Saturday, October 28, 2017

BOOK: Francesco Filelfo, "On Exile"

Francesco Filelfo: On Exile. Edited by Jeroen de Keyser, translated by W. Scott Blanchard. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 55. Harvard University Press, 2013. 9780674066366. xxvi + 485 pp.

This book reminded me a little of Pontano's dialogues, which I read a few months ago (see my post from back then). Filelfo's book is likewise presented in the form of dialogues, and although exile is nominally their main topic, the speakers tend to talk about a number of different things and jump from one subject to another often (though not as often as they did in Pontano's dialogues).

Like dialogues usually do, these have a bit of a back story, which is apparently closely tied up with the turbulent political life of 15th-century Florence. Cosimo de' Medici had gradually risen from being ‘merely’ a rich banker to become one of the most influential people in Florence; eventually, his opponents — who seem to have been mostly traditional aristocrats that resented the influence of this new upstart — managed to get him expelled from the city, but soon afterwards he got back and then it was his opponents' turn to be exiled. Filelfo's sympathies clearly lie with the anti-Medici faction, and several of its notable members appear as characters in this work; the dialogues are presented as conversations amongst them at a point in time when they have already been sentenced to exile but haven't actually departed from Florence yet.


Book I mostly consists of efforts by Palla Strozzi, one of the soon-to-be exiles, to comfort his son Onofrio, who complains bitterly about having to go into exile (1.17–18). I'm not really sure if there's anything one can usefully say to comfort a person in such a terrible situation, and Palla's efforts certainly didn't strike me as particularly useful. He mostly follows the ideas of ancient Stoic and Cynic philosophers and even goes so far as to quote a number of letters and anecdotes about Diogenes, after whose nickname Cyon (“the Dog”; 1.104–5) the whole school of cynicsm got its name.

I've ranted against stoicism a number of times before, so there's not much point in repeating myself yet again here. Its main underlying idea seems to be that you shouldn't get too attached to anything and then you won't have any reason to feel sad or upset. This is trivially obvious and also completely useless, because it's simply too much at variance with human nature (and sometimes at variance with elementary physiology; see one Theodorus claiming to be unfazed at the prospect of being crucified, 1.79). One might well ask whether a life without such attachments would be worth living at all, even if it were possible to achieve it; but for most people it isn't possible anyway.

Similarly, I doubt that Palla's anecdotes about Diogenes are particularly helpful here. Sure, exile and nearly every other misfortune probably won't perturb you much if you're willing to live like Diogenes did — as a beggar utterly devoid of nearly every possession (as illustrated by the famous anecdote where he decided to forego having a cup once he realized he could just use his hands as a temporary cup while drinking water out of a stream; 1.91). But people generally don't want to live like that, and for very good reason too. At the same time, Palla's praise of Diogenes' attitude strikes me as hypocritical because I strongly suspect that neither he nor the other exiles in this book came anywhere close to any real poverty, even in exile.

Many of Palla's other arguments here also struck me as dubious and unconvincing. When his son complains that they are being exiled unjustly (1.220), Palla suggests that this simply means their persecutors are unjust, and a ‘wise man’ (that largely fictional creature that hasn't yet been seen outside of the pages of Stoic philosophy) naturally won't care what unjust and unwise people think about him (1.83–4).

Occasionally, Palla tries to bring in some ideas that seem inspired more by christian religion than by ancient philosophy, which doesn't really help at all. It's better to be condemned unjustly than justly, he suggests, because at least this means that you didn't actually commit the crime for which you are being condemned (1.221–2). Another religious idea is that all life is a kind of exile anyway, since your true home is with god in heaven, so what does it matter if you live in Florence or somewhere else? (1.183–95; Palla goes on to argue that one shouldn't be too attached to one's homeland, 1.199–212 — easier said than done.) These things maybe make sense if you really believe that god is somewhere out there keeping score and planning to reward you in the afterlife (1.88); but from my perspective as a non-believer, it's completely useless.

But I don't want to seem to harsh on Palla; some of the things he says are useful and interesting, e.g. when he gives examples of notable people who seemed to take their exile pretty well (such as Hannibal, 1.69–72).

