“Italians are Cynical, Amoral, Religiously Superficial”

Bathing Aphrodite and Eros. Hermitage, St Petersburg

The Roots of Cynicism

A comment by Maryann on the Roman Goddess Fortuna post had kicked off an interesting discussion.

Her grandmother from ApuliaMaryann wrote – had a deep disregard for fortune tellers “and wouldn’t even tolerate us visiting one for fun at the Italian festas. I wonder where this came from.”

I had replied that her grandmother’s behaviour probably derived from the Catholic Church’s reaction against possible survivals of Paganism.

“Italians – I argued – were highly civilized long before (9-10 centuries earlier) Christianity arrived, while many Northern Europeans entered instead civilization together with Christianity (or nearly.) This couldn’t happen without consequences. It made us a bit more pagan, them a bit more Christian.”

At this point the Commentator (Exposrip) had popped up:

“I never thought – he had observed – of the historical angle of Italians being civilized before Christianity thus making them a bit more pagan. Of course, the Romans were pagans!”
“Let me ask you : where do the Italians derive their realistic and cynical posturing? Did it begin after the fall of Rome? Did Machiavelli instil it? Was it years of foreign conquering?”

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I think Roman survivals – I had replied – exist in various regions of Europe (like England, Germany, Poland etc.) but here in our country such remnants are more marked.

Cynicism. If you ask about this within a discussion on Italian pagan survivals you probably suspect there is a connection. I am convinced there is, although it can’t be easily proved.

A long history of glories and defeats, foreign conquering, the influence of intellectuals like Machiavelli – all this must have contributed. Although Machiavelli, to me, is more like the product of a culture. He reinforced elements that were already existing.

Did these ‘elements’ develop after the fall of Rome or did they stem from the previous Greco-Roman culture, or both things? Both, in my view.

What we mean by ‘cynicism’

Let’s first see what we mean by cynicism today:

A. Cynicism is “a disposition to disbelieve in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions.” (Oxford and Webster dictionaries).

B. Cynical is “the person who, with acts and words, shows scorn and indifference towards the ideals, or conventions, of the society he lives in.” (Dizionario Italiano Treccani).

[I may be wrong, but there’s a difference between the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ definition (A) and the Italian one (B). To the former, values seem more like a given, while the latter appears more relativist: values are historical, not eternal]

In any case. Isn’t it possible that behaviours seen as indifferent and cynical according to certain values appear only such because partially obeying to diverse (alien) moral codes coming from the Greco-Roman antiquity?

Let us have a look at these alien codes then.

No Conflicts of Conscience

Bathing Aphrodite. Hermitage

Which is no easy task, the Greco-Roman philosophers were divided into different schools, plus the Ancients behaved differently according to the different ages.

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Thus said, I basically agree with what the British historian C. P. Rodocanachi wrote about the Athenians of the V century BC (which on the whole and to a certain extent applies to the Greco-Romans.)

“[Absence of conflicts of conscience: the Greeks were quit] of this inhibiting and agonizing struggle. Their morals were civic and not religious. Their sense of duty was directed exclusively to the city …

They knew nothing of the Christian idea of good faith, of intentions conditioning acts in such a manner that the most law-abiding citizen may feel himself a great criminal at heart…

[They] may be considered as being intrinsically amoral and this very amorality was a powerful constituent of balance of mind which they could never have attained if their conscience had been torn, as ours is, between the conflicting forces of good and evil, virtue and vice, pleasure and sin.

They could enjoy beauty, taste the delights of life without a pang of conscience. So long as they were faithful to the laws and interests of the city they had no damnation to fear, either in this world or the next.”

By intention Rodocanachi meant that just the thought of a sin is almost like committing the sin itself [these two articles – 1 and 2 – may help further.]

Not Torn Between Pleasure and Sin

Vénus de l'Esquilin or Venus Esquilina
Esquiline Venus, in all her voluptuousness, found in 1874 on the Esquiline Hill in Rome (from the Horti Lamiani possibly). Capitoline Museums, Rome. Click for credits (Flickr)

Ok. So what’s the conclusion of all this?

