A review of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
When a single book wins both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, it’s well worthwhile taking a close look. Reading Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve makes clear what all the fuss is about.
More than two thousand years ago, some five decades before the year we give the number 1, an extraordinary Roman philosopher-poet named Lucretius wrote a 7,400-line masterpiece named De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things). Lucretius was an ardent follower of the 4th-Century Greek philosopher Epicurus, and his poem is an extraordinary expression of Epicurean philosophy on life, love, sex, the pursuit of happiness, and the nature of the universe. Epicurus was one of the central figures in the Axial Age (roughly 600 to 200 BCE), which gave the world Buddha, Confucius, Socrates, Plato, and other seminal thinkers across the grand sweep of Asia and Europe.
It was Epicurus who laid the foundation for science and the scientific method by his insistence that nothing should be believed unless it could be established through direct observation and logical deduction. Using this logic, he undermined the basis of all the world’s fear-based religions, asserting that the purpose of life was to seek pleasure and the absence of pain. As Greenblatt puts it, “Jesus wept, but there were no verses that described him laughing or smiling, let alone pursuing pleasure.” Epicurus, and later Lucretius, maintained, in Greenblatt’s words, that “there is no end or purpose to existence, only ceaseless creation and destruction, governed entirely by chance” — the random collision of atoms falling freely in the universal void. “Humans are not unique,” Epicurus contended. “We are made of the same stuff that everything else is made of” — the human soul as well as the human body, both of which perish with death. “There is no afterlife” and “All organized religions are superstitious delusions.”
Predictably, Epicurus and De rerum natura were suppressed and forgotten during Europe’s thousand-year slumber from the triumph of Christianity in the 4th Century CE until the first glimmers of the Renaissance in 14th-Century Italy. It was then, with the emergence of humanism and its obsession with recovering the brilliance of the classical past, that Epicureanism gradually re-entered the realm of intellectual discourse. As Epicurus’ 300 works had been lost irreparably but for fragments, it was the re-discovery of Lucretius’ long poem in a monastic library in Germany that helped lay the foundation for the modern world.
On one level, The Swerve is a work of cultural history, an attempt to unravel the sources of the revolutionary thinking that characterized the Renaissance. It’s also a biography, of sorts, of a remarkable man named Poggio Bracciolini, an adopted son of Florence born in humble circumstances in a nearby village late in the 14th Century. Poggio was a book-hunter, one of the original humanists who sought answers to life’s mysteries in the Greek and Roman classics, rejecting the dogmatic and intolerant views of the Church. Ironically, though never a priest, Poggio made his way in the world and amassed great wealth as apostolic secretary to a succession of eight Popes, serving at the right hand of some of the Catholic Church’s most notoriously corrupt princes. At the age of 73, he finally separated himself from the Church, accepting the post of Chancellor of Florence, the city-state’s titular head, and serving for five years. Poggio died shortly after retiring from the job, living to the age of 78 in an era when life expectancy in Italy was no more than about half that many years.
It’s staggering to contemplate the influence of Lucretius’ poem. The themes elaborated in that extraordinary work can be found in the later writing of Sir Thomas More — Utopia portrayed a society built on Epicurean principles, with the important exception of its insistence on the eternal life of the soul in the afterlife — as well as in Giordano Bruno, Michel de Montaigne, and a passel of English writers, including Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne, and Bacon. And “Thomas Jefferson owned at least five Latin editions of On the Nature of Things, along with translations of the poem into English, Italian, and French. It was one of his favorite books, confirming his conviction that the world is nature alone and that nature consists only of matter.”
“‘I am,’ Jefferson wrote to a correspondent who wanted to know his philosophy of life, ‘an Epicurean.'”
My top 20 nonfiction picks
For nearly three-and-a-half years now, I’ve been posting book reviews in this blog, typically twice a week. For my own benefit as well as yours, I like to look back every so often at the books I’ve read and think about what I’ve learned from them. What follows below is a list of the 20 nonfiction books (out of more than 100 I read) that have added the most to my understanding of the world. They’re arranged in no particular order: I can’t imagine trying to pick the best of this lot!
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, by Lawrence Wright
The definitive study of the belief system known as Scientology, with an emphasis on its human rights violations and the Hollywood celebrities it has gathered into its “prison of belief.”
