To her husband’s question, “Is all well?,” Lucretia replied:
“Far from it; for what can be well with a woman when she has lost her honour?
The print of a strange man is in your bed. Yet my body only has been violated;
my heart is guiltless, as death shall be my witness.” …
Taking a knife which she had concealed beneath her dress, she plunged it into her heart,
and sinking forward upon the wound, died as she fell.
A discussion about the acceptable reasons for ending one’s life (see our previous post) can profit from the opinion of our forefathers, the Ancients, and from that of the Renaissance men, who channelled ancient thought into modernity.
To many, old writings are a terrible bore.
They are wrong in my view.
Ancient writings, actual time machines connecting the past to the present, are mind expanding and one of the pleasures of life.
“The wise man lives as long as he should, not as long as he can” said Seneca, who nobly committed suicide when accused of an attempt on emperor Nero’s life. And Cicero said that while “life depended upon the will of others, death depended upon our own.”
Greco-Roman writers like Plutarch expressed great appreciation for anyone who showed this kind of ultimate dignity.
Tacitus admires Boiocalus, a German chief, “who said to the Romans that he and his tribe might lack enough land to live upon, but land sufficient to die upon could never be wanting.”
Plutarch tells us of this Spartan boy “sold as a slave and by his master commanded to some abject employment, who said: ‘You shall see whom you have bought; it would be a shame for me to serve, when freedom is at reach,’ and having so said, threw himself from the top of the house.”
Ancient thought didn’t always condone suicide. Plato didn’t accept it and the Roman poet Virgil (Aeneid, IV, 434-437) destined those who committed suicide to a region of the afterlife where they were overwhelmed by sadness (tenent maesti loca).
But the prevalent Roman ideal was that of the stoic sage who counted on reason and self-control and who was not afraid of pain or misfortune (see our post ‘On solitude‘). Should life become unbearable, or should one face great dishonour, the Romans of both sexes were not hesitant to commit suicide.
Death was considered an act of ultimate freedom and this was deeply ingrained in the Roman tradition. “Nature has ordained only one entrance to life – said Cicero – but a hundred thousand exits.”
Death was less important than the way of death, which had to be decent, full of dignity, rational (and sometimes theatrical,) while to the Christian mind, self-killing being a sin, suicide is often a desperate, irrational action fruit of depression.
Common people as well considered dignity more important than life in many cases.
Roman stoicism deeply influenced the West despite the victory of Christianity. “For much of modern Western history, Stoic ideas of moral virtue have been second to none in influence” (Ecole Initiative,Early Church On-Line Encyclopedia.)
We see examples of noble death in Shakespeare, who, like all his contemporaries from Renaissance, felt the influence of ancient thought. The imagination of the Victorian British was captured by Cato’s death (see image on the right), «clawing out his own entrails to avoid Caesar’s despotism — as a courageous and noble death.”
Montaigne, imbued with Roman stoicism, refers how “Alexander laying siege to a city in India, those within, finding themselves very hardly set, put on a vigorous resolution to deprive him of the pleasure of his victory, and accordingly burned themselves together with their city, despite his humanity.” He seems to praise that the Indians preferred a death with honour rather than a life without it.
Montaigne adds a moving example:
“Nothing can be added to the beauty of the death of the wife of Fulvius, a good friend of Augustus. Augustus having discovered that his friend had vented an important secret he had entrusted him withal, one morning that he came to make his court, received him very coldly and looked frowningly upon him. Fulvius returned home full of despair, where he sorrowfully told his wife that, having fallen into this misfortune, he was resolved to kill himself.
To whom she frankly replied, ‘Tis right, seeing that having so often experienced the indiscipline of my tongue, you could not take warning: but let me kill myself first,’ and without more ado she ran herself through the body with a sword.”
Montaigne, quoting Pliny the elder, observes that the mythical Hyperboreans, “when weary and satiated with living, had the custom, at a very old age, after having made good cheer, to precipitate themselves into the sea from the top of a certain rock, assigned for that service” (see our series on the Hyperboreans.)
“Unbearable pain and the fear of a worse death seem to me the most excusable incitements for suicide” is Montaigne’s conclusion.
He was a sincere Christian. But he found inspiration and solace in the teachings of antiquity.
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.
Sometimes when people have a problem – any problem: love, career, friends, family, deep shyness, health etc. – they get depressed, they remain passive and do nothing. Other times people, trying also desperately to get out of their bad situation, find some strength and react, in a way or another.
