“History deals with living people: it can’t fail to please us. Besides, we are the result of what has happened in the past”

Stonehenge

Stonehenge. Click to enlarge and for attribution. Wikipedia

I’d love to know
How things got to be
How they are.”

Marilyn Monroe

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“Darling Delio, I am feeling a little tired and can’t write much. But please write to me all the same and tell me everything at school that interests you. I think you must like history, as I liked it when I was your age, because it deals with living people, and everything that concerns people, as many people as possible, all people in the world, in so far as they unite together in society and work and struggle and make a bid for a better life – all that can’t fail to please you more than anything else, isn’t that right?”

Antonio Gramsci, Letters from Prison

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“History is interesting because the world today and we who live in it are the result of what has happened in the past, the result of history. If we know something about the past, it is easier to understand the present. It is not true that history repeats itself: no event is exactly the same as another. Yet if we know what happened in the past we can make a better guess at what is likely to happen in the future.”

Neil Grant, foreword to his Hamlyn Children’s history of Britain’, 1977

Man of Roma. Un bilancio (assessment)

Man of Roma a piazza Navona

MoR in Piazza Navona. Click for a larger view. Pic taken by Devinder Singh with my brand new Galaxy Tablet. Dev, an Indian blogger, was in Rome last May. He had presented a short (and great) film at Cannes. See 2 links on Piazza Navona at the foot of the post

[Per i lettori italiani.

Un nuovo blog, Pagine del Man of Roma, in cui sto mettendo brani significativi del MoR in italiano.

La soap sull'antica Britannia la sto scrivendo anche in italiano]

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Thus said, cercando di non fare i tronfioni e di essere obiettivi (English translation in progress) il 9 settembre 2007 cominciai un blog in inglese perché:

1) era difficile

2) dopo 16 anni di IT volevo riprendere gli studi umanistici

3) la lingua di Shakespeare, meravigliosa, speravo aprisse a una varietà di interlocutori eccitante

4) volevo praticare la dialettica, mito della mia generazione ma di valore universale

5) volevo focalizzare il lavoro sulla romanness, verificando eventuali nessi, di qualsiasi tipo, tra i romani dell’antichità e i romani – italiani (e oltre) – di oggi (la romanitas si dispiegò infatti su un impero vasto).

Piazza Navona today. Via Wikipedia. Click for a larger view

Piazza Navona, Rome, former Circus of Emperor Domitian located to the north of the Campus Martius. Via Wikipedia. Click for a larger view

Come è andata?

Io credo bene. In modo non sistematico:

214 scritti (non tantissimi forse nell’arco di quasi 4 anni ma molti sono saggi ben sudati), 5.281 commenti (tanti, molti dei quali più lunghi del post che li aveva stimolati). Praticamente, tra articoli e commenti, “un librone di diverse migliaia di pagine” in cui gli interventi (al 99% in inglese) sono spesso più elevati degli scritti stessi. Ci sono anche i miei commenti e, wel well, i miei lettori sanno che sono un bel chiacchierone (chatter-box).

Estrema varietà degli interlocutori. Eccitante dicevo. In ordine alfabetico:

America, Australia, Austria, Brasile, Canada, China, Francia, Germania, Gran Bretagna, India, Irlanda, Italia, Messico, Nuova Zelanda e Svezia.

Bust of Roman Emperor Domitian who reigned from 81 to 96 CE. Roma, Musei Capitolini

Viaggio di esplorazione. Questo per me e spero per i lettori è stato il Man of Roma:

Un girovagare imparando cose belle insieme, un dialogo continuo (estenuante a volte), uno studio tosto da parte di chi scrive (fa bene, ok, ma ‘na faticaccia …).
Nel fondo ero e rimango un insegnantefiero del mestiere che ho fatto per più di 30 anni, un dare e soprattutto un ricevere che riscalda il cuore prima della mente.

Verifica dello strumento dialettico. La tecnica dialettica – inventata forse da Socrate e Platone 2400 anni fa (ma esistono dialettiche orientali efficacissime, vedi il link subito sopra) – per come la vedo io è:

A. dialogo con noi stessi sui temi che ci appassionano

B. Dialogo con libri testi e pagine (anche web) validi (non si cresce senza dialogare con menti migliori della nostra).

Consiglio lo studio attento di scritti frammentari o zibaldoni (l’efficacia dell’esempio vivo!) poiché il pensiero in progress ci fa teste pensanti (thinking people) per naturale imitazione, piccole teste o grandi chissenefrega (who the hell cares),  l’importante è pensare con la nostra testa, diritto sancito da ogni costituzione democratica.

Domitian's Stadium, built in 86 CE conceived for Greek athletics that the Romans considered immoral (nakedness etc.). Later become 'Circus Agonalis' the population watched there agones (games, from αγών: any contest), whence 'agone', which possibly merged into 'navone' (big ship), whence Navona. Voilà, Piazza Navona! Click for credits

Personalmente ho imparato tantissimo dallo Zibaldone di Leopardi, dai saggi di Montaigne e soprattutto dai Quaderni del carcere di Antonio Gramsci, autore oggi riscoperto a livello globale (dalla destra e dalla sinistra americana, in India, in Inghilterra ecc.) non per il suo essere marxista (il marxismo è morto, pace all’anima sua) ma per il suo essere pensatore geniale, utilissimo.

