November 30, 2011

What Makes a Good Prince

For neither do we say that certain Christian emperors were therefore happy because they ruled a long time, or, dying a peaceful death, left their sons to succeed them in the empire, or subdued the enemies of the republic, or were able both to guard against and to suppress the attempt of hostile citizens rising against them. These and other gifts or comforts of this sorrowful life even certain worshippers of demons have merited to receive, who do not belong to the kingdom of God to which these belong; and this is to be traced to the mercy of God, who would not have those who believe in Him desire such things as the highest good. But we say that they are happy if they rule justly; if they are not lifted up amid the praises of those who pay them sublime honors, and the obsequiousness of those who salute them with an excessive humility, but remember that they are men; if they make their power the handmaid of His majesty by using it for the greatest possible extension of His worship; if they fear, love, worship God; if more than their own they love that kingdom in which they are not afraid to have partners; if they are slow to punish, ready to pardon; if they apply that punishment as necessary to government and defense of the republic, and not in order to gratify their own enmity; if they grant pardon, not that iniquity may go unpunished, but with the hope that the transgressor may amend his ways; if they compensate with the lenity of mercy and the liberality of benevolence for whatever severity they may be compelled to decree; if their luxury is as much restrained as it might have been unrestrained; if they prefer to govern depraved desires rather than any nation whatever; and if they do all these things, not through ardent desire of empty glory, but through love of eternal felicity, not neglecting to offer to the true God, who is theirGod, for their sins, the sacrifices of humility, contrition, and prayer. Such Christian emperors, we say, are happy in the present time by hope, and are destined to be so in the enjoyment of the reality itself, when that which we wait for shall have arrived.

~ Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Book V, Chapter 24

Yet another powerful piece of political wisdom from St. Augustine’s The City of God. It’s also a highly topical reflection—just substitute the word “emperors” with presidents, prime ministers, heads of State, governors, monarchs, mayors, etc., and see if what Augustine says doesn’t apply to our own times… It seems to me, however, that what is most striking about this passage is the simplicity with which a man of immense culture and erudition, as well as of astounding complexity, has approached this issue, so that even a child can understand. It’s what is called evangelical simplicity and clarity: “Let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is from the evil one” (Mt 5:37). Unfortunately no alternative method is provided. Tertium non datur.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Allegory of  Good Government
Palazzo Pubblico, Siena (click to enlarge)

November 28, 2011

An Attack of Wonder

“You can be sitting quietly in a chair and suffer an attack of wonder, simply because you are alive.”

An imaginary monologue in the voice of G.K. Chesterton, in which a Catholic priest of these times, Michael Paul Gallagher SJ, tries to capture aspects of Chesterton’s vision which can help us revive our language of religious wonder for Advent. A short excerpt:

In short my life has been a mystery-story, blessed with gratitude in spite of sorrow and with joy in spite of sin. Existence has remained such a strangeness opening me to the only One who can work such a miracle. So I have tried to live a simple religion of gratitude, but this gratitude needed a theology to ground it. It needed a tradition to go beyond a vague sense of purpose and presence. And so I found my own mystical, imaginative hunches confirmed in Christianity and Catholicism. The Church dared to go down with me into the depths of myself, healing my self-hurts with absolution and restoring me to joy, a joy that stays in touch with reality and with responsibility. Here in Christ is God’s answer to the riddle of the universe, the perfect fit for the human heart, swinging as it does like a pendulum between guilt and glory.
‘The less a man thinks of himself, the more he thinks of his good luck and of all the gifts of God.’ I am a large man, but thank God I have felt happily too small for life, for the life that wells up into eternity. ‘I have experienced the mere excitement of existence in places that would commonly be called as dull as ditchwater. And, by the way, is ditchwater dull? Naturalists with microscopes have told me that it teems with quiet fun.’

