May 142014
 
9781466868946

Illustration by Allen Williams, for Tor.com

On the one hand, I have been looking forward for ages to reading and then writing something about “The Litany of Earth,” an amazing novelette by Ruthanna Emrys, acquired for Tor.com by editor Carl Engle-Laird.  But on the other hand I personally usually dislike reading reviews, at least traditional reviews of things I have already decided to read.  When a reviewer tells me about what I’m going to experience and what excellent things the author is going to do, it disrupts the reading process for me, makes the things mentioned in the review stand out too boldly, interfering with the craftsmanship of a good story in which the author has taken great pains to give each beat just the right amount of emphasis, no more, no less.  The memory of the review in my mind makes it like a used book which someone has gone through with highlighter, which can be fascinating as a window on a fellow reader, and delightful for a reread, but it isn’t what I want on first meeting a new text, which in my ideal world consists of me, the reader, placing myself wholly and directly in the hands of the author, with the editor’s touch there too to help spot us along the way.  I do not need a co-pilot.  And it is more of a problem, for me at least, with short fiction than with long fiction since the review could be half as long as the story and weigh me down with nearly as much weight as the whole thing carries.  So, today I have set myself the challenge of writing a review, or non-review, of “The Litany of Earth” that isn’t a co-pilot, or a highlighter, and does as much as possible to get across the story’s strengths and the power of the reading experience while doing my best not to change the relative weight of anything in the story, make anything jump out too boldly, leaving the craftsmanship as untouched as it can be.

I have a seven step plan.  (Personal rule: anything with three or more steps counts as a plan. Also, “Profit” is not a step, it’s an outcome, and does not count toward your total of three.)

  1. Recommend you go read “The Litany of Earth” now before I can spoil anything.
  2. Talk amorphously about things the story is doing with structure and world-canon, talking more concretely about a few other pieces of fiction that have done somewhat similar things.
  3. Ramble about Petrarch.
  4. Ramble about Diderot.  Dear, dear Diderot…
  5. Urge you to read “The Litany of Earth” again, last chance before I get out my highlighter.
  6. Talk about “The Litany of Earth” directly.
  7. Sing.

Step One: I strongly recommend that you go read “The Litany of Earth” right now.  It’s free online, and if you read it now you won’t be stuck with an intrusive co-pilot even if I do fail in today’s challenge of writing a non-review.

Step Two: Talk amorphously, and compare the story to other works of fiction.

hb_1972.118.224One of the unique literary assets of current fiction is the proliferation of familiar but elaborate and thoroughly developed fictional worlds which authors can step into and use for new purposes.  There have always been such worlds as long as there has been literature.  Arthuriana is my favorite pre-modern example, a complex and well-populated world rich with explorable relationships and flexible metaphysics ready to be elaborated upon and repurposed.  Geoffrey of Monmouth and Thomas Malory and Petrarch and Ariosto and the traditional artists in Naples who decorated (and still decorate) street vendor wagons with Arthur’s knights each repurposed Arthuriana just like Marion Zimmer Bradley and and Monty Python and Gargoyles and Heather Dale and Babylon 5 and the endlessly hilarious antics of the BBC’s Merlin.  Each of the later authors in the genealogy has taken advantage not only of the plot, setting and characters but knowing that readers have genre expectations.

In the early 1500s when Ariosto began his chivalric and slightly-Arthurian verse epic Orlando Furioso he took advantage of the fact that readers already associated the topic with epic works and grand tourneys and knights and ladies and courtly-love adultery, baggage which let him write a massive and endless rambling snarl of disjointed and fantastic adventurousness so unwieldy that traditional epic structure is to Orlando Furioso as a sturdy rope is to the unassailable rat’s nest of broken headphones and cables for forgotten electronics that I just fished out of this bottom drawer.  c_orlando20furioso2019511No reader, not even in 1516, would put up with it without the promise of Arthurian grandeur to make its massive scale feel appropriate.  (I will also argue that the BBC Merlin, for all its tomatoes and giant scorpions, has not actually done anything quite so unreasonable as the point when Ariosto has “Saint Merlin” rise from his tomb to deliver an endless rambling prophecy about how awesome Ariosto’s boss Ipollito D’Este is going to be.  Fan service long predates the printing press.)  In a more recent continuation of this tradition, modern Arthurian adaptations have given us the previously-silenced P.O.V.s of women, of villains, of third-tier characters, and in some sense it’s quite modern to think about P.O.V. at all.  But even very old adaptations take advantage of how not just setting but genre is an asset usable to get the reader to follow the author to places a reader might not normally be willing to go.  And, of course, in more recent versions authors have taken advantage of exploring silenced P.O.V.s to critique earlier Arthurian works and their blind spots, as a way of reaching the broader blindnesses and silencings of the past stages of our own society that birthed these worlds.

Japan's new "Princess Arthur" lets you date the Knights of the Round Table. It's not actually goofier than what Ariosto did to Arthuriana in the 1500s.

Japan’s new “Princess Arthur” lets you date the Knights of the Round Table. It’s not actually goofier than what Ariosto did to Arthuriana in the 1500s.

“Is ‘The Litany of Earth’ Arthuriana?” you may wonder.  No.  It uses a different mythos.  I bring up Arthuriana in order to remind you of the many great things you’ve seen humans create by using and reusing a familiar collective fiction, and in order to reinforce my earlier claim that one of the great assets of current fiction is that we have many, many such worlds.  If pre-modern Earth had several dozen rich, lively, reusable mythoi and epic settings, the 20th century has added many, many more in which good (and campy) things have and can be done. Star Trek, Sherlock Holmes, Gundam, the massive united comics universes of Marvel and DC, these each provide as much complexity and material for reuse and reframing as the richest ancient epics, more if, for example, you compare the countless thousands of pages of surviving X-Men to the fragile little Penguin Classics collections of Eddas and fragmentary sagas which preserve what little we still have of the Norse mythic cosmos.  Marvel’s universe, and DC’s too, have a fuller population and a more elaborate and eventful history than any mythos we have inherited from antiquity, and my own facetious in-character reviews of the Marvel movies are but the shallowest tip of what can be done with it.

Marvels_(Alex_Ross)The specific case of this kind of rich reuse whose parallels to “The Litany of Earth” are what brought me down this line analysis comes from the Marvel comics megaverse, the unique and skinny stand-alone Marvelsby Kurt Busiek, illustrated by Alex Ross.  What it does with the narrative possibilities of the Marvel universe is very much worth looking at even if one doesn’t care a jot about comics.

Described from the outside and ignoring, for a moment, that these are comic books, the Marvel universe presents us with an Earth-like alternate history in which disasters–supernatural, alien, primordial, divine–have repeatedly threatened Earth, the universe, and, most often, New York City with certain destruction.  These have been repeatedly repelled by superheroes, somewhat human somewhat not, and the P.O.V. from which we the reader have always viewed these events has been as one of the superpeople at the heart of the battle, deeply enmeshed in the passionate immediacy of the short-term drama, nemeses, kidnappings, personal backstory, and who’s dead lately.  Only rarely have we had works that gave us a longer perspective over time, reflecting personal change, evolving perspectives, how being constantly enmeshed in superbusiness makes a person develop and self-reflect, though notably the works that have done so have been among superhero comics’ shining stars (Dark Knight Returns, Red Son, Watchmen.)

Marvels instead offers a long-term and distanced P.O.V., that of a photographer who lives in New York City and, during his path from rookie to retirement, experiences in order the great, visible cataclysms that have repeatedly shaken Marvel’s Earth.  His perspective gives historicity, sentiment, reflection and above all realism to Marvel, using it as alternate history rather than an action setting.  The effect is powerful, beautiful and highly recommended for the way it weaves the richness of Marvel’s setting together with good writing to create a truly valuable work of literature.  But it also reverses an interesting silencing which has been present in the back of Marvel, and superhero comics, since their inception: the silencing of the Public.

marvelsVery much like the women in early versions of Arthuriana, the Public in Marvel (and DC) has not been an agent in itself, but an object to motivate the hero.  The Public exists to be rescued, protected, placated, evaded, sometimes feared.  The Public has cheered P.O.V. heroes, hounded them, betrayed them, threatened them with pitchforks and torches, somehow being tricked over and over again into doubting the heros even after the last seventeen times they were exonerated.  The Marvel Public specifically also persistently hates and fears the X-Men and other mutants despite being saved by them sixteen jillion times, and somehow hates and fears the other heros less even though many of them are aliens or science freaks or robots or other things just as weird as mutants.  It is a tool of the author, manipulated by villains, oppressing misfits, causing tension, but virtually never is the reader asked to empathize with the Public.  The object of empathy is the hero, or occasionally the villain, but the reader is never supposed to identify with or even think about the emotions of the screaming and yet simultaneously silenced mob.  Marvels gives us, at last, the point of view of that mob, or at least one member of it, directing our self-identification and above all our empathy for the first time to something which has been hitherto faceless.

The effect is rather like a stroll through the Uffizi enjoying endless scenes of exciting saints surrounded by choruses of beautiful angels and then hitting the Botticelli room where each angel has a distinctive face and personality and you find yourself wondering what that angel is thinking when it watches Mary come to heaven to be crowned its queen, or sings music for young John the Baptist whose grisly end and subsequent heavenly ascension the angel already knows.  Only when Botticelli invites you to see the angels as individuals do you realize that no earlier painting ever did.  They had a failure of empathy.  They were still beautiful, but here is a rich new direction for empathy which no earlier work has asked us to consider, and which opens up a huge arena we had ignored.  Women in Arthuriana; the Public in Marvel; the angels that stand around in paintings of saints.

Cimabue-Pre-Giotto Alterpiece

Botticelli_1483-85 Magnificat Madonna

In just the same way, “The Litany of Earth” uses empathy and P.O.V. to open rich new arenas in one of our other well-known modern fictional settings.  And the setting it uses has a fundamental and very problematic failure of empathy rooted deep in its foundations, so addressing that head-on opens a very potent door.

And since I can feel the urge to talk about Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto becoming harder to resist, I believe it is now time to nip that in the bud by moving on to the next stage of my plan.

hob_france7aStep Three: Ramble about Petrarch.

Picture Petrarch in his library, holding his Homer.  He has just received it, and turns the stiff vellum pages slowly, his fingertips brushing the precious verses that he has dreamed of since his boyhood.   The Iliad in his hands.  His friends have always whispered to him of the genius that was Homer, his real friends, not the shortsighted fools he grew up with in Avignon, arrogant Frenchman and slavish Italians like his parents who followed the papacy and its trail of gold even when France snatched it away from Rome.  His real friends are long-dead Romans: Cicero, Seneca, Caesar, men like him who love learning, love virtue, love literature, love Rome and Italy enough to fight and give their lives for it, love truth and excellence enough to write of it with passion and powerful words that sting the reader into wanting to become a better person.

images (1)Petrarch was born in exile.  Not just the geographic exile of his family from their Florentine homeland, no, something deeper.  An exile in time.  This world has no one he can relate to, no one whose thoughts are shaped like his, who walks the Roman roads and feels the flowing currents of the Empire, whose understanding of the world connects from Egypt up to Britain without being blinded by ephemeral borders, who can name the Muses and knows how truly rich it is to taste the arts of all nine, and how truly poor one is without.  Antiquity was his native time, he knows it, but antiquity was cut off too early–he was born too late.  His friends are dead, but their voices live, a few, in chunks, in the books in distant libraries which he has spent his life and fortune gathering.  His library.  Each volume a new shard of a missing friend, those few, battered whispers of ancient voices which survived the Medieval cataclysm that consumed so much.  And now, after hearing so many of his friends speak of Homer, call him the Prince of Poets, the climax of all art and literature, divine epic, the centerpiece of all the ancient world, he has it in his hands.  It survived.  Homer.  In Greek.  And he can’t read it.  Not a word of it.  Greek is gone.  No one can read it anymore, no one.  Homer.  He has it in his hand, but he can’t read it, and for all he knows no one ever will again.

601610_10151261503057044_237781816_n

This historical moment, Petrarch with his Homer, is one of the most poignant I have ever met in my scholarship.  A portrait of discontinuity.  The pain when the chain of cultural transmission, of old hands grasping young, that should connect past, present and future is cut off.  The cataclysm doesn’t have to be complete to be enough to disrupt, to silence, to jumble, to leave too little, Greek without Homer, Homer without Greek. Petrarch is a Roman.  They all are, he and his Renaissance Italians, they have the blood of the Romans, the lands of the Romans, the ruins of the Romans, but not enough for Petrarch to ever really have the life he might have had if he’d been born in the generation after Cicero, and with his Homer in his hands he knows it.

ancient-booksPetrarch did his best.  He spent his life collecting the books of the ancients, trying to reassemble the Library of Alexandria, the pinnacle, he knew, of the culture and education which had made the Romans who had made his world.  He found many shards, eventually enough that it took more than ten mules to carry his library when he journeyed from city to city.  He journeyed much, working everywhere with voice and pen to convince others to share his passion for antiquity, to read the ancients that could be read, Cicero, Seneca, to learn to think as they did and to try to push this world to be Roman again, which for him meant peaceful, broad-reaching, stable, cultured and strong.  People listened, and we have the libraries and cathedrals and Michelangelos they made in answer.  And Petrarch never gave up on Homer either, but searched the far corners of the Earth for someone with a hint of Greek and eventually, late in life, did find someone to make a jumbled, fragmentary translation, nothing close to what a second-year-Greek student could produce today let alone a fluid translation, but a taste.  By late in life he had his New Library of Alexandria, and real hope that it might rear new Romans.

Venice's great late Renaissance Marciana Library.

Venice’s great late Renaissance Marciana Library, where Petrarch’s library isn’t.

Petrarch wanted to give the library to Florence, to help his homeland make itself the new Rome, but Florence was too caught up with its own faction fighting for anyone to stably take it.  Venice was the taker in the end, and he hoped his library would make the great port city like the Alexandria of old, the hub where all books came, and multiplied, and spread.  Venice put Petrarch’s library in a humid warehouse and let it rot.  We lost it.  We lost it again.  We lost it the first time because of Vandals and corrupt emperors and economic transformation and plague and all the other factors that conspired to make the Roman Empire decline and fall, but we lost it the second time because Venice is humid and no one cared enough to devote space and expense to a library, even the famous collection of the famous Petrarch. Such a tiny cataclysm, but enough to make discontinuity again.  We have learned better since.  Petrarch had followers who formed new libraries, Poggio, Niccolo, they repeated Petrarch’s effort, finding books.  Eventually princes and governments realized there was power in knowledge.  Venice built the Marciana library right at the main landing, so when foreigners arrive in St. Mark’s square they are surrounded by the three facets of power, State in the Doge’s Palace, Church in the Basilica, and Knowledge in the Library.  And now we have our Penguin Classics.  But we don’t have Petrarch’s library, and we know he had things that were rare, originals, transcriptions of things later lost.  There are ancients who made it as far as Petrarch, all the way to the late 1300s, through Vandals, Mongols and the Black Death, before we lost them to one short-sighted disaster.  Discontinuity.  We have Homer.  We don’t know what Petrarch had that we don’t.

This was one of two historical vignettes that came vividly before my mind while I was reading “The Litany of Earth.”  The second is…

Step Four: Ramble about Diderot.  Dear, dear Diderot…

denis_diderot_2fm4I must be very careful here.  Even though my focus is Renaissance and my native habitat F&SF, Denis Diderot remains my favorite author. Period.  My favorite in the history of words.  So it is very easy for me to linger too long .  But I invoke him today for a very specific reason and shall confine myself strictly to one circumscribed subtopic, however hard the copy of Rameau’s Nephew on my desk stares back.

Three quarters of the way through my survey course on the history of Western thought, I start a lecture by declaring that the Enlightenment Encyclopedia project was the single noblest undertaking in the history of human civilization.  I say it because of the defiant, “bring it on!” glances I instantly get from the students, who switch at once from passive listening to critical judgment as they arm themselves with the noblest human undertakings they can think of, and gear up to see if I can follow through on my bold boast.  I want that.  I want their minds to be full of the Moon Landing, and the Spartans at Thermopylae, and Gandhi, and the US Declaration of Independence, and Mother Teresa, and the Polynesians who braved the infinite Pacific in their tiny log boats; I want it all in their minds’ eyes as I begin.

imagesThe Encyclopédie was the life’s work of a century on fire.  The newborn concept Progress had taken flight, convincing France and Europe that the human species have the power to change the world instead of just enduring it, that we can fight back against disease, and cold, and mountain crags, and famine cycles, and time, and make each generation’s experience on this Earth a little better.  The lion has its claws and strength, the serpent fangs and stealth, the great whales the force of the leviathan, but humans have Reason, and empiricism, and language to let us collaborate, discuss, examine, challenge, and form communities of scientists and thinkers who, like the honeybee, will gather the best fruits of nature and, processing them with our own inborn gifts, produce something good and sweet and useful for the world.  The tone here is Francis Bacon’s, but Voltaire popularized it, and by now the fresh passion for collaboration and improvement of the human world had already birthed Descartes’ mathematics, Newton’s optics, Locke’s inalienable rights, calculus, and the Latitudinarian movements toward rational religion which seemed they might finally soothe away the wars that lingered from the Reformation.  Everything could be improved if keen minds applied reason to it, from treatments for smallpox which could be preventative instead of palliative, to Europe’s law codes which were not rational constructions but mongrel accumulations of tradition and centuries-old legislation passed during half-forgotten crises and old power struggles whose purpose died with the clans and dynasties that made them but which still had the power to condemn a feeling, thinking person to torture and death.

DiderotLoomThe Encyclopédie had many purposes.  Perhaps the least ambitious was to turn every citizen of Earth into a honeybee.  Plato had said that only a tiny sliver of human souls were truly guided by reason–able to become Philosopher Kings–while the vast majority were inexorably dominated by base appetites, the daily dose of food and rest and lust, or by the wild but selfish passions of ambition and pride.  For two millennia all had agreed, and even when the Renaissance boasted that human souls could rival angels in dignity and glory through the light of learning and the power of Reason, they meant the souls of a tiny, literate elite.  But in 1689 John Locke had argued that humans are born blank slates, and nurture rather than an innate disposition of the soul separated young Newton from his father’s stable boy.  The Encyclopédie set out to enable universal education, to collect basic knowledge of all subjects in a form accessible to every literate person, and to their illiterate friends who crowded around to hear new chapters read aloud in the heady excitement of its first release.  With such an education, everyone could be a honeybee of Progress, and exponential acceleration in discovery and social improvement would birth a better world.  So overwhelming was public demand that Europe ran out of paper, of printer’s ink, even ran out of the types of metal needed to make printing presses, so many new print shops appeared to plagiarize and print and sell more and more copies of the book which promised such a future (See F. A. Kafker, “The Recruitment of the Encyclopedists”).

Not just French and Greek, the Encyclopedia even tries to help us read Japanese and other alphabets new and strange to Diderot's contemporaries. A wide, inclusive world.

Not just French and Greek, the Encyclopedia even tries to help us read Japanese and other alphabets new and strange to Diderot’s contemporaries. A wide, inclusive world.

Yet Diderot and his compatriots had another goal which shows itself in the structure of the Encyclopédie as well as in its bold opening essay.  The second half of the 17 volume series is devoted to visual material, a series of beautiful and immensely complicated technical plates which illustrate technology and science.  How to fire china dishes, smelt ore, weave rope, irrigate fields, construct ships, calculate distance, catalog fossils and decorate carriages, all are illustrated in loving detail, with diagrams of every tool and its use, every factory and its layout, every human body at work in some complex motion necessary to turn cotton into cloth or rag into precious paper.  With this half of the Encyclopédie it is possible to teach one’s self every technological achievement of the age.  The first half was intended to provide the same for thought.  With its essays it should be possible to understand from their roots the philosophies, ethical systems, law codes, customs, religions, great thinkers of the past and present, all aspects of life and the history of humankind’s evolving mental world. It is a snapshot.  A time capsule.  With this–Diderot smiles thinking it–with this, if a new Dark Age fell upon humanity and but a single copy of the Encyclopédie survived, it would be possible to reconstruct all human progress. With this, the great steps forward, the hard-earned produce of so many lives, the Spartans at Thermopylae, the Polynesian log boats, will be safe forever.  We can’t fall back into the dark again. With this, human achievement is immortal. Yes, Petrarch, it even details how to read, and print, and translate Greek.

Let’s linger on that thought a moment.  A beautiful, unifying, optimistic, safe, human moment, warm, like when I first heard that, yes, eventually Petrarch did get to read a sliver of his Homer.  Because I’m not going to keep talking about dear Diderot today, much as I would like to.

Fire at the National Archives in Kew London, Feb. 14, 2014.

Fire at the National Archives in Kew London, Feb. 14, 2014.

In 2012/13 we lost 170,000 volumes from the Egyptian Scientific Institute in Cairo to the revolution, 20,000 unique manuscripts in Timbuktu library to a militia fire, and we have barely begun to count the masses of original scientific material burned during a corrupt botched cost-saving effort to reduce the size of the Libraries of Fisheries and Oceans of Canada. More than half of the entries on Wikipedia’s list of destroyed libraries were destroyed after the printing of the Encyclopédie, and the libraries on the list are only a miniscule fraction of the texts lost to disasters, natural and manmade.  It doesn’t even list Petrarch’s library, let alone the unique contents of the personal libraries and works that accumulate in every house now that we’re all honeybees.  Diderot tried so hard to make it all immortal.  He tried so hard he used up all the ink and paper in the world.  Yet if my numbers for printing history are right, in the past half century we have destroyed more written material than had been produced in the cumulative history of the Earth up until Diderot’s day. And that does not count World Wars.  We’re getting better.  On February 14th 2014 a fire at the British National Archives threatening thousands of documents, many centuries old, was successfully quenched with no damage to the collection, thanks substantially to advances in our understandings of fluids and pressure made in the 17th and 18th centuries and neatly explained by the Encyclopédie.  That much is indeed immortal (thank you, Diderot!) but much is so very far from everything. It’s still so easy to make mistakes.

One of the most powerful mistakes, for me, is

18217One of the most powerful mistakes, for me, is this cenotaph monument of Diderot, in the Pantheon in Paris, celebrating his contributions and how the Encyclopedia and enlightenment enabled so much of the liberty and rights and change that defines our era. Voltaire’s tomb was moved to the Pantheon, Rousseau’s too, but for Diderot there is only this empty cenotaph. I went on a little pilgrimage once to visit Diderot in the out-of-the-way Church of Saint-Roch, where he was buried.  There is no tomb to visit.  During the French Revolution, Saint-Roch was attacked and mostly destroyed by revolutionaries (carrying banners with Encyclopedist slogans on them!) who, in their zeal to torch the old regime, forgot that their own Diderot was among the Catholic trappings they could only see as symbols of oppression.  Once rage and zeal had died down Paris and all France much lamented the mistake, and many others, too late.

Did I mention we very nearly lost Diderot’s work too?  A far more frightening loss than just his body.  Diderot didn’t include himself, his own precious original intellectual contributions, in his Encyclopédie.  He knew he couldn’t.  He was an atheist, you see.  A real one, not one of these people we suspect like Hobbes and Machiavelli, but an overt atheist who wrote powerful, deeply speculative books trying to hash out the first moral system without divinity in it, fledgling works of an intellectual tradition which was just then being born, since even a few decades earlier no one had dared set pen to paper, for fear of social exile and ready fire and steel of Church and law.  But Diderot didn’t publish his own works, not even anonymously.  He self-censored.  He was the figurehead of the Encyclopédie.  An atheist was too frightening back then, too strange, too other.  If people had known an atheist was part of it, the project would have been dead in the water.  Diderot left instructions for future generations to print his works someday, if the manuscripts survived, but gambling with his own legacy was a price he was willing to pay to immortalize everyone else’s.  The surviving manuscript of Rameau’s Nephew in Diderot’s own hand turned up by chance at a used bookshop 1823, one chance street fire away from silence.

Step Five: Urge you to read “The Litany of Earth” again, last chance before I get out my highlighter.

Here you get points if you read it before getting this far.  It’s free on Tor.com, but you really liked it you can also buy the ebook for a dollar, and give money to Ruthanna and to Tor, and tell them you like excellent original fiction that does brave things with race and historicity.

Step Six: Talk about “The Litany of Earth” directly.

9781466868946

Illustration by Allen Williams

This is a Cthulhu Mythos story which is in no way horror.   The richly-designed populated metaphysics and macrohistorical narrative of Lovecraft’s universe is here, but as a tool for reflection on society and self, with a narrative that bears no resemblance in to the classic tense and chilling horror short stories I (for some reason) enjoy as bedtime reading. Ruthanna Emrys uses Lovecraft’s world to comment on Lovecraft’s writing and the deeply ingrained sexism and especially racism that saturates it, repurposing that into a tool to make us think more about the effects of silencing and othering which Lovecraft used his skill and craftsmanship to lure us into participating in.  But the message and questions are universal enough that the target audience is not Lovecraft readers or horror readers but any reader who has even a vague distant awareness that the Lovecraft Mythos is a thing, as one has a vague distant awareness of Celtic or Navajo mythology even if one doesn’t study them.  If there is any horror in this story, it is the familiar reality that the things we make and do and are are perishable, that human action often worsens that, and that at the end of all our aeons and equations we face entropy.  But rather than presuming (as Lovecraft and much horror does) that facing that will lead to mad cackling and gibberish, the story presents the real things we do to try to face that: spirituality, cultural identity, and the effort to preserve the past and transmit it to the future.  It turns a setting which was created a vehicle for horror into a vehicle for social commentary and historical reflection.

