Book Review, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern and Chef Supreme
In this Issue, Jill Norgren Reviews Two Books:
Swerve illuminates the fascinating nooks of antiquity, as well as the Renaissance, for the neophyte. This is the sort of book that, during these winter months, will bring the pleasure endorsed by Epicurus and Lucretius. Chef Supreme: Martin Ginsburg creates a paean to good food and its ability to create community; the recipes and tributes are rich, as was his life.
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
By Stephen Greenblatt, c. 2011
Published by W. W. Norton & Company; Hardcover; e-book; 356 pp
In the age of Twitter, Google, and viral, Poggio Bracciolini’s 1417 discovery of a manuscript on a dusty shelf in a remote monastery speaks of an age gone by. But what an age!
In The Swerve, Harvard Professor Stephen Greenblatt serves up an extraordinary story of the power of information. Detective story, biography, and intellectual history The Swerve describes the hunt for, and chain of events following, Bracciolini’s unearthing of Lucretius’s ancient poem, On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura). In his preface, Greenblatt states simply: “There is no single explanation for the emergence of the Renaissance and the release of the forces that have shaped our own world.” He argues, however, that the uncovering of On the Nature of Things created a cultural shift, a swerve, that made a difference in the re-naissance of antiquity and a re-examination of thought in ways that shaped modern thinking.
The Poem: The Roman Titus Lucretius Carus wrote this lengthy (7,400 lines), sublimely beautiful poem, a philosophical epic, in about 50 BCE. Little is known of the author although the praise of Cicero and Ovid survives Lucretius’s lost biography. The ideas unfurled in On the Nature of Things endorsed the teachings of the Greek philosopher Epicurus who had lived two centuries before Lucretius. Epicurus argued that everything that exists is composed of invisible building blocks called atoms, that the universe is the result of an evolving natural order rather than the fiat of the gods. Existence, he insisted, should be given over to the pursuit of pleasure, not fears of death, or worship.
The ideas of Epicurus provoked displeasure in ancient Greece and Rome, and most of his works were lost. Lucretius, however, found enough to provide an intellectual bridge into his time and wrote On the Nature of Things. In its lines he boldly argued that everything is made of invisible particles, which are infinite and eternal, that the universe is not the product of a divine creator, and that providence does not exist. He wrote that particles shift, or swerve, periodically setting off a chain of collisions and providing a source of free will. Lucretius also wrote of evolution and adaptation among living things.
Heretically, he insisted that there was no afterlife, and that the gods have no interest in the everyday existence of humans. Life, he urged, should be a journey in seeking pleasure and reducing pain. For Lucretius, however, pleasure was not a synonym for self-serving hedonism. Pleasure was a larger, virtuous pursuit: a life style and philosophy that celebrated friendship, emphasized charity, justice, and forgiveness, and mistrusted worldly ambition as well as militarism.
The Book Hunter: Poggio Bracciolini was, by Greenblatt’s lights, one of the greatest book hunters of the fifteenth century, a man he calls “a midwife to modernity,” a man with an obsessive craving, “a book mania.” Some of the most charming and engaging chapters of The Swerve chronicle the culture of book hunting, the wooing of monastery librarians, and the artful work of the scriptorium.
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