Archive for January, 2012

                                  Poggio Braccolini (1380-1459)

Back when I taught ancient rhetoric, I often began our study of Quintilian’s Institutes of Oratory by recounting the story of Poggio Braccolini.  Now it may seem odd to contextualize an ancient text by talking about an early modern scholar.  So here’s the connection:  in the fifteenth century, a few brave intellectuals began to study the available remnants of classical texts.  When they  read the tiny textual heritage that had survived the huge gulf intervening between ancient times and their own fifteenth century, they were stunned by its relative sophistication.  Their appetites were whetted for more.

So these scholars began to hunt down manuscripts of old books wherever they could find them.  When they had searched all the  libraries available in cities (most of them belonging to nobles and/or wealthy families), they began to look around for more stuff.  They figured that monasteries might have a few ancient works, given that monks had been set to work for centuries copying manuscripts that fell into their hands and were deemed, for whatever reason, to be worthy of preservation.

Hence Poggio, a well-educated man (he was the Pope’s secretary for a time), found himself rummaging around in the dusty shelves in isolated rural abbeys.  When he located the worm-eaten manuscript of the Institutes, he must have known immediately what he held in his hands and how utterly valuable it was (rhetoric was still central to the curriculum in Poggio’s time, but it was taught from severely emaciated texts, mostly those of Cicero). While there were snippets of Quintilian’s masterwork available, no one had seen a complete copy for at least a thousand years, except of course for the untold numbers of monks who had copied the manuscript over and over, not knowing or caring what it said, perhaps even unable to read it.

As far as rhetoricians are concerned, the recovery of Quintilian was nothing short of a miracle.  But literary scholars like Stephen Greenblatt are not all that interested in rhetoric, even if they specialize in the early modern period, as Greenblatt does.  So he focuses instead on Poggio’s discovery of a complete version of Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, an Epicurean treatise about the centrality of pleasure to human life.  Greenblatt reads this discovery as a serious agent in the conversion of Europe toward modernism.  Well, maybe.

As you might imagine, epicureanism was not merely unfashionable in early modern Europe.  In fact, anyone who championed it risked excommunication, if he or she was lucky, and imprisonment, torture, and death if not.  The inquisition burned Giordano Bruno at the stake because he wrote letters citing his admiration for Epicurus’ belief that the universe is constituted of atoms.  Epicurus was right about this, of course, as we have since discovered.

But in fifteenth century Europe, nobody publicly disagreed with the church and lived very long.  Epicureanism claimed that there is no afterlife.  According to Epicurus, because the creation of life results from the random collision of atoms, the entire point is to enjoy life here on earth while it lasts.  Epicurus himself was not the hedonist he was later made out to be by Christians–in fact he lived very simply, enjoying simple foods, indulging in the occasional glass of wine,  and conversing with friends in his garden.

I suspect there were lots of forces at work in Europe’s eventual turn away from religious superstition and toward modernism.  Chief among these would be the economic changes wrought by the trend away from feudalism,where wealth was wrapped up with land ownership, toward capitalism, where the possession of money conferred power.  But surely Greenblatt is correct to claim that rediscovery of ancient thought had something to do with the “swerve.”  Lucretius, maybe not so much.  It is entirely possible, for example, that Quintilian’s insistence on civic responsibility and participation had as much to do with the swerve as did the rediscovery of epicureanism.

Reviewers at the Post and the Times are not all that warm toward The Swerve, claiming that Greenblatt has made much ado about nothing (sorry–Greenblatt is a Shakespearean scholar and I couldn’t resist).  The book is riveting while he tracks Poggio’s search for ancient texts, but it lags once he begins to traverse more familiar ground, such as the flowering of humanism in Italy.  The interest of this book for me lies in Greenblatt’s detailed illumination of the church’s resistance to the revival of learning.  But I’d better report on that in a separate post, given the appalling length of this one.


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Listening to Nitt’s victory speech (and trying to type this while my chest is being used as a staging platform for attacking a bird cavorting on the porch).

Anyhow, Nitt just said something like “Obama can tell his friends in the faculty lounge . . . . ”

I guess this works with Rethugs.  But it will sure piss off most of the people I worked with for forty years.

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Dumber Than a Box Of Rocks

Chris Matthews asked Trent Franks onto his show to discuss the flap over Brewer’s treatment of the president.  Matthews began by asking whether private conversations between politicians weren’t traditionally privileged.  Franks obviously didn’t or couldn’t make the connection to Brewer’s tell-all book, wherein she reveals the contents of such a conversation between herself and the prex back in 2010, because he said something like:  “I thought I was here to talk about Governor Brewer–what does your question have to do with that?”


And then he had  the chutzpah, the very balls, to say, at the end of the interview, that “Governor Brewer is  universally loved in Arizona.”

It’s not often that one sees a liar lying right in front of one’s face.  If Franks bothered even to read the Arizona Republic (or have it read to him if he is not able to handle this on his own), he would know that not even that conservative rag has much love for Brewer.

Where do the rethugs dig up these clueless simpletons?  Goddess help Arizona.

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Just Sayin’

Apparently, reporters who cover the Arizona statehouse refer to the governor as “Otis.”

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Oh My Stars and Garters!

My title recalls the phrase my mother used when she was shocked by someone’s uncivil behavior.  Way to go, Brewer–if Obama were not the person he is, your wagging finger would cut Arizona out of any federal largesse that might be coming Arizona’s way for the foreseeable future.

