Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

In The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Stephen Greenblatt sets himself a formidable task—to make the discovery of an obscure manuscript in a German monastery  in 1417 into an event of epochal significance. He doesn’t quite make good on this attempt, but his historical excavations result in a narrative of surprising interest just the same.

Few today have heard of Poggio Bracciolini, the man who made the discovery in question; he was probably not a household name even in his own time, though he distinguished himself as a high-ranking papal secretary and later served as chancellor of Florence.  Among his fellow humanists Poggio was certainly well-known, carrying on a running correspondence for decades with Niccolo Niccoli, for example, and engaging in a highly publicized dispute with Lorenzo Valla. But nothing that he wrote has proven interesting or significant enough to hold the attention of later generations beyond a small circle of academic experts. For example, in his landmark 400-page History of the Renaissance in Italy, Jacob Burckhardt mentions Poggio only in passing, with reference to an essay on nobility. Popular modern anthologies of the era contain essays by Valla, Pico, Manetti, Telesio, and other more or less obscure figures, but Poggio is not among those considered worthy of inclusion.

Poggio’s outstanding claim to fame for us is that he came across a copy of The Nature of Things by Lucretius moldering on a dusty shelf—a poem that was widely referred to and admired in ancient times but was entirely lost during the Dark Ages.

Among the several virtues of Greenblatt’s book is that he fleshes out the world of the early Renaissance—the in-fighting among members of the papal curia, the high-strung literary correspondence between humanists describing their latest bibliographic finds and projects, the responsibilities and excesses of the Florentine municipal administration, and the hermetic world of monastic life, where piety was too often a smokescreen for ambition, perversity, and sloth.

Shifting gears from chapter to chapter, Greenblatt also does an excellent job of describing the impact made by Lucretius’s book-length poem on cultivated Romans fifteen hundred years earlier, and contrasts those very modern-sounding atomic, if not Darwinian, theories—which Lucretius derived from the theories of Epicurus and Democritus—against the generally polytheistic mind-set of those times.

As luck would have it, among the five Popes whom Poggio served was John XXIII (now classified by the Catholic Church as an anti-Pope) who fled the Council of Constance before he was formally deposed along with two other claimants to the seat. In describing this string of events, which also includes the burning of the Czech protestant Jan Hus at the stake, Greenblatt once again fleshes out a time very different from our own—or maybe not.

Greenburg’s vivid description of such events, which are usually described in academic texts fairly cursorily and by means of cliché, is worth the price of the book.  But there are two important issues with which he finds it more difficult to deal adequately. These are

a) To what degree did Poggio’s discovery of The Nature of Things really “transform” the world, and

b) To what degree is this a good as opposed to a bad thing.

The implicit assumption is that the world-view described by Lucretius is not only more modern, but also more accurate, than the one provided by the Catholic Church. And it is further suggested, or at least implied,  that were it not for the serendipitous discovery of a unique manuscript in some unnamed German monastery, the Epicurean vision would have remained a mystery to us all.

Both of these notions are more than a little far-fetched.

In his defense of the idea that Poggio’s discovery was monumental, Greenblatt quotes a few lines from Romeo and Juliet that could have been lifted from Lucretius. Yet Shakespeare’s favorite and most often-quoted poet by far was Ovid. And it's interesting to note that in an overview of the period such as E.M.W. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture, neither Epicurus nor Lucretius is mentioned at all. That being the case, it comes as no surprise to find that Poggio doesn't merit mention either.

Greenblatt also highlights a few passages in which Montaigne seems to lean heavily on Lucretius, and here he is on firmer ground. One scholar determined that Montaigne quotes Lucretius 149 times in his essay, more than any other Roman poet. But Horace comes in a very close second at 148. Both poets were Epicurians. This seems to suggest that in The Nature of Things Lucretius provided Montaigne—and the modern world—with more attractive ways to express things that were already widely accessible from other sources.

Greenblatt brings his book to a close by observing that Thomas Jefferson owned copies of The Nature of Things in five languages, and sometimes described himself as an Epicurean. But that doesn’t tell us much about where he got his political views. (Epicurus was explicitly apolitical.) One historian of the religious views of the Founding Fathers writes:
In his youth, Jefferson studied the philosophers of clas­sical antiquity. And just as the Greek and Roman style shaped his architectural preferences in designing Monticello, the ra­tionality and balance of Socrates, Seneca, Cicero, and Epicurus appealed to his desire for a life disciplined by inward harmony and self-control.
Then again, Jefferson also edited the Gospels to excise the parts he didn’t like. In this scheme of influences and inspirations Lucretius was undoubtedly present, but certainly not essential.

One final but very important issue clouds the appeal of The Swerve: Greenblatt seems to think that the vision offered by Epicurus, through the medium of the golden poetry of Lucretius, offers a better vision of life than the one offered by the Christian program that dominated European life following the collapse of Rome. But he never provides any convincing proof to that effect. He makes the mistake of equating the genius of Christianity with the dogmas of the Catholic Church, and he too often confuses the hedone that Epicurus considered the ultimate end of human life with bodily pleasure  pure and simple. If we were to go into the matter of Epicureanism at any greater length, we would be doing more than Greenblatt has done. Suffice it to say that Epicureanism is a philosophy of the healthy and the well-off. Its impulses are quietistic. Christianity, for all its faults, is rooted in the peculiar sanctity of the human individual—a creature capable of reflection, conscience, genius, loyalty, sacrifice. These are social virtues. The Epicurean philosophy of pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain will never be of much use to those for whom physical pain is endemic, yet who are inspired to pursue something more broadly meaningful in the midst of that pain.

But if Greenblatt overstates the case for the significance Poggio’s discovery, it doesn’t matter much. His book holds our interest due largely to his colorful rendering of fifteenth-century Humanism, thriving in the midst of a world of mostly hide-bound Catholic orthodoxy and largely venal religious institutions. It’s a book about people who loved books and believed the elevated Latin of Roman times had more power to express things fully and freely than did either the scholarly Latin or the local dialects of their own day.

It’s an attractive vision, and I was inspired, after finishing The Swerve, to pull my own copy of The Nature of Things off the shelf. I’m sorry to report that I didn’t get far before putting it down again.

A rotten translation? Perhaps. 

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