The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011, ISBN 978-0-393- 06447-6) 356 pp. Hardcover, $26.95.
Distinguished Harvard University professor Stephen Greenblatt contends that rediscovery of the lost Lucretius poem, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), helped trigger the Renaissance, the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment, and the six-century upsurge of science and democracy that catapulted the West into today’s advanced civilization. His book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, won a 2012 Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. A New York Times reviewer wrote: “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.”
Ancient Greece, birthplace of Western civilization, was contradictory. It produced the first known thinkers who tried to understand the world through logic and observation instead of supernatural explanations. Yet Greeks also sacrificed thousands of animals to imaginary gods on Mount Olympus and gave gold to mystical “oracles” who babbled in trances. Greeks even fought the Sacred Wars over treasure stolen from the Oracle at Delphi.