I have been aware of Stephen Greenblatt for years, and a couple of months ago reviewed his latest book The Swerve. Since that book came out I have attended two book club discussions of Greenblatt’s books, the second one being about Will In The World. Then the very pleasant surprise for me: at some point, I discovered he was going to speak here in our local high-school auditorium. It is difficult to convince people just how far Bend is from physical civilization, because this small city has such a civilized feeling. The nearest large city is Portland, and it’s three and a half hours driving time; San Francisco is nine hours, and Boise is six hours. There really isn’t much in between us and them except mountains, sagebrush and space. There is still a large contingent of old-style conservative folks, but there’s a lot of new ones too. The point is that for a major historian and top-selling author like Stephen Greenblatt to come to our remote location is an honor for us.
Greenblatt’s presentation was abou both The Swerve, and Will in the World, and I consider it one of the best lectures I’ve ever heard, along with Neil Shubin‘s The coming ashore of the Tiktaalik, at UC Berkeley, and Luis Walter Alvarez‘ presentation to the Institute of Human Origins, The Chicxulub crater event. Each of these three lectures was about fundamental life-changing events for the human species. The first lecture was about the coming ashore of our terrestrial ancestors, the second concerned the destruction of the dinosaurs, leaving the land to us mammals, and now with The Swerve, the clarification of how modern society arose. Greenblatt’s book The Swerve shows how deep into Western historical time the roots of natural science go, and with his book Will in the World he brings to light the Enlightenment and how powerful the effects of a very few people were in wrenching us out of a stultifying mind set.
It seemed Greenblatt spent a very long time laying the background of the society that Shakespeare was living within. He went deep into the foundations of basically non-theistic ideas without having the audience rise up in righteous anger and walk out, or worse, start throwing shoes at him. I was sitting at the very front, and was so fascinated by his talk that I didn’t look around, but several of my friends were at the back and reported to me today that there was a heartfelt agitation back in the gallery. There is an element of people here in Bend who are strongly anti-evolutionist in their thinking, and they feel vehement about their convictions. That reactionary attitude bothers most of the people I actually associate with, but for me the fact that other people hold wildly divergent views from mine doesn’t bother me one bit. It does bother me that they refuse to look at the proven validity of science, and its methods, versus the assertions of dogmatic faith, but the fundamental condition of being human is to believe what makes sense personally. These people have selected what they have and are living with it. The fact that much of what they believe brings them to a lowered state of effective living here on this present planet is the price they pay. They pay it willingly because of their belief in their rewards being much longer in their future life in heaven. I see most of those people who are opposed to these short-sighted views to be just as prejudiced and short-sighted, but in a different way.
For Greenblatt to present his ideas so eloquently, so forcefully, and in such a friendly way must have been crushing to the true believers of an opposite belief. He spoke, and wrote, at length about the oppressive character of English culture of Shakespeare’s time, but quite a lot of that is still with us. We have been liberated mentally and physically by Lucretius and those who brought his work back to life after a thousand-year death, and Shakespeare was among those who resuscitated that single manuscript. Without that single surviving work by Lucretius it is unlikely our modern world would exist.
We are not as stupid as we might be, because of a very few people lifting the veil to enlightenment.