For Epicurus, human suffering is always finite: “if it is slight, he [Epicurus] says, you may despise it, if it is great it will not be long.”
—Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve (101)
Stephen Greenblatts’s The Swerve beautifully illustrates a book’s ability to leap back into history. In one step the reader is taken back to 15th century Italy, into the life and letters of a talented scribe and secretary to the horrible Pope John XXIII. Poggio Bracciolini’s education and rise through the treachery that was the Catholic church at that time is fascinating. The slight indications he gives of rebelling against or resigning to such a corrupt and miserable time are both encouraging (phew! at least some people were alluding to the barbarism!) and deeply disturbing (oh damn, the horror of dogmatists and the rot of power-hungry institutions never ceases!). But Poggio, unlike so many, had a sanctuary: books.
In the north the powerful Visconti of Milan are raising an army; Florentine mercenaries are besieging Lucca; Alfonso in Naples is stirring up trouble, and the emperor Sigismond is applying intolerable pressure on the pope. “I have already decided what I shall do if things turn out as many people fear; namely, that I shall devote myself to Greek Literature…” (153).
I know the feeling…
Ah, the company and comfort of books, where the cosmic can commingle with the common. A book has such long reach—within our hearts and through time. They are a form of connective tissue that can touch us all.
With another step back, Greenblatt takes the reader to Lucretius, and a short hop back further to Epicurus. It will be Lucretius’ book that does the connecting. It is his De rerum natura, On the Nature of Things, that Poggio discovers and re-introduces into a world that has tried very hard to have nothing to do with the ideas, inspired by Epicurus, within. In fact it is a world that wants very little to do with ideas, period.
Even more than the theory that the world consisted only of atoms and void, the main problem was the core ethical idea: that the highest good is the pursuit of pleasure and the diminution of pain. What had to be undertaken was the difficult project of making what appeared simply sane and natural—the ordinary impulses of all sentient creatures—seem like the enemy of the truth (102).
While reading this book a sort of horror of realization washed over me. This fetish for misery and suffering, the glorifying of pain, or “cleansing power” of trials and tribulations which still permeate our culture is merely a controlling device, and a choice. For Epicurus, and his many followers, to choose pleasure in lieu was simply a more sensible choice. When Greenblatt describes the church’s suppression, through bone-chilling violence and a depraved gluttony for torture and punishment, of the “pagan” Epicurus, one can see how hard it would have been for a man of Poggio’s refined intelligence to ignore the logic. Be kind. Enjoy life. My god! What sort of a mind comes up that! —An evil mind— is the conclusion that the church comes up with. But that conclusion requires a divorce from thinking, thinking things over became tantamount to witchcraft as the story if Hypatia indicates. Greenblatt tells the history of Hypatia to show the long struggle the church had in convincing people that suffering was where it’s at. She lived around 400 CE in Alexandria and had the misfortune of being smart. Still a liability in our world I’m sorry to say.
Rumors began to circulate that her absorption in astronomy, mathematics, and philosophy—so strange, after all, in a woman—was sinister: she must be a witch, practicing black magic (92).
What happens to her next is so disturbing I can’t bring myself to report and only wish I could remove it from my head.
Interwoven into this wonderful story is of course a small history of the writing and transcribing of books. It was a time when good handwriting could lead to a fairly secure existence, but it was also a time when ancient books were being discovered and dragged out of dusty monasteries where if by some miracle they hadn’t been purposely destroyed they had simply been forgotten after their defamation was complete. In my work digitizing medieval manuscripts for the Digital Scriptorium Project I have spent some time bent over very old manuscripts. The black face letterform is so difficult to read that I have often wondered if the books, mostly bibles after all, were really meant to be read (by which I mean understood and reasoned out). Perhaps, it was some purposeful obfuscation? Imagine my surprise to find myself in the company of Petrarch:
Petrarch complained that the writing then in use in most manuscripts often made it extremely difficult to decipher text, “as though it had been designed,” he noted, “for something other than reading” (115).
Why, Petrarch my friend! those are my thoughts exactly!
Greenblatt’s book is a wonderful exploration of the technical, practical, spiritual, and philosophical implications of knowledge. But it seems incredible to me that human history is riddled (still!) with people and societies that expend enormous energy in suppressing knowledge—suppressing the freedom to think. Lucretius referred to the swerve, “the swerve is the source of free will,” Greenblatt explains, “In the lives of all sentient creatures, human and animal alike, the random swerve of elementary particles is responsible for the existence of free will” (189). We are just here, in other words, by whatever random act of molecular organization, but still, here we are: thinking, acting, beings.
As frightening as it is to consider the horror of a religious tradition that actively worshipped suffering, and the inevitable conclusion that we are not yet very far from that mindset—and further still, that new crops of warped religious fundamentalists constantly threaten human dignity and intellectual freedom, it is heartening to know that no matter how many steps back one travels in history there are always to be found a few that pause and say, “hang on a minute, why are we suppose to be miserable? After all, life can actually be pretty sweet, one doesn’t even need that much. And don’t worry about the what is beyond life—after all, you’ll be dead.” Lucretius, as Epicurus before him, was committed to the idea that this life, being all that we truly know, is worth enjoying, indeed it is meant to be enjoyed.
*Title from p. 153: “Your Poggio,” he wrote, “is content with very little and you shall see this for yourself; sometimes I am free for reading, free from all the care about public affairs which I leave to my superiors. I live free as much as I can.”
*Photo of one of the manuscripts I photographed for the Digital Scriptorium project, refreshingly not in gothic script, with charming doodles such as the above- Omnia Vincit Amor!