Monday, March 6, 2017

What I'm Reading - The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
by Stephen Greenblatt

The Swerve is focused on how the Renaissance came about and in particular the influence of one book that was rediscovered by a Renaissance Italian book collector. De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) is a first-century BC didactic poem by the Roman poet and philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus. On the Nature of Things is Lucretius attempt to explain Epicurean philosophy to a Roman audience.

The title and the subtitle of the book are explained in the author's preface. "The Swerve" refers to a key conception in the ancient atomistic theories according to which atoms moving through the void are subject to clinamen: while falling straight through the void, they are sometimes subject to a slight, unpredictable swerve. This swerve explains how it is that atoms collide and sometimes combine into new forms (rather than remaining as separate particles). The swerve is also used to explain or justify the existence  of man's free will and to reconcile with a materialistic, deterministic philosophy. 

I was already that several Greek philosophical schools embraced atomism - essentially the view that the world was composed of tiny particles. I don't recall the explanation for free will, but I also didn't find it especially convincing, but then neither are any of the other explanations or justifications I have seen. But I was unaware of just how much of what we consider novel, like a theory of evolution,  was really a rediscovery or reimagining of very old ideas. 

It makes me wonder much sooner we might have had a fully realized scientific method and all that entails had works like De rerum not been lost for so long?

This subject is a bit before the period of interest for my blog, but ...

Of particular interest from an RPG perspective is the character of a book finder like Poggio Bracciolini. he is highly educated, has experience and connections in the highest levels of society (he was the private secretary to the Pope), now he is a masterless man, he travels widely, independently does the finding and acquisition of rare books, and he in effect works on speculation or commission. Just like a member of your typical party of player characters.

And all would have asked the obvious question: whom does this man serve?

Poggio himself might have been hard-pressed for an answer. He had until recently served the pope, as he had served a succession of earlier Roman pontiffs. His occupation was a scriptor, that is, a skilled writer of official documents in the papal bureaucracy, and, through adroitness and cunning, he had risen to the coveted position of apostolic secretary. He was on hand then to write down the pope’s words, record his sovereign decisions, craft in elegant Latin his extensive international correspondence. In a formal court setting, in which physical proximity to the absolute ruler was a key asset, Poggio was a man of importance. He listened when the pope whispered something in his ear; he whispered something back; he knew the meaning of the pope’s smiles and frowns. He had access, as the very word “secretary” suggests, to the pope’s secrets. And this pope had a great many secrets. 
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt, Ch 1, p. 19.

The idea that the central question that people would ask about strangers is who is their master is fairly foreign to our highly individualistic modern society. But the question of whom do you serve is crucial for many campaigns where the PCs are integrated into society rather than being the stereotypical wandering murder hoboes. It is especially important for the high society for cape and sword fantasy. To emphasize,

"In a formal court setting, in which physical proximity to the absolute ruler was a key asset, Poggio was a man of importance."
To get back to the Poggio the bookfinder, finding and especially the acquisition of rare books would make a great hook or quest for a party of PCs.

Two other interesting ideas in the book were monastic literacy and the widespread practice of silent reading and when it developed (assuming it didn't always exist). I quote a bunch from Greenblatt and then site some others who agree or disagree with the notion that prior to Medieval times people either couldn't or by and large never read silently.

Monastic Literacy

But all monks were expected to know how to read. In a world increasingly dominated by illiterate warlords, that expectation, formulated early in the history of monasticism, was of incalculable importance. Here is the Rule from the monasteries established in Egypt and throughout the Middle East by the late for the-century Coptic saint Pachomious. When a candidate for admission to the monastery presents himself to the elders, 

They shall give him twenty Psalms or two of the Apostles’ epistles or some other part of Scripture. And if he is illiterate he shall go at the first, third and sixth hours to someone who can teach and has been appointed for him. He shall stand before him and learn very studiously and with all gratitude. The fundamentals of a syllable, the verbs and nouns shall be written for him and even if he does not want to, he shall be compelled to read. (Rule 139)
                                                                                                                                                                               Ch 2, p. 25

Silent Reading

In Benedict’s time, [the sixth century] as in antiquity, reading was ordinarily performed audibly.           Ch 2, p. 25

When, where and how did silent reading develop?

Evidence abounds that ancient and medieval readers relished giving voice to their favorite texts in order to appreciate more fully the cadences of Homer and Lucian. Of course, we equally enjoy reading poetry aloud. The question is: Could the earliest readers literally not shut up?