Presto vorrei meglio approcciare gli essais (1rst & 2nd series) & lectures di Ralph Waldo Emerson, forse il più grande intellettuale americano che, for some weird reason, è a me molto affine.

[Anche la poesia, attenzione, di ogni genere e popolo, è strumento -cognitivo e artistico- micidiale]

C. Dialogo con gente in carne ed ossa, dovunque è possibile (amici, caffè, strada). I blog? Per loro natura dilatano il dialogo e naturalmente con l’uso di una lingua franca il livello di tale dilatazione è potenzialmente altissimo.

Piazza Navona, air view. Click for credits

Infine, ‘romanità’ ieri e oggi. E qui concludo perché credo che l’audience del blog (not too far from half a million hits, specie considerando argomenti non proprio semplici direi) sia dovuta proprio a questo:

al meraviglioso mondo di Roma raccontato da un ‘uomo medio’ in tutte le salse possibili. Da uno cioè nato e vissuto quaggiù, ie a witness from right there.

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Ringrazio con affetto tutti quelli che mi hanno seguito e che ho seguito nei loro blog.

THIS IS NOT A FAREWELL, IT’S A NEW BEGINNING! [had to add this since a few readers were worried: see comments below].

That the journey continue! I do love you ALL (and you know it damn!)

Yours.

Man of Roma

Nota. Per piazza Navona vedi queste notizie storico-archeologiche in italiano e in inglese.

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Post correlati (bilanci, audience e temi, man mano che il blog cresceva):

[Related posts (assessment, audience & themes as the blog progressed in time]

Are We Going Anywhere?

This Blog’s First Birthday

Post sul Metodo (see the English original of this, well, wild post)

100 Posts. I’ll Celebrate My Own Way. 1

100 Posts. I’ll Celebrate My Own Way. 2

Merry Saturnalia! And a Roman New Blog

Locking Horns with a Young Roman

Themes from Man of Roma: a site map

“America, the Greatest Collective Effort Ever existed”. Antonio Gramsci

New York. Click for credits and to enlarge

While replying to Thomas Stazyk‘s comment on a post on Antonio Gramsci I realised it was more convenient to write a new blog post instead.

I usually reply to my readers one by one. Tomorrow it will be the others’ turn.

Explaining Paris Hilton

Thomas. Thank you for an interesting and insightful 795 words! For me, Gramsci adds the needed dimension to Marx that is required to understand/explain contemporary culture. I think his ideas of cultural domination and hegemony go far to explain everything from the Tea Party to Paris Hilton, and maybe Facebook and Twitter as well, but the whole technology thing needs more thought. I’m worried that saying that social media (and reality TV) are vehicles of cultural domination might sound too much like a conspiracy theory. But they certainly do support Gramsci’s view that hegemony is achieved and maintained by consent of the subordinate class.

MoR. “Gramsci adds the needed dimension to Marx that is required to understand/explain contemporary culture.”

You may refer to Gramsci’s study of Marx’s superstructure. Gramsci criticises the notion of a superstructure as simple ‘skin’ of a society, and of a socio-economic base, the ‘skeleton’, that is what really matters by determining the conscience etc.

“Women – Gramsci said – fall in love with the skin, not the skeleton”. Seduction, again, ie cultural hegemony.

[Update: ie people are ‘seduced’ by the ‘skin’ or cultural elements (superstructure) more than by the ‘skeleton’ – socio-economic class structure. It is a metaphorical way of stressing the importance of cultural hegemony, of men’s choices – free, non mechanically predetermined by the economical class structure – and of 'intellectuals' in history.]

I think his ideas of cultural domination and hegemony go far to explain everything from the Tea Party to Paris Hilton, and maybe Facebook and Twitter as well.

I’ll get to Facebook and Paris Hilton. But I’ve got to follow a long forgotten reasoning.

Since the core of Gramsci’s reflection is the superstructure – intellectuals being like the agents of it –, by analyzing both the high and the pop culture(s) of several countries he strongly advocates a blend of the two levels.

The intellectuals, he argues, should not be separated– as it always was the case of Italy – from the ‘elementary passions’ of the common people. A folk should be culturally united, as a tendency at least.

Greek Tragedy & Shakespeare

Such culture [update: of a high level, where the 'intellectuals' and the common people interact in a two way process] he calls ‘national-popular’ (complex notion to say the truth.) Among the best examples of it Gramsci indicates the Greek tragedy and the Elizabethan theatre, where the majority of the people were involved in a great experience. To him the only Italian example of such ‘artistic unity’ of the people [update: high-low interaction] is the Italian opera (I may possibly add, since I saw it with my eyes, the ‘popular’ love for Dante one can still experience in many parts of Tuscany and elsewhere.)

The Italian Renaissance to him, though sublime, was too elitist [update: ie no participation of the populace, no high-low interaction] and one cause in the end of the Italian decline. The protestant Reformation saw instead great popular participation (Renaissance-Reformation are to Gramsci also dialectic metaphors – in the Hegelian sense of thesis and antithesis – that he uses abstractly.)

Even if at first the Reformation – Gramsci argues – was like a return to the dark ages, it later liberated people’s energies by reaching higher levels of culture and contributing to the construction, among the rest, of the American nation.

