American Engineer, German Philosopher & French Politician: Gramsci’s Ideal Blend for the Modern Leonardo da Vinci

Our conversations take us wherever they like so before talking about my instructional experience in Russia I’ll present a few passages by Antonio Gramsci (1891 – 1937) written in the 1930s while he was in prison.

Gramsci is considered the father of democratic communism [a thing, to say the truth, that remained in his mind and was never realised.]

All his works, and notably his Prison Letters and Prison Notebooks, are not only amazingly valuable for their intellectual & moral depth – acute analyses of Italian & European history, literature, theatre, philosophy, linguistics, political strategy etc. -, they have also been recognized since their appearance in 1947 as masterpieces of our language and literature.

His powerful brain was feared by both the Fascists and the Russians, and it pained me so much to learn that his Russian wife Julka or Julia Schucht (see her below with their sons, Delio and Giuliano,) together with her sister Tatiana Schucht, were probably spies for the Gpu (Kgb.) [Also a few of Gramsci’s and Julka’s descendants confirmed that.]

[Magister and Gramsci were the mentors who saved me from being a savage – although I am still a bit: you migh read here]

I was surprised to find the words – Gramsci’s words -, that to me best describe the importance of classical education in our country – ie the connection to our roots, this blog’s theme -, in the inspiring web pages of a certain Max Gabrielson, a Latin & Greek teacher at the Wilton High School in Wilton, Connecticut, considered one of Connecticut top performer schools according to the Wikipedia.

With such words from his Prison Notebooks Gramsci refers to the classical education delivered in the Italian Ginnasio and Liceo that, compared to his school days, had been changed a bit by the first important reform of Italian education (Gentile‘s & Croce‘s, 1923) after the unification of Italy 60 years earlier (1860-70.)

[An education that didn’t change much even until my days and my daughters’ days. No change at all? Well, it progressively became comprehensive mass education (with its pros and cons) so that its solidity, like a merum from the ancients, was diluted in the years – the wine being still there, but its inebriating effects having almost dissolved]

Let us listen to Antonio Gramsci describing the deep meaning of such education:

“In the old school the grammatical study of Latin and Greek, together with the study of their respective literatures and political histories, was an educational principlefor the humanistic ideal, symbolized by Athens and Rome, was diffused throughout society, and was an essential element of national life and culture. Even the mechanical character of the study of grammar [criticised by Croce and Gentile, MoR] was enlivened by this cultural perspective. Individual facts were not learned for an immediate practical or professional end. The end seemed disinterested, because the real interest was the interior development of personality, the formation of character by the absorption and assimilation of the whole cultural past of modern European civilization […] Pupils learned Greek and Latin in order to know at first hand the civilization of Greece and Rome — a civilization that was a necessary precondition to our modern civilization: in other words, they learnt them in order to be themselves and know themselves consciously.

‘In order to be themselves, to know themselves consciously …”

ψ

Gramsci criticises in 1932 the multiplication of vocational schools that in his view aimed at perpetuating social differences. Moreover, a true democracy needed adequate people:

“The labourer can become a skilled worker, for instance, the peasant a surveyor or petty agronomist. But democracy, by definition, cannot mean merely that an unskilled worker can become skilled. It must mean that every ‘citizen’ can ‘govern’ and that society places him, even if only abstractly, in a general condition to achieve this. Political democracy tends towards a coincidence of the rulers and the ruled (in the sense of government with the consent of the governed) …”

As for K-12 education we see today a tendency to focus on 3-4 subjects only in countries such as Great Britain with students aged 15, a big mistake in my view especially now that we have to compete with lands that do most of the basic manufacturing to the extent that we need extra added-value creativity in our products.

Gramsci would certainly have agreed. Born to a backward Sardinian peasant milieu, with big family and health problems, his intellectual success influenced his view that a more comprehensive education of the working class was possible.

He was in fact irritated by his wife’s inclination to guess specialised interests in their 2 very young sons (one time she thought Delio could become an engineer, another time a poet etc.)

Gramsci’s wife, Jiulia Schucht, with the 2 sons, Delio (on the right) and Giuliano. She was – hideous detail – a spy for the Gpu (Kgb). Amazing how Giuliano resembles his father.

Gramsci wrote to her from his cell:

“To say the truth, I don’t much believe in such precocious display of tendencies and I haven’t much faith in your capability of discerning what professional aptitudes they might have. I should think that in both our sons, as in all children, there are likely to be found all sort of inclinations – the practical side, the theory and the imagination, and that it would consequently be more appropriate to guide them towards a more harmonious blend of all intellectual and practical faculties, since the time will come when specialisation in one or the other of these will occur on the basis of a personality vigorously formed and totally integrated.”

Gramsci then continues, expressing to her his humanistic faith in human possibilities and his 1930s ideal of the fully developed man:

“Modern man should be a synthesis of the qualities which are traditionally embodied in these national characters: the American engineer, the German philosopher and the French politician, thus recreating so to speak the Italian man of the Renaissance, the modern Leonardo da Vinci become ‘mass man’ and ‘collective man’ without sacrificing his own strong personality and individual originality.”

Post Scriptum. Gramsci reflected on many aspects of the American society (his notes on Americanism and Fordism are crucial) while he was quite worried about what was happening in the Soviet Union after 1930.

Differently from his mentor, Neapolitan Benedetto Croce, basically Hegelian, Gramsci was very much connected not only to German Kultur (he was into Hegel too and had a perfect knowledge of German – plus French, English, Russian, Latin and possibly other languages) but also to French culture: thanks to ascholarship won in 1911 he had studied in Piedmont at the University of Turin.

In 1921 he co-founded the Italian Communist Party. He then spent 2 years in the Soviet Union where in a sanatorium (his health was precarious) he ‘strangely’ met a beautiful woman, Jiulia (Julka) Schucht, who will become his wife. Back to Italy in 1924 he became head of the party. Being no orator but making use of a one-by-one-persuasion strategy he had won the majority of party delegates by totally fascinating them.

In the same year he was elected at the Italian Parliament. In the Fall of 1926, at the age of 35, he was arrested at 10:30 pm in his home located outside Porta Pia, a nice Roman area efficaciously depicted by the Italian poet Grabriele D’Annunzio. He will die at 46 after 11 years of prison.

Soon after the arrest he wrote to his wife:

“I am sure you will be strong and courageous, as you have always been. Now you will have to be even more than in the past, so that our sons may grow well and be in all worthy of you [italic is mine, MoR.]”

More on Antonio Gramsci:

Seven Aspects of Antonio Gramsci’s Thought
America, the Greatest Collective Effort Ever existed”. Antonio Gramsci
Is America Too Young to Maintain its Cultural Hegemony in the Long Run?

Related posts:

Democracy, Liberty & the Necessity of a Solid Education of the People
Culture, Kultur, Paideia
The Last Days of the Polymath

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