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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Pulitzer prize 2012 winner; interesting read though not for specialists
Last month this book won the Pulizter prize (in general non-fiction), which is how I found out about it. It tells the story of how Lucretius's poem, a 'secular bible', came to be discovered in the 1400s and some of its impact on Western thought since.

What I enjoyed:
- The style and structure brings a bit of 'Dan Brown' intrigue to what could otherwise be...
Published on 8 May 2012 by Devlin Mitchell

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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars runs out of steam
<mild spoiler alert>

After a terrific, energetic and intriguing set-up, I felt this failed to deliver on its promise.

The run-up to the discovery of the manuscript is vivid and gripping, setting the late medieval scene with great skill and detail. The reconstruction of Epicurean literary culture in the late classical world is also thrilling. After...
Published on 26 Aug 2012 by MJ


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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars runs out of steam, 26 Aug 2012
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MJ (Cornwall, UK) - See all my reviews
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<mild spoiler alert>

After a terrific, energetic and intriguing set-up, I felt this failed to deliver on its promise.

The run-up to the discovery of the manuscript is vivid and gripping, setting the late medieval scene with great skill and detail. The reconstruction of Epicurean literary culture in the late classical world is also thrilling. After this. however, the narrative returns us to Poggio's back-story, of which we already know enough to proceed. The reason for this then becomes clear: Greenblatt doesn't have the next stage of the story in anywhere near the same level of detail as the set-up. We know very little about Poggio's response to the manuscript (indeed whether or when he even read it), and its immediate diffusion into the Renaissance world is something of a non-event. Compared to the thick description of the set-up, the denouement is thin, and quickly moves away from the characters into whom we have invested and towards the usual suspects of later generations (Bruno, Montaigne and onwards).
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An illuminating perspective, 15 Feb 2012
I probably learned all this stuff, or a lot of it, years ago when I was in secondary school, then forgot it. I hope I can retain it this time, because the Epicurus-Lucretius-Poggio-Jefferson trail is fascinating stuff, and the underlying philosophy resonates with my strengthening atheism in a way it might not have when I was younger.

As others have said, the claim that Poggio kick-started the Renaissance sounds specious, even to my ignorant ear. Never mind: this is a rambling tale, but a good one, and it's sent me straight off to order 'The Nature of Things'.
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13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Charming style, manipulated content, 13 Sep 2012
I read this book in a day, in a state of constant frustration.
Its style is its best feauture: agile, witty, elegant, it makes it very easy to get hooked to the text, like some kind of thriller novel. I guess it is for this reason that it won the Pulitzer prize for non-fiction.
The problem is the thesis that Greenblatt wants to demonstrate, or better the way it is demonstrated. The rediscovery of the Rerum Natura may be one of the important events of the Renaissance age -even the author in the text is aware that the "how the renaissance began" of the title is a bit too much - but the use of the historical data available around the event is very unprofessional. To demonstrate the truth of his thesis Greenblatt sometimes simplifies, sometimes overemphasizes the data; sometimes pass under silence very important facts or dismiss them as unimportant. For exemple when he is busy depicting in the darkest way the obscurantist approach of Christian towards ancient culture, the more ambiguous approach of Augustin, or the experience of Cassiodorus and the monastery of Vivarium is totally overlooked; when he is discussing the written insults that the humanists traded between each other, to emphasize what pit of vipers the papal court was, he forgets to tell us how this kind of exchange had a long series of predecessors in classical and middle ages literature and was part of a well know at the time literary game.
For people not too worried about historical depth, accuracy and nuances.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Godless wonder, 25 July 2013
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In the early 15th century, Poggio Bracciolini, who had been a cynical papal secretary in the service of a famously corrupt pope, followed his true passion of book hunting and rediscovered an ancient Latin poem in a German monastery. His exploits earned him the admiration of his humanist friends: he was "a culture hero, a magical healer who reassembled and reanimated the torn and mangled body of antiquity." To us, his achievement was to rescue from obscurity and from possible destruction the one surviving copy of De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), written by Lucretius in the first century BCE. Poggio himself is now at least as obscure as Lucretius, and so, in this tremendous account of a philosophical idea, Stephen Greenblatt must invigorate two remote periods in order to tell a fascinating story, which turns out to be as much about our modern selves as it is about long-dead historical figures.