Besides, it's not just Palla that I'm annoyed by; Onofrio for his part often paints too bleak a picture of exile and imagines everything in the worst possible terms. He fears that he will be regarded as infamous, that people will imagine he must surely have committed some great crime or he wouldn't have been exiled (1.60); but the impression I got from reading about the history of Renaissance Italy is that it was fairly commonplace for one segment of the political class to get expelled by the other, and then vice versa a few years later and so on. So I imagine that people at the time would understand that just because Onofrio got exiled, that doesn't mean that he was guilty of anything more heinous than having the bad luck of ending up on the losing end of a political struggle for power.

This book also contains a few digressions into other topics that are at best only distantly related to exile. For example, near the start, Palla spends a good deal of time talking about the importance of cultivating wisdom and philosophy (1.23–34) and then trying to define reason, emotion and various related concepts (1.35–54), which struck me as one of those typically philosophical things where I have the feeling that they pulled a lot of verbiage out of where the sun doesn't shine, and that I'm no wiser after having read it than before. A more interesting digression occurs near the end of the book, where Poggio Bracciolini (who appears in this volume as a kind of Epicurean, though of a considerably more base and physical sort than the original Epicurus) provides a nice counterbalance to some of the previous ideas with a long praise of drink and good food (1.142–78).


Book II is ostensibly about infamy, but much of it is spent on other things that are only vaguely connected to it. There's a long report (2.26–64) of a speech that one of the soon-to-be exiled noblemen, Rinaldo degli Albizzi, made to pope Eugenius, in which he spends a lot of time arguing that the accusations against himself and his colleagues should not be believed, because they are after all noblemen and therefore honourable and trustworthy and have no reason to harm their city, whereas their accusers (the Medici party) aren't any of those things (especially not noblemen :P). (See e.g. 2.39, 2.41–2, 2.48, 2.62.) Much is made of the fact that Cosimo de' Medici is a banker* and therefore obviously deceitful, greedy, corrupt etc., and his surname sounds like the word for a physician, which was not a very respectable profession in Renaissance Italy and which Filelfo therefore likes to use as the basis of anti-Medici puns (2.65). It's somewhat sad to think that there was a time when some people thought that things of this sort were a reasonable way to argue...

[* I was interested to find in the Wikipedia that Palla Strozzi (one of the central characters of these dialogues, whom we already saw in Book I above) was himself a banker as well :))]

The conversation then finally briefly turns to infamy — Onofrio complains that infamy is an evil (2.68–70), much like he did about exile in the previous book — but is soon derailed again: instead of talking about whether good reputation is really a good and infamy an evil (instead of both being something indifferent), they start to discuss the concept of good in philosophy, a long discussion which was mostly too technical for me (2.95–106, 2.112–54). For good measure, they finish this by taking a detour on the topic of reason, intellect, intelligence and various fine distinctions betwenen these things (2.155–61).

In any case, as far as I'm concerned, they don't end up having any useful advice for poor Onofrio; his father suggests that one has to simply behave virtuously and good reputation will come sooner or later (2.163) and waves away any difficulties in the usual Stoic manner: “those who are just and good cannot suffer infamy, especially in the eyes of good and wise men [. . .] all ill-repute directed at men who are upstanding and have integrity, since it is supported by no roots, must quickly fade and die” (2.172–3). This strikes me as a bit too optimistic; if you are in a position where a lot of people have an unfairly negative opinion about you, this will impact your life adversely in ways that you can't simply wave away with a bit of empty philosophizing. (Of course, in the specific situation that we see in this dialogue, we may well wonder whether sending these people to exile and making them infamous was actually unfair or not; Filelfo is hardly an unbiased observer here.)


Book III treats poverty in much the same way as the previous book treated infamy. There is a good deal of philosophical discussion that was rather too technical for my taste. For example, they start by arguing whether poverty is a bad thing at all, and before deciding that they seem to think it's useful to discuss a very general-purpose division of things into good, bad and indifferent (3.19–32). A certain type of philosopher seems to have loved this sort of pointless taxonomizing, and we see a good deal of that here. For example, good things can be divided into internal and external (3.21); they waste time discussing how to divide a “class” into several “species” (3.26–7), etc. None of this strikes me as the sort of thing that would actually shed light on anything, least of all on poverty.

