Friday, January 04, 2019

BOOK: Giannozzo Manetti, "A Translator's Defense"

Giannozzo Manetti: A Translator's Defense. Edited by Myron McShane. Translation by Mark Young. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 71. Harvard University Press, 2016. 9780674088658. xxxviii + 306 pp.

Manetti was a humanist from the first half of the 16th century; I've had a book by him in the I Tatti Renaissance Library before, Biographical Writings from 2003; but that was one of the early volumes that I had read before I started this blog. After I catch up with the current volumes, I might go back and re-read those old ones and write posts about them; but that's not a promise :) Anyway, I remembered almost nothing about Manetti from back then, so it was quite new to me when I read in the present volume that he was a keen biblical translator and one of the relatively few Renaissance humanists to learn Hebrew. His efforts to make a new translation of the Psalms led to some controversy as some people were wondering why a new translation was necessary since the old 4th-century one by St. Jerome was so well established (e.g. Leonardo Bruni advised against learning Hebrew at all; p. ix).

Frankly, the fact that there could be any controversy about a new biblical translation surprised me, since nowadays we are used to e.g. there being dozens of translations of the whole Bible into English. And as we'll see from Manetti's book, there was no shortage of different translations even in ancient times. Manetti wrote the present work, A Translator's Defense, as a kind of response to his detractors. However, many parts of this book felt to be very tangential to this purpose, although they were relatively interesting.

He starts with a longish introduction where he points out that many famous ancient authors had their fervent critics as well, so the fact that people criticize him is no big deal and no sign that he's done anything wrong (1.4–17). Then he spends Book I mostly talking about the authors of the various books of the Old Testament — prophets, king Solomon, etc. Manetti is chiefly interested in the Psalms, which were attributed to king David (1.43), though some of them seem to have been by other authors (1.51). He mentions two ancient translations of the Psalms into Greek, the Septuagint from about 340 BC (1.57) and an earlier one about which not much seems to be known (1.54–6).

Book II talks about the Septuagint, which I had heard of before but never really took the trouble to read up on what exactly it is. There turns out to be a delightful story behind it, which Manetti recounts in this book. Ptolemy Philadelphus, one of the early Greek rulers of Egypt, was a keen supporter of the great library of Alexandria and tried to stock it with not only Greek works but also translations of important foreign ones. At his invitation, seventy-two Jewish elders spent some time in Alexandria to translate the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek. For those who like an extra dose of religion in this story, there's an amusing twist: the translators worked independently, but at the end, when they started comparing their translations so they could discuss any discrepancies and come up with a compromise, they found that all their translations were exactly the same, a clear proof that the whole thing was divinely inspired (this was by no means universally believed, however; 2.26–27, 48). So in the eyes of some people, the Septuagint (even though it differed in a number of details from the Hebrew original) had a status more or less as if it was in itself a divinely-sanctioned work (an updated version of the original, as it were) rather than a mere translation (2.11–12, 39, 41–2), and some people seem to have thought there was no point in translating the Old Testament from the Hebrew after that. Nevertheless several more translations emerged from the 2nd to the 4th century AD (2.54–5), and it was the discrepancies between them that inspired Jerome to make a new translation (into Latin) of his own (2.56, 63–4).

A lot of these bible translation efforts, both Jerome's and Manetti's, seem to have been inspired by the rivalries between Jews and Christians. The former, who of course kept using the Hebrew text, would claim that the Greek and Latin translations used by the Christians were faulty, which encouraged some efforts to produce more accurate translations (2.57, 76). Manetti also argues that the Jewish critics aren't really in a good position to be making these complaints because most of them don't have a good enough knowledge of Greek and Latin (2.67–71).

As for the Psalms, Jerome apparently translated them from the Greek (the Septuagint version) first, but then, due to complaints about the inaccuracy of the latter, he made another translation, this time directly from Hebrew (2.79–80). Manetti then spends the entirety of books 3 and 4 going carefully through the whole Psalter and listing all the differences between the two versions. For someone with a suitably nerdy obsession with this particular topic (as Manetti himself probably had), this would probably be extremely interesting, but I was utterly bored reading these two books, and I couldn't help wondering how it really advances the cause of “a translator's defense”, if that's what Manetti's work is supposed to be about. Fine, so you demonstrated that there are two slightly different translations of the Psalms; and you are proposing to make another one, so there will then be three slightly different translations [obligatory xkcd link]. So what? You can't really be trying to suggest that your translation will settle these differences for good?

Book 5 gets a little more interesting again. First there's a little detour because Manetti's patron, king Alfonso of Naples, to whom the book is dedicated, had an injury when hunting, and Manetti urges him to be more careful so that his people won't be deprived of such a fine ruler (5.1–18). In the rest of the book, Manetti offers some remarks on how to translate. Some of these ideas struck me as rather obvious, but perhaps they weren't considered so obvious in Manetti's time; e.g. that you should have a good knowledge of the language you're translating from (5.23) and even more so of the one you're translating into (5.27). The translator should have “subtle and finely attuned ears” (5.29) so he can preserve the style, elegance, subtlety etc. of the original. Another blindingly obvious thing: you should not translate word-for-word, because the result will be nonsense (5.34–5). Thus you should translate by sense, but there's still the question of how closely you should stick to the original. Manetti suggests that staying quite close to the sense of the original is important when translating theology or philosophy (because the sense of the text is of critical importance there), but that the translator should act a little more freely when translating poetry, history or oratory, because in those genres the style is also important even if you have to take some liberties with the sense (5.45–6, 76–7). This strikes me as eminently reasonable and is probably still how these things are done today.

One of Manetti's ideas struck me as odd, however: for him, a “correct translation” is only possible between the “four most distinguished languages — Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin” (5.21), as the other (vernacular) languages aren't sophisticated enough (“a correct conversion seems to require and demand a certain elevation of the diction of that language into which it is done”, 5.22).

He has some interesting remarks about the symbols invented in ancient times to mark the discrepancies between several versions of a text (5.67–8): asterisks * were used to mark additions, and obeli ÷ to mark deletions.

All in all, this book was something of a mixed bag. The overview of the ancient translations of the bible in book 2 was interesting, as were Manetti's remarks on the different approaches to translation in book 5 (even though I wouldn't call any of these remarks to be exactly ground-breaking insights). I was less keen on the overview of biblical authors in book 1; and as for books 3 and 4, those will appeal to very few people indeed. I wonder how effective this book was as a response to Manetti's critics. Were those who disliked his plan of making a new translation of the Psalms into Latin any less critical of it after having read his defense? Frankly, I doubt it. Nevertheless, at least I've read something on a new subject that we haven't seen in the ITRL before.

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Sunday, December 30, 2018

BOOK: Aldus Manutius, "The Greek Classics"

Aldus Manutius: The Greek Classics. Edited and translated by N. G. Wilson. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 70. Harvard University Press, 2016. 9780674088672. xvii + 395 pp.

Aldus Manutius was a famous printer who was active in Venice in the late 15th and early 16th century. I probably first heard of him indirectly because a company named after him were the makers of one of the early desktop publishing programs, Aldus PageMaker. Anyway, the original Aldus published the first printed editions of numerous works of ancient Greek and Roman literature, as well as some contemporary works.

Many of these books included a short preface by Aldus himself, and the present volume includes about 50 of these prefaces from his editions of Greek authors. In 2017 they also published a similar volume containing his prefaces to books by Latin authors, and according to a note by Prof. Hankins (p. ix in the present volume), they are also planning a similar book with prefaces by Sweynheym and Pannartz, the German printers who had been the first to bring printing technology to Italy.

I found Aldus's prefaces to be more interesting than I had expected. For Aldus — like for many publishers, especially before that whole industry had been consolidated into a handful of gigantic faceless media conglomerates in the late 20th century — publishing was not just a business and a way to make money. He had had a humanist education and had worked as a tutor before going into the printing business (p. xiv), and throughout his prefaces you can see how keenly aware he was of the fact that he and his fellow humanists were involved in a grand effort to revive and restore the study of classical languages and literature. Aldus's publishing of Greek works, many of which had previously been extant in manuscript form only and had not been widely available, was an important part of that and he approached it with tremendous enthusiasm.

It was a huge project, and in his prefaces Aldus often comes across as an extraordinarily busy man who dedicates all his waking hours to furiously collecting, editing and printing yet more of his beloved classical authors (p. 215). He compares his labours to those of Hecules (p. 53) and Sisyphus (pp. 241, 257). He often emphasizes how he is doing this for the benefit of his readers, people who wish to learn the Greek language and then profit from the study of ancient Greek literature, philosophy, etc. (pp. 45, 47). As the translator's introduction points out (p. xiii), in Aldus's time there was still a great shortage of textbooks and the like from which one could learn Greek (which I guess is why the presence of native speakers of Greek who had fled from the collapsing Byzantine Empire gave such a boost to the study of Greek in Italy); several of his books were specifically meant to address that, and he often points out in his prefaces how this or that work would be useful to someone learning Greek, or how he included a Latin translation for the benefit of those whose Greek wasn't good enough yet (pp. 85, 87; sometimes the translation is by Aldus himself).

The fact that printing was making books widely available clearly meant a great deal to him, and occasionally he rants against “buriers of books” (bibliotaphs) who hoard manuscripts in their private libraries and don't let anyone else read them (p. 101: “I have no doubt that they will soon die of jealousy since everything worth reading will be published” :))). I completely sympathize with that, especially since nowadays the internet can be the next step in making books more easily accessible than ever before. I have had a keen interest in that ever since I got on the internet in the mid-90s. A lot has already been done in that direction, and a lot more could be done if it wasn't for those pesky copyright laws.

In a 1495 preface Aldus reports that the interest in Greek had recently grown so much that even many old men learn it, not just young ones (p. 13). Still, he says in 1497 that “Greek and Latin studies, though a little better off than for many years in the past, are still depressed” (p. 55).

He has some interesting remarks about the variety of ancient Greek dialects and the degree of freedom that this afforded to their poets, unlike e.g. in Latin (p. 31). It's tempting to think how much more variegated literature could be if everyone wrote in his own dialect (like the Greeks did before the Hellenistic period) instead of having just one standard form of each language as is usually the case nowadays.

To some extent his prefaces were of course meant as advertisements, and we should probably regard some of his enthusiastic claims as “sales patter typical of publishers” (translator's note 482, p. 360). But you cannot help admiring his honesty when he writes things like “I had hoped [. . .] to read in Philostratus' books [. . .] a great many important things worth knowing, but it really turned out quite otherwise. I cannot recall ever reading anything worse or less deserving attention; [. . .] it was tasteless and very stupid.” (P. 131.) Can you imagine a publisher putting *that* on their back cover nowadays? :)

Many of his prefaces are in the form of letters addressed to specific notable individuals, but as he himself says, they are really meant for the public at large (p. 205).