I suppose I should directly address Lovecraft’s failures of empathy, for those less familiar with his work, or who have met it mainly through its fun, recent iterations in board games and reuses which strive to leave behind the baggage.  Racism, sexism, classism and other uncomfortable attitudes are not unexpected in an author who lived from 1890 to 1937.  We encounter unpalatable depictions of people of color, and equally unpalatable valorizations of entrenched elites, in most literature of the period, from M. R. James to the original Sherlock Holmes.  In Lovecraft’s case, the challenge for those who want to continue to work with his universe is that many of the racist and classist elements are worked deeply into the fabric of his worldbuilding.  Many of his frightening inhuman races are clearly used to explore his fear of racial minorities, while the keys to battling evil are reserved for elites, like the affluent, white, male scholars who control his libraries, and the Great Race which controls the greatest library.

The board game Arkham Horror does many excellently entertaining things with Lovecraft, but minimizes the diversity issues rather than repurposing them.

The board game Arkham Horror does many excellently entertaining things with Lovecraft, but minimizes the diversity issues rather than repurposing them.

While many attempts to rehabilitate and use Lovecraft’s world do so by excising these elements, or minimizing them, or balancing them out by letting you play ethnically diverse characters in a Lovecraft game, this story instead uses those very elements as weapons against the kinds of attitudes which birthed them.  If the scary fish-people represent a demonized racial “other” then let them remain exactly that, and show them suffering what targeted minorities have suffered in historical reality.  By reversing the point of view and placing the reader within the perspective of the “other”, the original failure of empathy is transformed into a triumph of empathy.  Now we are in the place of a woman for whom Lovecraft’s spooky cult rituals are her Passover or Easter, the mysterious symbols her alphabet,  “Iä, Cthulhu . . . ” is the comforting prayer she thinks to herself when terrified, and a Necronomicon on Charlie’s shelf is Petrarch’s Homer.

And we aren’t asked to empathize with only one group. We empathize with those deprived of education, in the form of Aphra’s brother Caleb, taking on the classist negative depictions of “degenerate” white rural families common in Lovecraft’s work.  With the plight of the Jews and other groups targeted in Germany, invoked by Specter’s discussion of his aunt. With those facing physical and medical challenges, invoked in the powerful opening lines where Aphra describes the pleasure she finds in facing the daily difficulty of walking uphill while she slowly heals. And with women, rarely granted any remotely coequal  agency in literature of Lovecraft’s era. Not only is this story a powerful triumph of empathy, but after reading it, whenever we reread original Lovecraft, or anything set in his world, the memory of Aphra Marsh and her tender prayer will forever change the meaning of “Iä, iä, Cthulhu thtagn…”  The triumph of empathy diffuses past the boundaries of this story, to enrich our future reading.

Another striking facet is that this is a story about legacy, continuity and deep history that manages to address those questions using only very recent history. Usually stories that want to talk about the deep past use material from periods we associate with the deep past: medieval, Roman Empire, Renaissance, Inuits, Minoans, anything we associate with dusty manuscripts and archaeology and anthropology and old culture.  Even I in this entry, when trying to evoke the themes and feelings of this story, went back centuries and consequently had to spend a lot of time explaining to the reader the history I’m talking about (what’s Petrarch’s Homer, what’s up with Diderot, etc.) before I could get to what I wanted to do with it.  This story instead uses contemporary history, events so recent and familiar that we all know it already, and have seen its direct effects in those around us and ourselves, or have tried to not see said effects.  As a result, the story doesn’t have the baggage of having to explain its history. Instead of needing footnotes and exposition, it touches us directly and personally with our own history and makes us directly face the fact that we too are part of the link of transmission attempting to connect past to future, and our failures can still heal or harm that just as much as Visigoths, the Black Death or the Encyclopédie. The use of modern history makes it impossible for us to distance ourselves, greatly enhancing its power.

I have already discussed, in my own roundabout way using Diderot and Petrarch and Marvel comics, many of the key themes which make this story so powerful: othering, empathy, reversal of point of view, legacy, silencing, translation and transmission, and discontinuity, how easy it is for the powerful engine of society to make mistakes that cut the precious thread. The power with which this story is able to present that theme demonstrates perfectly, for me, the potency of genre fiction as a tool, not for escapism or entertainment, but for depicting reality and history. The tragic discontinuities created by World War II, the destruction of life, education and cultural inheritance generated not only by the most gruesome facets of the war but also by great mistakes like the treatment of Japanese Americans, are difficult to communicate in full with such accurate but emotionless descriptive phrases as, “people were rounded up and held in prison camps.”  Attempts to communicate the genuine human impact of such an event easily fall so short.  We try hard, but often fail.  As a teacher, I remember well the flurry of discussion which surrounded some High School history textbooks which, in their efforts to do justice to the often-silenced story of interned Japanese Americans, had a longer section about that than it did about the rest of the war.  Opponents of political correctness used it as a talking point to rail against liberalism gone too far, while apologists focused on the harm done by silencing the events.  Yet for me, the centerpiece was the fact that textbooks had to devote that much space to attempting to get the 9780802722775_p0_v3_s260x420issue across and still largely failed to communicate the event in a way that touched students.  “The Litany of Earth” communicates the same event very potently, using the tool of genre to make something most readers might see as only affecting “others” feel universal.  The large-scale horror of Lovecraft’s universe revolves around the inevitability that human achievement, and in the end all life, will fading into nothing.  The Yith and their library are the only hope for a legacy, one bought at the terrible price of what they do to those whose bodies they commandeer.  By creating a parallel between the fragility of all human achievement, preserved only by the Yith, and Aphra’s barely-literate brother Caleb writing of his doomed search for the family library which contained the history and legacy he and Aphra so desperately miss, the fantasy setting puts all readers in Aphra’s place, and the place of those interned, creating universal empathy which no textbook chapter could achieve; neither, in my opinion, could a non-fantasy short story, at least not with such deeply-cutting efficiency.  After reading this story, not only the events of Japanese American internment but many parallel situations feel more personally important, and one feels a new sense of personal investment in such issues as the fate of the Iraqi Jewish Archive. This stoking of emotion and investment is a powerful and lingering achievement.

Structurally, the story interweaves experiences from different points in Aphra’s present–where she encounters Specter–with her past arriving in the city and encountering Charlie and his interest in her lost culture and languages.  The choice to depict the present scenes in past tense and the flashbacks in present tense might seem counterintuitive, but I found it a powerful and effective choice.  Past tense reads as “normal” in prose, so much so that we accept it as an uncomplicated way to depict the main moment of a narrative.  In contrast, especially when we have just come from a past tense section, the present tense feels extra-vivid, raw, invasive.  It feels like a very certain type of memory, the kind  so vivid that, when something reminds us of them, they jump to the forefront of our minds and blot out the here and now with the tense, unquenchable emotions of a very potent then. Trauma makes memories do this, but it is not the traumatic memories of camp life that we experience this way. Instead it is the vividness of tender moments of cultural experience: seeing precious books in Charlie’s study, sharing his drying river, warm things.  The transitions to vivid present tense make the reader think about memory and trauma without having to show traumatic events, while simultaneously highlighting how, in such a situation of discontinuity and cultural deprivation, the experiences which are most alive, which blaze in the memory, are these tiny, rare moments of connection, even tragically imperfect connection, with the ghostly echo of Aphra’s lost people.

For me, the triumphant surprise of the story comes in the end, when Aphra approaches the cultists, and chooses to act. Specter’s descriptions of bodies hanging from trees, combined with our familiarity with the copes of creepy cults in Lovecraft and outside, prepare us mid-story to expect that when Aphra approaches the cult they’ll be evil and insane, and she’ll overcome her resentment of the government and do what has to be done.  Or possibly the reversal will be stronger with that, and the cult will be good and nice, like Aphra, and the take-home message will be that Specter is wrong and Aphra and the cultists are all just misunderstood and oppressed.  It feels like the latter is where the story will take us when we see Wilder and Bergman, and Aphra finds comfort and companionship in participating in a badly-pronounced imitation of her native religion.  Even when we hear about the immortality ritual and Bergman refuses to listen to Aphra’s attempts to make her see that her ambition is an illusion, it still feels like we are in the narrative where the cultists are good but misunderstood, and the tragedy is just that there is such deep racial misunderstanding that even Cthulhu-worshipping Bergman cannot believe Aphra’s attempts to help her are sincere.  It is a real shock, then, when Aphra called in Specter to shut the group down, because the genre setting raises such a firm expectation that “bad cultist” = “blood and gore” that even when we read about Bergman’s two drowned predecessors it doesn’t register as “human sacrifice” or “bad cult.”  Aphra, unlike the reader, is unclouded by genre expectations, and shows us that, precious as this echo of her lost culture is to her, life is more precious still and requires action.  The ghostly echo of Aphra’s people that she shares with Charlie is precious enough to blaze in her memory, but she is willing to sacrifice the far more welcome possibility of being an actual priestess for people who sincerely want to share her religion, when she realizes that their cultural misunderstanding will cost human lives.  And she cares this deeply despite being an immortal among mortals.  The triumph of empathy is complete.

Unlike the numerous vampire stories and other tales which so often present immortals seeing themselves as different, special, unapproachable, and usually superior to mortals, here Aphra’s potential immortality enhances the uniqueness of her perspective and the depth of her loss, but without in any way diminishing her respect for and valuation of the short-lived humans that surround her. The grotesque folder of experimental records which is her mother’s cenotaph does make her reflect on how the loss is greater than the human murderers understood, but does not make her present it as fundamentally different from the deaths of humans, or make her (or us) see her suffering in any way more important or special than that of the Japanese family with whom she lives. The history of Earth that her people have learned from the Yith make her recognize that living until the sun dies is not forever, nor is even the lifespan of the planet-hopping Yith who will persist until the universe has run out of stars and ages to colonize. The Litany of Earth that she shares with Charlie is an equalizer, enabling empathy across even boundaries of mortality by placing finite and indefinite life coequally face-to-face with the ultimate challenges of entropy, extinction and the desire to find something valuable to cling to.  “At least the effort is real.”  This is something Charlie has despite his failing body, that Aphra’s brother has despite his deprived education, that Aphra has despite her painful solitude, a continuity that overcomes the tragic discontinuity and connects Aphra even with her lost parents, with ancestors, descendants, with forgotten races, races that have not yet evolved, races on distant worlds, races in distant aeons, and with the reader.

My favorite book on the history of magic. Primary sources.

My favorite book on the history of magic. Primary sources.

One last facet I want to comment on is how the story portrays magic which is at the same time viscerally bodily and also beautiful and positive.  This is very unusual, and the more you know about the history of magic the clearer that becomes.  Magic, at least positive magic, is much more frequently depicted with connections to the immaterial and spiritual than the bodily: bolts of light, glowing auras, floating illusions, the spirits of great wizards powerfully transcending their age-worn mortal husks.  Magical effects that are bodily, using blood, distorting flesh, are usually bad, evil cultism, witchcraft.  This trope far predates modern fantasy writing.  I have documents from the Renaissance based on ones from Greece discussing magic and differentiating between the good kind which is based on study, scholarship, texts, words of power, perfection of the mind, the soul transcending the body, angelic flight, spiritual messengers, rays and auras of divine power, an intellectual, disembodied and male-dominated “good” magic contrasted, in the same types of texts, with the bad evil magic of ritual sacrifice, sexuality, animal forms, distortion of the body, contagion, blood and associated with witchcraft and with women.  Cultural baggage from the Middle Ages is hard to break from even now, and we see this in the palette of special effects Hollywood reserves for good wizards and bad wizards.  The tender, intimate, visceral but beautiful magic which Ruthanna Emrys has presented is authentic to Lovecraft and to the rituals we associate with “dark arts” and yet positive, a rehabilitation which works in powerful symbiosis with the story’s treatments of discrimination.  Since race and religion are so much in the center of the story, its treatment of gender rarely takes center stage, but in these depictions of magic especially it is potent nonetheless.

I’ll stop discussing the story here, since I resolved to make this review shorter than the story itself, and I’m running close to breaking that resolution.

Step Seven: Sing.

One of the most conspicuous effects when I first read “The Litany of Earth” was that it made me get one of my own songs firmly stuck in my head for many, many hours.  The piece is “Longer in Stories than Stone” and it is the big finale chorus to my Viking song cycle, a piece about the fragility of memory and the importance of historical transmission.  It is a different treatment but with similar themes, and I found that listening to it a few times live and over and over in my head helped me extend the feelings reading the story awoke in me, and let me continue to enjoy and contemplate its messages for several happy hours.  So to celebrate the release of the story (taking advantage of the fact that this blog is no longer anonymous) here is the song, and I hope it will do for you what it did for me and help me extend my period of pleasurable mulling.  I hope you enjoy:

If you want more stories by Ruthanna Emrys go here.  If you want to other excellent short fiction on Tor.com with related themes I recommend “Anyway Angie” and “The Water That Falls On You From Nowhere”.  If you want to see more amazing things Kurt Busiek does by giving P.O.V. to traditionally silenced facets of modern superhero comics beyond just Marvels, try Astro City or the original run of Thunderbolts.  If you want to hear more of my Viking music, there’s some streaming on the Sassafrass site.

Mar 042014
 

CriterionOfTruthbCome to rescue us from the dark and gloomy wood of Doubt in which we have been wandering since my first post in this series (did you say hello to Dante?) comes the Criterion of Truth!  The idea that, while the skeptics are correct that logic and the senses sometimes fail, they do not always fail, and  if we carefully study when they fail, and why, if we identify the source of error, we can differentiate reliable knowledge from unreliable knowledge.  For example, our eyes may deceive us when we judge a stick half-submerged in water to be bent, but if we add the testimony of other senses (touch), and of repeated experience (last time we saw an object half-way into water) we can identify the error, and henceforth say that we will not trust sense data based  on visual information about objects half-submerged in transparent liquids, but that other sense data may be reliable.   Once the causes of error have been defined, once we have a criterion for judging when knowledge is uncertain and when it is reliable, if we thereafter base our conclusions only on what we know is certain, then our conclusions will be reliable, eternal and divine, a steady foundation upon which we may proceed in safety toward that godlike happiness we seek.  The Criterion of Truth is the clean and steady light of compromise, which does not banish all shadow, but, like a lantern in the dark, allows a philosophical system to have dogmatic elements while still conceding that much remains in shadow. 

Fist punching through hole in paper“Quite wrong!” cries our Pyrrhonist.  “You have it all backwards!  Doubt is the steady path toward eudaimonia.  The absence of the possibility of certainty is our liberation, not our bane!  It is when we embrace the fact that we cannot have certainty that we are finally free from the risk of having our beliefs overturned and our Plutos and Brontosaurs snatched away.  It is when truth is firmly beyond human reach that we can finally relax and stop being plagued by curiosity and the endless, restless quest for information.  The Criterion of Truth is not a light in darkness, it is a battering ram which has pierced our clean and serene sanctum and smeared it with all the muddled and confusing chaos that  we worked so hard to banish!  Don’t build a path on this foundation!  However steady it may seem, the ground could still give way at any moment and shatter all.  And even if it doesn’t, the path will never end.  You will exhaust yourself on its construction, your age-gnarled hands still struggling to lay stones when you breathe your last, with never a glimpse of the end in sight, just infinity of toil and darkness.  And the you will inflict the same curse upon your children, and your children’s children, and your children’s, children’s, children’s children!”

Philosophy-subway-mapWhether one sees it as a blessing or a curse, developing a Criterion of Truth is what has allowed, and still allows, dogmatic philosophical systems to exist and progress in a fertile and symbiotic relationship with skepticism, instead of ending with the blank serenity where Pyrrho and other absolute skeptics wanted to dwell forever.  Every philosopher with any dogmatic ideas has a criterion of truth (“Yes, even you, Sartre,” says Descartes, “Don’t give me that look!”), and an explanation for the source of error, and frequently I find that, when I am feeling awash in the ideas of a new thinker, one of the best ways to start to get a grip on things is to find the criterion of truth, which gives me an anchor point from which to explore, and to compare that thinker to others I am more familiar with.

Today I shall attempt something a bit compressed but hopefully the compression itself will be fruitful. I intend to briefly examine three of the major classical schools (Platonism, Aristotelianism and Epicureanism) and explain just enough of each system to make clear its criterion of truth and its explanation for the source of error.  By laying these out in a compressed form, side-by-side, I hope to show clearly how skepticism is at play in each of the dogmatic systems, and to show what the early approaches to it were, so that when I move forward to major turning points in skepticism it will be clearer just how new and different the new, different things are.  Tradition dictates that I start with Platonism, but Socrates is looking a little too aggressively eager now that I mention Plato, and furthermore he was being mean to Sartre while we were away (Don’t pretend you didn’t know that dialog trying to define “being” would make him cry!), so I shall instead start with Epicurus:

StickInWaterThe Epicurean Criterion of Truth: Weak Empiricism

Take the stick out of the water.  Epicureanism faces up to the skeptical challenge to the reliability of sense data and still chooses to promote the senses as our primary source of information, simply proposing that we should not rely upon first impressions, but should consider sense data reliable only after careful investigation, ideally using multiple senses and instances of observation.  But there is more to it than that.

Epicureanism is a mature form of classical atomism, positing that on the micro-level matter is composed of a mixture of vacuum and invisibly tiny, individual components or seeds known as “atoms” which exist in infinite supply but finite varieties (see the modern Periodic Table), and that the substances and patterns we see in nature are caused by different recurring combinations of these atoms.  If the same kind of sand appears on two unrelated beaches, it is composed by chance of the same combination of atoms.  If a piece of wood is burned and goes from being brown, firm and porous to being white and powdery, some atoms have left it (in the smoke, for example), and the remaining ones look different.

Look: wood! Don't recognize it? Then don't trust your eyes!

Look: wood. Don’t recognize it? Then don’t trust what your eyes tell you!

Atoms too are responsible for the apparently changeable properties of objects (remember the seventh mode of Pyrrhonism, that we cannot have certainty because objects take multiple forms).  The properties of substances do not derive from atoms themselves but from their combinations.  Colors, smells and flavors are all effects of the shapes of atoms, so it is not true that sweet substances contain sweet atoms and red substances red atoms, rather sweet substances contain smooth atoms which are pleasant to the tongue rather than rough, and red objects contain atoms whose combinations create redness.  If bronze is red and then turns green, or wood is brown but burns and turns gray, then atoms have entered or left and the new combinations create a different color.  And it is on this atomic basis that the Epicureans argue that (a) natural interactions of atoms and vacuum are enough by themselves to explain all observed phenomena, so there is no need to posit fearsome interfering gods, and (b) the soul is just a collection of very fine atoms, distributed in the body and breath, which disperse at death, so there is no need to fear a punitive afterlife.

Atoms are, believe it or not, largely a solution to Zeno’s paradoxes of motion, and also have much to say about our stick in water.  As we all recall, Zeno’s arrow can never reach its target because the space in between can be infinitely subdivided into smaller distances which it must cross before it can finish its path, therefore motion is impossible.  Epicurus answers: yes.  Motion is indeed impossible.  Motion is an illusion.  The key is that space is not infinitely divisible, as Zeno proposed.  Atoms, according to the Epicurean system, are not only the smallest objects but the smallest subdivision of space; it is literally impossible to subdivide either atoms or space further.  (Note that if he were around now Epicurus would deny that our modern “atoms” are atoms – he would confer that title upon the smallest known sub-atomic particle, or reserve it for the piece smaller than that which all the king’s horses and all the king’s cyclotrons still can’t detect.)  The smallest distance any object can move is one atom-width – any more nuanced motion is impossible.  In other words, fluid motion is an illusion, and on the micro-level objects do not slide from one place to another.  Rather their atoms pop in an instant from one position to the next atom-width over.  One might call it microscopic teleportation.  It is by this means that the arrow moves: every component atom in the arrow teleports one space to the left each moment, and thus the arrow proceeds from right to left sequentially.

EpicureanMotion

Behold! The secret atoms of this screen!

Behold! The secret atoms of this screen!  They don’t move, they teleport!

Positing micro-teleportation as a substitute for motion may seem alien, but it is something we make use of every day in the modern world, and it is in fact much easier to explain Epicurean theories of motion to modern computer-users than it was to people in the past.  As you scroll down this page, the cursor of your mouse and the text on the screen seem to move, but in fact nothing is moving.  Instead tiny pixels, the atom-widths of your screen, are changing color, or you could say that the black pixels that form the text are teleporting one pixel-width per moment as you scroll.  The eye, unable to see such fine distinctions, blurs that micro-teleportation into the illusion of motion.  Why couldn’t all motion be a similar illusion?  Zeno is defeated, and Reason is once again reliable.

Which is good because Reason is the heart of the system of knowledge Epicurus wants to build. The Epicurean atomic theory, after all, is based on a combination of observations of the sensible world and then logical deductions.  We observe that objects change their form when burned, that sea-soaked cloth hung up to dry becomes dry but remains salty, and that the same types of substances recur in many independent locations.  From this we deduce the existence of atoms of different types in different combinations without ever directly seeing them.  Zeno’s paradox of motion does not, in this interpretation, demonstrate that we can’t trust reason, but that we can’t trust rash, unexamined observations.  There seemed to be motion, but with time, patience, observation and reason the Epicurean has determined that that was a mistake, and found a better model.

Do atoms look like this? We'll never know!

Do atoms look like this? We’ll never know!

But this does an interesting thing to sense data, which Epicurus still wants to be more our guide than naked logic.  Atomism, which predates Epicurus, seems to have itself arisen from observations of motes in a sunbeam, tiny particles which are invisible normally but visible only in special circumstances, and which all classical atomists cite as sensory evidence for the reality of atoms.  From motes in a sunbeam and raw logic, they derive the atomic theory.  As Epicureans strive to free themselves from fear of the unknown by observing and explaining natural phenomena through the interaction of atoms, they rely on what they can see, feel, hear and touch to derive their theories.  This is empiricism but it is (as Richard Popkin aptly named it) weak empiricism.  Why?  Because the reality beneath what we observe is invisible.  (“Exactly!” cries Sartre, leaping up with sufficient force to knock over  Descartes’ thermas.)  If atoms are undetectably tiny, and everything we see, taste and smell is a consequence of their combinations rather than the atoms themselves, then we can never have real knowledge of the fundamental substructure of being. There is an insoluble barrier between us and knowledge of true things, the barrier of minuteness.  Thus Epicurean empiricism involves surrendering forever any certain knowledge of the truth of things, but in return we can have fairly reliable knowledge based on careful, repeated observation using multiple senses, especially now that logic has been rescued from Zeno’s grasp and is once again our ally.

Source of Error: Twofold.  Limitations of the senses, which cannot see atomic reality; unquestioned acceptance of sense data and commonplace cultural assumptions (like superstitions about the gods) which are unreliable because they are not based on careful observation and analysis.

Criterion of Truth: Knowledge is certain when it is based on a combination of careful observation of the sensible world with multiple senses, and careful logical analysis.

Zones of the Knowable and Unknowable: We can have true and certain knowledge of the observable world, and we can make rational deductions about the insensible world which are reliable enough to act upon (since we cannot ever prove or disprove them), but we cannot ever have true and certain knowledge of the invisible atomic world which is Nature’s true reality.

This image from Fermilab is not letting us see the particle, but a computer image of instruments tracings of the residual energies related to the passage of what might be a particle.

This image from Fermilab does not let us see the subatomic particle, but a computer image of instruments’ tracings of the residual energies related to the passage of what might be such a particle.

At this point some readers are not particularly disturbed by Epicurus’ surrender of true knowledge of microscopic things.  After all, have advanced since 300 BC.  We played with microscopes in grade school, we named the proton and the quark and preon, we made molecules out of toothpicks and gummy candies, and the electric blood of splitting atoms blazes in our lightbulbs.  We fixed that weakness.  “Delusion!” Sartre says, and he is right that, on a fundamental level, this technological advancement has not let us reclaim what Epicurus surrendered.  However advanced our science, we still have no cause to believe we have yet perceived or even hypothesized the literally smallest increment of matter.  And, separately, even if we had a machine capable of perceiving the smallest part of matter, we would still be limited by our senses since the machine would have to use our senses to transmit its findings to us, transmitting only an approximation, rather than reality.   And in addition, the vast majority of our daily decisions would still be based on what we perceive at the macroscopic level.  Thus, even with technological aid, the Epicurean surrender of knowledge of the fundamental seeds of things is a considerable one, and divides all knowledge firmly into two camps, the perceivable world about which it is possible to have certainty, and the reality beneath about which it is not.  We have a path and shadows, dogmatism and skepticism coextant within one system.

The Platonic Criterion of Truth: the Forms

We instinctively judge these apples.

We recognize and judge these apples.

My approach to Platonism will be rather sideways, but I want to get us to its criterion of truth by a route that is as parallel as possible to Epicurus’.  So, for the vast majority of my readers who know basic Platonism already, please read along thinking about Zeno’s paradoxes and the stick in water how this way of outlining Platonism follows the same logical structure Epicurus did.

Plato, like the skeptics, acknowledges that the senses fail and deceive, and, like the atomists, observed that there are recognizable, recurring objects in nature that come into existence in independent parallel to one another: similar rocks, mountains, trees and animals in  distant corners of the Earth, which must, he reasoned, have some common source.  He also noticed that humans are able to recognize and identify these objects as being the same, even humans who have never met each other, or speak different languages, and even when the objects may have radically different colors and shapes disguising a shared structure – a disguise we see through.  Finally he noticed (something Epicurus did not discuss) the fact that humans not only naturally identify objects, but naturally judge them to be better or worse based on unspoken but nonetheless universal criteria.  Anyone can tell that a crisp, fresh apple is “better” and a withered, dry one “worse” without having to discuss or debate that fact, or even to be taught it.  I could show you a healthy and a diseased version of some deep-sea fish you’ve never heard of and you would nonetheless successfully identify them as “better” and “worse” exemplars of a completely new and unknown thing.

All humans instantly recognize that these trees are weirdly far from the 'form" of tree, and we are driven to want to know why.

All humans instantly recognize that these trees from the “crooked forest” are weirdly far from the ‘form” of tree, and we are driven to want to know why.

