Jeffrey Keeten's Reviews > The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt
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May 04, 2012

it was amazing
Recommended to Jeffrey by: Richard Derus
Read from July 20 to 22, 2012

"When we say...that pleasure is the end and aim of life, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not by an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry, not by sexual lust, nor the enjoyment of fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul." ---Epicurus

I haven't read a book in a long time that has introduced me to so many historical figures to admire. Some of that is born out of my own ignorance, but the wonderful thing about ignorance is I have the means to dismiss it. I have heard of Hypatia and last year even watched a movie based on her life called Agora starring the lovely Rachel Weisz. I have brushed up against Epicurus and Lucretius, but they are mere footnotes on other files logged sporadically in the dim halls of my memories.

Photobucket
Epicurus

 photo Lucretius.jpg
Lucretius

I had no reference to tell me what colossal figures they are, bearing brilliant ideas that give footing to my own paltry concepts of my own life philosophy.

If I were to dig out my time machine that I was tinkering with way back during a Stephen King review http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/... and decide to take a trip back to 1417; invariably, as we know despite my best efforts something would go wrong and I would be stuck there. I could only hope I could find Poggio Bracciolini and tag along with him as he "became a midwife to modernity". Poggio in 1417 finds himself unemployed. Most recently he had been Apostolic Scriptor for the pope. His boss had been defrocked and thrown in jail and given the circumstances had no more need of his services.

Poggio short on funds, but long on bibliophilic desire is searching for lost books. He is a charmer and he has to be to convince monks to allow him to poke among the dusty remains of ancient texts in their libraries. Luckily there was a time when Christians were curious about the world beyond the bible and had copied and preserved even those texts that they found to be contrary to their own beliefs. That time is past and in the 1400s those texts had not been recopied and were vulnerable to bugs, damp, and abuse. Poggio in one such monastery finds a book that was so dangerous that it had been nearly eradicated. On the Nature of Things by Lucretius expounded the views of Epicurus in an epic poem so lovely that even St. Jerome despite it's views so counter to his struggling beliefs could not resist reading it. If the monastery had really know what it was and that they were the protectorate of such a book I'm sure they would have used it to light a hot fire under the next heretic.

To give you an example of where Christian thinking was at the time. Saint Benedict wandering along a path thinking pious thoughts one day suddenly had the image of a desirable woman intrude upon his heavenly internal discourse and found himself aroused. Oh my what to do what to do.

He then noticed a thick patch of nettles and briers next to him. Throwing his garment aside he flung himself into the sharp thorns and stinging nettles. There he rolled and tossed until his whole body was in pain and covered with blood. Yet, once he had conquered pleasure through suffering, his torn and bleeding skin served to drain the poison of temptation from his body. Before long, the pain that was burning his whole body had put out the fires of evil in his heart. It was by exchanging these two fires that he gained the victory over sin.

In one of the great cultural transformations in the history of the West, the pursuit of pain triumphed over the pursuit of pleasure.

It leaves little doubt why women get such a bad shake in Christian religion given that the natural desire that a man may feel for a woman is considered EVIL. Let's see the Epicurean table is right over there excuse me. I'm with those guys.

The Way Things Are. If you are like me and have not read Lucretius do not let that keep you from reading this book. Greenblatt provides a list of the principle components addressed in the book with further explanation than what I'm providing in this review.

*Everything is made of invisible particles.
*The elementary particles of matter-"the seeds of things"-are eternal.
*The elementary particles are infinite in number but limited in shape and size.
*All particles are in motion in an infinite void.
*Everything comes into being as a result of the swerve.
*Nature ceaselessly experiments.
*The universe was not created for or about humans.
*Humans are not unique.
*Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival.
*The soul dies...(ehh gads that will get you a quick trip to the flaming wood pile.)
*There is no afterlife...(they can only burn you once.)
*Death is nothing to us.
*All organized religions are superstitious delusions.
*Religions are invariably cruel.
*There are no angels, demons, or ghosts.
*The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain. (avoid nettles and briers for example.)
*The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion.
*Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder.


