“For him that stealeth a Book from this Library, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with Palsy and all his Members blasted. Let him languish in Pain crying aloud for Mercy and let there be no surcease to his Agony till he sink to Dissolution. Let Bookworms gnaw his Entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, and when at last he goeth to his final Punishment, let the Flames of Hell consume him forever and aye.”
When my friend Lynn gave me a copy of this poster, I couldn’t help but be struck by the contrast in the gruesome imagery and the beautiful calligraphy she used to capture the message that was reportedly found in the Monastery of San Pedro, Barcelona. It’s more than a bit unraveling to imagine the cruel imagination that could devise such a punishment for stealing books.
My thoughts then raced ahead to this year’s presidential election and the kind of ugly rhetoric we’ll be hearing all summer and fall. Some people believe that we’re in for a doozy of a mean spirited contest, especially with the vast sums of money that will be spent on negative ads.
The question comes up why elections divide people so completely and why they seem to bring out our lesser angels. I suspect some of the strategists would be happy to borrow some of the above torment for book thieves to heap upon their opponents.
All this should bring us to ask why the pursuit of power has always been so rough and tumble. I guess the easy answer is that there’s too much at risk to even contemplate losing. But I wonder how, if at all, we differ from those who competed for power in a distant time.
If we look back on the 15th century when the Western world was on the cusp of modernity, perhaps we’re not so much advanced as we would like to think. That world was plagued with religious and political dogma – much as ours is today – that sowed discontent and kept the mass of people in poverty, ignorance, and debilitating health. The money dealers, the dogmatic Church inquisitors and true believers, and political princes had their systems in place and were quick to dismember or burn rebels and heretics. We don’t literally light pyres to rid ourselves of criminals and the meddlesome today, but we engage in capital punishment and fill our prisons to overflowing. And as we know, we have no shortage of avaricious Wall Street hedge fund managers and political opportunists who pander to what they think the masses want.
As my mind raced about trying to see our world through a distant mirror of time, I was taken back to a book that has had a strong influence on my thinking, especially about what it means to be “modern.” When I first read a review of Stephen Greenblatt’s book The Swerve, How the World Became Modern, I knew I wanted to know more about how an obscure poem nearly lost in “the teeth of time” had survived and how its ideas ushered in the modern world.
As one blurb says, “The author transports readers to the dawn of the Renaissance and chronicles the life of an intrepid book lover who rescued from certain oblivion the Roman philosophical text On the Nature of Things by the first century poet Lucretius.” In the book, Greenblatt tells a story of history and discovery, in which one manuscript, plucked from a thousand years of neglect, changed the course of human thought and made possible the world as we know it.
Quite a tribute, especially in how Lucretius influenced the thinking of so many Renaissance scientists and artists. As Greenblatt points out in his introduction, the complex choreography of Botticelli’s painting Primavera derives from Lucretius’ description of the great seasonal renewal of the earth.
And so we are indebted beyond measure for this renewal to the 15th century scholar and “book hunter” Poggio Bracciolini who served in the Papal Curia and became known for recovering an astonishing number of classical Latin and Greek texts, mostly lying forgotten in remote German and French monastic libraries, often in mountainous regions that were dangerous for travel.
He was first and foremost a humanist who was, along with his friends in Rome, obsessed with reviving the wisdom of ancient Greek and Roman culture. They dreamed of being able to discover some manuscripts that had slipped through the centuries from the ancient world to survive into their own time. Their mission was to find these manuscripts and gain permission from monastery abbots to copy them under the watchful eye of monks who feared their treasures would be stolen.
Many of the manuscripts were sole survivors on the brink of irrevocably crumbling to dust when they were discovered. Fortunately for all of us, they were brought back to life to be copied and spread among the educated world.
When Bracciolini chanced upon The Nature of Things in 1417 in the Benedictine Monastery in Fulda, Germany, he knew he had found something special. He undoubtedly knew that his “encounter with this giant ghost of the past” was of great importance, but he could not have foreseen how the notions of Lucretius, a follower of Epicurus, would change the world. The ideas were dangerous, especially in the context of how any religious and political orthodoxy viewed them.In his own time, Lucretius resolutely rebuked the state pagan religion as little more than superstitious fears.
