Monday, December 15, 2014

Spam of the month

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Monday, December 08, 2014

BOOK: Aurelio Lippo Brandolini, "Republics and Kingdoms Compared"

Aurelio Lippo Brandolini: Republics and Kingdoms Compared. Edited and translated by James Hankins. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 40. Harvard University Press, 2009. 9700674033986. xxvi + 297 pp.

This book was an interesting but very frustrating read. It's structured as a dialogue between king Matthias Corvinus of Hungary and one Domenico Giugni, a distinguished citizen of Florence, in which they argue whether a republic or a monarchy is a better form of government. The translator's introduction (p. xiv) has some interesting remarks on the different types of dialogues: the dialogues you usually find in the works of Renaissance authors consist of first one person presenting one side of the issue and then the other person presenting the other side, both times without much interruption and debate. (I remember seeing some dialogues of that sort earlier in the ITRL series, in a book by Bartolomeo Scala.) But Brandolini's dialogue isn't like that; it's more like a Socratic dialogue instead, with king Matthias mostly taking on the Socratic role of asking questions to poke holes into Domenico's opinions.

I'm starting to think that the Socratic dialogue, although it sounds like a fine idea in principle, is somehow fundamentally flawed in practice. I already disliked this form of dialogue when I encountered in Plato's works, and I disliked it here in Brandolini for the same reasons. Much like in Plato, the debate is far from being conducted fairly, and the author is far from unbiased. In fact it's abundantly clear that the author sides very much with the monarchist side of this debate — which I thought was a bit odd since he was from Florence, which was a republic; but apparently, in his time it was a republic more in theory than in practice, as in practice the Medici family ruled it almost as if they had been its monarchs. I suppose Brandolini was also trying to ingratiate himself with them a bit (see him kissing Lorenzo de' Medici's ass in 3.38) and thought that supporting monarchy would suit him better for that purpose. Besides, he spent a few months in Hungary at the court of king Matthias, which is probably why he included him as a character in the dialogue (translator's introduction, p. x).

Anyway, as I said, the dialogue is very biased, and that's what made is so frustrating to read. Much like Plato in his dialogues always pits Socrates against inane interlocutors who act as if they were completely unable to defend themselves against his attacks, here in Brandolini's dialogue Domenico is completely useless at defending the republican idea, he caves in to every argument by Matthias and never tries to counterattack by pointing out the flaws in Matthias's own ideas in favor of the monarchy.

Thus, for all practical purposes, this is not a comparison of the republic as such and the monarchy as such; rather, it is a comparison between a concrete, really existing implementation of the republic such as it existed in Florence at that time (and which of course inevitably included many warts and flaws, like any real human society inevitably does), and a hypothetical idealized perfect monarchy, which probably didn't even remotely resemble king Matthias's Hungary (even though he claims until he's blue in the face that this is pretty much exactly how he runs his country; 1.76).

And Matthias is not at all shy to admit this. He admits that in practice, an ideal king is hard to find, perhaps impossible (3.35), but says that he wants to discuss “what the best regime is, not where it is” (3.36). Now clearly, human nature being what it is, the answer to ‘where’ is really ‘nowhere and never’, but that doesn't seem to bother him in the least.

The problem with this sort of comparison is of course that it's trivial and useless. Nobody will disagree that a monarchy governed by a perfectly just and virtuous monarch would be an excellent system of government, perhaps the best one possible; but in practice, the monarch, who is after all just a human being, inevitably falls too far from this ideal. Matthias consistently ignores the fact that in the vast majority of cases, a king reaches his position by inheritance, and occasionally by a coup or some other sort of usurpation. Instead, he pretends that a king is somehow ‘found’, as if the people could somehow make a careful search and find the best candidate for the job! Thus he points out that “it's easier to find one excellent person” (1.48) to be your king than to find a huge number of them that you'd need to staff a republican government: “if someone unconquerable by and free of all passion can be found at all, it is surely easier to find one such person than many” (2.17); “if someone of perfected excellence in every virtue may be found, this one person ought to be set before the citizens [. . .] rather than many persons” (3.76); and he says that monarchies originated because “in the beginning, the best and most self-controlled individuals were put in charge of ruling” (3.85) — wahaha!

I don't know if he really believes this bullshit or is just lying and hoping that Domenico won't call him out on it. In any case, since the position of a monarch is usually inherited, even if your previous monarch was virtuous, there's no reason to assume that his son will be sufficiently virtuous as well. Besides, the point of a republic shouldn't be to expect that you'll find the most virtuous people to run the country (although some starry-eyed idealists might occasionally imagine that this is the point) — the point is to ensure a uniformly average degree of corruption and incompetence, so that the country is ran in an average way and you can at least avoid the worst excesses (whereas in a monarchy these happen sooner or later, when your next monarch turns out to be a Nero or a Caligula).

Towards the end of the discussion, even Matthias admits that pimping being a king isn't easy, and provides a long list of virtues that an ideal king should possess (3.97–102). He even agrees that there is “a great lack now of excellent princes” and that in practice, a good republic (such as that of Florence) is also OK (3.106). He doesn't seem to think that this somewhat demolishes his own arguments earlier in the debate :S Maybe that's just Brandolini hedging his bets — by the time he finished this book, he had returned from Hungary into Florence and perhaps didn't want to seem too critical of the republic.

The Florentine republic

In book I, Domenico describes the system of government in Florence of his day; I found this pretty interesting since it differs in many details from the way modern republics work. But when Matthias argues against some of the problematic parts of the Florentine system, he acts as if this was an argument against the idea of a republic altogether, instead of just against the Florentine version of it. For example, it seems that in Florence a citizen was forbidden from participating in politics if he owed some unpaid taxes (1.43, 1.50); I agree that this is unfair, but it's by no means a necessary aspect of a republic. Besides, a monarchy is even worse — there, all citizens are forbidden from participating in politics, because the monarch runs everything by himself anyway.

Domenico also fails at defending some of the positive features of the Florentine system, which Matthias unfairly claims are in fact faults. For example, he mentions that some political positions are filled by choosing candidates at random (1.47), and that there are laws against people holding multiple such positions at the same time (1.50). This sounded like an excellent idea to ensure that political power is spread around evenly and in a way which is mostly out of the control of individual people, so that ambitious politicans can't gain too much power for themselves. (Of course, I wonder whether this actually worked well in practice — it probably didn't, since they ended up with the Medici as the de facto monarchs.) Matthias of course claims that choosing politicians by lot means that you can't ensure that the best and most virtuous ones will get appointed. This is true, but irrelevant — no other system can ensure that either. He would say that a monarchy is better because he as king will of course appoint the best candidates, but come on, we all know that that's bullshit; in practice, the king appoints those who are the best at sucking up to him. Similarly, if you choose candidates by an election, the winners will again not be the best candidates but those who are the best at manipulating the feelings of the voters. In the end, choosing politicians at random is the fairest policy because it takes any sort of human influence out of the process. [My ideal political system would be something along the lines of the Hunger Games: every January 1, choose the politicians at random from among all the adult citizens, let them run the country for a year, then shoot them all on December 31, preferably on live TV as part of the New Year's festivities.]

Domenico also mentions that Florentines cast their votes in secret, so that others don't see how you voted and you can vote freely as you like without worrying that others will judge you for it (1.61). Matthias has a ridiculous criticism of this practice, saying that it allows bad people to keep making their bad voting decisions without censure, and prevents the good people from being justly praised for their good voting decisions (1.62–3). Furthermore, says Matthias, voters should be willing to cast their votes publicly for the candidate whom they think is best for the city; if you are afraid that the other candidates will then retaliate against you because you didn't vote for them, you're basically being an unpatriotic coward and Matthias has no sympathy for you (1.61). Needless to say, this is all complete nonsense. It's an unfair and unrealistic demand to make of the voters, and in practice it would lead to influential people being able to pressure the voters in all sorts of ways.

Equality

There's a fair bit of talk about the notoriously slippery concept of equality, but I wasn't particularly happy with either of the two debaters. Both of them seem to be both for and against it, and accuse each other of being wrong about it :S

Domenico speaks in praise of equality and cites the ancient Spartans as an example (2.36), but then Matthias points out that the Spartans practiced equality of wealth, while Domenico freely admits that there are extreme differences in wealth amongst the Florentines, and sees nothing wrong with that (2.39).

Domenico's counterargument is not very useful — he points out that they have sumptuary laws which prevent the rich people from showing off their wealth too much (1.40, 2.44) by regulating things like dress, architecture, feasts, and other kinds of luxury.

Matthias says that citizens are more free in a kingdom than in a republic, because he doesn't impose this kind of constraints on them (1.72). But this is the sort of freedom that is useless to 99% of the population; it only means that the rich people are free to show off their wealth — wealth which they should never have been allowed to obtain in the first place!

In fact Matthias seems to be a bit of a hypocrite; he criticizes the Florentines for the great differences in wealth amongst their citizens (2.39; “how can there be equality among you when some are extremely rich, others extremely poor?”, 2.43), but he also criticizes their sumptuary laws which were obviously an effort to lessen the impact of these differences (1.72). If anything, my idea is that their sumptuary laws didn't go far enough. Ideally, with sufficiently extreme sumptuary laws, people would cease striving to be rich because there wouldn't be any point to being rich since the sumptuary laws would prevent you from spending your money on anything fun.

They return to this debate in 2.44–6, where Matthias says that distinctions in dress etc. are a useful way of rewarding people for honorable achievements etc., but this is surely bullshit again as for the most part these distinctions were based on wealth and on inherited social status (e.g. titles of nobility). Similarly, Matthias says in 2.61–2 that inequality provides useful mechanisms to encourage people to strive for excellence, and to reward them when they are successful in these pursuits.

But this is not the only way in which Matthias is being hypocritical. He complains about the differences in wealth amongst the Florentines (e.g. pointing out that the rich people are practically immune from the law, 2.49–50), but then he acts as if a monarchy is better because the king hoards all the wealth and everyone else is equally poor! Wahahahaha :))) (1.48, 2.9, 2.11, 2.26, 2.50, 3.45) Orwell would be proud! Besides, he must have known damn well that he had various social classes like the big aristocratic landowners, burghers, peasant smallholders, serfs etc.; I'm sure the wealth inequalities were no smaller in Hungary than in Florence.