Of course the result of this re-action can either solve their problem or, as a possible alternative, get to a problem that is worse, not to mention total failure or disaster (this not being the point though.)
Ok, I am making it simple but, from what I have just said, strength seems such an important ingredient in one’s life success – Country philosopher would say:”No doubt about it, really no doubt about it.” I think you’ll soon meet him, oh you’ll have to readers.
Back to the point now.
Strength of Mind, plus Action
Strength is in fact crucial, I can tell you by experience. No matter your intelligence or big qualities, if you are not provided with enough strength of mind to face things with firmness, if you do not possess some sort of personal bravery, even powerful intellectual processing capabilities might not help much. Quite the contrary, they might be an extra handicap making you a flop.
Here’s one theoretical example.
Even a perfect intellect though spending its time thinking thinking thinking only (and not acting with bravery of mind) it’s almost sure to reach its exact opposite, namely total imperfection in life, which can have many names: frustration, implosion, deep sorrow, depression, overthrow, stalemate etc.
Failure, in short.
The world is full of gifted people that are total flops because they’re cowards and forceless, I know too well, many of my failures (apart from a few successes) being due to flaws where lack of courage was not seldom part of the bunch. And of course, one being a flop means being partially or totally impeded to fulfill one’s dreams as for family, career, love and so forth.
I would add (since we are all bloggers) that even writing & thinking too much can sort of devour itself and make the writer stop writing altogether. This for example happened to me with musical composition: too much loved, too much adored, thus devouring itself, hence failing (or flopping, if you prefer.)
Finding Courage Inside. Magister
Given strength is such a good quality how can one attain it in case we are deprived of it? Hard question. I can tell what Magister used to say, probably referring to an idea by the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci:
“Anyone of us can find all the force he needs, atremendousforce,if only he really tries, no matter his gender, nation, age, instruction, religion (or non religion), no Gods helping, no religion helping, only our human nature helping (or genes, if you prefer.)”
Of course I am making Magister’s words exuberant a bit since he lectured us with his crystal-clear ideas that imprinted on us vigorously, day by day.
“Sometimes one needs to really be cornered to discover this tremendous bravery we all can have – he kept saying.
“Sometimes one actually needs to feel in danger.”
Magister now sounded implacable, his voice rising.
“Yes! Only in real danger one is sometimes able to stand up with one’s ballsfirm, in order to face things, and FIGHT!”
Gosh, we were STUNNED. We couldn’t but keep staring at him, totally wide-eyed.
I will also add the sublime example of Victorian Kipling’s Rikki-tikki-tavi baby mongoose, fighting and winning even over the dreadful adult female King cobra. Yes, baby mangusta won because cornered (and out of love for the British humans she/he lived with, though mangustas’ behaviour I have no idea about.)
So let us make use of thispotential inner courage we all have in order to face things and act. In other words, let us fight for a better life – personal or collective, it is the same.
Of course, dear readers, this post is also pretty personal since I am living a hard moment, so once more I’m trying to follow Magister’s example to find such inner force and make use of all the personal bravery I am capable of.
Destructive Solution: aggressive Anger
The thing is, being very stressed these days, I am starting to make mistakes.
1) Excess. One mistake is letting excess prevail a bit. No big deal, since once I’m all right I’ll take care of it and tame it (hopefully.)
2) Anger. The worst thing – and a possible by-product of Magister’s teaching on strength? – which I consider due only to age (or bad temper?). I mean, I feel such a great anger inside, together with this constantly re-lost & re-found energy at my disposal now, without a doubt.
Why the hell am I angered? For personal reasons I won’t say and because I see my country (and Europe) not reacting well to challenges. I see people here in Italy full of intelligence and of resources my generation didn’t even dream of (same old song at each generation, I know) looking unprepared, narrow-minded and provincial, not to mention Italians’ almost total ignorance of the whole world picture.
I see the UK and France fantasizing they still have great empires (or great world influence of their own), thus halting in a way or another the European political unification.
Oh this really drives me mad, especially the Brits’ behaviour, really so mad indeed – tending to condone the French out of sentimental weakness: I consider them at present the best fruit of Latin civilization.
This anger thing reminds me of an old man, long white hair, bald, dirty clothes though full of tremendous dignity I met 25 years ago in Pamplona, Spain – see the picture above. He told us two words in Italian in a bar, so I asked him:
“How is government here in Spain?”
His facial expression changed and, looking at me with boiling rage, he roared:
“LATRONES! LATRONES!” (Thieves! Thieves!)
