Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Last parts of the Swerve

The Roman curia was, from a moral perspective, a notoriously perilous place. The atmosphere he breathed is most brilliantly conveyed by a strange work of the 1430s, written when Poggio was still very much at the center of the curia. The work, entitled On the Excellence and Dignity of the Roman Court, is by a younger humanist contemporary, the Florentine Lapo da Castiglionchio. It is a dialogue, in the style of Cicero, a form much favored at the time by writers who wished to air controversial and even dangerous views without taking full responsibility for them. Hence, at the start of Lapo’s imaginary conversation, a character called Angelo-not Lapo himself, of course, heaven forbid-violently assails the moral bankruptcy of the curia, a place “in which crime, moral outrage, fraud, and deceit take the name of virtue and are held in high esteem.

And, given the huge sums that are paid for bits of paper with papal seals, What fantastic profits are reaped! The place is a gold mine. There is no need any longer to affect the poverty
of Christ: that was necessary only at the beginning in order to avoid the imputation of bribing people to believe. Times have changed. and now riches, so essential for any important enterprise. are in order for whoever can acquire them. Priests are allowed to amass all the wealth they want; they only have to be poor in spirit. To want high priests actually to be poor, rather than the immensely rich men that they are, displays a kind of "mindlessness.”

So the dialogue runs on, with deadpan seriousness and wide-eyed enthusiasm. The curia, the friends agree, is a green place not only for serious study but also for lighter amusements such as gaming, horsemanship, and hunting. Just think of the dinner parties at the papal court- witty gossip, along with fantastic food and drink served by beautiful, young, hairless boys, And for those Whose tastes do not run in the direction of Ganymede, there are the abundant pleasures of Venus. Mistresses, adulterous matrons, courtesans of all descriptions occupy a central place in the curia, and appropriately so, since the delights they offer have such a central place in human happiness. Lewd songs, naked breasts, kissing, fondling, With small white lapdogs trained to lick around your groin to excite desires and all for remarkably low prices.

This expansive enthusiasm for outrageously corrupt behavior and the frantic pursuit of wealth must be a sly satirical game. Yet On the Excellence and Dignity of the Roman Court is a very peculiar satire, and not merely because its gushing praise for what the reader is presumably meant to despise evidently took in some contemporaries. The problem is that when he wrote the work, Lapo was busily seeking appointment in the curia for himself. It is possible, of course, that he felt ambivalent about his attempt: people often despise the very institutions they are frantically trying to enter.

On More's Utopia and Bruno:

In fact, Catholic intellectuals could and did engage with Lucretian ideas through the medium of fables. Though he complained that Marullo sounded “ just like a pagan,” Erasmus note a fictional dialogue called The Epicurean in which one of the characters, Hedonius, sets out to show that “there are no people more Epicurean than godly Christians.” Christians who fast, bewail their sins, and punish their flesh may look anything but hedonist, but they are seeking to live righteously, and “none live more enjoyably than those who live righteously.”

If this paradox seems like little more than a sleight-of-hand, Erasmus’ friend Thomas More took the engagement with Epicureanism much further in his most famous work, Utopia (1516). A learned man, deeply immersed in the pagan Greek and Latin texts that Poggio and his contemporaries had returned to circulation, More was also a pious Christian ascetic who won a hair shirt under his clothes and whipped himself until the blood ran down his flesh. His speculative daring and his relentless intelligence enabled him to grasp the force of what had surged back from the ancient world and at the same time his ardent Catholic convictions led him to demarcate the boundaries beyond which he thought it was dangerous for him Or anyone else to go. That is, he brilliantly explored the hidden tensions in the identity to which he himself subscribed: "Christian humanist.”

Utopia begins with a searing indictment of England as a land where noblemen, living idly off the labor of others, bleed their tenants white by constantly raising their rents, where land enclosures for sheep-raising throw untold thousands of poor people into an existence of starvation or crime, and where the cities are ringed by gibbets on which thieves are hanged by the score without the slightest indication that the draconian punishment deters anyone from committing the same crimes.

That depiction of a ghastly reality-and the sixteenth century chronicler Holinshed reports that in the reign of Henry VIII, 72,000 thieves were hanged--is set against an imaginary island, Utopia (the name means “No-place” in Greek), whose inhabitants are convinced that “either the whole or the most part of human happiness” lies in the pursuit of pleasure. This central Epicurean tenet, the work makes clear, lies at the heart of the opposition between the good society of the Utopians and the corrupt, Vicious society of his own England. That is, More clearly grasped that the pleasure principle-the principle given its most powerful expression in Lucretius’ spectacular hymn to Venus-is not a decorative enhancement of routine existence; it is a radical idea that, if taken seriously, would change everything.

