Friday, June 8, 2012

The Swerve

Once in a while I come across a beautifully written book. In The Swerve Stephen Greenblatt tells us in his elegant style the story of Poggio Bracciolini, an Italian book hunter, living during the first half of the 15th century. Book hunting in those days consisted in finding handwritten texts from the times of the Romans who not only wrote works of their own  but also copied and translated some of the Greek heritage. Poggio gifted with the knowledge of an excellent Latin and known for his beautiful handwriting was to Pope John XXIII what Georg Gänswein from Freiburg is for Pope Benedict XVI, the private secretary. He followed his master attending the Church Council of Constance in 1414 where King Sigismund wanted to end the Papal Schism. Eventually John was formally deposed on May 29, 1515 and later even imprisoned for high treason. The Apostolic Secretary Poggio lost his job. In the following we find Greenblatt well informed about modern politics when he writes: the papal throne was vacant and the council - which, like the current European Community, was riven with tension between the English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish delegations squabbled over the conditions that would have to be met before proceeding to elect a new pope.

Poggio Braccioli at the age of 68.
Picture taken from The Swerve
Poggio finding himself unemployed goes out for book hunting in German monasteries. He heads for Fulda, the Imperial Abbey founded in the eights century by the apostle of the Germans, St. Boniface. The abbey is located between the Vogelsberg and the Rhône mountains? Well, Dr. Greenblatt, the Rhône is a river in southern France but the German mountains are called Rhön where from their highest point the Wasserkuppe traditionally gliders start.

Apparently in the library of the Fulda monastery Poggio finds the copy of a poem called De rerum natura (On the nature of things) by Titus Lucretius Carus written in a beautiful Latin around 60 B.C. It seems that Lucretius' main purpose when formulating his ideas expressed in the poem was to free his friend’s (Gaius Memmius's) mind of the supernatural and the fear of death — and to induct him into a state of ἀταραξία (ataraxia) that Epicurean consider synonymous with the only true happiness possible for a person.

A printed copy of
Titus Lucretius Carus' De Rerum Natura
According to Greenblatt the content of The Nature of Things when it became widely known caused the medieval world to swerve into the Renaissance. On page 185 the author gives a gist of Lucretius' ideas and continues his description on page 220. The quotes are in italics, the humble comments are mine.

On the structure of matter
Everything is made of invisible particles. The elementary particles of matter - the seeds of the things - are eternal. The elementary particles are infinite in shape and size. All particles are in motion in an infinite void.
Taking up Democritus’ ideas Lucretius addresses here some basic principles of modern particle physics. In particular we know since the times of Lord Rutherford that matter in atoms is concentrated in a small nucleus leaving lots of empty space and new exotic particles like the Higgs boson - also called the God particle - are understood with respect to their vacuum energy coupling with geometry in a curved space. For Lucretius body and soul are only fantastically complex structures of atoms linked for a time and destined one day to come apart. During centuries the Church had been fighting this atomistic approach so Galileo was considered as a heretic not only for his Copernican views but for his atomism too.

Creation and free will
The universe has no creator or designer. Though nature is beautiful and intricate, there is no evidence of an underlying intelligent design. Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve. The swerve is the source of free will.
As determinism appears to conflict with the concept of free will Lucretius in his atomistic approach explains it with the random swerve of  the seed of things. It is interesting to compare his idea with the discussions in the 1920ies between the advocates of quantum mechanics preaching the breakdown of determinism in the atomic world and Albert Einstein claiming that God does not throw dice. Is our free will a consequence of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle?

On evolution
Nature ceaselessly experiments. Humans are not unique. Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty, but in primitive battle for survival. 
Darwin, did he read On the Nature of Things before he wrote his On the Origin of Species?

On religion
The soul dies with the body. There is no afterlife. Death is nothing to us and no concern of ours. There is no judgment after death. The universe was not created for us by divine power, and the whole notion of the afterlife is a superstitious fantasy. All organized religions are superstitious delusions and are invariably cruel. There are no angels, demons, or ghosts. The preachers who tell us to live in fear and trembling are lying. God has no interest in our actions.
Mind you, these ideas were brought forward well before Christ was born. Already Epicurus, the spiritual father of Lucretius, said: Against other things it is possible to obtain security, but when it comes to death we human beings all live in an unwalled city. Lucretius' further going ideas on religion were taken up in the nineteenth century. According to Feuerbach religion is a projection: God is nothing else then the outward projection of a human's inward nature, a projection of human unfulfilled wishes and positive attributes. Marx’s religion is used as opium to suppress the people. For Nietzsche religion simply is empty because God is dead an idea that developed into Sartre’s and Camus’ existential nihilism: We should face the absurdity of our existence, that we will eventually die, and that religion simply is the result of the fear of death.

