"The Swerve" by Stephen Greenblatt

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Subtitled: How the World Became Modern

There are several salient truths about Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: it serves as a highly instructive history about remarkable events of six hundred years ago and persuades us of the inexpressible importance of those events; from beginning to end it presents its observations in highly engaging language, which never even veers close to academic jargon; the combination of these and other characteristics won for it the 2011 National Book Award for non-fiction and the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction. I exhort you to take it up and find out why.

On a chill January day in 1417, an out of work scholar and former secretary to a disgraced pope, a man named Poggio Bracciolini uncovered a musty manuscript in a German monastery, and altered history in ways and to an extent he could never have foreseen. For he had unearthed Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura). Published around 50 BCE, this long, challenging, and stunningly beautiful poem expounds some remarkably modern-seeming concepts: matter is made up of atoms, that these atoms cannot be destroyed, that they are constantly in motion, that nature is always experimenting, that the universe was not created for or about humans, and that human society began in a primitive battle for survival.

The logical ends of these ideas put Lucretius’ adherents into some terribly hot water in the 15th and 16th centuries: Lucretius held that the soul died, that there was no afterlife, that all organized religions are superstitious delusions, and that nothing generates a deeper sense of wonder than understanding the true nature of things. These ideas would generate controversy even today, but they opened the way for and informed the most glorious flowerings of Renaissance art, for Copernicus and Galileo, and for Francis Bacon and Shakespeare, to mention only the merest few.

The other salient truth about this book is that it focuses us on the recovery of a long-forgotten poet and his long-suppressed ideas and the massive and irreversible influence they have wielded on the world. Mr. Greenblatt’s accomplishment matches his concept: it is as grand as it is accessible, as persuasive as it is engaging. For anyone interested in the traditions of Western thought, this is a must read.
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