More set his Utopia in the remotest part of the world. Its discoverer, More writes at the beginning of the work, was a man who “ joined Amerigo Vespucci and was his constant companion in the last three of his four voyages, which are now universally read of, but on the final voyage he did not return with him.” He was instead one of those left behind, at his own urging in a garrison at the farthest point of the explorers’ venture into the unknown.

Reading Amerigo Vespucci and reflecting on the newfound lands known, in his honor, as “America,” More seized upon one of Vespucci’s observations about the peoples he had encountered.“Since their life is so entirely given over to pleasure,” Vespucci had written, ”I should style it Epicurean.” More must have realized with a jolt that he could use the amazing discoveries to explore some of the disturbing ideas that had returned to currency with Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things. The link was not entirely surprising: the Florentine Vespucci was a part of the humanist circle in which On the Nature of Things circulated. The Utopians, More wrote, are inclined to believe “that no kind of pleasure is forbidden, provided no harm comes of it.” And their behavior is not merely a matter of custom; it is a philosophical position: “They seem to lean more than they should to the school that espouses pleasure as the object by which to define either the whole or the chief part of human happiness.” That ‘school” is the school of Epicurus and Lucretius.

The setting, in the remotest part of the remotest part of the World, enabled More to convey a sense that was extremely difficult for his contemporaries to articulate: that the pagan texts recovered by the humanists were at once compellingly vital and at the same time utterly weird. They had been reinjected into the intellectual bloodstream of Europe after long centuries in which they had been almost entirely forgotten, and they represented not continuity or recovery but rather a deep disturbance. They were in effect voices from another world, a

World as diiierent as Vespucci’s Brazil was to England, and their P power derived as much from their distance as their eloquent 1 lucidity.

The invocation of the New World allowed More to articulate a second key response to the texts that fascinated the humanists. He insisted that these texts be understood not as isolated philosophical ideas but as expressions of a whole way oflife lived in particular physical, historical, cultural, and social Cir. Cumstances. The description of the Epicureanism of the Umpi. ans only made sense for More in the larger context of an entire existence.

But that existence, More thought, would have to be for everyone. He took seriously the claim, so ardently made in On the Nature of Things, that Epicurus’ philosophy would liberate all of mankind from its abject misery. Or rather, More took seriously the universality that is the underlying Greek meaning of the word “catholic.” It would not be enough for Epicureanism to enlighten a small elite in a walled garden; it would have to apply to society as a whole. Utopia is a visionary, detailed blueprint for this application, from public housing to universal health care, from child care centers to religious toleration to the six-hour work day. The point of More’s celebrated fable is to imagine those conditions that would make it possible for an entire society to make the pursuit of happiness its collective goal.

For More, those conditions would have to begin with the abolition of private property. Otherwise the avidity of human beings, their longing for “nobility, magnificence, splendor and majesty,” would inevitably lead to the unequal distribution of wealth that consigns a large portion of the population to lives t of misery, resentment, and crime. But communism was not i, enough. Certain ideas would have to be banned. Specifically, it More wrote, the Utopians impose strict punishment, including
the harshest form of slavery, on anyone who denies the existence of divine providence or of the afterlife. The denial of Providence and the denial of the afterlife were the twin pillars of Lucretius’ whole poem. Thomas More then at once imaginatively embraced Epicureanism the most sustained and intelligent embrace since Poggio recovered De rerum natura a century earlier-and carefully cut its heart out. All citizens of his Utopia are encouraged to pursue pleasure; but those who think that the soul dies with the body or who believe ‘ that chance rules the universe, More writes, are arrested and enslaved. This harsh treatment was the only way More could conceive of the pursuit of pleasure actually being realized by more than a tiny privileged group of philosophers who have withdrawn from public life. People would have to believe, at a bare minimum, that there was an overarching providential design-not only in the state but in the very structure of the universe itself-and they would have to believe as well that the norms by which they are meant to regulate their pursuit of pleasure and hence discipline their behavior were reinforced by this providential design. The way that this reinforcement would work would be . through a belief in rewards and punishments in an afterlife. Otherwise, in More’s View, it would be impossible drastically to reduce, as he wished, both the terrible punishments and the extravagant rewards that kept his own unjust society in order.

By the standards of More’s age, the Utopians are amazingly tolerant: they do not prescribe a single official religious doctrine and then apply thumbscrews to those who do not adhere to it. Their citizens are permitted to worship any god they please

i and even to share these beliefs with others, provided that they t do so in a calm and rational manner. But in Utopia there is no it tolerance at all for those who think that their souls will disintegrate at death along with their bodies or who doubt that the gods, it they exist at all, concern themselves with the doings of mankind. These people are a threat, for what will restranl them from doing anything that they please? Utopians regard such unbelievers, More wrote, as less than human and certain}). unfit to remain in the community. For no one, in their View can be counted “among their citizens whose laws and custom; he would treat as worthless if it were not for fear.”

