December 24, 2012

Blessed Are the Contrarians

All right, that’s it, I’m done with this job. My new book is out just in time for Christmas. Here is the Preface to Blessed Are the Contrarians: Diary of a Journey Through Interesting Times.

I wish you all 

a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


Blessed are the contrarians, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. But they must be very, very careful in these “Interesting Times,” in the Chinese sense. Unless you think that “May you live in interesting times” after all is a blessing and not a curse, or better still the first of three curses of increasing degrees of severity, the other two being “May the government be aware of you,” and “May you find what you are looking for.” But in this case you had better not read this book—and you can’t say I didn’t warn you!

Let’s start from the beginning, which can only be the title of this book, with the first question: Who or what is a contrarian? Well, that is not an easy question to answer. The fact is that there are many kinds of contrarians. Way too many to come up with a description that fits them all.

Broadly speaking, however, contrarians are those who go against the current (as the dictionary states), who take opposing stands from the majority: in the stock markets they buy when others sell and vice-versa; in religious matters, if they are Christians, they continue to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, in spite of the Zeitgeist, and if they are not they have the utmost respect for what Christianity is all about and for its contribution to civilization. In matters of culture, education and lifestyles, they are “old-fashioned” while the rest of the world seems to be hell bent on transmuting order into chaos.

Philosophically speaking, there are two main types of contrarians: thinkers who are marginal and unconventional during their own life time, but posthumously become very popular and trendy, and those who “thought different” in their lifetime, to quote Steve Jobs, and their works still continue to go against the mainstream in the present time. Friedrich Nietzsche, for instance, belongs to the first category, whilst Montaigne belongs to the second—that of the truest and the most representative contrarians, in my own personal (and perhaps questionable) opinion. And that’s where I shall start from, as you will see.

This book is a kind of diary of a journey through our time—politics, culture, lifestyles, worldviews, etc.—and back home again, where “home” stands for a sense of belonging to something stronger than the spirit of our times. In other words what this book represents is a sort of explanation—though not a systematic one—of why I disagree with certain mainstream views in several domains. And this from a conservative and Christian point of view, that is to say the perspectives that come under severe attack from secular and progressive ideologies, the over-influential schools of thought of our time.

I have selected for this volume some of the articles posted on my blog over the last few years, those most suitable for this traditional mode of communication. The “diary” entries are not arranged in any chronological order, but in accordance to subject pertinence. This was done to make it easier for the reader to surf through the book. After all, as Albert Einstein once said, time is only an illusion—though sometimes an interesting one!

December 3, 2012

The Infinite Quest

Hold tight, dear readers, what this note is all about is nothing less than the Infinite. Tough topic, I know (and how could it be otherwise?), but it’s time, if not past time, because yesterday was not just an ordinary day. In fact yesterday we celebrated the first Sunday of Advent. So what?—you’ll say. Well, you know that we Christians traditionally mark Advent with the display of a wreath? And if so, do you know what does the wreath stand for? No? Well, I give you a clue: the wreath is circular… I hope you’ve got it now: the wreath circle reminds us of God Himself, eternal and endlessly merciful. It is evergreen—reminding us of the hope of eternal life. In other words, Advent tells us about the manifold attributes of the Infinite!

That being said, let’s get into our topic. But in order to do so, I need to resort to poetry, which, along with theology and philosophy, is the best way to express—although partly and indirectly—what the Infinite is all about. Specifically, I’ll first talk about what seems to be a fascinating intellectual paradox, but it isn’t: I mean, the “phenomenon” may well be fascinating, but on closer inspection it’s not a paradox. I’m referring to the religious reading of one of the greatest Italian poets ever, Giacomo Leopardi, whose deeply pessimistic Weltanschauung, in both a “historical” and a “cosmic” sense, is based on an empirical and mechanistic world view (inspired, among others, by John Locke), denying purpose in the universe, and seeking to explain all phenomena solely by efficient causality.

As a matter of fact, in much of Leopardi’s poetry , the principal poetic mood is melancholic, and themes of solitude, suffering, despair, and disappointed love largely predominate. He often stresses his belief that joy is nothing but the momentary subsidence of pain and that only in death can man find lasting happiness, and his prose writings are eloquent articulations of his materialist, atheistic, skeptical, and decidedly “modern” thought—affinities between his pessimistic worldview and that of Arthur Schopenhauer, for instance, have been noted, while Friedrich Nietzsche found Leopardi’s historical insights congenial to his own.
Yet, from time to time, quite different (though not contradictory) aspects of his personality emerge: an immense admiration of nature’s beauty, a deep belief in the power of imagination, and a characteristically Romantic longing for the infinite (see, for instance, Matthew Arnold’s 1882 comparison of Leopardi with the English Romantic poets Lord Byron and William Wordsworth).

In a nutshell, Leopardi thinks that we human beings seek an infinite fulfillment, an infinite coherence, an infinite wisdom and comprehension, an infinite love, an infinite perfection. But we do not have the capacity to achieve any of these things, and the mystery of life, the mystery of happiness, seems always one step beyond us. Yet, does this necessarily mean that, at the end of the road, there’s only darkness and despair? Perhaps so.

Embedded in that “perhaps” is the possibility of hope. By our own power we are hopeless, but, as St Augustine wrote in his Confessions, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee” (Nos fecisti ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te). Leopardi’s “restless heart,” far more than his pessimistic world-view, is what his wonderful poem “Canto notturno di un pastore errante dell’Asia” (Night Song of a Wandering Shepherd in Asia) seems to be all about.

By the way, this could somehow explain why something unexpected happened to an Italian priest, a very famous one: Fr Luigi Giussani, the founder and spiritual guide of the Communion and Liberation movement. In fact, he happened to read Leopardi’s hymn “Alla sua donna” (To his Woman) as … a sort of introduction to the prologue to the Gospel of St John, and what is more, Leopardi became his favorite poet and a life-long “friend.”
In this last regard, the following except from Paul Zalonski’s essay “What is Luigi Giussani’s Contribution to Catholic Theology? Part II: Nothing Less Than the Infinite” (Communio, October 28, 2008) can be very useful.

Giussani quotes the great 19th century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi--who is speaking here in the persona of a shepherd watching his flock by night, conversing with the moon:

And when I gaze upon you,
Who mutely stand above the desert plains
Which heaven with its far circle but confines,
Or often, when I see you
Following step by step my flock and me,
Or watch the stars that shine there in the sky,
Musing, I say within me:
“Wherefore those many lights,
That boundless atmosphere,
And infinite calm sky? And what the meaning
Of this vast solitude? And what am I?”

