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on December 6, 2014
When this book was published I read a number of positive reviews but was reluctant to read the book thinking that the focus on greek history may be somewhat dull. I was wandering through what remains of the stacks in our publice library and again came across this book. I signed it out and very quickly became absorbed by what is an interesting dialogue. This dialogue is about the influence of the church versus the influence of science. A Notary, Poggio Bracciolini, in the year 1417 serves as the centre piece for the search for, the discovery of, and the subsequent dissemination of Lucretius's ancient poem "On the Nature of Things". Mr. Greenblatt uses this dialogue to tell what is one of the most important stories related to the late evolution of human thought. Lucretius' poem is heralded as one of the original basis for the development of science and celebrates the philosophy of Epicurius. For anyone who struggles with or is interested in the tyranny of religious imposition, or who struggles with religious belief, this book is a must read.
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on December 25, 2011
The scientists searching for the God Particle -- the phenomenon that turned energy into mass at the time of the Big Bang to create the universe as we know it -- say they're closing in on their quarry.Of course, there's nothing God-like about what they're hunting, but the fact they've chosen to give it this name aptly illustrates our preoccupation throughout human history with deities of one kind or another.

Human beings created Gods (in our likeness?) around the time that we moved from hunter-gatherer status to tillers of the soil -- or maybe earlier. The Sumerians, ancient Greeks and then the Romans codified their Gods but it took the rise of Judaism and Christianity -- and later Islam -- to create the monotheistic, all-fearing, vengeful God handed down to us in the Common Era.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt (W.W. Norton) explores how some of the early philosophers, notably Epicurus in 3rd century BCE Greece, and Lucretius in 1st century BCE Rome, challenged this belief in gods. Greenblatt has constructed a fascinating narrative around a 15th century ex-Papal secretary, Poggio Bracciolini, who found the forgotten manuscript of Lucretius, On The Nature of Things, in a monastery in southern Germany. He had it copied (in beautiful calligraphy as readable as modern printing), and soon it was influencing the work of Renaissance thinkers, insidiously undermining the conventional wisdoms of the Church. With the discovery, Greenblatt writes, "the world swerved in a new direction."

Epicurus had taught that the gods, if they exist, did not care at all about human beings. If the gods did not care, why should we? The purpose of life, Epicurus said, should be the attainment of pleasure, and one should believe only that which can be tested through direct observation. The universe is made up of atoms, moving randomly about.

Lucretius used these arguments to bolster further disbelief in gods. As Greenblatt sums up Lucretius' conclusions: "There is no master plan, no divine architect, no intelligent design "no reason to think that the earth or its inhabitants occupy a central place" in the universe.

The notion of atoms, and of evolution, was joined in The Nature of Things with the conviction that "there is a hidden natural explanation for everything that alarms or eludes you."
According to Lucretius, Greenblatt writes, 'there is no single moment of origin, no mythic scene of creation " There is no afterlife" When you are dead, there will be neither pleasure or pain, longing nor fear. You will not care, because you will not exist. There are no angels, demons or ghosts."

Greenblatt points to the rejection by Lucretius of the cruelty of religion, as manifested in the sacrifice of a child by its parent in order to please a god.

"Writing around 50 BCE he (Lucretius) could not, of course, have anticipated the great sacrifice myth that would come to dominate the Western world, but he would not have been surprised by it or the endlessly reiterated, prominently displayed images of the bloody, murdered son."

When the ancient manuscript found by Bracciolini began to circulate in Western Europe, the Church of course took action. An early strategy was to impugn the teachings of Epicurus as nothing more than a craving for gluttony and a sinful exercise in excess. More damaging was the persecution by the Holy Office (the Inquisition) of those who dared advance scientific thought.

The author of The Swerve draws an interesting comparison between the attack of the early Christians on scientific thought, and the enlightened pursuit of knowledge that had taken place in Egypt under the Ptolemaic kings before the birth of Christ. With their Greek heritage, they encouraged intellectual inquiry which led to the development of higher mathematics (geometry and calculus), posited that the earth was round, that the year was 365 1/4 days thus requiring a leap day every four years, and speculated that India could be reached by sailing west from Spain.

