Do Music and Numbers Pervade the Universe? A Night of Dionysian Revelry

As you know I have been musing on Pythagoras of Samos recently (Ὁ Πυθαγόρας ὁ Σάμιος). I wrote about him in my blog and in other blogs.

P was a great mathematician. Now it turns almost all bloggers MoR has been discussing with (also on P) have some math capabilities. MoR has instead very little. So he asked his friend Extropian for help.

Extropian is laconic and doesn’t like blogs. So he first sent this movie and just said: “This stuff is Pythagorean.”

He then added: “Here following is the rationale behind the movie.”

He also sent me this paper on Pythagoras & Eugene Wigner that requires a degree in physics to figure out what the hell it means.

Finally he linked to another movie and declared:

“You (more or less) are a pianist but you’ll always be longing for the strings of a guitar, of a violin or of a lute. Pythagoras started a new world-view with the strings of a lyre. You may like this.”

I hope this will not be the music of the future (only because it sounds too robotic). But the 3d animation intuitively shows better than any book on acoustics the relation between the string lengths and the sounds: ie by pressing the strings the robotic fingers change their lengths which produces a change in pitch.

And my friend is right. From the age of 12 I was a decent guitarist then I turned into a pianist at 18, a big mistake, one out of many.

A Crazy Night of Revel

In the spring of 1995 – I’m only apparently digressing – my wife and I came back home from a party. Oh we had had such fun! She though went straight to bed being tired from a hard day at her office. I remained alone in the living room, feeling weird and restless.

There I saw my electronic keyboard, a Korg 01 WFD – now prehistoric – connected to a Mac and two Protei (Proteus 1 and 2.) Before laying my hands on the glowing keys I knew what I needed that night: fat strings sounds more than just piano sounds.

The result was a dozen improvisations that lead to nowhere (l’improvvisazione non porta a nulla, in italiano) and sound now so badly because of analogical worn out tapes and especially when compared to the pro stuff you’ve heard above. They though retain a personal value to me and they ex-press (in the literal meaning of ‘squeeze out’) one of the most authentic musical revelry I ever experienced in my life.

I mean, if Dionysus-Bacchus ever exists I’m pretty sure I met him that night. Another mysterious Dionysian experience is described here. And, Pythagoras and the Dionysian cult are connected, so no digression as I said (in fact Pythagoras was a reformer of Orphism via science. Orpheus was a reformer via music of the religion of Dionysos, the god of wine and unrestrained madness).

3-4 pieces out of 12 I still like a bit. I’m waiting for my digital DAT recorder to be repaired so I can have better sources for my musical ramblings.

Here are 2 from that night in .mp3 format.


Related posts:

Two Piano Improvisations

Over at Richardus’. Are Men and Women Born Different or Do They Become Such?

Who are we, how do we get our gender identity? Click for credits

We were having a conversation over at Richardus’ coffee shop together with Dafna, Geraldine, Sledpress, Cheri, Cyberquill and Paul Costopoulos on several topics, from Alan Turing (his mathematical genius and homosexuality) to ethology – founded by the Austrian Nobel prizes Konrad Lorenz and Karl von Frisch and by the Dutch-born British Nobel prize Nikolaas Tinbergen – and up to studies comparing animal and human behaviour (human ethology).

ψ

At one point, referring to the sad case of Turing, Richardus observed:

“The story certainly taught me to accept wholly those who are harmless but different. This quiet, troubled, self-effacing, honourable genius leaves a great legacy.”

[For the sake of discussion] I replied:

“Most of those who are different are harmless. We often assume a priori that what is different is harmful. An evolutionary defence mechanism I guess. In stone age we lived in small tribes and whenever we stumbled upon someone very different 90% he / she was dangerous. Such behaviours are not easily erased but they can be overcome in some way and they should. … blah blah”.

Alan Turing
Alan Turing. Image via Wikipedia

And I mentioned ethology (a kind of evolutionary psychology.)

Sledpress: “Oh I want to know more. Some of the most enlightening things I have ever read have involved the concept of hard wired brain responses to the environment.”

Dafna: “dear MoR, thank you for the term human ethology. i will research the topic. it may shed some light on my own condition. is it a respected field?”

MoR: “Dafna,‘respected’ is a relative concept. Who is respecting? K. Lorenz and the rest are more studied in Europe than in the US for example.”

I am convinced many clashes between men and women would be avoided (or sort of) if we understood that the two genders are hard-wired differently and if each gender studied the ‘other wiring’ since school.”

K. Lorenz shared the 1973 Nobel Prize with N. Tinbergen and K. von Frisch for their studies on social behaviour patterns in animals

Paul Costopoulos: “You mean men and women are different? Hide MoR, you are in danger.”

Sledpress: “Good Lord we all know men and women are different. Women don’t kick their used underwear under the bed.”

Richardus:

Love, love, love
Is just like a Settlers Powder
Two little packets of different hue
Men in the white
Women in blue
It’s all right if you keep them apart
The only danger is
As soon as you put them together
FZZZZ – they start to fizz.”

Sledpress: “Actually, to be perfectly serious, I think it’s important to remember that we are more alike than we are different. If you want me to throw something, just mention the name of John Gray, that ‘Men Are From Mars Women Are From Venus’ guy. He even seems to know how I like to have sex. He thinks.”

Simone de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir. Via Wikipedia. Click for image source and credits

MoR: “I agree with you Sled. ‘We are more alike than we are different’ as you say. Don’t we belong to the same species??

Let us leave alone those male imbeciles who think they know women better than women themselves: they don’t.

When for ex. Simone de Beauvoir affirms that “one is not born a woman but one becomes one” … as if being feminine (or masculine) were a sheer cultural construct, well, well, well …

[I wanted to add (but didn’t): as if, had I been forced to play with dolls, now I’d chase boys … actually it’s like I were (kinda) forced into dolls, with two sisters and 8 female cousins ALL of us often living together. That is why my next writing will consist of a poem I wrote some time ago in honour of my ‘eldest brother’, ie my best male friend from the age of 4 till 18]

Man and Woman, less different than we think, but different nonetheless. Click for image attribution

I mean, we men have penises, beards, different silhouettes etc… Women have vaginas, swollen breasts, less body hair as a tendency, different silhouettes (God be blessed). Last but not least different DNA chromosome structures (XX-XY).

How can we assume behaviour is unrelated to such physical differences and only culturally determined. We need evidence etc. etc.

Which brings us again to ethology among the rest which by comparing dozens of different species (there including humans) – as Darwin suggested – also as for their sexual behaviours etc. etc. …”

ψ

Ora nel prossimo post la poesia al mio fratello maggiore.

Roba da anni 50s-60s? Certo, ricorda quel periodo. Vedrete però voi.

The Strange Story of Manius, the Last Roman Soldier in Britannia

Asterix Roman soldier. Click for credits and to enlarge

A silly story I wrote over at The Critical Line, where Richard, a witty lawyer from London, entertains his guests with his vast knowledge and adorable English humour.

Richard though has a problem.

He’s terribly profound in mathematics and so are many of his guests who seem to share the same horrible contagion.

But, it’d be fair to say, I am the one to have a big problem, and, what is this tale but a burst of frustration because of my mathematical ineptitude?

The Tale of Manius

English sheep. Photo by Bernard Durfee (2008). Click for credits and to enlarge

Britannia, 526 CE, in a parallel (and almost identical) universe.

