Last May Cheri, a charming blogger from California, went to Greece for a seminar on Alcibiades. I hence posted on her blog a few hasty notes on this key figure of Greek history, in case they were of any help.
Here is the text (edited a bit.)
Tragedy of Unreason
“Alcibiades to me is the golden dude of classical Greece, loved (and hated) by the Athenians immensely, a figure that shows both the splendour and the weaknesses of Athens in her golden time, the 5th century BCE. The Athenians, who were teaching the world to use reason efficiently, also knew they were capable of the utmost unreason, and were laughing at that while watching the comedies of Aristophanes.
This whole thing, the fall of Athens, smells in fact of tragedy, of irrationality. The facts are known if you have read Thucydides. It pains me that one of the most brilliant pupils of Socrates, like the most perfumed flower in the most beautiful garden, proved poisonous. Alcibiades’ mentor had always tried to bring to measure and to purity of reason a totally unprincipled, self-centred and often ‘going off the rails’ pupil.
In this the Greeks remind me of the Germans a bit. Both incredibly deep and terribly rational and irrational at the same time. And in fact Nietzsche figured Greek irrationality out not by chance, and, again not by chance in the years of the fall of Athens the Bacchae by Euripides were on stage.
Alcibiades was beautiful and gifted in everything – even as an athlete in Olympia – but, when he once met a teacher on the street and asked him if he had any works by Homer, and having the teacher said “No, I haven’t”, he punched him on the nose and knocked him down. This was Alcibiades. Charming and crazy.
There are many characters in this tragedy, the annihilation of classical Greece, where the extreme quarrelsomeness and disunity of the Greeks stands out, within and without their cities, even in moments of extreme danger. Among such characters are Sparta, Athens, Socrates, Nicias, Syracuse, Alcibiades, Sophocles, Euripides etc.
According to Thucydides and Plutarch, Alcibiades had conceived an unimaginable plan for defeating Sparta. By conquering Syracuse first, in Sicily, and Carthage, Libya and Greek South Italy afterwards, he intended to get back to Greece with the immense resources thus accumulated and crush the Spartans.
Syracuse was as powerful as Athens and possibly bigger, the biggest Greek city of the Mediterranean.
Ancient Greeks’ New World
It is to be noted that Greek South Italy – I’m certainly not saying this because I am Italian – was considered by mainland Greece as America has always been considered by Europeans: a myth, a land of promise, of unlimited resources. Greece was smaller and much less fertile. Therefore many Athenians, young and old, were day dreaming together with their golden boy, they were day dreaming about a marvellous and more prosperous future. A bit like Alexander who, one century later, will dream (and will set out) eastwards, instead of westwards, in order to conquer new lands.
Before the departure for Sicily, The Trojan Women by Euripides was first performed in 415 BCE. In this work the prophetess Cassandra (see Karen Tiegren above as Cassandra) condemns the Greeks for going to war against Troy. We perceive Euripides’ disgust vis-à-vis the Athenian hubris of the moment. Also Thucydides considers the Sicilian expedition as an act of arrogance and as an example of a folk, the Athenians, misguided by their emotions.
We have to consider that the sublime Parthenon that you people are now admiring was considered by many Athenians as an act of arrogance or hubris. Many much preferred the old temple of Athena at the Acropolis – see below –, a simpler and more sober shrine. Of course the Parthenon is fantastic but the mixed emotions of the Athenians during their greatest century are interesting.
We know of the plague that hit Athens during the war. Thucydides considered it as a metaphor of the ruin that will destroy the wonderful culture created by Pericles and those around him.
This terrible Peloponnesian war and the changes it provoked are well expressed by the Oedipus the King by Sophocles, first performed in 429. A great king, optimist, intoxicated by his success and capable of solving riddles ends up a blind, desperate wretch who has too late understood the nature of the horrible forces he cannot control.
Nicias, one of Alcibiades’s rivals, was a general and owner of a big portion of the silver mines around Attica’s Mt. Laurium, a sort of lager and one of the chief sources of revenue for Athens.
Sparta Won but Left Nothing
Sparta disliked all that Athens represented. Sparta was the winner and Athens the loser. The Spartans were very admired in antiquity but have not left anything of value in my view (but we must recognize that they voted against the total erasure of Athens). Athens left us a wonderful culture and a model for future democracies; Sparta was instead a model for all future regimes based on racism and eugenics (such as the Nazi).
The Spartans were a minority of war lords brutally ruling a totally enslaved majority of Helots.
But they were rational and prudent. And had charm too. It is known they combed their long hair for quite a time before engaging in battle. When their enemies saw the Spartans combing, it was time for quaking.”
As for the human mind, I’ve often thought about the metaphor of the museum.
Our mind, one of the functions of our brain ‘and other parts of our body’ (Sledpress’ objection I found interesting,) contains and allows that we manifest the infinite traces of our past (past conceptions, language, behaviours) from Stone Age or earlier onwards. Evolution enters the equation, but we will leave it alone for now.
Whatever world region we are from, we should be concerned about probing such repository I believe, that is our roots or cultural ID.
Language is an important portion of this ID. What a great digging tool for example etymology is, ie history of words (shown a bit in our previous post, see a good on-line tool) although lots of things are there well beyond words (see points I and IV below.)
A few examples, to better understand.
