The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #9: The Swerve, by Stephen Greenblatt

This is the final part of an extra long post on my personal website (The Scruffy Rube) that deals with how we are adapting and reusing classical stories in modern literature.

Few things have struck me as thoroughly this year as this line from the book The Swerve, by Stephen Greenblatt:  There are moments, rare and powerful, in which a writer long vanished from the face of the earth, seems to stand in your presence and speak to you directly, as if he bore a message meant for you above all others (p. 247).

Greenblatt is right of course, and in telling the story of Roman poet Titus Lucretius’ classic De rerum natura (On the Nature Things) he spins the tale of a long dead writer who seemed to have that effect on an entire generation of minds. From Montaigne to Shakespeare and all manner of other Renaissance intellects, this Latin poem captures a new way to see the world: where seeking pleasure is a virtue, the Gods are irrelevant, and mankind charts their own course through the world. Naturally, this challenge to the established order of the middle ages (and the church that dominated it) led to conflict–even though it was an agent of the church who brought the book back into prominence.

Throughout his writing, Greenblatt guides readers into this conflict by encapsulating a horde of complex ideas, philosophies and historical factoids. My father and father-in-law were both captivated by the men who found the book and re-introduced it to the world. Unfortunately, since I had taken a two-year long college course chronicling the connections between Lucretius’ philosophy, the Catholic church’s obstinacy, Shakespeare’s poetry and all the other writers from generations long gone, I couldn’t get past the feeling that I had already read the book’s spoilers. While the book might be more engrossing for those who are new to the lineage of great literature, there’s still something appealing for  everyone.

The context that helped Lucretius’ ideas to thrive are here again now: a corrupt church bureaucracy, accusations that self-seeking pleasure has loosened morals around the world, an increasingly secular society. But the real power of ideas isn’t what they are, the real power is that the ideas can matter to anyone and everyone. Reading the ideas of Lucretius, or Greenblatt, or any religious prophet can benefit you and your society. Encountering ideas on your own offers the opportunity to improve your life and the lives of others. It’s all a matter of how you use those ideas.

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