The Swerve, a book review

Stephen Greenblatt’s THE SWERVE, How the World Became Modern, tells an important story and has won the National Book Award for non-fiction and a Pulitzer. The story is of particular interest and importance to atheists and secular humanists because it validates us as main-stream, primary players in the flow of Western Civilization and casts the Abrahamic religions as the major bump on the long road to modernity. It traces progressive secular history back to around 300 BC, to the philosophy of the Greek, Epicurus. That is, to 300 years before Jesus the Christ was a glint in God’s eye; before the God of Abraham knocked up the virgin Mary. -Illustrating that the followers of the Abrahamic religions are the true outliers in Western Civilization, not us!

In his book, Greenblatt tells the story of how an Italian papal secretary, Poggio Bracciolini, found, in 1417 AD, a copy of an ancient Roman philosophical epic poem, Lucretius’, On the Order of Things, on a shelf in a German monastery that helped pave the way for modern thought. The poem had been written around 50 BC. There were numerous references to it in the available writings of antiquity but it had been lost for nearly 1,500 years. The reason it was lost probably had something to do with the fact that it contradicted church teachings. On the Nature of Things, posits a number of revolutionary ideas; that the universe functions without the aid of gods, that religious fear is damaging to human life, and that matter is made up of very small particles called atoms in eternal motion, colliding and swerving in new directions.

“On the Nature of Things was filled with, to Christian eyes, scandalous ideas. It argues     eloquently, Mr. Greenblatt writes, that ‘there is no master plan, no divine architect, no     intelligent design.’

Religious fear, Lucretius thought, long before there was a Christopher Hitchens, warps human life.” (New York Times book review)

“. . . . . thrilling, suspenseful tale that left this reader inspired and full of questions about     the ongoing project known as human civilization.” (Boston Globe book review)

After Poggio found the epic poem, the copying and translation of the book fueled both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, inspiring artists such as Botticelli and thinkers such as Giordano Bruno; shaped the thought of Galileo, Freud, Darwin, and Einstein and had a revolutionary influence on writers such as Montaigne, Shakespeare and even Thomas Jefferson.

Titus Lucretius Carus (99 BC – 55 BC) was a Roman poet and philosopher. His only known work is the epic philosophical poem De rerum natura about the beliefs of Epicureanism which is translated into English as On the Nature of Things.

Epicurus (341 BC – 270 BC) was an ancient Greek philosopher, the founder of the school of philosophy called Epicureanism. For Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy was to attain the happy, tranquil life, characterized by peace and freedom from fear—and the absence of pain—and by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends. He taught that pleasure and pain are the measures of what is good and evil; death is the end of both body and soul and should therefore not be feared; the gods do not reward or punish humans; the universe is infinite and eternal; and events in the world are ultimately based on the motions and interactions of atoms moving in empty space.
-Thomas Jefferson, BTW, identified as an Epicurean.

As this is as good a place as any, I am going to take the opportunity to recommend a couple of, somewhat, related literary works;

George Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell which is a play within his play, Man and Superman, and The Grand Inquisitor from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazof.

Don Juan in Hell can be found and read online at,

The Grand Inquisitor can be found and read online at,

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