There are a couple of points about this striking poetic excerpt that are worth mentioning as illustrative of central themes in Giussani. The first point is this: note that the shepherd's questions are so poignantly expressed “from the heart “(Musing, I say within me). They are “personal” questions we might say; that is, they are questions that seem deeply important to the shepherd's own life, that emerge from the shepherd's solitude as he watches the flocks by night and gazes at the moon. And yet, the questions themselves are really “philosophical” questions: “metaphysical” questions which ask about the relationship of the universe to its mysterious Source, and “anthropological” questions about the nature of the world, of man, of the self. Let us note these things only to emphasize that Giussani’s evaluation of the dynamic of the human heart is not exclusively concerned with the pursuit of external objects and the way in which these objects lead “beyond” themselves the acting person who engages them. Giussani stresses that the need for truth is inscribed on the human heart; the need to see the meaning of things is fundamental to man. Hence the “objectivity” required for addressing philosophical and scientific questions does not imply that these questions are detached from the “heart” of the person who deals with them. When the scientist scans that infinite, calm sky and that vast solitude with his telescope, he must record what he sees, not what he wishes he would have seen. In this sense, he must be “objective,” and his questions and methodology must be detached from his own particular interests. But what puts him behind that telescope in the first place is his own personal need for truth and this need grows and articulates itself more and more as questions emerge in the light of his discoveries. All of this could be applied by analogy to the researches carried out by a true philosopher.
The second point is this: Leopardi’s poem conveys with imaginative force the inexhaustibility of human desire and the questions through which it is expressed, or at least tends to be expressed insofar as man is willing to live in a way that is true to himself (several chapters of Giussani’s book are devoted to the various ways in which man is capable of distracting himself or ignoring the dynamic of the religious sense, or anesthetizing himself against its felt urgency). Even more importantly, he indicates that the unlimited character of man’s most fundamental questions points toward an Infinite Mystery, a mystery that man continually stands in front of with fascination and existential hunger but also with questions, because he is ultimately unable by his own power to unveil its secrets.
The experience of life teaches man, if he is willing to pay attention to it, that what he is truly seeking, in every circumstance is the unfathomable mystery which alone corresponds to the depths of his soul. Offer to man anything less than the Infinite and you will frustrate him, whether he admits it or not. Yet at the same time man is not able to grasp the Infinite by his own power. Man's power is limited, and anything it attains it finitizes, reducing it to the measure of itself. The desire of man as a person, however, is unlimited, which means that man does not have the power to completely satisfy himself; anything that he makes is going to be less than the Infinite.
Here we begin to see clearly why Giussani holds that the ultimate questions regarding the meaning, the value, and the purpose of life have a religious character; and how it is that these questions are asked by everyone within the ordinary, non-theoretical reasoning process which he terms “the religious sense.” The human heart is, in fact, a great, burning question, a plea, an insatiable hunger, a fascination and a desire for the unfathomable mystery that underlies reality and that gives life its meaning and value. This mystery is something Other than any of the limited things that we can perceive or produce; indeed it is their fundamental Source. Therefore, the all-encompassing and limitless search that constitutes the human heart and shapes our approach to everything is a religious search. It is indeed, as we shall see in a moment, a search for “God.”
We seek an infinite fulfillment, an infinite coherence, an infinite interpenetration of unity between persons, an infinite wisdom and comprehension, an infinite love, an infinite perfection. But we do not have the capacity to achieve any of these things by our own power. Yet, in spite of this incapacity, in spite of the fact that the mystery of life--the mystery of happiness--seems always one step beyond us, our natural inclination is not one of despair, but rather one of dogged persistence and constant hope. Giussani insists that this hope and expectation is what most profoundly shapes the self; when I say the word “I,” I express this center of hope and expectation of infinite perfection and happiness that is coextensive with myself, that “is” myself, my heart. And when I say the word “you,” truly and with love, then I am acknowledging that same undying hope that shapes your self.

November 10, 2012

Tipping Point and the Seven Deadly Sins

~ “LETTERS FROM AMERICA” - by The Metaphysical Peregrine ~

This week America passed the tipping point. We found out America has moved from a constitutional republic based on moral scriptural values and beliefs, to an America that embraces and promotes the seven deadly sins. We have in Barack Obama and the Democrat Party, their supporters in the Jurassic Press and the trendy popular entertainment media, advocates for  wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony.

In Obama's closing speeches running up to the election, he exhorted his supporters to vote for revenge, wrath. That he would say such a thing is puzzling since he has been in power for four years, so who is revenge directed toward? Statistism, Marxism, the Left, have been the Establishment since the 1930's, in both politics and culture, yet they still play the oppressed minority. That Obama made the statement indicates he and his Party believe in and practice wrath, even against those they triumph over. There's been a lot of gloating and insulting of Republicans, Conservatives and Christians since election day.

Obama and the Democrat Party advocate greed with their notion of confiscating the wealth from those that are the most productive. An interviewer a few years ago asked Obama, noting that every time tax rates were reduced, revenues to the government went up, why did he still advocate for a higher tax rate for the wealthy? His answer was his standard 'they have to pay their fair share', regardless of the results. They use the concept of fairness, deciding what that is, to line their own pockets, increase their own wealth, at the expense of others.

They promote sloth by their notion of redistributing the wealth, telling people even if they don't work hard enough to get the things they want on their own, the government will make up the difference. The more slothful one is, the increased difference will still be made up, necessitating going back to confiscating yet more from the producers to compensate.

Obama and his fellow Statists promote pride with the notion of self esteem, that one doesn't have to accomplish anything to be proud of oneself. We have students coming out of school barely able to read and write, no knowledge of art, history, literature, mathematics, civics. Students think they know these things, and tests show the opposite. Yet they are still proud of their nonexistent accomplishments.

They promote envy with their constant attack on the successful. Hey, look at that guy, he has more money than me, what an evil and despicable person! Why should he have more than me?

Statists, Leftists, promote lust. Look at all the movies, books, TV shows, and magazines that sex is central. The entertainment "reporters" on the show "TMZ" openly and happily talk about the porn they watch when at one time such things were secretive and hidden, viewing was an embarrassment. Adultery is becoming more acceptable; there's even a social media that helps adulterers hook up.

Lastly, gluttony. The Obama's have spent over a billion dollars on vacations and parties since they've been in office. They eat and feed their supporters large quantities of the finest cuisine, while exhorting others to eat moderately and plainly. They constantly exhort others to do with less, while they ever increase their own consumption.

What was rejected a few days ago by Americans, is the notion we do the best we can for ourselves, for our families and friends, without government intervention, and that there is a tried and true moral and behavioral code over a couple thousand years that lends itself to successful happy people, in turn happy successful communities, in turn nations that receive the blessings of God.

Scripture makes it quite clear with the examples of the Israelites; every time they denied God, turned their back on Him, serious, bad things happened to them.

A few days ago we decided to make it official, and turned our backs to God. We have made the State our religion. 

