In January 1417 an Italian scholar, Poggio Bracciolini, discovered in a German monastery a long lost poem, 'On the nature of things', by the Greek philosopher Titus Lucretius that Stephen Greenblatt, American author and professor, thinks altered the course of Western Civilization. Greenblatt's book "The Swerve: How the world became modern", awarded a rare combination of the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, takes the reader in a flight of fancy across monasteries, the papacy, libraries in Rome and Alexandria, a racy recount of the conflict of Christianity with paganism, the advent of the Humanists ushered in by Petrarch and the art of book hunting.
Epicurus, circa 300 B.C, in the footsteps of the atomist Democritus, enunciated a materialist philosophy that made a moral case for pursuing pleasure, or better still, avoiding pain. In populist notion Epicurus is identified, a tad too simplistically, with pleasure seeking as a goal and the philosophy has come to be eponymously called Epicureanism or hedonism. Lucretius (c 99 B.C - c 55 B.C)immortalized Epicurianism in a tract he called "De Rerum Natura" (On the nature of things). Who was Lucretius?
Greenblatt, in one of his plethora of surmises, suggests that Bracciolini probably encountered the first biographical sketch of Lucretius from a note authored by Father St Jerome who wrote that Lucretius wrote books amidst bouts of insanity and finally committed suicide. The myth of a licentious suicidal Lucretius was further cemented by the English poet Tennyson.
Father Jerome's colorful sketch of Lucretius was probably driven by a need to not just denigrate an author but to discredit what the Church came to see as a dangerous philosophy. Epicureanism "scoffed" and called the idea of incarnation a "particularly absurd idea". "Why should the humans think of themselves as so superior" that "god should take their form" and why, "among al varieties of human beings, should he take have taken the form of a Jew". Two millennia later Bertrand Russell would suggest that if animals could paint their gods would look like them much like how human beings think god was made in their image. Greenbelt summarizes the key parts of Lucretius poem, in a bullet list no less.
The world, Lucretius wrote, was made of invisible particles called atoms, "neither creation nor destruction ever has the upper hand; the sum total pf matter remains the same". Santayana called the idea of "ceaseless mutation", "the greatest thought that mankind has ever hit upon". With staccato precision Greenblatt lists the postulates, "the universe has no creator or designer", "the universe was not created for humans","the soul dies", "there is no afterlife", "all organized religions are superstitious delusions", "the highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain".
As if all that was not sufficient Lucretius lowers the boom in "religions are invariably cruel". Greenblatt in one of the many polemical passages of the book asserts, "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". Greenblatt recounts the myths of Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia and Abraham who almost kills his son Isaac to please Yahweh. Being unfamiliar with Hinduism he does not add the story of a devout couple killing and cooking their son to appease God.
In words that come close to echoing the Buddha Lucretius, Greenblatt sums up, suggests that "the principal enemies of human happiness are inordinate desire" and "gnawing fear". "The answer, Lucretius thought, had to do with the power of imagination". Man fears infinite pain in the afterlife as payment for a sinful life and on the other hand, in a passage "of remarkable frankness" observes, "in the very act of sexual consummation lovers remain in the grip of confused longings that they cannot fulfill".
In a world when ebooks and internet did not exist the story of how ideas spread is a thrilling story. Lucretius's Roman contemporary Cicero read his book and wrote to his brother that it was "rich in brilliant genius". Ovid was ecstatic and wrote that the words of Lucretius will "perish only when a single day will consign the world to destruction". The best part of the book is where Greenblatt takes the reader on a tour through how books were written, stored, published, advertised and how libraries came about.
The uterine lining of an aborted calf, called vellum, was the best material to use for writing and it was used to transcribe famous works. When monasteries took to copying out books scribes were a treasured tribe. Killing a scribe carried a penalty equal to killing a bishop. Julius Ceasar, inspired by what he saw in Egypt, inaugurated the era of public libraries in Rome. "By the 4th century CE there were twenty eight public libraries in Rome". Wealthy intellectuals collected books, sometimes by the thousands. Grammarian Tyrannion was "reputed to have had 30,000 volumes".
Lucretius's poem had been all but forgotten by the time Poggio discovered it in January 1417. The story of why it was forgotten and lost between its publication and its discovery many centuries later is where Greenblatt constructs a contentiously polemical edifice that forms the other part of the book 'Swerve'.