There's also a bit of discussion of the idea that is still so beloved by present-day capitalists and free-market lunatics, namely that differences in wealth are necessary to motivate people towards economic activity. (In 2.41, Domenico asks: “what if there is no concern for or expectation of reward and profit? [. . .] who would undertake such great labors without profit?”) This is of course a bullshit argument because a great deal of economic activity is profoundly unnecessary anyway, and in many cases actively harmful; and in any case, when someone gets rich in the process, it's always by exploiting other people, and that's too high a cost for encouraging that economic activity.

Matthias counters Domenico's argument by an idea that I would be really impressed by if I could believe that he meant it seriously: without the incentive of wealth to motivate people, much of the economic activity wouldn't get done, which is fine and it wouldn't be missed, and what little absolutely needs to get done would get done somehow or another anyway, and as a last resort the state could force people into it (2.42). That's basically a blueprint for a plan-based economy ran by an all-powerful state government, with the bonus feature that the government focuses on arranging the economy in such a way that unnecessary work gets avoided as much as possible. This is basically my ideal type of economy — but it's impossible to believe that a medieval king could have instituted something like that; even the 20th-century communist countries didn't succeed at it.

Oddities

Some of the features of the Florentine system are really a bit odd by present-day standards. For example, Domenico says that they often hire a foreigner to serve as a judge (e.g. for a six-month term), because they think it would create too much acrimony within the city if they had one citizen passing judgment on others (1.63–64). Matthias not unreasonably points out that it's a bit dodgy to talk about your city's liberty and independence if you're inviting foreigners to administer laws. But on the other hand, he doesn't really have a better answer; in his own kingdom, he appoints judges by himself and tries to send judges from one part of the country to serve in a different part of the country, so that they can be more impartial (1.72). This is clearly possible due to the size of the country and the reason it wouldn't work in Florence is not because Florence is a republic but because it's a city-state. Besides, having a king appoint your judges makes you less free than if you could hire the judge by yourself, even if you end up hiring a foreigner. But Domenico never points out these things, he just caves in under every of Matthias's complaints.

Some of Matthias's criticism is justified but irrelevant, e.g. when he complains about the way the Florentines treat the people of various provinces that are subject to Florence's control (1.74). After all, it's not like changing Florence into a monarchy would improve this situation. If anything, a monarch treats all parts of his kingdom as subject provinces, including the one where his capital city is located.

Matthias similarly pointlessly congratulates himself on appointing people from multiple provinces into his senate (1.72, 2.7, 3.53), which again is possible simply because his country is larger than a city-state.

Economics

Book 2 has some interesting discussion of economic issues, though it's not really relevant to the comparison of republics and monarchies. Domenico points out that the Florentines are very active in international trade while Matthias's subjects tend to stay within their own borders; but as Matthias rightly points out, this is unrelated to the political system, since some monarchies are active in international trade and some republics aren't (2.19–20).

Matthias's economic ideas struck me as being a little schizophrenic. On the one hand, he is in favor of free trade and criticizes the Florentines for protecting their own industries by customs and import taxes and the like (2.32–4). On the other hand, he has some delightful rants against international trade altogether: “These things pervert the mores of the young, adulterate the native language, make well educated minds effeminate with wanton allurements [. . .] These things carry along with them, besides foreign wealth and foreign wares, avarice, ambition, gluttony, lust and other foul and wicked sins.” (2.21; and see more along the same lines in 2.22.) “What the devil is this madness anyway, sailing to the Ethiopian or Indian Oecan to pluck gems and pearls from those shores? What insanity is this, traversing the whole globe for the sake of gluttony and dissipation?” (2.27)

He even has a hilarious argument against international trade: god surely designed the world so that each province provides whatever is necessary for people to live there. He admits that in some areas you can't even produce things like bread and oil, but hey, those are just unnecessary luxuries anyway — you can always be a hunter/gatherer instead! (2.25–6) Seriously, a goddamn king who spends his life wallowing in wealth is telling people that bread and oil are a frivolous luxury? Marie Antoinette was a rank amateur compared to this :))) I'm starting to wonder if Brandolini was secretly trying to champion the republican side after all, by ascribing all these ridiculous arguments to Matthias. . .

Culture

Towards the end of book 2 they also discuss culture; Domenico points out how many famous artists and scholars come from Florence, but Matthias reasonably objects that this isn't really a feature of the republican system as such, for not all republics are strong in that area, and he cites examples of arts and learning flourishing in some monarchies too (2.51–5).

I for my part am inclined to think that there is something to be said for the idea that artists and scientists are more likely to be creative if they live in a system with greater political freedom. But on the other hand, a lot can be done in a more repressive system as well, as long as it is willing to finance and sponsor such activities. In fact this seems to be Matthias's point when he mentions how he is trying to strengthen the University of Vienna and how his father-in-law the king of Naples is the patron of various artists and writers.

Matthias comes up with a hilarious explanation for the Florentine achievements in culture: it must be due to its mild climate! :)) (2.56–7) And he furthermore says that perhaps the reason why so many famous Florentine artists can be found all over Europe is because they don't get enough honor and recognition back home — another jab against the Florentine sumptuary laws and the like (2.61).

The monarchical principle

Book 3 contains a number of silly arguments in favor of monarchical rule. Matthias argues that if a number of leaders are giving commands to a number of followers simultaneously, it results in chaos, so what you really need is a clear hierarchy with an individual person at the top. In support of this monarchic principle, he cites examples such as a ship's captain, a military commander (1.25, 3.4–12), head of a household (3.13–17), various supposed examples of individual rule in the animal world (3.87), the fact that the various parts of a person's body are governed by one soul (3.88), even the Platonic principle of unity (“the One”, 3.88 and see my recent post about Ficino's commentary on the Parmenides) and the monotheistic christian god (3.89).

But this is all completely irrelevant to the monarchy-vs-republic discussion, and it's frustrating that neither Matthias nor Domenico seem to realize that. Matthias always whines about how in a republic, the rulers will just quarrel among themselves all the time, which is why you need a monarch who will not have this problem (unless he is schizophrenic :P). But in reality, if the rulers of a republic disagree amongst themselves, they can still make decisions by voting and seeing which proposal got the majority of votes. Additionally, a republic can easily elect an individual person as a prime minister or president, so they get some of the benefits of single-person leadership without its downsides. Domenico has some good arguments in favor of having multiple people lead the city in 3.25–28.

In fact, Matthias perversely cites some examples of such republican heads of state — the doge of Venice, the standard-bearer of justice in Florence (3.93–4) — as a further justification of monarchies, saying that by having these individual quasi-monarchical people at the top of their hierarchy, these republics implicitly admit that they think the monarchical principle is better than the republican one. (By the way, his view of the Venetian doges seems to be highly misguided; from what I remember from Norwich's history of Venice, the doge's position was purely ceremonial and the system was very carefully designed to prevent the doge from having any real power whatsoever. Hardly an endorsement of monarchy.)

The main problem with a monarchy is not that there is a single ruler, but that he usually obtains that position by inheritance and holds it for the rest of his life, and that there are no effective limitations to his power.

Interestingly, Matthias is not opposed to the idea that a monarch should consult with some sort of senate. But he wants to choose the senators by himself and not be required to follow their advice, of course (2.7, 3.51–53).

Matthias makes another hilarious defense of the monarchical principle in 2.9: “we cannot be so easily inluenced or corrupted, not having many blood relations — we are [socially] isolated”, whereas the leaders of a republic “can be influenced or corrupted much more easily [. . .] since you are many, you necessarily have many blood relations, marriage alliances, relations of clientage and personal ties” (2.10). As if the number of these people mattered! The king, no matter how few relatives he has, will appoint them to command entire armies and govern entire provinces, and they will perpetrate similar kinds of corruption at the lower levels, so that in the end the country will be no less corrupt than if it had been a republic.

Another odd argument in favor of monarchy: even in a republic, any particular law is likely written by an individual person (2.4–5), so why wouldn't you want to have a wise monarch writing all your laws by himself? But this neglects the fact that in a republic, the parliament can amend or reject such a law if they dislike it; so that, even if most of the original text was written by one individual, the final result represents the wisdom of a larger group of people. Matthias later says that since a law cannot cover all contingencies, it will need to be amended and interpreted, which is best left to the same person who originally wrote it (which is, of course, the king himself); 2.14–6.

Matthias also suggests that a monarch can enforce the laws better than the magistrates of a republic can, because he has all the resources of the entire state concentrated in his hands (2.11; which is patent nonsense, since in practice a monarch will appoint a hierarchy of governors and magistrates to enforce the laws on his behalf, so the dispersion of the resources is the same as in a republic). He points out that, as a result of this: “If we ourselves do not keep the laws, we cannot be punished by man.” (2.11). He does not seem to notice that this is actually an argument against the monarchy, not for it :)))

He goes on in a similar vein in 3.44–45; republican politics are marred by the politicians' greed and ambition, none of which applies to a monarch, because he has all the power and wealth already :))

Sophistry

Some of Matthias's arguments in book 3 are pure sophistry, so ridiculous that they wouldn't be out of place in the work of Plato himself. (In fact he deliberately cites Plato as his influence, 3.29, which I guess shouldn't surprise us; Plato's views seem to be downright perfectly suited to appeal to all sorts of authoritarians.) For example, Matthias suggests that different systems of government can be arranged from best to worst; the worst is clearly tyranny; so the best one must be that which is the exact opposite of tyranny, and that's monarchy (3.82). (The complete series is: monarchy, aristocracy, republic, democracy, oligarchy, tyranny; 3.85–6.) But clearly, that's just playing with words. By these definitions, there is no monarchy anywhere in the world, and every country with an individual ruler is a tyranny, so you haven't really proven anything. He half admits it in 1.76: “I have been explaining my own practice to you, not that of other kings. If there are those who do not rule their kingdoms this way, they seem tyrants to me, not kings.”

He likeswise seems to have oddly ‘platonic’ ideas about the very process of running a country (3.30). He acts as if there was some well-defined best™ course of policy in any given situation, and the problem is just to find a sufficiently wise™ ruler who will be able to figure out what course this is. Once you have this ruler, it's obviously superfluous to have him share power with anyone else, since it can't possibly improve his decision making (he's already making the right™ decisions after all). Voilà — there's your ideal monarch!

