Petrarch: “F**k Zoology!”

Petrarch, de sui ipsius et multorum ignorantia:

Literature is, for many people, the instrument of madness, and for all it is an instrument of arrogance unless (a thing exceptionally rare) it happens to fall upon a good and well educated mind. This last mentioned author has written much about beasts and birds and fish. How many hairs a lion’s mane has, how many feathers are in the hawk’s tail, how many spirals the octopus wraps the shipwreck in; how the elephants have sex from behind and how they remain pregnant for two years, and how they are a teachable and vivacious animal approaching human intelligence and living almost two or even three centuries; how the phoenix is consumed in aromatic fire and is reborn after being burned; how the sea urchin reins in a prow driven by any force but can do nothing when taken out of the waves; how the hunter deceives the tiger with a mirror, how the Arimaspean spears a griffin, how whales deceive the sailor with their tails; how ugly is the child of a bear, how rare the child of a mule, and how the viper gives birth but once and unluckily at that; how moles are blind, how bees are deaf, and finally how the crocodile alone of all animals moves only its upper mandible.

Most of these things are false, which was clear enough when similar kinds of animals were brought to our part of the world. Or, if they were not false, at least unknown to the authors themselves, and either believed more readily or more readily invented on account of their author’s absence. Yet, for all of this, even if they were true, they have nothing to do with living a good life. For, I ask, what good will it do to know the natures of beasts, birds, fish, and serpents when we are either ignorant or contemptuous of human nature – for what purpose we are born, from where we come and where we are headed?

Sunt enim litere multis instrumenta dementie, cuntis fere superbie, nisi, quod rarum, in aliquam bonam et bene institutam animam inciderint. Multa ille igitur de beluis deque avibus ac piscibus: quot leo pilos in vertice, quot plumas accipiter in cauda, quot polipus spiris naufragum liget, ut aversi cocunt elephantes biennioque uterum tument, ut docile vivaxque animal et humano proximum ingenio et ad secundi tertiique finem seculi vivendo perveniens; ut phenix aromatico igne consumitur ustusque renascitur; ut echinus quovis actam impetu proram frenat, cum fluctibus erutus nil possit; ut venator speculo tigrem ludit, Arimaspus griphen ferro impetit, cete tergo nautam fallunt; ut informis urse partus, mule rarus, vipere unicus isque infelix, ut ceci talpe, surde apes, ut postremo superiorem mandibulam omnium solus animantium cocodrillus movet. Que quidem vel magna ex parte falsa sunt — quod in multis horum similibus, ubi in nostrum orbem delata sunt, patuit — vel certe ipsis auctoribus incomperta, sed propter absentiam vel credita promptius vel ficta licentius; que denique, quamvis vera essent, nichil penitus ad beatam vitam. Nam quid, oro, naturas beluarum et volucrum et piscium et serpentum nosse profuerit, et naturam hominum, ad quod nati sumus, unde et quo pergimus, vel nescire vel spernere?

A Touch of Classicism

Edmund Spenser, 

A Letter of the Authors expounding his whole intention in the course of this Worke:

“I have followed all the antique Poets historicall, first Homere, who in the Persons of Agamemnon and Ulysses hath ensampled a good governour and a vertuous man, the one in his Ilias, the other in his Odysseis: Then Virgil, whose like intention was to doe in the person of Aeneas: after him Ariosto comprised them both in his Orlando: and lately Tasso dissevered them againe, and formed both parts in two persons, namely that part which they in Philosophy call Ethice, or vertues of a private man, coloured in his Rinaldo: The other named Politice in his Godfredo.

By ensample of which excellente Poets, I labour to pourtraict in Arthure, before he was king, the image of a brave knight, perfected in the twelve private morall vertues, as Aristotle hath devised, the which is the purpose of these first twelve bookes: which if I finde to be well accepted, I may be perhaps encoraged, to frame the other part of polliticke vertues in his person, after that hee came to be king. To some I know this Methode will seeme displeasaunt, which had rather have good discipline delivered plainly in way of precepts, or sermoned at large, as they use, then thus cloudily enwrapped in Allegoricall devises.

