How the Renaissance Began?

the swerve coverHow did the Renaissance begin? If we knew that, it would surely be useful in understanding what is needed for a New Renaissance. Well here’s a book that claims to give an answer: The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began by Stephen Greenblatt.

In a way, it does, although I suspect this is a gross over-simplification. Roughly, the story is that a very clever man Poggio Bracciolini, one time right hand man of a disgraced pope, discovered and had copied key texts that had been preserved over the centuries by monks regularly copying manuscripts.

The key text, De Rerum Natura (On The Nature of Things), by Roman philosopher/poet Lucretius contained explosive ideas that, once they began to circulate, overcame the stranglehold of the church on European ideas and led to the explosion of creativity that was the Renaissance.

In particular they directly influenced men such as Marsilio Ficino, Botticelli, Raphael, Giordano Bruno, Galileo, Thomas More, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, Dryden,  Isaac Newton, Darwin, Thomas Jefferson, and on and on…

So, what were these ideas? Greenblatt gives a non-exhaustive list:

  • Everything is made of indivisible particles, which are eternal and in constant motion in an unbounded universe.
  • The universe has not creator or designer.
  • Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve (unpredictable change of motion), which is the source of continuing change and experimentation,  and of free will [Hence the Swerve in the book title.]
  • Humans are not unique or special. Human society began in a primitive battle for survival.
  • The soul dies and there is no afterlife. There are no angels, demons or ghosts.
  • All organised religions are superstitious delusions, and invariably cruel.
  • The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain. The greatest obstacle to pleasure is delusion.
  • Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder.

So Lucretius was a broad thinker, veering towards materialism yet entranced by the beauty of nature – he was a great poet.

It is not surprising that encounter with these thoughts was revolutionary to a society where the Roman Catholic Church effectively tried to police thinking along the lines of church dogma, and increasingly persecuted those who thought outside that box.

What particularly came over to me from reading this book was just how civilised was that world of ancient Greece and Rome and the intellectual flowering that came with it. And Greenblatt tells graphically the story of how most of that knowledge was gradually lost, as civilization declined the papyrus scrolls inevitably deteriorated and were eaten by insects. Those that remained were regularly recopied by monks, who may not even have understood the precious material they were preserving.

The period of the Renaissance was the period of the rediscovery of just some of these ancient texts from the archives of European monasteries, uncovering revolutionary ideas. Poggio’s discovery of Lucretius was certainly a major event, and this book gives a great account of those times and the origins of at least some of that Renaissance thinking. It also gives insight into the corrupt nature of the papacy at that point in time. A good read!

When considering a New Renaissance, then, we should not assume that the formative ideas will be new, they may well come from a previous golden age.

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