US Cultural Hegemony

San Francisco Fire Department Engine 22 (1893). Click for credits and to enlarge

The first British immigrants to the New World were in fact an intellectual and especially moral elite – Gramsci argues. Defeated religiously in their fatherland but not humiliated, they brought to the New World great will, moral energy and “a certain stage of European historical evolution, which when transplanted by such men into the virgin soil of America, developed – and continues to develop – the forces implicit in its nature but with an incomparably more rapid rhythm than Old Europe”, where the relics of the past generated opposition giving to every initiative the equilibrium of mediocrity …

We all know what happened, how Europe went down and how the US have become the dominant power.

Following Gramsci’s reasoning, the United States exert yet today a cultural hegemony over the world, at both a high and a popular level of culture. Their universities are excellent in all fields (they even have among the best Dante’s specialists!) etc., intellectuals are not that detached from the people (they tend to ‘disseminate’ knowledge in their books, not like here in Italy although things are changing a bit – while France, a not at all bad ‘national-popular’ place in the 19th century – see 19th-century French literature! – is nowadays possibly even more elitist than we are, but I’m not sure.)

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

Not concluded. Tomorrow, Thomas and you folks. I am European, not American. And my dog Lilla is recovering but she is 15 years old.

ψ

See next installment:

Is America Too Young to Maintain its Cultural Hegemony in the Long Run?

More on Antonio Gramsci:

American Engineer, German Philosopher & French Politician: Gramsci’s Ideal Blend for the Modern Leonardo da Vinci
Seven Aspects of Antonio Gramsci’s Thought

Related posts:

Democracy, Liberty & the Necessity of a Solid Education of the People
Culture, Kultur, Paideia
The Last Days of the Polymath

Seven Aspects of Antonio Gramsci’s Thought

Andreas Kluth, the Hannibal man, asked me to write something about Gramsci in 300 words. I failed. These are 795 words.

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I studied Gramsci in my twenties and he surely helped me greatly. I think important to say his thought to be:

1) in progress, more formative to me than any sedentary conclusions, building up upon a list of themes & reflecting on them in fragmentary notes from thousands of different viewpoints and within a dreadful context – fascism arising, jail isolation, uncertainty for his own life. All so compelling and mind expanding;

2) dialogic and dialectic.

Dialogic.
G’s ideas bounce on one another also in relation to other authors’ even-opposite ideas – Gramsci ‘discusses with the enemy’ so to say. A solitary dialogue though, since jail solitude brought him to solipsism, which creates like a tragic, bewitching (and a bit claustrophobic) atmosphere.

The many ‘tools’ he created such as ‘cultural hegemony’ (close to ‘seduction’), or his notion of ‘intellectuals’, stem from such inner dialogue, which can be baffling to people used to clear definitions – I well understand – but, such brain storming is contagious and the attentive reader is taught to form his / her mental dialogues on anything he / she researches.

Dialectic. It refers to Heraclitus & Hegel, implying that all in history is ‘becoming’ & a contradictory process with actions, reactions, conciliations etc. Gramsci’s dialectic is concrete, anti-idealistic. For example, the Rousseauesque pedagogy – the ‘laissez-faire’ of ‘active’ schools – was seen by him as a reaction to the coercive Jesuitical schools, so not good or bad ‘per se’. But he tried to favour an education where both the elements of discipline and fascination were present.

Antonio Gramsci’s ashes in the Protestant ‘Cimitero degli Inglesi’ in Rome

Any idea had to be seen in its historical context and was hence transient (Marxism included.) When the Russian revolution burst he wrote it was a revolution ‘against the Capital’ (ie against Marx’s theories,) a scandal within the Comintern.

In many respects he considered America much more progressive than Stalin’s Russia;

3) polymathic. Gramsci is wide-ranging, like the men of the Renaissance. Besides there are similarities between his ideas and Leonardo da Vinci’s, and their writing styles too;

4) anti-platonic. Nature is ruled by blind forces, with no intelligent design. He follows the Italian tradition of Lucretius, Vico, Leonardo, Machiavelli, Leopardi, in contrast with the Platonic (and hegemonic) tendency expressed during the Renaissance by Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola;

5) anti-élite. Anti-chic, and certainly not the ‘smoking Gitanes and wearing black turtlenecks’ type of intellectual – to quote Andreas -, to him knowledge & refinement are not classy and must be spread to everyone. Born to a backward Sardinian peasant milieu he had succeeded in becoming a great European intellectual, which made him believe that everyone could be a philosopher at various degrees, and that a solid education of the working class was possible;

6) greatly written. Croce, Gramsci, Gobetti, Gentile were all great writers, like Hegel and Marx were. G’s texts are like permeated by a Hölderlin’s Heilige Nüchternheit (sacred sobriety.) As Giorgio Baratta observes, “his style, sober and exact, opens wide spaces that make the reader fly, but the flight is not grandiloquent.” His works have been recognized since they were first published as masterpieces of our language and literature. His Prison Letters have the depth of Tolstoy, an author close to him in many respects;

7) historic. Italian, European and world history are considered, from the end of the ancient Roman Republic onwards, and innumerable aspects are analysed. For a young Italian like me it meant an invaluable know-yourself experience. What I had passively learned at school could finally bear some fruit, also the teachings of my father, that I could fully appreciate only after reading Gramsci.

Gramsci’s history is as close to us as family’s history can be. It’s his magic. It touches the soul deeply.

