Lewis Lapham – Ignorance of Things Past

The Roman historian Titus Livy likened history to a collection of “fine things to take as models” and “base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.” The contemporary American novelist John Crowley carries the thought another two thousand years along the road to who knows where, suggesting that “the past is the new future…its lessons not simple or singular, a big landscape of human possibility, generative, inexhaustible.”

Fortunately so. We have little else with which to build the future except the driftwood of the past, salvaging from the journey across the frontiers of the millennia what mankind has found to be useful or beautiful or true, on scraps of papyrus and bronze coins, in confessions voluntary and coerced, in five-act plays and three-part songs.

America’s Founding Fathers exploited the resource of history as diligently as their descendants exploited the lands and forests of the Ohio River Valley and the trans-Mississippi frontier. They framed their several envisionings of a republic (Hamilton’s and Franklin’s as well as those of Jefferson and Adams) on blueprints found in their readings of Livy, Cicero, Plutarch, and Seneca.

So in its turn the Italian Renaissance derived from the rediscovery of classical antiquity. The latter progression supplies the scholar Stephen Greenblatt with the premise for last year’s best-selling The Swerve, which accounts for the death and resurrection of On the Nature of Things, 7,400 lines of lyric but unrhymed verse composed by the Roman poet Titus Lucretius Carus in the first century B.C. Greenblatt subtitles his book How the World Became Modern, attributing the metamorphosis in large part to the recovery of Lucretius’ poem in a German monastery in 1417 by Possio Bracciolini, Italian humanist, Vatican functionary, and apostolic scribe.

Lucretius had infused his poem with the thought of Epicurus, the Greek philosopher teaching his students in Athens in the fourth century B.C. that the purpose of life was the embrace of beauty and pleasure – that the elementary particles of matter (“the seeds of things”) are eternal. Everything that exists – the sun and the moon, waterflies, ziggurats, Mother and the flag – is made of atoms in motion, constantly colliding and combining with one another in an inexhaustible variety of form and substance. The universe consists of “atoms and void and nothing else.” No afterlife, no divine retribution or reward, nothing other than a vast turmoil of creation and destruction, the ceaseless making and remaking of despots and matinee idols.

To the modern mind atomic theory is old news, as it was to the schools of Stoic and Epicurean thought during the reign of Augustus Caesar. Christianity dispatched it to Hell, reconfiguring the pursuit of pleasure as sin, the meaning of life as pain. By recovering De rerum natura to the land of the living, pooling its resources with those dormant in the works of Ovid, Seneca, and Plato, the Renaissance redrafted the contract between man and nature, its embrace of truth as beauty and beauty as truth made manifest in the glory of its painting, sculpture, music, architecture, and literature. Over the course of the next six centuries Lucretius’ poem finds further development and expression in Machiavelli’s political theory, Montaigne’s essays, Shakespeare’s plays, Newton’s mathematics, and Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.

The circumstances at hand in the early years of the twenty-first century suggest that time is ripe for another redrafting of the contract between man and nature, with any luck of a magnitude comparable to the one that gave birth to the Renaissance. For the past fifty years it has been apparent to the lookouts on the watchtowers of Western civilization that the finite resources of the planet cannot accommodate either the promise or the theory of infinite growth – a.k.a. the American Dream. The simple arithmetic (too many people coming into the world, not enough water, oil, food, phosphorus) underwrites the vast landscape of trouble listed under the headings of worldwide environmental degradation and financial collapse. I read the relevant policy papers – on health, education, debt, poverty, homeland security, climate change, the extinction of species, the wars of all against all – and I notice that they tend toward a common awareness (dimly grasped but distinctly felt) that a global consumer society, if left to its own devices, must devour the earth. Not with malice aforethought, or as a matter of ideology, but because that is its métier – the scorpion that kills the frog on whose back it is crossing the river because it knows not what else to do.

The intimations of mortality lurking in the depths of the policy papers lead in turn to the recognition of the capitalist economy as an historical construct, and therefore, like a college reunion and the Colossus of Rhodes, a collision of atoms en route to recombination or the void. A story with a beginning (in sixteenth-century Holland), a middle (the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century industrial revolutions in England and America), and an end (foreshadowed by the financial convulsions of the past twenty years at all points on the free-market compass). Sensing the approach of maybe something terrible slouching toward Wall Street to be born, the lookouts look for salvation in technologies as yet undreamed of by man or machine. My guess is that they’re looking in the wrong direction. To acknowledge the truth of the old Arab proverb that says we have less reason to fear what might happen tomorrow than to beware what happened yesterday is also to say that we have more reason to look to the past – history as the phoenix in the attic – for the hope of the future.

Lewis Lapham
Ignorance of Things Past
Harper’s Magazine, May 2012