Oct 312015
 
"My copy doesn't say whether it's Will or Intellect. Does yours?"

“My copy doesn’t say whether it’s Will or Intellect. Does yours?”

(Best to begin with Part 1 and Part 2 of and Part 3 this series.)

Doubt in the Renaissance and Reformation

My own period I will treat the most briefly in this survey. This may seem like a strange choice, but I can either do a general overview, or get sidetracked discussing individual philosophers, theologians and commentators and their uses of skepticism for another five posts.  So, in brief:

In the later Middle Ages, within the philosophical world, the breadth of disagreement within scholarship, how different the far extreme theories were on any given topic, was rather circumscribed. A good example of a really fractious fight is the question of, within your generally Aristotelian tripartite rational immortal soul, which of the two decision-making principles is more powerful, the Intellect or the Will?  It’s a big and important question – without it we will starve to death like Buridan’s ass, and be unable to decide whether to send our second sons to Franciscan or a Dominican monasteries, plus we need it to understand how Original Sin, Grace and salvation work. But the breadth of answers is not that big, and the question itself presumes that everyone involved already believes 90% the same thing.

Enter Petrarch, “Let’s read the classics! They’ll make us great like the Romans!” Begin 250 years of working really hard to find, copy, correct, translate, edit, print and proliferate every syllable surviving from antiquity. Now we discover that Epicurus says there’s no afterlife and the universe is made of atoms; Stoics say the universe is one giant contiguous object without motion or individual existence; Plato says there’s reincarnation (What?  The Plato we used to have didn’t say that!); and Aristotle totally doesn’t say what we thought he said, it turns out the Organon was a terrible translation (Sorry, Boethius, you did your best, and we love you, but it was a terrible translation.)  Suddenly the palette of questions is much broader, and the degree to which people disagree has opened exponentially wider. If we were charting a solar system before, now we’re charting a galaxy.  But the humanists still tried hard to make them all agree, much as the scholastics and Peter Abelard had, since the ancients were ALL wonderful and ALL brilliant and ALL right, right?  Even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff? Hence Renaissance Syncretism, attempts by philosophers like Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola to take all the authors of antiquity, and Aquinas and a few others in the mix, and show how they were all really saying the same thing, in a roundabout, hidden, glorious, elusive, poetic, we-can-make-like-Abelard-and-make-it-all-make-sense way.

Before you dismiss these syncretic experiments as silly, or as slavish toadying, there is a logic to it if you can zoom out from modern pluralistic thinking for a minute and look at what Renaissance intellectuals had to work with.

Plato and Aristotle, almost agreeing.

Plato and Aristotle, almost agreeing.

To follow their logic chain you must begin–as they did–by positing that Christianity is true, and there is a single monotheistic God who is the source of all goodness, virtue, and knowledge.  Wisdom, being wise and good at judgment, helps you tell true from false and right from wrong, and what is true and right will always agree with and point toward God.  Therefore all wise people in history have really been aiming toward the same thing–one truth, one source.  Plato and Aristotle and their Criteria of Truth are in the background of this, Plato’s description of the Good which is one divine thing that all reasoning minds tend toward, and Aristotle’s idea that reasoning people (philosophers, scientists) working without error will come to identical conclusions even if they’re on opposite sides of the world, because the knowable categories (fish, equilateral triangle, good) are universal.  Thus, as Plato and Aristotle say we use reason to gradually approach knowledge, all philosophers in history have been working toward the same thing, and differ only in the errors they make along the way.  This is the logic, but they also have evidence, and here you have to remember that Renaissance scholars did not have our modern tools for evaluating chronology and influence.  They looked at early Christian writings, and they looked at Plato and Aristotle, and they said, as we do, “Wow, Plato and Aristotle have a lot of ideas in common with these early Christians!” but while we conclude, “Early Christians sure were influenced by Plato and Aristotle,” they instead concluded, “This proves that Plato and Aristotle were aiming toward the same things as Christianity!”  And they had further evidence from how tangled their chronologies were.   There were certain key texts like the Chaldean Oracles which they thought were much much older than we now think they are, which made it look like ideas we attribute to Plato had independently existed well before Plato.  They looked at Plotinus and other late antique Neoplatonists who mixed Plato and Aristotle but claimed the Aristotelian bits were really hidden inside Plato the whole time, and they concluded, “See, Plato and Aristotle were basically saying the same thing!”  Similarly confusing were the works of the figure we now call Pseudo-Dionysius, who we think was a late antique Neoplatonist voicing a mature hybrid of Platonism and Aristotelianism with some Stoicism mixed in, but who Renaissance scholars believed was a disciple of Saint Paul, leading them to conclude that Saint Paul believed a lot of this stuff, and making it seem even more like Plato, Aristotle, Stoics, ancient mystics, and Christianity were all aiming at one thing.  So any small differences are errors along the way, or resolvable with “sic et non.”

The problem came when they translated more and more texts, and found more contradictions than they could really handle.  Ideas much wilder and more out there than they expected suddenly had authoritative possibly-sort-of-proto-Christian authors endorsing them.  Settled questions were unsettled again, sleeping dragons woken.  For example, it wasn’t until the Fifth Lateran Council in 1513 that the Church officially made belief in the immortality of the soul a required doctrine for all Christians, which does not mean that lots of Christians before 1513 didn’t believe in the afterlife, but that Christians in 1513 were anxious about belief in the afterlife, feeling that it and many other doctrines were suddenly in doubt which had stood un-threatened throughout the Middle Ages.  The intellectual landscape was suddenly bigger and stranger.

Wait, we have to reconcile all these guys?

Wait, we have to reconcile all these guys?

Remember how I said Cicero would be back? All these humanists read Cicero constantly, including the philosophical dialogs with his approach of presenting different classical sects in dialog, all equally plausible but incompatible, leading to… skepticism.  And as they explored those same sects more and more broadly, Cicero the skeptic became something of the wedge that started to expand the crack, not overtly stating “Hey, guys, these people don’t agree!” but certainly pressing the idea that they don’t agree, in ways which humanists had more and more trouble ignoring as more texts came back.

Aaaaaand the Reformation made this more extreme, a lot more extreme, by (A) generating an enormous new mass of theological claims made by contradictory parties, adding another arm to our galactic spiral, and (B) developing huge numbers of fierce and damning counter-arguments to all these claims, which in turn meant developing new tools for countering and eroding belief.  Thus, as we reach the 1570s, the world of philosophy is a lot bigger, a lot deadlier (as the Reformation and Counter-Reformation killed many more people for their ideas than the Middle Ages did), and a lot scarier, with vast swarms of arguments and counter-arguments, many of them powerful, persuasive, beautifully reasoned, and completely incompatible.  And when you make a beautiful yes-and-no attempt to make Plato and Epicurus agree, you don’t have the men themselves on hand to say “Excuse me, in fact, we don’t agree.”  But you did have real live Reformation and Counter-Reformation theologians running around responding to each other in real time, that makes syncretic reconciliation the more impossible.

Wait, the other wall too?!

Wait, the other wall too?!

Remember how Abelard, who able to make St. Jerome and St. Augustine seem to agree, drew followers like Woodstock?  Well, now his successors–Scholastic and Humanist, since the Humanists were all ALSO reading Scholasticism all the time–have a thousand times as many authorities to reconcile.  You think Jerome and Augustine is hard?  Try Calvin and Epicurus!  St. Dominic and Zwingli!  Thomas Aquinas is a saint now, let’s see if you can Yes-and-No the entire Summa Theologica into agreeing with Epictetus, Pseudo-Dionysius and the Council of Trent at the same time! And remember, in the middle of all this, that most if not all of our Renaissance protagonists still believe in Hell and damnation (or at least something similar to it), and that if you’re wrong you burn in Hellfire forever and ever and ever and so do all your students and it’s your fault.  Result: FEAR.  And its companion, freethought.  Contrary to what we might assume, this is not a case where fear stifled inquiry, but where it stimulated more, firing Renaissance thinkers with the burning need to have a solution to all these contradictions, some way to sort out the safe path amid a thousand pits of Hellfire. New syntheses were proposed, new taxonomies of positions and heresies outlined, and old beliefs reexamined and refined or reaffirmed.  And this period of intellectual broadening and competition brought with it an increasing inability to believe that any one of these options is the only right way when there are so many, and they are so good at tearing each other down.

And in the middle of this, experimental and observational science is advancing rapidly, and causing more doubt. We discover new continents that don’t fit in a T-O map (Ptolemy is wrong), new plants that don’t fit existing plant taxonomy (Theophrastus is wrong), details about Animals which don’t match Aristotle (we’d better hope he’s not wrong!), the circulation of the blood which turns the four humors theory on its head (Not Galen! We really needed him!), and magnification lets us finally see the complexity of a flea, and realize there is a whole unexplored micro-universe of detail too small for the naked eye to experience, raising the question “If God made the Earth for humans, why did God bother to make things humans can’t even perceive?”

Youth: “But, Socrates, why did experimental and observational science advance in that period? Discovering new stuff that isn’t in the classics doesn’t have anything to do with reconstructing antiquity, or with the Reformation, does it?”

Good question.  A long answer would be a book, but I can make a quick stab at a short one. I would point at several factors.  First, after 1300, and increasingly as we approach 1600, European rulers began competing in new ways, many of them cultural. As more and more nobles were convinced by the humanist claim that true nobility and power came from the lost arts of the ancients, so scholarship and unique knowledge, including knowledge of ancient sciences, became mandatory ornaments of court, and politically valuable as ways of advertising a ruler’s wealth and power. Monarchs and newly-risen families who had seized power through war or bribery could add a veneer of nobility by surrounding themselves with libraries, scholars, poets, and scientists, who studied the ancient scientific sources of Greece and Rome but, in order to understand them more fully, also studied newer sources coming from the Middle East, and did new experiments of their own. A new astronomical model of the heavens proclaimed the power of the patron who had paid for it, just as much as a fur-lined cloak or a diamond-studded scepter.

Lavishly decorated scientific instruments, worthy ornaments of court, like the people who created them.

Lavishly decorated scientific instruments, worthy ornaments of court, like the people who created them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Add to this the increase of the scales of wars caused by increased wealth which could raise larger armies, generating a situation in which new tools for warfare, and especially fortress construction, were increasingly in demand (when you read Leonardo’s discussions of his abilities, more than 75% of the inventions he mentions are tools of war). Add to that the printing press which makes it possible for novelties–whether a rediscovered manuscript or a newly-discovered muscle–to spread exponentially faster, and which makes books much more affordable, so that if only one person in 50,000 could afford a library before now it is one in 5,000, and even merchants could afford a few texts. Education was easier, and educated men were in demand at courts eager to fill themselves with scholars, and advertise their greatness with discoveries.

So... many... books! Must... make them... agree!

So… many… books! Must… make them… agree!

These are the main facilitators, but I would also cite another fundamental shift. I have talked before about Petrarch, and the humanist project to improve the world by reconstructing a lost golden age.  This is the first philosophical movement since ancient stoicism that has had anything to do with the world, since medieval theology’s (perfectly rational in context!) desire to study the Eternal instead of the ephemeral meant that most scholars for many centuries had considered natural philosophy, the study of impermanent natural phenomena, as useless as studying the bathwater instead of the baby.  Humanism generated a lot of arguments about why Earth and earthly things were worth more than nothing, even if they agreed Heaven and eternal things were more important, and I think the mindset which said it was a pious and worthwhile thing to translate Livy or write a treatise on good government contributed to the mindset which said it was a pious and worthwhile thing to measure mountains or write a treatise on metallurgy.  Thought turned, just a little bit, toward Earth.

There, that’s the Renaissance and Reformation, oversimplified by necessity, but Descartes is chomping at the bit for what comes next.  For those who want more, I shall do the crass thing here and say: for more detail, see my book Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance, or Popkin’s History of Skepticism, or wait.

montaigneAt last, Montaigne!

Like the world which basked in his writings, and shuddered in his “crisis,” I love Montaigne.  I love his sentences, his storytelling, his sincerity, his quips, his authorial voice.  Reading Montaigne is like like slowly enjoying a glass of whatever complex, rich and subtle beverage you most enjoy a glass of (wine for many, fresh goat milk for me!).  Especially because, at the end, your glass is empty.  (I see a contented Descartes nodding).  When I set about starting to write this series, getting to Montaigne was, in fact, my secret end goal, since, if there is a founder of modern skepticism, it is Michel Eyquem de Montaigne.

Montaigne was unique, an experiment, the natural experiment to follow at the maturation of the Renaissance classical project but still, a unique child, raised as an overt pedagogical experiment outlined by his father: Montaigne grew up speaking only Latin.  He was exposed to French in his first three years by country nurses, but from three on he was only allowed contact with people–his tutor, parents and servants–speaking Latin.  He was a literal attempt to raise a Cicero or Caesar, formed exclusively by classical ideas, the ideal man that the humanists had been hoping to create.  Greek was later added, not with textbooks and the rod as was usual in those days but with games and music, and studies were always made to seem pleasant and wonderful by surrounding him with music (even waking the child every morning with delightful live music).  He grew up to be about as perfect a Platonic Philosopher King as one could hope to imagine, studying law and entering politics, as his father wished, achieving the highest honors, but preferring life alone in his library, and frequently retiring to do just that, only to be dragged back into politics actually by popular demand of people who would come bang on his library door demanding that he come out to take up office and rule them.  I think often about what it must have been like to be Montaigne, to be so immersed, enjoy these things so much, and only later discover that he was alone in a world with literally no other native speaker of his language.  It must have been as difficult as it was wonderful to be Montaigne.  But I think I understand why, when he lost his best friend Étienne de la Boétie, Montaigne wrote of his grief, his loss, the pain of solitude, with an intensity rarely approached in the history of human literature.  He also wrote Essais, meandering writings, the source of the modern word “essay”, for which every schoolchild has the right to playfully curse him.

louvre-voltaire-1694-1778I will now go about explaining why Montaigne was so wonderful by describing Voltaire. Yes, it is an odd way to go about it, but the Voltaire example is clearer and more concise than any Montaigne example I have on hand, and, in this, Voltaire was a student of Montaigne, and Montaigne will only smile to see such a beautiful development of his art, as Bacon smiles on Newton, and Socrates on all of us.

At the beginning of this sequence, I outlined two potential sources of knowledge: either (A) Sense Perception i.e. Evidence, or (B) Logic/Reason.  The classical skeptics were born when the reliability these two sources of knowledge were drawn into doubt, Sense Perception by the stick in water, Logic by Xeno’s Paradoxes of Motion.  Responses included the skeptics’ conclusion “We can’t know anything if we can’t trust Reason or the Senses,” and the various other classical schools’ Criteria of Truth (Plato’s Ideas, Aristotle’s Categories, Epicurus’s weak empiricism, etc.)  All refutations we have seen along our long path have been based on undermining one of these types of knowledge sources: so when Duns Scotus fights with Aquinas, he picks on his logic, and when Ockham fights with him he, often, picks on his material sensory evidence. (“Where is the phantasm?  Huh? Huh?”)

LeibnitzEverybody, I’d like to introduce you to Leibniz.  Leibniz, this is everybody.  “Hello!” says Leibniz, “Very nice to meet you all.”  We are going to viciously murder Leibniz in about three minutes.  “It’s no trouble,” says Leibniz, “I’m quite used to it.”  Thank you, Leibniz, we appreciate it.

Leibniz here made many great contributions to philosophy and mathematics, but one particular one was extraordinarily popular, I would go so far as to say faddy, a fad argument which swept Europe in the first half of the 18th century.  You have almost certainly heard it before in mocking form, but I will do my best to be fair as we line up our target in our sites:

  1. God is Omnipotent, Omniscient and Omnbenevolent.  (Given.)  “Grrrr,” quoth Socrates.
  2. Given that God is Omniscient, He knows what the best of all possible worlds is.
  3. Given that God is Omnipotent, He can create the best of all possible worlds.
  4. Given that God is Omnibenevolent, He wants to create the best of all possible worlds.
  5. Any world such a God would make must logically be the best of all possible worlds
  6. This is the best of all possible worlds.

Now, this was a proof written, just like Anselm’s and Aquinas’s, by a philosopher expecting a readership who all believe, both in God, and in Providence.  It is a comfortable proof of the logical certainty that there is Providence, that this universe is perfect (as the Stoics first theorized), and anything in it that seems to be bad or evil must, in fact, be part of a greater long-term good that we fail to see because of our limited human perspective.  The proof made a huge number of people delighted to have such an elegant and simple argument for something they enthusiastically believed.

But, the proof also the side-effect that arguments about Providence often do, of making people start to try to reason out what the good was behind hidden evils.  “Oh, that guy was struck with disease because he did X bad thing.”  “Wolves exist to make us live in villages.”  “That plague happened because those people were bad.”  It was (much like Medieval proofs of the existence of God) a way philosophers could show off their cleverness to an appreciative audience, make themselves known, and put forward theories about right and wrong and what God might want.

Lisbon

In 1755 an enormous earthquake struck the great port city of Lisbon (Portugal), wiping out tens of thousands of people (some estimate up to 100,000) and leveling one of the great gems of European civilization. It remains to this day one of the deadliest earthquakes in recorded history, and many parts of Lisbon are still in ruins almost 300 years later.  The shock and horror, to a progressive, optimistic Europe, was stunning.  And immediately thereafter, fans of Leibniz started publishing essays about how it was GOOD that this had happened, because of XYZ reason.  For example, one argument was that they were persecuting people for their religion, and this was God saying he disapproved <= REAL argument.  (Note: Leibniz himself is innocent of all this, having died years before the earthquake – we are speaking of his followers.)  Others argued that it was a bad minor effect of God’s general laws, that the physical rules of the Earth which make everything wonderful for humankind also make earthquakes sometimes happen, but that the suffering they cause is negligible against the greater goods that Providence achieves.  And if one person in Europe could not stand these noxious, juvenile, pompous, inhumane, self-serving, condescending, boastful, heartless, self-congratulatory responses to unprecedented human suffering, that person was the one pen mightier than any sword, Voltaire.

Would words like these to peace of mind restore
The natives sad of that disastrous shore?
Grieve not, that others’ bliss may overflow,
Your sumptuous palaces are laid thus low;
Your toppled towers shall other hands rebuild;
With multitudes your walls one day be filled;
Your ruin on the North shall wealth bestow,
For general good from partial ills must flow;
You seem as abject to the sovereign power,
As worms which shall your carcasses devour.
No comfort could such shocking words impart,
But deeper wound the sad, afflicted heart.
When I lament my present wretched state,
Allege not the unchanging laws of fate;
Urge not the links of the eternal chain,
’Tis false philosophy and wisdom vain.
The God who holds the chain can’t be enchained;
By His blest Will are all events ordained:
He’s Just, nor easily to wrath gives way,
Why suffer we beneath so mild a sway:
This is the fatal knot you should untie,
Our evils do you cure when you deny?
Men ever strove into the source to pry,
Of evil, whose existence you deny.
If he whose hand the elements can wield,
To the winds’ force makes rocky mountains yield;
If thunder lays oaks level with the plain,
From the bolts’ strokes they never suffer pain.
But I can feel, my heart oppressed demands
Aid of that God who formed me with His hands.
Sons of the God supreme to suffer all
Fated alike; we on our Father call.
No vessel of the potter asks, we know,
Why it was made so brittle, vile, and low?
Vessels of speech as well as thought are void;
The urn this moment formed and that destroyed,
The potter never could with sense inspire,
Devoid of thought it nothing can desire.
The moralist still obstinate replies,
Others’ enjoyments from your woes arise,
To numerous insects shall my corpse give birth,
When once it mixes with its mother earth:
Small comfort ’tis that when Death’s ruthless power
Closes my life, worms shall my flesh devour.

This (in the William F. Fleming translation) is an excerpt from the middle of Voltaire’s Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake, which I heartily encourage you to read in its entirety. The poem summarizes the arguments of Camp Leibniz , and juxtaposes them with heart-wrenching descriptions of the sufferings of the victims, and with Voltaire’s own earnest and passionate expression of exactly why these kinds of arguments about Providence are so difficult to choke down when one is really on the ground suffering and feeling.  The human is not a senseless pottery vessel, it is a thinking thing, it feels pain, it asks questions, it feels the special kind of pain that unanswered questions cause, the same pain the skeptics have been trying to help us escape for 3,000 years.  But we don’t escape, and the poem captures it.  The poem swept across Europe like a firestorm.  People read it, people felt it, people recognized in Voltaire’s words the cries of anger in their own hearts.  And they agreed.  He won.  The Leibniz fad ended.  An entire continent-wide philosophical movement, slain.

CriterionOfTruthbAnd he used neither Logic nor Evidence.

