Is the Human Mind like a Museum?

As for the human mind, I’ve often thought about the metaphor of the museum.

Our mind, one of the functions of our brain ‘and other parts of our body’ (Sledpress’ objection I found interesting,) contains and allows that we manifest the infinite traces of our past (past conceptions, language, behaviours) from Stone Age or earlier onwards. Evolution enters the equation, but we will leave it alone for now.

Whatever world region we are from, we should be concerned about probing such repository I believe, that is our roots or cultural ID.

Language is an important portion of this ID. What a great digging tool for example etymology is, ie history of words (shown a bit in our previous post, see a good on-line tool) although lots of things are there well beyond words (see points I and IV below.)


A few examples, to better understand.

(Italian-mind related, but they could hopefully work as a method example to different minds as well)

I. The Greek fear in gods’ envy, yet present in South Italy and Greece:

“Not long ago my friend Mario took me for a drive on his stupendous vintage 1960 Lancia Flavia (see image below.) Mario is from Naples, a South Italian city founded by the Greeks in the 8th cent. BCE.

On the way back I exclaimed merrily: ‘Diavolo, this car is a gem, it has rolled as smoothly as olive oil!’

Mario snapped with a worried look: “Hush! hush! Don’t you say that!”

I well knew what he meant:

“Oh please you shut the hell up! Do you want the car to break down or anything bad to happen to us?” as if the mere utterance of happiness would attract ill luck or the envy from someone … Well, the envy from whom?

(read more).

The ancient classical Greeks (V cent. BCE) believed their gods lived an eternal blissful life and envied men too prosperous that dared to get close to their happiness. They then humbled and punished them. That ‘too prosperous’ means it was excess and arrogance (ὕβρις) that was basically abhorred by the Olympian gods, which made people afraid of showing their happiness, or of being arrogant. It was like a socio-religious regulation valve, plus a factor without a doubt of the mostly upper-class (tho not exclusively) marvellous ’5th cent. BC’ Greek perfect equilibrium.

Polycrates tyrant of Samos (where Pythagoras was born by the way) led a too prosperous and arrogant life. Horrible was then his death, Herodotus notes

Now, 2400 years later (!) people in Southern Italy and Greece are still afraid of expressing satisfaction when things are going WELL, lest ‘something’ might spot them and whack them.

Such a great item in their museum mind allow me to say!!

(read more)

Phrases and the Wheel related to the Roman Goddess Fortuna:

  • A personification of Goddess Fortuna (“they invoked their fortune”) seen as something capricious (“the tricks of fortune”) is deeply impressed in modern Western minds and language;
  • The wheel of fortune also used in many popular TV shows is a survival of the goddess, often represented with a wheel at her side (read more)

Spectacular remnants of the Sanctuary to the goddess Fortuna Primigenia in Palestrina (ancient Praeneste), located just a few miles from Rome

III. When we say ‘deep in my heartor ‘she / he broke my heart’ we refer to a scientific superseded idea that the heart, and not the brain, is the seat of emotions. The Stoics saw in the heart the seat of the soul, Aristotle the seat of reason and emotion, the Roman physician Galenus the seat of emotions etc.

The Roman laughter

“Flavia’s ancient Roman laughter is heard in the room. It is loud, slightly crass, as it should be and as I hope it will ever ever be in the future, somewhat like a sympathetic, warm BIG HUG to the world.”
(from How To Learn Greek and Latin (2). Some Inspiration From Penates etc)

Another great mind item this laughter – I must record it some day – that belongs to the modern Roman mind, certainly not to the Greek one, modern or non modern.

. Here is a sample of such laughter. Click on these words to listen to it: Marina’s (and MoR’s) laughter.

In short, before more details if you will

The γνῶθι σεαυτόν aphorism adapted to our 'museum' concept

There’s like a huge messy archive in our head so stuffed with things that just beg to be organized a bit and come to light.

Let’s get it all out dear readers. With meditation, concentration and fertile idea-exchanging let us make that inventory my good old Mentor used to mention us when we were so young.

As for my own cultural ID, I am trying to dig a bit with the present blog.


[see in-depth details from our posts. Skip the first section - similar to the above writing - and start reading from Socrates' T-shirt big face onwards - like the one above]

Related posts:

Fighting with Grandpa’s tomes. My Parents’ Marriage & the Roman Laughter

Knowing Thyself

This is a continuation of the previous post where we have narrated three episodes each containing an example of the Greek fear in gods’ envy.

What is this envy? Well, since the Greek gods lived an eternal and blissful life they watched with an envious eye men who were too prosperous and happy, hence they humbled and punished them, hence men were afraid to express their happiness too loud, lest some envious god might spot them and hit.

The 3 episodes also showed that in modern Greece and some parts of Italy, especially in the South, people’s minds can still contain elements of the antique Greco-Roman culture. Italians do not believe in these gods any more (well, deep inside who can say that,) but there are still people here who are afraid of expressing satisfaction when something is going very well, lest ill luck might whack them (it is to be noted that the Italian coastal South was first  colonized by the Greeks – Magna Graecia – , and only later assimilated by the Romans).

Andy, an Englishman living in Milan, thus commented: “I find it strange how Italians, for all their religion, are so superstitious. And your post shows how not much has changed in all these years.”

Well, is this fear a superstition? Probably, but superstition after all is an irrational belief, so I wouldn’t oppose religion and superstition, they appearing to me to be the same (Andy agrees: see below his comment).

Moreover, superstitious or not, it is a fact that Italians were civilized long before Christianity arrived. So they are still a bit pagan at heart even though they captained the spread of the Christian religion. Hard to understand, I know, but true in my opinion.

