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Old 06-20-2013, 11:06 AM   #1
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June 2013 Discussion: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

The time has come to discuss the June 2013 MobileRead Book Club selection, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt. What did you think?

This thread contains SPOILERS! (There was no room to add that to the thread title.)

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Old 06-20-2013, 03:46 PM   #2
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I'll start - I thought this was a fascinating read, my poor husband (who really didn't have much interest) was subjected to me reading passages out regularly. I've got the Lucretius but haven't got round to reading it yet, maybe one day soon.
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Old 06-20-2013, 09:07 PM   #3
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I've read The Swerve and re-read most of Of the Nature of Things by Lucretius, although I had to switch from William Ellery Leonard's 1916 translation to Frank O. Copley's 1977 translation midway through because Leonard's translation really wasn't doing it for me. Frank O. Copley's translation is much more readable in my opinion.
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Old 06-20-2013, 09:43 PM   #4
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I'm about halfway through. My initial impression is that there is considerably more speculation than fact, but the story of the hunt for lost books was compelling. The descriptions of Lucretius's poem were amazing and it is indeed wonderful that the work was not lost forever.

I found the descriptions of the Middle Ages superficial and the tangent on self-flagellation was odd. I'm not religious, but I suspect that Greenblatt's take on Christianity would be very off-putting to those who are religious.

I'm interested in how he weaves Of the Nature of Things into the Renaissance. I'm not going to be easily convinced that one poem was "responsible" for modern thought. History doesn't take place in a vacuum, there were a lot of other influences at the time, plus other Greek and Roman philosophers and scholars were read throughout history.
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Old 06-20-2013, 10:35 PM   #5
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I loved it. Having studied Ancient History and also Medieval and Renaissance Art History, I felt very much at home with what he was writing about. I think it could be harder for people to follow who weren't reasonably at home with the times and the people that Greenblatt was talking about.

It is extraordinary that the text survived: probably because the monk who copied it out wasn't really reading and thinking about what he was copying. I think it's fortunate that book printing started not too much later after its discovery, so that the genie was out of the bottle well and truly.

It would be hard to deny the truth of what Greenblatt wrote about the church - I believe that everything he wrote is historically accurate - though I agree, Synamon, that some Roman Catholics could well be upset by what they read there, if they were not already aware of it.

And finally, I think that Lucretius would have had a huge impact on humanist thinking of the time. To me, what it has to say is astonishingly modern, and it's hard for us to grasp how stunningly different it was from the teachings of the time, whether it was all the hellfire and damnation, or the sun revolving around the earth (and aforesaid hellfire etc if you said that wasn't so), and the right we all have to be happy in our lives rather than being put here to suffer in the hope of a better deal in the hereafter.

I'm really glad to have read The Swerve and hope others enjoyed it too.
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Old 06-20-2013, 11:03 PM   #6
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It is extraordinary that the text survived: probably because the monk who copied it out wasn't really reading and thinking about what he was copying. I think it's fortunate that book printing started not too much later after its discovery, so that the genie was out of the bottle well and truly.
Not just the monk who originally copied it, but maybe Poggio didn't look too closely either. He had a lot going on, the name of the writer or the Latin of the first few lines might have been all he noticed. The multiple requests to get his hands on it after he returned to Italy could be interpreted as him wanting to read it. It is a bit funny to think that the church in the form of a monk and then a papal secretary were responsible for rubbing that bottle and letting the genie out.

It was heartbreaking to read about all the other classical literature that's been lost.

Quote:
It would be hard to deny the truth of what Greenblatt wrote about the church - I believe that everything he wrote is historically accurate - though I agree, Synamon, that some Roman Catholics could well be upset by what they read there, if they were not already aware of it.
I suppose the subject matter of Lucretius's atheist or apatheist poem could be even more problematic. Either way, this book isn't likely to show up on church bookclub lists.

