|Book Review: The Swerve, Part 2
||[Nov. 19th, 2012|10:50 pm]
Epistemic State: Taken entirely from one book with an axe to grind with only limited fact-checking. Very interested in hearing why it's totally wrong.
So where were we...ah, right! Violently anti-Catholic screed!
The Swerve purports to be a historical record of the medieval re-discovery of De Rerum Natura, a six-book poem by the Roman writer Lucretius explaining Epicurus' ideas in detail. The book totally fails to title this chapter "Putting The 'Epic' Into 'Epicurus;", which disappointed me, but it quickly regained my interest by turning into a grand drama. Like all good dramas, it features a good guy and a bad guy; in this case the protagonist is Epicurus, and the antagonist the Catholic Church.
A good drama needs to establish the antagonist's villain credentials early on; Star Wars started with Vader threatening Princess Leia, Harry Potter with the story of Voldemort trying to murder an innocent baby. The Swerve proves the Church's villain cred with its lengthy and engaging description of the Council of Constance.
When the Council was convened in 1414, there were three rival claimants to the Papacy, and the most seemingly legitimate contender, John XXIII of Rome, was incredibly corrupt even for a Pope (the phrase "corrupt even for a Pope" made a lot more sense back in the Renaissance). He was suspected to have bought the Papacy using money he earned hiring out thieves to rob carriages, and for a time was suspected of piracy. Yes, that's right. The Middle Ages boasted a Pope who was also a pirate.
PICTURED: Pope John XXIII (artist's depiction)
So in order to sort this out the Church declared a great council of the entire Western ecclesiastical hierarchy. The book lists among the 100,000-odd travelers to Constance not only nobles, monks, priests, cardinals, and bishops, but also those hoping to make a profit off of the sheer size of the gathering, including "merchants, mountebanks, jewelers, tailors, shoemakers, apothecaries, furriers, grocers, barbers, scribes, jugglers, acrobats, street-singers, and hangers-on of all types". There were also "over seven hundred whores", which was apparently considered about the right number for a Church event in the Late Middle Ages.
(now I'm kind of curious how the prostitute-to-dignitary ratio at Constance compares to more modern events like the Republican National Convention. This seems like an important but overlooked statistic.)
These soon got to work on the issue at hand. They quickly rejected two of the less legitimate claimants to the Papacy before turning to the thornier issue of John XXIII. A trial was held, and:
Fearing their effect on public opinion, the the council decided to suppress the sixteen most scandlous charges - never subsequently revealed - and accused the pontiff only of simony, sodomy, rape, incest, torture, and murder. Worst of all - at least among the charges that were made public - was one of that his accusers dredged up from the ancient struggle against Epicureanism: the Pope was said to have maintained stubbornly, before reputable persons, that there was no future life or resurrection, and that the souls of men perish with their bodies, like brutes.
So according to the Council of Constance, not only was the Pope a gay atheist rapist murderer, but there were sixteen charges that are even worse than that. Charges they couldn't reveal! Because they might inflame public opinion! Among segments of the public that were apparently not particularly bothered by an incestuous homicidal torture-Pope! Who is, don't forget, still a suspected pirate!
But the Council eventually deposed him and elected in his stead the relatively non-swashbuckling Martin V. In addition to the main issue, they also decided to address some equally gruesome side business.
Jan Huss had been going around saying maybe it was bad to have ridiculously immoral clergy. And as grievous as this sin was, he compounded it by saying the church should stop selling indulgences, and also what if lay people got a chance to oversee the Church and make sure they didn't accidentally declare any more pirates infallible? He was pretty much a proto-Protestant a century before Luther, but where Luther was an anti-Semitic hate-filled lunatic, Jan Huss was by all accounts a morally exemplary and deeply sympathetic character.
The Church promised him safe passage to Constance so that he could address the Council; Huss, filled with the bright-eyed belief that once he explained that immorality and sin were bad everyone would say they were sorry and reform, jumped at the offer. As soon as he arrived, representatives of the Church seized him and beat him and threw him in a fetid dungeon for a few months, offering the explanation that "one is not bound to keep promises made to heretics". After he'd rotted a suitable amount he was dragged before the Council for trial. His excitement at finally being allowed to give his "actually, sin is bad" speech was dashed when he was informed that this wasn't going to be the kind of trial where the accused was allowed to speak in his own defense (that heretic thing again). He was beaten some more, paraded through the streets in a paper dunce hat with a picture of the Devil tearing apart his soul on it, forced to watch as all his books were burnt, then burnt at the stake himself after having been denied the chance for a last confession (again the heretic thing!).
