Saturday, August 16, 2014

BOOK: Bartolomeo Scala, "Essays and Dialogues"

Bartolomeo Scala: Essays and Dialogues. Translated by Renée Neu Watkins, introduction by Alison Brown. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 31. Harvard University Press, 2008. 0674028260. xviii + 314 pp.

Scala was a 15th-century humanist author and in his day also a noted politician in Florence. This book contains six of his essays (some in the form of dialogues) on miscellaneous subjects, collected from various parts of his career. It was not an uninteresting read, but at the same time I can't say that I found Scala's essays terribly enlightening. I was however very impressed by their erudition, and got the feeling that people like Scala couldn't write anything without a few dozen references and allusions to ancient Greek and Roman authors. But this, although it is impressive, seems to me to be rather getting in the way of actual communication; instead of telling us his opinions plainly and directly, he feels that he has to bury them underneath all this classical scholarship.

In any case, I suspect that reading these things for the sake of their contents is the wrong approach anyway; the impression I got from reading the introduction of this book is that these essays are nowadays chiefly interesting to people who study how humanist ideas evolved over time and how the influence of certain ancient authors spread during the time of the renaissance.

On the Philosophical Sects

This is a short (about 15 pages) summary of various ancient Greek philosophers and their ideas. It was interesting enough to read, but did little to dispel my impression of philosophy as a somewhat sterile effort, one which involves lots of wrangling with words and bickering, but gains little wisdom.

I was particularly intrigued by his mention (¶3) that a Roman author named Varro had categorized the various philosophical sects according to several criteria into a system allowing up to 4 × 3 × 2 × 2 × 2 × 3 = 288 possible sects :S

I always imagined Plato's and Aristotle's ideas as being somehow fundamentally opposed, but Scala argues that they can be reconciled and that those two philosophical schools should really be considered one and the same (¶6).

Considering the time he wrote in, I guess we shouldn't be surprised that Scala's views have a bit of a christian bias: he praises philosophers that seem more compatible with christian beliefs (e.g. Plato and the Neoplatonists, ¶12) and criticizes those who aren't (e.g. Epicurus, ¶14). He even emphasizes that where some philosopher's ideas are incompatible with christian beliefs, the latter of course take priority (¶20).

Whether a Wise Man Should Marry

This is another of those things that give philosophy a bad name. It's obvious that a question like this cannot produce anything other than pointless back-and-forth with no clear resolution — though I suspect that for some people this is a feature rather than a defect.

Scala spends about half the essay arguing against marriage, and then the second half arguing in its favor, so that the conclusion is also in favor. In both parts his arguments mostly consist of quoting and summarizing what various ancient authors had to say on the topic. Epicurus says that wives might be either good or bad, so a wise man should avoid marrying since he can't be sure which way his wife would turn out to be (¶4–5). And Theophrastus says that “a wise man should never take a wife unless she is beautiful, of good character, and sprung from honorable parents” (¶6), which is again taken to be an argument against marriage since you can never be really sure about another person's character, and her beauty will inevitably fade anyway. Nor should you marry for the sake of having children, as they might turn out to be bad people (¶10); and you should most definitely not marry for love, as a wise man wants to have nothing to do with that sort of emotional disturbances anyway (¶13); far better to remain celibate and study philosophy instead.

One can't help thinking that, given these philosophers' ideas of how a wise man should think and act, it's far from clear why one would even want to be wise and act according to these ideas of theirs.

Then in ¶16, Scala makes a big ado about how he has by now no doubt offended various obscure Roman deities of marriage, and will therefore try to propitiate them by arguing in favor of marriage for the rest of the essay. He points out that people have a natural desire to marry and have children, and to fight against nature (by eschewing marriage) is not wise (¶18); and that even if marriage does have some bad sides as pointed above, a truly wise man (which seems to be something of a cross between a stoic and a zen buddhist) would not let himself be bothered by such trivialities as e.g. his wife being a tiresome scold and his children being annoying. And in any case, a wife might turn out to be a source of happiness: he cites numerous examples of good wives from ancient history, to prove that women are also capable of loyalty, courage and so on (¶20–5). In hindsight, it's rather sad that such things needed to be argued at such length; but I don't doubt that it was indeed necessary.

There's an interesting passage in ¶7, where Scala complains that one is expected to take a wife “without being shown anything of her first, either of her body, beyond her face, or her mind, than which nothing more is hidden”. This is a good illustration of how times have changed, and how irrelevant many of his concerns are from a present-day perspective; nowadays people usually live together for a long time before marrying, and get to know their partner's body and mind as well as one could reasonably hope to know such things.

Dialogue of Consolation

Scala presents this dialogue as a conversation between himself and Cosimo de' Medici, who was grieving after the death of his son; but I suspect that this is really just a treatise given the form of a dialogue, rather than something based on any real conversation, since Cosimo does most of the talking and he sounds more like a lecturer than a normal person having a conversation.