November 7, 2012

The Desire for God

Benozzo Gozzoli, St Augustine Departing for Milan
(between 1464 and 1465)
Apsidal Chapel of Sant' Agostino, San Gimignano, Italy

Pope Benedict XVI (from this week’s Wednesday audience in Rome):

Continuing our catechesis for the Year of Faith, we now consider the mysterious desire for God which lies deep in the human heart. God has created us for himself and, in the words of Saint Augustine, our hearts are restless until they find their rest in him. Even in today’s secularized society, this desire for God continues to make itself felt, above all in the experience of love. In love, which seeks the good of the other, we find ourselves by giving ourselves away, in a process involving the purification and healing of our hearts. So too in friendship, in the experience of beauty and the thirst for truth and goodness: we sense that we are caught up in a process which points us beyond ourselves to a mystery in which we dimly perceive the promise of complete fulfillment. Thanks to this innate religious sense, we can open our hearts to the gift of faith which draws us ever closer to God, the source of all good and the fulfillment of our deepest desire. During this Year of Faith, let us pray for our contemporaries who seek the truth with a sincere heart, that they may come to know the joy and freedom born of faith.
The answer to the question about the meaning of the experience of love thus passes through the purification and healing of the will, required by the very love which I have for the other. We must practice this, we must train, and even correct ourselves, so that we may truly desire that good.
[T]he dynamism of desire is always open to redemption. Even when it advances along mistaken paths, when it chases artificial paradises and seems to lose the ability to yearn for the true good. Even in the abyss of sin, that spark is not extinguished in man that allows him to recognize the true good, to savor it, and thus to begin a path of ascent, for which God, through the gift of his grace, never fails to provide his help. All of us, moreover, need to tread a path of the purification and healing of desire. We are pilgrims towards the heavenly homeland, towards that full, eternal good, which nothing will ever be able to snatch from us. It is not a matter, therefore, of stifling the desire which is in the heart of man, but of liberating it, so that it can reach its true stature. When in desire a window is opened towards God, this is already a sign of the presence of faith in the soul, faith that is a grace of God. St. Augustine also said: "By making us wait, God increases our desire, which in turn enlarges the capacity of our soul" (Commentary on the First Letter of John, 4,6: PL 35, 2009).

Read the full test here.

November 1, 2012

A Defense of Bores

There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person. Nothing is more keenly required than a defence of bores. When Byron divided humanity into the bores and bored, he omitted to notice that the higher qualities exist entirely in the bores, the lower qualities in the bored, among whom he counted himself. The bore, by his starry enthusiasm, his solemn happiness, may, in some sense, have proved himself poetical. The bored has certainly proved himself prosaic. We might, no doubt, find it a nuisance to count all the blades of grass or all the leaves of the trees; but this would not be because of our boldness or gaiety, but because of our lack of boldness and gaiety. The bore would go onward, bold and gay, and find the blades of grass as splendid as the swords of an army. The bore is stronger and more joyous than we are; he is a demigod—nay, he is a god. For it is the gods who do not tire of the iteration of things; to them the nightfall is always new, and the last rose as red as the first.

~ Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Heretics, 1905

I love this quote. Moreover, at the moment, I can’t think of a more appropriate way to celebrate today's feast day... A Blessed All Saints’ Day!

Fra Angelico, The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs
Tempera on wood, 31,9 x 63,5 cm
National Gallery, London

October 31, 2012

500 Years of the Sistine Chapel

Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.

~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Rome, August 23, 1787

Today the Sistine Chapel celebrates 500 years. Click here if you want to enjoy a virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel.

October 29, 2012

Ralph Waldo Emerson: How I 'Met' Him

After Montaigne, I “met” Emerson. That’s how I would summarize a very important part of the story of my intellectual life. To both of them I owe much of what I have achieved in my life as a thinking human being. Montaigne taught me what books really are, their deepest power, their incredible strength. Emerson, in turn, taught me what books are NOT, their inner limit, even though I couldn’t do without so many of them, including, of course, those by Emerson himself, Montaigne and many others, to say nothing about the Book of the books—but this is a completely different story.

What this post is all about is telling the story of how I met Ralph Waldo Emerson and how and why that meeting changed my life forever. For this purpose I am going to rewrite, with minor but necessary changes, what I wrote for the tribute website I created for Emerson several years ago.

Those who have met Ralph Waldo Emerson do not consider him just a philosopher among other philosophers. Only those who have merely read him may think so, in the weak light of a book-learning approach, and that is what usually happens with most thinkers, even those quite original and talented.

“My book should smell of pines and resound with the hum of insects. The swallow over my window should interweave that thread of straw he carries in his bill into my web also.” So Emerson wrote in his essay on “Self-Reliance.” As a matter of fact, it happened that I made Emerson’s acquaintance in a similar way, perceiving that scent and hearing that hum, not only because such experiences are really contained in those pages, hidden between the lines, but also because, obeying an inner voice, that summer of twenty-something years ago I would carry those two books, Representative Men and Essays, wherever I went, wood, rock, where squirts of salt water or drops of a sudden, graceful rain would bathe the printed characters and the covers, while grains of sand, ground and bits of withered leaves would be trapped between the pages, which by then had become part of the scenery.

This suggested to me that a book, perhaps, is not merely a book, but a living thought if it is able to bear without damage, or better still making the most of itself, not afraid of the unintentional injury, the bold innocence of the weaves and the grip of the summer sun. If nature bursts into it from everywhere, with the voices of the universe mixing themselves with the words, and commenting on their clear senses, expanding and developing them, so as to become symbols and metaphors of the infinite.

That’s why when I started writing about Emerson I was certain that it would have been inappropriate to deal with this thinker obeying conventions that usually rule this kind of writings. So, instead of writing, first and foremost, “on Emerson” and his work, I resolved to tell a story—How it happened that I met Emerson; or, the way he went into my life and became my friend.

“Be yourself,” he keeps repeating to me, along with Nietzsche, who proclaimed that he had no disciples, and said, “Become what you are!”  Nevertheless, despite the warnings, both Nietzsche and Emerson had followers. But Emerson had friends, like Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller, who honored him more with their own greatness than by proclaiming themselves Transcendentalists or, which is the same, Emersonians. Because the best way to honor Ralph Waldo Emerson is to get one’s own way without hesitation and timidity, even by sharply disagreeing with him on fundamental matters. Yet, the fascination and the inspiration will remain forever, as well as the faculty of rising the tone of the speech beyond what is natural to expect. Here is the Emerson beyond whom, I believe, it is impossible to go. Here is the unique vibration, the mysterious harmony of a mystic harp which seems to come down from the Platonic World of the Ideas, archetype which you can imitate, not reproduce but as nostalgia and dream. Isn’t the whole of your life, after all, hung on dreams and nostalgia?

“There’s no road has not a star above it”—Emerson writes in his Journal. So, he is a star for everyone who knows that he is not to be compared to anyone else. He is the spring in its everlasting, amazing coming back, and in winter is the nostalgia of springtime. Really masters are necessary.

The nine-year-old Ralph Waldo would carry to religious ceremonies Pascal’s Pensées instead of the prayer-book. In the days of his adolescence he had Plato as an inseparable mate, and later he met Swedenborg, Montaigne, Shakespeare, and Goethe—to them he dedicated one of his most remarkable works, Representative Men. And how not to remember his beloved aunt Mary Moody Emerson, who, as he noted, fulfilled a function that “nothing else in his education could supply?” With her enormous force of character and energy, this self-educated woman was an original religious thinker, and a tireless controversialist, “a Genius always new, subtle, frolicsome, judicial, unpredictable.” She advised Emerson: “Always do what you are afraid to do.”

