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]
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.
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?)
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.
We leave the small terrace overlooking the tiled Roman roofs. The air is fresh. It has been raining a lot recently.
“I can see that these writings of mine are no more than the ravings of a man who has never done more than taste the outer crust of knowledge (…) and who has retained only an ill-formed generic notion of it: a little about everything and nothing about anything, in the French style.”
He then provides us with some information on his background:
“(…) I do also know how the sciences in general claim to serve us in our lives. But what I have definitely not done is to delve deeply into them (…) I have fashioned no sustained intercourse with any solid book except Plutarch and Seneca (…). My game-bag is made of history, rather, or poetry, which I love, being particularly inclined towards it;”
And here follows a vivid depiction of poetry effectiveness:
“For (as Cleanthes said) just as the voice of the trumpet rings out clearer and stronger for being forced through a narrow tube so too a saying leaps forth much more vigorously when compressed into the rhythms of poetry, striking me then with a livelier shock.”
(I am using the Penguin Classics edition, 2003, I:26, with its outstanding translation by M. A. Screech)
Good old Montaigne, writing openly and honestly about everything regarding life and man, from small trivia and anecdotes to truly deep meditations. His words are simple yet profound and personal. I love to browse randomly into his pages where one can read thousands of insightful passages, like the ones above that hit me yesterday.
Dear old Montaigne, a true magister for meditation (and consolation). A man of the street of the French Renaissance (well, I am exaggerating, he was cultured, well-off and retired to his castle lol). A French country intellectual in some way (he was not a Paris man) and his essays so damn close to a Renaissance blog which was continuously rewritten and constantly in progress. He in fact always gets back to his writings: why a blog, from the Renaissance or from today, should be thrown down instinctively? (I know many readers will not agree; I also am wavering between these two approaches).
He makes use 1) of French as the general medium and neutral language (French is sometimes a bit neutral, I’ll admit), 2) of the Guascon dialect for the most colourful passages, and finally 3) of Latin (mainly quotes) for the most noble themes.
Of course what also attracts us is his good choice of the ancient, classical Western philosophers, he being in fact such a gold mine of information about the Stoic, Skeptic and Epicurean thoughts, the ones we have some preference for (among the rest).
But he is not only that. Since he is a little about everything and nothing about anything: à la française.
Holden Caulfield, wandering without any destination, depressed, expelled from school (also for this reason he had secretly come to New York where he had gone through weird experiences), visits one of the few teachers who appreciated him, Mr. Antolini, an intelligent young man who had married a woman who was rich and much older than him (J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, Chapter 24). After the initial greetings, Antolini asks him:
“How’d you do in English? I’ll show you the door in short order if you flunked English, you little ace composition writer.”
“Oh, I passed English all right (…) I flunked Oral Expression, though (…).
“Oh, I don’t know (…) “It’s this course where each boy in class has to get up in class and make a speech. You know. Spontaneous and all. And if the boy digresses at all, you’re supposed to yell ‘Digression!” at him as fast as you can. It just about drove me crazy. I got an F in it.”
“Oh, I don’t know. That digression business got on my nerves. (…) The trouble with me is, I like it when somebody digresses. It’s more interesting and all.”
(…) The boys that got the best marks in Oral Expression were the ones that stuck to the point all the time – I admit it. But there was this one boy, Richard Kinsella. He didn’t stick to the point too much and they were always yelling ‘Digression!’ at him. It was terrible, because in the first place, he was a very nervous guy (…) When his lips sort of quit shaking a little bit, though, I liked his speeches better than anybody else’s. (…) For instance, he made this speech about this farm his father bought in Vermont. They kept yelling ‘Digression!’ at him the whole time he was making it (…) What he did was, Richard Kinsella, he’d start telling you all about that stuff – then all of a sudden he’d start telling you about this letter his mother got from his uncle, and how his uncle got polio and all when he was forty-two years old, and how he wouldn’t let anybody come to see him in the hospital because he didn’t want anybody to see him with a brace on. It didn’t have much to do with the farm – I admit it – but it was nice. It’s nice when somebody tells you about their uncle. Especially when they start out telling you about their father’s farm and then all of a sudden get more interested in their uncle. I mean it’s dirty to keep yelling ‘Digression!’ at him when he’s all nice and excited …. I don’t know. It’s hard to explain.” (…).