Mary’s Mosaic: The CIA Conspiracy to Murder John F. Kennedy, Mary Pinchot Meyer, and Their Vision for World Peace, by Peter Janney
Revelations galore from newly unearthed evidence about the assassination of John F. Kennedy and his last years in the White House.
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt
The seminal role of a long-forgotten ancient Greek poet and philosopher on the thinking of the geniuses who shaped the Renaissance and on the course of history that followed.
The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, by Robert D. Kaplan
Recent history and current events through the distorting lens of geopolitics, which views Planet Earth, and the machinations and foibles of earthly leaders, from a very different perspective than is found in most history books.
Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, by Arthur Herman
The astonishing story of America’s rearmament in World War II, with a focus on the two larger-than-life personalities who made it happen through sheer force of will: William Knudsen and Henry J. Kaiser.
Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, by Ben McIntyre
The stranger-than-fiction story of the British double agents whose brilliant work in Europe played a pivotal role in the success of the Normandy Invasion.
The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World, by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan
A comprehensive and well-informed view of the world of social enterprise and the extraordinary individuals who stand out in a field that attracts brilliant and inspired people by the carload.
The Self-Made Myth, and the Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed, by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham
An in-depth refutation of the myth of rugged individualism, lionized by Ayn Rand’s novels and enshrined in conservative and libertarian ideology for four decades.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander
How the War on Drugs, and the institutionalized racism that undergirds it, has weakened American society and fostered a new underclass dominated by young men of color.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo
A first-hand account of three years in a slum neighborhood in one of the biggest cities in the world, focusing on the hopes and challenges of two local families.
Infinite Vision: How Aravind Became the World’s Greatest Business Case for Compassion, by Pavithra Mehta and Suchitra Shenoy
A beautifully-written account of the history of a nonprofit South Indian eye hospital that has pioneered a revolutionary approach to eye-care which has brought relief to millions of poor people worldwide.
Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson
An unvarnished biography of the design and marketing genius who built Apple and gained a place in business history alongside Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Sam Walton.
Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin
The troubling story of the institutionalization of a new military-intelligence complex triggered by 9/11 and accelerated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson
The long-overlooked story of FDR’s ambassador to Nazi Germany and his frustrated efforts to turn U.S. policy against Hitler in the face of horrific violence against Jews in Germany and anti-Semitism in the State Department.
The Emperor of All Maladies: A History of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee
An oncologist’s critical study of the diseases lumped together under the label of cancer and of humanity’s halting efforts to arrest and cure them.
Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff
A fresh new take on one of history’s most powerful and fascinating women, long caricatured in popular fiction and history books alike.
The Devil’s Casino: Friendship, Betrayal, and the High Stakes Games Played Inside Lehman Brothers, by Vicky Ward
An illuminating tale of the people who set off the Great Recession, bringing to light the greed, self-delusion, and miscalculation that came so close to collapsing the world economy in 2008.
Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It, by Richard. A. Clarke and Robert K. Knake
A profoundly troubling look at the rapid rise of cyber warfare and the existential threat it poses to American civilization, written by the top counterterrorism official in both the Clinton and Bush Administrations.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
Based on ten years of dogged research, a science journalist’s deeply moving account of the African-American woman whose cancerous cells seeded six decades of medical discoveries.
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Tagged as Aravind, Ayn Rand, Ben McIntyre, Bill Knudsen, cancer, CIA, cia conspiracy, Cleopatra, cyber warfare, D-Day, Dana Priest, Erik Larson, eye care, geopolitics, Henrietta Lacks, Henry J. Kaiser, hollywood celebrities, John Elkington, John F. Kennedy, Katherine Boo, Lawrence Wright, Lehman Brothers, libertarian ideology, mary pinchot meyer, mass incarceration, michelle alexander, military-intelligence complex, Mumbai, Nazi Germany, Pamela Hartigan, poverty, racism, Rebecca Skloot, Renaissance, Richard A. Clarke, Robert D. Kaplan, rugged individualism, scientology, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Stacy Schiff, Stephen Greenblatt, Steve Jobs, The Swerve, Vicky Ward, Walter Isaacson, War on Drugs, William S. Knudsen, World War II