Lorenzo & his humble friends

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool

Tag: philosophy

A simple garden

Epicurus led a commune of followers in an Athenian garden in the early third-century BC. The aim of philosophy, he maintained, is to help people living a tranquil life and overcoming the fear of death. “All good and evil lie in sensation, whereas death is the absence of sensation,” wrote Epicurus in a letter. “Hence a correct understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding infinite time, but by ridding us of the desire for immortality.” That is why Epicurus – in contrast to the crude hedonism invented by his detractors – denounced the rapidly rotting fruits of dissipation and excess. The constant pursuit of intense pleasures will in fact back-fire, because it leads to the psychological hell of enslavement to insatiable appetites. The best sort of life, suggests Epicurus, is one that is free from pain in the body and from disturbance in the mind. This is an important philosophy today, as we are inundated by instant gratifications and toxic distractions.

Solitary endeavors

When I first decided to start a PhD many graduate students warned me of the sadness of a life of lonely research. Doctoral students are often thought to be left alone in a somehow depressing menage a trois with their thesis and their supervisor. This is certainly the image you get if you ever read PhD comics. The doctorate, many people think, is a very lonely activity.

This was never my case. In fact the kind of environment I found in Fiesole is nothing like that. As our Head of Department told us upon our arrival last year, research is a very social endeavor. True that: academic ideas are rarely the result of one’s own thinking; what really inspires them, what helps your thinking to evolve and to become more coherent is the result of interaction and engagement with other people’s thought. So you can understand why Mariana sent me this quote from Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition:

“(…) under the sky of ideas the philosopher not only finds the true essence of everything that is, but also himself, in the dialogue between “me and myself” (…). To be in solitude means to be with one’s self, and thinking, though it may be the most solitary of all activities, is never altogether without a partner and without company.”​

This is what I like about being here. Working in the same rooms with my fellows, going out for lunch with them, spending hours talking about our ideas and projects in front of a coffee: being here is generally about being in good company. And yes, I suppose it is this kind of interaction that makes my research a joyful activity. This, and the mutual agreement never to talk about our research and our own work when we go out in the evening. Because every now and then we really don’t mind too much beclouding our sky of ideas with the earthly pleasures of the flesh.

Not a sociopath

A few weeks ago I was asked to write an article about Macchiavelli for Oceans, the network for students and alumni of specific bi-lateral exchange programmes between the European Union and other industrialized countries. Here is what I submitted.