Now after skimming this list either you are looking for the dislike button, which luckily for us poor reviewers is not available, or you are intrigued and want to read more. I would suggest that even if you do find some of the ideas on this list abhorrent still read this book. My brain was churning like a frozen Margarita mixer in a Mexican bar on a Friday night while reading this book. It is okay to read about things that you disagree with. It is okay to doubt your beliefs or reformat your thoughts or even change your mind. My father-in-law, Texas Baptist, refused to read The Da Vinci Code, but he called my wife to ask her what it was about. His beliefs are obviously so fragile he cannot take the chance that a fiction writer of dubious talent might create doubt.

I had sticky notes stuck to other sticky notes filled with sketchy bits of my handwriting (Poggio would be appalled at the state of my handwriting.) with wonderful quotes that I had fully intended to share with my goodreads friends, but the book is only 263 pages and I literally had notes for nearly every page that would have ballooned this review beyond anybody's patience level. Besides you are going to read this book right?

Poggio
Poggio Bracciolini

I'm going to end with a book curse that Greenblatt shared that I intend to tuck into every book I lend out to "friends" from now on.

For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with palsy, and all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying aloud for mercy, and let there be no surcease to his agony till he sing in dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, and when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him forever.

That ought to get their attention.

I leave you fair friends to return to my ivory tower, the walls thick with books, a Royals baseball game playing in the background. My pursuit of pleasure has begun.

If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visit http://www.jeffreykeeten.com
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Comments (showing 1-50 of 87) (87 new)


Robert Pannell Greenblatt is my hero. It will be well worth your time.


Jeffrey Keeten Robert wrote: "Greenblatt is my hero. It will be well worth your time."

Thanks Robert. I'm putting this on my next book order.


Jeffrey Keeten Moonbutterfly wrote: "I wish I was retired. I would spend most of my time reading. I'm looking forward to reading this one as well."

Alas, Moonbutterfly, I must work to pay for my book habit.


message 4: by Jim (new) - added it

Jim Looks great to me too!


Jeffrey Keeten Moonbutterfly wrote: "Oh I hope you didn't think I meant you were old. I'm only a few years behind you."

No, no I didn't take it that way at all, but I'm still many years away from retirement. I do feel like fine wine...getting better with age. I really liked my 30s and I'm loving my forties I hope you are as well.


Jeffrey Keeten Jim wrote: "Looks great to me too!"

Richard's review convinced me I need to move this up the queue.


message 7: by Jim (new) - added it

Jim Jeffrey wrote: "Richard's review convinced me I need to move this up the queue."

I will head over in that direction, and thanks for the mention.

My problem is that the queue is a revolving door. I did dust off the Faulkner collection last night, and the attraction was just as I suspected. But I am so fragmented right now that I tend to just stand and admire the candy...


message 8: by Diane (new) - added it

Diane Barnes I've heard great things about this one from friends. Can't wait to read your review.


message 9: by Kris (new) - added it

Kris I have had this on my e-book virtual tbr pile for a while. I'm looking forward to your review!


message 10: by Traveller (new) - added it

Traveller Ooh, yes, what Kris said!


message 11: by Diane (new) - added it

Diane Barnes Ok, now I have to move it up the list!


message 12: by [deleted user] (new)

I read and loved Lucretius "On the Nature of Things" last year. I read Greenblatt's impressive "Will in the World" this January. I have wanted to read this ever since seeing the author on Charlie Rose and realizing that it was a near-run-thing that we even have a copy of Lucretius to read. Great review as usual, Jeffrey


Richard Derus Well said, Monsignor Keeten!


message 14: by Kris (new) - added it

Kris This is a wonderful, heartfelt review, Jeffrey - I love the clear affection as you write about Poggio. I'm definitely reading this soon.