Occasionally his efforts to describe how busy he was end up being very funny: “take pity on your friend Aldus, since he often does not have time to eat or to relieve himself. Sometimes [. . .] it is not even possible to wipe our nose. What a hard profession it is!” (P. 215.)

Sometimes he gives useful advice to students, e.g. recommending them to copy some texts by hand in order to get used to the spelling and especially the accents of Greek (p. 221). The translator adds (p. 357, n. 428) a hilarious remark from a 19th-century book: “concerning that man who misplaces them [i.e. Greek accents], or, worse still, altogether omits them, damaging inferences will certainly be drawn, and in most instances with justice.” (You can see the original on; be sure to also look at the previous page for a fine rant about the Kids These Days™. :))

Aldus on his perfectionism: “I have never yet produced a book with which I felt satisfied. My love of literature is such that I want the books which I put into the hands of the educate to be very accurate and very beautiful.” (P. 241.)

As an appendix, the book includes a few letters from other people to Aldus. There's a letter from William Grocyn, an Englishman who had studied in Italy around 1490, with this delightful opinion about Aristotle and Plato: “the difference between these two greatest of philosophers is simply — forgive me, everyone — the difference between a polymath and a ‘polymyth’.” (P. 285.) From what I've seen of Plato and his enthusiasm for inventing wild tales and inserting them in his philosophical dialogues, the term “polymyth” strikes me as very appropriate.

Aldus established something he called the “New Academy”, and often refers to it in his prefaces as if the books were being issued by this academy. But from the statutes of the academy, included here on pp. 289–93, it seems to have been mostly a sort of social club for Aldus and his friends, who wanted to practice speaking Greek to each other. Anyone caught using another language was to pay a fine, and when enough funds had been accumulated they were to be used by Aldus to throw a party for the members. Sounds fun :) It reminded me a little of an anecdote in Tolstoy's War and Peace. When Russia was at war with Napoleon's France, a group of Russian aristocrats grew a bit embarrassed by the abundance of French in their everyday conversation, and agreed that anyone caught speaking French would pay a small sum of money as a contribution to the war effort. One of them, on being fined thusly, complained: “But how am I supposed to express that in Russian?” :))

Aldus's enthusiasm for Greek was so great that sometimes he even wrote his prefaces in it (though judging by the translator's notes, Aldus and many other renaissance humanists made a lot more errors in Greek than when writing Latin; n. 26 on p. 326). As an appendix there is also a 200-line poem (pp. 303–17) by Marcus Musurus, a Greek who had edited several volumes for Aldus, including Plato's works (pp. 243, 257; “an exceptionally gifted textual critic”, n. 516 on p. 362). This is probably the first book in the ITRL series where we have such extensive amounts of Greek. I was surprised to see how much leading they used for Greek in this volume; perhaps the idea is that it's useful because Greek has so many accent-marks, and yet people normally manage to print Greek just fine without such an excessive amount of leading. As a result this book fits much less text on a page when the text is Greek than when it is in Latin.

A notable innovation by Aldus was to print smaller, pocket-sized books (p. xv and n. 228 on p. 344) rather than just the bulky folios that probably predominated earlier. There's an interesting letter from Scipione Forteguerri, a member of Aldus's circle, praising one of these small books: “The charm of its contents wil not contribute as much as its handiness [. . .] lest readers should be distracted from the contents of the text by the weight of the volumes being handled.” (Pp. 297–9.)

There are some interesting remarks on Aldus's Greek typeface, which tried to imitate various abbreviations and ligatures that the scribes had used in their handwritten books to save time on frequently occurring suffixes and the like. The translator clearly dislikes this: “Aldus' influence was so great that these annoying and aesthetically unpleasing conventions remained in use until the nineteenth century” (p. 325, n. 11). But he admits that Aldus probably had good reasons to imitate handwritten books because some of his potential buyers were still distrustful of the printed book (p. xiv).

This was a very interesting book and I definitely look forward to reading the second volume of Aldus's prefaces, hopefully in the not too distant future.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2018

BOOK: Ugolino Verino, "Fiammetta. Paradise"

Ugolino Verino: Fiammetta. Paradise. Edited and translated by Allan M. Wilson. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 69. Harvard University Press, 2016. 9780674088627. xxiv + 471 pp.

Ugolino Verino was a 15th-century poet from Florence. He seems to have been something of a disciple of Cristoforo Landino, a volume of whose poems we've seen in the I Tatti Renaissance Library some years ago (see my post from back then). The present volume contains Verino's Fiammetta, a collection of lyrical poems in two books, and Paradise, which is a longer narrative poem. The translator's introduction mentions that he also wrote numerous other works, including an epic poem, the Carliad, about Charlemagne and his “exploits [. . .] in Italy and the Holy Land” (p. xviii). You can't help admiring the poet's boldness; the usual medieval legends mostly don't have Charlemagne travelling around at all, he remains in the background and all the action is done by his paladins, and even these stay more or less entirely within the boundaries of France. What a fascinating premiss it is; at the time he lived, the Holy Land had been under Arab rule for less than two centuries — what a different timeline of history we might have had if Charlemagne had organised a crusade and liberated the Levant!

As often in the ITRL series, I was impressed by the thoroughness of the translator's notes at the end of the book. Like other neo-Latin poets, Verino often borrowed phrases and sometimes entire lines from ancient Roman poets, and occasionally from his older colleague Landino, all of which is pointed out in the notes. The translator often also remarks what case some word is in, or where a syllable is the wrong length, which caught my attention as we don't usually get much of that in the notes in the ITRL series (see note to ll. 89–90 on p. 331 for a fine example); but in any case, as I don't know any Latin these things weren't really of much use to me directly. I should also commend the translator for making his translation in verse and not in prose as is all too often the case in the ITRL series.


As the title suggests, many of the poems in this collection chronicle the poet's relationship with a girl named Fiammetta. You get no points for guessing how it turned out — being unhappily in love is probably a common enough human experience anyway, but for poets of a certain type it seems to have been pretty much a requirement. I can imagine that you would get kicked out of the poets' guild for being *happily* in love, and that perhaps nowadays there could be a dating site for poets along the lines of ‘we guarantee you won't end up in a happy relationship, or your money back!’

Anyway, the story of Verino and Fiammetta doesn't start too inauspiciously; they are both young, of similar age and both single. They see each other, very chastely, for a while, and at one point she even promises him that she would be his; but it turns out that she wasn't really in a position to make such a promise, and her parents make her marry another man. Verino is perhaps a little more upset by this than he should be, in my opinion, and says some not very nice things about her (1.27, 1.30); surely he must have known that, as he hadn't made any arrangements with Fiammetta's father yet, he shouldn't have made any assumptions that she would actually be able to marry him. Her husband, Bruno, seems to have been a much older and very ugly man (and a “decrepit adulterer” :)), 1.28.3), but I guess we can expect that Verino's jealousy makes him a little older and uglier than he really was.

This unhappy change takes place towards the end of book 1; eventually he falls in love with another girl, but she dies young, of the plague it seems (2.50 and the note on p. 393). Thus book 2 consists largely of occasional poems about miscellaneous subjects, most of which didn't strike me as particularly memorable. It ends with a poetic address to Venus and Cupid, telling them that he's giving up on writing love-poetry (2.55).

He seems to have been a keen supporter of the Medici family, whose rule he believed had brought a golden age to Florence (2.45.109–19); we find dedications to Lorenzo (1.1, 2.1), an address to his father Piero (1.19), two poems in praise of the latter (1.20, 2.45), a poem to Lorenzo's mistress Lucrezia Donati (2.43), and several poems occasioned by the death of Cosimo (Piero's father; 2.51–4). Verino's loyalty to the Medici also features prominently in his Paradise, as we'll see below.

An interesting recurring subject is that of poetry; in particular, Verino is aware of his status as a minor poet and is content with it, avoiding grand epic themes and staying on the familiar ground of shorter, lighter love-poetry (1.2, 1.12, 1.15, 2.17, 2.24). He is in any case happy to be a poet (2.48) and is convinced that poetry can bring lasting memory and fame to those it sings about (2.45.9–60).

The name “Fiammetta” is related to fiamma = flame, leading him to occasionally refer to her as “Flame Maiden”, which sounds like a character from a high-fantasy story :)

There is a good deal of ranting against sodomites (2.10, 2.28.3–4, 2.32.7–9, 2.38), more than I remember seeing in other volumes of poetry in the ITRL series. It's probably a useful reminder that homosexuality wasn't quite as tolerated in Renaissance Florence as we might sometimes think.

I liked this epigram “Against the slanderer Filippo” (2.16): “Many a time you ask me, ‘What do you know?’ when trying to carp at me./ One thing I do know is that you, Filippo, know nothing.”

Another nice epigram: “ ‘It is no wonder,’ said the Cynic, ‘that gold is pale,/ for all have scheming designs to lay hands on it.’ ” (2.30)

There are a few short invectives, my favourite of which is one that pokes fun at the unfortunate Lurcus and his bad breath: “That breath of yours could not only lay humankind low/ but pollute the heavens too and kill birds./ I do not wonder that plague is now rampant in the city” etc. (2.39.5–7).

A nice pair of lines from his eulogy on the death of Cosimo: “Anyone can begin a war, but not everyone can put an end to one,/ not, that is, unless he emerges the victor.” (2.51.155–6) This is either very profound or completely trivial, I'm just not quite sure which :) (In any case he forgot that one could also end a war by surrendering to one's enemy. But perhaps in the chaos of Renaissance Italy this wouldn't guarantee an end to the war? :])

The translator's note on p. 333 tells us that “[s]nowballing could be flirtatious”. Honi soit qui mal y pense :)

I was surprised to read about the use of spelt in cosmetics: “Not white lead, not spelt, not all the juice there is in herbs,/ can cover up your sallow complexion, Galla” (1.17.11–12). The translator's note (p. 344) says it must refer to flour “presumably to make a binder, like pulped barley in a paste for the face”.


This is a poem of about 1100 lines about Verino's visit to heaven in his dreams. One naturally wishes to compare it to Dante's visit in his Divine Comedy, but it's been so long since I read the latter that I'm not really in a good position to be making such a comparison. Obviously Dante's Paradise is much longer and he meets more people there, but as far as I remember it, a more important difference might be that Dante focuses more on the religious aspects of heaven and from reading his work you get a better idea of just how grand and sublime an experience such a visit would be. In Verino, this aspect comes across in a shallower way and he spends more time on less substantial matters.

For example, a recurring subject is the turbulent condition of Florence and indeed of Italy in general. The poet contemplates these things even before his visit (ll. 44–75), and once he enters the palace of heaven his guide is none other than the late ruler of Florence, Cosimo de' Medici (ll. 206–23), who makes a long speech prophecying a favourable future for Florence (ll. 225–76). Later Verino also meets Cosimo's son Giovanni and they have a conversation about Cosimo's grandsons, who are still alive (ll. 700–33). But I guess I shouldn't complain too much, as we get a lot of contemporary Italian politics in Dante as well.

