The swerve How the world became modern

Stephen Greenblatt, 1943-

Book - 2011

In this work, the author 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 R...oman 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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Subjects
Published
New York : W.W. Norton c2011.
Edition
1st ed
Language
English
Physical Description
356 p., [8] p. of plates : ill. ; 25 cm
Bibliography
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN
9780393064476
0393064476
Main Author
Stephen Greenblatt, 1943- (-)
  • The book hunter
  • The moment of discovery
  • In search of Lucretius
  • The teeth of time
  • Birth and rebirth
  • In the lie factory
  • A pit to catch foxes
  • The way things are
  • The return
  • Swerves
  • Afterlives.
Review by Booklist Reviews

Literary scholar Greenblatt focuses on Lucretius, ancient Roman author of the brilliant and beautiful didactic poem On the Nature of Things, which challenged the authority of religion, and papal counselor and book hunter Poggio Bracciolini, whose recovery of a copy of the subversive text a millennium and a half later added momentum to the Renaissance and shaped the world we call modern. Lucretius, Greenblatt reminds, was a radical figure very much ahead of his time. Many of his insights—for example, that everything is made of invisible particles of matter that are constantly in motion—have been borne out by modern science. Others, such as the idea that religions are defined by cruelty and superstition, remain hotly controversial to this day. Vatican humanist Bracciolini, about whom we know quite a bit more, if not quite enough, may in the end be the more interesting personality. He knew what he had found, but did he know what it meant? Do we? A fascinating, intelligent look at what may well be the most historically resonant book-hunt of all time. Copyright 2011 Booklist Reviews.

Review by Choice Reviews

Adopting the conceit of the "swerve" as the fulcrum of this work, Greenblatt (Harvard) presents a narrative study of Poggio Bracciolini's discovery in 1417 of Lucretius's lost poem De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things). He provides an engaging synthesis of Christianity's tactical obliteration of Epicureanism and the concomitant consignment to oblivion of the poetic elucidation (i.e., works like Lucretius's) of atomic and hedonistic fundamentals the Christian world-view deemed so antithetical. Artfully woven in are erudite delineations of the arcana of medieval book production, the mores of life in a monastic scriptorium, the intrigues of 15th-century papal politics, and the considerable perils of theological heterodoxy. By fortuitous chance, a manuscript of the lost De rerum natura was discovered in one dramatic moment of instantaneous recognition by Poggio, one of the greatest of the humanist bibliomaniacs. Adducing this as the "swerve," Greenblatt causally connects this recovery of Lucretius to the unleashing of the forces of scientific inquiry and aesthetic humanism that characterize the Renaissance and thus inform the substratum of modernity--hence the subtitle. Provocative, stimulating, and certain to catalyze scholarly debate, this elegant book deserves a wide readership. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readers. General Readers; Lower-division Undergraduates; Upper-division Undergraduates; Graduate Students; Researchers/Faculty. J. S. Louzonis St. Francis College, Brooklyn, NY Copyright 2012 American Library Association.

Review by Library Journal Reviews

Harvard humanities professor Greenblatt shows how the discovery of the last existing manuscript of Lucretius's On the Nature of Things—a radical book proclaiming that the world manages without gods and is made of small particles in constant motion—led to the Renaissance. The swerve? Lucretius allowed for the existence of free will in his atom-bound universe by theorizing that those little particles swerve randomly. I bet this will be as absorbing and informative as Greenblatt's Shakespeare study, Will in the World. With an eight-city tour. [Page 72]. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Review by Library Journal Reviews

In this outstandingly constructed assessment of the birth of philosophical modernity, renowned Shakespeare scholar Greenblatt (Cogan University Professor of English & American Literature & Language, Harvard; Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare) deftly transports readers to the dawn of the Renaissance, when in 1417 bibliophile Poggio Bracciolini uncovered the Roman poet and philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus's Epicurean work, On the Nature of Things, in the dusty confines of a German monastery. After lying dormant for centuries, Lucretius's "atomist" philosophy reemerged, promoting the joys of this world over the punishments and rewards of the next, gradually conquering humanist circles and influencing such luminaries as More, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Newton. At the heart of Lucretius's Latin verse lies the core argument that by understanding the world around us, abandoning superstitious delusions, and coming to grips with humanity's insignificance, we begin to take ownership of our lives and set out on the pursuit of happiness. VERDICT Greenblatt's masterful account transcends Poggio's significant discovery to encompass a diversity of topics including the Roman book trade, Renaissance Florence, and the Catholic Church's attempts to deal with heresy and schism. Students and general readers from across the humanities will find this enthralling account irresistible. [See Prepub Alert, 3/21/11.]—Brian Odom Pelham P.L., AL [Page 98]. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Review by Library Journal Reviews