The conclusion equals the beginning, ie we get back to where we started.

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Rodocanachi compares the Greek and the Christian (or Protestant) attitudes. Italians definitely belong to the former, to the ‘Greek’ cultural area.

Almost any Italian would confirm that we are not that torn between virtue and vice, pleasure and sin, that we do not much fear damnation (and almost never speak of hell.)

Even if Italians captained for centuries the switch from the Pagan religion(s) to Christianity, their Christian feelings are superficial, no matter how false (or outrageous) this may sound (see note 3.)

Even among Catholics, when taking the Italians and the Irish for example, we are not that strict compared to a lot of things.

The Lewinsky scandal, President Bill Clinton’s trial and this whole Scarlet Letter atmosphere literally sent Italians rolling on the floor laughing – I hope I won’t offend somebody saying that.

The Epicurean Rome of the Renaissance

Late Renaissance Villa d'Este, Tivoli. Rome

“Your religion is not serious, you are cynical, indifferent!” was the comment by many North Europeans that travelled about Italy during the Renaissance. Their feelings were halfway between admiration and condemnation.

The splendid epicurean Rome of the Renaissance (admire above Villa d’Este) appeared often repulsive to them, one reason why the eternal city was brutally sacked by protestant troops in 1527 AD (this comment develops MoR’s peculiar approach to Italian Renaissance.)

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Truth is, our mind is like a museum, which makes us appear cynical, indifferent.

We are inclined to live the joys of life and sometimes do bad deeds without those self-punishment mechanisms that stem from breaking fundamentalist moral codes. Our flexibility (and confusion) springs from ancient mores that contribute to make us the way we are.

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In some regions of our mind, it may be liked or disliked, we are still pagan at heart.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

PS
The ideas in this and other posts cannot be considered as demonstrated, and need further research.

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Notes.

Roman Renaissance fountan1) Quote from C. P. Rodocanachi , Athens and the Greek Miracle, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, London 1948.

2) My answers to Maryann and Exposrip have been further processed since their questions have kept bugging my mind (original texts here.)

3) In Notebook IV of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks we read: “There is no doubt that Italian religious feelings are superficial, as there is no doubt that religion here has a character which is mainly political, of international hegemony.” So it seems that also the pre-Christian role of government of peoples still survives: Imperial Rome is resurrected into Catholic Rome. Gramsci wrote this note in a period between 1929 and 1935. He was a Marxist. We are not. His stimulating ideas went though well beyond Marxism and G. is now appreciated by Marxists and non Marxists, by left-wing and right-wing thinkers all the world over.

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Related posts:

Pre-Christian Rome lives (where this movie by Fellini grotesquely unveils aspects of papal Rome’s pagan nature)
Survivals of the Roman Goddess Fortuna

Sex and the city (of Rome). A Conclusion
Gods are Watching with an Envious Eye
Knowing Thyself
Man of Roma
Constitutional Happiness
by Australia Felix
The Mafia and the Italian Mind

Is Homophobia in India an Alien Legacy of the Victorians?

Indian gay activists

[See 2009 and 2013 updates at the foot of this writing]

Why sex, one of the joys of life, – lived with some freedom in the Greco-Roman world or at the time of the Indian Gupta empire (just to name two civilizations considered somewhat classical) – became in later centuries something to be ashamed of? Was it in the West because of the switch from Paganism to Christianity? And in India, was it because of Muslim or British Victorian influence, or of both?

(We make known to minors that one picture following may offend their sentiments)

Since I have been musing on these questions in my series Sex and the city (of Rome) – thanks also to a good discussion with two Indians, Ashish and Falcon – I was struck recently by all the commotion regarding the Victorians & homophobia thing in many ex colonies of the British Empire, and especially in India.

We are also at a time when French President Nicolas Sarkozy has just proposed to the UN to decriminalize homosexual acts all over the world, and all 27 European nations have agreed. The Church of Rome is instead strongly against it. The topic seems hot.