The Western Roman Empire has collapsed. Angles, Saxons and Jutes are invading the Roman province of Britannia from the East. All continental Roman soldiers have gone – but the Romano-Celtic in the West are resisting bravely. Only Manius Papirius Lentulus from Roma has stayed. He lives with the barbarians but risks nothing since he’s considered innocuous by the Angles (or Angli as he says in his language.)

The last Roman soldier has made friends with a few of them: Richard (whom Manius sometimes calls Britannia), Dafna (happened there from a far away land), Cheri, Mr. Crotchety and Phil. In their abstruse language – that Manius understands a bit – they sometimes call him MoR (or, in their weird but cute Latin, Roma.)

A goose has just died for occult reasons MoR isn’t willing to investigate.

A Melodious Sequence, 1,2,3…

Manius felt sorry for the poor goose but also curious about how Cheri might prepare it for lunch.

Approaching Mr. Crotchety he told him he had been so lentus and had forgotten he had something important to tell him.

Dafna was weirdly chanting a melodious sequence of numbers:

“1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8″.

Getting closer in rapture MoR noticed Richard and Phil approaching her as well. Her song seemed the usual diatonic scale kids learn by just pressing the white keys of a keyboard, do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-si-do.

But MoR couldn’t figure out a kinda weirdness in that melody, so a stupid look froze in his face. Richard’s smile became sly instead. Phil was scribbling like crazy on a roll of papyrus.

Britannia finally lost his patience and shoved an elbow into Roma’s ribs.

“Ouch Richard!! Are you crazy??”

Then it finally hit Roma. That devil of a woman!! She was chanting her sequence according to an ancient tuning!

“Yes – said Richard triumphantly – it is the Pythagorean tuning based on a stack of perfect fifths, each tuned in the ratio 3:2. The Babylonian tuning, actually, more than 1 thousand years older than Pythagoras. Starting from D for example, the A is tuned such that the frequency ratio of A and D is 3:2, so if D is tuned to 288 Hz, then the A is tuned to 432 Hz, the E above A is also …..”

Dafna interrupted Richard with an odd smile:

“What he means – she said – is that the Pythagorean love for proportions is evident in this scale’s construction, as all of its tones may be derived from interval frequency ratios based on the first three integers: 1, 2, 3. Isn’t that amazing?”

Surrounded, Outsmarted

Roma felt trapped.

He was surrounded by the Angli and their allies. And they were ALL mathematicians!!

He began to panic. The last Roman soldier in Britannia, outnumbered, outsmarted, began to run wildly uphill and got lost among the sheep never to be seen again.

Sheep in English countryside. Click for credits and to enlarge

The Legend of Roma Continues

A legend says Roma took seven Anglia wives and mixed his blood with the natives.

“Why seven?” asked the Anglia kid to his Anglia grandfather.

The tribe was sitting before a big fire. The summer night was full of stars.

“Because seven is a magic number” replied the Anglia grandfather showily. “The seven hills of Rome, the seven wonders of the world, Jesus saying to Peter to forgive seventy times seven times.”

“But seven – added the Anglia cutie – is also the fourth prime number. It is not only a Mersenne prime (since 23 − 1 = 7) but also a double Mersenne prime since it is itself the exponent for another Mersenne prime, ie 127.”

ψ

The Anglia Grandfather paled.

It’s like he saw all his life fall apart in a second. His mind went back to the time when a Roman soldier had fled wildly uphill and had got lost among the sheep.

Even the Anglia kids!! Even THEM!!

His flight had been useless.

That same feeling of panic, of claustrophobia pervaded him.

He was trapped. Trapped forever.

Oh No, Another Vacation!

An imaginary conversation between my friend Extropian and myself. Things said though are real.

M: “I have swine flu, damn!
M: “I’m taking a vacation. Hope it will be short.”
E: “Short? Don’t you love vacations?”
M: “Oh I do, but sometimes, one really gets to hate vacations, especially when you just came from one.”

Ψ

Bad joke, I know, and the whole world around me appears bad now too.

So I’ll see you in a few days, my dear readers (I hope.) AND, just in case, I’ll disable discussion moderation.

*Satanic laugh*

NOW guys, you’re finally FREE to VENT all you always wanted to VENT!

😦

The Last Days of the Polymath

An earlier post kicked off an interesting conversation on the meaning of the word ‘culture’.

Dev, Lichanos, Andreas Kluth, the Commentator, Paul Costopoulos, sledpress, Rosaria, zeusiswatching – all were so nice to participate.

Being ‘cultured’ – we discussed – does it make any sense today? Why does it call up “stuffy, out-of-date rich people in drawing rooms?” in the English-speaking countries (Lichanos,) while it is still (a bit) appreciated in Italy France or Germany?

Apart from any possible European snobbery, elitism – being a ‘man of culture’ is not bad in my view and it is not elitist in that it can now be extended to the great number, this great number now watching realities – while they could buy a library only kings could afford in the past: something like a failure to me, not many doubts about it.

Only less than a century ago the Marxists, in their utopian folly, desired the totally developed man for everybody, which Antonio Gramsci adapted with his mass Leonardo da Vinci concept, that I always found fascinating.

The problem now is that a modern (mass or non mass) Leonardo is less viable because we know a lot more in so many more fields.

So the big gurus or maîtres à penser, providing the big picture people are so hungry for, are disappearing. Void is advancing and people, more and more confused, fall into the hands of organizations like Scientology and similar.

However, is this trend really inevitable, one may wonder?

Here is a conversation over at Lichanos’ – Journey to Perplexity.

It is about the death of the polymath and it started around Lichanos’ excellent review of “2001 a Space Odyssey” by Stanley Kubrick.

Lichanos. Dev, thanks for the kind words, and I am very happy that you find my reviews interesting! I am a civil engineer – no connection to the film industry at all, but I came to my profession by way of studying philosophy and art history, so I am not, so I am told, a “typical” engineer.

Such a background used to be unremarkable for engineers, say, 60 or 100 years ago, but today, at least in the USA, it is unusual.

Dev. I know what you mean. I think that’s unusual every where in the world nowadays. Even considering the fact that all science and engineering had it’s foundation in philosophy earlier. I mean many scientists in the earlier times were originally philosophers.
But, I’m sure you are a very good civil engineer too.
Should I tell you that I studied Electronics Engineering in my undergrad too. 🙂
But I never worked as an engineer..
Anyways, I look forward to go through many of your earlier posts -especially the film/literature related ones- in the coming days.

Man of Roma. Lichanos, you are definitely not a ‘typical’ engineer. Dev, I don’t know you enough to say something.

We are shifting from Kubrick, but you are both evoking the polymath, he who knows a lot about a lot. This essay The Last Days of the Polymath is a good read (though Western-centric) and describes how the polymath is disappearing.

We Europeans had always the impression that this prevalence of specialization is due to America and her big influence. Although it may be simply necessary, with a corpus of knowledge so greatly expanding.

It seems clear, Dev, that by today’s standards many scientists of the past were polymaths.

Polymath is an English term. In Italy we say ‘tuttologo’ etc. Polymathy is still a bit ingrained in the Latin countries curricula. The ‘Liceo classico’ in Italy still educates the young in this way, probably because the universal-man ideal, the ‘homo universalis’, was developed during the Italian Renaissance – one example, I like to think, where being provincial could be an advantage.

ψ

I was hit in fact some time ago by a review on a book, Genes, Peoples, and Languages by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. The review was written by Jared Diamond, an American I think. Cavalli-Sforza is an Italian who started at Stanford a revolution in human genetics from the 1960s onward and basically proved that ‘races’ do not exist.

