Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began, by Stephen Greenblatt

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve covers issues of momentous cultural, intellectual and religious significance over a 1500 year period. It's also a deeply satisfying read, with Lucretius's liberating Epicurean philosophy forming the book's core.

If you’re a hopeless booklover, then you’ll most likely find this a richly rewarding read. The subject, on the face of it, doesn’t really seem like much: a fifteenth century Italian scholar, named Poggio Bracciolini, discovered in a German monastery in 1417 a forgotten book by the Roman poet Lucretius (99BC – 55 BC). The book was called De Rerum Natura, or as commonly translated into English, On the Nature of Things. From these simple historical facts Stephen Greenblatt spins out a most splendid book, discussing in depth subjects integral to the development of Western religious and intellectual thought.

The Swerve really turns between two worlds, the Roman world of Lucretius, and the Christian world of the fifteenth century. Poggio Bracciolini as a scholar who worked under seven popes, was a book hunter, someone who trawled through the libraries of monasteries trying to find interesting books. To the modern reader, this all seems quite extraordinary, especially now in the age of Google where everything is at your fingertips. Greenblatt gives a fascinating history of the production of books during these times. Monks would copy out books by hand and were also the guardians of these libraries. The classical texts that have come down to us today, Plato, Aristotle etc. were never recovered in their original or contemporary forms. They were rather copies.

The production of books in the ancient world also has an amazing story. I’ve read many classical authors, but never given too much thought to how books were produced in those times. I just presumed Plato chiselled Greek characters onto a tablet somewhere. Book production was quite an industry in the classical world. They were written onto papyrus, which was a fairly sturdy paper and could last for decades if carefully looked after. Teams of copyists would produce a book by having someone (usually a slave) read the book aloud. What happened to all those original books by the Greeks and Romans? As Christianity rose, libraries, with their Pagan books, fell into disfavour. Their upkeep diminished and the books crumbled away, mostly eaten by bookworms.

The Renaissance, however, saw a surge in interest in these classical texts. Despite this, there were tensions. Frequently the subject matter and philosophical direction of these works were not in harmony with Christian theology. Nowhere is this more striking than with Lucretius’s philosophical poem, De Rerum Natura. In it he espoused the philosophy of Epicurus, who believed we should live for pleasure and the simple things in life. On a more heretical note, it espoused a theory of atomism which proposes that everything is broken down into indestructible parts. In essence, this theory posited that the world was a pretty random place, not the well planned cosmos of a single Christian God. Advocating such a theory, as did the Dominican friar Giordano Bruno, could get you burnt at the stake, which is just what happened to him. I felt a cold hand gripping my heart as I read the horrible fate of this highly original thinker. The church was obviously interested in nothing less than absolute power. Alternate views to life and the universe the church felt should be dealt with by the most agonising death.

Lastly, of course, there is the poem, which as Greenblatt digests its contents, sounds like essential reading. The author warns that the language can be a little difficult, but that perseverance is handsomely rewarded. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get around to reading On the Nature of Things, but I certainly hope to. Its Epicurean philosophy of living simply in the here and now, enjoying pleasure where you can, watching life in a detached manner, sounds very liberating.

The Swerve is a book you enjoy slowly and that rewards handsomely with its author's erudition and passion for his subject. 

The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began, by Stephen Greenblatt. Published by Vintage Arrow. ISBN: 9780099572442 RRP: $19.99

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