3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5 stars for Poggio but only 3.5 for the argument,
This review is from: The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began (Paperback)
I intermittently enjoyed this book having come across Poggio Bracciolini, the bookhunter a couple of times recently. Firstly a television programme on the 'history of the joke' and secondly in Christopher Krebs book on the influence of Tacitus' Germania. He is a figure to whose obsessive industry the world owes a great deal and he deserves to be better known. The authors main argument, which he overemphasies in the title is to show that Poggio's extraction of Lucretius's 'On The Nature of Things' from monastic oblivion was the seminal text in kick starting the Rennaisance. Aside from the fact the Rennaisance is a retrospective view of an elongated period of European history and that other cultural interactions inevitably played their part, not even the most ardent biblical scholars would claim that the Bible answered all possible line of intellectual enquiry (fanatics aside who are a class unto themselves in any culture), Greenblatt's emphasis offers an attractive case for Lucretius influence upon developing thought and its wrestle with the dominant power structure of the church.
The author is attempting to argue that the intellectual freedom that emerged from the particularly Greek but later Roman world was inherently superior to that of medieval Christian custom and practice, and that the loss of these works, the vast majority to simple neglect, acts of war and the passage of time rather than prohibition presented a purposeful restriction of intellectual development and human understanding. Well aside from the obvius point that even the most 'liberal' power structures have restrictions on what can be written, published and said, he is here placing together Christianity a belief system and the Church a power structure and seeing the same thing in both, (I have no religious beliefs, although I accept that the multiplicity of spiritual forms has huge purpose and significance for most people even if they are not currently within the current western liberal norm). The use of the story of Hypatia is to my mind largely irrelevant to the argument. She died cruelly the victim of a fanatic and largely ignorant mob. Such murders sadly are still commonplace throughout the world in overtly religious, or secularly relgious (National Socialism, Communism) communities and are not evidence of doctrinal argument even where the prevailing texts are used as an incitement to violence.
The interesting debate is therefore whether the Church and Papacy as power structures sought to restrict and prevent access to works that were likely to undermine Christian doctrine and as a consequence their own power base. Well the answer is of course they did, but there is a duality here which the author fails to acknowledge. It seems from the book that many significant within the Church hierarchy were interested to debate internally the values and ideas that the works of Lucretius and others outlined even atomism, the most contentious argument, but would not be seen to show such interest outside a very restricted circle, and would certainly not allow dissemination of a heretical text. The modern paradigm I suppose would be the denial of the free market within orthodox socialism, even where the financial security and maintenance of a socialist power structure rests almost entirely upon the market for its continued existence. We therefore have to draw a balance between the cynicism of the power structure in maintaining its preferential role and that of the true believer whose fanaticism bred both the Reformation and the Counter Reformation.
It is possible to argue in this context that 'On The Nature of Things' because of its intellectual interest to a minority of the well connected, well educated and adventurous created a vanguard of thought. But most of the people concerned, certainly the likes of Thomas More in Utopia ( a book and argument that the authour largely laud's, although I have always seen More's use of that term as at least a partial understanding that what was being argued was unachievable given the nature of humans as we are, rather than what utopians would like us to be), would never have countenanced a wide publication of such a text. The more radical figures in this case, at least for the vast majority of people must surely be figures like John Wycliff and William Tyndall whose heresy was seeking to enlighten the common people through the medium of the vernacular Bible rather than a text that only an infinitesimally small number of people would have come across, let alone be able to interpret. Tyndall certainly paid for it with his life.
Perhaps one of the more interesting asides in this book is the translation of the text by Lucy Hutchinson the wife of Thomas Hutchinson MP and significant figure during the English Civil War.
Recommnded not with reservations, but gets 3.5 because it's argument does not convince and is inevitably unproven and unprovable as I think the author himself tacitly acknowledges.