(Italian-mind related, but they could hopefully work as a method example to different minds as well)
“Not long ago my friend Mario took me for a drive on his stupendous vintage 1960 Lancia Flavia (see image below.) Mario is from Naples, a South Italian city founded by the Greeks in the 8th cent. BCE.
On the way back I exclaimed merrily: ‘Diavolo, this car is a gem, it has rolled as smoothly as olive oil!’
Mario snapped with a worried look: “Hush! hush! Don’t you say that!”
I well knew what he meant:
“Oh please you shut the hell up! Do you want the car to break down or anything bad to happen to us?” as if the mereutterance of happiness would attract ill luck or the envy from someone … Well, the envy from whom?
The ancient classical Greeks (V cent. BCE) believed their gods lived an eternal blissful life and envied men tooprosperous that dared to get close to their happiness. They then humbled and punished them. That ‘too prosperous’ means it was excess and arrogance (ὕβρις) that was basically abhorred by the Olympian gods, which made people afraid of showing their happiness, or of being arrogant. It was like a socio-religious regulation valve, plus a factor without a doubt of the mostly upper-class (tho not exclusively) marvellous ‘5th cent. BC’ Greek perfect equilibrium.
Now, 2400 years later (!) people in Southern Italy and Greece are still afraid of expressing satisfaction when things are going WELL, lest ‘something’ might spot them and whack them.
Such a great item in their museum mind allow me to say!!
A personification of Goddess Fortuna (“they invoked their fortune”) seen as something capricious (“the tricks of fortune”) is deeply impressed in modern Western minds and language;
The wheel of fortune also used in many popular TV shows is a survival of the goddess, often represented with a wheel at her side (read more)
III.When we say ‘deep in my heart‘ or ‘she / he broke my heart’ we refer to a scientific superseded idea that the heart, and not the brain, is the seat of emotions. The Stoics saw in the heart the seat of the soul, Aristotle the seat of reason and emotion, the Roman physician Galenus the seat of emotions etc.
Another great mind item this laughter – I must record it some day – that belongs to the modern Roman mind, certainly not to the Greek one, modern or non modern.
Update. Here is a sample of such laughter. Click on these words to listen to it: Marina’s (and MoR’s) laughter.
In short, before more details if you will
There’s like a hugemessyarchive in our head so stuffed with things that just beg to be organized a bit and come to light.
Let’s get it all out dear readers. With meditation, concentration and fertile idea-exchanging let us make that inventory my good old Mentor used to mention us when we were so young.
As for my own cultural ID, I am trying to dig a bit with the present blog.
[see in-depth details from our posts. Skip the first section – similar to the above writing – and start reading from Socrates’ T-shirt big face onwards – like the one above]
The whole thing is in fact tough and I’m a bit breathless.
Not because of the poems – they are ready (and will be in progress in any case.) It is the cultural context around them that has exhausted – and troubled me – a bit.
I’ll try to explain.
Andreas Kluth’s Hannibal blog – a place extraordinaire I stumbled upon months ago – had once presented a fascinating metaphor possibly created by a certain Professor Phillip Cary.
“You can think – Andreas wrote – of “Western culture” as a human body:
[nums by MoR instead of stars].
1. The left leg is ancient Athens and Rome, Socrates and Aristotle;
2. the right leg is Jerusalem and the Bible, Moses and Jesus;
3. the crotch is the end of the Roman empire when the two “legs” met ;
4. the torso is the Middle Ages, when the two traditions became one [Dante, MoR];
[etc etc up to the rest of the body that can be pondered over at the Hannibal blog, *here* and *there*;MoR]
Ok. The left leg (1) – the Classical – has been THE main topic of this blog so far.
The research around my Greek and Latin classes though caused the other leg (2) – the Judeo-Christian – to more or less pound on my head.
Ouch what a blow my dear readers! – and later I might tell you why.
Mario: A blow? Why TH do you care? Just go ahead with the left leg, you always were a leftist ah ah ah!
MoR: You moron, MY problem is the ancient languages classes Mario! Now it turns that, while the classical texts are hard (leg 1), the Judeo-Christian ones (leg 2) are often that easy – Old and New Testament alike – that even ababy can read them, for reasons fascinating not the place here to discuss.
[I know there are comics, that there are web sites plus the Latin and Greek Wikipedia- which I adore. But I always prefer the best literature for language learning: ie starting with what is matchless]
Extropian: MoR is right. Wanna get into mountain climbing? Forget the Everest and start with simple (tho captivating) hills.
MoR: Ok ok Extropian, but you 2 didn’t get the MAIN point.
I’m not only facing here the daunting task of presenting the context of the greatest spiritual revolution the West ever had – the switch from Paganism to Christianity. And btw I’m a guy who, revering the Classical as much as I do, is not exactly excited to see the DEATH of it …
Extropian: “Num 3, the crotch?
MoR: The crotch, yes. Problem being: there’s a lot more, and a lot earlier.
Extropian: Urghhh! A LOT earlier??
MoR: Yyyeees! While trying to figure out the spiritual context of the poems, much to my horror (and fascination) did I realise that the (Judeo)-Christian leg was part of bigger – much more ancient – streams originating from Egypt and from the East (both Middle and Far East.)
To be more precise – and in a reversed order: from Egypt, Thrace, Anatolia, Palestine (the Jews, naturally, crucial,) Mesopotamia, Persia AND India.
