Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Thinker in the Garden: "The Swerve" by Stephen Greenblatt


            There exists, I am to understand, a book (composed in verse; so also a poem) written in the century before the birth of Christ by a Roman of the educated class that entirely anticipated the modern, scientific notions of the physical universe. And from that science -- we would call it particle science; or materialism; also evolution -- the writer propounded a metaphysics that answered all of life's fundamental questions. I'm not sure if anyone since has come up with a system of thought that betters answers those questions. 
          How was I not aware of this?
          Written in Latin, the book is "De Rerum Natura" ("The Nature of Things"). That's a big subject. But in the view of the poem's author, known to history as Lucretius, all the parts fit together. As explained by scholar Stephen Greenblatt in "The Swerve: How the World Became Modern," the underlying nature of everything from the inanimate to plants and animals to human beings is one. We are all built from the same building blocks. Tiny particles, no one can see them, are at the bottom of everything. The word the Greek philosophers used for them is "atoms." Lucretius called them "the seeds of things" and discussed how these "seeds" led to complex organisms such as people. The key is that atoms do not forever move in straight lines, but, unpredictably, at some chance moment in time, "swerve." (Compare to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle.) They bump into each other, stick together, form attractions, build up complicated structures; then, eventually, unbuild them.

            Many conclusions, Lucretius argues, follow from this understanding of the foundation of life. There is no need for "religio" to explain anything. There may be gods, but they exist in another realm of being and have no interest in us. Life in the here and now is all you ever have and all you ever need. There is no transcendant  meaning, or purpose, or destiny in any human life; no "divine providence"; no larger goal toward which our actions advance. No life but this life, so neither hope nor fear that your conduct here will affect the quality of your "afterlife." No afterlife for the human soul, for the human soul, however you define it, is inseparable from the body and disappears with it at death. Religious and priestly practices, Lucretius argued, are based on the fear of death and all depend on cruel notions of lasting or "eternal" punishments to gain authority over human minds. We let our lives be governed by our fear of pain and of death, but we have no need to be. Instead, the poet-philosopher urges, we should actively seek the pleasures, or sources of happiness, or pleasures that life offers us.

            Another way to put this advice on how people should live, Greenblatt suggests in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, is "the pursuit of happiness."

            How is it (I ask again) that someone who was a philosophy major way back in a previous millennium, can say, gee, funny how I never heard of this guy or his book.

            To deepen the plot, scholars say you can draw a clear line of influence between Lucretius, a Roman, and Epicurus, an ancient Greek philosopher. We did study the Greeks -- or some of them. It's the Greeks who made all the initial speculations on "ontology," the beginnings of things, the fundamental nature of reality. The fundamental element is earth, some said, so reality is solid and unchanging. Or water, others said, so the basis of life is constant change. The atoms theory is first credited to a Greek philosopher named Democritus. Some Greek philosophers are known as the "pre-Socratics," and well, frankly, we didn't study them since we began with Socrates. The best known name among the pre-Socratics is probably Pythagoras. His theory on the foundation of the universe: "All is number." 
           Epicurus is a different story.

            Lucretius's great philosophical poem on the "nature of things" is based on the teaching of Eupicurus, but only a few fragments of his writings remain; he's known mainly through the works of commentators, Lucretius among them.

            Epicurus, who gives his name to "epicurean" -- eating, drinking, the pleasures of the senses -- a misunderstanding of his teaching, is of great interest to me because in contrast to Socrates, Plato and all the mainline schools of thought, he withdrew -- not entirely from life, but far enough away not to go to the Court of Athens and get involved in politics, and disputes, and the life and death matters of the state -- into, say, the suburbs of the city, where he established not a university, or even a real school, but something more like a garden party.

            Somewhere around 300 BCE he founded a school called The Garden after the garden he owned and where his school met. The first "school" in the Western tradition was founded by Plato, a student of Socrates, was called the Academy. The city's other school was Stoa, from which we get the word Stoics.

            Greenblatt's book tells the remarkable story of the role the return of these ideas, through the recovery of Lucretius's great work, played in Humanist, Renaissance thought in the 15th and 16th centuries (and ongoing). The discovery of his book, he argues, is a major strand in the "swerve" of Western history from the narrow, theology-dominated and hypocritically "otherworldly" worldview of the Middle Ages to the liberal, scientific thought patterns of the Modern Age. As McLuhan said (and also Marx), something new often involves the recovery of something lost.

            The story the book tells is full of ironies. The classical pagan writers of Rome are of interest to the most cultured Christian clerics because only they can read the highly developed Latin style of the Roman literati. The story's hero, Poggio Bracciolini, while a prominent bureaucrat in the Vatican, is a book-hunter, looking for copies of ancient classics to be found only in old monasteries where monks were trained to preserve them over for centuries by copying ancient manuscripts word for word without paying the slightest interest to their content. "Curiosity," Greenblatt writes, was a sin. The monasteries preserved the books as a capital investment. Which books were preserved -- and many more were lost -- was a matter of luck.

            Poggio, out of work because the pope he worked for has been disposed, finds the manuscript of "the nature of things" in an old German monastery. He gives it to a wealthy patron, a book collector.

            Slowly word of its content gets around. You can see its influence in the ideas of prominent Renaissance thinkers. The poem's hymn to Venus -- embodying Lucretius's conception of the universe as an erotic self-propagating system -- is the inspiration to Renaisaance artists, seen in works such as Botticelli's "Primavera," in which the fertility goddess Venus awakens the springtime world. Today nobody questions the greatness of Renaissance masterpieces of art. But they were a long way from depictions of the lives of the saints.

            The topper in this line of influences is Greenblatt's observation that none other than Thomas Jefferson had several rare editions of Lucretius's masterwork -- a book that that saw the goal of human life as, in Jefferson's immortal phrase, "the pursuit of happiness."

            "The Swerve" is also a highly informative account of a world we know little about today, the early 15th century. The huge papal bureaucracy that controls the religious life of the Europe -- at a time when nothing was more important than religious life -- and which, according to participants such as Poggio was routinely corrupt and venial. Anything could be had for a price. For Poggio and his generation, Latin writers such as Cicero possessed a command of rhetoric and the art of written expression that had long disappeared from the world. In a word, "style" is the soul of a civilization. Books hunters such Poggio despaired of making the world a better place and wearied of their own worldly ambitions, but they always found solace and inspiration in the civilizing virtues of a good old book.

            Us moderns have it better. We take our libraries, our wealth of literary matter for granted. Part of that wealth, the pleasures of the "the modern" age, is that rewarding books by authors like Stephen Greenblatt keep being produced.