Wisdom of the Ages

Wisdom of the Ages #

Cultures are formed and transmitted by varied means by our ancestors, both immediate and long past. The shared values, customs and beliefs are imbued into our psyches. The inspiration of the known reflects upon the new, while the new resonates with the known. The lessons of the past must be learned in order to avoid repetition so that we learn to identify with our shared inheritance.

Our thinking has been influenced by great minds of the past whose legacy lives on into eternity. Egyptian, Sumerian, Chinese, Hebrew, Greek, Roman and many medieval thinkers were not as distracted as modern minds, giving them clearer ethical visions of what makes for good governance to create harmonious societies.

Our cultural legacy is dependent on the dynamic relationship of past voices informing our perspectives. If we lose our connection with the accumulated wisdom from the dead voices of the past, we become intellectually impoverished. While youth is energetic, vibrant and exuberant, it needs the deep memories of the past experience of our ancestors to avoid similar pitfalls.

Eric Hobsbawm pointed out in The Age of Extremes:

The rupture between contemporary experience and the labours of earlier generations was one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the latter part of the 20^(th) century. Most young people grow up in a sort of permanent present, lacking any organic relationship to the public past of the times they live in.

Politicians and leaders lacking cultural memory risk making the mistakes of the past. Yet education appears to be neglecting the humanities, especially history through cuts in budgets and in penalised fee hikes in favour of courses in technology.

Cancel cultures, in Latin called damnatio memoriae, can undermine the basic processes of reason, research and factual truth in favour of entitled opinions. Censuring; dogmatic or ideological cleansing becomes a form of intolerant puritanism by misguided zealots. Education needs to open minds to curiosity and the discipline of thinking clearly, logically and rationally rather than dogmatically or irrationally.

Robert Harrison, Professor of Stanford fears cancel culture cancels the principle of whether an idea or assertion is well founded on reason or not. He points to a political culture where:

“it is no longer the virtue of my actions which defines our moral core; it’s the indignation of my reactions”.

Reflex emotions overpower reason.

We all need to be cultural conservatives; we must conserve the accumulated wisdom of the past at all costs.

Oscar Spengler, author of Decline of the West, 1918 presented a worldview that resonated with post-WWI German culture. His grim view of an inexorable doom for western civilization implied acceptance of fate, but also offered a sense of freedom from the past. His historical idea influenced artists and architects, who used it as a justification for abandoning the historic styles, now no longer valid for the new era.

Spengler recognises 8 Cultures that died out: Babylonian, Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, Classical (Greek / Roman), Arabian (Magian), Western (Faustian), Mexican (Aztec / Mayan)

Confucius: #

three things are needed for government: weapons, food and trust. If a ruler can’t hang on to all three, he should give up weapons first and food next. Trust should be guarded to the end: without trust we cannot stand” He also maintained that all power originated in force.

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel #

In one of the first Hebrew codes of laws, “Rabbi Shimon ben (son of) Gamliel asserts the three bedrock principles that underpin Western legal systems:

‘The world stands upon three things: upon Truth, Justice and Peace. Without these three elements the world cannot be sustained - and further, like the pillars holding up the ceiling of a house, all three are essential - together: There can be no Truth in the absence of Justice and Peace; no Justice in the absence of Truth and Peace; no Peace in the absence of Truth and Justice.

Justice is essential in any fair minded productive society. Without a just society communities cannot reach their full potential. Without Art we cannot have a culture; without Laws, no society; without Justice, no peace and harmony.

Classical Writers #

Greek Thinkers #

Solon is generally credited with the founding of Justice and democracy. His esteemed authority has stood the test of time as Plato, Aristotle and even Juvenal deferred to him. Juvenal simply refers to Solon as: “eloquent Solon, the Just”.

Herodotus, often credited with being the father of Historical writing, is also called by, Plutarch, the father of lies. But the fact remains that Herodotus transformed the telling of myths into an attempted documentation of factual accounts.

Thucydides warned democracy collapses into “a state of unprecedented lawlessness, when no fear of god or law of man has a restraining influence on authorities.”

Socrates major contribution lay in his disdain for false reasoning. Public discourse should elevate dialectical discussions rather than adversarial debates. Diaologue is more effective than adversarial debate.

In Gorgias, a dialogue written by Socrates’ student Plato, the philosopher asks whether it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it.

Socrates argued it is better to suffer injustice, because committing injustice is an affront to one’s own dignity and integrity.

Socrates insisted Justice implies superior character and intelligence while injustice means deficiency in both respects. Therefore, just men are superior in character and intelligence and are more effective in action. As injustice implies ignorance, stupidity and badness, It cannot be superior in character and intelligence. A just man is wiser because he acknowledges the principle of limit. Unlimited self-assertion is not a source of strength for any group organized for common purpose, Unlimited desire and claims lead to conflicts. D.R. Bhandari J.N.V. University

" Strong minds discuss ideas”
" Average minds discuss events"
" Weak minds discuss people".

Socrates was considered the wisest man in Athens because he accpeted that he knew nothing.

Plato had already been perceptive enough to see Justice could be used as trickery. In The Republic, the character Thrasymachus argues that justice is the interest of the strong—merely a name for what the powerful or cunning ruler has imposed on the people. The rich and powerful make the laws to preserve their positions from the “little people”.

Plato argued:

that justice is internal to the soul, requiring not laws, but discrimination and virtue.

Plato gives a prominent place to the idea of justice. Plato was highly dissatisfied with the prevailing degenerating conditions in Athens. The Athenian democracy was on the verge of ruin and was ultimately responsible for Socrates’s death. The amateur meddlesomeness and excessive individualism became main targets of Plato’s attack. This attack came in the form of the construction of an ideal society in which justice reigned supreme, since Plato believed justice to be the remedy for curing these evils. After criticizing the conventional theories of justice, Plato gives us his own theory of justice according to which, individually, justice is a ‘human virtue’ that makes a person self-consistent and good; socially, justice is a social consciousness that makes a society internally harmonious and good.

