deal longer than it did. Western history would have been profoundly different. Perhaps the Renaissance would never have happened at all, or perhaps it would have followed a much different course.

"The line between this work and modernity is not direct, " Greenblatt writes. "Nothing is ever so simple. There were innumerable forgettings, disappearances, recoveries, dismissals, distortions, challenges, transformations, and renewed forgettings. And yet the vital connection is there. Hidden behind the worldview I recognize as my own is an ancient poem, a poem once lost, apparently irrevocably, and then found." It may be hard to say precisely how a particular book mattered; there is nothing in the world more speculative than speculations about counterfactual history. But in a time when so many elements in our society seem positively antipathetic to books, to reading, to ideas, to thinking, it is important, and a pleasure, to be reminded that books do matter, that we would have inherited a very different cultural landscape and would be living a very different existence if not for the vast and profound effects of their world-shaping work.

Troy Jollimore is Associate Professor of Philosophy at California State University, Chico. His book Love's Vision will be published next year. Reviewer: Troy Jollimore

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Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.30(d)

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Swerve 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 96 reviews.
HarryVane More than 1 year ago
This is a great short history about a long lost Roman poem that encompassed the very humanistic ideas that brought Western Europe out of the intellectual morass of Christendom and into the Renaissance and Reformation. I find great comfort reading about the importance of "a book" and the humanities that have shaped so much of our society despite the sad state of the humanities within our education system and the slow sad disappearance of the paper book. The hero of Stephen Greenblatt's work would no doubt be unsettled by the anti-intellectualism prevalent in the modern West and our complete obsession with cheap stimuli. Turn off the TV. Put the cell phone away. Find a nice quiet place to read and enjoy this wonderful book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I just finished "The Swerve" and must say I am a bit perplexed. In the Preface, the author describes the reasons for his deep emotional attachment to "On the Nature of Things" by Lucretius. My sense is that he let this emotional attachment get the better of him. On page 68 (of the e-book) he states that "On the Nature of Things" is the work of a disciple who is transmitting ideas that had been developed centuries earlier. Epicurus, Lucretia's philosophical messiah, ......". Throughout the book, more reference seems to be made to Epicurus than Lucretius by the people that the author wants to propose as having been influenced by Lucretius. The final statement of the book, as if to emphasize how much the world has been changed by Lucretius is Thomas Jefferson's statement that he is an Epicuran. So this reader is left with the question of why the focus on Lucretius? The answer to me can only be that the author found a good story in the discovery of a copy of the manuscript by a papal secretary, Poggio (and not the only one as seems to be alleged in the beginning - another was later found). And a good story it is, weaving us through the inner working of monasteries, the copying of manuscripts, papal intrigue, "book hunters", and the preservation of "pagan" manuscripts in Europe. What the author failed to do for this reader is convince me that "On the Nature of Things" caused, much less was significant to, the Renaissance. Much is made of the work describing atoms, as was described previously by Leuccippus and Democritus, and that life's ultimate goal is pleasure and the avoidance of pain, Epicurus' central tenet, as being supremely influential in moving the(western)world forward in its thinking, and some of these thoughts, over 2,000 years old are quite remarkable in their prescience, but by no means unique to Lucretius. But if these thoughts were so influential in moving the Renaissance forward did some of the clearly wrong claims in "On the Nature of Things" not hinder its development? This is not addressed. Other critics have complained of its seeming anti-Catholic tone, and as a recovering Catholic, I sympathize with you. But I didn't find anything in the book unfair to the Catholic church of the time. I found the book entertaining and enlightening in many respects, so 4 stars still.
jobriant More than 1 year ago
The publisher's blurb calls this a "riveting" account of great cultural change and a "thrilling tale of discovery." While interesting, it was hardly riveting or thrilling. Rather, it was a matter-of-fact and sometimes pedantic account of the rediscovery of Lucretius' "On the Nature of Things." The author makes a less than compelling case for one of his own favorite poems changing the course of Western cultural history. I don't think it moved others as much as it did him. An interesting read, but not compelling.
Psocoptera More than 1 year ago
Even if you didn't sleep thru Western History in college this book will inform and entertain. The author weaves a tale of how a relatively unknown Florentine scholar rescues a literary work by Lucretius that inspired many more Renassaince works. Lucretius's poem has amazingly modern ideas but were it not for a random "swerve" of chance it could have been lost forever, and perhaps a seminal spark out of the dark ages. This book will make you laugh and make you think.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An excellent short history of literary tolerance (or intolerance) wrapped within the story of a Fourteenth Century book hunter. Should be a must read so that we avoid banning books because we disagree with its content.
Go4Jugular More than 1 year ago
I started this novel with great reluctance - an obscure book hunter in the 1400s, searching for a poem I'd not heard of by an ancient author whose name I did not recognize. However, I found it to be surprisingly, and enjoyably, readable. The history, politics, and religion of the time are lucidly described. The education and life of the book hunter give a strong sense of his character (and who can dislike a guy named Poggio?). The core themes of the poem are outlined with the correct amount of detail, and the net result is an interesting, entertaining story of how modern secular precepts emerged from the intolerant theocratic European societies of the Middle Ages. One might argue with the primacy the author claims for the role of the poem, but the journey he takes the reader on illustrates how many of our modern social ideals evolved.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I had a hard time tearing myself away from The Swerve. While I thoroughly enjoyed the narrative about the discovery and recovery of the lost manuscript, which adroitly provides insight into the intellectual, religious and physical worlds of the late Middle Ages, the best part is the thoughtful and concise exposition of Epicureanism. I suspect this cogent 2500 year old rational humanist philosophy of Metaphysics and Ethics has long been suppressed or misrepresented by various religious establishments, and becoming familiar with it is like inhaling a breath of fresh air.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