“It would be a slight exaggeration – argues Jared Diamond – to say that L.L. Cavalli-Sforza studies everything about everybody, because actually he is ‘only’ interested in what genes, languages, archaeology, and culture can teach us about the history and migrations of everybody for the last several hundred thousand years.”

The Indians should be naturally born polymaths, due to their holistic approach, although today, with the speed of their economic development, they seem somewhat obliged to imitate the Westerners and be monomaths as well. But there are so many polymaths over there!

Man of Roma. My comment was not a paean to my country. It was a paean to the Greek Paideia and the Roman Humanitas, where the Renaissance man comes from.

Polymathy as a tendency is also dangerous, it encourages flitting around, dabbling, people who cannot stick at anything (I know it too well), Giacomo Casanova (mentioned in the essay) being a high-level example of it: he was good in mathematics, in philosophy and theology, but not too good.

A metaphor in the said essay that I liked: flirting, promiscuity – they are no good. It’s the real polygamy, the numerous & deeply lived marriages that make a real polymath.

I digressed. I’ll then add Kubrick was a genius and had a tendency towards polymathy, as the amazing variety of his films attests – Spartacus, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, 2001, A Clockwork Orange etc. – as well as his passion for music, photography, he also being a great producer & marketing man (I heard at the radio he used to commercialize all the gadgets of his movies by himself, the heart-shaped glasses Sue Lyon wore, for example.)

Lichanos. Dev, MoR: No need to apologize for digressing here! If not here, where can we let our minds and conversation wander?

I love that word tuttologo!! Better than polymath, which sounds so dry to my ear. As for being spread too thinly, comme une dilettante, in English there is a saying, “Jack of all trades, master of none…” Still, the culture of the amateur and the dilettante are attractive to me as long as there is not too much superficiality.

I recall reading a critique of Voltaire once, I forget by whom, that railed against him: “The man has opinions on everything!” The implication was that he was flippant and felt the need to pronounce on all topics, even if he was formulaic. The size of his collected works was presented as evidence. Perhaps something there, but he was quite deep enough of the time to redeem himself, perhaps.

Regarding the engineering profession, I must say, 1st: I never could understand electrical circuits beyond the most basic. I understand water systems, and everyone says that they are similar, but not for me! 2nd: My father, retired, is an electrical engineer. He once drove me past an old industrial building in downtown Brooklyn where he said he worked at one of his first jobs after WWII. They build a computer there and had to knock down an exterior wall to get it out!

Louvre Pyramid, Paris, by architect I. M. Pei. Click to enlarge and for credits

In the pre-WWII days, “patrician” familes were happy to send their sons to engineering school. Now they only become lawyers or MBAs. It was a status profession. Some say that the dominance of corporate industry after WWII succeeded in capturing the educational institutions and molding them to its own ends, i.e., the production of ready-made technicians in large supply to keep wages lower. There is something to it. Within my sort of engineering, there is still a sort of envy of doctors and lawyers who used to be seen as gods, and are still, on TV at least, seen as worthy of celebrity and dramatic presentation. They tend to earn a lot more too! On the other hand, architects, a definite prestige profession here, get paid much less than engineers and always cut each other’s throats competing for business. I think the solution to this economic, status “problem” is to make it harder to become an engineer, to require additional liberal arts training in addition to the technical curriculum. This would restrict supply, but this is not popular position. Thus, the griping about “low status” and complaints that “nobody really knows what engineers do,” go on.

I conclude with a favorite quote of mine from volume I of the Gulag Archipelago:

An engineer? I had grown up among engineers,and I could remember the engineers of the
twenties very well indeed: their open shining intellects, their free and gentle humor, their
agility and breadth of thought, the ease with which they shifted from one engineering field
to another, and, for that matter, from technology to social concerns and art. Then,
too, they personified good manners and delicacy of taste; well-bred speech that flowed evenly
and was free of uncultured words; one of them might play a musical instrument, another dabble
in painting; and their faces always bore a spiritual imprint.

Dev. MoR and Lichanos, wow, what a discussion and exchange of thoughts going on!

MoR: Thanks for sharing your views on polymaths. I agree with you that for most people trying to be polymaths is not a good idea. I mean one life is hardly long enough to do one thing properly, so dabbling in various things is never easy. But then, the best of the people have been, in some ways, polymaths. You are very right that Kubrick was in a sense a polymath. Each of his films were so different from each other in terms of genre, treatment etc. What made him special was that he was a chameleon. Nobody could really guess what to expect from his films. He was an excellent photographer and editor too. Plus, as you mentioned, he took great interest in the marketing of his films, even designing the promos and posters.

Lichanos: Nice to read your views. My father is a civil engineer and was a good one. Well, understanding circuits was never easy for me either. I guess I concluded it years back when I finished my engineering that most people are not ready to become an engineer at the tender age of 18. I somehow finished my degree in time and tried to get away from the engineering side of things as soon I got an opportunity. Not because I looked down at engineering, rather I thought it deserved so much respect and discipline that I’m not ready for it. Sadly, most engineering schools across the world just make assembly line engineers who can get decent jobs and raise a family. But, not really nurturing questioning/scientific minds.

Similar to what you quoted in the end, even when my father graduated in the late 60’s in India, they used to be proud of their engineering degrees; even more than the doctors or even the bureaucrats of those times. This is not really true anymore.

Man of Roma. Dev and Lichanos: you both then confirm that engineers are declining socially. Damn. My youngest daughter is graduating in civil engineering! 😉

Lichanos. Dev: On Engineers – yes, I think you hit it right on the head. BTW, I didn’t go to school to get an engineering degree until I was 23 or so. I NEVER could have made it at 18, even if I’d wanted to!!
MoR: I’m sure your daughter will do just fine. Everyone wants things built right! If she works in the field, on-site, it’s very much in demand, but a very demanding job! I could not stand it, I’m sure. I look out my window at the World Trade Center site and think, “How the HELL do they get everything to come together on time?” I’d have a nervous breakdown.

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

Previous installment:

Culture, Kultur, Paideia

Related posts:

American Engineer, German Philosopher & French Politician: Gramsci’s Ideal Blend for the Modern Leonardo da Vinci
Democracy, Liberty & the Necessity of a Solid Education of the People

Themes from Man of Roma

The Roman Forum. Click for credits and larger image

I’d love to know
How things got to be
How they are.

[Marilyn Monroe]

Ψ

Here is a first selection of themes from Man of Roma. Each link leads to pages with excerpts from our posts that illustrate the chosen themes. I couldn’t get much into the conversations kicked off by the posts for lack of time. You can have a look yourself since lots of additional materials are in the comments area of the linked posts.

This page is meant for those interested in finding their bearings in the ideas of this blog. You will notice leitmotivs that circulate and I have also chosen themes related to one another.

Another theme selection – to be published not immediately, I don’t want to lose all my readers – will regard the relationships between South and North Europe, Europe and North America, East and West, Great Britain and the Continent and much more.

Ψ

The Human Mind is Like a Museum
The human mind is like a museum since it contains almost infinite traces of past conceptions, from Stone Age onwards. Words, language are an important portion of this museum, but lots of things are there that go way beyond words. In short, a huge disorganized archive we have in our heads and that we should inventory. It’s the activity of this blog, a little bit.

The Legacy of Rome
Rome is the city of the soul (as Byron and Victor Hugo put it,) of our authentic Western soul, since Europe and the West were shaped here, and Rome’s legacy is greater than we think.