But such, me seeme, should be satisfide with the use of these dayes, seeing all things accounted by their showes, and nothing esteemed of, that is not delightfull and pleasing to commune sence. For this cause is Xenophon preferred before Plato, for that the one in the exquisite depth of his judgement, formed a Commune welth such as it should be, but the other in the person of Cyrus and the Persians fashioned a governement such as might best be: So much more profitable and gratious is doctrine by ensample, then by rule.”

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Cursed Gifts

Giovanni Boccaccio, Genealogy of the Pagan Gods:

“Ajax, a most warlike man, was the son of Telamon. When he took up arms to destroy Troy with the other Greeks, and (to omit the other miraculous things which he performed in his contests), he dared to take part in a single combat against Hector, and if any faith is to be given to Homer, Ajax would have returned to his own people as the victor if an excessively hasty night had not intervened. Yet, when it did intervene, and Hector had given him a sword in the ancient way while receiving a belt from Ajax in return, fresh and spirited Ajax allowed the exhausted Hector to return to Troy.

According to Servius, these gifts were cursed, since Ajax later killed himself with that sword, and Hector was killed by Achilles while wearing that belt. Ajax however, when Ilium had been captured and destroyed, had a huge contest against Ulysses for the arms of Achilles. At last, when he could see that military virtue must yield to mere eloquence, he was turned to fury, and killed himself with the very sword which he had taken from Hector, and (according to Ovid) was turned into the flower bearing his name. In this, antiquity teaches us that our powers may easily melt into nothing, after the fashion of a wilting flower.”

De Ayace Thelamonis filio.

Aiax, bellicosissimus homo, Thelamonis fuit filius. Hic cum aliis Grecis ad delendam Troiam arma sumpsit, et ut reliqua, que in certaminibus miranda fecit, omittam, singulare certamen adversus Hectorem arripere ausus est, et si Omero fides ulla prestanda est, ni illud nimis festina nox diremisset, victor Aiax, rediisset ad suos. Ea tamen superveniente cum illi vetusto more Hector donasset gladium, et ab eo baltheum suscepisset, recens Aiax et animosus discedens fessum Hectorem Troiam ire permisit. Hec dona secundum Servium nephasta fuere, cum eo se gladio postea interemit Aiax, et cum baltheo ab Achille occisus sit Hector. Aiax autem, Ylione capto atque diruto, de armis Achillis premortui adversus Ulixem ingens litigium habuit; tandem cum cerneret virtutem bellicam eloquentie cedere, in furorem versus, eo se, quem ab Hectore susceperat, gladio interemit, et, ut ait Ovidius, in florem sui nominis versus est. In quo nos docet antiquitas nostras vires caduci floris more in nichilum facile solvi.

The Tyranny of Ancient Thought

Few questions have as much staying power and contemporary relevance as those concerning the best form of governance, and few political assassinations have exercised as many minds as the slaying of Caesar. In 1400, Antonio of Aquila asked Coluccio Salutati whether he thought that Brutus and Cassius were traitors for slaying Caesar. The question possessed some immediate literary importance to both of these men, given that Florence’s poetic hero Dante had seen fit to punish Brutus and Cassius in the very inner circle of Hell. In the tradition of the times, Salutati composed a lengthy epistolary response to Antonio, beginning with an elaborately florid Florentine preface, followed by a carefully delineated set of topics: the definition of a tyrant, justifications for tyrannicide, whether Caesar was a tyrant, whether Caesar’s murder was justified, and (most important for the pedant) did Dante make the right choice in placing Brutus and Cassius in Hell? There is also an awkward appendix designed to answer the question whether Aeneas and Antenor were traitors to Troy, a question which Antonio had posed along with the apparently more salient one about Caesar’s murder.

Salutati’s tackles the definitional question in the initial section titled What Is a Tyrant and from What  is the Name Derived? by engaging in some amateur etymologizing. Salutati’s own etymologizing may not reflect the standard of scholarship achieved by men like Lorenzo Valla, but he does cite St. Gregory for what is effectively the proper definition of a tyrant:

“A tyrant is, properly speaking, one who reigns in a communal republic by something other than right.”

