Creon’s Reasons

In Sophocles’ Antigone, the two main characters, Antigone and Creon, are widely seen as representing the two extreme poles of a plurality of oppositions: mostly between natural law and positive law, or between divine and human law. But there has been no shortage of those who, like Hegel, have seen in them the opposition between a masculine and feminine conception (principle), whereby man (i.e., Creon) “has his substantial and real life in the State, in Science, and the like, and moreover in struggle and travail with the external world and with himself,”, while “pietas, in one of the most sublime expositions concerning it—in the Sophoclean Antigone—is declared above all as the law of the female; that is to say, as the law of subjective sentimental substantiality, of inwardness that does not yet achieve its own perfect realization, as the law of the ancient gods, of the subterranean realm, as the eternal law of which no one can say when it appeared, and which is present in opposition against the manifest law, the law of the State.” Hence, on the one hand, one can glimpse, in these remarks of Hegel, a contrast more than between norms (laws) that between institutions (family and state); on the other hand, and more clearly, that between a “traditional” and customary law and between a “statute” and rational one.”

Many other oppositions are traceable, because they are clearly set forth, in the two characters of the tragedy. In particular, Creon identifies himself with the polis and makes the friend/enemy category (of the polis) the distinctive criterion for the legitimization of the decree prohibiting the burial of Polynices, derogatory-modifying the divine (and customary) law of burying the dead. Hence (at least) both the opposition between the political and the legal (understood in Freund’s sense) and the prevalence and decisiveness of the political, which alone guarantees the salvation of all; and to whose necessity (other opposition), every bond of affection, even between blood relatives, must yield, as must every friendly relationship. Says Creon in entering the scene, “I hold in no account those who esteem a loved one more important than their own country. For I – and let Zeus, who always sees all things, know this – would not know how to keep silent when I saw misfortune instead of salvation moving against the citizens; and I would never make a friend of an enemy of the homeland; for I know that it is our salvation, and that we only procure friends when we keep its course straight. With such principles I will make our city great” . The law promulgated by the ruler must thus be “rational with respect to the purpose,” which is, in the case, the purpose essential to the polis, to safeguard it, including by honoring the good citizens and not the others, the enemies.

Which constitutes another essential difference from the divine law, observed by Antigone, to which obedience is due, not because of the expediency of it but because of the authority that instituted it and the custom of respecting it . Indeed, Creon’s conception vindicates even more the character of the law as a human creation, the result of man’s will and ingenuity, which can violate the divine law, as such immutable, to which Antigone appeals. This appears underscored by the chorus in the first stasymus, which is a song about the excellence of human ingenuity and its ability to overcome the difficulties of nature; however, the chorus reminds us of the human faculty (and limitation) of being able to choose between good and evil, and man “Possessing, beyond hope, the inventiveness of art, which is wisdom, sometimes moves toward evil, sometimes toward good. If the laws of the earth he inserts therein, and justice sworn to the gods, he elevates his country; but without a country is he who through fearfulness joins with evil: let him who acts thus not inhabit my hearth nor think like me.” . The exhortation to insert “the laws of the land” has the clear meaning of having to harmonize human law (and command) with divine (and natural) law in order for the work of edification-and preservation-of the polis to succeed.

Almost all such oppositions point to Creon as the archetype of a “modern” (as opposed to Antigone’s) politics and law: the former because it prevails over all normative constraints (summa in cives ac legibusque soluta potestas); the latter because it is rational, voluntary, statute-full, expedient and derogable in relation to necessity. Such concordance, however, has not, so to speak, done much good to the image of Creon, mostly equated with that of the tyrant. Yet Creon is not tyrant in the sense in which, often, that term is connoted: in fact, Creon’s decisions and goals are not diverted from self-interest, but inspired by that of the homeland (al bonum commune). Already in “Oedipus at Colonus” when he performs the heinous act of kidnapping Antigone to force Oedipus to return to Thebes, he does so because the oracle has guaranteed salvation to whichever of the contenders for the throne of Thebes will have the old king near him. And similar is Creon’s position in Antigone: where, in essence, he places the salvation of the homeland — and “punishment” — for traitors — above divine law. There is, in Creon, no conflict between the interest of the ruler and that of the community (or the governed), with which many types of tyranny are connoted: but between divine law and political institution. Polynices’ “condemnation” and departure from traditional law is necessary, in Creon’s view, for the good of the polis and political expediency.

From another – and close – aspect, Creon’s problem is the treatment (of the rules) – to be applied to the enemy, different from those to be observed for friends (in the political sense). It is the problem of the friend/enemy, which generates the diversity and distinction between internal and external law, still persisting in public law, and a prerequisite of the norm of the laws of the XII tables adversus hostem aeterna auctoritas. Thus, it is the membership (and boundary) of the political community that determines the applicable law. If Polynices, despite being a friend (as a member of the polis), acted as an enemy, the conflict between the two systems is particularly acute, because it also becomes a possible cause of dissolution of the political unity. Thus, Creon motivates his edict, granting that Eteocles: “who died fighting in defense of this city, making a great display of valor with the spear, should receive burial and have all the lustral offerings which go underground to the deceased heroes. But his brother, Polynices I mean, returned from exile wanting to completely destroy with fire his homeland and the gods of his race, wanting to be satisfied with the blood of his own and to bring others into slavery: and as far as he is concerned it was ordered to the city that let no one honor him with tomb and mourning, but let his corpse be left unburied, food for birds and dogs, shameful to behold.” On the other hand, in the dialogue of the second episode between Creon and Antigone, while the latter insists on the quality of Polyneices’ brother, he replies that “but the enemy is never dear, not even when he is dead”. Being an enemy prevails over both philia and adelphia. Connected to the problem of the distinction between internal and external law, between law applicable to the enemy or to the friend, is that Creon absolutizes both the enemy and the command and the function of authority. The enemy is entitled not to chivalric treatment, but even to a condemnation “in the afterlife”, therefore, the decree of the polis and of those who represent it prevails over traditional and “divine” law.

At the same time the enemy is, in Creon’s words, only a public and not a private enemy, hostis and not inimicus. While in the Republic the definition of justice that Polemarchus rejects (and Socrates rejects) is that it is “the art of bringing advantage to friends and harm to enemies”, but in the context of the discussion the meaning of this distinction is not political, that is, it refers to the public, but to both public and private relationships,” in Creon’s words the enemy, to whom he reserves the worst treatment, is that of the polis. It can be said that the enmity is so absolute that it continues after the victory and even the death of the enemy.

At the same time, Creon absolutizes command, as is clear from the governing “manifesto” he displays in his own entrance.

And this is not only and not so much because of the “decisionist” trait and all directed to the salvation of the polis as the first duty of the ruler (and citizens), whereby he considers, to that end, even traditional (and divine) law amendable and derogable; but even more so because of how he emphasizes command over consent.

From the first lines it appears that the people (made up of the choir and the corypheus) little or no share the monarch’s decision, without thereby shaking him from his certainties. But it is quite evident in the comparison between Creon and his son Haemon. Haemon maintains that the father, to whom he pays respect and filial devotion from the very beginning, must take into account popular opinion, which criticizes Creon’s actions and “cries this girl saying that she is the most undeserving of all women to die like this unworthily for most glorious deeds”, for which he prays to the father “do not carry within you only this idea, that what you say is right, and nothing else”. When Creon replies that Antigone is rebellious, Haemon insists. In a rapid series of jokes there is the expression of his position: “Not so the people unanimously say, here in Thebes… Can’t you see that you spoke in a childish way? There is no such thing as a city that belongs to just one man…. Of course, you would rule well alone on a desert land.” But Creon is adamant: to Haemon’s arguments, all based on the public, and specifically on the balance between “leader” and “follower”, command and consensus, Creon rejects Haemon in private, reproaching him for recommending pardon for Antigone only because it is his betrothed, and therefore to be a slave to a woman (with this he insists on the “political” relationship between male and female principle (attitude), which is underlined by Hegel). Haemon, according to Creon, speaks and acts for private purposes, by feeling and not by reason.

Even faith in human reason is in fact characteristic of Creon, as it appears from various passages of the tragedy, in particular in the first episode and in the first stasis. Creon rejects Coryphaeus’ idea that there was divine intervention in the burial of Polyneices: “you say something unbearable, stating that the gods worry about this corpse”. And he attributes the act to a conspiracy of opponents, who bribed the guards. An entirely earthly and rational explanation that excludes divine (or “magical”) intervention in human affairs. The dialogue with the guard is followed by the singing of the choir in the first stasis, a splendid praise of human ingenuity, which has subjugated and used land, animals and plants with its own creativity; it has organized community existence with laws and yet, in the face of these marvelous results, the (claimed) human faculty of choosing (and discerning with reason) for good or for evil remains. Which is an equally positive and “rational” observation of Creon’s theses. And which contains the (possible) prevalence of a reason oriented towards evil, disrespectful of laws and divine justice. The contrast, often repeated in the history (and theory) of law and the State, between the ordering capacity of human reason and conscious decision and natural and “divine” order (which is opposed to that judged to be the fruit of hubris) is here formulated, on the one hand in Creon’s statements, on the other in Antigone’s protests. It is a fact, moreover, that the Enlightenment legislateur and the connected trust in human reason was modeled by Rousseau and Mebly on the Greek models of reformers-ordinators, recurring in Greece from the 6th to the 4th century BC, who with their reforms had innovated and reformed the traditional (and “natural”) order of the polis; and Antigone seems to presuppose this historical process. Of which Sophocles glimpses the limits, and the end of Creon, despiser of the gods and divine and traditional laws, (who loses his family) warns not to exceed. A very similar theme would have recurred, after the Enlightenment and the Revolution, in the criticisms of established (and voluntary) law formulated (already in the Napoleonic period) and then during the Restoration and throughout the 19th century, common both to counter-thinkers and revolutionaries, than to the German jurists of the historical school, to the first sociologists and to socialists like Lassalle, despite their different positions and arguments.

In fact, in the reproaches made against Creon there is another one, equally close to the previous one and significant: that he has inverted (and violated) the relationship between law and order. The latter is understood as a natural rather than human order. In this sense, the choir’s song in the second stasimus of Oedipus Rex is particularly significant: “May I have the destiny of maintaining holy purity of words and actions, over which sublime laws are entrusted, procreated in the celestial ether, and Olympus only he is their father; no mortal nature of men generated them, nor will oblivion ever quell them: a powerful god is in them, and does not age. Excessiveness breeds tyrants. But if someone proceeds superbly in actions or speeches, without fearing Dike and without respecting the seats of the gods, bad luck befall him for his unfortunate pride”; but even more so is Tiresias’ prophecy to Creon, which can be interpreted as the “indictment” for the monarch’s sins: “And you know well that you will not yet make many quick turns of the sun without repaying yourself , in exchange for the dead, a dead man from your own bowels: in exchange for those up here whom you threw underground, placing a living person unworthily in the tomb; while you keep here a corpse devoid of the infernal gods, without funeral honors, nefarious. This is not in your power, nor in the hands of the supreme gods, rather they suffer this violence from you.”

Creon puts the living underground, and the dead outside, denying their natural destination, violating divine law. Such an act is contrary to order and law, not being in the power of Creon (nor man), nor of the gods. One glimpses in this the telluric foundation and conception of human existence; it is the earth that has the function of sustaining (and sustaining) the living, as well as laying to rest the dead: Virgil’s justissima tellus. Law—the human decree—cannot violate this order; in modern terms, one might say, with Schmitt, that human law presupposes order and not the other way around; and its function is thus only limitedly ordering.

And the pride that makes tyrants and hubris consists in disregarding human limitations in changing the natural order. In this, too, Creon is archetypal of what would be practiced and theorized, still, particularly, in the last centuries of the modern age.

Compared to Creon, Antigone represents the other “horn” of these oppositions. Antigone shows a conception of law, of the relationship between divine law and human decrees, which is summarized in the dialogue with Creon, in the second episode “It was not Zeus who proclaimed that prohibition, nor Dike, who dwells with the underworld gods, established such laws for the men. And I did not think that your edicts had such force, that a mortal could transgress the unwritten and unshakable laws of the gods. In fact these are not of today or yesterday, but always live, and no one knows when they appeared;” in these verses the peculiar characteristics of divine law are indicated: divine authority, “hierarchical” superiority over human norms, non-voluntariness, the mystery of its “genesis”. Over twenty centuries later many of these characteristics were underlined by De Maistre as typical of “traditional” norms, in particular of constitutions. In the last century it was Max Weber, with the—adaptable—definition of the type of legitimate traditional power, who summarized them best “when it rests on the daily belief in the sacred character of traditions that have always been valid, and in the legitimacy of those who are called to hold a authority”. Antigone thereby affirms as the foundation of obedience to the law essentially the subjective judgment of the recipient who conforms to rules imposed by divine authority: a relationship between man and divinity, without the interference (or mediation) of human authority (and politics), to the statutes of which, if in conflict with divine law, obedience is not due. Which is the archetype of (most of) the political theses of revolutionary thought, in modernity mostly united under the right of resistance. But which already appeared to be in contrast with the ethos of the polis. Suffice it to remember that about fifty years after the performance of Antigone (the date of writing of the Crito is doubtful) Socrates voluntarily chose not to escape and die, out of respect for the citizen owed to the organization of its own polis. In the (imagined) dialogue with the Laws it is clear that the laws are one with the polis. From the beginning they present themselves as the laws and the whole of the city (oi nomoi kai tò koinòn tes poleos, repeated definition) and urge him not to subvert it, escaping the death sentence, even if unjust. In fact, “do you think that that City can still exist and not be completely subverted, in which the sentences issued have no force, but, by the action of private citizens, are stripped of their authority and destroyed?” Socrates’ “rebellion” therefore affects the very capacity for existence of the polis; the relationship between it and its laws and the citizen is asymmetrical and not equal: “And if this is the case, do you perhaps believe that there is equal right between you and us, and, if we intend to do something against you, do you believe that you also have the right to do the same things against us?” because more than all it is: “the homeland is worthy of honor, and which is more venerable and more holy, and which is held in the highest degree of esteem both by the gods and by sensible men; that one must venerate it,” “and also suffer if it commands us to suffer, remaining silent, whether we are beaten, whether we are chained, or whether it sends us into war to be wounded and killed, this must be done, therefore this consists in justice: that one must not desert, nor retreat, nor abandon one’s post, but, in war and in court and in every other place, one must do what the Homeland and the City command.”

