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“Italians are Cynical, Amoral, Religiously Superficial”

Bathing Aphrodite and Eros. Hermitage, St Petersburg

The Roots of Cynicism

A comment by Maryann on the Roman Goddess Fortuna post had kicked off an interesting discussion.

Her grandmother from ApuliaMaryann 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 entered instead civilization together with Christianity (or nearly.) This couldn’t happen without consequences. It made us a bit more pagan, them a bit more Christian.”

At this point the Commentator (Exposrip) had popped up:

“I never thought – he had 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?”

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I think Roman survivals – I had replied – exist in various regions of Europe (like England, Germany, Poland etc.) but here in our country such remnants are more marked.

Cynicism. If you ask about this within a discussion on Italian pagan survivals you probably suspect there is a connection. I am convinced there is, although it can’t be easily proved.

A long history of glories and defeats, foreign conquering, the influence of intellectuals like Machiavelli – all this must have contributed. Although Machiavelli, to me, is more like the product of a culture. He reinforced elements that were 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.

What we mean by ‘cynicism’

Let’s first see what we mean 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' definition (A) and the Italian one (B). To the former, values seem more like a given, while the latter appears more relativist: values are historical, not eternal]

In any case. Isn’t it possible that behaviours seen as indifferent and cynical according to certain values appear only such because partially obeying to diverse (alien) moral codes coming from the Greco-Roman antiquity?

Let us have a look at these alien codes then.

No Conflicts of Conscience

Bathing Aphrodite. Hermitage

Which is no easy task, the Greco-Roman philosophers were divided into different schools, plus the Ancients behaved differently according to the different ages.

ψ

Thus said, I basically agree with 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.)

“[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 meant that just the thought of a sin is almost like committing the sin itself [these two articles - 1 and 2 - may help further.]

Not Torn Between Pleasure and Sin

Vénus de l'Esquilin or Venus Esquilina

Esquiline Venus, in all her voluptuousness, found in 1874 on the Esquiline Hill in Rome (from the Horti Lamiani possibly). Capitoline Museums, Rome. Click for credits (Flickr)

Ok. So what’s the conclusion of all this?

The conclusion equals the beginning, ie we get back to where we started.

ψ

Rodocanachi compares the Greek and the Christian (or Protestant) attitudes. Italians definitely belong to the former, to the ‘Greek’ cultural area.

Almost any Italian would confirm that we are not that torn between virtue and vice, pleasure and sin, that we do not much fear damnation (and almost never speak of hell.)

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 sound (see note 3.)

Even among Catholics, when taking the Italians and the Irish for example, we are not that strict compared to a lot of things.

The Lewinsky scandal, President Bill Clinton’s trial and this whole Scarlet Letter atmosphere literally sent Italians rolling on the floor laughing – I hope I won’t offend somebody saying that.

The Epicurean Rome of the Renaissance

Late Renaissance Villa d'Este, Tivoli. Rome

“Your religion is not serious, you are cynical, indifferent!” was the comment by many North Europeans that travelled about Italy during the Renaissance. Their feelings were halfway between admiration and condemnation.

The splendid epicurean Rome of the Renaissance (admire above Villa d’Este) appeared often repulsive to them, one reason why the eternal city was brutally sacked by protestant troops in 1527 AD (this comment develops MoR’s peculiar approach to Italian Renaissance.)

ψ

Truth is, our mind is like a museum, which makes us appear cynical, indifferent.

We are inclined to live the joys of life and sometimes do bad deeds without those self-punishment mechanisms that stem from breaking fundamentalist moral codes. Our flexibility (and confusion) springs from ancient mores that contribute to make us the way we are.

ψ

In some regions of our mind, it may be liked or disliked, we are still pagan at heart.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

PS
The ideas in this and other posts cannot be considered as demonstrated, and need further research.

ψ

Notes.

Roman Renaissance fountan1) 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 bugging 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. We are not. His stimulating ideas went though well beyond Marxism and G. is now appreciated by Marxists and non Marxists, by left-wing and right-wing thinkers all the world over.

ψ

Related posts:

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
Knowing Thyself
Man of Roma
Constitutional Happiness
by Australia Felix
The Mafia and the Italian Mind

Decline of the American Roman Empire

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Louvre, Paris, photo by Guillaume Blanchard

Osiris, Isis and Horus. Louvre, Paris. Photo by Guillaume Blanchard

I didn’t want to talk about politics too much in this blog, desiring rather to deal with our Western (Mediterranean, Roman) roots, with ancient habits still surviving today, with Rome past and present, philosophy, history, arts etc.