H/T: Società Chestertoniana Italiana

Burma: 'Brutal Reality Behind Junta's Benign Face'

With reference to my latest post on Burma—and while U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is on her way to Naypyidaw, the new capital city of the Southeast Asian country, for a three-day official mission that will be the most significant U.S. policy move on the country in years, and most probably an undeserved validation for Burma’s generals—here is an interesting Bangkok Post report: Brutal reality behind junta’s benign face. (H/T: Soe Aung)

November 27, 2011

Conditor Alme Siderum (Creator of the Stars of Night)

Today Christians throughout the world celebrate the First Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Hope, which also marks the beginning of a new Liturgical Year in the Catholic Church. This post is meant to be of some help to those who, like me, want to “live” Advent. Hence the choice to stop talking … and let the music speak—in this case a magnificent hymn which spans all of salvation history, from creation to the end of time: the 7th century Vespers hymn for Advent Conditor Alme Siderum. A great example of Gregorian Chant! See score and lyrics here (original Latin text and an English translation by John M. Neale in the Hymnal Noted, 1852), and click here for further information about this hymn (at Fr. John Zuhlsdorf's blog).

A blessed and holy Advent to you all!

November 26, 2011

But George Washington Would Still Buy American

“One sign of economic ignorance,” says John Stossel at Townhall, “is the faith that ‘Buy American’ is the path to prosperity. [...] ‘Buy American’ is a dumb idea. It would not only not create prosperity, it would cost jobs and make us all poorer.” All arguments and explanations follow in the rest of the article.

Robert, at Atlantic Crossing, has a different view and provides some interesting insights and counter-arguments to Mr. Stossel’s thesis—according to which, perhaps, George Washington himself should be dismissed as “stupid” and “ignorant.”   (Whether and at what point this applies to European countries remains to be seen. Any thoughts?)

An Undeserved Validation for Burma's Generals?

They call it the “Peaceful Gathering and Procession Bill,” that is the bill that, for the first time in half a century, will allow the staging of peaceful gatherings and marches, a huge step forward for the people of Burma. It was recently approved by the Parliament of Naypyidaw, the new capital city of the Southeast Asian country which has been ruled by a succession of oppressive military juntas since 1962.

Unfortunately though, the President’s signature is still missing, not to mention that the bill contains a number of restrictions: it will be necessary to ask for authorization at least one week in advance, it will be necessary to present detailed identification of the organizers while it will not be possible to demonstrate near government buildings, schools, hospitals and embassies.

However, it couldn’t be denied that there have been encouraging signs of change, including a partial liberalization of the Internet. But the point is whether those “flickers of progress,” as President Obama calls them, are enough to justify U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s three-day trip to Burma that starts next week. In other words, have the generals and former generals who run Burma done enough to earn such validation? Someone might have doubts about that, including me.

November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving, America!

Cartoon by William Warren (via

Well, er, seriously, Happy Thanksgiving to all of my American friends!

November 18, 2011

Give Perry a Chance

Rick Perry interviewed by Sean Hannity (November 16, 2011). A video with other videos inside it:

  • The new campaign ad released by Rick Perry, rounding on Barack Obama for his “socialist” policies
  • Rick Perry’s comments on a question about the Department of Energy asked by Scott Pelley at the November 12, 2011 Republican Presidential debate on CBS (in Sean Hannity’s opinion that was probably the funniest moment on the campaign trail):

    SCOTT PELLEY, CBS NEWS ANCHOR: Governor Perry, you advocate the elimination of the Department of Energy. If you eliminate the Department of Energy --
    PERRY: Glad you remembered it. (APPLAUSE)
    PELLEY: I have had some time to think about it, sir.

November 17, 2011

European Welfare States: Key Lessons for American Policymakers

In a mini-documentary from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity Foundation a student at the University of Milan speaks about her country’s economic troubles and explains how many European welfare states have been caught in a downward spiral of taxes, spending, and debt. Key lessons for policymakers seeking to avoid the inevitable fiscal crisis caused by the welfare state.

Dubya and History

Today my mood is not so very good, and that’s why, once again, I have decided to take the risk of losing some of my readers by writing this post. In fact, Dubya is a notoriously dangerous subject to write about, unless you speak not too well of him, of course! The truth is that I’ve just finished reading Dubya and Me (“Over the course of a quarter-century, a journalist witnessed the transformation of George W. Bush”), by Walt Harrington—who is now a journalism professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, after being a long-time staff writer for The Washington Post Magazine—and couldn’t wait to share this piece with you [HT: Camillo].

For instance, did you know about George W. Bush’s passion for reading history?

