The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

The Swerve: how the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt

A fascinating look at the birth of the Renaissance, particularly the rediscovery of a poem written around 50 B.C. In 1415, papal secretary and scribe Poggio Bracciolini is out of a job when Baldassare Cossa, Pope John XXIII, is deposed. Cossa was one of three men at the time claiming to be pope. Poggio was a humanist and bibliophile, as well as a scribe praised for his elegant and legible handwriting. Friends and patrons interested in items of antiquity such as sculpture and Latin manuscripts funded Poggio’s search for lost Latin texts. Monastic libraries were a likely source, as monks were required to read every day. In 1417, probably in the remote Abbey of Fulda in central Germany, Poggio discovered several lost works, including De Rerum Natura, or The Nature of Things, by Lucretius. Lucretius wrote about Epicureanism, the often misunderstood philosophy about avoiding pain and seeking tranquility and pleasure without overindulging. One central them was about atoms, the smallest particles of matter, which clash in an infinite void. I though atoms were discovered in modern times, not theorized over 2000 years ago. I was also surprised to learn how much is known today about one man’s life in the early 15th century, even that Poggio had 14 children with his mistress, and later married and had 6 more children. Poggio also became chancellor of Florence.

Poggio had the manuscript copied, and eventually copies began to circulate in and around Florence. When Lucretius published De Rarum Natura, Virgil and Cicero both admired it, but it had been lost for several centuries before Poggio found it. Its rediscovery influenced many people, including the painter Botticelli, the Jesuits, Machiavelli, Galileo, Isaac Newton, and the 16th century French essayist Michel de Montaigne. Sarah Bakewell’s recent book, How to Live–or–A Life of Montaigne, has led to renewed interest in Montaigne’s Essays, and the publication of Swerve has led to a reprinting of Lucretius’ work. By a strange coincidence, Lucy Hutchinson, a Puritan woman in 1675, translated Lucretius into English, all the while abhorring its non-Christian worldview. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Edoardo Ballerini, who is fluent in English and Italian, and found it very absorbing.


The Spinoza Problem

The Spinoza Problem, by Irvin Yalom

The Spinoza Problem   by Irvin Yalom

So, what is the “Spinoza problem”?  Who was Spinoza?   When we look at the cover of this book we see two people sort of intertwined.   The One person whose picture is older looking obviously must be Spinoza.  The other picture is what looks like a Nazi officer.  When we read the book blurb we find out that this is Alfred Rosenberg, a high ranking official in the Reich’s inner circle.

Irwin D. Yalom is a practicing psychotherapist.  In this book he attempts to psycho-analyze  these two historical characters and rationalize their actions.

Barach Spinoza was a Dutch Jewish philosopher who lived in the mid 1600’s.  He came to be considered one of the great rationalists of 17th century philosophy.  During his studies he became convinced that the Jewish traditions were no better than the Catholic Church which had persecuted him and his family in Portugal and forced them to relocate to Amsterdam.  He dreamed of a God that was pure nature, reflecting the natural world.  Man would have no influence over this God and would not be influenced by him.  For these heresies he was cast out of the Jewish faith.

Alfred Rosenberg, a virulent anti-Semite, was an early and intellectually influential member of the Nazi Party.  When he was sixteen he was called into his headmaster’s office for anti- Semitic remarks he made during a school speech.  He was forced, as punishment, to memorize passages about Spinoza from the autobiography of the German poet Goethe.  Rosenberg was stunned to discover that Goethe, his idol, was a great admirer of Spinoza.  In this book we discover that Rosenberg was as hateful of the Jews as Hitler himself.  In fact he longed to be the Fuhrer of the German people, but Hitler beat him to it. He was Salieri to Hitler’s Mozart.  Hitler mostly ignored him and did not see him as a threat to his supremacy of the Reich.  Rosenberg was obsessed with Spinoza.  How could a Jew espouse things that he as a representative of the master race could whole-heartedly agree with?  For his war crimes and anti-Semitism Rosenberg was executed after the Nuremburg trials.

The Spinoza problem has two elements.  How could a devote Jew who studied to be a rabbi come to renounce most of the tenets of his faith and suffer the fate of excommunication?   How could a man who suffered from Aryan derangement syndrome reconcile the fact that Goethe,  considered one of the supreme geniuses of Modern German literature, had been so greatly influenced by a Jew, whom many including Rosenberg considered an inferior race?

We learn a lot about Spinoza’s philosophy and the origins of Third Reich genocidal ideology in this book.