Three recent discussions though brought me into global politics again:

  1. One occurred in the Canadian Commentator’s blog, also indicated by Theresa from Arkansas in her blog and dealing with the possible decline of the American Empire.
  2. Another discussion took place here in my blog and dealt with a tighter European unification (which I see as a good way of fighting against Europe’s decline): a really LONG discussion among Alex and Andy (two nice Englishmen living in Milan, Italy) and Man of Roma.
  3. Finally, a third discussion among Rob and MoR (in his and in MoR’s blog, 1 & 2) and Indian Ashish and Falcon. It dealt with this void here in the West which we perceive as far as morals and values, plus a lot of other stuff.

Ψ

Ok. What these three discussion had in common? Well, such minutia as the possible decline of the West, also vis-à-vis new emerging countries. I was also being asked by both Theresa and the Commentator to try a comparison between the Roman Empire and the Empire of the United States.

Ok, I’ll try, but:

  1. Allow me to expand it to the entire West (America + Europe) instead of dealing with US decline only and …
  2. allow me to restrict it to the possible effects such Western decline is having on culture, ideas and beliefs of the people involved.

Will this mean I’ll get back to my blog’s track? I do not know, really, but here we are, here is global politics again (though my own way) ;-)

Spiritual Désarroi

The heat is getting so appalling in here that thoughts become weird and erratic. I’m typing with sticky fingers, ants invading my human space in search of cooler air. Wondering if all this can be an extra motive why I accepted this topic again and why I feel like musing on ideas of decline…

Well, actually what we see here in Europe and America are all these people turning towards oriental religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, or doctrines like Scientology, or even Neo-pagan movements growing in Anglo-Saxon countries and probably originating from a disappointment towards Christianity and its different varieties (above, an image of the Neopagan Goddess and the moon).

A woman, a friend of mine, is starting to adore some crazy coloured stones she always brings along wherever she goes. Amazing, no doubt. And what about this person very close to me who turned to Sathya SaiBaba, the Hindu saint, long ago? Or this relative of mine who, once relocated in France, embraced the Muslim religion? (my mother never got over it, I’ll confess).

Many Muslims, vis-à-vis such Western spiritual crisis (and relativism), react in different ways, from a total acceptance of consumer society values up to forms of moral rejection or even active reaction (which unfortunately also lead to terrorism). But that’s another story. Let’s stick to the point.

As the Roman Empire. An Analogy

Referring to Western contemporary societies, numerous commentators and artists have talked of a decline-of-the-Roman-Empire type of situation. It is an interesting analogy, since in those old days the official Roman religion wasn’t so attractive any more and innumerable oriental cults were spreading among the different classes of the Roman society.

Italian Archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani ( 1846 – 1929 ) for example unearthed the remains of the Temple of Isis in Rome, who was imported by the Romans from Egypt and set on the banks of the Tiber, the sacred river of Rome. We have also mentioned in a previous post how Egyptian rites and culture fascinated the Romans at the times of Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony (and in other times).


(Ants are now walking on my keyboard. I HAVE to make a pause and gently push them away….)

ψ

Since among all those foreign cults the final winner was the Christian sect, would it be totally absurd to wonder if once again there will be a winner? We mean – and it might be the heat – is it possible that again some faith (new or old) could profit from today’s Western void (which seems to affect Europe much more than America)? Italian Oriana Fallaci feared Islam would be the winning belief about to conquer Europe…. Well, we do hope that no Abrahamic religion (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) will prevail, for a number of reasons, some of which we can mention in the next post …

(ants and heat allowing… I need to buy AC, good also for mosquitoes, no doubt about it)

A fascinating depiction of Western void is offered by the acclaimed movies Le Déclin de l’empire américain (The Decline of the American Empire, 1986) and Les Invasions barbares (The Barbarian Invasions, 2003) by the outstanding French-Canadian director Denys Arcand, both illustrating in an eloquent way this emptiness affecting at least two generations.

by Denys Arcand

(to be continued tomorrow; we will associate this topic with Buddhism, science and the Dalai Lama. See you tomorrow then.)