Quote:
And finally, I think that Lucretius would have had a huge impact on humanist thinking of the time. To me, what it has to say is astonishingly modern, and it's hard for us to grasp how stunningly different it was from the teachings of the time, whether it was all the hellfire and damnation, or the sun revolving around the earth (and aforesaid hellfire etc if you said that wasn't so), and the right we all have to be happy in our lives rather than being put here to suffer in the hope of a better deal in the hereafter.
The concepts that people came up with hundreds or even thousands of years ago are impressive, but it makes me wonder if people have stopped innovating and thinking. Or maybe there really is nothing new under the sun.
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Old 06-21-2013, 02:51 AM   #7
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And finally, I think that Lucretius would have had a huge impact on humanist thinking of the time. To me, what it has to say is astonishingly modern, and it's hard for us to grasp how stunningly different it was from the teachings of the time, whether it was all the hellfire and damnation, or the sun revolving around the earth (and aforesaid hellfire etc if you said that wasn't so), and the right we all have to be happy in our lives rather than being put here to suffer in the hope of a better deal in the hereafter./QUOTE]

I was also amazed at how advanced Lucretius' thinking was, however, I wonder sometimes if there's an arrogance about the modern era - what makes us think that we're so much more advanced than other eras? Obviously the science and technological advances we have made over the last couple of hundred years have been staggering, but does that give us the right to feel superior? Should we be surprised that there weren't more writings like this?
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Old 06-21-2013, 04:35 AM   #8
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hm, hm, I'm halfway in the book, but it bugs me that the writer treats the Middle Ages as a period of stagnant waters, without any intellectual development at all...
This being said; I do like the description of the search for manuscripts, though I doubt the assumption that this was the one thing, the decisive factor in the swerve from the Renaissance into Modern times. I mean; many historians disagree about which period was when and where....so, I would like to see some context here.

Reading this book as a kind of historic detective is one thing, but reading it as a thorough research in the medieval and renaissance period is quite another matter.
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Old 06-21-2013, 05:38 AM   #9
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I've read The Swerve and re-read most of Of the Nature of Things by Lucretius, although I had to switch from William Ellery Leonard's 1916 translation to Frank O. Copley's 1977 translation midway through because Leonard's translation really wasn't doing it for me. Frank O. Copley's translation is much more readable in my opinion.
I have a Classics Club translation by Charles E. Bennett (1946) which reads reasonably well and has a few annotations and explanatory notes. I suspect, though that Copley is even more readable.

Some of the explanatory notes in The Swerve are interesting in themselves; an example would be the comment elaborating the relationship between the world views of Lucretius and Virgil.

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Old 06-21-2013, 06:45 AM   #10
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I was also amazed at how advanced Lucretius' thinking was, however, I wonder sometimes if there's an arrogance about the modern era - what makes us think that we're so much more advanced than other eras? Obviously the science and technological advances we have made over the last couple of hundred years have been staggering, but does that give us the right to feel superior? Should we be surprised that there weren't more writings like this?
I quite agree with you and I certainly don't feel superior to the Ancient Greeks for example - history, geometry, the weight of the earth and its size (which I understand was pretty accurate) and so on and on. The thing was that so much of it was lost/buried/suppressed that I think it must have been all the more amazing to read such a text in the late Middle Ages/early Renaissance period.

And by the way, a word of thanks here too to the Arabian scholars who rescued and translated many of these ancient works. We can also lose sight of their enormous contribution to what has survived through to modern times and that is often not acknowledged.
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Old 06-21-2013, 06:55 AM   #11
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hm, hm, I'm halfway in the book, but it bugs me that the writer treats the Middle Ages as a period of stagnant waters, without any intellectual development at all...
This being said; I do like the description of the search for manuscripts, though I doubt the assumption that this was the one thing, the decisive factor in the swerve from the Renaissance into Modern times. I mean; many historians disagree about which period was when and where....so, I would like to see some context here.

Reading this book as a kind of historic detective is one thing, but reading it as a thorough research in the medieval and renaissance period is quite another matter.
Not sure I agree with you, desertblues. I don't think that Greenblatt claims that this one text was responsible for everything that came after its discovery, but it would surely have been of huge interest and a stimulus for new ways of thinking once it started being disseminated, admittedly among a relatively small group of educated people.

And I think that Greenblatt has done a great deal of research in the area he is discussing; but of course it is just one bit of the Medieval and Renaissance periods, in a few countries in Western Europe.

Check out the footnotes and references if you haven't got to them yet - or do you flick back and forth? I must admit I find that hard to do in an ebook, and tend to do a chapter at a time of footnotes.
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Old 06-21-2013, 10:21 AM   #12
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One of the things i found of interest is the way Greenblatt scuppers the notion that the Great Library was destroyed by Caliph Omar. But by the time that happened{if indeed it did happen--it might simply be negative propaganda} little of the Great Library was left.