Given the uselessly simplistic idea of dividing everything into good, bad and indifferent, one of the speakers (Leonardo Bruni, who was otherwise also a real person, like many of the speakers in this book) proposes that virtue is good, vice is bad, and everything else is indifferent (3.31). This is convenient since it allows you to conclude that wealth and poverty are neither good nor bad in themselves, which can be illustrated by the fact that someone can be rich and yet evil (like that bankster Cosimo de' Medici, the chief villain of this book), or virtuous and yet poor (like the aristocrats fallen on hard times who are the characters of this book, and whose side Filelfo is obviously a supporter of).

Filelfo tries to bolster his case by citing yet more examples from the lives of Diogenes, Crates and the like, which are just as unconvincing and just as useless to a normal person than they were in earlier parts of this volume. If you forget for a moment that Diogenes is a Famous Ancient Greek Philosopher™ and think about him without that aura for a moment, you have to admit that he is basically a homeless beggar who wanders the streets raving and ranting to himself. Nobody should be expected to live like that. If Filelfo can seriously suggest that this is a tolerable way to live, it can only mean that he is completely unfamiliar with anything like real poverty as well as completely devoid of imagination.

Another cheap and entirely unconvincing rhetorical trick is tinkering with definitions, which Filelfo attempts in 3.94: “wealth is not that with which the outer man is adorned by by which the inner man is equipped and embellished”, etc. etc. It's depressing to think that anybody could be expected to fall for this sort of ‘argument’.

From my perspective, the only sane person in this discussion is Poggio, who keeps trying to point out blindingly obvious things like that it's better to be comfortable than homeless and starving, but everyone else gangs up on him and Filelfo takes delight in presenting him as a foolish, shallow, gluttonous, grotesque caricature of a low type of Epicurean (3.126, 3.144). “But who commends Poggio, Rinaldo? Artisans, bakers, philistines, every shameless person.” (3.144. Here's that annoying aristocratic prejudice against tradesmen again.) He must have really had something against Poggio, but to me this is the one sympathetic character in this dialogue. Here's Poggio providing some sensible perspective in 3.85: “That obscure and joyless teaching for living and dining which, I see, originated with Antisthenes, was augmented by Diogenes, and reinforced by Crates, is proper to beasts, and savage ones at that, not to refined human beings.” And that's exactly it — any sort of civilization requires a certain material basis. Living in the sort of poverty advocated by Diogenes & Co. is completely antithetical to that. I suspect that this was as blindingly obvious to most Diogenes's contemporaries as it is to most of us today, and that he was already regarded as a deplorably misguided freak back then as well.

Towards the end of the book, the conversation veers off into another highly technical philosophical discussion (which has little to do with poverty itself), this time about voluntary and involuntary actions (3.107–23, 134–8, 145–62). I don't pretend to have understood very much of that, and I certainly didn't find it particularly illuminating, but I was interested to learn a new word here, namely “appetency”, which I don't think I've ever heard before. One of the speakers, Palla, makes a short conclusion which tries to connect this discussion back to poverty: “choice is not simply will of opinion but something that consists of opinion and appetency together when, after consultation, both agree on a single goal. It remains not only that we need not fear poverty but that we should choose it as the least encumbering of companions for the journey to happiness.” (3.162) But, once again, that's easier said than done.

Still, this book isn't all bad. There are a few paragraphs of fine invective against Cosimo de' Medici, again with the inevitable puns about physicians (3.63) etc.; “Cosimo is a banker, a hireling and a filthy usurer, the single greediest man in all of recorded history. No other vice is more loathsome, more worthy of punishment, none more at odds with an invicible and lofty soul than this.” (3.62.) “Poggio. You speak as though Cosimo spends nothing to equip churches and to provide dowries for young girls. — Leonardo. He provides prostitution for young girls, Poggio! — as if you were the only one who doesn't know that Cosimo makes a practice of furnishing money to certain poor and humble parents on condition that he be the first to pluck the flowers of their virgin dauthers!” (3.65) :)))


What to say at the end? I don't think this book is very useful as a consolation to people about to be exiled; and besides, I don't particularly sympathize with the exiles of this book anyway; but much of it was nevertheless pleasant to read, and I had a quite good time ranting against it while writing this post.

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