As for heaven itself, we are treated to a longish description (ll. 89–114) of the splendid entrance to the “marvelous palace of the eternal King” (l. 94); choirs of angels (ll. 324–50, with the usual nine-level hierarchy); singing of hymns about various notable stories from christian mythology (ll. 380–498); there's the story of how god rescued the souls of certain virtuous people from Limbo (ll. 499–517, briefly also mentioned by Dante, I think); descriptions of what life is like in heaven (everyone is fit and healthy and looks about 30 years old; wears a white robe; they don't eat or drink; ll. 605–63). This is the sort of thing I meant when I said that Verino likes to focus on shallower things; this would do fine for a fairy-tale or a speculative fiction story, but it doesn't exactly convey a sense of sublimity that one might expect from a visit to heaven.

Most of the rest of Verino's visit is then spent in a pleasant woodland area that is reserved for virtuous people who were unaware of christianity and thus can't enter the main part of heaven (ll. 736–95). He encounters numerous ancient Greek and Roman statesmen, generals, orators, lawgivers, poets, playwrights, philosophers, etc. (ll. 796–1012), notably Plato himself, who recounts his studies since his death, says he is impressed with christianity and alludes to the recent revival of neo-Platonic studies in Florence (ll. 1013–71). After that Cosimo informs Verino that it's time to go and Verino promptly wakes up, which ends the poem. Thus the pagan figures, whom Dante briefly mentioned in perhaps one canto of his Inferno, here take up almost one-third of Verino's visit to heaven itself!

Something that slightly surprised me is how much pagan terminology he uses in this poem; he often refers to heaven as Olympus and to god as Jove or the Thunderer.

An interesting factoid from the translator's notes (p. 385): during the Peloponnesian War, “Athenian prisoners [on Sicily] who could recite passages of Euripides received better treatment, even release.” Wow! Nowadays it's almost hard to imagine that poetry could ever have had such power.


Overall this was a pleasant if not terribly memorable book; I think my favourite part was the Paradise rather than the shorter poems in Fiammetta. I wish I could read his poem about Charlemagne as well, but I don't think it has been translated into English yet; who knows, perhaps we'll get it in the ITRL some day.

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Saturday, December 01, 2018

BOOK: Yann Martel, "Life of Pi"

Yann Martel: Life of Pi. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2003. 184195392X. xvi + 319 pp.

This novel made quite a splash when it was first published, in 2001 or so. I'm not sure where I first heard of it myself; probably it was on the website of its British publisher, Canongate. At the time this was a small Scottish publishing company and I was mostly interested in their Canongate Classics series, which included a number of works of older Scottish literature. I bought several of them and visited the publisher's website regularly. Later they began to focus more on publishing modern fiction and I gradually lost interest in them. The Life of Pi, which seems to have been a great success for them, was perhaps an early step in this transition. I bought it soon after it came out in paperback, but only got around to reading it now.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect, and was overall pleasantly surprised. The author clearly has a rich and vivid imagination, and there's something new and unexpected on almost every page. I suspect that people who like literary fiction would not turn up their noses at this novel, but it was also able to entertain someone like me, who am more interested in excitement and storytelling.

In the first part of the novel, we learn about the protagonist's childhood in 1970s India. Pi's father, Mr. Patel, runs a zoo in Pondicherry. Pi's full name is in fact Piscine Molitor Patel, after a swimming pool in Paris which an older friend of the family had frequented while a student there in the 1930s (p. 11; that's what I meant by rich imagination — how do people come up with something as bizarre as this? :)); but our protagonist reinvented himself as Pi after being tired of people mispronouncing Piscine as Pissing (pp. 22–3).

There are many interesting remarks about zookeeping, which is often portrayed in a vaguely negative light nowadays, so it was nice to see Pi describing it in a more positive way. He points out that a wild animal normally maintains a territory large enough to contain the resources it needs — food, water, shelter etc. — and that in a zoo it is provided with all these things in a much smaller area, so it is content to think of that as its territory and does not feel unhappy there. Pi compares this to the way that a modern person is content, indeed happy, to live in a house and does not miss having to roam for miles to reach food or water the way our prehistoric hunter-gatherer ancestors might have done (pp. 16–19).

An odd feature of Pi, which I didn't quite know what to do with, is his religious bent. His parents are vaguely Hindu but in practice almost completely secular; but he becomes an ardent believer in, and practitioner of, Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, all three at the same time (pp. 47–62)! There is a very funny scene where the priests of all three religions finally realize that he has been visiting all three of them at once (pp. 65–9).

Due to political and economic uncertainties, Pi's parents decide to close the zoo, sell off the animals and move the whole family to Canada. They embark on a Japanese cargo ship with a sullen Taiwanese crew, and with the Patels (and their animals) as the only passengers. Not too far into the Pacific, the ship has an unexplained accident and sinks quickly, with Pi as the only survivor. And this is where the main part of the story begins.

<spoiler warning>

Technically, Pi is not the only survivor: besides him, his lifeboat hosts a hyena, a badly injured zebra, an orangutan and, worst of all, a tiger with the implausibly human name of Richard Parker (due to an old bureaucratic mixup; pp. 132–3). Over the next few days, the hyena kills the zebra and the orangutan, and is then itself killed by the tiger.

The middle part of the novel is a great story of survival at sea, as Pi has to exert all his mental and physical energies to stay alive and prevent the tiger from attacking him. He puts his zookeeping skills to good use and sort of tames the tiger much the way a circus trainer might do (pp. 43–4, 164–5, 203–7). Using the various supplies stored on the lifeboat, he makes an improvised raft so he can keep some distance from the tiger if necessary; he deploys solar stills and raincatchers to obtain fresh water; he catches fish, turtles and even the occasional shark, knowing that he must keep providing the tiger with food if he wants to have any chance of staying alive.

The story takes on a somewhat picaresque character as various incidents happen in a seemingly random order; storms, sharks, whales, a close encounter with a large tanker (which unfortunately doesn't notice Pi's lifeboat; pp. 233–4), sailing through what seems to be the great Pacific garbage patch (pp. 237–8), etc. But things grow more and more fantastic and bizarre as the story progresses, in a way which perhaps reflects the gradual breakdown of Pi's own mind. (This reminded me a little of Poe's Arthur Gordon Pym.)

Over the course of several months, it becomes clear that despite all his efforts, the overall lack of food and the exposure to the elements are slowly weakening both Pi and the tiger. At some point they both go blind due to weakness (p. 241), and in that condition they even meet another equally blind survivor, who tries to board Pi's boat, apparently with a view to cannibalizing him, but is then killed and eaten by the tiger (pp. 254–5). But did this really happen or was Pi just hallucinating at that point? (A few pages ago he reported a conversation with the tiger, so he was definitely halucinating then; 243–5.)

Eventually they reach a large floating island composed of algae, and the story takes leave of all sanity. The algae apparently filter salt out of the freshwater, so eating them provides Pi (and the tiger) with both food and drink, and they gradually recover their strength. Venturing deeper into the island, Pi finds freshwater pools, enormous colonies of meerkats (p. 266), forests of trees that seem to grow out of the algae (p. 271) and the meerkats sleep in their branches (pp. 275–6; in the real world, of course, meerkats sleep in underground burrows). Finally Pi finds a tree bearing some very peculiar-looking fruit; each of these, as it turns out, after unwrapping countless layers of leaves, contains a human tooth at its core (pp. 270–80). Pi realizes that the whole island is practically a gigantic predatory organism; the algae on the ground emit some sort of acid at night, which is why the meerkats sleep in the treetops; the acid is mostly intended to kill the fish that happen to swim into their freshwater ponds, but it seems that at some point some other human castaway fell victim to the island as well (pp. 281–3).

Horrified by this discovery, Pi boards his lifeboat (along with the tiger) and sets off again, eventually reaching the coast of Mexico with no further incidents. The tiger promptly disappears into the jungle. The story ends with one last surprise as two Japanese officials come talk to Pi in the hospital, hoping to learn more about what had happened to their ship. They find his story of surviving in the boat with a tiger hard to believe, so he comes up with another, even grislier story; this time, instead of animals, there are several other human survivors: Pi, his mother, an injured sailor, and the ship's cook, who happens to be a brutish Frenchman. The cook kills the injured sailor and then Pi's mother, but is eventually himself killed by Pi. The Japanese officials cannot help noticing that this story corresponds closely to the original one, with Pi's mother standing for the orangutan, the cook for the hyena, the sailor for the zebra, and Pi for the tiger. They decide they that they liked the animal version better after all.

</spoiler warning>

I don't pretend to have any clear idea of what to make of any of these things. Is Pi's second story the true one, while the first one (with the tiger and all the other animals) was just a big hallucination? Or a deliberate lie? Pi, at the end of the book, doesn't seem to care very much about which story is true; they are both simply stories to him. I suppose this is very postmodern and all, and will no doubt meet with much approval from certain circles, but it feels very frustrating for a simple-minded reader like myself.

I was also not sure what to make of the bizarre meerkat-infested island of acid-secreting algae. There is a fine line between ‘rich imagination’ and ‘throwing out one damn random thing after another’, and I couldn't help feeling that the author oversteps it a little from time to time. And of course you can't help noticing the religious aspect of the whole thing; surely the island, with its abundance of food and water provided by the algae, and its lack of any predators, is meant to resemble the earthly paradise of christian mythology, with Pi as a modern-day Adam who eventually has to flee from it after plucking that grisly tooth-bearing fruit from a tree. But why would that whole thing have to be there, at that point in this story? How does it fit into anything else? Why does Mr. Adirubasamy at the start of the novel say that this story would “make you believe in God” (p. xii)?

Clearly, religion is meant to have a certain presence in this novel, but I don't really understand what we're supposed to make of it. The author isn't exactly preaching at us, and I find it hard to imagine that reading this novel would convert anyone to anything. Any why, if he wanted us to become interested in religion, would he always take such care to provide (just barely) rational explanations for everything that happens in the novel?

But I shouldn't complain too much; overall this book was a very pleasant read, I enjoyed the earlier and middle parts of it a great deal, and the things that remain unexplained (to me at least) do not really get too much in the way of a good story of survival at sea, told by a storyteller with a delightful, sparkling imagination.

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BOOK: Girolamo Savonarola, "Apologetic Writings"

Girolamo Savonarola: Apologetic Writings. Edited and translated by M. Michèle Mulchahey. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 68. Harvard University Press, 2015. 9780674054981. xliv + 413 pp.

Savonarola was a Dominican friar who was active in Florence towards the end of the 15th century. I had heard of him before reading this book, but had only a very vague idea of his activities. I thought of him as one of those annoying religious zealots who are terribly afraid that someone, someone is having fun. This book didn't really change my opinion about him in this regard, but it does make him come across as a somewhat more sympathetic character than what I previously thought of him as.

