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10 Best Quotes From "The Swerve: How the World Became Modern" by Stephen Greenblatt


Stephen Greenblatt’s book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern begins by recounting Greenblatt’s chance discovery, while he was still in college, of a translation of De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), a poem by the Roman philosopher Lucretius. He immediately found the work fascinating, especially its focus on the fear of death, a fear that had dominated Greenblatt’s life until then.

On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius—a beautiful poem of the most dangerous ideas: that the universe functioned without the aid of gods, that religious fear was damaging to human life, and that matter was made up of very small particles in eternal motion, colliding and swerving in new directions.



  1. ”What human beings can and should do, he wrote, is to conquer their fears, accept the fact that they themselves and all the things they encounter are transitory, and embrace the beauty and the pleasure of the world.”

  2. “Just when the gods had ceased to be, and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone.”

  3. “What the Greek philosopher offered was not help in dying but help in living. Liberated from superstition, Epicurus taught, you would be free to pursue pleasure.”

  4. “The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion.”

  5. “The exercise of reason is not available only to specialists; it is accessible to everyone.”

  6. “Art always penetrates the particular fissures in one's psychic life.”

  7. “The quintessential emblem of religion and the clearest manifestation of the perversity that lies at its core is the sacrifice of a child by a parent.”

  8. “The discussion itself is what most matters, the fact that we can reason together easily, with a blend of wit and seriousness, never descending into gossip or slander and always allowing room for alternative views.”

  9. “Compared to the unleashed forces of warfare and of faith, Mount Vesuvius was kinder to the legacy of antiquity.”

  10. “Independence & self-reliance had no cultural purchase; indeed, they could scarcely be conceived, let alone prized...The best course was humbly to accept the identity to which destiny assigned you: the ploughman needed only to know how to plough, the weaver to weave, the monk to pray.”