Poggio Bracciolini was a hunter of lost manuscripts. One of many 14 & 15th Century Italian Humanists seeking to recapture lost classical civilization. He was also apostolic secretary to Pope John XXIII. (If you wonder how that could have been the case, since you remember the remarkable 1958-1963 Pontificate of Pope John XXIII, I’ll get to that later.) He stands out in history because of his remarkable success in finding a copy of Lucretius’s On The Nature of Things that had disappeared from public view more than 1,000 years earlier. The fascinating detective story of how this was accomplished is beautifully told by Steven Greenberg, in his award-winning book The Swerve, which I had trouble putting down.
But that is not the point of this comment. Rather, it is on the light this book sheds on the challenges of cultural development that I wish briefly to comment. While reading – for the second time – this dramatically unfolding story, I was continually drawn to thinking about the fragility and complexity, the socially and economically interrelated and historically conditioned reality, that is contemporary civilization. And how much each of us is a product of the time and place of our birth, having to make the most of the historically determined “niche” in which, for better or worse, we chance to find ourselves. And more, having a seriously limited capacity to effect the context or trajectory of our encompassing society, and its historically constituted social, economic and cultural situation.
Poggio and his fellow Humanists, for example, were surrounded by the historical ruins of Classical, and particularly Roman, civilization. And they were deeply aware of the limits of their own possibilities, and of how far their current world was from that lost world. They could fantasize a classical life for themselves, as they sought to recapture a classical Latin literary style, but they could not significantly effect the degraded culture in which they found themselves.
Poggio, for his part, not being of noble birth or having important family connections, was only able to take advantage of his exceptional handwriting ability – to write with clarity and elegance – and thus to pursue a highly successful career as a scribe. (Such a skill in our modern computer-based world would, of course, be of practically no use.) Thus he was able to fairly quickly advance within the Church bureaucracy, itself deeply involved in the developing world of contentious Italian city-state politics of the early Renaissance. It was also a world of pervasive city-state conflict, court intrigue, and Church corruption through which any one interested in succeeding had to navigate perilously. It was that world that both produced the Pontificate of the completely corrupt Baldasare Cossa, and then his removal from office, three years of imprisonment, and the complete effacement of any acknowledgement of his reign from official Church history, thus allowing the saintly Angelo Roncalli to assume the title of John XXIII in 1958.
As I was thinking about what it might have been like to be Poggio, and to have found oneself in his time and place, I compared his situation to mine — and, in a wider sense, to “ours,” those born in the Unites States in the last years of the 20th and the first years of the 21st Century: to the complexity and fragility of the technologically advanced civilization and life styles we take for granted. For example, life expectancy for most Italians in Poggio’s time was about 40 years. And those who, like Poggio, lived into their 60s or 70s — very few lived much beyond that — were plagued by numerous ailments, even quite minor ones by contemporary standards, for which there were no effective medical treatments. And, of course, travel beyond one’s local town or village was practically impossible, except for the quite wealthy, with travel time being at best 7 miles an hour, and communication being almost entirely word of mouth, and limited to the most immediate local concerns.
I will not further dwell on such historical contrasts except to underline the dependence of the life chances of each person on the current historical and cultural conditions which we had no role in producing. We are the beneficiaries of centuries of historical progress in science, culture, economics, medicine, communications, and politics. But certainly not all of us, and certainly not all equitably. For that historical development has sadly and tragically also been scared by imperial expansion, colonial exploitation and oppression, even genocide, and an increasing despoilation of the Earth, with an increasing threat to the very conditions of decent life on the planet. Nothing guarantees the continued survival of our civilization, nor the continued cross-cultural advances in world-wide life expectancy, and certainly not the success of efforts to combat pervasive forms of corruption, subjugation, exploitation, and oppression. Civilizations, even the most powerful, have disintegrated and died, and that usually more from internal rot than external conquest. Did people in the declining years of the Roman Empire know that their Empire was in the process of disappearing? And was there anything that they could have done about that?
And what of us today, in the US in the age of Trump? Are we in the midst of the agonies of a nation and a culture in decline, tearing itself apart? And if so, as I fear, is there anything that we can do about it? I, for one, have committed my life to the collective struggle to provide an alternative path that leads from decline to cultural renewal. And our human potentials for the advancement of human well being are literally unprecedented.
But far too many take our economic, scientific, educational, medical, social and cultural advances for granted, and can only see how we fall short of our highest ideals, or even of our most realistic possibilities. And far too many others are infatuated by fantastical religious beliefs and practices, themselves the products of scientifically primitive ages, and, convinced of their revealed Truth, seek to impose them on the rest of us regardless of the consequences. While still others will use the resources of civilization to amass unlimited amounts of wealth and power without regard to either their effects on the lives of the vast majority or on the long-term consequences for the Earth’s habitability.
Many of these groups seem quite content to demonize those with whom they disagree, and are prepared to destroy whatever stands in the way of their ascendency. Meanwhile, the complex and tenuous project that is human civilization, on this our increasingly fragile planet, apparently proceeds with business as usual, as we tend toward numerous potential calamities, from climatological, demographic, ecological, biological, chemical, to nuclear. How can we preserve and protect the magnificent accomplishments that are human civilization – in science, medicine, technology, art, history, culture, human rights, environmental preservation, and cross-cultural appreciation – while still mobilizing our collective resources in practical and realistic ways to counter these forces of destruction? Perhaps we may take heart from the growing numbers of people across the globe that have begun to mobilize to counter these institutionalized forces of destruction, but I am far from confident of their success. Life on this earth does not come with an insurance policy. Nor is salvation provided for people or civilizations. Yet such mobilization, as amorphous as it is, is our only hope. For success is not assured, but without it we are lost. So let us all resolve to do our part, step by step and piece by piece, while never losing our humane bearings in the effort to contribute to a world of enhanced mutual respect for human dignity and for the sustaining of an harmonious balance between human beings and the natural world that is our only home.