For Lucretius, the stuff of the universe was "an infinite number of atoms moving randomly through space" and not the handiwork of the gods. He did not believe in miracles, and thought that nothing could violate the laws of nature. Instead of divine agency animating the universe he posited what he called a "swerve" - "an unexpected, unpredictable movement of matter." The core of his vision was "a single incandescent idea: that everything that has ever existed and everything that will ever exist is put together out of indestructible building blocks, irreducibly small in size, unimaginably vast in number": in other words, atoms.

This gives a flavour of the poem's scientific subject matter, and why a physicist and an atheist like Victor Stenger should be interested. (I have him to thank for prompting me to read The Swerve, which got a favourable mention in God and the Atom.) It is the way Lucretius imbues his scientific vision of the world with a poet's sense of wonder that is most remarkable, however. This wonder "did not depend on gods and demons and the dream of an afterlife; in Lucretius it welled up out of a recognition that we are made of the same matter as the stars and the oceans and all things else." He sounds like the Brian Cox of the ancient world, only with a better grasp of Latin hexameters.

Lucretius was an inspired follower of the earlier philosopher, Epicurus, whom he regarded as liberating humanity from superstition. The Epicurean checklist is thoroughly sceptical, in the best sense: "to question authorities and challenge received doctrines; to legitimate the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain; to imagine that there are other worlds beside the one that we inhabit; to entertain the thought that the sun is only one star in an infinite universe; to live an ethical life without reference to postmortem rewards and punishments; to contemplate without trembling the death of the soul." It certainly contains values and beliefs at odds with the prevailing piety of the ancient world, and with the Christianity that would soon displace paganism. Christians from Tertullian on sought to destroy this philosophy, and for a thousand years they got their way. As Greenblatt puts it, in "one of the great cultural transformations in the history of the West, the pursuit of pain triumphed over the pursuit of pleasure."

By the time the humanist scholar Poggio was travelling Europe hunting for manuscripts buried deep with monastic libraries, Christianity had long since crushed all opposition. These pious communities were the opposite of the philosophical academies of Greece or Rome. In monasteries, curiosity - one of the primary scientific and sceptical values - "was to be avoided at all costs." For this, and for many other reasons, Poggio himself did not like monks, although he appreciated their role in preserving ancient texts.

The monks overseeing this preservation would certainly not have appreciated the Lucretian denial of Providence and the afterlife, the twin pillars of the poem, nor the idea that it is human insignificance that is in fact the good news. Also important for the modern world was the Lucretian approach to ignorance: he did not claim to know the hidden code of matter, only that there was a code and that, in principle, it could be investigated and understood by human science. The order in the world was not the product of any divine scheme but of natural processes. Greenblatt concludes that, by rediscovering De rerum natura, Poggio "became a midwife to modernity."

Being "liberated from harmful illusions is not the same as disillusionment." Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder. The realization that the universe consists of atoms and void and nothing else is not the cause for despair, but is the crucial first step towards the possibility of happiness.

Not everything dreamt up by our forebears has stood the test of time, of course. While Stenger makes a good case for acknowledging the atomism of ancient Greek philosophy, Lucretius also believed that the swerve was the source of free will, that "if all of motion were one long predetermined chain, there would be no possibility of freedom." This is philosophically naive, since random motion does not add up to freedom of the kind we're interested in.