“If it were not for fear”: fear might be eliminated in the philosopher’s garden, among a tiny, enlightened elite, but it can. not be eliminated from an entire society, if that society is to be imagined as inhabited by the range of people who actually exist in the world as it has always been known. Even with the full force of Utopian social conditioning, human nature, More believed, would inevitably lead men to resort to force or fraud in order to get whatever they desire. More’s belief was conditioned no doubt by his ardent Catholicism, but in this same period Machiavelli, who was considerably less pious than the saintly More, came to the same conclusion. Laws and customs, the author of The Prince thought, were worthless without fear.

More tried to imagine what it would take not for certain individuals to be enlightened but for a whole commonwealth to do away with cruelty and disorder, share the goods of life equitably, organize itself around the pursuit of pleasure, and tear down the gibbets. The gibbets, all but a few, could be dismantled, More concluded, if and only if people were persuaded to imagine gibbets (and rewards) in another life. Without these imaginary supplements the social order would inevitably collapse, with each individual attempting to fulfill his wishes: “Who can doubt that he will strive either to evade by craft the public laws of his country or to break them by Violence in order to serve his private desires when he has nothing to fear but laws and no hope beyond the body?” More was fully prepared to countenance the public execution of anyone who thought and taught otherwise.

More's imaginary Utopians have a practical, instrumental motive for enforcing faith in Providence and in the afterlife: they are convinced that they cannot trust anyone who does not hold these beliefs. But More himself, as a pious Chrisrian, had another motive: jesus’ own words. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall on the ground without your Father’s will,” Jesus tells his disciples, adding that “even the hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matthew I0:29.30). There is, as Hamlet paraphrased the verse, “a speC131 providence in the fall of a sparrow.” Who in Christendom would dare to argue with that?

One answer in the sixteenth century was a diminutive Dominican monk, Giordano Bruno. In the mid-15805, the thirty-six-year-old Bruno, who had fled from his monastery in Naples and had wandered restlessly through Italy and France, found himself in London. Brilliant, reckless, at once charmingly charismatic and insufferably argumentative, he survived by cobbling together support from patrons, teaching the art of memory, and lecturing on various aspects of what he called the Nolan philosophy, named after the small town near Naples where he was born. That philosophy had several roots, tangled together in an exuberant and often baffling mix, but one of them was Epicureanism. Indeed, there are many indications that De rerum natum had unsettled and transformed Bruno’s whole world.

During his stay in England, Bruno wrote and published a hood of strange works. The extraordinary daring of these works may be gauged by taking in the implications of a single passage from one of them, The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast, printed in 1584. Mercury, the herald of the gods, is recounting to Sofia all the things Jove has assigned him to bring about.
Divine providence, at least as popularly understood, is rubbish. The details were all deliberately trivial but the stakes were extremely high: to mock Jesus’ claim that the hairs on one’s head are all numbered risked provoking an unpleasant visit from the thought police. Religion was not a laughing matter, at least for the officials assigned to enforce orthodoxy. They did not treat even trivial jokes lightly. In France, a villager named Isambard was arrested for having exclaimed, when a friar announced after mass that he would say a few words about God, "The fewer the better." In Spain, a tailor named Garcia Lopez. coming out of church just after the priest had announced the long schedule of services for the coming week, quipped that ”When we were jews, we were bored stiff by one Passover each year, and now each day seems to be a Passover and feast~day." Garcia Lopez was denounced to the Inquisition.

But Bruno was in England. Despite the vigorous efforts that Thomas More made. during his time as chancellor, to establish one, England had no Inquisition. Though it was still quite possible to get into serious trouble for unguarded speech. Bruno may have felt more at liberty to speak his mind, or, in this case. to indulge in raucous, wildly subversive laughter. That laughter had a philosophical point: once you take seriously the claim that God's providence extends to the fall of a sparrow and the number of hairs on your head, there is virtually no limit. from the agitated dust motes in a beam of sunlight to the planetary conjunctions that are occurring in the heavens above. “0 Mercury." Sofia says pityingly. “You have a lot to do.”

Sofia grasps that it would take billions of tongues to describe all that must happen even in a single moment in a tiny village in the Campagna. At this rate, no one could envy poor jove. But then Mercury admits that the whole thing does not work that way: there is no artificer god standing outside the universe barking commands. meting out rewards and punishments, determining everything. The whole idea is absurd. There is an order in the universe, but it is one built into the nature of things, into the matter that composes everything, from stars to men to bedbugs. Nature is not an abstract capacity, but a generative mother, bringing forth everything that exists. We have, in other words, entered the Lucretian universe.