It is also the concrete history of ideas circulating in the various socio-economic groups at a given time, with catalogues of magazines, newspapers, movements, intellectuals (often categorized with humorous nicks: it’s his peasant culture showing now and then), with the aim of understanding the currents and exact mechanisms of cultural hegemony.

He does that as for Italy, other European and non European countries. He analyses the elements that, in his view, make the United States the ‘hegemonic force’ in the world and also identifies like some cracks in this hegemonic structure, in their being too virgin and too young as a nation, with a melting pot of too many cultures.

Too long a story. Americanism in Gramsci is so crucial I’m thinking of a post where, in a dialogue occurred in the 30s, a few fictional European characters try to explain to readers their view of America, ie Gramsci’s view.

The United States – as Gramsci put it – are “the greatest collective effort ever existed to create with unheard of rapidity and a consciousness of purpose never seen in history a new type of worker and man.”

Note. An inspired introduction to Gramsci is Giuseppe Fiori’s Antonio Gramsci: Life of a Revolutionary (1970).

PS. Gramsci and Croce are well known in the English-speaking countries. The British ex prime minister Gordon Brown said Gramsci was one of his mentors. No idea if this is complimenting Gramsci or not… :-)

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More on Antonio Gramsci:

American Engineer, German Philosopher & French Politician: Gramsci’s Ideal Blend for the Modern Leonardo da Vinci
“America, the Greatest Collective Effort Ever existed”. Antonio Gramsci
Is America Too Young to Maintain its Cultural Hegemony in the Long Run?

Related posts:

Democracy, Liberty & the Necessity of a Solid Education of the People
Culture, Kultur, Paideia
The Last Days of the Polymath

American Engineer, German Philosopher & French Politician: Gramsci’s Ideal Blend for the Modern Leonardo da Vinci

Our conversations take us wherever they like so before talking about my instructional experience in Russia I’ll present a few passages by Antonio Gramsci (1891 – 1937) written in the 1930s while he was in prison.

Gramsci is considered the father of democratic communism [a thing, to say the truth, that remained in his mind and was never realised.]

All his works, and notably his Prison Letters and Prison Notebooks, are not only amazingly valuable for their intellectual & moral depth – acute analyses of Italian & European history, literature, theatre, philosophy, linguistics, political strategy etc. -, they have also been recognized since their appearance in 1947 as masterpieces of our language and literature.

His powerful brain was feared by both the Fascists and the Russians, and it pained me so much to learn that his Russian wife Julka or Julia Schucht (see her below with their sons, Delio and Giuliano,) together with her sister Tatiana Schucht, were probably spies for the Gpu (Kgb.) [Also a few of Gramsci's and Julka's descendants confirmed that.]

[Magister and Gramsci were the mentors who saved me from being a savage - although I am still a bit: you migh read here]

I was surprised to find the words – Gramsci’s words -, that to me best describe the importance of classical education in our country – ie the connection to our roots, this blog’s theme -, in the inspiring web pages of a certain Max Gabrielson, a Latin & Greek teacher at the Wilton High School in Wilton, Connecticut, considered one of Connecticut top performer schools according to the Wikipedia.

With such words from his Prison Notebooks Gramsci refers to the classical education delivered in the Italian Ginnasio and Liceo that, compared to his school days, had been changed a bit by the first important reform of Italian education (Gentile‘s & Croce‘s, 1923) after the unification of Italy 60 years earlier (1860-70.)

[An education that didn't change much even until my days and my daughters' days. No change at all? Well, it progressively became comprehensive mass education (with its pros and cons) so that its solidity, like a merum from the ancients, was diluted in the years - the wine being still there, but its inebriating effects having almost dissolved]

Let us listen to Antonio Gramsci describing the deep meaning of such education:

“In the old school the grammatical study of Latin and Greek, together with the study of their respective literatures and political histories, was an educational principlefor the humanistic ideal, symbolized by Athens and Rome, was diffused throughout society, and was an essential element of national life and culture. Even the mechanical character of the study of grammar [criticised by Croce and Gentile, MoR] was enlivened by this cultural perspective. Individual facts were not learned for an immediate practical or professional end. The end seemed disinterested, because the real interest was the interior development of personality, the formation of character by the absorption and assimilation of the whole cultural past of modern European civilization [...] Pupils learned Greek and Latin in order to know at first hand the civilization of Greece and Rome — a civilization that was a necessary precondition to our modern civilization: in other words, they learnt them in order to be themselves and know themselves consciously.

‘In order to be themselves, to know themselves consciously …”

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Gramsci criticises in 1932 the multiplication of vocational schools that in his view aimed at perpetuating social differences. Moreover, a true democracy needed adequate people:

“The labourer can become a skilled worker, for instance, the peasant a surveyor or petty agronomist. But democracy, by definition, cannot mean merely that an unskilled worker can become skilled. It must mean that every ‘citizen’ can ‘govern’ and that society places him, even if only abstractly, in a general condition to achieve this. Political democracy tends towards a coincidence of the rulers and the ruled (in the sense of government with the consent of the governed) …”

As for K-12 education we see today a tendency to focus on 3-4 subjects only in countries such as Great Britain with students aged 15, a big mistake in my view especially now that we have to compete with lands that do most of the basic manufacturing to the extent that we need extra added-value creativity in our products.

Gramsci would certainly have agreed. Born to a backward Sardinian peasant milieu, with big family and health problems, his intellectual success influenced his view that a more comprehensive education of the working class was possible.