Between 1752and 1754 an excavation at Herculaneum, a city which stood at the foot of Mt.Vesuvius, turned up a villa with an elaborate collection of papyri. It took another 235 years for modern technology to enable a papyrologist, Knut Kleve, to exclaim "De rerum natura has been discovered". The polemical edifice of Greenblatt I cited above traces how Lucretius tract ended up in a Roman villa. In the days of the Roman empire it was common practice for Roman aristocrats to invite Greek philosophers to tutor their children, build personal libraries and partake in philosophical discourses. The villa supposedly belonged to a Lucius Calpurnius Piso who is thought to have brought the philosopher Philodemus to that seaside villa. Now, Philodemus was a contemporary of Lucretius.
Nowhere did the two great civilizations, Greek and Roman, get intertwined so much as it was in Egypt. Egypt is also where the hitherto pagan culture engaged in a civilization shaping contention with a new religion, Christianity. It was in Alexandria that Euclid, Archimedes and Galen created their immortal works. The library of Alexandria, a wonder of the ancient world, was where "generations of dedicated scholars developed elaborate techniques of comparative analysis and painstaking commentary" to identify original texts. "At its height the Museum contained at least a half million" papyrus rolls.
Greenblatt marshals his arguments for how Lucretius's philosophy came to undermined and erased from memory by stitching together several events. The decay of Alexandrian civilization was due to several reasons. First, was of course war. Only part of the library was destroyed, accidentally by Ceasar's army. Once Constantine embraced Christianity the fragile peace between polytheistic pagans and the monotheistic Abrahamic religions began cracking and finally was torn asunder by Theodosius's edicts outlawing pagan worshipping practices. Not too later an internecine fracturing between Jews and Christians broke out. In that mayhem Hypatia, 'one of the museum's scholar-in-residence', was dragged from her home and flayed alive inside a church. Historian Amiantus Marcellinus, Greenblatt says, lamented the decline of Alexandrian intellectual culture into 'febrile triviality'. "Compared to the unleashed forces of warfare and of faith, Mount Vesuvius was kinder to the legacy of antiquity".
A civilization like that of Alexandria does not vanish in a moment. It has to decay and be undermined actively. Well into the 4th century Christian scholars were well versed in ancient pagan literature and especially Latin literature. Hebrew and Aramaic, the languages of the new faith, were considered too crude. Jerome, who wrote that blurb on Lucretius, once had an apparition where God condemned him for reading Pagan texts. A chastised Jerome vowed to never to do so again. A culture of abandoning pagan literature and of high-brow literature began. St. Benedict was praised for abandoning classical learning. Greenblatt hypothesizes that Christians feared ridicule, being laughed at, by the pagans for their 'exaltation of divine humiliation and pain conjoined with an arrogant triumphalism". It was easy for somebody like Father Tertullian to hurl back the ridicule by returning the favor about pagan religious beliefs. But faced with Epicureanism, which was devoid of material to be ridiculed, The Church was left defenseless.
Now Greenblatt zeroes in on what he thinks was a pivotal moment but one which he kind of exposed on the reader because he really is on thin ice here. The Epicurean emphasis on pleasure and the human tendency to minimize pain was identified as the idea to be defeated by the Church. Laughter and pleasure, the Church postulated, was the anti-thesis of pain as a higher moral. Pain, was presented as the goal, the aspiration and higher good. St.Benedict once punished himself when he had a flicker of a temptation. He flung himself, naked, onto sharp thorns and stinging nettles to punish his flesh. The practice of punishing the flesh seeped into monastic rules. "In one of the great cultural transformations in the history of the West, the pursuit of pain triumphed over pursuit of pleasure". The Swerve happened. "If Lucretius offered a moralized and purified version of the Roman pleasure principle, Christianity offered a moralized and purified version of the Roman principle". "As every pious reader of Luke's Gospel knew Jesus wept, but there were no verses that described him laughing or smiling, let alone pursuing pleasure". Here let's recall Lord Krishna and the laughing Buddha statues. Interesting. But then Gandhi, a devout Hindu, tortured himself like St. Benedict to punish his flesh and for the same reason too.Anyone who has studied in Indian schools run by missionaries can fondly recall the penchant of teachers to mete out corporal punishment. Greenblatt traces it to this glorification of pain as atonement. In the pagan world inflicting pain or suffering pain was an indignation but in the Christian world it was ennobling to administer pain and to receive it.
In a world wracked by war and glorification of pain Epicureanism and Lucretius had no place and they were forgotten. Lucretius's tract went out of fashion and survived in a few monasteries until they were discovered by a book hunter named Poggio Bracciolini.