Plato was concerned about good governance opining:

The heaviest penalty for declining to rule is to be ruled by someone inferior to yourself.

“There are three classes of men; lovers of wisdom, lovers of honor, and lovers of gain.”

In his Republic, Plato defines his concept of goodness and Justice as the key virtue, both personally and politically. Plato’s view is deeper and larger than just rewards and punishments, rather rightness - but fundamental moral order. Hesiod and Solon had already demonstrated that societies are made by people, for people.

  • Force is not as powerful as an example or appeal to goodness. Fear makes people do what they are told, but inspiration motivates total commitment.
  • Goodness does not need the force of arms to destroy evil; evil destroys itself - Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler, and many others give proof to that.
  • Justice in the end is always more profitable than injustice. Socrates, Jesus, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and many others give proof to that.

Aristotle tried to unify all strands of thought. He recognised that as wholistic beings, we are driven by our minds, emotions, and primal instincts.

It is the mark of the educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

“Rules are made for the guidance of the wise and the blind obedience of fools.”

Epicureanism #

The early Greek philosopher, Epicurus, founded a cult known as Epicureanism; today misconceived as hedonistic self-indulgent pleasure seeking in luxurious food, wine and gluttony. In its original conception it was just the opposite. Epicureans, paid little attention to signs or omens as. the gods were not concerned with human affairs.

“do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not”

Their guiding principle was the pursuit of pleasure, which they understood not so much as the fulfilment of desire as its rational mastery.

Yet it is a philosophy in which we can see ourselves and our most urgent needs - for a better and more sustainable way of life - reflected from a great distance. Epicurus taught his followers how to be happy without god and how to be happy with less.

“He who understands the limits of life knows how easy it is to procure enough to remove the pain of want and make the whole of life complete and perfect,”

“Hence he has no longer any need of things which are not to be won save by labour and conflict.”

Time and again Epicurus and his followers return to the theme of limits:

“One must regard wealth beyond what is natural as of no more use than water to a container that is full to overflowing.”

Epicurus understood the gelding of desire and the search for happiness as one and the same thing: in fact it was impossible to have one without the other; “do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not”

Epicurus encouraged us ’to acknowledge every bit of happiness in our lives, to cherish the people and things we love, and to savour every opportunity.’

The philosophy of the garden was conceived as therapy for a trinity of common illnesses - anxiety, greed and lust - by a man who declared himself content with water, bread, weak wine and a “pot of cheese”.

Plain dishes, Epicurus believed, “offer the same pleasure as a luxurious table”.

The host and keeper of this place, where you will find the pleasure of the highest good, will offer you freely cakes of barley and fresh spring water.

This garden will not tease your appetite with the dainties of art but satisfy it with the bounties of nature.

Will you not be a happy guest?

Edited extract from Luke Slattery’s Reclaiming Epicurus: Ancient Wisdom that Could Save the World, an e-book in the Penguin Specials series.

Stoicism #

Stoicism is an ancient Greek school of philosophy founded at Athens by Zeno. The school taught that virtue, the highest good, is based on knowledge; the wise live in harmony with the divine Reason (also identified with Fate and Providence) that governs nature, and are indifferent to the vicissitudes of fortune and to pleasure and pain.

Stoicism is the philosophical belief that we should accept that there are things in the world that we cannot change, and to minimise the effect that harmful things can have on us accordingly.


• Stoic principles of apatheia living without passions,
• to maintain equanimity in the face of personal chaos.
• the endurance of pain or hardship without the display of feelings and without complaint.
• exhorting you to manage your emotional extremes so they don’t manage you.
“Money doesn’t buy happiness"; any attachment to riches will bring misery, as materialism can lower well-being and raise depression.
• charity is a gift to the giver. Service to others is one of the easiest ways to get happier.
“All things in moderation,” it is morally superior: In Seneca’s view, it also leads to inner peace.
• I will do nothing because of public opinion, but everything because of conscience:
• I will be agreeable with my friends, gentle and mild to my foes:
“Love your enemies,” in the biblical formation— especially The Sermon on the Mount, lies behind many of the philosophies that seek to disrupt the tendency to hate our foes. “Love has within it a redemptive power,” Martin Luther King Jr.

Marcus Aurelius advises:

• If it becomes clear, that someone has back-stabbed you,
• Pronounce no more to yourself, beyond what the appearances directly declare. It is said to you that someone has spoken ill of you. This alone is told you, and not that you are hurt by it.
• If what your insulter has said is true, then change. If what they have said is false, it does not merit your being upset by it. If they have betrayed your trust, the shame and the fault lies with them.
“The best revenge,, is not to become like the wrongdoer”.
“It is the act of a generous spirit to proportion its efforts not to its own strength but to that of human nature, to entertain lofty aims, and to conceive plans which are too vast to be carried into execution even by those who are endowed with gigantic intellects.”

Jane Austen’s Mr Bennett candidly and soically accepts the blame after his return from London failing to find Wickham and Lydia:

“No Lizzy, let me once in my life feel how much I have been to blame. I am not afraid of being overpowered by the impression. It will pass soon enough.” (205)

T.S. Eliot sees the stoicism of ancient Rome re-emerging in the Renaissance, and this stoicism informs the growing self-consciousness which Eliot detects in many of Shakespeare’s heroes, including Hamlet and Othello. Brutus also claims to be one.

This is a new attitude, which leads, ultimately, to the nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose ideas were still relatively new when Eliot was writing.

Around 1932, Niebuhr opened a prayer:

The victorious man in the day of crisis is the man who has the serenity to accept what he cannot help and the courage to change what must be altered.

Rudyard Kipling’s realistic acceptance of fate in his poem “If” expresses it clearly:

“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:”

Roman contributions to civilisation: #

The Romans made significant contributions to our Western Civilisation.

