Seamus Thompson's Reviews > The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt
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Apr 06, 12

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Read from October 23 to 26, 2011

More like 3.5 stars. This is a broad history with a specific moment at its core: the moment that Poggio Bracciolini, an early renaissance scholar and bookhunter, found a copy of Lucretius' epic poem The Nature of Things. Lucretius argues that the world was made of atoms, that the Gods were so distant they played no real roles in our lives, that the only way for people to achieve happiness is to abandon superstition and seek a life of pleasure without thoughts of a non-existent afterlife, etc. Lucretius' poem had been lost for 1000 years when it was re-discovered by Poggio in a German monastery.

The sections on Lucretius and his re-working of the Epicurian belief system are fascinating, as are the chapters in which Greenblatt traces the influence of The Nature of Things from Bruno and Galileo to Montaigne and Newton and even to The Declaration of Independence. I was less interested in the lengthy middle section that focused on Poggio himself, particularly the political climate during his time as secretary to pope John XXIII (who was later stripped of his title). The further Greenblatt's book veers from The Nature of Things (as poem, as rare manuscript, as the genesis of what we now call secular humanism) the more he tends to focus on Poggio who could easily be the subject of a separate book but is also less interesting than the text he re-discovered.

Still, well worth reading and filled with fascinating little details -- ie that monks used a combination milk, lime juice, and cheese as a sort of whiteout when they needed to correct an error in a manuscript they were copying.
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Reynold Byers Uh, those chapters outlining the "connections" were the worst part of the book. They were less than thinly supported and the declaration of independence claim comes close to being spurious.


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