This wasn't just one bad apple who had somehow gotten a bishopric. These were the actions of the Official Council of Constance, considered to be the official representative of the entire Catholic religion. So on the matter of villain credentials, the prosecution rests.
I expected the conflict between Epicurus and the Church to rest upon the former's atheism, but that turned out not be so big a deal. The partisans of Epicurus - and after Lucretius' manuscript was rediscovered, he had many - argued that because Epicurus lived in pagan times, all he was doing was communicating the correct insight that the pagan gods were stupid and we should reject paganism. He couldn't be blamed for not realizing the superiority of a religion he had never heard of!
The Church didn't quite accept that argument. They villified Epicurus a bit - he gets stuck in a tomb and set on fire on Level Six of Dante's Inferno, and his "live a life of tranquil enjoyment" got retconned to "hold wild orgies all the time while tragically unaware that you are losing your humanity in a sea of brutish pleasure". Also, the Jews to this day use the Hebrew word apikoros, derived from Epicurus' name, to mean a sinner who will not be granted an afterlife. And the authorities did try to suppress Lucretius: one 1516 law forbids teaching De rerum natura in school on penalty of, and I quote, "eternal damnation and a fine of 10 ducats." But overall, the Church knew atheism existed and they weren't going to throw a fit about one more ancient atheist who had a poem written about him.
Epicurus' atomic theory was more of a problem. I didn't realize exactly how unpopular atomism was back in the days before it was realized to be obviously true and so decreed to be completely in harmony with church teachings and everyone had known this all along. Greenblatt quotes a prayer that 17th-century Jesuit students were made to recite before class:
All the bodies of the world shine with the beauty of their forms.
Without these, the globe would only be an immense chaos.
In the beginning God made all things, so that they might generate something.
Consider to be nothing that from which nothing can come.
You, O Democritus, form nothing different starting from atoms.
Atoms produce nothing; therefore, atoms are nothing.
Why all the atom-hate? Atomic theory stood directly in contradiction of Aristotle. If Aristotle was wrong about dualism, it wouldn't make sense to say that things had substances different from their accidents, and so transubstantiation would be on much weaker ground.
But at least according to Greenblatt and the very large, sharp axe he is grinding, the church's biggest gripe with Epicurus was that he had the chutzpah to say that happiness is good.
And here the book discusses how the ancient Church believed that happiness was a tool of the Devil at that everyone had to try to be as miserable as possible all the time in order to reap the spiritual value of suffering. This sounds like some kind of weird P.Z. Myers strawman of religion, but apparently it's not quite as unfair as it sounds. Here's St. Ambrose in a homily against Epicurus:
Epicurus himself also, whom these persons think they should follow rather than the apostles, the advocate of pleasure, although he denies that pleasure brings in evil, does not deny that certain things result from it from which evils are generated; and asserts in fine that the life of the luxurious which is filled with pleasures does not seem to be reprehensible, unless it be disturbed by the fear either of pain or of death. But how far he is from the truth is perceived even from this, that he asserts that pleasure was originally created in man by God its author, as Philomarus his follower argues in his Epitomæ, asserting that the Stoics are the authors of this opinion.
But Holy Scripture refutes this, for it teaches us that pleasure was suggested to Adam and Eve by the craft and enticements of the serpent. Since, indeed, the serpent itself is pleasure, and therefore the passions of pleasure are various and slippery, and as it were infected with the poison of corruptions, it is certain then that Adam, being deceived by the desire of pleasure, fell away from the commandment of God and from the enjoyment of grace. How then can pleasure recall us to paradise, seeing that it alone deprived us of it?
The book then goes on to discuss the medieval Christians taking this idea deadly seriously. Monastic life was specifically optimized to be as unpleasant as possible, and abbots would boast of the number of torments they inflicted on their followers. Monks were not only whipped for practically any offense or no offense at all, but were also forced to kiss the whip and humbly thank the person whipping them before each stroke (I'm almost sure this is also a bondage/S&M thing).
PICTURED: 15th century monastic life (artist's depiction)
The more pious would cut out the middleman by whipping themselves - I knew of this latter custom as a response to the plague, but I didn't realize there was a large and popular religious movement saying everyone should do it all the time to prove to God how anti-pleasure and pro-pain they were - or would at the very least wear hair shirts to keep themselves constantly uncomfortable. It sounded pretty unpleasant.
