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.

Living to Our Fullest Potential

Living A Worthy Life

In “Vivere alla massima espressione” (Living to our fullest potential) Dario Bernazza provides a list of the major problems we have to solve in order to live a life “worthy of being lived”.

[Dario Bernazza, Vivere alla massima espressione, Editrice Partenone – Luciano Bernazza & C – Roma 1989]

It is the first of Bernazza’s books we stumbled upon and the reason we were first captured (and which kept us reading) was the fact that a similar list was handed over to us by our mentor since the first days of our encounter (above you can see The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David, 1787.)

Well, not that we think Bernazza is like Socrates. He though refers a lot to Socrates’ thought, plus certainly Magister, our mentor, was a bit like a Socrates to us.

When Suffering Exceeds Joy

Leaving memories behind and getting back to Country Philosopher‘s book (this is how we like to call Bernazza), we saw in an earlier post how there is like a balance in life.

If liabilities (sufferings) exceed the assets (every pleasant moment, satisfaction or success) our life is a failure (and it would be preferable not to have come into this world). If the contrary occurs, our life is happy and fruitful (or advantageous, as CP puts it).

Liabilities though are not avoidable and are inflicted on us without any mercy, while the assets are not given us as a gift, and we must earn them day by day, bit by bit.

How?

By providing the best possible solution to the major problems of our life. This is our only way of diverting or softening our life liabilities.

The Happiness List

Let us then look at these major issues which, according to CP, we must necessarily address in the best possible way. They are 20. Yes, 20. Exactly. Bernazza is always a bit categorical. Here is the list.

1. Defining a purpose in life
2. Keeping ourselves in good health
3. Serenity of soul
4. Friendship
5. Marriage
6. Children
7. Sex
8. Being reasonably well-off
9. Enjoyment, beauty and the exquisite
10. Loneliness, ennui and feeling of emptiness
11. Choice of studies, job, career
12. Choosing where to live
13. Our behaviour towards others
14. Embracing ‘good’ as an irreversible choice
15. Excess and vice
16. Being equipped with an adequate ethical instrumentation
17. Happiness is a long, sensible (and attainable) personal conquest
18. Will is power
19. Being convinced of the enormous power of honesty
20. The necessity of carefully planning our life

Since we cannot report on every single point of the list, only 2-3 points will be analysed (here and in future posts). As far as the rest, we will only touch upon the things that struck us most.

1. The Purpose of Life

Our life, like a long and complex journey, has to set its goal. So, which is this goal and how can we define it? The argumentation of CP is clear and simple (and probably naïve, but I cannot but feel some truth in it):
Since our life is the only chance of existing we have, after which we will disappear (CP is an agnostic who considers probable our annihilation after death), one should be really convinced that the most irreparable of errors is that of not trying our best to live to the highest possible degree. If our existence is nothing but a blink between two eternities (theories of modern physicists do not seem to interest CP) the purpose of life is necessarily that of living this sole life we have to our fullest potential.

Every single day must be lived to our best, and we must continuously improve this capacity of living to our fullest. This is why we should not ask ourselves – says CP – “why do I exist” (a question we can answer via the twisted efforts of our imagination only) but rather: “how do I exist?”.

The problem is that very few people know what is most convenient to us in our everyday choices, i.e. we do not know what actions shall bring us happiness or sorrow (this previous post discusses this point). If we knew – argues CP – the number of unhappy people around would be smaller. This is why learning how to solve the main problems of life (the list, again) will diminish our life’s liabilities and allow us to live in the best possible way.

Ψ

The discussion on Bernazza’s list is continued here:
Health and Serenity of Soul
From Friendship to Asking Mamma when Looking for “Mr Right”

See also:
Assets and Liabilities in Life

Guess What is Better than Prozac

Prozac. Fair use

An investigation by The Guardian, mentioned a couple of years ago by the Rome daily La Repubblica, revealed that many of its readers make use of books as tranquillizers, i.e. instead of antidepressants like Prozac etc. (I couldn’t find the original Guardian articles and I can’t read the author’s name – and date – of the Italian article).

Italians read little instead, argues La Repubblica, and when they are in a bad mood they switch on their TV set, with devastating effects. Then La Repubblica goes on saying that there are hot and cool media (probably distorting some of McLuhan’s concepts) i.e. “those [media] already baked and those you’ve got to bake yourself. Those where all is already represented and you can sit there and watch without adding anything, with no participation of yours (= TV, cinema); and those which need your brain in order to take shape, and need your imagination and collaboration, and if you provide this collaboration then you fly high breaking loose from the real world and totally forgetting yourself (= books)”.

“People who are not used to reading imagine this ability like a spell or esoteric exercise, which it is, in some way, since you have to start, then you have to open the book, read the first lines, then the following lines and so on and on until you forget you are reading. You are just inside the book story and out of your life story. It is a full antidepressant trip, while at each zap of your remote control, the consciousness of your unhappiness increases exponentially.”

PS
I find this reflection interesting, which of course doesn’t mean I do not like movies and other media, this is not the point. Although I know too well 80% of my (now obsessed) readers will not agree.

Italian version
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