To explain these patterns, and this universal capacity to identify and judge “better” and “worse” examples of things, Plato posited that these objects must have a shared source, but instead of positing a combination of atoms, he posited a source independent of matter that supplied the object’s structure.  All quartz crystals, all trees, and all apples take their structures from a separate structure-supplying object, which exists independent of matter and time.  It has to, since the objects it generates can come into existence and be destroyed, but the pattern, the archetype, the source remains.  Plato named this structural archetype the “Form” and posited that these Forms exist in a separate level of reality.  They create the many material manifestations of their structure as a flag pole might cast many shadows on different objects at different times.  As some shadows are crisp, straight images of what casts them and others are vague, twisted or distorted, so objects are sometimes fairly straight and sometimes quite twisted manifestations of their Forms.  When we judge an object, we judge it based on how good an image it is, how closely it resembles the Form which is the source of its structure. Hence why anyone of any age, in any culture, without the necessity of communication, can judge the superior of two apples, and tell that twisty trees are weird.

The shadow flag is to the real flag as the real flag is to the Form.

The shadow flag is to the real flag as the real flag is to the Form.

But objects are never truly like their Forms because Forms exist on a completely different level of reality, just as the flag pole exists on a different level of reality from its shadows.  We know this the same way we know that the godlike eudaimonia we seek cannot be based on fleeting things like lust and truffles.  Forms are indestructible – no matter how many trees or apples burn, the Form remains.  With that attribute, in the Greek mind, go the others: Forms are eternal, unchanging, perfect, and divine.  They cannot be part of this changing and destructible reality, but must exist on some other layer of reality where change and destruction do not exist.  Note how this is in many ways exactly symmetrical to Epicurus’s atomic theory, in which atoms are indestructible, unchanging and perfect, and exist on an imperceptible micro-level accessible to us only by deduction, just as real-but-invisible as the Platonic realm of Forms.  Both posit a materially inaccessible world which is the source of the structures of the perceivable world.

This flag casts a very clear crisp shadow. It is an excellent shadowflag, equivalent to the excellent apple.

This flag casts a very clear crisp shadow. It is an excellent shadowflag, equivalent to the excellent apple.

What about Zeno and the stick in water?  Simple: the motions of a flagpole’s shadow across the earth and ground aren’t rational but bizarre, bending and distorting, split in half at times by passing objects, changing and imperfect.  Just so the material world.  The stick in water looks bent, and motion is rationally impossible, because the entire layer of reality perceived by the senses is itself bent, distorted, an imperfect effect of a perfect reality elsewhere.  When we see the stick look bent, or realize that motion makes no sense, it is at that point that we are beginning to perceive the fundamental flaws in sensible reality, and realize that the true, rational, knowable structure lies elsewhere.

True knowledge, reliable, certain knowledge upon which we may build our path toward reliable, certain eudaimonia must therefore be knowledge of Forms, not of passing things.  We can have True knowledge of the Form of Apples, the Form of Trees, the Form of Justice, the Form of Humans, but we cannot have true knowledge of a particular apple, tree, case of justice v. injustice, or human, because such things are changing, imperfect, and perishable, so even if we could know them perfectly at one instant, that knowledge would not be lasting, not enough to be a real foundation for happiness.  The only permanent, certain knowledge is knowledge of eternal things, since all other knowledge is, like its objects, destructible.  Thus the Forms are the path to Happiness.

Is this a shadow of a flag? Or of a woman in a knee-length skirt? Distortions of shadows are a Source of Error.

Is this a shadow of a flag? Or of a woman in a knee-length skirt and her arms in front of her? Distortions of shadows are a Source of Error.  If you can mistake a flag for a woman, so too you can mistake injustice for justice, or right for wrong.

And now, without any need to address the soul, or Platonic love, or Truth, or the other great Platonic signatures, we can describe the Platonic Criterion of Truth:

Source of Error: The material world perceived by the senses is imperfect and illusory, and conclusions based on observation of it are full of error, and incomplete.

Criterion of Truth: Knowledge is certain when it is based on knowledge of the eternal Forms, which can be perceived by Reason.  So long as we rely only upon knowledge of abstract, eternal Forms and not on knowledge of specific material things, we will make no errors.

Zones of the Knowable and Unknowable: We can have true and certain knowledge of the Forms, i.e. of the eternal structures that create the sensible world, but we cannot ever have true and certain knowledge of individual objects within the material world.

Now, our friend Socrates has been waiting all this time to rant about how Plato put all this in his mouth, by using him as an interlocutor in his philosophical dialogs, when all Socrates stood for was the principle that we know nothing, and wisdom begins when we recognize that we know nothing.  But explicated like this, in a way which highlights how substantial a portion of human experience Plato has yielded to the shadows of skeptical unknowability, Socrates has far less cause to object.  Plato has taken “I know nothing” as his starting point, as, in fact, did Epicurus, both of them beginning by scrapping the received commonplaces of things people thought they knew about the material world, and instead trying to find a space for certainty far removed from the evidently-unknown world of daily experience.  We all know that Plato tried to appropriate Socrates to his system, painting Socrates as a Platonist and implying that Socrates agreed with all Plato’s dogmatic ideas as well as his skeptical ones.

Remember the modes of skepticism related to scarcity, and juxtaposition of objects? This shadow of a flag is exciting to us because it is ON THE MOON! This makes us consider it an excellent shadow of a flag, regardless of whether it is blurry or crisp.

Remember the modes of skepticism related to scarcity, and juxtaposition of objects? This shadow of a flag is exciting to us because it is ON THE MOON! This makes us consider it an excellent shadow of a flag, regardless of whether it is blurry or crisp.

But Plato was far from the only one to do this.  In the ancient world, Skeptics, Cynics, Stoics, Aristotelians and Neoplatonists all make claims about Socrates really believing what they believed, that Socrates was really a skeptic, or a stoic sage, etc.  This is easy because Socrates left us nothing in his own voice, but also because all of them really did begin as he demanded, by doubting everything, declaring that “I know nothing” and then trying to work from that toward a system which carves out one zone for the knowable and surrenders another to the unknowable.  Attempts by later sects to appropriate Socrates reflect his fame, but also their universal gratitude for the way his refinement of skepticism created a starting point from which they could approach their Criteria of Truth, and start from there to lay their foundations.  And now that I’ve put it that way, Socrates seems much less set on picking a bone with Plato, and much more interested in the bones of the chicken drumsticks Sartre brought, which are much larger than those Descartes brought, which are larger than the ones Socrates is used to, a mystery which definitely bears investigation.  We can in part blame one “Aristotle”, though when I mention him our more modern thinkers smile knowingly, thinking of the many stages that had to pass between the ancient empiricist and the alien concept “progress.”

The Aristotelian Criteria of Truth: Categories and Definitions

Hello again, apples. We are still judging you.

Hello again, apples. We’re still judging you.

Aristotle studied with Plato for decades, and his framework has a similar beginning.  Yes, we instantly recognize that apple is apple and cat is cat, even if we are on the other side of the world and recognize apple as ringo and cat as neko.  And we instantly judge the withered apple as being farther from what an apple ought to be than the crisp one.

What Aristotle doesn’t like is how Plato has the Forms exist in a hypothetical immaterial reality removed from the sensible reality.  Instead, he uses the term “form” to refer to structures within natural objects, which are not material but not immaterial either.  They are non-material.  This may sound like gibberish, but I recently demonstrated it very effectively to my class by taking two apples to the front of the classroom, setting them down while I had a drink of water, then violently smashing one of the apples with repeated blows from the butt end of the water glass, reducing it to a sticky green pulp and producing an extremely startled and, in the front rows, apple-bespattered classroom.  “What did I just destroy?” I asked.  It took only a few moments of recovery for one to supply: “The form of the apple.”  Aristotle even goes so far as to say that forms, rather than matter, are what senses sense.  When we see an apple our minds do not register the raw, chaotic matter, they register the structure: apple.  When we see smashed apple pulp even then we do not see matter, we see pulp, which has its own structure.  We never perceive matter, or rather never recognize matter, never understand matter.  All cognition takes place on the level of form, which is why we can identify “apple” at a glance and not have to spend a minute assembling the millions of points of perceived light and color together to deduce that it’s an apple.

KanchilBut if the form, for Aristotle, is a structure within individual objects, and is destructible, it can’t be a source of eternal certainty, nor can it explain how my colleague in Japan can recognize and judge apple identically to the way I do.  For this Aristotle posits Categories.  Universal categories exist in nature, non-material structures just like forms, into which the forms of objects fit.  Human Reason is capable of identifying these categories, by looking at objects, understanding their forms, and identifying their commonalities, functions etc.  We all see the apple and recognize that it fits in the category apple.  We further recognize that the category apple fits in the category fruit, that in the category “part of a plant” etc.  And that Stamen Apple is a sub-category within the category apple.  This allows us to identify and judge even objects which we have never seen before and have no names for.  You probably do not know at a glance what the creature pictured to the left here is, but you can identify that it belongs in the category mammal, possibly in the rodent category or maybe more like a tiny deer judging by those skinny legs, but certainly in the medium-sized, ground-dwelling, non-carnivore, probably scavenger eating fruit and bugs and things, not-dangerous-to-humans category.  (It is, in fact, a Kanchil or “mouse-deer”).  Similarly we can all categorize trees, rocks, fish, and other things.  Aristotelian categories are part of Nature itself, eternal and unchanging, and indestructible, since the category apple and the category Kanchil will be unchanged regardless of the creation or destruction of any individual.  A withered apple doesn’t harm the category apple, nor does a limping three-legged Kanchil, and the extinction of the T-Rex didn’t erase the category T-Rex.

Check out this Vaquita. Even if you have never seen one before, you know what category it goes in.

Check out these Vaquitas. Even if you have never seen one before, you know what category they go in, and a lot about what they do.

The extinction of the Brontosaur didn’t erase the category Brontosaur either – it was our discovery that the category was wrong that did so, and here we get toward Aristotle’s ideas of certainty and error.  We had not defined our terms carefully enough, had accidentally separated two things that shouldn’t be, and thus were led to error.  Error caused by insufficiently clear definitions of our terms.  The categories are sources of true, certain and reliable knowledge.  Like with Plato’s forms, we cannot Know-with-a-capital-K individual things with certainty, since they are destructible and changing, and the apple which is fresh today will be withered next week.  But we can know the categories, and that it always has been and will be the nature of the apple to grow on trees and try to be sweet and colorful to attract animals to eat it and spread seeds, and that it always and will always be the nature of the T-Rex to be a humungous terrifying predator the sight of which inspires fear in all mammals and other smaller creatures.  One source of error is when we make mistakes about categorization.  We may mistake the Kanchil for a rodent, or a Vaquita for a dolphin, but with more careful observation we realize it is more closely related to a deer.  We may mistake the Brontosaur for its own species before we realize it is a juvenile version of another thing, as easy a mistake to make as thinking that a caterpillar and butterfly are different creatures until we examine more closely.  We also want to do this with things we may not, in modern parlance, think of as part of Nature, but just as there is the category “cetacean” within which exists the category “porpoise” so too there exist the category “integer” within which exists the category “prime number,” also the category “system of government” within which lies the category “democracy,” and the category “virtue” within which exists the category “justice.”  Aristotle, and the rest of Greece with him, does not draw our modern post-Rousseau line between “Natural” and “artificial” placing human works in the latter.  Birds are part of Nature, as are humans; birds’ nests are part of Nature, with a category, as are all the things humans create.  The category “web page” which contains the category “blog” is as natural as the category “tree”.

Zebu time! You can tell that this Zebu both deserves to be near the category "cow" but also merits its own category.

Zebu time! You can tell with a glance at that head and that hump that this Zebu both deserves to be near the category “cow” but also merits its own category.

Thus Aristotelian certainty comes with careful, systematic investigation of the categories within nature, and if we want to reduce error we can do so best by studying and measuring and comparing objects we see until we can fit them into categories.  The more we study, and the more carefully we define our terms, the clearer our conversations will become, less given to assumptions, misunderstandings and error.  One source of error, therefore, is equivocal language, words that are sloppily defined and don’t refer to real categories in nature.  Brontosaur, planet, motion, Justice, good, are all sloppily-defined terms.  Any term which does not point to a real category in Nature is sloppy and may lead us to error.  If we use only vocabulary that is carefully worked through and points only at real categories, then our language will be clear, our communication perfect, and the possibility of error greatly reduced.  After all, we only want to be talking about categories, not anything that isn’t one.  Since, as with Plato’s forms, categories are eternal, unchanging and reliable.  On their foundation we can build our path.  As with Plato and Epicurus we have surrendered knowledge of individuals, in favor of knowledge of something structural which underlies them.

Excuse me: to proceed farther with Aristotle, I need to go get my fork.  Here it is.  (Or rather an image of it, one level less real, its Platonic shadow.)

photo (2)

This fork has been part of my life since I was a tiny girl, and it taught me about the Aristotelian sources of error.  When I was little, I would help put the silverware away.  This fork puzzled me.  Why?  Because I couldn’t figure out how to categorize it.

photo

Here you see my dilemma.  We had one slot for forks, which had tines and metal handles.  And one slot for knives, which had blades and wooden handles.  Where then goes this fork, which has tines but a wooden handle?  Let’s offer the dilemma to our Youth.

  • Youth: “I think it should go with the metal-handled fork.
  • Socrates: “Why?”
  • Youth: “Because it’s a fork.  It’s used for fork things, that’s more important than what it’s made of.”
What the heck is that?! Well, I can already tell that it probably burrows, and is probably warm, and probably eats bugs or maybe plants? And if there are different colored ones they're probably the same as this one? I can figure out a lot before I'm told it is a Marsupial Mole.

What the heck is that?! Don’t know, but I can tell that it probably burrows, and is probably warm, and harmless to humans, and probably eats bugs or maybe plants? And if there are different colored ones they’re probably functionally the same as this one? I can figure out a lot before I’m told it is a Marsupial Mole.

*Ding!*Ding!*Ding!*  Correct!  The Youth, like my child self, has correctly identified the Aristotelian distinction between an “essential property” and an “accidental property”.  An essential property is a quality of something essential to it being itself, and filling the function it has in Nature; an accidental property is something that could change and it wouldn’t matter.  A cat can be black or tabby (accidental) but must be slinky, carnivorous, and endearing to its owner in order to fulfill the functions of a cat.  A tree must grow a woody trunk and produce leaves in order to fulfill the functions of a tree.  A fork must fit comfortably in my hand and lift chunks of food to my mouth for it to be a fork.  If the cat is orange, the tree is forked, and the fork is a futuristic rod that lifts food using a miniature tractor-beam instead of tines, those are accidents.  If these things fulfill these functions badly–if a cat is ugly, a tree is all bent and twisted and produces few leaves, or a plastic fork snaps when I try to skewer food with it–we judge them bad examples of what they are.  If these things don’t fill these functions at all–a quadrupedal mammal eats grass, a plant produces a soft viny stalk, and a piece of silverware cuts food in half instead of lifting it–we judge they do not belong in the categories cat, tree and fork respectively because they lack their essential properties.  If I had mistakenly stored my wooden-handled fork with knives, that would have produced error, the same source of error as when we mistake a Kamchil for a rodent, or when Descartes, living in the 17th century, reads an article about how people from Africa are not the same as people from Europe because their skin is a different color.  Mistaking accidental properties for essential ones has introduced error.  And to call a robot toy a “cat”, or a metaphor for understanding genealogy a “tree”, or a fifteen-foot fork-shaped sculpture a “fork” is to employ ambiguous language, not referring to its categories, introducing error.

Lamprey

I don’t have to know what this is called to put it firmly in the category of scary things that I do not want touching me. It is a lamprey, and a good argument for Aristotle saying that some things we understand universally.

But what about Zeno, and our stick in water?  For our stick in water Aristotle, much like the Epicureans, wants us to examine the stick more carefully, multiple times with multiple senses, to correct the mistake.  And, like the Epicureans and Plato too, he surrenders true knowledge of individual objects, saying we can know Categories with certainty, after careful examination, but not specific things.

As for Zeno, there he comes from a different angle, attempting to refute Zeno with pure logic.  Aristotle is big on observing Nature, but also on logical principles, especially a priori principles.  By these he means logical principles which are self-evidently true and require no knowledge or experience to be proved.  For example: The same thing cannot both be and not be at the same time.  Think about it for a while, take your time.  It’s the case, and not only is it the case but it’s the case for lampreys, and thumbtacks, and hypothetical frictionless spheres, and ideas, and systems of government, and people.  Even if you were a brain in a jar that had never had any experience of the world outside the mind, you could identify that a concept cannot both exist and not exist at the same time.  Here’s another: “One” and “many” are different.  It is nonsense to imagine that a thing could be both singular and plural at the same time.  That too you can conclude without any basis in anything.

doughnut-holes-edNow, it is possible to use clever syntax to come up with what seem like counter-examples.  What about a doughnut hole: surely it exists and doesn’t exist at the same time, for this doughnut has a non-existence which is its hole, and yet here I am eating this doughnut hole.  No, says Aristotle.  That apparent contradiction is merely a function of unclear vocabulary giving two things the same label when they are utterly different.  Similarly this pomegranate is one and many at the same time.  Again, no: it is many seeds, but one pomegranate.  Use strict vocabulary, unambiguous terms, and discuss only categories, and you will find that Aristotle’s a priori principles are sound.

Reasoning from such starts, and using raw logic without recourse to any knowledge of the material world, he then takes on Zeno.  You cannot, says Aristotle, have infinite regression.  It may seem you can, but an infinite chain is a logical impossibility because it would never end and never start.  When you try to think about it, the mind rebels, just as it does when it tries to think of the one and the many being the same, or a thing both being and not being at the same time.  Thus, says Aristotle, Zeno’s paradox is proved false because infinite regression is logically false.  We can, now, rely on logic, so long as it is careful and methodical, and based on first principles and on comparison of the categories rather than leaping to conclusions directly from sense impressions of individual objects, which are flawed.

The Pythagorean Therum. I know it again now, with certainty, thanks to Aristotle's first principles making me feel I can trust logic again, despite Zeno. Hooray!

The Pythagorean Theorem. I know it again now, with certainty, thanks to Aristotle’s first principles making me feel I can trust logic again, despite Zeno. Hooray!

Sources of Error: (1) People using vague vocabulary that is unclearly defined and does not refer to anything Real, (2) Fallibility of individual material objects and rushed conclusions based on observations of such objects (note how similar this latter is to Plato).

Criterion of Truth: Knowledge is certain when it is based exclusively on either or a combination of a priori logical principles which are not dependent on anything other than logic to be certain, and on the eternal Categories which exist universally in Nature, and can be known through observation and discussed using a carefully-defined lexicon of philosophical vocabulary.

Zones of the Knowable and Unknowable: We can have true and certain knowledge of logical principles, and of the Categories, i.e. of the eternal structures within Nature that the forms of objects fall into, but we cannot ever have true and certain knowledge of individual objects within the material world.

Thus we have a third path, clearly delineating the arena of certain, eternal knowledge (on the basis of which we may seek eudaimonia) and separating it from the unknowable, which we surrender forever to skepticism.  And once again the unknowable is the realm of matter, individual things, the essence which is given structure and comprehensibility by form.  Aristotle, like Epicurus, has given up any chance of understanding matter itself, confining the cognizable world to that of form and structure, the macro-level.  And he has surrendered knowledge of individuals, of this apple and this lamprey, granting us only the categories.  We can still know an enormous amount in Aristotle’s system, enough to build a vast system of knowledge, a library of definitions, a vast network of genus and species names, and an empirical basis for an entire scientific system.  Infinite knowledge lies before us on our Aristotelian path, infinite logic chains to follow, infinite categories to investigate, name, compare and discuss.  The surrender, like Epicurus’s surrender of the ability to see atoms, feels minor.

“It’s still delusion!” Sartre says.  “The surrender is vast!  Infinite!  Infinitely more vast and fundamental than your daily world imagines!” This outburst has been building up in poor Sartre for some time, which we can tell because since he’s been holding his knees and rocking back-and-forth and flushing, and only barely sociable enough to thank Descartes for that eclair (which is not, in fact, a lightning bolt but is a delicious pastry named “lightning bolt” in French, much to Aristotle’s chagrin).  And, at some risk of frightening our innocent interlocutor the Youth (whom I shall advise to have Socrates hold his hand through the next bit) I will let Sartre continue in his own words, an excerpt from his Nausea (note that this particular translation uses existence rather than being):

Gnarled Roots.jpg.opt911x683o0,0s911x683“So I was in the park just now. The roots of the chestnut tree were sunk in the ground just under my bench. I couldn’t remember it was a root any more. The words had vanished and with them the significance of things, their methods of use, and the feeble points of reference which men have traced on their surface. I was sitting, stooping forward, head bowed, alone in front of this black, knotty mass, entirely beastly, which frightened me. Then I had this vision. It left me breathless. Never, until these last few days, had I understood the meaning of “existence.” I was like the others, like the ones walking along the seashore, all dressed in their spring finery. I said, like them, “The ocean is green; that white speck up there is a seagull,” but I didn’t feel that it existed or that the seagull was an “existing seagull”; usually existence hides itself. It is there, around us, in us, it is us, you can’t say two words without mentioning it, but you can never touch it. When I believed I was thinking about it, I must believe that I was thinking nothing, my head was empty, or there was just one word in my head, the word “to be.” Or else I was thinking . . . how can I explain it? I was thinking of belonging, I was telling myself that the sea belonged to the class of green objects, or that the green was a part of the quality of the sea. Even when I looked at things, I was miles from dreaming that they existed: they looked like scenery to me. I picked them up in my hands, they served me as tools, I foresaw their resistance. But that all happened on the surface. If anyone had asked me what existence was, I would have answered, in good faith, that it was nothing, simply an empty form which was added to external things without changing anything in their nature. And then all of a sudden, there it was, clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself. It had lost the harmless look of an abstract category: it was the very paste of things, this root was kneaded into existence. Or rather the root, the park gates, the bench, the sparse grass, all that had vanished: the diversity of things, their individuality, were only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder—naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness.”

CriterionOfTruthbBy this point our Youth is very glad to have his hand held, and Descartes is having second thoughts about sharing his eclair with what has evidently turned out to be a lunatic Lovecraftean cultist.  But I let Sartre speak here to demonstrate the fact that these surrenders, made in the earliest days of philosophy by system-weavers seeking to escape the web of Zeno and the Stick, are still substantial.  Even the most recent modern philosophy returns, from time to time, to these ancient surrenders to unknowability, and some try, like Sartre, to make new inroads toward knowing what the majority of thinkers have given up on.  New and, in Sartre’s case, scary inroads.  Every system-weaver since Plato may have a Criterion of Truth to be our light in the darkness, our path, our foundation, the circle line for the new philosophical subway system, but the fertile symbiosis between skepticism and dogmatism–the symbiosis which has borne such fruit: Platonic forms, genus and species, atoms, eventually the scientific method itself!–is also still sometimes a hostile symbiosis, and the wild, strong skepticism of Pyrrho still sometimes rears its head to plague Sartre and us, even as we make daily use of soft forms of skepticism like Epicurus’ weak empiricism, and Aristotle’s categories.

Of course, many are the centuries between Epicurus and Sartre, and many the new relationships between doubt and dogma, the new Criteria of Truth and new forms of shadowy un-knowledge which will press upon our fragile paths, before we reach the modern world. So we still have much more to explore in further chapters.  Good thing Descartes brought plenty of lightning bolts.

After 14 months’ delay, at last you can continue to Part 3: Cicero and Scholasticism.

Feb 112014
 
This is the true villain of our story. Give it time.

This is the true villain of our story. Give it time.

In the last month we have discovered that there are coral reefs near Greenland, that dung facilitates a symbiotic relationship between moths and treesloths, that one of King Arthur’s knights was black, that protons have a different diameter depending on how we measure them, and that the newly-discovered poems by Sappho may undermine what we thought we knew about Greek theories of the soul.  And we’re fine with all this.

It is easy for us to forget how the Scientific Method, at work behind all this research, is a uniquely flexible and dynamic belief system, one which enables our uniquely flexible and dyamic world.  Some will feel uncomfortable with me calling science a “belief system” but in this context I use the phrase “belief system” as a reminder of what the Scientific Method and its associated aparatus have displaced.  Science has not replaced religion–they coexist happily, productively, even symbiotically within many arenas, places and individuals, even as they chafe and vie in others.  But in the modern West, the Scientific Method has largely displaced older systems for guiding daily micro-decision-making which were more closely tied to religion.  We now use science-based reasoning a hundred times a day when we are called upon to make decisions.  Whether making a sandwich, buying a new teapot or evaluating an argument, we think about data from past experiences, bring in what facts and hypotheses we have accumulated from educated and informed living, consider the credibility of sources, ask ourselves questions about plausability, probability, evidence and counterargument, speculate about the range of possible errors and outcomes. We go through many steps, often fleeting but still present, before we assemble our sandwich (which recent nutrition advice seems plausible in the ever-changing range?) or buy our teapot (plastic so housemates won’t break it, or ceramic for environmental/health/aesthetic/flavor reasons?) or decide whether to grant a politician’s argument our provisional belief or disbelief.  Even for those members of modern Western society whose lives are powerfully informed by faith or institutional religion, who do seriously factor “What would Jesus/Apollo/Whatever do?” into the calculation, evaluatory criteria based on science and its method remain a substantial, if not exclusive, part of our aparatus for daily decision-making.

Check out this manuscript depiction of Sir Morien. St. Augustine is another figure whose skin tone is fascinating to observe as illustrators change it over the centuries, sometimes making im pale and blonde, sometimes deep deep African.

Check out this manuscript depiction of Sir Morien. St. Augustine is another figure whose skin is fascinating to observe as illustrators change it over the centuries, sometimes making him pale and blonde, sometimes deep deep African.

