RECOVERING THE CLASSICAL HERITAGE – HOW THE WORLD BECAME MODERN
Recently my reading included Stephen Greenblatt’s Pulitzer Prize Winner The SWERVE: How the World BECAME MODERN. The book jacket announces Greenblatt’s work as “A RIVETING TALE Of The Great Cultural Swerve Known as the RENAISSANCE”. Reading the book reminded me of several themes encountered in my reading and studies. Greenblatt tells how a humanist book hunter Poggio Bracciolini discovered in a monastic monastery Lucretius’ ON THE NATURE OF THINGS. Lost for more than a thousand years THE SWERVE and its return to circulation changed the course of history shaping the thought of Galileo and Freud, Darwin and Einstein, and – in the hands of Thomas Jefferson – leave its trace on the Declaration of Independence. (book jacket)
Greenblatt has a succinct summary of Lucretius’ thought. Lucretius believed, Greenblatt explains, “that nothing could violate the laws of nature. He posited instead what he called a “swerve” … an unexpected, unpredictable movement of matter. The reappearance of his poem was such a swerve, an unforeseen deviation from the direct trajectory – in this case, toward oblivion – on which that poem and its philosophy seemed to be travelling. When it returned to full circulation after a millennium, much of what the book said about a universe formed out of a clash of atoms in an infinite void seemed absurd. But those very things that first were deemed both impious an nonsensical turned out to be the basis for the contemporary rational understanding of the entire world. What is at stake is not only the startling recognition of key elements of modernity in antiquity, though it is certainly worth reminding ourselves that Greek and Roman classics, largely displaced from our curriculum, have in fact definitely shaped modern consciousness. More surprising, perhaps, in the sense, driven home by every page of THE NATURE OF THINGS, that the scientific vision of the world – a vision of atoms randomly moving in an infinite universe – was in its origins imbued with a poet’s sense of wonder. Wonder did not depend on gods and demons and the dream of an afterlife; in Lucretius it welled up out of a recognition that we are made of the same matter as the stars and the oceans and all things else. And this recognition was the basis for the way we should live our lives . . . the culture in the wake of antiquity that best epitomized the Lucretian embrace of beauty and pleasure and propelled it forward as a legitimate and worthy human pursuit was that of the Renaissance.” pp.7-8
Somee years ago I wrote an essay tracing the recovery and contribution of Greco-Roman classical antiquity to the Renaissance and, subsequently, to “how the world became modern”. A brief but relevant section of that essay relates to Greenblatt’s SWERVE. He makes frequent note of the recovery of the classics to Western thinking. That recovery, I suggest, is A GRADUAL CURVE AND RESULTANT CURVE.
” ‘Lord Acton wrote many years ago, in 1906, that ‘next to the discovery of the New World the recovery of the ancient world is the second landmark that divides us from the Middle Ages and marks the transition to modern life’. This statement is true in the sense that the humanists rediscovered the classical value placed upon man in his individual uniqueness. A fascinating, profound but exceedingly difficult work was written relevant to this theme and is titled: Classical Heritage and Its Beneficiaries: ‘From the Carolingian Age to the End of the Renaissance’. We are indebted to it’s author, R. R. Bolgar’s thesis maintains that from the age of Charlemagne to the end of the Renaissance each age adopted certain elements of the classical heritage that were conducive to the slow rise of Western civilization. The Renaissance generation of humanists finally exhausted the teaching potential of that heritage when it rediscovered the essential classical value of the individual in his personal uniqueness. During the eighth century a Latin grammar curriculum was established to foster education and banish ignorance. The ninth century used Latin for the church and the art of writing; the quest for knowledge flourished. The tenth and eleventh centuries used the classics essentially for legal land medical information. Scholastics of the twelfth century basically neglected the classics with their theological endeavors. In the fifteenth century, development of classical studies occurred, when the rising Italian cities grafted Byzantine Greek and its cultural heritage to Western knowledge, and ‘uncovered the last secrets of the classical heritage’. ‘The Renaissance, Bolgar continues, ‘revealed to an amazed world those elements in classical poetry, history, and speculation bore on the personal life. Humanism became equated with the free and full development of the individual . . . The humanists of the Renaissance, altered their attention, from the traditional concern for logic and rhetoric, typical of scholasticism and early humanism to the more fruitful practice of imitation of the classics.” (emphasis mine)
The Renaissance and humanist endeavor may be seen as bringing to light the implications of classical antiquity and the concept of human freedom as Stephen Greenblatt demonstrates in THE SWERVE: HOW THE WORLD BECAME MODERN.