“So what is it about history that grabs you?” I ask.
“I’m fascinated by people,” Bush says, “and a lot of history is the study of individuals making a difference. … I haven’t really sat and tried to figure out why I was interested. All I can tell you is I have been for a long period of time.”
“When I got elected governor and president, history gave me a chance to study the decisions of my predecessors,” Bush says. As governor, he read The Raven, by Marquis James, a biography of Sam Houston, the father of Texas statehood. “I was fascinated by the story of Houston voting against secession, and reading a description of him basically being driven out of town by angry citizens. … My only point is that one lesson I learned, if they’re throwing garbage on Houston, arguably Texas’s most famous politician—Sam Houston Elementary School, where I went to school in Midland, was named for him!—if they’re throwing garbage on him, they can throw garbage on me.”

Bush remained calm and confident during his tumultuous presidency. Critics saw him as delusional; defenders saw him as self-assured. Bush believes that one of the most important stage requirements of the presidency is indeed never to signal weakness or self-doubt or confusion: “One of the things you learn about great leaders is that they never project the burdens of responsibility on others.” He remembers Richard Carwardine’s Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power (one of 14 Lincoln biographies Bush read while he was president), which recounts the 16th president’s perseverance through not only military defeat after defeat, stupefying troop casualties, and public ridicule, but also the death of his son Willie and the debilitating emotional turmoil of his wife.

“You’re not the only person that’s ever gone through hard things,” Bush says of the lessons he has learned from history. “In other words, can you imagine the signal I would have sent had I said, ‘Ah, why me? Why am I thrust in the middle of all this stuff?’ And they had kids on the front line of combat who were actually having to do all the work.”

“You faced some vicious personal attacks,” I say.

“I did. But so did Abraham Lincoln.” He recalls opening the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. “There’s an exhibit, and the voices of opposition to Lincoln were being played. I said, ‘Wow!’ This guy, America’s—remember now, I got Lincoln’s portrait on the wall at the White House and I got a bust of Lincoln—and I hear the people calling him a baboon, just vicious.”

And when asked what he believes is the most important quality in great leaders…

“Willingness to stand on principle, the notion that public opinion changes back and forth and that you shouldn’t chase public opinion. … Lincoln had a set of principles that were important to him. ‘All men are created equal under God’ is the ultimate. It’s the ultimate principle for America’s freedom. … But Lincoln acted on it in a difficult political environment. People forget that he was in a very tough reelection campaign, and it wasn’t until Sherman makes it to Atlanta that his prospects brightened. Secondly, Lincoln had a strategic vision for the country. One of the great presidential decisions ever was to keep the country intact. … The question oftentimes in history is what would have happened if a different decision were made. We’d have been Europe.”

Furthermore, when asked about his principles, he says:

“One of them was ‘freedom is universal,’ which was unbelievably controversial for a period of time during my presidency, which, frankly, astonished me, given my reading of history.” He paraphrases his Second Inaugural: “We’ll resist tyranny at all times, all places, basically. Well, to me, you could say that was inspired by Lincoln. … Based upon the principle that deep in everybody’s soul is the desire to be free. And what’s interesting is, it’s playing out right now,” he says, referring to the populist uprisings in the Middle East.

And, to conclude, how will history judge his presidency?

“Some people walk up and say, ‘Oh, man, history is going to judge you well.’ And my quip is, ‘I’m not going to be around to see it.’ And to me, that’s one of the most important lessons you learn through history—you’re just not gonna be around to see it. … I’m confident of this: that those conclusions will be more objective with time than they could conceivably be now.”

November 16, 2011

Italy's New Government. Why It Is a Historic Opportunity For the Country

Italy's new government
There we go. Mario Monti has been officially sworn in as Italian premier. He has unveiled a new, technocratic cabinet—that is, made up of technocrats instead of career politicians—meant to steer Italy through its debt crisis.

Almost exactly one year ago, I half-seriously described the Italian political panorama as an epiphenomenon and a symptom of a wider global trend which I called Kali Yuga (“Age of Darkness”), that is the last of the four stages of development (Yugas) that the world goes through as part of the cycle of eras, as described in Hindu scriptures. Kali Yuga—as who has the slightest idea of what I’m talking about know—is an age characterized by spiritual degeneration, moral decline and decay, materialism, chaos and evil. Well then, perhaps now is a time in which Italy might switch from the darkness to the light. Seriously, the switch is within reach for the first time in years. And I am not just talking about the economy, namely about the need to bring the country out of the most acute phase of the financial crisis, and to win back the indispensable trust of investors and European institutions. I’m talking about the future of democracy as well, about the way we are as citizens, tax-payers, public servants, entrepreneurs, workers...