MoR: I’ll repeat it! The Greco-Romans had already encountered A LOT EARLIER that much wideroriental humus – of which the Judeo-Christian leg was just a part – much earlier I mean than when we finally get to the darn crotch – ie the switching to Christianity and soon after that cataclysm, ie thehorribleend of the Roman empire.
Extropian:[*lost in reflection, eyes gleaming*] Mmmm, how MUCH earlier …
MoR: 800-850 years earlier, more or less. I’ll check better but I’d bet on it.
Long pause. Pauses are important. The sun begins to shine through the clouds folds over the eternal city … We drink strong coffee.
MoR: Which led me to reconsider the Judeo-Christian tradition as being NOT TOTALLY EXTRANEOUS to the Classical World (!) as I first had thought.
A kind of a BLOW, plus a troublingone because I got fascinated by it.
I told Lichanos over at his blog – his posts inspired me as for the Jewish heritage: “I feel the need of coming to terms with both traditions or legs – I said – AND, should I get back to Christianity, I will SUE you …” 🙂
The silence in my study-room is now disturbed only by Mario chesmadonna piano piano … My friends love me and they are worried. I am just excited.
This was happening yesterday in an apartment in Rome.
On another area of the planet 70 million Hindus plus 40,000 Indian politicians were /are about to gather near the banks of the Ganges. The water is cold. It is flowing to the plains directly from the Himalayas. The water is also dirty.
Not that the Indians will care – about the cold or the dirtiness. All they care about – the poor and the low caste, the rich and the high caste – is this sacred water purifying them from their sins and helping them with better reincarnations.
The Kumbh Mela hindu festival might though be special this year. The convergence of the 12-yearly Kumbh Mela with the longest solar eclipse of the millennium – it is believed –could guarantee an end to the reincarnation cycle.
Note. Sin. Purified by sacredwater. ‘Souls’ and ‘bodies’ separated butincessantly reuniting in a reincarnation cycle of life anddeath.
Ah what a marvellous introduction to what we are about to narrate!
We’ll muse on solitude today with scattered thoughts. By solitude we mean the state of living alone and a bit secluded from society. We prefer the Latin term to loneliness because it sounds less negative and more neutral to us.
Can solitude be a positive choice? In a world where singles are growing, it doesn’t seem such an absurd question. Well, one should first know if the majority of those who live without a partner (which doesn’t imply seclusion from society, of course) are willing singles or not.
In any case, and apart from singles who are a special case, what we see are people who can live a good or decent life alone, while others just can’t. It’s like there were a creative solitude and a destructive one. Another point is that some people seem capable of governing their solitude while others do not. Complicated (and interesting) topic, in any case.
The symbol of extreme solitude seems to me that of the hermit, of a person who confines himself to a hermitage. Nikos Kazantzakis went to visit various hermitages where monks lived alone and he noticed that some looked serene, while others instead were like destroyed by their loneliness. They were not human beings any more. They were like larvae. It was as if their brain had been digested by its own juices.
Well, solitude exerts its charm on us, no doubt. It could be an inclination, it could be the myth of self-sufficiency, the myth of the sage of antiquity who has everything he needs within himself, of the wise old man who has “like unsinkable goods in his soul that can float out of any shipwreck”, like Antisthenes said. According to Roman Seneca, a certain Stilpo, a philosopher, lost his family and all his goods and, when asked if he had suffered any harm, he replied: no, I haven’t.
Well, this strength seems inhuman to us and it is not by chance that in Antiquity such cases were cited as examples, and in any case belonged to a minority of supermen who were members of the upper classes.
So, even though we have chosen not to live alone, we are kind of fascinated by solitude and this is probably also why we are fond of Michel de Montaigne who in 1571 retired from public life to his lands living in the tower of his château which had a library with 1,500 books. There he wrote down all his musings, seeming to him that “the greatest favour I could do for my mind was to leave it in total idleness, caring for itself, concerned only with itself, calmly thinking of itself.”
So he let his mind dance and care for its dancing only, which can be a dangerous thing indeed. I think though he clearly perceived this danger, since in fact he wrote that our mind is like a garden, with thousands of different weeds that we have to subdue “with seeds specifically sown for our service”, for, “when the soul is without a definite aim she gets lost”: being everywhere is like being nowhere (I:8. On idleness).
In other words, I would add, a good aid in governing our solitude could surely be one or more projects, one or more goals. This is why people who retire and live in slack inertia die sooner (or become lunatics).
People around me say: « Je-sus, cut out this fable about solitude, will you for Chrissake? Aren’t love, affection and company always better than living alone? ».
Well, yes, of course, and yet … darn, what I’m sure about is that, in a city like Rome, where everybody is sociable, loners do not have a place in truth and are seen like weird birds. Even just eating alone in a restaurant makes you sometimes a freak. This doesn’t happen in Germany or in the UK.
Magister kept saying we need to fight against any anti-social impulse that we have in us. I can agree, but loads of things can be achieved only if we retire to our own shell: writing, reading, composing music, meditating etc. And these are things on whose positiveness everyone agrees.
Solitude however must be a free choice. If we are often alone because we are afraid of others, because of complexes or any possible feeling of inadequacy, this falls back within the ambit of those mentioned anti-social impulses we’ve got to fight against.
