Today we have a new guest post from regular commentator and Renaissance Mathematicus fan Baerista. Whereas I am an Englishman living in Germany who blogs in English Baerista is a German living in London who normally blogs in German. Today he has delivered up a post in English explaining why he thinks the highly praised The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt ought to be viewed somewhat more critically
Marvelous Distortions: Greenblatt and the Transmission of Lucretius
For all the obsessive preoccupation with classical antiquity that has characterized our modern culture, it is at times disconcerting to see how little the average aficionado of Greece and Rome knows about the way his beloved classics have reached his modern bookshelf. This general ignorance is well exemplified by the frequently heard statements to the effect that “we owe Islamic civilization the preservation of Greek literature, which would have otherwise been lost during the Dark Ages.” The problem with this claim is not that we owe nothing to Islamic civilization (we certainly do), but much rather that the people who make these pronouncements are usually fully cognizant that textual editions from the whole gamut of Greek literature in their original language are easily available at the local library (in the case of the Loeb series, they are recognizable from afar by their green covers). Do they really think that these are all re-translations from Arabic?
I suspect that one factor that makes it hard for the average observer to get a clear grasp of the transmission of classical texts, be they Greek or Latin, is the ubiquitous use of the term “Renaissance,” which essentially transports a skewed view of cultural history. The implication is that, when antiquity ended, classical culture went to sleep and lay dormant in a cigar box for a good thousand years, until it was re-discovered by a bunch of Italian bonvivants, who thought it would be a neat idea if everyone spoke like Cicero again. Historians who are wont to counter this view are often eager to point out that there has been not one, but many “re-births” of classical literature, one of which took place in the late eighth and early ninth century and is known as the “Carolingian Renaissance.” In a nutshell, the “Carolingian Renaissance” denotes a general revival of intellectual culture in the Frankish empire that had its epicenter in Charlemagne”s court in Aachen. Besides giving rise to the direct forerunner to most Western styles of handwriting, in form of the Carolingian minuscule, this early medieval ”rebirth” of European learning also led to a greatly increased rate of manuscript production and dissemination, which included many important works from classical antiquity.
Among the ancient Latin jewels that were thus saved from oblivion is the poem De rerum natura by the Roman poet Lucretius-a comprehensive description of the “facts of life” as seen from an Epicurean point of view, which spans some 7,400 hexameters. As is well known, this philosophy was strikingly at odds with the Christian worldview that dominated the Middle Ages, in that it emphasized the pursuit of earthly pleasures, denied the immortality of the soul and reduced the universe to an infinite number of atoms that randomly moved through empty space. According to Epicurus and Lucretius, the way these atoms collide and hook together accounts for the creation, growth and decay of all material things, including human beings. On the surface, DNR thus comes across as a remarkably “modern” piece, which helps to explain its ongoing popularity in the twenty-first century. One of the many modern fans of DNR is Stephen Greenblatt, a literary critic and professor at Harvard, who makes Lucretius”s masterpiece the protagonist of his latest book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2011), which has already earned its author both the 2011-National Book Award for Nonfiction and, more impressively still, this year”s Pulitzer Prize in the same category.
What is this “swerve” all about and how did it make the world modern? As it turns out, one of the big problems with this book is that the second part of this question is never sufficiently addressed. At its core, The Swerve tells the story of the Renaissance humanist Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459), who, in 1417 visited the libraries of several Southern German monasteries on a hunt for “lost” texts from classical antiquity. One of the manuscripts he happened upon during this book-hunt contained Lucretius”s DNR, which was soon re-copied multiple times and caused a sensation among the reading public of the Italian Renaissance. Greenblatt makes no bones about the fact that he himself regards the Epicurean philosophy of radical materialism combined with unapologetic hedonism that is encoded in DNR as the best thing since sliced bread and one of the defining sources of our modern way of thinking.
His idea that Epicureanism was present at the birthpangs of modernity is far from original and has only recently found a vocal defender in Catherine Wilson”s confidently titled 2010-book Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity. As with most attempts to reduce complex historical phenomena to monocausal explanations, Wilson”s book has not been everywhere well received, as can be seen from this scathing review by Margaret J. Osler (1942-2010), a widely respected expert on early modern science. Given these very recent discussions among historians, it is very disappointing to discover that Greenblatt”s own “defence” of the mentioned proposition consists of little more than a series of brief excursuses on figures such as Thomas More, Michel de Montaigne and Giordano Bruno, who all read DNR and therefore…what? However the world may have become modern, The Swerve definitely is not the book to turn to if you are interested in an answer.