For my purposes today, the most important part of what I just described is that the belief or disbelief we extend to the politician (or to our teapot) is provisional.  We decide that a thing is plausible or implausible, and extend to it a kind of belief which is prepared for the possibility that we will be proven wrong.  That thing the politician said might turn out later to be false (or true) when new information arises.  A teapot, let’s say I pick one which claims to be safe and eco-sound because of XYZ carbon something something, it may seem that I have given its claims my complete belief if I buy the teapot, but that too is provisional since my long-term purchasing decisions for other objects will be informed by further information, changes in industry, and, of course, my empirical experience of whether or not this teapot serves me (and survives my housemates) well.  

What we knew about teapots, coral reefs, moths and treesloths, Arthuriana, protons, and the Greek concept daimon, can all be overturned and yet we remain comfortable with the Scientific Method which produced our old false information, and we are still prepared to let it provide us with new information, then overturn and replace the new information in its turn.  We do this without thinking, but it is in no way a universal or natural part of the human psyche.  When chatting with my father about the proton research he summed it up nicely, that two possible responses to hearing that how we measure something seems to change its nature, throwing the reliability of empirical testing into question, are: “Science has been disproved!” or “Great!  Another thing to figure out using the Scientific Method!” The latter reaction is everyday to those who are versed in and comfortable with the fact that science is not a set of doctrines but a process of discovery, hypothesis, disproof and replacement.  Yet the former reaction, “X is wrong therefore the system which yielded X is wrong!” is, in fact, the historical norm.  Whether it’s an Aristotelian crying “Plato has been disproved!” or Bernard of Clairveaux crying “Abelard has been disproved!” or a Scotist crying “Aquinas has been disproved!” the clear overthrow of a single sub-principle within a system was, for many centuries, sufficient to shake the foundations of the system as a whole, and drive people to part with it and seek a new one.

All this is a way of previewing the endpoint of the present series, in order to show how important the often-invisible role of doubt is in current human thought.  Without skepticism, and important developments in the history of skepticism, we could not have the Scientific Method occupy the position it does in modern daily lives.  So I want to sketch out here some of my favorite moments in the history of skepticism, not a complete history (for that see Popkin’s History of Skepticism or Allen’s Doubt’s Boundless Sea), but the spicy highlights that I’ve most enjoyed.

A "stoa" i.e. covered porch, reconstructed in the Athenian agora. The name "Stoic" comes becuase they held meetings in a stoa. So really "Porch-ist" is the literal translation. The more you know!

A “stoa” i.e. covered porch, reconstructed in the Athenian agora. The name “Stoic” comes because they met in a stoa. So really “Porchist” is the literal translation. The more you know!

Dogma and Doubt

There are  many ways to subdivide philosophy, but one of the most useful is, in my view, the subdivision into dogmatic and skeptical.  I’m using these terms in their technical philosophical senses, so I do not intend to invoke any of the contemporary, negative cultural associations of “dogma” or “skeptic.”  (Philosophy and history are constantly plagued with the disconnect between formal uses and modern casual uses of terms like these, Epicurean, Hedonist, Realist, Idealist… and it’s worse when I learn the technical term before I meet the popular one.  I can’t tell you how confusing it was the first time I was in a conversation where someone used “libertarian” in its contemporary political sense, which I had never met, having learned it from Spinoza class.  Them: “FDR is a big foe of Libertarianism.”  Me: “Really?  I didn’t know FDR denied the existence of freewill.  Was he a materialist?  A stoic?”  And when I tell my students that, for the purposes of Plato class, “Realist” and “Idealist” are synonyms they sometimes look like they’re about to cry…)  For today’s purposes by “dogmatic” I mean any philosophical moment or system which argues that something can be known, or that there can be certainty.  By “skeptical” I mean a philospohical moment or system arguing that something cannot be known, or that there cannot be certainty.  In this sense, Aristotle’s argument that the existence of a Prime Mover can be logically proved from the principle that any chain of events must have a First Cause is dogmatic, as is the conviction that we know with certainty that the square of the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the remaining sides.  Pierre Bayle’s argument that God’s existence can be known through faith alone is skeptical, as is the argument that quantum uncertainties like Heisenberg’s mean that material reality can never be fully understood because the act of perceiving it alters it.  Thus neither skepticism nor dogmatism is more or less tied to theism than the other – both are broad and diverse categories, and most great intellectual traditions have both in there somewhere.

Dogmatic philosophy is what most people usually think of when we think about philosophy: systems that propose particular things.  The Platonic Good, Aristotle’s Categories, Descartes’ vortices and and Heidegger’s Being are all founded in claims that we know or can know some thing or set of things with certainty.  Yet skeptical arguments, about what cannot be known, have coexisted with dogmatic claims throughout philosophy’s existence, and the two act as foils to one another, arguing, cross-polinating, hybridizing, and spurring each other on, and their interactions have been among the most exciting and fruitful in philosophy’s long history.

I will begin as close to the beginning as I can:

Mosaic from Pompeii, identified as Plato's Academy. Anyone know what that thing on the floor in the middle is? I was there with a gaggle of classicists and we were clueless.

Mosaic from Pompeii, identified as Plato’s Academy. Anyone know what that thing on the floor in the middle is?  With the round top? I was there with a gaggle of classicists and we were clueless.

Happiness in Ancient Greece:

While post-17th-century philosophy often puts its primary focus on the quest to explain and describe things and create a system of knowledge, one key unifying attribute common to just about all classical Greek philosophical schools, though different in each, is the goal of attaining eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία), from “eu” = good, happy, fortunate, and “daimon” = spirit, soul.  It’s usually translated as happiness, but it’s both more specific and stronger.  Other renderings that help get the idea across include wellbeing, self-contentment, self-fulfillment, spiritual joy, and personal wellfare.  It is the kind of happiness which is deep, lasting, tranquil, reliable, complete, and, in the Greek sense, godlike or divine.  By “divine” I mean a list of attributes that most Greek philosophers associated with the gods, who were supposed to be immortal, unchanging, indestructable, eternally happy and satisfied, living in a bliss surrounded by beauties and free from pain.  These are not Homeric Greek gods who feud and lust and rage, but more abstract philosophical gods personifying unchanging eternal principles, the sort of gods Plato believed in and for which reason he wanted to censor Homer’s depictions of the more fallible and anthropomorphic ones.  The word daimon thus occupies a complex space, much debated, but can be rendered as a spirit, soul or thinking thing, referring to a category vaguely encompassing human souls, gods and intermediary spirits.  Thus, eudaimonia is the state of having a happy or fortunate spirit, so my favorite way of rendering eudaimonia is “the kind of happiness Platonic gods experience” i.e. long-term, untroubled, indestructable happiness.

Become a philosopher, lead a philosophical life as I do, and you will achieve, or at least approach, happiness–this is the promise made by every sect, from Epicurus and Seneca to Diogenes and Plato.  In the classical world, being a philosopher was much more about life, living well and demonstrating one’s philosophical prowess through one’s personal excellence and successes than it was about writing comprehensive masterworks expounding systems (See Hadot’s What is Ancient Philosophy? and Philosophy as a Way of Life).  Each classical philosophical school had its own path to happiness, and each entwined it with different parallel goals, such as the pursuit of personal excellence, or understanding of nature, or civic virtue, or piety, or worldly pleasure, or friendship, any number of things, but we find no classical school for which approaching eudaimonia through leading a philosophical life was not a core promise.

It's a weirdly small step from souls that exist in the same state as gods to philosophers attempting to do the same things gods were supposed to do, especially in Christianized periods where pagan gods were interpreted as angels.

It’s a weirdly small step from aiming at a godlike state of the soul to philosophers attempting to do the same things gods were supposed to be able to do, especially in Christianized periods where pagan gods were interpreted as angels.

I should note in passing that, in later classical writings, it becomes clear that they take the divine aspect of eudaimonia very seriously, and Neoplatonists especially refer to past philosophical sages as “divine,” arguing that Socrates, Plato, Zeno, Diogenes of Athens, Seneca and so on, had achieved states of philosophical happiness that made their souls identical with those of gods, even while they were contained within mortal flesh.  The daimon or soul which is happy in eudaimonia is, after all, categorically the same type of thing as a god, and one of the leading differences between a human soul and a divine one is that the divine one experiences indestructable happy serenity.  If a philosopher’s soul achieves the same state, is it not a god?  Particularly in a culture which already practiced deification and ancestor worshop?  Platonic claims about a philosophical soul growing wings, leaving the body and dwelling among the gods helped further cultivate this impulse.  The practice of Theurgy, philosophical magic, developed from the idea that such a divine soul, even while resident in human flesh, could work miraculous effects, such as levitation or generating light.

Now, eudaimonia is a high bar to achieve.  Indestructable, god-like happiness must be able to stand unchanged in the face of all changes, a great challenge in a human existence beset by a thousand evils including wolves, tyrants, malaria, civil war, famine, injustice, accidental dismemberment, urequited love, and human mortality.  All our surviving ancients agreed that real eudaimonia could not be dependent upon external sources, like fame, wealth, property, physical fitness, romantic love, even liberty of person, because such things could be taken away from you by fickle fate, making them unreliable, and your happiness destructable.  I say surviving ancients because we do not have the writings of the Hedonist school, which we know focused on positive, experiential pleasures including, probably, food, drink and sex, and who may have been an exception, but their exceptionality doomed them to be silenced by the dissenting majority.  Those who did agree agreed that eudaimonia had to be a state of the thinking thing, the mind or soul, independent of experience, body or social position.  It was most frequently connected with things like tranquility, self-mastery, acceptance, and taking enjoyment from things that cannot be destroyed, like Truth.  It was also connected with freeing the soul from cares, such as fear, anxiety, envy, ambition, possessiveness, and general attachment to Earthly, perishable things.

These classical philosophical schools developed guides for living and decision-making intended to facilitate a happy life, and those with systems of physics and ontology often tied those closely to their paths to happiness.  For example, the atomic explanations for the natural non-divine mechanisms behind thunder and lightning were promoted by Epicureanism  as something which could make people happy by freeing them from fear of being zapped by a wrathful Zeus.  Thus philosophical disciplines like physics, biology and even basic ontology were in their way tools of eudaimonia as much as they were attempts to explain things.  Modern scholars even debate whether, in such cases, the physics was the source of the moral philosophy, or a tool developed afterward to support it when eudaimonia seemed to need it as an ally.

One of the sources of pain and unhappiness from which such systems set out to free people was curiosity, i.e. the unhappiness that derives from hungering for answers.  This too needed to be satisfied to achieve the stability of eternal, godlike happiness.  The quest to end the pain caused by curiosity meant supplying answers, to questions big and small, but especially big. And they needed to be certain answers, which would be reliable and eternal, and stand up to the assails of fortune, or else eternal, reliable eudaimonia could not rest upon them.  This added extra energy to the quest for certainty.  One wanted to be really, really sure an answer was right, so one could rest comfortably with it, and be happy, and know it would never change.  And one wanted the facts which served as foundations for philosophers’ broader advice on how to achieve happiness to also be certain and unchanging.  If Plato says the key to happiness is Truth, Excellence and the Good, or Aristotle proposes his Golden Mean, you want their claims to be based in certainty.

Two tools were employed in pursuit of certainty: Logic and Evidence.  All dogmatic claims (i.e. claims of certainty) made by any of our classical thinkers were based on one, the other, or both.

Evidence includes any claims based on observation, sensation, lived experience, or, more technically, empiricism.  If Aristotle says bony fish and cartelagenous fish are different because he has dissected a hundred of them and can describe how their insides are different, that is empiricism.  If Thales or Heraclitus draw conclusions based on seeing how fire emerges from wood, that is empiricism.  If Plato asks us to think about when we’ve seen someone beat a dog and say whether it makes the dog better or worse, that too is a kind of empiricism.

Logic includes any argument based on reasoning instead of sense experience.  If Aristotle says that a thing cannot both be and not be at the same time, that is an argument based on logic.  If Plato asks us if beating a dog makes it worse with respect to the properties of horses or worse with respect to the properties of dogs, that is also an argument asking us to apply logic.

StickInWaterMeanwhile, in a nearby lake…

…a stick fell in a pond, and skepticism was born, like Venus, from the waters.  Or rather, from someone who saw the water, and saw a stick sticking half-way out of it, and noticed that the stick looks bent or broken at the point where it goes into the water.  And yet, the stick is not bent.  The person bends over and touches it, just to be sure, and the fingers confirm the wood is whole and strong.  My eyes are lying to me!  My eyes can’t be trusted!  If this stick isn’t bent, what else that my eyes have told me may be false that I haven’t yet realized?  What if the sky isn’t blue?  Or milk isn’t white?  What if trees have faces, chalk is actually as beautiful as gold, and the sky is swarming with exquisite creatures I have no way to detect?  And if I can’t trust my eyes, what about my ears?  My hands?  Sense perception is unreliable!  But in that case, how do I know anything I’ve experienced is as I thought it was?  Or even that anything is real?!  Panic!  Panic more! (Quietly in the background Descartes and Sartre are still carrying out the “Panic more!” instruction nearly two millennia later).

The stick in water is a genuine, ancient example, much discused by pre-Socratic philosophers.  We don’t know if it’s actually the first example, since the earliest conversations are lost to time, but it may be, and certainly if it isn’t it was something similar, one of the other optical distortions discussed by ancients, like how a square tower can be mistaken for a round tower when seen from a great distance.  What does survive is what later philosophers made of these early discussions of the mystery of the stick in water: epistemology, the study of knowledge, how we know things, and when we can or can’t have certainty.  The stick in water challenges any claim that the senses can be relied upon as a source of certainty.  Forever after, therefore, any philosopher who wanted to make any claim based on sense perception first had to have a way to explain how we could trust the senses despite this, and other, failings.

And the stick in water has a brother: Zeno’s paradoxes.  If the stick in water undermines the credibility of sense-perception, its partner, Zeno’s paradoxes of motion, are what undermine the credibility of the other traditional source of information: logic.  You have all heard Zeno’s paradoxes before, but rarely in companionship with the stick in water, which is what gives them their oomph, so it’s worth revisiting one here:

zenomotionAn archer looses an arrow at a target.  Before the arrow reaches the target, it must go half way.  Next it must go half the remaining distance.  Then half that distance.  Then half that distance.  Half, half, half, half but we can do this forever, so the arrow can never actually reach the target, because it must cross an infinite number of micro-distances first, and nothing can travel infinite distance. Therefore, logically, motion is impossible.  Cue polite applause for the logical trick, as at the successful completion of an elegant and challenging ice skating routine.  (Cue also Descartes and Sartre glaring at anyone who’s still smiling.)

Why is this more than a cute trick?

  • Youth: “But we know motion is possible, Socrates.”
  • Socrates: “How?”  (All philosophical dialogs are with Socrates, even when they aren’t.)
  • Youth: “Because I can hit you.  See?”  Hits Socrates.
  • Socrates: “Yes, very good.  So you know it is possible because you did it?”
  • Youth: “Exactly, Socrates.  I can do it again if you aren’t convinced.”
  • Socrates: “If you want to exercise your will in that way (if there’s such a thing as will) then that’s your choice (if there’s such a thing as choice), but first, perhaps you could explain to me, using logic, how you are able to hit me, if your arm has to cross infinite distance first?”
  • Youth: “I… um… I don’t think I can, Socrates.  I just know that I hit you, and could do it again.”
  • Socrates: “But you can’t explain logically why.”
  • Youth: “No.”
  • Socrates: “So wouldn’t you say, then, that logic is incapable of explaining motion?”
  • Youth: “I guess so, Socrates.”
  • Socrates: “Doesn’t that bother you?  That logic fails to be able to explain something so seemingly simple?  Doesn’t that make you distrust logic itself as a tool?  It would seem that logic itself is unreliable and can’t lead to certainty.”
  • Descartes (quietly in the background): “Panic more!”
  • Youth: “I guess that’s so, Socrates, but it just doesn’t bother me the way it bothers those weirdly dressed men over there.”
  • Socrates: “And why doesn’t it bother you?”
  • Youth: “Well, because I know that motion is possible because I can do it and see it.  I don’t need logic to explain it.”
  • Socrates: “So even without logic, you’re sure there is motion… because?”
  • Youth: “Well, because when I move my arm to hit you, I can see it.  When I touch you with my hand, I can feel the impact, the texture of your skin.  I can still feel it a little on my own skin, the spot where it struck yours.”
  • Socrates: “So you know there is motion because your senses tell you so?”
  • Youth: “Yes.”
  • Socrates: “So, since logic is unreliable, you choose to rely on the senses instead?”
  • Youth: “Yes.  I trust things I can see and touch.”
  • Socrates: “Then tell me, my young friend, have you ever happened to notice what happens when a stick falls so it’s sticking half-way into a pool of water?”
Zeno has several paradoxes. In this one, the famous runner Achilles is trying to overtake a tortoise, but before he does so he must catch half-way up with the tortoise, then half-way again, so he can never beat the tortoise in a race.

Zeno has several paradoxes. In this one, the famous runner Achilles is trying to overtake a tortoise, but before he does so he must catch half-way up with the tortoise, then half-way again, so he can never catch the tortoise.

Our youth, whom we shall now leave panicking on the riverbank along with Socrates, Descartes, Sartre and, hopefully, a comfortable picnic, has now received the full impact of why Zeno’s paradoxes of motion matter.  They aren’t supposed to convince you there’s no motion, they’re supposed to convince you that logic says there is no motion, therefore we cannot trust logic.  Their intended target is any philosopher *cough*Plato*cough*Aristotle*cough* who wants to make the claim that we one can achieve certainty by weaving logic chains together.  Anyone whose tool is Logic.  Meanwhile, the stick in water attacks any philosopher who wants to rely on sense perception *cough*Aristotle*cough*Epicurus*cough* and say that we know things with certainty through Evidence.  When you put both side-by-side, and demand that Zeno shoot an arrow at the stick in water that looks bent, then it seems that both Logic and Evidence are unreliable, and therefore that… there can be no certainty!

Don’t panic, be happy…

The double challenge of the stick in water and Zeno’s paradoxes had many effects.

One was to make all classical thinkers who wanted to maintain dogmatic principles work a lot harder to nuance their claims of certainty, to justify why and in what specific circumstances logic and evidence could be trusted, to explain why they sometimes failed or seemed to fail, and how one could reason or observe more carefully in order to achieve greater levels of certainty.  Thus these challenges to reason and evidence let dogmatic philosophers adopt skeptical tools and create systems which had space for both dogma and skepticism in the same system, hybridizing the two to achieve greater levels of clarity, complexity, dynamism and subtlety and jumpstarting countless great philospohcial leaps.  To give two quick examples, Aristotle attempted to create a system for achieving infallible logical information by saying that logic is 100% reliable if it is based on a combination of (A) unequivocal carefully defined terms, (B) self-evident first-principles, and (C) geometrically-strict syllogistic reasoning by baby-steps.  Stick to these and exclude logical leaps and unclear vocabulary and you can carve out an arena for reliable logic, even if that arena is necessarily finite and cannot touch everything.  Similarly Epicurus and Aristotle both proposed a kind of empiricism of repeated observation, where we do not trust just one glance at the stick in water but examine it carefully with all our senses, look at many sticks, and eventually draw conclusions we consider more reliable.  And at the same time, these same thinkers gave ground and mixed their dogmatism with skepticism by saying that logic or empiricism worked in some arenas but not others.  Epicurus, for example, says we can learn a lot from sense data but we can never learn true details of atomic level since we can’t see anything that small.  Aristotle similarly says we can learn about the level of the universe that we can experience and think about, the level of the objects we see and contemplate, but not about the chaotic base substructure which underlies the visible and comprehensible world.

sartre(Sartre, who has just been handed a sandwich by Socrates and is now unconsciously applying the Scientific Method as he considers whether or not to accept Descartes’ offer of mayonaise, looks up here to say that he agrees with Aristotle that there are vast and terrifying unknown depths of being which lie beneath perceived reality.  He thinks we should address our long-term attentions to that mystery, and that Aristotle is foolish to cling to pursuing the finite certainties offered by his logic chains and fish observations when no finite knowledge is helpful in the face of the raw unknown infinity beneath.  But Sartre is not interested in pursuing eudaimonia, even if he is interested in the short-term, destructable pleasure offered by Descartes’ excellent fresh mayonaise.)

But our ancient Greeks are interested in eudaimonia, and another product of these challenges to reason and evidence, apart from letting dogmatic philosophers hybridize with it, was the birth of Skepticism (big S) as a philosophical school, in addition to skepticism (small S) as an approach.  As an approach, skepticism is used by all sorts of thinkers, including Plato and Aristotle in their way, but it was also a school, a rival of Platonists and Stoics.  And, like all other ancient schools, Skeptics pursued eudaimonia.

How does doubt lead to happiness?  By allowing one to relax and resign one’s self to ignorance, says Pyrrho, the greatest name in pure classical skepticism.  We cannot know things with certainty, he says, and this is a release (much as Epicurus thought it was a release to believe there is no afterlife).  If we cannot know things with certainty, we don’t have to try.  We don’t need to go with Aristotle to the docks and dissect infinite fish.  We don’t need to sit with Plato and let him pretend to be Socrates through interminable dialogs.  We don’t need to follow Pythagoras and fast ourselves into a trance while contemplating the number ten.  We can stop.  We can say I don’t know, I can’t know, I’ll never know, no one else knows either, no one is right, no one is wrong (not even people on the internet!), so we can just return to our work and rest.  This too, say the skeptics, frees us from pain, from several pains that no dogmatic system can ever free us from.  It frees us from the exhaustion of the quest to know.  It also frees us from the stress we experience when we turn out to be wrong.  If you think you know something, and it’s overturned, that’s stressful and unpleasant.  It makes you feel angry, foolish, violated, shaken, abandoned.  If you never think you know anything about things, you will never experience the pain of being proved wrong.

killed-plutoYou know what the skeptics mean here.  You know because you are alive in 2014, and that means you remember when there were nine planets.  Weren’t you upset?  Wasn’t it distressing and upleasant, shaking your worldview?  We learned there were nine planets in kindergarden!  Of course Pluto is a planet!  Mike Brown, the scientist responsible for getting Pluto’s status stripped away receives hate mail, for precisely this reason: it hurts to be told you’re wrong.  And this is far from the only time you, reader, have experienced this.  There used to be such a thing as a Brontosaurus.  And a Triceratops.  (Youth: What!  We lost the Triceratops too!”)  There used to be four food groups, remember that?  And coral reefs used to exist only in the tropics, and moths used to have nothing to do with tree sloths, and you used to have a volume of the complete works of Sappho.  And the destruction of all these “truths” have unsettled us to different degrees, because we learned them at different times and they were integral to our worldviews to different degrees.  And some we are okay with and with others we smile at the angry t-shirts that say: I remember when there were Nine Planets!

Now, Aristotle would tell us the strife has been caused by the fact that we had not defined “Planet” carefully enough before, so it wasn’t an unequivocal term, and thus led us to confusion and misunderstandings.  “But!” says Pyrrho, “if you had never studied these things, if you had not been taught as a child to memorize dinosaurs, or rest your worldview on the label attached to a hunk of rock far off in the darkness where you never have cause to perceive it, then you would not experience this unhappiness!  Your belief that you knew something has made you unhappy, destroying eudaimonia.  Just admit that you do not know anything with certainty and then you need never experience such pain again!”  And in the case of things we were prepared for–the treesloth and the Sappho and Arthur having a knight of African descent–the Scientific Method told us to do just that, to be prepared for truth to be replaced when it was time, because it was never Truth, it was always provisional truth.

There are two kinds of Giraffes. Two kinds of Giraffes! They look identical, herd together, do the same thing, but won't interbreed! How did this happen? This makes no evolutionary sense! It really bothers me! Pyrrho: "It wouldn't if those pesky geneticists hadn't told you..."

There are two kinds of giraffes. Two kinds of giraffes! They look identical, herd together, do the same things, but won’t interbreed! How did this happen? This makes no evolutionary sense! It really bothers me! Pyrrho: “It wouldn’t if those pesky geneticists hadn’t told you…”

Ten Modes of Skepticism

Many exciting things will happen to skepticism as it leaves Greek hands before reaches ours.  It will be transformed by Bacon and Montaigne, by Averroes and Ockham, Descartes will finish his potato salad and have his day, and it has more refinement yet to undergo among the Greeks as well, and from their sunny riverbank Socrates and company will watch skepticism surge over the marble walls of Plato’s Academy like ants into their picnic basket.  But for today I want to leave you with a taste of raw classical skepticism, so you can taste it for a little while and have a taste of this oddest of philosophies which proposes un-knowledge, rather than knowledge, as its happy goal.  To that end, here, to finish, are examples of the Ten Modes of Pyrrhonism (i.e. the kind of raw skepticism practiced by Pyrrho) based on the handbook of Sextus Empiricus (one of our few surviving ancient skeptical authors).  It is a list of categories of sources of error, things that can make you be wrong.  Many are ones that we are very well prepared for in the modern world and remain on constant or at least near-constant guard against (though rather than guarding against the errors, what Pyrrho and Sextus want us to do is be on guard against imagining we aren’t making errros, i.e. to be on guard against thinking we know something.  I see Socrates is nodding in approval, and that the others are too polite to point out the crumbs on his chin).