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Same-sex love was accepted, it is well known, in Ancient Greece and it was sometimes a bit frowned upon in Rome but basically widely tolerated (Julius Caesar for example was probably bisexual: a future post on Caesar will also mention that. We also mentioned some possible female homosexuality in the secret rites of the Roman goddess Bona Dea).

As far as the ancient Indian civilizations I guess it was pretty much the same (see the image below at Khajuraho) although I need someone with more knowledge than I have.

Khajuraho Temple scene

Today India gay activists accuse “Britain of exporting homophobia during the 19th century when colonial administrators began enforcing Victorian laws and morals on their Indian subjects [the Independent].” Homophobia, they say, is something alien to the original Indian civilizations.

The organisation Human Rights Watch has recently published a 66-page report describing “how laws in over three dozen countries, from India to Uganda and from Nigeria to Papua New Guinea, derive from a single law on homosexual conduct that British colonial rulers imposed on India in 1860.”

Under accusation is the Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which punishes “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal” with imprisonment up to life. In short, it punishes same-sex love.

India’s Ministry of Home Affairs defends the Indian code:

“The law does not run separately from society …. Section 377 … responded to the values and mores of the time in the Indian society.”

2013
Indian Gay Rights protester. Courtesy of Aljazeera. Click for source file

“This is sheer amnesia” answers the Report:

“Section 377, at its origin, did not respond to Indian society or its “values or mores” at all. British colonial governors imposed it on India undemocratically. It reflected only “the British Judeo-Christian values of the time.”

A ruling is expected soon by the High Court in Delhi, following a “years-long case seeking to decriminalize homosexual conduct there.”

Nita, Indian blogger and journalist, observes:

“We are squarely to blame if even 61 years after independence we are incapable to seeing which law is reasonable and which one is not. The British have moved on, and have liberal laws on homosexuality today.”

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Sex. Always a complex topic in any society.

I need a higher authority on what is happening in the sub continent and elsewhere. Any Indian (or non Indian) take?

Ψ

Readings. Here some of Nita’s recommendations on the subject:

Calling gays criminals and moral policing by the police
Our reactions to people who are different (Amit)
Transgender issues discussed on Tamil Television
Gay parents and heterosexual parents – any difference?

A post from this blog on the possible causes of sexual repression (Romans, Indians, Victorians):

Sex and the City (of Rome). 1

A very well balanced post by IssuesBeyondBorders:

Legacy of British Constitution in Independent India and Section 377

Emblem of India

2009 UPDATE. With an historic ruling the Indian High Court has decriminalized homosexuality on July 2 2009The Court has found that Section 377 was against the Indian tradition.

2003 UPDATE.  The Supreme Court of India has overturned the 2009 Indian High Court ruling that decriminalized homosexuality. Archaic anti sodomy ruling is back.


Merry Saturnalia! Man Of Roma: A Blog Based On Dialogue

Happy Saturnalia. Courtesy of eternallyCool.net

Merry Saturnalia to all of you! Well, was Saturnalia the ancient Roman Christmas? Mary Beard, professor in classics at Cambridge, sheds here some light (I have to thank EternallyCool for the above picture – from the British Times, probably – and for the link).

[Know more on Saturnalia by reading our two posts : 1 & 2]

Ψ

Now, this research blog being based on dialogue my friend Mario asked me a few questions. I solicited him to be slightly rude. I think he loved it. Here is an excerpt of our conversation that may provide some information on the nature of this blog, Man of Roma.

Mario. Yours is a thoughtful blog. Why the hell are you talking of dialectic thought? Sounds like one of those school nightmares. It is not at all clear.

MoR. I simply mean that in the Man of Roma’s blog thought unfolds like in a dialogue at three levels. First we have a dialogue in the mind of the writer, who is searching and striving for greater clarity. Since it is though necessary to get out of one’s mind’s boundaries, we also have a dialogue with external authors, dead or alive.

Mario. You mean books?

MoR. Yes, books, mostly. Good books in general, and classics in particular. We need to rise above the superficiality of every-day life. We need some depth in our daily routine. A good read allows to do this in a way accessible to all.