Rome is sometime called the Eternal city, because it is one of the longest established ruling centres of the world. Rome is known as the divine city due to the myth of Mars seducing a Vestal Virgin giving birth to Romulus and Remus who are abandoned and suckled by a wolf. Remus later is considered the founder of Sienna.

They gave us the institutions of government – the senate, republicanism, the rule of law, Art and Architecture, a diverse multicultural and multi-state empires – virtues such as dignity, humanity, honesty. Their enduring legacy includes Latin, one of the contributors to the English language, the absolute primacy of law to maintain order and harmony.

The Roman Empire existed for almost 2000 years until 1453, When Constantinople fell to the Ottomans.

There were truth-tellers throughout Roman history, but as the centuries wore on, the telling of official lies became a recognized art form.

Cicero, 55 BC, in his book, De Re Republica, noted that even the most carefully calibrated constitution, could be undermined in practice. As a later advisor to Augustus Caesar, he observed:

“The Budget should be balanced, the Treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed, lest Rome will become bankrupt. People must again learn to work instead of living on public assistance.”

Tacitus #

TACITUS 56 - 120 AD - Born In Gaul, Publius Cornelius Tacitus, a Roman historian and politician, regarded as one of the greatest Roman historians, writing in the silver age of Latin Literature.

The purpose of an historian is to:

“Standards of historical research and scholarship should be more than just glorified gossip. We have higher expectations - to commemorate great deeds and to bring to the attention of posterity the damage that evil deeds do and to denounce them”.

Shocking crimes committed on the unscrupulous initiative of few individuals, with the blessing of more, and amid the passive acquiescence of all.

”Misdeeds, once exposed, have no refuge but in audacity”.

  • A desire to resist oppression is implanted in the nature of man.

  • Reason and judgment are the qualities of a leader.

  • When the state is most corrupt, then the laws are most multiplied.

  • Abuse, if you slight it, will gradually die away; but if you show yourself irritated, you will be thought to have deserved it.

Tacitus was aware of the “pretences of freedom” long after it ceased to play any important role.

“It was a tainted, meanly obsequious age. The greatest figures had to protect their positions by subserviency; and, in addition to them, all ex-consuls, most ex-praetors, even many junior senators competed with each other’s offensively sycophantic proposals.

The Emperor Claudius maintained the senate should “transfer to this city all conspicuous merit, wherever found”.


“To impose the way of peace you must spare the conquered and subdue the proud.”

Horace #

Horace lived in volatile times where the rise and fall of fortunes was subject to that of those you serve. Horace had sided with Brutus and Cassius so when Augustus and Antony won the Battle of Actium in the year 34 B.C. he was in great danger. He was extremely fortunate that his poetic skills were valued and found favour with Maecenas, Octavian’s rich and influential ally, who was fostering and patronising a talented literary circle in the emperor’s interests.

In Rome Panegyrists, like Horace, were paid performers, subsidized by those they celebrated.

As spin doctor, for celebrating the emperor and portraying his regime as the beginning of a Golden Age of peace and prosperity, Horace was rewarded with a large country estate called the Sabine farm. While appreciating his good fortune, he recognised the fragility of life and came up with the philosophy of Carpe Diem - of living for the moment. Dead Poet’s Society brings this alive here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E5t3ZzZv8_U

Horatian Satire chooses targets it cares about to gently mock or send up causing laughter to avoid offending the powers that be. For this reason, his satire needed to be more subtle. Example:

“Why is no one happy anymore? Oh, lucky traders! Moans the soldier, his once young limbs now busted up with combat. While the storm-tossed trader sighs in response, Oh to be at war! Where in one crowded hour, the whole issue is decided, for death or glory.”

From Horace’s Odes, the Latin saying:

‘Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori’ translates into: “Sweet and decorous (noble, becoming) it is to die for one’s country”.

Ovid #

Ovid was not as fortunate under Augustus’ template for dictatorship. He was banished by Augustus. His wrongdoings were, in his own words, carmen et error (“a poem and a mistake”).

Trained for a career in the law, the young Ovid faced his father’s disapproval for aspiring to become a writer. (“Even Homer died penniless!”).

Ovid revealed a deep sympathy for women’s suffering and a keen interest in female perspectives unusual for the time, going as far as to advising women on how to seduce men.

However when Augustus began a puritan campaign against adultery, ten years later, he banished Ovid to Tomis, on the northwest coast of the Black Sea, where he complained few people appreciated his Latin.

By this time he had already begun his major opus - Metamorphoses, another perspective, like Hesiod’s Thogony or Genesis, of mapping out the path of creation from chaos to order, passing through the stages of myth to history.

Exiled to Tomis, near the Black Sea, in a place where his native Latin was scarcely heard, Ovid’s despair is evoked in one of his most memorable couplets:

“writing a poem you can read to no one
is like dancing in the dark.”

According to Marguerite Johnson, Associate Professor of Ancient History and Classical Languages, University of Newcastle :

Indeed, Ovid’s own silencing by Augustus may be seen to be enacted over and over again in the Metamorphoses in the most grotesque of ways. Ovid’s tales describe tongues being wrenched out, humans barking out their sorrows instead of crying, women transformed into mute creatures by jealous gods, and desperate victims bearing witness to their abuse through non-verbal means.

The Metamorphoses is an epic about the act of silencing.

Daniel Mendelsohn, the editor-at-large of the New York Review of Books, writes:

It was the savage, brutal violence that the immortals subjected the mortals to, that preoccupied Ovid and still causes many readers to demand “tigger warnings”. Ovid’s The Metamorphoses shows Arachne’s weaving, depicting nine rapes committed by Jove, six by Neptune, a few by Apollo and Bacchus, and one by Saturn, Jove’s father. Ovid questions the arbitrary violence of all deities.

This raises the troubling question about the aestheticization of violence which increasingly haunt the reception of Ovid’s epic. Many myths about the interactions of gods and humans include instances of divine violence against mortals which lead to baroque mutations.

