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.

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

Dec 162011

December has been extraordinarily productive for me, with a large number of small articles and other projects now plumply complete, but the down side has been no time to write about Roman churches or ancient marbles or bad gelato and its wicked ways.  I hope to have such leisure again shortly, but in the meantime let me present an old piece overdue for posting in the fandom vein, my review of the MARVEL comics Thor movie which distressed everyone last spring by being nowhere near as awful as expected.

(For those unfamiliar, it will help you in reading this to know that Norse mythology, and Viking culture in general, are a secondary area of special academic interest for me, and also an area in which I compose and perform from time to time.  In both research and on stage I specialize in a certain very important Norse deity who sure as heck ain’t Thor.)

An unbiased review of the MARVEL “Thor” movie.  (Contains spoilers).

I have been driven to write this review since so many people seem to have missed the subtleties of this excellent and richly-worked commentary on Norse Mythology.  First off, I should like to correct a common, basic confusion about the film’s plot, since so subtle was the crafting of Loki’s character that many viewers seem to have been taken in by his brilliant plan, which succeeded, and which was cunningly disguised as a terrible plan which failed.  I apologize for the necessity of spoilers here.  Loki’s primary objective, destroying Bifrost the Rainbow Bridge, was clearly seeded early, when Loki revealed that he had found his own, unique methods of inter-world transit.  He thus ended the film with a triumphant monopoly on inter-world travel, whose consequences the viewer can look forward to enjoying in the sequel.  Concealing all this with the fake throwaway throne-grabbing plan was elegant writing, and provided an opportunity to banish the Thunderer long enough to get in some thoroughly enjoyable cheap laughs.

I should quite like to know how this version of Loki managed to alter things to set everyone up to believe he was Odin’s adopted son rather than brother, but I agree it was a necessary step.  It’s much easier to guilt-trip the Allfather in a father-son relationship than a blood-brother one, and the guilt-trip was integral to the plot.  Far more integral than most of the content of the film, really, but therein too lay some of its brilliance, since the large palette of seemingly superfluous and out-of-place characters provided an opportunity for brief dips into many interesting commentaries on the theology.  The Thunderer’s four seemingly-irrelevant friends, for example, especially the conspicuous ninja, settled in a few short scenes the oft-debated question of whether non-Viking warriors can go to Asgard.  The fact that the non-Viking population of Valhalla both outnumbered and, in one very moving scene, criticized the mourning practices of the one real Viking amng them, brought before the viewer’s eyes the pathos of a dwindling, traditional culture being drowned out by internationalization even in its afterlife.  The brief appearance of the woman identified as both the Thuderer’s mother and Odin’s wife was also a fascinating snapshot of imagined secondary consequences of the death of Baldur, since, indeed, if Frigg failed to produce any further heirs to Odin’s throne, he might of necessity disown his infertile queen and bring Fjorgen to Asgard in order to legitimize the Thunderer.  Even something so subtle as the prop design of Mjollnir proves, by its full-length handle, that in this reimagining the entire creation of the Weapons of Power was conducted differently.  The depth of the impacts of Loki’s deceptions has no limit.