The Ten Pyrrhonist Proofs that Nothing can be Known with Certainty:

  1. We cannot have certainty because different animals have different senses.  When do we encounter this?  When walking a dog, sometimes the dog stops to sniff in rapt fascination at a spot on the sidewalk where we see nothing interesting.  But evidently there is something very interesting there if a creature as intelligent as a dog is fascinated, and willing to disobey its friend and choke itself by pulling on its collar in order to study this fascinating thing.  What an error we commit being unable to see this fascination!  Or is the dog in error?
  2. We cannot have certainty because different human beings experience things differently.  When do we encounter this?  I encounter it when friends drink alcohol.  I do not enjoy alcohol.  Not only am I not supposed to have it (because of a specific medical condition), but it tastes like nasty poisonous motor oil to me, and yet I see my friends go into paroxysms of delight over the subtleties and complexities of drinks, and my civilization build entire buildings, institutions, customs and industries around this thing which my senses tell me is terrible.  My senses and those of my friends differ.  Clearly someone must be wrong, unless there is no right here?  I also have a color blind housemate who cannot tell that Hello Kitty Hot Chocolate is bright pink, and struggles to play the game Set in mediocre lighting.
  3. 54478811_bf0c4784c3We cannot have certainty because our senses disagree with each other.  If I want to know if something is good, I ask my senses.  Yet sometimes they disagree with each other.  My eyes tell me this artichoke is just made of smooth leaves, yet my touch tells me it is prickly.  My eyes tell me a lobster is scary and dangerous, and yet my tongue says is delicious. My eyes tell me the molten glass in this glassblowing demo looks goopy and exciting and like a fascinating texture like putty which would be awesome to touch, and yet my touch tells me owwwwwwwwwww hot hot hot hot hot!  My touch tells me this cat is delightful and fuzzy and yet my nose tells me I should not be near it because achooo!
  4. We cannot have certainty because sometimes the same things seem different and lead us to different judgments in different circumstances.  I might enjoy a food for a long time but then get food poisoning from it and, after that, always be revolted when I smell it.  I might feel warm at 70 degrees but then be sick and feel cold at 70 degrees.  I might think Gatorade is nasty but then be dehydrated and think it tastes great because my body craves elecrolytes.
  5.  We cannot have certainty because the same objects seem different from different perspectives.  A mountain that looks like a face from one angle looks like a random jumble from another.  A square tower seen from a distance seems round.  A stick in water looks bent.  The moon above a skyline looks much bigger than the buildings but we have no real sense from that of how enormously big it really is, and can only realize the latter using a lot of math, or a space shuttle.
  6. We cannot have certainty because we never see objects alone.  Have you ever had one of those articles of clothing that looks purple in some light and blue in other light, so people argue over which it is?  Because it looks one way next to one thing and another way next to another.  Well, what does it look like really?  We can never see anything alone, we always see it surrouneded by other objects including air.  If the stick is distorted by water, is it not also distorted by air?  By vacuum?  By light?  We do not see objects, only groups of objects.
  7. We cannot have certainty because things take multiple forms.  Bronze is red, except when it turns green.  Water is clear, unless it’s blue, or fluffy snow white.  Squid ink is black, unless it’s diluted to form purple, or sepia.  That molten glass is enticingly orange and squidgy.  What do any of these things really look like?
  8. The Muller Illusoin, illustrating type 8 doubt.

    Illustrating types 6 & 8 doubt.  Line segment AB is equal to line segment CD but looks longer.

    We cannot have certainty because we experience everything relative to other things.  We cannot see a thing without making some judgment about things that are relative: this clementine is small, this stick is long, this lake is large.  Small, long and large compared to what?  Other objects of comparison intrude themselves into our analysis.  The clementine is small compared to oranges, the stick long compared to other sticks, the lake large compared to my back yard.  But we cannot judge things without judging them relative to others.  To feed his fish for a while my father was growing Giant Amoebas.  Giant Amoebas!  Amoebas so big you could almost see them with the naked eye!  They were huge!  They were smaller than grains of sand and yet I thought they were huge!

  9. We cannot have certainty because we are biased by scarcity.  I love this one, and I love its classic example.  This is about how we judge things to be… well, frankly, how we judge them to be awesome or not.  For example, comets are awesome.  A little bright speck appears in the night that wasn’t there before, and flies across the heavens, really fast, so fast you can almost see it move!  When there is a comet we get very excited.  We discuss it, announce it, get out telescopes to look at it.  In past ages people might pray to it, or read omens from it; now we photograph it and shoot probes at it.  It’s super exciting: little bright speck in sky.  Okay.  So, every morning an enormous blinding ball of fire rises from the horizon, blotting out the night and transforming the entire sky to a wall of brilliant blue brightness streaked with rippling swaths of other beautiful colors, and it radiates down heat enough to transform our weather, burn our skin and feed countless life forms.  It is, from any sense-perception objective sense, ten skillion times more exciting than a comet.  But it’s just the sun, so, shrug.  We are biased by scarcity.  Two poems by Sappho and we all hear, but we find thousands of pages of unknown Renaissance poetry every year.
  10. We cannot have certainty because different peoples have different customs, habits, laws, beliefs and ethics, and are biased by them.  I think you all know this one.  Though it will take over a millennium for it to get to be so common, since cultural relitivism isn’t a broadly-discussed or accepted thing until the enlightenment when Montesquieu and Voltaire made themselves its champions.  Skepticism has a long road ahead of it, from Pyrrho to the present.  But for now, let’s sit back with Socrates and picnic on this raw form of classical, eudaimonist skepticism, challenging our science-loving, learning-loving, exploration-loving, post-enlightenment selves to test ourselves with the quesiton of whether it might be a safe and happy thing sometimes, in its own strange way, to not know.  And we should also comfort Sartre a bit–he hadn’t heard, before today, about poor Pluto.  (Descartes: “What’s Pluto?”  Socrates: “Are you sure you want to know?”)

Continue this foray into the history of skepticism with Part II: Classical Hybrids.

The Shape of Rome

 Posted by on August 15, 2013  Italy, Rome  54 Responses »
Aug 152013
 

via-dei-fori-imperiali-3The new Mayor of the city of Rome, Ignazio Marino, just announced his intention to destroy one of the city’s central roads, the Via dei Fori Imperiali, and turn the area around the old Roman Forum into the world’s largest archaeological park.  Reactions have ranged from commuters’ groans to declarations from classicists that this single act proves the nobility of the human species.

via-dei-fori-imperiali-chiusa-su-google-maps

The road in question, running along the Forum.

This curious range of reactions seems the perfect moment for me to discuss something I have intended to talk about for some time: the shape of the City of Rome itself.  We all know the long, rich history of the Roman people, and the city’s importance as the center of an empire, and thereafter as the center of the memory of that empire, whose echo, long after its end, still so defines Western concepts of power, authority and peace.  What I intend to discuss instead is the geographic city, and how its shape and layers grew gradually and constantly, shaped by famous events, but also by the centuries you won’t hear much about in a traditional history of the city.  The different parts of Rome’s past left their fingerprints on the city’s shape in far more direct ways than one tends to realize, even from visiting and walking through the city.  Rome’s past shows not only in her monuments and ruins, but in the very layout of the streets themselves.  Going age by age, I will attempt to show how the city’s history and structure are one and the same, and how this real ancient city shows her past in a far more organic and structural way than what we tend invent when we concoct fictitious ancient capitals to populate fantasy worlds or imagined futures.  (As a bonus to anyone who’s been to Rome, this will also tell you why it’s a particularly physically grueling city to visit, compared to, say, Florence or Paris.)

9780521609104cvr_red.qxdSigmund Freud had a phobia of Rome.  You can see it in his letters, and the many times he uses Rome as a simile or metaphor for psychological issues, both broadly and his own.  He fretted for decades before finally making the visit.  Part of it was a cultural inferiority complex.  Europe’s never-fading memory of the greatness of the Roman empire was intentionally magnified in the Renaissance by Italian humanists who set out to convince the world that Roman culture was the best culture, and that the only way to achieve true greatness was to slavishly imitate the noble Romans.  Italians did this as a power play to try to overcome the political weakness of Italy, but as a result, in the 19th and 18th centuries, many intellectuals in many nations were brought up in a mindset of constantly measuring their own nations only by how far they fell short of the imagined perfection of Rome.  Freud was one of many young intellectuals in Germany, Poland, and other parts of Europe who were terribly intimidated by the Idea of Rome, and the sense that their own nations could never approach its greatness.

Rome's layers: ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, modern, all jumbled together in an insoluble stack of meaning and contradictions.

Rome’s layers: ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, modern, all jumbled together in an insoluble stack of meaning and contradictions.  And that road.

But Freud had a second fear: a fear of Rome’s layers.  In formal treatises, he compared the psyche to an ancient city, with many layers of architecture built one on top of another, each replacing the last, but with the old structures still present underneath.  In private writings he phrased this more personally, that he was terrified of ever visiting Rome because he was terrified of the idea of all the layers and layers and layers of destroyed structures hidden under the surface, at the same time present and absent, visible and invisible.  He was, in a very deep way, absolutely right.  Rome is a mass of layers, the physical form of different time periods still present in the walls and streets, and when you study them enough to know what you are really looking at, they reach back so staggeringly far, through so many lifetimes, that if you let yourself think seriously about them it is easy to be overwhelmed by the enormity of it all.

I will begin by discussing a single building as an example, and then the broader structure of the city.

The Basilica of San Clemente:

San Clemente is a modestly-sized church a couple blocks East of the Colosseum, one of many hundreds of churches in Rome, and, in my mind, the most Roman.  It was built in honor of Pope Clement I (d. 99 AD), an important early cleric who traveled East and returned, making him one of the most important linking figures between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox worlds.  One enters the church from a plain, hot street populated by closed doors plus an antique shop and a mediocre pizzeria.  Outside the door is a beggar disguised as someone who works for the Church trying to extort money from tourists by convincing them that they have to pay him to enter.  Within, a lovely, lofty church with marble columns, frescoed chapels, a beautiful stone floor, stunning gold mosaics in the nave, and a gilded wood ceiling.  It is populated by milling tourists, and perhaps a couple of the Irish Dominicans who are now its custodians.   It is reasonably impressive, but when we pause and look more closely, we realize the decoration is not as simple as it seems.  Nothing matches, for a simple reason: No two pieces of this church are from the same time.

basilica-di-san-clemente-basilica-di-san-clemente-in-rome-stay-71377

The basic structure of the church, the actual edifice, is from the twelfth century.  But nothing else.

Look at the columns first: beautiful colored marble columns with delightful translucent swirls of stone.  But they don’t match: they’re different colors, even different heights, and have non-matching capitals and different size bases to try to make them fit.  These columns weren’t made for this building, they are looted columns, carried off from Roman buildings all around the city and repurposed for this Church.  These columns, therefore, were cut about 1,000 years before the construction of this church.

San Clemente Detail (2)

The floor too is Roman mosaic tile, inlaid with pieces of porphyry and serpentine, materials unachievable after the empire’s fall.  If they are here, they were carried here after the 12th-century Church was built and re-used.

7171835459_dd313a4ff5_z

What else?  There is the stunning mosaic.  It looks like nothing else we’ve seen in Rome, and with good reason.  It looks Russian or byzantine, a totally different style.  Foreign artists must have come in to create this, not in a Roman style of decoration at all but one more Eastern.  Our Eastern Church devotees of Saint Clement have been here.

basilica-di-san-clemente-rome-italy+1152_12905266299-tpfil02aw-5112

godong-12th-century-fresco-of-christ-s-triumph-on-the-cross-in-san-clemente-basilica-rome-lazio-italy-_i-G-40-4050-CPALF00Z

We turn around next, and spot a lovely side chapel with frescoes of a saint’s life, in a familiar Renaissance style.  We might have seen this on the walls of Florence, produced in the late 1400s or earlier 1500s, and can immediately start playing Spot the Saint.

Roma, Basilica San Clemente in Laterano

But next we make the mistake of looking up, and realize that this massive hanging gilded wood ceiling is entirely wrong, with overflowing ribbons and a dominant central painting of a much more flowy, ornamented, emotional, voluptuous Baroque style than everything else.  The artist who painted those modest Spot the Saint frescoes would never drown a scene in little cherubs and clouds like this, nor would that ceiling ever have been near these Roman columns.

basilica san clemente ceiling

The upper walls too have Baroque decoration. Even an untrained eye is aware something is wrong.  The practiced eye can tell instantly that the ceiling must be late sixteenth century at the very earliest and is more likely seventeenth or eighteenth, three hundred years newer than the Spot the Saint frescoes, which were two hundred years after the mosaics, which are two hundred years after the church was built using stolen Roman materials that were already 1,000 years old.  Freud, exploring the church with us, has vertigo.

Next we look down.

San Clemente Detail

What’s this?  What are these arches in the wall next to the floor?  Why would there be arches there?  It makes no sense.  Even in a building that used secondary supporting arches in the brickwork there would be a reason for it, a window above, a junction, and they would end at floor level.  Our architecture-sense is tingling.

So we go down stairs…

20121024124255

Welcome to the 4th century Roman basilica which the 12th century upper church was built on top of.  Here we see characteristic dense, flat Roman bricks, and late classical curved-corner ceiling structures laying out what used to be an early Christian church.  This church was 800 years old when it was buried to build the larger one above it.  The walls are studded with shards of Roman sculpture, uncovered during the excavations, bits of broken tombs, halves of portrait faces and the middle of an Apollo, and a slab with a Roman pagan funerary inscription on one side which was re-used and has an early Christian inscription on the other side, in much cruder lettering.

San Clemente

And here too there are frescoes.  Legend has that Saint Clement’s remains were carried from the East back to Rome in 869 AD, and this lower church is the place they would have been carried to, as we see now in a fresco depicting the scene, painted  probably shortly thereafter.

800px-San_clemente_fresco

Other 9th century frescoes (300 years older than the church above) show the lives of other now-obscure figures who were important in the 800s.  One features a portrait of an early pope (Leo IV), the only known image of this largely-forgotten figure.  Another features Christ freeing Adam from Limbo, and to their left a man in a very Eastern-looking hat, another relic of the importance of this church as a center for Rome’s contact with the east.

736px-San_Clemente_lower_Basilica

Another wonderful fresco, of the life of a popular hermit, features a story in which a pagan demands that his servants carry the saint out of his house, but he goes mad and believes a column is the saint, and flogs and curses his slaves as he forces them to carry the column.  In this fresco we find inscriptions in Latin, but also a phrase coming out of the man’s mouth (a very crude one cursing his slaves as bastards and sons of prostitutes) which is the oldest known inscription in a language identifiable as, not Latin, but Italian.  The Italian language has come to exist between the construction of this church and the construction of the one above.  (The inscription is at the bottom in the white area above the column, hard to make out.)

004frescoSanClemente

You can see it better in this reconstruction:

clement

One more fresco is worth visiting: the Madonna of the funny-looking hat.

Madonna and Child in 4th-cent Basilica San Clemente

When archaeologists opened up the under layer, they found a Madonna, probably 8th century, which then decayed before their eyes (horror!) due to exposure to the air.  Underneath they found another Madonna (delight!) wearing this extremely strange hat.  They looked more closely: the Christ child in her lap is not original, but was painted on after the Madonna.  This is not a Madonna at all, it is a portrait, and that hat belongs to none other than the Byzantine Empress Theodora.  Someone painted a portrait of the empress here (who used to be a prostitute, I might add), then someone else redid her as a Madonna, then, a century or two later, someone else painted over that Madonna with another Madonna, now lost, who presumably had a more reasonable hat.

Wandering a bit we find more modern additions, post-excavation.  One of the most beloved 20th century heads of the Vatican Library has been buried here, just below the now-restored old altar of the lower church.  And the tomb of St. Cyril [or possiby it contains Cyril and his brother Methodius – there is debate] is here.  They are the creators of the Glagolitic alphabet (ancestor of the Cyrillic), surrounded by plaques and donations and tokens of thanksgiving from many Slavic countries who use that alphabet.  Below is a modern mosaic, thanking them for their work:

basilica-san-clemente-mosaic

And nearby there are stairs down…   Freud needs to stop and breathe into a paper bag.

There are stairs down because this is not the bottom layer, not yet.  The 4th century church was built on top of something else.  We descend another floor and find ourselves in older, pre-Christian Roman brickwork.  We find high vaults, frescoed with simple colorful decoration, as was popular in villas and public buildings.  Hallways and rooms extend off, a large, complex building.  Very complex.  Experts on Roman building layout can tell us this was once a fine Roman villa of the first century AD.  In that period it had sprawling rooms, a courtyard, storerooms… but its foundations aren’t quite the right shape.  If we look at the walls, the layout, it seems that before the villa there was an industrial building, the Mint of the Roman Republic (you heard me, Republic!  Before the Empire!), but it was destroyed by a fire (the Great Fire of 64 AD) and then rebuilt as a Roman villa.  Before it was a church… before it was another church.

timthumb

Except… there are tunnels.  There are narrow, meandering tunnels twining out from the walls of this villa, leading in strange, unpredictable directions, and far too tight to be proper Roman architecture.  This villa was on a slope, and some of these rooms are dug into the rocky slope so they would have been underground even when it was a residence.  Romans didn’t do that.

Rome535BasilicaDiSanClemente

Rome_SanClemente_Mithraic_009

Houston, we have a labyrinth, a genuine, intentional underground labyrinth, and with a bit more digging we find out why.  This was a Mithraeum, a secret cult site of the Mithraic mystery cult, which worshipped the resurrection god Mithras.  Here initiates dwelled in dormitories for their years of apprenticeship, waiting their turn to enter the clandestine curved vault, sprawl on its stone couches, and participate in the cult orgy in which they take hallucinogens, play mind-bending music, and ritually sacrifice a bull and drink its blood in order to achieve resurrection.

s clemente1

We wander still farther, daring the labyrinth, much of which has not yet been excavated, and come upon another room in which we hear the bubbling of a spring.  A natural spring, miraculously bubbling up from nowhere in the depths of Rome.  Very probably a sacred spring.

DSCN9432

While Freud sits down to put his head between his legs for a while (on a 1st century AD built-in bench, I should add) we can finally piece this muddle of contradictory and mismatched objects together into a probable chronology:

SanClemOnce upon a time there was a natural spring bubbling up at this spot in what was then the grassy outskirts of early Rome.  It is reasonable to guess that a modest cult site might have sprung up around this spring, honoring its nymph or some such, as was quite common.  In time, the city expanded and this once-abandoned area became desirable for industrial use as the Republic gained an empire.  The Republic’s Mint was built here, making use of the convenient ice cold water, and likely continuing to honor its associated spirit.  Decades pass, a century, two, Rome expands still further, and chaos raises an Emperor.  After the Great Fire of 64 AD, it becomes convenient to move the Mint out of what is now a desirable central district of the expanding city, so the site is purchased by a wealthy Roman who builds his house here.  Decades pass and the builder, or his son, is converted to the exciting cult of this new god Mithras who promises his followers, not the gray mists of Hades, but resurrection and eternity. Since he is wealthy, he converts his home to the use of the cult, and digs tunnels and creates the underground Mithraeum.  For a generation or two this villa hosts the cult, but then Constantine comes to power and a new cult promising an even more inclusive form of salvation comes into vogue.  The villa, which is now three hundred years old, is buried, a convenient architectural choice since the ground level of the city has risen several times due to regular Tiber floods, so the old house was in a low spot.  A new church is built on top, and serves the Roman Christians of the local community for a few generations.  The fall of Rome is usually marked at the first sack by they Visigoths in 410 or the sack by the Vandals in 455, but the conquerors are also Christian so the church stands and still serves the neighborhood, though its population is much smaller.  Now the main Emperor moves to the East, and in the 500s, when the church is about 200 years old, someone paints a portrait of the empress on the wall, then a generation later someone else decides a Madonna is more appropriate, and puts a baby in her lap.  Two or three more generations go by and Cyril and Methodius bring the bones of Clement from the East, and they are buried here, a great day for the neighborhood!  Commemorated with more frescoes.

basilica-di-san-clemente-servus-servorum-dei-basilica-di-san-clemente-37443Another century, two, we are well into the Middle Ages, and this old Roman building is old-fashioned and very low since the ground level has risen further.  The local community, and devotees of St. Clement, decide to build a new church.  They loot columns and flooring from other Roman sites, and bury the old church, producing the 12th century structure above, but using the walls of the older one as the foundation, so the arches still show in the walls.  The new church is very plain, but is soon decorated using mosaics provided by Eastern artists who come to visit Clement and Cyril.  After a few generations the Renaissance begins, and we call in a fashionable Florentine-style artist to fresco one chapel.  A few centuries later Pope Clement VIII comes to power and decides to spiff up San Clemente, initiating the internal redecoration which will end with the ornate baroque ceiling.

DSCN9436Oh, and somewhere in there someone slapped on a courtyard on the outside in a Neoclassical style, because it became vogue for buildings to look classical, so we may as well add a faux-classical facade onto this medieval building which we no longer remember has a real classical building hidden underneath.  Not long after the Baroque redecoration is begun, the nineteenth-century interest in archaeology notices those arches in the walls, and starts digging, re-exposing the lower layers.  Devotees of St. Cyril and lovers of history, like the head of the Vatican Library, begin to flock to San Clemente as an example of Rome’s long and layered history, and so it gains more layers in the 20th century as donations and burials are added to it.  Every century from the Republican Roman construction of the Mint to the 20th century tombs is physically present, actually physically represented by an artifact which is still part of this building which has been being built and rebuilt for over 2,000 years.  Not a single century passed in which this spot was not being used and transformed, and every transformation is still here.  And all that time, from the first sacred spring, to the Mithraism, to today’s Irish Dominicans, this spot has been sacred.

This is Freud’s metaphor for the psyche: structure after structure built in the same space, superimposing new functions over the old ones, never really losing anything.

This is Rome.

San Clemente is exceptional in that it has been largely excavated and is accessible, but every single building in Rome is like this, built on medieval foundations which are built on classical ones.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone into a random pizzeria and found a Renaissance fresco, or a medieval beam, or Roman marble.  I’ve gone into a cafe restroom and discovered the back wall was curved because this was built on the foundations of Pompey’s theater (where Caesar was assassinated).  I’ve gone into churches to discover their restrooms used to be part of different churches.  Friends have this experience too.  During my Fulbright year in Italy I had a colleague who was studying Roman altars, half of which you could only get at by ringing the bell of strangers’ apartments and saying: “Hello!  I’m an archaeologist, and according to this list there’s a Roman sacrificial altar here?” to which the standard response is, “Oh, yes, come on in, it’s in the basement next to the washing machine.”  I have another friend who thinks he’s found a lost chapel frescoed by a major Renaissance artist hidden in an elevator shaft.  Another friend once told me of a pizza place with a trap door down to not-yet-tallied catacombs.  I believe it.

As with San Clemente, so for Rome: layers on layers on layers:

If San Clemente’s narrative starts with a sacred spring and the Roman Mint, Rome’s narrative starts with scared people on a hill.

le_origini_large

Welcome to the archaic period.  You are a settler.  Your goals are securing enough food to stay alive, and avoiding deadly threats.  The major threats are (A) lions, (B) wolves, (C) wild boar, (D) other humans, who travel in raiding parties, killing and taking.  You are looking for a safe, defensible spot to settle down.  You find one.  The Tiber river, which floods regularly producing a fertile tidal basin rich with crops and game, takes a bend and has a small island in it.  At that same spot there are several extremely steep, rocky hills, almost like mesas, with practically cliff-like faces.  In such a place you can live on top of the hill but hunt, farm, and gather on the fertile stretch below.  And you can even sail up and down the river, making trade and travel easy.  Perfect.

Seven_Hills_of_Rome.svg

The very first settlement at Rome, in the archaic period, was a small settlement on the Capitoline hill, one of the smallest hills but closest to the river.  (Are you, perchance, from a country?  With a government that meets in a “capitol” building?  If so, your “capitol” is named after the Capitoline hill, because that’s how frikkin’ important this hill is!)  The valleys around are used mainly for farming, but also for burials, and the first tombs are very simple ones, just a hole with dirt, or sometimes a ceramic tile lid.  The buildings in this era are brick decorated with terra cotta.  Eventually the first major temple is built on the Capitoline hill, with a stone foundation but still terra cotta decoration, and is dedicated to Jupiter. Its foundations remain, and you can see them, in situ, in the Capitoline museum which will be built on the same spot a few millenia later.

A more developed form of the settlement.  The Temple of Jupiter with its red roof still stands on the Capitoline hill, while buildings have now filled the valleys below.

A more developed form of the settlement. The Temple of Jupiter with its red roof still stands on the Capitoline hill, while buildings have now filled the valleys below.

This hill turns out to be a great place to live, and the population thrives.  In time the hill is too crowded.  People spread to the neighboring hills, and start building in the little valley in between.  As the population booms and spreads to cover all seven hills, the space between the first few becomes the desirable downtown, the most important commercial center, where the best shops and markets are.  This is the Forum, and here more temples and law courts and the Senate House are built.

South is up in this image.  To the right is the Capitoline, still with the Temple of Jupiter.  In the center you see the deep valley which becomes the /forum.

South is up in this image. To the right is the Capitoline, still with the Temple of Jupiter. In the center you see the deep valley which becomes the Forum.

In time, defensive walls go up around the area around the hills, to make a greater chunk of land defensible.  In time, the walls are too constrained, so another set goes up around them.

rome

As the population booms and Rome becomes a serious city, serious enough to start thinking about conquering her neighbors and maybe having a war with someone (Carthage anyone?), this area is now the super desirable downtown.  The commercial centers migrate outward to give way to monuments and temples, the Mint is built out on a grassy spot past where there is not yet a Colosseum, and the hills near the Forum become reserved for sacred spaces, state buildings, and the houses of the super rich.  On one, the Palatine hill, a certain Octavian of the Julii builds his house, and when Caesar is assassinated and the first and second triumvirates result in an Emperor, it becomes the imperial palace. (Does your capital contain a palace?  If so it’s named after the Palatine hill, because Augustus was so powerful that all rulers’ grand houses are forever named after his house).

I am now standing on the Capitoline Hill, with the Temple of Jupiter behind me.  I am looking down the forum, and the Palatine hill, where the Imperial Palace was, is the high tree-lined crest to the right.

I am now standing on the Capitoline Hill, with the Temple of Jupiter behind me. I am looking down the Forum, and the Palatine hill, where the Imperial Palace was, is the high tree-lined crest to the right.

