Monday, January 02, 2012

Bonfire of the vanities

Seek pleasure and avoid pain. Nothing could contrast more with Botticelli's Lucretius-inspired paintings that the preaching of his fellow Florentine, Savanarola. Forego worldly pleasures, said the fire-breathing Dominican friar. Keep your eye on the prize. Life is a preparation for eternity. Prayer and penance should dominate one's life; all else is vain distraction.

Savanarola organized the infamous "bonfire of the vanities," urging the citizens of Florence to throw onto the flames mirrors, cosmetics, secular art, gambling equipment, musical instruments, fine clothing, and, especially, the works of classical (pagan) authors such as Lucretius. Of course, a year later, Savanarola was himself consigned to the flames on the same site by a citizenry who had grown weary of his grim asceticism.

Botticelli's Primavera vs. Savanarola's bonfire. Lucretius vs. Augustine. I discovered them at about the same time, as a university student, and found myself strangely attracted to both.

But most influential in my life at the time were the works of European Catholic intellectuals, for example, Georges Bernanos's novels, Diary of a Country Priest and Under the Sun of Satan, and Robert Bresson's film The Trial of Joan of Arc These were not happy documents, dark and ascetic, but they gave an intellectual cachet to my childhood Catholicism. For a while I put sand in my bed and pebbles in my shoes, and did the Stations of the Cross on my bare knees along a cinder path. I was living in a world of gods and demons with my eye on eternity, the very world Lucretius proclaimed an illusion.

It all seems rather embarrassing now, but I wonder what it was that I found so attractive about self-denial and pain, and why it is that such practices are so universal among the world's religions. Is there some quirk in our biological nature that relishes the body in distress? Or is it a persistent cultural meme, a Lucretian "illusion"?

Whatever were the "swerves" that directed my life, the dark night of the soul led eventually into light. The study of science gave me the intellectual tools -- empiricism, Ockham's razor -- to doubt the central tenets of my former faith, most prominently belief in an afterlife. And, just as Lucretius said, the effect was liberating. Seek pleasure and avoid pain. Craft, as best one can, a life of modest beauty. Love, family, art, nature. And wonder.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Thomas Jefferson owned at least five Latin editions of Lucretius, along with English, Italian and French translations. In his last paragraph, Stephen Greenblatt tells us that a correspondent asked Jefferson his philosophy of life. Jefferson replied: "I am an Epicurean."