The Swerve of Human Thought

In August of 2011 The New Yorker printed an excerpt from Professor Stephen Greenblatt’s book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, about the seminal, decisive influence that Lucretius and his De rerum natura  (Latin for “On The Nature of Things”) had on the renaissance and the Modern Age; and by “modern” I mean the renaissance forward.

If we equate “modern” with “progress” and “technological advancement,” then consider these facts: the Tremont Hotel in Boston was the first hotel to have indoor plumbing in 1829 and until 1910 indoor plumbing was a luxury known only to the wealthy, and toilet paper in roll form was not until 1907 and two-ply came into existence in 1942. Humbling, is it not? And so is the idea that it took until 1968 for the Civil Rights Act to become a reality, the pill for birth control (1950s) and life expectancy to get beyond the age of 30 (19th century) and…you get the idea.

So what is the relevance of Lucretius, who lived approximately from 99 BC to approximately 55 BC and wrote a poem in Latin? We can only guess when he was born and when he died. That is about as certain as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. As Greenblatt tells us in his first few pages – we wouldn’t even have had a manuscript of Lucretius, if Poggio ‘the Florentine’ Bracciolini, (wouldn’t that make a great mob name?) had not found it in 1417.

In a nutshell, Lucretius was defending Epicurus and don’t think that he was another Greek dude in the agora. He wasn’t and neither was Lucretius, a Roman. Epicurus was under attack because he advocated the pursuit of pleasure, amongst other things. Don’t forget Socrates was sentenced to death for corrupting youth (not in the way that you’re thinking). Epicurean thought is not quite hedonism, but you still had a good time; and yes, wild sex is allowed.

The profundity of Lucretius’s thought was a leap of faith (ironic, isn’t it?). He expressed a belief in something that he neither could see nor verify: the atom; and he claimed that it moves and that it collides with other things randomly. Exciting material to include in a poem, huh? See what Lucretius does with Aries and Venus.

There was no scientific method in those days. Ideas were discussed and debated in public: it was called philosophy and it could get dangerous. Socrates got a cup of hemlock for his efforts, but not before Bill & Ted impressed it upon him ‘that we are nothing but dust in the wind.’ The “ancients” as we like to think of them were actually quite sophisticated and then we supposedly had a long period, the so-called medieval period, until we found ourselves rational, smelling better, and on our way towards the Enlightenment. Well, sort of – as a former student of medieval studies I should point out that “medieval” is not a pejorative, although there is an argument that “baroque” is – and I spare no quarter with ‘renaissance,’ since that period of time perfected the art of human torture and warfare until humans decided to mechanize the slaughter of other humans in World War I (the use of machine guns and flamethrowers and mustard gas). There is a reason why biochemical warfare is expressively verboten. It has been done before.

Lucretius set in motion the questions of 1) what do we know and, 2) how do we know what we know and, 3) how can we prove what we know. You can see the doors of perception opening and hear the endless dualistic thinking of what the Head and the Heart know, the rational and intuitive and so on, although Plato is to blame for most of that, too. Lucretius is the precursor to scientific thought and he is the pre-modern modern.

But as a dear friend of mine in Italy also pointed out, the reasons why the ancient world’s pre-science did not evolve into real science and technology, though it was on its way to it, have been a topic of discussion for a long time. The classic Marxist explanation is that there was no need for machines because there were slaves. It takes science to have technology. As for slaves think of wealth in terms of Jane Austen: money is nice, but leisure time and lots of cash is better. Somebody else does all the other work. A man who has to show up somewhere and earn his way in the world is no gentleman (so said Jane and the rest of the 19th century).

My friend Claudio explained to me that philosophical justification for scientific inquiry is more complex and diverse. Probably one of the reasons was the concept of hybris – roughly corresponding to the Christian concept of sin. While sin is THOU SHALT NOT, there was a ‘natural order’ for things humans can do and shouldn’t do. If the term ‘natural order’ sounds sinister to you, it should because this is where the logic against certain sexual acts, justification for slavery, woman as subservient to man and to God – the great chain of being or scala naturae — starts.

The hybris concept is: thou shalt not do anything that goes beyond your being a human. Claudio’s example is brilliant: you are allowed to do anything that belongs to human activity, from sex in all its forms to killing…but, flying does not belong to humans; it belongs to the birds, so to aspire to flight is hybris. You can see how this and a dash of theology about what disturbs the “natural order” can get you burnt at the stake. Galileo almost went crispy and Giordano Bruno did. The Church apologized centuries later. Technology came to a standstill. We forgot about the atom and forgot Lucretius.

Hybris is Hubris.

Another cause for the delay is more subtle: the pagan or non-Christian view was that Man belongs to Nature and not the other way round, as in the Bible: man shall have dominion…Finally, the other concept that stalled scientific progress: time. Christianity interprets time as linear, from Creation to the Apocalypse. This idea of historical time, historiography, became an ‘estrangement of the past‘ that informs medieval, renaissance and American texts. Everybody is waiting for Christ to return in historical time and the problems is that he doesn’t. Salvation for the believer happens when the body is resurrected and joins Christ. The prohibition against cremation makes sense in this context, although the Roman Catholic Church does allow cremation now so I don’t understand the internal logic and justification there, although I think I hear Bill & Ted saying, “Dust. Wind. Dude.”

Linear time is Christian and eschatological. Cyclical time is pagan, where ages repeat themselves in cycles, so there is no real “development.” It is implied that linearity is progressive and rational. Start and End. Alpha and Omega. It isn’t a stretch to see how science, Marxism and Communism were all once considered Evil — it is that circularity again, from elliptical orbits to the cycles of class exploitation. Circularity is a denial of God and of linear time when Christ’s failure to return and close up shop on Creation. It was in the renaissance, that rebirth of interest in antiquity, that thinkers like Giambattista Vico and other critical theorists posited the idea that there are Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Iron Ages. It was in the renaissance that poets like Lucretius were re-discovered. Hear of the Silver Poets? They were Silver for a reason — they were like the Augustan poets of Rome. There is that cycle repeating itself. Thomas Peacock wrote of the four ages of poetry. Yeats wrote about his ‘gyres of history’ in “The Second Coming” and he can thank Vico for that.

In a recent post on the poet Qabbani I discussed the poem he wrote after his wife was assassinated. In that same poem he wrote these lines:

she fell, like a butterfly, beneath the rubble of

(the Age of Ignorance)

and I fell…between the fangs of an age

that devoured poems

the eyes of a women

and the rose of freedom

What age do you think we live in…Gold, Silver, Bronze, Iron, or Lead? While you think about it, pay the bouncer at the door. His name is Poggio.


About gabrielswharf

gabriel’s wharf is a blog on the random thoughts and writings of author Gabriel Valjan. His stories continue to appear online and in print journals. Winter Goose Publishing publishes his Roma Series.
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