Rome again spills over her walls and builds even farther out.   The great fire of 64 AD destroys many districts, but she rebuilds quickly, and what was the Mint is replaced by a villa which soon becomes a Mithraeum.  Rome reaches its imperial heights, a sprawling city of a million souls, and the seven hills that were once defensive are now sparkling pillars of all-marble high-class real estate, and also very tiring to climb.

Here North is up.  You can see the island to the left, and the Colosseum.  To the right of the island is a small semi-circular building, which is the Theater of Marcellus.  A bit to the right of that, sticking up aove the rest, you can still see te Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline hill.

Here North is up. You can see the island to the left, and the Colosseum. To the right of the island is a small semi-circular building, which is the Theater of Marcellus. A bit to the right of that, sticking up above the rest, you can still see the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline hill.

With Constantine, Christianity now becomes a centerpiece of Roman life, and of the city’s architecture.  Major Christian sites are built: St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, etc.  These sites become pilgrimage centers, and economic centers.  They are scattered in far corners all around Rome, but all the sites have something in common: they are in corners.  The major Christian centers of Rome are all on its periphery, not in the center.  There are two reasons for this.

First, and simplest, the center of Rome was, by this time, already full.  Sometimes you could find an old villa that used to be a mint to build a small church on, but the center was full of mid-sized temples, which could be rededicated but not replaced, and huge imperial function spaces and government buildings, plus valuable real estate.  If you want to build a big new temple to a big new God, you need to do it in the not-yet-developed areas around the city’s edge.

You can rent a bike for a day and bike up the Appian Way to visit the tombs of the Roman necropolis.

You can rent a bike for a day and bike up the Appian Way to visit the tombs of the Roman necropolis.

Second, many of these sites were built on tombs, like St. Peter’s, built across the river in the cheap land no one wanted. Roman law banned burying the dead within the city limits, because disturbing a tomb could bring the wrath of the dead upon the city, but if you build immovable tombs in the middle of your city it makes city redevelopment impossible, so they have to be outside.  This is the origin of the necropolis or “city of the dead”, the cluster of tombs right outside the gates of a Roman city, where the residents bury their dead.  Some major Roman Roads, like the Via Appia, are still lined with rows of tombs stretching along the street for miles out from where the city limits used to be defined.  Thus early Christian martyrs were buried outside the city, and their cult sites developed at the edges of the city.  The land which became the Vatican, for example, was across the river, full of wild beasts and scary Etruscan tribesmen in archaic Rome, then was used for a necropolis in Imperial Rome, had enough empty cheap land to build a big circus (where much of the throwing of Christians to the lions happened, since only in such cheap real estate could you build a stadium big enough to hold the huge audiences who wanted to come see lions eat Christians), and finally Constantine demolished the circus and necropolis to build St. Peter’s to honor St. Peter who had been martyred in that circus and buried in the necropolis in secret 300 years before (when San Clemente was still a Mint).  St. Peter’s, and the other Christian sites, bring new importance to Rome’s outskirts.  We now have a bull’s-eye-shaped city, in which imperial government Rome is the center, and Christian Rome is a ring around the outside, with rings of thriving, happy commercial and residential districts in between.

ancient-rome-map3

Visigothic damage to the columns of the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, now the Church of San Lorenzo.

Visigothic damage to the columns of the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, now the Church of San Lorenzo.

410 and 455 AD: outsiders arrive and plunder the city.  Many thousands are killed, and the beautiful center of Rome is ransacked, temples toppled, looted, burned.  In the Forum, the raiders throw chains around the columns of one of my favorite layered Roman buildings, the temple of Antoninus and Faustina.  The Visigoths try to pull the columns down with their chains, and fail, but slice gouges deep into the stone which you can still see today.  To re-check time, the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina was built in 141 AD, when San Clemente was a villa with an active Mithraeum in it.  When it received these scars in the Visigothic raid, the Mithraeum had been buried, and the church built on top was just starting to be decorated.  And underneath the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina we have found archaic grave sites which were 1,000 years old when the temple was built 2,000 years ago–the people buried in those graves very likely drank water from the spring that still burbles up under San Clemente.  As for the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, a few centuries after its near-miss, the temple will be rededicated as the major Roman church of San Lorenzo, due to a legend that it was on these temple steps that Saint Lawrence was sentenced to be grilled alive.  And not far from it, the Lapis Niger was excavated which contains a language which has not yet become Latin, much as San Clemente’s frescoes preserve one which is becoming Italian. One language evolved into another, then into a third, but this spot was still being used, just like today.

November2011 672

When buildings get knocked down: reuse, recycle.

Rome was sacked, but afterwards Rome was still there.  The Goths didn’t just take everything and leave – the Ostragoths who followed the Visigoths decided to become the new Roman Emperors and rule Italy.  The surviving Roman patrician families started working for the new Gothic king, but still had a Senate, taxes, processions, traffic cops, and did all the early Medieval equivalents of keeping the trains running on time.  A century later, in the 540s, the Plague of Justinian hits and Rome loses another huge hunk of its population. But it still ticks on, and there is still a Senate, and a people of Rome.

So what was different?  From a city-planning sense, the key is that the population was much smaller.  In a sprawling metropolis designed to hold a million people, we now had maybe twenty thousand.   Thus, as always happens when a city’s population shrinks, real estate was abandoned.  But instead of abandoning the outskirts, people abandoned the middle.  Rome was important mostly as a Christian center now, with the pope, and pilgrims coming to major temples, so they occupied the edges, and that’s where the money was.  Rome becomes a hollow city, a doughnut, with an abandoned center surrounded by a populated ring.  We have reached Medieval Rome.  The city population lives mainly over by the Vatican, in the once empty district across the river, and a few other Christian sites around the edge.  The middle of the city has been abandoned so long that the Tiber has buried the ruins, and people graze sheep in what used to be the Forum.  The old buildings are now little more than quarries, big piles of stone and brick which we can steal from if, for example, we happen to need some nice columns to build a new church on top of this old church of San Clemente.

A Renaissance map of Rome, with the populatoin clustered by the Vatican.

A Renaissance map of Rome, with the population clustered by the Vatican.

DSCN9360Enter the Renaissance, Petrarch, and humanism.  Petrarch writes of the glory that was Rome, and convinces Italy that, if they can reconstruct that, they can be great again, just as when they conquered the Goths and Germans.  Popes and lords become hungry for the symbols of power which Rome once was.  Petrarch reads his Cicero and his Sallust, and visits the empty center of the city.  This is the Capitoline Hill, he says, where once stood the Temple of Jupiter, and where the Romans crowned their poets and triumphant generals.  Wanting to be great again, the popes volunteer to rebuild the Capitoline, as do the wealthy Roman families, who sincerely believe they are descended from the same Roman Senators who kept the bread and circuses running on time through Visigoths and more.  Michelangelo and Raphael crack their knuckles.  New palaces are built on the Capitoline Hill, neoclassical inventions based on what artists thought ancient authors like Vitruvius were talking about.  In time the population grows, and Rome’s wealth increases thanks to the Church and to the PR campaign of Petrarch and his followers. The empty parts of the inner city are re-colonized, by Cardinals building grand palaces, and poorer people building what they can to live near the Cardinals who give them employment.  But it is all built out of the convenient stone that’s lying around, and on top of convenient foundations that used to be the buildings of Constantinian Rome when she boasted 1,000,000 souls.

Still... so... many... stairs!

Still… so… many… stairs!

Rome grows and refills and grows and refills from the outside in, with the Capitoline as a new center artificially reconstructed by Renaissance ambition.  As the 18th and 19th centuries arrive, the city is full again, but the middle ring, between outside and center, is all the newest stuff, to the historian and tourist the least interesting.  This is why everything that tourists come to see in Rome is a long bus ride from everything else, and why you have to go up and down a million exhausting hills to get anywhere.  Rome has a belt of cultural no-man’s-land in and around it, separating the center from the Christian outskirts, and making it forever inconvenient.

In the 18th and 19th centuries we also start to have archaeology, and dig up the Forum, and begin to protect and reconstruct the ancient monuments, and recognize that this largely abandoned patch of valley behind the Capitoline Hill is, arguably, the most important couple blocks of real estate that has ever existed in the history of the world.  We paint Romantic paintings of it, and sketch what it must have looked like once, and it becomes part of the coming-of-age of every elite young European to make the pilgrimage to it (that Freud so fears!) and see the relics of what once was Rome.  Everywhere else the classical layer is under a pile of palaces and churches and pizzerias, but here in the precious Forum valley, between those hills that sheltered the first Romans, we have lifted the upper layers and exposed Rome’s ancient heart.

HELLO!  I AM MUSSOLINI!  I AM THE NEW ROME!  MY EMPIRE WILL LAST 1000 YEARS!  MY STUFF IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN THIS ANCIENT STUFF!  WHEN I AM DONE, NO ONE WILL CARE ABOUT CLASSICAL RELICS ANYMORE!  I AM GOING TO KNOCK DOWN ALL THE ANCIENT STUFF AND BUILD MY STUFF ON TOP!

A00175567Specifically Mussolini built a road straight through the middle of the Forum.  Fascism was a strange moment in human history, and Rome’s, and left a lot of scars.  One of them is the Via dei Fori Imperiali, a grand boulevard running along the Forum and around the Capitoline, which Mussolini built so he could have processions, and to declare to the world how sure he was that no one would care about the Roman relics he was paving over.  They would not care about the Temple of Jupiter, or the Renaissance palace on top of it, but about the new monuments he carved into the city’s heart. Those, and he, would be remembered, Caesar and Augustus forgotten.

To quote my favorite column by the old Anime Answerman: “Dear kid, please tell your friend that no one has ever been more wrong in the entire history of time.”

The road he built through the forum, and the enormous white "wedding cake" monument he smacked onto the side of the poor innocent Capitoline hill.  The Temple of Jupiter would be just off-camera to the right, behind the huge white thing.

The Fascist road  through the Forum, and the enormous white “wedding cake” monument on the side of the  Capitoline hill.  It was a monument built for the Unification of Italy, later redecorated with a thick icing of fascist decor.  The Temple of Jupiter would be just off-camera to the right.

Mussolini's huge thing, built onto the front of the Capitoline.  Modern consensus: Do not want!

Unification monument, built into the Capitoline.

Mussolini, like the Visigoths, came but did not entirely go.  One of his remnants is a system of large boulevards scarred into the face of the city, intended for his grand Fascist processions.  Many of these are now difficult to eliminate, since car traffic in Rome is already a special kind of hell (fitting as a subsection of Circle 7 Part 2, I’d say, violence against ourselves and our creations, though it could be 4, hoarding/wasting, or yet another pouch of 8). The worst offender, though, is this road which is currently still covering up about a quarter of the ancient Forum, and also separates a quarter of the remaining Forum from the other half.  It is this road that the new Mayor proposes to eliminate.  The extra Fascist decoration which Mussolini added to the “wedding cake” will stay, the right call in my opinion, since Fascism is now one of Rome’s layers, just as much as the Visigothic scars on the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina.  But lifting the road away will give us the true breadth of the Forum back in a way no pocket diagram can replicate.  The transition will be painful for the FIATs and Vespas that now swarm where long ago the early Romans fought Etruscans and wild boar, but it is also an important validation of the Forum’s status as Rome’s most special spot. Everywhere else is layers.  Everywhere else, when there’s Baroque on top of Renaissance on top of medieval, we leave it there.  The altar stays behind the washing machine, and the need to open yet another catacomb is smaller than the need to have a working pizzeria.  But in the Forum the layers have been lifted away.  This one heart of one moment in Rome’s history, or at least one patch of about seven active centuries, we expose and preserve in honor of the importance that little spot has had as the definition of power, empire, war, and peace for Europe for 2,000 years.  Thus, I hope you will all join me saying thank you to Mayor Marino.

Rome's marathon.  No city planner would put these things in this arrangement, ever!  But history did.

Rome’s marathon. No city planner would put these things in this arrangement, ever! But history did.

The Forum is our relic of Rome’s antiquity, but it is not, for one who knows the city, the true proof that this is a great ancient capital.  That would be clear even if not an inch of Roman marble remained in situ.  The proof of Rome’s antiquity is its layout, the organic development of a wildly inconvenient but rich city plan, with those impassable hills at the center, the Tiber dividing the main city from the across-the-river part which is still the “new” part and still politically distinct, with its own soccer team, even after thousands of years.  Antiquity is the nonsensical distribution of city mini-centers, the secondary hubs around the Vatican and St. John Lateran, the crowded shops clinging to the cliff-like faces of the hills, the Spanish Steps which are there because you have to go up that ridiculous hill and it’s really tall.  Antiquity is not the Colosseum, it’s the fact that the Colosseum is smack inconveniently in the middle of a terrible traffic circle, definitely not where anyone would put a Colosseum on purpose if the modern city planners had a choice.  Antiquity is structure, the presence of layers, unlike young, planned cities where everything is still in a place that makes sense because that city has only had one or two purposes throughout its history.  Rome has had many purposes: shelter, commerce, conquest, post-conquest/plague refugee camp, religious capital, center of cultural rebirth, new capital, finally tourist pilgrimage site.  All those Romes are in a pile, and the chaos that pile creates is the authentic ancient city.  Rome is that cafe bathroom with a curved wall that proves it is where Caesar was assassinated.  In another thousand years I don’t know what will be there, a space-ship docking station or a food cube kiosk, but whatever it is I know it will still have that curved back wall.

If you enjoyed this, see also my historical introduction to Florence.

FOOTNOTE:  For those who care, the context of that Anime Answerman quotation:

Kid writing in: “Dear Anime Answerman, my friend tells me that Inuyasha is a more violent show than Elfen Leid, and I don’t believe them, but I can’t tell them they’re wrong because my Mom won’t let me watch Elfen Leid.”

Answerman: “Dear kid, please tell your friend that no one has ever been more wrong in the entire history of time.”

Jul 262013
 
BorgiaFrenchTVPoster

A French “Spot the Saint” themed poster for “Borgia: Faith and Fear” assigning Cesare the attributes: archbishop’s robes, scythe, dagger, bloody hands, blood.  The French caption reads “Don’t have faith in them.” I can’t argue.

There was a Borgia boom in 2011 when, aiming to capitalize on the commercial success of The Tudors, the television world realized there was one obvious way to up the ante.  Not one but two completely unrelated Borgia TV series were made in 2011.  Many have run across the American Showtime series The Borgias, but fewer people know about Borgia, also called Borgia: Faith and Fear, a French-German-Czech production released (in English) in the Anglophone world via Netflix.  I am watching both and enjoying both. This unique phenomenon, two TV series made in the same year, modeled on the same earlier series and treating the same historical characters and events, is an amazing chance to look at different ways history can be used in fiction.

I am not evaluating these shows for their historical accuracy.  I have been fortunate in that becoming an historian hasn’t stopped me from enjoying historical television.  It’s a professional risk, and I know plenty of people whose ability to enjoy a scene is completely shattered if Emperor Augustus is eating a New World species of melon, or Anne Boleyn walks on screen wearing the wrong shade of green.  I sympathize with the inability to ignore niggling errors, and I know any expert suffers from it, whether a physicist watching attempting-to-be-hard SF, or a doctor watching a medical show, or any sane person watching the Timeline movie.  But over the years as my historical knowledge has increased so has my recognition of just how hard it is to make a historically accurate show, and how often historical accuracy comes into conflict with entertainment.  More on that later...

As for the Borgias and the other Borgias:

The Borgias (Showtime)                                   Borgia: Faith and Fear (International & Netflix)

  • Bigger budget  (gorgeous!)                                     Smaller budget
  • Shorter series/seasons                                            Longer seasons, enabling slower pacing, more detail
  • Bigger name actors                                                  Extremely international cast (accents sometimes strong)
  • More glossing over details                                       More historical details (can be more confusing as a result)
  • Makes Cesare older than Giovanni/Juan                Makes Giovanni/Juan older than Cesare (<= historians debate)
  • Focus on Cesare as mature and grim                     Focus on Cesare as young and seeking his path
  • Lots of typical TV sex and violence                         More period-feeling sex and violence
  • Generally less historicity                                         Generally more historicity

What do I mean by “more historicity”?  While I enjoy both shows–both will pass the basic TV test of making you enjoy yourself for the 50 minutes you spend in a chair watching them–the international series consistently succeeded in making the people and their behavior feel more period.  Here are two sample scenes that demonstrate what I mean:

71jtW-4usiL._SL1120_Borgia: Faith and Fear, episode 1.  One of the heads of the Orsini family bursts into his bedroom and catches Juan (Giovanni) Borgia in flagrante with his wife. Juan grabs his pants and flees out the window as quickly as he can.  Now here is Orsini alone with his wife.  [The audience knows what to expect.  He will shout, she will try to explain, he will hit her, there will be tears and begging, and, depending on how bad a character the writers are setting up, he might beat her really badly and we’ll see her in the rest of this episode all puffy and bruised, or if they want him to be really bad he’ll slam her against something hard enough to break her neck, and he’ll stare at her corpse with that brutish ambiguity where we’re not sure if he regrets it.]  Orsini grabs the iron fire poker and hits his wife over the head, full force, wham, wham, dead.  He drops the fire poker on her corpse and walks briskly out of the room, leaving it for the servants to clean up.   Yes.  That is the right thing, because this is the Renaissance, and these people are terrible.  When word gets out there is concern over a possible feud, but no one ever comments that Orsini killing his wife was anything but the appropriate course.  That is historicity, and the modern audience is left in genuine shock.

The-Borgias-Season-1-POSTER-Promo3The Borgias, episode 1.  We are facing the papal election of 1492.  Another Cardinal confronts Rodrigo Borgia in a hallway.  It has just come out that Borgia has been committing simony, i.e. taking bribes.  Our modern audience is shocked!  Shocked, I say!  That a candidate for the papacy would be corrupt and take bribes!  Our daring Cardinal confronts Borgia, saying he too is shocked!  Shocked!  This is no longer a matter of politics but principle!  He will oppose Borgia with all his power, because Borgia is a bad person and should not sit on the Throne of St. Peter!  See, audience!  Now is the time to be shocked!  No.  This is not the Renaissance, this is modern sensibilities about what we think should’ve been shocking in the Renaissance.  After the election this same Cardinal will be equally shocked that the Holy Father has a mistress, and bastards.  Ooooh.  Because that would be shocking in 2001, but in 1492 this had been true of every pope for the past century.  In fact, Cardinal Shocked-all-the-time, according to the writers you are supposed to be none other than Giuliano della Rovere.  Giuliano “Battle-Pope” della Rovere!  You have a mistress!  And a daughter!  And a brothel!  And an elephant!  And take your elephant to your brothel!  And you’re stalking Michelangelo!  And foreign powers lent you 300,000 ducats to spend bribing other people to vote for you in this election!  And we’re supposed to believe you are shocked by simony?  That is not historicity.  It is applying some historical names to some made-up dudes and having them lecture us on why be should be shocked.

Be shocked!  Shocked I say!  See!  It's so shocking there's fire!

Be shocked! It’s so shocking there’s fire!

These are just two examples, but typify the two series.  The Borgias toned it down: consistently throughout the series, everyone is simply less violent and corrupt than they actually historically, documentably were.  Why would sex-&-violence Showtime tone things down?  I think because they were afraid of alienating their audience with the sheer implausibility of what the Renaissance was actually like.  Rome in 1492 was so corrupt, and so violent, that I think they don’t believe the audience will believe them if they go full-on.  Almost all the Cardinals are taking bribes?  Lots, possibly the majority of influential clerics in Rome overtly live with mistresses?  Every single one of these people has committed homicide, or had goons do it?  Wait, they all have goons?  Even the monks have goons?  It feels exaggerated. Showtime toned it down to a level that matches what the typical modern imagination might expect.

My hopes for "Faith and Fear" were raised when I noticed that the brilliant and fascinating Julia Farnese featured more prominently in their PR photos than the much-more-famous (and blonde) Lucrezia.

My hopes for “Faith and Fear” were raised when I noticed that the brilliant and fascinating Julia Farnese featured more prominently in their PR photos than the much-more-famous (and blonde) Lucrezia. Making her an intelligent, valued partner to Rodrigo’s labors instead of a scheming sex kitten makes the whole thing richer.  In their version she exerts real power, in a “separate spheres” way.

Borgia: Faith and Fear did not tone it down.  A bar brawl doesn’t go from insult to heated words to slamming chairs to eventually drawing steel, it goes straight from insult to hacking off a body part.  Rodrigo and Cesare don’t feel guilty about killing people, they feel guilty the first time they kill someone dishonorably.  Rodrigo is not being seduced by Julia Farnese and trying to hide his shocking affair; Rodrigo and Julia live in the papal palace like a married couple, and she’s the head of his household and the partner of his political labors, and if the audience is squigged out that she’s 18 and he’s 61 then that’s a fact, not something to try to SHOCK the audience with because it’s so SHOCKING shock shock.  Even in other details, Showtime kept letting modern sensibilities leak in.  Showtime’s 14-year-old Lucrezia is shocked (as a modern girl would be) that her father wants her to have an arranged marriage, while B:F&F‘s 14-year-old Lucrezia is constantly demanding marriage and convinced she’s going to be an old maid if she doesn’t marry soon, but is simultaneously obviously totally not ready for adult decisions and utterly ignorant of what marriage will really mean for her. It communicates what was terrible about the Renaissance but doesn’t have anyone on-camera objecting to it, whereas Showtime seemed to feel that the modern audience needed someone to relate to who agreed with us.  And, for a broad part of the modern TV-watching audience, they may well be correct.  I wouldn’t be surprised if many viewers find The Borgias a lot more approachable and comfortable than its more period-feeling rival.

Young Giovanni di Lorenzo de Medici, exiled from Florence after Piero's cowardace, now effectively head of the family, with infinite money and desperate need of poitical allies.  Even Borgias.

Young Giovanni di Lorenzo de Medici, exiled from Florence after Piero’s cowardice, now effectively head of the family, with infinite money and desperate need of political allies. Even Borgias.

Borgia: Faith and Fear also didn’t tone down the complexity, or rather toned it down much less than The Borgias.  This means that it is much harder to follow.  There are many more characters, more members of every family, the complex family structures are there, the side-switching.  I had to pause two or three times an episode to explain to those watching with me who Giodobaldo da Montefeltro was, or whatever.  There’s so much going on that the Previously On recap gives up and just says: “The College of Cardinals is controlled by the sons of Rome’s powerful Italian families.  They all hate each other.  The most feared is the Borgias.”  They wisely realized you couldn’t possibly follow everything that’s going on in Florence as well as Rome, so they just periodically have someone receive a letter summarizing wacky Florentine hijinx, as we watch adorable little Giovanni “Leo” de Medici (played by the actor who is Samwell Tarly in Game of Thrones) get more and more overwhelmed and tired.  Showtime’s series oversimplifies more, but that is both good and bad, in its way.  The audience needs to follow the politics, after all, and we can only take so much summary.  The Tudors got away with a lot by having lectures on what it means to be Holy Roman Emperor delivered by shirtless John Rhys Meyers as he stalked back and forth screaming in front of beautiful upholstery, and he’s a good enough actor that he could scream recipes for shepherd’s pie and we’d still sit through about a minute of it.  The Borgia shows have even more complicated politics for us to choke down.

Now, historians aren’t certain of Cesare’s birth date.  He may be the eldest of his full siblings, or second.

tumblr_linfk0hHYg1qzg8hbo1_r1_500

Showtime’s “elder brother” Cesare taking care of Lucrezia.

The difference between Cesare as elder brother and Cesare as younger brother in the shows is fascinating.  Showtime’s Big Brother Cesare is grim, disillusioned, making hard decisions to further the family’s interests even if the rest of the family isn’t yet ready to embrace such means.  B:F&F‘s Little Brother Cesare is starved for affection, uncertain about his path, torn about his religion, and slowly growing up in a baby-snake-that-hasn’t-yet-found-its-venom kind of way.

Faith and Fear's "little brother" Cesare receives encouragement from Mom.

BF&F’s “younger” Cesare receives encouragement from Mom.

Both are fascinating, utterly unrelated characters, and all the subsequent character dynamics are completely different too.  Giovanni/Juan is utterly different in each, since Big Brother Cesare requires a playful and endearing younger brother, whose death is already being foreshadowed in episode 1 with lines like “It’s the elder brother’s duty to protect the younger,” while Little Brother Cesare requires a conceited, bullying Giovanni/Juan undeserving of the affection which Rodrigo ought to be giving to smarter, better Cesare.  Elder Brother Cesare also requires different close friends, giving him natural close relationships with figures like the Borgias’ famous family assassin Michelotto Corella, who can empathize with him about using dark means in a world that isn’t quite OK with it.

There are other age-heirarchy-related differences as well.

From BF&F: Right to left, Alessandro Farnese sitting with Cesare, Lucrezia and Giovanni/Juan.  Not a safe seat.

From BF&F: Right to left, Alessandro Farnese with Cesare, Lucrezia and Giovanni/Juan. Not a safe seat.

Younger Brother Cesare gets chummy classmate buddies Alessandro Farnese and Giovanni “Leo” de Medici, who must balance their own precarious political careers with the terrifying privilege of being the best friends of young Cesare as he grows into his powers and toward the season 1 finale “The Serpent Rises.”  All this makes the two series taken together a fascinating example of how squeezing historical events into the requirements of narrative tropes makes one simple change–older brother trope vs. younger brother trope–lead logically to two completely different stories.  I think both versions are very powerful, and the person they made out of the historical Cesare is different and original in each, and worth exploring.

Brotherly resentment brewing in the Showtime version.

Brotherly resentment brewing in the Showtime version.