When the Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini unveiled Apollo and Daphne in 1625, the marble work was resoundingly hailed as a meraviglia—a marvel. Not yet 30 years old, the sculptor had captured motion, transformation, sexual appetite, and terror more convincingly than any other artist working in stone before him.

Apollo and Daphne remains mesmerizing for both its formal mastery and its disturbing, profoundly relevant subject matter: the ravenous pursuit of a woman, by a man who won’t take no for an answer.

Few works from antiquity remind us as powerfully as Ovid’s does that a wrenching engagement with these ancient authors cannot be separated from admiration for them.

“The inclusion of so many stories of rape in the epic,” McCarter writes in the final section of her introduction, called “Reading Ovid Today,” suggests, in fact, that Ovid felt such violence was worthy of critical interrogation. . . . To read Ovid with an eye toward his full complexity—his beauty and his brutality—allows us to scrutinize our own thorny relationship with the past and with the ambivalent inheritance we have received from it. To wrestle with the unsavory aspects of ancient literature is to do the hard work of self-examination.

McCarter ends her introduction with a list of her poet’s themes: the fragility of the human body; the way power works; the traumatic effects of loss of agency; the dark force of the objectifying gaze; the sometimes surprising interplay among desire, gender, and the body; gender fluidity and asexuality; the human will to self-expression.

Was Ovid subtlely portraying the creeping authoritarianism of the rule of Augustus, who declared his leadership for life and asserted the right to appoint his successor?

Ovid’s presentation of Jove—the king of the gods and the obvious counterpart of Augustus himself—is almost uniformly disparaging in its contempt for the god’s use of his power.

The Metamorphoses often reads like a catalogue of Jove’s violent offenses: Jove transforming himself into a bull in order to abduct Europa, Jove becoming a swan to get at Leda, Jove taking the form of an eagle in order to snatch up Ganymede.

Homer’s Zeus, fallible though he sometimes is, is always august, awesome; not so Ovid’s Jove. You’re more than a little uneasy when, in the poem’s final vignette, Augustus is explicitly compared to that most powerful of gods:

“Jove rules the heavens / and the tripartite world.

Augustus holds / the earth. Each is a ruler and a father.”

By the time he wrote these lines, of course, Ovid knew exactly what the Emperor had done to his daughter.

Art and literature, Ovid seems to say, are powerful if dangerous means of confronting arbitrary authority.

Daniel Mendelsohn, The New York Review of Books,

Juvenal #

Juvenal who lived about 100 years later had already been exiled for criticising authority, so his writing is less subtle.

Juvenalian sarcasm tends to be stinging, cutting, bitter acerbic, even savage in its criticism evoking scorn, contempt and even hatred. Juvenal targets the evil or actively harmful aspects of society, and to attack them with serious intent to harm their reputation or power. He often attacks individuals on a personal level, its most common objective is social criticism.

He utilized the satirical tools of exaggeration and parody to make his targets appear monstrous or incompetent. While he occasionally utilized humor to make his point, Juvenal’s satire had more in common with the invective of a political pundit than the primarily humor-driven form favored by most modern satirists.

The primary weapons of Juvenalian satire are scorn and ridicule.

It was the Roman codger Juvenal who wrote of the people’s appetite for bread and circuses; we prefer the cheap nourishment of legal theatrics to real hard research for hard reliable evidence. He also coined:

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Translated, “who will guard the guards (themselves)?”

While he ridicaules the vaunted power of Xeres, Hannibal and even Alexander the Great, his tribute to Solon consists of four words: “eloquent Solon, the Just”.

Seneca: Born in Cordoba, raised in Rome, he became a learned stoic tutor to the unpredictable Emperor Nero.

Emily Wilson writes, In the ancient world, as is true today, navigating political chaos was a pressing dilemma. Philosophers were forced to decide whether to participate in, resist, or simply endure the political rulers of their time. He was a philosopher drawn into politics; he wanted to make a difference in the real world and then found himself in the court of Nero, trying to contain a wildly insecure, inexperienced leader who was deranged. A bit like Trump.

In accordance with the philosophy of the Stoics, Virtue (virtus) and Reason are the basis of a good life, and a good life should be lived simply and in accordance with Nature, which, incidentally, didn’t mean you should eschew wealth.

Seneca’s advice to his mother to cease her grieving.

“You are beautiful, with an age-defying appeal that needs no make-up, so stop acting like the worst kind of vain woman.”

At the whim of the paranoid tyrant, Nero, who suspected Seneca of plotting to kill him, Seneca, like Socrates was sentenced to commit suicide.

Boethius, probably the last of the great Classical Roman thinkers, who rose to great political heights in the court of King Theodoric at Ravenna, but who then crashed and burned after being implicated (probably wrongly) in a conspiracy against the crown. Jailed and tortured, he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy in prison as he awaited execution in 524 AD.

When Boethius talks about Philosophy, what we would call Enlightenment and the battle of wills between Philosophy and the Muses of Poetry between Reason and Emotion.

He explores the competition between good and evil:

But the greatest cause of my sadness is really this – the fact that in spite of a good helmsman to guide the world (God), evil can still exist and even pass unpunished.

Boethius is confident that goodness is rewarded and evil is always punished.

For this and other reasons based on the fact that by its own nature badness makes men wretched, it is clear that when someone has done an injury, the misery belongs not to the victim but to the perpetrator.

Medieval Thinkers #

John of Salisbury, born 1120, highly educated, secretary to the Archbishop of Canterbury, became a controversial figure when he criticized King Henry II’s methods of raising funds for a war against the French. In order to raise an army, Henry disproportionately taxed church property. John was an ardent defender of the church’s traditional liberties, including its exemption from certain taxes.

In Policraticus, The Statesmen’s Book, John discussed his justification for tyrannicide, the nature of law, and the behaviour of a just king.

“nought is so splendid or magnificent that it does not need to be tempered by moderation.”