It was by pure chance that I happened to be acquainted with Emerson. One day, in the early 70’s, I bought in a remainder bookshop, probably the one situated in Piazza San Silvestro, in Rome, Gli uomini rappresentativi (Representative Men), a reprint of the 1944 Italian edition. I had never heard about the Author, even though I was a student of philosophy. So I don’t know why I bought it, perhaps because I liked the title, and moreover some of the figures whom Emerson had chosen to stand as “representative men” were ranked very high in my list of all time favorite authors, above all Montaigne and Shakespeare.

I took the small volume home, I had a look at it, which was enough to realize it was worth reading, but in due course. So, it happened that I didn’t read it. However, I kept it within reach ... until 1997! It is remarkable that, without knowing why, the book stayed for ages in a bedside table’s drawer, among the three or four I usually read before falling asleep. Only two of them were never replaced, the Holy Bible and Gli uomini rappresentativi. The former because I used to read it almost every night, the latter because I was supposed to be about to start reading it. Yet, I wasn’t able to come to a decision. Why? Nowadays I think I realize the reason why, but in the course of those years I hadn’t the faintest idea of it.

Finally I came to a decision, and I started reading. The time was ripe for it, the tesseras were gradually finding their places. It was a discovery, but without fanfare. It was as if I faced a fine image of myself, which formerly I had caught only a glimpse of. It was a revelation that was expressed in the straight forward language of a clear, promising spring morning.

“A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages.“  Here is the incipit of a revelation that can be written on the rocks or on the bark of a pine. The Wind Rose that sometimes comes to me and lets me have a glimpse of the most daring distances. There you have Africa, here is the Orient in a flooding, clearest light. Over there, opaque, the Western Lands stretch. Behind there the white North. Down here, from the Holy Land, the scream of the Prophets pierces the silence.

“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,—and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment”  (Self-Reliance). Yet,  if this “self-reliance” can make everyone the Wind Rose of himself, it is Nature which shows us the way. Nature being metaphor of the divine, that is, in Emerson’s language, of the Over-soul. I had reached the stage where I was crossing the threshold of a new world. And I was perfectly aware of it.

It is a keenly philosophical sight observing the amazement of the children when they for the first time catch the sand and see it quickly vanishing from their hands. I felt something like this in the first stage of my discovery of Emerson, when I tried to understand the foundations of his thought. With that I don’t intend to suspect that Emerson, as a philosopher, has some weakness, nor hint I at the apparent lack of philosophical system of Emerson’s philosophy. If anything, I refer to what I consider one of the most fascinating aspects of his thought: its essentially “worshipping” character.

“Of that ineffable essence which we call Spirit, he that thinks most, will say least. We can foresee God in the coarse, as it were, distant phenomena of matter; but when we try to define and describe himself, both language and thought desert us, and we are as helpless as fools and savages. That essence refuses to be recorded in propositions ... “ (Nature, 1836). Therefore philosophy discovers its own inadequacy, at least until the moment in which one “learns from nature the lesson of worship.”  Therefore philosophy discovers its own inadequacy, at least until the moment in which one “learns from nature the lesson of worship.” So accordingly, when man has worshipped that essence (the Spirit) which “refuses to be recorded in propositions,” the noblest ministry of nature is “to stand as the apparition of God. It is ”the organ through which the universal spirit speaks to the individual, and strives to leave back the individual to it.” (Ibid.)
That’s how philosophy is uplifted to the Ineffable drawing of that Nature which “always wears the colors of the spirit.” That’s the central role which Nature comes to assume in Emerson. But let’s see what this word exactly means for him:

Philosophically considered, the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul. Strictly speaking, therefore, all that is separate from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, NATURE. [Ibid.]

In other words the Emersonian idea of Nature is very wide! But Nature is “only” the symbol of the Spirit.

“From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all.” [The Over-soul]

It is the other side of “self-reliance,” without which it would assume some Nietzschean nuance. When Emerson weighs anchor and lets himself be carried by the winds that blow “from within,” namely from his own soul, he realizes that words are utterly inadequate. And how could it be otherwise?

Within man is the soul of the whole. […] By yielding to the spirit of prophecy which is innate in every man, we can know what it saith. [Ibid.]

The soul of the whole speaks, lives, breathes in every man. All virtuous actions, all heroic and merciful acts, every wisdom and nobility tribute a spontaneous worship and naturally submit to it. Every act, thought, speech that the individual ascribes to himself, finding in himself his own ubi consistam, is blind and fragile. That’s where is the seed of every moral and spiritual decline.

I dare not speak for it. My words do not carry its august sense; they fall short and cold. [...] Yet I desire, even by profane words, if I may not use sacred, to indicate the heaven of this deity, and to report what hints I have collected of the transcendent simplicity and energy of the Highest Law. [Ibid.]

This wise “simplicity” speaks to the simples, and every clue is meaningful. Though too subtle, indefinable, immeasurable, this pure nature “pervades and contains us” , it constitutes the whole. And its reflection on Nature can annihilate in one moment the fatal effects of an overwhelming influence of the senses, which is evident in most human beings, as long as we don’t “interfere with our thought” and we “act entirely.” Emerson calls that “Revelation.”

We distinguish the announcements of the soul, its manifestations of its own nature, by the term Revelation. These are always attended by the emotion of the sublime. For this communication is an influx of the Divine mind into our mind. It is an ebb of the individual rivulet before the flowing surges of the sea of life. Every distinct apprehension of this central commandment agitates men with awe and delight. A thrill passes through all men at the reception of new truth, or at the performance of a great action, which comes out of the hearth of nature. In these communications, the power to see is not separated from the will to do, but the insight proceeds from obedience, and the obedience proceeds from a joyful perception. [Ibid.]

Like an explorer I had reached the heart of the “continent Emerson” and had found many riches on my way through it. But I had had to dump a lot of ballast.

The scenarios I had been gazing at, of a pure and wild beauty, would remind me of the ones I had seen in a great country I had been traveling all over, some years before—the United States of America.

Really it doesn’t take long to realize that the boundless American nature, with its astonishing variety, is always recalled in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s lectures, and that’s one of the most important keys to an understanding of his thought.

Therefore, in a sense, I may say that my discovering Emerson was a further exploration of that magnificent country. Yet, apart from the nature, Emerson and America reflect each other in regard to attitudes of mind and views of life, and perhaps he is as “American” as America is “Emersonian.” As Josiah Royce noted, “Emerson would feel and speak as an American,” and that is why, with The American Scholar (1837), according to the famous judgment of Oliver Wendell Holmes, he wrote “the American Intellectual Declaration of Independence.” In other words, America made Emerson as well as Emerson made America.

Emerson ended up having a major influence on the American political culture. This in spite of the fact that relatively few of his essays, speeches and lectures—nor even the most important—are expressly concerned with that matter. How come? The point is that Transcendentalism in itself showed a “practical” character, the central point of which was that a man, if renewed in soul, would be able to change, in the truest sense of the term, the world. Meanwhile Emerson had resolutely moved the traditional borders of philosophy, he namely had “evaded” the inclination to center on epistemology. There follows an idea of philosophy as a form of criticism of culture, centered on Emerson’s idea of America—”America,” he said, “is the idea of Emancipation.”  Which doesn’t prevent him from seeing the ills of his country. He wrote in his Journal:

American idea, Emancipation, appears in our freedom of intellection, in our reforms, & in our bad politics; has, of course, its sinister side, which is most felt by the drilled & scholastic. But, if followed, leads to heavenly places. 