Folks of the Mediterranean Sea
The Italian and Roman soul is intimately tied to the folks of the Mediterranean. We are all related. Food, plants and plenty of traditions are similar. On a long-period perspective we belong to the same historical stream, to the same area from which some of the great civilizations have germinated on this side of the planet. Of course there are differences among us, but we are not so dissimilar as someone might (or likes to) think. Many behaviours, defined for example as Islamic, actually belong to the ancient past of Mare Nostrum, the context and stage of all that made us the way we are.

Influences of the Classical World
The Greco-Roman classical civilization has moulded the world we live in today. Influences and survivals can be seen in behaviours, arts etc.

Sex and the City (of Rome)
An exploration of Greco-Roman sexuality and of what is left today of such different mores. I have dedicated a series of 5 posts (out of 105) to this theme but the series is always in the ‘top posts’ list on the right column. I wonder why.
I have tried to understand how alien Greco-Roman sex can be vis-à-vi contemporary sexuality, and why things have changed so much since then.

Dialogue Among Civilisations
Some communication has occurred with non Western people, very enriching though not always easy. Great civilizations tend to close-up a bit – noble gases, Ashish, one witty commenter of this blog, called them –  they being like complete in themselves. We had good connection with the Indians. Their good English has helped. Rediscovering one’s heritage doesn’t exclude others, quite the contrary. It means having something peculiar to transmit, in order to be able, in our turn, to receive.

“The deeper one goes into one’s own experience – argued Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan – […] the more does one’s experience have in common with the experiences of others […]. The most unique is the most universal. The dialogues of Buddha or of Plato, the dramas of Sophocles, the plays of Shakespeare are both national and universal. The more profoundly they are rooted in historical traditions, the more uniquely do they know themselves and elicit powerful responses from others.”

Survivals of Roman Religion
When talking about religion it is important to understand that history and faith, science and theology fly on different planes and shouldn’t be confused. By Roman religion we mean any cult that was followed in ancient Rome, also foreign ones. As an example, the cult of the Anatolian Kybele, the great mother-goddess, was established on the Palatine Hill in 210 BC, according to Livy. To the historian, anthropologist etc. the number of Roman religion survivals is impressive.

Crisis of Values in Affluent Countries
We all here in the West must encourage a totally new different attitude which can enable us to better face both our present crisis of values and the radical changes ahead which might cause our swift decline. In Europe especially religion is waning and people sometimes embrace weird beliefs (see below Neo-pagan underground temples in Northern Italy.) Rich countries should be full of happy people, all the requirements for happiness (or serenity) being present. Nonetheless one has the impression that often void rules and that people don’t know any more which are the right choices in everyday life.

Neo-pagan stunning temples secretly carved out below ground in Northern Italy. Click for source file (Daily Mail)

The Greco-Roman Roots of the West
Similar to the ‘Influences of the Classical World’ but seen from a different viewpoint.

Traces of Paganism in Italians
Sometimes Italians, especially from the South, are considered superstitious. Whatever we mean by this word, these superstitions seem often remnants of the Greco-Roman past. Italians were highly civilized long before Christianity arrived (9-10 centuries earlier,) while many Northern Europeans became civilised together with, and thanks to, Christianity. This couldn’t be without consequences.

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

The Weird Story of a Beautiful Girl Whose Body Was Found Incorrupt in a Coffin

The Appian Way, the Queen of the Roads. Click for credits and larger picture

Found In The Appian Way

Rome, April 19, 1485. The corpse of a very young woman is found in a sarcophagus along the Appian Way [see image above,] face and body beautiful, teeth white and perfect, hair blonde and arranged on top of her head in the ancient way. The body seems as fresh as that of a girl of fifteen buried a few moments – and not 15 centuries – earlier.

From Antonio di Vaseli’s diary:

“Today the news came into Rome … The said body is intact. The hair is long and thick; the eyelashes, eyes, nose, and ears are spotless, as well as the nails. … her head is covered with a light cap of woven gold thread, very beautiful … the flesh and the tongue retain their natural colour.”

Messer Daniele da San Sebastiano, in a letter dated 1485:

Marbe statue of a young Roman woman. Click for credits and larger size“In the course of excavations which were made on the Appian Way … three marble tombs have been discovered … One of them contained a young girl, intact in all her members, covered from head to foot with a coating of aromatic paste, one inch thick. On the removal of this coating which we believe to be composed of myrrh, frankincense, aloe, and other priceless drugs, a face appeared, so lovely, so pleasing, so attractive, that, although the girl had certainly been dead fifteen hundred years, she appeared to have been laid to rest that very day. The thick masses of hair … seemed to have been combed then and there … the whole of Rome, men and women, to the number of twenty thousand, visited the marvel ..that day.”

Rodolfo Lanciani (1845 – 1929) – the Italian archaeologist from whose work I took the above quotes – collects other testimonies:

“The hair was blonde, and bound by a fillet (infula) woven of gold. The colour of the flesh was absolutely lifelike. The eyes and mouth were partly open … The coffin seems to have been placed near the cistern of the Conservatori palace [on the Capitoline hill, see image below], so as to allow the crowd of visitors to move around and behold the wonder with more ease.”

Palazzo dei Conservatori with its new façade by Michelangelo

Jacob Burckhardt‘s (1818 – 1897) comment on the whole episode is remarkable:

“Among the crowd were many who came to paint her. The touching point in the story is not the fact itself, but the firm belief that an ancient body, which was now thought to be at last really before men’s eyes, must of necessity be far more beautiful than anything of modern date.

Yes, touching, and revealing.

She was more beautiful than anything modern because she came directly from ancient Rome.

Sweeping Europe With Greece And Rome

Why classical antiquity, the past, had become so attractive?

A new fervour of rediscovery coming from Italy had begun to sweep Europe: manners, architecture, eloquence, military techniques and the overall thought of Greece and Rome.

Antiquity had exerted occasional influence on Medieval Europe – argues Burckhardt – even beyond Italy. Here and there some elements had been imitated, northern monastic scholarship had absorbed extensive subject matter from the Roman writers.

“But in Italy the revival of antiquity – Burckhardt observes – took a different form from that of the North. The wave of barbarism had scarcely subsided before the people, in whom the antique heritage was not completely effaced, and who showed a consciousness of its past and a wish to reproduce it. …

In Italy the sympathies both of the learned and of the people were naturally on the side of antiquity as a whole, which stood to them as a symbol of past greatness. The Latin language too was easy to an Italian …”

A new ideal coming from the past was about to boost Europe forward.

Classicism Towards The Future

The School of Athens by Raphael, Rome, the Vatican. Click for credits

I was hit a few weeks ago by this passage from the on-line Britannica:

“For Renaissance humanists, there was nothing dated or outworn about the writings of Plato, Cicero, or Livy. Compared with the typical productions of medieval Christianity, these pagan works had a fresh, radical, almost avant-garde tonality.

Indeed, recovering the classics was to humanism tantamount to recovering reality….In a manner that might seem paradoxical to more modern minds, humanists associated classicism with the future.

The point is classical thought was not constrained by preconceived ideas. A new spirit of doubt and inquiry was arising. A new world was dawning.

Ψ

Getting back to that beautiful girl, her golden hair and cap made shiny by the sun, we now better understand the impact, the feelings, the deep inspiration she exerted on the people who flocked to see her.

She was seen as a miracle. She was like a fairy appeared by magic from the great times of ancient Rome.

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

References

Rodolfo Lanciani, Pagan and Christian Rome, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Boston and New York, 1892.
Accessible on-line in Bill Thayer’s Web Site LacusCurtius, a marvellous resource on Roman Antiquity. Quotes from here.

Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, translated by S. G. C. Middlemore, 1878.
Available as Gutenberg text. Quote from here.

Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. “Humanism.”  Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 18 Mar. 2009

Note on a Calabrian Greek

There is some evidence that the Italian Renaissance was not only imitation of antiquity, but its partial resurrection. We’ll just say here that Italy had a direct, ethnic and linguistic, connection not only with the Romans but also with the Greeks. Greek dialects were spoken in Southern Italy until a few years ago. They almost disappeared during Fascism who discouraged linguistic minorities.

[See our two posts on the Grikos (1 & 2), South Italians descending from the Greeks of Magna Graecia and Byzantium]

Interesting for our writing is Barlaam the Calabrian (ca. 1290 – 1348), an Italian Greek “by ethnic descent and language.” Great scholar “he was the instructor of both Petrarch and Giovanni Boccaccio [the first humanists], and their writings owe much to him.” (Wikipedia)

He helped Boccaccio to translate Homer into Latin thus preparing the groundwork for Renaissance.

A Dear Old Friend Got Lost in the Intricacies of the Planet (or of his Mind)

E8 beautiful geometry. Click for source.

This, together with this music, is to commemorate Angelo, colleague and friend, systems & networking engineer, mathematician and physicist as well as passionate linguistic, a totally eccentric, harmless and absent-minded individual who since the end of the 80s onwards did violence to a nature inclined to quiet studies, as if to test himself – his father had been very successful internationally as a hydraulic engineer – and embarked on deeds greater than him.

A quiet and shy person, he was deprived of both that minimum knowledge of men and those qualities required for planning and successfully implementing solutions in troubled regions of the earth.

He worked here and there as if bitten by an incurable malaise, eager to explore languages within dangerous areas of Africa, the Middle East and South America. His inadequacy produced in him an anxiety which kept growing in the course of the years – some of his projects turned out to be unrealistic  – and which we clearly felt in his letters, which became more and more sporadic although no less significant.

Ψ

When one day mails from him arrived more bizarre than ever and written in a patchwork of languages, of which a few artificial and invented by him, we clearly understood that something was wrong.

No more than ten, these letters are all we know of the apparently most difficult period of his life. A sort of final communiqué? Gods only know. They have been exchanged as relics among relatives and friends, their delirious depths plumbed in search of secret signs or revealing thoughts. They are too private to be published, but if I did you’d probably understand how interesting, ingenious, defenceless, crazy, tormented, adorable he was, without any doubt one of the weirdest and best persons I’ve ever met.

Extropian, another sui generis (and fortunately sedentary) character, and the friend possibly closest to him, keeps on saying he started to get worse the day he discovered Garret Lisi’s theories on quantum mechanics and stubbornly tried to give a contribution to them, although, knowing Extropian too well, I doubt this to be much more than a jest to play things down a bit, or, as we say, per sdrammatizzare.

His last mail, written on October 21rst not many years ago, is absolutely incomprehensible.

Searches conducted by relatives, friends and the institution he was working for in the country where he was operational at that time produced no results. He seems to be vanished.

Ψ

If you are still alive, Angelo, why don’t you contact us, dear friend? In which meanders of this planet (or of your mind) did you lose your path?

Mare Nostrum, Patriarchy, Omertà. 2

Cloister of the Monreale Cathedral, Sicily
Cloister of the Monreale Cathedral, Sicily. Click for attribution

The Contribution of Islam

In the previous installment we have spoken of the Egyptian society described by Naguib Mahfouz and of the Tunisians. We have also mentioned Italian Naples and Sicily (see the splendid Monreale cloister above). We wanted to emphasize the mutual influences between the North and the South shores of the Mediterranean and at the same time show how many behaviours – defined as Islamic, such as the patriarchal control of women – belong in reality to the endless past of the civilizations.

The Muslims influenced not only Italy but Spain, Greece and other Mediterranean areas as well. In truth they influenced almost the entire world since between the VIII and the XII centuries AD Islam stretched from the Atlantic in the West (Spain) to large portions of Asia. For the very first time in history more than 3000 years of experiences were accumulated from civilizations the most various – Sumer, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Syria, Persia, China and India.

Most importantly, all this was re-transmitted by them to the rest of the world: forgotten Greek texts and medicine, Indian numerals (called Arabic since that time), Chinese papermaking and thousands of other innovations. This whole wisdom and refinement was concentrated by the way (and for a long time) in the city of Baghdad, that same city whose historical treasures were looted and destroyed because of the present foolish Iraqi war.

It is hence fair (and a bit uncomfortable) to remember that Europe – which during the Middle Ages had forgotten a lot – was gradually given back by the Muslims not only large portions of its classical culture but also something that went well beyond the confines of the Greco-Roman civilization. The big leap Europe was about to make at the end of the Middle Ages was possible also because of this contribution.

More than We are Willing to Admit

North Africans and Islamic countries are linked to Europeans more than we are willing to admit. If the Turks want to enter the Euro zone it is also because they feel somewhat part of our world. Southern and Northern Italians (think of Venice), Spaniards, Greeks etc. received many elements from the Oriental cultures.

Hard-to-deny connections. This might though disturb some reader (of this devil’s advocate) 😉

Why? Because Muslims are not well seen today. A post by Nita, an Indian journalist and blogger (and an excellent source of knowledge on India), provides statistics from the Pew Research Global that show how “while more and more Muslims are turning away from the extremists, more and more people are turning away from Muslims.”

A PewResearch table cited by Nita

In the Wikipedia’s entry on Sicily I was reading yesterday that in a “recent and thorough study the genetic contribution of Greek chromosomes to the Sicilian gene pool was estimated to be about 37% whereas the contribution of North African populations was estimated to be around 6%.”

True or not, I read between the lines – I may be wrong – like a desire to prove that Sicily and Southern Italy have little to do with North Africans. Even if so, hasn’t genetics – as far as I know – little to do with cultural transmission? One can be mostly Greco-Roman genetically though subject to multi-layered cultural influences coming from no matter where.

Ψ

We will end up this second (and last) part of our journey with two notes.

Marble head of a veiled Greek Woman
Marble head of a veiled Greek Woman. Late 4th century BC. Click for source

Veiled women. As far as the veil, to think of it as Islamic is incorrect because it was widely used by the Assyrians, Hittites, Greeks (see the picture on the left), Romans and Persians. In medieval Europe (and in Anglo-Saxon England) women were dressed more or less like Muslim women are dressed today.

In Judaism, Christianity and Islam “the concept of covering the head is or was associated with propriety. All traditional depictions of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ, show her veiled.” (Wikipedia).
I remember my mother always wearing a veil in church. It was a common practice in Catholicism (but not only) until the 1960s.

Sexual jealousy. It seems to be present in Islamic societies and in all those patriarchal societies obsessively concerned for true paternity. In today’s Islamic forums there is a lot of discussion (and more or less condemnation) about jealousy.

It is said that Sicilians and Calabrians are usually more possessive than other Italians. Some cultural connection with Islam in this respect may be possible. It is to be noted that honour killings were easily forgiven by law in Italy, France and other Mediterranean countries until recently.

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

Related posts:

Mare Nostrum, Patriarchy, Omertà. 1
Permanences. Rome and Carthage

The Southern Shores of the Mediterranean
Love Words from Egypt
Echoes from the Mediterranean. Part 1
Echoes from the Mediterranean. Part 2

Buddhism, Science and the Dalai Lama

We talked in the previous post of a decline of the Roman Empire type of situation here in the West. Omitting economical and political aspects this time, we rather concentrated on some cultural aspects of today’s Western (America + Europe) decline which resemble a bit what was happening in the minds of the inhabitants of the Ancient Roman empire: new sects and religions gaining ground, void, ethical confusion etc. with, at the end, a winning new religion, Christianity, conquering the population’s hearts (with a little help from the Emperors) and soon becoming the official religion of the Empire.