The last polemical dichotomy was between Epicurus' enthusiastic embrace of intellectualism and the scholarly virtues and the Church's...less enthusiastic embrace. This section struck at the heart of an interesting historical debate between the classical historians who believe medieval times were a horrible Dark Age of superstition and violence and thank God the Renaissance happened to get humanity back on track, and the so-called "continuity thesis" school who believe medieval times were pretty okay and that human knowledge advanced somewhat continuously through medieval times and into the Renaissance and so on to the present day. Some go so far as to argue that the medieval era was a time of brilliant and original thought and the Renaissance screwed it all up and was a vast mistake.
The Swerve comes down pretty hard against the scholarship credentials of the Middle Ages. Yes, there was some good work going on, much of it among monks and church doctors. But it was surprising just how anti-intellectual a climate the monasteries really were.
Various monastic rules required that monks must learn to read and must read for an hour a day (it adds injunctions to beat any monk who is caught not concentrating on the reading enough). This required that monks have books. This required that monasteries have libraries. Your better class of monastery had your better class of library. This caused monasteries to enter a status competition for more and more books. Copying books was one way to be able to boast to the abbot down the road that you had a copy of The Aeneid and he didn't so you were better than him.
But this did not necessarily imply a university-like community of researchers and scholars debating the merits of what they just read. I'm gonna quote this straight so that people don't accuse me of exaggerating or making it up:
[St. Benedict's Rule prescribed that when reading] "no one should presume to ask a question about the reading or about anything else, lest occasion be given." Occasion for whom or what? Modern editors sometimes insert the phrase "to the Devil" here. Any question, however innocuous, could raise the prospect of a discussion, a discussion that would imply that religious doctrines were open to inquiry and argument.
Benedict did not absolutely prohibit commentary on the sacred texts that were read aloud, but he wanted to restrict its source: "The superior," the Rule allows, "may wish to say a few words of instruction." Those words were not to be questioned or contradicted, and indeed all contention was in principle to be suppressed. As the listing of punishments in the influential rule of the Irish monk Columbanus makes clear, lively debate, intellectual or otherwise, was forbidden. To the monk who has dared to contradict a fellow monk with such words as "It is not as you say". there is a heavy penalty: "an imposition of silence or fifty blows."
This spirit continued into the lives of the scriptorium monks charged with copying the manuscripts. They were actively discouraged from trying to read the books as they copied them, and some of them would use a "window" that blocked out the rest of the text allowing them to focus on the word they were copying without trying to read the book. After all, they had no need to understand the book they were copying, and, as Greenblatt puts it, “curiosity was said by the Church to be a mortal sin. To indulge it was to risk an eternity in hell.”
...and at this point I said "Okay, Greenblatt's totally making this up to serve his own agenda here, no way the medieval church actually believed that." But it turns out that there's a part in Summa Theologica which confirms curiosity as a sin and condemns it. Worse, it turns out a professor of divinity wrote an article condemning curiosity as a sin in the New York Times just like three years ago.
Is this the face OF SATAN??!?!
I do realize that they probably make a distinction between the noble desire to understand the deepest secrets of the Universe and so-called "idle curiosity" where you just feel a nagging urge to know something. Don't care. Still evil. I'm going to let the prosecution, once again, rest.
So the Church condemned Epicurus and Lucretius for preferring atomism to dualism, pleasure to pain, curiosity to certainty. When the rediscovery of Lucretius' poem made a compelling case for the Epicurean principles of atomism, pleasure, and curiosity, it added a bit more fuel to the already-burning fire of the Renaissance. You can see the influence in The Birth of Venus, a painting which was directly inspired by the Venusian hymns of De rerum natura, but you can also see it all across Renaissance-era philosophy.
And this dichotomy between atomism pleasure and curiosity and dualism pain and certainty, Greenblatt says, separates a very real Dark Ages from a very real Renaissance. The point of the Renaissance was to switch from the medieval conception of pain as good to the modern conception - now embraced even by the church albeit with qualifications - that pleasure is good. And although they were by no means the only source of the change, it was the rediscovery of Epicurus and Lucretius that lent a new impetus to this movement and helped create the "swerve" - the sudden and unexpected switch from medievalism to modernity which, in analogy to Epicurus' clinamen, gives the book its name.
In our own exactly equivalent term, and no less justly, we might call it a quantum leap.