To Quench the Intellect, The Swerve Succeeds Written by Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, captures the story of Poggio Bracciolini, an avid book hunter and his chance discovery that influenced the creation of the modern world. He saves the last copy of Roman philosopher Titus Lucretius’s, On the Nature of Things. Within this poem are the ideas that changed human thought and inspired some of the most impactful individuals of the millennial.  Greenblatt follows Poggio’s discovery, tracing its impact throughout history. He makes sure to include context and clarity, making the story easier to understand. I particularly liked the inclusion of the historical background of books beginning with the Roman Empire and Paganism. He illustrates the ancient world stating, “A fate no doubt preferable to being thrown to the lions, laughter in the ancient world nonetheless had very sharp teeth.”  It is a mesmerizing and rich book, maintaining a satisfying combination of history and intrigue. The language is gratifying, “A comparably capacious embrace of beauty and pleasure – an embrace that somehow extends to death as well as life, to dissolution as well as creation…”  In his writing, Greenblatt causes the reader to reconsider the importance of books and to view life with a more philosophical approach. We are reminded of the value of ancient knowledge and preservation of intellect when he says, “through reading literature we can make ghosts speak to us, and we can speak back to them.”  I highly recommend The Swerve to book lovers or historians, who are interested in reading a challenging novel that will recalibrate your thinking and leave you contemplating the war of beliefs.  Greenblatt’s passion is clearly evident; he is an exceptional writer and feels strongly about the importance of these ancient manuscripts.  Even in simple statements such as, “Poems are difficult to silence,” or “I began with the desire to speak with the dead,” he makes an impression. It is enlightening and eye opening. This book will most definitely make you think. 
leopardiNJ More than 1 year ago
There are been numerous works of historical non-fiction, especially in recent times, that attempt to pinpoint some pivotal event and/or person and attribute to that event or person great significance. These are often fascinating tales as much for the insight they might give us into the course of history as they are often tales of intrigue, mystery, luck and persistence. Stephen Greenblatt's The Serve is one such book and an outstanding example of the genre. It tells the story of one Titus Lucretius Carus, a first-century BC (55 to 99 BC) Roman philosopher and disciple of Epicurus whose single surviving work of poetry, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) languished in obscurity for nearly a millennium and a half, before it was rediscovered and broadcast around Europe in the 15th century by a equally obscure (at least these days) former papal secretary, Poggio Bracciolini. Poggio sat right at the apex of temporal and spiritual power while in Rome, but had been cut loose and out of a job after Pope John XXIII was deposed (the Pope's number was recycled 500 years later). In the spirit of the era, he decided to spend his time north of the Alps hunting for ancient Greek and Roman texts. Poggio was not only very good at library hunting and Latin grammar, his was one of the best hand-writing in Europe during these pre-printing-press times. He was, therefore, well suited to both understand what he found, copy it, and, with his connections among the intelligentsia of the times, distribute it. Poggio came across De Rerum Natura quite by chance in a Benedictine library. He immediately realized the significance of the message that the manuscript contained within its exquisite poetry - not just "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may die", but, much more, that the very substance of your soulless being (atoms) will disperse and recombine (swerve) in the future as it has throughout the infinity of time. Lucretius' dangerous and heretical message eventually earned it a prominent place on the Index, but not until copies had become fairly widespread both because of its philosophical message and on account of its outstanding Latin grammar. The book ably justifies its enigmatic title, but not its sub-title. On The Nature of Things was undoubtedly a component in the development of modern chemistry and physics, and its rejection of everything supernatural likely impacted the course of philosophy right up to the present time. But atomic theory and the rest had a wider intellectual base than just this poem which the author fails to explore in depth. Greenblatt's story of the discovery of De Rerum Natura is excellent, but his follow up on the later impact comes across as a breathless afterthought. The Swerve is thoroughly researched with nearly 50 pages of notes, 25-plus page bibliography, index and illustrations. Richard R. Pardi Environmental Science William Paterson University
Slowsailor More than 1 year ago
Beautifully written account of the discovery and influence of an ancient Greek scroll "On the Nature of Things". The astounding part is how its influence spread throughout Renaissance europe, and how the boundaries between thinkers even then were small and porous. Once the idea is introduced, tracing through the intellectual, physical, and spiritual history of western thought truly illustrates a swerve away from superstition toward the modern world.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Author takes too many liberrties with verbage. While not a new subject, atom theory would have survived without copies of the original, with or without acceptance of a creator. Much credit due author for his exausting research.
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Hey sexy
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Hey! Whats up?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
*walks in*
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Gtg we shall me meet for cofee at coffee shop
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"Hm. Better than just one name."