Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Swerve

"Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness." The Constitution carries these words, in part, because Thomas Jefferson was influenced by his reading of an ancient Roman classic, "On the Nature of Things." Jefferson owned multiple editions and translations, to which he referred in his correspondence. Before and after him, De Rerum Natura (the original title) influenced powerful thinkers from Galileo to Freud, Darwin to Einstein to Sir Thomas More. Many of the concepts are remarkably modern, and some seem dangerously radical even today.

The Swerve tells two stories. The first is an Indiana Jones-like epic of Poggio Bracciolini, papal secretary and book hunter, who discovered a very old manuscript in a secluded monastery in 1417. He recognized it as De Rerum Natura, one of the great lost classics written by Titus Lucretius Carus around 50 BCE. Poggio Bracciolini's discovery rescued the manuscript, and the newly-invented printing press saw it widely disseminated among the learned. In the end, it changed the world.

This is the second story found inside the covers of The Swerve, "How the World Became Modern." The poem gave voice to the cultural swerve of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Many of its thought-experiments have since been validated by modern science (the existence of atoms) and philosophy.

The book celebrates a universe unfolding with infinite splendor, in the absence of harmful illusions, destructive fantasies and cruel distortions. Reading The Swerve is eye-opening and challenges one's comfortable assumptions."The Nature of Things" carried society through that troubled era when we stepped out of the Dark Ages and into the Age of Reason. Arguably, that conflict continues to this day. The library also carries the very readable Penguin edition of "The Nature of Things" for those interested in further exploration.


1 comment:

  1. Actually "Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness" is from the Declaration of Independence. Thanks for posting the review, it sounds like an interesting read.


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