I mean, as everybody here knows, the country needs what we call a “liberal revolution” (“liberal” in the British sense, not in the current American sense!), that is, something that—since there is no Reagan or Thatcher over here—can be carried out only by a bipartisan government, by a “Grand coalition” in which the two largest political parties of opposing political ideologies unite in a coalition government—call it as you want: Große Koalition, national unity government, “technical government,” emergency government, whatever. In this sense—and not only in this sense, to be honest—the new Italian government, besides having to face a daunting challenge and a final redde rationem, is a historic opportunity for the country. And Prime Minister Mario Monti is without a doubt the right man, in the right place, at the right time. Add to this that what led to the fall of Berlusconi is also what forced the entire political establishment, opposition included, to give way to Monti, and this for the simple reason that there is no alternative, and that it would be foolish to hold elections while the country is under unrestrained attack by financial speculation. This makes Monti as invincible as his nickname, Super-Mario, suggests.

It is also to be said that, paradoxically, the political party which has clearly the most to lose—from an electoral point of view—in all of this is not the defeated center-right People of Freedom party, but the leftist Democratic Party, and this for rather obvious reasons. Let’s admit it: If the Democratic Party will be up to the task, if they won’t throw a monkey wrench in the works, they will amaze us all and far exceed our expectation. In other words, they will earn the gratitude of the entire nation.

November 14, 2011

How to Be Intellectually Honest About Berlusconi

Beppe Severgnini 
The piece by Beppe Severgnini—published in both today’s FT and Corriere della Sera—on Berlusconi’s fall would be a good one to explain to non-Italian readers how Italians feel about this rather historic event, were it not for the fact that it is incomplete. In fact Severgnini, who lists the reasons why Italians are happy about the end of Berlusconi’s reign, omits to mention why the hell they have tolerated him and his faults for so long. It’s a pity, really. And to think that Severgnini himself acknowledges that “We Italians may be emotional, but we are not stupid,” and that “We Italians may be careless at times, but we are sensible when we want to be” (because “In an emergency, we didn’t laugh it out with Silvio; we rushed to the emergency room of doctor Mario Monti”).

He should have related the above good qualities not only to the fall of Berlusconi, but also to his rise to and stay in power. What am I referring to? Well, as my most affectionate readers know, I’m referring to the lack of viable alternatives to Silvio, and this, of course, because of “the extraordinary virtues of the Italian Left,” which I’ve written about so many times (here is the latest example).

Why then did he tell only half the story, and arguably not even the most interesting half? Well, once again I’ll quote his own words: “Berlusconi told us only and always what we wanted to hear…” Just replace ‘Berlusconi’ with ‘Severgnini’ and ‘we’ with… Well, guess who!

November 12, 2011

Let Super-Mario Try (and Let's Keep Our Fingers Crossed)

Mario Monti
Joking about the speculation on his own future, Mario Monti, who—like his fellow countrymen Mario Draghi and Manchester City soccer player Mario Balotelli—is nicknamed “Super-Mario,”  said he had been questioned last Wednesday by a fellow passenger flying to Berlin from Milan as to whether he was on the right airplane. Once arrived in Berlin, speaking at a symposium to commemorate the late Lord Dahrendorf, former director of the London School of Economics, Monti engaged in a vigorous defense of the euro as a common European currency, praised Germany for exporting its focus on monetary and fiscal stability throughout the eurozone, paid tribute to the Franco-German partnership in Europe, and said that closer involvement of Italy would be in the common interest, “if Italy had not in the past few years completely expelled himself.” Italy, in his view, is still benefiting from being in the euro, “because the benefits of belonging are not just flows per month or per year but rather a legacy over time.” This country, he added, “is at the core of Europe. Politically and historically, Italy cannot ignore its responsibility as a founder member state of the European Union.” Yet, he concluded, “I will not deny we have enormous work to do.” This, in a nutshell, is his Weltanschauung, the “worldview”—sense of humor included—of the man who is going to become Italy’s prime minister.