He was in fact irritated by his wife’s inclination to guess specialised interests in their 2 very young sons (one time she thought Delio could become an engineer, another time a poet etc.)

Gramsci’s wife, Jiulia Schucht, with the 2 sons, Delio (on the right) and Giuliano. She was – hideous detail – a spy for the Gpu (Kgb). Amazing how Giuliano resembles his father.

Gramsci wrote to her from his cell:

“To say the truth, I don’t much believe in such precocious display of tendencies and I haven’t much faith in your capability of discerning what professional aptitudes they might have. I should think that in both our sons, as in all children, there are likely to be found all sort of inclinations - the practical side, the theory and the imagination, and that it would consequently be more appropriate to guide them towards a more harmonious blend of all intellectual and practical faculties, since the time will come when specialisation in one or the other of these will occur on the basis of a personality vigorously formed and totally integrated.”

Gramsci then continues, expressing to her his humanistic faith in human possibilities and his 1930s ideal of the fully developed man:

“Modern man should be a synthesis of the qualities which are traditionally embodied in these national characters: the American engineer, the German philosopher and the French politician, thus recreating so to speak the Italian man of the Renaissance, the modern Leonardo da Vinci become ‘mass man’ and ‘collective man’ without sacrificing his own strong personality and individual originality.”

Post Scriptum. Gramsci reflected on many aspects of the American society (his notes on Americanism and Fordism are crucial) while he was quite worried about what was happening in the Soviet Union after 1930.

Differently from his mentor, Neapolitan Benedetto Croce, basically Hegelian, Gramsci was very much connected not only to German Kultur (he was into Hegel too and had a perfect knowledge of German – plus French, English, Russian, Latin and possibly other languages) but also to French culture: thanks to ascholarship won in 1911 he had studied in Piedmont at the University of Turin.

In 1921 he co-founded the Italian Communist Party. He then spent 2 years in the Soviet Union where in a sanatorium (his health was precarious) he ‘strangely’ met a beautiful woman, Jiulia (Julka) Schucht, who will become his wife. Back to Italy in 1924 he became head of the party. Being no orator but making use of a one-by-one-persuasion strategy he had won the majority of party delegates by totally fascinating them.

In the same year he was elected at the Italian Parliament. In the Fall of 1926, at the age of 35, he was arrested at 10:30 pm in his home located outside Porta Pia, a nice Roman area efficaciously depicted by the Italian poet Grabriele D’Annunzio. He will die at 46 after 11 years of prison.

Soon after the arrest he wrote to his wife:

“I am sure you will be strong and courageous, as you have always been. Now you will have to be even more than in the past, so that our sons may grow well and be in all worthy of you [italic is mine, MoR.]“

More on Antonio Gramsci:

Seven Aspects of Antonio Gramsci’s Thought
America, the Greatest Collective Effort Ever existed”. Antonio Gramsci
Is America Too Young to Maintain its Cultural Hegemony in the Long Run?

Related posts:

Democracy, Liberty & the Necessity of a Solid Education of the People
Culture, Kultur, Paideia
The Last Days of the Polymath

The Last Days of the Polymath

An earlier post kicked off an interesting conversation on the meaning of the word ‘culture’.

Dev, Lichanos, Andreas Kluth, the Commentator, Paul Costopoulos, sledpress, Rosaria, zeusiswatching – all were so nice to participate.

Being ‘cultured’ – we discussed – does it make any sense today? Why does it call up “stuffy, out-of-date rich people in drawing rooms?” in the English-speaking countries (Lichanos,) while it is still (a bit) appreciated in Italy France or Germany?

Apart from any possible European snobbery, elitism – being a ‘man of culture’ is not bad in my view and it is not elitist in that it can now be extended to the great number, this great number now watching realities – while they could buy a library only kings could afford in the past: something like a failure to me, not many doubts about it.

Only less than a century ago the Marxists, in their utopian folly, desired the totally developed man for everybody, which Antonio Gramsci adapted with his mass Leonardo da Vinci concept, that I always found fascinating.

The problem now is that a modern (mass or non mass) Leonardo is less viable because we know a lot more in so many more fields.

So the big gurus or maîtres à penser, providing the big picture people are so hungry for, are disappearing. Void is advancing and people, more and more confused, fall into the hands of organizations like Scientology and similar.

However, is this trend really inevitable, one may wonder?

Here is a conversation over at Lichanos’ – Journey to Perplexity.

It is about the death of the polymath and it started around Lichanos’ excellent review of “2001 a Space Odyssey” by Stanley Kubrick.

Lichanos. Dev, thanks for the kind words, and I am very happy that you find my reviews interesting! I am a civil engineer – no connection to the film industry at all, but I came to my profession by way of studying philosophy and art history, so I am not, so I am told, a “typical” engineer.

Such a background used to be unremarkable for engineers, say, 60 or 100 years ago, but today, at least in the USA, it is unusual.

Dev. I know what you mean. I think that’s unusual every where in the world nowadays. Even considering the fact that all science and engineering had it’s foundation in philosophy earlier. I mean many scientists in the earlier times were originally philosophers.
But, I’m sure you are a very good civil engineer too.
Should I tell you that I studied Electronics Engineering in my undergrad too. :)
But I never worked as an engineer..
Anyways, I look forward to go through many of your earlier posts -especially the film/literature related ones- in the coming days.

