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The Swerve

April 21, 2013

I always thought I received an above-average education from my rural Pennsylvania high school and from the state college just a few miles away. After all, many people I met after college didn’t seem to know much or care about literature, music, art, language, or history, not to the extent that I did. Yet, as I made my way in the world, I learned that I was sorely deficient in one area: classical antiquitySwerve_TipIn_FINAL.indd. I had no clue whether Virgil was Greek or Roman; whether Aristophanes wrote in the same century as Sophocles or Euripides, much less what they wrote; who sent the big wooden horse into Troy; why Rome was a republic but all the leaders seemed to be emperors; what Plato said that was different from Socrates; and I hadn’t even heard of Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, or Lucretius.

I picked up some info along the way, and, being increasingly curious about what I didn’t know, I began to learn a little here and there. Then my daughter went off to Reed College, where every freshman is required to learn about the Greeks in the fall semester and the Romans in the spring semester. Like many Reed parents, I was envious of what she’d learn, so I began doing a little reading on my own: The Odyssey, The Iliad, The Aeneid, Herodotus’ Histories. I even read a condensed version of Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (he wrote six big volumes), which helped me understand how Rome was a republic and an empire. All very fine, except I had no one to put any of these classics into context for me.

Until now.

In his wonderful, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award–winning book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Stephen Greenblatt helpfully describes much of the world I’d never learned about: the ancient Greeks, the ancient Romans, Epicurean philosophy, Stoicism, the development of early Christianity, paganism, papal courts, medieval religious orders, and more. For that alone, I’d rate this book high on my list.

But Greenblatt isn’t my classics professor (would that he were!), and he’s telling a specific story. That story involves the search for lost ancient books by intellectuals in the early Renaissance period, particularly one Poggio Bracciolini, a papal clerk who found Lucretius’ lost masterpiece, “On the Nature of Things” (De rerum natura). It seems that Lucretius was an ardent follower of Epicurus, a Greek philosopher who espoused a life in pursuit of pleasure, believing that the gods didn’t care about us mortals and therefore didn’t offer us life after death. Lucretius gave that idea its own immortality in what many believe (including Greenblatt) is an exquisite poem that astonishes us moderns with its foresight and insight. (More on that in a minute.)

Unfortunately, time and nature do their thing, and Lucretius’ poem, although owned by many in ancient Rome, is lost to history. Greenblatt helps us understand how that could have happened, as he relates the story of Rome’s demise, particularly its cultural relics, at the hands of the newly powerful Christians. (It seems the pagan Romans had oppressed the early Christians for so long that, when Christianity became popular and Rome’s emperors began following the new religion, the tables were turned.) Rome’s pagan gods were chased underground and so was its culture, including books and philosophy. Monks and scribes had copied many of the Roman books, of course, but the messages in them were dangerous now, so they were gathered and hoarded, locked away into monasteries where they couldn’t be read or discussed.

Until some well-placed Roman and papal intellectuals in the 14th and 15th centuries began hunting for them, finding them, and sharing their discoveries with each other. At first, they’re cautious in sharing the dangerous texts, but then the ideas in them bubble over into what was quickly becoming the Renaissance, and all bets were off. Once returned to intellectual discussion, the poem’s ideas about atomism—the belief that everything in the universe is made of tiny particles in constant motion, that “swerve”; about evolution over intelligent design (prefiguring Darwin); about heliocentrism (prefiguring Copernicus); and about the nonexistence of an afterlife took hold cautiously but steadily gained status with intellectuals and, says Greenblatt, presaged what we think of as the modern world. (Note: My list is hardly inclusive of what Greenblatt itemized, and he says his is hardly inclusive of Lucretius. Talk about mind-blowing!)

At the end of the book Greenblatt outlines the astonishing effect on humanity of Lucretius’ poem by tracing its influence through a short cultural history of science, literature, philosophy, and religion, citing works by and ideas from Niccolo Machiavelli, Erasmus, Thomas More, Giordano Bruno, Galileo Galilei, Michel de Montaigne, William Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, and Thomas Jefferson.

There’s so much more to learn from this book, and probably so much more that you could take from it that I missed. It’s definitely one to put on your list and savor. My only regret at its conclusion is that I had finished probably the best book I’ll read in 2013, and everything else will pale in comparison.

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2 Comments
  1. Chris Mills permalink

    Reblogged this on Tales From the Landing Book Shelves and commented:
    This book was mentioned in a post that I re-blogged from Interesting Literature. The writer of this blog urged me to get around to reading The Swerve, so I may have to move it up the pecking order. This also means yet again tackling the technical issue of reading books that aren’t actually part of the Landing Bookshelves backlog. But, I’m pretty sure I gave myself a generous exclusion clause…

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