Did you feel it?  The poem persuaded, attacked, undermined, eroded away the respectability of Leibniz, but it did it without using EITHER of the two pillars of argument.  There was no chain of reasoning.  And there was no empirical observation.  You could say there was some logic in the way he juxtaposed claims “God is a kind Maker” with counter-claims “I am not a potter’s jar, I am a thinking thing! I need more!”.  You could say there was some empiricism or evidence-based argument in his descriptions of things he saw, or things he felt, since feelings too are sense-perceptions in a way, so reporting how one feels is reporting a sensory fact.  But there was nothing in this so rigorous or so real that any of our ancient skeptics would recognize it as the empiricism they were attacking.  Those people Voltaire describes – he did not see them, he just imagines them, reaching across the breadth of Europe with the strength of empathy.  That potter’s wheel is a metaphor, not a syllogism.  Voltaire has used a third thing, neither Reason nor Evidence, as a tool of skepticism.

What do we name this Third Thing?  I have heard people propose “common sense” but that’s a terribly vexed term, going back to Cicero at least, which has been used by this point to mean 100 things that are not this thing, so even if you could also call this thing “common sense” it would just create confusion (we don’t need Aristotle looming with a lecture on the dangers of unclear vocabulary).  I have heard people propose “sentiment” and I like how galling it feels to try to suggest that “sentiment” should enjoy coequal respect and power with Reason and Evidence, but it isn’t quite that either.  I am not yet happy with any name for this Third Thing, and am playing around with many.  All I will say is that it is real, it is powerful, it is as effective at persuading one to believe or disbelieve as Reason and Evidence are.  And, even if there were shadows of this Third Thing earlier in human history, Montaigne was the smith who sharpened the blade and handed it to Voltaire, and to the rest of us.

The rafters of Montaigne's libary, where he inscribed his favorite philosophical quotations.

The rafters of Montaigne’s library, where he inscribed his favorite philosophical quotations.

Montaigne’s Essais are lovely, meandering, personal, structure-less, rambling musings in which topics flow one upon another, he summarizes an argument made for or against some heresy, then, rather than voicing an opinion, tells you a story about his grandmother that one time, or retells a bit of one of Virgil’s pastorals, or an anecdote about some now-obscure general, and then flows on to a different topic, never stating his opinion on the first but having shaped your thinking, through his meanders, until you feel an answer, a belief or, more often, disbelief, even if he never voiced one.  And then he keeps going, taking up another argument, making it feel silly with an allegory about two bakers, another and–have you heard the news from Spain?–another, and another, and oh, the loves of Alexander, another, and another.  And as it flows along you get to know him, feel you’re having a conversation with him, and somewhere toward the end you no longer believe any of the philosophical arguments he has just summarized are plausible at all, but he never once argued directly against any of them.  It is a little bit like our skeptical Cicero, juxtaposing opposing views and leaving us convinced by none, but it is one level less structured, not actually a dialog with arguments and refutations.  Skepticism, without Reason, without Evidence, just with the human honesty that is Montaigne, his doubts, his friendship, his communication to you, dear reader, across the barrier of page, and time, and language, this strange French-Roman, this only native Latin speaker born in a millennium, this alien, has made you realize all the philosophical convictions, everything in that broad spectrum that scholasticism plus the Renaissance plus the Reformation and Counter-Reformation ferocity have laid before you, none of it is what a person really feels deep down inside, not Montaigne, and not you. And so he leaves you a skeptic, in a completely different way from how the ancient skeptics did it, not with theses, or exercises, or lists, or counterarguments, just with… humanity?

Montaigne did it.  His contemporaries found it… odd at first, a bit self-centered, this autobiographical meandering, but it was so beautiful, so entrancing, so powerful.  It reared a new generation, armed with Reason and Evidence and This Third Thing, and deeply skeptical.  Students at universities started raising their hands in class to ask the teachers to prove the school existed.  Theologians advising princes started saying maybe it didn’t matter that much what the difference was between the different Christian faiths if they were close enough.  A new age of philosophy was born, not a new school, but a new tool for dogmatism’s ancient symbiotic antagonist: doubt.

And, where doubt grows stronger and richer, so does dogmatic philosophy, having that much more to test itself against.  Just as, in antiquity, so many amazing schools and ideas were born from trying to respond to Zeno and the Stick in Water, so Montaigne’s new tools of Skepticism, his revival and embellishment of skepticism, the birth, as we call it, of Modern Skepticism, was also the final ingredient necessary for an explosion of new ideas, new schools, new universes described by new philosophers trying to build systems which can stand up against a new skepticism armed, not just against Reason and Evidence, but with That Third Thing.

DescartesThus, as 1600 approaches, the breakneck proliferation of new ideas and factions make Montaigne’s skepticism so popular that students in scholastic and Jesuit schools are starting to raise their hands and demand that the professor prove the existence of the classroom before expecting them to attend class.  A “skeptical crisis” takes center stage in Europe’s great intellectual conversation, and multiplying doubt seems to have all the traditional Criteria of Truth in flight. It is onto this stage that Descartes will step, and craft, alongside his contemporaries, the first new systems which will have to cope, not with two avenues of attacking certainty, but, thanks to Montaigne, three.  And will fight back against them with Montaigne’s arts as well.  Next time.

For now, I will leave you with one more little snippet of the future: I lied to you, about a simple happy ending to Voltaire’s quarrel with Leibniz.  Oh, Leibniz was quite dead, not just because the man himself had died but because no philosopher could take his argument seriously after the poem. Ever. Again. In fact, a few years ago I went to a talk at at a philosophy department in which a young scholar was taking on Leibniz’s Best of All Possible Worlds thesis, and picking it apart using beautiful logical argumentation, and at the end everyone applauded and congratulated him, but when the Q&A started the first Q was “Well, um, this was all quite fascinating, but, isn’t Leibniz, I mean, no one takes that argument seriously anymore…”  But the young philosopher was correct to point out that, in fact, no one had ever actually directly refuted it with logic.  No one saw the need.  But if Voltaire’s victory over logical Leibniz was complete, Leibniz was not the most dangerous of foes. Voltaire had contemporaries, after all, armed with Montaigne’s Third Thing just as Voltaire was. Rousseau will fire back, sweet, endearing, maddening Rousseau, not in defense of Leibnitz, but against the poem which he sees as an attack on God.  But this battle of two earnest and progressive deists must wait until we have brought about the brave new world that has such creatures in it.  For that we need Descartes, Francis Bacon, grim Hobbes, John Locke, and the ambidextrous Bayle.

Sep 122015
 
Different approximations of the Platonic Ideal eclair.

Different approximations of the Platonic Ideal eclair.

(Best to begin with Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.)

Socrates, Sartre, Descartes and our Youth have, among them, consumed twelve thousand, six hundred and forty two hypothetical eclairs in the fourteen months since we left them contemplating skepticism on the banks of a cheerily babbling imaginary brook. Much has changed in the interval, not in the land of philosophical thought-experiments (which is ever peaceful unless someone scary like Ockham or Nietzsche gets inside), but in a world two layers of reality removed from theirs. The changes appear in the world of material circumstances which shape and foster this author, who in turn shapes and fosters our philosophical picnickers. Now, having recovered from my transplant shock of being moved to the new and fertile country of University of Chicago, and with my summer work done, and Too Like the Lightning fully revised and on its way toward its May 10th release date (YES!), it is time at last to return to our hypothetical heroes, and to my sketches of the history of philosophical skepticism.

When last we saw them, Socrates, Sartre, Descartes and our Youth had rescued themselves from the throes of absolute doubt by developing Criteria of Truth, which allowed them to differentiate arenas of knowledge where certainty is possible from arenas of knowledge where certainty is not possible. (See their previous dramatic adventures with in Sketches of a History of Skepticism Part 1 and Part 2).  To do this, they looked at three systems: Epicureanism, which suggests that we have certain knowledge of the world perceived by the senses, but no certain knowledge of the imperceptible atomic reality beneath; Platonism, which suggests that we have knowledge of the eternal structures that create the material world, i.e. Forms or Ideas, but not of the flawed, corruptible material objects which are the shadows of those eternal structures; and Aristotelianism, which suggests that we can have certain knowledge of logical principles and of categories within Nature, but not of individual objects.

Notably, neither Epicurus nor Aristotle was invited to our picnic, and, while you never know when any given Socrates will turn out to be a Plato in disguise, our particular Socrates seems to be staying safely in the camp of doubt: he knows that he knows nothing. Our object is not to determine which of these classical camps has the correct Criterion of Truth.  In fact, our distinguished guests, Descartes and Sartre, aren’t interested in rehashing these three classical systems all of whose criteria are not only familiar, but, to them, long defunct. They have not come through this great distance in time to watch Socrates open the doors of skepticism to our Youth to just meet antiquity’s familiar dogmatists; the twinkle in Descartes’ eye (and his infinite patience dolling out eclairs) tells me he’s waiting for something else.

cicero1Cicero Skepticus

Descartes and Sartre expect Cicero next — Cicero, whom many might mistake as a voice for the Stoic school (the intellectual party conspicuously missing from the assembly of Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus) but who is actually more often read by modern scholars as a new and promising kind of Skeptic.  Unfortunately, Cicero is currently busy answering a flurry of letters from someone called Petrarch, so has declined to join our little gathering (or possibly he’s just miffed hearing that I’m doing an abbreviated finale to this series, so he’d only get a couple paragraphs, even if he came).  So we must do our concise best to cover his contribution on our own.   Pyrrho, Zeno and other early skeptical voices argued in favor of doubt by demonstrating the fallibility of the senses and of pure reason: the stick in water that looks bent, the paradoxes of motion which show how logic and reality don’t match. Cicero achieves unbelief (and aims at the eudaimonist tranquility beyond) by a different route, a luxurious one made possible by the fact that he is writing three centuries into the development of philosophy and has many different dogmatic schools to fall back on. In his philosophical dialogs, Cicero presents different interlocutors who put forth different dogmatic positions: Stoic, Platonist, Epicurean; all in dialog with each other, presenting evidence for their own positions and counter-arguments against the conclusions of others.  Each interlocutor works strictly by his own Criterion of Truth, and all argue intelligently and well.  But they all disagree.  When you read them all together, you are left uncertain.  No particular voice seems to overtop the others, and the fact that there are so many different equally plausible positions, defended with equally well-defined Criteria of Truth, leaves one with no confidence that any of them is reliable.  At no point does Cicero say “I am a skeptic, I think there is no certainty,” — but the effect of reading the dialog is to be left with uncertain feelings. Cicero himself does not seem to have been a Pyrrhonist skeptic, and certainly does seem to hold some philosophical positions, especially moral principles, quite strongly.  There is certainly a good case to be made that he has strong Stoic leanings, and there is validity to the Renaissance argument that he should be vaguely clustered in with Seneca and Cato, who subscribe to a mixed-together digest of Roman paganism, Stoicism, some Platonic and a few Aristotelian elements.  But especially on big questions of epistemology, ontology and physics, Cicero remains solidly, frustratingly, elusive.

There are many important aspects of Cicero’s work, but for our purposes the most important is this: he has achieved doubt without actually making any skeptical arguments, or counter-arguments.  He has not attacked the fundamentals of Stoicism, Platonism or Epicureanism.  Instead, he has used the strengths of the three schools to undermine each other.  All three schools are convincing.  All are plausible.  All have evidence and/or logic on their side. As a result, none of the three winds up feeling convincing, even though none of the three has been directly undermined. This is not a new achievement of Cicero’s.  Epicurus used a similar technique, and Lucretius, his follower, did so too; and we know Cicero read Lucretius.  But Cicero is the most important person to use this technique in antiquity, largely because 1,300 years later it will be Cicero who become the centerpiece of Renaissance education.  And Cicero will have no small Medieval legacy as well.

WIK_Meeting-of-doctors-at-the-University-of-ParisMedieval Certainty, and the Big Question

Stereotypically for a Renaissance historian, I will move quickly through the Middle Ages, though not for the stereotypical reasons. I don’t think that the Middle Ages were an intellectual stasis; I do think that Medieval philosophy is fully of many complex things that I’m just starting to seriously work through in my own studies. I’m not ready to provide a light, fun summary of something which is, for me, still a rich forest to explore.  Church Fathers, late Neoplatonists, Chroniclers, theological councils, monastic leaders, rich injections from the Middle East, Maimonides; all intersect with doubt, certainty and Criteria of Truth in rich and fascinating ways that I am not yet prepared to do justice to.  So instead I will present an abstraction of one important aspect of Medieval thinking which I hope will help elucidate some overall approaches to doubt, even if I don’t pause to look at individual minds.

When I was in my second year of grad school, I chatted over convenience store cookies in the grad student lounge with a new student entering our program that year, like myself, to study the Renaissance.  He poked fun at the philosophers of the Middle Ages. He asked me, “How could anybody possibly be interested in going on and on and on and on like that about God?”  And in that moment of politeness, and newness, and fun, I laughed, and nodded.  But, happily, we had a good teacher who made us look more at the Medieval, without which we can’t understand the Renaissance, and now I would never laugh at such a comment.

Set aside your modern mindset for a moment, and your modern religious concepts, and see if you can jump into the Medieval mind. To start with, there is a Being of infinite power, Whose existence is known with certainty.  (Take that as given — a big given, I know, but it’s a given in this context.) Such a Being created everything that ever has existed or will exist. Everything that happens: events, births, storms, falling objects, thoughts; all were conceived by this Being and exist according to this Being’s script. The Being possesses all knowledge, and all good things are good because they resemble this Being. Everything in the material world is fleeting and imperfect and will someday be destroyed and forgotten, including the entire Earth. But — this Being has access to another universe where all things are eternal and perfect, which will last beyond the end of the material universe, and with this Being’s help there might be some way for us to reach that universe as well. The Being created humans with particular care, and is trying to communicate with us, but direct communication is a difficult process, just as it is difficult for an entomologist to communicate directly with his ants, or for a computer programmer to communicate directly with the artificial intelligences that she has programmed.

Spot the Saint! This painting from Berlin tries to capture the intensity of the collective project of trying to understand the Most Important Thing Ever: God.

Spot the Saint! This painting (in Berlin) tries to capture the intensity of the collective project of trying to understand the Most Important Thing Ever: God.

Now, the facetious question I laughed at in early grad school comes back, but turned on its head.  How could you ever want to study anything other than this Being?  It explains everything.  You want to know the cause of weather, astronomical events, diseases, time?  The answer is this Being.  You want to know where the world came from, how thought works, why there is pain?  The answer is this Being.  History is a script written by this Being, the stars are a diagram drawn by this Being, the suitability and adaptation of animals and plants to their environments is the ingenuity of this Being, and the laws that make rocks sink and wood float and fire burn and rain fall are all decisions made by this Being.  If you have any intellectual curiosity at all, wouldn’t it be an act of insanity to dedicate your life to anything other than understanding this Being?  And in a world in which there has been, for centuries, effective universal consensus on all these premises, what society would want to fund a school that didn’t study them?  Or pay tuition for a child to study something else?  Theology dominated other sciences in the Middle Ages, not because people were backward, or closed-minded, or lacked curiosity, but because they were ambitious, keenly intellectual and fixed on the a subject from which they had every reason to expect answers, not just to theological questions, but to all questions.  They didn’t have blinders, they had their eyes on the prize, and they felt that choosing to study Natural Philosophy (i.e. the world, nature, biology, plants, animals) instead of Theology was like trying to study toenail clippings instead of the being they were clipped from.

To put it another way: have you ever watched a fun, formulaic, episodic genre  show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or the X-Files? There’ll be one particular episode where the baddie-of-the-day is Christianity-flavored, and at some point a manifest miracle happens, or an angel or a ghost shows up, and then we have to reset the formula and move onto the next episode, but you spend that whole next episode thinking, “You know, they just found proof of the existence of the afterlife and the immortality of the soul. You’d think they’d decide that’s more important than this conspiracy involving genetically-modified corn.”  That’s how people in the Middle Ages felt about people who wanted to study things that weren’t God.

Doubt comes into this in important ways, but not the ways that modern rhetoric about the Middle Ages leads most people to expect.

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Spot the Saint! Who is this flanked by Aristotle and Plato who is triumphing over false philosophy? (Detail from a panel from the Louvre)

Why Scholasticism?

Wikipedia, at the time of writing, defines Scholasticism as “a method of critical thought which dominated teaching by the academics (“scholastics,” or “schoolmen”) of medieval universities in Europe from about 1100 to 1700. ” It was “a program of employing that [critical] method in articulating and defending dogma in an increasingly pluralistic context.” It “originated as an outgrowth of, and a departure from, Christian monastic schools at the earliest European universities.”  Philosophy students traditionally define Scholasticism as “that incredibly boring hard stuff about God that you have to read between the classics and Descartes”.  Both definitions are true.  Scholasticism is an incredibly tedious, exacting body of philosophy, intentionally impenetrable, obsessed with micro-detail, and happy to spend three thousand words proving to you that Good is good, or to set out a twenty step argument it is better to exist than not exist (this is presumably why Hamlet still hadn’t graduated at age 30).  Scholasticism was also so incredibly exciting that, apart from the ever-profitable medical and law schools, European higher education devoted itself to practically nothing else for the whole late Middle Ages, and, even though the intellectual firebrands of both the Renaissance and the 17th and 18th centuries devoted themselves largely to fiercely attacking the scholastic system, it did not truly crumble until deep into the Enlightenment.

Why was Scholasticism so exciting?  Even if people who believed in an omnipotent God had good reason to devote their studies pretty-exclusively to Theology, why was this one particularly dense and intentionally difficult method the method for hundreds of years?  Why didn’t they write easy-to-read, penetrable treatises, or witty philosophical tales, or even a good old fashioned Platonic-type dialog?

The answer is that Christianity changes the stakes for being wrong.  In antiquity, if you’re wrong about philosophy, and the philosophical end of theology, you’ll make incorrect decisions, possibly lead a sadder or less successful life than you would otherwise, and it might mean your legacy isn’t what you wanted it to be, but that’s it.  If you’re really, really wrong you might offend Artemis or something and get zapped, but it’s pretty easy to cover your bases by going to the right festivals.  By the logic of antiquity, if you put a Platonist and an Epicurean in a room, one of of them will be wrong and living life the wrong way, at least in some ways, but they can both have a nice conversation, and in the end, either they’ll both reincarnate and the Epicurean will have another chance to be right later, or they’ll both disperse into atoms and it won’t matter.  OK.  In Medieval Christianity, if you’re wrong about theology, your immortal soul goes to Hell forever, where you’ll be tormented by unspeakable devils for the rest of eternity, and everyone else who believes your errors is also likely to lose the chance of eternal paradise and absolute knowledge, and will be plunged into a pit of absolute misery and despair, irrevocably, forever. Error is incredibly dangerous, to you and to everyone around you who might get pulled down with you.  If you’re really bad, you might even bring the wrath of God down upon your native city, or if you’re really bad then, while you’re still alive, your soul might depart your body and sink down to Hell, leaving your body to be a house for a devil who will use you to visit evil on the Earth (see Inferno Canto 27). But leaving aside those more extreme and superstition-tainted possibilities, error became more pernicious because of eternal damnation. If people who read your theologically incorrect works go to Hell, you’re infinitely culpable, morally, since every student misled to damnation is literally an infinite crime.

DuomoHel

The Hazards of Theological Error

So, if you are a Medieval person, Theology is incredibly valuable, the only kind of study worth doing, but also incredibly dangerous.  You want to tread very carefully.  You want a lot of safety nets and spotters. You want ways to avoid error. And you know error is easy! Errors of logic, errors of failing senses.  Enter Aristotle, or more specifically enter Aristotle’s Organon, a translation of the poetic works of Aristotle completed by dear Boethius, part of the latter’s efforts to preserve Greek learning when he realized Greek and other relics of antiquity were fading. The Organon explains in great detail, how you can go about constructing chains of logic in careful, methodical ways to avoid error.  Use only clearly defined unequivocal vocabulary, and strict syllogistic and geometric reasoning.  Here it is, foolproof logic in 50 steps, I’ll show you!  Sound familiar?  This is Aristotle’s old Criterion of Truth, but it’s also the Medieval Theologian’s #1 Christmas Wish List.  The Criterion of Truth which was, for Aristotle, a path through the dark woods and a solution to Zeno and the Stick in Water, is, to our theologian, a safety net over a pit of eternal Hellfire.  That is why it was so exciting.  That was why people who wanted to do theology were willing to train for five years just in logic before even looking at a theological question, just as Astronauts train in simulators for a long time before going out into the deadly vacuum of space!  That is even why scholastic texts are so hard to read and understand – they were intentionally written to be difficult to read, partly because they’re using an incredibly complicated method, but even more because they don’t want anyone to read them who hasn’t studied their method, because if you read them unprepared you might misunderstand, and then you’d go to Hell forever and ever and ever, and it would be Thomas Aquinas’s fault. And he would be very sad.  When Thomas Aquinas was presented for canonization, after his death, they made the argument that every chapter of the Summa Theologica was itself a miracle.  It’s easy to laugh, but if you think about how desperately they wanted perfect logic, and how good Aquinas was at offering it, it’s an argument I understand.  If you were dying of thirst in the desert, wouldn’t a glass of water feel like a miracle?

zcyLWEyNzTo give credit where credit is due, the mature application of Aristotle’s formal logic to theological questions was not pioneered by Aquinas but by a predecessor: Peter Abelard, the wild rockstar of Medieval Theology. People crowded in thousands and lived in fields to hear Peter Abelard preach, it was like Woodstock, only with more Aristotle.  Why were people so excited?  Did Abelard finally have the right answer to all things?  “Yes and No,” as Peter Abelard would say, “Sic et Non“, that being the the title of his famous book, a demonstration of his skill.  (Wait, yes AND no, isn’t that even scarier and worse and more damnable than everything else?  This is the most dangerous person ever!  Bernard of Clairvaux thought so, but the Woodstock crowd at the Paraclete, they don’t.) Abelard’s skill was taking two apparently contradictory statements and showing, by elaborate roundabout logic tricks, how they agree.  Why is this so exciting?  Any troll on the internet can do that!  No, but he did it seriously, and he did it with Authorities.  He would take a bit of Plato that seemed to contradict a bit of Aristotle, and show how they actually agree.  Even ballsier, he would take a bit of Plato that pretty manifestly DOES contradict another bit of Plato, and show how they both agree.  Then, even better, he would take a bit from St. Augustine that seems to contradict a bit from St. Jerome and show how the two actually agree.  “OH THANK GOD!” cries Medieval Europe, desperately perplexed by the following conundrum:

  1. The Church Fathers are saints, and divinely inspired; their words are direct messages from God.
  2. If you believe the Church Fathers and act in accordance with their teachings, they will show you the way to Heaven; if you oppose or doubt them, you are a heretic and damned for all eternity.
  3. The Church Fathers often disagree with each other.
  4. PANIC!