Cutting All Ties
Living alone can be furthermore associated with the idea of a departure from all, with the idea of cutting any tie we have. Here comes back the archetype of the sage, of the wise man who leaves family and friends in order to go on a spiritual journey. See Herman Hesse‘s Siddhartha; or Jesus’ disciples, whom he called to leave their families and follow him.
However, cutting all ties and going on our own can sometimes mean an escape from our problems and responsibilities. We leave in search of enlightenment though deep inside we are only running away from our obligations, from our fears and anxieties.
We decide to live hundreds of miles from home without thinking that, as Roman Horace put it, post equitem sedet atra cura, “behind the departing horseman sits black care.”
Montaigne refers that Socrates thus replied to a person who told him that a man had not been improved by travelling away: “I am sure he was not: he went with himself.”
(I:39 On Solitude – where we found inspiration and quotes, though our mind took different paths.)
Wherever we go, we cannot flee from ourselves. Only when we set our heart free from any burden or problem (or obligation) are we free to decide whether to live alone or not; whether to stay or to leave on a journey for a new life.
Selfishness and cowardice are always to be condemned.
This is a continuation of the previous post where we have narrated three episodes each containing an example of the Greek fear in gods’ envy.
What is this envy? Well, since the Greek gods lived an eternal and blissful life they watched with an envious eye men who were too prosperous and happy, hence they humbled and punished them, hence men were afraid to express their happiness too loud, lest some envious god might spot them and hit.
The 3 episodes also showed that in modern Greece and some parts of Italy, especially in the South, people’s minds can still contain elements of the antique Greco-Roman culture. Italians do not believe in these gods any more (well, deep inside who can say that,) but there are still people here who are afraid of expressing satisfaction when something is going very well, lest ill luck might whack them (it is to be noted that the Italian coastal South was first colonized by the Greeks – Magna Graecia – , and only later assimilated by the Romans).
Andy, an Englishman living in Milan, thus commented: “I find it strange how Italians, for all their religion, are so superstitious. And your post shows how not much has changed in all these years.”
Well, is this fear a superstition? Probably, but superstition after all is an irrational belief, so I wouldn’t oppose religion and superstition, they appearing to me to be the same (Andy agrees: see below his comment).
Moreover, superstitious or not, it is a fact that Italians were civilized longbefore Christianity arrived. So they are still a bit pagan at heart even though they captained the spread of the Christian religion. Hard to understand, I know, but true in my opinion.
Andy, together with Indian Falcon and Ashish – two other aficionados of this blog – also found incomprehensible this attitude of the Greek gods. “Is something who is so envious worth being cared for..?” wondered Falcon.
I know this envy seems only negative – I replied. Men shouldn’t be too happy since gods only should be happy: it sounds mean, no doubt (read later about these gods’ amorality). The positive thing underlying all this, however, was that it lead to a common people’s wisdom, kind of a tendency towards a moderate life (in a good sense). For the upper classes it was also a matter of style, of behaving without ostentation or vulgarity. There was some arrogance in Polycrates’ life, so he died a terrible death: this is somewhat a lesson. When Greece began its decadence someone wrote: “modesty and virtue are now powerless, lawlessness rules and men do not strive any more against gods’ envy”.
In other words, this fear of gods’ envy was like a regulation valve. It helped, together with other elements, to develop temperance and the good style in life. Classical Greece (V cent. BC) was a civilization based on an admirable equilibrium. The golden mean. A concept we frequently get back to.
Another point is that the Greek ancient gods were amoral and whimsical. They didn’t care much about good and evil. Weirdly enough this had a good effect as well. Men didn’t think gods were morally perfect while men full of iniquity, and, since they could not count on these whimsical gods’ help, men had to make their own destiny and had to believe in their worth. Western man thinks instead that he is corrupted and a sinner from the beginning (original sin) and that only God can save him.
[The Renaissance only by developing humanism and humanitas has mitigated this belief by stressing both man’s worth and freedom. Incidentally, the Renaissance origin, Italy, and its deep meaning, the rediscovery of the classical world, are not fortuitous, how can they be, they representing like survivals of the ancient world popping up again not only as mere imitation]
Finally Greek men were not striving to be good just because they expected a reward from god(s) or feared their punishment. Given such unpredictable gods, when men were good they were such because they really wanted to, not for any other external reason.
Human Mind like a Museum
As a conclusion, we’ll expand a bit something we said about our country. There are areas of the Italian South which are still developing and which contain more than elsewhere precious elements of our ancient culture. In short, they are like a museum.
I would add that every man’s mind is like a museum, no matter where he comes from, since it contains almost infinite traces of past conceptions, from Stone Age onwards, though without an inventory. This Magister said many years ago. He said we should make such an inventory. To criticise our mind – he explained – is to make such an inventory.
In Living to our Fullest Potential we wrote about Dario Bernazza‘s list of the 30 major issues we must necessarily solve in the best possible way in order to diminish life sufferings and live a fruitful life. After no. 1 in his list (Defining a purpose in life) we will here consider no. 2 and no. 3, namely:
2. Keeping ourselves in good health
3. Serenity of soul
According to Bernazza (I am summarizing freely) health is more precious than wealth or power. It is a prerequisite for a fruitful and happy life. “It is the condition without which the edifice of happiness cannot be built or, if it is already in place, its falling apart cannot be avoided”. Better to be an unknown man who is in good health, than being a successful man who is sick. Good health is a way of delaying old age and fighting back death.