The Church not only destroyed books but in an ironic twist also ensured the survival of thousands of books through its monasteries where reading a book and copying books were mandated activities. Modern Western education lays an emphasis on 'humanities' the roots of which can be traced to a 15th century book hunter and member of the clergy, Petrarch. Petrarch is considered the father of what we now call 'humanism". Petrarch famously discovered a long forgotten work by Cicero and thus is credited with inaugurating the Renaissance. Petrarch was an avid book hunter who obsessed over returning the Latin texts back into vogue. He had one issue though. The script that was in use at that time was unfriendly to readers. Poggio Bracciolini looking to make his fortune in Florence invented a script, a type face we now call 'Roman', to write legibly. That was his ticket to the inner circle of the very papal offices as secretary.
Greenblatt's lurid narration of the venality of the clergy gives a picture of the corruption and immorality that plagued the papacy. Poggio even authored a very salacious book called "Facetiae" filled with ribald jokes shared by papal secretaries. Needless to say the book was a best seller. In what was common to those intrigue filled days of the papacy Poggio soon found himself out of a job because the pope he served was deposed and imprisoned. Greenbelt suggests that witnessing the gruesome burning at the stake of Jerome of Prague, a Hussite, probably tormented Poggio to the extent that he sought recompense in finding lost texts, or to put it another way texts imprisoned, in monasteries across Europe. In one such quest Poggio discovered the "complete text of Quintillian's Institutes, the most important ancient Roman handbook on oratory and rhetoric". Then in January 1417, at probably the Germanic monastery in Fulda, he discovered 'T.Lucreti CCari De Rerum Natura".
In compressed narrative Greenblatt then traces the fortune of Lucretius's poem into the 17th century. For nearly 300 years the poem, now in circulation in Florence and elsewhere, influenced the works of Machiavelli, Thomas More, Giordano Bruno and finally Galileo Galilee. But by then the Catholic church, already under assault from the Protestants led by Luther, struck at the poem forbidding it to be taught. Yet, the poem survived in Europe. Translations appeared. Newton subscribed to atomism. Thomas Jefferson, Greenblatt says, 'owned at least five Latin editions' of the poem. Is it any wonder then that the phrase 'pursuit of happiness' is found in America's most sacred document, 'The Declaration of Independence' authored by Jefferson.
What do we make of such a book that won two of the most prestigious literary prizes of America?
Readers should enjoy the book for its engaging ideas and the sheer excitement of coming to know a bygone era that is lovingly and engagingly written. That said, the book, as a reviewer in Los Angeles Times points out, is freighted with issues. Greenblatt simplifies a little too much the complexities of the conflicts of that era. For example the murder of Hypatia and the incidents leading up to it are very complex with competing interests, warring factions etc. The biggest complaint that the LATimes reviewer had was that Greenblatt, a professor at Harvard, makes a cardinal mistake of a layman in characterizing the medieval era as the 'dark ages', a characterization that goes back to Petrarch but is now widely debunked. The reviewer also points out that Greenblatt makes too much of the flagellation practice which was actually too common.
Authors who formulate an over-arching theory to explain, usually, an entire era and the world after that or those identify a set of events as pivotal to the course of the history of the world often fall prey to stitching together tenuously related causes. Having identified a theory or event that an author thinks changed the world forever authors rarely let counter-evidences bother them because it would spoil their narrative. Also, having identified a theory or an event as pivotal authors tend to connect anything and everything thereafter in their writings to that pet theory or event. For instance Donald Kagan, an authority on the Peloponnesian war, always sees the world only through that prism. Readers should take Greenblatt's book or at least its central claim with a liberal pinch of salt.
Given that many events have to be conjectured, like for instance that Poggio probably went to the monastery at Fulda in Germany, there are too many 'would've', 'should have' and it is tiring. Sometimes it is irritating to see conjectures piled upon one another. If Poggio going to Fulda itself is a conjecture why pile on it another one by saying Poggio might've endeared himself to the abbot by talking about Rabbanus Maurus who lived at Fulda and was a prolific writer.
Like the LATimes reviewer said this is actually two books, one which deserved the prize and another that did not. The part that deserved the prize was about the history and the part that did not deserve the prize was the polemicizing on Church history. Also, the reviewer is spot on when he drily points out that the notes and bibliography section of the book runs to nearly 60 pages, one fifth of the book, making it appear that the book is less originally researched than an impressive stringing together of details from laborious reading of hundreds of books.
A good and interesting read nevertheless.
1. Washington Post Book Review https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/stephen-greenblatts-the-swerve-reviewed-by-michael-dirda/2011/09/20/gIQA8WmVmK_story.html
2. LA Review of Books "Why Stephen Greenblatt is wrong" https://lareviewofbooks.org/review/why-stephen-greenblatt-is-wrong-and-why-it-matters#
3. A review that further questions the assumptions http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/1283#author-response