Realizing that the original subtitle was a misnomer, the book”s publisher in the United Kingdom (a Random House imprint named “The Bodley Head”) went for a little more understatement and retitled it as The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began, not realizing that this technically makes things even worse. While the assertion that the re-discovery of Epicureanism is at the sole root of modern science and philosophy is certainly dubious, it at least makes some chronological sense. By contrast, to declare DNR the source of Renaissance humanism puts the cart entirely before the horse. The very fact that Poggio Bracciolini discovered DNR on a book tour through Germany, undertaken to satisfy the ever-growing desire of Italian courts and scholars for ancient texts, should alert us to the fact that Poggio and his discovery were products of the Renaissance and not its cause. While Greenblatt rightly focuses on Petrarca as Poggio”s most important fourteenth century predecessor, some modern historians would be inclined to trace the beginnings of the Renaissance “movement” even further back-to a growing interest in the classics that already started in the second half of the thirteenth century and that had some of its early proponents by English friars such as Nicholas Trevet (c. 1257-c. 1334), who had ties to Italy and produced commentaries on the whole corpus of tragedies by Seneca the Younger at the instigation of his patron, Nicholas of Prato, cardinal bishop of Ostia (1303-21).
I have deliberately mentioned Trevet, a theologian and member of the Dominican order, because he is a good example for the kind of scholar that, according to the picture of history presented in The Swerve, should not have existed. In Greenblatt”s worldview, which is a disconcerting throwback to the heyday of John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White, the protagonists of Western intellectual history always appear on stage clad in white or black robes, depending on which team they support. Needless to say, Epicurus and Lucretius, as the fragile heroes of “team reason,” are constantly at the brink of destruction thanks to the malicious interference of “team Church,” whose intrinsic evilness is evident from the fact that Jan Hus and Giordano Bruno were burnt at the stake-episodes on which Greenblatt dwells for several pages (pp. 166-72, 233-41), despite their being only tenuously related to the subject of his book.
Neither does he forget to slip in an account of the library of Alexandria, the destruction of the Serapeion and the murder of Hypatia of Alexandria, which is essentially a rehash of old Gibbonian (and Saganian) tropes that have been debunked so well by Tim O”Neill over at Armarium Magnum. True, Greenblatt”s account of these events does contain some hints that he did enough research to realize that Hypatia”s death was probably just the result of partisan politics and that no ancient account mentions the destruction of books when the Serapeion was sacked. But, as if to honour the principle of ”never change a winning story,” he goes on to blabber: “The murder of Hypatia signified more than the end of one remarkable person; it effectively marked the downfall of Alexandrian intellectual life and was the death knell for the whole intellectual tradition that underlay [De rerum natura]” (p. 93). I am not sure whether Greenblatt simply never heard of people like Hierocles, Asclepius of Tralles, Olympiodorus the Younger, Ammonius Hermiae, Hermias, or the woman philosopher Aedesia (who managed to pursue her philosophy without being physically harmed) or whether they were not intellectual enough for his taste, but if I was a representant of fifth and sixth century Alexandria, I would doubtlessly be pissed at his lack of consideration.
Another group that would not have been pleased by the way they are depicted in The Swerve are the men and women of the medieval monasteries, whose manifold cultural achievements are largely ignored in favour of the practices of self-torment and asceticism, which Greenblatt imagines in irritatingly lurid detail. The resulting caricature of medieval monastic life was rightly criticized by Anthony Grafton in an article for the New York Review of Books, who very appositely calls it a “a curious blend of Gibbonian irony and Sadean relish,” only to later remark with a brief, but audible, sigh: “The Swerve is not always as accurate as one would wish.” From a world-class scholar like Grafton, who is widely known as an extremely generous man, always careful to wrap even the faintest criticism in a wadding of praise, such clear-cut words can be taken as the verbal equivalent to a bitchslap.
Without wanting to get into a prolongued critique of Greenblatt”s many distortions of medieval and Renaissance history, I shall presently focus on what is arguably one of the most annoying of all the misrepresentations in his book annoying, because it is ostensibly there for no other reason than to furnish his narrative with additional momentum: as it turns out, the book”s title The Swerve alludes to the English equivalent to the Latin word clinamen, which Lucretius used to describe the erratic and unpredictable movement of atoms in the void. According to Greenblatt, the textual history of DNR was itself marked by a remarkable number of unexpected “swerves” that, taken together, supposedly account for its ”miraculous” survival:
“It was by chance that a copy of On the Nature of Things made it into the library of a handful of monasteries, places that had buried, seemingly forever, the Epicurean pursuit of pleasure. It was by chance that a monk laboring in a scriptorium somewhere or other in the ninth century copied the poem before it moldered away forever. And it was by chance that this copy escaped fire and flood and the teeth of time for some five hundred years until, one day in 1417, it came into the hands of [Poggio].” (p. 109)
As becomes clear from this and other pages of his book, Greenblatt wants his readers to believe that the manuscript discovered by Poggio in 1417 contained the only surviving copy of DRN and that the text would have doubtlessly been lost forever, had it not been for this one serendipitous discovery. Furthermore, he heavily implies that the text”s survival was constantly endangered, not just by “fire and flood and the teenth of time,” but also by malignant monks and churchmen, who despised pagan learning and all too often destroyed ancient texts by turning their manuscripts into palimpsests (e.g. pp. 42-44). How realistic is this account?