Man of Roma. Lichanos, you are definitely not a ‘typical’ engineer. Dev, I don’t know you enough to say something.

We are shifting from Kubrick, but you are both evoking the polymath, he who knows a lot about a lot. This essay The Last Days of the Polymath is a good read (though Western-centric) and describes how the polymath is disappearing.

We Europeans had always the impression that this prevalence of specialization is due to America and her big influence. Although it may be simply necessary, with a corpus of knowledge so greatly expanding.

It seems clear, Dev, that by today’s standards many scientists of the past were polymaths.

Polymath is an English term. In Italy we say ‘tuttologo’ etc. Polymathy is still a bit ingrained in the Latin countries curricula. The ‘Liceo classico’ in Italy still educates the young in this way, probably because the universal-man ideal, the ‘homo universalis’, was developed during the Italian Renaissance – one example, I like to think, where being provincial could be an advantage.

ψ

I was hit in fact some time ago by a review on a book, Genes, Peoples, and Languages by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. The review was written by Jared Diamond, an American I think. Cavalli-Sforza is an Italian who started at Stanford a revolution in human genetics from the 1960s onward and basically proved that ‘races’ do not exist.

“It would be a slight exaggeration – argues Jared Diamond – to say that L.L. Cavalli-Sforza studies everything about everybody, because actually he is ‘only’ interested in what genes, languages, archaeology, and culture can teach us about the history and migrations of everybody for the last several hundred thousand years.”

The Indians should be naturally born polymaths, due to their holistic approach, although today, with the speed of their economic development, they seem somewhat obliged to imitate the Westerners and be monomaths as well. But there are so many polymaths over there!

Man of Roma. My comment was not a paean to my country. It was a paean to the Greek Paideia and the Roman Humanitas, where the Renaissance man comes from.

Polymathy as a tendency is also dangerous, it encourages flitting around, dabbling, people who cannot stick at anything (I know it too well), Giacomo Casanova (mentioned in the essay) being a high-level example of it: he was good in mathematics, in philosophy and theology, but not too good.

A metaphor in the said essay that I liked: flirting, promiscuity – they are no good. It’s the real polygamy, the numerous & deeply lived marriages that make a real polymath.

I digressed. I’ll then add Kubrick was a genius and had a tendency towards polymathy, as the amazing variety of his films attests – Spartacus, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, 2001, A Clockwork Orange etc. – as well as his passion for music, photography, he also being a great producer & marketing man (I heard at the radio he used to commercialize all the gadgets of his movies by himself, the heart-shaped glasses Sue Lyon wore, for example.)

Lichanos. Dev, MoR: No need to apologize for digressing here! If not here, where can we let our minds and conversation wander?

I love that word tuttologo!! Better than polymath, which sounds so dry to my ear. As for being spread too thinly, comme une dilettante, in English there is a saying, “Jack of all trades, master of none…” Still, the culture of the amateur and the dilettante are attractive to me as long as there is not too much superficiality.

I recall reading a critique of Voltaire once, I forget by whom, that railed against him: “The man has opinions on everything!” The implication was that he was flippant and felt the need to pronounce on all topics, even if he was formulaic. The size of his collected works was presented as evidence. Perhaps something there, but he was quite deep enough of the time to redeem himself, perhaps.

Regarding the engineering profession, I must say, 1st: I never could understand electrical circuits beyond the most basic. I understand water systems, and everyone says that they are similar, but not for me! 2nd: My father, retired, is an electrical engineer. He once drove me past an old industrial building in downtown Brooklyn where he said he worked at one of his first jobs after WWII. They build a computer there and had to knock down an exterior wall to get it out!

Louvre Pyramid, Paris, by architect I. M. Pei. Click to enlarge and for credits

In the pre-WWII days, “patrician” familes were happy to send their sons to engineering school. Now they only become lawyers or MBAs. It was a status profession. Some say that the dominance of corporate industry after WWII succeeded in capturing the educational institutions and molding them to its own ends, i.e., the production of ready-made technicians in large supply to keep wages lower. There is something to it. Within my sort of engineering, there is still a sort of envy of doctors and lawyers who used to be seen as gods, and are still, on TV at least, seen as worthy of celebrity and dramatic presentation. They tend to earn a lot more too! On the other hand, architects, a definite prestige profession here, get paid much less than engineers and always cut each other’s throats competing for business. I think the solution to this economic, status “problem” is to make it harder to become an engineer, to require additional liberal arts training in addition to the technical curriculum. This would restrict supply, but this is not popular position. Thus, the griping about “low status” and complaints that “nobody really knows what engineers do,” go on.

I conclude with a favorite quote of mine from volume I of the Gulag Archipelago:

An engineer? I had grown up among engineers,and I could remember the engineers of the
twenties very well indeed: their open shining intellects, their free and gentle humor, their
agility and breadth of thought, the ease with which they shifted from one engineering field
to another, and, for that matter, from technology to social concerns and art. Then,
too, they personified good manners and delicacy of taste; well-bred speech that flowed evenly
and was free of uncultured words; one of them might play a musical instrument, another dabble
in painting; and their faces always bore a spiritual imprint.

Dev. MoR and Lichanos, wow, what a discussion and exchange of thoughts going on!