Engaging and enthralling, filled with a large cast of interesting characters, details of book history, and a strong, story-rich frame, this is a tale of books and their power, religion and its fears, and men and their quests. Harvard literature professor Greenblatt (general editor, The Norton Anthology of English Literature; Will in the World) begins with the story of a book hunter, Poggio Bracciolini, a 15th-century apostolic secretary who, until Baldassarre Cossa, Pope John XXIII, was imprisoned, served the highest religious leader in the world. Out of work, Poggio found himself with time on his hands, a driving obsession to find ancient texts, and just enough means to go exploring. In 1417, he found what was perhaps the only surviving copy of Lucretius's masterpiece of Epicurean philosophy, the first-century BCE poem De rerum natura ("On the Nature of Things"), in a musty, ignored corner of a German monastery. The discovery of this poem, as Greenblatt traces it, was a spark that helped ignite the Renaissance and eventually led to the very conception of modern thought. De rerum natura posited, among other things, grounds for evolution, the atom, and an understanding of the world not governed by religion. This extraordinary poem, whose survival is miraculous, eventually planted seeds that would bloom in the work of Thomas More, Galileo, Machiavelli, Botticelli, da Vinci, Thomas Hobbes, Michel de Montaigne, Erasmus Darwin, Albert Einstein, and Thomas Jefferson. - "RA Crossroads", Booksmack! 8/4/11 (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Review by Library Journal Reviews

Greenblatt's quest to discover how Lucretius's masterpiece of Epicurean philosophy, the first-century B.C.E. poem "On the Nature of Things," was found and introduced into 15th-century thought makes an excellent next read for those who enjoyed Lester. Greenblatt's investigation is ultimately one of restoration and influence, while Lester's is focused on the education of da Vinci. Both, however, trace the importance of books in the Renaissance and their effects-in particular how creative energy echoes through the ages. Greenblatt's history is enthralling and like Lester's is full of details and intertwining tales. Most thrilling of all, one of Greenblatt's main subjects, the 15th-century book hunter Poggio Bracciolini, makes a very short but profound appearance in Lester's text; Poggio found not just Lucretius's text but also Vitruvius's The Ten Books. Readers particularly interested in the echoes of lost texts should also be pointed to Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole's Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza, which won the 2012 Sophie Brody Medal. - "RA Crossroads " LJ Reviews 3/1/2012 (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Review by Publishers Weekly Reviews

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. It hinges on the recovery of an ancient philosophical Latin text that had been neglected for a thousand years. In the winter of 1417 Italian oddball humanist, smutty humorist, and apostolic secretary Poggio Bracciolini stumbled on Lucretius' De rerum natura. In an obscure monastery in southern Germany lay the recovery of a philosophy free of superstition and dogma. Lucretius' "On the Nature of Things" harked back to the mostly lost works of Greek philosophers known as atomists. Lucretius himself was essentially an Epicurean who saw the restrained seeking of pleasure as the highest good. Poggio's chance finding lay what Greenblatt, following Lucretius himself, terms a historic swerve of massive proportions, propagated by such seminal and often heretical truth tellers as Machiavelli, Giordano Bruno, and Montaigne. We even learn the history of the bookworm—a real entity and one of the enemies of ancient written-cultural transmission. Nearly 70 pages of notes and bibliography do nothing to spoil the fun of Greenblatt's marvelous tale. 16 pages of color illus. (Sept. 19) [Page ]. Copyright 2010 PWxyz LLC

Review by Publisher Summary 1

A humanities professor describes the impact had by the translation of the last remaining manuscript of On the Nature of Things by Roman philosopher Lucretius, which fueled the Renaissance and inspired artists, great thinkers and scientists. 80,000 first printing.

Review by Publisher Summary 2

A humanities professor describes the impact had by the translation of the last remaining manuscript of "On the Nature of Things" by Roman philosopher Lucretius, which fueled the Renaissance and inspired artists, great thinkers, and scientists.

Review by Publisher Summary 3

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 ofhistory 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.

Review by Publisher Summary 4

This engaging history of the birth of modernity and the Renaissance explores the rediscovery and popularization of Lucretious' poem On The Nature of Things, by the book collector Poggio Bracciolini in the fifteenth century, and the impact of the ideas of humanism and science it contained on future generations form Galileo to Einstein. The work is engaging and appropriate for general readers with an interest in the history of science and the Renaissance. Greenblatt is a professor of the humanities at Harvard University. Annotation ©2011 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

Review by Publisher Summary 5

Winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Non-FictionWinner of the 2011 National Book Award for Non-Fiction

Review by Publisher Summary 6

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.

Review by Publisher Summary 7

On the Nature of Things