Stephen Greenblatt is a prominent Harvard professor and a Shakespeare scholar. His previous work, Will of the World, about William Shakespeare won the National Book Award. The premise of his new book is that the ancient Latin poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) by the Epicurian philosopher Tutus Lucretius Caro, caused the world to swerve in a new, more enlightened direction.
The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt is the tale of a first century humanist and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a strong seller on Amazon.
There are chapters in this piece of nonfiction that I enjoyed more than I’ve enjoyed anything I’ve read in years. The book hunters who scoured the monasteries and religious institutions searching for ancient Greek and Roman texts is breathtaking. On the Nature of Things in one such work found in a German monastery. It was discovered by a Florentine book lover and personal secretary for the Pope named Poggio Braccionlini. One of Poggio’s gifts was his beautiful handwriting that he used to transcribe books, but his more important talent was his love of ancient writing and passion for discovering and preserving them.
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It’s unfortunate there were not more Poggios; ninety-nine percent of classical fiction and nonfiction has been lost. The way many of these ancient texts disappeared makes you want to weep; many times by plunderers with no sense of the value of books; religious fanatics who found the classics heretical; mobs of fools who burned libraries; or, one of the most persistent enemies of papyrus, bookworms.
What I found most incredible about Lucretious’s poem is that two thousand years ago he wrote that the world is made of swirling atoms in a void and nothing more. There is no heaven, hell or God, just these constantly moving particles. And he states that pleasure is the highest pursuit in life. That pain is the principle evil to be combated.
Greenblatt gives little evidence that De Rerum Natura changed the world or significantly brought on the Renaissance or even caused a medium tilt in a new direction. The poem is fascinating, but it was not widely circulated or known.There is plenty of history and papal intrigue to keep you turning the page. At times The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt does bog down in detail, but the story is important and well worth reading and preserving.
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