Oh was I startled, plus I got worried for the poor old fellow’s health.
2.1) Made my Indians angry. First totally moronic consequence of my destructive anger (plus lack of concentration): I’ve recently flooded my sweet Indian bloggers (Amith, Poonam, Ashish, Ishmeet etc.) with hard (not against them tho) and/or fussycomments which gave them the impression I wanted their blog space A-L-L for myself.
GOD DAMN! They might ban me from now on, being all connected to one-another, one whisper sufficing to be excluded by the only readers I have (or the core of them.)
It would though be right, it would though be RIGHT, this punishment, because of this verbal abuse of mine that has no excuses, really no excuses at all, going against what I call humanitas, which is basically sympathy & respect for others.
One Big (Tiny) Missile Against The Ex-Victorians
2.2) Stupid attack on Great Britain, i.e.second moronic mistake.
Some time ago I found a high-brow English blog on politics, Westminster Wisdom (subtitle: “mind trained by academia into almost fractal subtlety”).
It was highly ranked in Technorati plus this guy’s (or guys’) nick was Gracchi, which in Ancient-Roman history is the name of two brave brothers who decided to carry out a revolutionary state-land property reform (land to be given to small peasants) since the ancient Roman Res Publica was not so Publica after all, 200 clans (or gentes) basically having ALL the riches (and lands) for themselves. These two brothers were in fact butchered by landowners gorillas. Same old story almost everywhere in the ancient and non ancient world.
Wow, I said. I love this man. He loves the Romans & the common people like I do. Therefore I started reading his blog with a pleasure that diminished the more I was realising how his high-brow British English (which I probably envied) was hard to understand. My anger, while reading, kept surging surging.
Such fruitless sophistication (I thought,) I had to read sentences 3 times to figure out their content (was I just tired?)
You’ll say it’s because I am no mother-tongue. I’m not, and I toil for every sentence I write.
But let’s face it. I read the Economist, Financial Times etc. quite a lot. I used to read over and over the Canterbury Tales (modern English verse, tho,) Pope, Shakespeare, Byron & Milton, bits of Joyce etc. (and, American-English stuff, even more than British stuff, except for English poetry, of course, which I totally adore. I’ll add several historical & political British – and American – books.)
Additionally, my anger was surging surging also because this guy dared to call himself Gracchi.
This Briton I mean dared to use a Roman name that since more than 2000 years always meant: with the common people! For the common people! Caesar himself, though from the noblest breed, wrote works that even a baby could read and belonged to that Gracchian youth and all that democratic bunch which helped him to gain power.
In ten minutes I was like the man in Pamplona: all rage, my pent-up grudge against the Brits exploding – the only real Trojan horse of Europe (forget the French.)
Well, it didn’t explode, to say the truth. It imploded, probably making my life 2-3 years shorter.
I didn’t (and don’t) nonetheless care a f*** about my health, being a citizen of Rome with all his couldn’t-care-less attitude, non ce ne frega riccamente un cazzo a noi romani.
Although, I did care, and got so angry about this after-all-innocent-Brit-guy’s blog. Hence, rage being rage:
Vendetta is a dish
You have to eat so cold,
Oh yes, my fellow countryman,
so cold, cruel, perfidious.
Perfidious-Albion-like ah ah
perfidious-Albion-like ah ah ah ah
ah ah ah aaahhhh ….
Such a silly poem actually – I love my silly English poems – though this one (among the silliest) may somewhat describe my feelings while so perfidiously I was about to prepare my missile against the UK.
Once my comment was completed – and well equipped after two hours oftoil – BANG! I shot my legions forwards, feeling like Maximus Decimus Meridius in the moments preceding the German Marcomanni’s annihilation (in the Gladiator’s initial movie battle, btw.)
“Your blog seems great to me, although a bit too sophisticated. Is this sophistication the essence of what you call academic? (I know this is not your thought). Trying not to be provocative I’m only disappointed.
I thought only the French and Italian Academias (or their respective literatures) suffered from this illusion that sophistication of style immediately translated into quality of content, or from this aristocratic (id est corporative) disease that makes intellectuals more concerned about other intellectuals than about talking to a public. The natural consequence of this undemocratic attitude being of course that the world does not read our works any more.
Britain was such a happy exception. You did so much not only for the ‘public understanding of science’ but also for the ‘public understanding of humanities (and politics)’.
Where is Europe going if even the shepherds are getting lost….?