We should abstain ourselves from intemperance and dissolute living, because the pleasure of wellbeing is by far greater than that of revels of any kind that will later make us sick and will endanger our health. Bernazza condones a few exceptions – as, it is my thought, our civilization always did: from Roman Saturnalia to modern Carnivals.
So here we can quote, since Bernazza doesn’t, the Roman poet Horace who teaches to “mingle a little folly with your wisdom: a little nonsense now and then is pleasant.”
Misce stultitiam consiliis brevem:
Dulce est desipere in loco.
(Horace: 4 Odes, xii. 28.)
(Don’t know who translated Horace’s verses into English. Now and then makes good rhythm and is fine to me as a concept, but a better translation of in loco should be “at a proper time”.)
As a conclusion, a minimum advice from Bernazza on how to keep our good health: a walk at a good pace of 2-3 km every day in a park or green area.
Serenity of soul
Attaining serenity of soul is an effective weapon against life liabilities, namely all the sufferings that life inflicts upon us without mercy. But how can we attain it?
We first have to better understand life sufferings.
Physical sufferings can be diminished by taking care of our health, as we said before – argues Country Philosopher (this is how we like to call Dario Bernazza.)
As for psychical sufferings, some originate from the consequences of our bad choices, others from events we do not have control over, like the death of someone we love or people’s wicked actions.
As regards both types of suffering, to learn how to control nervous over excitability can be of great benefit, argues CP, and especially over excitability negative side, which is anger (the positive side of overexcitability being joy.) The less we get angry – and generally overemotional, in a negative sense -, the less we suffer. The more we get angry – and overemotional -, the more we suffer.
Well, is it possible to always avoid anger and nervous overexcitement?
Only the strictest stoics and the strictest oriental religious gurus deem it possible – argues CP. But that would mean to have the psyche of a corpse, which is not possible, unless we really are a corpse. What we can do is limiting our nervous overexcitement to such an extent that real negative overexcitement is not possible any more. “This means reaching a status of psychic calmness more or less unalterable, thence a substantial serenity of soul.”
It is an immense, invaluable benefit, it is clear – argues CP – because in this way we can highly diminish psychic sufferings which are the sufferings that mostly plague our life.
But how can we possibly attain this?
Exercise creates a habit
“Socrates – argues Bernazza – teaches us how: through exercise, since exercise creates a habit, any habit. And how long must this exercise last? Until the day we really get into the habit of not getting angry and overemotional any more. It is a long exercise and not an easy one and it cannot but last a few years.”
But, even if we fail and get now and then overemotional let us remember to never give up, this being highly important, since perseverance will certainly allow us to attain our positive result – there is no doubt about it, there is really no doubt (I told you CP keeps repeating this phrase.)
Note. As regards anger, Bernazza follows the tradition of the Greek and Roman philosophers who generally were in favour of self control and were hostile to anger. To Seneca and Galen uncontrolled anger was similar to madness. Anger to Seneca was useless, even in war. He praised the disciplined Roman armies who were capable of beating the Germans who were instead famous for their fury.
Following is a list of our writings on Dario Bernazza:
How can we live a better life (says Country Philosopher)? According to Socrates (depicted above while trying to convince Alcibiadesto leave charming Aspasia‘s house) everything is attainable through exercise – I am quoting CP freely – because exercise creates a habit, any habit.
[Looking habit up in the on-line Webster we read that it is “a behaviour pattern acquired by frequent repetition.”]
So it seems that all we need, in order to live a better life – CP argues – is just practising regularly what makes us live better, while at the same time gradually abandoning what makes us live worse. Very easy to say but very difficult to realize – CP continues. The reason is that very few people know what makes us live better, i.e. what are the things that make us live happily, which are of course the most convenientand advantageous to us.
According to our nature we all tend towards our well-being and best comfort, both spiritual and material – it cannot be denied, says CP. In other words we should all tend towards what is really convenient for us, the problem oddly enough being that at present we seem to have forgotten what is really convenient for us. Otherwise how can we explain that so many people are unhappy despite the fact that they possess what is necessary to live, and sometimes even more than that?
As we just said we can explain this with the fact that these people (all of us) know little or nothing of what is really convenient or advantageous, even in small trivia and in everyday practical choices. In short, there are so many people around who visibly make the wrong choices, which are disadvantageous choices. These people consequently live worse and worse, while they could live better and better.
(Dario Bernazza, Vivere alla massima espressione, Editrice Partenone – Luciano Bernazza & C – Roma 1989, from page 25 on)
Could this be one of the fundamental problems of our so-called rich countries (I’m asking myself)? They should be full of happy people, all the requirements for happiness (or serenity) being present. But since so many people are evidently unhappy there must be necessarily a problem of ethical confusion: people do not know any more what is convenient or non convenient to do (ethics is a branch of philosophy which encompasses right conduct and good living – a definition taken from Wikipedia).
A Rational Sovereign Spirit
As far as we are concerned, it is very hard to answer to CP’s question (how we can live a better life). We will only consider that the Ancient Romans, who acquired philosophy from the Greeks but who were much more practical and solid than their philosophy mentors, faced life with great success thanks to their iron will, their rationality and self-control. The scions of the well-to-do Roman families flocked to Greece to study the Epicurean and Stoic doctrines, two very significant schools of thought for Rome, which Rome was able to adapt to her needs – like everything Rome learned from others – and which was propagated by Rome in every region of the Empire.