Greek vase from South-Italian Greeks. Wikimedia

Greek vase from South-Italian Greeks. Click to enlarge and for description

Andy, together with Indian Falcon and Ashish – two other aficionados of this blog – also found incomprehensible this attitude of the Greek gods. “Is something who is so envious worth being cared for..?” wondered Falcon.

I know this envy seems only negative – I replied. Men shouldn’t be too happy since gods only should be happy: it sounds mean, no doubt (read later about these gods’ amorality). The positive thing underlying all this, however, was that it lead to a common people’s wisdom, kind of a tendency towards a moderate life (in a good sense). For the upper classes it was also a matter of style, of behaving without ostentation or vulgarity. There was some arrogance in Polycrates’ life, so he died a terrible death: this is somewhat a lesson. When Greece began its decadence someone wrote: “modesty and virtue are now powerless, lawlessness rules and men do not strive any more against gods’ envy”.

In other words, this fear of gods’ envy was like a regulation valve. It helped, together with other elements, to develop temperance and the good style in life. Classical Greece (V cent. BC) was a civilization based on an admirable equilibrium. The golden mean. A concept we frequently get back to.

Another point is that the Greek ancient gods were amoral and whimsical. They didn’t care much about good and evil. Weirdly enough this had a good effect as well. Men didn’t think gods were morally perfect while men full of iniquity, and, since they could not count on these whimsical gods’ help, men had to make their own destiny and had to believe in their worth. Western man thinks instead that he is corrupted and a sinner from the beginning (original sin) and that only God can save him.

[The Renaissance only by developing humanism and humanitas has mitigated this belief by stressing both man's worth and freedom. Incidentally, the Renaissance origin, Italy, and its deep meaning, the rediscovery of the classical world, are not fortuitous, how can they be, they representing like survivals of the ancient world popping up again not only as mere imitation]

Finally Greek men were not striving to be good just because they expected a reward from god(s) or feared their punishment. Given such unpredictable gods, when men were good they were such because they really wanted to, not for any other external reason.

Human Mind like a Museum

As a conclusion, we’ll expand a bit something we said about our country. There are areas of the Italian South which are still developing and which contain more than elsewhere precious elements of our ancient culture. In short, they are like a museum.

I would add that every man’s mind is like a museum, no matter where he comes from, since it contains almost infinite traces of past conceptions, from Stone Age onwards, though without an inventory. This Magister said many years ago. He said we should make such an inventory. To criticise our mind – he explained – is to make such an inventory.

Knowing thyself, a Socratic principle, seems therefore still valid today.

Gods are Watching with an Envious Eye

Not long ago my friend Mario took me for a drive on his stupendous vintage Lancia Flavia 1500. Although now living in Rome Mario is from Naples, one of the biggest towns of the Italian Mezzogiorno, and he is so proud of his gioiello (jewel) which he seems to care for more than he does for his wife and children.

The trip had been great, the green and smiling countryside north of Rome had shown so sunny and refreshing, and our glowing Lancia had well behaved so far despite its age (1960).

On the way back to Rome along the via Flaminia I exclaimed merrily:

Diavolo, this car is a gem, it has rolled as smoothly as olive oil and we didn’t have any problem during the whole drive.”

Mario snapped with a worried look:

Zitto zitto non lo dire! (hush! hush! don’t you say that!).” He didn’t add much but I knew what he meant:

“Oh you shut the hell up! Do you want the car to break down? Do you want anything bad to happen to us?” as if the mere utterance of happiness would attract us ill luck or the envy from someone.

Well, the envy from whom?


A good answer is provided by the modern Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis. When he was very young he once went travelling all over Italy. When he got to Florence (see image above) he felt so happy in front of all those palaces, statues and paintings that he felt that the rights of the humans were somewhat overstepped. As a young and superstitious provincial – he writes in his autobiography – he was terror-stricken for “as I well knew, the gods are envious creatures, and it is hubris to be happy and to know that you are happy.”

So, in order to counterbalance such blissful state of mind, he bought a pair of narrow shoes he wore in the morning and which made him miserable and “hopping about like a crow.” He then changed shoes in the afternoon so he could walk weightlessly and thus vent all his joy. He strode along the banks of the Arno river, he went up to San Miniato etc. but the next morning he went back to his narrow shoes (and to his misery again).


More than 23 centuries before Kazantzakis’s trip to Italy, the Greek Herodotus, the first historian of the Western world, wrote about a man extremely fortunate who got everything from life and who was tyrant of Samos, a beautiful island of the Greek archipelago (see a picture by Nasa above). His name was Polycrates and he was so fortunate and his wealth and power so great that one day his friend Amasis, pharaoh of Egypt, wrote him a letter saying:

“Beware Polycrates: such fortune being not allowed to humans, get rid of whatever is most precious and dear to you in order to escape from gods’ wrath.”

Hit by fear and understanding that the pharaoh’s suggestion was wise Polycrates began reflecting on the things he possessed that were the most beautiful, precious and dear to him and among them he chose a stupendous ring with an emerald set in gold he was always wearing day and night. He then went on board of a ship and ordered the sailors put out into the open sea. Once far away from his island he took the ring from his finger and threw it away into the deep.

What happened is that some time afterwards a fisherman caught such a big fish he thought it deserved to be given as a present to the Lord of Samos. He thus brought the fish to the palace and when the servants cut the fish open they saw it contained a beautiful ring and brought it to the tyrant.

Polycrates much to his horror recognizing the ring finally understood that the envious gods had something in store for him.

After a few years he was captured with guile by the Persian governor of Sardis, Oroetes.

His life had been happy and glorious. Ignominious and horrible happened to be his death. Oroetes had him impaled and then crucified.

The next post, Knowing Thyself, connects the three episodes and provides the reader with some explanation regarding Greek gods’ envy.


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