All of this knowledge and more, Greenblatt writes, was accumulated in half a million papyrus scrolls in the Alexandria Library. Early in the Christian era, Jews, pagans and Christians lived side by side in tolerance.

After the Roman emperor Constantine decreed Christianity as Rome's official religion, the attack on Alexandrian pluralism began. There must be no free-thinking inquiry, everything must give way to religious dogma. Soon, Christian mobs were vandalizing the great library, slaughtering pagans and expelling Jews. Rome's own libraries fell into disrepair, with the historian Marcellinus bemoaning that "Romans had virtually abandoned serious reading."

The collapse of the Roman Empire quickly followed. The Western world fell into a thousand years of stagnation and decay. Stephen Greenblatt's Swerve leaves me wondering how much of a factor was Christianity in those lamentable occurrences. Did the Christian suppression of scientific inquiry cost us ten centuries of progress? Where might we be today if the seeds planted in Alexandria had been allowed to flourish in Rome, Florence, Venice and London?

Ultimately they did of course bear fruit, in many ways and in many different places. Concludes Greenblatt: Thomas Jefferson would give "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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on January 20, 2013
An engaging look at philosophy, writing, the art of both and the history of our beliefs. Really thought provoking and insightful. Writing and its power, writing as artwork and our crazy history.

A real pleasure.
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on November 28, 2011
I picked this one up after reading a review from the G&M's Jane Smiley, which I will never do again. The purported premise of Lucretius' work shaping the Renaissance had me hooked. Even the blurb's claim of Lucretius' influence on Einstein, Freud, Darwin, Jefferson had raised high hopes. But of course I was wrong. This book is nothing of what it purports to be. Most of the book is about the life of Poggio Bracciolini, who discovered and had Lucretius' work transcribed and thus 'disseminated' it to the world.

But what of it? A particular instance of history doesn't explain anything to me. There is absolutely no discussion of how On the Nature of Things actually formed the geist, if you will, of the Renaissance. The only connection Greenblatt draws is that it was simply read in the past, and therefore, it shaped the modern world. Are you kidding me? There are bits of useless information such as definitive proof of Montaingne's ownership of the poem, etc, but nothing in this book establishes the connection of psyche of Lucretius to the psyche of the Renaissance and beyond; perhaps one doesn't exist. But more importantly, even these cursory, contrived connections between Lucretius and the modern world, are only summarized in a single chapter. Most of the book is about the idiosyncrasies of Poggio and his times. Bits of entertaining information such as papal scribes hurling insults at one another have absolutely nothing to do with the supposed overarching theme of the book.

The only value of this book is in reading about facts related to Poggio Bracciolini not discussed in wikipedia. If you want to learn about Lucretius' influence in the modern world, look elsewhere (better yet, just read him).
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on February 21, 2015
The philosophy of Epicurus can be found in Aristotle,Spinoza,Montaigne, etc. etc. etc. Greenblatt writes so well. That anyone even slightly interested in philosophy can see the deep preponderance of Lucretius's theories in our modern intellectual world. Even Einstein recognized his debt to him.
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on August 2, 2015
Fascinating book, exquisitely well written.
P. Berube, Lery, Qc
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on March 24, 2014
This is one of the best books I read last year. Using character development and historic detail beautifully rendered, Greenblatt shows how tenuous is the thread that keeps ancient poetic wisdoms within our reach, and how power always seeks to shut down those who do not embrace and obey it.
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on February 1, 2016
Great read, and a good edition!
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I found the book started very slowly. There were all sorts of unnessary details, included in the first seven chapters. The author took over fifty pages, to describe the book hunting Poggio Bracciolili arrival into a small German town. In my opinion, the first two hundred pages should have been reduced to ten pages. I realize many other readers, will appreciate Greenblatt in-depth literary style.
The last eighty two pages, I did find rather interesting. Greenblat lays out, how the introduction of Lucretius`s book affected the western world. This part of the content, I had an interest in reading. And this portion of the book, was my initial reason for purchasing the book.

Personally, I would recommend skipping this book. Instead, just read Lucretius`s book directly.
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on May 15, 2016
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