I try to live a life as of “ultra moderation”

He believed that flattery put the commonwealth at risk because the king would pursue policies advantageous to certain individuals rather than to society as a whole.

“It is necessary to have the garb of pretence in order to be pleasing.”

John scolded members of the court, stating that flattery is always “accompanied by deception, fraud, betrayal, and the infamy of lying.”

All must obey the dictates of justice, as

“all are accordingly bound by the necessity of keeping the law.” Kings are not exempt from law either; John argued “in the teeth of all the world, that kings are bound by this law.”

Therefore, true friendship can only be nurtured by people committed to seeking and adhering to the truth, something immoral people consistently ignore. He emphatically concluded that “those who are vulgar and base flatterers are not admitted among friends, better the chastisement of a friend than the fraudulent kissing up of a flatterer.”

To John of Salisbury, if the abuses of government could not be exposed and debated, then government would quickly collapse into despotism — a message sadly ignored throughout history.

Dante Alighieri

Around 1308, hiding in exile in Northern Italy, Dante wrote the epic The Inferno. While Beowulf intersperses Christian allegory into pagan myth, The Inferno intersperses pagan myth into Christian allegory.

Robert Pogue Harrison, a professor of literature at Stanford University, draws on Dante to explain the dynamic synergy between genius and wisdom.

“Dante in the Middle Ages is in a deeply Christian society, and he becomes the first person to write a Christian epic in the first person singular. That was very radical. That was very new. That opened up a whole new genre for the future. He found his way into the new possibilities of a Christian epic by the systematic study of Virgil, and with Virgil, the epic tradition that came from Greek and Roman sources,”.

The gates to the nine fiery circles of the Inferno declare: Justice built me. It is the biblical justice of “life for a life, an eye for an eye”. At the end three monsters shriek, “turn this intruder into stone, O Medusa”!

Medusa, sexually assaulted by Poseidon, was victim blamed by Athena and turned into a serpent haired gorgon. One direct look at her face turned you into stone. Hercules managed to cut her head off with the aid of a mirror.

Like all great literature, Dante asks the question, but fails to supply answers:

O you of sound minds,
Seek the doctrine that is hidden
Beneath the veil of verses strange.

Dante feels the secret is less important than looking for it.

Andre Gide:

“Don’t trust those who know the truth; trust those who are searching for the truth”.

Dante claimed his poem is an allegory about free choice; how we are rewarded or punished by Justice. We are free to think and choose for ourselves:

You yourself, make yourself ignorant/gross/stupid.

Niccolò Bernardo Machiavelli (1469–1527). #

Machiavellian is an adjective derived from Machiavelli, the family name of the Florentine diplomat, historian, and political philosopher. His most famous work The Prince (Il Principe), written in 1513 while in exile from Florence. His other major works were, Discourses on Livy and The Art of War.

Machiavelli can be interpreted as the founder of modern political science, a discipline based on the actual state of the world as opposed to how the world might be in utopias such as the Republic of Plato (428/27–348/47 BC) or the City of God of Saint Augustine (354–430).

Machiavelli may be an unjustly maligned figure with valuable political insights that resonate as strongly today as they did in his time. He may be an example of Poe’s Law, an adage questioning whether unless some tone indicator is used, it is impossible to tell the difference between an extreme view being sincerely espoused and an extreme view being satirized.

Machiavelli portrays pagans as greater lovers of freedom; as participants with agency of influence, whereas Christians are more passive.

“Our religion, having shown the truth and the true way, makes us esteem less the honour of the world. Our religion praises humility and submission, capable of suffering; enduring rather than resisting.

“Our religion, having shown the truth and the true way", is likely satiric – more to save him from being deemed a heretic and the burning at the stake, than a sincere belief.

It was European Medieval Christianity that depreciated the value of our earthly life, placating the masses with promises of eternal bliss in a heaven paved with gold – the more you suffer on earth’s pilgrimage, the better your heavenly reward. An excellent ploy, by the rich and mighty, to rationalise the disparity of wealth.

In contrast, Horace had given rise to the Carpe Diem philosophy, not reborn until 19^(th) C. Europe. As capitalism gave distributed wealth more evenly, people began to demand not only more political power but a comfortable lifestyle putting more emphasis on heaven on earth than a delayed reward.

Machiavelli was educated by private tutors, one of them a priest who sexually abused him. This was not unusual, nor was Niccolò’s eventual bisexuality. He was eight when the Pazzi conspiracy against the Medici failed—the conspirators’ corpses were hung from the windows of Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of government—after which the constitution was rewritten to give more power to Il Magnifico. Niccolò was twenty-three when Piero de’ Medici, Lorenzo’s son, was chased out of Florence because of his inept handling of a French invasion and the priest Girolamo Savonarola became the main force in the city.

Again the constitution was rewritten, this time along republican lines. But the economically vital subject city of Pisa seized the chance to break away from the Florentine republic. Niccolò was twenty-seven, still unemployed, still on the margins, when in 1497 Savonarola ordered the first Bonfire of the Vanities in Piazza della Signoria, a sixty-foot pile of fashionable clothes, books, paintings, dice, card games, and musical instruments. A year later, after fierce factional tensions, Savonarola himself was burned in the same place.

Machiavelli at last profited from upheaval. After Savonarola was executed and his supporters purged, he was elected both second chancellor and secretary of the Ten of War, important government posts that had fallen vacant. “He was the ideal candidate,” Lee writes: “relatively obscure; able, but not outstandingly brilliant; and, crucially, untainted by success in any quarter.” He was also completely unprepared.

Machiavelli, who favored the Borgias, was dismissed, imprisoned and tortured by the Medici from 1512 to 1514. He wrote his manual – The Prince. in exile and it was published after his death. Rather than advocating the machinations of politics, I believe he was simply recording his observations from cruel experience, attempting to regain favour with the Medici – while covertly satirizing it. By 1519, Machiavelli was back in favor and consulted by the Medici on their constitution based on Rome’s Republic. . He died in 1527, shortly after the Medici were expelled from Florence.

