The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

In The Contemporary Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Stephen Greenblatt recounts a captivating tale of humanism and discovery. He follows the rediscovery in 1417 of De Rerum Natura by Greek Epicurean philosopher Lucretius Carus by Renaissance book hunter Poggio Bracciolini – an example of their philosophy that holds that things possess their inherent natures.

This poem is founded upon an essential principle in Epicurean physics: that as atoms fall from the heavens into the universe, they occasionally and for unknown reasons deviate from their straight paths, making a slight swerve from their original downward motion which allows them to collide, form matter. This atomic swerve was believed to explain both how free will can overcome inexorable physical forces and why the Universe exists at all.

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The Swerve is an enjoyable and captivating read, but not without its shortcomings. Most notable among these is its depiction of self-flagellation in medieval monastic life.

Greenblatt devotes a great deal of attention to this subject, and it is fascinating to observe the development of medieval monastic self-flagellation from its medieval origins through its rise as an important form of self-abuse in the Middle Ages. He writes that “this practice was widely practiced and a source of dread for many men of goodwill.”

In The Swerve, The author presents an odd view of self-flagellation that seems to echo Foucault’s model of social order regaining power; yet this vision lacks any serious scholarship of its own to back it up.

Greenblatt makes another important, though less convincing point about the Church during the Renaissance. He contends that it was fundamentally opposed to pleasure and reason, prompting Renaissance humanists to rebel against this system. They rediscovered Epicurean teachings which turned Western culture away from an obsession with angels and demons toward an appreciation of things in this world.

If you haven’t spent much time reading Greenblatt’s other works, this concept might seem distant and abstract. Yet Greenblatt illustrates how Epicureanism has shaped our perceptions of science and culture by tracing back its roots through one single poem by Lucretius.

The story of Lucretius’ poem, “De rerum natura,” has had a lasting impact on Western civilization. It helped shift Europeans away from blind faith in divine forces and toward scientific inquiry that saw the universe as composed of individual atoms with unique characteristics and properties. This new insight provided us with insight into both our planet’s material nature as well as our relationship to it – an understanding that still resonates today.

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