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The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
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“The ideas in The Swerve are tucked, cannily, inside a quest narrative. . . . The details that Mr. Greenblatt supplies throughout The Swerve are tangy and exact. . . . There is abundant evidence here of what is Mr. Greenblatt’s great and rare gift as a writer: an ability, to borrow a phrase from The Swerve, to feel fully 'the concentrated force of the buried past.'”
- New York Times
“In this gloriously learned page-turner, both biography and intellectual history, Harvard Shakespearean scholar Greenblatt turns his attention to the front end of the Renaissance as the origin of Western culture's foundation: the free questioning of truth.”
- starred review, Publishers Weekly
“More wonderfully illuminating Renaissance history from a master scholar and historian.”
- starred review, Kirkus Reviews
“In The Swerve, the literary historian Stephen Greenblatt investigates why [Lucretius'] book nearly dies, how it was saved and what its rescue means to us.”
- Sarah Bakewell, New York Times Book Reivew
“In this outstandingly constructed assessment of the birth of philosophical modernity, renowned Shakespeare scholar Greenblatt deftly transports reader to the dawn of the Renaissance...Readers from across the humanities will find this enthralling account irresistible.”
- starred review, Library Journal
“Every tale of the preservation of intellectual history should be as rich and satisfying as Stephen Greenblatt's history of the reclamation and acclamation of Lucretius's De rerum natura from obscurity.”
- John McFarland, Shelf Awareness
“It's fascinating to watch Greenblatt trace the dissemination of these ideas through 15th-century Europe and beyond, thanks in good part to Bracciolini's recovery of Lucretius' poem.”
“But Swerve is an intense, emotional telling of a true story, one with much at stake for all of us. And the further you read, the more astonishing it becomes. It's a chapter in how we became what we are, how we arrived at the worldview of the present. No one can tell the whole story, but Greenblatt seizes on a crucial pivot, a moment of recovery, of transmission, as amazing as anything in fiction.”
- Philadelphia Inquirer
“[The Swerve] is thrilling, suspenseful tale that left this reader inspired and full of questions about the ongoing project known as human civilization.”
- Boston Globe
“Can a poem change the world? Harvard professor and bestselling Shakespeare biographer Greenblatt ably shows in this mesmerizing intellectual history that it can. A richly entertaining read about a radical ancient Roman text that shook Renaissance Europe and inspired shockingly modern ideas (like the atom) that still reverberate today.”
About the Author
Stephen Greenblatt (Ph.D. Yale) is Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. Also General Editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, he is the author of eleven books, including Tyrant, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve: The Story that Created Us, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (winner of the 2011 National Book Award and the 2012 Pulitzer Prize); Shakespeare's Freedom; Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare; Hamlet in Purgatory; Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World; Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture; and Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. He has edited seven collections of criticism, including Cultural Mobility: A Manifesto, and is a founding coeditor of the journal Representations. His honors include the MLA’s James Russell Lowell Prize, for both Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England and The Swerve, the Sapegno Prize, the Distinguished Humanist Award from the Mellon Foundation, the Wilbur Cross Medal from the Yale University Graduate School, the William Shakespeare Award for Classical Theatre, the Erasmus Institute Prize, two Guggenheim Fellowships, and the Distinguished Teaching Award from the University of California, Berkeley. He was president of the Modern Language Association of America and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
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First, a thorough biography of the Italian politician and humanist Poggio Braccilioni, who rose from a humble origin to become a papal secretary (a powerbroker in the corrupt XV century Vatican court), and, who, at the same time, driven by a passion for ancient books, uncovered, transcript and recovered the manuscript of On the Nature of Things, a timeless masterpiece written by the Latin poet Lucretius two millennials ago.
Second, a historical study showing how the ideas of Epicurus and other pagan thinkers about the natural word and the centrality of pleasure were replaced and superseded by Christian doctrines about the divine providence and the centrality of suffering. “Life on this earth is all that human beings have,” wrote Epicurus. Christians thought otherwise, insisted in other worlds and (we all know well) brought about much misery. Early Christians portrayed Epicurus as a callous and dangerous hedonist. Sadly, for humanity, Christians sided with suffering. They promoted chastity, self-flagellation, and pleasure avoidance. In the author’s words, “Christianity conjoined divine humiliation and pain with an arrogant triumphalism.”
And third, a story of renaissance, of the revival of a set of classical ideas about life and the natural world, triggered in part by Poggio’s discovery of Lucretius’ masterpiece. On the Nature of Things was cited by Montaigne, mentioned by Shakespeare, and read by Thomas Jefferson, among many other thinkers of the enlightenment. In Greenblatt’s interpretation, Lucretius was also a precursor of Charles Darwin and his unsettling view of the world. “All living beings, from plants and insects to the higher mammals and man, have evolved through a long, complex process of trial and error. The process involves many false starts and dead ends, monsters, prodigies, mistakes, creatures that were not endowed with all the features that they needed to compete for resources and to create offspring.” Lucretius (to use Sean Carroll’s felicitous phrase) represents poetic naturalism at its best, with a caveat: he wrote two thousand years ago.
I have only one complain about this book. Greenblatt overplayed the role of Lucretius in helping to unsettle and transform the world. The poem is indeed unsettling. No doubt the idea of human insignificance disturbed the monopoly of the tellers of fables who dominated the Middle ages. Poggio even rejected the main message of On the Nature of Things. But an old manuscript in and of itself doesn’t change the world. Be what it may, we must celebrate the amazing affinity between Lucretius and the main minds of the modern world.