He even illustrates this by an analogy from mathematics (3.31–3): if you can find the center of a circle by yourself, then it's redundant to add multiple team members to help you with that. He suggests that the analogy is especially relevant because the ruler's job is likewise to find the mean policy between various extremes.

It's sad how little Domenico has to say against these ridiculous ideas. Of course, nowadays we know that anybody who tries to tell you that running a country is as easy as solving a mathematical problem is either a dangerous utopian or a lying bastard with some ulterior motives. Nowadays you usually find this sort of thinking among lunatic free-market economists who prefer to deal with mathematical models, which they can easily analyze, than with messy reality, which they can't. In the past, builders of utopian socialist plan-based economies also subscribed to this line of thinking. Anyway, from Domenico's point of view these things were still far in the future, and he doesn't make any objection to Matthias's views.

But it's even harder to understand why he doesn't object to the idea that there's just one clear best course of policy in any given situation. Best for whom? And under what assumptions, considering that we can't possibly have complete information about the situation and that we don't know how the future will evolve? Surely it must have been obvious to both of them that in reality, you always have a number of different possible courses of action, each with various advantages and disadvantages, and you don't have nearly enough information to reliably proclaim one of them to be the best™ in some objective sense.

History

There are also some arguments from history, which I'm not sure I agree with but at least they were interesting to think about. Matthias points out that in all recorded history up to his time, monarchies were much more prevalent than republics (3.90) — which is technically true, but does that really prove the monarchy is a better system, in some suitably platonic sense of better™? I suspect the problem might be that for a republic to work, especially for any state larger than a city, you need a certain level of civilization, technology, education etc., and this just wasn't available before the last few centuries. And I also suspect that there's something in human nature that inclines us to accept various hierarchies rather more readily than we should, and monarchy takes advantage of that very successfully. Even nowadays we see that democracy is a fragile system that is constantly at risk of slipping into various kinds of totalitarianism and tyranny.

Also on the subject of arguments from history, Matthias argues that monarchies are more stable than republics (3.62–68). I wonder if that's really true; it would be interested to see some sort of objective review of history. Matthias can certainly point to various instances of factional strife in republics, even civil wars and the like; but surely such things are nothing uncommon in monarchies either.

Besides, I think he exaggerates the importance of harmony and unity (which he says are more easily provided in a monarchy than in a republic; 3.78): “united power was more effective than dispersed power [. . .] one ruler was preferable to many” (3.81). Whom does he think he's fooling with this? Sure, united power is more effective, but that doesn't mean it's preferable (unless you're the one wielding that power, I suppose). If everyone is forced to shut up and do as the king commands, I suppose you can say that this is a kind of harmony, but that's hardly a desirable condition.

He complains against factional strife in republics (3.37), but I think factional strife is actually good. The more they strive against each other (and pull the state in different directions; cf. 3.46), the less time they will have to govern (and thus oppress) the people. But I guess Matthias wouldn't agree with that kind of anarchist thinking :P Maybe it's all a matter of degree; ‘factional strife’ to me suggests politicians yelling at each other in the parliament in the media, but in Renaissance Italy it meant civil war and half the city being exiled by the other half every few years.

Conclusion

Although some parts of this post might seem as if I was a bit exasperated by this book, in fact I rather enjoyed reading it. I just have a hard time imagining how anybody could be persuaded by its arguments; but perhaps that wasn't even its purpose. Perhaps it's best to think of it as an unabashedly partisan political book; like many such books, it may have been written more for people who already shared the author's opinions (in this case, monarchism) and wasn't seriously intended to convert those from the opposite side of politics.

Additionally, reading this book gave me a somewhat better appreciation for some of the things that we take for granted in our modern-day republics, but that apparently really weren't that obvious in e.g. Brandolini's time: the idea that you can resolve disagreements by a vote in the parliament, rather than by having a monarch bang his fist on the table and laying down the law; the idea that insofar as you need an individual person as the head of government, you can just elect him for a limited term instead of having a hereditary monarch; the idea of splitting up the government into various bodies with a web of checks and balances to prevent any of them from becoming too powerful, etc. These things seem obvious now, at least as ideals, but they are more or less completely absent from Domenico's defense of the republic. But maybe that's just because the author was biased in favor of monarchies — otherwise, he wouldn't be comparing an idealized monarchy to real-world republics.

By the way, the translator's note as p. 268 has some very interesting remarks on the changes in the meaning of certain words: the Latin word respublica originally meant “ ‘the state,’ ‘public affairs’ or ‘disinterested government’ ”, not necessarily a non-monarchical one. The modern meaning (i.e. republic as the opposite of monarchy) emerged “in Italy in the later fifteenth century”, and Brandolini's book is one of the early examples of this usage.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

BOOK: Marco Girolamo Vida, "Christiad"

Marco Girolamo Vida: Christiad. Translated by James Gardner. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 39. Harvard University Press, 2009. 9780674034082. xxviii + 464 pp.

The story

This is an epic poem of about 6000 lines, about the life of Jesus with an emphasis on his final days. In fact the direct action in the poem only covers the last few days of Jesus's life: he comes to Jerusalem (re-animating Lazarus along the way), has the last supper there, gets arrested during the following night and then executed soon afterwards. However, the poet comes up with all sorts of excuses to include flashbacks that tell us about things that happened earlier.

For example, in book 1 Jesus visits the temple in Jerusalem and admires the sculptures there; they depict the creation of the world and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise, so we get a long description of these events (1.591–673).

In book 2, people from all over Israel are coming to Jerusalem for some sort of religious festival, and the poet makes use of this opportunity to include a long catalogue of various towns and regions and their inhabitants (2.332—529). I suppose that the epic poets' union requires them to include at least one catalogue in each epic poem :P

And in book 3, after Jesus gets arrested, his father (or is that stepfather? :P) Joseph goes to see Pontius Pilate to try to explain his son's activities, and so nearly the whole of book 3 is a long flashback in which Joseph tells Pilate about his marriage to Mary and about Jesus' birth and childhood.

Book 4 consists mostly of a flashback by John (the apostle) about Jesus's last few years, how he encountered John the Baptist, assembled a group of disciples, performed various miracles, etc. John even includes the story of the creation of the world and subsequent events up to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise (4.59–110).

The last two books tell the story more straightforwardly; in book 5 we have Jesus's trial and execution (there's an odd scene where a legion of angels gets indignant at his suffering and are just about ready to swoop down and rescue him, so that god has to sternly recall them back in the last moment; 5.534–702, especially ll. 562–573, which is a pleasantly psychedelic description of the appearance of the angels: some have two pairs of wings, some have three “for their feet are winged as well”; some have “brilliant plumage and flaming feet and backs that glow like fire”, others “the color of grass, like emeralds” etc. etc.), and in book 6 we see some of his post-mortem activities: he travels to Hell to liberate various prophets and patriarchs that have been waiting for him in a not-too-uncomfortable sort of limbo; then he returns to Earth (with a spiffy new immortal body), spends a few weeks amongst his followers and then leaves them for good.

Miscellaneous odd things

One thing that I was surprised by was the active involvement of the devils in the early part of the poem. Satan holds a speech among them in hell and then they come up in large numbers to incite hatred of Jesus among the people of Jerusalem. This is the sort of thing that you expect to see in Milton's Paradise Lost, but I didn't expect it here; I wonder if there's any basis for this part of the tale in the bible itself. In any case, Milton apparently held Vida's epic in high regard and was definitely influenced by it (pp. vii, xxiv). In particular, his famous line “Gorgons, and Hydras, and Chimaeras dire” closely parallels a passage in the Christiad: “Some transformed their obscene bodies into Gorgons, Sphinxes and Centaurs, others into Hydras and fire-breathing Chimaeras” (1.143–4).

A problem I have with epic poems as well as with religious tales (and after all the two genres have much in common) is that the characters featured there are often so different from normal people that I find it difficult to sympathize with them. They behave in ways that no normal person would, and thus end up seeming more like machines for the advancement of the plot. One of the few situations where I really felt I could sympathize with the characters here in the Christiad occurs in 3.227–53, where Joseph and Mary, neither of whom had the slightest wish to get married, find themselves on their wedding night, wondering what to do with each other and eventually deciding not to do anything. Just two poor fragile mortals, powerless while forces far beyond their control toy with them. That is something I could sympathize with.

*

I was also surprised by the character of Pilate. He's shown as a much more positive figure than I expected; he's convinced that Jesus is innocent and indeed of divine origin, he listens with great interest to what Joseph and John tell him of Jesus's life, and seems to be keen to acquit him. Nevertheless, since the people of Jerusalem call so strongly for Jesus to be executed, Pilate eventually gives in.

That's an aspect of the story that I never quite understood. He is presented here as some sort of governor, a representative of the Roman empire that was by then already in control of the area; why then does he allow a mob of locals to influence his decision like that? I would imagine that he'd try to enforce his decision out of sheer principle if for no other reason — doesn't it weaken Roman prestige if he caves in under local pressure like that? The closest Vida comes to explaining why Pilate yielded is in 5.326–47: Pilate is partly worried that the populace might rise into a revolt if he doesn't give in, and partly he was worried that Jesus's claims to be some sort of king might eventually turn into a challenge against the Roman rule of the area.

There are one or two other things that bother me about this whole crucifixion business. The poet rails in the strongest terms against people who were involved in getting Jesus arrested, condemned and executed; from Judas who betrayed him, to the people and elders of Jerusalem who called for his execution, to the soldiers etc. involved in carrying it out. And yet all these people were indirectly just carrying out god's plan, as the poet himself often admits. Basically, god decided that Jesus needs to be brutally executed in order to cleanse humankind of original sin, so as far as I'm concerned, everyone who was involved in executing him was really doing him a favor. If they hadn't been willing to execute him, the whole insane plan would have failed spectacularly.

Really, if the devil had really been half as clever as he is sometimes made out to be, he wouldn't have sent his legions of demons to incite the people of Jerusalem against Jesus (as he does in book 1 of this poem); he would have instead inspired them to regard Jesus and his teachings favorably, or perhaps to merely point and laugh at him, so that in the end Jesus would be reduced to standing all confused in a central square somewhere in Jerusalem and wondering ‘why the heck doesn't anybody want to execute me? now what? that wasn't part of the plan!’ :))

For the same reason I found it hard to understand why Jesus's disciples and relatives are so sad about his suffering and death. I mean, if they really and truly believed in the truth of his teachings, wouldn't the reasonable response have been ‘good, everything is going according to plan, plus he's immortal anyway so he'll be back up and running in a couple days' time’?

