Sunday, September 18, 2011

Modern Secularism and the Renaissance

This is in part a response to the forthcoming book by Stephen Greenblatt , Swerve: How the World Became Modern as previewed by Laura Miller of I'm grateful to Salon and Miller for reviewing the book more fully than Kirkus and for being skeptical of the liberties Greenblatt takes, not for the first time, with historical events and figures.

Greenblatt, like many critics who follow the New Historicism that he helped establish, is very selective in what he does with Shakespeare, his main scholarly subject, and now with the Epicurean philosophy of Lucretius, the ancient Roman author of a text, On the nature of things, that was unearthed one day in 1417 in a monastic library by one Poggio Bracciolini. The result of this discovery, of course, was that the world was forever changed, at least according to Greenblatt and his publisher.

Greenblatt tries to show, according the advanced looks at his book we have been getting in the media, how this forgotten old text, with its materialist emphasis on atomism, denial of the afterlife, critique of religion as cruel, and view of life's goal as the pursuit of pleasure, ushered in the modern secular world view, according to which 21st century readers, expected to be equally skeptical of religion and the supernatural, will gratefully applaud if they are sensible secular humanists themselves (not humanists in the way Thomas More or John Milton were, of course, in the Renaissance).

Laura Miller sums up the value of Lucretius's materialist philosophy by stating that no longer was there a need for "a supernatural enforcer" threatening to condemn the bad guys to eternal torment. That is, no need for God: the good life in the Epicurean view is a matter of living justly, honorably, prudently and in way that celebrates life in this world, not the next.

This begs an important question or two: does the Christian world view condemn life in this world (something called the Incarnation would contract this and would be known to anyone theologically literate)? Has celebrating the next world has been the consistent focus of the church (Catholic, of course) since we are talking about the course of Western civilization? Of course not.

The other major flaw in Miller's brief review of Greenblatt's new book is her assertion that she and her generation were raised to think of the Renaissance as bursting forth after the darkness of the Middle Ages, as Kenneth Clark had proclaimed in his book and TV series of 40 years ago, Civilization.

A quick check of my copy of Clark's survey of Western art and culture indicates that, although he does glorify the achievement of the Florentine Renaissance, he has devoted three solid chapters to appreciating the medieval, including detailed commentary on Dante, Giotto, and St. Francis of Assisi while explaining the wonders of Chartres and the Gothic--all of which are absent, apparently, from Greenblatt's contention that the discovery of the Lucretius text in 1417 (after Dante, after Chaucer, after Petrarch and Boccaccio and the flowering of the 12th and 13th centuries) made all the difference since it "changed the world" (something every historian must claim, however accurate).

Clark even contends (p. 35) and repeatedly shows that "Western civilization was basically the creation of the Church," meaning the Church of Rome which, from the 12th century on, was the center of power, education, and culture that shaped the intellectual and emotional lives of people for centuries. Miller remembers being taught that medieval culture was an "inert cultural wasteland," especially as depicted by Kenneth Clark.

It seems that in my 33 years of university teaching I spent countless hours trying to counter this view, showing how the culture that produced Dante and Chaucer, not to mention the Gothic cathedrals, was dynamic, daring, and sophisticated in its thinking and that what we call the Renaissance was a continuation of the humanism (including the science) that began in the 11th and 12th centuries.

But scholars wedded to a secular humanism that is antagonistic to religion, and to Catholic Western values in particular, are quick to stereotype the vast and complex period of the European Middle Ages as backward, just as they are quick to convey to students that the Renaissance was a sudden flowering of the individual, with the supernatural finally swept aside before being buried in the so-called Enlightenment. The result is a skewed view of the emergence of the modern age.

It is easier to maintain this reductive view than to keep an open mind about the real role of religion in the development of the modern world. It is bad enough to find know-nothings on the political right today (Perry, Palin and Bachmann seem quite proud not to know very much); to find blindness in the academy can be downright depressing.

Perhaps Laura Miller, with her other errors, has misstated Greenblatt's thesis. But I doubt it. I plan to read the book very carefully.

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