A Yale-trained and widely respected economist, professor at Milan’s Bocconi University and former European Commissioner, Monti—like the new head of the ECB Mario Draghi!—has also worked as an international advisor to Goldman Sachs. “He has an international profile that no one can deny,” said Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, who is one of his ardent fans. But his most prominent supporter is Giorgio Napolitano, Italy’s head of state, who appointed Mario Monti a senator for life on Wednesday, in a move widely interpreted by the Italian media as a sign he would ask him to try to form a government as soon as Berlusconi goes. Berlusconi, in turn, under pressure from markets and leading members of the People of Liberty party, who had warned him that they would not follow him in pushing for early elections, changed his position on Thursday on the possibility of supporting an emergency government led by Monti—the choice of investors, and Italy’s biggest opposition party, the Democratic party—and decided not to block him.

Mario Monti and Italy's head of state Giorgio Napolitano
As a result, the outcome will be a “national unity” (emergency) government headed by Monti, despite the opposition of Berlusconi’s key ally, the Northern League, of some prominent members of Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party, such as Welfare minister Maurizio Sacconi, and of influential opinion leaders, such as Giuliano Ferrara, editor of Il Foglio newspaper and one of Berlusconi’s most trusted advisors. Before that can happen, however, Italy’s two houses of parliament need to approve a massive economic package designed to cut public debt and stimulate growth. Once that happens—the Senate has already approved the package, with the abstention of the main opposition Democratic Party, and the House of Representatives is expected to approve it today—Berlusconi will resign, paving the way for the new government.

With that being said, we should discuss (at least) three important points. First, whether or not this whole thing is politically acceptable by the voters, who will be totally ignored by the political establishment. The answer is obviously no, but it’s far too easy to argue that, given the state of the economy and the failure of Berlusconi and his coalition, there is no viable alternative. Second, whether or not an interim government lead by this cool, calm and collected man, who couldn’t be more different from his predecessor, “will have the latitude to introduce sweeping reforms in a country that for decades has resisted change,” as the WSJ puts it. Of course, as the WSJ again puts it, much will depend on whether President Napolitano manages to convince a broad swath of Parliament to back the new government. But that, to be honest, doesn’t seem to be an impossible task. Third, whether or not (a government backed by) the Left will be up to the task. That’s the real issue that should worry everyone. And if you ask me what I think about this, I could sum it up in a sentence: I don’t really know, but I’m willing to hope for the best. And may God bless and keep us all. Amen.

November 8, 2011

Game Over for Berlusconi (Updated)

There is not very much to be said. In his own words:

After the approval of this finance law, which has amendments for everything which Europe has asked of us and which the Eurogroup has requested, I will resign, to allow the head of state to open consultations.
In the Senate, the center-right still has a good majority. However with the defection of seven members of the ruling majority today, the government does not have the majority we thought we had and so we have to take account of this situation realistically.

Now, for the country’s sake, let’s hope that the left doesn’t come into power again.

UPDATE: November 9, 2011 - 12:05 pm

The day after

Things are becoming clearer and clearer. In an interview with newspaper La Stampa today, Silvio Berlusconi confirmed that he will resign “as soon as the (budget) law is passed.” He also said that, since he believes “there is no other majority possible,” he sees “elections being held at the beginning of February.” In other words he said No to any form of transitional or national unity government—which the opposition and many on the markets favour. As Il Foglio newspaper puts it, “the Democratic Party (PD) wanted a scalp, they will have a war, instead.”

But the even more important news is that Berlusconi won’t run again for office, as he himself told La Stampa, and that PDL party secretary and former justice minister Angelino Alfano would be the center-right’s candidate for prime minister.

Notwithstanding this, however, Italian borrowing costs soar... See also here and here.