MoR: Thanks for sharing your views on polymaths. I agree with you that for most people trying to be polymaths is not a good idea. I mean one life is hardly long enough to do one thing properly, so dabbling in various things is never easy. But then, the best of the people have been, in some ways, polymaths. You are very right that Kubrick was in a sense a polymath. Each of his films were so different from each other in terms of genre, treatment etc. What made him special was that he was a chameleon. Nobody could really guess what to expect from his films. He was an excellent photographer and editor too. Plus, as you mentioned, he took great interest in the marketing of his films, even designing the promos and posters.

Lichanos: Nice to read your views. My father is a civil engineer and was a good one. Well, understanding circuits was never easy for me either. I guess I concluded it years back when I finished my engineering that most people are not ready to become an engineer at the tender age of 18. I somehow finished my degree in time and tried to get away from the engineering side of things as soon I got an opportunity. Not because I looked down at engineering, rather I thought it deserved so much respect and discipline that I’m not ready for it. Sadly, most engineering schools across the world just make assembly line engineers who can get decent jobs and raise a family. But, not really nurturing questioning/scientific minds.

Similar to what you quoted in the end, even when my father graduated in the late 60’s in India, they used to be proud of their engineering degrees; even more than the doctors or even the bureaucrats of those times. This is not really true anymore.

Man of Roma. Dev and Lichanos: you both then confirm that engineers are declining socially. Damn. My youngest daughter is graduating in civil engineering! ;-)

Lichanos. Dev: On Engineers – yes, I think you hit it right on the head. BTW, I didn’t go to school to get an engineering degree until I was 23 or so. I NEVER could have made it at 18, even if I’d wanted to!!
MoR: I’m sure your daughter will do just fine. Everyone wants things built right! If she works in the field, on-site, it’s very much in demand, but a very demanding job! I could not stand it, I’m sure. I look out my window at the World Trade Center site and think, “How the HELL do they get everything to come together on time?” I’d have a nervous breakdown.

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

Previous installment:

Culture, Kultur, Paideia

Related posts:

American Engineer, German Philosopher & French Politician: Gramsci’s Ideal Blend for the Modern Leonardo da Vinci
Democracy, Liberty & the Necessity of a Solid Education of the People

“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?”

ψ

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

Sex and the city (of Rome). A conclusion

Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli (1445 – 1510), an Italian early Renaissance painter

The Birth of Venus (1486) by Sandro Botticelli, an Italian early Renaissance painter. Detail of Venus’ face. Click to enlarge a bit

Italian version

Amazing Continuities

In Notebook IV of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks we read an appreciation of Ernst Walser’s suggestion that, in order to better understand Italian Renaissance men, one should think of contemporary Italians (to a certain extent.)

We believe that, inversely, the same could be said of Italian Renaissance men. To better understand them one should think of the Ancients, namely the Greeks and the Romans (to a certain extent.)

ψ

OK. But don’t we have a greater distance between contemporary Italians and the Ancients?

We do. Nonetheless there are amazing continuities, and these only interest us. Which are these continuities?

An Army of Don Juans

Narrowing our focus on the themes discussed in Sex and the city (of Rome) 1, 2, 3 and 4, we’ve just heard this sentence in a History Channel war documentary film:

“An army of Don Juans was about to land…”.

The film referred to an Italian military expedition sent by Mussolini somewhere in the Mediterranean.

Elvis Presley. Public domain

Now, I find this funny, and I am asking myself: is this the way many people from the English-speaking countries consider us? A bunch of Don Juans lol?  I know it was perhaps a boutade but if this is even just partly true, what is the reason for that?

ψ

Other associations in fact arise.

Why Latin folks are considered sensual (or sensualists) by many people in the United States and in the UK?
Why Casanova was Italian and Don Juan Spanish? And why all American women went crazy for Elvis Presley (or even more for Rodolfo Valentino) who came from the south of the USA, an area marked by some Spanish & French influence ? Was it only because he was just handsome and his voice great?

Now the BIG question: is it possible we’re facing here some of those long-period permanences or survivals French historian Fernand Braudel built his historical method upon?

I mean, aren’t we dealing here with remnants of ‘alien’, pre-Christian, ways of living one’s sexuality?

Isn’t this what is so seductive, though felt as sinful and almost amoral, but, for this same reason, irresistible?

ψ

It is not our intent to exhaust (or to applaud) the phenomenon of Don Juanism, a complicated topic with a few unpleasant aspects (you might like this post on Julius Caesar’s Don Juanism). No self-indulgence here, pls, all we care about being the possible survivals of a far away past.

ψ

Let us thus continue with our associative questions.

Amoral Pagans

Venus of Urbino (Venere di Urbino) by Titian, painted in 1538.

Venus of Urbino (Venere di Urbino) by Titian, painted in 1538. Oil on canvas. Uffizi, Florence. Click for a much better and larger picture

How come the North Europeans who came down to Rome during the Renaissance were both spellbound and disgusted?

Is it because they perceived the Christian religion was not taken seriously by the Romans and by the Italians of that time?