Proprie enim tyrannus dicitur qui in communi re publica non iure principatur.

Salutati cites Gregory again, this time displaying a Tacitean cynicism about human motives. In effect, Gregory believes that everyone is a tyrant in their own sphere, and will naturally seek to exercise as much power as they can:

“But we must recognize that every haughty person exercises tyranny in their own particular way. One person is the tyrant of a province, another of a city, another in his own house, and yet another – on account of his worthlessness – simply exercises tyranny in his mind. God is not concerned with how much evil someone can perpetrate, but only with how much they wish to perpetrate. When he is lacking causal power in the world, the tyrant is by himself, and his iniquity reigns supreme inside; because, even if he cannot afflict his neighbors outwardly, he yet harbors inwardly the desire to be able to afflict them.”

“Sed sciendum quia omnis superbus iuxta modum proprium tyrannidem exercet. Nam nonnumquam alius in provincia, alius in civitate, alius in domo propria, alius per latentem nequitiam hoc exercet apud se in cogitatione sua. Nec intuetur deus quantum quisque mali valeat facere, sed quantum velit. Et cum deest potestas foris, apud se tyrannus est, cui iniquitas dominatur intus; quia, et si exterius non affligat proximos, intrinsecus tamen habere potestatem appetit ut affligat.”

This line of thought, cited approvingly by Florentines during the Renaissance, was still popular centuries later and half a world away. Benjamin Rush, writing to John Adams, claimed that “Rulers become tyrants and butchers from instinct much oftener than from imitation.” Rome, Florence, and America are linked not only by their republican governments, but also by the cynical fear which served as the intellectual and emotional foundation of those republics. The generalized fear that any one person given sufficient latitude and power would subjugate the entire population to his will is often cited as the primary motivation for maintaining a republican (but not democratic) form of government.

Moving from his definition of tyranny to the question of tyrannicide, Salutati makes the general claim that because an individual would be justified in slaying another for violating his right to personal property, so too must it be lawful to slay one who invades the state, which is the property of all. Like Plato before him, Salutati engages himself in the pleasing error of confusing and conflating the individual and the state for the purpose of ethical reasoning.

Moral reasoning on classical principles would not be complete without the citation of ancient exempla, but Salutati makes a puzzling choice in his exemplum for justifying tyrannicide: the murder of Tiberius Gracchus. Through a curious inversion, Salutati reasons that Scipio Nasica was right to goad on the murder of Gracchus, a tribune of the people, because he was supposed by some sources to be aspiring to regal power. Salutati has let his own aristocratic bias overcome the apparently republican or demotic tone of an essay against tyranny, and has adopted the viewpoint of ancient aristocrats who likely saw Gracchus as a dangerous instrument of what they (or in modern times, someone like Mitch McConnell) would dismiss as “mob rule”.

But perhaps this is the problem with any republic – it is simply aristocracy under the guise of popular government. Perhaps that thin veneer of demotic sovereignty is just the political form of bread and circuses. When someone in America complains that the government is doing a poor job of representing the popular will, they are commonly treated to a curt civics lesson intended to remind them that this is a republic, not a democracy. Caesar was not killed for infringing the liberties of ‘the people’ more generally. Rather, in monopolizing power within the Roman state, Caesar offended the pride of other aristocrats who were denied access to the political power and prestige which they regarded as their rights. It is fashionable to dismiss the Augustan “restoration of the Republic” as a cynical PR sham, but (however much it may have later devolved into outright despotism) it is not clear that the reign of one man within a broadly constitutional framework differed substantially from the reign of a handful of traditional aristocratic families. Regardless of party, even America’s political elite are drawn almost exclusively from a class defined not by family lineage, but by access to one of a few prestigious universities (usually their law schools) which serve as bastions of privilege and entry points into the world of real and efficacious power within the political and corporate system. (This problem of elite “choke points” in the course of the rat race is similarly prevalent in academia.)