This is the “political Emerson”, a censor of concrete America of his days in the name of an ideal America he would propose to his fellow countrymen with his volcanic power, emotional depth and searing intellectual intensity—”We live in Lilliput,” he complains—, between an indignant protest and the blazing faith in one democracy to come, founded on the soul, and not on constitutions, governments and banks—nothing but idols.

In dealing with the State, we ought to remember that its institutions are not aboriginal, though they existed before we were born: that they are not superior to the citizen: that every one of them was once the act of a single man: every law and usage was a man’s expedient to meet a particular case: that they all are imitable, all alterable; we may make as good; we may make better. 

“Governments,” he writes, “have their origin in the moral identity of men” (Politics). What is most important, for Emerson, is that no state, institution and economic system can assume the right to constitute a higher principle than the Individual. He is on the same wavelength as his friends Henry David Thoreau and Thomas Carlyle by dissociating from both the alienation of the individual under the conditions of modern production and the way many contemporary Americans were, “with their vast material interest, materialized intellect, & low morals,” he writes in his Journal in 1851. As a result, one can, must, distrust state and government.

Hence, the less government we have the better, - the fewer laws, and the less confided power. The antidote to this abuse of formal government, is, the influence of private character, the growth of the Individual; the appearance of the principal to supersede the proxy; the appearance of the wise man, of whom the existing government is, it must be owned, but a shabby imitation. That which all things tend to educe, which freedom, cultivation, intercourse, revolutions, go to form and deliver, is character; that is the end of nature, to reach unto this coronation of her king. To educate the wise man, the State exists; and which the appearance of the wise man, the State expires. The appearance of character makes the State unnecessary. The wise man is the State. [Politics] 

Is this utopia? It may be so, at least as long as we declare even the idea of emancipation, in the most comprehensive sense of the word, to be utopistic. Certainly Emerson shows a way, an attitude of mind. Nevertheless, this apotheosis of individualism pragmatically suggests to him anything but extremist behaviors. He gets angry with bankers and politicians, but by advancing solid arguments. Yet in 1835 he writes in his Journal:

Let Christianity speak ever for the poor & the low. Though the voice of society should demand a defence of slavery from all its organs that service can never be expected from me. My opinion is of no worth, but I have not a syllable of all the language I have learned, to utter for the planter. If by opposing slavery I go to undermine institutions I confess I do not wish to live in a nation where slavery exists...  

In 1844 he delivers a fiery, emotional speech calling for the abolition of slavery, and in 1851 he flings himself at the Fugitive Slave Law by delivering the former of two addresses on this subject (he makes the latter in 1854). “If our resistance to this law is not right—he says—there is no right.” And he writes in his Journal: “This filthy enactment was made in the nineteenth century, by people who could read and write. I will not obey it by God.”

As a political thinker, Emerson revealed itself to be equal to my most optimistic expectations. As from the pages of his works his political views were taking shape, my belief that I had met a unique thinker was growing up. The political thinker was actually worthy of the Man of God, the Poet, the Enchanter. Above all it was amazing to see the symbiosis of two faiths almost always antithetical—that in the aristocracy of the spirit, and that in the liberté-egalité-fraternité principles.

It was a glorious, bright Spring Equinox when I started writing this little essay. A few days later, when I set about lying down the final considerations, spring would go on handing out its gifts.  It had just stopped raining and the sun peeped out from behind the clouds. Of them some were white, some other gray or golden, and all were continuously changing their appearance and quarreling over the sky with the wide blue spaces.

Like those clouds, the aspects of Emerson’s thought which I put forward in these pages and the autobiographical flashes I placed here and there—blue as the sky which Emerson has shown me and that I have found out I had always had inside—were quickly flowing through my mind.

To whom are these pages dedicated? In the days of my “discovery” I had noted down, looking at the sea from the rocks - “To those who devote the worst to the Best.” At that time, too, the sun had been peeping out from behind the clouds. It was raining even while the sun was shining. I had been left perfectly alone, people had all run away—they will never know what they missed, what a baptism they deserted, in that afternoon golden light which made those rocks similar to the Rock on which the Paradise rises!

Later on, at the end of the summer, when I had completed my planned readings, I was fully aware of the work lying ahead of me—now you, too, know what it was.

October 16, 2012

Montaigne: A 16th Century Blogger

Michel de Montaigne's library-tower

Someone says the best way to read Montaigne is by sitting under a tree along a small river, as the ancients used to do. Someone else says the only one place in which you can read Montaigne is a library, if possible one of those large 16th or 17th century libraries which adorn abbeys and aristocratic palaces throughout Europe. I personally tend to agree with the second opinion—well, lack of anything better, I think my own small library must be enough… But why in a library? Basically, for two reason.

A portrait of Michel  de Montaigne
(Painting by Thomas de Leu)
The first is that in 1571 Montaigne, at age 38, retired to the library tower on his estate in the Périgord, and that’s where he wrote his Essays. He had about a thousand books, which was a lot at the time for a private library. Inscribed on the walls and beams of his tower room were 57 maxims in Latin and Greek taken from his books. Here are some examples: “O wretched minds of men! O blind hearts! in what darkness of life and in how great dangers is passed this term of life whatever its duration” (Lucretius), “I do not understand” (Sextus Empiricus), “God permits no one but Himself to magnify Himself” (Herodotus ), “Not knowing anything is the sweetest life” (Sophocles), “I shelter where the storm drives me” (Horace), “No one has ever known the truth and no one will know it” (Xenophanes), “What man will account himself great/Whom a chance occasion destroys utterly?” (Euripides), “If any man thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (Letter of Paul to the Galatians, 6), “All things are too difficult for man to understand them” (Ecclesiastes, 1).

The second is that, as it is easily understandable, Montaigne was a man of books, and, above all, that his Essays are “a textile of texts, a book made of books,” to put it the way Umberto Eco did (describing his own book) in his Postscript to The Name of the Rose.

Even to those who don’t know much about Montaigne, the above mentioned inscriptions may say a lot about the man in the tower. Now let’s try to look into this subject a bit more thoroughly, but let me say it first: Montaigne is one of my all-time intellectual heroes. Friedrich Nietzsche said of him, “That such a man wrote has truly augmented the joy of living on this earth.” I fully agree with him. And yet I think that what better reflects my long-lasting relationship with him is what another of Montaigne’s ardent admirers, Ralph Waldo Emerson, said of him:

A single odd volume of Cotton’s translation of the Essays remained to me from my father’s library, when a boy. It lay long neglected, until, after many years, when I was newly escaped from college, I read the book, and procured the remaining volumes. I remember the delight and wonder in which I lived with it. It seemed to me as if I had myself written the book, in some former life, so sincerely it spoke to my thought and experience. [From "Montaigne; or The Skeptic," in Representative Men.]