Abelard rescued Medieval Europe from this contradiction, not necessarily by his every answer, but by his technique by which seemingly-contradictory authorities could be reconciled.  Plato with Aristotle is handy.  Plato with Plato sure is helpful.  Jerome with Augustine is eternal salvation.  And if he does it with the bits of Scripture that seem to contract the other bits?  He is now the most exciting thing since the last time the Virgin Mary showed up in person.

Abelard had a lover–later, wife, but she preferred ‘lover’–the even more extraordinary Heloise, and I consider it immoral to mention him without mentioning her, but her life, her stunningly original philosophical contributions and her terrible treatment at the hands of history are subjects for another essay in its own right.  For today, the important part is this: Abelard was exciting for his method, more than his ideas, his way of using Reason to resolve doubts and fears when skepticism loomed.  Thus even Scholasticism, the most infamously dogmatic philosophical method in European history, was also in symbiosis with skepticism, responding to it, building from it, developing its vast towers of baby-step elaborate logic because it knew Zeno was waiting.

Credit for this excellent diagram goes to a Huff Post article.

Credit for this excellent diagram goes to a Huff Post article by Nathan Schneider.

Proofs of the Existence of God

We are all very familiar with the veins of Christianity which focus on faith without proof as an important part of the divine plan, that God wants to test people, and there is no proof of the existence of God because God wants to be unknowable and elusive in order to test people’s faith.  The most concise formula is the facetious one by Douglas Adams, where God says: “I refuse to prove that I exist, because proof denies faith and without faith I am nothing.”  It’s a type of argument associated with very traditional, conservative Christianity, and, often, with its more zealous, bigoted, or “medieval” side.  I play a game whenever I run into a new scholar who works on Medieval or early modern theological sources, any sources, any period, any place, from pre-Constantine Rome to Renaissance Poland.  I ask: “Hey, have you ever run into arguments that God’s existence can’t be proved, or God wants to be known by faith alone, before the Reformation?”  Answers: “No.” “Nope.” “Naah.”  “No, never.” “Uhhh, not really, no.”  “Nope.” “No.” “Nothing like that.” “Hmm… no.”  “Never.”  “Oh, yeah, one time I thought I found that in this fifth-century guy, but actually it was totally not that at all.”  Like biblical literalism, it’s one of these positions that feels old because it’s part of a conservative position now, but it’s actually a very recent development from the perspective of 2,000 years of Christianity plus centuries more of earlier theological conversations.  So, that isn’t what the Middle Ages generally does with doubt; it doesn’t rave about faith or God’s existence being elusive. Europe’s Medieval philosophers were so sure of God’s existence that it was considered manifestly obvious, and doubting it was considered a mental illness or a form of mental retardation (“The fool said in his heart ‘there is no God’,” => there must be some kind of brain deficiency which makes people doubt God; for details on this a see Alan C. Kors, Atheism in France, vol. 1).  And when St. Anselm and Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus work up technical proofs of the existence of God they’re doing it, not because they or anyone was doubting the existence of God, but to demonstrate the efficacy of logic.  If you invent a snazzy new metal detector you first aim it at a big hunk of metal to make sure it works.  If you design a sophisticated robot arm, you start the test by having it pick up something easy to grab.  If you want to demonstrate the power of a new tool of logic, you test it by trying to prove the biggest, simplest, most obvious thing possible: the existence of God.

(PARENTHESIS: Remember, I am skipping many Medieval things of great importance. *cough*Averroes*cough*  This is a snapshot, not a survey.)

Three blossoms on the thorny rose of this Medieval trend toward writing proofs of the existence of God are worth stopping to sniff.

William of Ockham

William of Ockham

The first blossom is the famous William of Ockham (of “razor” fame) and his “anti-proof” of the existence of God.  Ockham was a scholastic, writing in response to and in the same style and genre as Abelard, Aquinas, Scotus, and their ilk.  But, when one read along and got to the bit where one would expect him to demonstrate his mastery of logic by proving the existence of God, he included instead a plea (paraphrase): Please, guys, stop writing proofs of the existence of God! Everyone believes in Him already anyway. If you keep writing these proofs, and then somebody proves your proof wrong by pointing out an error in your logic, reading the disproof might make people who didn’t doubt the existence of God start to doubt Him because they would start to think the evidence for His Existence doesn’t hold up!  Some will read into this Anti-Proof hints of the beginning of “God will not offer proof, He requires faith…” arguments, and perhaps it does play a role in the birth of that vein of thinking. (I say this very provisionally, because it is not my area, and I would want to do a lot of reading before saying anything firm).  My gut says, though, that it is more that Ockham thought everyone by nature believed in God, that God’s existence was so incredibly obvious, that God was not trying to hide, rather that he didn’t want the weakness of fractious scholastic in-fighting to erode what he thought was already there in everyone: belief.

Aside: While we are on the subject of Ockham, a few words on his “razor”.  Ockham is credited with the principle that the simplest explanation for a thing is most likely to the correct one.  That was not, in fact, a formula he put forward in anything like modern scientific terms.  Rather, what we refer to as Ockham’s Razor is a distillation of his approach in a specific argument: Ockham hated the Aristotelian-Thomist model of cognition, i.e. the explanation of how sense perception and thoughts work.  Hating it was fair, and anyone who has ever studied Aristotle and labored through the agent intellect, and the active intellect, and the passive intellect, and the will, and the phantasm, and innate ideas, and eternal Ideas, and forms, and categories, and potentialities, shares William of Ockham’s desire to pick Thomas Aquinas up and shake him until all the terminology falls out like loose change, and then tell him he’s only allowed to have a sensible number of incredibly technical terms (like 10, 10 would be a HUGE reduction!). Ockham proposed a new model of cognition which he set out to make much simpler, without most of the components posited by Aristotle and Aquinas, and introduced formal Nominalism.  (Here Descartes cheers and sets off a little firecracker he’s been saving).  Nominalism is the idea that “concepts” are created by the mind based on sense experience, and exist ONLY in the mind (like furniture in a room, adds Sherlock Holmes) rather than in some immaterial external sense (like Platonic forms).  Having vastly simplified and revolutionized cognition, Ockham then proceeded to describe the types of concepts, vocabulary terms and linguistic categories we use to refer to concepts in infuriating detail, inventing fifty jillion more technical terms than Aquinas ever used, and driving everyone who read him crazy.  (If you are ever transported to a dungeon where you have to fight great philosophers personified as Dungeons & Dragons monsters, the best weapon against Ockham is to grab his razor of +10 against unnecessary terminology and use it on the man himself).  One takeaway note from this aside: while “Ockham’s Razor” is a popular rallying cry of modern (post-Darwin) atheism, and more broadly of modern rationalism, that is a modern usage entirely unrelated to the creator himself.  He thought that the existence of God was so incredibly obvious, and necessary to explain so many things, from the existence of the universe to the buoyancy of cork, that if you presented him with the principle that the simplest explanation is usually best, he would agree, and happily assume that you believed, along with him, that “God” (being infinitely simple, see Plotinus and Aquinas) is therefore a far simpler answer to 10,000 technical scientific questions than 10,000 separate technical scientific answers. Like Machiavelli, Aristotle and many more, Ockham would have been utterly stunned (and, I think, more than a little scared) if he could have seen how his principles would be used later.

Treasures of my bookshelf. I aspire someday (Thanks to U Chicago's wonderful resources!) to write something on skepticism worthy to add to this particular pile.

Treasures of my bookshelf: Kors’ Atheism in France, Popkin’s History of Skepticism, Allen’s Doubt’s Boundless Sea, and Hunter & Wootton’s edited volume Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment. I aspire someday (Thanks to U Chicago’s wonderful resources!) to write something worthy to add to this particular pile.

The second blossom (or perhaps thorn?) of this Medieval fad of proving God’s existence was, well, that Ockham was 110% correct.  Here again I cite Alan Kors’ masterful Atheism in France; in short, his findings were that, when proving the existence of God became more and more popular, as the first field test to make sure your logical system worked, (a la metal detector…beep, beep, beep, yup it’s working!), it created an incentive for competing logicians to attack people’s proofs of the existence of God (i.e. if it can’t find a giant lump of iron the size of a house it’s not a very good metal detector, is it?) Thus believers spent centuries writing attacks on the existence of God, not because they doubted, but to prove their own mastery of Aristotelian logic superior to others.  This then generated thousands of pages of attacks on the existence of God, and, by a bizarre coincidence *cough*cough*, when, in the 17th and 18th centuries, we finally do start getting writings by actual overt “I really think there is no God!” atheists, they use many of the same arguments, which were waiting for them, readily available in volumes upon volumes of Church-generated books.  Dogmatism here fed and enriched skepticism, much as skepticism has always fed and enriched dogmatism, in their ongoing and fruitful symbiosis.

The third blossom is, of course, sitting with us dolling out eclairs.  Impatient Descartes has been itching, ever since I mentioned Anselm, to leap in with his own Proof of the Existence of God, one which uses a more mature form of Ockham’s Nominalism, coupled with the tools of skepticism, especially doubt of the senses.  But Descartes may not speak yet! (Don’t make that angry face at me, Monsieur, you’ll agree when you hear why.) It won’t be Descartes’ turn until we have reviewed a few more details, a little Renaissance and Reformation, and introduced you to Descartes’ great predecessor, the fertile plain on whom Descartes will erect his Cathedral.  Smiling now, realizing that we draw near the Illustrious Father of Skeptics whom he has been waiting for, Descartes sits back content, until next time.

But do not fear, the wait will be short this time.  Socrates is in more suspense than Descartes, and if I stop writing he’ll start demanding that I define “illustrious” or “next” or “man”, so I’d better plunge straight in.  Meanwhile, I hope you will leave this little snapshot with the following takeaways:

  1. Angels at a Last Judgment (in Berlin) sorting correct souls from souls guilty of ERROR!

    Medieval thought was not dominated by the idea that logic and inquiry are bad and Blind Faith should rule; much more often, Medieval thinkers argued that logic and inquiry were wonderful because they could reinforce and explain faith, and protect people from error and eternal damnation. Medieval society threw tons of energy into the pursuit of knowledge (scientia, science), it’s just that they thought theology was 1000x more important than any other topic, so concentrated the resources there.

  2. When you see theologians discussing whether certain areas of knowledge are “beyond human knowledge” or “unknowable”, before you automatically call this a backwards and closed-minded attitude, remember that it comes from Plato, Epicurus and Aristotle, who tried to differentiate knowledge into areas that could be known with certainty, and areas where our sources (senses/logic) are unreliable, so there will always be doubt. The act of dividing certain from uncertain only becomes close-minded when “that falls outside what can be known with certainty” becomes an excuse for telling the bright young questioner to shut up.  This happened, but not always.
  3. Even when there were not many philosophers we could call “skeptics” in the formal sense, and the great ancient skeptics were not being read much, skepticism continued to be a huge part of philosophy because the tools developed to combat it (Aristotle’s logical methods, for example) continued to be used, expanded and re-purposed in the ongoing search for certainty.
  4. Remember Cicero; he’ll be back.

Continue to Part 4: The Renaissance, Montaigne and a touch of Voltaire.

Jun 222015
 

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Hello, patient friends.  The delight of brilliant and eager students, the siren call of a new university library, the massing threat of conjoining deadlines, and the thousand micro-tasks of moving across the country have caused a very long gap between posts.  But I have several pieces of good news to share today, as well as new thoughts on Machiavelli:

  1. Most important: I have a new essay up on Tor.com: “When Less Plot is More Play: Love’s Labour’s Lost vs. Pericles Prince of Tyre.”  I’m sure anyone who enjoys my usual pieces here will enjoy it in the same way. It’s part of the wonderful Tor.com Shakespeare Reread series, which has a lot of other great authors contributing, so I hope you’ll check out their pieces too.
  2. The next installment of my Sketches of a History of Skepticism series is 2/3 finished, and I hope to have it up in a week or three, deadlines permitting.
  3. I have an excellent new assistant named Mack Muldofsky, who is helping me with Ex Urbe, music, research and many other projects.  So we have him to thank in a big way if the speed of my posting picks up this summer.
  4. Because I have a lot of deadlines this summer, I have asked some friends to contribute guest entries here, and we have a few planned treating science, literature and history, so that’s something we can look forward to together.
  5. For those following my music, the Sundown Kickstarter is complete, and it is now possible to order online the CD and DVD of my Norse Myth song cycle Sundown: Whispers of Ragnarok. In addition to the discs, you can also order two posters, one of my space exploration anthem “Somebody Will” and one which is a detailed map of the Norse mythological cosmos.  CD sales go to supporting the costs of traveling to concerts.
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    The finished CD, with its full-color lyrics booklet. So many hours of layout and proofreading, but so worth-it!

    I have several concerts and public events lined up for the summer:

    1. At Mythcon (July 31-Aug 2), Lauren Schiller and myself, performing as the duo “Sassafrass: Trickster and King” will join Guest of Honor Jo Walton for “Norse Hour,” in which she will read Norse myth-themed poetry in alternation with our Norse-themed songs.
    2. Sunday August 9th, I have been invited do a reading of the freshly-polished opening chapters of my novel Too Like the Lightning (due out in Summer 2016) at the Tiptree Award Ceremony event honoring Jo Walton, who couldn’t make it to the initial ceremony but received the Tiptree this year for her novel My Real Children. The event is being held at Borderlands in San Francisco at 3 PM, and will feature readings by local authors, and music performed by myself and Lauren.
    3. Monday August 17th, at 7 PM, I am joining Jo and Lauren again at Powell’s, where Jo will read from her books, Lauren and I will sing, and I will interview Jo and talk about my writing as well as hers.
    4. Finally at Sasquan (Worldcon, Aug 19-23) Lauren and I will have a full concert, I will do another reading from Dogs of Peace, and I will be on several exciting panels.
For those who read and enjoy my Tor Shakespeare post, one addendum: the recent Globe production of Love's Labour's Lost (available on DVD) is VERY good, highly recommended!

For those who read and enjoy my Tor Shakespeare post, one addendum: the recent Globe production of Love’s Labour’s Lost (available on DVD) is very very good, highly recommended!

Meanwhile, I have a little something to share here.  I continue to receive frequent responses to my Machiavelli series, and recently one of them sparked such an interesting conversation in e-mail that I wanted to post it here, for others to enjoy and respond to.  These are very raw thoughts, and I hope the discussion will gain more participants here in the comment thread (I have trimmed out parts not relevant to the discussion):

In this discussion, I use a term I often use when trying to introduce intellectual history as a concept, and which I have been meaning to write about here for some time, “Intellectual Technology.”

A little conversation about Machiavelli:

From Michael:
I have been reading your blog posts on Machiavelli. You write with tremendous learning, clarity and colour, and really bring past events alive in a brilliant way.  But……..  I think you’re far too soft on Machiavelli!!!
I’m working on a PhD about him and it’s fascinating to see that nearly all present-day academics, and indeed academics during much of the second half of the 20th century, have a largely if not completely uncritical admiration for him and his works. He is lauded, for example as a forerunner of pluralism, and supporter of republicanism/democracy, yet his clear inspiration of Italian fascism is almost completely overlooked.  The fact that Gramsci revered Machiavelli is dealt with by many scholars, but Mussolini’s admiration for him is hurriedly passed over.
In the absence of a relevant illustration, please enjoy this beautiful hand, on a ceramic Madonna, in Berlin.

In the absence of a relevant illustration, please enjoy this beautiful hand, on a ceramic Madonna, in the Bode museum, Berlin.

Your post on Machiavelli and atheism is really interesting – in that context the 2013 book Machiavelli by Robert Black would be of interest to you…
Best regards, Michael Sanfey, IEP/UCP Lisbon.
Reply from Ada:
Michael,Thank you for writing in to express your enjoyment of my blog posts. I think your criticisms of Machiavelli are interesting and largely fair, and my own opinions overlap with yours in many ways, though not in others. I agree with you completely that there are inappropriate tendencies in a lot of scholars to praise Machiavelli inappropriately as a proto-modern champion of Democracy, republicanism, pluralism, modern national pride etc., all of which are characterizations are deeply inappropriate and also deeply presentist, reading anachronistic values back into him. But there is also a tendency, dominant earlier in the 20th century, to villify Machiavelli too much in precisely the same anachronistic and presentist way, characterizing him as a fascist or a Nazi and reading back into his work the things that were done in the 20th century by people who used some of his ideas but mixed them with many others. My way of approaching Machiavelli focuses above all on trying to distance him from the present and place him in his context, to show that he is neither a modern hero nor a modern villain since he isn’t modern at all. The question is separate, which you bring up, of how much to blame him or criticize him for opening up the direction of reasoning which led to later consequentialism, and also to fascism which certainly used him as one of its foundational texts. Here I find myself uncomfortable with the idea of historical blame at all, particularly when it’s blame over such a long span of time.

I tend to think of thinkers as toolmakers, or inventors of “intellectual technology”, innovators who have created a new thing which can then be used by many people. New inventions can be used in many ways, and in anticipatable and unanticipatable ways. Just as, for example, carbon steel can be used to raise great towers and send train lines across continents, it can be used to build weapons and take lives, so it is a complex question how much to blame the inventor of carbon steel for its many uses. In this sense, I do believe we can see Machiavelli as a weapon-maker, since the ideas he was generating were directly intended to be used in war and politics. We can compare him very directly to the inventor of gunpowder in this sense. I also see him–and this is much of the heart of my critique–as a defensive weapon maker, i.e. someone working in a period of danger and siege trying to create something with which to defend his homeland. So, imagine now the inventor of gunpowder creating it to defend his homeland from an invasion. Is he responsible for all later uses of gunpowder as well? Is he guilty of criminal negligence for not thinking through the fact that long-term many more people will be killed by his invention than live in his home town? Do the lives saved by gunpowder throughout its history balance out against the lives saved in some kind of (Machiavellian/consequentialist) moral calculus? I don’t think “yes” or “no” are fair answers to such a complex question, but I do think it is important, when we think about Machiavelli and what to hold him responsible for, to remember the circumstances in which he created gunpowder (i.e. consequentialist ethics), and that he invented other great things too, like political science and critical historical reasoning. The debts are complicated, as is the culpability for how inventions are used after the inventor’s death. So while I join you wholeheartedly in wanting to fight back against the distortion of Machiavelli the Mythical proto-modern Republican, I also think it’s valuable to battle against the myth of Machiavelli the proto-Fascist, and try to create a portrait of the real man as I see him, Machiavelli the frightened Florentine.

More beautiful ceramic Madonna hands, from Berlin.

More beautiful ceramic Madonna hands, from Berlin.

I do know Bob Black’s Machiavelli book, but disagree with some of his fundamental ideas about humanism itself – another fun topic, and one I enjoy discussing with him at conferences. He’s a challenging interlocutor. There is a very good recent paper by James Hankins on Academia.edu now about the “Virtue Politics” of humanists, which I recommend that you look at if you’re interested in responses to Black.

