The Roots of Cynicism
A comment by Maryann on the Roman Goddess Fortuna post had started an interesting discussion. Her grandmother from Apulia – Maryann wrote – had a deep disregard for fortune tellers “and wouldn’t even tolerate us visiting one for fun at the Italian festas. I wonder where this came from.”
I had replied that her grandmother’s behaviour probably derived from the Catholic Church’s reaction against possible survivals of Paganism. “Italians – I argued – were highly civilized long before (9-10 centuries earlier) Christianity arrived, while many Northern Europeans were instead brought civilization together with Christianity (or nearly). This couldn’t have happened without consequences. It made us a bit more pagan.”
At this point the Commentator (Exposrip) had popped in:
“I never thought – he observed – of the historical angle of Italians being civilized before Christianity thus making them a bit more pagan. Of course, the Romans were pagans!”
“Let me ask you : where do the Italians derive their realistic and cynical posturing? Did it begin after the fall of Rome? Did Machiavelli instil it? Was it years of foreign conquering?”
I think Roman survivals – I had replied – exist in various regions of Europe (like England) but here in our country such remnants are more evident.
Cynicism. If you ask about this within a discussion on Italian pagan survivals you probably suspect there is connection. I am convinced there is, although it can’t be easily demonstrated. A long history of glories and defeats, foreign conquering, the influence of intellectuals like Machiavelli – all this must have contributed. But Machiavelli to me is more like the product of a culture. He reinforced elements already existing.
Did these ‘elements’ develop after the fall of Rome or did they stem from the previous Greco-Roman culture, or both things? Both in my view.
Let’s first see what one means by cynicism today:
A. Cynicism is “a disposition to disbelieve in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions.” (Oxford and Webster dictionaries).
B. Cynical is “the person who, with acts and words, shows scorn and indifference towards the ideals, or conventions, of the society he lives in.” (Dizionario Italiano Treccani).
[I may be wrong, but there's a difference between the Anglo-Saxon (A) definition and the Italian one (B). To the former, values seem more like a given, while the latter appears more relativist: values are linked to a certain society]
In any case. Isn’t it possible that behaviours seen as indifferent and cynical according to certain values appear such only because partially obeying to diverse (alien) moral codes coming from the Greco-Roman antiquity?
Let’s have a look at these alien codes then.
No Conflicts of Conscience
Which is no easy task, the Greco-Roman philosophers having dissimilar moral views, plus the ancient people behaving differently according to the different ages.
Thus said, I basically agree on what the British historian C. P. Rodocanachi wrote about the Athenians of the V century BC (which on the whole and to a certain extent applies to the Greco-Romans as well).
“Absence of conflicts of conscience: the Greeks were quit] of this inhibiting and agonizing struggle. Their morals were civic and not religious. Their sense of duty was directed exclusively to the city … They knew nothing of the Christian idea of good faith, of intentions conditioning acts in such a manner that the most law-abiding citizen may feel himself a great criminal at heart… [They] may be considered as being intrinsically amoral and this very amorality was a powerful constituent of balance of mind which they could never have attained if their conscience had been torn, as ours is, between the conflicting forces of good and evil, virtue and vice, pleasure and sin. They could enjoy beauty, taste the delights of life without a pang of conscience. So long as they were faithful to the laws and interests of the city they had no damnation to fear, either in this world or the next.”
By intention Rodocanachi probably meant that just the thought of a sin is almost like committing the sin itself (I’m not a great theologian, I’ll admit.)
Not Torn Between Pleasure and Sin
Ok. So what’s the conclusion of all this?
The conclusion is the beginning. We get back to where we started.
Rodocanachi compares the Greek and the true Christian (or Protestant) attitudes. Italians are definitely more similar to the former.
Almost any Italian would confirm that we are not that torn between virtue and vice, pleasure and sin, that we do not fear damnation that much. Even if Italians captained for centuries the switch from the Pagan religion(s) to Christianity, their Christian feelings are superficial, no matter how false (or outrageous) this may seem (see note 3).
Even among Catholics, when taking the Italians and the Irish for example, we are not that strict compared to them.
The Lewinsky scandal, President Bill Clinton’s trial and this whole Scarlet Letter’s type of atmosphere literally sent Italians rolling on the floor laughing – I hope I won’t offend anybody saying that.
The Epicurean Rome of the Renaissance
“Your religion is not serious, you are cynical and indifferent!” commented many North Europeans arriving to Italy during the Renaissance. Their feelings were halfway between admiration and moral repulsion. The splendid epicurean Rome of the Renaissance (admire Villa d’Este above) appeared often repulsive to them, one reason why the eternal city was brutally sacked by protestant troops in 1527 AD (this comment develops our peculiar approach to Italian Renaissance.)
Truth is, our mind is like a museum, which makes us seem cynical, indifferent. We are inclined to live the joys of life or sometimes do bad deeds without all those self-punishment mechanisms derived from breaking any fundamentalist moral code. Our flexibility (and confusion) springs also from ancient mores that contribute to make us the way we are.
In some regions of our mind, it may be liked or disliked, we are still pagan at heart.
The ideas in this and other posts cannot be considered as proven or demonstrated.
1) Quote from C. P. Rodocanachi , Athens and the Greek Miracle, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, London 1948.
2) My answers to Maryann and Exposrip have been further processed since their questions have kept running in my mind (original texts here)
3) In Notebook IV of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks we read: “There is no doubt that Italian religious feelings are superficial, as there is no doubt that religion here has a character which is mainly political, of international hegemony.” So it seems that also the pre-Christian role of government of peoples still survives: Imperial Rome is resurrected into Catholic Rome. Gramsci wrote this note in a period between 1929 and 1935. He was a Marxist. I am not. His thought went well beyond Marxism and is appreciated by both Marxists and non Marxists all the world over.
Pre-Christian Rome lives (where this movie by Fellini grotesquely unveils aspects of papal Rome’s pagan nature)
Survivals of the Roman Goddess Fortuna
Sex and the city (of Rome). A Conclusion
Gods are Watching with an Envious Eye
Man of Roma
Constitutional Happiness by Australia Felix
The Mafia and the Italian Mind