Can’t it be this was due to the fact that most of these Northern people started to be really civilised only with the spread of Christianity, eg with Christianisation, while we were already civilised one thousand years earlier?
[highly civilized during ancient Roman times: Italian Renaissance didn't come out of a desert, read a moving page here]

Can’t it be that they are the true Christians (culturally, at least, so no matter if believers or not) while in us paganism (and behaviours attached to it) has left some (or many) traces?
[ See an overview of the MoR's blog main themes]

Sandro Botticelli. Portrait of a Young Woman: 1480-85

Sandro Botticelli (1445 – 1510), painter of the Florentine school. Portrait of a Young Woman: 1480-85. Click for credits and for other paintings by Botticelli

Can’t it be the reason (I am obsessive, I know) why the Christian religion was here felt mainly as a political thing, eg a way of governing the minds and the spirits of men, in ways not dissimilar to when ancient Rome was governor of nations?

Why our cardinals and even numerous Popes had lovers? Why the great Polish Pope (who surely had no lovers) was appreciated more by the big politicians of the planet (who flocked to his funeral) and less by the spiritual gurus of our time?

[Today the Vatican is perceived as a political – more than a spiritual – institution, I don't have many doubts about it; even in Germany the Dalai Lama is more popular - 44% - than the German Pope Benedict XVI - 42% -, data emerged from a poll published by Der Spiegel in July 2007]

Why in the end many British and American historians, when discussing the Italian Renaissance, show(ed) until recently some kind of moral repulsion?

Saint Peter Cathedral in Rome. Public domain

Let us therefore listen to the words of Preserved Smith, an American historian of the Middle Ages, who wrote the Renaissance entry in the 1956 edition of the Britannica:

“A succession of worldly pontiffs brought the Church into flagrant discord with the principles of Christianity. Steeped in pagan learning, desirous of imitating the manners of the ancients, thinking and feeling in harmony with Ovid and Theocritus, and, at the same time rendered cynical by the corruption of papal Rome, the [Italian] educated classes lost their grasp upon morality …”

“The Christian virtues were scorned by the foremost actors and the ablest thinkers of the time … The Church saw no danger in encouraging a pseudo-pagan ideal of life, violating its own principle of existence … and outraging Christendom openly by its acts and utterances.”

Italian society – Preserved Smith continues – was hardly aware that the New Learning it had mostly contributed to create had provoked “an intellectual force of stupendous magnitude and incalculable explosive power …”. His conclusion is beautiful (though tragic for us):

“Why should not [Italian] established institutions proceed upon the customary and convenient methods of routine, while the delights of existence were augmented, manners polished, arts developed and a golden age of epicurean ease made decent by a state religion which no one cared to break with because no one was left to regard it seriously? This was the attitude of the Italians when the Renaissance, which they had initiated as a thing of beauty, began to operate as a thing of power beyond the Alps”.

Madonna and child by Raphael, Italian High renaissance. Public domain

And in fact Italy was soon to be colonised by that same ‘power’ she had mostly contributed to bring into being.

[Speaking of paganism, Gramsci argues in that same Notebook IV: “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 we are often considered amoral and not true Christians. Are we amoral? Are we not true Christians? Are we decadent, rotten? Or maybe someone is simply not fully capable of understanding us?

Life with no Pang of Conscience

Sandro Botticelli. Magnificat Madonna. Uffizzi, Florence. Religious and non religious themes alike were painted with eroticism. Click to zoom in

Sandro Botticelli’s Magnificat Madonna. Uffizzi, Florence. Religious and non religious themes alike were painted with eroticism. Click to zoom in

I will finish this draft conclusion of Sex and the city (of Rome) with this interesting passage written by a British historian, C. P. Rodocanachi (of Greek descent, probably), and dedicated to what he considers a potent factor of the Greek miracle (Athens and the Greek Miracle, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, London 1948).

This text sheds light in our view on the Greek mind and, to a certain extent, on the Roman mind, plus on some aspects of Italian Renaissance men 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.”

Botticelli. Youth

ψ

Related posts:

Pre-Christian Rome lives (where this movie by Fellini reveals papal Rome’s pagan nature)

Sex and the city (of Rome) 1
Sex and the city (of Rome) 2

Sex and the city (of Rome) 3
Sex and the city (of Rome) 4


“Italians are Cynical, Amoral, Religiously Superficial”

Survivals of the Roman Goddess Fortuna (comments section)

Caesar, Great Man (and Don Juan)

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

PS. I had to erase a few insulting comments to this post. They were written by some commentators from the UK. I ask for pardon if I have offended somebody, it was not my aim, really.

My style is sometimes aggressive but I am fond of the British people. I wouldn’t have toiled so much to learn their language decently enough.

ψ

The main idea behind this post is the fact (an historical fact, no doubt) that the people from the Italian peninsula (and elsewhere) were civilized long before Christianity arrived.

By civilization we refer to something distinguished from culture (see a discussion on it) for the reason of a higher level of complexity, a larger geographic locus, the presence of sophisticated urbanisation etc.

This fact, the existence of a pre-Christian high-level civilization – the Greco-Roman – may have engendered cultural differences (alive yet today) vis-a-vis  cultures who mostly reached a ‘fully civilized’ stage together with (and thanks to) Christianity.

Such differences may regard survivals of the Roman religion in Italy and elsewhere – traces which scholars recognize and which Protestants, it is known, always tried to eradicate. They may also regard, why not, sexual behaviours as well.

Did scholars research on these difference? If so, how far they went? We do not know, our research on roman-ness being a knowledge journey.

See the comments area for further information.

ψ

As for the expansion of the Greco-Roman ‘civilization’ toward North-West Europe:

Julius Caesar’s Conquest Of Gaul. When North-West Europe & The Mediterranean ‘Embraced’ (1)

 

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