As Greenblatt explained in a New Yorker item of last fall,
“But, at its heart, ‘On the Nature of Things persuasively laid out what seemed to be a strikingly modern understanding of the world. Every page reflected a core scientific vision – a vision of atoms randomly moving in an infinite universe – imbued with a poet’s sense of wonder. Wonder did not depend on the dream of an afterlife; in Lucretius it welled up out of a recognition that we are made of the same matter as the stars and the oceans and all things else. And this recognition was the basis for the way he thought we should live – not in fear of the gods but in pursuit of pleasure, in avoidance of pain.
Greenblatt continued by saying,
“The poem was lost, apparently irrevocably, and then found. This retrieval, after many centuries,is something one is tempted to call a ‘miracle.’ But the author of the poem in question did not believe in miracles. He thought that nothing could violate the laws of nature. He posited instead what he called a ‘swerve,’ an unexpected, unpredictable movement of matter.
“The poem’s rediscovery prompted such a swerve. The cultural shift of the Renaissance is notoriously difficult to define, but it was characterized, in part, by a decidedly Lucretian pursuit of beauty and pleasure. The pursuit shaped the dress and the etiquette of courtiers, the language of the liturgy, the design and decoration of everyday objects. It suffused Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific and technological explorations, Galileo’s vivid dialogues on astronomy, Francis Bacon’s ambitious research projects, and Richard Hooker’s theology. Even works that were seemingly unrelated to any aesthetic ambition – Machiavelli’s analysis of political strategy, Walter Raleigh’s description of Guiana, Robert Burton’s encyclopedic account of mental illness – were crafted in such a way as to produce pleasure.
“And this pursuit, with its denial of Christian asceticism, enabled people to turn away from a preoccupation with angels and demons and to focus instead on things in this world: to conduct experiments without worrying about infringing on God’s jealously guarded secrets, to question authorities and challenge received doctrines, to contemplate without terror the death of the soul.”
And thus the recovery of this poem is one of those improbable “miracles” in human history of how the world swerved in a new direction.
As Greenblatt so succinctly puts it:
“The agent of change was not a revolution, an implacable army at the gates, or landfall on an unknown continent. When it occurred, nearly six hundred years ago, the key event was muffled and almost invisible, tucked away behind walls in a remote place. A short, genial, cannily alert man in his late thirties reached out one day, took a very old manuscript off a shelf, and saw with excitement what he had discovered. That was all; but it was enough.”
No one will ever know for sure how this poem survived, perhaps by some monk laboring by chance in a cold scriptorium copying it before it moldered away. How it escaped fire and flood and “the teeth of time” is part of that miracle. From the sack of Rome in 410 C.E. and the death of the Empire to the rise of Christianity, a way of life disappeared. Reading and writing faded and the ancient system of education fell apart. Cities decayed, trade declined, barbarian armies roamed and pillaged the land. During these dark times, there were more important things to worry about than the fate of books. And Lucretius’ poem, so incompatible with any cult of the gods, was attacked, ridiculed, burned, or ignored, and, like Lucretius himself, eventually forgotten.
It is perhaps not that large a stretch to see some parallels to this in our lives today with our crusading wars, clashes of cultures, the deterioration of education, denigration and indifference to the arts, the erosion of ethics, the rise of fundamentalism and religious intolerance, and the ever present demon of political expediency. Entertainment seems more and more hard edged and formulaic. Fewer and fewer people seem able to disengage from their troubled and frenzied lives to enjoy many of the beauties and simple pleasures that are available to them.
As Greenblatt emphasizes:
“The idea of pleasure and beauty that Lucretius advanced was forgotten. Theology provided an explanation for the chaos of the Dark Ages: human beings were by nature corrupt. Inheritors of the sin of Adam and Eve, they richly deserved every miserable catastrophe that befell them. God cared about human beings, just as a father cared about his wayward children, and the sign of that care was anger. It was only through pain and punishment that a small number could find the narrow gate to salvation. A hatred of pleasure-seeking, a vision of God’s providential rage, and an obsession with the afterlife: these were death knells of everything Lucretius represented.”
As the poem says,
“All things, including the species to which we belong, have evolved over vast stretches of time. The evolution is random, though in the case of living organisms it involves a principle of natural selection. That is, species that are suited to survive and to reproduce successfully endure, at least for a time; those which are not so well suited die off quickly. Other species existed and vanished before we came onto the scene; our kind, too, will vanish one day. Nothing – from our own species to the sun – lasts forever. Only the atoms are immortal.”
