Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Book Review: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern [2011]

In a remote European monastery in 1417, an Italian book-hunter named Poggio Bracciolini unearthed a rare manuscript from Roman times. It was a ninth-century copy of a much older work, De Rerum Natura ("On The Nature of Things") by the poet Lucretius (c. 99-50 BCE). Stephen Greenblatt uses this rediscovery as a springboard to explore the history of human inquiry over two thousand years. This is not a modest undertaking, but Greenblatt moves with ease from the personal details of Bracciolini's experience as an Italian humanist and apostolic secretary to larger set pieces such as the destruction of Alexandria's written treasures and the excavation of Herculaneum, entombed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

De Rerum Natura contains many deeply polarizing ideas, some of which are still contentious today--for example, the notion that the soul dies with the body and there is no afterlife, or the assertion that the pursuit of pleasure should be humankind's guiding principle. Greenblatt demonstrates that these ideas (along with more scientific but no less inflammatory concepts such as the existence of atoms and the idea that the universe was not centered on humanity) were not unprecedented, but grew out of the teachings of Epicurus, of whom Lucretius was a disciple. 
These concepts might be unsettling to our culture--still largely guided by precepts of self-denial, even if we do not adhere to them--but they were nothing short of incendiary upon their reintroduction into a Renaissance society dominated by the Catholic church. Many who embraced them after Bracciolini's discovery were persecuted as heretics.

Greenblatt leads a fascinating journey of discovery, tracing a set of ideas from antiquity to Thomas Jefferson.

Grade: A

I came to the conclusion that I was an atheist on my own, without consulting learned texts or reading up on the subject. I had some conversations with friends about faith, and was raised in a very faith-conscious place (Utah) even though my parents were not actively religious in any way. My mother had a very personal relationship with spirituality, which I never shared, and died as a Buddhist. But while listening to this book, the concepts being discussed spoke to some deep part of me, saying "You are not alone. Other people have come to these conclusions before you." It's not as if being an atheist is exactly embraced here and now in American culture. I can only imagine living in a time where thinking these thoughts, let alone voicing them, might lead to death. What a lifeline Lucretius's work must have represented to those who were almost completely isolated in their beliefs.

Random Thoughts:

I listened to the book's audio version, and (to my untrained ear) the narrator Edoardo Ballerini did a fantastic job of all those tongue-twisting Italian names.

This book was an excellent way to warm up to my 2012: Year of Nonfiction challenge, in which I am going to try to read as much nonfiction as fiction. I will talk more about it when I post about the statistics of my 2011 year in reading.

ETA: My paper copy finally came in, and it was worth it (as usual) to take a look at it even though I listened to the audio version. It has glossy photographs! And many pages of notes and bibliography at the back! And it has an index (*swoon*).

Dead Mother: No
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