The great writing test is how to do Giovanni/Juan’s murder.  Since some people do and some don’t know their gory Borgia history, part of the audience knows it’s coming, and part doesn’t.  Historians still aren’t sure who did it, whether it was Cesare or someone else, and what the motive was.  Thus the writers get to decide how heavily to foreshadow the death, how to do the reveal, what character(s) to make the perpetrator(s), and what motives to stress.  I will not spoil what either series chose, but I will say that it is very challenging writing a murder when you know some audience members have radically different knowledge from others, and that I think Borgia: Faith and Fear used that fact brilliantly, and tapped the tropes of murder mystery very cleverly, when scripting the critical episode.  The Borgias was less creative in its presentation.

But what about historical accuracy?

I said before that I am not evaluating these shows for their historical accuracy.  Shows ignoring history or changing it around does bother me sometimes, especially if a show is very good and ought to know better.  The superb HBO series Rome, which does an absolutely unparalleled job presenting Roman social class, slavery, and religion, nonetheless left me baffled as to why a studio making a series about the Julio-Claudians would feel driven to ignore the famous historical allegations of orgies and bizarre sex preserved in classical sources and substitute different orgies and bizarre sex.  The original orgies and bizarre sex were perfectly sufficient!  But in general I tend to be extremely patient with historically inacurate elements within my history shows, moreso than many non-historians I know, who are bothered by our acute modern anachronism-radar (on the history of the senes of anachronism and its absence in pre-modern psychology, see Michael Wood: Forgery, Replica, Fiction).  For me, though, I have learned to relax and let it go.

I remember the turning point moment.  I was watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with my roommates, and it went into a backstory flashback set in high medieval Germany.  “Why are you sighing?” one asked, noticing that I’d laid back and deflated rather gloomily.  I answered: “She’s not of sufficiently high social status to have domesticated rabbits in Northern Europe in that century.  But I guess it’s not fair to press a point since the research on that hasn’t been published yet.”  It made me laugh, also made me think about how much I don’t know, since I hadn’t known that a week before.  For all the visible mistakes in these shows, there are even more invisible mistakes that I make myself because of infinite details historians haven’t figured out yet, and possibly never will.  There are thousands of artifacts in museums whose purposes we don’t know.  There are bits of period clothing whose functions are utter mysteries.  There are entire professions that used to exist that we now barely understand.  No history is accurate, not even the very best we have.

testtest

See this real Renaissance portrait of a wealthy lady?  She has a bunny, and it’s a class marker, showing she’s wealthy enough to have domesticated rabits.  And this is in the south, centuries later.

Envision a scene in which two Renaissance men are hanging out in a bar in Bologna with a prostitute.  Watching this scene, I, with my professional knowledge of the place and period, notice that there are implausibly too many candles burning, way more than this pub could afford, plus what they paid for that meal is about what the landlord probably earns in a month, and the prostitute isn’t wearing the mandatory blue veil required for prostitutes by Bologna’s sumptuary laws.  But if I showed it to twenty other historians they would notice other things: that style of candlestick wasn’t possible with Italian metalwork of the day, that fabric pattern was Flemish, that window wouldn’t have had curtains, that dish they’re eating is a period dish but from Genoa, not Bologna, and no Genoese cook would be in Bologna because feud bla bla bla.  So much we know.  But a person from the period would notice a thousand other things: that nobody made candles in that exact diameter, or they butchered animals differently so that cut of steak is the wrong shape, or no bar of the era would have been without the indispensable who-knows-what: a hat-cleaning lady, a box of kittens, a special shape of bread.  All historical scenes are wrong, as wrong as a scene set now would be which had a classy couple go to a formal steakhouse with paper menus and an all-you-can-eat steak buffet.  All the details are right, but the mix is wrong.

In a real historical piece, if they tried to make everything slavishly right any show would be unwatchable, because there would be too much that the audience couldn’t understand.  The audience would be constantly distracted by details like un-filmably dark building interiors, ugly missing teeth, infants being given broken-winged songbirds as disposable toys to play with, crush, and throw away, and Marie Antoinette relieving herself on the floor at Versailles.  Despite its hundreds of bathrooms, one of Versailles’ marks of luxury was that the staff removed human feces from the hallways regularly, sometimes as often as twice a day, and always more than once a week.  We cannot make an accurate movie of this – it will please no one.  The makers of the TV series  Mad Men recognized how much an accurate depiction of the past freaks viewers out – the sexual politics, the lack of seat belts and eco-consciousness, the way grown-ups treat kids.  They focused just enough on this discomfort to make it the heart of a powerful and successful show, but there even an accurate depiction of attitudes from a few decades ago makes all the characters feel like scary aliens.  Go back further and you will have complete incomprehensibility.

he Showtime version of Lucrezia Borgia, her childlike innocence successfully communicated by this lovely pink gown, which she never would have worn because weak dyes are for the poor.  Communication can be more important than accuracy

The Showtime version of Lucrezia Borgia, her childlike innocence successfully communicated by this lovely pink gown, which she never would have worn because weak dyes are for the poor. Communication can be more important than accuracy.

Even costuming accuracy can be a communications problem, since modern viewers have certain associations that are hard to unlearn.  Want to costume a princess to feel sweet and feminine?  The modern eye demands pink or light blue, though the historian knows pale colors coded poverty.  Want to costume a woman to communicate the fact that she’s a sexy seductress?  The audience needs the bodice and sleeves to expose the bits of her modern audiences associate with sexy, regardless of which bits would plausibly have been exposed at the time.  I recently had to costume some Vikings, and was lent a pair of extremely nice period Viking pants which had bold white and orange stripes about two inches wide.  I know enough to realize how perfect they were, and that both the expense of the dye and the purity of the white would mark them as the pants of an important man, but that if someone walked on stage in them the whole audience would think: “Why is that Viking wearing clown pants?”  Which do you want, to communicate with the audience, or to be accurate?  I choose A.

Thus, rather than by accuracy, I judge this type of show by how successfully the creators of an historical piece have chosen wisely from what history offered them in order to make a good story.  The product needs to communicate to the audience, use the material in a lively way, change what has to be changed, and keep what’s awesome.  If some events are changed or simplified to help the audience follow it, that’s the right choice.  If some characters are twisted a bit, made into heroes or villains to make the melodrama work, that too can be the right choice.  If you want to make King Arthur a woman, or have Mary Shelley sleep with time-traveling John Hurt, even that can work if it serves a good story.  Or it can fail spectacularly, but in order to see what people are trying to do I will give the show the benefit of the doubt, and be patient even if poor Merlin is in the stocks being pelted with tomatoes.  (By the way, if you’re trying to watchthe BBC’s Merlin and decide it’s not set in the past but on a terraformed asteroid populated by vat-cultured artificial people who have been given a 20th century moral education and then a book on medieval society and told to follow its advice, everything suddenly makes perfect sense!)

Showtime's Borgias being Dramatic!  This Lucrezia dress is beyond what even I can really tolerate in terms of inacuracy, but it certainly gets across the sexy, and the incest vibe they're going for.

Showtime’s Borgias being Dramatic! This Lucrezia dress is beyond what even I can really tolerate in terms of inacuracy, but it certainly gets across the sexy, and the incest vibe they’re going for.  I also notice that her hair is a darker shade of blonde when they have her being ‘bad’. Before you complain, the historical Lucrezia did bleach it: lemon juice & lye.

I am not meaning to pick a fight here with people who care deeply about accuracy in historical fiction.  I respect that it bothers some people, and also that there is great merit in getting things right.  Research and thoroughness are admirable, and, just as it requires impressive virtuosity to cook a great meal within strict diet constraints, like gluten free or vegan, so it takes great virtuosity to tell a great story without cheating on the history.  I am simply saying that, while accuracy is a merit, it is not more important to me than other merits, especially entertainment value in something which is intended as entertainment.

This is also why I praise Borgia: Faith and Fear for what I call its “historicity” rather than its “accuracy”.  It takes its fair share of liberties, as well it should if it wants a modern person to sit through it.  But it also succeeds in making the characters feel un-modern in a way many period pieces don’t try to do.  It is a bit alienating but much more powerful.  It is more accurate, yes, but it isn’t the accuracy alone that makes it good, it’s the way that accuracy serves the narrative and makes it exceptional, as truffle raises a common cream sauce to perfection.  Richer characters, more powerful situations, newer, stranger ideas that challenge the viewers, these are the produce of B:F&F‘s historicity, and bring a lot more power to it than details like accurately-colored dresses or perfectly period utensils, which are admirable, but not enriching.

Final evaluation:

borgia-s1-brd-fr-2d

I like how the French packaging and “Do not have faith in them” subtitle highlight the Borgias’ wishful/self-deluding aspirations toward holiness, a major theme in in the series, which its American release motto “Before the Mafia, there was the Borgia” abandons.

In the end, both these shows are successfully entertaining, and were popular enough to get second and third seasons in which we can enjoy such treats as Machiavelli and Savonarola (Showtime’s planned 4th season has been cancelled, though there are motions to fight that).  Showtime’s series is more approachable and easier to understand, but Borgia: Faith and Fear much more interesting, in my opinion, and also more valuable.  The Borgias thrills and entertains, but Borgia: Faith and Fear also succeeds in showing the audience how terrible things were in the Renaissance, and how much progress we’ve made.  It de-romanticizes.  It feels period. It has guts.  It has things the audience is not comfortable with.  It has people being nasty to animals.  It has disfigurement.  It has male rape.  When it’s time for a public execution, the mandatory cheap thrill of this genre, it  goes straight for just about the nastiest Renaissance method I know of, sawing a man in half lengthwise starting at the crotch and moving along the spine. The scene leaves the audience less titillated than appalled, and glad that we don’t do that anymore.

Both series show off their renditions of Old St. Peter's and the pre-Michelangelo Sistine Chapel, but Showtime has a much shinier budget.  But ansewr me

Both series show off their renditions of Old St. Peter’s and the pre-Michelangelo Sistine Chapel, but Showtime has a much shinier budget.

Are they historically accurate?  Somewhat.  They’re both quite thorough in their research, but both change things.  The difference is what they change, and why.  If Borgia: Faith and Fear wants do goofy things with having the Laocoon sculpture be rediscovered early, I sympathize with the authors’ inability to resist the too-perfect metaphor of Rodrigo Borgia looking at this sculpture of a father and his two sons being dragged down by snakes.  It adds to the show, even if it’s a bit distracting.  But if The Borgias wants to make Giuliano della Rovere into a righteous defender of virtue, they throw away a great and original historical character in exchange for a generic one.  It makes the whole set of events more generic, and that is the kind of change I object to, not as an historian, but as someone who loves good fiction, and wants to see it be the best it can be.

(I do get one nitpick.  When Michelangelo had a cameo in The Borgias, why did he speak Italian when everyone else was speaking English?  What was that supposed to communicate?  Is everyone else supposed to be speaking Latin all the time?  Is the audience supposed to know he is Italian but not think about it with everyone else?  I am confused!)

If you have not already read it, see my Machiavelli Series for historical background on the Borgias.  For similar analysis of TV and history, I also highly recommend my essay on Tor.com about Shakespeare in the Age of Netflix (focusing on the BBC “The Hollow Crown” adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henriad).

May 182013
 
Who is the author of this blog?  It remains a mystery, so I can continue generalize without footnotes unhindered, wa ha ha.

Who is the author of this blog? I choose to remain shrouded in mystery, so I can continue to generalize without footnotes unhindered.  Wa ha ha!

Periodically readers ask me if there is a “tip jar” or other way to support Ex Urbe and say thank you for my work. Normally the answer is no, I do it out of pure enjoyment and the desire to share the places and periods I study.  But short-term there is a way.

I compose music (polyphonic a cappella and mythology-themed folk music), and have just launched a kickstarter to raise money for my next project. I have been working on this set of songs for ten years, and have given my mythological subject the same care I have given the Renaissance in my posts, so it has come together to be quite something (though I do say so myself). I can’t post a direct link here because I still want to preserve the public anonymity of this blog, but if any readers would like to support me, or check out the project, please e-mail me (JEDDMason at gmail dot com) and I will send you the link.  Thank you.

Meanwhile, for your enjoyment…

I want to introduce you to my favorite artifact at the “Museo Galileo,” the Florentine museum of the History of Science.  It is a unique artifact, a “Military Compass.”  Designed in the seventeenth century, it is the epitome of a gentleman’s weapon: a dagger which splits apart to become a geometric compass, so the educated wielder can use it to measure ground, calculate the sizes of fortresses, distances, and aim artillery:

CleanMilitaryCompass

A hinge in the hilt allows the blade to snap apart.  The two halves are marked as rulers, and a weight drops out of the handle into the center to form a central measure, making it possible to use it as a compass, a level and for many other types of calculations.  The pommel flips open to reveal a small magnetic compass, and pieces fold out from inside the hollow blade to provide additional tools for calculation.  But if it is folded up, it is as deadly as a dagger should be.   Such weapons were far from commonplace, more curiosities, status symbols and showpieces, but they were certainly designed to be usable.  We have records of them as early as the 16th century, when one was designed for a Medici commander.

Instructions for the use of such a weapon are preserved in an anonymous 16th century Italian manuscript, also on display:

MilitaryCompassManuscript

The museum also preserves other gentlemen’s instruments, such as walking sticks with concealed barometers, telescopes and other paraphernalia far more impressive than a cane-sword, but this one has always caught my imagination as something which encapsulates the ideal of the warrior-scholar-adventurer-noble which is so much at the heart of romantic notions of the “Renaissance man”, both our notions and the ideals they had in the period.  I want to read a book where the protagonist carries this.  I want to read ten books where the protagonist carries this. Also, as a reminder that the past never fails to sex-segregate no matter how unnecessary it is, they also have items intended for ladies of the period at the museum, including a “lady’s microscope” which is petite, delicate and carved out of ivory.

Mar 302013
 

I can’t come up with any really appropriate illustrations for this entry, so am including random pictures of cool objects from Florence, since Machiavelli likes Florence. This is the Chimera, the most impressive Etruscan bronze ever excavated in Tuscany, now in the Florentine Archaeological Museum.  (The Etruscans were contemporaries and rivals of the early Romans).

Was Machiavelli an atheist?  We don’t know and never will, but we can learn much about our society’s attitudes toward atheism by examining the persistence of the question, and the different reasons we have asked it over and over for centuries even though we know we have no proof.

(This is the last entry in my Machaivelli series.  See also Machiavelli Part IPart I.5Part IIPart III and Part IV)

No historical discipline can be honestly called “neutral”, but the study of atheism (and of its cousins skepticism, deism, and more general freethought, heterodoxy and radical religion) has always been particularly charged because it is so impossible to be detached from the central question.  Setting aside the elaborate and bloody history of religious violence, oppression and entanglement in politics, whether you answer “No,” “Yes,” “Maybe,” or “Sort-of,” the question of whether or not there is a divine force and/or being(s) ordering or governing the cosmos, your answer has an enormous impact on your everyday actions, decision-making, ethics, attitudes toward law and government, and every other corner of the human condition.  Even if religion and government had never mixed in the history of the Earth, if tomorrow you encountered irrefutable proof that the answer to the question was the opposite of what you had hitherto believed, your life and actions thenceforth would be radically different.  The stakes are high, and personal.  This makes it hard for historians to be calm about it.

Historians did not try to be calm about it in the early, juicy days when atheism was first presented as having a history.  In the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, pamphlets and books discussing famous atheists were a thriller genre, scandalous tales of tyrants and madmen which occupied largely the same niche as biographies of serial killers, or penny museums displaying the death masks of executed murderers.  Treatises on “Infamous Atheists” served a slightly more learned audience than wax heads and the numerous early versions of the Sweeny Todd legend, but only slightly, and as they proliferated in printing shops tales of the scandalous excesses of Tiberius and Caligula under the label “atheist” were part morality play, part voyeurism, and part slander as each particular collection targeted its audience’s enemies.  French collections accused Italians and Englishmen of atheism while Italian collections accused Frenchmen; Catholic collections accused Martin Luther and John Calvin of atheism, while Protestant collections accused popes and papists, and almost all European collections accused Muslims and Jews of atheism in a spirit of general racism and lack of accountability and lexical clarity.

An awesome Baroque tomb, in the Santa Croce cloister.

You may note that neither Martin Luther nor Caligula is on record as ever having philosophically attacked the existence of God, but the logic chain of these collections is, from our perspective, backwards: (1) Fear of Hell drives men to good behavior.  (2) These men were bad.  (3) These men did not fear Hell.  (4) These men were atheists.  In the Renaissance, sinful living in overt defiance of divine law was considered evidence of atheism, to the degree that we have records of many atheism trials from the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries in which the evidence brought by the prosecution involves no statement of unbelief on the part of the accused.  Rather the evidence will be sinful living, promiscuity, homosexuality, gluttony, irreverence of civic and religious authority, anything from a monk taking in a mistress to a drunkard running around in public with no pants on (See Nicholas Davidson, “Atheism in Italy 1500-1700,” in Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment, ed. Michael Hunter & David Wootton (Oxford, 1992), 55-86, esp. 56-7).

Serious attempts to write a history of atheism began in the later nineteenth century, when secularization had progressed enough that an atheist was no longer a thrilling exotic creature, but was instead a black sheep in a land with many, many sheep of which some were even more alarming colors than black.  It was also at this point that histories of atheism bifurcated.  Some presented pessimistic accounts (by theist authors) of the modern decay of morals as atheism proliferated, while others presented optimistic accounts (by guess who) of the progress of secularization.  Even in their more objective accounts, when dealing with earlier periods when atheism was rare and its traces elusive, these historians were, or rather we historians are, still prone to hyperenthusiasm when we think we have found what we are looking for, as whale watchers may mistake any dark shape for a humped back.

Everyone (whether theist or atheist) who studies pre-modern atheism is excited when we find evidence of it.  This is because secularization, this brave new world in which atheism is both commonplace and legal, is an essential characteristic of the modern Western world, one of its unique features, differentiating us, here, now, from all earlier times and all other places.  When I say the modern world is secularized I do not mean that atheism is a majority or even a plurality—it remains a small minority.  What I mean is that atheism is universally present in Western discourse as a coequal interlocutor in theological debate, and all contemporary Western theists have lived their whole lives in contact with atheism, debating with atheists or at least expecting they might have to do so, and generally knowing that atheism is a commonplace alternative to their own views.  This is radically different from the pre-modern situation, in which people saw atheists as elusive and invisible enemies (rather like vampires), and most books on the subject described atheism as a form of mental illness (often thought to be inborn), or as a moral perversion (compared in the period to homosexuality), while the genuine philosophical atheist was expected to be so extraordinarily rare that we might see only a couple in a century (such categories are employed by David Derodon in his treatise L’atheism Convaincu (1659), see Alan Kors, Atheism in France (1990), p. 28).

In Florence’s $1,000 Purse District, holiday decorations last year consisted of live olive trees inside huge gauze vases with floating neon halos above. Why not?

If the study of history is more than mere delight in exciting stories of past exploits, it is an attempt to understand our origins and ourselves.  When we comb the past and spot something characteristically modern—be it the scientific method, hygiene, feminism or atheism—we are excited because we have found an early trace of home.  Religious tolerance and the presence of atheism as a coequal participant in religious discourse in our own day is part of what makes us radically different from our predecessors.  The following claim may seem counter-intuitive, but if I were to send an average modern American theist back in time to the seventeenth century, I think that person would debate more comfortably with an early atheist than with a theist of the same era, because the atheist, while disagreeing with our time traveler, would be disagreeing with somewhat familiar vocabulary and justifications, while the seventeenth-century theist would be going on about Aristotle, and teleology, and angels pushing the Moon around, and other fruits of an alien religious conversation that has no experience of 90% of the theological issues which our modern time traveler is used to considering.  The seventeenth-century atheist probably knows what “natural selection” is (he read about it in Lucretius) but the corresponding theist probably hasn’t read such a rare and stigmatized text, so when our time traveler says “I want a proof of the existence of God that stands up against natural selection,” the atheist can have that conversation, while the theist is much less prepared.  For most Renaissance theists Thomas Aquinas’ Proof of the Existence of God from Design is unassailable; for us, it’s been assailed every minute of every day of our lives; for the early atheist, it has an assailant, and it’s a similar assailant to the one we moderns are used to, so we can talk about it with the atheist and feel more at home than if we tried to talk to a theist who had never experienced any such attack.  A pre-modern theist is, of course, well prepared for attacks from heresies we no longer worry much about: Arianism, Averroism, Antinomianism, but Darwin is a bolt from the blue.  Not so much so for the early atheist, who, whether right or wrong, is more prepared for modern conversations than the average theist of his day.  Thus, for atheists and believers alike, the history of atheism is the history of theology coming to be shaped more like what we’re used to in the modern era.  Hence why even a theist historian thinks it’s super special awesome when we spot a bona fide atheist before the Enlightenment.

The study of what was going on with atheism before the mid-seventeenth century is not, and cannot be, the study of actual atheists.  There are none for us to study.  There may have been some, there may not, but in a period when saying “I think there is no God” led pretty directly to arrest and execution, no one said it.  No one wrote it.  If anyone thought it, not even private letters can confirm.  Knowing that an atheist won’t fess up in documents, we historians naturally read between the lines, seeking hints of heterodoxy in the subtext of a treatise or the double meaning of a couplet.  This is the only place we can realistically expect to find evidence, but it is also prone to giving us false positives.  As Lucien Febvre put it in his enormously influential The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: the Religion of Rabelais, we moderns are bound to see that rare beast the atheist around every dark corner.  We see him because we want to.

Why have an enormous awesome globe when you can have an enormous awesome globe sitting on gold lions?

The first really real for sure definite actual atheists who, by golly, said they were atheists (OMG!) date to the mid-seventeenth century, the Libertine movement, when a push toward religious tolerance (largely in the name of stopping the Reformation wars of religion before they wiped out all homo sapiens on the European continent) meant that wealth and power were enough to armor figures like the Earl of Rochester and his circle (including the bone-chilling Charles Blount) sufficiently that they could be known to be atheists and survive so long as they denied it in public.  This trend strengthened in the Enlightenment.  I often compare late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century atheism to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century homosexuality: there were circles in which one could let it be an open secret that one was an [atheist/homosexual] and it would be okay so long as one didn’t ruffle too many feathers or say anything in public or in front of civic authorities.  One was always at risk of prosecution, and if one wanted to be safe and respected one kept it carefully hidden (as Diderot hid his atheist works), but there was enough sympathy within the apparatus of power that one could write of one’s [atheism/homosexuality] in private letters, and even hint at it in public works, and more often than not be safe.  The pre-seventeenth-century atheist enjoyed no such safety, so not even in Renaissance private correspondence (where talk of homosexuality is quite commonplace) do we see even the most timid hand raised when the historian calls back: “Is anybody there an atheist?  Anybody?  Machiavelli?”

Why is Machiavelli our favorite candidate?  Many reasons.  First, he is in other ways so very modern.  Having spotted someone who thinks about history as we do, and thinks about ethics as we do, and definitely, provably thinks in a very much more modern way than others of his century, he is a natural candidate for other modern twists including atheism.

Second, he was called an atheist by so many people for so long.  The mystique of vague, beard-stroking villainy invoked by the term “Machiavellian” (Note: Machiavelli did not have a beard) falls nicely into the pre-modern logic chain: (1) Fear of Hell drives men to good behavior.  (2) Machiavelli advocates sinful behavior including lies, betrayal, murder and reign by terror.  (3) Machiavelli does not fear Hell.  (4) Machiavelli was an atheist.

But there are more focused reasons than that.  If we return to Febvre’s warning that we are prone to spot atheists in every shadow, Febvre argues that, instead of seeking the rare beast of our desiring, we should instead confine ourselves to searching for a habitat capable of supporting him; only then can we safely say that we have found him, not his shadow.  By “habitat” Febvre means the apparatus of other ideas related to atheism which make atheism easier and more likely.

Imagine that you are a biologist studying a particular fungus.  This fungus is hard to find, but often grows around the roots of a particular tree species, with which it has an unexplained but well-documented symbiosis.  You thus survey mainly regions where this tree is common.  And if you hope to trace your fungus back to before material records survive, you might trace the history of that tree species, through fossils or early human artifacts made of its wood, and conclude that, while you can’t be sure the fungus was there too, the odds are certainly better than the odds of it having been in places where its tree friend was unknown.  You have not provably found your fungus, but what you have is certainly enough to talk about, and enough to get people excited if your fungus is a truffle and may yield millions in delicious profit if your information leads to improved cultivation.

Florence struggles to find a Christmas tree that can manage to look big against its architecture.

Now, for the truffle substitute the elusive pre-1650 atheist, and for the tree substitute the ancient Greek theory that matter is made of atoms.  The two are unrelated, and the atomic theory does not attack theism in any way, but it is certainly easier for atheism to flourish when “How was the world made if God didn’t do it?” can be answered with “Atoms interacting chaotically in the void clumped together to form substances… bla bla… planets… bla bla… natural selection… bla bla… people etc.” instead of “I don’t know.”

“I don’t know,” is the centerpiece here.  Medieval and Renaissance Europe had perfectly respectable answers to all scientific and sociological questions, they just all depended on God all the time.  Take gravity, for example.  Celestial bodies are moved by angels.  As for why some earthly objects fall and others rise, morally inferior objects fall down toward Satan and morally superior ones rise up toward God, sorting themselves out into natural layers like oil and water.  Stones sink in water because Water is superior to Earth, hot air rises because Fire is superior to Air, and virtuous men go to Heaven because good souls are light and wicked souls are heavy with sins which make them fall to the circle of Hell corresponding to the weight of their sins: nine circles separated out in layers, again like oil and water.  God established the first societies, handed down the first laws, created the first languages, and directed the rise and fall of empires to communicate His Will.  If one wanted to be an atheist in the Middle Ages one had to throw away 90% of all science and social theory, and when asked “Why do rocks sink?” or “How do planets move?” or “Where did the world come from?” one had to answer, “I have no idea.”  Turning one’s back on social answers in that way is very difficult, and is part of why the study of atheism is so closely tied to the study of philosophical skepticism—only very recently have atheists had the leisure of both denying God and still having a functional model of the universe.  Early atheists had to be, largely, skeptics.  They also had to embrace a not-particularly-functional partial worldview which made rest of the world (which had a much more complete one) think they were completely crazy.  I thus sometimes compare Medieval atheists with modern creationists, since both are individuals willing to say, “I believe this one thing so fiercely that I will throw away all the other things to keep it, even if it makes everyone think I’m nuts.”  Doing this is very hard.  Doing it when other ideas are around to satisfy the gaps left by removing God from science becomes much easier.