Western Values, Again (2)

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Relativism, Yes

The commentator thus commented my first comment to Rob’s post, saying: “Was the above (specifically regarding our values versus terrorists) a defence of moral equivalism?”. Well – apart from endorsing Islamic terrorism, which of course I don’t – if being a relativist means (as I think it means) not believing in absolute truths valid forever and outside any historical and social context, yes, I am a convinced relativist. Also democracy to me is relative (I can see many readers jumping up in their chairs).

Separation of state and religion, ok, I like it a lot, but this is not enough to proclaim our superiority over other civilizations (such as the Islamic) plus why should secularism be an absolute truth? As regards democracy, it doesn’t seem in my view the ideal solution for some people, plus it is not granted, as many analysts now start to recognize, that economical growth automatically will lead to more democracy. The case of Russia and China is often indicated as instructive from this point of view. And I believe it really is.

This reminds me when all the world applauded (me included) when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev started to swiftly democratize the Soviet Union. At the same time all the world protested (me included) when the Chinese students asking for more democracy (hence imitating the Russians) were crushed by the military in the Tien An Men Square in 1989 (watch above a famous movie regarding that tragic episode).

But then, what the heck has happened? Who the heck was right? The Russians (who accelerated democracy) or the Chinese (who hindered it because they thought it would tear down a country of 1.5 billion people)? I have lived almost one year in Russia (in the year 2000) and I have witnessed the almost TOTAL collapse of a society and all the terrible consequences that ensued (this country now pulling itself together thanks btw to its new Caesar, or Tzar, Mr. Putin: can this be by mere chance?).

I know Anglo-Saxons are very sensitive about this democracy thing. They use it as a propaganda weapon, not many doubts about it, but there is something deeper. If democracy was invented by the ancient Greeks, only the British and the American people in modern times were capable of creating truly great democracies (plus, isn’t the Indian democracy – the biggest in the world – somewhat derived from Great Britain as well? I hope Falcon won’t be upset ;-) ).

We admire the Anglo-Saxons for what they have achieved, for this great contribution and influence in all this. But if they do not really try hard to understand the rest of the world, especially those very old civilizations so different from theirs (and ours), and if they do not get out of their mental schemes, I am afraid their decline (and ours, unfortunately) will be swifter than expected. They (especially the Americans) cannot expect they can export their political solutions (that took so many centuries to develop, from Magna Charta on) to totally different historical and social environments (like Iraq or Afghanistan) which might embrace these solutions in the long run, who knows, although it is not granted at all, I am sure it is not granted at all, not many doubts about it. In any case, I am for democracy, that’s for sure. I just wanted to add some elements of reflection.

The Ugliest of Tyrannies

I know almost nothing about Professor Norman Geras’ thought but in your quotations, Rob, he condemns the:

“apologists for terrorism, the mumblers and rootcausers, the people seemingly capable of understanding everything except the need for drawing a clear line between those who uphold the politics of democracy and those dedicated to their destruction. The left today …is a loose movement which is able … to mobilize … to oppose conflicts fought by the Western democracies against the ugliest of tyrannies and/or reactionary social and political forces…”.

Well, first of all I do not consider myself belonging to the left any more, hence many things he says here and elsewhere do not regard me much; secondly, I see in his words some hypocrisy, sorry to say that, exactly like in Tony Blair’s words (but I may be wrong and I’ll try to read more of his writings).

The thing is I am not blaming America for being a superpower and for fighting (sometimes badly, I’ll admit) for her interests. I love and admire America. And I believe she is a true democracy. But – as I said – I also believe that empires and powers (such as the Romans, the Turkish Ottomans, the Victorians, the USA etc.), are not ruled mainly by idealism or ethics; they are rather ruled most of all by Realpolitik, namely by practical considerations regarding their interests.

So, according to Norm, as you call him, am I an apologist of terrorism if I say that a democracy like America now says she fights against “the ugliest of tyrannies” (it is still to be proven for which reasons) while, at the times of Henry Kissinger, she fought for “the ugliest of tyrannies” (Greek colonels, ruthless dictators all over South America etc.)?
My opinion is that this passage by Norm is a bit abstract and apologetic, not to mention a few apparent doses of historical amnesia.

All the best,

Man of Roma

Western Values, Again (1)

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This post originates from a debate I had with Falcon, Ashish and especially Rob and regarding: values, the West, the Islamic extremists etc. First Rob replied to a comment of mine saying I raised too many issues so it’d be too arduous to fully accept the challenge. But the same I can say of his post (an even more complex reply to my comment lol), so I’ll just consider some topics mentioned by him (plus Ashish’s and Falcon’s remarks) and will talk freely without too much organization, being a bit tired after a long work trip (and hoping I won’t say too many silly things lol).