Gender the film treated with rare and unexpected subtlety, and I stand in admiration of how it highlights and embellishes the unstable sexual categories of the Norse mythos.  We are accustomed to Loki’s dual-gendered nature, but instead of re-treading that ground, we are presented instead with a deeper examination of gender imbalance in Jotun society.  When we are informed Johtenheim has a single ruler, we might expect one of the great Jotuns the Thunderer usually battles, such as Bergelmir, or Utgardsloki,  or perhaps  Loki’s father Farbauti.  Instead we find Laufi, Loki’s mother, on the throne, and having taken a male form, presumably in order to command respect from a patriarchal society, much as her famous son/daughter does.  This pathos of this grim portrait of cultural pressures to use shape-shifting to renounce female form in a pre-feminist culture is then multiplied when we see masses of jotuns during the battles and destruction and realize that all of them have the same, hulking, distinctly male form.  What might be attributed to bad CG or chauvinist casting reads now as a silent proof of the sub-human position of women in Nordic culture.  Surely this common Jotun gender-switching is known to all-seeing Odin, but he has kept to himself in his kingdom—perhaps afraid of the ideas it might put into the heads of the Asynir.  Or does Odin have a darker interest in pretending that he believes Laufi is Loki’s male parent?  Is he covering a darker reality?  Are we meant to realize how closely “Far-bauti” i.e. “Far striker” might invoke Odin, the wielder of Gungnir, who, we know, often disguises himself to sire children, and answers already to Hnikar (Spear-thruster) and Hnigakudt (Thrusting-god)?  Is there yet another layer to the Allfather’s deceptions?  The linguist is left delightfully tantalized.

I must confess that, at times, so subtle was the scripting that it was difficult even for an expert to quite make out what it was hinting at (either that or they were stuck with a poor translation of the Eddas).  For example, Audhumla the Ice Cow, who freed Odin’s father (The first god, Bur) from the ice, must be the presumptive grandparent invoked by the Allfather in his reference to “my father and his father before him”, since no other being was responsble for Bur’s creation–unless this is perhaps intended as a roundabout hint that Loki had managed to confuse Odin about his own origins as well as Loki’s?  Clarification is needed.  At other points, though, the film provided almost too much information.  While it’s certainly useful for those of us who might want to repeat the process to learn at last that Mjolnir was forged using the heart of a dying star, I suspect some rather angry and protective dwarven smiths will be demanding reparations for trade secrets lost.

The costuming was excellent, all around.  The mostly-naked Jotun fan-service was much appreciated.  The Thunderer was hilariously adorable with his puny child’s beard.  The way Wayland the Smith went overboard designing these insane helmets was a great way of communicating his silent protest over being forced to build that ridiculous whopping robot thing.  I also admire the hairdressers’ bold speculation that if Sif did follow Freiya into the warrior-maiden calling, it would also give her the guts to finally admit that she was never a real blonde.

My major objection remains the film’s title.  While the Thunderer did get a lot of screen time, mainly because the writers were correct that watching his embarrassing antics on Midgard was a fine way to pass the time while important people were sneaking through inter-world rifts and casting endless incantations, he was so tangentially related to the film’s actual plot that it seems to me misleading to present him as some sort of titular and, presumably, central figure.  If the writers thought they needed the extra deception to keep the viewer from figuring out Loki’s true plan too soon, they must, I fear, be accused of too much double-bluff, since as it is so many viewers seem to have missed the real plot.  I have had it pointed out that the writers may have chosen the title for the merchandising, since I’m certain many lasses will soon be cuddling adorable Thunderer dollies, but I find it hard to believe a film, otherwise so sensitive and scholarly, would stoop to product placement.  If the actual main character could not be titular, Odin at least might have been a better choice, if not something more neutral, like Sons of Asgard, or perhaps Mjollnir Saga, since the hammer did contribute meaningfully more often than its master.

All in all, a well-executed film, if a bit crowded with comic relief; we must hope the authors do not make a similar mistake in the sequel, which should be titled Loki’s Victory, at least in my unbiased opinion.

(P.S. I hear some rumors about a title involving “Avengers’?  Vengeance is good too.)

Click here to read the next installment of the series.


Sep 102011

It’s a bunch of people standing around; thrilling, right?

