Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern is really the perfect choice for my first review on my new blog as I have been reading it for the past year. I started reading on 11 January 2017 and I finished the book on 16 February 2018. That being said, I technically read the book in three days. I read the first 155 pages on January 11, then I made it to page 219 on February 15, and finally poured through the rest the next day.
This book is a truly entertaining, informative, and fascinating look at how the rediscovery of an ancient text – Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things (aka De Rerum Natura)- helped drastically shift thinking from religion to science. Greenblatt clearly and concisely covers an epic tale, bringing together ideas and people vastly removed from each other by time and place and ideology. While some knowledge of ancient and medieval literature and philosophy augments the story, it is not necessary for understanding the text. I highly recommend this one for any reader interested in history, in the importance of literature, or in how culture shifts.
Lucretius, a Roman poet and philosopher (weren’t they all), wrote De Rerum Natura in the first-century BC to explain Epicurean philosophy which promoted the pursuit of pleasure in the here and now since the soul is lost upon death just as is the body – since both are made of atoms. As you can imagine, such a sacrilegious perspective did not exactly go over well in the early 1400s when Poggio discovered the long-lost text. We’re talking the Inquistion and death by fire here.
Lucretius’s arguments were violently contested in a religious fervor, and yet they persisted, influencing great thinkers and taking hold slowly and surely. Greenblatt briefly charts this progression, and while the influence is clear, it is not described in-depth. The lack of depth is made up for, in my opinion, by the captivating narrative which provides a god mix of information and excitement.
“What mattered was not adherence but mobility – the renewed mobility of a poem that had been resting untouched in one or at most two monastic libraries for many centuries, the mobility of Epicurean arguments that had been silenced first by hostile pagans and then by hostile Christians, the mobility of daydreams, half-formed speculations, whispered doubts, dangerous thoughts” (225).
I love the very idea of dangerous thoughts and the sneaky pervasion of those thoughts into culture.