2011 National Book Award Winner: Nonfiction
One of the world's most celebrated scholars, Stephen Greenblatt has crafted both an innovative work of history and a thrilling story of discovery, in which one manuscript, plucked from a thousand years of neglect, changed the course of human thought and made possible the world as we know it.Read more...
2011 National Book Award Winner: Nonfiction
One of the world's most celebrated scholars, Stephen Greenblatt has crafted both an innovative work of history and a thrilling story of discovery, in which one manuscript, plucked from a thousand years of neglect, changed the course of human thought and made possible the world as we know it.
Nearly six hundred years ago, a short, genial, cannily alert man in his late thirties took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. That book was the last surviving manuscript of an ancient Roman philosophical epic, On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius -- a beautiful poem of the most dangerous ideas: that the universe functioned without the aid of gods, that religious fear was damaging to human life, and that matter was made up of very small particles in eternal motion, colliding and swerving in new directions.
The copying and translation of this ancient book -- the greatest discovery of the greatest book-hunter of his age -- fueled the Renaissance, inspiring artists such as Botticelli and thinkers such as Giordano Bruno; shaped the thought of Galileo and Freud, Darwin and Einstein; and had a revolutionary influence on writers such as Montaigne and Shakespeare -- and even Thomas Jefferson.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2011-06-20
- Reviewer: Staff
In this gloriously learned page-turner, both biography and intellectual history, Harvard Shakespearean scholar Greenblatt (Will in the World) turns his attention to the front end of the Renaissance as the origin of Western culture's foundation: the free questioning of truth. It hinges on the recovery of an ancient philosophical Latin text that had been neglected for a thousand years. In the winter of 1417 Italian oddball humanist, smutty humorist, and apostolic secretary Poggio Bracciolini stumbled on Lucretius' De rerum natura. In an obscure monastery in southern Germany lay the recovery of a philosophy free of superstition and dogma. Lucretius' "On the Nature of Things" harked back to the mostly lost works of Greek philosophers known as atomists. Lucretius himself was essentially an Epicurean who saw the restrained seeking of pleasure as the highest good. Poggio's chance finding lay what Greenblatt, following Lucretius himself, terms a historic swerve of massive proportions, propagated by such seminal and often heretical truth tellers as Machiavelli, Giordano Bruno, and Montaigne. We even learn the history of the bookworm—a real entity and one of the enemies of ancient written-cultural transmission. Nearly 70 pages of notes and bibliography do nothing to spoil the fun of Greenblatt's marvelous tale. 16 pages of color illus. (Sept. 19)
The dawn of the Renaissance
Browsing through a sale bin in search of summer reading, Stephen Greenblatt (Will in the World) happened upon a paperback with an extremely odd and erotic cover. Intrigued, he bought a copy of Lucretius’ De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) for 10 cents. Through the random discovery of this poem, Greenblatt recognized a worldview that mirrored his own, for the ancient poet wrote that humans should accept that we and all the things we encounter are transitory, and we should embrace the beauty and pleasure of the world.
In The Swerve, Greenblatt elegantly chronicles the history of discovery that brought Lucretius’ poem out of the musty shadows of obscurity into an early modern world ripe for his ideas. At the center of this marvelous tale stands an avid book hunter, skilled manuscript copyist and notary: Poggio Bracciolini. While Poggio’s adventures in book hunting had not turned up much of value for several years, one day in 1417 changed his life and the world forever. He pulled down a dusty copy of On the Nature of Things from its hidden place on a monastery shelf, knew what he had found and ordered his assistant to copy it. The manuscript of Lucretius’ poem had languished in the monastery for over 500 years; the monks ignored it because of its lack of religious value. In Poggio’s act of discovery, he became a midwife to modernity.
With his characteristic breathtaking prose, Greenblatt leads us on an amazing journey through a time when the world swerved in a new direction. The culture that best epitomized Lucretius’ embrace of beauty and pleasure was the Renaissance. Greenblatt illustrates the ways that this Lucretian philosophy—which extends to death and life, dissolution as well as creation—characterizes ideas as varied as Montaigne’s restless reflections on matter in motion, Cervantes’ chronicle of his mad knight and Caravaggio’s loving attention to the dirty soles of Christ’s feet. This captivating and utterly delightful narrative introduces us to the diverse nature of the Renaissance—from the history of bookmaking to the conflict between religion and science—and compels us to run out and read Lucretius’ poem.