At some point, if you haven't already, you may find it interesting to read about the 12th-Century Renaissance, a period that will introduce you to an earlier group of Poggios, committed to scholarship and rediscovering classical writers after a long period of violence in Europe was over. The classic work is The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century, and the more recent collection Renaissance And Renewal In The Twelfth Century is another favorite.


Jeffrey Keeten Diane wrote: "Ok, now I have to move it up the list!"

It has the Keeten guarantee (okay dubious credentials) attached. I know you will like it Diane.


Jeffrey Keeten Steve wrote: "I read and loved Lucretius "On the Nature of Things" last year. I read Greenblatt's impressive "Will in the World" this January. I have wanted to read this ever since seeing the author on Charlie..."

Thank you Steve! I plan to read more Greenblatt. He does an excellent job crystallizing ideas.


Jeffrey Keeten Richard wrote: "Well said, Monsignor Keeten!"

Thank you Monsignor Derus your review inspired me to get to this sooner rather than later. It is always a good sign when I finish reading a book and wonder if I shouldn't just go ahead and reread it now.


Jeffrey Keeten Kris wrote: "This is a wonderful, heartfelt review, Jeffrey - I love the clear affection as you write about Poggio. I'm definitely reading this soon.

At some point, if you haven't already, you may find it inte..."


Thank you Kris. I definitely feel affection for Poggio. The group you are talking about I think must be the ones that referred to themselves as Humanists. Thanks for the recommendations. I have added the books to my list. I plan to readThe Renaissance Popes: Statesmen, Warriors and the Great Borgia Myth soon. Those popes were bad, bad boys.


message 19: by Jim (new) - added it

Jim Great review, Jeffrey! You make a very powerful case for both the book and the philosophy. You and Richard together are an overwhelming force!

I may have said this on Richard's review thread - the prescience of the statements about particles and physical reality by Epicurus and Lucretius are nothing short of remarkable. These in particular are rather stunning:

*Everything is made of invisible particles.
*Nature ceaselessly experiments.
*The universe was not created for or about humans.
*Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder.

The last one would pass for a credo in my book.

Having said that, I think I can see tongues of righteous flame encircling you, so do please be careful, my friend... You are several hundred miles from Westboro, am I right?


Jeffrey Keeten Jim wrote: "Great review, Jeffrey! You make a very powerful case for both the book and the philosophy. You and Richard together are an overwhelming force!

I may have said this on Richard's review thread - the..."


I am 271 miles exactly away from the Westboro fanatics. It would be an honor, though annoying, to be picketed or assaulted by a crazy religious organization. My "saving grace" is the fact that I'm sure they don't read and would have no reason to ever see my review on goodreads. I'm sure one of my brilliant goodreads lawyer friends would figure out a way to save me from earthly (Westboro inspired) damnation.

Epicurus and Lucretius are amazing and their philosophy dovetails so nicely with my own. Amazing to think of these ideas being formulated that long ago. Culturally we've spent a lot of time going backwards or at best standing still. I'm sure you will love this book Jim. Thanks!


message 21: by Traveller (last edited Jul 24, 2012 03:05AM) (new) - added it

Traveller OOH, it looks even better than i had expected! Thanks for a wonderful review, Jeffrey!

I can't wait until i can get this one to the top of my list!


Jeffrey Keeten Traveller wrote: "OOH, it looks even better than i had expected! Thanks for a wonderful review, Jeffrey!

I can't wait until i can this one to the top of my list!"


Thank you, thank you Miss Traveller. It was a fun review to write although as a credit to the book I had way too much material to work with. I can almost guarantee you that you will love it. I will look forward to your review.


message 23: by Steve (new) - added it

Steve Great job, Jeffrey. When I put this one on my to-read list, I noticed Will in the World was on there, too. This Greenblatt guy must be good!


message 24: by Jim (new) - added it

Jim Jeffrey wrote: "I am 271 miles exactly away from the Westboro fanatics. It would be an honor, though annoying, to be picketed or assaulted by a crazy religious organization. My "saving grace" is the fact that I'm sure they don't read and would have no reason to ever see my review on goodreads. I'm sure one of my brilliant goodreads lawyer friends would figure out a way to save me from earthly (Westboro inspired) damnation.

