Sunday, May 12, 2013

Great Civilizations Can Die - Including Ours

"Even in the stable and prosperous times of the Roman Empire, literacy rates, by our standards at least, were not high.  As the empire crumbled, as cities decayed, trade declined, and the increasingly anxious populace scanned the horizon for barbarian armies, the whole Roman system of elementary and higher education fell apart.  What began as downsizing went on to wholesale abandonment.  Schools closed, libraries and academics shut their doors, professional grammarians and teachers of rhetoric found themselves out of work."

I'm just starting Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve, described in the jacket:

"In the winter of 1417, a short, genial, cannily alert man in his late thirties plucked a very old manuscript off a dusty shelf in a remote monastery, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied.  He was Poggio Bracciolini, the greatest book hunter of the Renaissance.   His discovery, Lucretius' ancient poem On the Nature of Things,  had been almost entirely lost to history for more than a thousand years."
 Lucretius had written about a world with a relatively modern scientific mind set.  From Greenblatt:
"The stuff of the universe, Lucretius proposed, is an infinite number of atoms moving randomly through space, like dust motes in a sunbeam, colliding, hooking together, forming complex structures, breaking apart again, in a ceaseless process of creation and destruction.  There is no escape from this process  When you look up at the night sky and, feeling unaccountably moved, marvel at the numberless stars, you are not seeing the handiwork of the gods or a crystalline sphere detached from our transient world.  You are seeing  the same material world of which you are a part and from whose elements you are made.  There is no master plan, no divine architect, no intelligent design."  

I'm leery when someone writing about the past, slips in modern words - like 'downsizing' and 'intelligent design.'  I'm concerned that they are using such terms to make the connection to the modern day clearer.  As I said, I'm just at the beginning, but this Shakespeare scholar should know the world of 1417 better than most of us.  Columbus hadn't yet sailed and his Shakespeare was still almost 200 years off.

But we do know that the Roman empire fell.  That dark ages followed.  We are faced with fundamentalist religious zealots in Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and other faiths.  In the US they currently play a significant role.  It's hard for Americans to imagine their country crashing.  But it happened in Rome and other dominant cultures over the centuries.  Current attacks on our schools and universities could easily lead to a loss of the collected wisdom of Western Science.  There are other centers in the world that could take up the slack, though the economic interdependence in the world increases the likelihood that if one center goes down, the others could follow.

How will the existence of cyber libraries make things different this time?  At least Bracciolini didn't need an ancient technology to read the manuscripts he hunted, and the technology of pen and ink and parchment was still alive so that he could copy the important texts he found.

We'll see where this book goes.  So far so good. 

After writing this, I checked for a good link for people to read more about the book.  Jim Hinch wrote in the LA Review of Books, that:
"The Swerve, in fact, is two books, one deserving of an award, the other not. The first book is an engaging literary detective story about an intrepid Florentine bibliophile named Poggio Braccionlini, who, in 1417, stumbled upon a 500-year-old copy of De Rerum Natura in a German monastery and set the poem free from centuries of neglect to work its intellectual magic on the world. This Swerve, brimming with vivid evocations of Renaissance papal court machinations and a fascinating exploration of Lucretius’s influence on luminaries ranging from Leonardo Da Vinci, to Galileo, to Thomas Jefferson, is wonderful.

"The second Swerve is an anti-religious polemic. According to this book, the lucky fate of De Rerum Natura is a proxy for the much more consequential story of how modern western secular culture liberated itself from the deadening hand of centuries of medieval religious dogmatism.  .  .

"This is a powerful vision of the world entering a prolonged period of cultural darkness. If it were true, then Greenblatt’s second Swerve, the anti-religious polemic, also would deserve every award and plaudit it won. However, Greenblatt’s vision is not true, not even remotely.  .  .

"I’m at a loss to explain how two distinguished prize juries managed to overlook the fact that The Swerve’s animating thesis is at best “questionable,” and at worst “unwarranted,” as Renaissance historian John Monfasani put it this summer in the online journal Reviews in History. Still, to make clear the extent of The Swerve’s errors, I’ll go through Greenblatt’s portrait of the Middle Ages point by point. . . " 

And you can read the point by point at the LARB.

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