Today we still admire Julius Caesar’s sovereign spirit, calm, always mastering himself even when facing the most dreadful tragedies, his writings & actions being a vivid testimony of his character. Caesar was though but a fruit – one of the greatest, maybe – of a civilization based mainly on reason.
Is a conduct based on this method still valid today? This question arises when reading this Country Philosopher so stubbornly convinced – like the Ancients were – of the thaumathurgic power of human rationality. Is it possible today, while confronting with everyday problems, to draw any benefit from the philosophies of our Ancient World?
We do believe (and we do hope) it is possible.
Right Measure in Pleasure
As an example, we can try to apply Roman rational wisdom to the concept of vice, meaning by this term a moral fault that can harm us. Vices can in fact ruin our life. If we drink or smoke too much, if we become sex (or gambling) maniacs we gradually (or quickly) ruin our life. Actually vices are not those horrible things depicted by priests – CP argues – and at the base of many so-called vices are in reality those pleasant things which make life worth living. Why then don’t we benefit from them? Is it true that all that is pleasurable is harmful and – as some believers say – should be prohibited? What is a Roman-like solution to this problem, since in this blog we are talking about retrieving fragments of our Romans’ ancient wisdom?
Surely abstinence is not Roman-like, it is rather monk-like. The Romans loved terrestrial life much more than ultramundane life (a world of pale ghosts to them). They loved life before death, not after death, and were not inclined to reject its pleasures. The solution for a Roman therefore doesn’t reside in renouncing to life and its pleasures. On the contrary, it resides in the correct measure in which we enjoy life, which implies moderation and non addiction, since any addiction makes us slaves of passions (pleasures), makes us non free.
A beautiful and conclusive sentence by CP: “A right measure prevents the genesis of vice, which incidentally is nothing but a measure not correct – i.e. excessive – which has become a habit.”
PS Note. The Ancients’ reflection on human rationality is of great importance and modern philosophy and science are derived from it. Rationality should though be integrated with the modern concepts of will and imagination. There is some debate today on these topics, I will provide links as soon as I can. The Ancients practiced reason, will and imagination, of course, but didn’t theorize much and didn’t developed techniques that pertain to the last two elements.
‘Country Philosopher’ has been mentioned often in this blog so it is time I introduce him to readers.
His name is Dario Bernazza and what amazed me the day I read one of his books is the fact that he makes use of reason in the way the Ancients did, as if later thought almost didn’t exist.
Free from doubt, he has total faith in the absolute power of rationality and his philosophical manner is natural and naïve. He applies his ancient-like method to both big issues – the existence of God or how we can reach happiness – (see Vivere alla massima espressione) – and everyday problems, in an effort to provide answers to our contemporary void by making use of techniques similar to those utilized by Epicurean and Stoic thinkers 2000 years ago (see his image below, the best I could find to date.)
Therefore, with all due respect to professional philosophers like Fernando Savater (who will probably be invited to our Symposium,) Bernazza will be here as well though with caution, having a few flaws in my opinion, last but not least the tendency to manipulate or influence readers a bit.
The Jap Soldier in the Jungle
Bizarre example of philosophical genuineness – and cultural isolation as well, which kind of preserved him – Country Philosopher is the Japanese soldier who keeps on fighting in the jungle since ages, having no other weapon than his argumentation and being almost unaware of the fact that the times of Socrates, Plato or Zeno of Citium are no more.
CP is a survivor of the classical world.
That all this could happen is both romantic & tragic. And perhaps in no place other than this – the countryside around Rome, (Priverno, Latina), or in the Mezzogiorno – a person like him could spring.
Living Fossils of Antiquity
How many are the Italian country intellectuals? Sparse over the territory they publish their works with their own money by using small local publishing houses and having no great number of readers (the Web didn’t exist at the time of CP.)
This phenomenon is not exclusively Italian.
Here though 1) historical layers are extremely rich and 2) an important part of the classical world originated in this country, which allows us to legitimately speak of living fossils of Antiquity.
In some way, in the Central and especially South regions of Italia, many of us are like fossils, with all the inadequacies towards modernity that this may imply (corrupt patronage systems, amoral familism, clientelism etc.). We retain good qualities as well, which are not dried up yet, I do hope.
The better part of our tradition should be revalued. In the present crisis of the West, due to a great uncertainty regarding our fundamental values, these cultural fragments of the classical world – such as philosophy replacing religion to provide full meanings in life etc. – should be re-examined and updated.
We need to achieve – at a high culture level – what has already been done with peasants’ cultures at a folklore level – for example in Latium and Campania, where, recently rediscovered and re-performed ancient folk dances and tunes, reveal fascinating residues of the rites of Dionysus, among the rest.
A type of research which is actually on the way. The Festival of philosophy in Modena for example (see picture below) has been a great success with 120 thousand presences during only 3 days last year and a seventh successful 3-days edition which ended this last September 16 2007. This formula, thanks to contributions of the European Community, has been exported to both France and the Czech Republic.
As a conclusion, the great philosophers of all times can certainly guide us towards a more meaningful life, beyond any doubt. Nonetheless, these living fossils surviving in niches of a forgotten sea – of lesser value and possibly deteriorated, like prehistoric sequences of DNA – represent survivals of a past that keeps on talking to us.