My favourite part of the book was the translator's introduction, which is a bit longer than is usually the case in the I Tatti Renaissance Library. It contains an interesting overview of Savonarola's career, the political circumstances in Florence and the rest of Italy, and the events that led to his excommunication and execution. He first gained renown and influence as a preacher, and got into the habit of making prophecies; he then used this influence over the public to make recommendations regarding both internal affairs of Florence (e.g. the conflicts between the pro-Medici faction and their opponents, who now succeeded in reforming the constitution on a more democratic basis) and foreign affairs (much of Italy was at war, and the French also intervened in it). But to a considerable extent his preoccupations seemed to be basically religious, telling people to repent and abandon their worldly ways, their luxuries and their decadence.

What kind of asshole rolls into Renaissance Florence and starts telling people something that esentially amounts to ‘never mind all this beauty and splendour that you're surrounded by, you should seek to be more miserable’? And more importantly, what kind of idiots fall for this sort of message? But I guess I shouldn't be surprised; there's always a large segment of the population that responds well to authoritarian figures telling them to endure something unpleasant. (As an equally perplexing recent example, there's all the people who seem to enjoy hearing Jordan Peterson tell them to clean up their rooms...)

Anyway, whatever the reasons, it is clear that Savonarola had plenty of supporters. The monks in his convent elected him as their head, he made various changes to their rules to make them stricter and the monks' life less pleasant, and it was probably not despite this but because of this, that a number of new members joined their community under his leadership. The Florentine laity listened to his sermons and followed his advice, and throngs of zealous little boys went from door to door at his behest, pestering people to abandon their vanities (p. xiii).

Eventually it was his meddling in politics that was the cause of his downfall, especially when he became too inconvenient to the pope (p. xiv); and it probably didn't help that the pope at the time was Rodrigo Borgia, who is surely the very archetype of a corrupt and decadent Renaissance pope. And this sets the stage for the last few years of Savonarola's life, from which all the writings in this book are taken. We can see him get increasingly desperate in his efforts to defend himself in view of the the increasingly serious steps that the pope was taking against him. A minor downside is that we have only Savonarola's writings from this period, but not those he was replying to; but the translator's introduction is very good at providing the context and summarizing the parts of the story that cannot be seen directly from Savonarola's writings.


The book starts with a letter replying to the pope's invitation that Savonarola should come to Rome to talk to him. Savonarola tries to politely refuse this without appearing too openly disobedient, and makes excuses of ill health, political instability in Florence, and fear that he might get killed en route to Rome.

The pope reacted by forbidding Savonarola from preaching until the situation is investigated and cleared up. Savonarola replied with a longer letter protesting his innocence of the various errors and heresies that he had been accused of.

Another way that Savonarola's enemies tried to weaken him was through organizational changes affecting his monastery. The main result of these would be to scatter Savonarola's monks amongst other Dominican communities in Tuscany, ostensibly so they could help reform those as well but in practice to dilute their influence and prevent them from accomplishing any meaningful reform. Savonarola argues against these changes in one of the letters (pp. 31–3) and a short treatise (pp. 39–83). I didn't care too much about the organizatonal details behind his arguments, but I could easily agree with his main idea, namely that this is an effort to defang his reforms rather than help them spread further. Another interesting argument he had was to point out that under canon law, a monk cannot be forced to switch from a stricter rule to a laxer one (which is what the proposed reform would force him and his confraternity to do; p. 31).

Eventually the pope excommunicated Savonarola, but the Florentine authorities supported him and it took a few more months and angry letters from the pope to get them to arrest and execute him (p. xxviii). Meanwhile he wrote a few last desperate letters arguing that his excommunication is unjustified and thus void, and that nobody should be paying any attention to the pope's briefs on this matter. He points out that not every command from the pope should automatically be obeyed, since some of them could be unjust and this would be open to abuse (p. 95). He wrote a short, touching letter to the pope in the tone of a repentant sinner seeking forgiveness (p. 101), but after the pope ordered his arrest, Savonarola responded with a more strongly worded letter in which he suggests that god will punish the pope for his injustice towards Savonarola: “Most Blessed Father, do not delay to take thought for your own salvation.” (P. 107.)


In this last period of his life he also wrote a Dialogue on the Truth of Prophecy, which is by far the longest work in this book (probably taking up some two-thirds of the volume). Savonarola's interlocutors in the dialogue are the “seven gifts of the holy spirit”, which appear as a group of travellers with suitably bizarre Old-Testament-style names.

This dialogue was not an uninteresting read, but I didn't find Savonarola's arguments in favour of prophecy to be very convincing. When asked why he thinks his prophecies are true, he explains it by an analogy (pp. 123, 127): when you see a lily and you see that it is white, you couldn't really say how or why you see this [nowadays with our modern knowledge of medicine and physics we could say a little bit more], but it is clear to you that it is indeed white. Similarly, to him and his interlocutors as devout christians, it is clear that their religion is true, even though they couldn't exactly say why (p. 137). And it is the same with his prophecies; he sees them clearly in his mind, so to speak. I'm perfectly willing to believe that he really experienced his prophecies this way, but he was obviously underestimating the mind's ability to deceive itself...

Savonarola also points out that prophecies are in a sense nothing terribly unusual — there's plenty of them in the bible, for example — and that his prophecies didn't lead him to predict or advocate anything that would be contrary to reason or to the teachings of the church (pp. 131, 307), that they had a good influence upon other people (pp. 217, 333–9), that his visions strengthened his own faith and understanding of religion (p. 195) and even of unrelated fields such as economics and politics (p. 193), and that his preaching has improved in that period (p. 243–5), so it's unlikely that all this is coming from the devil trying to deceive him or anything like that.

He speaks a little about the subject of his prophecies; these seem to be mostly of the traditional ‘repent, sinners, the end is nigh’ type. He argues that the corruption and immorality that are so pervasive everywhere in his time are good evidence that this end is coming sooner rather than later (pp. 237–5). He even takes the opportunity to throw some barbs at the pope (after describing the church hiearachy, he says: “whenever God is angered, and prepares to punish the peoples' crimes in the near future, He takes away the good leaders, and allows evil leaders to rule them”; p. 269). He has a fine rant against the churchmen of his day: “Do these men not sin more gravely than those who perished in the inundation of the Flood for their fornication? Do they not exceed the unbridled lust of the Sodomites, and also the perfidy of the Jews and the Greeks, all of whom have already been swallowed up and destroyed?” (P. 285.) :)))

Replying to those who doubted the truth of his prophecies, he says that god will sooner or later prove whether his predictions were true or not, as the events unfold, and thus passing judgment before that is reckless and premature (p. 307). This strikes me as the typical excuse of every self-proclaimed prophet, no doubt to be followed in due course by the usual prevarications when his predictions inevitably fail to come to pass. (He does say elsewhere that his predictions are falsifiable, unambigous and have all been committed to writing (p. 241), so at least we have to admit that he did not lack self-confidence.)

He also includes a section on why his sentence of excommunication and the demands to break up his monastic community should be ignored (pp. 311—19), similar to what he said in the earlier letters on this subject.


I didn't find anything in this book terribly remarkable, but it was a relatively interesting read anyway. I still don't like Savonarola's zealotry, but at least he seems to have been sincere in it, and paid a terrible price for it, for which I sympathize with him. The publisher's text on the front flap of the dust jacked puts it well where it says that the book provides “a fascinating window on to the mind of a religious fanatic”.

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Saturday, October 20, 2018

BOOK: Marsilio Ficino, "On Dionysius the Areopagite"

Marsilio Ficino: On Dionysius the Areopagite. Vol. 1: Mystical Theology and The Divine Names, part 1. Edited and translated by Michael J. B. Allen. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 66. Harvard University Press, 2015. 9780674058354. lxxi + 516 pp.

Marsilio Ficino: On Dionysius the Areopagite. Vol. 2: The Divine Names, part 2. Edited and translated by Michael J. B. Allen. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 67. Harvard University Press, 2015. 9780674743793. xxxvii + 483 pp.

Here we have two more volumes of Ficino's Neoplatonic commentaries, this time about two works by Dionysius the Areopagite: the Mystical Theology and the Divine Names. It seems that Dionysius was a Greek theologian from the late antiquity who was heavily influenced by Neoplatonic philosophy, e.g. the work of Plotinus and the like. However, until the 19th century or so, it was widely thought that he actually lived in the 1st century, not in the late antiquity, and that he was a disciple of St. Paul. This probably made some people give his work an even greater weight than they otherwise would. (It also shows occasionally in Ficino's commentary, e.g. where he talks about how the late Neoplatonists were influenced by Dionysius, even though in reality it was the other way around.)

I found the structure of these books interesting. Ficino sliced the two works by Dionisius into fairly short sections, rarely more than two pages long, and often just one or two paragraphs. Then he translated each section and prefixed it with his own commentary, which is on average a little longer than Dionysius's text itself, but not by much. Sometimes he basically restates the same things that Dionysius said, just in a slightly more sober style (Dionysius himself seems to have been something of a mystic, struggling and straining at the boundaries of what human language can express about god and the like, and it shows in his style). Sometimes, however, he goes into much more detail and spends one or two pages of commentary on something that Dionysius hinted at briefly in one short paragraph. I had the impression that Ficino often tries to be more systematic, listing and explaining and even numbering things explicitly where Dionysius vaguely alluded at them in passing.

Thus, as you read the book, you sort of read each thing twice, first from Ficino's perspective and then from that of Dionysius. I thought this was fairly interesting and it was nice to see what Ficino made of Dionysius' enthusiastic but often hard-to-understand writing. Occasionally I did feel that his commentary helped me understand things a little better, or at least notice things that I wouldn't have noticed were present in Dionysius's text at all, although for the most part I of course still can't claim that I really understood anything much.

Still, I knew to expect something like this after my previous encounters with Ficino's Neoplatonic commentaries (see my previous posts about the Phaedros and the Parmenides), so I wasn't in any way disapponted. From my point of view, what we have here is another two volumes of Neoplatonist fairy-tales, readable enough in small increments (as long as I didn't worry too much about whether anything made any sense), though at the same time, having read these two volumes, I will be quite glad if the next few volumes of the I Tatti Renaissance Library don't contain any more Neoplatonism.

I read a Slovene translation of Dionysius a few weeks ago (see my post about it) and I don't really feel that reading Ficino's commentary has improved my understanding all that much. In particular, since his commentary more than doubles the total length of the text, the whole thing starts getting a bit long and unwieldy, and it was easy for me to start losing sight of the big picture. I wished that Ficino had introduced some sort of structure to the work, beyond just splitting e.g. the Divine Names into 351 short sections (and the Mystical Theology into 29). I also felt that in Ficino's version of Dionysius, the latter's style comes across as less excited and less bold in the use of language, the coining of words and the like, though I don't mean this as a complaint against Ficino; it might be due to the way he translated Dionysius into Latin, or it might be due to way that Michael Allen, the ITRL translator, then translated Ficino's translation from Latin into English, or it might be due to the fact that I was reading this in a foreign language, in which things always feel vaguer and blander than in one's own; or it might be due to the somewhat literal approach taken by the Slovene translator of Dionysius. Anyway, the fact is that as far as Dionysius' own style is concerned, I enjoyed it better in that Slovene translation than here as mediated through Ficino.

