Thursday, June 14, 2012

Ancient atoms

I enjoyed reading the book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt. It is a history of ideas, in particular what prompted the start of the Renaissance.

At the center of the story is Poggio, who was born in 1380 near Florence. For a while he worked as the pope's personal secretary, though as a layman. His handwriting was beautiful and his style became the basis for the Roman typefont. But Poggio was also a humanist, which meant he and others like him were trying to recover ancient Greek and Roman culture from more than a thousand years before. They considered this their heritage and wanted it to be known.

That heritage had been written in books. So a good deal of this book is about how and where books were preserved, how a monk copied a book when it began to disintegrate, and what Poggio went through to track down ancient books. Even though any particular book could last a few hundred years the survival rate over a span of a thousand years was quite small, even with a monk copying a book to make it new again.

Another large part of the book is about the hold the Church had on the times. Poggio was looking for pagan books, which was another strike against survival. The ideas in these ancient books was contrary to Church teachings so we also get a description of what the Church prompted believers to do. There is a reason why these were the Dark Ages.

I saw a lot of this part of the book as the Church as oppressor, working to maintain its superiority and oppression. The papacy of the time was notoriously corrupt. In addition to being a spiritual leader (with lots of supplicants trying to wheedle various dispensations) the pope was also the head of government over a chunk of central Italy with scheming princes all around him. Poggio called the papal court the Lie Factory. I got the impression that many Church officials knew deep down some beliefs were not true but worked hard to make sure those beliefs weren't challenged.

We also get a description of the Greek and Roman thinking that was buried by the Church. One strand of this thought was by Epicurus. His ideas were disseminated through a long and beautiful poem On the Nature of Things written by Lucretius around 50 BC. It was that book Poggio found.

Here are some of the radical ideas that Lucretius wrote about:

* Everything is made up of huge numbers of invisible particles. Yes, Epicurus proposed the existence of atoms. These particles are eternal, infinite in number but limited in shape and size (elements!), and are constantly recombining.

* Everything is made through this recombination. Thus there is no creator or designer. You can see why the Church didn't like Lucretius.

* Nature ceaselessly experiments (proposing evolution?). Humans didn't start in a garden of tranquility, but in a battle for survival.

* The universe was not created for humans or with humans at the center. Humans are the same as all other animals.

* The soul dies with the body and there is no afterlife. Death is not reward or punishment.

* All organized religions are superstitious delusions and are invariably cruel. At their core is a myth of sacrifice.

* There are no angels, demons, or ghosts.

* The highest goal of life is the enhancement of pleasure and reduction of pain. This was in sharp contrast to a Christian belief in the time of Poggio that if one puts the body through pain one can more identify with the pain of Christ and have a better chance of getting into heaven. The pleasure Epicurus talked about is not rich food and sexual abandon. It is more like building community.

* The greatest obstacle to pleasure isn't pain, but delusion -- unfulfillable desire and fear.

* Understanding things generates wonder.

Yup, each idea is a challenge to the Church.

The last couple chapters of the book show where ideas from Lucretius pop up over the next couple of centuries (including "the pursuit of happiness"). There are books that argue between Christianity and Epicurus (usually siding with Christianity) or try to pull out some Epicurian ideas and claim they're compatible with Church doctrine (usually by denying a central point of Epicurus). But I found the ending too abrupt. Yeah, the book triggered the Renaissance, but what ideas triggered what results?

For example, the book does talk about the idea that since God was all powerful and ran everything, there is no need to figure out how anything in nature worked. Bad things were attributed to the influence of demons and good things to angels. The book doesn't talk about how the denial of demons and angels changed thinking. I had heard elsewhere that when humans decided there were no demons to punish humans who stray and no angels who made things happen, it became possible to conduct scientific experiments. The results of an experiment would be consistent from one test to the next, not subject to the whims of demons. Such connections would have been fascinating reading. Alas, this book didn't include them.

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