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.


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.


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)

Keep Violence in the Mind

Orion Pictures 1991. Hannibal-Hopkins. Fair use

“Keep violence in the mind where it belongs.” (Brian Aldiss, English Science fiction writer). And it is good that this and other things be left in the mind only. There is nothing wrong about having non ordinary fantasies, psychologists keep on telling us. But where does the line between imagination and action reside?

I look with some suspicion at violent TV serials like CSI (Crime Scene Investigation), especially because so many teenagers are crazy about them, not to mention films like Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Hannibal (2001). Adapted from Thomas Harris’ novels and played by the great British actor Anthony Hopkins (as Hannibal Lecter: picture above taken from here), these two movies are excellent, which makes it all even worse, I believe.


Years ago a serial killer was captured. When asked how he had been capable of committing such horrendous atrocities on such a large number of people, he replied:

“It all started with violent movies and violent cassettes…”

Italian version