Mystic Theology

This is a fairly short work by Dionysius and is mostly on the subject of negative or apophatic theology. I remember seeing a little of this in Ficino's commentary on the Parmenides, and it was interesting to see more along these lines here. Basically, the idea is that god is so inscrutable and poorly accessible to our understanding that it's easier and safer to say what he isn't like than what he is like. (Of course, this also has its downsides, as pointed out in a classic Jesus and Mo strip: it's hard to use this approach to tell people what to do :))

I liked this sentence from Dionysius (12.1), which could almost be a summary of these two volumes: “We ought to affirm of God all that can be posited of things, God being the cause of all; and in turn with even better reason we ought to deny of God all these same attributes, God being more excellent than all things.” (Ficino says something similar in the Divine Names, 258.1–2).

Ficino points out (26.6–7) what they mean by negative statements about god: “When we deny the soul is a corporeal essence, we do not deny at the same time that it is a better essence, namely an incorporeal essence. Similarly, we deny that God is in the order of essence [. . .] yet we grant that God is absolute essence in a transcendent and simpler way. Again, in denying that God is life which is an act of essence, we do not prevent him from being life in the sense of being the cause of such an act.” Etc. etc.

In 6.1, Ficino has a nice classification of the cognitive faculties into four kinds: sensation, imagination, reason and intellect. (He then goes on to argue why god is inaccessible to all four.)

As we already saw in Ficino's commentaries on Plato, it was very important to the Neoplatonists that the One (the principle of unity) is higher than or prior to being. In 8.4–5, Ficino has some more arguments for why this is the case. They cannot be equal, he says, for then you would need yet another principle to unify them; and being cannot be higher than the One, as then unity, by participating in being, would lose its simplicity and wouldn't even be unity.

Divine Names

Frankly, I had the impression that it's mostly the second half or so of this work that is really about divine names; previously, he talks about various things, e.g. there's a fairly long discussion of the nature of evil, and I mostly wasn't really trying to keep track of whether the earlier parts of the work have some meaningful larger structure or not. As for the discussion of divine names, I found it fairly interesting. Perhaps calling them names is a bit confusing; it seemed to me that they were really more like properties. Dionysius talks about what it means when they say (e.g. in the bible) that god is good, life, great or small, like or unlike, old and young, etc. etc. (there's a nice summary by Ficino in 287.1). Ficino points out (11.1) that since we can't understand god directly, it's a good idea to study him through these names or appellations; these names do not “signify the nature itself of God” but at least “they make known the many and various goods that flow [. . .] from the divine goodness” (15.1). The only alternative to describing god through these names would be to not say anything, since he is so far above everything else (23.1).

The problem I had here is that it all seems to amount to little more than pointless playing with words. It's all along the lines of ‘yeah, well, we can say that god is life because all life comes from him, but then also that he is not life because obviously he isn't alive in the sense that regular living beings are alive, and he is super-duper-above life, etc.’ and you can replace life by being, goodness, etc. etc. and the argument always stays pretty much the same.

I often had a strong urge to yell at these people and tell them that if you are constantly getting into situations where you claim ‘A is B’ and ‘A is not B’ at the same time, then you are either wrong about at least one of these claims, or you are expressing yourself too vaguely. Basically a big part of Divine Names consist of Dionysius trying to explain such vague statements as ‘god is [not] life’ and arguing that, when you interpret them suitably, they make some sort of sense and they aren't contradictory at all. Maybe so, but it would have still been much better if they hadn't been making those vague statements to begin with.

Ah, but then I am missing the point again — this is religion, after all. Vagueness is no doubt a feature here, not a bug. It allows them to say pithy and impressive-sounding things about god on the one hand, and then on the other hand if anyone points out the self-contradictory nonsense in their statements, they can have someone like Dionysius produce excuses and explanations.

In his commentary to the Mystical Theology (11.3), Ficino actually explicitly acknowledges that yes, normally “affirming and denying something with regard to the same object cannot be simultaneously true [. . .] But the divine unity is so effective that within itself it can reconcile even contraries among themselves as one.” Interestingly, he points out a similarity between god as the highest thing and matter as the lowest thing: “So you will say that God is or has this or that thing or form, since He makes it; and then again that He does not have it because He is superior to it. But you will affirm that matter has or is this same thing because it receives it (passively); in turn you will deny that matter has this same thing because matter is inferior to it.”(11.4) Later (Divine Names, 89.5) he explains that god and matter are both without form, though of course for different reasons (“God is higher than every form and creates every form; but matter is lower than every form and is subject to all forms”). He says more about this in 132.1.

(I must admit that this talk of matter not having form strikes me as very odd, since I am used to think of matter as having all sorts of structure, atoms in intricate arrangements and the like; but I guess that to Plato and his ilk, both the words ‘matter’ and ‘form’ meant something rather different than to most of us today.)

Incidentally, these arguments along the lines of ‘god is X because he has created X’ strike me as very silly. By the same logic, you could argue that a carpenter is a chair, because he makes chairs...

Ficino has a nice paragraph (202.3) about how the different names of god refer to the various more or less broadly distributed “gifts that have come from divine providence”: ‘good’ for those that come to everything, entities and non-entities; ‘being’ for those that come only to entities; ‘life’ for those that come to living beings; etc.

There's an interesting analogy to try to explain how the trinity works (Ficino in 41.3, Dionysius in 42.1): imagine several lamps in the same hall; their light is united so that we can't see the light of each lamp separately; and yet it remains distinct, so that e.g. if we remove one lamp, its light goes away as well without affecting the others. But elsewhere Ficino admits (317.3): “But even the angels cannot know, by way of the understanding and the will, how three persons or subsistences may dwell in God, and yet on that account God be no less one, no less than the One. It is entirely beyond them.”

An interesting factoid from Ficino's commentary (93.5): he says that the Sun is 166 times larger than the Earth. I wonder how they estimated it. They weren't too far off — the wikipedia says that it's actually 109 times larger.

A funny example of the mania to classify everything that seems to have been so popular with the Neoplatonists, especially the later ones: “The Platonists postulate five lights: first the super-intelligible, second the intelligible, third the cogitable, fourth the imaginable, and fifth the visible.” (From Ficino's commentary, 97.1. And see 152.2 for another example of classification gone mad.) The last of these, of course, is the one we know from our normal everyday world. I guess we should be thankful that they resisted the temptation to add the semi-superintelligible, the subintelligible, the utterly inscrutable, the anti-intelligible, the edible, etc. etc. :))

If I remember correctly, there is an old philosophical debate about whether god does things because they are good, or are things good because god does them. Ficino ‘settles’ this by a simple assertion (122.4): “God does not, like us, will the things that He wills because the things in themselves are good, but to the contrary, because He wills, the things themselves are good.”

Ficino equates goodness with god and thus places it above being (134.7): “because all things are turned through their appetite back toward the Good, it serves as an argument for us that all entities have proceeded from this Good, and thus that it is superior to universal being”.

A funny-sounding consequence of placing god above being is that, in a certain sense, god does not exist :] Thus Dionysius says: “He neither was, nor will be; nor was He made, nor does He become, nor will He become. Rather, He does not even exist, but He is the being itself in all entities” (109.1).

Apparently, people used to believe that the ostrich keeps its eggs warm not by sitting on them like other birds, but by staring at them! :)) See Ficino's 57.1 and the translator's note 108 (p. 476): “according to the medieval Physiologus, ‘The ostrich lays eggs but does not brood them in the usual way: it sits facing them and stares at them intensely. They grow warm in the heat of its gaze, and the young are hatched.’ ”

On the subject of evil, Dionysius and Ficino mostly explain it as not something in itself, but simply as a shortage of good: “whatever is usually said to be bad is not entirely bad, but lacking good” (Dionysius in 155.2); “Every natural instinct and motion in any animate being that is proper to its own species is unquestionably good as it is providentially infused from the Good in order to preserve the species; and it is directed to the good of each. But the bad in animate beings is said to be some defect” (Ficino in 162.1).

From the translator's introduction (vol. 1, p. xxxii): “Given the difficulty of the enterprise, I must have erred and strayed like a lost goat, and I would welcome pastoral suggestions for corection or amendment.” :))

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KNJIGA: Dionizij Areopagit, "Zbrani spisi"

Dionizij Areopagit: Zbrani spisi. Uvod, prevod in opombe Gorazd Kocijančič. Slovenska matica, Ljubljana, 2007. Filozofska knjižnica, zv. 57. 587 str.

Pred časom sem prebral dva Platonova dialoga (Fajdrosa in Parmenida) in to zato, ker sem pri ITRL prišel do Ficinovih komentarjev teh dveh dialogov. Iz enakega razloga sem se zdaj lotil tudi branja Dionizija Areopagita, priznati pa moram, da sem njegove spise razumel prav tako malo kot npr. Platonovega Parmenida, mogoče še malo manj. Te stvari so že bolj teologija kot filozofija.

Knjiga se začne s precej obsežnim prevajalčevim uvodom, ki je bil še kar za silo razumljiv; med drugim vsebuje vsebuje lep in zanimiv pregled velikega vpliva Dionizijevih del skozi zgodovino. Po vsem videzu sodeč je možakar bil poznoantični neoplatonistični filozof, ki se je nato začel (z minimalnimi popravki v terminologiji) ukvarjati s krščansko teologijo; so pa zanj pred 19. stoletjem verjeli, da je v resnici živel v prvem stoletju in bil učenec apostola Pavla, zato so imeli njegovi spisi najbrž še večji vpliv, kot bi ga imeli sicer. Zelo nenavaden pa se mi je zdel zadnji del prevajalčevega uvoda, ki nas poskuša z nekakšnimi filozofskimi argumenti menda prepričati, da je v nekem smislu Dionizij res živel v prvem stoletju, četudi v resnici ni. (No, to sem gotovo narobe razumel, oz. bolje rečeno, sploh nisem ničesar razumel.)