In the discourse of laws, Antigone’s relationship between man and divinity is replaced by that between man and polis; and one clearly glimpses not only the individual/personal character of the former and the suprapersonal/collective character of the latter, but also in germ the main connotations of the concept of institution: those of power (aimed) at order, according to a directive idea. Connotations formulated as a Greek of the classical age of the polis might have done, but which can be likened, even with differences, to as expressed by Hauriou. The superiority in connecting and consolidating the social group of the latter over the former is given by the resolution of the problem of quis judicabit, by confirming or reserving to the institution the powers to decide what is law, what is to be applied as such and executed as such, and by whom, what, if left to the conscience of the individual, becomes, in politics, insoluble (in theory, no: it is enough to imagine a society of wiser men endowed with the congruous intellectual capacities and the necessary moral uprightness).

In Antigone’s discourse, the relationship between politics and law is, consequently, reversed: whereby the one does not dominate this, but rather is subservient to it; whereby the remembered saying salus rei publicae suprema lex does not apply, but rather fiat justitia, pereat mundus in which justitia is what appears so to the citizen. In this, too, Creon’s “modernity” compared to Antigone is evident: while his choice is public in character, because, as Freund argues, the public is first and foremost, an affirmation of unity, the latter leads to a dissolutory choice and outcome, essentially traceable to the private.

And indeed, Hegel’s insight that sees in Creon and Antigone the opposition between male and female element, which then becomes between family and polis can be interpreted as a moment of an evolution-transformation, in which the political and thus decisive character has shifted from the family (understood as a human institution based on relations of consanguinity) to a larger social group: with relative “expropriation,” of the powers of command, of distinction between public and private, friend and foe, in favor of the higher institution.

In every such process (so in the transition from feudal to absolute monarchies) a common and recurring connotation is the deprivation of political and largely, and more generally, public powers to those under-ordained; as well as opposition to any encroachment of the “dispossessed” into the functions reserved for political power; which without those could not guarantee unity.

Depoliticization, is also, and primarily, a privatization: while the “dispossessed” only represent themselves by being (reduced to) private, public power represents (and guarantees) political unity.

The modernity of Creon’s position therefore follows from his ability to ensure political-social unity and order. To which the exercise of command is essential: the human relationship between man and man, the one commanding, the other obeying. All considerations that would emerge and formulated, clearly and distinctly, by Thomas Hobbes. For the Mulmesbary philosopher, the established social relationship requires (a covenant between men legitimizing) the power (of command) vested in only one or a few; the latter have the power to order and enforce their commands. To whom obedience is due, as long as protection is assured; it is the relationship between protection and obedience that legitimizes political power and thus makes and keeps society orderly.

At the same time, power, command, obedience, (compulsion) are relations between man and man, not between man and norm, nor between man and deity.

In order to have Creon punished, in fact, Sophocles brings in (though not in the form of a theatrical character) supernatural power: absolute human power can only be opposed by an even stronger power, which, however, cannot be human. Obviously since supernatural intervention is excluded in a modern and thus secularized view of politics and the state, the only “vision” that can be proposed is that of Creon.

In this regard, what confines Antigone’s position in the non-juridical (in Creon’s sense) are two things above all: the first is the individualistic character: the decision as to what should apply as a rule applicable to the case is left to the judgment of the individual: with this comes the loss of both the necessary heteronomy of the juridical, articulating itself both in the moment of the position of the command and in that of its application/execution.

If, in the species, divine law can be conceived as heteronomous, surely what matters most, namely its application/enforcement, is not. Antigone’s position is relatable to a moral, rather than a legal, reality (or norm). That it is confirmed by the fact that Antigone’s divine law can be applied and executed apart (both in theory and in practice) from any relation to men and the human community: which in the present case appears only in the guise of a prohibition to what Antigone realizes (and carries out). Only that law (and state) presuppose order, command, power, all relations between men and with men, as mentioned above. Which excludes that, in the case, there can be an intervention of application/enforcement of divine law, with sanctions to the transgressor; since this, like the rest presupposes human power (precisely what Antigone disputes or considers irrelevant).

In a sense, it is not even assimilable to a Christian view. While Christianity recognizes a divine law, it has nevertheless conferred the character of a divine institution on human authority as well, while connoting Antigone’s position are the divine institution of the law, but the wholly human character of authority and, alongside, the reservation of the decision to the person. In Christian theology, conversely, human authority is also regarded as a divine institution, as follows both from the well-known passage in St. Paul’s “Epistle to the Romans” (13:1) and from the well-known Gospel phrases whereby jurists such as Hauriou and Carré de Malberg have distinguished between the doctrine of divine supernatural law and divine providential law essentially taking up the main theses on the point of modern Christian political theology.

This made the appeal to divine law, in a Christian society, not a matter of personal judgment, but surrounded by conditions and requirements. The treatment of tyrannicide and sedition is an example of this: almost all theologians, both Catholic and Protestant, legitimize one and/or the other if there is a prevailing public will oriented toward dethroning the tyrant, because tota respublica superior est rege, and all, moreover, under certain conditions, different if the tyrant is such absque titulo or quoad regimen ; and, what constitutes the essential difference, the “contestation” of authority is always made in function of and in view of a different authority, that is, in an institutional context; and having a public character rather than private claims/ demands, as, to a large extent, those of Antigone appear.

While Creon’s position is within (and in function of) a human social group, with its patterns of order, assumptions and relationships and related concreteness, Antigone’s, as mentioned, is a relationship of consciousness to divinity (law, norm), that is, to an ideal and (if not) abstract dimension and entity.

Creon’s theses are rational because they explain the reality-and the possibility of existence-of a human community; Antigone’s cannot constitute anything politically concrete and structured.

Returning to the relationship between politics and law (in the sense in which the latter is seen by Antigone), the opposition between the one and the other is particularly evident in the affair of Polynices, which resembles, in some respects, Antigone’s choice: for Polynices claims to himself vis-à-vis Eteocles the sovereignty of Thebes, because so agreed with his brother. It is thus the claim of a subjective right (jurists would say) for the realization of which Polynices promotes a coalition of Argivian kings in order to conquer Thebes, drive out Eteocles and rule the city. Since, however, the Argives, like all conquerors, do not resemble Farinata degli Uberti, this choice means working for the defeat of the homeland and the ruin of their fellow citizens, so accurately described by the chorus of the Seven at Thebes. Polynices too – indeed far more than Antigone – puts his own right before the salvation and preservation of his homeland. Justice guides him: he has had a woman chiseled into his shield, leading a warrior; this woman “Declares herself Justice, in the writing, and proclaims, ‘I will lead this man lord back to Thebes and to the homelands.’” Faced with this, with the news brought to him by the messenger in The Seven against Thebes, Eteocles’ indignation is great, such that he is compelled to fight Polynices in person, even though he is aware that he is facing death.

It was Eteocles himself who, in so many verses of Aeschylus’ tragedy had called the citizens of Thebes to the defense of the homeland “Now to those of you not yet laughing at the flower of youth, to those who withered in time, to your task each, succor this city, the altars of the patriarchal gods, to whom no honor is extinguished, and the children and the sweetest nurse, Mother Earth, who to you tender ones unsteady on the benign soil, accepted all the burden of raising you, nurtured faithful citizens at the juncture to bear the shield in her defense” and also, designating Melanippus to defend the first gate of Thebes he says, ‘Will resolve the event Ares with dice, but justice of blood he thrusts shield to his mother against hostile spears,’ as Megareus to defend the Neitae gate, “but he will pay by dying his tribute to the land nurturer, or, having captured those two and the city feigned on the shield, adorn his father’s atrium with spoils;” and denying that justice is guide to Polynices “And if Jupiter’s virgin daughter Justice were in deeds and thoughts with him, the wish perhaps was fulfilled. But neither when he fled from his mother’s dark womb, or the nurse raised him, nor boy, nor then that thickened in locks the lint on his chin, did Justice ever deign him a greeting. Nor do I think now assists him in the breakneck of his country, Justice, to deny his own name, friend to an evildoer.”

In the Eteocles-Polynices pair we find the opposition between right founded on a claim of the individual and—conversely—on belonging to a community, as in a more nuanced way between right and politics. Even if founded, Polynices’ right cannot be asserted against the (own) polis; it is the polis that constitutes and guarantees order and thus prevails over individual rights: nor are claims valid against it unless recognized within (and by) the system.

Eteocles’ position at a more dramatic and political juncture corresponds to that of Socrates, who sacrifices to the order of the polis his own chance to have his life saved. And the order of the polis is a concrete order: paralleled in the speeches of Eteocles and Socrates is the call of the homeland as mother, which nurtures and nurtures and thus enables the ordered existence of citizens.

The events of Polynices closely recall those of another hero, Roman and not Greek: Coriolanus. He, too, was exiled for a decision he felt was unjust, and for this, returned at the head of an enemy army to lay siege to Rome. Dissuading Coriolanus here too is a woman, his mother Volumnia. Who by speech—of high dramatic power in Plutarch’s account—more endowed with masculine than feminine spirituality (to follow Hegel), actually accomplishes the synthesis of the (spirituality) of the family and the polis. Volumnia speaks as the (physical) mother, but her words are also those of the political mother: she is aware that if Coriolanus follows her exhortation, he will be killed. But in the decision between the homeland and her son’s life (i.e., between public and private) she has no hesitations or doubts: she sacrifices private feelings to the salvation of Rome: and she exhorts her son to do the same: “Why are you silent, O son? Is it perhaps that it is noble to abandon yourself completely to wrath and rancor while it is dishonorable to yield to the mother who addresses such a grave prayer to you?… And to no one like you would it be fitting to observe the duties of gratitude, to you who so harshly avenge ingratitude. And yet, though you have amply avenged yourself for the fatherland, to your mother you have shown no sign of gratitude.”

Coriolanus makes the choice advocated by his mother: save Rome and be killed by the Volscians. The Roman’s behavior is the opposite of Polynices’: the existence and salvation of the homeland are worth more than individual rights, however well-founded, and the spirit of revenge. More generally: the events of Polynices and Coriolanus prove how often, it is the (subjective) right that is the occasion (justification and pretext) for war; it is, contrary to what happens in Antigone, the family and political relationship are not in conflict, but synergistic in Volumnia’s discourse the mother is at once she and the polis, but the opposition family and polis (and evident in episodes of the earliest Rome, such as the purification of the third Horace for the killing of his sister, betrothed to one of the Curiatians he killed) has been resolved in a synthesis that sees the polis “encompassing” and “overcoming” the family; and the right of the polis prevails over the family.

Given that Creon does not fit into the “classical” type of tyrant, that is, the ruler with little or no solicitude for the bonum commune (which is the first criterion for identifying tyranny, as mentioned above), what does his hubris consist of, which made him one of the figure-symbols of the tyrannical abuse of power in the eyes of a Greek (and others).

Explaining this is Sophocles himself in the second stasimus of Oedipus Rex, when the Chorus states, “disproportion (hubris) begets tyrants,” ubris psyténei tyrannon (see above).

Perhaps the translation of hubris into “immoderation” instead of the more literal “pride” or “arrogance” is the key to understanding Creon’s error. One could for the purpose turn to that typically Greek conception of kosmos as the order of creation, as opposed to khaos, and more specifically, to the Apollonian spirit, which, as specified by Spengler organizes the world into precisely delimited, harmonious and therefore ordered forms.

In such an organized space, limit and measure are, particularly the former, essential concepts; so that the disproportion (i.e., the erroneous—or intentional—failure to observe calculation/evaluation) of the limit constitutes a vulnus to (political and metaphysical) order. Therefore, Creon errs: because he has not taken into account that order (of which divine law is an expression) has been violated by the decree on Polynices; and even more so that it is not in man’s power to violate that order. The disproportion consists in having violated the limit to human power: a limit that is first metaphysical than political.

Next to that what remains of Antigone’s position after millennia of “statute” law and “rational” politics (though, I hope, interspersed-even for centuries-with returns of “traditional” law and politics influenced by “values” that are anything but rationally justifiable).