Still Greenblatt provides what is undoubtedly a reasonably accurate outline of events but does perhaps over-simplify things by linking the Library's destruction to the horrifying and brutal murder of Hypatia. The Great Library was most likely destroyed by a multitude of wounds. If any would like to read a very thorough description of it, there is a very well researched article by Heather Phillips in Library Philosophy and Practice 2010 here:

http://www.webpages.uidaho.edu/~mbolin/phillips.htm

Another interesting article by Brian Haughton outlines what is known about the Great Library:

http://www.ancient.eu.com/article/207/

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Old 06-21-2013, 12:46 PM   #13
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I also read Of the Nature of Things by Lucretius (William Ellery Leonard translation) in preparation for reading the The Swerve. I was glad I did as I was unfamiliar with Of the Nature of Things and I actually enjoyed it more than I did The Swerve. Of course in part because of the vocabulary used a modern reader can over estimate how advanced the ideas expressed in Of the Nature of Things are. When Lucretious writes of atoms he is certainly not referring to anything like what we now know as atoms. He also retains some odd ideas, like the idea of there being a soul, a mixture of an impalpable aura and heat that deserts the dying body. I also came away with the impression, both from Of the Nature of Things itself and Greenblatt's book, that Lucretius was more of a compiler of schools of ancient natural philosophy, especially of Epicurus, than an original thinker. Still it is a remarkable document that reveals how advanced the Classical European world was relative to the over 1000 years that were to follow the fall of the Roman Empire. So anyway on to The Swerve.


I had a couple of real problems with this book. The first was that if it was the intention of Greenblatt, as it seemed to be, to make a case that recovery of a copy of Of the Nature of Things was a major turning point that drove the Renaissance he did not do a very good job of that. Let's leave aside for the moment whether or not a convincing case for that proposition is even possible. I would say that a great deal of the book was wasted on the story of Poggio's life. Even Greenblatt acknowledges that Poggio was really just a collector of ancient manuscripts, and that his concern was with the accuracy of the Latin translation and his penmanship in making copies, not the meaning of the content. So an interesting sidebar about a little known character, but not central to the proposition. Only late in the book does Greenblatt begin to make his case of the importance of Of the Nature of Things in producing the Renaissance, and that argument is weak. Personally I would say that interest in Of the Nature of Things was more a symptom of the Renaissance than a cause. The Renaissance had many causes, among them the Crusades that brought new awareness of forgotten knowledge, much of that via the Arabs and Byzantium as Bookpossum mentions, as well as the slow realization that Western Christianity had become corrupt and intellectually bankrupt.

I also concur with Synamon that Greenblatt includes to much blatant speculation of the nature of: A might have happened, and if so it would not be hard to imagine that B occurred, and that makes it entirely possible that C was the result.

I was also interested by the account in the preface of the edition that I read of how Of the Nature of Things became so personally important to Greenblatt. How difficult it must have been for him as a child to have his drama queen mother make every parting a final goodbye as she would soon be dead. Then she lived to be almost ninety years old.

I really did enjoy this book very much though. Even if I thought Greenblatt failed to makes his case I learned a lot from the book.

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Old 06-21-2013, 03:47 PM   #14
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Not sure I agree with you, desertblues. I don't think that Greenblatt claims that this one text was responsible for everything that came after its discovery, but it would surely have been of huge interest and a stimulus for new ways of thinking once it started being disseminated, admittedly among a relatively small group of educated people.

And I think that Greenblatt has done a great deal of research in the area he is discussing; but of course it is just one bit of the Medieval and Renaissance periods, in a few countries in Western Europe.

Check out the footnotes and references if you haven't got to them yet - or do you flick back and forth? I must admit I find that hard to do in an ebook, and tend to do a chapter at a time of footnotes.
Yes, I'm only halfway through, but I think I will not be able to change my mind very soon, because a lot of what he says about the Middle Ages goes against what I've studied about this period.

I do like the description of the search for manuscripts though.

Well....on with the rest of the book.
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Old 06-21-2013, 03:57 PM   #15
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That's a very fine post, Hamlet53.

I would tend to agree with your points about The Swerve. I found it an interesting book filled with all kinds of general material about the age. But the idea that the discovery of On The Nature of Things is a major turning point in the development of Western Civilisation because it initiated the Renaissance isn't convincing.

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