Predvsem pa je pri uvodu name naredilo velik vtis to, koliko literature je prevajalec očitno preučil v ta namen in v koliko različnih jezikih. Vedno sem zavidal ljudem, ki jim gredo tuji jeziki dobro od rok. Moji poskusi v drugih tujih jezikih razen v angleščini so imeli tako malo uspeha, da nisem imel od njih nikoli nobene prave koristi. Imam pa glede tega uvoda eno manjšo pripombo: niso ga dobro lektorirali, kar je škoda, saj je drugače šlo v to knjigo več kot očitno ogromno truda, časa in razmišljanja. Pa tudi v preostanku knjige je ostalo še nekaj napak, sploh mestniku se zelo slabo piše :( [Na wikipediji sem prebral, da je imela stara grščina samo štiri ali pet sklonov; mogoče si pa prevajalec prizadeva, da bi jih imela slovenščina tudi? :))]

O samih Dionizijevih spisih bom težko kaj pametnega napisal, saj sem jih, kot sem že omenil zgoraj, preslabo razumel. Njegov slog pisanja je vse prej kot razumljiv, ampak saj se najbrž tudi ni prav veliko trudil, da bi bil. Je pa v njem čutiti nekakšno navdušenje; to, kar počne, ima več skupnega z mistično zamaknjenostjo kot s kakšnim hladnim razumarstvom. V svojem zanosu zelo rad kuje nove besede, stika po dve besedi skupaj ali natika obstoječim besedam predpone, kot so nad- in pred- in podobno. Ugibam, da so najbrž te stvari v grščini delovale malo manj čudno kot v slovenščini in da je Dionizij po njih posegal zato, ker je pač pisal o stvareh, o katerih je težko pisati in celo razmišljati, ker so pač tako daleč od naših vsakdanjih izkušenj. Na misel mi pride tista znana fraza „držati boga za jajca“ — mislim, da je nekaj takega Dionizij počel oz. se mu je vsaj zdelo, da to počne, tako da mu je res težko zameriti, da se je pri pisanju o takšnih nenavadnih stvareh malo zaletaval tudi ob meje človeškega jezika.

Mistično bogoslovje

V tem kratkem spisu so se mi zdele zanimive predvsem Dionizijeve zamisli o apofatični ali negativni teologiji. Ideja je, če sem prav razumel, nekako taka: ker je bog človeku bolj slabo razumljiv, je lažje in pametneje govoriti o tem, kakšen bog ni, kot o tem, kakšen je. Podobno so menda razmišljali tudi nekrščanski novoplatonistični filozofi, ki so imeli podobno situacijo s svojim podobno nedoumljivim „enim“ oz. principom enosti. Ta ideja se mi še kar dopade; če bi se je vsi verni ljudje dosledno držali, bi bilo najbrž precej manj zgage zaradi njih; težava je le v tem, da v praksi nikjer ne primanjkuje ljudi, ki se jim zdi, da zelo dobro vedo, kakšen bog je in kaj točno da hoče.

Tale dva odlomka se mi zdita lep primer Dionizijevega pristopa: „Njemu bi morali pridevati in o Njem zatrjevati vse pridevke bivajočih resničnosti — saj je Vzrok vseh stvari —, še bolj v pravem pomenu pa bi o Njem morali vse zanikati — saj nad-biva nad vsemi resničnostmi.“ (Str. 162.) „Molimo, da bi se znašli v tem mraku, ki je nad lučjo, in da bi prek nevidenja in nespoznanja videli in spoznali Njega, ki je nad uzrtjem in spoznanjem — prav s tem, da Ga ne bi videli ne spoznali, kajti to je resnično videnje in spoznanje“ (str. 166).

Kakšen poseben ljubitelj misticizma ravno nisem (že res, da človek z razumem ne pride prav daleč, ampak z misticizmom pa ne pride čisto nikamor), priznati pa moram, da v teh odlomkih je določen čar. Če drugega ne, sta dobro napisana.

Kasneje navaja Dionizij še cel kup konkretnih primerov stvari, ki jih v skladu s temi svojimi idejami o bogu zanika. Nabral jih je kar za dva dolga seznama: „ni niti nebitnosten, niti neživ, niti nebeseden, niti neumski, ni telo [. . .] ni niti duša niti um“ (str. 172); „Ne živi in ni življenje, ni ne bitnost ne vek ne čas [. . .] Ni ne eno ne enost“ itd. (str. 173).”

Božja imena

To je precej daljši spis od prejšnjega. Naslov sicer govori o imenih, ampak meni so se zdele te stvari bolj nekakšne lastnosti. Dionizij govori o tem, kaj pravzaprav mislijo, ko boga imenujejo (npr. v bibliji) s pojmi, kot so lepota (str. 227), dobro, življenje, bivajoče, modrost (str. 262), moč (str. 286), velik, majhen (str. 295–6), podoben (str. 299) in še mnogi drugi. Pri njegovih pojasnilih se ponavadi izkaže, da je treba te besede razumeti malo drugače kot v njihovih običajnih pomenih.

En še kar razumljiv odlomek na to temo je tudi v naslednjem spisu, na str. 334–5. Poučna sta se mi zdela tale dva komentarja iz sholiastov: „O Bogu se v pravem pomenu ne izreka niti življenje niti luč niti um niti bitnost: vse to o njem izrekamo le v tem smislu, da je On vzrok vsega tega. On je namreč nad tem in na drugačen način.“ (Op. 69 na str. 335.) „Kar se izreka o Bogu na način zanikanja, npr. neviden, neskončen in podobno, ne razkriva tega, kaj Bog je, ampak kaj ni.“ (Op. 72 na str. 335.)

Podobno piše Dionizij na str. 270: „Ne smemo misliti, da On nekaj je, drugo pa ni, niti da v nekem oziru je, v nekem pa ni, ampak da je vse — kot Povzročitelj vsega [. . .] in da je nad vsem, ker nadbitnostno nad-biva pred vsem. Zato se tudi o njem izreka vse obenem, a ni nič od vsega”. Ta odlomek se mi zdi tudi lepa ilustracija tega, kako se Dionizij muči na robovih človeškega jezika oz. gre včasih še malo čez rob. Ker se je odločil, da je o bogu težko reči, da biva, bo pa pač rekel, da „nadbitnostno nad-biva nad vsem“ (str. 319) — to se mi zdi malo ceneno... (Na str. 311 pa bog celo „biva nadbitnostno“.) Podobno govori kasneje o bogu kot življenju: „Kajti nad-življenje in življenje-začenjajoče Življenje je vzrok vsakega življenja“ (str. 276).

Še en ilustrativen odlomek na temo apofatične teologije (str. 280): „Božje resničnosti moramo misliti Bogu primerno. Zato moramo brezumno in brezčutno v primeru Boga pridevati na presežen način, in ne kot umanjkanje — kakor pripisujemo tudi ne(s)miselnost Nad(s)miselnemu, nepopolnost Nadpopolnemu in Predpopolnemu, nedotikljivi in nevidni mrak pa nedostopni Luči — pač na način preseganja vidne luči.“ In na str. 319: „Niti samega (imena) dobrote Mu ne pripisujemo kot nekaj, kar bi Mu ustrezalo, ampak Mu v koprnenju, da bi kaj umevali in povedali o oni neizrekljivi naravi, prvotno posvečamo to najčastitljivejše ime.“ Božanstvo je v resnici „nad vsakim imenom, nad vsako mislijo in spoznanjem“ (str. 320).

Ima tudi zanimivo poglavje o zlu (str. 240–60), ki po njegovem samo po sebi sploh ne obstaja, ampak je le „šibkost in nemoč in umanjkanje spoznanja“ (str. 260).

Nebeška hierarhija

S to hierarhijo so mišljeni angeli, ki naj bi jih bilo devet vrst, te pa razdeljene na tri „razporeditve“. Nekatere vrste imajo še kar smiselna imena (serafi, kerubi, angeli, nadangeli), nekatere pa precej čudna (prestoli, moči ipd.). Nikoli nisem prav dobro razumel, zakaj se je zdelo tem ljudem pametno zapletati svojo teologijo na tak način — mar ne bi bilo lepše in elegantneje imeti eno samo vrsto angelov, če jih že sploh moraš imeti? No, očitno so imeli cerkveni očetje pač drugačne ideje o tem, kaj je lepo in elegantno. Prevajalčev uvod razlaga potrebo po angelih takole: z njimi je „krščanska misel na svoj način reševala antični filozofski problem odnosa med absolutno enostjo Prapočela in mnogoterostjo sveta, ki ga izkušamo. Platonski eidosi so postali živa bitja.“ (Str. 62.)

Dandanes si angela ponavadi predstavljamo kot človeku podobno bitje z parom velikih operjenih kril, po možnosti večinoma bele barve; megleno pa se spomnim, da sem že slišal o tem, da znajo biti v bibliji angeli opisani na *bistveno* bolj bizarne načine. Nekaj tega omenja tudi Dionizij in poudarja, da je treba te reči razumeti simbolično, „da si jih ne bomo zamišljali v živinski obliki volov ali zverskem liku levov [. . .] nekakšnih ognjenih obročev onkraj neba [. . .] raznobarvnih konjev“ ipd. (str. 330) in si mislili, „da so nadnebeške resničnosti polne nekakšnih levjih in konjskih hord, mukajočega prepevanja hvalnic, ptičjih jat in drugih živali“ (str. 332) :))) Ena možna motivacija za takšne bizarne opise naj bi bila ravno ta, da se bodo zaradi njihove bizarnosti ljudje zavedli, da jih je treba razumeti metaforično; pri lepših opisih bi si lahko kdo pomotoma mislil, da so angeli „sijoči, čudoviti moški v ognjenih podobah, oblečeni v bleščečo obleko“ itd. (str. 337; gl. tudi op. 82 na njej).

Op. 169 na str. 348–9 opisuje zanimivo novoplatonično razdelitev „bivajočih resničnosti“ na štiri skupine: nežive (ali „zgolj bivajoče“), žive (vendar nerazumne), miselna breztelesna bitja (= angeli) in miselna telesna bitja (= ljudje). Podobno pravi tudi Dionizij sam, da so angeli „nebeške bitnosti“ (str. 354). Ta kategorizacija se mi še kar dopade, še vseeno pa mi ni očitno, zakaj se jim je zdelo, da morajo miselna breztelesna bitja tudi v resnici obstajati (in ne, „zato, ker se lepo vklapljajo v moj sistem“ ni dovolj dober razlog :P).

Po teh uvodnih opombah se Dionizij zares loti hierarhije angelov. Pravzaprav ga bolj kot delitev na devet vrst angelov zanima delitev na tri „razporeditve“; vsaka od slednjih obsega tri vrste, od katerih pa „ni nobena bolj bogooblična“ od druge (str. 357). Sodeč po prevajalčevi opombi (op. 212 na str. 356) prihajajo imena omenjenih devetih vrst iz biblije, ideja pa, da naj bi se jih razdelilo na tri skupine po tri, izhaja iz neoplatonizma.

Kakor sem si predstavljal Dionizijev opis teh reči, naj bi bilo tako, da karkoli že pač bog izžareva, to počasi pronica skozi omenjene tri razporeditve, tako da v vsako naslednjo pride malo manj kot v prejšnjo: „Srednjo razporeditev [. . .] očiščujejo, razsvetljujejo in dovršujejo bogopočelna razsvetljevanja, ki se ji tako, kot je drugotnemu primerno, dajejo prek prve hierarhične razporeditve“ (str. 366–7). Prva razporeditev „vodi kvišku drugo hierarhijo k nadpočelnemu Počelu in Zamejitvi vsake urejenosti, druga hierarhija vodi kvišku tretjo in tretja našo“ (str. 375), torej ljudi. O tem zadnjem koraku, torej povezavi med najnižjimi angeli in ljudmi, pravi: „bogoslovje [. . .] imenuje za vladarja judovskega ljudstva Mihaela, druge angele pa za vladarje drugih ljudstev“ (str. 371), torej je vsakemu ljudstvu dodeljen po en angel.

