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The Swerve

How the World Became Modern

Stephen Greenblatt

Stories around Epicurus are interesting - early Christians portrayed him as a hedonist (or a 'party animal' in today's argot) who pursued pleasure and sensual self-indulgence. He actually lived a very ascetic life. He opposed seeking fame and renown, because it usually brought heightened insecurity. (A modern equivalent of that might be Paul McCartney saying he envied average joe's who could go to the beach and let their stomachs hang out - he was always holding his in in case some papparazi snapped him looking flabby.)

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Early Christians attacked idea of enjoying life. Lactantius wanted to equate pleasure = vice. God cared about mankind, and he showed that care with anger. To overcome sensual desires, you had to inflict pain on yourself. The only life truly worth imitating was that of Jesus, and there are no biblical verses that describe him laughing or smiling, let alone pursuing any pleasure. Humans were corrupt inheritors of the sin of Adam and Eve, they richly deserved every miserable catastrophe that befell them. They needed to be punished and they deserved a life of pain to pay God the dues of suffering that he demanded. So pain both as punishment for sins of humanity, but also as a form of pious emulation of Jesus's suffering.

Coluccio Salutati the great chancellor of Florentine Republic. Author describes him "Virtually everyone - the city's bitterest enemies as well as its most patriotic citizens - understood that in its chancellor Florence had someone truly exceptional, endowed not only with legal knowledge, political cunning and diplomatic skill, but also with psychological penetration, a gift for public relations, and unusual literary skill." (Sounds like Havelock Vetinari in the flesh, no?)

Poggio Bracciolini b1390 near Florence at a time when one of the few chances of upward mobility was something that today is completely valueless - beautiful handwriting. Until then all manuscripts were written in a dense, angular and hard to decipher Gothic. Poggio and a contemporaries invented italics, a simple and elegant script. Poggio eventually worked his way up to the post of chief secretary to the Pope.

Poggio established 'the Bugiale' or Lie factory, where the papal secretaries gathered to exchange stories and jokes, which he then recorded in the Facetiae. Most of the stories are about sex, contempt for the yokels and disrespect for the clergy. There is the woman who tells her husband that she has two cunts (dios cunnos), one in front that she will share with him, the other behind, that she gives, pious soul that she is, to the Church. The arrangement works because the parish priest is apparently only interested in the share that belongs to the Church. And there is the quack doctor who claims that he can sire different types of children - merchants, soldiers, generals - depending on how far he inserts his cock. A foolish rustic agrees to pay for a soldier and hands his wife over to the charlatan, but then, being clever, waits till the vital moment and shoves the quack's ass to push his cock further in and shouts triumphantly "hic erit Papa!" ("This one's going to be the Pope!")

Poggio made trip to Germany hoping to cure arthritic hands in baths at Baden. He was stunned by how carefree the Germans were in contrast to uptight world of Catholic Italy:
"We are terrified of future catastrophes and are thrown into a continuous state of misery and anxiety, and for fear of becoming miserable, we never cease to be so."

More than halfway through the book before author reveals where he got his title from: a Roman writer, Lucretius, born about 100 years BC. (L believed that gods existed, but since they were supernatural and immortal they cared nothing for humanity and so it was a waste of time asking them for favours or sacrificing to them. But he thought that false beliefs in gods inevitably led to human mischief.) In his book On The Nature of Things, L says that everything comes about as a result of a swerve. The world is made up of particles which, at unpredictable intervals, are deflected from their path, and this sets off an endless chain of collisions. This 'swerve' is the source of human free will.

L had a lot of other ideas that seem quite modern. The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain. There is nothing more important than working toward this for yourself and your fellow man. All other claims - the service of the state, the glorification of gods or a ruler, or the arduous pursuit of virtue by self-sacrifice - are at best misguided; at worst, fraudulent.

L said that religions are invariably cruel. They always promise hope and love, but there underlying message is of a cruel retributive ruler. Almost all have a myth involving the sacrifice of a beloved child.

All religions are superstitious delusions. The delusions are based on deeply rooted fears, longings and ignorance. Humans fashion their gods by projecting the power and perfect security they would like to have themselves.

Death is nothing, and there is no afterlife. Mourners always say things like "never again will his children race to kiss and cuddle in his arms", but they neglect to say, "He will not care, for he will not exist." Humans have both consoled and tormented themselves with the thought that something awaits them after they have died. Either they will gather flowers forever in a paradisal garden where it is eternally spring, or they will be marched before a harsh judge who will condemn them, for their sins, to an unending misery .... but puzzlingly, this misery will require you retain heat-sensitive skin, and bodily appetites and thirst etc.

To Lucretius, understanding these things was not a cause for despair. Grasping the way things really are is the crucial step toward happiness. You van never be happy if you spend your life worrying about what will happen to you after you die. being liberated from false illusions is not the same as disillusionment.

Get rid of the idea that your souls are only in this world temporarily on their way somewhere else. That idea is poisonous because it stops you making the most of the (one) life you have.

LA Times review of The Swerve

Salon review of The Swerve

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