Sunday, March 29, 2020

BOOK: Giannozzo Manetti, "On Human Worth and Excellence"

Giannozzo Manetti: On Human Worth and Excellence. Edited and translated by Brian P. Copenhaver. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 85. Harvard University Press, 2018. 9780674984585. li + 362 pp.

One thing that fascinates me about the humanities is how the people there manage to have a kind of conversation across a span of many centuries. In the present case, it began in the 12th century when the future pope Innocent III, back when he was still cardinal Lotario dei Segni, wrote a “tirade on human misery” (p. xiii), showing how man's life on earth is burdened by his sins and by the vileness of his material reality. This work is not included in the present volume, but judging by the description in the translator's introduction it must have been something to behold: “Lotario's contempt for his own kind is relentless, intensified by mannered prose: if there were a Library of Loathing stocked with attacks on the human species, and if its masterpieces were ranked, the cardinal's book would make the top ten.” (Pp. xvi–xvii.)

The cardinal apparently intended to follow up his work with a sequel “on the worth and excellence of human life”, but never got around to writing it (pp. xxxv, 257). Two centuries later, Antonio da Barga and Bartolomeo Facio — two near-contemporaries of Manetti — wrote what tried to be such a sequel (their writings are included as an appendix in the present volume); but they don't really disagree with Innocent's misanthropic effort, they take it as a starting point and just add the supposedly positive facts, such as that people have an immortal soul, were made in god's image, and might go to heaven afterwards.

Manetti, it seems, wanted to write a more full-throated defense of man's excellence (Innocent's “vile invective disgusted him”, p. xlv). It was, after all, the age of humanism, and man had gained a renewed self-confidence and wasn't content to just crawl in the mud as in the middle ages. Manetti starts, in a conspicuous contrast with Innocent, with a book praising the human body, first in long quotations from Cicero and Lactantius, then in his own words. He shows the body as a remarkable and intricate mechanism, beautiful and noble in form, full of parts carefully designed for their respective function. At times this part of his work reads like the summary of an anatomical textbook, and indeed one such textbook, by one Mondino de Luzzi, seems to have been his source there (p. 315, n. 29).

In Book 2, he writes about the human soul; he starts with an overview of the opinions of various ancient philosophers, but unsurprisingly he is not particularly keen on them when they disagree with christian religious views of the subject. His main interest in this book is to show that the soul is non-material, created from nothing, and immortal, and he refers to numerous biblical passages in support of that. (An interesting argument for the immortality of the soul: without it, wicked people who had a pleasant life on earth could not be punished after death, and surely god would not allow such an injustice to stand; 2.23. But some of his arguments are very odd: “we all desire and long to be immortal by a natural and inborn will” and it would be absurd if there existed such “a natural desire utterly without hope”; and so, since our bodies aren't immortal, at least our souls must be; 2.22.) He then praises the soul's “three natural powers” (2.36), namely intelligence, memory and will — especially the first of these, which he demonstrates by listing numerous famous artists, poets, thinkers, etc., both ancient and modern, and pointing out their accomplishments.

Book 3 is supposed to be about the human being as a whole, as the union of body and soul, but my impression was that the biggest part of this book is about how fine the world and indeed the whole universe are and how nice it is that all this was created by god specifically for the sake of man (3.57) — a fact which, of course, is taken as another example of the dignity and excellence of man. Manetti's argument is that the world was not created for the sake of itself, because it is insentient; nor was it created for the sake of god, who has no need of it; so it must have been created for the sake of man (3.5). He also praises the human intellect and the various works of art it has produced (3.20); and he lists various examples of god's favour to man, e.g. by providing people with guardian angels (3.42) or granting some people the power to work miracles (3.33).

Finally, book IV struck me as something of a rehash of the previous ones. Manetti follows the same threefold structure (body, soul, man), restates or summarizes many of the things he had said in the earlier books, and spends much of book 4 arguing against the various people who wrote about the misery and vileness of man, against ancient pagan philosophers who thought it was better to be dead than alive, etc., but especially about pope Innocent III, whom we already mentioned earlier. I liked the part where he ridicules Innocent's silly pseudo-etymological claim that Eva, the foremother of all humankind, is so named after the two (Latin?) interjections of pain, he and ha (4.18, 44–5). (But then, Manetti himself commits plenty of silly pseudo-etymological fallacies himself throughout this work.) I must admit, however, that I found Manetti's arguments more hopeful than really convincing. He asserts that the same senses which cause us to feel pain also bring us pleasure, and that overall there is more pleasure than hardship in human life (4.57). He also spends a good deal time talking — as another way to illustrate, I suppose, what an important place man occupies in the bigger picture of things — about the bliss that awaits people in heaven, complete with a perfect 30-year-old body (4.59) and an enjoyable view of the torments endured by the souls of the damned in hell (a view which will occasion “the greatest jubilation”, 4.68)*.