One of my favorite Florentine doors, featuring a saint crushing a devil (top left), a saint on fire (top right) and Medici balls (below).

How then do we seek the habitat capable of supporting the invisible pre-1650 atheist?  We look for radical scientific theories: atomism, vacuum, heliocentrism, anything which makes Nature more self-sufficient and less dependent on divine participation.  We look for related theological challenges: attacks on the immortality of the soul, on miraculous intervention, on Providence, on angelology, anything which diminishes how often God is part of the answer to some basic question.  We look for who is reading ancient texts which offer alternate explanations to Christian theological ones: Epicurus, Lucretius, Plato, Pythagorean cult writings, Cicero’s skeptical dialogs, Seneca.  Who is reading all this?  Machiavelli.

In the pre-modern world, a firestorm of accusations of atheism and wickedness awaited anyone who raised a powerful and persuasive alternate answer to some question whose traditional answer depended on God.  This firestorm fell even if the author in question never made any atheist arguments, which, generally, they didn’t.  It happened often, and fiercely.

Thomas Hobbes awoke one such firestorm when his Leviathan suggested that savage man, living in a state of terror and war in his caves and trees, might through reason and self-interest alone come together and develop society and government.  Until that time, Europe had no explanation for how government came to be other than that God instituted it; no explanation for kings other than that God raised them to glory; no explanation for what glue should hold men together, loyal to the law, other than fear of divine punishment.  Hobbes’ alternative does not say “There is no God,” but it says, “Government and society arose without God’s participation,” a political theory which an atheist and a theist might equally use.  It gives the atheist an answer, and thereby so terrified England that she passed law after law against “atheism” specifically and personally targeting Hobbes and banning him from publishing in genre after genre, until he spent his final years producing bad translations of Homer and filling them with not-so-subtle Hobbesian political notions one can spot between the lines.

Dante knows where the author of “The Prince,” goes – straight to circle 8 section 10, for those who advise others to do sinful things. Machiavelli knew his Dante well, so one must wonder if he found it comforting to be so sure that, “Well, if there is a Hell, there’s me.”

Machiavelli awoke such a firestorm by creating an ethics which works without God.  Utilitarianism depends entirely on evaluating the earthly consequences of an act, and can be used as a functional system for decision-making whether or not there exists any external divine force or absolute code of Truth.  He also painted a world of politics in which he recommends actions which are the same that one might take if there is no God watching.  In order for people to be virtuous they must first be alive—doesn’t that sound like the sentiment of someone who isn’t thinking about Heaven?  It is justified and necessary to kill and lie in order to protect the stability of the state and the lives of the people—doesn’t that sound like there isn’t a separate Judgment waiting?  The man who will do so much—even serve the Medici who tortured him—in order to guard and protect Earthly Florence seems to have an Earthly mistress, and not to be thinking of a Higher One.  He certainly talks like an atheist, and he certainly created the first system of politics and ethics which an atheist could coherently employ.

In addition to all this, there is what we can glean about religious attitudes from Machiavelli’s personal sentiments and behavior.  We know that he was a military commander, and fought, and killed people.  We know that he was what I think of as “averagely promiscuous” for a Renaissance man based on my experience of letters and autobiographies, which is to say that (while married) he had both male and female lovers, and wrote comfortably and playfully about friends doing the same.  We know friends wrote to him for advice about their love-affairs, which he freely gave, though warning against getting too caught up in them.  We know he helped his family in a push for a profitable priestly position for his brother, and was thus involved in minor acts of simony.  We know he owned many pagan classics and loved to read them, including a fascinating little volume in his own handwriting (now at the Vatican) which contains his complete transcriptions of two texts, first Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things, containing antiquity’s best account of god-free atomistic physics and denial of the soul, afterlife, Providence and prayer), and second Terrence’s Eunuch (containing one of the most uncomfortable scenes in all of ancient comedy which the young hero boasts triumphantly about having just committed rape).  Machiavelli himself wrote the infamous comedy The Mandrake, which does not contain rape, but in which the twist is that in the end all the deception and adultery goes just dandy and in the end no comeuppance is had and everyone carries on committing deception and adultery and lives happily ever after, including those being deceived.  We know he had a sense of humor, and we know he often directed it against the antics of priests and monks.  I will include one sample of this edge of him, taken from a letter from late in his life, when he was sent on behalf of the Florentine wool guild to recruit a preacher for Lent (an extremely high-profile public performance, rather like picking who will play at superbowl half-time), Machiavelli wrote to his high-ranking political friend Guicciardini, from Carpi, May 17th 1521 (Note the playful way he juxtaposes the mandatory obsequious Renaissance opening address with the base setting of the second sentence.)

The Florentine cathedral, paid for by the wool guild. It was a great honor to be called there to be the Lent preacher, and they worked hard to pick a real celebrity to come.

Magnificent one, my most respected superior.  I was sitting on the toilet when your messenger arrived, and just at that moment I was mulling over the absurdities of this world; I was completely absorbed in imagining my style of preacher for Florence: he should be just what would please me, because I am going to be as pigheaded about this idea as I am about my other ideas.  And because never did I disappoint that republic whenever I was able to help her out – if not with deeds, then with words; if not with words than with signs – I have no intention of disappointing her now.  In truth, I know that I am at variance with the ideas of her citizens, as I am in many other matters.  They would like a preacher who would teach them the way to paradise, and I should like to find one who would teach them the way to go to the Devil.  Furthermore, they would like their man to be prudent, honest and genuine, and I should like to find one who would be madder than Ponzo (who at first followed Savonarola, then switched), wilier than Fra Girolamo (Savonarola), and more hypocritical than Frater Alberto (either a Boccaccio character or someone whom Alexander VI sent to Florence and who recommended summoning Savonarola to Rome so they could seize him under false pretenses), because I think it would be a fine thing – something worthy of the goodness of these times – should everything we have experienced in many friars be experienced in one of them.  For I believe that the following would be the true way to go to Paradise: learn the way to Hell in order to steer clear of it.  Moreover, since I am aware how much belief there is in an evil man who hides under the cloak of religion, I can readily conjure up how much belief there would be in a good man who walks in truth, and not in pretense, tramping through the muddy footprints of Saint Francis.  So, since my imaginative creation strikes me as a good one, I intend to choose Rovaio (Riovanni Gualberto, “the north wind” or “the hangman”), and I think if he is like his brothers and sisters he will be just the right man.”  (Translation from Machiavelli and His Friends, Their Personal Correspondence, James B. Atkinsons and David Sices eds. (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press) 1996, p, 336).

Later in the letter Machiavelli says that he is trying to come up with ways to actively stir up trouble among the monks he’s staying with just to entertain himself.  This sparks a hilarious sequence in which Guicciardini starts sending Machiavelli letters with increasing frequency, and stuffing them with random papers to make the packages fat, to get the monks to think that some important political thing is going on.  At one point a letter arrives saying that Guicciardini instructed the messenger to jog the last quarter mile so he would be sweaty and out-of-breath when he arrives, and Machaivelli describes with glee the increasing hubbub and attention he receives in the monastery as people become convinced that something of European import must be stirring.  Unfortunately a later letter hints that Machiavelli thinks they are on to the prank, and the correspondence ends there.

An ambulance parked by Giotto’s bell tower, ready to spring into action to protect Machiavelli’s dear Florentines.

You now have pretty-much as much evidence as anyone does about Machiavelli’s religious beliefs.  Smells like an atheist, doesn’t he?  His manifest unorthodoxy, the unique modernity of his ethics and political attitudes, and his playful anticlericalism, not to mention his charisma as an historical figure, inevitably tempt us into wondering whether we have found here a beautiful specimen of the rare beast we seek.  But until we develop a time-traveling telepathy ray to let us read the thoughts of the dead, we must remain very wary.  Is Machiavelli religiously unorthodox?  Absolutely.  Does he deny the existence of the divine?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  1520 is very early, and there are many genres of heterodoxy besides denial of God which we may be smelling here.  Thinking forward two hundred years, Enlightenment deism with its Clockmaker God denies divine intervention in Nature, removes the Hand of God from politics and lessens theology’s role in ethics without removing God.  If Machiavelli is an early deist, rather than an early atheist, that is certainly enough to fit comfortably his model of politics without God as a central factor, his ethics which segregates Earthly activities and consequences from broader divine concerns, and his interest in Lucretius and pagan scientific models for how Nature can function without constant divine maintenance.  If Machiavelli thinks these monks are corrupt and hypocritical, so would Voltaire, Rousseau, and even Martin Luther, without any of them being atheists.  Radicals yes, atheists no.  We may, in fact, ascribe any number of heterodoxies to Machiavelli, and as we review the history of writings about him we in a sense review the history of what radical religious veins we are most worried about, since whatever is most scary tends to be ascribed to him in any given decade.  These days it is often atheism, nihilism, skepticism, rarely deism, since we are at present as a society very comfortable with the Clockmaker model and associate it more with the bright and kind Enlightenment than with he-who-advocates-fear-over-love.

Is Machiavelli an atheist?  We have no idea, but by looking at why we want him to be, or don’t want him to be, or think he was, or think he wasn’t, and why new historians keep trying to answer this literally unanswerable question, we can watch the evolution of our own societal anxieties about the origins of unbelief, and how we understand how we got to this modern situation in which theism must stand constantly prepared to face its thousand enemies and is not (like Baldur) so secure in the presumption that no one will aim for the heart that it doesn’t realize it might have to dodge.  This is a slight exaggeration, as Medieval Christianity did prepare itself for onslaughts of atheism, and we have numerous practice debates written by theologians showing how they would argue with imaginary atheists since they had no real ones about to spar with.  (Alan Kors in his meticulous history Atheism in France has argued that these practice debates against pretend atheists were actually critical in introducing atheist arguments to broad audiences and thus themselves responsible for propagating atheism, even though they were written by theists for theists in a world populated probably only by theists.)  But it is not much of an exaggeration, since such preparation was much more an academic exercise than real sharpening of mental blades.  Since Machiavelli is the first of the great, famous possible-atheists—before Hobbes, before Spinoza, before Bayle, and before the real beast Rochester—Machiavelli is where we turn to test our anxieties about how our world came to be so secularized.

Machiavelli’s honorary tomb in Santa Croce, with the epitaph: “Tanto nomini nullum par elogium,” (For such a name no praise is enough.)

In the small talk phase of a party, I often answer “What do you do?” with “I study the history of atheism.”  The response usually takes the general form of, “Tell me more!” but as discussion unfolds I often feel one of two undercurrents shaping my new acquaintance’s replies: either “I’m an atheist and, since I presume you’ll agree with me, I now want to vent at you about how much I hate organized religion and my parents,” or “I’m a theist but pride myself on being rational about it, and I’m scared that if I tell you I’m a believer I’ll sound like the kind of religious nut that gives theism a bad name.”  I sympathize with the anxieties behind both these reactions, but both sadden me.  They are symptoms of the debate done badly: an atheist motivated more by rebellion than by Reason, a theist shamed into buying into rhetoric in the worst sense.  They are what happens when people grow up surrounded by others who care more about propagating their own beliefs than about helping young people meet and explore great questions for themselves (see comment thread).  I love this debate.  I love all of the people on all the sides.  I love the passion, and earnestness, and urgency of writings on atheism, by both sides.  It is the essence of the examined life and the exercise of Human Reason at its most intense.  I love everyone involved: Plato, Aquinas, Ockham, Ficino, Sade, Nietzsche.  I love when a student comes to my office hours and asks me directly, “I want you to be a Socratic gadfly for me and help me test my position,” whichever position it is.  I do it.  I love it.  When I wonder whether Machiavelli was an atheist, it’s not because I want to know, but because I want to talk to him about it, at length, and we would stay up all night, and eat all the cheese and olives, and drink all the wine, and Voltaire would come, and Hobbes, and Locke, and Rochester and Rousseau would get plastered and piss themselves, and Diderot would help me mop it up while we talked about Leibnitz and the imperfection of Creation, and Machiavelli would keep pace with us even though most of the ideas in question would be two hundred years younger than him.  They would be new to him, but he would understand them easily and join in comfortably to the debate.  He should be there.  There isn’t anybody else we know of from Machiavelli’s century who really should be there in the imaginary salon where we revisit the Enlightenment debates that made this modern era secular the way it is.  Just Machiavelli.  That’s why we can’t stop asking.

(Here ends my Machiavelli series.  I hope you have enjoyed it, and thank you for being patient.  Also, I have now added a substantial discussion of atheism in the classical world in the comment thread on this post, for those interested.  You can also read my entries on remembering the Borgias, and the Borgias in TV dramas.)

If you’re interested in reading more about the history of atheism, skepticism, heterodoxy, deism and freethought, I recommend these sources:

  • Allen, Don Cameron.  Doubt’s Boundless Sea; Skepticism and Faith in the Renaissance.  Baltimore, Johns Hopkins.  1964.
  • Hunter, Michael and David Wootton ed.  Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment.  Oxford: Clarendon.  1992.
  • Kors, Alan Charles.  Atheism in France, 1650-1729.  Vol. 1, Princeton: 1990.  (The long-awaited second volume is forthcoming.)
  • Popkin, R. H.  History of Scepticism from Savonarola to Bayle.  Oxford: 2003.  (Earlier editions of the book have titles, “History of Scepticism from X-other-dude to Y-other-other-dude.  All editions are good, but the most recent is the most comprehensive.)

Also recommended:

  • Betts, C. J.  Early Deism in France, From the so-called ‘déistes’ of Lyon (1564) to Voltaire’s ‘Lettres philosophiques’ (1734).  The Hague: Martinus Nijhogg Publishers. 1984.
  • Buckley, Michael J.  At the Origins of Modern Atheism.  New Haven: Yale University Press.  1987.
  • Febvre, Lucien.  The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: the Religion of Rabelais.  Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.  1982.
  • Ginsburg, Carlo.  The Cheese and the Worms.  New York: Penguin Publishers. 1992.
  • Jacob, Margaret. The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans.  London, Boston: Allen & Unwin.  1981.
  • Kristeller, P. O. ‘The Myth of Renaissance Atheism and the French Tradition of Free Thought’. Journal of the History of Philosophy, 6 (1968), pp. 233-443.
  • Lemay, J. A. Leo ex.  Deism, Masonry and the Enlightenment.  Newark: University of Delaware Press.  1987.
  • Wagar, Warren W. ed.  The Secular Mind: Transformations of Faith in Modern Europe.  New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers inc.  1982.
  • Wilson, Catherine.  Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity.  Oxford: 2008
  • Wootton, David.  ‘Lucien Febvre and the Problem of Unbelief in the Early Modern Period’  The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 60, No. 4. (Dec., 1988), pp. 695-730.
Nov 152012
 

I was racing from my office to the gym yesterday, struggling not to spill orange goo on my 18th century reenactment overcoat while wolfing down instant microwave mac & cheese with my reusable pocket eco-spork, when I finally faced up to the reality that the November demands of academia & inevitable autumn illness were not going to give me a chance to finish the next chapter of my Machiavelli series this week, or even next.  But since the holidays are coming, I thought I might share some quick gift suggestions which I’ve accumulated this year.  These are all items I either own, or have gotten for friends, or both, with, I hope, enough variety to make for a fun read, and possibly to fill some corners under your trees.

  1. The photography I have enjoyed sharing on this blog requires a practical, small, portable camera, not easily damaged but quick to use and that takes very good pictures.  After trying many models and doing a lot of research, I can enthusiastically recommend my current camera, a Nikon COOLPIX S9300, which is the top of the COOLPIX camera line, with very high resolution and an astounding zoom.  The 16x zoom is much too powerful to actually be usable unless you set the camera down or use a tripod, but even at half-way-zoomed I could get amazing detail on faraway bits of cathedrals and fortresses.  It eats up its batteries, so you need two, but is a great pocket camera.

    The Roman answer to the iPad. Infinite battery life!

  2. The most exciting, and unusual, of the numerous tablets on the gift market this year has to be an authentic reconstruction of a Roman period wax writing tablet.  A standard technology used throughout the ancient and medieval worlds, this affordable alternative to papyrus or vellum worked by scratching text into a wax surface with a stylus, which could then be wiped smooth and re-used.  Standard for letter-writing and short-term note-taking.  Through this cutting-edge ancient technology, your friends and loved ones can enjoy the miraculous gift of writing, then erasing it, then writing again on the same surface!  Wonders will never cease!
  3. In order to avoid the life-threatening condition known as “gelato withdrawal” I rely upon my dear and trusty DeLonghi GM6000 Home Gelato Maker.  I have been making gelato with it not quite every day for many months now.  It is a little loud but whips up a batch in 3o to 45 minutes and many of the best recipes (yogurt gelato, lemon sorbet, chocolate) require practically no preparation.  It came with a very good basic recipe book, and for some reason is currently $250 instead of $400+ on Amazon.  Also, Amazon allows you to subscribe to chocolate, I repeat, subscribe to chocolate, so fresh chocolate powder is delivered to your house for free on a periodic basis to restock your gelato-making needs.  There is now  no excuse for not having gelato.
  4. Books are often hit-or-miss holiday gifts, since we all love them, but we all have a to-read list a mile long (I must state here the maxim: “Never give a book to a grad student if they didn’t request it.”)  But just the right book can be just the right thing.  This year my three book recommendations are the Unnecessarily Interesting Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, an astonishingly exciting and even more astonishingly true account of the life and adventures of the Renaissance goldsmith/sculptor/arms-master/duelist/murderer who should’ve been the protagonist of Assassins’ Creed III, and by far the most exciting account of an historical figure’s life I’ve ever read; my manga pick of the year which has to be the long-awaited release of Shigeru Mizuki’s classic Gegege no Kitaro, a post-WWII collection of classic Japanese oral tradition ghost stories framed around an adorably morbid little zombie boy, packed with folklore and second really only to Astro Boy in its seminal position in mid-20th-century manga (English release finally available for pre-order!); or, the meta-book gift ideal for any bibliophile already weighed down by too many books, Petrarch’s Four Dialogues for Scholars, featuring excerpts from his “Remedies against fortune” which advise the reader on how to avoid pride and hubris over owning a lot of books.  That’s right, it’s a book about having too many books.  Witty, delightful and bilingual, it is a quick and entertaining read, a rich and rewarding reread, and also features dialogues to prevent hubris if you have a graduate degree, multiple graduate degrees, or are a published author.
  5. In DVD recommendations I prefer to focus on things you have likely not heard recommended elsewhere.  Thus this year’s three pics are: The Secret of Kells, a gorgeous animated film based on the manuscript illuminations of the Book of Kells; the stunning and sadly under-publicized anime film Summer Wars, which is as beautiful, wholesome and delight-filled as a Miyazaki movie but with an action plot; and Borgia: Faith and Fear, by far the superior (and sadly the more obscure) of the two Borgia TV series that were produced last year.  Like all recent over-dramatic historical TV series it makes sex and violence a centerpiece, but they’re the Borgias so it should be nasty, and it does a good job making the sex and violence feel authentically period, while also having the right combination of historical accuracy and storytelling to make it entertaining.  We hope someday there will be a season 2.
  6. Truffle butter.  Truffle butter.  Truffle butter.  Eat the Truffle Butter.  There are many kinds and I cannot say which is best since I haven’t tried them all, but it is out-of-this-world stuff.  Have it on bread, or melt it over fresh pasta, or a white meat, like chicken.  But pasta is always best.
  7. Italian cold cuts are another treat which I mourn on returning to the New World.  While many grocery stores in the US now carry prosciutto, pancetta and even bresaola, the delicacy I miss most intensely is the cured spiced lard which melts across your tongue like butter.  Lardo Toscano or Lardo di Colonnata I have yet to reliably find, but a good Spanish Lardo can be ordered from Boccalone, and other good salumi from Murray’s cheese.
  8. One of the most enthusiastically-received gifts I’ve ever given was “Professor Doctor Sweetie-Pie’s European Adventures”, a glossy photo book of my research travels which made my Mom bounce and cheer and which she has read over and over for many a moon.  Many companies allow one to create these things, but I did mine through Shutterfly, and while they’re a little pricey they really can be a big hit.
  9. Pants are an essential but oft-neglected clothing item, allowed to languish in boringness while shirts and jackets receive all the stylish decoration and superhero logos.  I derive constant joy and frequent compliments from my habit of sewing decorative trim down the side seams of my jeans and other pants, making them with an hour’s effort into something distinctive and fun.  The trims I use come from CelticTrims.com, and can also be added to all sorts of other simple things to make them excellent.
  10. As a frequent flier, I was always frustrated by the fact that I could no longer carry a pocket cutting tool to open plastic packaging etc. without risk of confiscation.  For others with the same problem, small round-tipped metal scissors like these are pretty-universally allowed on planes.
  11. In the kitchen I continue to swear by my Leifheit Garlic Slicer and use it pretty-much every day to turn cloves of garlic into luscious quick-cooking petals of deliciousness.
  12. For travel, I can also recommend a folding travel backpack like this one, which folds almost as small as a reusable compact shopping bag but is much more practical since it’s a backpack.  I usually travel with one and stick it in my pocket when heading out to wander a town, so I can easily carry any shopping.  It’s also useful for when one leaves with one bag but inevitably can’t fit new acquisitions into it for the return.
  13. Spoon and fork that fit in your wallet

    We are all drowning in eco-products, making it hard to tell which ones are actually useful.  I have had several happy years now with my credit card cutlery, little flat plastic silverware that fits inside a credit card slot in your wallet, providing a fork and spoon/knife.  I would estimate that in three years or so they have prevented me from using about thirty plastic forks, but more valuably, they have often provided me with a fork when one would otherwise not be available, and the spoon is firm enough to act as a slicing tool for cheese or fruit.

  14. A trick I learned from my father when thinking of stocking stuffers is that one can often achieve smiles by returning to those items which were exciting when we were ten, and are still exciting even though grown-ups aren’t supposed to be excited by them anymore.  For example, yes you can have little colorful umbrellas in your drinks every day, that’s what being a grown-up means!  Also, remember those little capsules that you put in water and then there’s a colorful sponge that expands out of it shaped like a whale or a dinosaur?  Well they’re still just as fun now as they were in the science museum gift shop when you were barely tall enough to peer over the display case.
  15. Life without olive oil is not worth considering.  Now that I no longer have access to Italy directly, I have been doing a survey of the best olive oils stocked in the US.  For a basic one, even carried by some grocery stores, I have been very impressed by California Olive Ranch, which is now my new default oil.  For something more extraordinary, The Olive Tap produces incredible infused oils and vinegars, and I can particuarly recommend their out-of-this-world Tangerine Balsamic (I am not a tangerine fan but this is the best thing to put on a salad I have ever, ever, ever tasted!), and their Blood Orange Olive Oil.  For imported Italian oils I have enjoyed Ottavio Private Reserve, but can’t find a good online source.
  16. And when in doubt, there are 10,000 things you want on ThinkGeek.com.  Just don’t buy them all.

 

Jul 242012
 

This is not the promised second installment of my discussion of Machiavelli. I have been too busy to do it properly. In the mean time, however, I have at last (through the good work of my assistant Athan) figured out the web technology share one of my favorite Florentine experiences – something I know Machiavelli would be delighted to have me share.

Living in the center as I did this year, I was often interrupted mid-footnote by the distant peppering of drum beats. Live music is a constant in the historic center. There is a consistent daily calendar which I soon came to memorize: the accordion player whose medley of “Canta y no llores” and “Somewhere over the Rainbow” (why?!) looped through the lunch hour, solos from Carmen at 3:00, the Peter, Paul & Mary cover guitarist at 5:00, the Peruvian flute and drum band at 6:00, the Bad Clown (my nemesis!) at 9 pm, 9:30 weekends. Other performances vary daily, with a different brass band or or talented youth group occupying key piazzas every weeknight and weekend.

It is impossible to attend even all the good performances, so the first step when the pop-pop-pop of drums float through the window is to listen carefully for the pattern. Is it the regular, modern beat of a marching band? Or is it the distinctive TUM [pause] ta-ta-TUM [pause] ta-ta-TA-ta-ta-TA-ta-ta-TUM! That rhythm means only one thing: an historic parade! And 50/50 odds that means Sbandieratori! The fantastic medieval sport of tossing banners in the air and catching them in elaborate patterns, as the brave athletes risk the public shame that comes with letting the city’s flag touch the ground if the flag falls. Time to rush rush rush down the stairs stairs stairs, then follow the drums and trumpets until you see the distinctive white and red peeking above the crowd.

And now I can share my experience, thanks to the miracle of amateur video!

These clips are grainy, but capture a good sample of the experience. The first in the series streamed below shows the usual first experience: a glimpse of flags swirling above the assembled heads, proof that flag tossing is indeed an ideal form of public display for a world before bleachers and loudspeakers. The second video I filmed while following behind the parade en route to their finale (that one is slightly jiggly at the beginning but still in the middle). The remaining videos show various stages of the display. This performance I filmed was at night, so it’s a little dim, but takes place right in front of the Palazzo Vecchio. You will see many stages of the performance, from the whole troop working in formation passing flags from hand to hand, to displays by pairs or soloists using one, two, three, four, even five flags at once.

(For some reason the video player embedded below sometimes doesn’t display the first time you load the page, but if you only see a blank white space, hit refresh and it will display.)

It’s a fabulous treat to watch, and in the middle of a strenuous weekend of editing and deadline-chasing it was often a beautiful release to rush down and enjoy a dose of historical pageantry: Oh, right! I’m in Florence!