The original two-thousand-year-old man

I’m an optimist.

Can’t help it. I sense that optimism and pessimism are genetic tendencies, although like most of my perceptions, this one vaults merrily over any scientific evidence.

Whatever it is, though, my buoyant view of things has been pretty immutable throughout my adult life.

But lately I’ve had glimpses of our future that cause me to feel pessimistic, even scared. My big question: are we a nation in unstoppable decline? In all possible areas of our evolved, evolving and quite wonderful civilization, I feel we are being dragged by willful ignorance, stupidity and religious fundamentalism back, back into the American 1890’s, or worse, into the European Dark Ages.

What I just wrote is a cliché, I know, but I shudder with it and never more so than when I read “The Answer Man,” a August 8 New Yorker piece by Stephen Greenblatt, a professor of the humanities at Harvard. Yet, at the same time, I found hope in Prof. Greenblatt’s story of the original two-thousand-year-old man.

Professor Greenblatt begins his piece with his student days at Yale, when he serendipitously found, read and was thrilled by a singular book, an ancient poem called “On the Nature of Things,” by a man named Lucretius, whose personal biography has virtually disappeared from the historical record.

Fortuitously though, his book was rediscovered in 1417, and became a primer of the Italian Renaissance. “This retrieval, after many centuries,” writes Prof. Greenblatt, “is something one is tempted to call a miracle. But the author of the poem in question did not believe in miracles. He thought that nothing could violate the laws of nature.”

I’m a little embarrassed that I’d never heard of Lucretius until now, because for a number of years in the late 1990’s, I did a lot of reading and thinking about the Italian Renaissance while working on Falling for Galileo: A Romance With History (unfinished and unpublished, except in the form of one essay in the November 1999 Condé Nast Traveler). Galileo followed Lucretius by many centuries yet expressed the same ideas: “…a strikingly modern understanding of the world…a core scientific vision.”

And even more embarrassing, I’ve recently been reading Montaigne who, Prof. Greenblatt says, quoted Lucretius often. Didn’t notice.

Here’s an excerpt of Prof. Greenblatt’s essay, the section that caused me to think about our times, right here in the United States. See if it gives you chills:

In the Roman Empire, the literacy rate was never high, and after the Sack of Rome, in 410 C.E., it began to plummet. It is possible for a whole culture to turn away from reading and writing. As the empire crumbled and Christianity became ascendant, as cities decayed, trade declined, and an anxious populace scanned the horizon for barbarian armies, the ancient system of education fell apart. What began as downsizing went on to wholesale abandonment. Schools closed, libraries and academies shut their doors, professional grammarians and teachers of rhetoric found themselves out of work, scribes were no longer given manuscripts to copy. There were more important things to worry about than the fate of books. Lucretius’ poem, so incompatible with any cult of the gods, was attacked, ridiculed, burned, or ignored, and, like Lucretius himself, eventually forgotten.

The idea of pleasure and beauty that the work advanced was forgotten with it. Theology provided an explanation for the chaos of the Dark Ages: human beings were by nature corrupt. Inheritors of the sin of Adam and Eve, they richly deserved every miserable catastrophe that befell them. God cared about human beings, just as a father cared about his wayward children, and the sign of that care was anger. It was only through pain and punishment that a small number could find the narrow gate to salvation. A hatred of pleasure-seeking, a vision of God’s providential rage, and an obsession with the afterlife: these were death knells of everything Lucretius represented.

Will it take us 2,000 years?

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