Monday, October 31, 2011

New History Books: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Steven Greenblatt

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt.

We’re not sure when last a book about an ancient Roman poet was on the New York Times Bestseller List, but Lucretius (circa 90-50 B.C.E.) has, rather improbably it seems, wound up there, with Stephen Greenblatt’s work of extended recognition and reappraisal. Beyond some scattered ancient references, little is known about the life of Lucretius. His name is remembered because of one poem he wrote, De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things or On the Nature of the Universe). Which is, it seems, a pretty good way to be remembered, for a poem, and for one that for a long period of Western civilization has apparently addressed the biggest question you can try to answer in an engaging and enduring way.

Lucretius great poem was known to his contemporaries, and during the life of the Roman Empire, but became lost for almost a thousand years. Greenblatt’s book is the story about how the poem was rediscovered during the Italian Renaissance in a remote monastery by the book hunter Poggio Bracciolini. The view of the world that informs the poem was decidedly “pagan” in the Christian context of the period, based largely on the philosophy of Epicurus. Lucretius poem argues that the operation of the world need not be explained by a resort to gods or the supernatural, but can be explained by the workings of the natural phenomena of the world. He imagined that matter was made up of very small particles in constant motion, randomly colliding and swerving in new directions. He depicts pleasure and virtue as companions rather than as opposing moral values, and he has no illusions about an afterlife for individual consciousness. His vision of the world and how it worked was imaginative and prescient, and it turned out to be, through the developments of Renaissance humanism, the Enlightenment, and modern science, with a few emendations, the “modern” view of the cosmos to which we have presently arrived.

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