Not necessarily a sociopath

A recent survey suggests that most people buy books because they like to be seen reading rather than because they actually enjoy the experience. If this is the case, then you would better choose highly pretentious stuff, and trust me: nothing can beat collections of political essays written in ancient Italian. I am glad I can announce you I recently had the pleasure to embark in such a fashionable public display of intellectual engagement. Not that I did it entirely on purpose: this peculiar interest happened by accident rather than by design. Though studying politics, in fact, I always carefully avoided reading the original Italian philosophy classics considering them as immensely boring and rather pointless to account for the complex times we live in. But then the opportunity came to me thanks to the editors of this magazine, who came up with the idea of writing something about philosophy and leadership, the latter being the topic of our upcoming AGM in Vilnius. As it turns out, one of the most authoritative philosophers on leadership is the Florentine renaissance philosopher best known as Niccolò Machiavelli. And here is where I kick in, as the only Italian OCEANS member who currently lives in Florence, studies politics, and has enough spare time to write an article about the great intellectual master of power-politics. A fortunate combination indeed.
So there I am, reading Macchiavelli’s books every chance I get, and impressing the hell out of anyone who spots me doing so. Never mind that I rarely go out to read, and that therefore the only persons likely to spot me doing so are my flatmates, who at the time I’m most likely to be reading Macchiavelli’s books are very much sleeping flatmates. Maybe it is better so. After a few weeks of reading, I discovered that in psychology ‘Machiavellianism’ is used to describe anti-social behaviour commonly found in sociopaths. I guess this has something to do with the fact that Machiavelli has the reputation for being a ruthless son-of-a-bitch. But, in fact, describing him in such a way would be misleading (as well as, perhaps, slightly disrespectful). His most famous book, The Prince, is a satire of the Medici family who was in power in Florence in the 15th century, at the time when Macchiavelli was writing. In his other political works, he offers a different perspective of the Prince and in no single treatise did he rigorously expound his theory of man and leadership. Take notice that in Macchiavelli the latter cannot be understood in separation from the former. Let think in these terms: Macchiavelli’s entire philosophy spurs from a study of man’s innate traits, as a creature of insatiable desires and limitless ambition with a primary desire is for self-preservation. The human being, therefore, is short-sighted and rather imitative: indeed, given his human nature, the outlook for social cooperation may appear dim. Leadership, as a detached, rational manner to analyze the ways power can be acquired and maintained, is the most effective instrument to mold man’s essentially evil nature.
No doubt, then: men’s desire for self-preservation and their very shortsightedness make them peculiarly susceptible to manipulation by leaders. Am I the only one thinking of the Frank Underwood kind of leader now? But be sure, in Macchiavelli’s view leadership can also mold man’s essential evil in pursue of a good society. Astute leadership and rational social organization can, and indeed should, maintain civic virtues. According to Macchiavelli’s most careful commentators, the political virtuoso is rational, calculating, and eminently self-controlled, plays many roles with aplomb, and is prudent enough to identify his own interest with the well-being of those he seeks to manage. It is not by chance that Machiavelli’s heroes are statesmen and founders of civilizations, including Moses, Cyrus, Romulus and Theseus. As Isiah Berlin explained in his essay, Machiavelli admired these characters because they were high-minded and tough enough to use brutality against the few to help the public good of the princedom. He particularly admired the moderate, liberal-minded, and humane military genius Scipio Africanus Major and got inspired by his story.
In a similarly inspiring vein I suspect reading Macchiavelli is likely to affect a significant part of the rest of my life. The grandiose way of describing this shift is to say that I have been slowly making my peace with ancient Italian philosophy. Alternatively, to express it with the accurate words of another contemporary philosopher known as Nick Hornby, I have discovered that some old shit, after all, isn’t so bad.

On love, life, and philosophy

They were seen on a sunny afternoon on the walls of a poor village. Jesus and Mohammed, seated with half empty glasses, were deep into a discussion while the sun was slowly declining towards a coloured sunset. One was stretching familiarly his hands towards the other’s knees, while the other was waiving his arms as if in a gesture of blessing. They went on for hours, until the night came.

Why does France insist school pupils master philosophy?

I have been staring in admiration over the shoulder of my 17-year-old daughter, as she embarks on a last mental rehearsal before a much-dreaded philosophy exam. My primary thought is: Thank the Lord I was spared the torment.

I mean, can you imagine having to sit down one morning in June and spend four hours developing an exhaustive, coherent argument around the subject: Is truth preferable to peace?

Or: Does power exist without violence?

Or possibly: Can one be right in spite of the facts?

Read the article on BBC News Europe.

Lentezza is a beer with friends

The last few weeks were hectic and I barely had time to sit down and talk. Who had a chance to spend a bit more time with me probably thought I was on drugs. (I was not).

I am not always like this. Already in 2011 I decided that if I had a newspaper, I would call it Lentezza. Here some thoughts I noted down on a small paper when travelling back from Lugano, where I went to visit Anna.

Avessi una rivista mia, una specie di inserto di riflessioni e parole, la chiamerei Lentezza. Lo ho deciso origliando conversazioni sul treno: viviamo, oggi in un contesto frenetico in cui mancano gli spazi per l’approfondimento e la comprensione. Tutto é veloce, breve, rapido. Le notizie si adattano al contesto: veloci, mai ragionate, raramente discusse. Sono stato fortunato e fino ad ora ho sempre avuto modo di ricavarmi spazi di riflessione lenti: gli incontri di redazione al giornale QT ne sono un esempio chiaro, quasi estenuanti nella loro monotonia, ma avvincenti nell’incedere senza un binario, senza pressione, senza fuggire. Insomma. Se avessi una rivista mi piacerebbe che fosse una lenta utilitaria che avanza piano nel paesaggio della campagna mentre in città centinaia di macchine sfrecciano da una parte all’altra senza badare a tutto quel che sta attorno.