It is precisely the limit: if Antigone’s position appears “old,” in the end it is not irrational. It is not if one thinks carefully, to rationally evaluate (with respect to purpose) Creon’s decree; what is the point, having won the war (different if the war were to be won) of “condemning” the defeated and dead enemy? Is it rational with respect to the need to protect the safety of the polis? After all, Creon’s decree appears to be the forerunner of the practice, widespread in the last century, whereby war ends on the battlefields, only to continue immediately afterwards in a trial, in which the vanquished are publicly judged – with the forms, sometimes, but always without the spirit and minimum prerequisites of justice—by the victors. A practice contrary to Christian political theology, and to the “classical” international law that owes so much to that.


Teodoro Katte Klitsche de la Grange is an attorney in Rome and is the editor of the well-regarded and influential law journal Behemoth.


Featured: Antigone Condemned to Death by Creon, by Giuseppe Diotti; painted in 1845.


Marcus Tullius Cicero

Marcus Tullius Cicero, equestri genere, Arpini, quod est Volscorum oppidum, natus est. Ex eius avis unus verrucam in extremo naso sitam habuit, ciceris grano similem; inde cognomen Ciceronis genti inditum. Suadentibus quibusdam ut id nomen mutaret, “Dabo operam” inquit “ut istud cognomen nobilissimorum nominum splendorem vincat.” Cum a patre Romam missus, ubi celeberrimorum magistrorum scholis interesset, eas artes disceret, quibus aetas puerilis ad humanitatem solet informari, tanto successu tantaque cum praeceptorum tum ceterorum discipulorum admiratione id fecit, ut, cum fama de Ciceronis ingenio et doctrina ad alios manasset, non pauci, qui eius videndi et audiendi gratia scholas adirent, reperti esse dicantur.

Cum nulla re magis ad summos in re publica honores viam muniri posse intellegeret quam arte dicendi et eloquentia, toto animo in eius studium incubuit, in quo quidem ita versatus est, ut non solum eos, qui in Foro et iudiciis causas perorarent, studiose sectaretur, sed privatim quoque diligentissime se exerceret. Primum eloquentiam et libertatem adversus Sullanos ostendit. Nam cum Roscium quendam, parricidii accusatum, ob Chrysogoni, Sullae liberti, qui in eius adversariis erat, potentiam nemo defendere auderet, tanta eloquentiae vi eum defendit Cicero, ut iam tum in arte dicendi nullus ei par esse videretur. Ex quo invidiam veritus Athenas studiorum gratia petiit, ubi Antiochum philosophum studiose audivit. Inde eloquentiae causa Rhodum se contulit, ubi Molonem, Graecum rhetorem tum disertissimum, magistrum habuit. Qui cum Ciceronem dicentem audivisset, flevisse dicitur, quod per hunc Graecia eloquentiae laude privaretur.

Romam reversus quaestor Siciliam habuit. Nullius vero quaestura aut gratior aut clarior fuit; cum magna tum esset annonae difficultas, initio molestus erat Siculis, quos cogeret frumenta in urbem mittere; postea vero, diligentiam et iustitiam et comitatem eius experti, maiores quaestori suo honores quam ulli umquam praetori detulerunt. E Sicilia reversus Romam in causis dicendis ita floruit, ut inter omnes causarum patronos et esset et haberetur princeps.

Consul deinde factus L. Sergii Catilinae coniurationem singulari virtute, constantia, cura compressit. Catilinae proavum, M. Sergium, incredibili fortitudine fuisse Plinius refert. Stipendia is fecit secundo bello Punico. Secundo stipendio dextram manum perdidit: stipendiis duobus ter et vicies vulneratus est: ob id neutra manu, neutro pede satis utilis, plurimisque postea stipendiis debilis miles erat. Bis ab Hannibale captus, bis vinculorum eius profugus, viginti mensibus nullo non die in catenis aut compedibus custoditus. Sinistra manu sola quater pugnavit, duobus equis, insidente eo, suffossis. Dextram sibi ferream fecit eaque religata proeliatus Cremonam obsidione exemit, Placentiam tutatus est, duodena castra hostium in Gallia cepit. Ceteri profecto, Plinius addit, victores hominum fuere, Sergius vicit etiam fortunam.

Singularem huius viri gloriam foede dehonestavit pronepotis scelus. Hic enim rei familiaris, quam profuderat, inopia multorumque scelerum conscientia in furorem actus et dominandi cupiditate incensus indignatusque, quod in petitione consulatus repulsam passus esset, coniuratione facta senatum confodere, consules trucidare, urbem incendere, diripere aerarium constituerat. Actum erat de pulcherrimo imperio, nisi illa coniuratio in Ciceronem et Antonium consules incidisset, quorum alter industria rem patefecit, alter manu oppressit. Cum Cicero, habito senatu, in praesentem reum perorasset, Catilina, incendium suum ruina se restincturum esse minitans, Roma profugit et ad exercitum, quem paraverat, proficiscitur, signa inlaturus urbi. Sed socii eius, qui in urbe remanserant, comprehensi in carcere necati sunt. A. Fulvius, vir senatorii ordinis, filium, iuvenem et ingenio et forma inter aequales nitentem, pravo consilio Catilinae amicitiam secutum inque castra eius ruentem, ex medio itinere retractum supplicio mortis adfecit, praefatus non se Catilinae illum adversus patriam, sed patriae adversus Catilinam genuisse.

Neque eo magis ab incepto Catilina destitit, sed infestis signis Romam petens Antonii exercitu opprimitur. Quam atrociter dimicatum sit exitus docuit: nemo hostium bello superfuit; quem quisque in pugnando ceperat locum, eum amissa anima tegebat. Catilina longe a suis inter hostium cadavera repertus est: pulcherrima morte, si pro patria sic concidisset! Senatus populusque Romanus Ciceronem patrem patriae appellavit. Cicero ipse in oratione pro Sulla palam praedicat consilium patriae servandae fuisse iniectum sibi a diis, cum Catilina coniurasset adversus eam. “O dii immortales,” inquit “vos profecto incendistis tum animum meum cupiditate conservandae patriae. Vos avocastis me a cogitationibus omnibus ceteris et convertistis ad salutem unam patriae. Vos denique praetulistis menti meae clarissimum lumen in tenebris tantis erroris et inscientiae. Tribuam enim vobis, quae sunt vestra. Nec vero possum tantum dare ingenio meo, ut dispexerim sponte mea in tempestate illa turbulentissima rei publicae, quid esset optimum factu.”

Paucis post annis Ciceroni diem dixit Clodius tribunus plebis, quod cives Romanos indicta causa necavisset. Senatus maestus, tamquam in publico luctu, veste mutata pro eo deprecabatur. Cicero, cum posset armis salutem suam defendere, maluit urbe cedere quam sua causa caedem fieri. Proficiscentem omnes boni flentes prosecuti sunt. Dein Clodius edictum proposuit ut Marco Tullio igni et aqua interdiceretur: illius domum et villas incendit. Sed vis illa non diuturna fuit, mox enim totus fere populus Romanus ingenti desiderio Ciceronis reditum flagitare coepit et maximo omnium ordinum studio Cicero in patriam revocatus est. Nihil per totam vitam Ciceroni itinere, quo in patriam rediit, accidit iucundius. Obviam ei redeunti ab universis itum est: domus eius publica pecunia restituta est.

Gravissimae illa tempestate inter Caesarem et Pompeium ortae sunt inimicitiae, ut res nisi bello dirimi non posse videretur. Cicero quidem summo studio enitebatur ut eos inter se reconciliaret et a belli civilis calamitatibus deterreret, sed cum neutrum ad pacem ineundam permovere posset, Pompeium secutus est. Sed victo Pompeio, a Caesare victore veniam ultro accepit. Quo interfecto Octavianum, Caesaris heredem, fovit, Antonium impugnavit effecitque ut a senatu hostis iudicaretur.

Sed Antonius, inita cum Octaviano societate, Ciceronem iam diu sibi inimicum proscripsit. Qua re audita, Cicero transversis itineribus in villam, quae a mari proxime aberat, fugit indeque navem conscendit, in Macedoniam transiturus. Unde aliquotiens in altum provectum cum modo venti adversi rettulissent, modo ipse iactationem maris pati non posset, taedium tandem eum et fugae et vitae cepit regressusque ad villam “Moriar” inquit “in patria saepe servata.” Satis constat, adventantibus percussoribus, servos fortiter fideliterque paratos fuisse ad dimicandum, ipsum deponi lecticam et quietos pati, quod sors iniqua cogeret, iussisse. Prominenti ex lectica et immotam cervicem praebenti caput praecisum est. Manus quoque abscissae; caput relatum est ad Antonium eiusque iussu cum dextra manu in rostris positum.

Quamdiu res publica Romana per eos gerebatur, quibus se ipsa commiserat, in eam curas cogitationesque fere omnes suas conferebat Cicero et plus operae ponebat in agendo quam in scribendo. Cum autem dominatu unius C. Iulii Caesaris omnia tenerentur, non se angoribus dedidit nec indignis homine docto voluptatibus. Fugiens conspectum Fori urbisque rura peragrabat abdebatque se, quantum licebat, et solus erat. Nihil agere autem cum animus non posset, existimavit honestissime molestias posse deponi, si se ad philosophiam rettulisset, cui adulescens multum temporis tribuerat, et omne studium curamque convertit ad scribendum: atque ut civibus etiam otiosus aliquid prodesse posset, elaboravit ut doctiores fierent et sapientiores, pluraque brevi tempore, eversa re publica, scripsit, quam multis annis ea stante scripserat. Sic facundiae et Latinarum litterarum parens evasit paruitque virorum sapientium praecepto, qui docent non solum ex malis eligere minima oportere, sed etiam excerpere ex his ipsis, si quid insit boni.

Multa exstant facete ab eo dicta. Cum Lentulum, generum suum, exiguae staturae hominem, vidisset longo gladio accinctum, “Quis” inquit “generum meum ad gladium adligavit?”—Matrona quaedam iuniorem se, quam erat, simulans dictitabat se triginta tantum annos habere; cui Cicero “Verum est,” inquit “nam hoc viginti annos audio.”—Caesar, altero consule mortuo die Decembris ultima, Caninium consulem hora septima in reliquam diei partem renuntiaverat; quem cum plerique irent salutatum de more, “Festinemus” inquit Cicero “priusquam abeat magistratu.” De eodem Caninio scripsit Cicero: “Fuit mirifica vigilantia Caninius, qui toto suo consulatu somnum non viderit.”

Cum nulla re magis ad summos in re publica honores viam muniri posse intellegeret quam arte dicendi et eloquentia, toto animo in eius studium incubuit, in quo quidem ita versatus est, ut non solum eos, qui in Foro et iudiciis causas perorarent, studiose sectaretur, sed privatim quoque diligentissime se exerceret. Primum eloquentiam et libertatem adversus Sullanos ostendit. Nam cum Roscium quendam, parricidii accusatum, ob Chrysogoni, Sullae liberti, qui in eius adversariis erat, potentiam nemo defendere auderet, tanta eloquentiae vi eum defendit Cicero, ut iam tum in arte dicendi nullus ei par esse videretur. Ex quo invidiam veritus Athenas studiorum gratia petiit, ubi Antiochum philosophum studiose audivit. Inde eloquentiae causa Rhodum se contulit, ubi Molonem, Graecum rhetorem tum disertissimum, magistrum habuit. Qui cum Ciceronem dicentem audivisset, flevisse dicitur, quod per hunc Graecia eloquentiae laude privaretur.

Romam reversus quaestor Siciliam habuit. Nullius vero quaestura aut gratior aut clarior fuit; cum magna tum esset annonae difficultas, initio molestus erat Siculis, quos cogeret frumenta in urbem mittere; postea vero, diligentiam et iustitiam et comitatem eius experti, maiores quaestori suo honores quam ulli umquam praetori detulerunt. E Sicilia reversus Romam in causis dicendis ita floruit, ut inter omnes causarum patronos et esset et haberetur princeps.

Consul deinde factus L. Sergii Catilinae coniurationem singulari virtute, constantia, cura compressit. Catilinae proavum, M. Sergium, incredibili fortitudine fuisse Plinius refert. Stipendia is fecit secundo bello Punico. Secundo stipendio dextram manum perdidit: stipendiis duobus ter et vicies vulneratus est: ob id neutra manu, neutro pede satis utilis, plurimisque postea stipendiis debilis miles erat. Bis ab Hannibale captus, bis vinculorum eius profugus, viginti mensibus nullo non die in catenis aut compedibus custoditus. Sinistra manu sola quater pugnavit, duobus equis, insidente eo, suffossis. Dextram sibi ferream fecit eaque religata proeliatus Cremonam obsidione exemit, Placentiam tutatus est, duodena castra hostium in Gallia cepit. Ceteri profecto, Plinius addit, victores hominum fuere, Sergius vicit etiam fortunam.

Singularem huius viri gloriam foede dehonestavit pronepotis scelus. Hic enim rei familiaris, quam profuderat, inopia multorumque scelerum conscientia in furorem actus et dominandi cupiditate incensus indignatusque, quod in petitione consulatus repulsam passus esset, coniuratione facta senatum confodere, consules trucidare, urbem incendere, diripere aerarium constituerat. Actum erat de pulcherrimo imperio, nisi illa coniuratio in Ciceronem et Antonium consules incidisset, quorum alter industria rem patefecit, alter manu oppressit. Cum Cicero, habito senatu, in praesentem reum perorasset, Catilina, incendium suum ruina se restincturum esse minitans, Roma profugit et ad exercitum, quem paraverat, proficiscitur, signa inlaturus urbi. Sed socii eius, qui in urbe remanserant, comprehensi in carcere necati sunt. A. Fulvius, vir senatorii ordinis, filium, iuvenem et ingenio et forma inter aequales nitentem, pravo consilio Catilinae amicitiam secutum inque castra eius ruentem, ex medio itinere retractum supplicio mortis adfecit, praefatus non se Catilinae illum adversus patriam, sed patriae adversus Catilinam genuisse.

