Book of the week: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

According to Greenblatt, Western culture would have been very different if the last surviving copy of On the Nature of Things by the Roman poet Lucretius had never been discovered.

(Norton, $27)

“Poggio Bracciolini is the most important man you’ve never heard of,” said Maria Popova in A 15th-century book hunter, the onetime papal secretary was perhaps the most adept of a small group of Renaissance-era scholars who devoted themselves to locating copies of lost ancient Greek and Roman works. One of Poggio’s finds just may have “changed the course of human thought.” Having used his guile to talk his way into a Benedictine abbey in southern Germany, he came upon the sole surviving copy of On the Nature of Things, a 7,500-line work by the Roman poet Lucretius. In Stephen Greenblatt’s “utterly absorbing” new book, that discovery seems to mark the very birth of modernity.

Some of Greenblatt’s claims about the poem’s significance “are more convincing than others,” said Daniel Swift in the Financial Times. It was full of dangerous ideas, chief among them that the world we see is composed of moving atoms and that change is caused by the unpredictable “swerves” of those particles. This was primarily a notion inherited from the Greek philosopher Epicurus, whose teachings also convinced Lucretius that no god directs the universe, that the soul has no afterlife, and that enhancing pleasure is the individual’s optimal life goal. But when it comes time for Greenblatt to show how Lucretius’s poem directly influenced Renaissance thinkers, this book “feels oddly rushed,” as if Greenblatt expects the argument to stand on “charisma rather than evidence.” How much does it really mean that Thomas Jefferson owned at least five copies of On the Nature of Things?

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“Greenblatt is no stranger to finessing the historical record,” said Laura Miller in His previous popular history, Will in the World, was openly a work of speculation, spinning the few known facts about William Shakespeare into a “charming meditation” on the playwright’s life. Greenblatt here is not “as forthright about the liberties he’s taken” in making it appear as if Poggio’s eureka moment shaped the entire Renaissance. The more important story, though, is how a nearly extinct school of ancient thought—Epicureanism—managed to weave itself into Western culture “despite being antithetical to the dominant beliefs of that culture.” The Swerve doesn’t just relate that tale concisely; it makes the journey “pretty darn scenic.”

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