Thursday, January 10, 2013

Greenblatt's The Swerve

I just finished reading The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt. The book is built around the discovery in a German monastery in 1417 of The Nature of Things, Lucretius epic length poem on the philosophical system associated with Epicurus. That there are many editions of Lucretius's book in print and on the market two millenniums after its composition attests to its importance. The Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award won by The Swerve attest to the quality of that book. Greenblatt is one of America's foremost scholars.

Epicurus (341 BC – 270 BC) was a Greek philosopher, and Lucretius (ca. 99 BC – ca. 55 BC) a Roman poet. Lucretius composed his poem in elegant Latin, replete with complex metaphors to convey a complex philosophical position in an elegant and beautiful form.

As I understand it, Epicurus' philosophical position combined a number of elements, including:
  • That all things are made of atoms in different combinations and space, which is found even within things
  • That atoms and space have always existed and will continue to exist, not having been created
  • That there is continuity in the world including the idea that the descendants of any individual are much like the individual from which the descend, but that there is evolution that produces new kinds of things
  • That humans like other animals do not have souls that survive after the death of the individual. and that this should be comforting removing fear of death and suffering
  • As a result, life is properly devoted to avoiding pain and seeking pleasure, albeit with a definition of pleasure that one might expect from a scholarly philosopher, and
  • That religions are superstitions that do more harm than good.
Apparently Lucretius held that there were gods, but that they had the same material composition of atoms and space as all other entities, and that they were neither concerned with mankind nor likely to intervene in human affairs.

The Swerve explains that The Nature of Things was the subject of attacks from religious communities even in pre-Christian times. Christians could accept the poet's criticism of other religions (especially since it was composed before the birth of Christ), but found many of its precepts to be profoundly heretical if accepted by Christians. The fall of the Roman empire imperiled all the literature of the ancients, but the teaching of Epicurus were specifically targeted.

Greenblatt explains that the monasteries imposed the duty to copy manuscripts as encouraging humility as a spiritual discipline. The scribes copied texts letter by letter, viewing the original through a narrow window that focused attention on the line of letters, not the meaning. Few monks were scholars. Books were subject to all kinds of damage, including bookworms and having the text scraped out to allow the velum to be reused for more religious texts. Under those circumstances it is not surprising that only three early copies of The Nature of Things survived the middle ages, all dating from the ninth century.

The Renaissance saw the rebirth of humanism, first in Italy and then expanding into other Western European regions. Humanists learned Latin and even Greek (from Greeks in an early exodus from lands conquered or threatened by Muslims). The collected statues from the ancient world, copied architecture and engineering accomplishments of the Romans. And they collected texts from the ancient world, learned classical Latin and Greek, and developed the skills to understand and appreciate the great books of the past. Some searched the libraries of the monasteries for surviving manuscripts of ancient texts in Latin and Greek. One among them was Poggio, a humanist who rose to be a secretary to eight popes, an author, and a wealthy, influential man.

The Swerve describes the church hierarchy during the long period in which Poggio worked in the Curia, just before the Reformation. It was a time in which three different individuals claimed the role of pope, each with the support of powerful kings. The pope in Rome was the secular leader of much of what is now Italy, involved in continued  politics and a time of war and pillage. The Catholic Church was rich and getting richer through many processes, including the sale of indulgences. Powerful families placed sons as abbots, bishops and cardinals. They used all of the resources and approaches available to advance their own careers and those of their families. These priests had mistresses and children, lived in luxury that the people of the church could hardly imagine. Charismatic leaders arose in various places calling for reform, and the brilliant men who had climbed to power in the church fought to retain that power and to blunt the reform movements.

Poggio and the other bureaucrats in the Curia were cynical about the institution in which they worked and the people for whom they worked. Many, perhaps most, were deeply dissatisfied with the day to day work given to them. Poggio studied, wrote books and was one of the searchers for rare books outside of his work in the Church.

Pope John XXIII was perhaps the worst of the popes, or at least the only pope to have been formally removed from office. The Council of Constance which ended the Western Schism in the church tried and convicted Pope John XXIII who was imprisoned for three years before buying his freedom and being restored to the rank of cardinal in Florence. Poggio was left in Constance without a patron and rather than immediately finding another used his freedom to search in the virgin field of German monasteries for important lost manuscripts. In this search in 1417 he found The Nature of Things, had it copied, and sent the copy to a friend and patron in Florence who had further copies made and circulated.

While the Catholic Church tried to suppress the book, the canny humanists managed to keep it in circulation and when printing was invented, the production of new printed copies overwhelmed the church's ability to destroy them.

Greenblatt considers The Nature of Things and Epicurean philosophy as inspiring artists such as Botticelli and thinkers such as Giordano Bruno; shaping the thought of Galileo and Freud, Darwin and Einstein; and having a revolutionary influence on writers such as Montaigne and Shakespeare and even Thomas Jefferson.

As one would expect of a scholar of Greenblatt's reputation, he has done extensive research and documented his discoveries carefully. (I was impressed for example by his discovery of Thomas Harriot, an English theorist who had been a member of the Roanoke colony, influenced by Lucretius who hid his discoveries, not found until the 20th century.)

Correlation is not causality. As Greenblatt says, the theory of atoms continued through history even when Lucretius was lost from site, so the world was not dependent on Poggio's discovery for all of Epicurean thought. Did the Renaissance and the Enlightenment create a culture in which The Nature of Things could be more widely read and understood, or did Lucretius' work contribute to the modernization of the world, or both?

Note by the way that there seems to have been no idea of energy in Epicurean thought, that atoms can be destroyed, that we now believe that there was a big bang start to the universe, and the term "evolution" must be subdivided into the ways in which animate and inanimate objects change. These ideas suggest a new way of thinking (that has not yet reached those who believe creationism should be taught in the schools), but they are themselves not scientific.

I loved the book! Greenblatt writes a good sentence and a good paragraph, rarer than you might think. He tells a good story. The view of Christianity before the Reformation and Counter Reformation helped me to better understand those important swerves in history. Even his asides are well chosen and interesting. All of that and I felt secure with his scholarship.

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