Monday, 16 January 2012

Book: The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt

(Image from
Score: 4/5
While I was researching for my democracy essay, I learned that during the Renaissance period there was a shift in art form and societies to focus more on humans and their experiences rather than the stories of gods.  I kept wondering – how did this shift happen, and how did this contribute to cultural values of our time, the modern world?  This was my motivation for reading The Swerve.
This book is about how Poggio Bracciolini, a book hunter in the 15th century, discovered an ancient Greek poem On the Nature of Things written by Lucretius.  This poem and the discovery of other ancient Roman and Greek texts laid the foundation for the mainstream thoughts of the Renaissance.
Europe in the Medieval times was very repressive.  The Church had much power and often influenced matter of the state.  It persecuted many who contradicted its teachings.  Curiosity was frowned upon, as Adam and Eve committed their sin out of curiosity.  The pursuit of pain is viewed as the way to a better afterlife, just as Jesus had suffered for eventual glory.  Discussion of textual material is strictly forbidden and book commenting is a privilege reserved for high authorities.
Lucretius’s poem, however, proposed that the world is made up of innumerable, small, and indestructible particles called atoms.  These atoms, without the guidance of a divine being, move unpredictably, constantly, and humans are made up just as everything else in the world is.  Humans are not unique, and gods, even if they existed, cared only for their own pleasure and not for humans’.  The poem extols the pursuit of pleasure, human sensations, and vindicates curiosity, as humans no longer should fear their exploration would inevitably bring on a god’s wrath.
Lucretius’s idea seem rather mild to us now, but as the book shows, it was very radical and dangerous at the time of its discovery by Poggio.  Though the book’s focus was more prior and during the time of discovery of this poem (thus not well suited for my question), I nevertheless enjoyed understanding the historic background.  The writing style can be a little daunting, but is beautifully written.
Below is one of my favourite parts of the book.  Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, owned at least 5 editions of Lucretius’s poem:
Jefferson took this ancient inheritance in a direction that Lucretius could not have anticipated but of which Thomas More, back in the early sixteenth century, had dreamed.  Jefferson had not, as the poet of On the Nature of Things urged, withdrawn from the fierce conflicts of public life.  Instead, he had given a momentous political document, at the founding of a new republic, a distinctly Lucretian turn.  The turn was toward a government whose end was not only to secure the lives and the liberties of its citizens but also to serve “the pursuit of Happiness.”  The atoms of Lucretius had left their traces on the Declaration of Independence.

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