De Rerum Natura

Back to my first theme, which I never really left:  the end of the world as we know it.

I just started reading another cheerful book, as I can only take a few pages at a time of Uninhabitable Earth.  The one I’ve just started has been around a few years, and it actually is cheerful in tone, celebrating the rediscovery of invigorating ideas from a Roman writer during the early Renaissance.  It’s The Swerve, from the Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt.

The part that just caught my attention, however, captures my fears for us:

“As the empire crumbled, as cities decayed, trade declined, and the increasingly anxious populace scanned the horizon for barbarian armies, the whole Roman system of elementary and higher 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.  There were more important things to worry about than the fate of books.”

Well, I’m not so sure. Here I sit worrying about Shakespeare being lost to the future.  Maybe not right away, but in time.

Greenblatt recounts how a man named Poggio rediscovered the visionary Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, which became seminal in Renaissance intellectual development.  But one of the clues that inspired him to start looking for Lucretius amidst moldy manuscripts in Germany was a reference to him in another manuscript, a comment by Quintilian, who also listed eight other Roman writers who are utterly lost to us.

How much might have been lost from classical poets and thinkers?  How much faster might “progress” toward the modern world have come?   Who knows? One can shrug and say that’s how human history goes.  Or one can worry about losing Shakespeare and—fill in the blank—your favorite genius.

But we have schools still, thanks to Zoom.  And humans are ingenious.  Who knows where this will end?  Bang, whimper, magnificient innovations and reversed climate crisis?

Still, better to think about these things and read Greenblatt than to listen to another hour of current news.



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