Is Decadence Advancing (or Just Old Age)?

Western leaders are talking so much about values. But where is the line between what they really feel and political propaganda? I am referring to the Tony Blair’s speech quoted by Rob but this of course is not only true of Western leaders. This is also true of almost any leader. Although on the whole I see some decadence advancing in our part of the world, which might correspond to the natural cycle of civilizations, more or less like what happened to the civilization of ancient Rome. I mean, Western leaders can try to propose their societies (and their values) as models, but what are the real ideas we are exporting around the world?

Just an example taken from today’s entertainment field. At least two movie industries are now flooding the world with their films: Hollywood and Bollywood, the former selling all over the world, the latter selling all over Asia (Muslim countries included) but now starting to be appreciated outside Asia as well. I may be wrong but Bollywood moviegoers seem to entertain themselves in a much healthier way, while American movies (not to mention US video games) are now so painted with blood, stupidities and disgusting violence (apart from some technological perfection which in any case is not much influential over the quality of content) that the final educational result on the public tends in my view towards new forms of barbarism (see above a view of the Hollywood boulevard: source).

Blind Hatred plus Moral Disgust?

I abhor the Islamic fascists, as you call them, Rob. And I am not neutral. Quite the contrary. These repugnant people have made the world much worse than it was before, in my opinion. But if we do not understand that many of them are also motivated by some sort of moral disgust towards some ways of the West, we miss an important point.

Take Bali, Indonesia. The islamofascists hit Kuta twice in 2002 and 2005 with some bombs and killed hundreds of people, mostly Westerners. I have been to Bali a few times and I believe it is not by chance they hit the Kuta beach area so much.

Bali is the only Hindu island in a country, Indonesia, mostly Muslim. This was symbolic to them, not many doubts about it, but I think a main point was also they hit right a place in Bali (Kuta) where the Westerners most succeeded in totally corrupting the local people who are now selling themselves in various ways for money, while in other parts of this great island the Balinese retain their unbelievable dignity and their incredibly refined cultural values, yes, so refined that even peasants look like princes (look above at the pure beauty of these two Balinese dancers: source).

Although by this I do not mean the West has no values, and the non-West has. And we are not the only ones to use values as ideological weapons, as I said before. Ashish, this young Indian blogger, puts it very synthetically: “Religion [and any idealism, I think he means, MoR] is merely the vehicle, the true goal is world supremacy. Does the west prevail over the east or is it otherwise? … The bosses only care about the profits [oil for the west, power for the clerics], be it the West or the Middle East. Religion is merely a way to get yourself an army, because nobody fights as ruthlessly as a fanatic!” Very well said indeed.

A comment from another Indian blogger also in his twenties, Falcon, who writes: “Let’s face it, a large no. of Islam followers have their rationality almost blinkered by faith. They may be very humble and polite and would gladly discuss religion and point out its greatness and fallacies but try touching Islam and they get defensive.”

Well, it is true, also some Mulsim students of mine behaved like that. But I remember things were a bit different before September 11. What I believe is that, especially the new Muslim generation is living like a generational wave. That terrible, unbelievable terrorist attack (nothing cannot be compared to it) has unfortunately fascinated too many young minds. Sept 11 is not the only factor, but the development of things in Turkey (once the most secularized Muslim Nation) is very instructive in my view. How long will this woeful wave last? Hard to say. It will none the less pass away, I am sure of it (or is it my hope and ideals blinkering me now?).

Left & Right

You quote intellectuals from the left, Rob, thinking it can make some difference to me. It doesn’t. The left is only my origin and I do not belong to any faction any more. It is a complicated topic not to be discussed here, but I try to reason with my mind only, not caring where good (to me) ideas come from and in my view what really counts has very little to do with this dichotomy.

For example, words such as reactionary elements do not mean anything to me. And they do not mean anything to the new generations. Listen again to Falcon commenting this post of mine: “Could somebody explain to me what exactly reaction mean? What was the action we did that we are facing a reaction?”. He then continues, going maybe towards some sort of relativism: “As long as there will be a feeling, that one set of ideals and values are better than the others there is bound to be a struggle for supremacy. Islam can teach us a lot things, just like any other religion. The only question is: are we ready to learn?”

Man of Roma

(to be continued)

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