The other thing that bothers me about the poet's attitude towards crucifixion is that while he happily admits how horrible and painful it is, he doesn't seem to be ready to draw any general conclusions against it. He sympathizes with Jesus's suffering but then mentions the other two people crucified next to him and says that they were condemned justly, since they had actually been criminals. It didn't seem to occur to him that this sort of extremely painful punishment might be morally wrong even for someone that had actually commited some crimes.

Besides, if one truly believed (as I imagine the poet had) that Jesus and god the father are really one and the same person, well then effectively god was dying up there on the cross by his own choice, because he himself had decided that this is necessary, although he could have surely just as well declared the whole original sin business to be bullshit and forgot about it without having to go through all the trouble of getting himself incarnated and executed. So if he dislikes any part of this process, he has only himself to blame — but you can't say that for the two supposed criminals on the neighboring crosses, so I really feel much more sympathy for them than I do for Jesus.

But anyway, I suppose that lots of other people have been pondering such questions when thinking about the story of Jesus and his death, so I can't really add anything new or interesting on this topic.

*

As is inevitable when religion gets involved, there are a few impressively bizarre passages in this poem. In 4.439–475, John tells the grisly story of a man “born to parents joined in forbidden love [. . .] they went to bed at a time when sacred ritual forbade it [. . .] Amidst their joyous embraces, the adulterer gave up his sacrilegious soul, and that first night of love was also their last. When the mother was already advanced in labor, she was struck down by a heaven-sent fever.” The child survived but grew up into a demon-infested lunatic who lived more like a beast than a human. Jesus eventually cures him in a scene that you would sooner expect from a stone-age tribal shaman — by transferring the demons into some nearby pigs! (4.508–531)

Translator's note to 4.645 (p. 411): “Pliny says that the priests of Cybele use broken pieces of Samian pottery to perform their ritual castrations”. Eeeeeek!

On translations

Unlike most of the other volumes in the ITRL series, this one wasn't translated by an academic — the front flap of the dustjacket says that the translator is a “writer and art critic”. I think that turned out to be a good idea; the introduction talks more about the literary aspects of the poem and less about various academic debates about this or that detail of Renaissance literature and history. It also contains a short overview of Vida's life; it turns out that he had influential patrons: the Christiad was commissioned by pope Leo X, and when it was completed, Clement VII rewarded the poet by appointing him the bishop of Alba (p. ix).

There are some interesting remarks on the conservative nature of neo-Latin poetry and how it was all about imitating the ancient Roman poets as closely as possible: “Vida aspires to write as an Augustan poet, if not Vergil himself, would have written if he had been a Christian” (p. x); and see also pp. xxi–xxii: “Vergil was trying to write the best poetry that he could, whereas Vida was trying to be as Vergilian as he could. [. . .] The predictable result [. . .] is that he [. . .] achieves the greatest possible simulacrum” (p. xxii).

The translation is nice but, of course, like in most ITRL poetry volumes, it's in prose, so I occasionally wished that I had taken up some of the earlier translations: there's one by John Cranwell from 1768 and one by Edward Granan from 1771. Both are in rhyming couplets, which makes everything sound so cheerful, no matter how horrible it is. For example, here's a passage from the aforementioned horror story from book 4, now in Granan's translation: “If fame sings true, a lawless Hymen led/ His guilty parents to the genial bed./ [. . .] But they enjoy'd not long their foul delight;/ The crime commenc'd and ended in one night:/ For 'mid his joys the base adulterer dies,/ And into air his wicked spirit flies,/ When urg'd her throes, from ether shot a flame,/ And lambent round, consum'd the lab'ring Dame,” (4.481–90 in Granan's translation, pp. 148–9).

I was surprised to see that two separate translations were produced just three years apart; I wonder if there's an interesting story behind this. I skimmed through Granan's introduction to his 1771 translation, but he doesn't mention Cranwell's translation at all.

The ITRL edition of the Christiad also has an interesting bibliography of early editions and translations of the poem (pp. 443–5). There's even a Croatian translation, first printed in 1670, and an Armenian one from 1832.

Conclusion

This poem wasn't as boring as I feared it would be, but I can't say that I found it terribly interesting either. Perhaps it's mostly a matter of slightly mismatched expectations. This isn't exactly a heroic epic in the way that the Illiad or the Odyssey are; it's more like taking some bits and pieces of biblical stories and recasting them into hexameters. The pacing is a bit too leisurely for my taste and there isn't much action here; indeed the most exciting scenes are the ones which I suspect are entirely Vida's invention, when the devils rush to influence the people of Jerusalem in book 1, and when the angels almost swoop down to rescue Jesus from the cross in book 5.

There weren't many characters that one could sympathize with; they feel too much like cardboard cutouts that have their assigned roles in the story, roles which they must play, and which they *will* play, so that the poet doesn't feel much of a need to explain their motivation or see things from their perspective. For example, why did the people and the establishment of Jerusalem hate Jesus so fervently? Apart from the suggestion that they were influenced by the demons from book 1, the main explanation seems to be that they are upset by the fact that Jesus has openly announced that he intends to overturn their established ancestral laws, rituals, customs and the like.

And if you think about it, that sounds like a reasonable concern. Some weirdo self-appointed messiah shows up out of nowhere and starts making wild, outrageous proclamations, denigrating old traditions and the like — it's only natural that people react with skepticism and distrust. In fact, from what we know of the overall religious ferment in the Levant during the last few centuries BC and first few centuries AD, I imagine that self-proclaimed prophets were a dime a dozen back then. Surely he, being omnipotent, could have provided explanations and proofs that would convince these doubters, but clearly he refused to do so. I'd say that executing him was an overreaction, but I could hardly blame the people if they had e.g. tried to banish him from their country. And yet the poem never seems to acknowledge that his accusers and haters basically had a point.

In any case, the main problem with the whole story is the underlying premiss, which is completely unfixable: the whole thing is based on the idea of original sin and on the need for Jesus/god to be reincarnated and killed in a kind of expiation for it. That is one of the most absurd, abominable, despicable ideas that anybody has ever come up with, and yet it underlies the whole story; nothing in it makes sense without this. So you can't help constantly being reminded of it as you read, and this ruined the whole poem for me.

I imagine that a more tolerant reader who doesn't share my robust dislike of these underlying ideas from christian theology might be able to relax and enjoy reading this poem better than I did. As for me, reading it mostly just confirmed my pre-existing opinion that christian mythology is far more annoying as the Greek, as it is equally absurd but much less charming.

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Sunday, November 16, 2014

BOOK: Jacopo Sannazaro, "Latin Poetry"

Jacopo Sannazaro: Latin Poetry. Translated by Michael J. C. Putnam. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 38. Harvard University Press, 2009. 9780674034068. xxv + 562 pp.

Sannazaro was a poet from Naples who lived in the late 15th and early 16th century. The translator's introduction includes a short overview of his career as a poet, which I found very interesting. His first work was in Italian, a pastoral book called Arcadia in a mixture of prose and verse; this was very influential and it's what he's best known for nowadays. But after that, all the rest of his work was in Latin; he seems to have regarded this transition as a form of progress, moving from Italian to Latin was a step forward in his development as a poet. It seems somewhat sad that even as late as 1500, after so much good literature had already been written in Italian, authors such as Sannazaro still seemed to regard it as somehow inferior and felt that only work written in Latin will really have enduring value. How mistaken they were in that — nowadays, we mostly remember Renaissance writers for the work they've done in living languages, not in Latin.

The Virgin Birth

This is an epic poem of almost 1500 lines, divided into three books. In book 1, god decides to make Mary pregnant and sends an angel to explain this to her. In book 2, Mary stays for a while at a relative's house and then travels with her husband Joseph to his birth-place, Bethlehem, as required by a census decreed by the emperor Augustus. However, as they can't find a place to stay in the town, she ends up giving birth in a nearby cave. In book 3, god sends various angels, shepherds etc. to celebrate the new-born baby Jesus, and the [tutelary deity of the] river Jordan expounds a long prophecy of his future achievements.

Considering the material, this wasn't as boring as I feared it would be. It was interesting to see this odd mixture of christian and pagan elements; Sannazaro switches very nonchalantly from the christian god and angels to pagan nymphs and back all the time; refers to the christian god as the “Thunderer” and addresses Mary as a “goddess”; there are a few mentions of the underworld, which seems to be a mixture of christian and pagan elements, etc.

It was also somewhat interesting to read this for the sake of the story itself, as I had never read any collections of biblical tales (or indeed the bible itself). On the other hand, Sannazaro probably assumed that his readers would be familiar with this stuff already, and as a result I occasionally found the story a little hard to follow.

Another downside was that, as often seems to be the case in shorter epics, there was less plot and action, but lots more speeches, than I'd ideally prefer. There is of course also the obligatory epic catalogue, namely in 2.125–234: after mentioning that Augustus had ordered a census, Sannazaro enters into a long and detailed list of Roman provinces, going pretty systematically in a counterclockwise direction. The list struck me as somewhat optimistic: apparently, even “the Cilician pirate” (2.134) will submit to the census, and “Anyone discovered in the empty desert is also enrolled” (2.207) :))

Like I suppose many other irreverent non-believers, I was of course greatly intrigued by the concept of a virgin birth, and was curious how Sannazaro would explain its mechanics. These are described in 2.369–76: “His nourishing mother had felt no stirring within her vitals or assaulting blows of a weight in descent. Her innards clung tight with bonds unmoved, much as when panels of glass receive the limpid sun. Indeed the light itself passes through [. . .] The panes remain unscathed, permeable by no blast of wind or storm, but vulnerable only to Phoebus's rays.”

Like many translations of poetry in the ITRL series, this one is also entirely in prose, but this time the prose felt reasonably poetic and wasn't unpleasant to read. I was also extremely impressed by the translator's notes, which point out countless instances where some line or phrase in Sannazaro is an echo of something from the work of some ancient Roman poet. This must have taken a huge effort to gather, and for the right sort of reader it will probably be extremely valuable.