In the last few weeks I definitely was one of those fast cars. Before getting into the loop, I knew it had to be this way and I do not regret one single thing. I love to be stressed and overwhelmed by work as long as I know I will be given the time to stop, think, and communicate. That time will come this summer. I am hoping my girlfriend, parents, relatives, and friends will wait until then. I am looking forward to the moment when we will be able to sit down, have a beer, and talk. As Ernest Hemingway once said, an intelligent man is sometimes forced to be drunk to spend time with his fools. I am very much looking forward to that moment.

Remember to look up

Saint Paulina was born in Vigolo Vattaro, a small village a few kilometres away from my hometown. I got to know about her existence only a few weeks ago. She was one of the thousands people who, around 1890 emigrated to Brazil. There she became a nun, taking care of orphans, the children of slaves, and aged slaves who had been left to die because they could no longer work. In 1909, Mother Paulina was removed from her duties as Superior General by Duarte Leopoldo e Silva, Archbishop of São Paulo, following a series of disputes within the congregation. In 1938 her health began a long, slow decline as she was affected by diabetes. After two operations, first her middle finger and then her right arm were amputated. She spent the last months of her life totally blind. However, according to the chronicles, she was always positive. When people asked her how she could do, she replied: “Any time I feel lost, I do not look to the past, or to the future. I just look up“. Even for those who do not believe in God this is an inspiring image. Rather than keeping the eyes always on your material achievements, sometimes it is just as important to look at your principles and some deeper values that give us a sense to be.

Culture can save your life

A very good idea from Alain de Botton is called bibliotherapy: you can go and meet someone and talk to them about your life, and on the basis of the challenges that you are facing in a whole range of areas. The bibliotherapist will do you a reading prescription to match people to books that are important to them at that moment in their life.

Because in the modern world we don’t dare to imagine that culture has a purpose connected to changing and saving your life. We rather imagine that culture’s a really nice thing to visit on a Sunday; you go to the museum or you pick up a book. The idea that culture is literally a resource by which to live is oddly neglected.

A discourse on water


David Foster Wallace, again.

Transcript of the 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address – May 21, 2005. Also available on youtubeAudible and Amazon.

Time for books / 6

Between January and late February I have read several books of all the kinds.

The first book I read in early January was Arto Paasilinna’s The Forest of the Hanged Foxes. The main characters of the story run away from the city to live in a small cabin in the wood, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. This is a typically Christmas read, soft and a bit surreal. I loved the idea of living alone in the  intensity the landscapes of Northern Finland. It is rare to find a novel that makes you laugh and at the same time reflect about human condition. This is a really good one.

It took a while to read Heinrich Harrer’s Beyond Seven Years in Tibet: My Life Before, During, and After (in Italian: La mia sfida al destino). The book is about five-hundred pages long about Harrer’s life as a mountaineer who spent seven years in Tibet and who climbed an awful lot of peaks. Harrer died only a few years ago, when he was about to turn 100. This is a good book, perhaps a bit too long. From his autobiography, Harrer stands out as a very controversial character, definitely selfish, probably committed, surely extremely resilient. I really liked the first chapters, then it turned a bit boring and repetitive.

Sempre sull’alpinismo, ho letto anche Giorni di Ghiaccio di Marco Confortola. Ho già commentato questa lettura qui. Ho letto anche due libri di osservatori politici trentini e riferimenti di vita che ho avuto l’onore di conoscere personalmente. Ho commentato il libro di Piergiorgio Cattani su Dellai, un uomo solo al comando qui; e quello di Walter Micheli, Passioni e sentieri, qui.

In una serata oziosa, tanto per cambiare genere ho letto Ciclismo, Storie segrete, di Beppe Conti. Libretto leggero e simpatico, che si legge in circa due ore e che parla dei retroscena e dei piccoli trucchetti legati alle grandi imprese del ciclismo passato. Altra lettura molto leggera e veloce: Lorenzo Baratter, L’autonomia spiegata ai miei figli. Un compendio veloce sulle origini e le ragioni dell’autonomia trentina, in un momento in cui dobbiamo ripensarne radicalmente i contenuti che ne giustificano l’esistenza.

Finally, while travelling to Munich I read Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy. I would call this an interesting book. It was a huge success a few years ago. Alain de Botton is a very famous university professor now, one of those who can speak not only to an academic, but also to a much broader public. The book is about six philosophers whose thought could have a powerful effect on our lives. Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche are here interpreted for the light their work can shine on certain great universal problems.