Just like in the previous essays, the two interlocutors here can't express any idea without piling up huge amounts of references from Greek and Roman literature (which, however, does not mean that they can't be robustly critical of ancient philosophers and their ideas). There's a little passage that illustrates just how deeply immersed these humanists were in ancient culture: Scala talks about gods in the plural so routinely (¶6) that Cosimo feels compelled to remark on that, pointing out how silly the polytheism of the ancients was (¶7); Scala replies that of course he knows that there is only one god, and he then waffles on something about the holy trinity (¶8). (I agree about polytheism being silly, by the way; but I wish they had realised that monotheism is just as silly.)

I particularly liked the part where Cosimo rejects the ideas of Stoics and Epicureans. He sensibly points out that the Stoics' ideas are simply unrealistic: you can't just ignore pain like they would have you do, and he mentions the example of one Dionysius of Heraclea, a former Stoic: “later, when he experienced pain in his kidneys, he said that everything taught in the Stoa was altogether false” (¶19). “They offered and taught things to men that men, being human, could not follow.” (¶21 — he is right; but isn't Jesus's ‘turn the other cheek’ equally unrealistic and useless advice?) And as for Epicureans, their idea of focusing on the pursuit of pleasure isn't really helpful to someone trying to cope with pain (¶25).

This is not to say that Cosimo has any more helpful ideas on how to cope with grief. He says, realistically enough: “in reality we are all unhappy. It is not easy for those in the prime of life, possessing honors and wealth in abundance and in good health, to believe this” (¶31). He tries to argue, not very convincingly, that harm can come even from things which are generally considered good, such as health and wealth (¶32–6). Misery and pain are simply a part of life, or even of human nature (¶39–43); this leads to an interesting discussion of how life itself is not necessarily a good thing (¶44–6) — something I am very much ready to agree with.

But finally he concludes with a step in which I cannot follow him: he finds consolation in religion, believing that life is going to be followed by a more pleasant afterlife (¶47–9). He even resorts to that hoary old bit of christian grotesqueness: “God established this [i.e. our misery and pain] for a very good reason, namely, so that being little attracted by the lures of this world, we might not forget that we must return to truer delights.” (¶49)

In ¶11, Cosimo mentions “the three kinds of gods posited by Scaevola, whom the Romans considered their most learned jurist — those invented by poets, those invented by philosophers, and those invented by the leaders of cities”. This reminded me of Gibbon's even more famous observation (and I wonder if he was influenced by Scaevola?), “The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.”

There's a funny anecdote about Philip of Macedon (Alexander's father) in ¶13: one day when he heard too much good news at the same time, he “raising his eyes to heaven, asked for some middling calamity to offset so much success” :)))

A hilarious factoid from ¶35: “Plato deliberately established the Academy in an insalubrious place, judging that health was an obstacle to philosophical studies” :))

Scala's own role in the dialogue is mostly limited to cheering Cosimo on and agreeing with him. At one point he is so convinced by Cosimo's arguments that he comes up with a sentence I would not have expected from anyone other than Oscar Wilde: “I am so affected by your words that I shall become perfectly willing to become wretched.” (¶37)

Preface to the “Cosimo de' Medici Collection”

Cosimo de' Medici, whom we encountered in the previous essay shortly after the death of his son, died himself about a year later. Scala then apparently compiled a book of quotations in praise of Cosimo, drawn from the works of various poets, orators and the like. (I imagine there must have been plenty of material of this sort, since Cosimo had been the de facto ruler of Florence for a long time and thus lots of people had probably been trying to suck up to him.) He sent this collection to Cosimo's grandson Lorenzo (later known as Lorenzo the Magnificent) and included this preface with it.

The preface doesn't really say much except praise Cosimo's life and achievements, both in the sphere of action as well as in that of learning, wisdom and even religion. Scala tries to give a broader implication to all this by saying that the example of Cosimo's life can be used to refute the claims of those who say that human life is too short to accomplish anything much.

I'm not quite sure what to think of this preface, or indeed of the whole collection that Scala was sending to Lorenzo. Is it a touching way for Scala to say goodbye to a dead man who had been not only his patron but perhaps his mentor and in a way even his friend, and to express condolences to the deceased man's grieving grandson? Or is it just the next ass-kissing step in a long series of ass-kissing steps, with Scala trying to ingratiate himself with the grandson of his former patron so as to make sure that he will stay on good terms with the next bigwig of the town?

For me, it's hard to be enthusiastic about the accomplishments of someone like Cosimo. Scala praises him for his public service but the truth is that his influence in Florence was almost like that of a monarch, even though the city was technically a republic; I think it's inevitably harmful when an individual person wields that much influence in politics. Likewise, when Scala praises him for endowing churches and libraries and the like, I think it's tragic that any individual was allowed to become so rich that he could make such donations in the first place; it makes him seem charitable whereas the truth is that he had no moral right to such wealth in the first place. Rather than relying on the hope that occasionally some rich person will do something charitable, the state should take such excesses of property away from them and make sure they are spent for the common good.