Epicurus and Lucretius are amazing and their philosophy dovetails so nicely with my own. Amazing to think of these ideas being formulated that long ago. Culturally we've spent a lot of time going backwards or at best standing still. I'm sure you will love this book Jim. Thanks!..."


So of course I missed the update on this, since there were no updates for most of yesterday. But thanks for the great response, Jeffrey, and I am definitely looking forward to reading this one very soon!

It is amazing, all the backward/sideways movement in our culture. Let's try not to think too much about that in this long, hot summer.


Robert Pannell Wonderful Review Jeffery.


Jeffrey Keeten Robert wrote: "Wonderful Review Jeffery."

Thank you Robert! It was truly an inspiring book to read.


Jillian Haas This is just what I've been looking for! Thanks for the fantastic review!


Jeffrey Keeten Chance wrote: "This is just what I've been looking for! Thanks for the fantastic review!"

Thank you Chance! This is without a doubt one of the best nonfiction books I've read in years. I hope you like it as much as I do.


Steve I was deeply impressed with this book. Thanks for your insightful and detailed review. I have to look at your other reviews. The book was a find, and so was your review.


Jeffrey Keeten Steve wrote: "I was deeply impressed with this book. Thanks for your insightful and detailed review. I have to look at your other reviews. The book was a find, and so was your review."

Thank you Steve! It was an inspiration book to review. I intend to read more Greenblatt. I have a feeling his other work will be equally amazing.


Steve Jeffrey wrote: "Steve wrote: "I was deeply impressed with this book. Thanks for your insightful and detailed review. I have to look at your other reviews. The book was a find, and so was your review."

Thank you S..."


This was my first book by Greenblatt, history being a notable deficiency in my education. I'll be reading more of his work. Thanks, again.


message 32: by Rowena (new) - added it

Rowena Wow, great review! I added this book a while back, it was recommended to me by an Epicurean. I think it may have to go on my shortlist now:)


Jeffrey Keeten Rowena wrote: "Wow, great review! I added this book a while back, it was recommended to me by an Epicurean. I think it may have to go on my shortlist now:)"

Thank you Rowena! You will love this book. In my opinion, we all need a bit more Epicurean thinking in our lives


message 34: by Rowena (new) - added it

Rowena I have an Epicurus reader, I may read that this weekend :)


message 35: by Caroline (new)

Caroline Utterly superb. I keep jabbing away at the like button but it only works once.... Shame. This review deserves at least five likes and some protracted applause.

Thank you for listing Lucretius's wise tenets - they made for a fascinating read.

As always I loved the images you have chosen too. The one of Poggio Bracciolini looks amazingly modern, yet it looks like it came from an illustrated manuscript. Wonderful!


Jeffrey Keeten Caroline wrote: "Utterly superb. I keep jabbing away at the like button but it only works once.... Shame. This review deserves at least five likes and some protracted applause.

Thank you for listing Lucret..."


Thank you Caroline! I hope you get a chance to read this book. It was not only well written, but fun and potentially a life altering experience for most readers.


message 37: by Cathy (last edited Jul 04, 2013 07:28AM) (new) - added it

Cathy DuPont Jeff:

This is definitely one of those books I would pass up because I would be afraid I would not understand it and have to study every sentence to grasp the message. Not so, according to your review, therefore a big thank you is in order.

My favorite part of your review though, was (what)"...a man may feel for a woman is considered EVIL. Let's see the Epicurean table is right over there excuse me. I'm with those guys."

Apparently you've been reading Proverbs: “I know on which side my bread is buttered”!

Your excellent review made the book sound so readable, therefore it's on my BOLO list, which is, thanks to your reviews, growing faster than my TBR list.


Jeffrey Keeten Cathy wrote: "Jeff:

This is definitely one of those books I would pass up because I would be afraid I would not understand it and have to study every sentence to grasp the message. Not so, according to your re..."