In galleries, museums, and even on the art-spotted streets of Florence, friends and I love to play “Spot the Saint” – trying to identify the saints in art without looking at the blurb.  I know it sounds flippant to make a game of it, and perhaps it is flippant, but it is also in an important way authentic.  Renaissance art, religious art especially, is aesthetic, but it is also narrative.  Sculptures, paintings and other artifacts were created to retell and comment on stories and people whom the audience was expected to already know.  Being able to identify different subjects, especially saints, by their vocabulary of recurring attributes is a kind of cultural literacy which all Renaissance people had, but most modern viewers lack.  We are the illiterate ones, from the Renaissance perspective, when we come to an altarpiece unable to tell Paul from Peter or Augustine from Jerome.  If you understand who these figures are and what they mean, a whole world of details, subtleties and comments present in the paintings come to light which are completely obscure if you don’t understand the subject.  Time after time I’ve taken friends, who didn’t have much interest in Renaissance or religious art before, and after a few rounds of “Spot the Saint” in the Uffizi had them declare that it suddenly made a lot more sense, and carried a lot more meaning.

What a sweet Venetian street (and canal) corner.

Renaissance art often focuses on details that are absent from the main versions of stories, showing the emotional expressions and making you think about the experiences of secondary characters present at scenes (almost like fanfic, in fact).

There is a wonderful example which (curses!) the internet cannot supply me with a photo of, an altarpiece by Alessandro Gherardini housed in the elusive and rarely open Santo Spirito church, across the river.  It shows Christ crowning the Virgin Mary (a very common scene) accompanied by St. Monica and St. Augustine.

(On Augustine see my post on the Doctors of the Church).

Wait a minute – what’s that?

This is not in any way exciting until you think about the fact that Monica is Augustine’s mother, who watched patiently throughout his wild and chaotic youth (wild by any standards – he joined the Manichean cult, and ditched her in Italy while hitching a boat to Africa with no warning), but she kept on, patient and loving, until he finally—through his own independent studies—explored and eventually embraced the Christianity she loved so much, and became one of its great Doctors.  The altarpiece makes you think about the touching parallel between the two mothers’ love for their sons, and how proud Monica would be in Heaven watching Augustine’s growing greatness, and eventually getting to present her beloved son to Mary and her beloved Son.

Why, it’s San Lorenzo!  With his grill!

But if you can’t spot the saints, it’s all a bunch of random figures.

Recognizing saints is also valuable for figuring out who made a piece of art, and why.  Even an expert in a lifetime can’t memorize every single Florentine art treasure and its history, but a layman in a few days can learn enough to tell from the contents and context of a painting how to read a lot about its past and goals.  Some saints are specific to cities; see something with a prominent St. Mark and you can smell Venice, while St. Zenobius is never seen outside Florence.  Some are specific to types of patrons: is your altarpiece full of Dominicans?  Probably the church that commissioned it was too.  Full of female saints flanking Mary Magdalene?  It’s time to suspect it may have been commissioned for nuns, or by a female patron.  Renaissance masterworks didn’t come down to the modern age with convenient explanatory tags already attached: we wrote them, and the historians who did so used these same clues to figure out their origins.

Thus, this will be the first of many “Spot the Saint” posts, by which I hope to introduce the characters and thus open up the story of the art I see every day.  Each entry will introduce a couple of new saints and how to recognize them, so we can all play, and understand.  Since I am in Florence, I will concentrate first on the saints I see every day:


One friend, through more rigorous online hunting than my own, has very kindly provided this low-quality and slightly blurry photo of the altarpiece of Augustine and Monica at the coronation of the Virgin which I discussed above.

Santo Spirito, the church where it is housed, strives to fulfill its mission to protect the church from dangerous activities, like people going to it, looking at its art, or taking decent pictures of its treasures.  I love to visit it, both for the gorgeous contents and architecture, and to spite its over-zealous guardians.  It’s easier to go in these days, but a few years ago you practically had to have a Florentine accent to be admitted.


