History is in a bad mood, as reflected in its acting troupe, the human race. What goes for the micro of an individual human personality also seems true for the group. We have our bright moments, or years, and our darker ones and cycles within cycles of these and even sometimes bright and dark at the same moment.
I am reflecting this week on Stephen Greenblatt's book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, which concerns itself with the mood of Europe in the early 1400s, but in particular the career of one Poggio Bracciolini, a poor boy whose beautiful handwriting took him to the center of power as secretary-scribe to the first Pope John XXIII (deposed and de-Poped), and later as key agent to unlocking the lost secrets of classical antiquity. (Apologies if I have already lost you in this week's departure from my usual japery).
The depravity of the late medieval church hierarchy, and its sick grasp on the totality of everyday life a thousand years after the fall of Rome, is the outstanding feature of the period. What started out in Judea as a humble cult in thrall to the new idea of God-given grace, degenerated into a vile whoredom of concentrated wealth devoted to the routine infliction of cruelties. Poggio was especially struck by the fate of one radical reformer, Jerome of Prague, persecuted as a heretic. Jerome had made a career of inciting subversion in his wide travels around the universities of Europe, and was constantly in trouble with the church establishment.
Around 1415 Jerome ventured to the Council of Constance in Germany where cardinals, archbishops, and other church poobahs had gathered to resolve a vexing administrative problem: the schism that had one Pope in Avignon, France, and another in Rome, each answering to different kingdoms of Europe. In the course of things, Jerome the reformer made a pest of himself and was branded a heretic, thus nominating himself as a candidate for gruesome execution. Poggio witnessed Jerome's defense of his actions and beliefs before the council higher-ups, which were delivered in Latin with an eloquence not displayed since the days of Cicero. Jerome was eventually burned at the stake anyway, but the heroic power of his rhetoric made an impression on Poggio.
In the course of things at Constance, Poggio's patron, so-called "anti-Pope" John XXIII, a.k.a. Baldassarre Cossa, got kicked out of the club and Poggio was released from his duties to pursue his true life ambition, which was the rescue of forsaken manuscripts from the high culture of the Roman empire which lay moldering in the vaults and attics of monasteries all over the continent. He traveled far and wide in all weathers and seasons in a time when even the best roads were little more than mule tracks. The indifferent monks let him poke around their storerooms and in cases where he could not purchase a dusty scroll outright, he either pilfered them, or copied them out laboriously in his beautifully clear Carolingian handwriting.
In rescuing the works such as the complete orations of Cicero, the Epicurian discourse of Lucretius (De Rerum Natura – On the Nature of Things), as well as the practical dissertations of Vitruvius on architecture and Frontinus on the Roman aqueducts, he opened the door to the revival of human spirit that we call the Renaissance. If you look closely at the artifacts of the centuries pre-dating the Renaissance, you detect a long-running mood of severe psychological depression when the human race dwelt in abject hopelessness and poverty, with only the hocus-pocus of the church promising better times beyond the mystery of death as the Zoloft of the day. Poggio was not alone in his enthusiasm for the lost world of the ancients, and eventually the rediscovery of a realm of ideas beyond the drear preoccupations of a corrupt church turned on a light for humanity that has burned for five hundred years.
I mention these old and arcane matters because the mood of humanity lately seems to be darkening again, and to some large degree for understandable reasons. Between the melting of the polar icecaps, the destruction of all edible life in the oceans, and the vulgar spectacle of the paved-over American landscape with its clown monuments mocking all civilized endeavor, and a long list of other insults to healthy life on earth, there's a lot to be depressed about. We stand to lose a proportional amount of human capital accumulated over the past five hundred years as the benighted people of post-Roman Europe lost, and it may take us a thousand years or more to recover – if we recover at all.
It's especially disturbing to see the infiltration of the latest version of Jesus mumbo-jumbo – Southern Republican Nascar Evangelical orthodoxy – take over the collective mind of the USA. The poverty of ideas this represents can't be overstated and the timidity of any opposition to it is a disgrace to our heritage. Maybe that's an argument for electing a Mormon president, since that peculiar branch of the church is so self-evidently childish and ridiculous that it will probably do more to defeat religious fanaticism than all the humanist dissertations ever written – or a thousand clones of Madonna Ciccone dancing in stadiums under laser beams in titanium brassieres.