Greenblatt is a great writer, very accessible. You will have no problems reading this book. I need to read the rest of his books. I have a special knack for knowing what side my bread is buttered on. haha Thanks for reading my review Cathy.


message 39: by Sue (new) - added it

Sue I have this book, Jeffrey. Now to get to it! Love the review and especially the curse at the end. Do you have a spell to locate books lent in the past?


Jeffrey Keeten Sue wrote: "I have this book, Jeffrey. Now to get to it! Love the review and especially the curse at the end. Do you have a spell to locate books lent in the past?"

Wow don't I wish! It would be nice to have one that located the book and as the book levitated out of the possession of it's kidnapper that it popped that person in the back of the head on the way out the door.


Jeffrey Keeten Peepee/Kaka wrote: "it looks like a great book"

It is fascinating!


message 42: by Lynne (last edited Dec 04, 2013 01:08AM) (new)

Lynne King A beautiful review Jeffrey, especially "By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul."

I need that and that's for sure.

I'm rather interested in Hypatia. That used to be Scribble's avatar but I see she's changed it.


Jeffrey Keeten Lynne wrote: "A beautiful review Jeffrey, especially "By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul."

I need that and that's for sure.

I'm rather interested in Hypatia. That us..."


I think we all struggle with pain of the body which sometimes leads to trouble in the soul. I know I have certainly been given some thought of late to whether I've done enough or am doing enough with my life.

Have you seen the film Agora starring Rachel Weisz as Hypatia?

Thank you Lynne!


Jeffrey Keeten Lynne wrote: "A beautiful review Jeffrey, especially "By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul."

I need that and that's for sure.

I'm rather interested in Hypatia. That us..."


I think we all struggle with pain of the body which sometimes leads to trouble in the soul. I know I have certainly been given some thought of late to whether I've done enough or am doing enough with my life.

Have you seen the film Agora starring Rachel Weisz as Hypatia?

Thank you Lynne!


David Lafferty Is it just me? although the story was fascinating, I thought the writing bogged down about halfway. Good review though.


Jeffrey Keeten David wrote: "Is it just me? although the story was fascinating, I thought the writing bogged down about halfway. Good review though."

I must have rafted over that part. :-) Thank you David! I'm glad you still enjoyed the book though.


message 47: by Lynne (last edited Dec 04, 2013 08:05AM) (new)

Lynne King Jeffrey wrote: "Lynne wrote: "A beautiful review Jeffrey, especially "By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul."

I need that and that's for sure.

I'm rather interested in Hy..."


No I haven't seen the film Jeffrey and I see that it is available on DVD but not bluray. Is it worth getting?


Jeffrey Keeten Lynne wrote: "Jeffrey wrote: "Lynne wrote: "A beautiful review Jeffrey, especially "By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul."

I need that and that's for sure.

I'm rather ..."


I don't know if it is worth owning, but it is worth seeing. When I saw it I had no idea beyond the fact that this woman existed, so it was great info for me. Remarkable woman!


message 49: by Lawyer (new)

Lawyer JK, I can't believe I missed this review the first time around. It must have been on one of my rambling travels. Nevertheless, I'm most pleased to have found it. Would that we had the ability to enclose ourselves in an ivory tower at will, surrounded by our library that brings us such satisfaction and solace. This is a fascinating review of Lucretius and his place in the modern era. I, too, took an instant liking to Poggio. Adore the book curse referenced by Greenblatt.


Jeffrey Keeten Mike wrote: "JK, I can't believe I missed this review the first time around. It must have been on one of my rambling travels. Nevertheless, I'm most pleased to have found it. Would that we had the ability to..."

I'm sure you have room on your reading stack for one more? Have the Queen stand back, way back, when you do so. These teetering piles that we all have. :-) The next time someone wishes to borrow a book you might give them a copy of the curse. It may help the book to return to you. Thanks Mike for not only being my friend, but also being the 100th person to like this review. I hope all 100 people/bots get a chance to read this book!!!


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