The Prince endeavours to dissociate political action from common morality, There is cogent evidence that rather than endorse pragmatism, his cynical advice for the powerful, is a subtlety advocating the idea of popular sovereignty, because the people know best who oppresses them.

The Prince sets out to establish how power is wielded in a principality and what qualities are required of its leader. It concludes that different circumstances will require different qualities. Is he trying to curry favor with the Medici by purporting to “reveal how princes could learn to master Fortune.” Machiavelli observes:

If someone is behaving cautiously and patiently and the times and circumstances are such that the approach works, he’ll be successful. But if times and circumstances change, everything goes wrong for him, because he hasn’t changed his approach to match. You won’t find anyone shrewd enough to adapt his character like this, in part because you can’t alter your natural bias and in part because, if a person has always been successful with a particular approach, he won’t easily be persuaded to drop it. So when the time comes for the cautious man to act impulsively, he can’t, and he comes unstuck.

The relation between character and circumstance is also crucial in the debate that made The Prince notorious. At the beginning of chapter 15, Machiavelli remarks:

If you always want to play the good man in a world where most people are not good, you’ll end up badly. Hence, if a ruler wants to survive, he’ll have to learn to stop being good, at least when the occasion demands.

Hereditary monarchies, where people have long been used to the ruler’s family…all a monarch need do is avoid upsetting the order established by his predecessors, is to trim policies to circumstances when there is trouble, and, assuming he is of average ability, he will keep his kingdom for life.

At the height of the defeats that brought down most Italian states with the imposition of foreign occupation for more than three centuries, Niccolo Machiavelli urged virtuous men to defy fate and stand up against the adversity of the times, to prefer action and daring to caution. The more tragic the situation, the more it necessitates action and the refusal to “give up” (The Prince, Chapters XXV and XXVI). The Art of Teaching People What to Fear by PATRICK BOUCHERON Translated by WILLARD WOOD - NEW YORK TIMES

Machiavelli outlined the two extremes: Pragmatists or Idealists.

Realpoliticians. (realpolitik: political realism or practical politics, especially policy based on power rather than on ideals.) Machiavellian philosophy is that the ideal is seldom attainable so the compromise is that as you work toward the ideal, you may use questionable means. They believe in expediency; the ends justify the means. They may play dirty politics as long as the end result could be considered worthy. They are not interested in the process; only in outcomes. Pragmatist believe that “righteous ends justify violent means.”

Machiavelli maintained that unscrupulousness in Politics was necessary because men are “ungrateful, fickle, false, cowards, covetous”.

Pragmatists agree that mankind is essentially bad.

Some advice from Machiavelli to rulers:

“The promise given was a necessity of the past; the word broken is a necessity of the present.” “He should appear to be compassionate, faithful to his word, guileless, and devout. And indeed he should be so. But his disposition should be such that, if he needs to be the opposite, he knows how.”

Machiavellian is characterized by subtle or unscrupulous cunning, deception, expediency, or dishonesty: Machiavellian tactics in order to get ahead - to win at all costs.

Machiavellian logic – expediency - the end justifies the means; pragmatism can result in hypocrisy, heresy and apostacy.

Machiavelli criticizes the Roman Catholic church as the cause of Italy’s disunity; the clergy is dishonest and leads people to believe “that it is evil to say evil of evil”; and Christianity glorifies suffering.

A key writer in the transmission of Florentine thought (Machiavelli, principally) into the English political tradition was James Harrington in the 17th century, who lamented that ordinary people can be:

“deceived by a false image of the good” and manipulated to “desire their own ruin”.

Girolamo Savonarola 1452 - 1498 #

Perhaps the most controversial figure of the early European reformers. The dominant view is that he was a fanatical unhinged Friar prophesising end times. In context of his times, the disobliging view is one of an advocate for righteousness.

Savonarola was a complex and conflicted fiery Florentine Friar who preached against art as a contributing factor to the spread of vice and spiritual decay – particularly overt same sex activity prevalent in Enrique’s court in Sergovia. His prophetic fire and brimstone preaching exhorted the masses to reject the secular materialism and corruption of Rodrigo Borgia’s Papacy. He was known for the destruction of secular art and culture, and his calls for Christian renewal. He denounced clerical corruption, despotic rule and the exploitation of the poor.

His attacks on the openly dissolute Papacy of Alexander VI found many adherents throughout Europe, including Queen Isabella from 1492. They were similar to concerns expressed by John Wycliffe, Jan Hus, Jerome and later Martin Luther.

The Pope tried to appease him by offering to make him a Cardinal, which he rejected.

With the death of Lorenzo de’Medici in 1496, Florence was hit by drought and starvation, which Savonarola attributed to the sybaritic ways of the Church. He instituted the Bonfires of the Vanities, where all would bring and burn all objects that represented human vices and luxuries – rich clothing, mirrors, playing cards, paintings and books – representing the sensuality of the Italian Renaissance.

Pope Alexander initially ignored him, then ex-communicated him but finally called on the Church: “this little worm had to be put to death”. He was charged with the serious crime of Heresy.

Despite Savonarola’s appeals to various crowns of Europe to convene a council to overthrow an openly corrupt Papacy, it was Savonarola who faced an Inquisition, He was tortured, confessed that ”his sermons were acts of pride for personal glory” and having given the Church what it needed, was hanged and his body burned.

Even his supporters abandoned him as Florentines threw gun powder on the fire to make the blaze hotter. Dissenters seldom prosper.

Chaucer and Savonarola, as with all movements, like the Reformation, were motivated and sustained by strong passions about powerful ideas about reform and emotional attachment to figureheads.

We end on a note of faint hope:

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”Theodore Parker – 1810

Martin Luther #

Luther, a fully trained Priest, was not out to start a new religion, rather reform his church. He objected to the venal fetishes (simony, indulgences, relics) of the Church. His main tenet was that man can justifiably seek his own communion with God through faith and did not need the influence of priests. Luther won his arguments with the masses because he addressed them in the vernacular while the Church maintained the false gravity of Latin. Priests who gave sermons in colloquial languages rather than Latin, appealed openly to the emotions of their hearers.