I mostly found it interesting as an indication of the not-so-hidden costs of writing poetry in a dead language such as Latin: when asking themselves questions such as ‘can I start a line with such and such a phrase?’, ‘can I use such and such a metaphor?’ etc., the neo-Latin poets couldn't rely on a native ear for the language nor on an existing community of speakers, because the language was thoroughly dead; so the only way to be sure that you could do something was to check if some ancient Roman poet had already done it before you. They had little choice but to chew through the same limited corpus of authentic ancient Roman poetry again and again in search of elementary building blocks for their own works. I imagine that neither the poets nor their readers could long put up with this level of derivativeness, which I guess explains why writing poetry in Latin quickly fell out of favour after the Renaissance.

Piscatory Eclogues

This is a sequence of five poems, with a fragment of a sixth, that is an interesting variation on the theme of pastoral poetry: as the title suggests, they are set amongst fishermen instead of shepherds. But apart from that, it's fairly typical pastoral poetry and as the translator's notes show, for each of these poems you can find clear parallels in the work of ancient Greek and/or Roman poets.

Some poets liked to use pastoral poetry as a kind of code to comment on real people and events, with the characters in the poem being thinly-veiled versions of some real person etc., but here in Sannazaro's eclogues this mostly doesn't seem to be the case. That suited me just fine as I'm not particularly fond of literature a clef.

I liked the diversity of form in these poems: some are sung by a single narrator, in some there's two characters taking turns and trying to out-do each other, etc. My favorite among these eclogues was the fifth one, in which we see a witch cooking up a love-potion to charm a man who has hitherto been indifferent to her. I always liked scenes of sorcery; it's easy to make them seem exciting, and it makes for a pleasant change from the otherwise somewhat more leisurely tone of pastoral poetry.

A nice line from the fourth eclogue (line 91): “To be at peace in one's fatherland is welcome, but earth is everyone's grave.”

The Willows

This poem is based on one of those just-so stories with which Greek mythology was so fond of explaining the origin of various things, animals, plants and so on. In fact I don't know if Sannazaro actually based his poem on an existing Greek myth, or just invented a story of his own in the same style.

Anyway, a group of satyrs and other such horny goat-like guys invites a group of nymphs to a dance, going out of their way to reassure them that of course they won't try to molest them or anything of that sort. The nymphs' hesitant trust is soon betrayed as the satyrs start chasing them around. In desperation, they flee to a river bank, where apparently the best thing the gods can do to help them is to turn them into willows — which is why willows nowadays lean so towards the water, away from the direction where the satyrs would have been coming from. You might think that a few well-measured lightning bolts directed at the satyrs would have been a better solution, but then Greek gods are not really known for being reasonable and helpful. We can only hope that none of the satyrs was a dendrophiliac.

As is often the case with old myths and fairy-tales and the like, the more you think about it, the more horrible it is. At first it seems like a whimsical tale of the origin of willows, but on second thought it's the story of an attempted rape on a large scale; it continues with a dramatic chase scene; and ends with a grisly bit of supernatural body horror as we see a detailed description of how the nymphs' bodies turn into wood! Brrrrr.

Later he has a similar poem about the origin of the mulberry (Elegies 2.4), and another transformation into a tree occurs in Epigrams 1.48 (this time it's a boy named Cyparissus; the god Apollo sighs: “O woods, why are you expanding at the expense of my sorrow? You have Daphne, you have Cyparissus.”).

By the way, if you want more willow-themed horror, there's an excellent weird tale by Algernon Blackwood called The Willows.

Elegies

These are shorter poems on miscellaneous subjects; there's plenty of poems in praise of various friends and patrons, some are on mythological subjects, some are occasional pieces, etc. On the whole, this was perhaps my least favorite part of this book, but a few of these elegies were enjoyable anyway:

1.1, on his contentment with being a minor love-poet rather than a great epic one; there are a few very nice romantic lines (55–64): “We wretched lovers are not tormented for gold or for jewels. He who can persuade his mistress will be rich. [. . .] What use a couch remarkable for its down or for its purple, unless a dear girl rests in my lap” etc.

1.3 is a touching poem on love and mortality: the poet hopes to pre-decease his mistress to spare himself the pain of living without her, and urges her not to waste time while they are still both young.

A lovely epitaph for the poet himself, 1.10.23–4: “Here, I, Actius, lie. My hope rests extinguished with me./ Only Love remains after our death.”

2.2, on the poet's birthday, in which he looks forward to his learned friends from the Academy coming to visit him; 2.4, a myth on the origins of the mulberry tree; 2.9, in which the ruins of the famous ancient city of Cumae near Naples lead him to reflect on how some day even Rome and his beloved Naples will fall into ruin; 2.10, which seems to have been written to accompany a gift of pomegranates sent to a friend: the apples sing in the first person and proclaim themselves as superior to gems, for fruit, unlike gems, does not turn the human mind towards greed and violence.

I was amused by the clever doing-it-while-pretending-not-to in 2.1, dedicated to Alfonso of Aragon: to paraphrase, the poem goes ‘if only I had more talent as a poet, how I would praise you — I would say’ and about 100 lines in praise of Alfonso follow at that point :P

Epigrams

This is a large number of even shorter poems, including many very enjoyable ones.

1.6, in which he's asking his mistress for “six hundred kisses” (l. 1), and very passionate ones too: “I yearn to grip your whole tongue, thrust between my wet little lips” (ll. 11–12) etc. There's another poem about kissing later (1.57, inspired by Catullus).

1.20: “When Poggio praises his country, when he excoriates its enemy, he is neither a bad citizen nor a good historian.” According to the Wikipedia, Poggio's history of Florence was a kind of continuation of Bruni's history.

From 1.31, after observing that ink is made from rust and vinegar: “Nile, this is to surpass your Pyramids! Unfortunate fate! So the juice of rust snatches our reputations from the hateful pyre?” (ll. 4–6)

From 1.35, praising Venice more highly than Rome: “If you prefer the Tiber to the sea, cast your eye on both cities. You will say that men built that one, the gods this.” (ll. 5–6)

1.40 is a funny satire of a type of person that is still common nowadays: someone who goes to extremes in scrimping and saving in his everyday life so that he can afford some extravagant bit of conspicuous consumption. In Sannazaro's poem, bonus hilarity comes from the fact that the conspicuous consumption in question is — an extra fancy grave! The project is described in great, sarcastic detail; Vetustino buys a big plot of land, hires architects, constantly changes his mind about the plans for his mausoleum, etc. :))

1.53 is a fine invective against Cesare Borgia: “Cesare, the apple of his father's eye, and his sister's, the charm, the serenity, the pleasure of his brothers, that dear little boy of the Vatican Mount, [. . .] that defiler and adulterer of his sister, the ruin, disease, and doom of his brothers, abominable beast of the Vatican Mount, who, not long ago, tainted with crime and with the evils of pillage, swallowed five hundred cities” (ll. 7–16) etc. etc.

1.56, on his birthday, ends on a bittersweet epicurean note: “Poor wretches, do we foresee what the morrow's light threatens? Let us live. No one can deceive death.” (ll. 11–12)

1.61 is about Angelo Poliziano (the name sounded familiar to me, and I eventually realized that I read an ITRL volume of his oddly pedagogical poems a few years ago; see my post from back then) and his researches into what Catullus's sparrow really stood for. (This seems to have been quite a popular topic; I already heard about it in the ITRL volume of the poems of Pontano, an older friend of Sannazaro's; see my post from back then.)

2.4 is poking fun at some guy who was hoping to win the poet's friendship by some gifts of vegetables, and thus get immortalized in verse: “O Matho, how fortunate you are to have discovered both friend and bard, how fortunate in your vegetable patch and its offerings, if, what so many valorous deeds have scarcely created for the offspring of the gods, lettuce and greens will produce for you.” (ll. 9–13)

2.10 and 2.12 are humorous quatrains featuring characters from classical mythology. On seeing Venus attempting to wield weapons, Priapus shouts “in his wanton voice, “Put them down. This is the equipment that more befits those hands of yours.’ ” :))) (2.12.3–4)

But some are much more sombre: 2.43, in which a mother mourns her only son: “Why, alas, did my parents falsely name me Laetitia [gladness] who ought to have called me Tristitia [sadness]? [. . .] compare me with Niobe whose lot has this better outcome: she was able to turn to stone.”

In 3.6, oracles tell Euno that he “will stand above kings and over dukes” — and sure enough, he did, by getting crucified.

3.8 is a short and sweet epigram against pope Leo X: “If by chance you ask why in his last hour Leo wasn't able to take the sacraments: he had sold them.”

*

All in all, this was quite an enjoyable book. The poems here have a great variety in terms of length, genre, form, theme etc., and many of them were pleasant to read. The translations, as usually in the ITRL series, are in prose, but by now I've got mostly used to this so it didn't bother me much. I hope I'll some day get to read Sannazaro's Italian pastoral tale, the Arcadia, as well.

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Sunday, November 09, 2014

BOOK: Marsilio Ficino, "Commentaries on Plato" (Vol. 2)

Marsilio Ficino: Commentaries on Plato. Vol. 2: Parmenides, Part I. Edited and translated by Maude Vanhaelen. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 51. Harvard University Press, 2012. 9780674064713. lxii + 286 pp.

Marsilio Ficino: Commentaries on Plato. Vol. 2: Parmenides, Part II. Edited and translated by Maude Vanhaelen. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 52. Harvard University Press, 2012. 9780674064720. v + 408 pp.

A wise man once said that happiness depends on the difference between your expectations and reality. After my recent experiences with reading Ficino's commentary on Plato's Phaedrus, I adjusted my expectations a bit before taking up his commentary on Plato's Parmenides. As a result, this was not nearly as unpleasant to read as I had feared at first.