Neque eo magis ab incepto Catilina destitit, sed infestis signis Romam petens Antonii exercitu opprimitur. Quam atrociter dimicatum sit exitus docuit: nemo hostium bello superfuit; quem quisque in pugnando ceperat locum, eum amissa anima tegebat. Catilina longe a suis inter hostium cadavera repertus est: pulcherrima morte, si pro patria sic concidisset! Senatus populusque Romanus Ciceronem patrem patriae appellavit. Cicero ipse in oratione pro Sulla palam praedicat consilium patriae servandae fuisse iniectum sibi a diis, cum Catilina coniurasset adversus eam. “O dii immortales,” inquit “vos profecto incendistis tum animum meum cupiditate conservandae patriae. Vos avocastis me a cogitationibus omnibus ceteris et convertistis ad salutem unam patriae. Vos denique praetulistis menti meae clarissimum lumen in tenebris tantis erroris et inscientiae. Tribuam enim vobis, quae sunt vestra. Nec vero possum tantum dare ingenio meo, ut dispexerim sponte mea in tempestate illa turbulentissima rei publicae, quid esset optimum factu.”

Paucis post annis Ciceroni diem dixit Clodius tribunus plebis, quod cives Romanos indicta causa necavisset. Senatus maestus, tamquam in publico luctu, veste mutata pro eo deprecabatur. Cicero, cum posset armis salutem suam defendere, maluit urbe cedere quam sua causa caedem fieri. Proficiscentem omnes boni flentes prosecuti sunt. Dein Clodius edictum proposuit ut Marco Tullio igni et aqua interdiceretur: illius domum et villas incendit. Sed vis illa non diuturna fuit, mox enim totus fere populus Romanus ingenti desiderio Ciceronis reditum flagitare coepit et maximo omnium ordinum studio Cicero in patriam revocatus est. Nihil per totam vitam Ciceroni itinere, quo in patriam rediit, accidit iucundius. Obviam ei redeunti ab universis itum est: domus eius publica pecunia restituta est.

Gravissimae illa tempestate inter Caesarem et Pompeium ortae sunt inimicitiae, ut res nisi bello dirimi non posse videretur. Cicero quidem summo studio enitebatur ut eos inter se reconciliaret et a belli civilis calamitatibus deterreret, sed cum neutrum ad pacem ineundam permovere posset, Pompeium secutus est. Sed victo Pompeio, a Caesare victore veniam ultro accepit. Quo interfecto Octavianum, Caesaris heredem, fovit, Antonium impugnavit effecitque ut a senatu hostis iudicaretur.

Sed Antonius, inita cum Octaviano societate, Ciceronem iam diu sibi inimicum proscripsit. Qua re audita, Cicero transversis itineribus in villam, quae a mari proxime aberat, fugit indeque navem conscendit, in Macedoniam transiturus. Unde aliquotiens in altum provectum cum modo venti adversi rettulissent, modo ipse iactationem maris pati non posset, taedium tandem eum et fugae et vitae cepit regressusque ad villam “Moriar” inquit “in patria saepe servata.” Satis constat, adventantibus percussoribus, servos fortiter fideliterque paratos fuisse ad dimicandum, ipsum deponi lecticam et quietos pati, quod sors iniqua cogeret, iussisse. Prominenti ex lectica et immotam cervicem praebenti caput praecisum est. Manus quoque abscissae; caput relatum est ad Antonium eiusque iussu cum dextra manu in rostris positum.

Quamdiu res publica Romana per eos gerebatur, quibus se ipsa commiserat, in eam curas cogitationesque fere omnes suas conferebat Cicero et plus operae ponebat in agendo quam in scribendo. Cum autem dominatu unius C. Iulii Caesaris omnia tenerentur, non se angoribus dedidit nec indignis homine docto voluptatibus. Fugiens conspectum Fori urbisque rura peragrabat abdebatque se, quantum licebat, et solus erat. Nihil agere autem cum animus non posset, existimavit honestissime molestias posse deponi, si se ad philosophiam rettulisset, cui adulescens multum temporis tribuerat, et omne studium curamque convertit ad scribendum: atque ut civibus etiam otiosus aliquid prodesse posset, elaboravit ut doctiores fierent et sapientiores, pluraque brevi tempore, eversa re publica, scripsit, quam multis annis ea stante scripserat. Sic facundiae et Latinarum litterarum parens evasit paruitque virorum sapientium praecepto, qui docent non solum ex malis eligere minima oportere, sed etiam excerpere ex his ipsis, si quid insit boni.

Multa exstant facete ab eo dicta. Cum Lentulum, generum suum, exiguae staturae hominem, vidisset longo gladio accinctum, “Quis” inquit “generum meum ad gladium adligavit?”—Matrona quaedam iuniorem se, quam erat, simulans dictitabat se triginta tantum annos habere; cui Cicero “Verum est,” inquit “nam hoc viginti annos audio.”—Caesar, altero consule mortuo die Decembris ultima, Caninium consulem hora septima in reliquam diei partem renuntiaverat; quem cum plerique irent salutatum de more, “Festinemus” inquit Cicero “priusquam abeat magistratu.” De eodem Caninio scripsit Cicero: “Fuit mirifica vigilantia Caninius, qui toto suo consulatu somnum non viderit.”


Featured: Cicero finding the tomb of Archemedes, by Paul Barbotti; painted in 1853.


A Student of Rhetoric. The Field of Art History: From Curtius to Panofsky

Marc Fumaroli (1932–2020) was a leading French historian who greatly advanced our understanding of art, rhetoric, culture and all those by-ways of culture which gird Western civilization. He taught at the Sorbonne and then at the Collège de France and was member of the French Academy. He was the recipient of the famed Balzan Prize, as well as many other honors. This paper was delivered at the Panofsky Symposium, Princeton, on October 2nd, 1993. Philippe-Joseph Salazar introduces us to the master himself, whom he knew well.

It is sometimes necessary to come back to the original and seminal texts. It is a principle of philological wisdom which may be welcome in a Panofsky symposium. I shall therefore begin this tribute to the Princeton master with two quotations from very famous texts, whose literal meaning is often obscured or forgotten. The first one is the main source of 20th century modern Art theory: Guillaume Apollinaire’s Les Peintres cubistes, 1912. We read there:

“Avant tout, les artistes sont des hommes qui veulent devenir inhumains. Ils cherchent péniblement les traces de l’inhumanité, traces que l’on ne rencontre nulle part dans la nature. Elles sont la vérité, et en dehors d’elle nous ne connaissons aucune réalité.”

This sort of sublime and compelling utterance, which has thrilled several European generations, has today lost its immediate power. But I want to quote in chronological disorder, an even more famous text, dating back to 1637, which is found in Descartes’ Discours de la Méthode:

“Ceux qui ont le raisonnement le plus fort, et qui digèrent le mieux leurs pensées afin de les rendre claires et intelligibles, peuvent toujours le mieux persuader ce qu’ils proposent, encore qu’ ils ne parlassent que bas-breton et qu’ ils n’eussent jamais appris de rhétorique”.

Both these texts may be superposed. They have, each on their own level, a common summoning content. The tabula rasa presupposed by the Cartesian Ego is no less radical than the methodic inhumanité Apollinaire required of the creative self. Cartesian or Apollinarian modernity supposes the elimination of memory, and of rhetorical invention founded upon a shared sensus communis. This superposition has abrasive potentialities which are today all around us. I dare to say that “we” (in a commonsensical meaning alien to the “nous” of Apollinaire in 1912) are more inclined to agree with the scholar who published in 1940 The History of Art as a Humanistic discipline, than the imprudent, if great poet, who invited artists to become inhuman before the two world wars had taken place!

It took thirty years before The Meaning in the Visual Arts reached the French public, in Bernard Teyssèdre’s translation, in 1969. When I read it for the first time, I was struck by footnote 18. There Panofsky quoted at length a Letter to the Editor published in the New Statesman and Nation, in June 1937. Written by an English Stalinist, this letter considered that it was morally sound that Stalin should fire from Russian Universities professors who insisted on teaching Plato and the classics of Western philosophy. This sort of teaching according to this moralist, was aimed at barring students an immediate and fresh access to the study of Marxism, the modern scientific truth. Panofsky contented himself with the following brief comment:

“Needless to say, the works of Plato and other philosophers also play an antifascist role in such circumstances, and Fascists too recognize this fact.”

Twelve years earlier, there appeared the French translation of a book which, in the field of literary studies, has had a decisive impact upon my generation: European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, by Ernst Robert Curtius. In the Preface to the 1953 German edition (the second one) Curtius wrote:

“This book doesn’t content itself with scientific purposes; it attests a concern for maintaining Western civilization.”

And further, the great German Romanist, Curtius, quotes Georges Sainsbury’s sentence:

“Ancient without Modem is a stumbling block; Modern without Ancient is utter and irremediable foolishness.”

Recently I happened to read the unpublished, pre-World War Two correspondence, between Curtius and a French lady poet, Catherine Pozzi. It throws an extraordinary light upon the genesis of the Curtius’ masterwork, and its philosophical significance. Curtius, who did his best since 1918 to awaken the French from their own nationalist conceit, is just as indignant about the so-called Nazi national revolution in Germany. He describes with a stern lucidity the budding lawlessness of the new regime and its cynical violence. But he is a scholar, not a hero, and he wrote in 1933:

“Je fais un cours sur la littérature latine du Moyen Age qui mt intéresse passionnément… Je suis lassé de toute modernité. Les siècles obscurs me reposent… Je me tapis dans mon coin. Le présent me dégoûte. Je ne désespère pas de l’avenir. Il nous apportera de nouvelles révélations de beauté et de bonté. Mais vivrai-je pour les voir? La beauté incréée ne vaut-elle pas mieux? Mais comment y atteindre?
      A spark disturbs our cloud. But at
      present I realize more the cloud
      than the spark.”

The reading of this correspondence makes clear what an immense labour of hope and love this European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, started as an University course in 1928-1929, had been until the end of World War Two. When it appeared in German, in 1948, dedicated posthumously to Aby Warburg and to the great Romanist Gustav Grober, it looked like a dove above the ruined landscape of Europe. In his correspondence with Catherine Pozzi, Curtius mentions on several occasions their common friend James Joyce, then working on Finnegan’s Wake. He says to his correspondent that this new novel in order to be correctly understood, will require a full acquaintance with Giambattista Vico’s Scienza Nuova. This first-hand information is retrospectively illuminating for me. When I first discovered Curtius’ masterwork, at the beginning of the Sixties, I was engaged in reading Vico’s Opening Lecture, On the Study Method of Our Time (1699), where the Napolitan humanist launches his first fierce attack against the excesses of Cartesianism, and defends the traditional primacy of rhetoric in the teachings of the humanities. Without being fully aware then of the issues at stake for us in these 17th century debates, I was nevertheless struck by the correspondence between Vico’s thesis, and the role a philologist like Curtius attributed in his masterwork to rhetoric as the frame for the correct reading and understanding of Western Literature. And when at last I had the opportunity to read, in the early seventies, Panofsky’s Meaning in the Visual Arts, I was ready to recognize the methodological kinship between the two German scholars—Aby Warburg’s disciple and Aby Warburg’s friend—who since the thirties had worked on both sides of the Atlantic, and Vico, whose Scienza Nuova is after all the Italian seed of German romantic historicism. I am personally convinced since then that this alliance between the Warburg school, the best of German Roman philology, and the most able spokesman for the Ancients in the 18th century, has been in our century the only spiritual home and pledge against the dominant anti-humanist trends at work in the modernist poetics of Apollinaire, as well as in the Cartesian Cogito. I should like to ponder upon this alliance today. There is more here, I think, than a nostalgic and respectful glance to the past and its scattered achievements: I see there a living moral and scientific force, a spark illuminating our own clouds.

So, before assessing how Panofsky’s method may be fused, without losing its own sharpness, with the same field of reunified and enlarged humanities as that of Curtius, I should like to recall briefly the latter’s originality and enduring contribution to literary studies. I hope that this suggestion of synthesis will be attuned to this symposium, and to our guest’s expectations, Professor Irving Lavin. I cannot forget that he has himself pointed out the same direction in his excellent Washington lecture: Art History as a Humanistic Discipline.

