Sunday, October 23, 2011

Paris Hilton's philosopher

Apparently some people read the Wall Street Journal because they think it will help them to make money by keeping up to date on current business trends.  My experience has been that it costs me a lot of money.  The most expensive portion:  the book reviews.  They have a daily review and a weekend collection of review.  That they disproportionately cover non-fiction with a historical focus is a particularly expensive feature.  But I have bought books from their children’s review, with the Night Fairy running through our neighborhood like the Avian Flu.  Young children were seen creeping around crawl spaces making small nests for the little winged folks.
The initial purpose of book reviews was to allow people to familiarize themselves with the works of the day without having to take the time to read them.  They were sort of a Cliff Notes for the up and coming bourgeois, who did not have the time to catch up with the lifetime of reading/tutoring of the idle rich.
Today’s review is a case in point.  I am not sure if I have ever heard of Lucretious.  I certainly had never heard of Poggio Bracciolini.  Yet they are both interesting and influential people.
Eric Ornsby, Wall Street Journal, 27 September 2011.
We think of the Renaissance as a time of unsurpassed artistic accomplishment, but it was also a time of unrelenting strife. In the 14th century, the city-states of Italy were in constant turmoil; Milan warred against Venice, Florence against Rome. This was the period of the "Babylonian Captivity" of the church, when the papacy was established in Avignon, where it became a satellite of the French king. Central religious authority so disintegrated that eventually no fewer than three popes would simultaneously claim the chair of St. Peter. Reformers to the north began issuing denunciations of the church, denouncing a clergy and hierarchy that had grown ever more corrupt and licentious.
In this age of chaos and confusion, a small band of learned men, the Renaissance humanists, clung to a vision of the past that seemed to hold out some hope of tranquility. Antiquity offered models of noble conduct, but they survived only in broken statues or in the mildewed pages of manuscripts hidden for centuries in remote monasteries. To locate and copy manuscripts that contained the voices of the vanished past in all their unsurpassed eloquence became, for some scholars, an overmastering obsession.
The obscure figure of Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) is one of the scholars who went ins search of the classical masters.  One of the masters he rescued was Lucretius.
Lucretius taught that the world was not only uncreated but infinite in extent.  It is composed of nothing of atoms and void. The atoms are in constant motion.  But occasionally they swerve, and this “swerve” is what causes the changes in nature.  There are gods, but they are unconcerned with us.  When we die, we are returned to these atoms: there is no afterlife, no soul.
Lucretius was a libertine. 
The message of Lucretius' poem was subversive and liberating. Following his master Epicurus, the poet placed the highest value on pleasure (voluptas); that choice itself was threatening to established beliefs. But he also taught that, though the gods exist, they are unconcerned about us. Still, the poet invokes Venus at the outset. Under her aegis, sexual desire becomes the driving force of everything that lives; his descriptions of sexual intercourse scandalized generations of readers, and they are still delightfully spicy. Thus lovers (in A.E. Stallings's brilliant recent translation) "can't decide / What to enjoy first with hand or eye—so closely pressing / What they long for, that they hurt the flesh by their possessing."
There is an NPR review by Maureen Corrigan (with a nice audio feature) here with and an excerpt here.
Greenblatt may be overselling the case for Lucretius and the Epicurean philosophies import to some extent.  As one Amazon reviewer noted:
The Epicureanism of Lucretius was no more dominant after the Christian Middle Ages than it had been before. Throughout the 15th, 16th and early-17th centuries, Platonism and Stoicism (especially the former) were once again the schools of thought most enthusiastically revived, and most influential.
There is a point to this statement.  But a bit too narrow of one.  Stoicism and Platonism were and are still very influential world views.  Platonism itself clearly informed many early Christians on how they imagined the cosmos, and their place in it.
But if Lucretius is not necessarily the source for our modern lifestyle.  Bentham and Locke are probably as responsible as any for that.  But given the reverence and power that the classics had on the emerging early modern society, having a countervailing view to the established doctrines was a very useful tool.

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