My suspicions about the Neoplatonists being more like a weird religious cult (which regarded some of Plato's more incoherent ramblings as a sort of holy scripture in need of careful (and highly imaginative) ‘interpretation’) than a bona fide intellectual effort were confirmed by the very interesting translator's introduction in the first volume, which mentions that they “established a tight connection between philosophy, theology, faith, and revelation” (p. viii); “they saw Platonism as a theology, a series of ‘revelations’ made by the gods, rather than as a rational discourse describing the place and role of men in the world”(p. ix). Ficino himself is no different, he “is interested in the mystical nature of the Parmenides, in the path that will enable the soul to ascend toward God” (p. xvii); he was “simply more concerned with mysticism (i.e., achieving union with God) than metaphysics (i.e., establishing a rational system to describe reality)” (p. xx). See also 44.1 for a particularly nice example of this tendency towards mysticism: “the light of the Good (if only we can perceive it) compels us to leave aside the intelligence and its formulae, the intellect, the Ideas and all the intelligible realities [. . .] we receive, or rather worship the light of the Good by closing the eyes of our intelligence”.

As a result of this, I basically resigned myself to the fact that not much of what Ficino writes is likely to make any sense to me. These people, the Neoplatonists, are not interested in understanding and describing anything real, at least not in the way I would understand the word ‘real’. They are, instead, building up an elaborate, rarefied, intellectual edifice, a castle in the sky, something which they claim to be a description of various increasingly abstract ‘higher’ levels of reality, but which is pretty obviously nothing but a messy assemblage of quasi-religious fictions pulled straight out of their asses.

What can you do when faced with a book like that? I suppose that a more assiduous, or patient, or intellectually honest, reader might at this point dedicate a huge amount of time and effort to an earnest study of various areas of philosophy until he perhaps got to the point of actually understanding what Ficino is trying to say and no longer regarding his writings as largely nonsensical verbiage. That would be commendable, and I'm sure that such readers do exist, and they would then no doubt profit greatly from reading Ficino's book.

But I'm not one of those readers, so I took up the other, obvious, easy way out: I simply suspended my disbelief, much like I would do in reading a work of fiction. When you read a fantasy novel, you don't scream internally at the author that he's an idiot because dragons obviously don't exist, and if they did they couldn't fly because their wings are too small, and they couldn't breathe fire because of some law of thermodynamics or another, etc. etc. etc. You simply accept the fire-breathing flying dragon as a fact within the fictional world of that book and keep on reading.

Using the same approach here, Ficino's commentary on Plato becomes a not unpleasant, if somewhat anaemic and plotless, fictional tale exploring a very odd and abstract imaginary world. I almost felt a sort of relief; no longer did I feel the urge to scream, after every other sentence in the book, that this makes no sense, that this isn't real, that this is a lousy argument, that this is wishful thinking, that he's using terms which he hadn't bothered to define, etc., etc., etc. I could simply take note of what he was saying as if it made sense within his imaginary world, and move on with it, much like you can accept a fire-breathing dragon in a fantasy novel and keep reading.

I suppose you might say that there's little point in reading a work of philosophy that way, and I wouldn't dare to disagree; I think of it as a desperate, but not entirely unsuccessful, effort for me to get at least a little something out of the book. You might say that in this case it would have been better for me not to read it at all, and again I wouldn't disagree with that either, but it just so happens that I'm trying to read more or less everything in the I Tatti Renaissance Library series, and so I had to find some sort of way to cope with Ficino's platonic commentaries as well. (Indeed the only ITRL books I've really skipped so far were also by Ficino, namely the six volumes of his Platonic Theology. Perhaps I'll take them up some day after all, using a similar approach that I used here for his Parmenides commentary.)

*

Anyhow, when read in this way, you have to admit that Ficino's Neoplatonic fictional world is not devoid of charm and imagination. It's basically the sort of thing that you can expect a philosopher to come up with if he's trying to design a religion. In a regular real-world religion that has grown more or less organically from hazy, semi-mythical beginnings, you invariably end up with a bizarre mixture of abstract, high-faluting ideas and very concrete (and invariably ridiculous) bronze-age superstitions and rules about things like shrimp consumption, circumcision, stoning of adulterers and the like — horrible rules, with horrible real-life consequences, that seem like a world away from the lofty and high-minded elements of a religion.

In Neoplatonism on the other hand, since it was designed by philosophers, the real-life part of it seems largely absent, at least from books like Ficino's (though the actual ancient Greek Neoplatonists did seem to have a set of real-life religious rituals to go along with their pseudo-philosophical beliefs; see Theurgy). A kind of mathematical sterility reigns here; you can while away a pleasant half-an-hour here and there by immersing yourself in their imaginary world, and all this without anybody trying to use it as an excuse to impose messy real-life religious constraints on you.

Now, I suppose that for those who really want this sort of thing, there are other providers that do an even better job of this than the Neoplatonists do, which is why nowadays in the real world you can see lots of new-age kooks of various descriptions, but no real-world Neoplatonists. Still, for someone like me, who am not really in the market for a new-age cult, reading this book was at least a pleasant glimpse into an imaginary conception of things which was utterly alien and different from anything else I might encounter in my real life.

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Perhaps part of the appeal for someone like me is that I'm a sucker for hierarchies in fiction, even though I know how horrible and harmful they are in reality. And Neoplatonists are all about hierarchy; everything here is about how one thing precedes another, is higher or lower than another etc.; they split everything into levels and sublevels and so on. At the top level, they have a very curious ‘principle of unity’, usually called ‘the One’, which is basically like a god designed for people who find ordinary gods too messy to deal with :P

Ficino frequently mentions how ineffable the One is and how it's easier to make assertions about what it isn't like than about what it is like (negative theology, see introduction p. xii; and 33.3: “you should not understand negation as a defect, but rather as an excess”, i.e. when these people say that the One/god is not X, they mean that it's because it's so much more than X). The One “is ineffably super-eminent by virtue of its incomparable simplicity” (68.3)! Of course, that doesn't mean that he objects when Parmenides, in Plato's dialogue, proves all sorts of nonsensical and self-contradictory claims about the One; if anything, this just makes it more inscrutable and thus more impressive. Ficino seems to be quite happy to suggest that the One should mostly just be contemplated in silence (47.10), and says that “in the Letters, Plato forbids inquiry about anything regarding the first principle of all things” (61.3). You might imagine that a philosopher would be uncomfortable with a concept that is so poorly accessible to thought, but their enthusiasm for it just shows that these people were more about religion and mysticism than about anything having to do with rational thought :)

Ficino has some clever arguments about why the One precedes being and thus the true principle of everything is unity rather than being (2.3). Of course I couldn't help wondering why there should even be some sort of single underlying principle of everything — but there I go, breaking out of my suspension of disbelief again when I shouldn't.

There's an impressively incoherent paragraph (57.7) in which he tries to argue that the Neoplatonic principle of the One is not incompatible with the christian concept of the holy trinity. The same problem had of course already been encountered long before that by christian theologians who no doubt found the idea of trinity to be somewhat of an embarassment to their claims that christianity is monotheistic :P So Ficino resorts to theological wharrgarble: “According to the theologians Gregory of Naziance and Nicholas [of Methone], the divine Trinity is exempt from these conditions. [. . .] So the Trinity is the property of unity, without, however, partaking of unity or being united through partaking of it; it is naturally the innermost part of unity” (wahaha! so now unity has parts, all of a sudden?) etc. etc.

Whatever you might say about the One, at least it seems to have a strong presence in Plato's original dialogue. It is less obvious to me where the Neoplatonists got the lower levels of their hierarchy. Parmenides spends much of the latter part of the dialogue discussing the consequences of the existence or nonexistence of the One, both in relation to itself and to other things. Ficino says that these various hypotheses correspond to the various levels of the Neoplatonic hierarchy: intellect, soul, form and matter, though I suspect that the connection between these terms and the ordinary meanings of these words is rather vague and distant at best. Judging by the translator's notes at the end of the book, he picked most of this stuff up from the ancient Neoplatonists like Plotinus and Proclus; the impression I got was that these people may have started out with a few vague references in various works by Plato (not just the Parmenides) but then added a good deal of their own ideas (and managed to market them as commentaries on Plato).

One pleasantly bizarre idea that he borrowed from Proclus are “henads”, which are a mechanism whereby the One conveys unity to other things: “the absolute One generates the excellent and divine unities [or henads], which are also called gods, before creating the unions immanent in things, which are akin to these things and unify them” (52.2).

Occasionally even Ficino admits that the ancient Neoplatonists went a bit overboard in their mania to systematize everything: “If you find it tedious to read the way in which these orders are distinguished in Syrianus and Proclus, as it is certainly tedious for me to relate it [. . .]” (94.2); “I reject this distinction, which they pursue in a manner that is more laborious than useful” (94.3) :))

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While reading this book, I couldn't help feeling that a lot of it illustrates the pitfalls of rushing with philosophical speculation into areas about which we have an inadequate knowledge and understanding (although I suppose I shouldn't complain, as that sort of thing is exactly what philosophy is for).

For example, consider the platonic Ideas. Apparently, Plato and his followers insisted that these aren't just convenient mental abstractions, but some sort of things that really existed in a kind of higher world of their own, and which generate the things in our ‘sensible’ world (i.e. the ordinary real world which we perceive with our senses) like some kind of templates (or “paradigms”, to use a word that occurs frequently in this translation of Ficino). Interestingly, Ficino insists that ideas only apply to natural objects, not man-made ones (ch. 9).

And so Ficino talks about the “Idea of man” (4.1) as the template for the entire “human species, which is eternal” (4.1); and you could likewise have the idea of a horse (4.5) and I imagine also of a dog and of any other animal species. But nowadays we know that species are hardly eternal. If you go back a few tens of millions of years, me and Fido the dog probably have a common ancestor somewhere around that time. You could line up this large number of individuals, starting with me and going up my family tree to that common ancestor, and then going down from him all the way to Fido. Each individual in this chain is a parent or child of the previous one, so they will be very similar. And yet the first few individuals in this list are me and my immediate ancestors, based on the idea of man, whereas the last few are Fido and his immediate ancestors, based on the idea of dog. So at some point in this sequence, you must suddenly have an individual who is based on the idea of man but the next individual, who is his child or his parent, isn't based on the idea of man but on something else (perhaps the idea of dog or of something intermediate).

