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The Swerve: How the World Became Modern - Stephen Greenblatt

"When we say...that pleasure is the end and aim of life, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not by an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry, not by sexual lust, nor the enjoyment of fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul." ---Epicurus

I haven't read a book in a long time that has introduced me to so many historical figures to admire. Some of that is born out of my own ignorance, but the wonderful thing about ignorance is I have the means to dismiss it. I have heard of Hypatia and last year even watched a movie based on her life called Agora starring the lovely Rachel Weisz. I have brushed up against Epicurus and Lucretius, but they are mere footnotes on other files logged sporadically in the dim halls of my memories.



I had no reference to tell me what colossal figures they are, bearing brilliant ideas that give footing to my own paltry concepts of my own life philosophy.

If I were to dig out my time machine that I was tinkering with way back during a Stephen King review http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/286846119 and decide to take a trip back to 1417; invariably, as we know despite my best efforts something would go wrong and I would be stuck there. I could only hope I could find Poggio Bracciolini and tag along with him as he "became a midwife to modernity". Poggio in 1417 finds himself unemployed. Most recently he had been Apostolic Scriptor for the pope. His boss had been defrocked and thrown in jail and given the circumstances had no more need of his services.

Poggio short on funds, but long on bibliophilic desire is searching for lost books. He is a charmer and he has to be to convince monks to allow him to poke among the dusty remains of ancient texts in their libraries. Luckily there was a time when Christians were curious about the world beyond the bible and had copied and preserved even those texts that they found to be contrary to their own beliefs. That time is past and in the 1400s those texts had not been recopied and were vulnerable to bugs, damp, and abuse. Poggio in one such monastery finds a book that was so dangerous that it had been nearly eradicated. On the Nature of Things by Lucretius expounded the views of Epicurus in an epic poem so lovely that even St. Jerome despite it's views so counter to his struggling beliefs could not resist reading it. If the monastery had really know what it was and that they were the protectorate of such a book I'm sure they would have used it to light a hot fire under the next heretic.

To give you an example of where Christian thinking was at the time. Saint Benedict wandering along a path thinking pious thoughts one day suddenly had the image of a desirable woman intrude upon his heavenly internal discourse and found himself aroused. Oh my what to do what to do.

He then noticed a thick patch of nettles and briers next to him. Throwing his garment aside he flung himself into the sharp thorns and stinging nettles. There he rolled and tossed until his whole body was in pain and covered with blood. Yet, once he had conquered pleasure through suffering, his torn and bleeding skin served to drain the poison of temptation from his body. Before long, the pain that was burning his whole body had put out the fires of evil in his heart. It was by exchanging these two fires that he gained the victory over sin.

In one of the great cultural transformations in the history of the West, the pursuit of pain triumphed over the pursuit of pleasure.

It leaves little doubt why women get such a bad shake in Christian religion given that the natural desire that a man may feel for a woman is considered EVIL. Let's see the Epicurean table is right over there excuse me. I'm with those guys.

The Way Things Are. If you are like me and have not read Lucretius do not let that keep you from reading this book. Greenblatt provides a list of the principle components addressed in the book with further explanation than what I'm providing in this review.

*Everything is made of invisible particles.
*The elementary particles of matter-"the seeds of things"-are eternal.
*The elementary particles are infinite in number but limited in shape and size.
*All particles are in motion in an infinite void.
*Everything comes into being as a result of the swerve.
*Nature ceaselessly experiments.
*The universe was not created for or about humans.
*Humans are not unique.
*Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival.
*The soul dies...(ehh gads that will get you a quick trip to the flaming wood pile.)
*There is no afterlife...(they can only burn you once.)
*Death is nothing to us.
*All organized religions are superstitious delusions.
*Religions are invariably cruel.
*There are no angels, demons, or ghosts.
*The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain. (avoid nettles and briers for example.)
*The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion.
*Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder.

Now after skimming this list either you are looking for the dislike button, which luckily for us poor reviewers is not available, or you are intrigued and want to read more. I would suggest that even if you do find some of the ideas on this list abhorrent still read this book. My brain was churning like a frozen Margarita mixer in a Mexican bar on a Friday night while reading this book. It is okay to read about things that you disagree with. It is okay to doubt your beliefs or reformat your thoughts or even change your mind. My father-in-law, Texas Baptist, refused to read [b:The Da Vinci Code|968|The Da Vinci Code (Robert Langdon, #2)|Dan Brown|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1303252999s/968.jpg|2982101], but he called my wife to ask her what it was about. His beliefs are obviously so fragile he cannot take the chance that a fiction writer of dubious talent might create doubt.

I had sticky notes stuck to other sticky notes filled with sketchy bits of my handwriting (Poggio would be appalled at the state of my handwriting.) with wonderful quotes that I had fully intended to share with my goodreads friends, but the book is only 263 pages and I literally had notes for nearly every page that would have ballooned this review beyond anybody's patience level. Besides you are going to read this book right?

Poggio Bracciolini

I'm going to end with a book curse that Greenblatt shared that I intend to tuck into every book I lend out to "friends" from now on.

For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with palsy, and all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying aloud for mercy, and let there be no surcease to his agony till he sing in dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, and when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him forever.

That ought to get their attention.

I leave you fair friends to return to my ivory tower, the walls thick with books, a Royals baseball game playing in the background. My pursuit of pleasure has begun.