That’s exactly what happened to me, except the way I came into possession of the Essays—I bought the two volumes of them at 50% off when I was twenty something in a bookstore in Rome, which is also where, more or less in the same period, I happened to find Emerson’s Representative Men, another source of inspiration throughout my entire life, along with the other books by the same author. That is why when I happen to pass by that place I cannot help but feel the deepest gratitude (and a bit of nostalgia).

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was a skeptic, but of a very different sort from the one we are familiar with. In fact, he was not the kind of skeptic who basically believes in nothing, who refuses to take anything on faith, who takes issue with organized religion, and things like these. Yes, he was a man who doubted almost everything, but at the same time he was a good Catholic, one who believed all that the church taught and prescribed without reservation. Strange enough, isn’t it? But, strange as it might seem, that’s perhaps what I like most about him. And yes, I know the saying is, “If ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ were candy and nuts, we’d all have a merry Christmas,” but—luckily or unfortunately, depending on the point of view—if we reason philosophically (broadly speaking), we cannot do without them. Shakespeare, who was perhaps Montaigne’s most famous reader and admirer—John Florio’s translation of the Essais became available to him in English in 1603—, knew that very well. At any rate, according to many scholars—but you don’t need to be a genius to come to the same conclusion—, Montaigne’s influence is clearly evident in Hamlet and King Lear, and this both with regard to the language and to the skepticism that characterizes both plays. To say nothing about the whole monologue of The Tempest, which seems cribbed from Florio’s translation of the Essais, as Sarah Bakewell pointed out in her How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty-One Answers.

Yet, as I said before, Montaigne’s skepticism is different from any kind of skepticism we are accustomed to. Take the following passage from the “Apology for Raimond Sebond” (Book the Second, Chapter XII):

It were to do wrong to the divine goodness, did not the universe consent to our belief. The heavens, the earth, the elements, our bodies and our souls,—all things concur to this; we have but to find out the way to use them; they instruct us, if we are capable of instruction. For this world is a sacred temple, into which man is introduced, there to contemplate statues, not the works of a mortal hand, but such as the divine purpose has made the objects of sense; the sun, the stars, the water, and the earth, to represent those that are intelligible to us. "The invisible things of God," says St. Paul, "appear by the creation of the world, his eternal wisdom and divinity being considered by his works."

Quite an interesting statement for a skeptic, isn’t it? And how about the following one?

Our outward and inward structure is full of imperfection; but there is nothing useless in nature, not even inutility itself; nothing has insinuated itself into this universe that has not therein some fit and proper place. [Book the Third, Chapter I]

This, of course, also echoes the great Renaissance philosophical architectures, according to which the universe is a vast and wonderful chain of relationships, from the stars to plants, to rocks, and to men. But this is no surprise, because Montaigne is, in a sense, the epitome of a Renaissance man, along with Marsilio Ficino and Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, while in another sense, because of his skepticism, he takes a step beyond—otherwise why the 19th century American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson would have been such an admirer of him?

Yet, apart from his sui generis skepticism, what also amazes me about Montaigne is the way he writes about himself. Here is what he says about his being a writer:

I am not at all ambitious that any one should love and esteem me more dead than living. The humour of Tiberius is ridiculous, but yet common, who was more solicitous to extend his renown to posterity than to render himself acceptable to men of his own time. If I were one of those to whom the world could owe commendation, I would give out of it one-half to have the other in hand; let their praises come quick and crowding about me, more thick than long, more full than durable; and let them cease, in God's name, with my own knowledge of them, and when the sweet sound can no longer pierce my ears. It were an idle humour to essay, now that I am about to forsake the commerce of men, to offer myself to them by a new recommendation. I make no account of the goods I could not employ in the service of my life. Such as I am, I will be elsewhere than in paper: my art and industry have been ever directed to render myself good for something; my studies, to teach me to do, and not to write. I have made it my whole business to frame my life: this has been my trade and my work; I am less a writer of books than anything else. [Book the Second, Chapter XXXVIII, “To Madame De Duras”]

But perhaps the greatest secret of his success—and the main reason why this 16th century writer is still alive and well—is that, as William Hazlitt put it, “In taking up his pen, he did not set up for a philosopher, wit, orator, or moralist, but he became all these by merely daring to tell us whatever passed through his mind.” In his Essays, says Sarah Bakewell,

[H]e wrote as if he were chatting to his readers: just two friends, whiling away an afternoon in conversation. Montaigne raised questions rather than giving answers. He wrote about whatever caught his eye: war, psychology, animals, sex, magic, diplomacy, vanity, glory, violence, hermaphroditism, self-doubt. Most of all, he wrote about himself and was amazed at the variety he found within. “I cannot keep my subject still,” he said. “It goes along befuddled and staggering, with a natural drunkenness.” His writing followed the same wayward path.

In other words, we may well say that he was a blogger before blogs existed, a 16th century blogger! Perhaps even more enlightening in this regard is the following passage from Book the First, Chapter L:

The judgment is an utensil proper for all subjects, and will have an oar in everything: which is the reason, that in these Essays I take hold of all occasions where, though it happen to be a subject I do not very well understand, I try, however, sounding it at a distance, and finding it too deep for my stature, I keep me on the shore; and this knowledge that a man can proceed no further, is one effect of its virtue, yes, one of those of which it is most proud. One while in an idle and frivolous subject, I try to find out matter whereof to compose a body, and then to prop and support it; another while, I employ it in a noble subject, one that has been tossed and tumbled by a thousand hands, wherein a man can scarce possibly introduce anything of his own, the way being so beaten on every side that he must of necessity walk in the steps of another: in such a case, 'tis the work of the judgment to take the way that seems best, and of a thousand paths, to determine that this or that is the best. I leave the choice of my arguments to fortune, and take that she first presents to me; they are all alike to me, I never design to go through any of them; for I never see all of anything: neither do they who so largely promise to show it others. Of a hundred members and faces that everything has, I take one, one while to look it over only, another while to ripple up the skin, and sometimes to pinch it to the bones: I give a stab, not so wide but as deep as I can, and am for the most part tempted to take it in hand by some new light I discover in it. Did I know myself less, I might perhaps venture to handle something or other to the bottom, and to be deceived in my own inability; but sprinkling here one word and there another, patterns cut from several pieces and scattered without design and without engaging myself too far, I am not responsible for them, or obliged to keep close to my subject, without varying at my own liberty and pleasure, and giving up myself to doubt and uncertainty, and to my own governing method, ignorance.

Let us be inspired by Montaigne, and continue to further the good work which he began!

October 7, 2012

431st Anniversary of the Battle of Lepanto, Oct. 7, 1571

The Battle of Lepanto, H. Letter, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich/London.

On October 7 the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, but the feast has its origin in an event, the battle of Lepanto, that took place on Oct. 7, 1571, when a fleet of the Holy League, a coalition of southern European Catholic maritime states, decisively defeated the main fleet of the Ottoman Empire on the northern edge of the Gulf of Corinth, off western Greece.

According to some historical accounts, such as those recorded in the Vatican Archives, on Oct. 7, 1571 Pope Pius V entered the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore to pray the Rosary and ask Our Lady to intercede for a Catholic victory. Later on that day, the Pope was granted a miraculous vision of the Holy League’s stunning victory. He is said to have suddenly interrupted his business with some Cardinals, and looking up, cried out, “A truce to business! Our great task at present is to thank God for the victory which He has just given the Catholic army.”