Nineteenth century positivism, the radical heir of Cartesianism, has split academic literary studies and teaching between res and verba. Res, related to the outside world, was left to biorgaphical and referential research; verba, related to the subjective talent of the author, was left to stylistical and philological scrutiny. This split reflected the Cartesian division between the knowing subject, related to positive science, and the sensitive or irrational one. The task of the literary historian was therefore to separate the expression of the subjective self, from the objective facts to which this expression may be related. Rhetoric was rejected from literary studies on the double grounds of a formalist hindrance to free subjective expression, and of an archaic cloud obscuring scientific truth. Curtius took a contrary stance, following the path opened up by Norden and Dilthey. He discovered—or rediscovered—that the Cartesian division between res and verba was not applicable to the res literaria. In the rhetorical regime of literature, res and verba, invention and style have been, in the Western past as in the contemporary most self-conscious writer, James Joyce, a continuum, not two ontologically different realms. Res were themselves language constructs in time, which have their home in collective memory, their kernels in classical texts, and their structure in the “places” among which rhetorical-literary invention moves in order to find the proper contours of the thing it has to say or write; order and style gave to the matter thus gathered the appropriate form in order to exert an effect upon the auditor or the hearer. Res, res literaria, were therefore forms of human experience accumulated and ordered by a collective and proleptic memory; it was there that the inventive ingenium had to journey before finding the right response to its own challenge, in prudent agreement with contemporary commonsense. This rhetorical artistic ingenium is not alienated, as the Cartesian raison or the Apollinarian génie, from its natural and social embodiment: it possesses the mnemonic resources to shape itself into a human form. Literature is the most complex and complete use of the rhetorical ingenium.

A friend and client of Carl-Gustav Jung, Curtius became a friend and admirer of Aby Warburg in 1928. He attended in the winter of that year, in Rome, at the Hertzian Library, the famous Warburg’s lecture about the great project Mnemosyne. Warburg died the next year. But Curtius, who had been enthusiast of the project, never forgot this decisive meeting. He found in the topoi re-used often with striking originality by medieval and Renaissance writers, the equivalent of Jung’s archetypes, of Warburg’s mythical places of memory, and of Vico’s universali fantastici, a vast and relatively autonomous frame of symbolic forms where the poetical, philosophical and social experience of the West, has been treasured and ever renewed since Antiquity. Even style, the persuasive new form that this mnemonic fount of accumulated wisdom has to receive in order to find new effectiveness, had its own objectivity and relative transcendence from circumstances and whims. Curtius enucleated in the medieval “longue durée,” what Vico called corsi and ricorsi of classic and mannerist styles, the first moulded on a few models of naturalness, the second eclectic and above all virtuoso, up to the point of ostentatious artificiality. Why can this rhetorical tradition be called humanist? Curtius hated the insipid and goody-goody abuse of the word. He insisted that humanist literature deserved this name because it was founded upon well-tried precedents crystallized in symbolic forms and classical texts, and confronting through them the past experience of humanity with the new, contemporary one. Time transfigured in Space was the compass of European wisdom. Antihumanism, either in the Cartesian school of modernism, or in Apollinaire’s, abstracted human reason or unreason from any reliance on the scale of wisdom summarized and symbolized in the literary tradition.

Far from being limited to medieval Latin Europe, this rhetorical approach, and the method of study it implies, could, and has been since Curtius, extended to Early Modern and Modern literature. If today we expect a renewal of literary studies in France, after the failure of the so-called sciences humaines, it will obviously be in the Curtian line. I am happy to say that I work in perfect intellectual agreement with Curtius’ best pupil, Harald Weinrich, who is German, and despite his nationality, if I may use that very inappropriate clausula, my full-time colleague at the Collège de France.

Why does Art history, as exemplified by Panofsky’s Meaning in the Visual Arts relate so naturally with literature history as exemplified by Curtius’ European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages? This is the question which haunted me since my first reading of Panofsky, and it is, I think, a good question to raise today if we agree that, at the end of this century, when the modernist credo has become less credible, the future lies in a wise reunification and renewal of the humanities.

It is not so much, in my view, their common philological and critical exactness, nor their common use of definite concepts, like classic and mannerist, that resume the kinship between Panofsky as Art historian and Curtius as a historian of Literature. It may be correctly assumed that this common ground of textual acribia was the general heritage of European and German Roman philology. What brings them so close, in spite of their specialized fields, visual images and literary texts, is their common rupture with the positivist assumptions of modern history and philology. This positivist rationalism could easily be associated with nationalism, which is absent in the generous Romanist Curtius and is subtly derided in Panofsky’s polemics, for example when he stresses the indebtedness of Albrecht Dürer’s classicism to Quattrocento Italian artists. The anti-positivist stand, in both Panofsky and Curtius, is manifest above all in their common reliance upon rhetorical notions in describing and understanding the working of the topical and inventive imagination. Both, before any theory, were magnificent performers of what they tried, as historians, to resurrect. Curtius, not only in his correspondence and essays, but in his scientific work as well, is a foremost and virtuoso writer. Panofsky’s own humanity combines moral insight and literary grace: he knows not only how to prove, but how to revive the contradictory human facets of his subjects, their natural evidence. In his magnificent piece about Suger, Panofsky exposes the elusive personality of the Abbot of Saint-Denis to the proof of the different places of human experience, character, temperament, national type, social persona, culture, taste, and his narrative synthesis, imbued with humour and sympathy, equals the art of the best novelists by its power of bringing alive a superb example of balanced and ogival humanity. It is a scientific, literary and moral portrait, it is history, it is history of art, at their best at one and the same time. But Panofsky’s rhetoric was inseparable, like Antique and Renaissance rhetoric he understood as few other did, from the philosophical quest for truth. This philosophical background, far from being impaired by literary skills, is serenely asserted in the concluding chapter of The Meaning in the Visual Arts. Cassirer’s friend quotes Goethe and Kant, and locates himself in a tradition of thought which goes back to Cicero’s New Academy. This tradition allows him to relate artistic and literary invention to the same memory. This memory, vital and ideal at the same time, harbours symbolic forms which may be mirrored in texts as well as in visual works, and generate plastic or literary eloquence. Humanistic emblematic language combined both regimes of expression. The memory-imagination is a store of “universals” which are not deduced from reality, by discursive abstractions, but give form and meaning to nature, through intuitive synthesis. This harvest of mnemonic forms allows a mutual understanding and a reciprocal stimulation between inventors of texts and inventors of images. It implies, between literary texts and visual images, rhetorical operations such as transposition, interpretation, variation and combination.

The description Panofsky gives of the genesis of Dürer’s etchings or drawings does not rely only upon logical deductions: it reconstructs the poetic logic of imaginative invention, according to the four major rhetorical figures: metaphor, metonymy, catachresis, and irony-allegory. The last chapter of The Meaning is the birthplace of Panofsky’s major achievement as a philosopher-historian of art: Idea, a book that fortunately reached France much earlier than its belated translation, in 1983, may let us to believe this. The influence of this book on French literary studies cannot be overstated. It has merged with the influence of the Latinist and Romanist Alain Michel, who has renewed Ciceronian studies along the same line as Panofsky. Since the 19th century the major role of Cicero in the Western tradition has been generally understated, notably in France. Cicero has been viewed as a rhetorician and a translator: he could not be an original thinker. Michel has shown that the Ciceronian synthesis of rhetoric and philosophy, of Aristotle-ism and Platonism, was an original Roman achievement, and a fertile and enduring one. We may now trace, through Renaissance and Renascences, corsi and ricorsi, the seminal and central function of Cicero in the development of Western thought, literature and arts. Vico’s Scienza Nuova has been, in full Quarrel between Ancients and Moderns, the most powerful re-assertor of this humanist tradition. What Panofsky’s Idea revealed to us, was the pregnancy of this tradition and its fertility in European Renaissance Art. Aristotelian pragmatism combined with Platonic idealism, according to the liberal Ciceronian synthesis, allowed experience of the phenomenal world to be enlightened and shaped by proleptic Forms, themselves inherited from the collective experience of Western humanity. These Forms are not a logically deduced system, but a Theater of memory where ingenious invention may find the matter and the models of new ideas, responding accordingly to time, person and place, in the everchanging world of human history. Panofsky insisted upon the aesthetic flexibility of the Ciceronian philosophic rhetoric, able to sustain as well classicism as mannerism. He showed convincingly its liberal and shifting fecundity, capable of thinking unity and multiplicity at the same time. But what emerges from Panofsky’s Idea, as well as from recent French studies on rhetoric, is the common ground that this new understanding of Ciceronism offers for literary and artistic studies. Modern Art theory, in spite of its debt to a poet, Apollinaire, has insisted upon the unbridgeable gulf between plastic and literary forms, between the visible and the word. This view, in a less systematic version, was not unknown to the rhetorical tradition. It is a founding presupposed principle of Ciceronian rhetoric, reasserted by Vico, that human experience ranges well beyond language, and that by its multifaceted and ingenious figures rhetorical invention essays what escapes unilateral words. The visual arts therefore offer another order of figures able to mean what is beyond the reach of words. But artistic invention, unless it claims to be creation ex nihilo, is no less rhetorical than that of the orator or the poet. Their invention draws upon a common mnemonic world of “places,” and symbolic forms, mapping the multiple richness of human experience. And their style, through metaphorical transpositions, may be tasted and evaluated according to analogous standards. At least if we intend to reconstruct the meaning of works, literary or visual, invented according to these rhetorical assumptions, we may and we must learn again how a Rubens painting could resound with Seneca’s Stoic amble or Ovid’s Epicurean savours. Panofsky’s own literary learning and sensitivity plays a major part in his reconstructing the full intended meaning and aesthetics effects of Old Master works.

There are, in the Western tradition, departures from the main Ciceronian line. Panofsky, like Curtius, was perfectly aware of this. Curtius has devoted brilliant pages to the theological domination of 12th and 13th century learning. Panofsky has devoted a major book to the scholastic background of the invention of gothic style. The Cartesian Ego, which pretends to do away with rhetoric, has been the cornerstone of a new rationalist rhetoric, which has been immensely productive, and which is the background of neo-classical aesthetics. The Rimbaldian Je est un autre is no less rhetorical, as Apollinaire’s Peintres cubistes, a topical and tropical text, shows abundantly. But even these departures and ruptures can be measured and understood in relation with, or in reaction against, the main liberal tradition of the West, which after all is best qualified to understand the whole gamut of the human experience, since its central assumption is the infinite variety of humanity and of its access to form in different times, places and persons.

I apologize for this rather too allusive apologetics for a prospective Scienza Nuova of which Panofsky and Curtius have been the forerunners in this century. I would have preferred to content myself with listening to the discourse that the greatest French Warburgian, the late André Chastel, should have delivered today in this room. I hope I have been faithful to the living and burgeoning legacy of these Masters.

Marc FUMAROLI
(last corrections made on September 22, 1993)


Marc Fumaroli: A Reminiscence and Prologue

On October 2nd, 1993, Marc Fumaroli, first citizen in the Republic of Letters, delivered a paper at Princeton on the subject of rhetoric. Philippe-Joseph Salazar was his student and worked closely with him. He “sets the scene” for this paper.

Marc Fumaroli was a master, yet one without disciples. In fact he scorned the idea of having “groupies,” a word he used with gusto well before French intellectual moeurs were impregnated with Americanisms of all sorts.

I knew him well, and over a long period of time, indeed. In fact, in 1979, he set me on the path of rhetoric, after proofreading pen in hand my first book, on opera, and quipping: “And now, after ce tour de piste, onto the real stuff.” I was barely twenty-four, it was my first book, and he spared no time and effort to guide me so that I would not mess up my début at the (then) sanctum of Presses universitaires de France. He was generous, but in his own way, which never was devoid of “raillerie.” Then he supervised my Doctorat d’Etat, a hallowed and now defunct degree thanks to the Plan-Organize-Lead-Control system imposed by Brussels (and Bologna) managerial bureaucracy on academic outputs. I can hear him punning on “output.” We are only a handful to have had him as a directeur de travaux for that recondite degree.

He was a laconic supervisor. My last supervision meeting took place over dinner in a dark restaurant in Göttingen—a side event to some colloquium he left half-way through it as it was his custom when “les cafards” (his word) started taking, and talking, over. He gave me sparse advice, but always cutting to the quick. Odd supervisor he was who mocked the routine rhetoric of academia, yet an adroit player in the cursus honorum game. One day, to my bewilderment, he took a school edition of Les Fourberies de Scapin, jumped into a large office cupboard, and burst out reciting with a high pitched voice the famous tirade when the imposter defines himself:

“Heaven has bestowed on me a fair enough share of genius for the making up of all those neat strokes of mother wit, for all those ingenious gallantries to which the ignorant and vulgar give the name of impostures; and I can boast, without vanity, that there have been very few men more skilful than I in expedients and intrigues, and who have acquired a greater reputation in the noble profession.” He added: “Tout est là!

I remember sitting there, next to his desk, aghast at his comedic skills. He admired and knew Grotowski. Whenever I attended a colloquium where he spoke, that impersonation of his came back—not for its content, of course, but for the performance itself.

His preferred eloquent mode however was the Voltairean causerie, the off the cuff (but on target) erudite comment, to sum the supple exercise and witty display of intelligence in a conversation between peers or meant to educate novices. Formalities were not his forte. Once, upon returning from England, while dropping his leather duffel bag with a loud plonk, he exhaled: “Ah, ces pompeux emmerdements d’Oxford.” Translation needed?

Nonetheless Fumaroli had a following, of students and colleagues, whom he did not always treat very kindly as the man could never resist un trait d’esprit, at their expense of course. Victims would usually succumb in silence. All his witticisms and actes manqués and antics would fill up a Fumaroliana—a book of ana, that exquisite literary genre of the Republic of Letters that has disappeared from intellectual life. Nothing more unwoke than a book of ana. You’ll get sued.

