Stephan Greenblatt’s “The Swerve”

This book is a fun read. It recounts the 15th century rediscovery of the work of Lucretius, a Latin philosopher, and how it ‘changed the world’. I am skeptical of the pattern of ascribing to an instant in time the point where some societal change began. Yet it is a good way to organize a story of events about which I had not known and that were highly germane to the enlightenment.

I am up to page 42 and am greatly enjoying the portrayal of the time and places where monasteries copied books and people sought and found them. I had been curious but not found so entertaining a source. Eco’s “The Name of the Rose” provides rich images of a century earlier; the logic and dynamics of the time and place are described plausibly here. Greenblatt is into character portrayals.

Chapter 4 tells of the fall of Rome and its literary traditions and libraries. This was due in great part to the new Christian fundamentalists who raged against the only substantial literary tradition around. He portrays a time when Christian fundamentalists in 400 AD do all that they can to destroy the pagan past, and memories and evidence thereof. It sounds worse than the worst of the religious right today, either Christian or Islam. But Plutarch in 1200 AD, a devout Christian, makes it cool again to understand the ancients in their original languages. Greenblatt describes and distinguishes two manners of such study:

Chapter 5 gives an account that might serve to explain the institution of the church in 1400 to a Martian economist. It posits mere superstition in support of the institution of indulgences for sale.

Another interesting sidelight is the tolerance of the church of 1200 to criticism from the inside. That later became dangerous with the advent of Luther. Then the church took such criticism seriously but frowned on its availability outside the church.

Greenblatt describes the worst of the church as worse than I thought, but the best as better than I thought.

Greenblatt gives no indication yet whether Lucretius or other Epicureans addressed the issue of virtue. The Christians taught that one should behave for fear of punishment in the after life. Thomas More, in his “Utopia” suggested that those without belief in an afterlife and thus without fear of punishment there, should be excluded from his utopia. More felt it necessary for men to fear the gallows, even postmortem.

The book Institutional Evolution has recently made me realize that the partial protection by police against common crime is new since the 15th century. That sheds light on the pragmatics of imposed fear.

Atoms were subversive. They made one think about causes, and the possibility that things happened because of events not connected with human or divine will. ‘Things are as they are because they were as they were.’ Then there is this.
Lucretius was a thorough going materialist as distinct from the dualism as established by Descartes to embrace classic Christian theology.
A recurrent theme in the book is fear of punishment after death and its effects on people’s behavior. Modern biology and mathematical investigations such as Axelrod tournaments lead to the notion that an evolutionarily stable population of intelligent actors will include some small fraction of cheaters that try to take advantage of the good behavior of others while not behaving well them selves. Central to this strategy is the ability to appear well behaved without behaving well.

The unspeakable strategy was to impose the ‘fear of post-mortem punishment’ on people. It you elaborate the logic of the strategy then you undermine it. It seems clear that some intellectuals believe in the strategy as a tactic to make the world livable. I suppose that they feel that they must pretend to share the synthetic fear lest they defeat the strategy. Many people think that religion is the main source of virtue.