In a universe so constituted, Lucretius argued,
“… it is absurd to think that the earth and its inhabitants occupy a central place, or that the world was purpose-built to accommodate human beings: ‘The child, like a sailor cast forth by the cruel waves, lies naked upon the ground, speechless, in need of every kind of vital support, as soon as nature has spilt him forth with throes from his mother’s womb into the regions of light.’ There is no reason to set humans apart from other animals, no hope of bribing or appeasing the gods, no place for religious fanaticism, no call for ascetic self-denial, no justification for dreams of limitless power or perfect security, no rationale for wars of conquest or self-aggrandizement, no possibility of triumphing over nature.”
Instead, he wrote,
“…human beings should conquer their fears, accept the fact that they themselves and all the things they encounter are transitory, and embrace the beauty and the pleasure of the world.”
As Greenblatt explains,
“Pleasure is perhaps the key to comprehending the powerful impact of Epicurus’ philosophy. Epicurus’ enemies – and the Church especially – seized upon his celebration of pleasure and invented malicious stories about his supposed debauchery, taking note of his unusual inclusion of women as well as men among his followers. In reality, he seems to have lived a conspicuously simple and frugal life. “Send me a little pot of cheese,” he once wrote to a friend, “that, when I like, I may fare sumptuously.” It is impossible to live pleasurably, one of his disciples wrote, “without living prudently and honorably and justly, and also without living courageously and temperately and magnanimously, and without making friends, and without being philanthropic.”
If only Donald Trump and Bernie Madoff had followed the simple tenets of such a way of life.
Greenblatt goes on to say,
“This philosophy of pleasure, at once passionate, scientific, and visionary, radiated from almost every line of Lucretius’ poetry. Even a quick glance at the first few pages of the manuscript would have convinced Poggio that he had discovered something remarkable. What he could not have grasped, without carefully reading through the work, was that he was unleashing something that threatened the whole structure of his intellectual universe. Had he understood this threat, he might have said, as Freud supposedly said to Jung, when they sailed into New York Harbor, ‘Don’t they know we are bringing them the plague?'”
So no wonder that the poem was viewed as a serious threat to Christianity and burned and banned in the decades following its discovery.
“To people haunted by images of the bleeding Christ, gripped by a terror of Hell, and obsessed with escaping the purgatorial fires of the afterlife, Lucretius offered a vision of divine indifference. There was no afterlife, no system of rewards and punishments meted out from on high. Gods, by virtue of being gods, could not possibly be concerned with the doings of human beings. One simple name for the plague that Lucretius brought, and a charge frequently leveled against him then and since, is atheism.”
You have to wonder how this philosophy would play in one of our mega churches with the true believers and their Stepford wives singing hallelujahs and shouting PTLs.
So in the midst of this year’s presidential election along with the world’s never ending economic strife and insecurity, ethnic cleansing, genocide, racism, religious intolerance, political wrangling over who is the “real” Christian, and warfare without end, what are the rewards we have inherited from knowing that Lucretius ushered us into the world we now inhabit? How thankful should we be to men like Bracciolini whose obsession helped open the door to modernity?
Despite our advanced technology and proclaimed modernity, what do we make of our predicament? Are we really so different in our core from those who ran the show in the 15th century?
What should we make of the scientific methods that have both improved our lives and simultaneously threaten us with extinction? How should we approach our own inevitable deaths? Should we be consumed with guilt over our perceived “sins” or should we focus more on living decent lives, caring for others and reaching out to those in need rather than castigating the poor, the unemployed, the homeless as no more than “welfare bums.” Should we be shouting political slogans reflecting indifference to the plight of those less fortunate while making sure the photographers capture us in church every Sunday in our piety? Should we take the teachings of Christ seriously or just pay them lip service?
In this time of political polarization, do we demonize our opponents or try to reach out to find compromise and solutions to our ever complex problems? Do we continue to ridicule higher education, support fundamentalist beliefs over science, and prize the life of the unborn but ignore the neglected child?
Do we choose to live in the 15th century where we burn heretics and those who dare raise their voices against us? Or do we seek more education, even enlightenment, in our daily lives?
Do we dare take deep pleasure in our brief time in this life?
Do we even pause long enough to ask what we can do to improve our little spot on this troubled third rock from the Sun.
And finally, do we ban our books or encourage all to come into our libraries, read our ancient manuscripts and even borrow them to copy? And pray tell, perhaps even turn a blind eye if they steal the books, but only if they promise to read them. We could have so much more and have it without the curse of hellfire and damnation.