Another swing at the Catholic straw man
October 26th, 2011
By Father Robert Barron
In 2005, Harvard scholar Stephen Greenblatt published a wonderful book on Shakespeare, “Will in the World.” Witty, insightful, surprising, it caused thousands of people, me included, to look at the Bard with new eyes. Thus it was with great anticipation that I opened Greenblatt’s latest, “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.” Like its forebear, this book is lively, intelligent and fun to read. But as I moved through it I grew irritated and finally exasperated by its insistence on one of the most tired myths of the academy: that the modern world emerged out of a desperate struggle with Roman Catholicism.
The unlikely hero of Greenblatt’s story is Poggio Bracciolini, a humanist of the early-15th century and scribe at the papal court who in his spare time searched for ancient texts in monastic libraries across Europe. On one expedition Poggio liberated a text that, Greenblatt holds, shaped the evolution of the modern mind: the philosophical poem “De rerum natura” (On the Nature of Things), by the Roman writer Lucretius. Lucretius argued that the universe is made up of atoms that randomly arrange themselves and then fall apart. He taught that there is no divine mind governing the process; the soul is as mortal and dissoluble as the body; there is no afterlife; humans are not unique in the cosmos but rather are animals somewhat more evolved than others; religion is fear-based and cruel; and the point of life is to maximize pleasure and avoid pain. Greenblatt takes Lucretius’ cold and grim vision of the universe as a harbinger of today’s “modern” view.
To make his story more dramatic, Greenblatt had to portray Poggio as a culture warrior, battling against a retrenched and oppressive Catholicism. This is where his book goes off the rails. Whereas Lucretius, Poggio and their modern successors had a restless curiosity to explore the physical universe, Catholics, Greenblatt maintains, were dogmatic, repressive, exclusively other worldly. As evidence for this claim, he cites the medieval conviction, cultivated especially in the monasteries, that curiositas is a sin. If he had searched what medieval Christians meant by that term, he would have discovered that curiositas names, not intellectual curiosity, but what we might call gossip or minding other people’s business. In fact, the virtue that answers the vice of curiositas is studiositas (studiousness), the serious pursuit of knowledge. This virtue was exemplified by some of the greatest spirits that Western civilization has produced: St. Albert the Great, Aquinas, Bonaventure, Duns Scotus, William of Occam, Alexander of Hales, Henry of Ghent, Roger Bacon. These are just some of the most prominent figures who pursued scientific, practical and metaphysical questions with a curiosity rarely rivaled. I grant that an intellectual paradigm shift occurred in the 16th century, but to claim that science emerged out of superstition is simply a calumny.
Greenblatt also maintains that medieval Christianity was dualistic, morose, deeply opposed to the pleasures of the body and masochistic in its asceticism. He brings forward the many accounts of monastic self-flagellation and use of the “discipline.” No one can deny that such practices were part of medieval religious life, but to take them as paradigmatic of the medieval attitude toward the body is ridiculous. Nowhere in world literature do we see more boisterous and even bawdy celebrations of the body than in Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” and Boccaccio’s “Decameron.” And even a glance at the figures in the colored glass windows of Chartres Cathedral or the Sainte Chapelle reveals a celebration of the energy of ordinary life.
The Catholic Middle Ages did not require Lucretius to learn the importance of either curiosity or joy of life. In fact, the modern world that emerged through the work of Descartes, Pascal, Galileo, Newton, Jefferson and company owed a great deal to the medieval period. The story of modernity’s rise is far more complex and finally far more interesting than the one told by Stephen Greenblatt, and it is possible to celebrate the legitimate achievements of modern culture without knocking down a straw-man version of Catholicism.
Father Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry Word on Fire and the Francis Cardinal George Professor of Faith and Culture at University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill.
From October 28, 2011 issue of Catholic San Francisco.