Na koncu Dionizij še nekaj časa razlaga metaforični pomen raznih podrobnosti v opisih angelov; celo za najbolj bizarne kombinacije kril, oči in podobnega najde dober izgovor (str. 384). [Ob tem sem se spomnil na tisti strip, v katerem se Jesus in Mo posmehujeta hinduizmu: “Arms and legs and *trunks* everywhere!” :))] Ima nekaj zanimivih stvari o simboliki raznih stvari pri opisih angelov: ogenj (še posebej pri serafih; str. 389), „človekoobličnost“ (str. 390–3), kovine, živali, kolesa itd. (str. 396–9).

Cerkvena hierarhija

To je po vsem videzu sodeč podobna stvar kot angelska hierarhija v prejšnjem spisu, le da obsega ljudi. Dionizij pravi, da je „skupni cilj vsake hierarhije [. . .] stalna ljubezen do Boga [. . .] videnje in védenje svete resnice“ ipd. (str. 409). Pravzaprav se bo izkazalo, da opisuje v tem spisu Dionizij tri tronivojske hierarhije (str. 464): hierarhijo cerkvenih obredov, hierarhijo duhovščine in hierarhijo laikov. [Človek je bil tako obseden s trojicami, da sumim, da je za večerjo vsak dan pojedel skledo triperesne detelje :))]

Prvi obred je krst, ki ga Dionizij opisuje na str. 414–18. Predstavljal sem si, da dandanes krst izgleda tako, da dojenčka poškropijo z nekaj kapljami žegnane vode, ampak pri Dioniziju so bile te reči očitno precej bolj zapletene. Krst opisuje kot nekaj, kar se opravi na odraslem človeku, kar je imelo verjetno v zgodnjekrščanskih časih smisel, ker je bila večina njihovih članov verjetno ljudi, ki so se šele v odrasli dobi spreobrnili iz drugih ver. (Pravzaprav sem sicer mislil, da je Dionizij pisal tako pozno v antiki, da je bilo poganov takrat že zanemarljivo malo in bi pričakoval, da je bila takrat večina ljudi krščenih že ob rojstvu.) Ko pride Dionizij do točke, kjer krščenca sezujejo in slečejo (str. 416), sem si že mislil — ho ho ho, zdajle ga bodo pa kar nategnili! — no, pa so ga le namazilili z nekakšnim oljem. Nato Dionizij še nekaj časa govori o metaforičnem pomenu raznih detajlov pri obredu krsta.

Potem se se na podoben način loti še obhajila. Slednje je tukaj sicer prevedeno kot „zedinjenje“, kar je po vsem videzu sodeč zelo dobeseden prevod izvorne grške besede koinonia (str. 427); tako sem se naučil vsaj tega, od kod pride angleška beseda communion za obhajilo — očitno iz nekega prav tako dobesednega prevoda tiste grške besede v latinščino.

Pri Dionizijevih opisih teh obredov me je neprijetno presenetilo, kako pogosto poudarja, da morajo biti pri določenih pomembnejših delih obredov izključeni določeni ljudje (ponavadi „katehumeni, energumeni in tisti, ki delajo pokoro“*; str. 429, 435, 437–39, 454), ker očitno niso dovolj čisti oz. vredni, da bi tistim delom obreda prisostvovali. Ta prekleta človeška želja po ekskluzivnosti, po tem, da nekatere ljudi izključiš in se zato sam pri sebi bolje počutiš, očitno res prav nikoli ne miruje. Phe. Če bi bil jaz bog, bi bila menda ena od prvih stvari, ki bi jih rekel, nekaj v stilu „je**te se, bedni smrtniki, od vseh vas sem enako oddaljen, prav nobene razlike ni zame, kdo prisostvuje kateremu obredu“.

[*Preseneča me, da pri vsej poplavi prevajalčevih opomb tukaj ni nobenega pojasnila, kaj tisti dve impresivni grški besedi sploh pomenita. Sodeč po wikipediji so katehumeni ljudje, ki se šele seznanjajo s krščanskimi nauki in se še niso krstili; energumeni pa naj bi bili ljudje, ki so jih obsedli zli duhovi :))]

Sicer nas veselje do ekskluzivnosti pri človeku, kot je Dionizij, najbrž ne bi smelo presenetiti; sodeč po nekaterih prevajalčevih opombah Dionizij pogosto uporablja izraze, ki so bili pred tem povezani predvsem z raznimi poganskimi misterijskimi kulti. Tam pa je bil seveda cel smisel vsega skupaj ravno v tem, da kot član dobiš dostop do ekskluzivnih skrivnosti — cenena marketinška poteza, ampak ne dvomim v to, da je dobro delovala. In najbrž se je nekaj te mentalitete pač nalezel tudi Dionizij, saj vidimo, da ima rad misticizem in da je ves navdušen ob misli na to, v kakšne božje skrivnosti da prodira. (Poleg tega se mi zdi, da ima ekskluzivnost pri obredih še naslednji koristni praktični učinek: če pokažeš svoje verske obrede nekomu, ki se še ni dovolj globoko pogreznil v tvoj kult, se zna zgoditi, da se mu bodo zdeli trapasti in se mu bo še pravi čas posvetilo: „hej, zakaj izgubljam čas z ljudmi, ki pri polni zavesti počnejo takšne neumnosti?“)

No, po opisu obhajila preide Dionizij na naslednji obred, ki je menda še bolj ekskluziven: gre ze nekakšno posvetitev olja (ki ga potem uporabljajo za to, da pri orgijah stvari bolj gladko tečejo pri prej opisanih obredih). Nad tem sem že godrnjal v enem od svojih prejšnjih postov, ampak ne morem si kaj, da ne bi bil že spet malo razočaran: na eni strani vsa tista globoka in kosmata teologija (oz. deloma mogoče tudi filozofija), na drugi strani pa te bizarne ideje o posvečevanju olja. Kako se je lahko komu zdelo, da to dvoje lepo spada skupaj? Kako da se ni nihče nikoli za hip ustavil in vprašal: „hej, zakaj pravzaprav počnemo takšne traparije? Saj nismo več otroci, ki se igrajo v peskovniku...“ Kakorkoli že, Dionizij se takih stvari vsekakor ne sprašuje, ampak se le s svojo običajno gostobesednostjo navdušuje nad globljim pomenom vseh mogočih podrobnosti pri obredu (str. 455–61).

To je bila torej zdaj hierarhija treh vrst obredov (krst, obhajilo in posvetitev olja), nato pa Dionizij opiše (str. 462–9) še to, kar sem si pravzaprav pod cerkveno herarhijo predstavljal na začetku: namreč tri stopnje oz. „razporeditve“, kot jim on pravi, znotraj cerkve: diakoni, svečeniki in hierarhi (= škofje). Govori tudi o vzporednicah med temi raznimi hierarhijami (angelsko iz prejšnjega spisa in tema dvema tukaj); to, da ima vsaka ravno tri nivoje, ni naključje, ampak je pač on po malem obseden s tronivojskimi hierarhijami. V cerkveni hierarhiji vsak višji nivo pomaga dvigovati nižje k bogu (str. 465), podobno kot smo to videli prej pri angelski hierarhiji. Dionizij opiše tudi obrede posvečevanja v te tri stopnje duhovščine in se pri tem seveda ne more izogniti raznim bizarnim detajlom: bodočemu hierarhu položijo med obredom biblijo na glavo, svečeniki upognejo obe nogi, diakoni pa le eno (str. 473–4).

Po teh treh svečeniških redovih pridejo na vrsto še trije „dovrševani redovi“ (str. 475; kar menda pomeni približno to, kar bi si jaz predstavljal kot laike): (1) tisti, ki se izločajo iz prej omenjenih obredov (torej ti, ki jim je prej rekel katehumeni, energumeni in tisti, ki delajo pokoro — tukaj sicer teh izrazov ne uporablja, je pa iz njegovega opisa videti, da gre za iste stvari); (2) „sveto ljudstvo“ (str. 476, torej običajni laični verniki); in (3) menihi. Spis se zaključi še z opisom pogrebnega obreda, pri katerem se je Dionizij, neverjetno, uspel upreti skušnjavi, da bi še iz njega naredil tronivojsko hierarhijo.


Ohranjenih je deset Dionizijevih pisem, večinoma raznim duhovnikom. V povprečju so precej kratka in v njih Dionizij pojasnjuje kakšno podrobnost ali tehnikalijo iz svojih idej, tako da si z njimi nisem vedel prav veliko pomagati. Malo daljše le je osmo pismo, v katerem Dionizij odgovarja nekemu menihu Demofilu, ki se je, kolikor sem uspel razbrati iz pisma, pritoževal nad nekim duhovnikom, češ da je „brezbožnež in grešnik“ (str. 518) in podobno.

Dionizijev odgovor me je precej razočaral; v njem se zadrto drži načela, da sme kritika in ukrepanje ob morebitnih napakah v hierarhijah iti le od zgoraj navzgor in da nižji nikakor ne smejo soditi višjim. To ponavlja kar naprej, vsakič z malo drugačnimi besedami, učinek pa je vseeno tak, kot da bi se že malo vrtel v krogu (str. 518–24). Spomnimo se, da so v hierarhiji, kakršno je Dionizij opisal v prejšnjem spisu, menihi del laične hierarhije in so zato nižji od vseh vrst duhovnikov. Dionizij zato zdaj strogo okrca Demofila, ker si je drznil kritizirati nekoga nad sabo.

„Primerno je, da je vsakdo pozoren sam nase in da si ne želi doumeti višjih in globljih reči, ampak da razmišlja le o tistih, ki so mu naročene v skladu z njegovo vrednostjo.“ (Str. 522.) „Ti sam torej odredi želji, razburljivosti in mišljenju to, česar so vredni; tebi pa naj to odrejajo Božji diakoni, njim svečeniki, svečenikom hierarhi, hierarhom pa apostoli in apostolski nasledniki.“ (Str. 524–25.)

Depresivno. Kaj naj človek ob tem reče drugega kot: preklete naj bodo vse hierarhije in stokrat, stotisočkrat preklet naj bo vsak kreten, ki se mu kadarkoli zdi primerno postavljati ljudi v hierarhijo in nakladati o tem, da bi nekateri zaradi svojega položaja v njej ne smeli početi določenih stvari, ki jih nekateri drugi lahko!