(Needless to say, it is only for the sake of analysis that people usually separate economical, political, social and cultural phenomena. Actually they are tightly interrelated and belong to the same sphere: Man)

Let’s now zoom in on one of the non Western religions that are gaining ground, Buddhism. We will consider some of the reasons why this belief, compared with the Abrahamic religions, could be more endowed to confront with modern science, which might further favour its penetration (at the top of the page, a Buddhist temple at Fréjus, France; above, the current Dalai Lama).

In some books the current 14th Dalai Lama reveals his position on science and on the relationship between scientific rationality and religious irrationality. “If scientific analysis conclusively showed that certain beliefs of Buddhism are false – argues the Dalai Lama – it would be necessary to accept those scientific discoveries and abandon those beliefs.” Wow, what a big difference, we should be honest to admit, vis-à-vis the presumptions of infallibility asserted by our Catholic religion …

Buddhism seems better equipped in its approach to science since, as the Dalai Lama says, “it grants maximum authority to experience, secondly to reason and only lastly to scriptures” while the Religions of the revealed Books (the Abrahamic religions) seem to consider these elements in a reversed order.

Additionally the encounter between Science and Buddhism seems also favoured by a fundamental disposition common to both: they do not believe in God or even in a soul, since Buddhism prefers to concentrate, among other things, on conscience. Buddhism and science “share a fundamental reluctance to postulate a transcendent Being as origin of all things.” Basically it is the denial of any metaphysics.

A Rescue Guide in Times of Crisis

In general I believe this simple thing: science provides a lot of answers but still voids are left (what is the meaning of life? How do we choose between right and wrong? Are there any absolute values? etc.) that might progressively be filled up, although so far they are not, thus leaving those who rely on science only with questions unanswered and inner tranquillity precarious. Humanities are able in fact to make up for further answers (philosophy) and for reconciling our soul through beauty (art).

(The problem is complex and it is discussed in the debate regarding the two cultures – the sciences and the humanities – and regarding the so-called third culture)

As far as we are concerned, in fact, novels, poems, music, paintings, philosophy, all humanistic culture, in conclusion, can somehow fill these voids. And religion? Of course religion can fill these voids too, but, although we have a lot of respect for those who have a faith, we are not religious (agnostic, not atheist), our position being that of the Roman philosopher and poet Lucretius. So we are not disposed to easily believe in revealed things or tales – hope we do not hurt anyone’s feelings – which were satisfying for men living thousands of years ago but, frankly, not as much for today’s man.

Buddhism, being a philosophy and religion without a God seems more modern (even though some aspects of Mahayana Buddhism, for example, consider the Buddha as a God). Buddhism does not force us to believe in dreams in order to find a ubi consistam, namely a guide, a point of reference.

The truth is we are not even Buddhist. We have no parachute. But we like it this way.

References

Official Dalai Lama Web Site.

The Universe in a Single Atom
The Convergence of Science and Spirituality – by H.H. the Dalai Lama, Morgan Road Books, New York, 2005.

Mind Science
– An East – West Dialogue – by H.H. the Dalai Lama with Herbert Benson, Robert A. Thurman, Howard E. Gardner, Daniel Goleman, Wisdom Publications, USA, 1991.

See also www.mindandlife.org for reports on various confrontations between the Dalai Lama and various scientists.

The Trumpet Sound, à la Française

An Insightful Blog From the Renaissance

Michel de Montaigne writes in his Essays, a real thoughtful blog from Renaissance (one could say):

“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.

Locking Horns with a Young Roman

Locking Horns. Fair use

In an earlier post we had said that our writings are finding free inspiration in the technique of dialectics which involves a dialogue we carry out 1) within our mind, 2) among minds (mostly through books) and 3) with readers.

As far as point 2) since we are not important persons, hence not in a position to recreate at our place a circle with top intellectuals, this virtual Symposium is what is left to us.

Which involves a certain number of virtual guests, a virtual guest being “a quotation or just a reference to a book passage“. Id est, the ideas of an author, dead or alive, participate in the discussion thanks to the greatest invention of all time: writing.

A Roman Warrior?

I was trying to explain this whole “Virtual Symposium & Writing” concept to this young (and uncouth) Roman, some time ago.

We locked horns a bit, like males sometimes do, but the fight was worthwhile. Yes, I really think it was worthwhile, beyond a doubt.

Here is therefore the conversation we had on this topic.

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

“What??? – said this 22-year-old dear student of mine while he was reading my method post. “How horribly dull this whole thing is! Just intellectual masturbation!”.

Romans are blunt, no doubt. Understatement has no home here.

Being hit by what he had said, I played it cool and replied:

” You are entirely wrong, and I’ll prove it to you. People usually think that the Internet was one of the greatest revolutions, allowing for example almost lightspeed communication or e-learning.”

“I know it too well cazzo“.

Being a web programmer trying to learn ‘Operating Systems’ from me he started raising his voice (he’s such a good boy but he can get pretty emotional.)

“We were talking about intellectual masturbation, what the f*** has this to do…”.

“Wait a moment– I snapped – what I do mean is we forget a much bigger revolution. We forget the invention of writing. And why was it a major breakthrough? Because it allowed for the first time storage of human knowledge (accounting, math, inventions, manuals, encyclopedias, thoughts etc.). Storage of knowledge: think of it, per Bacco! What the hell would they invent computers for, if writing wasn’t there??”

I realised my voice was rising too. I can get pretty emotional as well. I saw he was starting to be sort of conquered, but people in their twenties have endless energy.

“We were talking about a Symposium. Where are you aiming at prof, eh?”.

“Be patient, I am sticking to the point”. My voice was getting pretty authoritative (although he was right, of course.)

Stonehenge. Fair use

“We know nothing about Stonehenge people – I said firmly – or about who invented fire. From the day writing was invented in Mesopotamia we know all, or enough, of what has happened. This miracle started roughly from the end of the 4th millennium BC onward, in the region where today are Irak and Kuwait, huge hard disks and server farms being only a simple consequence of this.”

He was getting nervous, I clearly felt it.

“Here in the West first came volumina, rolls of papyrus or animal skin. Later, in the II century AD, appeared the books we all know. People could read and learn what other people had thought from different parts of the world, even from different eras. This was the revolution. A big one. Humanity boosted forward. Experiences added incrementally. Reading the works of Plato in ancient Rome was a sort of Distant Learning, although nobody called it that way.”

I made a pause. He was quiet now.

“Another great invention was then added, printing, making the whole thing explode. When we think that printing was only starting in 1450 AD, but that around 1500 AD 40,000 books were already produced and catalogued, we have an exact idea of the effects that a further big technological leap like printing had added in the context of human culture: during only 50 years, more books were produced than those created during the previous 2000 years! Of course the big thing was writing, not printing, though printing added a lot of fuel to the fire, boosting the whole process tremendously. Did you get what I mean boy?

He was not nervous any more, he was actually staring.

“The process could not be stopped – I continued implacable. Napoleon kept Caesar‘s De Bello Gallico (or Homer’s Iliad) on his bedside table and became every day a better general. I am reading Just for fun by Linus Torvalds and delving more and more into Linux, leaving Microsoft behind. I will never meet this Linus Torvalds superstar, but is it that important? He has already told me the essentials of his mind”.