“Holden … One short, faintly stuffy, pedagogical question (…). Don’t you think if someone starts out to tell you about his father’s farm, he should stick to his guns, then get around to telling you about his uncle’s brace? Or, if his uncle’s brace is such a provocative subject, shouldn’t he have selected it in the first place as his subject – not the farm?”
“Yes – I don’t know. I guess he should. I mean I guess he should’ve picked his uncle as a subject, instead of the farm, if that interested him most. But what I mean is, lots of time you don’t know what interests you most till you start talking about something that doesn’t interest you most. I mean you can’t help it sometimes. What I think is, you’re supposed to leave somebody alone if he’s at least being interesting and he’s getting all excited about something. I like it when somebody gets excited about something. It’s nice. You just didn’t know this teacher, Mr. Vinson. (…) he’d keep telling you to unify and simplify all the time. Some things you just can’t do that to.”
Holden will then run into a further letdown since, after getting to bed and going to sleep in a room of his teacher’s house, he finds out how Mr. Antolini has an interest in him which goes beyond a teacher-to-pupil relationship
Waking up suddenly in the night he sees Mr. Antolini sitting in the dark very close to him and caressing his head. This cannot but increase his alienation from the world, when even the few good masters he has met (or fathers, each new generation needing fathers in the broad sense) have interest in him for reasons different in any case from the ones he had imagined.
The method of this blog is finding free inspiration in the technique of dialectics (διαλεκτική ) possibly invented by Socrates and Plato something like 2,400 years ago.
[2014 update : much earlier, and not only in the West; see Indian dialetic]
As far as we know dialectics is primarily based on thought discussing with itself in an effort to reach constantly better conceptions, such inner dialogue being though not obvious here since what readers actually get is just a sequence of apparently unrelated writings.
The point is our posts are connected by mental links, and writings and ideas within them bounce on one another in quick or lazy succession, thus answering, contradicting, integrating one another and now and then considering previous-post themes from different angles or even entirely diverse views.
What’s more, in the context of one single post, questions and answers or different opinions can at times coexist, this conflict/dialogue being actually the core of ancient dialectics.
A further layer of complexity – as we havesaid before – is provided by the delectable game of free associations, which, pleasant or not, is part of our inborn cognitive style.
Risk of Bewitching Chaos
Thought in progress, we believe, is a better self-improvement tool than finished and sedentary conclusions. The risk here is chaos, or irrationality. We hope though to attain some consistency:
a. because of the nature of dialectics itself, tending from heterogeneity towards unity (see Dialectics 3);
b. because our ideas are not thrown down at random, links among them being stimulated by inner themes we have been meditating in the years and presumably of biographical origin;
c. because almost all our interests have come (though changing over time) from an sudden germination.
We are referring to a crucial encounter that took place in Rome, 35 years ago (see Dialectics 3).
Dialogue Among Minds
Now, reason discussing with itself doesn’t exclude dialogue with others, since dialectic sees in fertile dialogue among thinking people the highest expression of cognitive exploration.
We have conversed with people of any cultural level, even a few top brains, their ideas interacting with ours in many ways. Plus we digest tons of debates in the media.
In any case, however we put it, we cannot have what Socrates or Plato had. Being not big shots of thought we cannot invite to dinner the great intellectuals of our time on a weekly, monthly or even quarterly basis. What an awful stress it would be (we are reserved,) although, let’s be frank, it’s not that they wouldn’t accept, it’s just they wouldn’t even notice we are inviting them.
[And how silly to even think of having what Socrates or Plato had. Today even top think-tank people cannot enjoy those sublime, holistic symposiums, for the simple reason that knowledge today is too massive and appallingly – though necessarily – specialized.]
So, not being able to recreate a circle with big intellectuals, this virtual Symposiumis what is left to us. It involves a certain number of ‘virtual guests.’
A virtual guest is a quotation or just a reference to a book passage. This is exactly what we mean by a virtual guest. The ideas of an author, dead or alive, participate in the discussion thanks to the greatest invention of all time: Writing.
Read how this young (and uncouth) Roman helps me explain this “Virtual Symposium & Writing” concept. We locked horns a bit, like males sometimes do, but the fight was worthwhile. Yes, we think it was worthwhile.
Quotes and Text Authority
“What are you talking about – argues Arthur Schopenhauer – quoting is copying other people’s ideas”.
