Stephen Greenblatt – The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

Stephen Greenblatt – The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

This book-about-a-book is a colorful history of Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things with the larger purpose of shedding light on the origins of modernity. Lucretius argued for a materialist view of science and philosophy that has far more in common with modern thought than with early Christian doctrine.

Perhaps not coincidentally, On the Nature of Things was nearly lost for nearly a millennium. During this long post-Roman dormant period, Lucretius was occasionally copied by monks and forgotten by the secular public. But a nascent humanist movement led to a growing number of book-hunters interested in finding and reviving old texts.

This movement eventually became the Renaissance, and Lucretius was unknowingly one of its leading intellectual inspirations. As far as afterlives go, Lucretius has had a good one.

Greenblatt writes well, and his accounts of the early humanist bookhunters and their interactions with disinterested monks in their monasteries are particularly vivid, though the contrast between the two camps was probably not quite as dramatic as he portrays it. He also has a good eye for the big picture, and traces the arc of Lucretius’ influence over an impossibly long timeframe. If you ever doubt the power of books, Greenblatt puts up a strong affirmative case.

The Swerve would pair well with Christpher Krebs’ similar but rather darker A Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus’s Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich.


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