Books can fly. Fair use

Mario. Sounds so bookish. Is this what you’re proposing to the young? The ideal of the stuffy bookworm instead of the active person who delves into the real world?

MoR. Books imply some danger, like everything. If they are an excuse for escapism, they are no good medicine. We have to find inspiration in the Italian intellectuals of Humanism and Renaissance. Petrarch was writing letters to Livy and Cicero, who had lived more than one thousand years before him.

Mario. Checcavolo, are you sure?

MoR. Of course, and he was all but nuts. He started humanism. And when, after a few generations, Machiavelli returned home he used to take off his dusty clothes and after cleaning himself and wearing a decorous attire he entered his library in order to have dialogue with the minds of ancient men. He asked questions. They replied. Nothing bookish about it. These Renaissance men were looking for inspiration. They seemed to look at the past but they were preparing the future. Something not easy to understand today. It was this New Learning which empowered Europe. My method post explains in detail my view of dialectics. The importance of classics is also explained here and here.

Mario. I see. But aren’t you interested in a dialogue in real time with living people? (I think we can continue eating our Carbonara, what d’ya think?)

Pasta alla Carbonara. Courtesy of EternallyCool.net

MoR. (Savouring Carbonara with his good friend and sipping nice red wine from Cerveteri) Of course I am interested in living people, and here comes the third level, the dialogue with the readers of this blog, or with friends (like you), with colleagues, acquaintances. Real life conversation is delightful (Fontana Morella red – or white – wine is cheap but very good) though the experience of a blog written in English has been amazing. It has allowed me to engage dialogue with people from so many parts of the world: America, UK, India, Sri Lanka, Canada, China, Sweden etc. So stimulating and thrilling! (even though sometimes I talk too much)

[A long pause. Food needs its indulgent rite]

Mario. In short, your blog is based on the technique of dialectics which involves a dialogue carried out 1) within your mind, 2) among minds (mostly through books) and 3) with blog readers and people you meet in real life.

MoR. Yes, that’s the idea. Don’t know exactly where all this will take me, but it’s the core of it all. Being a dilettante philosopher (of the streets of Rome) I’m not content with just blogging, I need a method in my blogging. It remains to be seen if this will bring any fruit.

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We leave the small terrace overlooking the tiled Roman roofs. The air is fresh. It has been raining a lot recently.

Italian version

Related posts:

Method and Encounter with Magister
The Weird Story of a Beautiful Girl Whose Body Was Found Incorrupt in a Coffin

Survivals of the Roman Goddess Fortuna

Temple of Fortuna Primigenia in Praeneste
Temple of Fortuna Primigenia in modern Palestrina (ancient Praeneste)
Italian translation

We have been talking about survivals of the Roman religion.

Of the goddess Fortuna or goddess of Luck remain at least today 1) our recurrent personification of Fortune; 2) something of the oracular function of this deity, linked to future-telling; 3) one of her emblems, the wheel, a symbol of mutability in human life.

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1. Personification. When we use phrases like “they invoked their fortune” or “the tricks of fortune” we have here a personification of something capricious which is deeply impressed in our mind and that can be traced back to the ancient Roman goddess Fortuna.

A tetradrachm from Hardrian's (76 – 138 AD) time, with Fortuna holding rudder and cornucopia
A tetradrachm (a silver coin) from Hardrian’s (76 – 138 AD) times, with Fortuna holding rudder and cornucopia. Click for credits and for both sides of the coin

2. Future-telling. Not far from Rome, in Antium and in Praeneste, were two well-known shrines of the goddess Fortuna. The Romans went there to know about their future, among the rest. At the oracle in Praeneste connected to the impressive sanctuary (see remnants on top) of Fortuna Primigenia (the fortune of a firstborn child at the moment of birth), a small boy gave oak rods to temple-goers, called sortes (lots), with words on them that revealed their future.