Paul Saenger thinks so--but his argument for the onetime dominance of the spoken word doesn't rest on Augustine. Saenger, a medieval-manuscript expert and a curator of rare books at Chicago's Newberry Library, believes that reading aloud wasn't a mere preference for the ancients, but a practical necessity. His explanation is simple:

In his provocative new book, Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading (Stanford), Saenger argues that the practice of transcribing Greek and Latin manuscripts without spaces, or in scriptura continua, made reading silently a mind-bogglingly difficult task. "It wasn't literally impossible to read silently," Saenger says, "but the notation system was so awkward that the vast majority of readers would have needed to sound out the syllables, if only in a muffled voice." Saenger's book asserts that only at the end of the seventh century, when Irish monks introduced regular word separation into medieval manuscripts, did swift, silent reading become feasible.

Having spent the past fifteen years combing medieval manuscript libraries on both sides of the Atlantic, Saenger identifies the first properly spaced Latin manuscript as the Irish Book of Mulling, an illuminated translation of the Gospels dating from around 690 a.d. Indeed, he notes, the Irish soon adopted the the verb videre, "to see," as a way to describe reading. In a similar spirit, an Irish monk compared the activity of reading to a cat silently stalking a mouse.
Over the next couple of centuries, this Irish innovation spread to other countries--first to England, then to the Low Countries and the rest of Europe. By the twelfth century, reports Saenger, murmuring monks had become a relic of the past. (There's no precise date available, alas, for the first appearance of a SILENCE, PLEASE! sign.) As reading became a silent activity, new types of manuscripts that took advantage of this intimacy were produced, from pocket prayer books to erotica. More important, the intellectual orthodoxy enforced by group readings of manuscripts melted away as scholars retired to private rooms for quiet study.

Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading by Paul Saenger

This book explains how a change in writing—the introduction of word separation—led to the development of silent reading during the period from late antiquity to the fifteenth century.

Why was word separation so long in coming? The author finds the answer in ancient reading habits with their oral basis, and in the social context where reading and writing took place. The ancient world had no desire to make reading easier and swifter. For various reasons, what modern readers view as advantages—retrieval of reference information, increased ability to read “difficult” texts, greater diffusion of literacy—were not seen as advantages in the ancient world. The notion that a larger portion of the population should be autonomous and self-motivated readers was entirely foreign to the ancient world’s elitist mentality.
from the book blurb by Standford Press

Alberto Manguel concurs

Augustine's description of Ambrose's silent reading (including the remark that he never read aloud) is the first definite instance recorded in Western literature. Earlier examples are far more uncertain. In the fifth century BC, two plays show characters reading on stage: in Euripides' Hippolytus, Theseus reads in silence a letter held by his dead wife; in Aristophanes' The Knights, Demosthenes looks at a writing-tablet sent by an oracle and, without saying out loud what it contains, seems taken aback by what he has read.6 According to Plutarch, Alexander the Great read a letter from his mother in silence in the fourth century BC, to the bewilderment of his soldiers.7 Claudius Ptolemy, in the second century AD, remarked in On the Criterion (a book that Augustine may have known) that sometimes people read silently when they are concentrating hard, because voicing the words is a distraction to thought.8 And Julius Caesar, standing next to his opponent Cato in the Senate in 63 BC, silently read a little billet-doux sent to him by Cato's own sister.9 Almost four centuries later, Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, in a catechetical lecture probably delivered at Lent of the year 349, entreated the women in church to read, while waiting during the ceremonies, "quietly, however, so that, while their lips speak, no other ears may hear what they say"10 -a whispered reading, perhaps, in which the lips fluttered with muffled sounds.

Until silent reading became the norm in the Christian world, heresies had been restricted to individuals or small numbers of dissenting congregations.
Alberto Manguel, Chapter 2 of A History of Reading (New York; Viking, 1996).

However, Daniel Donoghue disagrees as does James Fenton and Bernard M. W. Knox.

In the end I don't find the idea that ancient people's couldn't read silently convincing. But I think that they probably seldom did read silently. For the various reasons cited. But the idea is an interesting and pretty unusual one for an RPG setting. 

So in conclusion, I found The Swerve fascinating, especially how so many aspects of Epicurean doctrine prefigured and align with current scientific views of the universe. On the downside, I think that Greenblatt does not do a sufficiently thorough job of addressing critics of some of his and Lucretius' ideas. But a thorough refutation would have made the book less accessible to a general audience and less likely to be a popular best seller. Similar criticism can be addressed to books that ask us to revise our view of history and the world. But like other books such as Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond or 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann (which I am reading now) this is definitely worth a read.

I give it 3.5 stars.


1 comment:

  1. I've been thinking about reading The Swerve and after seeing this I probably will. I tracked down an article he'd written in the New Yorker and I enjoyed that.

    Poggio is just crying out to be incorporated into a game either as an NPC or the inspiration for somebody's character. As for silent reading, I think the idea of text that cannot be read silently is rather appealing.