“Italians are Cynical, Amoral, Religiously Superficial”

Bathing Aphrodite and Eros. Hermitage, St Petersburg

The Roots of Cynicism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What we mean by ‘cynicism’

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

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

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

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

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

Let us have a look at these alien codes then.

No Conflicts of Conscience

Bathing Aphrodite. Hermitage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Torn Between Pleasure and Sin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Epicurean Rome of the Renaissance

Late Renaissance Villa d'Este, Tivoli. Rome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Notes.

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

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

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

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Related posts:

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

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

Echoes from the Mediterranean. Part 1

Downtown Beirut. Public domain

A few days ago, when listening to Diana Haddad, an Arabic Lebanese pop singer, something echoed in my mind.

Before the war (started in 1974) Lebanon was called the Switzerland of the Middle-East. In the 50s Beirut was one of the financial capitals of the planet and the intellectual capital of the Arab world. It offered, among the rest, highest financial skills to the Saudi Arabians and a very convenient interface for Western firms towards the Arabs, rich in oil.

It also offered an Arabian Nights highly refined dolce vita attracting all kinds of VIPs, Hollywood and international actors, tycoons plus the most splendid ladies of the epoch. Beirut was a synonym of luxury, of all pleasures combined and of intelligent cosmopolitism. Three languages were (and are) there spoken: Arab, French and English.

Some dear Italian friends of mine studied in Beirut in their youth and are in fact fluent in these 3 languages. When we were children we heard all these magic tales from our parents and looked amazed at pictures in gossip magazines.

To the history-addicted all this flourishing is not surprising. Lebanon IS the land of the Phoenicians, highly refined merchants since Antiquity and ancestors of mighty Carthage.

Now that Beirut’s glamour is gone – the city has been partially rebuilt but its premier role seems to have moved to London, Dubai, Cyprus etc. – this place is still highly civilised though, since civilisations are not mortal I believe, and, just as an example, Lebanese pop music (and culture) is probably the most successful among today’s Arabic youth, being seen as ‘modern’ but of course a bit frowned upon by the traditionalists.

Here a song by the delighful Diana Haddad for you to listen.

Northern Mediterranean youth cannot but feel how similar these people are to us, and yet portions of this music and other details we feel are diverse. One can say that this diversity is provided by Islam. Yes but, I am asking myself, is Islam really so alien?

Well, yes and no. One moment we feel it is the Mediterranean (hence not so different from Southern Europe,) another moment it is Persia, Arabia, Baghdad, Pakistan, Northern India, Indonesia, West and East Asia in short, both very different from Europe.

This diversity is though exciting. Why should it scare us?

As we promised in an earlier post and its notes, this writing is the first of a series dedicated to Islam, seen as exotic and yet somewhat close to our Roman heart. We are not here to judge but to learn (and possibly communicate.)

Once more we’ll ask French historian Fernand Braudel for inspiration and guidance. See you at our next post then.

Italian version

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For the same theme though in a wider picture:

Mare Nostrum, Patriarchy, Omertà. 1
The Southern Shores of the Mediterranean

Sex and the City (of Rome). 3

Borghese Hermaphroditus, Louvre. Fair use

Italian version

So far we have wandered about Roman sexuality trying to understand 1) how remote it is from contemporary sexuality and 2) why everything has radically changed in the West since those times.

The first question seems clear. The Romans were very different and fancifully enjoyed pleasures and sex even though they tried not to be dominated by them (see our earlier post on ancient teachings.)

How different they were finds further evidence in statues like the famous Borghese Hermaphroditus shown above and kept at the Louvre Museum in Paris, especially when we think that these statues were very common in the Greco-Roman world. A hermaphroditus is actually a transsexual.

Can you imagine today a VIP’s living room offering the view of a marble transsexual to guests? Well, apart from a few eccentric artistic milieus, I think even open-minded people would be a bit puzzled, wouldn’t they.

The second question is more difficult. I believe that the Christian religion bears some responsibility, although I acknowledge that sexual pleasure & love are tremendous forces to the extent that they can be a social problem to be handled no matter the culture or epoch we live in.

As the Spanish philosopher Fernando Savater put it, we like sex too much, it therefore being potentially dangerous and unproductive, with every society trying to regulate it in a way or another.

Puritanism in its broad meaning, however, (eg loving only what is not pleasurable,) is to be condemned in my view even if it can push us to extremely hard work (puritanism was seen, no need to remind it, as a factor of development in areas of the United States according to Max Weber’s theories – if my memory is not faltering.)

lupaottimigut1.jpg

As always it is a matter of right measure. The Romans achieved great things (like the Anglo-Saxons did) and worked hard to attain them but lived pleasantly and were (mostly) not puritanical (in the early Republic they were.)

Therefore it is not by chance the Latin folks originated from them (Italy, France, Portugal, Spain etc.) tend to savour life with taste, refinement and joy, this incidentally also being a reason why the Italian and the French ways of life are getting attractive and represent today a school (not the only one) of savoir vivre in the West.

Thing being Latin folks are more or less taught since they were babies to cultivate beauty and all it implies.

It is so simple,
as simple and beautiful
as a Greek temple.

Their ancestors in fact, our Ancient Romans, didn’t just eat (as many Anglo-Saxons do, though progress is evident): they invented a highly refined culinary art. Equally, they didn’t just reproduce themselves (as many Christian fanatics do): they invented forms of refined eroticism which allowed them to live a fuller life.

Is it wrong? Is it right?

Should beauty in all its forms be a main part of our life?

A full answer is more coomplicated than it seems, but I definitely think it is right.

Yes, I conclusively think it is right, my sweet readers. Oh I really don’t have many doubts about that.

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Related posts:

Sex and the city (of Rome) 1
Sex and the city (of Rome) 2

Sex and the city (of Rome) 4
Sex and the city (of Rome). A Conclusion.

Caesar, Great Man (and Don Juan)