Nevertheless in September 1993 his (non) disciples together with his peers congregated in the redoubt of trendy intellectualism at Cerisy-la-Salle manor house. It is hard to imagine today what a shock it was to have a Fumaroli colloquium there. Imagine Derrida being feted at Davos. Or the Che at the RAND corporation. He told me, the moment he arrived from the tiresome rail and road journey to that gentilhommière in the Western Normandy countryside: “Well, merci, you put me a foot in the grave” (he died in 2020, though). The Cerisy colloquium had a provoking title, he chose: “Les Lettres: un gai savoir,” an ironical, rhetorical clin d’oeil to the fashionableness of Cerisy’s dedication to avant-garde in all its forms. But the actual theme was of course the dignity of Ciceronian otium, the joys scholarship affords to free minds—as in Nietzsche’s Fröhliche Wissenschaft—while paying homage to the poetic inventiveness of medieval gay saber. Two years later he was elected to the Académie française while the transactions, Le loisir lettré à l’Age Classique (Geneva, Droz) came out at about the same time.

About ten years after Cerisy, his epigones congregated again, this time by way of a special issue of XVIIe Siècle, the apex journal of erudite studies on “Age classique” (in the French sense of classical) to reflect on “Trente ans de recherches rhétoriques” (vol LIX, No 3, July 2007). We took stock of Fumaroli’s influence in shaping an entire new generation of rhetoric scholars in Europe.

Fumaroli is now nearly forgotten. I tested this on a young man who has just entered my college, Ecole normale supérieure. This Telemachus of France’s intellectual elite had only a vague idea of who Fumaroli was. If not forgotten altogether, he remains “sulfureux” with those who were part of the cultural and political struggles of the 80s. Significantly, after his death, a leading literary magazine of probing intelligence turned down a suggestion to highlight his contribution to French intellectual life: “Too toxic.” Buried or toxic, like nuclear waste. His staggering erudition and sharp pen were feared by his opponents on the left and, I suggest, misunderstood by his political supporters on the right. In fact, Fumaroli admired intelligence, including that of his intellectual opponents like Bourdieu (I know that first hand). He helped careers of junior academics of great scholarly promise, while deriding in private their political certainties, and vanities.

Here is a key to his temperament: his favourite American writer was Gore Vidal. To this day I regret having turned down his invitation to go to Italy with him, and meet Vidal—confirming the dictum that youth is wasted on the young. He admired Vidal’s ability to use his first-hand knowledge of the American patriciate, a form of erudition and, armed with it, paint compelling historical frescoes, composed with wit, elegance and a light touch. Fumaroli was the Gore Vidal of French erudition. This comparison goes further: when he wrote eloquently about the Tridentine rhetorical aggiornamento and the Roman Church as the power of oratory, his mind and taste were not religious or devout, they were cast in the mould of his beloved Poussin and “paganism.” He was, in effect, a radical sceptic in the great tradition of French libertinage.

His skepsis distrust of ideas for ideas’ sake (“la peste des intellectuels!” one of his favourite sayings) is something his intellectual opponents on the left and his fans on the right never quite fathomed about him. That is why, I believe, he felt at ease in Italy where intellectual life is far less compassé. For instance, I recall an episode in Rome when, at a bus station, someone shouted at him, “Fumaroli, vieni qui,” and then began an animated chat, at the kerb, on Castiglione’s Courtier. The bus stop became a salon, nay, an academy. And, dear me, how long that conversation lasted. Buses came and went, and were missed while they talked, like in a Bertolucci movie.

In the days following Cerisy Marc asked me to go over a lecture he was to deliver at Princeton, in October. I did not alter his style, I merely tried to shorten sentences and wipe off some Gallicisms. He gave me the revised version he had typed up—the text presented here. Typos are his. He actually typed his books and papers himself, sat at his gothic desk framed by two heavy Venetian damask curtains on the second floor of a XVIIth century building where he lived, quite derelict at the time as most of the hôtels particuliers in the Marais—before gentrification and then globalisation by various means. A mutual friend, and descendant of Marinetti, would help him sell it later when he moved to illustrious Left Bank quarters, rid of the sight of leathermen in chaps gathering at a gay bar round the corner.

Before that time, when he was writing, one could hear, at night, the morse-like tac-tac-tac (with longer Typex pauses) of his typewriter from the corner of rue des Mauvais Garçons (the name amused him) and rue du Bourg-Tibourg. An Italian trattoria owner across the narrow street was worried sick about his late night typing, and tried to make sure he ate properly. When Age de l’éloquence came out, she asked him for a signed copy. He sighed: “She thinks it is a novel, imagine un peu! (go figure!).” That summed up for him the difference between les Lettres and literature, one of his pet topics.

The text presented here is emblematic of the utterly French style of lecturing, light yet profound, a sprezzatura of the mind that has always been misunderstood in Anglo-American academic circles (with some notable exceptions)—to wit, and this is my last ana, it led him once to refuse adding footnotes to an invited article by a leading English-speaking Renaissance journal, and to exclaim in sheer exasperation: “What a nerve! If their readers don’t know what my references are, then est-ce vraiment une revue savante?” Rich from a scholar whose hermeneutic skills were astounding and whose juggernauts of technical footnotes and primary sources (at a time when one had to go into archives and special collections; one book at a time, four a day only, and “make sure you only use a pencil”) are so intimidating that they prevent his monumenta from being translated. This Princeton lecture is therefore without notes. Caveat emptor. Or cave canem. Take your pick.


French philosopher and essayist Philippe-Joseph Salazar writes on rhetoric as philosophy of power. Laureate of the Prix Bristol des Lumières in 2015 for his book on jihad (translated as, Words are Weapons. Inside ISIS’s Rhetoric of Terror, Yale UP). In 2022, the international community of rhetoricians honoured him with a Festschrift, The Incomprehensible: The Critical Rhetoric of Philippe-Joseph Salazar. He holds a Distinguished Professorship in Rhetoric and Humane Letters in the Law Faculty of the University of Cape Town, South Africa.


Beauty against Force: Simone Weil’s Venice Saved

The tragedy Venise sauvée (Venice Saved) is Simone Weil’s only literary works. She began writing it in 1940, and continued to work on it until her early death interrupted its completion in 1943. The action takes place in a Venice threatened by a plot, but saved by one of the conspirators who, seized by its beauty, cannot bring himself to take it by force. Although, like many of Weil’s writings, it is rarely read due to its incompleteness, the play offers a synthesis of the philosopher’s views on ethics, politics and even ontology.

Inspired by the Conjuration des Espagnols contre la République de Venise en l’Année MDCXVIII (1820), by the Abbé de Saint-Réal, the action takes place in 1618 against the backdrop of a conspiracy to overthrow the Serenissima Republic of Venice and place it under the control of the Spanish Empire. A group of mercenaries, led by the characters Renaud, an old French lord, and Pierre and Jaffier, two privateers from Provence, plan to seize the city on Ascension night, just as the Venetians are celebrating their sea betrothal, a sort of national holiday during which the Doge boards his ceremonial galley to cast a golden ring into the sea, symbolizing his city’s domination over the sea. From the outset, we see the antagonism between two typical political ideals: the city and the empire.

Empire: The Archetype of Strength

First and foremost, the Spanish empire of the House of Habsburg. Its hegemonic aspirations is expressed by Renaud in a speech to his troops:

Thanks to you, the whole of Europe will be united under the Habsburg dynasty, and the ships of a united Europe, sailing the seas, will conquer, civilize and convert to Christianity the entire globe, just as Spain did for America. And it will all be thanks to you…. The House of Austria is very close to universal domination; if it lets it slip, bloody, long and ruinous struggles will ensue all around (Venise sauvée, I, 2).

Here, the empire appears to be driven by a movement of expansion, which will only end in universal domination. However, this expansion is presented here as subordinate to two aims: the verb “to conquer” is followed by “to civilize, to convert to Christianity.” Yet it is hard to give real substance to these aims, given that the hegemony of the House of Austria, which reigned over Spain at the time, immediately comes to the fore in Renaud’s discourse. If these manifestly cosmetic ends make the strengthening of the empire seem like a means, it appears here as its own end: the empire serves its strength as much as it serves itself. Indeed, Weil seems to place the Habsburg empire in a filiation that runs through Western history: that of Rome, the hegemony drunk with conquest. This Roman spirit, devoid of any real spirituality, conquering and dominating, would run through the history of Europe right up to Hitler at the time of her writing, via the colonial empires of the 15th to 19th centuries. This is what she suggests in La Personne et le sacré when she writes: “The Romans, who understood, as Hitler did, that force is only fully effective when it is clothed in a few ideas, used the notion of right for this purpose.”

Here, we find a relationship to the notion of right, analogous to that which the conspirators have with civilization or religion, which are summoned only to clothe force. Simone Weil’s notion of force is the subject of particular elaboration, notably in L’Iliade ou le poème de la force, where she characterizes it as a mechanism that acts on bodies and minds, reducing them to the status of things. Indeed, she sees force as the main subject of The Iliad, which perfectly depicts its effects on its characters, singing with equal melancholy of the loss of Greek and Trojan heroes. Force is at work, for example, when, in the hands of Achilles, it reduces a begging Hector to a thing, or when it intoxicates the victorious Achaeans, who find themselves submissive to its impulse and go on to the total destruction of Ilion:

The victorious soldier is like a scourge of nature; possessed by war, he is as much a thing as the slave, though in a very different way, and words have no power over him as over matter…. Such is the nature of force. The power it possesses to transform men into things is twofold and is exercised from two sides; it petrifies equally the souls of those who suffer it and those who wield it (L’Iliade ou le poème de la force)

Through the Spanish conquests, the mechanics of force are at work, making both the conqueror and the conquered their own. Rome, Habsburg Spain, Hitler, the empire is thus the collective at its most dangerous, the vessel through which force crushes individuals, the allegory of the Big Animal with its random movements used by Plato (Republic, 493d) to imitate the inertia of collective opinion that drags souls along.

The City: Archetype of Harmony

Facing the empire, the city. The lexicon of the city refers almost systematically to beauty. This beauty is crystallized in the betrothal festival at sea that is about to take place, as seen in the joy it brings to the character of Violetta, the daughter of a Venetian nobleman:

Oh, how I wish I could be there tomorrow! Have you never seen the Venice festival? There’s nothing like it in the world; you’ll see tomorrow! What a joy for me, tomorrow, to show you my city in its most perfect splendor! There will be such beautiful music… (Venise sauvée, II, 3).

The beauty of the feast seems to culminate in music. Given the centrality of reading Plato in Weilian thought, it is hard not to see an echo of the role he attributes to it in Books IV and VII of The Republic. Like gymnastics for the body, music is described as the cultivation of harmony in the soul. Here, Venice appears on the side of Western Hellenic heritage. In contrast to Rome, Greece represents the rooted civilization par excellence, a community that, rather than crushing individuals, nurtures them by allowing them a “real, active and natural participation in the existence of a community that keeps alive certain treasures of the past and certain presentiments of the future,” so as to “receive almost the totality of its moral, intellectual and spiritual life through the intermediary of the environments of which [the individual] is naturally a part” (L’Enracinement). This moment of Venetian communion in the beauty of one of their traditions is precisely the one chosen by the Spaniards to subdue the Venetians by uprooting them by force, as Renaud explains to Jaffier, in charge of executing the plan: “Tonight and tomorrow, the people here must feel that they are only toys, that they are lost. The ground must suddenly and forever give way from under their feet, and they must be able to find equilibrium only by obeying you” (Venice Saved, II, 6). Thus, by uprooting it—that is, by destroying the beauty and harmony that the city cultivates—the empire seeks to throw it into the arms of the force that drives it, in order to subjugate it.

A City Saved by its Beauty

The action concludes with Jaffier’s denunciation of the conspiracy, resulting in the arrest of his companions and his banishment from the city, hated by the Venetians who see him as a traitor to the Republic as well as to his own people. Haunted by the guilt of having delivered his companions to their death, he finally takes his own life. His decision to betray the conspirators seems to come from a sort of revelation of the city’s beauty during a discussion with a Venetian nobleman and his daughter Violetta: “No man can do such a thing as Venice. Only God. The greatest thing a man can do, which brings him closer to God, is, since he cannot create such wonders, to preserve those that exist.” The effect of beauty on Jaffier’s soul cannot be summed up here as a form of seduction that would divert him from his mission. It is to be understood in the context of the ontology that Simone Weil developed in various writings at the end of her life, consisting mainly of a rather original exegesis of Plato.

According to Fernando Rey Puente, this exegesis postulates a profound internal unity in Plato’s work, set in the context of a Greek civilization whose spirituality was centered around the idea of mediation between divine eternity on the one hand, and human misery on the other. Thus, Plato’s thought consists of the articulation of pairs of antagonistic notions: “identity and diversity, unity and multiplicity, absolute and relative, pure good and good mixed with evil, spiritual and sensible, supernatural and natural” in two relationships: contradiction and analogy. This confrontation of opposites, from which the intermediary between them emerges, is then understood by Weil as the driving force behind Platonic dialectics, described in The Republic as the means by which the soul tears itself away from appearances and rises to the contemplation of the intelligible.

