Monday, May 28, 2012

The Beating Heart of Western Civilization

Great visit to New York earlier this month. I love that city! For urban walking, it's the best. You can't walk 10 minutes without seeing something interesting, if not iconic. And the great subway system makes everything easily accessible.

Thanks so much to Ethel for letting me and Larry stay in her midtown apartment, the perfect home base from which to explore Manhattan. Ethel and my mother were friends in high school; she and her late husband Chuck stayed with my folks when mom was pregnant with me. Ethel is curator of comparative psychology (now emeritus) at the American Museum of Natural History, where she still has an office, just a few blocks from her home. I remember coming into Manhattan to visit her at her lab. She's worked with many different animals, but in my memory, it was rabbits.

When I was 11, I came into town on the subway with a friend. We went to AMNH, but we spent our subway money and had to walk down to Gimbels where my dad worked. A few months later, just when I was getting to be old enough to explore the city on my own, my parents moved me to the cultural backwater of Los Angeles. How could they? Oh, the humanity!

Not that LA has been bad to me. I had a great adolescence, I love access to the mountains, desert and coast, and we've got plenty of great museums and big cool buildings. And it's the capital of the third world...a real international hub, with the restaurants to prove it. But when I get back to New York City - and I'm really talking Manhattan - I feel that I'm inside the beating heart of western civilization.

THURSDAY - with Larry, Richard, Randy
Flight east, Broadway, Times Square, Greenwich Village, Chinatown, City Hall Park, 9/11 Memorial, Staten Island Ferry, Wall Street, High Line.

FRIDAY - with Larry and Richard
American Museum of Natural History, Central Park (Pale Male!), Fifth Avenue, Museum of Modern Art (Diego Rivera).

SATURDAY - with Larry, Richard, Randy, Cindy, Heather, Nick, Cordelia, Floyd
Fantastic walk: Downtown, across the Brooklyn Bridge, up to the Manhattan Bridge, over to Chinatown, up to Penn Station.

SUNDAY - with Larry, Richard, Stan
Empire State Building, New York Public Library, Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick's Cathedral, Grand Central Station, United Nations, Central Park.

MONDAY - with Larry, Ethel
Hudson Riverwalk, George Washington Bridge, Grants Tomb, Riverside Church, lunch with Ethel.

The crowds of people doing a million interesting things...the world headquarters of major institutions that appear around every corner...the people and goods from every corner of the empire. Pulque! In Chinatown! Incredible.

But more...the parks, the monuments, the plaques, the inscriptions over building entrances. The true administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government. Wisdom and knowledge shall be the stability of thy times. Let us have peace.

Central Park itself, from the mid-19th century, is a beautiful tribute to our best social nature, as is the current project to provide pedestrian an bicycle paths around the entire perimeter of Manhattan.

Speaking of western civilization, check out the list of famous people, "our heroes," whose statues I photographed in four days walking around Manhattan: Daniel Webster, Theodore Roosevelt, Garibaldi, Sun Yat-sen, Horace Greeley,Washington, Hans Christian Andersen, Abraham Lincoln, Andy Warholz, William H. Seward,  Giuseppe Verde, Duke Ellington, William Tecumseh Sherman, William Cullen Bryant, Gertrude Stein.

I am not an unalloyed fan of western civ. Those poor suckers who traded away Manhattan to the Dutch India Company in 1622 didn't know what they were in for. Ask the Yemeni villagers who survived the latest US drone attacks what they think of so-called western civilization. Maybe they'll say, like Gandhi, "It would be a good idea."

The very iconography of the city speaks to the deep contradictions in the mythology. Until April 30, when the tower went up on One WTC, its tallest building was the Empire State Building. The Empire State. And the city is the imperial center of the most powerful empire in history, sucking the resources from across the globe and insisting on its moral right to control it all. The arrogance of empire...I can't embrace it.

But I am of it. I realize that, walking around in this great city, which, in its parks, its monuments, its museums, its vibrant democratic life, seems an expression of our highest ideals.

Thanks to my friends who came in to walk around with me! It was great to see you!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Nature of Things

Review: THE SWERVE – How the World Became Modern
by Stephen Greenblatt

This is a wonderful book with a compelling narrative of the recovery, in 1417, of Lucretius' On the Nature of Things, by an interesting book collector, Poggio Bracciolini. It is a story of the early Renaissance, with quarreling popes and princes and a corrupt clergy, but also with a tremendous enthusiasm for the late Roman Republic and a zeal for recovering, understanding and using the things that had made Rome great long ago.

Things like grammar, architecture, democracy. That classical stuff. Educated people – and there were a lot of them, because they were needed to run the vast papal bureaucracy as well as international commerce and finance – poured over Cicero and other Roman and Greek authors.

This was a generation before Gutenberg. Books were still incredibly labor-intensive hand copied affairs. Expensive, cherished. Much of the classical library had disappeared, neglected and ravaged by time. Some had been preserved, mostly by monks for whom reading Latin literature was a daily exercise, and copying texts was a monastic craft. In the Renaissance, some of those texts made it out of the monasteries and into the schools and living rooms of the educated elites. Others remained neglected and unused in the libraries of remote monasteries. In one of these, Poggio found Lucretius' masterpiece.

On the Nature of Things was written in 50 BCE, a year before Caesar crossed the Rubicon, in the last days of the Republic (a time somewhat like our own in that big money, with fortunes built on foreign expansion, was undermining republican institutions at home). Although the ideas it promoted were not widely accepted, the book was widely admired for the beauty of its language as well as the intellectually challenging content. It was praised. Poggio would have read ABOUT De rerum natura, but never seen it, because no copy was known to exist until he found one in some remote monastery in Germany. He returned the book to circulation and, Greenblatt argues, changed the world.

In Chapter Eight, in the middle of the book, Greenblatt summarizes some of the main themes in Lucretius:
  • Everything is made of invisible particles.
  • The elementary particles of matter...are eternal.
  • The elementary particles are infinite in number but limited in shape and size.
  • All particles are in motion in an infinite void.
  • The universe has no creator or designer.
  • Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve.
  • The swerve is the source of free will.
  • Nature ceaselessly experiments.
  • The universe was not created for or about humans.
  • Humans are not unique.
  • Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival.
  • The soul dies.
  • There is no afterlife.
  • Death is nothing to us.
  • All organized religions are superstitious delusions.
  • Religions are invariably cruel.
  • There are no angels, demons, or ghosts.
  • The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.
  • The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion.
  • Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder.

That list, which he elaborates in the chapter, is Greenblatt's summary of Lucretius' philosophy, which is in turn and expression of the philosophy of Epicurus, 341-270 BCE. It wasn't widely accepted in Epicurus' day, in Lucretius' day, or in Poggio's. It's been parodied and pilloried. And yet, look at that list. Don't you see Galileo in it? Newton? Darwin? Einstein, Bohr? Jefferson? Jefferson had five copies of the book, and said he was an Epicurean. This is a modern view of the world; in fact, except for a few small points (I don't think elementary particles are infinite in number), it's largely my view of the nature of things. Going back to the time of Alexander the Great. Incredible!

Greenblatt explores these and other imprints of Lucretius' work in the modern world. But there's one he misses: John Lennon's Imagine is a beautiful expression of the Epicurean world view.

Just imagine!