The importance of the swerve is more as an image for this moment at the beginning of the Renaissance, when, after a millennium and more of Christian supremacy, we started to shift away from superstition and towards reason. This was no handbrake turn, of course, more like the manoeuvring of a supertanker, and it never depended on a single document. That said, Poggio's hand on the wheel represented a significant change of direction, and the new course is one we are still striving to follow. A terrific book.
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5.0 out of 5 stars fantastic, 9 Jun 2014
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This review is from: The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began (Kindle Edition)
simply brilliant. this book should be on the curriculum of every school in the country.
mr Greenblatt should write a follow up volume giving more examples of just how important the events described in the book are
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4.0 out of 5 stars A good book despite the misleading title, 4 Mar 2014
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Did a long-lost epic poem by the Roman Epicurean Lucretius, rediscovered by ex-papal bureaucrat Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini in the library of a German monastery in the mid-C15th, really jump-start the renaissance? It doesn't seem likely, and Greenblatt doesn't really make this claim. But this is a great historical account of an episode in the rediscovery of the classics by humanist scholars. The context is well set out and there is lots of great detail. Epicurus sounds as good today as he did in Antiquity, and as he must have seemed in religion-benighted C15th. He deserves to be more widely appreciated and I hope this helps to make him so.
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5.0 out of 5 stars It is a must!, 1 Jan 2014
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By far, one of the best book I have read in the last 5 - 10 years! The most amazing intellectual "adventure": it is a must-read!
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3.0 out of 5 stars 5 stars for Poggio but only 3.5 for the argument, 1 Nov 2013
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P. Scrivener (Bristol, England) - See all my reviews
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I intermittently enjoyed this book having come across Poggio Bracciolini, the bookhunter a couple of times recently. Firstly a television programme on the 'history of the joke' and secondly in Christopher Krebs book on the influence of Tacitus' Germania. He is a figure to whose obsessive industry the world owes a great deal and he deserves to be better known. The authors main argument, which he overemphasies in the title is to show that Poggio's extraction of Lucretius's 'On The Nature of Things' from monastic oblivion was the seminal text in kick starting the Rennaisance. Aside from the fact the Rennaisance is a retrospective view of an elongated period of European history and that other cultural interactions inevitably played their part, not even the most ardent biblical scholars would claim that the Bible answered all possible line of intellectual enquiry (fanatics aside who are a class unto themselves in any culture), Greenblatt's emphasis offers an attractive case for Lucretius influence upon developing thought and its wrestle with the dominant power structure of the church.

The author is attempting to argue that the intellectual freedom that emerged from the particularly Greek but later Roman world was inherently superior to that of medieval Christian custom and practice, and that the loss of these works, the vast majority to simple neglect, acts of war and the passage of time rather than prohibition presented a purposeful restriction of intellectual development and human understanding. Well aside from the obvius point that even the most 'liberal' power structures have restrictions on what can be written, published and said, he is here placing together Christianity a belief system and the Church a power structure and seeing the same thing in both, (I have no religious beliefs, although I accept that the multiplicity of spiritual forms has huge purpose and significance for most people even if they are not currently within the current western liberal norm). The use of the story of Hypatia is to my mind largely irrelevant to the argument. She died cruelly the victim of a fanatic and largely ignorant mob. Such murders sadly are still commonplace throughout the world in overtly religious, or secularly relgious (National Socialism, Communism) communities and are not evidence of doctrinal argument even where the prevailing texts are used as an incitement to violence.

The interesting debate is therefore whether the Church and Papacy as power structures sought to restrict and prevent access to works that were likely to undermine Christian doctrine and as a consequence their own power base. Well the answer is of course they did, but there is a duality here which the author fails to acknowledge. It seems from the book that many significant within the Church hierarchy were interested to debate internally the values and ideas that the works of Lucretius and others outlined even atomism, the most contentious argument, but would not be seen to show such interest outside a very restricted circle, and would certainly not allow dissemination of a heretical text. The modern paradigm I suppose would be the denial of the free market within orthodox socialism, even where the financial security and maintenance of a socialist power structure rests almost entirely upon the market for its continued existence. We therefore have to draw a balance between the cynicism of the power structure in maintaining its preferential role and that of the true believer whose fanaticism bred both the Reformation and the Counter Reformation.

It is possible to argue in this context that 'On The Nature of Things' because of its intellectual interest to a minority of the well connected, well educated and adventurous created a vanguard of thought. But most of the people concerned, certainly the likes of Thomas More in Utopia ( a book and argument that the authour largely laud's, although I have always seen More's use of that term as at least a partial understanding that what was being argued was unachievable given the nature of humans as we are, rather than what utopians would like us to be), would never have countenanced a wide publication of such a text. The more radical figures in this case, at least for the vast majority of people must surely be figures like John Wycliff and William Tyndall whose heresy was seeking to enlighten the common people through the medium of the vernacular Bible rather than a text that only an infinitesimally small number of people would have come across, let alone be able to interpret. Tyndall certainly paid for it with his life.

Perhaps one of the more interesting asides in this book is the translation of the text by Lucy Hutchinson the wife of Thomas Hutchinson MP and significant figure during the English Civil War.

Recommnded not with reservations, but gets 3.5 because it's argument does not convince and is inevitably unproven and unprovable as I think the author himself tacitly acknowledges.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant, 11 Oct 2013
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So wonderfully readable. So mind blowingly informative it should be on every school sylabus.He brings the Renaissance and the people in it to life.
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4.0 out of 5 stars THe Swerve, 28 Sep 2013
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This was bought by me as a birthday present for friend who lives in America and he was pleased with it.
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