On the pursuit of happiness
The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain. What should matter to us is the pursuit of pleasure, for pleasure is the highest goal of existence. The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion.
I did not know that Thomas Jefferson owned at least five Latin editions of De Rerum natura along with translations of the poem into English, Italian, and French. To a correspondent who wanted to know his philosophy of life, Jefferson wrote: "I am an Epicurean."

About love
Lucretius’ poem starts out with a hymn to Venus, the goddess of love:

Delight of humankind and gods above,
Parent of Rome, propitious Queen of Love,
Whose vital power, air, earth, and sea supplies,
And breeds whate'er is born beneath the rolling skies;
For every kind, by thy prolific might,
Springs and beholds the regions of the light:
Thee, Goddess, thee, the clouds and tempests fear,
And at thy pleasing presence disappear;
For thee the land in fragrant flowers is dressed,
For thee the ocean smiles and smooths her wavy breast,
And heaven itself with more serene and purer light is blessed.
For when the rising spring adorns the mead,
And a new scene of nature stands displayed,
When teeming buds and cheerful greens appear,
And western gales unlock the lazy year,
The joyous birds thy welcome first express
Whose native songs thy genial fire confess.
Then savage beasts bound o'er their slighted food,
Struck with thy darts, and tempt the raging flood.
All nature is thy gift: earth, air, and sea;
Of all that breathes, the various progeny,
Stung with delight, is goaded on by thee.
O'er barren mountains, o'er the flowery plain,
The leafy forest, and the liquid main
Extends thy uncontrolled and boundless reign.
Through all the living regions dost thou move
And scatterest, where thou goest, the kindly seeds of Love.

For Lucretius love means life, beauty and proliferation. About 100 years later Paul of Tarsus wrote another quite different Hohelied der Liebe (Song of Love). We read in chapter 13 of his first letter to the Corinthians:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

In his praise St. Paul, the man who laid the foundation of Christianity, stripped love of all its sexuality! If he only had referred in his letter to the Song of Songs of Solomon, a book of the Old Testament, Christian history may have taken a different course. Could it be that Paul’s Hohelied der Liebe is a direct answer, an alternative model to Lucretius' vision of life? We do not know whether the apostle - being an educated Roman citizen - had read Des Rerum Natura but there is one trace of Paul's dispute with Epicureans documented in the Act of the Apostles 17:

While Paul waited for them (Silas and Timothy) at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw the city full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who met him. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also were conversing with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be advocating foreign deities,” because he preached Jesus and the resurrection. They took hold of him, and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is, which is spoken by you? For you bring certain strange things to our ears. We want to know therefore what these things mean.” Now all the Athenians and the strangers living there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell or to hear some new thing.

Smartly craving their attention in flattering them and referring to the altar of the unknown God he had noticed Paul stood in the middle of the Areopagus, and said, “You men of Athens, I perceive that you are very religious in all things. For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I announce to you. The God who made the world and all things in it, he, being Lord of heaven and earth, doesn’t dwell in temples made with hands, neither is he served by men’s hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he himself gives to all life and breath, and all things. He made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the surface of the earth, having determined appointed seasons, and the boundaries of their dwellings, that they should seek the Lord, if perhaps they might reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live, and move, and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also his offspring.’ Being then the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold, or silver, or stone, engraved by art and design of man. The times of ignorance therefore God overlooked. But now he commands that all people everywhere should repent, because he has appointed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom he has ordained; of which he has given assurance to all men, in that he has raised him from the dead.”

Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some [surely the Epicureans] mocked; but others said, “We want to hear you again concerning this.”

Unfortunately the commentator stops there.

Coming back to the Hohelied der Liebe Paul admits that in our live on earth we see but a poor reflection of God like in a mirror but out of his belief grows his hope that he will see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

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