That universe was not for Bruno a place of melancholy disenchantment. On the contrary, he found it thrilling to realize that the world has no limits in either space or time, that the grandest things are made of the smallest, that atoms, the building blocks of all that exists, link the one and the infinite. “The world is fine as it is,” he wrote, sweeping away as if they were so many cobwebs innumerable sermons on anguish, guilt, and repentance. It was pointless to search for divinity in the bruised and battered body of the Son and pointless to dream of finding the Father in some far-off heaven. "We have the knowledge,” he wrote, “not to search for divinity removed from us if we have it near; it is within us more than we ourselves are.” And his philosophical cheerfulness extended to his everyday life. He was, a Florentine contemporary observed, “a delightful companion at the table, much given to the Epicurean life.”

Like Lucretius, Bruno warned against focusing all of one’s capacity for love and longing on a single object of obsessive desire. It was perfectly good, he thought, to satisfy the body’s sexual cravings, but absurd to confuse those cravings with the search for ultimate truths, the truths that only philosophy-the Nolan philosophy, of course-could provide. It is not that those truths were abstract and bodiless. On the contrary, Bruno might have been the first person in more than a millennium to grasp the full force, at once philosophical and erotic, of Lucretius’ hymn to Venus. The universe, in its ceaseless process of generation and destruction and regeneration, is inherently sexual. Bruno found the militant Protestantism he encountered in England and elsewhere as bigoted and narrow-minded as the Counter-Reformation Catholicism from which he had fled The whole phenomenon of sectarian hatred tilled him With contempt. What he prized was the courage to stand up for the truth against the belligerent idiots who were always prepared to shout down what they could not understand. That courage he found preeminently in the astronomer Copernicus, who was, as he put it, “ordained by the gods to be the dawn which must precede the rising of the sun of the ancient and true philosophy, for so many centuries entombed in the dark caverns of blind, spiteful, arrogant, and envious ignorance.”

Copernicus’s assertion that the earth was not the fixed point at the center of the universe but a planet in orbit around the sun was still, when Bruno championed it, a scandalous idea, anathema both to the Church and to the academic establishment. And Bruno managed to push the scandal of Copernicanism still further: there was no center to the universe at all, he argued, neither earth nor sun. Instead, he wrote, quoting Lucretius, there were multiple worlds, where the seeds of things, in their infinite numbers, would certainly combine to form other races of men, other creatures. Each of the fixed stars observed in the sky is a sun, scattered through limitless space. Many of these are accompanied by satellites that revolve around them as the earth revolves around our sun. The universe is not all about us, about our behavior and our destiny; we are only a tiny piece of something inconceivably larger. And that should not make us shrink in fear. Rather, we should embrace the world in wonder and gratitude and awe.

These were extremely dangerous views, every one of them, and it did not improve matters when Bruno, pressed to reconcile his cosmology with Scripture, wrote that the Bible was a better guide to morality than to charting the heavens. Many people may have quietly agreed, but it was not prudent to say so in public, let alone in print.

Bruno was hardly the only brilliant scientific mind at work in Europe, rethinking the nature of things: in London he would almost certainly have met Thomas Harriot, who constructed the largest telescope in England, observed sun spots, sketched the lunar surface, observed the satellites of planets, Proposed that planets moved not in perfect circles but in elliptical orbits, worked on mathematical cartography, discovered the sine law of refraction, and achieved major breakthroughs in algebra. Many of these discoveries anticipated ones for which Galileo, Descartes, and others became famous. But Harriot is not credited with any of them: they were found only recently in the mass of unpublished papers he left at his death. Among those papers was a careful list that Harriot, an atomist, kept of the attacks upon him as a purported atheist. He knew that the attacks would only intensify if he published any of his findings, and he preferred life to fame. Who can blame him?

Bruno, however, could not remain silent. “By the light of his senses and reason,” he wrote about himself, “he opened those Cloisters of truth which it is possible for us to open with the key of most diligent inquiry, he laid bare covered and veiled nature, gave eyes to the moles and light to the blind . . . he loosed the tongues of the dumb who could not and dared not express their entangled Opinions.” As a child, he recalled in On the Immense and the Numberless, a Latin poem modeled on Lucretius, he had believed that there was nothing beyond Vesuvius, since his eye could not see beyond the volcano. Now he knew that he was part of an infinite world, and he could not enclose himself once again in the narrow mental cell his culture insisted that he inhabit.

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