The Devil in the Details

Fresco No.20 in a cycle of the scenes chronicling the life and death of St. Francis
Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi
We all know what teachers always say—or, er, used to say—when they explain a difficult concept to students, and, in particular, when they try to make their pupils aware about the importance of distinguishing between main points and supporting details, or between major and minor details, or what may erroneously seem such: ‘The devil is in the details’ …

Good old motto! Even in the night in which all cows are black, that is to say in our own “postmodern” age—but this is quite another story. So what? Well, all of the above is just to introduce a very interesting news item which clearly exemplifies the importance of paying attention to details:

Art restorers have discovered the figure of a devil hidden in the clouds of one of the most famous frescos by Giotto in the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi, church officials said on Saturday.
The devil was hidden in the details of clouds at the top of fresco number 20 in the cycle of the scenes in the life and death of St Francis painted by Giotto in the 13th century.
The discovery was made by Italian art historian Chiara Frugoni. It shows a profile of a figure with a hooked nose, a sly smile, and dark horns hidden among the clouds in the panel of the scene depicting the death of St Francis.
The figure is difficult to see from the floor of the basilica but emerges clearly in close-up photography. Sergio Fusetti, the chief restorer of the basilica, said Giotto probably never wanted the image of the devil to be a main part of the fresco and may have painted it in among the clouds 'to have a bit of fun'.
The master may have painted it to spite someone he knew by portraying him as a devil in the painting, Fusetti said on the convent's website.
The artwork in the basilica in the convent where St Francis is buried was last restored after it was severely damaged by an earthquake in 1997. [Reuters]

A detail of the fresco in which the profiled face of a devil is seen 
REUTERS/Basilica of St Francis in Assisi/Handout

However, apart from the pay-attention-to-details thing, there is the problem of finding out/understanding why the master may have hidden the profiled face of a devil with a hooked nose, a sly smile, and dark horns in the clouds of one of his most famous frescos in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. Perhaps to spite someone he knew by portraying him as a devil and “to have a bit of fun,” as Sergio Fusetti said on the convent’s website? Well, maybe so, maybe not, it’s difficult to say, and I’m no expert on the matter. But then again, as far as I know, a painter who came after generations of “mere” manufacturers of symbols, illustrations, and allegories may have wanted to leave a cryptic message. On the other hand, many medieval cathedrals included gargoyles and chimeras—used as a representation of evil—the most famous examples of which are those of Notre Dame de Paris. Such representations were intended to objectivize—and distance ourselves from—the evil. And then again, even though Giotto has been called the father of Renaissance art, he was a man of the Middle Ages.

Click to enlarge
Here (on the right) is, as an example of what I’m talking about, a picture I took some years ago at the Sacra di San Michele, in Piedmont. It shows a big-headed monster (a devil?) which dominates one of the entrances of the monastery and which is making faces at someone. At whom, exactly? At the monks, of course.

The moral of the story might be, Not every monster/devil is evil, some are just misunderstood.

November 6, 2011

The Two Cities

Cain and Abel: The Earthly City and the Heavenly City
Anonymous Amanuensis ~ French National Library, Paris 

Surprisingly for me (but pleasantly so), my recent post about St. Augustine has been greatly appreciated by the readers of this blog. It is a credit to them, in my opinion. This, in turn, inspires me to write another one. But this time the subject is, so to speak, a bit less theological and a bit more political. In fact, the concept, or—which is the same thing—the theological doctrine of the Two Cities, the “City of God” and the “City of Earth,” is central in Augustine of Hippo’s political philosophy.

Yet, Augustine, who is remembered for bringing into philosophy from the Judeo-Christian tradition a sense of history and novelty which the Greeks and their philosophers had never had, doesn’t ever discuss the best form of government, instead he is interested in God’s role in history, in individuals and among nations and rulers.

As it had been in heaven, with the prideful revolt of the now fallen angels, so it was on earth. Thus, according to St. Augustine, the two-fold division of the universe into the Heavenly City and the Earthly City originated. The world in which we live is a mixture of the two cities, and here is the biggest challenge, because, in Augustine’s view, in the spiritual life of each individual Christian, there must be a balance between living an active Christian life, made up of societal involvement, and a contemplative life, that is to say, contemplation of God. But now let’s hand over to the bishop of Hippo himself. Here is how he describes the nature of the two cities (The City of God, Book XIV, Chapter 28):

Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience. The one lifts up its head in its own glory; the other says to its God, You are my glory, and the lifter up of mine head. In the one, the princes and the nations it subdues are ruled by the love of ruling; in the other, the princes and the subjects serve one another in love, the latter obeying, while the former take thought for all. The one delights in its own strength, represented in the persons of its rulers; the other says to its God, I will love You, O Lord, my strength. And therefore the wise men of the one city, living according to man, have sought for profit to their own bodies or souls, or both, and those who have known God glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful, but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened; professing themselves to be wise,— that is, glorying in their own wisdom, and being possessed by pride—they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things. For they were either leaders or followers of the people in adoring images, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. [Romans 1:21-25] But in the other city there is no human wisdom, but only godliness, which offers due worship to the true God, and looks for its reward in the society of the saints, of holy angels as well as holy men, that God may be all in all. [1 Corinthians 15:28]

And in the Literal Commentary on Genesis (XI, 15,20) he writes:

These are the two loves: the first is holy, the second foul; the first is social, the second selfish; the first consults the common welfare for the sake of a celestial society, the second grasps at a selfish control of social affairs for the sake of arrogant domination; the first is submissive to God, the second tries to rival God; the first is quiet, the second restless; the first is peaceful, the second trouble-making; the first prefers truth to the praises of those who are in error, the second is greedy for praise, however it may be obtained; the first is friendly, the second envious; the first desires for its neighbor what it wishes for itself, the second desires to subjugate its neighbor; the first rules its neighbor for the good of its neighbor, the second for its own advantage; and these two loves produce a distinction among the angels: the first love belongs to the good angels, the second to the bad angels; and they also separate the two cities founded among the race of men, under the wonderful and ineffable Providence of God, administering and ordering all things that have been created: the first city is that of the just, the second is that of the wicked. Although they are now, during the course of time, intermingled, they shall be divided at the last judgment; the first, being joined by the good angels under its King, shall attain eternal life; the second, in union with the bad angels under its king, shall be sent into eternal fire. Perhaps, we shall treat, God willing, of these two cities more fully in another place.

To conclude (or to begin), not that I want to establish an explicit link between the above quoted passages and our own times, but nevertheless I suppose we had better learn the lesson Augustine taught some 1,600 years ago.

November 3, 2011

Why the Left Is Unfit to Lead Italy

Let’s go through our mistakes again, said Alessandro Baricco, the popular novelist and icon of the Italian left, speaking at a Democratic Party meeting in Florence last Saturday. And that’s what he did in a brief but passionate—and much applauded—speech which will be remembered for a long time to come. I couldn’t help translating a few lines of it into English:

One [mistake] is that we have always seen ourselves as working in defense of the weak and marginalized, as advocating for people who have no voice and are victims of social injustice. That’s a wonderful starting point, but I want to say this: that we, on behalf (and with the excuse) of that, have mainly set up a protection system, a system of privileges, for a part of this country—and a rather dark one—which seems to be held together by mediocrity and a certain inclination to servility. I don’t know how this happened, but it happened.

We thought, with regard to the defense of the weak, that we might achieve it only by somehow blocking the system on a stable net of rights and defenses. I, along with others, now know that the best thing you can do for the weak is to let him have a dynamic system, not a blocked one. It’s not true that risk hits the weak; risk is a chance for the weak. A blocked system blocks a country, blocks the economic growth, the enthusiasm, the hope, and the options of revenge. It blocks social mobility and capabilities. It is an asphyxial system, and the rich suffers from asphyxia, but not very much, while the poor dies from it. [IL FOGLIO, November 1, 2001, in Italian]

Alessandro Baricco
“Another mistake we have made,” says Baricco, is that “we couldn’t pronounce the words which were the names of the things.” One example for all: “We have never been able to pronounce the word meritocracy. “ Why on earth? “Because it is ugly.” Well, yeah actually. What else were we meant to think?

There is much of my own story and political views in these lines—I could write a book on Why-I-used-to-be-a-leftist-but-not-any-more—but that’s not the point. The point is that the Italian left—along with (if not more than) that of many other Western countries—is exactly as Baricco describes it, with its original sin and its deleterious effects throughout the history of this country. This, if we limit our field of vision to the near future of post-Berlusconi Italy, should lead us all to worry about the prospect of having the country being led by the left. After all, if there is one thing many Italians should fear more than the current government it is the available alternatives. And that’s what actually happens…