[*One of Manetti's predecessors, Bartolomeo Facio, makes a similar claim in his On Human Excellence and Distinction: “a just person will rejoice and wash his hands in the blood of sinners” (¶74 on p. 292).]

Incidentally, the translator's introduction includes a very interesting discussion on the Latin word dignitas, which appears in the original title of Manetti's book (translated here as “worth”). Nowadays we think of dignity as something universal and inalienable, something that a person has simply by virtue of being a human (p. xxxiii); but it seems that this notion of dignity only developed in the 18th century, largely through the work of philosophers like Kant (p. xxxi). The original sense of dignitas in classical Latin (and also in the Renaissance when Manetti used the word; p. xxxii) was more along the lines of “worth”, “status”, “position”, “excellence” and the like (p. xxxi) — something that was largely limited to gentlemen of leisure (p. xxxiii) and that you could have at one point and then lose it later (p. xxxiv).

One thing that bothered me about Manetti's arguments is how often he relies on ridiculous-looking (and probably mostly false) etymologies — they are often little better than puns based on nothing more than the vague resemblance of a handful of letters near the beginning of two words. Many people those days did that to some extent, but he seems to do it more than most. For some of these he refers to ancient Roman authors, but I guess some might be his own idea. But I have to commend the translator for coming up with equivalent puns in English: the creator “to give the eyes better protection from injury, he laid [occuluit] them under lids [oculos] to cover them — the reason for calling them that, according to Varro. The lashes [palpebrae] themselves — to whose rapid movement or lashing about [palpitatio] Varro attributes the term — make a very handsome fence for the eyes” (1.18), etc. etc.

One of the functions of the nose is “so that the waste from the brain flows down through its openings” (1.19) :))) But I think that waste from the brain more often flows through the mouth, and sometimes through a twitter account :]

Manetti on Plato: “Although many people consider Plato the cleverest philosopher of all, in many passages of his books he still makes rather obscure statements about the soul, stuffed with metaphors and figures of speech that are barely intelligible” (2.6). I'm glad to hear that someone has a similar opinion about Plato as I do.

Manetti occasionally refers to people committing or contemplating suicide, and I was surprised by how frequently it is here translated as “did themselvelves in” (2.27, 4.10, 4.35). Why would the translator use such a colloquial phrase in a work like this? I wonder if the original Latin uses some similarly informal word.

Manetti mentions the factoid that the Argonauts used the first ship ever built (3.13, 3.37) — we've recently seen the same in the ITRL volume of Ariosto's poems.

In praising art as one of the achievements of the human soul, Manetti mentions a painter that “depicted a mare and a bitch so that horses and dogs passing by [. . .] thought they were seeing real animals” (2.39); a sculptor “represented Venus so beautifully in marble [. . .] that it was hard to keep her safe and undefiled by the lustful embraces of bypassers [. . .] some other artist cast a cow in bronze that aroused a bull that was passing by to love her and mount her” (2.40) :)))

Sometimes people pull factoids out of their ass... sometimes from their balls: “just as sperm is produced from excess food, so blood comes in the same way from the substance of the same nourishment. The finer and richer the diet of any animal, the better and stronger the sperm produced by its residue. We should think the same of sperm as of blood, which in humans must excel what other animals have, inasmuch as our diet is more refined” (4.29).

A neat rhetorical trick from 4.45: Manetti says about Innocent's claims that “were I not restrained [. . .] by the reverence due to a supreme pontiff” he would “contend that they are trifling, childish and quite remote from pontifical and apostolic seriousness” :)

This was in a way an interesting book, but its interest for a non-believer like me is considerably limited by the fact that it's all taking place within the christian framework. If you take away such things as god and the soul, there's very little left of Manetti's argument (or those of the other authors involved in this conversation, for that matter).

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