The situation concerning the manuscript transmission of DNR can be roughly summarized like this: the text today found in critical editions rests chiefly upon two ninth-century manuscripts at Leiden”s Universiteitsbibliotheek, which are both products of the aforementioned “Carolingian Renaissance”: Voss. Lat. F. 30, known as the Oblongus (O) due to its format, which was copied shortly after 800 at the Palace School of Charlemagne in Aachen and is the ancestor (direct or at one remove) to the manuscript later discovered by Poggio; and Voss. Lat. Q. 94, the so-called Quadratus (Q), which derives from north-east France. A further ninth-century copy from south-west Germany is attested by two fragments of only a few leaves each, now housed at libraries in Copenhagen and Vienna (a second Viennese fragment may have sprung from the same book or from yet another ninth-century copy). The fact that only three or four manuscripts from this period are still attested in the flesh need not and does not mean that they were the only ones copied. Our preserved number of early medieval manuscript is generally only the tip of a lost iceberg. Indeed, stemmatic analysis (the construction of a family tree for manuscript copies on the basis of discrepancies and scribal errors in the preserved copies) postulates not only a late antique (fourth or fifth century) archetype in rustic capitals, but no less than three further medieval copies that came before O, Q and the fragments.
Moreover, it is simply not true that this text had lain “dormant and forgotten for more than a thousand years” (p. 13) and was never read or used during the Middle Ages until Poggio happened upon it: from excerpts in a variety of medieval manuscripts, especially from the ninth and tenth century, we can tell that Lucretius was no stranger to scholars in the Low Countries, northern France and the Rhineland area. In about 825, Mico of Saint-Riquier, a scholar at Reichenau, an island monastery in Lake Constance, put together a metrical florilegium contaning lines from DNR. Lucretius is also present at the monastery of St. Gall, where he is quoted around 850 in a letter written by Ermenrich of Ellwangen and also appears in another florilegium produced there in c. 900. Another famous scholar from this period whose works contain citations from DNR is Rabanus Maurus (d. 856), who, aside from being a prolific writer, also served as the archbishop of Mainz. For the rest of the history of the Middle Ages up until Poggio”s time, the textual history of Lucretius admittedly becomes more sketchy. From medieval library catalogues we know that copies were held in the north Italian monastery of Bobbio in the ninth and at the abbeys of Lobbes (Belgium) and Corbie (Northern France) in the twelfth century, while a gloss that references Lucretius appears in a work of Sigebert of Gembloux (c. 1030-1112).
Unsurprisingly, Greenblatt suppresses almost all of this fascinating information, despite the fact that it is very readily available in the standard hand books such as L. D. Reynold”s and N. G. Wilson”s Scribes and Scholars (1968/1974/1991) and L. D. Reynold”s Texts and Transmission (1983) as well as Michael Reeve”s article in the relatively recent Cambridge Companion to Lucretius (2007). The latter rightly points out that the fate of DNR (being copied several times during the ”Carolingian Renaissance,” followed by a largely dormant tradition between the ninth and fifteenth century) is shared by so many other classical texts that there is no reason to suppose this had anything to do with deliberate censorship, motivated by”Christian scruples” about Lucretius”s a-religiosity.
The fact that an essential research aid like the Cambridge Companion appears nowhere in Greenblatt”s bibliography may be telling, but not quite as telling as the fact that the former two books are in fact listed. With other words: there is every reason to assume that Greenblatt knew fully well that he was distorting the facts when he decided to contruct a whole sweeping narrative on the motif of DNR”s “miraculous” survival. He therefore ended up telling the story the way he did not (simply) because he is a poor scholar, but because of the nature and purpose of his book, which is not an offering on the altar of truth, but a carefully calculated “bestseller,” whose author had some very precise ideas of what his readers would expect-and reward.
It is indeed worth observing that Greenblatt”s book comes to us at the height of a “renaissance” of general interest in Lucretius”s work, not just on the part of scholars, but also and especially among lay readers, many of them members of a large social movement that is very active on the internets and that can be roughly categorized as “secularist” or “new atheist.” This movement attracts a great deal of young people, who use the world wide web as their main resource to increase their intellectual standing in what they perceive as a daily struggle against the dark forces of religious obscurantism. Unfortunately, the sources they avail themselves to are such that many of them end up with an extremely impoverished picture of the human past that often relies on fringe theories such as “Jesus mytherism” and a comic-book idea of the history of science that is well-exemplified by this monstrosity.
The reasons why this demographic might be interested in DNR are not difficult to see: it is certainly reassuring to know that about seven centuries before the Quran and still a century before the New Testament there used to be a Roman guy who (seemingly) saw the world very much like oneself. For a modern-day admirer of Lucretius, who perceives history as an eternal struggle of reason against religion, the idea that this crucial text was rescued almost miraculously from oblivion in the hands of self-castigating monks, who were burning pagan books when they were not burning heretics, is clearly an eminently sexy one. It is precisely this intellectual climate that Greenblatt decided to take advantage of when he wrote The Swerve. Being faced with the choice between intellectual honesty (which, being a literary critic and therefore steeped in pomo-philosophy, he probably regards as an outmoded concept anyway) and the prospect of laughing all the way from the bank, he chose the latter. If there is something we should be worried about, it is not the fact that people make such choices, but that garbage of this kind is awared with a Pulitzer Prize.