They keep the fascination of our knotty olive wood, of our scented myrtle, or of the bright yellow of our ginestras.
And they mean something to us which, in spite of all, we cannot but be proud of.
The method of this blog is finding free inspiration in the technique of dialectics (διαλεκτική ) possibly invented by Socrates and Plato something like 2,400 years ago.
[2014 update : much earlier, and not only in the West; see Indian dialetic]
As far as we know dialectics is primarily based on thought discussing with itself in an effort to reach constantly better conceptions, such inner dialogue being though not obvious here since what readers actually get is just a sequence of apparently unrelated writings.
The point is our posts are connected by mental links, and writings and ideas within them bounce on one another in quick or lazy succession, thus answering, contradicting, integrating one another and now and then considering previous-post themes from different angles or even entirely diverse views.
What’s more, in the context of one single post, questions and answers or different opinions can at times coexist, this conflict/dialogue being actually the core of ancient dialectics.
A further layer of complexity – as we havesaid before – is provided by the delectable game of free associations, which, pleasant or not, is part of our inborn cognitive style.
Risk of Bewitching Chaos
Thought in progress, we believe, is a better self-improvement tool than finished and sedentary conclusions. The risk here is chaos, or irrationality. We hope though to attain some consistency:
a. because of the nature of dialectics itself, tending from heterogeneity towards unity (see Dialectics 3);
b. because our ideas are not thrown down at random, links among them being stimulated by inner themes we have been meditating in the years and presumably of biographical origin;
c. because almost all our interests have come (though changing over time) from an sudden germination.
We are referring to a crucial encounter that took place in Rome, 35 years ago (see Dialectics 3).
Dialogue Among Minds
Now, reason discussing with itself doesn’t exclude dialogue with others, since dialectic sees in fertile dialogue among thinking people the highest expression of cognitive exploration.
We have conversed with people of any cultural level, even a few top brains, their ideas interacting with ours in many ways. Plus we digest tons of debates in the media.
In any case, however we put it, we cannot have what Socrates or Plato had. Being not big shots of thought we cannot invite to dinner the great intellectuals of our time on a weekly, monthly or even quarterly basis. What an awful stress it would be (we are reserved,) although, let’s be frank, it’s not that they wouldn’t accept, it’s just they wouldn’t even notice we are inviting them.
[And how silly to even think of having what Socrates or Plato had. Today even top think-tank people cannot enjoy those sublime, holistic symposiums, for the simple reason that knowledge today is too massive and appallingly – though necessarily – specialized.]
So, not being able to recreate a circle with big intellectuals, this virtual Symposiumis what is left to us. It involves a certain number of ‘virtual guests.’
A virtual guest is a quotation or just a reference to a book passage. This is exactly what we mean by a virtual guest. The ideas of an author, dead or alive, participate in the discussion thanks to the greatest invention of all time: Writing.
Read how this young (and uncouth) Roman helps me explain this “Virtual Symposium & Writing” concept. We locked horns a bit, like males sometimes do, but the fight was worthwhile. Yes, we think it was worthwhile.
Quotes and Text Authority
“What are you talking about – argues Arthur Schopenhauer – quoting is copying other people’s ideas”.
Well, it can be, but my quoting is different. First of all it is the feedback and interaction with a writer’s ideas, as I said. I don’t see any copying in confrontation of ideas towards a richer knowledge.
There’s another thing though, personal this time. Take Braudel: “Great civilisation never die”. Or Augias-Zola: “Was Rome ever Christian?”. These were things inside of me since a long time and lurking their way out, i.e. trying to be expressed in clear words. I mean, when I quote an author it is often because he/she can better express what I had already felt but not verbally formulated, hence not totally clarified yet. It is a verbalization of intuitions I ask others to help me bring out. When I’m reading, I’m often struck by something. It’s cannibalism, or autism – a friend once told me. Well, I don’t really know, readers, I am not kidding.
One thing I though know is I hateexegesis of texts, a plague in Italian and foreign universities. What they call research over here is nothing but this totally moronic self-referential game of he-said-she-said, research and exams regarding “only what another earlier authority thought” (quote from John Brockman.) I really do hate exegeses, and most of the time I invoke the authority of nobody. I can invoke the big heros of thought like Goethe, and honour them as virtual guests in my living room, as a guarantee of non superficiality at least.
But my quotations can be derived from Dante, Plutarch, Dan Brown, Bugs Bunny or Homer (Simpson, lol). No matter their origin, they are interesting to me to the extent that they clarify lumpy mind stuff still at an intuition stage (= not translated into logos = reason = words). This lumpy mind stuff, well, keeps bugging me and asking to pls be let out of its irrational status.
Thus being said, it is high time we introduce this great Roman to you. Since from the day this crucial encounter took place our life changed completely, the present blog is dedicated to him.
It is dedicated to our beloved mentor, or Magister, writer, philosopher, outstanding educator.
Maybe some readers are expecting him, so here he comes. Welcome, Magister!
Dialectics 3. Magister.
The Manifold longing for Unity
My ideas started fermenting the day I encountered Magister 35 years ago. It was a rainy day. Rome is so smelly when it rains. I went to this place where he delivered lectures, close to the Tiber, the sacred river of Rome. He was already very old, with long white hair and beard, eyes penetrating. Italy was all a huge debate in the roaring 1970s (I am listening to Pink Floyd‘s Dark Side of the Moon album to relive the feel of those days.)