In the ontological domain, this structuring duality is the relationship between Good and Necessity, understood as the chain of causes and effects that conditions the becoming of all things here below. At first glance, it appears as an antagonism, particularly in the Weilian reading of The Iliad, which shows the world inside the Cave, deprived of good, where necessity is embodied in the force at play with characters struggling, passive in the face of it. Plato’s work then consists precisely in thinking the intermediary and the passage from this reality to the good. In this respect, The Republic must be seen in relation to other dialogues, as she points out in her Cahiers (“February 1942-June 1942”):

“An Aborted Iliad”

Basically, there is only one path to salvation in Plato; the various dialogues indicate different parts of the path. The Republic does not say what first does violence to the chained captive to remove the chains and compel the unfortunate. We will have to look for that in The Phaedrus. It is beauty, by means of love (every value that appears in the sensible world is beauty). It is the contemplation of beauty in the order of the world, conceived a priori. Next comes beauty as an attribute of God, and then the Good. Then the return to the cave; this is The Timaeus.

Indeed, The Timaeus depicts the sensible world in terms of the Demiurge’s will: “He (the Demiurge) was good, and in that which is good there is no jealousy of anyone. Without jealousy, he wished all things to become like him” (29e). From this perspective, necessity, which orders the becoming of the sensible world, is an imitation of the Good emanating from the Demiurge. This perspective clarifies what, in The Republic, appeared to be an abrupt dualism between the intelligible, good world, and the sensible, marked by necessity. Indeed, in The Timaeus, becoming is beautiful insofar as it bears the imprint of the Good. The Symposium and The Phaedrus make this intermediary role of beauty explicit, showing how it is the sensible presence of the Good in things, correlated with the love personified by Eros, the daemon who comes to possess souls in the form of madness, to carry them towards it.

Thus, when Jaffier pays attention to the beauty of Venice, he is literally seized with love for this city, which, as Weil writes of art, “is an attempt to transport in a finite quantity of matter shaped by man an image of the infinite beauty of the entire universe” (Formes de l’Amour implicite de Dieu). The emergence of this beauty in his soul subtracts it from the inertia of force and imbues it with a movement of love, which translates into a renunciation of the need to destroy the object of love. In the words of Léo Tixier in the preface to the Payot et Rivages edition, Venise sauvée is “like an aborted Iliad,” in that Jaffier prevents another sack of Troy. Paradoxically, through the beauty of the city of the Doges and his attention to it, Jaffier also saves himself through his sacrifice.

This state of grace gives it full life in a final gesture of love, in contrast to the state of inertia in which force holds man under its sway. This double salvation by beauty, of a city and a man, illustrates how, far from being superfluous and ornamental, beauty is a need of the soul just as fundamental as food is to the body, as Weil herself writes in L’Enracinement: “The point of view of aesthetes is sacrilegious, not only in matters of religion, but even in matters of art. It consists in having fun with beauty by manipulating it and looking at it. Beauty is something to be eaten; it is food.”


Mattis Jambon writes from the Sorbonne. This articles appears through the kind courtesy of PHILITT.


Featured: The Bucintore Returning to the Molo on Ascension Day, by Canaletto; painted ca. 1727-1729.


Urbis Romae viri inlustres

I. Romani imperii exordium

Proca, rex Albanorum, Numitorem et Amulium filios habuit. Numitori, qui natu maior erat, regnum reliquit; sed Amulius, pulso fratre, regnavit et, ut eum subole privaret, Rheam Silviam, eius filiam, Vestae sacerdotem fecit, quae tamen Romulum et Remum geminos edidit. Ea re cognita Amulius ipsam in vincula coniecit, parvulos alveo impositos abiecit in Tiberim, qui tunc forte super ripas erat effusus; sed, relabente flumine, eos aqua in sicco reliquit. Vastae tum in iis locis solitudines erant. Lupa, ut fama traditum est, ad vagitum accurrit, infantes lingua lambit, ubera eorum ori matremque se gessit.

Cum lupa saepius ad parvulos veluti ad catulos reverteretur, Faustulus, pastor regius, re animadversa eos tulit in casam et Accae Larentiae coniugi dedit educandos. Adulti deinde hi inter pastores primo ludicris certaminibus vires auxere, deinde venando saltus peragrare et latrones a rapina pecorum arcere coeperunt. Quare cum iis insidiati essent latrones, Remus captus est, Romulus vi se defendit. Tum Faustulus, necessitate compulsus, indicavit Romulo quis esset eorum avus, quae mater. Romulus statim armatis pastoribus Albam properavit.

Interea Remum latrones ad Amulium regem perduxerunt, eum accusantes, quasi Numitoris agros infestare solitus esset; itaque Remus a rege Numitori ad supplicium traditus est; at cum Numitor, adulescentis vultum considerans, aetatem minimeque servilem indolem compararet, haud procul erat quin nepotem agnosceret. Nam Remus oris lineamentis erat matri simillimus aetasque expositionis temporibus congruebat. Ea res dum Numitoris animum anxium tenet, repente Romulus supervenit, fratrem liberat, interempto Amulio avum Numitorem in regnum restituit.

Deinde Romulus et Remus urbem in iisdem locis, ubi expositi ubique educati erant, condiderunt; sed orta inter eos contentione, uter nomen novae urbi daret eamque imperio regeret, auspicia decreverunt adhibere. Remus prior sex vultures, Romulus postea duodecim vidit. Sic Romulus, victor augurio, urbem Romam vocavit. Ad novae urbis tutelam sufficere vallum videbatur. Cuius angustias inridens cum Remus saltu id traiecisset, eum iratus Romulus interfecit, his increpans verbis: “Sic deinde, quicumque alius transiliet moenia mea!” Ita solus potitus est imperio Romulus.

II. Romulus, Romanorum rex primus (753-715 ACN)

Romulus imaginem urbis magis quam urbem fecerat; incolae deerant. Erat in proximo lucus; hunc asylum fecit. Et statim eo mira vis latronum pastorumque confugit. Cum vero uxores ipse populusque non haberent, legatos circa vicinas gentes misit, qui societatem conubiumque novo populo peterent. Nusquam benigne audita legatio est; ludibrium etiam additum: “Cur non feminis quoque asylum aperuistis? Id enim compar foret conubium.” Romulus, aegritudinem animi dissimulans, ludos parat; indici deinde finitimis spectaculum iubet. Multi convenere studio etiam videndae novae urbis, maxime Sabini cum liberis et coniugibus. Ubi spectaculi tempus venit eoque conversae mentes cum oculis erant, tum signo dato iuvenes Romani discurrunt, virgines rapiunt.

Haec fuit statim causa belli. Sabini enim ob virgines raptas bellum adversus Romanos sumpserunt, et cum Romae appropinquarent, Tarpeiam virginem nacti sunt, quae aquam forte extra moenia petitum ierat. Huius pater Romanae praeerat arci. Titus Tatius, Sabinorum dux, Tarpeiae optionem muneris dedit, si exercitum suum in Capitolium perduxisset. Illa petiit quod Sabini in sinistris manibus gererent, videlicet aureos anulos et armillas. Quibus dolose promissis, Tarpeia Sabinos in arcem perduxit, ubi Tatius scutis eam obrui iussit; nam et ea in laevis habuerant. Sic impia proditio celeri poena vindicata est.

Deinde Romulus ad certamen processit, et in eo loco, ubi nunc Romanum Forum est, pugnam conseruit. Primo impetu vir inter Romanos insignis, nomine Hostilius, fortissime dimicans cecidit; cuius interitu consternati Romani fugere coeperunt. Iam Sabini clamitabant: “Vicimus perfidos hospites, imbelles hostes. Nunc sciunt longe aliud esse virgines rapere, aliud pugnare cum viris.” Tunc Romulus, arma ad caelum tollens, Iovi aedem vovit, et exercitus seu forte seu divinitus restitit. Itaque proelium redintegratur; sed raptae mulieres crinibus passis ausae sunt se inter tela volantia inferre et hinc patres, hinc viros orantes, pacem conciliarunt.

Romulus, foedere cum Tatio icto, et Sabinos in urbem recepit et regnum cum Tatio sociavit. Verum haud ita multo post, occiso Tatio, ad Romulum potentatus omnis recidit. Centum deinde ex senioribus elegit, quorum consilio omnia ageret, quos senatores nominavit propter senectutem. Tres equitum centurias constituit, populum in triginta curias distribuit. His ita ordinatis, cum ad exercitum lustrandum contionem in campo ad Caprae paludem haberet, subito coorta est tempestas cum magno fragore tonitribusque et Romulus e conspectu ablatus est. Ad deos transisse vulgo creditus est; cui rei fidem fecit Iulius Proculus, vir nobilis. Orta enim inter patres et plebem seditione, in contionem processit, iureiurando adfirmans visum a se Romulum augustiore forma, eundemque praecipere ut seditionibus abstinerent et rem militarem colerent; futurum ut omnium gentium domini exsisterent. Aedes in colle Quirinali Romulo constituta, ipse pro deo cultus et Quirinus est appellatus.

III. Numa Pompilius, Romanorum rex secundus (716-673 ACN)

Successit Romulo Numa Pompilius, vir inclita iustitia et religione. Is Curibus, ex oppido Sabinorum, accitus est. Qui cum Romam venisset, ut populum ferum religione mitigaret, sacra plurima instituit. Aram Vestae consecravit, et ignem in ara perpetuo alendum virginibus dedit. Flaminem Iovis sacerdotem creavit eumque insigni veste et curuli sella adornavit. Dicitur quondam ipsum Iovem e caelo elicuisse. Hic, ingentibus fulminibus in urbem demissis, descendit in nemus Aventinum, ubi Numam docuit quibus sacris fulmina essent procuranda, et praeterea imperii certa pignora populo Romano daturum se esse promisit. Numa laetus rem populo nuntiavit. Postridie omnes ad aedes regias convenerunt silentesque exspectabant quid futurum esset. Atque sole orto delabitur e caelo scisso scutum, quod ancile appellavit Numa. Id ne furto auferri posset, Mamurium fabrum undecim scuta eadem forma fabricare iussit. Duodecim autem Salios Martis sacerdotes legit, qui ancilia, secreta illa imperii pignora, custodirent et Kalendis Martiis per urbem canentes et rite saltantes ferrent. Annum in duodecim menses ad cursum lunae descripsit; nefastos fastosque dies fecit; portas Iano gemino aedificavit ut esset index pacis et belli; nam apertus, in armis esse civitatem, clausus, pacatos circa omnes populos, significabat.

Leges quoque plurimas et utiles tulit Numa. Ut vero maiorem institutis suis auctoritatem conciliaret, simulavit sibi cum dea Egeria esse conloquia nocturna eiusque monitu se omnia, quae ageret, facere. Lucus erat, quem medium fons perenni rigabat aqua; eo saepe Numa sine arbitris se inferebat, velut ad congressum deae; ita omnium animos ea pietate imbuit, ut fides ac iusiurandum non minus quam legum et poenarum metus cives contineret. Bellum quidem nullum gessit, sed non minus civitati profuit quam Romulus. Morbo exstinctus in Ianiculo monte sepultus est. Ita duo deinceps reges, ille bello, hic pace, civitatem auxerunt. Romulus septem et triginta regnavit annos, Numa tres et quadraginta.

IV. Tullus Hostilius, Romanorum rex tertius (673-641 ACN)

Mortuo Numa Tullus Hostilius rex creatus est. Hic non solum proximo regi dissimilis, sed ferocior etiam Romulo fuit. Eo regnante bellum inter Albanos et Romanos exortum est. Ducibus Hostilio et Fufetio placuit rem paucorum certamine finiri. Erant apud Romanos trigemini fratres Horatii, tres apud Albanos Curiatii. Cum eis agunt reges ut pro sua quisque patria dimicent ferro. Foedus ictum est ea lege, ut, unde victoria, ibi imperium esset.

Icto foedere trigemini arma capiunt et in medium inter duas acies procedunt. Consederant utrimque duo exercitus. Datur signum, infestique armis terni iuvenes, magnorum exercituum animos gerentes, concurrunt. Ut primo concursu increpuere arma micantesque fulsere gladii, horror ingens spectantes perstringit. Consertis deinde manibus, statim duo Romani alius super alium exspirantes ceciderunt; tres Albani vulnerati. Ad casum Romanorum conclamavit gaudio exercitus Albanus. Romanos iam spes tota deserebat. Unum Horatium tres Curiatii circumsteterant. Forte is integer fuit; sed quia tribus impar erat, ut distraheret hostes, fugam capessivit, singulos per intervalla secuturos esse ratus. Iam aliquantum spatii ex eo loco, ubi pugnatum est, aufugerat, cum respiciens videt unum e Curiatiis haud procul ab sese abesse. In eum magno impetu redit, et dum Albanus exercitus inclamat Curiatiis ut opem ferant fratri, iam Horatius eum occiderat. Alterum deinde, priusquam tertius posset consequi, interfecit.

Iam singuli supererant, sed nec spe nec viribus pares. Alter erat intactus ferro et geminata victoria ferox; alter fessum vulnere, fessum cursu trahebat corpus. Nec illud proelium fuit. Romanus exsultans male sustinentem arma Curiatium conficit, iacentem spoliat. Romani ovantes ac gratulantes Horatium accipiunt et domum deducunt. Princeps ibat Horatius, trium fratrum spolia prae se gerens. Cui obvia fuit soror, quae desponsa fuerat uni ex Curiatiis, visoque super umeros fratris paludamento sponsi, quod ipsa confecerat, flere et crines solvere coepit. Movet ferocis iuvenis animum comploratio sororis in tanto gaudio publico; itaque stricto gladio transfigit puellam, simul eam verbis increpans: “Abi hinc cum immaturo amore ad sponsum, oblita fratrum, oblita patriae. Sic eat, quaecumque Romana lugebit hostem.”