Well, it can be, but my quoting is different. First of all it is the feedback and interaction with a writer’s ideas, as I said. I don’t see any copying in confrontation of ideas towards a richer knowledge.
There’s another thing though, personal this time. Take Braudel: “Great civilisation never die”. Or Augias-Zola: “Was Rome ever Christian?”. These were things inside of me since a long time and lurking their way out, i.e. trying to be expressed in clear words. I mean, when I quote an author it is often because he/she can better express what I had already felt but not verbally formulated, hence not totally clarified yet. It is a verbalization of intuitions I ask others to help me bring out. When I’m reading, I’m often struck by something. It’s cannibalism, or autism – a friend once told me. Well, I don’t really know, readers, I am not kidding.
One thing I though know is I hateexegesis of texts, a plague in Italian and foreign universities. What they call research over here is nothing but this totally moronic self-referential game of he-said-she-said, research and exams regarding “only what another earlier authority thought” (quote from John Brockman.) I really do hate exegeses, and most of the time I invoke the authority of nobody. I can invoke the big heros of thought like Goethe, and honour them as virtual guests in my living room, as a guarantee of non superficiality at least.
But my quotations can be derived from Dante, Plutarch, Dan Brown, Bugs Bunny or Homer (Simpson, lol). No matter their origin, they are interesting to me to the extent that they clarify lumpy mind stuff still at an intuition stage (= not translated into logos = reason = words). This lumpy mind stuff, well, keeps bugging me and asking to pls be let out of its irrational status.
Thus being said, it is high time we introduce this great Roman to you. Since from the day this crucial encounter took place our life changed completely, the present blog is dedicated to him.
It is dedicated to our beloved mentor, or Magister, writer, philosopher, outstanding educator.
Maybe some readers are expecting him, so here he comes. Welcome, Magister!
Dialectics 3. Magister.
The Manifold longing for Unity
My ideas started fermenting the day I encountered Magister 35 years ago. It was a rainy day. Rome is so smelly when it rains. I went to this place where he delivered lectures, close to the Tiber, the sacred river of Rome. He was already very old, with long white hair and beard, eyes penetrating. Italy was all a huge debate in the roaring 1970s (I am listening to Pink Floyd‘s Dark Side of the Moon album to relive the feel of those days.)
Magister talked softly most of the time, the silence of the audience being absolute, even embarrassing at times. When he though got angry his voice became like thunder almost, eyes flashing.
I will never forget him. I was an ugly duckling when I met him. Not that he made a swan out of me, lol, but he taught me much, basically by having me understand I had the means to be a free man by just making use of my mind and will.
I do not know if I was a good pupil.
I left family to find my fortune. Unfortunate are the young who never find magistri.
I won’t reveal his identity – not that he would mind, he being no more, his ashes scattered somewhere in this eternal city he loved so much. I adored him and I was not the only one to cry over his ashes. There are reasons for not revealing his identity.
What I can say is just repeating this: to him I really owe a lot. Last but not least this love for knowledge, this curiosity or craving, don’t know how to phrase it – this chilly charming language being so difficult for a non mother-tongue.
I mean, this cultural hedonism which tends to auto-organization and which in defiance of age is constantly growing instead of abandoning my soul (cultural = related to knowledge, as people in France, Spain, Italy mean it).
Plus, of course, I owe him this dialectic method.
From that day this process of spontaneous philosophy started going through alternate phases though basically it never stopped (well, almost never.)
Not a big deal, after all. Magister was a disciplined intellectual while I was too whimsical, too eclectic. I (re)turned to music, failing in this economically. I hence turned to high-school teaching and freelance journalism, which proved one of the best things I ever did in my life (teaching), while journalism being somewhat superficial to my taste it basically turned to be good training for writing (plus it taught me that success, even a tiny bit, is a powerful drug.)
Ok, journalism despite a bit of glory produced zero money. And teaching, well, teachers in this country are among the worst paid, the Italian ruling class caring about keeping power mostly and being not much interested in instructing the common people – who might understand how they are manipulated by all parties, left and right, and by the mass-media.
This is why I finally turned to computer engineering, which produced more money but also gave a bit of a blow to this spontaneous philosophical process. Or maybe not?
“Ok, this story about Magister is moving, your failures a bit less, being pathetic. Don’t you realise you are a digression maniac not sticking to the point and forgetting about dialectics and its tendency towards unity?”
