“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

Merry Saturnalia! Man Of Roma: A Blog Based On Dialogue

Happy Saturnalia. Courtesy of eternallyCool.net

Merry Saturnalia to all of you! Well, was Saturnalia the ancient Roman Christmas? Mary Beard, professor in classics at Cambridge, sheds here some light (I have to thank EternallyCool for the above picture – from the British Times, probably – and for the link).

[Know more on Saturnalia by reading our two posts : 1 & 2]

Ψ

Now, this research blog being based on dialogue my friend Mario asked me a few questions. I solicited him to be slightly rude. I think he loved it. Here is an excerpt of our conversation that may provide some information on the nature of this blog, Man of Roma.

Mario. Yours is a thoughtful blog. Why the hell are you talking of dialectic thought? Sounds like one of those school nightmares. It is not at all clear.

MoR. I simply mean that in the Man of Roma’s blog thought unfolds like in a dialogue at three levels. First we have a dialogue in the mind of the writer, who is searching and striving for greater clarity. Since it is though necessary to get out of one’s mind’s boundaries, we also have a dialogue with external authors, dead or alive.

Mario. You mean books?

MoR. Yes, books, mostly. Good books in general, and classics in particular. We need to rise above the superficiality of every-day life. We need some depth in our daily routine. A good read allows to do this in a way accessible to all.

Books can fly. Fair use

Mario. Sounds so bookish. Is this what you’re proposing to the young? The ideal of the stuffy bookworm instead of the active person who delves into the real world?

MoR. Books imply some danger, like everything. If they are an excuse for escapism, they are no good medicine. We have to find inspiration in the Italian intellectuals of Humanism and Renaissance. Petrarch was writing letters to Livy and Cicero, who had lived more than one thousand years before him.

Mario. Checcavolo, are you sure?

MoR. Of course, and he was all but nuts. He started humanism. And when, after a few generations, Machiavelli returned home he used to take off his dusty clothes and after cleaning himself and wearing a decorous attire he entered his library in order to have dialogue with the minds of ancient men. He asked questions. They replied. Nothing bookish about it. These Renaissance men were looking for inspiration. They seemed to look at the past but they were preparing the future. Something not easy to understand today. It was this New Learning which empowered Europe. My method post explains in detail my view of dialectics. The importance of classics is also explained here and here.

Mario. I see. But aren’t you interested in a dialogue in real time with living people? (I think we can continue eating our Carbonara, what d’ya think?)

Pasta alla Carbonara. Courtesy of EternallyCool.net

MoR. (Savouring Carbonara with his good friend and sipping nice red wine from Cerveteri) Of course I am interested in living people, and here comes the third level, the dialogue with the readers of this blog, or with friends (like you), with colleagues, acquaintances. Real life conversation is delightful (Fontana Morella red – or white – wine is cheap but very good) though the experience of a blog written in English has been amazing. It has allowed me to engage dialogue with people from so many parts of the world: America, UK, India, Sri Lanka, Canada, China, Sweden etc. So stimulating and thrilling! (even though sometimes I talk too much)

[A long pause. Food needs its indulgent rite]

Mario. In short, your blog is based on the technique of dialectics which involves a dialogue carried out 1) within your mind, 2) among minds (mostly through books) and 3) with blog readers and people you meet in real life.

MoR. Yes, that’s the idea. Don’t know exactly where all this will take me, but it’s the core of it all. Being a dilettante philosopher (of the streets of Rome) I’m not content with just blogging, I need a method in my blogging. It remains to be seen if this will bring any fruit.

ψ

We leave the small terrace overlooking the tiled Roman roofs. The air is fresh. It has been raining a lot recently.

Italian version

Related posts:

Method and Encounter with Magister
The Weird Story of a Beautiful Girl Whose Body Was Found Incorrupt in a Coffin

Pleasure in Craft. The Germans

Germany. Cologne Cathedral. Creative Commons License

The Germans like to do things well and feel pleasure in their craft. It comes out in everything they do. They are far away from the utilitarian attitude typical of the Anglo-Saxon, who works hard but most of the time has practical goals in mind, money and commerce being not seldom among them.

We will not mention the somewhat revealing episode (I do hope I recall well) of Heinrich Heine – one of the greatest German Romantic poets – and his totally puzzled reaction the first time he visited London in the first half of the 19th century, such a great city London (at that time the more powerful place in the world) though in his view an exclusively trade-oriented centre, which kind of disgusted him.