Edina kolikor toliko spodobna ideja pri vsem skupaj je odlomek, kjer Dionizij pravi, da tisti, ki ne ravnajo v skladu s svojim položajem v hierarhiji, v resici tega položaja sploh nimajo: „Če je torej razporeditev svečenikov razsvetljujoča, je tisti, ki ni razsvetljujoč, povsem odpadel od svečeniškega reda in moči [. . .] Meni se že zdi, da je takšen človek objesten domišljavec [. . .] On ni svečenik, ni — ampak je sovražnik, prevarant“ (str. 522–3). Toda že takoj zatem vseeno doda: „In vendar Demofilu ni dovoljeno tega popravljati.“ (Str. 523.)

To se sicer v teoriji lepo sliši, v praksi pa ne more imeti nobenega učinka. To bi delovalo le, če bi takšne odpadnike nemudoma udarila strela z neba. Ker pa jih ne, ostanejo večinoma čisto lepo na položajih kot popolnoma normalen del hierarhije in lahko še naprej počenjajo svoje nečednosti. V prevajalčevem uvodu je nekaj zanimive diskusije o tem pismu (str. 76–78), kjer sicer prizna, da so Dionizijeve poglede na hierarhijo kasneje mnogi izkoriščali za avtoritarne namene, vendar se mu zdijo Dionizijeve blage koncesije iz prejšnjega odstavka „nekaj precej subverzivnega“ in „ekleziološko vzemirljive“. No, očitno je nekatere ljudi precej lahko vznemiriti :))


Kaj naj rečem za konec? To je nedvomno zelo dobra knjiga, le da jaz pač nisem pravi bralec zanjo. Ampak saj to sem vedel že vnaprej. Še vedno se mi zdi po malem škoda, da je toliko pametnih ljudi porabilo toliko časa za takšne blodnje, ampak po drugi strani (1) kdo sem jaz, da bi jim to očital (kamenje, steklene hiše itd.); in (2) konec koncev bi bilo lahko še slabše (lahko bi postali, kaj pa vem, ekonomisti, oglaševalci, postmodernisti ali kaj podobnega :]).

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Saturday, September 15, 2018

BOOK: Cyriac of Ancona, "Life and Early Travels"

Cyriac of Ancona: Life and Early Travels. Edited and translated by Charles Mitchell, Edward W. Bodnar and Clive Foss. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 65. Harvard University Press, 2015. 9780674599208. xxii + 375 pp.

Cyriac was an early-15th-century author who travelled widely through Italy and the eastern Mediterranean, partly for business but partly also because he made a hobby of recording and sketching the ancient inscriptions and monuments that he found in the places he visited. This is the second book about him in the I Tatti Renaissance Library; I read the previous one, the Later Travels, many years ago (resulting in one of the first posts I have made on this blog). I enjoyed that book quite a bit, but had no idea that more volumes about Cyriac's travels would be forthcoming. It's probably just as well, otherwise I would have become impatient considering that 12 years passed between the previous volume and the current one. According to the translator's introduction (p. xviii and note 26), they are hoping to eventually publish a third volume as well, covering the middle part of Cyriac's life.

The Life of Cyriac

About half of the present volume is taken up by a biography of Cyriac written by his friend and fellow citizen of Ancona, Francesco Scalamonti (p. viii). Much of it is based on Cyriac's own diaries. It covers only the earlier parts of Cyriac's life, reaching up to 1435 before ending unusually abruptly; perhaps the biographer lost interest or something like that. In any case, I found this biography fairly interesting, especially as I didn't remember anything much of Cyriac's life from the previous volume, the Later Travels (either because not that much is said about his life there, or because I have forgotten everything about it anyway).

His interest in travels started early, and his grandfather took him along to some of his journeys to Venice, Naples and the like (¶5–11). Cyriac clearly had quite an aptitude for business; he got apprenticed to a rich merchant from Ancona (¶14) as a child and eventually became his trusted assistant that basically ran his whole business for a while. He was also entrusted with some fairly notable administrative roles in the city government at an unusually early age, and occasionally held similar posts in later years as well (¶14–15, 47, 61).

It is always delightful and impressive when someone manages to transcend a commercial background and take up more intellectual interests, and Cyriac is a wonderful example of that. His upbringing had been so practical that they hadn't even taught him Latin, and he ended up learning it by himself, mostly it seems by sheer stubborness, studying Virgil's poetry until it started to make sense (¶53; see also p. xiii). I guess he did have an advantage in the fact that Italian is a fairly closely related language to Latin, and I suppose this method wouldn't work so well for speakers of non-Romance languages. Anyway, judging by the occasional remarks by the translators, his Latin was perhaps a bit shaky but otherwise functional enough. Later he also learned Greek. He also had an interest in Italian poetry, and the earlier parts of the biography include a sort of correspondence in verse, numerous sonnets written to and by Cyriac, mostly in Italian (¶24–30, 49–52).

Most of the travels we see in the Life of Cyriac in this book are around Italy, rather than to the more distant and exotic countries that we saw him visiting in the Later Travels. Nevertheless he also travels to Byzantium in the present book, ¶37–43; to Syria and Cyprus, ¶63–73, and then to Greece again ¶74–90. We find him hunting panthers with the king of Cyprus (¶70; I didn't think there were still panthers there at the time), lobbying pope Eugenius for an “expedition against the Turks” (¶92), and sightseeing in Rome with emperor Sigismund, whom Cyriac harangued on the importance of preserving ancient monuments (¶99).

He has the same antiquarian zeal as in the previous volume, and the Life includes numerous ancient inscriptions that he collected in Rome (¶93–4), Milan (¶105–50), Brescia (¶152–64), Verona (¶167–89), Mantua (¶194–7), and so on. A considerable proportion of them are funerary inscriptions, though for the most part I didn't find them terribly touching. Many of them exhibit a curious obsession with preventing the heirs from reusing the memorial, which struck me as a somewhat narrow-minded thing to worry about when designing an inscription for someone's grave; but I suppose it must have made sense to the ancient Romans.

Among the ancient Roman funerary inscriptions recorded by Cyriac there is one from Verona (¶181) that was dedicated by a man to “his well-deserving freedwoman and wife”. This struck me as an intriguing combination; I was glad to see that he freed her and married her, instead of keeping her as a slave and raping her. It's nice to see that these things occasionally have a reasonably happy outcome. Speaking of slavery, we find Cyriac buying “a very intelligent servant girl from Epirus” on “the Turkish slave market in Adrianople” (¶76), intending to send her home to his mother in Ancona, but we don't learn anything about her subsequent fate.

Cyriac's letters

This book also contains a few letters to and from Cyriac on various subjects, which I found much more interesting than I had expected. There's an interesting exchange between Cyriac and Leonardo Bruni (pp. 187–95) commenting on the practice of the Holy Roman (i.e. German) Emperors to get themselves crowned as “King of the Romans” first and then ask the pope to proclaim them Emperor. Our two worthy correspondents take no small joy in sneering at these barbarous and ignorant habits, with Bruni pointing out that the ancient Roman kings and emperors did not even wear crowns (Letter III, ¶9), and, more importantly, that the title of emperor (imperator) is strictly inferior to that of king (rex).

In principle, he has some reasonable arguments for this: an imperator received some sort of military powers, acting under the laws and while many of the other offices of the government continued functioning; and there could be several imperators at the same time. On the other hand, a king was above the law and held all the power to himself, and there could be only one per country at any given time (¶5–7). There is also an argument from transitivity (¶4): a king is higher than a dictator (because Julius Caesar wanted to become a king at a time when he was already a dictator) and that a dictator is higher than an imperator (because the people were offering to make Augustus a dictator at a time when he was already an imperator).

The problem, of course, is that the meaning of words can change over time, so demonstrating that an imperator was an inferior title in the time of Caesar and Augustus doesn't mean that it's the same in the middle ages or the renaissance, so the whole debate struck me as somewhat silly. It's obvious that due to the size of the Roman empire and the power of some of its rulers, the concept of the emperor gradually developed into some sort of claim to almost universal rule, in which an emperor was clearly superior to those other rulers that were just plain old kings. I vaguely remember reading somewhere that one of the reasons why someone like Augustus had little interest in calling himself a king was that the Romans used the same word, rex, for every hairy barbarian chieftain, every Roman client princeling, every tyrant of a city-state, i.e. the sort of rulers that could be found by the dozen in the areas bordering on Augustus' empire. So if anything, Augustus' prestige would be taking a step backwards if he had adopted such a title for himself (not to mention that it would pointlessly provoke some of the Roman public, who still had bad memories of the Etruscan kings that used to rule in Rome in its early years).

There is an interesting letter in which Cyriac defends himself from people who criticized his intense interest in pagan literature and history (pp. 175–85). He mostly does this by pointing out numerous passages in Virgil's poetry that can, if you squint a little, be interpreted in ways that are compatible with christianity. (He also points out that notable early christian authors such as Augustine thought highly of Virgil.) I'm not normally too keen on this sort of after-the-fact interpretation, which could easily degenerate into tendentious quote-mining, but in fact Cyriac does it moderately and playfully, so it was all in good fun. And it is indeed nice to see the easy blend of christian and pagan motifs in his thinking and writing, evidently without the slightest idea that there could be anything objectionable about this (a nice example: he regarded Mercury as “his divine and catholic genius”, i.e. a sort of patron saint;; Life, ¶14 and n. 8 on p. 316).

There are also a couple of letters involving an apparently very heated debate on who was better, Scipio Africanus or Julius Caesar (pp. 197–231). Cyriac's view is that they are both equally good as military commanders, but Caesar gets more merit for his political accomplishments, especially the introduction of monarchy. This provoked a grotesquely insulting letter from Poggio Bracciolini, who seems to have favoured Scipio. This whole thing struck me as gloriously silly — it must have been the renaissance equivalent of comic-book nerds arguing about whether Superman is better than Batman or vice versa. (The translator's preface has a wonderful phrase for it: “the pettiest of antiquarian squabbles”, p. xvi.)

Naval battle of Ponza

This is Cyriac's account of the naval battle of Ponza , in 1435, in which the forces of Milan defeated those of Aragon. As usual with such things, I found the account of the battle somewhat confusing and not particularly interesting. I do, however, like the magnanimous treatment of the captuerd leaders of the defeated side, who were apparently treated very well in Milan and were soon allowed to return home (10.2–3).


As an appendix, the book contains a useful chronology of Cyriac's life; some notes of his that accompanied his sketches of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (the drawings themselves unfortunately do not seem to have survived); Cyriac's notes on the traditional Greek classification of six forms of government; and a few letters to Cyriac from Francesco Filelfo. One is a fairly long discussion of the Aeneid, the others are mostly shorter replies to Cyriac's inquiries, but as they cover a period of several years, they give us a nice look at the progress that Cyriac was making in his classical studies (eventually they reach a point where Filelfo writes to him in Greek instead of Latin, p. 289).

This was a surprisingly interesting book and I'm definitely looking forward to the third one, hopefully in less than 12 years :)

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