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

I made another pause. Longer this time. I perceived he had started reflecting so much though he was trying to hide his feelings to me. Mine was a dirty trick, of course, since I know he’s crazy about Linux, although it is true I have almost finished great Torvald’s book. I sort of perceived he was conquered. A seasoned teacher always knows when it happens.

After some silence he said:

“You mean your symposium is communication among minds thru books, beyond space and time?”

“Yes, Massimo, exactly. I talk to people this way. This is my Greek Symposium: having great (medium or even small) minds interact with mine.”

Massimo was still staring at me apparently conquered although I somewhat underestimated the tremendous force deriving from youth, exactly like the Romans felt the barbarians were conquered, but they were not. He in fact abruptly backfired, in a style typical of male competition: it is biological, but there’s affection in these games.

“You comparing yourself with Napoleon eh? This is not the point though. You know what excites me about this whole thing Prof ? You know what?” he said.

“Tell me Massimo”.

I was starting to get a bit worried, though my voice kept calm and controlled.

“Well, since I guess most of these people are dead, it is like you having intercourse with corpses or mummies, isn’t it, Prof. Ah ah ah ah. Pretty macabre and pretty perverted, Prof, don’t you think? Ah ah ah ah. Pretty macabre and pretty perverted ah ah ah”.

Sometimes people from villages around Rome or in Latium love to repeat things twice.

ψ

Gosh was I stunned (though amused, I’ll confess.) His laughing was so crass. Romans can be so terribly crass, to tell you the truth. Additionally, he said this in such vulgar Roman slang (a bit closer to Latin than Italian) I do not dare to translate it here.

I soon had to tolerate his laughing loudly again while he was leaving classroom (time for a break), together with his ancient malicious look, which sort of hid a feeling of sympathy, which I clearly felt, not many doubts about it, type of man-to-man thing.

Holy S***! This new generation of Italians! Besides, another CSI fan?

I hate CSI. I really do. It corrupts youth. There can be no doubt about it. There can really be no doubt.

Ψ

References. Antinucci, F. (1993) Summa Hypermedialis (per una teoria dell’ipermedia), in SISTEMI INTELLIGENTI / anno V, n. 2. (Francesco Antinucci is a valid Roman intellectual, psychologist and writer. We will talk about him again: see the post Books, Multimedia and E-learning)
Derry T.K. – Williams T.I., (1960), A Short History of Technology, Clarendon Press, Oxford (old though still an outstanding text on history of technology and its influences on human culture & education)

Religion, Fear, Power

Crucifixion by Diego Velázquez (17th century). Public Domain

I told you a few times I do not want to talk about religion though I have to contradict myself because I’ll ponder religion a bit today together with a few concepts dancing around it.

“Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear” argues Sir Bertrand Russell in Why I Am Not A Christian, a lecture delivered on March 1927 and published on that same year.

“It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing — fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death […].”

Bertrand Russel, from book cover “The Quotable Bertrand Russell”. Fair Use

“In this world we can now begin a little to understand things, and a little to master them by help of science, which has forced its way step by step against the Christian religion, against the churches, and against the opposition of all the old precepts. Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations. Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a better place to live in, instead of the sort of place that the churches in all these centuries have made it”.

“The real reason why people accept religion has anything to do with argumentation. They accept religion on emotional grounds.”

ψ

Interesting what Russell says about fear, a crucial factor, probably, in the birth of religion.

There are other aspects though. If it is because of fear that we create and accept a great almighty father that protects us, an ally, as Russell says, fear is also fear of hell, fear of divine punishment.

This is why we obey to catechism and to the clergy. We are not focusing here so much on the reasons why religion was born. We are rather focusing on power.

Gutenberg Bible. GNU Free Documentation License

I don’t believe it is by chance that the fear of God is one of the fundamental concepts the Old Testament reshapes in thousands and thousands of different ways. The fear of God is the true guide of every virtuous man, argues the Bible tirelessly.

An idea that wouldn’t be conceivable today, if it weren’t for the suspicion, a strong suspicion, that fear is still used nowadays in exactly the same way as it was in the past: to make us weak and obedient.

ψ

An American friend meant something similar when talking not of religion but of mass media.

“You look at newspapers and almost every headline is scary. Here, there, scary, scary ….”.

A tragic example is the way George W. Bush and the neocons have implacably exploited the horror produced by the atrocious attack to the Twin Towers.

Twin Towers attack. Public Domain

Italian version


Pleasure in Craft. The Germans

Germany. Cologne Cathedral. Creative Commons License

The Germans like to do things well and feel pleasure in their craft. It comes out in everything they do. They are far away from the utilitarian attitude typical of the Anglo-Saxon, who works hard but most of the time has practical goals in mind, money and commerce being not seldom among them.

We will not mention the somewhat revealing episode (I do hope I recall well) of Heinrich Heine – one of the greatest German Romantic poets – and his totally puzzled reaction the first time he visited London in the first half of the 19th century, such a great city London (at that time the more powerful place in the world) though in his view an exclusively trade-oriented centre, which kind of disgusted him.

Neither we want to get much into the concept that concentrating so often on practical stuff only, while it can surely provide tremendous intervention power (it really does) it can nonetheless narrow human experience, which presents a much richer potential.

Pretty nice opposition, the German and the British, providing such a complicated insight on the German soul of Europe (not only the German soul, but I do not want to be repetitive). An opposition that has undone Europe. Well, ok, today we won’t plunge into that.

Here just 3 examples that can illustrate what we mean about the Germans.

Computer Bild Logo

I. Minimum ex. ComputerBild, a PC magazine also translated for the Italian market. Inexpensive (only 1.5 Euros here,) highly reliable and rich with meticulous analyses, a small instance of handicraft devotion in a market, the publishing market, where garbage is increasingly dominating.

A 1999 Porsche 996 Carrera Cabriolet. Public Domain

II & III. Maximum exs. Cars made in Germany (above a 1999 Porsche 996 Carrera Cabriolet, picture taken from here) or the outstanding Deutsches Museum in Munich, Bavaria (Museum of Masterpieces in Science and Technology).

As for the third example, apart from the term Museum of masterpieces that already implies a lot, at the DM practically everything – from small-scale models to entire huge reconstructions (i.e. reconstructions of underground coal mines and all the technology involved) – has been fondly manufactured in touching laboratories where artisans, some of them advanced in age, work(ed) with so much devotion and amore. Of course, models are one thing, real machinery – small and enormous aeroplanes, entire ships etc. – another totally (and impressive) thing at the Deutsches Museum.

Deutsches Museum. Germany. Munich

Well, what is incredible here is that almost any kind of machine, plus theoretical (and factual) models so various, plus tons of other astonishing stuff can be watched, analysed (and admired) in this awe-inspiring Institution, one of the best places in Europe for Science and Technology (maybe in the world? Well, American Science Museums and Science centres are pretty impressive too, but I am not capable of any useful comparison.)

Here, S&T are obviously seen as potent tools capable of diminishing hunger, making life easier etc. This of course is so important, do not misunderstand me. Nonetheless, S&T are also seen with a work-of-art approach involving the above-mentioned devotional attitude, which is a totally different thing. Yes, it is a totally different thing, I have little doubts about it.

It is this quality, among others, this pleasure of doing everything so well, that finally makes the Germans excellent engineers and, I would say, outstanding constructors of no matter what.

Two associative examples, if you please:

1) they are constructors of absolutely breathtakingly complex musical structures (where minds not well equipped can easily get lost, or bored, which is exactly the same thing.)
2) They are constructors of equally breathtakingly complex and sumptuous philosophical palaces, the deepest in the West (where one gets even more easily lost unfortunately.)

So, what the hell is their secret then? I do not know, why the hell do you think I know. Well ok, among other virtues, I might guess they are endowed with patience, calm and inflexible perseverance. Plus this great capacity of toiling (and suffering) in silence, an imprint of true force and indubitable courage.

PS
I wonder why India has always attracted me, though probably it is too late to seriously delve into that much diverse and impenetrable depth. The depth you find in the beautiful eyes of many Indian women, both terribly sweet and unfathomable, where I could really (and hopelessly) lose my mind…

Aishwarya Rai. Bollywood star. Fair use

The Neapolitans & the Quiet Shoemaker

The Italian musicologist Massimo Mila was from Turin (northern Italy, under the Alps) and adhered to the philosophical school founded by the Neapolitan Benedetto Croce. This school engendered a large number of solid intellectuals and dominated the Italian intellectual scene for more than half a century: Piero Gobetti, Antonio Gramsci, Nicola Abbagnano, Attilio Momigliano, Massimo Mila, Giulio Confalonieri ecc. this list being very long. Giovanni Gentile, another influent Italian philosopher of that period was instead Croce’s peer, and Sicilian.

[I told you the Neapolitan Greek cousins of Rome were full of surprises: wonder why they had excellent philosophers and why southern-Italy thinkers like Croce (and Gentile) had this special connection with the Germans.]

Mila, in his inspired Breve storia della musica (Einaudi 1963 p. 144,) writes about Johann Sebastian Bach, the greatest Western composer in my opinion:

“His immense musical production was put together with assiduous, methodical, quiet work, carried out with the scrupulous care of an artisan and conceived, without any pause, as service of God. Without any pause since, had Bach been a shoemaker, he would have made a boundless number of shoes to the great glory of God, all carefully crafted and finished off with scrupulous care”.

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Discussion with readers

Very interesting comments (in my opinion) have been made on this post on the Germans. If you click down on “comments” you’ll follow holistic discussions among two lovely Indians and Man of Roma. Ashish especially, a young gifted man, and Poonam, a woman who talks little but whose words have weight.

Discussion about what?

Well, about: Bollywood, India, Europe, America, the UK, WW1, WW2, Europe’s decline, German tremendous virtues, Indian women’s eyes, China, Cindia, Great Britain’s awesome success, highly refined & beloved France, Hitler’s folly and death in a bunker, Hitler’s perverted sadism, Hitler’s evil psychological seducing powers, German tragedy, Italian Comedy, Mussolini and Fascism. Mussolini, his balls & his petty calculations, comparisons among the British the Germans the Russians the Romans (of course,) the French, the Spaniards. Plus Elisabeth I, Shakespeare & the Spanish Armada defeat, Russia invading Germany thirsty for blood, Tolstoy’s War and Piece greatness, Napoleon, the Brits’ greatness in some ways similar to the Romans’ greatness, the UK as Europe’s trojan horse, and much much more.

One friend of mine just said: “This is crazy!”

I provided no answer.

UNESCO World Heritage LIMES logo

PS
Let us first enjoy this J.S. Bach’s Toccata und Fuge BWV 565 played by Hans-Andre Stamm on the famous Trost organ in Waltershausen, Germany (have a look here). It is a very famous piece of music and I’d prefer other ones by Bach. But it is good for starting to appreciate a totally new spiritual world of sounds. Most of the time Toccatas are not as deep as Fuges.
Up to you to guess which is which.

Let us finally compare the majestic piece linked above with this electric-guitar improvisation by Lonn, a refined French man and guitarist of Towersound French band. He’s improvising on the above Toccata only, though improvisations being tricky, up to you to figure out if he sticks to the Toccata only.

Two last things. A. I met this French band just now on YouTube, so I do not know their value (the impro seeming to me decent enough though, and the French accent of the player absolutely delightful). B. Purists to me are morons. They absolutely have no home in my virtual Neverland.

Italian version

Ghosts in Asia

Ghost. Fair use

I know. It was time for Sex and the City of Rome part 2. I haven’t got time though because my method post has been too long to write. I cannot live inside a blog all day long. So I will postpone SEX SEX SEX though you weirdos pls don’t worry. Sex will arrive soon, no doubt about that. It will probably be serious sometimes a bit (I’m not here to write a porn site) but it surely will also be erotic. Don’t worry then you pervs, and stay tuned.. 😉

I was lucky enough to be saved in extremis by this e-mail exchange which happened not long ago. This Indonesian ex student of mine wrote me this peculiar letter. She is of Malaysian-Chinese descent. Here’s what she said:

“I just quarrelled with her again, because of her phone call. She calls me every day to check if I get back home on time. I got angry and we started to quarrel. I asked her: why do you always call me lately? She said she just missed me. But I told her it was an excuse, it was because of one of her bad dreams about ghosts. And I asked her: did you perceive there is a ghost alive at my home? My mother did not say anything…”

“Another time she firmly suggested me to stay at home after I had just informed her I wanted to take a 3-days holiday to have some break from job stress. She objected. I told her: do you want me to become crazy? Then I hang up the phone abruptly”.

“You know, they believe so much in ghosts in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. She thinks I am protected at home because of these Buddha’s little statues”.

I replied to her:

“Dear ***. I hope you do not believe in all this silly stuff. I have something to tell you. A guy from our Roman rione had a friend, his best friend – he told me. When they were very young they promised to each other to come visit which of the two was still alive if one of them died first. Anyway, it was like a game, but not so much after all, since they were both actually very determined, if anything like that happened. I mean, the one who’d die earlier would really try to visit his still-alive friend if he happened to die first.”

“Well, guess what. Hazard (or Fortune) decreed that actually this guy’s best friend had a terrible accident and died. So the poor fellow was totally scared to death because he KNEW that, if ghosts really existed, his best friend would definitely come visit him.

He could not sleep for MONTHS, you can well imagine.

But his friend never showed up.”

Italian version

Relaxation & Creativity

Creativity and Thinking. Fair use

In Deception Point Dan Brown describes the editorial office of ABC News, “at a fever pitch 24 hours a day”. When a scoop arrives this paroxysm goes even beyond its limits: “wild-eyed editors screamed to one another over the tops of their compartments etc..” Then in another wing of that same place reside “the glass-walled private offices reserved for the decision makers who actually required some quiet to think”.

ABC Studios. Fair use

Actually for real thought one needs quiet, relaxation. This reminds me of a Roman top advertising agency where, at the end of the 80s, extremely well-paid copywriters and art directors were walking around in robes or catching the sun on a very elegant terrace overlooking Parioli-district-haute-bourgeoisie Rome. I was puzzled at the time but I later realized how ideas actually come out brighter this way since, as it has been observed, they are often suddenly presented to us when we are relaxed and not when we are actively striving for them (true for remembering things as well: the more we strive to remember, the less we succeed). See also Buddhist meditation (or meditation tout court) and its effectiveness upon creativity and mental health.

Budda in ceramica, Bután. Public Domain

See also the scientific discovery process. British scientists talked a lot about the three Bs — Bed, Bath and Bus, which appear to be those idle-mind situations where great discoveries are favoured. Obviously Anglo-Saxon buses are much more relaxing than their Roman compeers.

Italian version

Diary-writing (or Blog-writing)

Diary. Fair use

“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.

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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.

Italian version