This is the sort of absurdities that you get if you insist that ideas are something more than mere arbitrary mental abstractions. I wouldn't hold this too much against Plato and his followers, of course, since they didn't know about the theory of evolution yet in those days. But I admit that I'm surprised that they didn't think of similar objections that could be observed even without modern science. For example, they could compare domesticated animals and their wild relatives, with whom they could in many cases still interbreed. How would you justify having separate ideas of dogs and wolves, but not separate ideas for each breed of dogs? If you admit the latter, how can you justify not having a separate idea for each individual specimen (which is something that Ficino explicitly rejects, ch. 8)? On the other hand, if you say that dogs and wolves are based on the same idea, why not humans as well? Where do you draw the line, and isn't it obvious how arbitrary these things are?

Similarly, when reading about the various complications about time and motion, I couldn't help feeling that these people would benefit greatly from some of our ‘modern’ (i.e. 19th-century) mathematical ideas about the continuum, real numbers, functions and the like.

Ficino also makes an interesting distinction between reason and intellect: “the intellect at once contemplates through a sort of gaze what reason viewed in multifarious ways through ratiocination, just as sight at once perceives a spherical object as round, while touch does so by touching the object more than once” (32.3). But I think from what we now know about how human vision works, his analogy is on shaky grounds. Our eyes have many cells that react to light coming from various directions, and our brains can process the signals from those cells in parallel. It isn't really any different than if you had a hundred hands and could touch all points on the sphere at the same time.

But what bothers me even more than that is that I suspect that his distinction between reason and intellect comes mostly from wishful thinking. It's so unsatisfying to imagine that plodding old reason, which comes to conclusions slowly and by many small and arduous steps, is actually the best we've got! Or sometimes it doesn't even come to a conclusion at all, but simply gives up when some task turns out to be too complex for our reason to handle. This is a bit depressing. And wouldn't it be wonderful if some other facility existed that, if we're lucky, would just comprehend things suddenly in an instant, brilliant flash of insight! And so he goes and makes up such a facility, calling it ‘intellect’. I can completely sympathize with this point of view, but I'm afraid it's little more than a pleasing fantasy anyway.

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Here's a curious passage from 5.5, which could be the basis for a science-fiction story: “under the Ideas of elements the immaterial elements in heaven occur before the material elements in the sublunar world: celestial lion, horse and tree, then elemental ones; under the Idea of man the celestial man comes first, then the aerial and terrestrial ones”. :))

There's an interesting passage on suicide in 46.4, as part of an argument why the Good is a higher principle than being: some people commit suicide “if they have absolutely no hope for good things [. . .] rejecting a life and an essence deprived of good — since they [only] liked them, assuredly, because of what was good in them”.

A refreshingly honest passage from 68.1, after remarking that Parmenides demonstrated that “the One is not other than the others, before showing that it is not the same as itself [139C]. Both propositions, however, cannot be grasped by ordinary people.” How very true :)))

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One curious thing about the translation is how often it uses the word “yonder”. In part 2 it occurs on pages 41, 55, 195, 229, 235, 267, 277 and 281; I think it's a bit rarer in part 1, and I didn't bother keeping track of it there. Don't get me wrong, I have a soft spot for quaint, obsolescent words myself, but the frequent use of “yonder” really stuck out like a sore thumb in the otherwise perfectly normal present-day English of this translation. I wonder if this use of “yonder” is a widespread thing in philosophy or just some sort of odd personal quirk by the translator.

Another curious usage occurs in the translator's notes in part 1, p. 241, where she “collated the text by autopsy”. I had never before given the word ‘autopsy’ much thought and never saw it used for anything other than the cutting up of a corpse, but now seeing it used here I realized that it must come from auto + opsy, (examining with) one's own eyes (the second part being the same as in Cyclops, who had one big cirular eye). But anyway, I couldn't resist imagining someone cutting up a manuscript with a scalpel :P

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In my post about Ficino's commentary on the Phaedrus I said that I didn't think it was terribly useful as a commentary because I didn't understand the dialogue any better after reading the commentary. Here in the case of the Parmenides, my impression was very different. A great deal of the Parmenides was more or less completely impenetrable to me; while here in Ficino's commentary on it, you can at least see some sort of structure in the whole thing. He makes it seem as if the various hypotheses discussed by Parmenides in the dialogue are parts of a larger system. From reading the Parmenides, I couldn't even see if it was saying anything, much less what exactly it was trying to say; whereas here in Ficino's commentary I can at least see what he's saying, even though much of it seems rather nonsensical to me. “Parmenides frequently makes contradictory statements [. . .] I myself try to the best of my ability to make almost each statement fit and to advance probable interpretations” (98.4), and I can't help thinking he did a pretty damn good job considering the utter incoherence of so much of Plato's Parmenides :)

I particularly liked his discussion of what does it mean to consider the consequences of supposing that something does not exist (36.1): “one does not actually suppose that the intellect or the soul are absolutely not [. . .] but one rather supposes that this thing called ‘intellect’ or ‘soul’ is not properly intellect or soul, but is, or is imagined to be, something else”, and the same is done when supposing that the One does not exist (see the end of the same paragraph).

I can't help wondering to what extent Plato would actually have recognized his own thoughts in these commentaries; the elaborate systems invented by the Neoplatonist ‘commentators’ seem to sometimes have only a very vague relationship to what Plato actually wrote. There's a funny remark in 52.3 where Ficino himself admits that he can't see the connection between a certain passage from Plato and Proclus's ‘interpretation’ of it: “Proclus also invites us to observe (something which, to tell the truth, I myself find extremely difficult to observe) the way in which these divine orders are introduced in the second hypothesis” etc. :)

One of the more tasteless passages in the Parmenides is where Parmenides ‘proves’ that the One both is and isn't becoming older and younger than itself (152e). I was amused by the contortions Ficino went through in order to claim that this stuff makes some sort of sense after all: if e.g. Socrates is older than Plato by some fixed number of years, then as they both grow older, “Socrates' superiority in age in relation to Plato will progressively appear smaller [. . .] one can say that Socrates becomes younger in relation to Plato, and that Plato becomes older in relation to Socrates” (93.1).

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Anyway, I'm not sure what to say at the end of this post. I guess my experience demonstrates that with a bit of effort, even a stupid outsider like me can found at least something good in a book like this, even if it comes at the price of completely missing its point. In any case, all of this is thoroughly irrelevant since nearly all the other people that will pick up this book will be better equipped to understand it, and will read it to much better purpose and with much better profit than I have done.

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Saturday, October 25, 2014

KNJIGA: Platon, "Parmenid"

Platon: Parmenid. Prevedel Gorazd Kocijančič. V: Platon, Zbrana dela, študijska izdaja, II. knjiga, str. 393–429. Ljubljana: KUD Logos, 2009. 9789616519427.

Iz enakih razlogov kot pred nekaj tedni Fajdrosa sem se zdaj lotil še Parmenida. Izkaže se, da je ta dialog še precej manj privlačno napisan kot nekateri drugi; Platonova literarna žilica se kaže več ali manj le na začetku, večina dialoga pa je potem čista industrial-grade filozofska besedna solata. Že prevajalčev uvod vsebuje nekaj impresivnih fraz, za katere čisto nič ne dvomim, da kaj pametnega pomenijo, ampak ker meni pač manjka predznanja in/ali možganov, da bi jih razumel, sem se ob njih predvsem režal kot pečen maček: dialog nas „uvaja v središče srhljivo od-mišljene »protologije«, motrenja prvih Počel vseh stvari“ (str. 394; si predstavljate, da ljudem rečete, da se ukvarjate s protologijo, oni pa si mislijo tam en dodatni k in vas prosijo za usluge, ob katerih vam gredo lasje pokonci :))); „Proklos je v negativni henologiji, nauku o radikalno apofatičnem Absolutu prve hipoteze, videl »najbolj božansko navdihnjene nauke filozofije«“ (str. 395). Škoda, da se henologija ni izkazala za vedo o kokoših :P

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Nesmisli se potem začnejo že kar na drugi strani dialoga: „če je bivajočih stvari mnogo, bi morale biti podobne in nepodobne — to pa je nemogoče, kajti nepodobne stvari ne morejo biti podobne niti podobne nepodobne” (127e). Tako povzame Sokrat neko Zenonovo misel, ki jo potem kritizira — toda Sokratove pripombe se sploh ne dotaknejo tega, kar je po mojem mnenju najbolj očitno narobe v tej trditvi: besedi „podobno” in „nepodobno” uporablja tako, kot da sta to nekakšni lastnosti neke stvari same po sebi, ko pa je menda vendar očitno, da sta podobnost in nepodobnost lahko le odnosa med dvema ali več stvarmi (enaka zabloda se pojavi kasneje v 129a). Ena stvar je lahko nekaterim podobna, drugim pa nepodobna. (Da ne govorimo o tistem prvem „če“ — zakaj naj bi iz predpostavke „če je bivajočih stvari mnogo“ sledilo „bi morale biti podobne in nepodobne“? To je le zatrdil brez kakršnega koli argumenta.)

Po tem nič kaj spodbudnem začetku je šlo le še na slabše. Nekaj časa sem se še malo trudil, da bi iskal luknje v argumentih, kmalu pa sem nad vsem skupaj obupal in se sprijaznil s tem, da pač ničesar ne razumem. Začetni del dialoga je sicer še kar zanimiv — lepo je enkrat za spremembo videti, kako nekdo uporabi sokratovsko metodo proti Sokratu: tukaj Parmenid s kopico zvitih vprašanj vrta luknje v nauk o oblikah (eidosih oz. idejah).

Ta nauk se zdi tudi meni problematičen, vendar najbrž iz drugačnih razlogov kot Parmenidu. Kar se mene tiče, je glavni vir težav v tem, da ti ljudje opletajo z abstrakcijami, kot so oblike in ideje, hkrati pa se obnašajo, kot da bi bilo o njih smiselno govoriti na enak način kot o otipljivih, resnično obstoječih stvareh iz vsakdanjega življenja. Tako na primer govorijo o tem, da oblika „biva“ (131a; nikoli mi sicer ni bilo čisto jasno, zakaj filozofi temu ne rečejo z bolj normalno besedo „obstaja“), da je od nečesa „ločena“ (131b) oz. se nečesa „dotika“ (138a) in podobno. Saj ni čudno, da človek na ta način pride v nesmisle. Izrečeš lahko marsikaj, pa to še ne pomeni, da ima tista izjava sploh kakšen smisel (oz. kot pravi tista znana fraza, nekatere stvari ne le niso pravilne, ampak niti napačne niso).