One of the reasons Martin Luther rejected mandatory celibacy was because he saw widespread evidence that church clerics of all ranks commonly violated the rules with women, other men, and young boys.

On his first visit to Rome he was astounded by the wealth, magnificence and luxury he witnessed. The monks dwelt in splendid apartments, attired themselves in the richest and most costly robes and feasted at sumptuous tables – in contrast to their vows of poverty. Visiting the churches he was astonished and horrified by the iniquity he witnessed among all classes of the clergy. He heard indecent jokes from the prelates, and was filled with horror at their awful profanity, even during mass. As he mingled with the monks and citizens he met dissipation and debauchery. No one can imagine what sins and infamous transgressions are committed in Rome. If there is a hell, Rome is built over it: it is an abyss whence issues every king of sin.

Friar Martin focused his ire (and most of the ninety-five theses) on one particular practice of the institutional church: the sale of indulgences. These papal dispensations, confirmed by paper certificates, grew out of a traditional medieval conviction that prayer, repentance, good works, and pilgrimage could atone in some measure for sin.

Giving alms or endowing a church could also earn remission from sins, reducing the amount of time a person would need to spend after death in the uncomfortable realm of Purgatory, where, in late medieval Christian belief, human souls were gradually cleansed of their iniquities until they were pure enough to enter the Earthly Paradise, there to await final admission to Heaven on Judgment Day. By the late fifteenth century, however, remission from sins could simply be purchased from a papal agent, for oneself or for another person, whether alive or deceased.

The sale of indulgences had already been an industry one hundred years earlier in Chaucer’s times.

Jonathon Swift: 1667 - 1745 #

Jonathan Swift was an Anglo-Irish satirist, essayist, political pamphleteer, poet and Anglican cleric who became Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.

  • May you live all the days of your life.
  • Vision is the art of seeing things invisible.
  • When a true genius appears in this world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.
  • We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.
  • Hate is a much more a pure emotion. We choose our enemies with much greater care than our loves
  • There is nothing in this world constant, but inconstancy.
  • Laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through. Solon
  • No wise man ever wished to be younger.
  • Every man desires to live long, but no man wishes to be od.


In four strange countries of Lilliput, Brobdingnag, Laputa and the land of the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver meets some extraordinary people and remarkable creatures. From a race of miniature folk to some surprisingly gentle giants and wise horses, Gulliver sees society from many different perspectives. Back in England life seems very ordinary after all his experiences, but Gulliver’s fantastic adventures change his views on human behaviour forever:

Perhaps his most ascerbic satirical pamphlet where he channeled his ire into is A Modest Proposal that posited child-eating as the only viable solution to Ireland’s famine.

Modern Wisdom #

Lord Acton 1834 - 1902 #

Lord Acton, the great English liberal Catholic historian, famous for his aphorism about the corruption of power, wrote:

“I exhort you never to debase the moral currency or to lower the standard of rectitude, but to try others by the final maxim that governs your own lives, and to suffer no man and no cause to escape the undying penalty which history has the power to inflict on wrong…”

Lord Acton had papal infallibility and the absolute powers of monarchs in mind when writing to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887, his warnings apply to all people invested with great power, including judges:

"….Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely……

“There is no worse heresy than the fact that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”

Nietzsche 1844 - 1900 #

Convictions (beliefs, dogmas, ideolologies, mindsets…) are the enemy of free thinking.

The Will to Power (from Shopenhauer) is an instinctive force of nature that needs to be controlled or managed, but not suppressed.

In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche compares moralities from different times, different places and different cultures, with two major differences: some moralities are master moralities, some are slave moralities. And he puts Christianity and democracy on the side of slave morality.

Master Moralities

Master moralities are applicable only to an elite group of society’s or culture’s higher human beings. So master moralities and lower people, slaves, must live according to a different moral code.

The crucial thing about an ubermensch is to have power over the self - not driven by a desire to be judged by the standards of others.

Slave moralities

Slave morality articulates a set of moral values that apply equally to all individuals. So slave moralities are universal by design and ambition. One size fits all. There’s a common standard of value of what is good and what is evil, that should apply to all individuals. It is based on love, humility, submission, self-denial, or self abasement It can reduce us to the lowest common denominator of herdish slavery. By levelling us it can result in the tall poppy syndrome. The best people are not encouraged to aspire and egalitarianism can lead to mediocrity.

Nietzsche was highly controversial and his lectures were sabotaged by German philosophy professors who advised their students not to show up for Nietzsche’s courses.


‘A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.’

‘Fear is the mother of morality’.

‘All things are subject to interpretation; whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth’.

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.” Joseph Goebbels - originally from Nietzsche now appropriated by Donald Trump.

Nietzsche spent some of his later years in mental hospitals - more likely from complications of syphillis.

Einstein #

Einstein not only a brilliant scientist, also made a number of pertinent philosophic observations:

  • Logic allows you to count; Imagination is infinite.

  • Logic takes you from A to B; imagination takes you everywhere.

  • “we are all pygmies standing on the shoulders of Giants,"

  • We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.

  • “Two certainties in life; the infinity of space and stupidity and I’m not that sure about space.”

  • A calm and humble life will bring more happiness than the pursuit of success and the constant restlessness that comes with it.”

  • “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”

  • It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.

  • The world is not dangerous because of those who do harm; but because of those who look at it without doing anything.

  • “Let every man be respected as an individual and no man idolised”.

  • Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of the truth.

When a pamphlet was published entitled 100 Authors Against Einstein, Einstein retorted:

  • “If I were wrong, one would be enough.”

Professor Marshall McLuhan #

Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase ‘the medium is the message’ in 1958. Much misunderstood, McLuhan was not so much concerned about media technologies in his Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. He was thinking about how media changes humans.