Our governor is a ditz.  And a fool.

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Christianity, Inc.

                   Codices from the discoveries at Nag-Hammadi

Things I learned while reading L. Michael White’s From Jesus to Christianity:  no ancient sources are available from Jesus’ time that concern him or his teachings;   furthermore, there are no contemporary court records or even casual reports about Jesus or his teaching with the single exception of a brief remark by the Roman historian Tacitus.  White concludes:  “Jesus himself wrote nothing and left no direct archeological evidence on the landscape of Judea.  It is as if no one really cared to keep a record at the time, but later, after the movement had stated to take off, people began to reflect on Jesus’s life, what happened to him, and why” (96).

Later on in the first century, the stories originally told by Jesus’ comrades began to coalesce under the powerful tutelage of teachers such as Paul (in the eastern reaches of the Roman Empire) and Jesus’ brother James (who led the Jewish branch of the movement in Jerusalem).  White resumes:  “the ‘why’ [of Jesus’ life and teaching] was increasingly the object of apologetic interest and theological interpretation.”  Sources composed during the first century (thirty to seventy years after Jesus lived), including the present gospels, “reflect ideas and issues that were not at work in Jesus’s own day or at the time of his death.”  Furthermore, study of the relevant ancient documents demonstrates that they have been “tampered with,” in White’s words, in order to reflect “certain ideas” (97).

In other words, when Jesus was no longer alive (or active, if you believe those who think he didn’t actually die on the cross), his ministry was taken over by people who relied on their memories of him and his instruction.  As the Jesus movement gained adherents, the apostles couldn’t be everywhere, so their memories were repeated second- and third-hand (which probably accounts for the stuff about miracles).

At the same time, believers gathered to hear these stories in someone’s home (perhaps some of them were people addressed by name in Paul’s epistles), and before long, these homes were converted to something like churches, no longer occupied by their owners but now the home base of a group’s leader.  These leaders were called “bishops” (from Greek episkopos, overseer).  Usually there was one bishop in the smaller towns, but in the larger cities more than one church and one bishop emerged.  All the while more and different stories proliferated (archeologists have discovered at least a dozen gospels from the early second century, among them the large cache at Nag-Hammadi).

Soon enough a few of the movement’s followers (now called “Christians” (from Greek “Christos” or a corruption of Hebrew “Messiah” meaning roughly “savior”) realized that it wouldn’t do for there to be two, or three, or sixteen, different narratives about Jesus’ life floating around.  So the concept of heresy emerged (ironically, from a Greek word meaning “choice”).  As early as the late second century, bishops had acquired sufficient authority to pronounce which gospels were to be believed, and so they began to find heresy (in the sense now of “departure from the truth”) everywhere.  During the third century, they excommunicated so-called heretics, who were, after all, only continuing the composing habits that had created the so-called “authoritative” gospels in the first place.  It took a few more centuries before bishops felt sure enough of their authority to burn heretics alive.

And that’s how the church became a corporation during late second and into the third centuries.  The tendency to insist on a single version of the Jesus stories and their associated theology was exacerbated in the fourth century when Constantine finally granted state support to Christianity, and when a bishop of Rome named Damasus succeeded in getting himself recognized as the successor to Peter (you know, the “on this rock” stuff) even though there is no evidence whatever that Jesus intended anything of the kind.  The tendency toward centralization of authority culminated, at last, in the nineteenth century when Pius IX managed to coerce the college of cardinals into voting for his infallibility.

These are rather shocking conclusions to someone who was raised on the Baltimore Catechism.  When I was very young, the New Testament was taught to me as though the truths it asserted had–well–biblical status.  And now that I am advanced in age, well past the point when it might have been helpful to me to know that the gospels were not the work of anybody who actually knew Jesus, I learn that they were instead written to fill a quasi-corporate need.  I could have done, for example, without all that bushwa about the female sex being the source of all evil, etc.

White’s revelations were so unsettling, in fact, that my scholarly training kicked in while I was reading his book.  I looked up his background to ascertain whether he has the bona fides to make such assertions.  Sure enough:  he holds degrees from Yale and Yale Divinity, has done research in Palestine, has lots of scholarly publications in early Christian history, edits or sits on the editorial boards of journals in biblical archaeology, and has held teaching posts at a number of respected universities.  Plus, the narrative he spins lines up very well with those of other historians of the period whose work I have read so far.

One must ask, then:  if Jesus didn’t bother to write anything down, what was it about his life and teaching that attracted a sufficient number of people so that some later adherents would go to the trouble of composing a gospel?  (This is probably roughly equivalent to asking “how did Justin Bieber become more famous than X”?  The answer probably is:  “he had better agents.”)  Did any other Jewish teacher attract this sort of attention?  (The answer here is “yes.”  Again, though, the difference probably is that other teachers didn’t attract the likes of the former Saul of Tarsus, who was apparently an extremely charismatic preacher).

My preferred answer is that Jesus’ message of love was extremely attractive to people who were ground down every day by ancient cultural practices–primarily women and slaves.  If we can trust biblical accounts of his ministry, what Jesus had to say about love was startingly new.  There is nothing like it in the Old Testament or in ancient classical philosophy.  Which renders even sadder the facts about what happened to his message when it was taken up by men who saw how it could be used to bring them a level of power enjoyed, until the church emerged, only by emperors and kings.

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