As military historian John F. Guilmartin, Jr. put it, “Turkish victory at Lepanto would have been a catastrophe of the first magnitude for Christendom and Europe would have followed a historical trajectory strikingly different from that which obtained.”

A few details about the event (from Wikipedia):

The members of the Holy League were the Republic of Venice, the Papacy, the Republic of Genoa, the Duchy of Savoy, the Knights Hospitaller, the Spanish Empire (including Kingdom of Naples, Kingdom of Sicily and Kingdom of Sardinia) and others. Its fleet consisted of 206 galleys and 6 galleasses (large new galleys, invented by the Venetians, which carried substantial artillery) and was commanded by John of Austria, the illegitimate son of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
Vessels had been contributed by the various Christian states: 109 galleys and 6 galleasses from the Republic of Venice, 32 galleys from the Kingdom of Naples, 10 galleys fromSpain, 7 galleys each from the Kingdom of Sicily and the Pope, 5 galleys from the Republic of Genoa, 3 galleys of the Order of Saint Stephen from the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, 3 galleys each from the Duchy of Savoy and the Knights of Malta, and some privately owned galleys.

October 5, 2012

Truth Will Out

Photo courtesy The New York Post - EPA
There is a saying in Italian which literally translated means “lies have short legs” (so they don’t go very far), and which roughly corresponds to “Truth will out” in English. This seems to particularly apply to what happened Wednesday night at the first presidential debate.

John Podhoretz in the New York Post:

Mitt Romney’s spectacular debate performance Wednesday night was the result of a parlor trick only Republicans get to play — the same parlor trick Ronald Reagan used in 1980 to deliver the crushing debate blow to President Jimmy Carter.

After months and months of media portrayals painting him as a vicious plutocrat who tortured his own dog, cut a gay kid’s hair in 1965 and made a steelworker’s wife die of cancer, Romney stood before tens of millions of Americans and . . . wasn’t a monster.

Simple as that.

Reagan did the trick in 1980 with a shake of the head and a “there you go again.” Romney did it Wednesday by spending 90 minutes forthrightly asserting his policies would help Americans, especially middle-class Americans, while the policies of his rival had hurt them and would continue to hurt them.

Great piece. Read it in full here.

September 23, 2012

There Is a Harmony in Autumn...

...[T]here is a harmony

In autumn, and a lustre in its sky,

Which through the summer is not heard or seen,

As if it could not be, as if it had not been!

~ Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”

I have been very busy the past few weeks—and will be so in the days to come—so I haven’t been blogging much lately. Sorry about that, but believe me, I have a good reason… I’ll let you know more in due course. In the meantime enjoy the full text of the beautiful poem from which the above quote was taken. Happy Autumnal Equinox!

September 13, 2012

Why the Obama Administration is Wrong About the Embassy Attacks

(Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

A few simple, but very appropriate, remarks by Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School:

The White House and diplomats may wish to believe a distasteful, provocative, and inflammatory film motivated the violence in both Egypt and Libya. It is comforting for politicians and officials to ascribe the root cause of Islamist terrorism to grievance because if grievance motivates terror, then resolving the grievance could provide the solution.

Islamist terrorism, however, has far less to do with material grievance than ideology. [...]

Read the rest, it’s worth it.

September 3, 2012

If Only They Could Have Imagined

A new knighthood has appeared in the land of the Incarnation, a knighthood that fights a double battle against adversaries of flesh and blood and also against the spirit of evil. This new knighthood is worthy of all the praise given to men of God. The knight who protects his soul with the armor of faith, as he covers his body with a coat of mail, is truly without fear and above reproach. Doubly armed he fears neither men nor demons.

~ St. Bernard of Clairvaux, De Laude Novae Militiae

Seal of the Templars
Image from the Wikimedia Commons
The first master of the Order of the Knights Templar, Hugh of Payens, came from Jerusalem to France to obtain the approval of the new order, and with this objective he went to his friend, the future St. Bernard, then the abbot of Clairvaux, the most influential person in Christendom. And he fulfilled his purpose very well, in fact, in response to repeated requests from his friend—“Three times, if I do not mistake, have you beseeched me, my beloved Hugh, to write for you and your companions in arms a sermon that would raise your spirits” (quoted in Americo Castro’s The Spaniards: An Introduction to Their History)—Bernard wrote the document De Laude Novae Militiae (In Praise of the New Knighthood). And as a result the rule of the new order was approved by the Council of Troyes in 1128.

Of course neither Hugh of Payens nor the abbot Bernard of Clairvaux would have ever imagined that one day, some two centuries later, King Philip the Fair—grandson of St. Louis of France—had engineered the election of the pope and the relocation of the papal court to Avignon, with what this would mean for the Knights Templar... What a wonderful story, that of the Knights of the Temple, but what a sad end!

Oh, I almost forgot, if you want to learn more about the whole thing, then read this article by Christopher Check in Catholic Answers Magazine: “The Sad History of the Knights Templar.”

August 27, 2012

The Metric of Freedom

As my readers know, I’m not very good at economics, but I definitely want to keep up-to-date on this matter. And that’s why—after asking one of my favorite economics gurus for advice—I’m currently reading the following very special books (which I highly recommend to anyone interested in that kind of reading).

  • The Clash of Economic Ideas: The Great Policy Debates and Experiments of the Last Hundred Years, by Lawrence H. White, Professor at George Mason University.

An easy to read and understand guide to key macroeconomic issues during the 20th century, and a comprehensive account of the clash over the role of government in the economy. In other words, as the book description reads, it covers disputes over the free market, socialism, fascism, the Great Depression, the New Deal, war, nationalization, central planning, economic growth, money and finance, inflation, regulation, free trade, government spending, budget deficits, and public debt.

The basic thesis of the book is that the clash of economic ideas of the last hundred years can be epitomized by the intellectual struggle between John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich von Hayek. Of course, according to Lawrence H. White, who is a leading contemporary proponent of the Austrian school, the former was wrong, the latter was right… And I cannot but agree with the author.

  • The Economics of Freedom: Theory, Measurement, and Policy Implications, by Sebastiano Bavetta and Pietro Navarra (the former is professor of Economics at the University of Palermo, Italy, the latter is professor of Public Sector Economics at the University of Messina, Italy; they both are visiting professors at the University of Pennsylvania, USA, and research associates at the London School of Economics).

This is a really interesting survey of the philosophical literature on liberty, combining philosophical analysis, economic theory, and empirical research. As far as I can understand, at the core of the book are three themes: the value of choice, the measurement of freedom (the authors develop an original measure of freedom called “Autonomy Freedom,” consistent with J. S. Mill’s view of autonomy), and the effects that the alternative measures of freedom have on the functioning of the economy and the working of political systems. By the way, according to my economics guru the new metric of freedom proposed by the authors is exactly what the Italian center-right lacks (to say nothing about the center-left and left).