The Information Super highway

We are now living in a global age (Village) predicted in the early fifties where we are inundated with the implosion of knowledge and opinion.

An issue of a newspaper from the 1900’s contained more information than a reader in the 1700’s would have been exposed to in a life time.

In one of his television appearances McLuhan stated that

“the chances of understanding the meaning of our involvement in the present is very small. It is generally the artists who see what they are living in the present and we are always one step ahead (of technology)”.

“Ours is the first age in which many thousands of the best trained individual minds have made it a full-time business to get inside the collective public mind. To get inside in order to manipulate, exploit, control is the object now.”

Noam Chomsky #

It was Noam Chomsky who coined the phrase – “manufacturing consent”. Tabloid journalism is adept at manufacturing outrage through punditosphere of strident, gut wrenching opinion rather than demonstrable facts. Media Moguls like Randall Hearst, Rupert Murdoch, (Foxtel) pursue their own interests by manipulating ordinary, less-engaged voters.

Noam Chomsky, one of the most cited individuals in the world, calls Western business elites:

“huge private tyrannies… which are about as totalitarian in character as any institutions that humans have so far concocted”.

‘Fascism’ says Pilger. ‘Totalitarianism’ says Chomsky. ‘Agreed’ says Randall G. Holcombe, former Republican advisor to Jeb Bush no less.

Noam Chomsky warns us that:

“propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.”

A bilious mix of disappointment, irritation and dread, mind boggling, gob-smacking, stomach churning, and gut-wrenching tosh.

In a democracy we generally get a choice between “the lessor of two evils.”

There is no point in speaking truth to power; it already knows the truth and is busy concealing it. Therefore, it is more important to speak to the oppressed.

Requiem for The American Dream

There are many versions and aspects of the American dream, a term was first used by James Adams in his book The Epic of America (1931) in which he states:

“The American Dream is “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

Based on the Myth of a new Eden in creating a new heaven and a new earth, as part of discovering a new continent with the possibilities of forming an ideal society, the myth, after dismissing Atlantis or Utopia, focussed on America.

The new American Adam, according to R.W.B. Lewis,

is a radically new personality, an individual emancipated from history, happily bereft of ancestry, untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances of family and race, an individual standing alone, self reliant, and self propelling, ready to confront whatever awaited him with the aid of his own unique and inherent resources.”

America was founded by dissident idealistic religious sects who sought to free themselves of the restraints of Old Europe: Parochial nationalism, intolerance of non-orthodox religions, rigid class systems and petty traditions that restricted daring business ventures. Within two genearations, the Puritans became utterly intolerant of anyone failing to follow their dogma.

In the United States’ Declaration of Independence, our founding fathers:

"…held certain truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Might this sentiment be considered the foundation of the American Dream?

Thomas Wolfe said,

"…to every man, regardless of his birth, … golden opportunity ….the right to live, to work, to be himself, and to become whatever thing his manhood and his vision can combine to make him." As all idealistic ventures of creating a new paradise on earth, this myth came in danger of turning from a dream to a nightmare due to corrosive values of selfish entrepreneurs in creating a disparity of wealth through privilege.

John Steinbeck famously wrote

“socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires”.

It is precisely these Americans who are invested in Trump, because he perpetuates the myth of the American Dream.

The American system rewards winners and crushes losers. The entire system is rigged to serve winners by exploiting the disadvantages.

James Madison proposed that the Constitution should

“protect the minority of the opulent against the majority”. The determination was made that America could not allow functioning democracy, since people would use their political power to attack the wealth of the minority of the opulent.”

Chomsky claims that even in the darkest days of the depression, Americans had hope, missing in today’s bleak times because corporations have triumphed over individuals. The civilising effects of the liberating 1960’s created a back lash by the reactionary right from the 1970’s.

To every action there is a reaction. Powell’s 1971 Memorandum warning free enterprise businesses of the threat their survival reads:

Why so many young people are disaffected even to the point of being revolutionaries, it was said: “Because they were taught that way.” Major colleges, are graduating scores’ of bright young men … who despise the American political and economic system.” Stewart Alsop

America is the home of capitalism and any attempts to challenge it is quickly demonised as socialism or communism. Yet simultaneously business in America privatises its profits and socialises its losses. Government bailouts of collapsing corporations, too big to fail, has sky rocketed since the 1980’s. Bush and Obama preferred supporting the banks rather than the people. Home foreclosures favour the institutions rather than the owners. Even war has been largely privatised as Halliburton had multi-billion dollar contracts in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Disgust for Humanity #

Chaucer’s writings, brief lyrics lamenting, in guarded tones, the disorderliness of his age.

“Now may men weep and cry. For in our days there is nothing but greed, duplicity, treason, envy, poison, manslaughter, and murder of many kinds.”

Like Aristotle’s philosophy of Katharsis, Chaucer evinces empathy or evokes pathos with

“Pity runneth soon in the gentle heart” in four occasions.

Shakespeare’s King Lear also questions the cause of evil:

“Let us anatomise Regan. See what breeds about her heart.
Is there a cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?”

Timons of Athens curses civilization as having demoralized mankind. He kicks the dust from his feet, retires to a forest where he hopes to: find the unkindest beasts kinder than mankind.

Jonathon Swift in Gulliver’s Travels:

“I cannot but conclude that the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth”.

Mark Twain’s profound misanthropy depicts a world full of callous depraved and rapacious villains preying on a mass of hapless gullible and defenceless victims.

Grangerford/Shepherdson killings, schemes of King and Duke, tarring and feathering of King and Duke, sale of slaves.

Each episode on land ends with Huck commenting on his disgust for humanity or “man’s inhumanity to man”.

Three times Huck repeats: “It made me sick to tell it”.

He decides to head out for the territory to escape “sivilisation”.

Rachel Cusk, in Second Place:

“I didn’t know how many parts of life there were until each of them began to release its capacity for badness”.