Similarly, we go today to the ‘fortune teller’ to get predictions about our fortune, namely our future. If these two words, fortune and future, are synonyms in this context it is also because of the ancient oracular (future-telling) role of the Roman goddess Fortune.

Wheel of Fortune in Singapore. Fair use3. The Wheel of Fortune. I think very few spectators of the Wheel of Fortune, one of the most popular TV shows ever produced, suspect they are in front of a fossil from the ancient Romans. Fortuna was in fact often represented standing on a ball or close to a wheel indicating that our future is as uncertain as the random spinning of a wheel (or the random rolling of a sphere.) She also bore a cornucopia, which symbolized abundance, and a rudder as controller of man’s destiny (see Hardrian’s tetradrachm above.)

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Only the wheel though survived and this was probably due, among the rest, to the influence of a great book, Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, an author descendant of a noble Roman family which issued emperors and consuls.

The tomb of philosopher Severinus Boetius
The tomb of Roman philosopher Severinus Boetius (early 6th cent. AD) in the crypt of the church of San Pietro in Pavia, Italy (Wikipedia: click for source)

Cicero had already mentioned the wheel but it was Boethius’ philosophical work that made the goddess Fortune and her wheel so popular in the Middle Ages (read Boethius’ text here):

I know how Fortune is ever most friendly and alluring to those whom she strives to deceive, until she overwhelms them with grief beyond bearing, by deserting them when least expected … she turns her wheel of chance with haughty hand … This is her sport: thus she proves her power; if in the selfsame hour one man is raised to happiness, and cast down in despair,’ tis thus she shews her might.

The Benediktbeuernm, a monastery founded in 739 AD. The Carmina Burana manuscript was there found, later set to music by Carl Orff. Written mainly in Medieval Latin; a few in Old French and Provençal; some vernacular, Latin, German & French mixed up. Click for credits and to enlarge
The Benediktbeuernm, a monastery founded in 739 AD. The Carmina Burana manuscript was there found, later set to music by Carl Orff. Written mainly in Medieval Latin; a few in Old French and Provençal; some vernacular, Latin, German & French mixed up. Click for credits and to enlarge

We’ll conclude by mentioning how in 1803 AD some mostly-in-Latin medieval poems ( 228 ) were found in the Bavarian monastery of Benediktbeuern.

This collection, written around 1230 and now known as Carmina Burana, satirized the Church and was created by university students at a time when Latin was the European lingua franca. Some poems are dedicated to Fortuna and her wheel.

In 1937 the German composer Carl Orff put into music some of these texts. The most famous composition is “O Fortuna“, incidentally, which opens and closes the work.

While listening you might want to read the Latin original, with an English translation (source.)

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O Fortuna / velut luna
(O Fortune like the moon)
statu variabilis
(you are changeable)
semper crescis / aut decrescis;
(ever waxing and waning;)

vita detestabilis / nunc obdurat
(hateful life first oppresses)
et tunc curat / ludo mentis aciem,
(and then soothes as the sharp mind takes it;)
egestatem, / potestatem
(poverty and power)
dissolvit ut glaciem.
(it melts them like ice.)

Sors immanis / et inanis,
(Fate monstrous and empty,)
rota tu volubilis, / status malus,
(you whirling wheel, you are malevolent,)
vana salus / semper dissolubilis,
(well-being is vain and always fades to nothing,)
obumbrata / et velata
(shadowed and veiled)
michi quoque niteris;
(you plague me too;)
nunc per ludum / dorsum nudum
(now through the game I bring my bare back)
fero tui sceleris.
(to your villainy.)

Sors salutis / et virtutis / michi nunc contraria,
(Fate is against me in health and virtue,)
est affectus / et defectus
(driven on and weighted down,)
semper in angaria.
(always enslaved.)
Hac in hora / sine mora
(So at this hour without delay)
corde pulsum tangite;
(pluck the vibrating strings;)
quod per sortem / sternit fortem,
(since Fate strikes down the strong man,)
mecum omnes plangite!
(everyone weep with me!)

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

Related posts:

An additional note on Roman Fortuna
Survivals of Roman religion