The third portion of Salutati’s essay, taken up with whether or not Caesar could be considered a tyrant, relies heavily on Cicero, whom Salutati affectionately refers to throughout as “our Cicero.” This is not wholly surprising, given that Cicero supplies the best contemporary documentary evidence for the period. Moreover, Cicero possessed for men like Salutati a kind of unparalleled authority, as is clear from the affectionate use of noster, “our” Cicero. Despite the fact that Cicero famously exulted over Caesar’s death, Salutati cites a number of Cicero’s letters and writings to prove, wholly on Cicero’s testimony, that Caesar was not a tyrant, but a popularly chosen (if supremely powerful) magistrate.

“Anyone who looks through Cicero’s writings diligently will find far greater praise than detraction of Caesar.”

Qui diligenter ipsius scripta perspexerit longe maiores Caesaris laudes invenerit quam detractiones.

Salutati rather naively or disingenuously takes the confirmation of Caesar’s political acts and appointments following his death as proof that even his enemies did not regard him as a tyrant. This may appear on the face of it to be mere idle fatuity on Salutati’s part, but he draws out a salient point: the conspirators objected to the man and the wounds which he inflicted upon their pride more than they objected to his political program.

“Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.” Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

In his dialogue with Cicero, Salutati argues that Caesar’s dictatorship was the logical and inevitable outcome of decades of simmering civil war. He then claims that Sulla’s dictatorship, though bloody, was nevertheless a stabilizing force for the Republic. At this point, it begins to seem that Salutati’s strongman theory of government depends in no small part on minute hair splitting about what exactly constitutes tyranny. Indeed, Sulla’s military seizure of the state, whether or not it was in crisis, is a perfect example of what the Greeks meant by tyranny.

Though Salutati and other Renaissance thinkers did much to throw off the shackles of scholasticism, some of the medieval schoolroom still stuck to his mind. He upbraids Cicero for forgetting his Aristotle. Salutati is only able to argue against an ancient authority by citing an even older and more august ancient authority. It is on this Aristotelian basis that Salutati makes his most appalling and dangerous claim: that nature herself fashioned some to rule and others to serve. As almost invariably happens, Greek political philosophy is being used to advocate for a reactionary aristocracy.

Salutati’s essay combines two of the most dangerous modes of classical reception and engagement: the practice of reasoning through uncritical dependence on historical exempla, and the citation of ancient philosophers as final intellectual authorities. Aristotle here represents the tyranny of auctoritas. The Enlightenment may have bequeathed to modernity its own set of intellectual horrors and stumbling blocks, but at least it helped to free the mind from this stifling tyranny of authority. As supporters of the classics, we should fear the prospect of lapsing back into this mode of reception. Indeed, the period in which classical learning suffered the most was not the 20th century decline classics courses in high schools and universities. Rather, it was the period of medieval scholasticism during which classical learning became ossified and inert – an instrument for justifying institutionalized power, a cudgel to be wielded against those without access to it.

Classical learning exhibits the most vitality when it is actively engaged – soaked in and fully digested, yes, but also thoroughly interrogated and wrangled with. Salutati attempts this kind of interrogation in his argument written directly against Cicero, but he fails in that he is only able to cite authority against authority. (If medieval and early Renaissance thought were a card game like Magic: The Gathering or Pokemon, the Plato and Aristotle cards would be so wildly overpowered as to render the game wholly unbalanced.)

Some readers of On the Tyrant have been surprised, perplexed, or disappointed with Salutati’s reasoning, perhaps especially with his ardent support for political strongmen. This is apparently at variance with his more general belief in republican government, but his thoughts on tyranny may seem less surprising when we consider more carefully the ways in which tyranny and republican government are not wholly dissimilar. If we understand a tyrant to be one who governs without securing popular consent, might this definition not clearly apply to a president who attained office without winning the popular vote? Is that not a form of constitutionally institutionalized tyranny? Any political or social thought which is not informed by but rather based upon ancient thinkers is bound to be reactionary and aristocratic, because this is what survives: endless talk of “liberty” but a generalized paranoia about both monarchic rule on one hand and democratic power on the other. The ancient partiality for “balance” and “moderation” – that peculiar fetish for the golden mean, the aurea mediocritas which certainly has a tendency to foster mediocrity – suggested strongly to ancient thinkers and their successors that aristocratic republics were the sensible middle ground between the monarch and the mob. Salutati concludes that Dante was right to place Brutus and Cassius in the deepest pit of hell – but now we’re the ones who are suffering.

