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Book Notes – The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (Chapters 1 – 5)

Notes for the book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt.


Greenblatt picked up Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things in a college book sale. He was struck by the ideas it espoused, including ideas on how to handle death. He had been fearful of death through his mother, who used it as a manipulative device. He was intrigued that a book written so long ago could contain ideas we might consider modern.

Chapter 1: The Book Hunter

Poggio was the papal secretary, responsible for Latin correspondence. When Pope John XXIII gets deposed, he finds himself in Germany without a master. He goes looking for old manuscripts in monasteries. Hopefully they’ve been copied faithfully throughout the centuries–he’s hoping to find the words of ancient Rome.

Chapter 2: The Moment of Discovery

Certain rules of monastic orders accidentally led to their central role as archivists for ancient texts. These rules included requirements for literacy, the demand for books, and the spiritual importance of the monotonous work of transcription. Unfortunately, scribes would sometimes write over older texts to transcribe newer texts, at the direction of the abbey librarian. Being a book hunter during the time wasn’t easy. Although the priest Petrarch had made some amazing discoveries, Germany and Switzerland were had remote monasteries that might yield greater treasures. Poggio was uniquely suited to reclaim these ancient texts since he was knowledgeable about the church, a gifted Latinist, extremely charming, and a talented scribe as well. Greenblatt hypothesizes that Poggio made his way to and charmed his way into the library of the Benedictine Abbey of Fulda. There he would’ve found some interesting works, the most important of which was Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things.

Chapter 3: In Search of Lucretius

In Poggio’s time, Lucretius’ works were not well known (On the Nature of Things) is the only one to survive to modern times. What they knew was from small references by his contemporaries including Cicero, Ovid, and Virgil. The discovery of Herculaneum, buried by Vesuvius with Pompei, provided information about philosophical thought during that time. A small private library was unearthed that contained intact papyrii.

As the Romans expanded their empire, they came to admire Greek art, science, and philosophy. The rich and powerful used books as a status symbol, and some amassed great libraries.

Philosophical discourse was a social affair. Cicero, in writing about his philosophical ideas, made it a point to discuss the ideas of his colleagues, ideas that would’ve been discussed together during gatherings. Greenblatt supposes that Lucretius may have been at such a gathering at the library at Herculaneum. Lucretius was inspired by Epicurius and his ideas of atoms and pleasure. Although it is commonly believed that Epicuirius’ idea of pleasure equates to that of the tantalization of the senses, evidence suggests he led a simple, wholesome life. Documents from the library discuss that pleasure in life comes not from indulgence, but a life of courage, honor, duty, virtue, and temperance. The Epicurean idea of atoms and the void provided an alternative to religious worship. Epicurus taught that if a person was able to keep these ideas in his mind, he would have no fear of the afterlife, and many of the pressures and stresses of life would fall away.

Chapter 4: The Teeth of Time

Only scraps of ancient learning have survived to the present day. The majority of these are copies of original texts; the only originals left have been found at a couple archaeological sites including Herculaneum. Papyrus written on with a water-soluble ink was the popular medium, susceptible to bookworms, storms and floods, and tears.

There was a thriving book industry in the ancient world. Copyists and scribes were actively used to produce books, and there were book shops and public libraries in major Roman imperial cities, including the most famous library in history, the Library of Alexandria, which was more like a university than a modern library.

The book culture thrived until the rise of Christendom after Constantine made it the official religion. Greenblatt presents the fate of Hypatia, celebrated philosopher of Alexandria, murdered by a Christian mob, as the beginning of the end of intellectualism and the truce between paganism and Christianity.

Notable early Christian thought-leaders talked about the conflict between classical pagan learning and leading a life in God’s grace.

Although the teachings of some of the Greek philosophers could be integrated into the Church’s official teachings, Epicurus’ teaching that there was nothing after death, and that life’s goal should be the pursuit of pleasure could not be reconciled with Church canon.

To combat Epicureanism, some Christian leaders painted Epicurus and his followers as hedonists. The Church also began to teach that the way to grace was through pain, that life was about pain and not pleasure. Some saints and monastic orders were regular practitioners of self-flagellation.

Chapter 5: Birth and Rebirth

Poggio arrived in Florence penniless despite growing up with some wealth; he had all the talents to succeed in Florence despite this. He had excellent penmanship, which he used to pay for lessons to improve his already proficient latin. He and some of his contemporaries were instrumental in the design of the type known as roman.

Petrarch and his contemporaries popularized the revival of classical pagan literature. While some believed that their civilization was a continuation of the great civilizations that came before, those in Petrarch’s camp believed that the empire was long dead and only shadows and fragments of it existed. One of Petrarch’s closest students was Salutati.

Poggio eventually became a mentee of Salutati, the Chancellor of Florence. He believed that Florence was the heir to ancient Rome, being an independent city state run by an elected council. Salutati was a brilliant politician who mentored not only Poggio but Leonardo Bruni, who would become important in Florence later, and Niccolo Niccoli, who had a great collection of antiquities and documents which he would bequeath to start a public library.

Lacking wealth or political ambition, Poggio decided to head to Rome to find his calling.