Monday, June 24, 2013

ReView of THE SWERVE: HOW THE WORLD BECAME MODERN by Stephen Greenblatt



Genre: NonFiction / History / Philosophical
Format: Paperback
Length: 356 pages
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
First Published: 2011




I read this book a few weeks ago, and as I am now trying to write the review for it I have decided to browse through some reviews already posted by other readers.  While many people are absolutely fascinated and amazed by this book and its thorough drive of the theme, I, on the other hand, find it a little bit forceful.

"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 - fueld 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." (GoodReads)

Lucretius' poem On The Nature of Things played a significant role in the tug of war between science/nature and Christianity   It was a poem that full embodied Epicureanism, which in its essence holds the idea that all people should seek pleasure from life rather than succumb to the pain from the gods.

I came across the following quote when I was doing research on the book while I was reading it to get a sense of what Greenblatt was saying.
"We are free, liberated by the unpredictability of the swerve, as are all living things.  We are all connected, and when we die, our atoms go off to join other atoms elsewhere.  Death is only dispersal; there is no need to fear any afterlife, or mutter spells and prayers to absent deities.  We do better to live by the simple Epicurean law: seek pleasure, avoid pain.  This does not mean indulging ourselves gluttonously, but cultivating tranquility while avoiding the two greatest human delusions: fear of what we cannot avoid, and desire for what we cannot have.  One extraordinary section describes the frenzies of lovers, who exhaust themselves futilely trying to possess one another.  The beloved always slips away.  Instead, we should step off the wheel and contemplate the universe as it is - which brings a deep sense of wonder, rather than mere resignation or gloom.  "What human beings can and should do," as Greenblatt summarizes it, "is to conquer their fears, accept the fact that they themselves and all the things they encounter are transitory, and embrace the beauty and pleasure of the world."
To develop a thesis that revolves around one particular poem is extremely bold. Then again if anyone can do it is Greenblatt. And he does it well, but the book is surely dense.

We, as a global culture, have always had a battle of Epicureanism vs. Religion, for as long as we can remember even if we can't remember Lucretius' poem On The Nature of Things.  Greenblatt wants us to remember how the struggle between these world began and possibly where it stands at the present modern world.

The Epicurean philosophy says that "life's ultimate goal is pleasure-even if that pleasure was defined in the most restrained and responsible terms."  This was scandalous, if not outrageous, for most if not all religious entities.  If this was to be fully realized, "behind such travesties lay a half-hidden fear that to maximize pleasure and to avoid pain were in fact appeal goals and might plausibly serve as the rational organizing principles of human life.  If they succeeded in doing so, a whole set of time-honored alternative principles - sacrifice, ambition, social status, discipline, piety - would be challenged, along with the institutions that such principles served."  This rebellious nature is still going on in our modern world, more or less.

My ultimate favorite underlying theme, which at first seems subtle, but becomes more obvious as the last chapter unfolds is exactly the reason Greenblatt probably wrote the book.  The last chapter focuses on   'Afterlives.'  How do we come to terms with our lives, and what perspective do we choose in the midst of the passing of another?
"Montaigne shared Lucretius' contempt for a morality enforced by nightmares of the afterlife; he clung to the importance of his own sense and the evidence of the material world; he intensely disliked ascetic self-punishment and violence against the flesh; he treasured inward freedom and content.  In grappling with the fear of death, he was influenced by Stoicism as well as Lucretian materialism, but it is the latter that proves the dominant guide, leading him toward a celebration of bodily pleasure."
This last chapter of the book resonated with me more than the rest of the book.  I finally understood why Greenblatt wanted to write this book and touch on the poem by Lucretius.  It was Lucretius's wisdom about life, and afterlife for that matter, that resonates with us all in our modern world, more than ever.  A time when the rift between science and religion has never been so clear.  An era when religious rebellion is still at its peak, for the same reasons Lucretius mentions in his most famous poem On The Nature of Things.
"There are moments, rare and powerful, in which a writer, long vanished from the face of the earth, seems to stand in your presence and speak to you directly, as if he bore a message meant for you above all others."
This is exactly what Montaigne felt with Lucretius, what Greenblatt most likely felt for Lucretius, and absolutely what I felt when I read the last chapter of the book.  And what's even more interesting, Lucretius's words reached one famous Virginia planter - Thomas Jefferson.

"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.  Still more, Lucretius helped shape Jefferson's confidence that ignorance and fear were not necessary components of human existence."







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