By means of an interdisciplinary approach and a sophisticated econometric methodology, as the book description says, the authors take an explicit stand in defense of freedom and set the basis for a liberalism based upon people’s actions and institutions. Well, what to say? I think Bavetta and Navarra have contributed a good deal to our understanding of the nature and value of freedom. Because freedom is not just a concept, but instead should be our daily experience, and there is no freedom without the sense of individual—and the restriction of that which would hinder it.

August 13, 2012

Torcello: The True Pearl of the Lagoon

Torcello (Venice), Santa Maria Assunta Cathedral

You don’t need to be a globe-trotter, or at least a passionate lover of Venice and its surrounding lagoon islands, to know or have heard about Torcello. You just need to have read Ernest Hemingway’s Across the River and Through the Trees, which he wrote during his stay there—at the famous Locanda Cipriani, which after that became a literary legend along with the island of Torcello itself, to which the great American writer devoted whole pages of his novel. Yet, if you want to learn more about the true pearl of the lagoon you need a more in-depth description…, so hence the post below, a guest post from Silvia, a 25-year-old young woman from the Venice area. She is graduated in Conservation of Cultural Assets and has a great passion for her field. I welcome her aboard and wish her all the best for the future. Have a good read! (Rob)

Torcello: Discovering the Fascinating Past of the Cradle of Venice
by Silvia Bressani

Located in the northern section of the Venice lagoon, the island of Torcello is an oasis of peace and tranquility where one can spend a day dedicated to art, mystery and nature, away from the crowds of tourists who descend on Venice every day.

This mystical and highly spiritual place is alluring and mysterious, imbued with breathtaking views surrounded by lush vegetation and permeated by an atmosphere laden with history, art and ancient traditions. Nowadays it is almost completely abandoned, yet Torcello still proudly displays the signs of its glorious and doomed history: after being a reference point for the entire Venice lagoon it unwittingly became the victim of Venice’s expansion.

The origins of the island were, for a long time, subject to speculation and only in recent times it has been possible to date the first settlements back to Roman times. The numerous archaeological excavations have in fact unearthed a Roman settlement, in which remains of fishermen shacks have been found next to some suburban mansions for the noblemen on the mainland.

Between the 5th and 6th century A.D. Torcello became one of the main destinations for the inhabitants of Altino, a flourishing diocese on the mainland abandoned following the Longboard invasions, who transferred numerous spiritual items and treasures to Altino, amongst them the remains of the first bishop in AltinoSt Eliodoro.

According to tradition, the name Torcello derives from of one of the ancient dwellings of Altino, probably a gate or a guard tower, which was used by the inhabitants of the unlucky city to remember their homeland.

A famous inscriptionhoused inside the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta—can also be dated to this period. It contains a reference to the naming of the Torcello Cathedral in the 7th century, and is therefore testimony of the inclusion of Torcello under the influence of the Byzantine empire.

Thanks to the development of metallurgical, hand-crating and commercial activities, the island and some neighboring settlements became in a short time the main centre of the Venice lagoon. The period of highest splendor occurred between the 10th and 11th century, both from an economic and artistic point of view, with the construction of the bell tower and the rebuilding of the cathedral with the architectural structure which can still be admired.

From the 15th century, a serious of concomitant factors started to unsettle the thriving life in Torcellothese being the first signs of an unstoppable decline. In a few decades diseases and expanding swamps, combined with a rising sense of apathy towards the maintenance of the city - due to the allure of Venice that was seen as the futureturned Torcello into an inhospitable and insalubrious place. A slow and excruciating decadence ensued in Torcello, increasingly affected by flooding and houses being demolished to provide stones for the construction of Venice.

Nowadays Torcello still enshrines traces of its epic past, thanks to a few monuments that have stood through the centuries and are now the main destinations of visitors: the Devil’s Bridge, the Attila’s Throne, the Santa Fosca Church, the bell tower, the Civic Museum of Torcello and the ancient Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta.

Dating from the 12the century, the Devils’ Bridge is one of the few remaining Venetian bridges retaining the original feature of not being equipped with parapets. The origin of the bridge’s name is still unknown, perhaps deriving from a local family or born out of ancient legends.

The so-called Attila’s throne, possibly the seat of magistrates of justice or the bishop, is located in the square surrounded by the most important buildings of the island: the church of Santa Fosca, rebuilt in the 12th century to house the remains of the martyrs Fosca and Maura; the high bell tower, dating from the 11th century; the Civic Museum of Torcello, housed in the rooms of the Council and the Archives, with a vast collection on the history of the island, the lagoon and the origins of Venice itself; and finally the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta.

Built following the orders from the Ravenna Exarch after the transferal of the episcopal seat from Altino to Torcelloand rebuilt in the 11th century to the present day appearancethe Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta is a place of profound spirituality and a building with deep artistic and religious significance which houses one of the most important mosaics in Northern Italy.

A significant example of Venetian and Byzantine style, with a a basilica plan divided into three naves, the cathedral is a true art masterpiece and contains splendid marble columns topped by beautifully decorated capitals, intricate floor drawings with multi-coloured segments, architectural decorations and sacred ornaments. The most suggestive elements of the cathedral are represented by the extraordinary mosaic with a gold backdrop in the main apse, depicting the Virgin Mary with child and the Last Judgement mosaic entirely covering the counter façade.

To visit this extraordinary cathedral and truly understand its fascinating atmosphere balanced between art and faith, Veneto Inside offers a tour of the Torcello Basilica and its secret itineraries which includes a visit to two areas only recently opened to the public: the crypt and sacristy. Inside the crypt it is possible to admire the ancient brickwork of the mediaeval basilica, whilst the sacristy enshrines several stone elements dating back to the 9th century and a mysterious roman sarcophagus, which is believed to have housed the body of Mark the Evangelist before the famous Venice Cathedraldedicated to his namewas completed.

August 12, 2012

The Secret Book of Dante

Ok, I have not posted anything for quite some time, but I have been reading and reading and reading—then again, isn’t summer the best time for reading? My latest read was a novel written by Francesco Fioretti: Il libro segreto di Dante (“The Secret Book of Dante”). Unfortunately it’s not translated in English yet, but there’s already a Spanish translation, just in case you’d be interested. The basic hypothesis of the book is that Dante didn’t die of malaria—as it has been known for centuries—but that he was killed by people who didn’t want him to publish the last parts of the Comedy. There is also a coded message, left by Dante himself in his cantos, about one of the biggest mysteries ever: the Ark of the Covenant… And, of course, besides greedy Florentine bankers, there are Templar Knights, church conspiracies, treacheries, and treasons. Not a masterpiece, but an intriguing and erudite read.

July 25, 2012

Road Journal: Budapest

Yes, Budapest—the “Pearl of the Danube,” as it has been called due to its geographical location along “the Beautiful Blue Danube”—didn’t fall short of our expectations. It is really a wonderful city. And yet, in my own view, what’s perhaps most amazing about this rather cosmopolitan city is that… people seem to take their time in doing everything. Something I had forgotten since the times when I was a child—another Europe and, above all, another Italy. In other words, in Budapest one must not be in a hurry, and there must not be any sense of urgency or rush. A remnant of the old communist way of life? Well, maybe. In any case that’s also why this is a fascinating city.

Here are two more pictures: