By Evaggelos Vallianatos
Giovanni Boccaccio was thirty-five when he wrote The Decameron (Ten Days), a masterpiece of stories about the 1347-1348 plague of Black Death. He spoke with passion about Florence that suffered so much from the tsunami-like force of the pestilence.
Boccaccio was well aware of the ills of his time, the obsolete religious dogmas, sterility in thought, gross inequality among the owners of land and wealth and the have-nots, misogyny, and intolerance of reason by the clerical culture dominating Italy and Europe. He was unhappy with that narrow and oppressive vision of life. He wanted to revive ancient Greek and Roman culture with its many gods and freedom of thought and speech. In other words, Boccaccio was a scholar who dreamed of the Renaissance.
He was fortunate he lived in Florence that was unusually open for a revival of Greek and Roman antiquity. The city supported the teaching of Greek and was receptive to a more humane and virtuous life. The pillars of its wealth were banking and wool craftsmanship and trade.
All these possibilities and dreams came to an abrupt and dreadful end by the Black Death pestilence in mid fourteenth century. Florence became desolate like a city of the dead.
In his Decameron stories, Boccaccio dared to think of post-plague Florence and how a revived Hellenic and Roman civilization could rebuild a better and more compassionate world.
The twenty-first century plague
Boccaccio, Florence, and the Black Death are a distant mirror of our times. Just like Boccaccio, I dream of a Renaissance. I do that speedily now that Trump and the plague are shrinking possibilities and raising clouds of smoke and fires.
We may not have a clerical regime running America, but the Trump administration has not been too discreet about threatening out health and the health of the natural world. Its dismissal of the life and death climate change monster is more dangerous than any mass inquisition or tyranny. Science eventually terminated the dark age inquisition. But now Trump and his minions attack science and push the country towards the dark ages.
Trump is a blooming dark age tyrant. His unlimited egoism and hubris and unsavory business deals are the main ingredients of his selfish and greedy agenda. America has become his golf club for amassing profits, domestic and foreign, for himself and his family.
One way to measure his ethical standards is to ask the question of taxes. Does Trump pay taxes? In a detailed report based on thousands of hitherto secret tax documents, the New York Times says that Trump “is a businessman who takes in hundreds of millions of dollars a year yet racks up chronic losses that he aggressively employs to avoid paying taxes. Now… he depends more and more on making money from businesses that put him in potential and often direct conflict of interest with his job as president.”
This is true. Why is he unwilling to differentiate his country’s strategic interests in Turkey and the Mediterranean, for example, from the rent he collects from business he has in Turkey? He rather collects his rent. The country means nothing to him.
In early October 2020, Trump caught the plague. He was briefly hospitalized during an election season, a terrible pandemic, and a period of unrest: black people marching in the streets demanding justice.
Trump would rather have nothing to do with the forthcoming November 3 presidential election, so certain he is that there will be no transfer of power.
Oligarchies of power
Trump is not alone. He is the apotheosis of a corrupt American financial elite: a secretive class of the very few superrich who own most of the wealth of the country. This billionaire class is as much divorced from the daily difficulties and lives of Americans as the medieval feudal lords were divorced from the miseries of the peasants they had enslaved.
Medieval peasants had at least the incomprehensive but mysterious and soothing liturgies and prayers and music of an ecumenical and gigantic Church. Americans have no unified Church, save the numerous money-driven super churches and sects preaching against each other, the Jews, and the Moslems.
Instead, Americans have the noise of talk radio and commercial television and the insidious influence of the so-called social media. Google, Facebook, and Twitter, for example, make mythic sums for spreading misinformation and propaganda, turning Americans against each other, weakening democracy, facilitating election hacking, advancing military technologies of Artificial Intelligence, and preparing the ground for tyranny. Trump is the first fruit of the divisive and destructive effects of the billionaire class and its oligarchic social media.
Americans are also in the grip of food and agriculture corporations producing food tainted with toxic chemicals. The meat they eat comes from cruel animal farms that are disease factories. They are spread all over the country.
These maladies could increase, if I added nuclear weapons and the existential threat of the anthropogenic climate change. But they are enough to justify a new Renaissance.
Why we need a Renaissance
Just like mid-fourteenth century sunk under Black Death, early twenty-first century, especially the year 2020, is being eaten away by a pandemic plague incapacitating the world and probably killing millions.
The silver lining of this catastrophe is the urgent demand for ideas to save us and nature from ourselves and from complete annihilation. I see the Renaissance as an idea that could save us.
Rereading the Greek and Roman classics, especially the Greek, will inspire us to rethink the obsolete and dangerous technologies we have constructed. These are technologies, which, in some ways, are weapons of domination and death. Agriculture, nuclear weapons, and social media provide plenty of examples of unnecessary danger.
The Greeks will remind us of ethical standards that should guide our reform or abolition of what we have and, certainly, should inspire us in the invention and development of new science and technology.
Private interest does matter, but not always. Protecting the public good assures justice, democracy, and survival.
Respecting, in fact, loving the natural world, our Mother Earth, is the equivalent of life itself without which we are nothing.
The meaning of Greek thought
The Renaissance scholars of the fifteenth century and later read Greek thinkers who reinvented the world. These thinkers included Homer (epic poetry and early Greek civilization), Pythagoras (mathematics, music, and cosmology), Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides (dramatic poetry and mythology), Herodotus (history), Democritus (Atomic Theory), Plato (moral philosophy, laws), Thucydides (history), Aristotle (philosophy, politics, and biology), Euclid (geometry), Aristarchos of Samos (Heliocentric Theory), Archimedes (geometry, mathematics, engineering), Hipparchos (astronomy), Strabo (geography), and Ptolemaios (geography, cartography, and astronomy).
Ideas and inspiration from Greek thinkers sparked what we call Western science and civilization. For example, Archimedes shaped the thought of great scientists like Galileo and Newton. The science of Archimedes is our science.
Greek influence, however, was not limited to science and technology. The Greeks offered models in political theory, democracy, organized sports like the Olympics, theater, historical narrative, poetry, dramatic plays, architecture and the arts of civilization.
They also gave examples of courage and military strategy that kept them free from foreign occupation for millennia. In 2020, we are celebrating the 2,500-year anniversary of the immortal battle of Salamis in 480 BCE. Under the leadership of Sparta and Athens, Greek soldiers defeated decisively the much larger naval forces of the Persian king Xerxes in the waters of the island of Salamis.
Yet, in modern times, religion and religious wars diminished the Greek influence and often turned science into a weapon and the world upside down.
Another Renaissance must avoid the religious and plutocratic errors of the first efforts in more than a millennium to learn from the Greeks: the Arab Renaissance of the eighth-tenth centuries and the Western, primarily Italian, Renaissance of the fifteenth-sixteenth centuries.
What needs to be done
Once we dispose of Trump, we can direct our colleges and universities to focus on the ethical dimensions of Greek science and civilization and inform us how to incorporate those principles in shaping our science and civilization.
Our science would need the scrutiny of those in love with the good and the beautiful. Only then we will be in a position to take seriously the threats from pesticides, genetic engineering, animal farms, logging, Artificial Intelligence, nuclear weapons, fossil fuels and climate change.
The article was first published at Counterpunch and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.
Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of 6 books, including Poison Spring with Mckay Jenkings.