A man of the street of Rome
[downgraded to middle-brow status
(though proud of it),
whose ancestors were noble citizens of Rome
since at least 10 centuries]
Saturday, October 20, 2007 3:49:00 PM
The arrow was cruel, no doubt, and painted with subtle venom, especially if you consider his nick, Gracchi, and the fact that only 40 years earlier sublime (and high-brow) Bertrand Russel, together with hundreds of other high-brow British intellectuals, had the rare quality of being understood even by porters (or street cleaners, if you prefer.)
This dirty shot to the Gracchi guy was in fact such a blow in my view that, thinking of it now while I’m writing, I am not so proud of it, I’m not so proud of it at all.
In any case my legions of words having been too quick for him – and too well organized, I’ll confess my silly pride – this poor, decent Briton thus finally replied:
“Thanks TD [TD?]
Manofroma cheers for the praise. I’m sorry about the sophistication- I do write some simpler articles- but basically I write this for fun, so though I’ll try and be more concise in the future I suspect the subjects won’t change! I do think that there is a point in there- and I think TD [??] has found it for example- anyway thanks for visiting and sorry your visit disappointed you in some ways.”
Saturday, October 20, 2007 4:12:00 PM
Nice reply, after all, and his blog highly cultivated and interesting indeed, of a higher quality than mine, no doubts about it.
But then, total victory of Roma over the UK? Oh no no no, of course not. Great Britain always backfires.They never give up, never, even during Alexandrian-style decadence.
After 1 day an anonymous comment in fact came out:
“No no no don’t listen to Manofroma’s incomprehensible post. There is absolutely nothing ‘too sophisticated’ about your writing – it is most lucid and precise. Stick exactly to what you are doing, it works beautifully! One of the few blogs out there that is consistently a joy to read.
Sunday, October 21, 2007 1:08:00 AM
Probably true, although, what if HE HIMSELF had written the anonymous comment? There must be reasons why they are called Perfidious-Albion. Well, in truth, difficult to say whether the Romans were instead more honest, in their total brutality that spared nobody if they deemed it necessary. So hard to say. In any case, as for Gracchi, I’ll never know if it was him to backfire or someone else.
Truth painted with Sorrow. Ghosts
The thing is, what the hell do I care, my dear readers. I was an aggressive bastard, whatever the result of this microscopic war between Roma and the UK – who probably didn’t even notice the battle, and Rome in any case couldn’t care less, ah ah ah.
Things, you know, are much more complicated. And they are not painted with venom, they are painted with sorrow …
Truth being I cannot but love Britain of course. I wouldn’t have toiled so much to learn its language; I wouldn’t have listened to Sir Edward Elgar‘s Victorian music so much, a bit too romantic to Roman ears, though providing that feel of imperial greatness I needed to write my most Roman posts, this introductory post, for example.
And the thing is I do not only love the Britons. I most of all love so much the people and the place I am departing from.
Is it guilt that is making me aggressive, my departure though being not deprived of reasons and fairness?
And, out of guilt, is it a ‘hating-myself <–> hating-my-beloved-ones’ type of thing? Or is it just fear?
“Ok man, this is personal stuff – one might say. Let’s get more practical. We just learned you are leaving: where the hell are you going?”
Well, I’m going somewhere to the south – only 30 minutes by train will take me back to my beloved city.
I’m going where I can watch our Mediterranean sunset reflecting on the salty sea water, every day that is left to me, every single day, away from all the smog, away from the big city chaotic pace, although, unfortunately, also away from all that I love unconditionally.
And one danger is approaching, ruthless. Ghosts from my mind are about to attack. I can feel them.
They’re approaching and even if it was foreseen that doesn’t mean I am not scared, being totally alone, nobody waiting for me, now and in the future, I believe.
This might be the final reason why I got so armoured, aggressive. Mind ghosts, theonly real ones in my view (see the post Ghosts from Asia,) will make my life a lot harder, for a length of time whose duration I cannot predict.
They are the ones to be really fought, not the Brits, certainly, whom how can I judge they being superior to Italians in many respects (not in all respects though, oohh really no doubt about it.) I will not judge them, though pls allow me to strongly disagree with their stubborn, anachronistic (plus self-destructive) Trojanism.
I really do hope that love, harmony and joy will soon circle back in the life of everyone, me being though a natural born loner, as it always was and as it always will probably be.
I might lose my battle with ghosts (and with fear). Even though in the end, in the very end:
When the unwanted Guest arrives …
I might be afraid
Or I might smile and say:
My day was good, let night fall.