Magister talked softly most of the time, the silence of the audience being absolute, even embarrassing at times. When he though got angry his voice became like thunder almost, eyes flashing.
I will never forget him. I was an ugly duckling when I met him. Not that he made a swan out of me, lol, but he taught me much, basically by having me understand I had the means to be a free man by just making use of my mind and will.
I do not know if I was a good pupil.
I left family to find my fortune. Unfortunate are the young who never find magistri.
I won’t reveal his identity – not that he would mind, he being no more, his ashes scattered somewhere in this eternal city he loved so much. I adored him and I was not the only one to cry over his ashes. There are reasons for not revealing his identity.
What I can say is just repeating this: to him I really owe a lot. Last but not least this love for knowledge, this curiosity or craving, don’t know how to phrase it – this chilly charming language being so difficult for a non mother-tongue.
I mean, this cultural hedonism which tends to auto-organization and which in defiance of age is constantly growing instead of abandoning my soul (cultural = related to knowledge, as people in France, Spain, Italy mean it).
Plus, of course, I owe him this dialectic method.
From that day this process of spontaneous philosophy started going through alternate phases though basically it never stopped (well, almost never.)
Not a big deal, after all. Magister was a disciplined intellectual while I was too whimsical, too eclectic. I (re)turned to music, failing in this economically. I hence turned to high-school teaching and freelance journalism, which proved one of the best things I ever did in my life (teaching), while journalism being somewhat superficial to my taste it basically turned to be good training for writing (plus it taught me that success, even a tiny bit, is a powerful drug.)
Ok, journalism despite a bit of glory produced zero money. And teaching, well, teachers in this country are among the worst paid, the Italian ruling class caring about keeping power mostly and being not much interested in instructing the common people – who might understand how they are manipulated by all parties, left and right, and by the mass-media.
This is why I finally turned to computer engineering, which produced more money but also gave a bit of a blow to this spontaneous philosophical process. Or maybe not?
“Ok, this story about Magister is moving, your failures a bit less, being pathetic. Don’t you realise you are a digression maniac not sticking to the point and forgetting about dialectics and its tendency towards unity?”
No, I didn’t forget my point. The encounter with Magister in fact (and the sudden germination it produced) might hopefully help me to fulfill this longing for some unity which after all is the ultimate goal of any dialectics.
In other words, dear dear Magister, this imprinting I owe you makes me hope this quirky research of mine could somehow be fulfilled.
Life is a comedy, not a tragedy.
Dialogue with readers
We know too well our topics are too heavy for the common reader while too unsophisticated for the happy few. Unfortunately the interests of readers are flocking towards entertainment, actors, gossip. So how many hits will I have? Very little. Not that I care much – well, I do a bit, but not so much. I am doing this just for fun, as Linus Torvalds said in his book about Linux.
And it’s such great fun, believe me, this philosophical folly!
Although, do not take me too seriously, please. Life is a comedy, not a tragedy, it shouldn’t be zu schwer, too grave (well, it is better to see it this way. Watch Benigni’sLa vita è bella. Life is beautiful, or at least it could always be if we make use of will and imagination.
The autumn of life is a phase one should 1) do lots of sports and 2) use one’s brain extensively to keep it fit. And here, it is my opinion and personal taste, humanities & holistic thought, rather than specialised thought, are much much better for rewiring one’s synapses.
Wait, I forgot the completion element of blog dialectics:readers’ comments!
Hits might be negligible, but a few readers are arriving. The intriguing Indians came first, so unpredictable (since the Far East is really far.) Then one ex student of mine from USA, a great and totally eccentric guy living in Rome and who left one comment on my very first post. One Chinese woman too. China! She talked about mysterious things like vowels in Mandarin and Cantonese. A sweet person rich in emotions, which contradicts what many Italians think of the Chinese people, aliens with marble faces. Finally one first Italian guy (!), Massimo from Viterbo. That area is north of Rome but still in Latium, where the Etruscans lived and met the Romans. Might be promising.
In the end this blogging mixes up my ideas, authors’ ideas and readers’ ideas. [Plato’s dialectics? Yes, though revised a bit.]
Now be patient enough to listen to Man of Roma’s (delirious?) conclusion …
Dinners on a Roman Terrace.
Let us have fun!
Let us have fun, my delectable guests. Let us imagine we are in early summer when the evening sea breeze, or ponentino, is delightful. I’m inviting you all from every country, era space, location. I am inviting you ALL to this imaginary Roman terrace, overlooking the eternal city‘s glorious skyline.
Rome (loose woman and she-wolf) is watching attentive. Is she smiling?
Dinner after dinner, amid flowers perfumed and smells from dishes exquisite, in front of a breathtaking spectacle of glories and defeats, coming from a civilization of hard & refined conquerors, who always accepted those who were diverse, and their gods, and their creeds, and philosophies and manners …
Right here, dear guests of mine, let us enjoy our life a bit!
Away from all the sorrows, away from all the pains, let us discuss on themes light, silly and severe.
Good food will not be missing, together with good music (another needed guest, of course) and plenty of good wine and, no real objection to a pot of beer (or cervesia), once in a while.
Playing being simple, playing being easy. All it takes is good food, good music and treasured company most of all!
While I was writing, music and red vino di Montalcino were helping me to fly high.