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Did We Become Stoics or Assholes?

Giovanni Pico, Letter to Angelo Poliziano:

But what should I say about the humor of your Epictetus? A delightful thing, and worthy of Catonian laughter! He was hardly in the threshold, when he opened his cloak and said ‘Behold these obeloi, behold these arrows if you do not know Greek! Behold me ready to strike if any of you is feeling bold.’ Who could have held back their laughter to hear a Stoic joke so pleasantly? We abstained from our weapons, to be sure, both because he had threatened that he would repay the injury and because his skin had grown so hars that it would not receive such light blows. We thus received the old man with the veneration which was appropriate.

As soon as he sat down next to us, he began to philosophize about character, and did so in Latin not so much because he was among Latins (because there were in that conference those who knew Greek), but more because he could make his wisdom shine more clearly in Latin thanks to you. He did not waste his labor, because he no sooner ceased to speak than he converted us from Peripatetics to Stoics, and we all approved his apathy. Now it is possible to see people who were a little earlier of the most delicate constitutions and are now the most tolerant of suffering; we who used to be harmed by others are now only harmed by ourselves; now we never fight against fate, and we wish those things which are not ours to turn out as the gods would have them, and we never blame or accuse the gods for anything; we feel no pain, we complain about nothing, we know neither to be slaves nor to be conquered; we philosophize not in word but in deed.


Give Me An Honest Review

Pico della Mirandola, Letter to Angelo Poliziano:

“Since I have arranged into five books my slender Muses, with which I joked about my loves while my age permitted, I am sending to you the first of them and will send the others too if I find in this one that you are a friend, not a yes-man. For they come to you on the understanding that they will be chastised, that they will be beaten, that they will be the penalty of their errors with fingernail and skewer. Present yourself to them, therefore, as a fair judge, not an iniquitous one – one who is severe, not indulgent. For, what greater injustice is there than to deceive a friend entrusting all of himself to you? I am not possessed of such a delicate mind that I would be worked up by some erasures made by a literate friend. Perhaps you, or anyone else for that matter, would not believe how little these poems please me, and even in the ones that I like a bit more, I fear that I might be (as that one guy says) a Suffenus. And so, I ask for you help in an honest and liberal undertaking, and I hope that you do not deny one who is your dearest friend.”



Philosophers vs. Eloquence

Petrarch, de sua ipsius et multorum ignorantia:

They do not, then, envy my knowledge or eloquence, the first of which they claim I do not possess. As for eloquence, if I possess any, it is condemned by them in their fashionably modern philosophical way and rejected as something unworthy of literate men. Thus, the only thing which is in honor among them is the philosopher’s inability to speak, his perplexed babbling, and the yawning wisdom relying upon the motion of the brow (as Cicero calls it). Nor does Plato, the most eloquent man, come into their mind, nor (if I may pass over the rest) does sweet and charming Aristotle, who has become scabrous at their hands. Thus, they detach themselves or wander away from their guide, as they consider the eloquence of Isocrates (which he thought to be an ornament to philosophy and sought to join the two because he was moved by the glory of the orator) to be an impediment and a fault in him.

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Non denique scientiam aut eloquentiam, quarum primam penitus nullam michi esse confirmant; altera, siqua esset, apud illos hoc moderno philosophico more contemnitur et quasi literatis viris indigna respuitur. Sic iam sola philosophantis infantia et perplexa balbuties, uni nitens supercilio atque oscitans, ut Cicero vocat, sapientia, in honore est, nec redit ad memoriam Plato eloquentissimus hominum, nec, ut sileam reliquos, dulcis ac suavis sed ab his scaber factus Aristotiles. Sic a suo desciscunt seu deerrant duce, ut eloquentiam, quam ille philosophie ornamentum ingens ratus ei studuit adiungere, Ysocratis, ut perhibent, oratoris gloria permotus, hanc isti impedimentum probrumque extiment