The Swerve: Modernity & The Creation Of Contemporary Life

Just as contemporary historians and philosophers are finally beginning to ride astride the findings of Catholic theologians on distinguishing variable modes of the Enlightenment (Hans Urs von Balthasar, John Courtney Murray, Henri De Lubac and Gertrud Himmelfarb) all come to mind.  The same is for the beginnings of the Reformation, which is generally located at the earliest possible moments of the birth of the ‘modern period’ (1500 A.D.).  This period is understood to be the last vestiges of the Renaissance.  Depending on whether you are considering the regions that dominate the upper Mediterranean or Northern European Nordic, Angelo Saxon, Celtic regions, the political and theological issues that dominated this time period varied with each region.  Under no circumstances should this time period be treated in a monolithic fashion as is the case with most positivist schools that have dominated academia.

With Steven Greenblatt, the worlds foremost scholar on William Shakespeare and author of ‘Will In The World’, comes a new book ‘The Swerve’, detailing a remarkable thinker who’s writings would find a home in today’s world of staunch relativity, austerity and hedonism.  I’m talking about Lucretius, the stalwart figure who loved a view of the world that was atomistic, relative and desirous.  His writings were discovered in 1417, but his reach is so forward that it commands deep admiration, even if most of his political and theological philosophy is adamantly wrong.

The mid-14th century was similar to ours:  everything was up for grabs, the monolithic institutions and the men who staffed them were caught unawares.  Political and theological strife was rampant.  The Catholic Church had the ‘Babylonian Captivity’ where no less than three Popes ruled as proxies of the mercantile City-States of Venice, Florence, Milan and the Levant.

Reformers in the northern regions sough to denunciate and finally separate themselves from the chaos that reigned throughout the principalities of the northern Mediterranean region.

A small band of very learned men called themselves humanists and sought to recover the past we now call antiquity.  This meant recovery of texts that had fallen into the hands of Islamist’s, for they dominated the monasteries of north Africa and the Levant.

It fell to Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459), who hailed from the Tuscan town of Terranuova to discover many ancient writers by scouring Catholic Monasteries for lost manuscripts.  He could safely perform this function because he remained the personal secretary of Pope John XXIII.

In such capacity, he discovered the long lost letters of Cicero, Vitruvius, Quintillian and finally Lucretius.

Lucretius was a stoic but eventually fell into the camp of hedonists ran by Epicureus. If St. Augustine ever had a brother firmly in the secular camp it was Lucretius. His writings were a bulwark against the monolithic stridency that embodied high Latin Scholasticism.  He would eventually find a home with those who lived contra Aquinas, like Bonaventure, William of Occham and others like Duns Scotus. All extreme lovers of the singular, the quotidian.

Father Poggio Braccinolini was quintessentially Renaissance in his makeup and ambition, with his mixture of low cunning and overweening grandiosity.  This book makes for great historical reading, especially if you desire to understand the peoples and times that made our contemporary secular world.

Unless we forgot, this was a most cruel time, especially for those who held political and theological responsibility.  Thomas Moore, John Fisher and many, many others who stood up to the first modern totalitarian State that was Henry VIII.  Many were hanged, most were burned at the stake.  Some were tortured without remorse.  A most difficult time indeed.

The liberty we currently enjoy was purchased at great cost:  hadn’t Tertullian said it best, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”


About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
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