Home > About > Bill Peak's Library Column > A Brave New World at the Talbot County Free Library
Do you find yourself, as I do from time to time, wandering our library's aisles in hopes of discovering lost treasure, a book no one has checked out in years, a book that, despite its age and unfashionable cover, will prove powerful, perhaps even magical, in its ability to change the way you view the world? Now imagine what it would be like if, being such a one, you were to wander through a musty old monastic library and discover among the manuscripts moldering on its shelves a work so powerful it will change not only your life but the life of the world itself.
This is what happened in 1417 to Poggio Braccioline, and it is the story of Poggio's find and its effect upon Poggio's world—and ours—that Stephen Greenblatt tells in his remarkable history, The Swerve (940.21 GREE). The Swerve—bad title perhaps but, trust me, a terrific book.
The manuscript Poggio discovered in what is believed to have been the abbey at Fulda in Germany was De Rerum Natura—On the Nature of Things—an epic poem written sometime in the first century B.C. by the Roman poet Lucretius to elucidate the thought of Epicurus, a Greek philosopher who had lived two hundred years earlier. Though some surviving texts from antiquity had referred to Epicurus and Lucretius, until Poggio's discovery both men's works were thought to have been lost when Christian iconoclasts, intent upon purging the world of all things “pagan,” destroyed the vast majority of classical texts.
Epicurus. If you, like me, would have guessed the man was, well, an “epicurean”—a hedonist who sought only pleasure: the rarest of delicacies, the finest of wines, the most beautiful of women … well, don't feel bad. Though we were wrong, it turns out there is a reason we were wrong: we were intentionally misled.
Those Greeks. What a remarkable lot they were. Sometime between the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., from first principles alone, Greek philosophers deduced that all matter must be made up of tiny, basically indestructible particles which they called “atoms.” Beginning around 306 B.C., Epicurus took this remarkable surmise and expanded upon and clarified it in his own philosophy, in the process refuting many false theories of being that had preceded it.
But he also took his philosophy one fateful step further, moving from a materialistic view of the universe to one which dismissed the importance of—possibly even the existence of—any divine purpose. The gods, if they existed, didn't care about the puny, insignificant lives of mere humans. Why should they? Humans had no more claim to being the center of the universe than a gnat or a flea. We lived and we died and that was all we could expect of life. Accordingly, it was pointless to worry about death, as death was the end of perception itself: you would feel/experience nothing. Corollary: there are no rewards or punishments after death. Corollary: if life is basically a short, if vivid, experience, doomed from the outset to eventual oblivion, one might as well take what pleasure one can from the years allotted.
Needless to say, when Poggio's discovery began to make the rounds in the early 1400s, Epicurus's point of view, however well thought out, did not warm the cockles of the Church's heart, then at the height of its worldly power and ambition. Those of an iconoclastic bent had done such a good job of destroying the works of antiquity that nothing like this had been heard or even hinted at for a thousand years. But now that the cat was out of the bag, the Church wasn't going to let it hunt far and wide without placing a particularly strong, and short, leash upon its neck. The form this leash took was propaganda. The authorities took Epicurus's proposition that the pursuit of pleasure was good and exaggerated it, claiming that the philosopher recommended a life of overindulgence and dissipation—every man out for the maximum pleasure and to hell with everyone else. This despite the fact Epicurus had, in fact, advised moderation in all things.
But as anyone who owns one knows, you can't keep a good cat down. For a millennium the Church had taught that this world was just a by-station, a rather threadbare theater set whose tawdry temptations humans were meant to withstand as a test to determine whether or not they were worthy of Paradise. With the publication of Lucretius's poem though, the idea that life on earth was good, that it was meant to be enjoyed, that there was wisdom to be found in enjoying it, was now loose upon the land. For the first time, the great thinkers of the Western World had a new paradigm to grapple with: life itself was worthy of study—man, the earth and all that it contained, all that we touch, taste, feel, and experience—was worthy of our attention.
It is this impulse, this brave new idea, that Greenblatt argues gave rise to the Renaissance, and the modern world that followed close upon its heels, that everything from Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence (“Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”) to atomic theory can be traced back to what Poggio found in a lonely monastic redoubt on a cold winter's day in 1417. And Epicurus's skeptical views of divinity notwithstanding, I am so thankful Poggio made that find and, in the process, returned Creation to its just position atop any list of the miracles we all should contemplate and enjoy.
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