Best, Ada Palmer, University of Chicago

More from Michael:
First, I want to thank you for this fantastically detailed and brilliant response…  I’d like to “come back at you” on consequentialism and some other points:
* Regarding your point about Machiavelli not being modern at all, I see what you mean, albeit you do say of Machiavelli in the post on atheism that “he is in other ways so very modern”. Leo Strauss certainly thought he had a lot to do with the introduction of what we know as “modernity”.
* When you seek to balance the need to fight against the Proto-republican myth and against the Proto-fascist myth, the first of those “myths” enjoys immeasurably wider currency than the second, and I ask myself, why is this?
*  On the “intellectual technology” point below, and its being essentially neutral, in this case I wouldn’t agree with you, because we are not talking here about an object like gunpowder, it’s actually concerning something much more important. In ethical terms, Machiavelli took transcendent values out of the equation. As you put it, Machiavelli created “an ethics which works without God” – except that it doesn’t work!!!
* Machiavelli has had a questionable impact in regard to “realism” in International relations. You mention in one of the posts that he backed an alliance with Borgia so as to protect Florence, agreeing to offer money and resources to help Borgia conquer more – a very good example of Machiavelli‘s undoubted sympathy for imperialism.
PPS  On the question of Machiavelli being an atheist or not, I really was fascinated by that part of your Ex Urbe writings.  I’ve concluded that, whatever about him being an atheist or not, one could certainly describe him as “ungodly” would you agree?
Quick response from Ada:

I think “ungodly” does work for Machiavelli depending on how you define it; it has a connotation of being immoral–which does not fit–but if instead you mean it literally as someone who makes his calculations without thinking much about the divine then it fits.

Teach yourself German! "Schweinerassel," a ceramic bottle in the shape of a pig. 2nd century!

Teach yourself German! “Schweinerassel,” a ceramic bottle in the shape of a pig. 2nd century! I had fun in Berlin, and this year’s Renaissance Society of America conference there was one of the best academic conferences I’ve ever attended.

A supplementary comment on “Intellectual Technology”:

I find “intellectual technology” a very useful concept when I try to describe what I study.  Broadly my work is “intellectual history” or “the history of ideas” but what I actually study is a bit more specific: how particular kinds of ideas come into existence, disseminate, and come to be regulated at different points in time.  The types of ideas I investigate–atomism, determinism, utilitarianism–move through human culture very much the same way technological innovations do.  They come into being in a specific place and time, as a result of a single inventor or collaboration.  They spread from that point, but their spread is neither inevitable nor simple. Sometimes they are invented separately  by independent people in independent places, and sometimes they exist for centuries before having a substantial impact. When a new idea enters a place and comes into common use, it completely changes the situation and makes actions or institutions which worked before no longer viable. I compare Machiavelli’s utilitarianism to gunpowder above, but here are some other examples of famous cases of technological inventions, and ideas which disseminated in similar patterns:

The Bicycle and Atomism

Leonardo da Vinci sketched a design for a bicycle in the Renaissance, and may have seriously tried to construct one, but afterward no one did so for a very long time. Then many other factors changed: the availability of rubber and light-weight strong metals, the growth of large, centralized cities and a working population in need of inexpensive transit, and suddenly the bicycle was able to combine with these other factors to revolutionize life and society in a huge rush, first across Europe and then well beyond.  We have moved on from it to develop more complex technologies that achieve the same function, but still use it and develop it more, and even where we don’t, and cities would not have the shapes they do now without it, and it is still transforming parts of the world it has touched more slowly.  Similarly atomism was developed and used for a little while, then languished in notebooks for a long time, before combining with the right factors to spread and rapidly transform society and culture.

The Unity of All Life and Calculus

Newton and Leibnitz developed Calculus independently at the same time. Similarly, both classical Stoicism in Greece and Buddhism in India roughly simultaneously and independently, as far as we can tell, developed the idea that all living things–humans, insects, ancients, people not yet born–are, in fact, parts of one contiguous, interconnected, sacred living thing.  This enormously rich and complex concept had a huge number of applications in each society, but seems to have been independently developed to meet the demands for metaphysical and emotional answers of societies at remarkably similar developmental stages.  The circumstances were right, and the ideas then went on to be applied in vastly different but still similar ways.

Feminism and the Aztec Wheel

Aztec wheeled toyFor a long time we thought the Aztecs didn’t have the wheel.  More recently we discovered that they had children’s toys which used the wheel, but never developed it beyond that.  Which means someone thought of it, and it disseminated a bit and was used in a very narrow way, but not developed further because what we think of as more “advanced” or “industrial” applications (wagon, wheelbarrow) just weren’t compatible with the Aztec world (largely because it was incredibly hilly and didn’t have the elaborate road system Europe developed, relying instead on human legs, stairs, and raw terrain, which were sufficient to let it develop a robust and complex economy and empire of its own.  The wheel became more useful in the Americas when European-style city plans and roads were built).  Similarly Plato voiced feminism in his Republic, arguing that women and men were fundamentally interchangeable if educated the same way, and people who read the Republic discussed it as a theory among many other elements of the book, but didn’t develop it further (again, I would argue, this was at least in part because the economic and social structures of the classical world depended on the gendered division of labor, particularly for the production of thread in the absence of advanced spinning technology, which is why literally all women in Rome spent tons of time spinning–spinning quotas were even sometimes required by law of prostitutes since if there was a substantial sliver of the female population employed without spinning Rome would run out of cloth.  Feminism was better able to become revolutionary in Europe when (among other changes) industrialization reduced the number of hours required for the maintenance of a household and the production of cloth, making it more practical to redirect female labor, and question why it had been locked into that in the first place).

In sum, there is a concreteness to the ideas whose movements I study, a distinct and recognizable traceability. Interpretive analyses, comparative, subjective analyses, analyses of technique, aesthetics, authorial intent, authenticity, such analyses are excellent, but they aren’t intellectual history as I practice and teach it.  I trace intellectual technology. Just as the gun, or carbon steel, or the moldboard plow came in at a particular time and had an impact, I study particular ideas whose dissemination changed what it was possible for human beings to do, and what shapes human society can be. It is meaningful to talk about being at an “intellectual tech level” or at least about being pre- or post- a particular piece of intellectual technology (progress, utilitarianism, the scientific method) just as much as we can talk about being pre- or post-computer, gunpowder, or bronze. Such things cannot be un-invented once they disseminate through a society, though some societies regulate or restrict them, and they can be lost, or spend a long time hidden, or undeveloped. Elites often have a legal or practical monopoly on some (intellectual) technologies, but nothing can stop things from sometimes getting into the hands or minds of the poor or the oppressed. Sometimes historians are sure a piece of (intellectual) technology was present because we have direct records of it: a surviving example, a reference, a drawing, something which was obviously made with it. Other times we have only secondary evidence (they were farming X crop which, as far as we know, probably requires the moldboard plow; they described a strange kind of unknown weapon which we think means gun; they were discussing heretics of a particular sort which seems to have involved denial of Providence).

One last excellent sculpted hand, again from my conference trip to Berlin this year.

One last excellent sculpted hand, again from my conference trip to Berlin this year.

I realize that it would be easy to read my use of “intellectual technology” as an attempt to climb on the pro-science-and-engineering bandwagon, presenting intellectual history as quasi-hard-science, much as we joke that if poets started calling themselves “syllabic engineers” they would suddenly be paid more.  But it isn’t a term I’m advocating as a label, necessarily.  It’s a term I use for thinking, a semantic tool for describing the specific type of idea history I practice, and linking together my different interests into a coherent whole.  When I spell out what I’m working on right now as an historian, it’s actually a rather incoherent list: “the history of atheism, atomic science, skepticism, Platonic and Stoic theology, soul theory, homosexuality, theodicy, witchcraft, gender construction, saints and heavenly politics, Viking metaphysics, the Inquisition, utilitarianism, humanist self-fashioning, and what Renaissance people imagined ancient Rome was like.  And if you give me an hour, I can sort-of explain what those things have to do with each other.”  Or I can say, “I study how particularly controversial pieces of new intellectual technology come into being and spread over time.”

In that light, then, we can think of Machiavelli as the inventor of a piece of intellectual technology, or rather of several pieces of intellectual technology, since consequential ethics is one, but his new method of historical analysis (political science) is another.  We might compare him to someone who invented both the gun and the calculator.  How do we feel about that contribution?  Positive?  Negative?  Critical?  Celebratory?  I think the only universal answer is: we feel strongly.

See more thoughts on this in the follow-up post: Intellectual Technology–A Promoted Comment.

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.

Sep 142013
 

beccaria (1)“Make everyone read Beccaria!” is one of many sentiments I share with François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire.

This post was prompted by two things.

The first was this comment responding my post about the two recent Borgia TV series, which mentioned TV depictions of horrific pre-modern executions.

Jen: “I am watching the final episode of The Borgias, Season 2, in which Savonarola is tortured and burnt at the stake, and again I find myself wondering – what was the supposed justification and thinking behind these acts? What did the church think burning people achieved? I know it was meant to be symbolic in some way, but of what I don’t know. I just do not understand why people were capable of such hideous acts of evil and why they did not realise that it was evil? How on earth could they reconcile this acts with their supposed devout religious beliefs??? Why was torture used without a second thought? So many questions about humanity and religion. Why did it take so long for us humans to develop a moral compass, and to value compassion?”

Addressing all these questions would take me deep into fraught realms of psychology, speculation, and accusation, and also deep into unhappy contemporary controversies over torture and capital punishment, none of which I want to stick my foot in. I do believe I can respond in one useful way with an historical portrait of one important moment in the history of this question. This is also one of those great undersung moments of real history which is so unilaterally good that it can all make us feel that much more proud to be human.

My second prompt was a recent experience with jury duty.  There was some excitement among my friends when I was summoned for jury duty, speculating about how exactly I would get myself disqualified, since they were confident no attorney in the land would want me.  I did rather want to be on the jury, in the name of interesting life experiences, so I started out trying to be inert and quiet, but eventually the defense attorney brought up that he saw from the sheet that I was a professor and asked me what I taught, and it was clear from that that I was pre-disqualified whatever I did, so decided thereafter to be honest.  The jury selection scene was so stereotypical as to be almost a parody of itself, with a clean-cut young city slicker prosecutor with a distinctively stylish haircut, black pinstripe suit, rimless glasses who had such a boyish face he might have passed for an undergrad, facing off against a gray-haired defense attorney in a corduroy jacket and jeans with a southern drawl and a giant belt buckle shaped like Texas.

In his slow, meandering style (and with a gratuitous, emotionally manipulative photo of a mother cradling a baby on his Powerpoint, which was absolutely unrelated to any aspect of the case at hand) the defense attorney proceeded to go along the line and ask each potential juror what they thought the purpose of judicial punishment was: deterrence or rehabilitation.  When asked to define “deterrence,” he explained it as “punishment, let’s get ’em, eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.”  He went along getting a ratio of about two rehabilitations to one deterrence until he got to me.  I froze a moment, pursed my lips, then delivered what was honestly absolutely the most restrained impassioned speech I could manage.  “You’re conflating two different types of justice,” I said (rough reconstruction).  “Eye for an eye justice isn’t deterrence, it’s retributive justice, and the two are radically different.  Retributive justice selects punishments with the goal of inflicting some punishment on the guilty party in order to achieve some kind of justice, balance, repentance, or fairness. Deterrence-based justice instead selects punishments based on what effect the punishment will have on the general population as a disincentive discouraging the crime in question.  The two are not only different but, from an historical perspective, directly opposed, and their opposition is at the heart of all post-Enlightenment judicial codes including our own, thanks to the influence of Voltaire and Cesare Beccaria.”  By this point the court stenographer declared me her eternal enemy and halted the proceedings so I could spell Cesare Beccaria for her, slowly, twice.  Both the lawyers gave that special sort of “And this is why we don’t put people with Ph.D.s on juries” smiles at me, but I was satisfied to find that two other prospective jurors after me did speak up and say, “I agree with the professor, retribution isn’t deterrence.”

It is the moment of the birth of this distinction that I want to visit today. This moment addresses Jen’s questions about why medieval governments and the Church used so much violent torture, not by analyzing the Middle Ages, but by revisiting the first moment that the very questions Jen asked were asked by someone else, and thereby entered the central conversation of European thought, with real and wonderful consequences.

BeccariaSome other day I will sing the praises of the Enlightenment in their full glory.  For now suffice to say that the Age of Reason deserved its title.  In the seventeenth century, the new philosophers, especially Descartes and Francis Bacon, had birthed the new and exciting idea that, by applying Reason and systematic analysis to things, human beings could find ways to alter them to make them more rational and better, for the good of all humankind.  They saw Reason as a tool supplied by Nature and/or God to let human beings govern themselves and improve their condition, with the power to achieve anything humanity could dream of if we work carefully enough and long enough.  In this spirit, intellectuals investigated engines, spinning methods, the circulation of the blood, birthing procedures, baking chemistry, light, optics, physics, and refrigeration, and discovered many new things which promised greatness, and some which were already delivering.  As the eighteenth century approached, the methods which had been being applied primarily to what we might call hard sciences (with the terrifying exception of the shadowy “Beast of Malmesbury” a.k.a. Thomas Hobbes, whose fascinating infamy I hope someday to treat as I have Machiavelli’s) began with increasing frequency to be applied to other matters: government, law, justice (see Montesquieu and Locke), religion (Rousseau, Paine), and eventually crimes and punishments.  If human institutions are held up for examination before the Light of Reason, claims the Method, they can be revised to be more rational and better, also better in line with Nature – with these improvements we will make a better world.  It was this effort which was spearheaded by the great lights we remember: the Encyclopedia Project, Voltaire, Diderot, d’Holbach, d’Alambert, Franklin, Jefferson,  and taken even further by other more chilling figures like La Mettrie and Sade.

Cesare Beccaria was from Milan, a nobleman and jurist under the Hapsburgs.  He and other excited young intellectuals were enthusiastic readers of the firebrand treatises of Voltaire and others which trickled down from France.  In that spirit, they set up their own intellectual circle jokingly named “L’Accademia dei pugni” (the Academy of Fists).  Beccaria was interested in applying Reason’s razor to the ancient law codes he was now empowered to enforce (in the name of foreign but theoretically enlightened rulers in a conquered but civilized land).  The young Beccaria, who was only 26 at the time, collaborated with Pietro and Alessandro Verri and produced, in 1764, a tiny little treatise On Crimes and Punishments.  It was released anonymously, to protect its radical authors.  It was thereafter translated into French where it became an immediate sensation, particularly since Voltaire, The Pen Mightier than Any Sword, embraced the treatise like a long-lost child, wrote a commentary on it, and shoved it at everyone.  Though there were three minds behind the treatise, Beccaria was chosen to author it because of his flare for rhetoric. You can see it in the opening lines, which precisely express the first time someone asked Jen’s big question “Why did Europe of that era use such gruesome punishments?”:

Some remains of the laws of an ancient conquering people, compiled on the authority of a prince who reigned twelve centuries ago in Constantinople, later mingled with Lombard customs and collected in hodge-podge volumes by unofficial and obscure commentators–this is what forms the traditional opinions that in a large part of Europe are nonetheless called “law.”  Moreover, it is today as pernicious as it is common that an opinion of Carpzov, an ancient custom cited by Claro, or a torture suggested with irate complacency by Farinacci, should be the laws unhesitatingly followed by those who ought to dispose of the lives and fortunes of men only with diffidence.  (Young translation, Hackett, 1986)

In On Crimes and Punishments Beccaria examined the purpose of extreme punishments, thereby exposing, certainly not the only answer, but a set of answers which he then used to propose a shocking new way to think about punishment: deterrence.

Beccaria_excerptBeccaria begins from the extremely Enlightenment position of considering the pleasure-pain principle the natural core of human (and animal) life.  Animals, people among them, pursue happiness and flee unhappiness: pleasures including food and love but also virtue and success; pains including physical pain, deprivation, shame, and death.  The purpose of a  legal system is to ensure and protect a situation which will secure the most happiness for the most people.  Just as a farmer must examine his methods to choose the techniques that will produce the most wheat of the best quality, so must the jurist examine his laws and punishments and choose those which will best protect  and cultivate the common happiness of the people.

Beccaria follows Montesquieu, following Locke, in his political fundamentals.  He believes in Laws of Nature, among them the rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.  He believes that governments are instituted by a Social Contract, created by humans for mutual protection and benefit.  Fearing their defenselessness in the State of Nature, early humans united together, sacrificing a small portion of their liberty to create the sovereignty of the state so it could protect them “against the private usurpations against each individual.”  In this system, governments were not created by God with divine right, as was the traditional view, but they do have divine sources in that Reason and Nature are divine creations, and Reason is God’s gift to humanity to let humans protect and govern themselves.  He therefore will not accept arguments that invoke religious justification against Reason, because in the dominantly Deist spirit of the Enlightenment, even an Italian Catholic believes that God is Light and Reason and therefore that if Reason and divine edicts seem to contradict there must be a mistake somewhere.  Reason and religion, if both true, will always, the age believed, align.  In his treatise on the small topic of crime and punishment, therefore, Beccaria sees himself contributing a footnote to preceding treatises on rational government, rational law and rational religion, Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws foremost among them.  And by “he sees himself contributing a small footnote,” I mean in the most sweet and adorable way, as this passage sums up:

The immortal President de Montesquieu touched hastily upon this matter.  Indivisible truth has compelled me to follow the shining footsteps of this great man… I shall count myself fortunate if I, as did he, can earn the secret gratitude of the little-known and peace-loving followers of reason and if I can inspire the sweet thrill with which sensitive souls respond to whoever upholds the interests of humanity!  (Introduction)

And he took up this great topic with the overt intention of beginning an international dialog, inviting replies thus:

Whoever would wish to honor me with his criticisms, I repeat, should not begin, then, by supposing that I hold principles which are subversive either of virtue or of religion… But anyone who will write with the decency that becomes honorable men and with enough intelligence to free me from proving elementary principles, of whatever character he may be, will find me not so much a man eager to reply in his own defense as a peaceful friend of the truth. (Address to the Reader)

In all this, it is important to remember that, in Beccaria’s examinations of “Why do we use torture?” and “Why do we execute people?”, he does not have modern psychology in his analytic repertoire.  He cannot, as we would, suggest that public executions were social catharsis, venting aggression in a controlled way, as sports would later.  He cannot discuss the psychological relationship between the authority and the condemned, or talk about how sentences reinforce personal power or vent subconscious drives.  He acts, as all pre-Freud thinkers do, on the belief that all human behavior is based on active, conscious decision-making.  Some actions may be unexamined, i.e. based on bad logic and false conclusions, and actions based on imperfect information lead to error, but they are still based on some form of mental calculation, and the better examined they are, the more likely they are to be right.   The judges enforcing the old mongrel legal code, part Roman, part Lombard, which Beccaria asks us to question, do so, in his view, in an unexamined way, falsely believing that that code is good and right in itself, or at least serves their ends.  They have not examined it under the light of reason and asked what the utility is of each law and punishment.  But they still decide to enforce this law code rationally, consciously, knowingly, not for hidden reasons deep in the root of the inaccessible mind.

What, Beccaria asks, is the purpose of legal punishment?

salemwitchtrial-eBy Beccaria’s metric, all activities of the state must serve its primary function, that is, to provide the most happiness to the greatest number of citizens.  This follows from the principle that the state is founded on the basis of reason for the protection and happiness of the people.  Any aspect of the government, and within that of the legal system, which does not help serve this mandate to protect and distribute happiness will be rejected as irrational.  All punishments, then, must serve to increase human happiness.  He agrees with Montesquieu that “every punishment which does not derive from absolute necessity is tyrannical.” (ch. 2)  From this he concludes three principles: (1) That only law, and not individuals with some kind of special authority, can justly impose punishments, (2) that if punishments derive from a social contract which binds all people equally, then all people equivalently bind the state equally and are entitled to the same treatment and the same punishment under the law, and (3) that excessively cruel punishments which have no benefit to public happiness have no justification and are tyrannical, and contrary to the virtue of reasoning people.

How do we determine the appropriate severity for a punishment?  It should, he argues, be measured based on the harm done to the nation by the crime, and the punishment should be proportional, and focused on preventing the crime.  In other words, deterrence.  Ever the Enlightenment scientist, Beccaria likens self-interest to gravity, a powerful and universal force driving people toward action which can only be stopped by an opposing force. Thus when self-interest directs toward crime, that drive must be countered by an opposing one: fear of punishment.  Prevention of crime, then, is the sole justification for judicial punishment in Beccaria’s analysis, not retribution, nor the at-this-point-largely-undreamed-of idea of rehabilitation.

Can the cries of a poor wretch turn back time and undo actions which have already been done?… The purpose of punishment, then, is nothing other than to dissuade the criminal from doing fresh harm… punishments and the method of inflicting them should be chosen that, mindful of the proportion between crime and punishment, will make the most effective and lasting impression on men’s minds and inflict the least torment on the body of the criminal. (ch. 12)

He does, however, review (in ch. 7) what he sees as other traditional justifications for proposing punishments, and it is here that his treatise gives us a snapshot of what one legal expert saw as the logic underlying the mass of gradually-accumulated law.

Some people, he says, have measured crimes on the basis of the dignity of the injured party (an interesting metric, and one the modern world has left far behind).  Here he would be thinking of how a crime of a commoner against a nobleman is far more harshly dealt with than one against another commoner.  If this is the system of logic, we can see why offenses against the Crown or against a lawful feudal lord could be punished with great severity, if they are read as injuring the Dignity, Grace, or Person of the sovereign.  To use the Robin Hood example, if one hunts the king’s deer this seems like a minor injury if we see it as harming the deer, forest, or warden, but if the offense is seen as being one against the dignity and rights of the king then, by rank proportion logic, a punishment sufficient to avenge an offense against such great dignity must indeed be extreme.  Yet, Beccaria argues, this type of reasoning cannot be the true metric people are using, because if so then crimes against God, i.e. blasphemy or irreverence, would be punished far more gruesomely and severely than the assassination of a monarch.  Crimes against God were indeed punished very severely in his era (see the extreme examples of burning at the stake), but the assassin of a king was certainly regarded with more hatred, and executed with more gruesome creativity.  In addition, actual burning at the stake for heresy or blasphemy or even witchcraft was, in the era of the Inquisition Beccaria was familiar with, exceptionally rare.  Extreme cases like that of our dear Giordano Bruno did indeed end with blood and fire (a particularly visceral reality for me since he was burned alive a few paces from the apartment where I used to live in Rome). But in the Italian Inquisition such cases were rare, exceptions, usually examples brought on by some special political circumstance, and the usual sentence for blasphemy or even devil worship was being forced to sit through a bunch of boring religious re-education seminars and recite a lot of prayers (see the work of Nicholas Davidson on the Inquisition in Venice).  Clearly, Beccaria concludes, the logic of the current law cannot always be that the punishment is chosen to be proportional to the dignity of the victim, but that type of thinking does seem, to him, to be an inconsistent but present factor in the thought behind the gore.

Other people, Beccaria says, have proposed that the punishment should be in proportion to the crime, i.e. “that the gravity of sin should play some part in the measurement of crimes.”  In other words, that the purpose of punishment could be to achieve some kind of abstract balance or justice, righting wrongs, giving criminals their just deserts, etc.   This reasoning he sees behind some aspects of the current law, and certainly it fits an eye for an eye and a life for a life, though doesn’t quite help us understand the practices of hacking off a hand for theft, or sawing a man in half from crotch to head for committing murder on a day that irritated the pope.  But choosing punishments to balance the gravity of sin Beccaria says is also contrary to Reason.  His argument?  He asks us to look at “the relationships between men and men, and between men and God.”  The former, he says, are relations of equality in which issues of common utility are primary, since those are what form the relationships between people.  Thus utility, not abstract justice, should govern such relationships, and thus if punishments are to be based on relations between people, then utility, i.e. deterrence, should be the deciding factor.  As for relations “between men and God,” it is here that Beccaria puts the idea of abstract, cosmic, or universal justness demanding that a crime be punished.  He then argues that it is not humanity’s task to pursue universal justice.

If [God] has established eternal punishments for anyone who disobeys His omnipotence, what insect will dare to supplement divine justice?  What insect will wish to avenge [wrongs against] the Being Who is sufficient unto Himself, Who cannot receive impressions of pleasure or pain from objects, and Who alone among all beings acts without being acted upon?  The seriousness of sin depends upon the unfathomable malice of the human heart, and finite beings cannot know this without revelation.  How, then, can a standard for punishing crimes be drawn from this?  In such a case, men might punish when God forgives and forgive when God punishes.  If men can be in conflict with the Almighty by offending Him, they can also be so by punishing.

Justice_statue

Justice, one of the Virtues, along with Faith, Hope, Charity, Prudence, Temperance, and Fortitude.

It is interesting for the modern observer to note how directly Beccaria equates notions of abstract justice or balance with the idea that crimes are offenses against God.  At no point in his treatise does Beccaria undertake to argue against any concept of secular universal justice.  Justice is, for him, either a question of balancing individual relations between people, where utility should reign, or it is a matter of religion.  Sin, with all its religious weight, is the word he chooses when discussing the idea of proportional punishment–people, he says, think punishment should balance sin, not evil, or wrong.  It does not occur to Beccaria that anyone might propose a secular moral code demanding that killers get their just deserts, etc.  The only secular principles he would accept are those of Nature and Reason, though for him, as for so many Enlightenment figures, these factors are far from secular in his understanding.  Despite Pierre Bayle’s comparatively recent but (in)famous argument to the contrary, Beccaria is still very much thinking in the era when even such a radical as Thomas Paine believed that an atheist could not be a citizen, would not respect the law, and would never have any reason to refrain from crime.

These, then, are Beccaria’s notions of what logic lay buried under the accumulated traditions and contradictions of pre-modern European law: avenging the dignity of the injured party, and proportioning punishment to sin.  He rejects both of these as irrational, saying we may justly assign punishment only when it secures public happiness.  For those who have read my Machiavelli entry on the three branches of Ethics, note here how Beccaria is arguing that human relations must be analyzed using utilitarianism, confining deontology to divine questions, though one can certainly make the case that he is applying a kind of deontology of his own, using his understanding of Nature and Reason as his abstract internal laws.  This kind of Reason-based deontology, closely aligned to utilitarianism, is common among those Enlightenment figures who invoke Laws of Nature, or so-called self-evident principles.

Deterrence reigns, for Beccaria, as the keyword of the day.  The purpose of punishment is to discourage crime, not to achieve balance or to avenge the dignity of the injured party.  From this conclusion, Beccaria then derives a set of new and original guidelines for how punishments should be selected.  Among them we find the following ideas:

  • Preventing crime is more valuable than punishing it.
  • Punishments for crimes should be proportional to the harm done to society by the crime.
  • Punishments should be as mild as they can be while still being an effective deterrent.
  • Every crime offends society, but only some crimes threaten the state with destruction, and it is on the latter that laws and punishments should focus.
  • Honor (the “despotism of opinion”) is not a clear and consistent moral code but a vague and blurry accumulation, hard for us to articulate and understand because it is so personal, much as an object too close to the eye is blurry and hard to focus on.  Conflicts between honor, society’s self-interest, and the law have long caused strife.
  • Dueling is destructive, and in punishing those who cause strife by dueling the party who caused the offense should be held culpable, not the party who challenged him to the duel who “through no fault of his own, has been constrained to defend something that the laws on the books do not assure him, that is, the opinion which others hold of him.” (ch. 10)
  • Secret denunciations are more tools of calumny than justice and cause more harm than good (it was a widespread practice at the time to have boxes wherein citizens could deposit secret denunciations accusing each other of crimes, especially sodomy and blasphemy, and this was widely abused).
  • The more promptly punishment follows crime, the more powerful a deterrent it will be.
  • Since the criminal is doing pleasure-pain calculus, it is less important that the punishment be gruesome than that it be inescapable.  The certainty of a mild punishment which is still bad enough to more than counter the benefit of the crime is more effective than a severe punishment which the criminal has a realistic hope of evading.
  • Crimes against property can be punished with fines, but crimes against persons must be punished with corporal punishment (which includes imprisonment/unfreedom) because otherwise people are reduced in dignity to objects bought and sold.  He targets this sentiment particularly against the wealthy, who, in his era, generally paid a fine for crimes including murder, instead of suffering personal punishment.
  • Banishment is appropriate for those who have been accused of an atrocious crime which is not certain, and who cannot therefore be tolerated to remain.  But the property of the banished person should not be confiscated by the state, since that is too powerful an incentive to corruption.
  • Punishments should be visited on individuals, not whole families, because punishing families as a unit encourages a spirit which thinks of the family as a political unit, rather than individual citizens, and this spirit is opposed to republican sentiment.  Such a system would have people think of the paterfamilias as a monarch, and make the nation see itself as ten thousand tiny monarchies instead of fifty thousand free-thinking citizens.  (From modern eyes, this is a great example of a sentiment widely agreed with in the modern era, that the individual and not the family should suffer for a crime, but justified by wholly period logic not present in modern legal discourse.)
  • Crimes are best prevented by combining enlightenment with liberty.  The best possible preventative is perfect education.
  • Crimes can also be prevented by the state awarding rewards for virtue.

And, of course, at the heart of the new ground he intends to break, ground not treated by Montesquieu in whose footsteps Beccaria so reverently treads, lies torture:

What is the purpose of torture?

10-medieval-torture-devices3One proposed purpose, he begins, again trying to puzzle out what logic lies behind the present laws so he can point out its flaws, is that torture helps secure confession and extract truth.  Torture’s usefulness as a method of extracting truth had long been a key assumption of the law, so much so that under some legal systems confessions were only admissible if they were extracted under torture, since that was considered the most reliable system (see Roman policies on interrogating slaves, where torture was a necessity before the court would listen).  Beccaria then makes the argument (new in his day) that pain breaks innocent people too, so torture will force false confessions from the innocent.  Thus, he concludes, torture is not a reliable path to truth, so the goal of extracting information does not rationally justify the use of torture.  If torture has any real utility, it must therefore be as a punishment, rather than an interrogation tool.  This leads to a very novel and yet, to us, very familiar argument:

A man cannot be called ‘guilty’ before the judge has passed sentence, and society cannot withdraw its protection except when it has been determined that he has violated the contracts on the basis of which that protection was granted to him.  What right, then, other than the right of force, gives a judge the power to inflict punishment on a citizen while the question of his guilt or innocence is still in doubt?

In more familiar words, innocent until proven guilty.  The argument is more utilitarian than moral: techniques which secure false confession are injurious to justice and society.  He further argues that torture is better for the criminal than for the innocent man, a weird but interesting argument. Torture provides the criminal the chance to say “Hey, I deserve this pain, but if I endure it they’ll acquit me and I’ll be spared worse pain,” helping him bear it, while the innocent man suffers not only torture but the despair-inducing knowledge of knowing that he suffers unjustifiably, so if he is found guilty he suffers an injustice, and if he is acquitted he still suffers unjust torture.  And on the practice, common in his day, of torturing the guilty to try to force him to confess to other crimes in addition to the one he is accused of, here Beccaria dips into some of his most biting rhetoric, writing: “This is equivalent to the following line of reasoning: ‘You are guilty of one crime; hence it is possible that you are guilty of a hundred others.  This doubt weighs on me, and I want to reassure myself by using my criterion of truth.  The law torments you because you are guilty, because you may be guilty, because I want you to be guilty’.”

Torture cannot therefore, Beccaria concludes, be useful before conviction, and must used only after conviction, as a punishment, not a tool.  But what function does it serve then?  The purpose of torture could be to purge or cleanse the soul with pain.  This idea is closely tied to religion, not just to Christianity but to a much broader palette of belief systems which hold that pain can discipline the body, clarify the mind, and cleanse the soul.  In a broader sense (placing Beccaria’s discussion in context) Christian ideas of Purgatory and Plato’s depiction of the soul’s cleansing before reincarnation both use this idea that fire and pain can burn away past sin and also past bad moral/intellectual development, removing the weight of sin and past dark thoughts, making the soul pure, light, and open to truth.  This is also reflected in monastic practices of mortification of the flesh, in the West and East.  In this model, the idea is that the pain of an excruciating death is actually good for the convict by helping cleanse the soul and increasing the chances that the criminal will reform, either mending wicked ways and leading a good life thereafter, or, in the case of lethal tortures, paying for the crime before death, increasing the chance of getting into Heaven.  Beccaria is so concise and articulate that it keeps being most efficient to just quote him directly:

Another ridiculous reason for torture is the purgation of infamy; that is, a man judged infamous by law must confirm his deposition with the dislocation of his bones.  This abuse should not be tolerated in the eighteenth century.  The underlying belief is that pain, which is a sensation, purges infamy, which is simply a moral relationship…  It is not difficult to go back to the origin of this ridiculous law…  This custom seems to be taken from religious and spiritual ideas which have so much influence on the thoughts of men, nations and ages.  An infallible dogma assures us that the blemishes which result from human weakness and which yet have not deserved the eternal wrath of the Great Being must be purged with an incomprehensible fire. Now infamy is a civil blemish, and, since pain and fire remove spiritual and disembodied stains, will the spasms of torture not remove a civil stain, namely infamy?  (Ch. 16)

In other words, he believes that the concept of Purgatory, and related beliefs that spiritual suffering purges sin and cleans the soul, led people to presume that physical suffering could purge the worldly equivalent of sin, “infamy” or criminality.

This is linked to the idea of certain crimes–mainly intellectual crimes such as heresy, blasphemy, or witchcraft–being somehow contagious, or harming the community of people who contact the criminal, either by spreading, or by inviting divine wrath which might, when punishing one sinner, withhold blessings from neighbors as well, so the plague or famine affects the whole city, doing public harm.  Thus the purpose of torture could be to cleanse, not the convict, but the city or society.  Here we turn naturally to the questions of heresy, blasphemy, atheism and other crimes of thought which loom ever over the populace, especially over the intellectual.  This question Beccaria… evades… for now.

Diverse_torture_instrumentsWhat is the purpose of gruesome execution?  Here again torture fails Beccaria’s utility test.  Beccaria argues that death is a sufficiently ultimate punishment that anyone who would not be deterred from a crime by death would not be deterred from it by death plus agony.  If the sole purpose of punishment is to deter crime, heaping extra punishment on top of death counts nothing.  In fact, he goes further.  Over time, he argues, as gruesome executions are repeated, and seen as spectacles, the hearts of people are hardened and the torture loses its edge as a deterrent.  Since fear is at the heart of deterrence, Beccaria argues that what really matters in cases of Ultimate Punishment is not the actual severity of the punishment but the fact that it be Ultimate.  Whatever the severest punishment of a society is, that will command the most fear from the would-be criminal.  He posits two imaginary civilizations, one having as its Ultimate Punishment some brutal and protracted death, and the other perpetual slavery.  He argues that the two will be equal in how successfully they deter crime, since in both the punishment will loom in the imagination as Ultimate Punishment, instilling the same fear.  An interesting theory.  As for making a public spectacle of executions, he argues that this trains people to think of execution with a mixture of fear, scorn, pity and perverse enthusiasm.  With moderate punishments, though, fear is the only reaction, making them more effective deterrents.  “The limit that the legislator should assign to the rigor of punishment, then, seems to be the point at which the feeling of compassion begins to outweigh every other emotion in the hearts of those who witness a chastisement…” (ch. 28).  One flaw in the death penalty, he says, is that it means one crime supplies only one example of punishment to the nation, while a lifetime’s hard labor may let the nation continue to see and remember the crime, criminal, and punishment, and so be deterred lifelong.  This, of course, posits a system in which the populace has the opportunity to see the “enslaved” prisoner at work, and thereby be constantly reminded of the fruits of crime – Beccaria’s world is one of rock pits and chain gangs, not closed prisons which keep the imprisoned populace out of the public eye and memory.

Beccaria therefore advocates mildness of punishments, and argues against the death penalty, not because he thinks it is immoral, but because he thinks it is less useful than lifelong punishments.  He also argues that it might make people suspect the law of hypocrisy, when those employed to punish homicide commit it, and that this confusion could undermine public respect for the law.  Executions, he says, encourage bloodlust in the populace, and decreases, he thinks, rather than increasing, deterrance.  But his argument against it is not entrenched – he is far more interested in arguing against gruesome punishments than against death, which he presents simply as a reasonable option which is not to be preferred while others are more effective.  He does throw the full flower of his rhetoric into his argument against the death penalty, but not in order to move the reader’s passions to horror at how terrible it is to execute people.  Instead he stresses how much everyone would rejoice and love their monarchs if the monarchs discarded the old laws and instituted new laws based on the Light of Reason.  “How happy humanity would be if laws were being given to it for the first time, now that we see beneficent monarchs seated on the thrones of Europe!” (ch. 29).  Today’s enlightened princes, he argues, genuinely want to make good and better laws, and in this Age of Reason they could finally strike down the old and muddled law and replace it with something rational and good, saving all humanity from the tyranny of archaic and defective law codes.  He finishes this section with a sentiment very alien and unexpected to the modern reader: “If such monarchs, I say, allow ancient laws to remain, it is the result of the infinite difficulty of stripping errors of the venerable rust of many centuries.  This is a reason for enlightened citizens to desire more ardently the continued increase of their authority.”  In other words, he believes that the best way to eliminate torture and gruesome executions is to have an absolute authoritarian monarch, who, moved by the spirit of the Enlightenment, and empowered to rewrite law and government as he will, will make a better, more rational government.  Here modern readers, raised to associate “innocent until proven guilty” and bans on “cruel and unusual punishment” with democratic anti-authoritarian sentiments, experience a moment of healthy historical whiplash.

10-medieval-torture-devices4Toward the very end, after his outline of a new ethic of punishment and his declaration of confidence in enlightened monarchy, Beccaria at last turns, timidly, to that most dangerous of issues, that is the punishment of heresy, blasphemy, atheism, etc. I say most dangerous because this is the arena which could get our author in very deep and potentially lethal political trouble.  At this moment, the violence of the Wars of Religion continues to flare, fresh religious persecutions and burnings are constantly in the news, and Beccaria must be a good Catholic or risk paying a lethal price which had become more and more common as Reformation concerns spread.  If the pre-Reformation Inquisition’s most common punishment for heresy was a tedious course of lectures, this deep into the age of heavily politicized religious violence it was rarely the slow and methodical inquisitors and more often the swift secular magistrates, or the mob, who burned or massacred.  Beccaria is a proud, free-thinking optimist who wants to reform and improve the human condition.  His heart has thrilled at Voltaire’s calls for religious tolerance, at the pro-peace “Irenist” movement that had finally let England stop massacring its citizens over the differences between transubstantiation and consubstantiation.  But he is also a Milanese Catholic and knows what fate awaits he who dares wake the barely-sleeping dragon.  He does not even dare name the issue he addresses in “Chapter 39: On a Particular Type of Crime“.  It is single brave paragraph, which I will quote almost in its entirety, so as to give you a full taste of the artful irony and quiet grief of this intellectual forced to bridle himself, to make the mandatory profession of support for religious persecution. Yet, through the coat of lies he must paint across his message, the passion of his objection shines, clear as a star:

The reader of this work will notice that I have omitted a kind of crime which covered Europe with human blood and raised those terrible pyres where living human bodies fed the fire.  It was a pleasing entertainment and an agreeable concert of the blind mob to hear the muffled, confused groans of poor wretches issuing out of vortices of black smoke–the smoke of human limbs–amid the crackling of charred bones and the sizzling of palpitating entrails.  But rational men will see that the place where I live, the present age, and the matter at hand do not permit me to examine the nature of such a crime.  It would take me too long and too far from my subject to prove how a perfect uniformity of thought is necessary in a state, the example of many nations to the contrary not withstanding; how opinions that differ only in a few subtle and obscure points altogether beyond human comprehension can nonetheless disturb public order if one of them is not authorized to the exclusion of the others… It would take me too long to prove that, however odious the triumph of force over human minds may seem, since the only fruits of its conquest are dissembling and, consequently, degradation; however contrary it may seem to the spirit of gentleness and brotherly love enjoined by reason and the authority we most revere; it is still necessary and indispensable… [In this treatise] I speak only of crimes that arise from human nature and from the social contract.  I do not address myself to sins; their punishment, even in this world, should be governed by principles other than those of a narrow philosophy.

A sad self-portrait peeks through here.  Odious force has triumphed over human minds and degraded Beccaria. He, and his partners, must dissemble. Yet the conquest is not full.  He has hope still that his little treatise will be read by kindred spirits, by those “sensitive souls [who] respond to whoever upholds the interests of humanity,” by those fellow readers of Locke and Montesquieu who will read between the lines and recognize him as a “peaceful friend of the truth.”  His hope is not in vain.

What were the consequences of young Beccaria’s little treatise On Crimes and Punishments?

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It spread like wildfire.  There it penetrated the salon culture whose radical intellectual experiments had inspired Beccaria’s Accademia dei pugni.  And it reached Voltaire.  Voltaire, who exercised literally unprecedented influence, as a new age saturated with printing houses made it possible for the first time for an independent intellectual to support himself, and see that his ideas reached every corner of literate Europe with unheard-of speed.  Voltaire, whose wit and incisiveness made everyone who could sit up and listen, not only intellectuals but the great public he entertained.  Voltaire, who had just come through the terrible crisis of the Lisbon Earthquake, the death of his beloved Emilie, and in Candide (1759) proclaimed his conviction that it is the duty of a thinking person to cultivate the human garden.  This moment began the latter stage of Voltaire’s career, when he moved from popularizing Enlightenment ideals to direct political activism.  He campaigned against religious violence and judicial murder.  He spoke out against particular cases and trials and fired France with outrage and calls for reform.  And he made sure everyone read Beccaria.

And it worked.

Rarely in the history of thought do I have a chance to say the outcome was so simply good, but it worked.  Within their lifetimes, Voltaire and Beccaria saw real reform, a sincere and solid transformation of the legal codes of most of Europe, the spread of deterrence-based justicial thought.  Within decades, judicial torture virtually vanished from European law.  The laws of America, and of the other new constitutions drafted in the latter 18th century, all show the touch of Beccaria’s call.  It worked.  The change was not absolute, of course.  Torture, the primary target, retreated, as did the notions of retributive justice, avenging dignity, and purging sin.  But prisons were still squalid, punishments severe, and other things Beccaria had campaigned against remained, capital punishment primary among them.  But even here there was what Beccaria would call progress.  The guillotine lives in infamy, but it too was a consequence of this call for enlightened justice: a quick, egalitarian execution, death with the least possible suffering, and equal for all, giving no advantage to the noble, who had long been able to hire an expert and humane headsman while the poor man suffered the clumsy hackings of an amateur who might take many blows to sever a writhing neck.  Most states judged death still necessary, but agreed that law and punishment should bind all men equally, and that unnecessary pain did not serve the public good.  It is strange to call the guillotine a happy ending, but it was in a small way, and even more victorious was the dialog that birthed it.  The first country to ever abolish the death penalty was the Duchy of Tuscany, which did so on Beccaria’s utilitarian grounds rather than principle (Hey, look, Machiavelli!  Your new branch of ethics, flourishing in Florence!).

Cesare_Beccaria_statue_Pinacoteca_Brera

Between them, Beccaria and Voltaire made people think seriously and critically about the tortures which had been employed so long without consideration of their purpose.  Beccaria asked people to ask themselves why we use torture, and the reading public did just that.  Judges examined the questions, jurists, even kings.  And they did change things.  Even the sad and careful chapter about “a particular type of crime” had its impact.  After all, in the eighteenth century so many carried the torches of reform that even among the magistrates and priests and censors whose job it was to suppress threats to the status quo, many were secret sympathizers, in favor of the changes they were employed to slow, and willing to read Beccaria’s chapter “on a particular type of crime” and realize (as we can’t fail to) his true meaning, but give it the stamp of approval anyway, and hope wholeheartedly that it would do some good.  It did.  Not universal good, not perfect.  It needed a next step, and there were many atrocities it did not manage to prevent, especially in the colonial world.  But it did real good nonetheless.  The days of European governments and Churches sawing men in half gave way.  And when later on there were movements to reduce violence against slaves and conquered peoples, these too owe some thanks to the 26-year-old jurist from Milan who turned his friends’ idealistic ambition  into such potent prose.

The target of Beccaria’s treatise was not torture itself, nor the death penalty, nor even the concept of retributive justice.  His target was the unquestioning acceptance with which his age enforced the mass of traditional opinions which was then called “law.”  We have not eliminated torture from the world, but, in the nations touched by the Enlightenment at least, that unquestioning acceptance of old laws has been conquered.  We still have much to fix, many more steps to take in the footsteps of Voltaire and Montesquieu, but if, when I turn up for small town jury duty, the defense attorney begins by asking the jurors our opinions about the purpose of punishment, then, even if he blurs deterrence and retribution, even if the court stenographer doesn’t know how to spell Beccaria’s name, Beccaria is present in the conversation, and the fact that there is a conversation is his victory.  And ours.

But Voltaire and I still agree: everyone go read Beccaria!

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.
Feb 192013
 

Pope Julius II (Portrait by Raphael)

(See also Machiavelli Part I, Part I.5, Part II and Part III)

Long has he waited, the new prince who in 1503 joins Borgia and Medici in stage center of Machiavelli’s tumultuous Italy: Giuliano della Rovere (1443-1513), intelligent, experienced, educated, well-connected, versed in the new old arts of the resurrected ancients, fluent in the subtleties of theology, and politics, and war, crafty, persuasive, bellicose, power-hungry–more than power-hungry, power-starved–and patient.  His is not a willing patience but that silent, vindictive patience which sets in like a sickness when spirit and ambition have been trapped in the stables waiting for the starter’s gun too long.  He had been a Cardinal twenty-one years when the election of 1492 brought him within a few votes of St. Peter’s throne.  He had planned so hard, spent so much, twenty-one years mapping the subtle battlefields of Rome’s Church, only to have the papal tiara snatched away by the Spanish Bull, that filthy Borgia, with his blackmail, and his bribery, the same arts della Rovere tried to use but Borgia, by a hair’s breadth, used them better.  The tension of 1492 made Giuliano della Rovere and Rodrigo Borgia bitter enemies from the instant Borgia became Alexander VI, and della Rovere, scenting the monsters’ nature before most others did, wisely fled to Ostia, thence to France, beyond Alexander’s reach, to wait and plan how to ensure that the throne he had been within a few votes of grasping would, next time, be his.

Long too has the reader waited for this new installment in my Machiavelli series.  I was sick for nearly three full months from mid-October to mid-January of this year (it was a nasty flare-up of a known chronic condition, exhausting but not dangerous).  This blog was one of many activities which I had to postpone while I concentrated on recovery.  Happily I am now recovered, and looking forward to a productive spring, during which I hope to return to my former pattern of producing a fresh post every two-to-three weeks.  I am very grateful all of you for your patience, and for the many kind and encouraging comments and responses I’ve received in the meantime.

Pope Sixtus IV

The della Rovere family rose to papal prominence in much the same way the Borgias had, through a compromise candidate.  His uncle Sixtus IV (pope from 1471-1484) came from a middlingly important Italian family, and was pious and learned enough to be a well-respected cleric.  He became a Franciscan, an act of uncommonly sincere piety for his class, since it was not a promising political move, and eventually became head of the order.  He was probably elected largely due to his piety, since after a couple of bizarre popes, including the fiercely humanist and weirdly progressive Pius II, then the anti-humanist, anti-social, confusing (rouge-wearing!) Paul II, people wanted something safe.  Given worldly power, our Franciscan decided to exercise it, and became engaged in many worldly ends of politics, including fomenting aggression against Ferrara, and encouraging the infamous Pazzi Conspiracy of 1478, which attempted to expel the Medici from Florence by trying to assassinate Lorenzo de Medici and his brother Giovanni (who was killed) by attacking them in the cathedral during mass (the pope’s involvement in the details of the plan were slim but it was still a stain).  Sixtus IV also built a new chapel, called the Sistine Chapel after him, and engaged freely in nepotism, granting Cardinalships to numerous nephews from both sides of his family, including young Giuliano della Rovere, who then waited for his chance after his uncle’s death, precisely as young Rodrigo Borgia had waited after the death of his uncle Callixtus III.

After Alexander’s election, in 1492 della Rovere retreated from Borgia-controlled Rome, but did not sit quietly.  He had spent time at the French court before, and had many friends and the ear of the king.  In France he made himself useful to as many powerful men as possible, and used his knowledge and mastery of statecraft to secure support, and weaken Borgia attempts to court the French king.  In 1494 he was one of the voices who persuaded the king to take advantage of Alexander VI’s squabble with Naples to invade Italy, and Cardinal della Rovere personally rode with the invading forces as they crossed the Alps and carved their bloody path south through his homeland, seizing Milan, threatening Florence, and forever transforming the face of northern Italy.  As Cesare Borgia’s attempts to carve out a kingdom, and strife between Naples and France, turned Italy increasingly into a battlefield, della Rovere was clever enough to foment Italian hatred of the Spanish Borgias, drawing allies who saw him as the safely Italian alternative, despite his involvement in the far more direct French invasion.  But della Rovere was not powerful enough to counter so savvy and ruthless an adversary as Cesare.  The younger cardinal acquired ally after ally, including Florence and Ferrara, and in the end Borgia attempts to woo France were too powerful for even della Rovere to convince the French king that the enemy of his friend should be his enemy.  France allied with Cesare, offered him a half-Spanish French princess and a French ducal title, and assurances of support so long as he upheld French interests in Italy.

Young Julius with his uncle the pope, in the early years when the ambitious young Cardinal was not yet soured by so many years of forced patience.

On August 6th, 1503, pope Alexander and Cesare Borgia dined in their fortress at Castel san Angelo with Cardinal Adriano da Corneto.  Both became terribly sick.  Alexander died.  Cesare recovered, but slowly, after weeks of weakness and horrible suffering (one account describes his skin peeling off, though likely due to attempts to treat the illness rather than the illness itself).  Anyone who could possibly be accused of poisoning has been blamed, including both Cesare and Alexander, who had been uncomfortable partners since well before Giovanni’s death.  It may well just have been food poisoning in a pre-refrigeration world. Whatever the cause, Borgia fortunes were now at a critical moment, and the surviving Borgia prince had had little time to prepare, and was sick in bed, unable to lead troops or conduct negotiations.  He sent troops to loot the palace before the mob did, and it is unclear in the ensuing chaos what treasures were carried off by whom, but by the time it was done Alexander’s corpse is supposed to have been found alone, wrapped in a carpet, in a room from which every stick of furniture and scrap of clothing had been looted.  The body was displayed on the steps of the palace, a swollen, purple and black, stinking mass with its tongue sticking out that witnesses describe as the most vile corpse they had ever seen (and Renaissance people saw a lot of corpses).

Three armies threatened the Papal Election that followed: the armies of France and Naples, en route to fight each other, both camped just outside Rome to make the College and people aware that their kings and cannons were watching and would not tolerate a hostile victory in the vote.  Meanwhile Cesare’s armies were within Rome itself, and while he was too weak to take the field, he was far from too weak to command troops, and to command the eleven Spanish Cardinals who were far more Borgia pawns than anything else.  The conclave was delayed to allow extra time for French Cardinals, and della Rovere, to arrive and participate.

The Tomb of Alexander VI

Cesare had renounced his Cardinal’s hat in order to become a Duke and marry and pass on the Borgia bloodline.  There was no rule that the pope had to be a Cardinal, or even a cleric, and if Borgia forces had been at their peak it is possible Cesare might have pushed to be elected himself.   As it was he did not have the speed or power, so needed to compromise, and bide his time if he wanted to someday be pope.  But who to ally with?

France was determined to have a French pope, and worked hard to advance Georges d’Amboise as their candidate.  The French planned carefully.  Most Italians would never tolerate a French pope, remembering with dread the days of the Avignon Papacy, so Cesare’s contingent of Spanish cardinals was a perfect asset.  France promised to continue to support Cesare and recognize him as master of all his father had granted him if he would give his eleven votes to d’Amboise.  That added to the French cardinals would be nearly enough.  For the remainder, they could count on their good della Rovere and his cousins (whose votes he commanded), and on Ascanio Sforza, Cardinal of Milan, whom they had captured in the invasion, and released on condition that he vote for the French candidate and persuade as many allies as he could to do the same.  The plan had only one flaw: it relied on trusting the Italian Cardinals.

Della Rovere refused to vote for the French candidate.  If France wanted an ally on the throne, he insisted, they would need to elect him.  It would be easy: he was Italian, and an enemy of the Borgia, so all the Italian cardinals would flock to him, and none would support the French without his persuasion.  No amount of reminding della Rovere of the support and aid France had given him in the past made any headway.  France must give him the throne, or watch it fall into hostile hands.

Ascanio Sforza, now free, broke his word to woo his fellow Italians to the French cause.  He did, as a point of honor, vote for France himself, but let his capture and release make him a living argument to his fellow countrymen of the danger France posed.  With him as reminder, no Italian would ever vote for France.

Even the Spaniards turned.  With Cesare weak and sick and possibly about to die, Borgia stooges were looking to new powers to protect them.  For them, the King of Spain was the clear option, and he did not want a French pope, even if Cesare did.

The Della Rovere Arms

The French bloc, triply betrayed, refused to accept della Rovere’s proposal that they vote for him, and would forever after blame him for their defeat.  Since neither could win, and no Spaniard could win, all powers looked for a compromise candidate, someone old and sick and inert, likely to do little and die soon, and all hoped they could regroup and gain a majority by the time of the next election.  Thus  Francesco Todeschini Piccolomini became Pope Pius III.  Nephew of the earlier humanist firebrand Pius II, Piccolomini was from the comparatively neutral town of Sienna, enough of a cowardly Borgia stooge to be tolerable from Cesare’s perspective, and not long for this world.  He reconfirmed Cesare as commander of the papal armies, postponing war and temporarily granting Cesare continued power over his dominions.  His most memorable act as pope was to announce that Alexander VI would not be buried in the crypt of St. Peter’s where popes were (and are) usually laid to rest.  Alexander was too wicked to be in St. Peter’s, he decided, not then, not ever.

September 22nd, Pius III is crowned.  October 18th, Pius III dies.  New election.

Cesare has recovered, and is still commander of the papal armies, but his forces are weakened and his position precarious   He has regained command of the eleven Spanish Cardinals but has no other sure votes.  France has not forgiven della Rovere, but he has worked hard to convince them that, given the general hatred of France, he is the most France-loving man likely to get on the throne.  Now he courts Cesare, offering solemn promises that, if Cesare and the Spanish cardinals support him, he will maintain Cesare in his current position, leave him the papal armies, his titles, his funds, his lands, and make him a close and trusted ally.  The Borgia Kingdom in central Italy will be forever secure, and della Rovere might even help Cesare into a position such that, when he is a bit older, he might succeed della Rovere as the next pope, restoring and finally solidifying the Borgia dream of turning the papacy into a hereditary monarchy.  Cesare will henceforth practically be della Rovere’s adopted son, and they will rule Italy together, with the support of their mutual ally in France, and Cesare’s ties with Spain.  Cesare accepts, the bargain is solemnly sealed, and a few promises to Ascanio Sforza are all it takes to secure the unanimous election of Giuliano della Rovere as Pope Julius II.

Julius takes the throne.

He has Cesare arrested, thrown in prison, stripped of all his titles and property, deported to Spain, and, after some intervening chaos and a brief escape, Cesare is killed.

This is an absolute shock, much, much more shocking than it sounds.  The Roman Pontiff, highest prince in the world, has betrayed and destroyed a noble sovereign Duke to whom he had pledged himself as a bosom ally, and to whom he owed his throne.  Cesare was Julius’ supporter and benefactor, and vice versa.  This alliance was in many ways virtually adoption.  We have read about a lot of broken promises and murders in the course of our Borgia stories, but this is different, utterly and unimaginably different.  When enemies duel or battle each other, those violent acts are honorable.  When enemies poison enemies, or send assassins after each other, that is dishonorable but still reasonably acceptable and common.  When Cesare killed his own man Remirro de Orco, that was new, shocking, different.  Confusing.  This is the same thing but on an unimaginable scale.  The innermost circle of Dante’s Hell is for people who betray their feudal benefactors.  This is that again, only a pope, and also the reverse, a patron betraying a supporter he has promised to defend and treat as an ally.  There is no place for this in Dante’s Hell.

There is also no place for it in the Handbook of Princes genre.  The Prince has betrayed and murdered his closest supporter.  No one can trust him now.   Any pledge he makes is unreliable.  Anyone near him is in danger.  The sword he wields is arbitrary and cuts down friend and enemy.  The rational man and the moral man now both come to the same conclusion: do not serve such a master.  Leave him.  Run.  The vassals of such a lord should abandon him at once, declare the tyrant what he is, unite and take up arms and overthrow him.  That is what must happen.  Machiavelli, good student of politics, knows it, and all through the night when the deed is done everyone expects that in the morning Julius will rise to face an empty throne room, while the banners of his former allies mass against him.

Julius, pope at last

The next morning, everyone turns up and kisses the pope’s ring and feet and politics goes on, and no one even whispers the name ‘Borgia’.  It never happened.  Everyone serves the traitor-pope just as before.

This is the moment that cannot be, as Machiavelli explains in The Prince and more in his letters.  This is where the Handbook of Princes fails.  The virtuous Prince was supposed to be better ruler because he commands the respect and loyalty of his servants, unlike the wicked prince who loses them: untrue.  The virtuous Prince was supposed to enjoy the blessings of God who would make him strong, while the tyrant was unseated: untrue.  The virtuous Prince was supposed to be more effective because good, wise policies have good, beneficial consequences for his people and his nation: untrue.  Uncertain why the last is untrue? Look at what has just happened and what could have happened:

Outcome if Julius II had been virtuous:

Julius seals his pact with Cesare.  After his election, he continues to treat Cesare as a close ally, allows him to control the papal army, and use it to continue waging war in central and northern Italy.  Thousands if not tens of thousands die in combat and more from bandits and disease as the chaos continues.  Cesare secures Romagna and the papal states, then turns on Florence, probably Modena and Ferrara too, on the Venetian land empire, shoring himself up more and more at the cost of chaos.  In the end either the Emperor invades to check Cesare’s rise, or Cesare grows strong enough to make his bid to be Julius’ successor, and bloody civil war erupts whether Cesare wins or loses as he and the rest of Italy battle to see whether or not the papacy will indeed become a hereditary monarchy.  Death toll: tens if not hundreds of thousands.

Outcome if Julius II is a treacherous deceiver:

Cesare is instantly removed.  The wars in central Italy cease.  The suddenness of the change makes it easy for provincial forces, as well as papal forces and city forces, to bring about some degree of stability.  The shock of the suddenness of Julius’ betrayal makes everyone else wary of causing trouble.  Peace is instantly restored, the Borgia Kingdom eliminated, exiles restored, Florence protected.  Death toll: Cesare Borgia, plus, perhaps, a few of his guards and associates.

Conclusion: the Virtuous Prince is not more successful.

Plate decorated with the della Rovere oak

Julius instantly solved a problem no one else had been able to solve in a terrible decade.  The worst days of Italy are gone.  Julius’ vassals did not abandon him, nor did God smite him with skyfire.  The advantages that the Virtuous Prince was supposed to have are invisible.  Julius did it, not through love, but fear.  Perhaps it is more useful to be feared than loved?

More is undermined here than just the Handbook of Princes genre.  Ethics is a problem too.  The Virtuous Pope here, the one who was loyal to Cesare, would have doomed thousands to death and Italy to chaos and conquest.  Julius’ betrayal saved everyone.  Yet, the Christianity and ethics of Machiavelli’s day declare that Julius has done a wicked deed, and will go to Hell for it.  Going to Hell for saving thousands?  This does not sound right.  Is it really a morally wicked deed, Machiavelli asks, to betray and murder Cesare Borgia, and thereby prevent so much evil?  Is this really what ‘good’ and ‘evil’ mean?

Thus Utilitarian Ethics was born.  It is a familiar thought pattern for us, but for Machiavelli (and Europe at that point)  it was a completely new idea, never thought before.  What if this is good?  This act that, by destroying a terrible, wicked, monster of a man, saved a hundred thousand lives?  How can I call it evil?  What if I want to judge the act, not by what it was (betrayal, murder), but by what it did, save Italy (and Florence!) and the world from the Borgia menace.  And if Julius had done the “good” thing, and kept Cesare going, and let all that evil happen when he had the power to stop it with one dark command, could we really call that “good”?  And what of virtue ethics?  Why do I care whether Julius betrayed Cesare for selfish or selfless reasons–he still saved Italy, and so many, many lives.  Doesn’t that matter?  Doesn’t the consequence of an act, its utility, factor into the moral equation?  I think, he says, it does.
This is the advice Machiavelli writes for the Medici when the forced retirement of exile gives him time to write a new Handbook of Princes for a new kind of prince: the princes of Florence, whose duty is to protect Florence–beautiful, unique, burgeoning, irreplaceable Florence–and her citizens–artists, philosophers, poets, statesmen, craftsmen–from the perils of conquest and extermination which constantly threaten her fragile walls.  With France so close, one more civil war could be the end.  This is not a question of selfishness or power for power’s sake, but of the very survival of the nation in their care.   “In order to be virtuous, the people must still be alive,” (paraphrase).  In this situation, he writes, we should study and emulate Julius Caesar, but we should also study and emulate Cesare and Julius II.  If fear will discourage conspiracy, use fear.  If the betrayal and exile of one dangerous faction or family will stabilize the republic, use betrayal.  If breaking a treaty will give Florence the ally she needs to survive, rip up that scrap of paper.  It is the prince’s duty.

This is not a good consequence erasing an evil act, it is the argument that the act itself is not evil because of its good consequence.  Saving a hundred thousand lives, or Florence, is good–the means, therefore, are good, even if the means are a murder.  “The end justifies the means” thus does sort-of ring true, but rather he is saying that we judge the means by its end: what Julius II willed in his heart, Machiavelli would say, wasn’t the betrayal and murder of Cesare, but was the salvation of Italy.  If Julius had defended Cesare, as he promised, and let all those people die, that would have been the evil act.  At times he puts it almost as if the prince here is taking on sin for the people, as if in order to guard those in their protection the sovereign volunteers to damn himself to commit the sins necessary to create an era of peace in which citizens will have the leisure to live virtuously (instead of being dragged into violence, hatred, rape and death).  At other times it feels as if he is saying there is no other real scale beyond the Earthly consequence (no Hell?  Do we smell atheism?).  He never explicitly discusses the religious import of utilitarianism, but the mind of the reader cannot help but jump there instantly.

We now have consequentialism   The can of worms is open, and in my next post I shall explore it, and its religious implications.  But we have also opened another can of worms: the papacy of Julius II.

Julius II brought peace to Italy and saved thousands of lives.  Then he started a new war.  This is Giuliano della Rovere, referred to in his own lifetime and after as the Warrior Pope, and as “Il Papa Terribile”.  This is an infinitely ambitious man made tired and bitter by thirty years of waiting, ten of them wrestling with terrible Borgia enemies.  This is a pope who likes to ride in armor.  His is not an ambition which ends with wealth and power.  He is “Julius” and will remind the world that the pope is Emperor, successor to the Caesars.  Those territories Cesare left behind, that are now vulnerable and rebuilding, he demands them, and sends armies to seize them, and when Venice or other powers try to reclaim their own, he makes war.  France is still stirred up from earlier wars, and still bitter at him.  Naples is stirred up, the Emperor is stirred up, England is eager for conquests, Spain is defensive about its Mediterranean holdings, the Ottomans are expanding, the Swiss are ready with their mercenaries, and Florence is still delicious.  Julius stirs all these powers toward war, demanding in the name of his imperial power that Europe’s princes come in on his side to defend his right to rule Italy.  It is in this phase that the powers meet at Cambrai, a despairing Machiavelli watches the balance of power so carefully, exchanges so many letters with his friends trying desperately to predict who will be at war with whom when the council ends: France & Emperor against England?  France & England against Spain?  Which of the nearby armies, Julius, France, Naples and Emperor, will move first against Florence?  He studies, he worries, he plans, and in the end the council emerges and Julius II has persuaded every crowned head of Europe to join into a Holy League and help him attack Venice and take all the former Borgia territories and turn them into his new papal Roman Empire.  This is a pope determined to wipe away the Borgia stain with blood, and make the pope a true Emperor again.  This is a pope who will be remembered.  He also brings more humanism to the Vatican, stocks its libraries, has his beloved Michelangelo (a complicated dynamic if ever there was one) decorate the new Sistine Chapel with neoclassical art and figures of pagan sibyls mixed among the Hebrew prophets to reinforce the fact that the ancient philosophies revived by the humanists are part of his Christianity as much as anything.  But the humanism he brings is all in service of power: empire, law, Rome, Constantine, reminders of the sovereignty of Rome and Italy and the higher sovereignty of Julius.  He is a pope for whom means seems to mean nothing, and ends everything.  And he is incredibly effective, and remakes the papacy as no one had imagined it could be remade.

Five hundred years ago today, the 19th of February 1513, the order was given for the arrest of Niccolo Machiavelli on suspicion of participating in a conspiracy against the newly-reestablished Medici regime.   The Medici had been in exile in Venice for eighteen years, consolidating their wealth and allies and gathering resources so they could retake the city Piero had abandoned during the French (Borgia-caused) invasion of 1494.  In the intervening years, the Borgias had carved out their Italian kingdom, Giovanni had been murdered, Cesare had turned from a fearsome Cardinal to a more fearsome Duke and conqueror, and then the Borgia years had ended, and the family’s fall left a weak and disorganized Italy ripe for new ambitious families to carve out kingdoms; one of those best positioned to do so were the Medici.  Florence herself had experienced the theocratic rule of the monk Savonarola, then the restored Republic of Soderini, of which Machiavelli was one of the central figures.  When the Medici army of allies and mercenaries recaptured the city, they did not arrest Machiavelli right away.  They ended the Republic and moved into the Palazzo Vecchio, but Machiavelli remained in the city, a cautious but free citizen, until a small nest of anti-Medici conspirators was uncovered.  Among their documents were found a page listing the names of others they had intended to recruit but had not yet approached, including Machiavelli.  It was too much.  Machiavelli was arrested, interrogated, tortured (using a device a similar to the rack), and exiled.  It was in that exile that his forced retirement gave him the time to write the texts which would so transform how we understand politics, ethics and history: the Discourses on Livy treating Republican government, The Prince, and the personal letters which show even more clearly than his polished books how his new political and historical theories were the direct results of his experiences of the Borgias, their rise, their fall, and the new Emperor Julius II who rose to occupy the (bloodied and stained) papal throne.

Thus, today, while Google commemorates the birth of Copernicus 40 years earlier, Florence is marking February 19th 1512 with a procession through the city, in which the crier will call for Machiavelli’s arrest in each quarter o f the city.  It may seem a strangely dark day to celebrate, the imprisonment and torture of our beloved historical figure, but it is in many ways the birthday of political science, the one day which, if disrupted by some time traveler, could deprive us of the produce of that vital exile.  Machiavelli could have been forgiven and hired by the Medici he wanted so desperately to work for.  He could have been executed, or died in the prison, or been tortured enough to die of some infection or hemorrhage.  Instead we have utilitarian ethics, a vein of thought which is so universal in the modern world that we find it almost impossible to think about what “decision-making” meant without it.

Here at last we see both central facets of why Machiavelli is important.  When historians argue about “Who was the first modern philosopher,” those who argue for Machiavelli argue this: he was the first person to use consequentialist ethics, i.e. to believe that an act might be good or bad because of its consequences rather than the act itself, and the first person to practice political science, that is to use history as a set of examples to be studied and compared to rather than as a source of moral tales to be read and absorbed through virtuous osmosis.  We as modern people use both these things every day, so constantly that we struggle to think without them.  When deciding, what is the consequence?  Even if in the end you go with a decision based on Virtue Ethics or Deontology you still think about the consequence.  When looking at events, what historical ones are similar?  We study history to learn from it, and not repeat mistakes, right?  And when we do, we look at economics, oppression, class struggles, technological change, environment, patterns, not just the moral character of king and commander.  These are indispensable elements of modern thought, which define the modern era more clearly and more universally than, for example, any technology.  What is a modern person?  One reasonable answer is “someone who uses consequentialism and political science.”  There may be (and are) other differences, but this certainly is one, and Machiavelli is its father.  Julius and the Borgias were the spark, but he was the one who was there to see and analyze, and describe.

Next Time: “Was Machiavelli an atheist?” and why it is still valuable for historians and philosophers to write book after book about that question even though the only possible answer is, “We don’t know.”   Read the conclusion.

Aug 242012
 

Scheme, scheme, scheme… the adorably romantic and villainous 19th century statue of Machiavelli at the Uffizi.  Some men are not remembered as they would have expected.

Machiavelli, Part the Second: in which terms are defined, moral codes collided, teachers betrayed, a hypothetical man executed, Batman and Sherlock Holmes placed before the reader’s judgment, and Machiavelli never actually appears.

See also Part I: S.P.Q.F., and Part I addendum.

Ethics, or moral philosophy, is the branch of philosophy which deals with decision-making, how we separate correct from incorrect action.  A moral philosophy, or ethical system, is the set of criteria by which an individual judges whether an action should or should not be taken.  All ethical systems can, believe it or not, be separated into three categories, whose names are, to the eternal detriment of students, misleading and confusing.  The three are Virtue Ethics (note, does not necessarily involve any concept of “virtue”), Deontology (no relation whatsoever to “ontology”), and the younger sibling, Utilitarianism, aka. Consequentialism.  I will give away my ending here by saying that Machiavelli is the founder of Utilitarianism, and that few changes in the history of thought have so radically transformed the human world.  But for the moment we shall live in a world without Consequentialism, for it is in such a world that Petrarch, and Savonarola, and the young Machiavelli find themselves.

Virtue Ethics is any ethical system which judges an action based on the interior motives and feelings of the actor.  Did that person will a good deed when the person took that action?  If so, it was a morally good action.  Did the person will a wicked deed?  If so, it was a morally wicked action.  The primary question is of the character of the doer: is this a good person or a bad person while performing this action?  Virtue Ethics is thus what leads to such legal terms as self-defense, heat of passion and premeditation.  Yes this person killed another human being, but it was an act of self-defense: this person does not have the character of a murderer.  Yes this person killed another, but (s)he was temporarily out of control due to shock and truma: this person does not have the character of a murderer.  Yes this person killed another, but it was a rash, improvised action, not the result of days and weeks of maliciously plotting how to take human life: this person does have the character of a murderer but the flaw is not so deep, not so perverse, not so terrible.

Even when Plato’s works were lost, the Middle Ages remembered his importance.

The father of Virtue Ethics is Plato, whose argument in The Republic attempts to define Justice.  Is Justice, as one interlocutor proposes, “The will of the stronger?”  Is it “the law?”  Plato concludes, defines Justice and other virtues as “a harmony of the soul,” i.e. an interior quality independent from any action.  In such a system a man is equally virtuous, whether Fortune sends him to rescue a drowning child, to plunge into bloody battle, or to sit in solitary meditation, if his inner state remains the same.  Plato also concludes that it is virtue—the inner harmony of the soul—which makes people happy, rather than wealth or fame or power, which bring with them stresses, risk, and, often, the very opposite of happiness.

Deontology is any ethical system which judges action based on a presumed-universal set of laws or rules external to the doer.  The rules, and their source, may vary enormously.  A patriot who judges actions good or bad based on whether they are lawful or unlawful exercises deontology.  A religious person who judges actions good or bad based on a code of conduct taken from a holy book exercises deontology.  A philosopher practicing rational deism who judges actions good or bad based on a set of “natural laws” (s)he has logically derived from observations of Nature and human behavior exercises deontology.  The uniting characteristic is the focus on rules.  Examples: Killing another human being is wrong.  Killing another human being over whom you do not hold paternal right of life or death is wrong.  Eating an animal is wrong.  Eating a certain type of animal is wrong.  Eating an animal in a certain month is wrong.  Burning a book is wrong.  Permitting the circulation of a book whose dangerous content might lure people into eternal damnation is wrong.  If there is a father of Deontology it is also Plato, since Plato is the first author to discuss such ideas and to contrast them with Virtue Ethics, but Plato is the first Western philosopher to discuss ethics at all.  When his dialogs contrast different views voiced by different interlocutors, are we to credit Plato as the creator of all?  Or shall we argue that deontology was already in the air as the “obvious” approach to what was not yet an “-ology.”  For simplicity’s sake we can credit Plato as the father of ethics.

Having treated the father, Plato, I will take a split second to present the son, Aristotle (who broke violently [by philosophical standards] with his master and strode off either boldly into the truths of the Earth or foolishly back into the Cave, depending on whether you believe the apprentice or the master).  Aristotle presents virtues as a mean between two vices, i.e. bravery is the mean between cowardice and foolhardiness; generosity between miserliness and prodigality.  These are, as in Plato, internal qualities, and a brave man can be brave even if he never has the opportunity to show it.  Yet Aristotle discusses what he calls habits of virtue.  The idea is that someone who does not have the correct virtuous internal disposition might attain it gradually through practice.  He who is not naturally generous can nonetheless practice giving to the poor and eventually, through practice, acquire a habit or instinct to give, and thus become generous.  A coward who practices charging into danger might gradually become brave.  A rebellious child who is forced, through the schoolmaster’s rod, to behave might eventually settle down and learn his grammar.  This approach lies, distantly, behind the medieval Christian practices which say, if you’ve sinned, you can improve yourself by rote reciting prayers and giving alms.  It lies even more distantly behind our modern practice of assigning public service hours as punishments for minor crimes.

Here is a real, period portrait of Machiavelli, with the period label of why he was important: Writer of histories. Not what we remember.

Now, some practical examples of Virtue Ethics vs. Deontology:

EXAMPLE:  Guido kills Paolo.

A virtue ethicist is not a position to answer at this point whether Guido has done good or bad.  Most deontologists would also be unable to answer.  If a deontologist follows a code like some strict forms of Buddhism which say that taking a life is always wrong regardless of the circumstances, such a deontologist could at this point say with certainty: Guido has done wrong.  But for all others we need detail:

EXAMPLE 2: Guido is a professional executioner.  He kills Paolo, executing a sentence ordered by the lawful government, for a capital crime which Paolo did indeed commit.

Now a broader range of deontologists can answer whether or not Guido has done wrong.  In a deontological system in which the lawful government has a right to lethal force and is largely the source of the rules by which we judge (think Hobbes) then Guido has committed no evil.  A deontologist who believes it is absolutely wrong to execute anyone can judge that Guido has done evil.  Others may want to know what Paolo’s crime was (Murder? Rape? Adultery? Atheism?  Public urination?  Homosexuality? Freedom of speech?) to determine whether or not it indeed merits death.

Yet, in any or all of these situations, our unfortunate virtue ethicist still has no way to judge Guido because we need to know what is going on in Guido’s mind.  Did Guido become an executioner because Guido looooooves killing people and jumped at a state-sanctioned way to do it?  If so we would probably not call his action virtuous.  Did Guido become an executioner because he saw a botched execution as a child, and thereafter determined to do it himself in order to strive to be as humane and respectful as possible to those about to face the undiscovered country?  If so we might call this very virtuous.  Was Guido drafted into Hitler’s army where he is following orders?  Does he question them?  Does he not?  Was he brainwashed?  Does he hate this task or does he do it unblinkingly?  All these details the virtue ethicist must have before answering whether Guido is performing a morally good deed.  (For anyone sitting here thinking: No!  The Holocaust was unconscionable!  No matter what the motives, if Guido was a Nazi it’s evil!  Congratulations: you have identified a point in your personal ethics which is firmly deontological.)  Note too that in all these executioner scenarios, it does not matter whether or not Paolo is guilty or innocent, deserving or undeserving of death.  What matters is whether Guido thinks Paolo is guilty or innocent, etc.

“What about me?” objects voluntarism in a high, squeaky voice.  Yes, I was just getting to you.  Voluntarism is an ethical system which says that an act is only moral if it is good by both virtue ethics and deontology.  That is, an act must be good and permissible by absolute external rules, and the doer must also have good motives while doing it.  The quintessential example, for which we may thank William of Ockham (1288-1348), is a man who goes to church.  “You may think this is a good act,” Ockham warns his presumed-Catholic High Medieval reader, “but what if the man goes to Church not for God’s sake or out of love and piety, but in order to show off his Sunday finery to his fellow man, and make political and economic connections to further his own earthly greed?  Only if a man takes good actions for good reasons is true moral virtue present!”  In a less formalized but also more emotionally powerful formulation, which has the distinction of being the first real manifestation of voluntarism in the history of philosophy, Heloise (1101-1164) spends her days in the nunnery praying, and fasting, and looking after the sick, and mortifying her flesh, and everyone tells her she is a very good nun and leading a virtuous life, but, she writes, “Even while I’m praying I spend all day thinking about how much I want to be having sex with Peter Abelard (1079-1142)” (slight paraphrase).  “How is this morally good?  How is this rote repetition of pious words and actions without feelings behind them supposed to help me become a better person?”

Thus we have deontology, virtue ethics and their child voluntarism.  (Deontology: “A child conceived within the strictures of formally permissible union.” Virtue ethics: “And in love!”)

Care to spend a fun evening with your friends?  Sit around picking interesting characters from various pieces of fiction and discussing whether they based their decisions on deontology or virtue ethics.  This game brings endless delight, especially if you’re the sort who enjoys slotting various characters into the old Dungeons & Dragons Alignment Grid, since this categorization system is actually universally applicable, and leads to many fascinating distinctions and telling disagreements.  You will also notice a pair of general patterns, at least in popular fiction of the last few decades, (1) that good guys tend to be more dominated by Virtue Ethics, and bad guys by other motives, and (2) the author or scriptwriter (very common in movies) tends to assume the viewer will judge the characters based primarily on Virtue Ethics.

“Luke, search your feelings: you know you’re guided primarily by virtue ethics.”

Test cases:

Batman.  Absolute commitment to never using lethal force: deontology.  (Unless we think he refrains from killing out of fear of what killing would do to his moral character.)

Spiderman.  Uncle Ben was killed because of Peter Parker’s selfish and vengeful impulse in that moment he let the thug go instead of using his powers for good.  Why, then, does Peter dedicate himself to fighting crime?  If it is because he has come to an absolute conclusion that with great power comes great responsibility, i.e. he is morally required to, that is deontology.  If it is because he hopes to redeem the flaw in his character which led to his selfish decision, it is Virtue Ethics at its most habit-of-virtue Aristotelian.

Average Disney Hero.  Battles villain to save princess, then villain conveniently falls off a cliff.  The virtue ethicist remains content that no shadow is cast on the hero’s character.  Hooray, we have neatly dodged any and all possible moral complexity!

Calaban.  Prospero enslaves him and seizes control of his native island as punishment for Calaban’s attempted rape of Miranda.  Virtue Ethics says Calaban is a horrible and malicious being, and that this punishment is just (unless you have a super-charming actor playing Calaban).  Deontology’s answer depends on which of several different rights/laws the individual deontologist considers primary.  Right of Conquest?  If so, Prospero can do whatever he likes to Calaban.  Right of sovereignty?   If so Prospero is a wicked invader.  Right of benefactor, to punish the ungrateful Calaban to whom Prospero taught and gave so much?  Then Prospero is in the right.  Right of host, to punish the ungrateful Prospero whom Calaban welcomed to his island?  Then Calaban is in the right.  Right to punish the terrible crime of rape?  Only if the deontologist in question believes in some specific absolute code by which rape is criminal in this specific circumstance.

Sherlock Holmes. Tendency to bend the rules and let criminals escape when he thinks they are good people or generally should not suffer the vengeance of the law: Virtue Ethics.  Or is it?  In the case of the Blue Carbuncle, Holmes states “I am aiding a criminal, but I may be saving a soul.”  Is this an application of religious deontology against law-code-based deontology?  In the self-defense killing of The Abbey Grange, Holmes goes through the formula of an impromptu trial before releasing the homicide who he fears would be wrongly convicted in a real trial.  Even when he burgles the master blackmailer Charles Augustus Milverton, he invokes the (deontological) duty of a gentleman to aid a lady in distress as his moral justification.  Our perfect analytical reasoner walks a fine and subtle line on the edge of what feels like comfortable, emotional Virtue Ethics, but it is hard to catch him actually outstepping the bounds of what he would surely call universal rules of right and wrong.  Holmes has, of course, enjoyed many versions, and I encourage everyone (especially fans of the Sherlock TV series) to examine how his ethics vary variant by variant.

Personal favorite for this exercise: Darth Vader.  [Do I really need a spoiler warning for this?]  He betrays his master the Emperor to save his son.  The film presents this as redemptive, and his spirit moves on to the vague glowy-person positive Manichean afterlife of the Star Wars special effects universe.  Hooray.  Virtue Ethics supports this absolutely, since the morally good side of his character has won out, even after so many evil deeds, proving him good inside.  What about the deontologist?  If we believe that an apprentice owes true fealty to his master, then this betrayal is a wicked act.  If we believe that the father’s drive to protect his child is a natural and universal bond deeper than law, then this killing-in-defense is a good act.  If we believe the Emperor was the legitimate ruler of the Empire and that its laws are binding, then this treason is a wicked act.  If we believe the Emperor is a tyrant who has unjustly displaced the rightful Republic, then this tyrranicide is, potentially, a good act.  What if the general Sith lifestyle says the apprentice is supposed to kill his master to take his place?  Then Darth Vader is a lazy bum, and should’ve done this a long time ago.  This is but one of many occasions in which Hollywood presents a narrative which is simple and easy to judge using virtue ethics—which is presumed to be the default in today’s audience—but much more complex if deontology rears its head.

Or worse, the dreaded utilitarianism.

Murky waters lie before us as ethics’ third branch stirs from the depths.

Utilitarianism, or Consequentialism, is any form of ethics which judges an action based on the consequences of the action, rather than the action itself or the motive of the doer.

Guido killed Paolo before Paolo could push the nuclear destructor button and end all life on Earth.  Guido killed Paolo before Paolo could exterminate a bus full of nuns and orphans.  Guido killed Paolo before Paolo could kill ten nuns and ten orphans.  Two nuns?  One nun?

We moderns, saturated with utilitarianism, feel that these situations are different from one another, though feel discomfort with “the end justifies the means” and all feel that the scale gets slipperier and more uncomfortable as the numbers get smaller.  Throughout these scenarios the deontologist’s view is unchanged, unless the set of rules the deontologist is applying has specific caveats for killing to defend life.  The virtue ethicist is, of course, not in a position to judge, because the exploding nuns do not tell us Guido’s motive.  If Guido killed Paolo in order to prevent the nuclear destruction of thousands of innocents, Guido is probably, by virtue ethics, not actively willing evil.  But what if Guido didn’t know or care about the nuclear destructor button, and shot Paolo just because Guido loves shooting people?  Or in order to steal Paolo’s avocado club sandwich?  What if Guido is a government assassin who was hired to kill Paolo in order to save innocent lives, but who originally became a government assassin in order to have license to kill because Guido just loves, loves, loves killing?  In all these cases Guido’s character is different, so the virtue ethicist must judge him differently, while most deontological systems would still pay attention mainly to the act itself.  As for Utilitarianism, we have now entered the frightening realm where we must admit that even if Guido committed murder and did it out of love of snuffing out the human candle, it might have saved a hundred billion lives and it is hard to say flat out: that was a bad act.

No greater can of worms has been opened in philosophy’s long march.  Several equal perhaps, none greater.

Questions multiply:

  • How many lives must Guido save before killing Paolo is justified?
  • What if Paolo is a drowning baby and Guido saves him, but then Paolo grows up to become an evil overlord and slaughters millions?  Does the rescue become retroactively evil?
  • If, with our finite perspectives, we cannot ever know the infinite consequences of any particular butterfly wing-beat, let alone moral choice, can we ever in fact say with certainty that any act is good or bad?  Have we, in fact, surrendered the capacity to judge at all?!
  • And, stepping back one level, the historical question: If deontology and virtue ethics were both created at the very spark-birth of philosophy, why did it take 1,800 years for the third (to us equally obvious) branch to come into being?