“We are in a situation where we are without a government, but also without an opposition, and that is the trouble of the Italian political system today,” said Sergio Fabbrini, Director of the Luiss School of Government and Professor of Political Science and International Relations at LUISS Guido Carli in Rome.
Mr. Fabbrini said that even with open opposition to Mr. Berlusconi from Confindustria, the Italian business lobby, the Roman Catholic Church and several major newspapers that have been calling for his resignation on almost a daily basis, “voters don’t trust the opposition.” Many Italians believe that they, too, would not be able to make the tough choices needed to pull Italy out of the cross hairs of the financial markets.
Mr. Berlusconi’s “strength is the weakness of his rivals,” he said. “This is a stalemate.” [NYT, October 27, 2011]

Good for him, bad for us. But then again, it wouldn’t be necessary to hand over the country to the left in order to get rid of Berlusconi, if only Silvio could realize that—if I may take the liberty of quoting John 11:50—it is expedient for us, that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish. Yes, Italy first, if possible. But, hey, don’t misinterpret, long life to Berlusconi, and may God bless and protect Italy from its enemies (wherever they hide)!

November 1, 2011

“What Blessings Shall We Receive in That Kingdom…?”

Fra Angelico, All Saints (The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs)
National Gallery, London

Today, November 1st, the Roman Catholic Church celebrates the feast of All Saints, that is, the day in which Catholics commemorate all those who have attained the beatific vision in Heaven—the festival, however, was retained after the Reformation in the calendar of many other Christian confessions for its deep theological and spiritual meaning. This prompts me to quote a passage from St. Augustine The City of God (Book XXII, Chapter 24) which I have always found inspirational, and this, of course, because of its intrinsic worth, but also because of its many references to nature and its beauty. Something which, in my opinion, is suitable for this time of the year, too, in which we experience the beauty of fall foliage…

How can I tell of the rest of creation, with all its beauty and utility, which the divine goodness has given to man to please his eye and serve his purposes, condemned though he is, and hurled into these labors and miseries? Shall I speak of the manifold and various loveliness of sky, and earth, and sea; of the plentiful supply and wonderful qualities of the light; of sun, moon, and stars; of the shade of trees; of the colors and perfume of flowers; of the multitude of birds, all differing in plumage and in song; of the variety of animals, of which the smallest in size are often the most wonderful—the works of ants and bees astonishing us more than the huge bodies of whales? Shall I speak of the sea, which itself is so grand a spectacle, when it arrays itself as it were in vestures of various colors, now running through every shade of green, and again becoming purple or blue? Is it not delightful to look at it in storm, and experience the soothing complacency which it inspires, by suggesting that we ourselves are not tossed and shipwrecked? What shall I say of the numberless kinds of food to alleviate hunger, and the variety of seasonings to stimulate appetite which are scattered everywhere by nature, and for which we are not indebted to the art of cookery? How many natural appliances are there for preserving and restoring health! How grateful is the alternation of day and night! How pleasant the breezes that cool the air! How abundant the supply of clothing furnished us by trees and animals! Who can enumerate all the blessings we enjoy? If I were to attempt to detail and unfold only these few which I have indicated in the mass, such an enumeration would fill a volume. And all these are but the solace of the wretched and condemned, not the rewards of the blessed. What then shall these rewards be, if such be the blessings of a condemned state? What will He give to those whom He has predestined to life, who has given such things even to those whom He has predestined to death? What blessings will He in the blessed life shower upon those for whom, even in this state of misery, He has been willing that His only-begotten Son should endure such sufferings even to death? Thus the apostle reasons concerning those who are predestined to that kingdom: He that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also give us all things? Romans 8:32 When this promise is fulfilled, what shall we be? What blessings shall we receive in that kingdom, since already we have received as the pledge of them Christ's dying? In what condition shall the spirit of man be, when it has no longer any vice at all; when it neither yields to any, nor is in bondage to any, nor has to make war against any, but is perfected, and enjoys undisturbed peace with itself? Shall it not then know all things with certainty, and without any labor or error, when unhindered and joyfully it drinks the wisdom of God at the fountain-head? What shall the body be, when it is in every respect subject to the spirit, from which it shall draw a life so sufficient, as to stand in need of no other nutriment? For it shall no longer be animal, but spiritual, having indeed the substance of flesh, but without any fleshly corruption.

~ First written for The Metaphysical Peregrine ~