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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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