San Giovanni Baptista (St. John the Baptist )

  • Common attributes: Hairshirt, robes, tall stick with a cross on it, wild medium-length hair
  • Occasional attributes: Beard, scroll saying “Ecce agnus dei”, pointing at things, sheep or lamb, rarely a book or something with a lamb on it
  • Patron saint of: baptism, lambs, horse hoof care, printers, tailors, invoked to combat epilepsy and hailstorms (some of these are shared with several others, as is often the case).
  • Patron of places: Florence, Turin, Genoa, Cesena, Umbria, a zillion other Italian towns,Jordan, Puerto Rico, Newfoundland, French Canada
  • Feast days: June 24, August 29, January 7
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, baptizing Christ, pointing at Christ, pointing at viewer, pointing at heaven, visiting young Christ when they’re both kids, standing at the left hand of Christ during the apocalypse and overseeing the sorting of those damned to Hell, being imprisoned by King Herod, being beheaded, having his severed head delivered to Salome on a silver platter.
  • Here he’s pointing at the baby Jesus, lest the viewer, like Mary, be distracted by ever-distracting Saint Sebastian.

    Close relationships: Christ’s second cousin, son of Mary’s much older cousin Elisabeth and of Zachariah (both descended from Aaron); birth prophesied by Gabriel.

  • Relics: Scattered around.  His tomb is in Egypt, but his head is in Rome and Munich and Damascus and Bavaria and many other places.  Florence has his right index finger and part of a forearm.

John the Baptist is an intimidatingly-important saint.

Not only is he a blood relative of Christ, and the pioneer of baptism, his grim task at the resurrection is vividly depicted in the numerous Last Judgment images which traditionally decorate the rear walls of churches.

And if Mary is so important partly because of her role as the kind protector sitting at the right hand of Christ to mitigate the wrath and protecting her faithful during the second coming, John the Baptist does the opposite.  I certainly wouldn’t want to tick off a city under his personal protection.

Florence’s baptistery ceiling makes it clear

As Florence’s patron saint and protector, John the Baptist appears all over the place in Florentine art, and they never tire of painting him pointing at things, both to remind the viewer of his importance as the one who “points the way” to Christ, but also because they have that finger.  You can still see it, in fact, in the Museo del Opera del Duomo, but it used to be housed in the Baptistery, which is the historic heart and symbol of the city.

And a place that made a strong impression on a certain Dante when he was a little boy.


You don’t want to tick off the guy in that chair!

The main thing for spotting John the Baptist, though, is the hairshirt, depicted as some kind of fuzzy fur.  Sometimes it’s under a robe, sometimes it’s all he’s wearing.  Even in bronze or stone, it’s always clear:

Ghiberti’s statue on Orsanmichele – I wish this were my photo, but I don’t have a ladder.

San Lorenzo (St. Lawrence)

  • Common attributes: carries an enormous iron grill, dressed as a deacon (wearing a dalmatic tunic), short, tonsured hair
  • Occasional attributes: palm frond (any martyr can carry a palm frond), often dressed in red or pink
  • Patron saint of: cooking, chefs, barbeque, librarians, libraries, notaries, administrators, tanners, paupers, comedians, some other things
  • Patron of places: Rome, Canada, Rotterdam, Sri Lanka, Canada
  • Patron of people: Medici Family
  • Feast Day: August 10th
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, being roasted alive, being sentenced to death by the Emperor Vespasian, distributing alms to the poor
  • Close Relationships: He’s one of the Deacons of the Church who oversaw its finances in early days, so is associated with other early deacons, and early martyrs, like St. Stephen
  • Relics: They burned him so there are only bits.  Florence has some.  The grill is in Rome.

I already discussed San Lorenzo and his most excellent patronage of the poor in my post about the celebrations of his feast day.  As a prominent early martyr he is very commonly depicted with other martyrs.

“Flip me over, Caesar,” from the martyrdom of San Lorenzo, fresco in the Santuario della Madonna del Colle

He’s a favorite in Florence because he was a keeper of money, and the many moneylenders of the Italian banking circuit (not least the Medici) were eager for examples of virtuous people who dealt with money, so they could justify their financial obsessions and deflect accusations of usury.  That a man who was grilled alive is patron saint of cooking and specifically roasting and barbeque proves there is a sense of humor to these things, as does the fact that his witty last words, “Flip me over, Caesar, I’m done on this side,” earned him eternal fame as Patron Saint of Comedians.  True grace under (over?) fire.  Also: patron of cooking AND libraries?  There’s a saint dear to my heart.

Jump to the next Spot the Saint entry.

Aug 072011

Uffizi and Palazzo Vecchio

On July 30th Florence, the Uffizi gallery, Google and numerous other Earthly powers celebrated the 500th birthday of Georgio Vasari (1511-1574).

Both praising and describing Vasari are challenging, since no one could in fairness call him one of the Renaissance’s best painters, nor one of its best architects, nor even one of its best biographers. His Lives of the Artists is certainly what has brought him the most fame, but this collection of brief biographies of Renaissance artists is not only dry but unreliable, both in the poor-fact-checking-sense and in the extreme and unblushing bias which is as ubiquitous in pre-modern biography as tomato sauce on an American pizza. We read Vasari today only because he was these artists’ only biographer, and needs must as the paucity of sources drives. Yet, if Vasari was surpassed by many in arts and letters, walking the streets of Florence today I can think of few who touch him in footprint. He was a Great Figure of the Renaissance, one whose touch I feel constantly as I cross squares and explain architecture to new-made friends, to whom I find myself constantly repeating, “Of course, that bit wasn’t like that back then—it was redone by Vasari.” In brief, Vasari redid the Palazzo Vecchio. At length, in order to avoid making Vasari seem to be a petty, place-seeking stooge, I’m afraid I have to go back a ways…

Once upon a time the Roman Empire ended, and with it the network of roads and trade and safety that had strung cities together into a web of economy and culture. Small, unsteady kingdoms followed, but in Northern Italy at least, while cities formally passed from prince to distant prince, the absence of real central infrastructure and enforcement left them virtually alone. Italy’s cities became citystates, ruled by remote powers, pope or Emperor, in name only, while in reality they governed themselves, walled islands of population and production, independent and, at first at least, many republican. They had Rome as their model, an elite voting population and elected offices, not quite the same as the old republic but close enough to breed patriots as proud as Cicero. But these little city republics, like Rome’s, weren’t stable. Faction fighting bred civil war, brought on partly by ambitious families but more often by that Hobbesian principle that anyone powerful or rich enough to be envied by his neighbors can never sleep safe at night until he has deprived said neighbors (through subjugation or execution) of the ability to kill him in his sleep. Winners became rulers and one-by-one the city republics became the seats of lords and dukes and counts and other-titled princes. (This is all oversimplified, of course, but the romantic narrative is more important than the gritty details when our purpose is to understand what the Palazzo Vecchio means as a symbol of what was.)

Florence held out longest of the great cities (excepting Venice; we must in all things except Venice, since Venice is that special), Florence the stubborn, free, fractious, strange Republic. Over and over it nearly fell, as ambitious nobles and entrenched vendettas (think Montagues and Capulets) made the streets stream with blood and the road with exiles, Dante among them. From a pure body-count perspective there is no way around admitting that the surrounding cities that did turn to monarchies were better off, stable, efficient, comparatively immune to faction fighting, but free Florentines would never sacrifice liberty and dignity for ease and calm—and this includes the vast, disenfranchised majority who were not members of the voting elite but still took pride in their Republic.

San Gimignano still has its towers (wiki pic)

After one near-tyrant too many, the Florentines decided to create a system of government which could never, ever let anyone gain enough power to take over, and so conceived the Signoria, a system so bizarre that if someone made it up in fiction no reader would think it plausible. The Florentines had long since exiled, killed or at least banned from government all their nobility. The private towers of the powerful families, which had once turned Florence into a forest of tiny battle-ready fortresses, were knocked down, their palaces burned, and a new law forbid any private citizen from building tall towers which could be used as private forts to defend elite families as their goons battled in the streets below. What remained as the elite were members of the merchant guilds, the great trade families who controlled cloth production, oil, wine, medicine, bureaucracy and, that great Italian invention, banking. A Signoria, or council of elected rulers, was created in 1282, a vaguely-defined political body also used by several other Italian republics. Florence’s unique system of “scrutiny and lot” was introduced in 1328, in which each qualifying member of the great guilds over thirty years of age was examined for fitness and then his name was put in a bag. Every two months nine names were pulled out, and these nine men became the Signoria, the ruling council, to rule the city for two months. At the end of these two months new names were drawn, so no one ever ruled alone, and no one was in office anywhere near long enough to form a personal power base. There were no elections to fix or sway with bribery and campaigning, so all would remain fair and stable and happy ever after. In theory, at least.


The Palazzo Vecchio

The Palazzo Vecchio (begun in 1299, the year before Dante went to Hell), was built to house the Signoria, and while in office they were held within the palace and never permitted to leave, since outside they could be bribed, kidnapped, even contaminated by passing heretics or devils (horror!). The palace was built on the crater left when the victorious Guelphs razed to the ground the palaces of their Ghibelline rivals (think Montagues on the smoldering graves of Capulets) and instantly became the symbol of the unity, stability and prayed-for longevity of the noble Republic.

The apartments of the Signoria, grandly decorated with painted wooden ceilings, were on the top floor. The ground floor was originally open, a place where people could gather and talk and trade. It was later closed in so a garrison could defend the palace from attack. On the lower levels, representatives of the people receive the laws sent down by the Signoria, and could vote to accept or reject them. An intermediate floor between the council level held the scribes and clerks and secretaries who kept the system running.

Yes, Assassin’s Creed fans, there really was a prison in the tower, and if someone you know was imprisoned there, that means he was very, very naughty.

Finally the great tower was a symbol of the supremacy of the republic, and at the top a special prison was built to hold the most dangerous traitors against the state, who were sometimes executed by being hanged off the tower itself.

A completely unfounded but nonetheless delightful urban legend holds that the semicircular battlements on top of the tower, associated with the defeated Ghibelline faction in contrast with square battlements used by Guelphs, represented the vicious, Ghibelline-leaning traitors imprisoned there.

Problem is, the Signoria system had one vital flaw:

(A new Signoria is elected)

Duke of Milan – Hello, Signoria. I’m the Duke of Milan. Congratulations on your election. Have a fruitcake.

(1 week passes as the Duke’s message is carried from Milan to Florence)

Signoria – Nice to meet you, Duke of Milan. Thanks for the fruitcake. We knit you this nice scarf.

(1 week passes as the Signoria’s reply is carried back)

Duke of Milan – Thanks for the scarf. Now that we’re friends, would you like to make a treaty for mutual defense against the French?

(1 week passes)

Signoria – Sure, we hate the French. What do you propose?

(1 week passes)

Duke of Milan – I propose committing X many troops, Y many florins, and everyone involved gets cookies every Thursday in honor of St. Ambrose.

(1 week passes)

Signoria – We want to send W many troops and Z many florins, and we demand that the cookies be distributed in the name of St. Zenobius.

(1 week passes)

Duke of Milan – Perhaps X many troops but Z many florins, and the cookies can be distributed in the name of both saints?

(1 week passes)

Signoria – Who are you? What are you talking about? We don’t want to give our troops and florins to someone we’ve never talked to! And we abhor cookies!

(1 week passes)

Duke of Milan – You had another election, didn’t you? Hi, Signoria, I’m the Duke of Milan. Have some fruitcake. Now, about the French…

No Tyrants within these Gates (David agrees).

Needless to say, the Signoria system was not popular with foreign powers who needed to negotiate with Florence’s government, nor with Florentines who needed to negotiate with Florence’s government, since the toothlessness which made the Signoria tyrant-proof also made it about as streamlined as a hedgehog. It certainly didn’t help that the guild members generally had no experience of government, and two months is far from long enough even to learn the ropes. Hence the rise of the Medici.

You see, there’s this brilliant thing called ‘banking’ which means you can leave your money with people in one city, and then go to another city and receive the same amount of money (minus a small fee), without having to carry bags of gold with you on the road where, in the absence of a real empire, bandits and adventuring parties roam free. The savings, in cash and in not getting your throat slit, made this option instantly popular, and the Italian families who did it instantly wealthy. The Medici managed to finagle the position of Official Bankers to the Pope, which meant that it was their job to escort donations, church taxes, land rents, indulgence fees and every kind of income from every church in Christendom back to Rome, taking a healthy cut. This rapidly made the Medici just about the wealthiest private people since Crassus.

Cosimo de Medici (1389-1464) was the one who applied wealth to politics. If you have enough money to keep a third of the city of Florence on your payroll, then you can tell all your clients “Do XYZ if you’re elected to the Signoria,” and then even if you can’t contact them while they’re inside, a third of the Signoria on average will still do what you want. Then, if the Duke of Milan wants to negotiate, instead of negotiating with the fleeting and inexperienced Signoria, he can negotiate with Cosimo, a stable, long-term political contact who will still be there in a year’s time. And eventually if Cosimo finds a way to bribe the men whose job it is to pull the names out of the bag, then things get even easier.

Was this Medici takeover tyrannical? Absolutely, since it directly perverted and controlled the Republic. Was it good for Florence? Absolutely, since Cosimo’s unofficial rule lent great stability, and he spent his enormous wealth on neoclassical architecture, public art, libraries, translating Plato, plumbing, a perfect mix of useful and sublime contributions to the glory and everyday living of his fellow Florentines.

There was resistance, of course. In 1433 Cosimo was arrested and imprisoned in that same Palazzo Vecchio tower where so many dangerous traitors and would-be tyrants enjoyed a last, grim vista of the city they tried to enslave. He escaped, bribing the cell guard with 300 florins and the captain with 700 florins, and is reported to have said they were the two stupidest men in history since he was the wealthiest man in Italy and would have happily paid tens of thousands of florins for his liberty. At the next election, by a total and not-remotely-bribery-related coincidence, all the members of the new Signoria decided to invite him back.

There were more tumults after Cosimo’s return – weak Piero’s succession, the bloody Pazzi conspiracy, assassin priests, the French invasion, the Black Friar Savonarola (stories for another day) – but the important part is that Cosimo never officially ruled anything. Legally he was a private citizen and remained so through his life. So did his successor Piero, and his successor, much-loved Lorenzo de Medici, a perfect humanist prince except that he was never technically prince of anything. The Signoria system continued, officially, with Medici control behind the scenes, and while it did so did Florentines’ patriotic zeal and, with it, enmity against the Medici tyrants.

Duke-worthy Offices

For more than a century the Medici kept being opposed, thrown out, restored, struggling to maintain control of their infamously fractious and rebellious city, until in the early 1500s there was one overthrow too many. The Medici raised a fresh army, marched in, got rid of the Signoria and in 1531 finally had themselves crowned Dukes.

Returning to Vasari…

Architecture remained the physical embodiment of Florence – its government, its church, its people – and the Palazzo Vecchio was by now the solid, permanent embodiment of the authority to rule. The Medici moved in, literally occupying the Signoria’s seat, a permanent end of the Republic. The old palace needed to be redone, and it was Vasari’s job to turn this icon of the long-loved Republic into a symbol of its death and rebirth as a glorious Medici monarchy.

The palace itself he had redecorated with new, more beautiful (and expensive) gilded ceilings, pseudo-Roman frescoes, and a beautiful but unsubtle mural of the Medici besieging Florence, with the simple message: you are here, my troops are here – think about it.