An interesting factoid from ¶10: in the libraries set up by Cosimo, there are “not only works in Latin and Greek, but in Hebrew, Arabic, Chaldaean, and Hindu”. I'm impressed; I didn't know they had any Hindu texts in Europe at the time. Cosimo died in 1464, well before the time of Vasco da Gama etc., so the texts must have reached Europe by land, not by sea.

Dialogue on Laws and Legal Judgments

This is a dialogue between Scala and Bernardo Machiavelli (the father of the better-known Niccolò), discussing the role of laws and their connection to justice. In the first half or so of the dialogue, Scala argues that having everything firmly fixed in the laws is not a good idea, and you should instead rely more on the human sense of justice, assuming of course that your judges do in fact possess it. In the second half of the dialogue, Machiavelli makes a strong defense in favor of laws, and Scala seems to be content to let him have the last word.

I guess this is one of those questions that doesn't have just one obvious correct answer. Even nowadays some countries incline more towards defining things very precisely in their laws, while others leave some more wiggle room and hope that details will gradually be sorted out by judicial predecent. I tend to be distrustful of judges, who are after all part of a self-perpetuating elite of experts, whereas the lawmakers are (at least theoretically) democratically elected representatives of the people, so I prefer for things to be defined in laws rather than left to the interpretation of judges and courts. But I do agree with Scala when he says, very sensibly: “if laws must be passed, they should be obeyed insofar as they do not contravene Nature's laws” (¶32), i.e. he suggests a middle ground between obeying laws to the letter and having no laws at all.

Both speakers in this dialogue use a few arguments that struck me as dodgy. Thus Scala tries to bolster his point of view using the example of that haven of justice and humanity, the Turkish empire! They, he says, dispense with most of the laws and even with lawyers; the pasha listens to the plaintiff and the defendant and then delivers the judgment based on his sense of justice. The only safeguard, it seems, is that you can complain to the sultan who will have the pasha brutally impaled on a stake if he feels that the judgment was unfair (¶11). How can it not have been obvious to Scala (and to anyone else) that this is a recipe for the most perverse and arbitrary tyranny that has nothing whatsoever to do with justice? (Machiavelli points that out as well, ¶55.)

On the other hand, Machiavelli also has a few odd ideas about laws. He seems to think there is an underlying Truth™ about what should be done in any particular legal question or situation, and the aim of the laws is to get as close to this Truth™ as possible; so that if a law gets it right, it's pretty much perfect and there's no reason to ever change it or do things otherwise (¶44–5). I'm surprised that he didn't recognize how a very large proportion of the laws is essentially arbitrary, even though he himself listed some examples of how laws and customs differ between cultures (¶35–6).

Both speakers occasionally invoke a curious type of ‘argument by etymology’, which would be odd even if the etymologies in question were correct, though they are more likely than not completely wrong. See e.g. ¶11, where Scala suggests that the Turkish pasha (which he spells bassias in the original Latin text) is derived from the Greek word for a king, basileus; and in ¶58, Machiavelli tries to illuminate the word jus (law) by reference to its various proposed etymologies. (See also a similar discussion of the word frater in essay no. 6, ¶28.)

Machiavelli mentions a few examples of bizarre laws: “Under the laws of Lycurgus, the ancient Spartans admired the ability to steal” (¶35). “There are others [i.e. other nations] who copulate in public, an act which philosophers of the Cynic school also endorse” (¶36). :)))

Defense against the Detractors of Florence

I didn't find this essay terribly interesting but I guess it made more sense in its original historical context. Scala starts with some remarks about how Florence was on the just and right side of some of the recent wars (I have no opinion on whether that was true or not, but then doesn't every country at war say such things?), but subsequently he mostly focuses on defending the political constitution of Florence.

He refers to one of the traditional divisions of states into monarchies, aristocracies and republics, and says that a republic is the best option because it's the least likely to degenerate into a tyranny (¶17). I basically agree, although some of his enthusiasm for democracy strikes me as a bit too optimistic, e.g. then he says that people will promote the public good because they will understand that this will also lead to their own personal good, etc. (¶23). Apparently some critics of Florence at the time were saying that it was too democratic, so Scala includes a few decent and sensible paragraphs about how it's a good idea to allow even farmers, craftsmen etc. to participate in politics (¶21). He does however point out that they don't allow just anyone, e.g. they exclude criminals, lunatics, foreigners, young people etc. (¶25).

The last part of the essay gets a bit weird. This was apparently the time when Savonarola had a big influence in Florence, and Scala attempts to defend that as well, partly by saying that priests and friars are after all good people too and should be admitted to politics on a similar basis as other parts of society (¶28), but partly also by the extremely ludicrous argument that prophets (Savonarola claimed to be one) receive insights into Truth™ from god and it would after all be foolish to disregard their wisdom (¶30–2).

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