Neither we want to get much into the concept that concentrating so often on practical stuff only, while it can surely provide tremendous intervention power (it really does) it can nonetheless narrow human experience, which presents a much richer potential.

Pretty nice opposition, the German and the British, providing such a complicated insight on the German soul of Europe (not only the German soul, but I do not want to be repetitive). An opposition that has undone Europe. Well, ok, today we won’t plunge into that.

Here just 3 examples that can illustrate what we mean about the Germans.

Computer Bild Logo

I. Minimum ex. ComputerBild, a PC magazine also translated for the Italian market. Inexpensive (only 1.5 Euros here,) highly reliable and rich with meticulous analyses, a small instance of handicraft devotion in a market, the publishing market, where garbage is increasingly dominating.

A 1999 Porsche 996 Carrera Cabriolet. Public Domain

II & III. Maximum exs. Cars made in Germany (above a 1999 Porsche 996 Carrera Cabriolet, picture taken from here) or the outstanding Deutsches Museum in Munich, Bavaria (Museum of Masterpieces in Science and Technology).

As for the third example, apart from the term Museum of masterpieces that already implies a lot, at the DM practically everything – from small-scale models to entire huge reconstructions (i.e. reconstructions of underground coal mines and all the technology involved) – has been fondly manufactured in touching laboratories where artisans, some of them advanced in age, work(ed) with so much devotion and amore. Of course, models are one thing, real machinery – small and enormous aeroplanes, entire ships etc. – another totally (and impressive) thing at the Deutsches Museum.

Deutsches Museum. Germany. Munich

Well, what is incredible here is that almost any kind of machine, plus theoretical (and factual) models so various, plus tons of other astonishing stuff can be watched, analysed (and admired) in this awe-inspiring Institution, one of the best places in Europe for Science and Technology (maybe in the world? Well, American Science Museums and Science centres are pretty impressive too, but I am not capable of any useful comparison.)

Here, S&T are obviously seen as potent tools capable of diminishing hunger, making life easier etc. This of course is so important, do not misunderstand me. Nonetheless, S&T are also seen with a work-of-art approach involving the above-mentioned devotional attitude, which is a totally different thing. Yes, it is a totally different thing, I have little doubts about it.

It is this quality, among others, this pleasure of doing everything so well, that finally makes the Germans excellent engineers and, I would say, outstanding constructors of no matter what.

Two associative examples, if you please:

1) they are constructors of absolutely breathtakingly complex musical structures (where minds not well equipped can easily get lost, or bored, which is exactly the same thing.)
2) They are constructors of equally breathtakingly complex and sumptuous philosophical palaces, the deepest in the West (where one gets even more easily lost unfortunately.)

So, what the hell is their secret then? I do not know, why the hell do you think I know. Well ok, among other virtues, I might guess they are endowed with patience, calm and inflexible perseverance. Plus this great capacity of toiling (and suffering) in silence, an imprint of true force and indubitable courage.

PS
I wonder why India has always attracted me, though probably it is too late to seriously delve into that much diverse and impenetrable depth. The depth you find in the beautiful eyes of many Indian women, both terribly sweet and unfathomable, where I could really (and hopelessly) lose my mind…

Aishwarya Rai. Bollywood star. Fair use

The Neapolitans & the Quiet Shoemaker

The Italian musicologist Massimo Mila was from Turin (northern Italy, under the Alps) and adhered to the philosophical school founded by the Neapolitan Benedetto Croce. This school engendered a large number of solid intellectuals and dominated the Italian intellectual scene for more than half a century: Piero Gobetti, Antonio Gramsci, Nicola Abbagnano, Attilio Momigliano, Massimo Mila, Giulio Confalonieri ecc. this list being very long. Giovanni Gentile, another influent Italian philosopher of that period was instead Croce’s peer, and Sicilian.

[I told you the Neapolitan Greek cousins of Rome were full of surprises: wonder why they had excellent philosophers and why southern-Italy thinkers like Croce (and Gentile) had this special connection with the Germans.]

Mila, in his inspired Breve storia della musica (Einaudi 1963 p. 144,) writes about Johann Sebastian Bach, the greatest Western composer in my opinion:

“His immense musical production was put together with assiduous, methodical, quiet work, carried out with the scrupulous care of an artisan and conceived, without any pause, as service of God. Without any pause since, had Bach been a shoemaker, he would have made a boundless number of shoes to the great glory of God, all carefully crafted and finished off with scrupulous care”.

lupaottimigut1.jpg

Discussion with readers

Very interesting comments (in my opinion) have been made on this post on the Germans. If you click down on “comments” you’ll follow holistic discussions among two lovely Indians and Man of Roma. Ashish especially, a young gifted man, and Poonam, a woman who talks little but whose words have weight.

