I happened to see a book called "The Swerve: How The World Became Modern" in a library display whilst traveling, and the title sat on my phone for a few weeks before I looked it up at my home library and managed to get my hands on a copy.
The Swerve is many interesting things. It is not, actually, much about the concept of "swerve" or the process of the world modernizing, but it's enjoyable anyway.
In essence, The Swerve is the history of a poem known as De Rerum Natura, or "On the Nature of Things", by the Epicurean philosopher Lucretius. It's also about the interplay of faith, censorship, and pleasure, especially since Epicureanism is not well understood and fell dormant for hundreds of years. Its revival as a concept was due in large part, at least Greenblatt claims, to the rediscovery of De Rerum Natura by Poggio Bracciolini, the Apostolic Secretary to a recently de-poped Catholic pope in the fifteenth century.
A massive chunk of the book is devoted to Poggio's life and the historic context in which he found himself. It's very interesting reading, even if it's not really what I expected when I opened the book. The scandals and controversies Poggio stood at the edge of, as a lay secretary to five separate popes, are fun if occasionally gruesome reading. Greenblatt traces Poggio's progress in becoming a "book hunter" among distant German monasteries, then in discovering De Rerum Natura and managing to wrestle it away from the monks so it could be copied. We pause to explore thoroughly some of the concepts in the poem, and this is where The Swerve comes in: Lucretius espoused the RADICAL belief, as Epicurus did, that all things in creation are made up of small building blocks, too tiny to see with the naked eye, called atomi. These in turn move around the universe making and unmaking things, and a change in direction of an atom is known as a "swerve".
At absolutely unpredictable times and places they deflect slightly from their straight course, to a degree that could be described as no more than a shift of movement. --p. 188, quoting De Rerum Natura
The swerve, in the end, isn't as impressive to me as the use of atomi to reduce humanity's place in the universe while still glorifying the existence of the univers as a whole.
...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 escape from the constant making and unmaking and remaking of forms. [...] What human beings can and should do, Lucretius 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. --p. 6
From there, once we wrap up the rest of Poggio's life, Greenblatt follows the poem's influence onward, to Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Galileo, and others. He makes a pretty good case for it, so I have no complaint there. I have no real complaint about the book in general except that I think it rather misrepresents itself in the marketing. Being fair, "A History of Poggio Bracciolini and an Ancient Epicurean Poem" is not something that draws the crowds.
At the games in the Colosseum one day, the historian Tacitus had a conversation on literature with a perfect stranger who turned out to have read his works. Culture was no longer located in close-knit circles [...]; Tacitus was encountering his "public" in the form of someone who had bought his book at a stall in the Forum or read it in a library. --p. 63
Because it was a philosophy that denounced the immortality of the soul and the involvement of gods in man's everyday life (if, they said, gods even existed) Epicureanism was basically stamped out by Christian asceticism in the first few centuries of the common era, and continued to be stamped on by medieval Catholicism when De Rerum Natura resurfaced in the 15th century.
Just when the gods had ceased to be, and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone. -- p. 71, quoting Gustave Flaubert
Essentially one walks away with the feeling that ancient Christians have a lot to fucking answer for.
Hypatia's support for Orestes' refusal to expel the city's Jewish population may help to explain what happened next [...] Hypatia was pulled from her chariot and taken to a church that was formerly a temple to the emperor. There, after she was stripped of her clothing, her skin was flayed off with broken bits of pottery. The mob then dragged her corpse outside the city walls and burned it. Their hero Cyril was eventually made a saint.--p. 93
Religions always promise hope and love, but their deep, underlying structure is cruelty. This is why they are drawn to fantasies of retribution. The quintessential emblem of religion [...] is the sacrifice of a child by a parent. Writing around 50 BCE Lucretius could not, of course, have anticipated the great sacrifice myth that would come to dominate the Western world, but he would not have been surprised by it. --p. 194, interpreting De Rerum Natura
There are some great anecdotes and facts nestled in the book. Machiavelli eventually made a copy of De Rerum Natura, which is kind of awesome and perfect; even better, it's now in the Vatican Library.
Every man waits his destined hour; even the cities are doomed to their fate. -- p. 153, quoting Poggio
Final Verdict: While I was hoping for a little more about modern history, and a bit less about medieval Italy, I can't say I minded; Greenblatt is an engaging writer and he tells the story well, and anyway it's not like I'm not interested in the roots of the Renaissance. It's worth picking up if you're a history buff, and particularly if you're interested in following a single idea through the passage of time.
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