No, I didn’t forget my point. The encounter with Magister in fact (and the sudden germination it produced) might hopefully help me to fulfill this longing for some unity which after all is the ultimate goal of any dialectics.
In other words, dear dear Magister, this imprinting I owe you makes me hope this quirky research of mine could somehow be fulfilled.
Life is a comedy, not a tragedy.
Dialogue with readers
We know too well our topics are too heavy for the common reader while too unsophisticated for the happy few. Unfortunately the interests of readers are flocking towards entertainment, actors, gossip. So how many hits will I have? Very little. Not that I care much – well, I do a bit, but not so much. I am doing this just for fun, as Linus Torvalds said in his book about Linux.
And it’s such great fun, believe me, this philosophical folly!
Although, do not take me too seriously, please. Life is a comedy, not a tragedy, it shouldn’t be zu schwer, too grave (well, it is better to see it this way. Watch Benigni’sLa vita è bella. Life is beautiful, or at least it could always be if we make use of will and imagination.
The autumn of life is a phase one should 1) do lots of sports and 2) use one’s brain extensively to keep it fit. And here, it is my opinion and personal taste, humanities & holistic thought, rather than specialised thought, are much much better for rewiring one’s synapses.
Wait, I forgot the completion element of blog dialectics:readers’ comments!
Hits might be negligible, but a few readers are arriving. The intriguing Indians came first, so unpredictable (since the Far East is really far.) Then one ex student of mine from USA, a great and totally eccentric guy living in Rome and who left one comment on my very first post. One Chinese woman too. China! She talked about mysterious things like vowels in Mandarin and Cantonese. A sweet person rich in emotions, which contradicts what many Italians think of the Chinese people, aliens with marble faces. Finally one first Italian guy (!), Massimo from Viterbo. That area is north of Rome but still in Latium, where the Etruscans lived and met the Romans. Might be promising.
In the end this blogging mixes up my ideas, authors’ ideas and readers’ ideas. [Plato’s dialectics? Yes, though revised a bit.]
Now be patient enough to listen to Man of Roma’s (delirious?) conclusion …
Dinners on a Roman Terrace.
Let us have fun!
Let us have fun, my delectable guests. Let us imagine we are in early summer when the evening sea breeze, or ponentino, is delightful. I’m inviting you all from every country, era space, location. I am inviting you ALL to this imaginary Roman terrace, overlooking the eternal city‘s glorious skyline.
Rome (loose woman and she-wolf) is watching attentive. Is she smiling?
Dinner after dinner, amid flowers perfumed and smells from dishes exquisite, in front of a breathtaking spectacle of glories and defeats, coming from a civilization of hard & refined conquerors, who always accepted those who were diverse, and their gods, and their creeds, and philosophies and manners …
Right here, dear guests of mine, let us enjoy our life a bit!
Away from all the sorrows, away from all the pains, let us discuss on themes light, silly and severe.
Good food will not be missing, together with good music (another needed guest, of course) and plenty of good wine and, no real objection to a pot of beer (or cervesia), once in a while.
Playing being simple, playing being easy. All it takes is good food, good music and treasured company most of all!
While I was writing, music and red vino di Montalcino were helping me to fly high.
“Diary-writing isn’t wholly good for one … It leads to living for one’s diary instead of living for the fun of living as ordinary people do”. James Agate 1877-1947, British drama critic and novelist.
Regardless of the fact that diary-writing can be part of the fun of living, the observation is certainly appropriate, since when dealing with actions or passions in life our challenge is always the right measure, and even when we sometimes (or often) wallow in them (our passions etc.) it is good we keep this well in mind.
Life, generally, should be something harmonious where a single part should never devour the rest. A thing like that can of course occur and the results be sometimes outstanding – as it happens with those geniuses who are such only because they concentrate all their potential on one single point. This kind of disharmony though hardly brings happiness.
Note to some comments to this post. I had commented on this blog’s post Buddhist thought of the day with some thoughts about Buddhism: “I am not religious but I think that Buddhism, compared with other religions, is more endowed to confront with modern science…since, as Dalai Lama says, “it grants maximum authority to experience, secondly to reason and only lastly to scriptures”. This is why Indian xntricpundits has sent me these comments on Buddhism and not on diary-writing.