Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

Subatomic theory was first published 
in the first century BC, believe it or not

The Geographer by Vermeer
     Can a book change the western world’s course?  Many might say The Torah, The Bible, and The Qur’an did so.  Stephen Greenblatt won a lot of awards for The Swerve, which posits that the rediscovery, copying, and redistribution of On the Nature of Things by the Roman poet Lucretius.  It won a lot of awards in 2012, which was part of the reason I bought it. Yes, I know that reason is the definition of middlebrow thinking and I’m fine with owning that.  What also intrigued me was the relationship
between Ancient Western Civilization (Greeks and Romans) and the Renaissance.  

Stephen Greenblatt
     It’s the type of book that takes a while to get going.  Greenblatt sets it up as a literary adventure story where Poggio Bracciolini, who served as a private secretary to various Popes, searches for various books in German monasteries and finds the Lucretius work.  He was a wonderful copier himself, but probably had it copied by someone else, Greenblatt believes.  There’s a detailed explanation of Papal politics in the 14th and 15th centuries and a long explications of Poggio’s life.  

Les Palais des Papes in Avignon
Home to 14th and 15th Century Popes

     All of this is well and good, but the point of the book and it almost gets lost, is On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura) by Lucretius, written in the 1st century BC.  My schoolboy Latin wouldn’t have a chance with it so Greenblatt kindly translates and states the major points of the work. This was the part of The Swerve that was tremendous.  Lucretius explained the philosophy of Epicureanism for a Roman audience.  Basically, the soul and body are united, but there is no evidence that the soul survives after death and, therefore, the creation of an afterlife is a narrative myth proposed by religions to keep their flocks in order.  He was writing hundreds of years before the spread and dominance of Christianity.  

     People should pursue what makes them happy because they will do it well and, by extension, make others happy and probably do more good.  It’s the goal of leading through love.  Machiavelli proposed the opposite goal of leading by fear.  What intrigued me was that Lucretius theorized about atomic and particle theory, centuries before it was being proposed and examined during the Age of Enlightenment to the present.  It truly was a revolutionary book because it questioned the primacy of the Christian faith and the Roman Catholic Church, though that was neither Lucretius’ intention nor Poggio’s.  

Eric didn’t want to say much else because he says it’s worth reading and it just came out in paperback. 

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