Vasari’s “Siege of Florence”

He also tore down the old quarter by the Palazzo Vecchio where the merchant guilds had had their headquarters and created the Uffizi, “offices”, a long, folded neoclassical loggia surrounding a new public square. Inside the guilds were installed into new, nicer, more mathematically harmonious and luxurious lodgings provided by their new ducal master. Below, the new square was comfortable and shaded by the galleries, perfectly situated to be the new center of commerce and civic gossip, again dominated by the elegant silhouette of the duke’s new offices above. Florence’s civic heart was literally transplanted into the duke’s architectural grasp. The offices were then decorated again with Roman-style grotesque frescoes, antiquities, the family’s collection of Renaissance masterpieces, busts of Roman emperors, and portraits of Medici family members and their famous vassals and political allies.

Vasari’s addition

The surface of the Uffizi is all perfect neoclassicism, elegant symmetrical gray window frames and pediments in harmonious mathematical precision, creating a square which feels at the same time new and ancient, and above all planned, intentional, in contrast with the eclectic mix of different eras’ facades which surrounded every other square in Florence and, pretty much, in all of Italy. Even before the installation of the statues of Cosimo Pater Patriae and Lorenzo il Magnifico, the feeling of standing in the square below the Uffizi is the best possible summary of the events: the chaos and liberty of the Republic have been replaced by an educated, organized, neoclassical, irresistible force. Vasari carved that lesson in brick and stone, and made it clear.

He also created the Vasari Corridor, a closed, elevated walkway which starts at the Palazzo Vecchio itself, connects it by a high (dukes only!) bridge to the Uffizi, then on the far side connects the Uffizi to a long hallway which runs well above head height along the river, across the Ponte Vecchio with its tight-crammed sparkling goldsmiths’ shops, through the houses and rooftops of the quarter across the river, and ends at the Palazzo Pitti, a much larger,

The Vasari corridor

grander second palace which Vasari’s scheme connected with the first. The Palazzo Vecchio was, after all, more than two hundred years old, and a bit cramped and old-fashioned, built for cobblers and dyers, not for dukes. The Pitti Palace had worthier apartments (worthy to house the kings of Italy in the early days of the unification). Now the Duke could walk in assassin-proof safety from palace to palace, even across the river, and more, now the Duke’s movements were a central part of the city’s face. Florentines going about their daily business would (and still) follow along the ducal way, enjoying the shade provided by the walkway above, while all across the city one could see the corridor along the bridge, tying the two halves of the city together like a great artery. Its pulse was the Duke.

Was Vasari a fawning Medici stooge? Essentially. Was anybody NOT at this point? Not who had a job. Artists need patrons, and the Medici were a wealthy, cultured, politically savvy, respectable and above all stabilizing force for a city that had gone through a dozen regime changes in two generations. Vasari was not one of the Renaissance’s greatest painters, nor its greatest architects, nor its greatest authors, but I will nominate him unreservedly for the title of greatest communicator.

Vasari’s Space

He packed the feeling and intensity of what had happened, two hundred years of chaos and gradual transition, into a series of physical spaces which perfectly teaches the viewer what happened and what this great change meant, even if the viewer doesn’t actually know the specifics of the great events which created these great spaces. Architecture, painting and interior design combine to create a very specific tint of awe, one which really does communicate both what was lost and what was gained.I know no comparable grand architectural scheme—not the Vatican Palace, not St. Peter’s, not the castles of Milan or Naples or even Versailles—which succeeds in channeling history so complicated into a simple view. Florence’s history, as you can tell, needs concise summary or it turns into a saga. Vasari turned it into a vista, and was in that perhaps a better biographer of Florence than he was of his fellow artists.

For that achievement, on his five hundredth birthday, he deserves congratulations.

Jump to an Overview of Florence’s Museums, or Venetian Carnival.