It’s been an appropriate time to be reading about the way that war and religion – and especially religious wars – have caused more trouble to mankind than just about anything else. In Stephen Greenblatt’s Pulitzer-prize-winning book, The Swerve, he trots us through a couple of millenium of human history in which two very generalized modes of human existence – one based on civilized, intellectual pleasures, one based on the interplay of power and suffering – have come into conflict with each other over and over again. It’s a shame that the gospel doesn’t suggest it’s the geeks that will inherit the earth, as the historical evidence in this book proposes that we’d all be better for it.
The specific focus of the story is one book-hunter, Poggio Bracciolini, who in the winter of 1417 made a spectacular discovery in a German monastery. Looking for lost texts from the classical world, he found a copy of Lucretius’s De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) a book that had been written some fourteen hundred and fifty years earlier. This book was a doozy; it suggested that the universe was not created by the gods, but was constructed from infinitely small particles, that moved about, collided, came apart again. Everything in the world was the result of a swerve, in which one atom swerved into and combined with another, and this in a process of ceaseless, dynamic movement. That swerve ‘is the source of free will’ because it is random and not predetermined, and it also means that the world was not created especially for human beings – it just happened. And so, if all organised religions are just delusions, as Lucretius’s vision argued, and when we die there is no afterlife, then it’s pretty pointless to organise life around our fears of divine judgement. The essential point of existence was to increase pleasure and avoid pain. Lucretius was profoundly influenced by Epicurus, who advocated for a life of simple, immediate pleasures, and not as later discrediting critics argued, for mindless hedonism.
This was dangerously heretical stuff to be broadcast in the fifteenth century. But Poggio was one of the breed of ‘humanists’ who loved and revered the classical world, and who adored books – they were his comfort and his escape from a life that was constantly threatened and full of conflict. Because of his gorgeous handwriting skills, Poggio had risen to the grand position of the pope’s apostolic secretary. It was a good job but a difficult life in a papal court that was riven with corruption. Poggio’s boss, Baldassare Cossa (John XXIII) came from a family whose business was piracy, and that pretty much tells you all you need to know about him. Except, maybe, that at the time Poggio worked for him, there were three Popes knocking about Europe, all claiming to be the real one. (And Cossa had already poisoned a fourth.) Well, this situation was eventually resolved by a huge meeting of the authorities in Constance, Switzerland, to which all the popes (reluctantly) came. The aim was to settle on one pope and also to sort out various issues with heresy – for instance, the intolerable lobbying of church reformer Jan Hus, a Czech priest. Hus repeatedly attacked the clergy for their greed, hypocrisy and immorality (there was a roaring trade in ‘indulgences’ which, if you paid good money for one, would supposedly make the going easier through purgatory). He felt the state should control the church and that laymen should judge their spiritual leaders. ‘An immoral pope could not possibly claim infallibility.’ Well, yikes, thems were fighting words, and deeply unpopular ones. It was very unfortunate that they were mostly accurate and true.
How it all shook down is also very informative. Essentially, realising which way the wind was blowing, Cossa made a run for it and went into hiding. He was tracked down and imprisoned on a count of 70 criminal charges. Ironically enough, he ended up in the same prison as poor old Jan Hus, who had negotiated a safe passage to the conference only to see it blithely ignored. Cossa bought his release, and enjoyed a quiet retirement. Hus was taken to the stake and burned. Poggio, unemployed, decided a little holiday might be the thing, and so, enamoured of Germany and ever more in love with the classical golden age, he went book-hunting.
Greenblatt is – or at least seemed to me – very good on the vast ocean of lost texts that had been created in the classical world but were abandoned and neglected in the Dark Ages, but this has been one of the contentious parts of his book. Thousands of works came out of Greek and Roman philosophy, but since they were mostly written on papyrus, climate and bugs were their major destroyers. However, Greenblatt argues that it was a change in ideology that made the most important difference, and he uses the great library at Alexandria to illustrate his point. This library was essentially a world class university, to which scholars and researchers were invited and where the foundation for calculus, hydraulics and pneumatics and our understanding of the body were discovered. It was a vast treasure trove of learning. As such, it recognised no distinctions in doctrine – all knowledge was valuable. But the Jews and the Christians who lived in 4th century Alexandria were not happy at all – they only recognised the one god, and so this polytheistic environment was anathema to them.
The spiritual leader of the Christian community, Theophilus, set mobs of Christians onto the pagans, which resulted in riots and mass destruction. Then Theophilius’s successor, his even more brutal nephew, Cyril, demanded the expulsion of the Jews. He came up against an extraordinary young woman, Hypatia, who was beautiful and intellectually gifted. She was the representative of the pagan intellectual elite, most unusually for a woman. Hypatia supported the Jews. And so, Cyril sent out his henchman to whip up a frenzied mob. They pulled Hypatia from her chariot, stripped her, flayed her, then dragged her corpse around the city and burned it. Things were never the same again afterwards, Greenblatt suggests. It was the end of an era – ‘a loss of cultural moorings, a descent into febrile triviality’. Superstition took the place of open-minded intellectual debate.
Now, Greenblatt’s book has been highly criticized for what is seen by some as too great a simplification of the cultural shift, and a disservice to Christianity. You’ll have to read it yourself to see what you think. I felt that he wasn’t arguing that all kindness, pleasure and academic research ended when Europe embraced Christianity; but that it was harder to think clearly with the thumbscrews of the Inquisition hovering at the back of your mind. It seems fair enough to me that Lucretius’s text would be seen as a wildly inflammatory document when set against the reality of fifteenth century Italy. But also, that there might be a small band of brothers who would find its ideas radical but tempting. Greenblatt’s implied claim, that it was the book that tipped intellectual culture towards new, modernist ways of thinking is probably a bit much. But he does make of its life an impressive and highly engrossing story. I knew absolutely nothing about this part of history, and I found it fascinating.
And in the light of recent events, I also found it sobering. I know I bang on here a lot about tolerance and compassion, but I cannot regret it. I don’t think we’ve ever come to terms with the innate violence of human beings, and perhaps most dangerous of all, their fervent desire for retaliation. Across history, this desire has been successfully pitted against thought, consideration and contemplation; we still scorn intellectuals and prize strength and a show of might above all else. This is a very good book for hearing the lessons of history speaking loud and clear to us. Oh wouldn’t it be good if one day, we could finally listen.