Parmenid lepo opiše primer, kako do oblike pridemo z nekakšno miselno abstrakcijo:* „ko se ti neko mnoštvo zdi veliko, se ti, ko to uzreš, morda zdi, da nad vsemi resničnostmi biva ena, ista uzrtost [= ideja], in zaradi tega meniš, da je Veliko nekaj en(ovit)ega” (132a). Toda če si potem misliš to idejo Velikega skupaj z vsemi konkretnimi velikimi stvarmi, si lahko predstavljaš, da za vsem tem skupaj zdaj stoji ena še večja ideja velikega in tako naprej (132a), tako da se ti takoj nakopiči neskončna vrsta vse večjih oblik — Parmenid to omenja kot slabost nauka o oblikah, čeprav se meni ni zdelo očitno, da je s tem kaj narobe. Podobne konstrukcije niso na primer v matematiki nič neobičajnega; Cantor je v teoriji neskončnih števil s takšnimi prijemi prišel do krasnih stvari. To je neugodno le, če imaš pač fiksacijo s tem, da hočeš imeti nek lepo majhen in pregleden nabor oblik.

[*V knjigi s prevajalčevimi opombami sem našel sicer naslednji zelo zanimivi odlomek: „Ne gre preprosto za abstrakcijo v našem smislu, ampak dejansko za paradoksno videnje nevidljivega. Naše težave z razumevanjem Platonove tematizacije eidosov izvirajo iz tega, da njegovi spisi predpostavljajo uzrtje nevidljivih, bivajočih resničnosti, medtem ko je za sodobni [. . .] common sense tisto skupno, kar veže mnogotero v enost, zgolj logična abstrakcija, posledica miselnega procesa odvzemanja in posploševanja“ (str. 1124).]

S podobnim razmislekom Parmenid zatrjuje, da „stvari niso udeležene v oblikah po podobnosti, ampak moramo iskati nekaj drugega, v čemer so udeležene“ (133a), kajti podobne stvari so gotovo udeležene v isti obliki, in če je oblika nekih stvari podobna tem stvarem, potem morajo biti tako ta oblika kot te stvari skupaj udeležene v neki novi obliki (prek katere so si podobne) in spet tako naprej v neskončnost (132d–133a). Toda tu se mi zdi, da je neupravičeno predpostavil, da podobnost med več konkretnimi stvarmi deluje po enakem mehanizmu kot podobnost med temi stvarmi in njihovo obliko; ampak samo zato, ker uporabljamo obakrat enako besedo, še ne pomeni, da gre za isti pojav. [P.S. Kasneje sem z zadovoljstvom opazil, da enak pomislek omenja tudi Ficino v svojem komentarju k Parmenidu, 27.2]

Potem ima še en zelo domiseln argument. Parmenid pravi, da so oblike v odnosih z drugimi oblikami, ne s konkretnimi stvarmi, in obratno; na primer, če je človek A suženj človeka B, je to odnos med konkretnima človekoma; in po drugi strani obstaja ideja sužnja, ki je povezana z idejo gospodarja; ni pa človek A suženj ideje gospodarja, niti ni človek B gospodar ideje sužnja (133d–134a). No, zdaj si pa v tem razmisleku namesto sužnja in gospodarja mislimo védenje in resnico, pa pridemo do zaključka, da imamo mi tule lahko le neko konkretno vedenje o konkretnih stvareh, ne pa o ideji resnice — s slednjo je lahko v odnosu le ideja védenja. Ideje so torej za nas nespoznatne (134b–c). Ta zaključek mi je všeč, se pa pri tem argumentu vseeno počutim nekako prinešenega okoli :) Z istim argumentom Parmenid celo zatrjuje, da bogovi (ki očitno tudi živijo v svetu idej) ne morejo ničesar vedeti o našem konkretnem svetu in imeti nobenega vpliva nanj (134d–135a).

Toda čeprav je Parmenid ves čas opozarjal na težave nauka o oblikah, to še ne pomeni, da se mu zdijo oblike problematične; nasprotno, zdijo se mu nujne: kdor „ne bo dopustil, da oblike bivajočih stvari bivajo, in za sleherno stvar ne bo opredelil nobene oblike, tudi ne bo mogel kamor koli obrniti (svojega) razuma [. . .] in tako bo povsem uničil zmožnost pogovora“ (135b–c). Ampak po mojem bi bilo treba najti neko srednjo pot med tem, da se abstraktnemu mišljenju popolnoma odpovemo, in tem, da o miselnih abstrakcijah (kot so oblike) govorimo na tak način, kot bi o resnično obstoječih konkretnih stvareh.

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Kakorkoli že, to doslej je bil šele prvi, krajši del dialoga. Parmenid potem reče Sokratu, da bo te reči bolje razumel z nekaj več filozofskega treninga, pri katerem je treba razmišljati o vseh možnih posledicah, ki bi jih obstoj ali neobstoj ene stvari imel na vse druge stvari. Preostanek dialoga je potem primer take debate (oz. pravzaprav serije stavkov, po vsakem od njih pa „sogovornik“ Parmenidu le pritrdi), v kateri Parmenid razpravlja o posledicah tega, da Eno obstaja, ali pa tega, da Eno ne obstaja. Pri tem takorekoč na vsakem koraku popolnoma hladnokrvno in v isti sapi vleče zaključke, ki drug drugemu nasprotujejo, kot da bi bila to najbolj normalna stvar na svetu: „Eno ne bo niti drug(ačn)o niti isto s samim seboj niti z drug(ačn)im“ (139e); Eno je „podobno in nepodobno sebi in drugim resničnostim“ (147c); „nebivajoče Eno nastaja in propada, pa tudi ne nastaja in ne propada“ (163b); „najsi Eno biva ali ne biva, ono in druge resničnosti — v odnosu do sebe in med seboj — vsekakor bivajo in ne bivajo ter se kažejo in ne kažejo (kot) vse“ (166c).

Človek bi pričakoval, da se bo že pri prvem takem paradoksalnem zaključku ustavil in pomislil: hej, nekaj je očitno hudo narobe! Ampak on se za takšne malenkosti ne meni in gre veselo naprej. Več kot očitno je, da nisem dovolj pameten, da bi razumel te stvari, v tolažbo pa mi je lahko vsaj dejstvo, da po vsem videzu sodeč tudi mnogo pametnejšim ljudem od mene niso najbolj jasne: “A satisfactory characterisation of this part of the dialogue has eluded scholars since antiquity”, pravi Wikipedija. Vse skupaj se mi je zdelo kot takorekoč izvrsten primer mentalne masturbacije, ki ji je do popolnosti manjkal le še obilen bukkake na koncu.

Še en primer zelo sumljive argumentacije iz tega dela dialoga: Eno „ni celota niti nima delov“, kajti če bi imelo dele, potem ne bi bilo Eno, ampak mnoštvo; in če bi bilo celota, celota pa je „to, od česar ni odsoten noben del“, no, potemtakem bi Eno tudi tedaj imelo dele in ne bi bilo Eno (137c–d). To, da celota mora imeti dele, se mi zdi malo problematično; a za neko nedeljivo stvar pa ne bi mogli reči, da je celota? Pa tudi, samo zato, ker je o celotah in delih smiselno govoriti pri otipljivih rečeh iz vsakdanjega življenja, to še ne pomeni, da je smiselno o njih govoriti tudi pri tako abstraktnih pojmih, kot je Eno. Že res, da nam naš jezik omogoča, da pomen nekaterih besed malo metaforično raztegnemo z bolj konkretnih področij na bolj abstraktna, tako da lahko na primer o delu in celotah govorimo ne le pri človeku in drevesu, ampak tudi pri letu ali zgodbi ali čem podobno abstraktnem; ampak to pa še ne pomeni, da ne bodo te metafore sčasoma postale nesmiselne, če jih bomo nategovali v nedogled. Parmenid nam takoj čisto resno postreže s takim nesmislom: Eno „ni niti ravno niti krožno, saj niti nima delov“ (137e–138a). Kasneje podobno govori o tem, da se Eno premika (138c) ali da se nečesa dotika (148e).

Še ena ekstremna bizarnost: Eno „postaja vedno od samega sebe starejše, če napreduje v skladu s časom“ in ker „starejše postaja starejše, ko (tisto, kar je od njega) mlajše postaja mlajše“, lahko zaključimo, da Eno „postaja od sebe mlajše in starejše“ (152a–b). In njegov sogovornik seveda spet le prikimava kot zombi, namesto da bi skočil pokonci: to je spet očitna zloraba besed. Eno ob času t je res starejše kot Eno ob času t − 1; ampak ali je zato že smiselno reči, da je Eno starejše od samega sebe? Čim hočemo primerjati stvari po starosti, moramo upoštevati, v katerem trenutku jih gledamo, in potem „Eno ob času t“ in „Eno ob času t − 1“ že nista več ena in ista stvar; pravzaprav tudi nista več ista stvar kot Eno kar tako, neodvisno od časa. Ne dvomim v to, da bi se o teh rečeh dalo narediti zanimivo filozofsko debato, ampak Parmenid tu tega ne naredi, on le dirka naprej s svojim rokohitrstvom in upa, da ne bomo opazili, kakšne neumnosti naklada.

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Skratka, če je bil prvi del dialoga nekako za silo še zanimiv, je pa tale drugi del, kar se mene tiče, čista polomija. Verjetno bi lahko kak pametnejši bralec z bolj primernim predznanjem od tega dialoga res kaj odnesel, meni pa ni ostalo drugega, kot da se držim za glavo.

Mimogrede, v enem detajlu je pa Platonova literarna žilica pri tem dialogu čisto odpovedala. V uvodu dialoga vidimo, da ga pripoveduje Kefal, ki ga je slišal od Antifonta, ta pa od Pitodora, ki je pogovoru med Parmenidom, Sokratom in ostalimi tudi dejansko prisostvoval. Skratka, Platon pričakuje, da bomo verjeli, da so si vsaj trije ljudje takorekoč na pamet zapomnili trideset strani izjemno kosmate filozofske argumentacije in da je to, kar zdaj poslušamo iz tretje ali četrte roke, zvesta podoba originalne debate. Saj razumem, da sme pisatelj od bralca pričakovati, naj malo zadrži svojo nejevero, ampak kar je preveč, je pa le preveč :)

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