Discussion about what?

Well, about: Bollywood, India, Europe, America, the UK, WW1, WW2, Europe’s decline, German tremendous virtues, Indian women’s eyes, China, Cindia, Great Britain’s awesome success, highly refined & beloved France, Hitler’s folly and death in a bunker, Hitler’s perverted sadism, Hitler’s evil psychological seducing powers, German tragedy, Italian Comedy, Mussolini and Fascism. Mussolini, his balls & his petty calculations, comparisons among the British the Germans the Russians the Romans (of course,) the French, the Spaniards. Plus Elisabeth I, Shakespeare & the Spanish Armada defeat, Russia invading Germany thirsty for blood, Tolstoy’s War and Piece greatness, Napoleon, the Brits’ greatness in some ways similar to the Romans’ greatness, the UK as Europe’s trojan horse, and much much more.

One friend of mine just said: “This is crazy!”

I provided no answer.

UNESCO World Heritage LIMES logo

PS
Let us first enjoy this J.S. Bach’s Toccata und Fuge BWV 565 played by Hans-Andre Stamm on the famous Trost organ in Waltershausen, Germany (have a look here). It is a very famous piece of music and I’d prefer other ones by Bach. But it is good for starting to appreciate a totally new spiritual world of sounds. Most of the time Toccatas are not as deep as Fuges.
Up to you to guess which is which.

Let us finally compare the majestic piece linked above with this electric-guitar improvisation by Lonn, a refined French man and guitarist of Towersound French band. He’s improvising on the above Toccata only, though improvisations being tricky, up to you to figure out if he sticks to the Toccata only.

Two last things. A. I met this French band just now on YouTube, so I do not know their value (the impro seeming to me decent enough though, and the French accent of the player absolutely delightful). B. Purists to me are morons. They absolutely have no home in my virtual Neverland.

Italian version

Young People vs Life


World Youth Orchestra. Fair use

World Youth Orchestra. Fair use

 

Young people sometimes hold in little account their wonderful life and give it away in the name of a cause without too much reflecting on the consequences of their actions. When I was a child my mother told me about this guy, one of her father’s best friends, a seven-generations Roman (romano di sette generazioni, used here to indicate a real Roman) who died as a volunteer in World War I leaving a young wife and four orphaned children, two girls and two boys, all of them extremely attractive, she said.

The girls and the youngest boy led a normal life (he was often sad and incidentally died too as a volunteer in World War II); the eldest boy went a bit on the wild side and became a hopeless lady-killer, apparently even more affected than his youngest brother by this deprivation of paternal counsel. His children and grandchildren suffered because of his bearing, my mother said, and many turned out to be a failure in their lives.

If what my mother said is true it seems that the price for a moment of thoughtless idealism was a high one to pay and all this badly affected the generations to come (which doesn’t mean at all that I am against idealism or against the idea of fighting for a right cause, this is not my point).

Corfu Island Channel. Public domain

Corfu Island Channel. Public domain

 

Young people are such radical idealists. During the 1968 student revolution a few youths burned themselves alive as a sign of protest.

10 years later approximately I was enjoying my August holidays on the enchanting Greek island of Corfu together with Flavia and a couple of friends (see picture above). There we met this Greek father of a young man who apparently was my age (I was between 27 and 30 at that time, don’t remember exactly, while my friends were younger than me).

This poor father was a tailor and being noon and terribly hot I really wanted my jeans to be cut Bermuda-like in order to better resist the heat. So we saw this tiny little workshop and entered it (the little street was similar to the one in the picture below). While bending to the ground in order to measure my pants and be able to cut them accordingly, the old man suddenly burst into tears, a bewildering behaviour that surprised us.

When he calmed down a bit he said that I was the age his son would have been if he didn’t burn himself alive for protest against the Greek colonels (namely the dictators that governed Greece with an iron hand one decade roughly before that summer, and who were supported by the US who were trying to prevent Greece from embracing communism).

I will never forget this poor man’s eyes, wet with tears and expressing such an infinite pain.

Corfu Town. Gnu Licence low res Fair Use

Corfu Town. Gnu Licence (low res Fair Use)

 

Italian version
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 123 other followers