Ah, friends: before we can have utilitarianism, we must have Borgias!  Before we can understand why this this third mode of human thought was born, nearly two millennia into the unassailed riegn of the original two, I must narrate the papacy’s darkest and, in my view, most exciting hour.  And before I can devote myself to the events around 1503, I must reserve a few days for my own affairs in 2012.

Continued in Machiavelli III: Rise of the Borgias

Jul 102012
 

Machiavelli’s office is at the front left corner, near the fountain statue of Triton (which the Medici Dukes added later)

My year in Florence has flown by, leaving me to face up to a life without battlements and medieval towers, without Botticelli and Verrocchio, without church bells to inform me when it’s noon, or 7 am, or 6 am, or 6:12 am (why?), without squash blossoms as a pizza topping, without good gelato within easy reach, and without looking out my window and realizing that the humungous dome of the cathedral is still shockingly humungous whenever I see it, and the facade so beautiful that it hasn’t started to feel real, not even after so long.  Among the cravings I have felt for Florence in the first weeks of separation—cravings for watermelon granita, Cellini’s statue of Perseus and long walks between historic facades—the most acute has been for a view: the view up from the square into the little office in the Palazzo Vecchio where Machiavelli worked.

You may have noticed that I appended the tag “S.P.Q.F.” to every post this year.  It has been my title for the year-in-Florence chapter of my activities, and in explaining why I find it such a fitting title I am at last going to answer formally here one of my favorite questions.  It’s my habit in Florence to strike up conversation with random passing tourists, and as one thing leads to another (and often to pizza, gelato and the Uffizi) there are various questions I am often asked by people who discover they have a chance to talk to a real live Renaissance scholar.  “Why did they make all this art?” is a common one.  Also “Does the Vatican Library really look like it does in Dan Brown?” (that’ll be another day’s post), but the one which I am always happiest to get, and which I get delightfully often, is “So, why is Machiavelli really so important?”  Now, I read The Prince in school, and remembered ideas including the stock “It is better to be feared than loved,” and “The ends justify the means,” but I also remember having no idea then why Machiavelli was a big name.  I’m pretty sure my teacher didn’t really know either.  In fact, most introductions to the works of Machiavelli that I’ve read didn’t even manage to make it clear.  After ten years as a specialist in the Renaissance, I think I can finally explain why.

I cannot, however, explain everything at once.  There’s too much to do it well.  I will therefore divide it into three parts.  Doing so is easy, because Machiavelli made two big, big breakthroughs. If I treat each in turn, with the proper historical context, I think I can make Machiavelli make sense.

  • Machiavelli, founder of Modern Political Science and History.
  • Machiavelli, founder of Utilitarianism/Consequentialist ethics.

The latter issue is where Machiavelli picks up such titles as Arch-Heretic, Anti-Pope,  and Destroyer of Italy (also father of modern cultural analysis and religious studies).  The former, however, is even more universal in its penetration into modern thought.

A modern monument to Julius Caesar

Many are familiar with S.P.Q.R. (Senatus Populus que Romanus, i.e. the Senate and the People of Rome).  This is the symbol and slogan of the city of Rome, and has been from the ancient Republic to today.  One finds it on stone inscriptions, modern storm drains, grand coats of arms, sun-bleached baseball caps, tattoos, always as a symbol of pride in the continuity of the Roman people and their republican heart.  For we who learn in middle school to place the fall of the Empire in 410 or 434 AD, and the end of the Roman Republic in 27 BC when Augustus became Emperor, it is hard to remember that the Senate and other offices of the Republic continued to exist.  They existed under the Caesars.  They existed in strange forms under the Goths who replaced the Caesars.  There were some struggles in the 550s, but even after the 600s, when we think the political Senate probably ceased to exist, there were still important families referred to as Senators.  New senates were periodically reintroduced (the Republic had a big moment in 1144) but even when there wasn’t a Senate, the popes who ruled Medieval and Renaissance Rome had to maintain a careful, wary balance with the Roman mob and the powerful Roman “senatorial” families, who sincerely believed they were descendants of ancient Roman senators.  Thus, while S.P.Q.R. is the symbol of the Roman Republic, in a long-term sense it represents more Roman pride in self-government as an idea, whether that self-government operates as it did in the Republic through popular election of Senators from among the members of a select group of oligarchical ruling families, or as it did in much of Christian Rome; by securing minimal concessions from the popes through the ability of the Roman city populace and its wealthy lead families to riot, prevent riots, stop invaders, aid invaders, supply funds, refuse to supply funds, and in crisis moments generally be of great aid or great harm to the pontiff and his forces.

S.P.Q.R. represents civic pride so deeply that, counter-intuitive as it may seem, many other cities picked it up.  London occasionally used to use S.P.Q.L., and one may read S.P.Q.S. on the shield above the door of the civic museum of the miniscule one-gelateria town of Sassoferrato.  And so, I have chosen S.P.Q.F. as the slogan for my year in Florence. “But none of those cities have a Senate!” you may object.  Neither, sometimes, did Rome, but it always had a Senate in spirit, and so did these other cities who, by adopting S.P.Q.*. proclaim that they love their city as much as Romans love Rome.

Petrarch, father of Renaissance humanism, desperately wanted Florentines to love Florence as much as Romans had loved Rome, the ancient Romans that he read about in mangled copies of copies of copies of the beautiful, alien Latin of a lost world.  He read of the Consul Lucius Junius Brutus who ordered the execution of his own sons when they conspired against the Republic, while at the same time Florence was hiring noblemen from other cities to enforce her laws, and equipping these mercenary magistrates with a private fortress within the city walls (the Bargello) so they could endure siege when they arrested members of powerful Florentine families, and the families attacked to try to liberate their own.  He read of the golden peace forged by Augustus, even as rival Florentine families used meaningless factions like the Guelphs and Ghibbelines as excuses to make bloody civil war within the city’s walls.  He read of hero after hero who sacrificed their lives for Rome, as families took turns coming to power and persecuting or exiling their rivals, mingling grudges with politics in wholly selfish ways. Petrarch himself grew up in France because his father had been exiled in the squabbles between Black Guelphs and White Guelphs, and had gone to seek work in Avignon, where the French king had carried off the papacy because Rome and her neighbors were too weak to defend the capital from what had once been her own colony.  He was born in exile, as he put it, an exile in time as well as place, for his home should have been, not fractious Italy, but glorious Rome, and his neighbors Seneca and Cicero.

The solution Petrarch proposed to what he saw as the fallen state of “my Italy” was to reconstruct the education of the ancient Romans.  If the next generation of Florentine and, more broadly, Italian leaders grew up reading Cicero and Caesar, the Roman blood within them might become noble again, and they too might be more loyal to the people than to their families, love Truth more than power, and in short love their cities as the Romans loved Rome.  Such men would, he hoped, be brave and loyal in strengthening and defending their homelands.  Rome started as one city, and did not make itself master of the world without citizens willing to die for it.

(Yes, I am going to talk about Machiavelli, and I hope you see here that the fundamental mistake most introductions to Machiavelli make is that they start by talking about Machiavelli.  Context is everything.)

“Petrarch says we can become as great as the ancients by studying their ways!  Let’s do it!”  Petrarch’s call went out and, with amazing speed, Italy listened.  Desperate, war-torn city states like Florence who hungered for stability poured money into assembling the libraries which might make the next generation more reliable.  Wealthy families who wanted their sons to be princely and charismatic like Caesar had them read what Caesar read.  Italy’s numerous tyrants and newly-risen, not-at-all-legitimate dukes and counts filled their courts and houses and public self-presentation with Roman objects and images, to equate themselves with the authority, stability, competence and legitimacy of the Emperors.  No one took this plan more to heart than Petrarch’s beloved Florentine republic, and, within it, the Medici, who crammed their palaces with classical and neoclassical art, and with the education of Lorenzo succeeded in producing a classically-educated scion who was more princely than princes.

And we’re off!  Fountains!  Busts!  Triumphal arches!  Equestrian bronzes!  Romanesque loggias!  Linear perspective!  Mythological frescoes!  Confusing carnival floats covered with allegorical ladies!  Latin!  Greek!  Plato!  Galen!  Geometry!  Rhetoric!  Navigation!  Printing!  Libraries!  Anatomy!  Grottoes!  Syncretism!  Philosopher princes!  Ninja Turtles!  Neo-Stoic political maxims!  Neo-Platonic love letters!  Lyre-playing!  Theurgic soul projection!  Symposia hosted by Lorenzo de Medici where philosophers and theologians lounge about discussing theodicy and the nature of the Highest Good!  All that stuff that makes the Renaissance so exciting!

In 1506 the Florentine Captain General Ercole Bentivoglio wrote to Machiavelli encouraging him to finish his aborted History of Florence because, in his words, “without a good history of these times, future generations will never believe how bad it was, and they will never forgive us for losing so much so quickly.”

Yes, this is the same Renaissance.

The flowering peak, as we see it, when Raphael and Michelangelo and Leonardo were working away, when the libraries were multiplying, and cathedrals rising which are still too stunning for the modern eye to believe when we stand in front of them, this was such a dark time to be alive that the primary subject of Machiavelli’s correspondence, just like the subject of Petrarch’s 150 years before, was the desperate struggle for survival.

Let us zoom both in and out, for a moment, and take stock of Florence’s situation in the world of Europe as the 1400s close.  Florence is one of the five most populous cities in the European world, well… four, now that Constantinople has fallen (1453).  Its population is near 100,000, and it rules a large area of farmland and countryside and several smaller nearby cities.  It is also one of the wealthiest cities in the world, thanks to the vast private fortunes of its numerous wealthy merchants and banking families, of whom the Medici are but the wealthiest of many.  We live in an era before standing armies, but Florence has a force of soldiers for enforcing law, and some modest mercenary armies which it hires.

Who else exists?  There is France, the most populous kingdom in Europe, with vast wealth, a population of millions to sustain enormous armies, and Europe’s most powerful king.  There are the Spanish kingdoms of Aragon and Castille, with vast naval resources, entering the final stages of merging their crowns into what will soon be Spain.  There is the Holy Roman Empire, a complex confederation of semi-independent sub-kingdoms under an elected-but-traditionally-hereditary Emperor who is also ruler of Italy in name, though not in practical terms.  There are other kingdoms with ambitious kings and powerful navies: England, Portugal.  There is the mysterious and terrifying Ottoman Empire to the East which has made great inroads in the Balkans and Africa.  There are the two peculiar and impregnable powers of Europe: Venice with its modest land empire but huge sea empire of port cities and coastal fortresses which pepper the Eastern Mediterranean much farther out than any other Christian force dares go; and the Swiss who live untouchable between their Alps and base their economy almost entirely on renting out their armies as mercenaries to whoever has the funds to hire what everyone acknowledges are the finest troops on the continent.  With the sole exception of the Swiss, all these powers want more territory, and there is no territory juicier than Italy, with its fat, rich little citystates, booming with industry, glittering with banker’s gold, situated on rich agricultural fields, and with tiny, tiny populations capable of mustering only tiny, tiny armies.  The southern half of Italy has already fallen to the French… no wait, the Spanish… no, it’s the French again… no, the Spanish.  The north is next.

That’s how bad it was.  That’s why there was such a great flourishing of art and literature and philosophy and invention; because in desperate times people try desperate things to stay alive, and if art, philosophy and cunning are one’s only weapons, one hones one’s art, philosophy and cunning.  And that’s why we needed a good historian.

1492.  Lorenzo de Medici, the philosopher quasi-prince, dies, leaving the Medici family resources and effective rule of Florence to his 20-year-old son Piero.  Roderigo Borgia is elected Pope Alexander VI, handing control of Rome to the Borgias.  Also, some guy called Christopher finds some continent somewhere.

1494.  The French invade Italy.  This can be partly blamed on Borgias, partly on members of the Sforza family squabbling with each other over who will rule Milan, but France, and every other major power in Europe, had been hungry for Northern Italy for ages.

Now is the moment for young Piero, Lorenzo’s successor, educated by the greatest humanists in the world with the reading list that produced Brutus and Cicero, to marshal his family’s wealth and stand bravely before the enemy.  Piero… runs away.  Not a high point for Petrarch’s idea of instilling virtue and good leadership through classical education.

In the absence of the Medici, Florence’s republic went through some twists (i.e. Savonarola) and managed to persuade the French not to destroy them through sheer force of argument (again Savonarola), and in 1498 (by removing Savonarola) reverted again to mostly actually being the republic it had consistently insisted it still was all this time.  S.P.Q.F.

This, now, was Machiavelli’s job when he worked in that little office in the Palazzo Vecchio:

  • Goal: Prevent Florence from being conquered by any of 10+ different incredibly enormous foreign powers.
  • Resources: 100 bags of gold, 4 sheep, 1 wood, lots of books and a bust of Caesar.
  • Go!

“Desperation” does not begin to cover it.  There are armies rampaging through Italy expelling dukes and redrawing borders.  Machiavelli is an educated man.  He has read all the ancients, all the histories, all the moral maxims and manuals of government.  He negotiates.  He makes alliances.  He plays the charisma card.  We’re Florence: we have all the art, all the artists, all the books; you don’t want to destroy us, you want to be  our ally.  When that fails, there is the bribery card.  We can’t defeat you, France, but we can give you 100 bags of gold to use to fund your wars against other people if you attack them instead.  Machiavelli negotiates alliances with France.  He negotiates alliances with Cesare Borgia.  He negotiates anything he has to.  He tries to create an army of citizen soldiers who will not, as mercenaries do, abandon the field when things are against them because they have no incentive to die for someone else as citizens do for their families and fatherland (the Senate and the People of Florence!)

1503.  The Borgias fall (a delightful story, for another day).  The bellicose and crafty Pope Julius II comes to power.

1508.  The Italian territories destabilized by the Borgias are ripe for conquest.  Everyone in Europe wants to go to war with everyone else and Italy will be the biggest battlefield.  Machaivelli’s job now is to figure out who to ally with, and who to bribe.  If he can’t predict the sides there’s no way to know where Florence should commit its precious resources.  How will it fall out?  Will Tudor claims on the French throne drive England to ally with Spain against France?  Or will French and Spanish rival claims to Southern Italy lead France to recruit England against the houses of Aragon and Habsburg?  Will the Holy Roman Emperor try to seize Milan from the French?  Will the Ottomans ally with France to seize and divide the Spanish holdings in the Mediterranean?  Will the Swiss finally wake up and notice that they have all the best armies in Europe and could conquer whatever the heck they wanted if they tried?  (Seriously, Machiavelli spends a lot of time worrying about this possibility.)  All the ambassadors from the great kingdoms and empires meet, and Machiavelli spends frantic months exchanging letters with colleagues evaluating the psychology of every prince, what each has to gain, to lose, to prove.  He comes up with several probable scenarios and begins preparations.  At last a courier rushes in with the news.  The day has come.  The alliance has formed.  It is: everyone joins forces to attack Venice.

O_O      ????????

Conclusion: must invent Modern Political Science.

Donatello’s Judith, celebrating the overthrow of tyrants (i.e. the Medici)

I am being only slightly facetious.  The War of the League of Cambrai is the least comprehensible war I’ve ever studied.  Everyone switches sides at least twice, and what begins with the pope calling on everyone to attack Venice ends with Venice defending the pope against everyone.  Between this and the equally bizarre and unpredictable events which had dominated the era of the Borgia papacy and pope Julius’ rise to power (another day, I promise!) Machiavelli was left with the conclusion that the current methods they had for thinking about history and politics were simply not sufficient.

Machiavelli did not, however, stop immediately and start working on the grand treatises and new historical method he would hand down to posterity.  He had a job to do, and wasn’t concerned with posterity—or rather he was, but with a very specific posterity: the posterity of Florence.  S.P.Q.F.

1512.  The Medici family returns, armed with new allies and mercenaries, and takes Florence by force.  The Pallazzo Vecchio, seat of the Signoria, heart of the city, is converted into the Ducal palace.  Machiavelli is expelled from government and, after a little while, is (falsely) accused of plotting against the Medici, arrested, tortured and banished.

Now, after the grand and fast-paced life of high politics, after being ambassador to France, after walking with princes, Machiavelli finds himself at a farm doing nothing.  He describes in a letter his weary days, taking long walks through fields and catching larks, retiring to a pub to listen to the petty babble of his rustic neighbors.  At the end of a wasted day, he says, he returns each evening to his little cottage, there strips away the dirt and ragged day clothes of his new existence, and puts on the finery of court.  Thus attired, ready to negotiate with kings and popes, he enters his library, there to spend the evenings in commerce with the ancients.

And he starts writing his “little book on princes.”

Now, everyone who’s anyone is banished from Florence at some point.  Dante, Petrarch, Cosimo de Medici, Benvenuto Cellini like five times…  When one is banished, one is often banished to some spot in the countryside outside Florence, which is what happened in this case.  The terms, generally, are that if you’re good and stay there then they’ll think about someday calling you back, but if you run off to some other city they make your banishment a bit more permanent.   Machiavelli is expected to run off.  He’s a talented and experienced political agent, a great scholar, author and playwright.  He could get a job in Rome for the pope or a Cardinal, in Naples, in Paris, in a dozen Italian citystates, in the Empire.  He doesn’t.  He doesn’t even try.

Machiavelli only works for Florence.   S.P.Q.F.

What he does do is everything in his power to get the Medici to hire him.  “The Medici?  Didn’t they destroy his precious republic?  Didn’t they expel him?  Didn’t they torture him?”  Yes, but that doesn’t matter.  What matters is that they rule Florence, and whoever rules Florence must be strong.   History shows that, when there is a regime change, there is civil war and people die.  When Florence has a regime change, Florentines die, and non-Florentines have a good chance of stepping in for conquest.  The Prince is a manual for staying in power.  Machiavelli writes it for the Medici, hoping it will secure him a job so he can get back where he should be, working for Florence’s safety from the inside.  But it also explains his conclusions from all this dark experience.

History should be studied, NOT as a series of moral maxims intended to rear good statesmen by simply saturating them with stories about past good rulers and hoping they become virtuous by osmosis.  History should be studied for what it tells us about the background and origins of our present, and past events should be analyzed as a set of examples, to be compared to present circumstances to help plan actions and predict their consequences.  Only this way can disasters like the Borgia papacy, the French invasion and the War of the League of Cambrai be anticipated and avoided.  What worked?  What didn’t?  What special characteristics of different times and places have led to success and failure?

This is modern Political Science.  It is how we all think about history now, and the way it is approached in every classroom.  We are, in this sense, all Machiavellian.

Of course, that is not what the word Machiavellian means.  The new system of ethics Machiavelli introduces in his manual to keep the Medici in power is deservedly recognized as one of the most radical, dangerous and potentially destructive moves in the history of philosophy, and one of the most far-reaching.  We are used to the trite summary “the end justifies the means,” and all the terrible, villanous things which that phrase has justified.  But Machiavelli’s formula is not in any way villanous, nor was he.  I will need another day to fully explain what that phrase means, but in a micro-summary, yes, Machiavelli did argue that the end justifies the means, and yes, he did mean it, but in his formulation “the end” was limited to one and only one very specific thing: the survival of the people under a government’s protection.  Or even more specifically, the survival of Florence.  That cathedral, those lively alleyways, those sculptures, that poetry, that philosophy, that ambition.  S.P.Q.F.

Do you ever play the game where you imagine sending a message back in time to some historical figure to tell him/her one thing you really, really wish they could have known?  To tell Galileo everyone agrees that he was right; to tell Schwarzschild that we’ve found Black Holes; to tell Socrates we still have Socratic dialogs even after 2,300 years?  I used to find it hard to figure out what to tell Machiavelli.  That his name became a synonym for evil across the world?  That the Florentine republic never returned?  That children in unimagined continents read his works in order to understand the minds of  tyrants?  That his ideas are now central to the statecraft of a hundred nations which, to him, do not yet even exist?

But now I know what I would say:

“Florence is on the UNESCO international list of places so precious to all the human race that all the powers of the Earth have agreed never to attack or harm them, and to protect them with all the resources at our command.”

He would cry.  I know he would.  It’s the only thing he ever really wanted.  When I think about that, how much it would mean to him, and pass his window in the Pallazzo Vecchio which he spent so many years desperate to return to, I cry too.

Machiavelli definitely loved Florence as much as the Romans loved Rome, and worked to protect it as much as Brutus or Cicero.  Florence also deserved to be loved that much.  It deserves its S.P.Q.F.  I’ve had, not just this year, but several earlier opportunities to get to know Florence in person, and even more years to read deeply into Florentine history and really understand all the invaluable contributions this city has made to the world.  I could never call myself a Florentine, but I do believe I am now someone who understands why Florence deserves to be loved that much by her people, why Florence deserved Machiavelli, and his efforts, and all the efforts of the other great figures—Dante, Petrarch, Ficino, Bruni, Brunelleschi, Cosimo and Lorenzo de Medici—who worked so hard to save it—through art, philosophy and guile—from the destruction that always loomed.  I know why it deserves UNESCO’s recognition too.  It makes it a hard home to leave.

See next, Machiavelli I.5, Thoughts on Presenting this Style of History, then Machiavelli II: the Three Branches of Ethics