Atrox id visum est facinus patribus plebique; quare raptus est in ius Horatius et apud iudices condemnatus. Iam accesserat lictor iniciebatque laqueum. Tum Horatius ad populum provocavit. Interea pater Horatii senex proclamabat filiam suam iure caesam esse; et iuvenem amplexus spoliaque Curiatiorum ostentans, orabat populum ne se, quem paulo ante cum egregia stirpe conspexissent, orbum liberis faceret. Non tulit populus patris lacrimas iuvenemque absolvit admiratione magis virtutis quam iure causae. Ut tamen caedes manifesta expiaretur, pater quibusdam sacrificiis peractis transmisit per viam tigillum et filium capite adoperto velut sub iugum misit; quod tigillum Sororium appellatum est.

Non diu pax Albana mansit; nam Mettius Fufetius, dux Albanorum, cum se invidiosum apud cives videret, quod bellum uno paucorum certamine finisset, ut rem corrigeret, Veientes Fidenatesque adversus Romanos concitavit. Ipse, a Tullo in auxilium arcessitus, aciem in collem subduxit, ut fortunam belli exspectaret et sequeretur. Qua re Tullus intellecta magna voce ait suo illud iussu Mettium facere, ut hostes a tergo circumvenirentur. Quo audito hostes territi et victi sunt. Postero die Mettius cum ad gratulandum Tullo venisset, iussu illius quadrigis religatus et in diversa distractus est. Deinde Tullus Albam propter ducis perfidiam diruit et Albanos Romam transire iussit.

Roma interim crevit Albae ruinis; duplicatus est civium numerus; mons Caelius urbi additus et, quo frequentius habitaretur, eam sedem Tullus regiae cepit ibique deinde habitavit. Auctarum virium fiducia elatus bellum Sabinis indixit. Pestilentia insecuta est; nulla tamen ab armis quies dabatur. Credebat enim rex bellicosus salubriora militiae quam domi esse iuvenum corpora, sed ipse quoque diuturno morbo est implicitus. Tunc vero adeo fracti simul cum corpore sunt spiritus illi feroces, ut nulli rei posthac nisi sacris operam daret. Memorant Tullum fulmine ictum cum domo conflagrasse. Tullus magna gloria belli regnavit annos duos et triginta.

V. Ancus Marcius, Romanorum rex quartus (641-616 ACN)

Tullo mortuo Ancum Marcium regem populus creavit. Numae Pompilii nepos Ancus Marcius erat, aequitate et religione avo similis. Tunc Latini, cum quibus Tullo regnante ictum foedus erat, sustulerant animos, et incursionem in agrum Romanum fecerunt. Ancus, priusquam eis bellum indiceret, legatum misit, qui res repeteret, eumque morem posteri acceperunt. Id autem hoc modo fiebat. Legatus, ubi ad fines eorum venit a quibus res repetuntur, capite velato “Audi, Iuppiter,” inquit “audite, fines huius populi. Ego sum publicus nuntius populi Romani; verbis meis fides sit.” Deinde peragit postulata. Si non deduntur res quas exposcit, hastam in fines hostium emittit bellumque ita indicit. Legatus, qui ea de re mittitur, Fetialis ritusque belli indicendi Ius Fetiale appellatur.

Legato Romano res repetenti superbe responsum est a Latinis; quare bellum hoc modo eis indictum est. Ancus, exercitu conscripto, profectus Latinos fudit et compluribus oppidis deletis cives Romam traduxit. Cum autem in tanta hominum multitudine facinora clandestina fierent, Ancus carcerem in media urbe ad terrorem increscentis audaciae aedificavit. Idem nova moenia urbi circumdedit, Ianiculum montem ponte sublicio in Tiberi facto urbi coniunxit, in ore Tiberis Ostiam urbem condidit. Pluribus aliis rebus intra paucos annos confectis; immatura morte praereptus obiit.

VI. Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, Romanorum rex quintus (616-578 ACN)

Anco regnante Lucius Tarquinius, Tarquiniis, ex Etruriae urbe, profectus, cum coniuge et fortunis omnibus Romam commigravit. Additur haec fabula: advenienti aquila pilleum sustulit et super carpentum, cui Tarquinius insidebat, cum magno clangore volitans rursus capiti apte reposuit; inde sublimis abiit. Tanaquil coniux, caelestium prodigiorum perita, regnum ei portendi intellexit; itaque, virum complexa, excelsa et alta sperare eum iussit. Has spes cogitationesque secum portantes urbem ingressi sunt, domicilioque ibi comparato Tarquinius pecunia et industria dignitatem atque etiam Anci regis familiaritatem consecutus est; a quo tutor liberis relictus regnum intercepit et ita administravit, quasi iure adeptus esset.

Tarquinius Priscus Latinos bello domuit; Circum Maximum aedificavit; de Sabinis triumphavit; murum lapideum urbi circumdedit. Equitum centurias duplicavit, nomina mutare non potuit, deterritus, ut ferunt, Atti Navii auctoritate. Attus enim, ea tempestate augur inclitus, id fieri posse negabat, nisi aves addixissent; iratus rex in experimentum artis eum interrogavit, fierine posset quod ipse mente concepisset; Attus augurio acto fieri posse respondit. “Atqui hoc” inquit rex “agitabam, num cotem illam secare novacula possem.” “Potes ergo” inquit augur, et rex secuisse dicitur. Tarquinius filium tredecim annorum, quod in proelio hostem percussisset, praetexta bullaque donavit; unde haec ingenuorum puerorum insignia esse coeperunt.

Supererant duo Anci filii, qui, aegre ferentes se paterno regno fraudatos esse, regi insidias paraverunt. Ex pastoribus duos ferocissimos deligunt ad patrandum facinus. Ei simulata rixa in vestibulo regiae tumultuantur. Quorum clamor cum penitus in regiam pervenisset, vocati ad regem pergunt. Primo uterque vociferari coepit et certatim alter alteri obstrepere. Cum vero iussi essent in vicem dicere, unus ex composito rem orditur; dumque intentus in eum se rex totus avertit, alter elatam securim in eius caput deiecit, et relicto in vulnere telo ambo foras se proripiunt.

VII. Servius Tullius, Romanorum rex sextus (578-534 ACN)

Post hunc Servius Tullius suscepit imperium, genitus ex nobili femina, captiva tamen et famula. Qui cum in domo Tarquinii Prisci educaretur, ferunt prodigium visu eventuque mirabile accidisse. Flammae species pueri dormientis caput amplexa est. Hoc visu Tanaquil summam ei dignitatem portendi intellexit coniugique suasit ut eum haud secus ac suos liberos educaret. Is postquam adolevit, et fortitudine et consilio insignis fuit. In proelio quodam, in quo rex Tarquinius adversus Sabinos conflixit, militibus segnius dimicantibus, raptum signum in hostem misit. Cuius recipiendi gratia Romani tam acriter pugnaverunt, ut et signum et victoriam referrent. Quare a Tarquinio gener adsumptus est; et cum Tarquinius occisus esset, Tanaquil, Tarquinii uxor, mortem eius celavit, populumque ex superiore parte aedium adlocuta ait regem grave quidem, sed non letale vulnus accepisse, eumque petere, ut interim dum convalesceret, Servio Tullio dicto audientes essent. Sic Servius Tullius regnare coepit, sed recte imperium administravit. Sabinos subegit; montes tres, Quirinalem, Viminalem, Esquilinum urbi adiunxit; fossas circa murum duxit. Idem censum ordinavit, et populum in classes et centurias distribuit.

Servius Tullius aliquod urbi decus addere volebat. Iam tum inclitum erat Dianae Ephesiae fanum. Id communiter a civitatibus Asiae factum fama ferebat. Itaque Latinorum populis suasit ut et ipsi fanum Dianae cum populo Romano Romae in Aventino monte aedificarent. Quo facto, bos mirae magnitudinis cuidam Latino nata dicitur, et responsum somnio datum eum populum summam imperii habiturum, cuius civis bovem illam Dianae immolasset. Latinus bovem ad fanum Dianae egit et causam sacerdoti Romano exposuit. Ille callidus dixit prius eum vivo flumine manus abluere debere. Latinus dum ad Tiberim descendit, sacerdos bovem immolavit. Ita imperium civibus sibique gloriam adquisivit.

Servius Tullius filiam alteram ferocem, mitem alteram habens, cum Tarquinii filios pari esse animo videret, ferocem miti, mitem feroci in matrimonium dedit, ne duo violenta ingenia matrimonio iungerentur. Sed mites seu forte seu fraude perierunt; feroces morum similitudo coniunxit. Statim Tarquinius a Tullia incitatus advocato senatu regnum paternum repetere coepit. Qua re audita Servius dum ad Curiam contendit, iussu Tarquinii per gradus deiectus et domum refugiens interfectus est. Tullia carpento vecta in Forum properavit et coniugem e Curia evocatum prima regem salutavit; cuius iussu cum e turba ac tumultu decessisset domumque rediret, viso patris corpore, cunctantem et frena mulionem inhibentem super ipsum corpus carpentum agere iussit, unde vicus ille Sceleratus dictus est. Servius Tullius regnavit annos quattuor et quadraginta.

VIII. Tarquinius Superbus, Romanorum rex septimus et ultimus (534-510 ACN)

Tarquinius Superbus regnum sceleste occupavit. Tamen bello strenuus Latinos Sabinosque domuit. Urbem Gabios in potestatem redegit fraude Sexti filii. Is cum indigne ferret eam urbem a patre expugnari non posse, ad Gabinos se contulit, patris saevitiam in se conquerens. Benigne a Gabinis exceptus paulatim eorum benevolentiam consequitur, fictis blanditiis ita eos adliciens, ut apud omnes plurimum posset, et ad postremum dux belli eligeretur. Tum e suis unum ad patrem mittit sciscitatum quidnam se facere vellet. Pater nuntio filii nihil respondit, sed velut deliberabundus in hortum transiit ibique inambulans sequente nuntio altissima papaverum capita baculo decussit. Nuntius, fessus exspectando, rediit Gabios. Sextus, cognito silentio patris et facto, intellexit quid vellet pater. Primores civitatis interemit patrique urbem sine ulla dimicatione tradidit.

Postea rex Ardeam urbem obsidebat. Ibi cum in castris essent, Tarquinius Collatinus, sorore regis natus, forte cenabat apud Sextum Tarquinium cum iuvenibus regiis. Incidit de uxoribus mentio; cum suam unusquisque laudaret, placuit experiri. Itaque citatis equis Romam avolant; regias nurus in convivio et luxu deprehendunt. Pergunt inde Collatiam; Lucretiam, Collatini uxorem, inter ancillas lanae deditam inveniunt. Ea ergo ceteris praestare iudicatur. Paucis interiectis diebus Sextus Collatiam rediit et Lucretiae vim attulit. Illa postero die, advocatis patre et coniuge, rem exposuit et se cultro, quem sub veste abditum habebat, occidit. Conclamat vir paterque et in exitium regum coniurant. Tarquinio Romam redeunti clausae sunt urbis portae et exsilium indictum.

In antiquis annalibus memoriae haec sunt prodita. Anus hospita atque incognita ad Tarquinium quondam Superbum regem adiit, novem libros ferens, quos esse dicebat divina oracula: eos se velle venumdare. Tarquinius pretium percontatus est: mulier nimium atque immensum poposcit. Rex, quasi anus aetate desiperet, derisit. Tum illa foculum cum igni apponit et tres libros ex novem deurit; et, ecquid reliquos sex eodem pretio emere vellet, regem interrogavit. Sed Tarquinius id multo risit magis, dixitque anum iam procul dubio delirare. Mulier ibidem statim tres alios libros exussit; atque id ipsum denuo placide rogat, ut tres reliquos eodem illo pretio emat. Tarquinius ore iam serio atque attentiore animo fit; eam constantiam confidentiamque non neglegendam intellegit: libros tres reliquos mercatur nihilo minore pretio quam quod erat petitum pro omnibus. Sed eam mulierem tunc a Tarquinio digressam postea nusquam loci visam constitit. Libri tres in sacrario conditi Sibyllinique appellati. Ad eos, quasi ad oraculum, Quindecemviri adeunt, cum dii immortales publice consulendi sunt.


Featured: Combat of the Horatii and the Curiatii, by Giuseppe Cesari; painted ca. 1612-1613.


Flos Triticum

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Wheat Flower erat in villa mea pulcherrima puella. Alta, bene erecta, pulchroque sui fiducia gradiens, Clara risum splenduit campis, alta viarum Vendée secat silvas. Cum primis tepidis veris diebus albedo lactea cutis, lentigines sidere punctis

Rustici dicebant: Dominus bonus manipulum furfure in faciem proiecit.

Furfur et farina, ut videtur, nam facies eius sub radiis solis tam alba manebat ac si tritico oppessato pulvere inspergeretur. Hinc cognomen fortasse, vel rufis fortasse capillis Debebat, fulvis magis aequantibus ocellis. Dedit unam impressionem omnium pulcri auri-brunnei toni maturi tritici. Wheat Flower pulcher erat, et hoc sciebat, quia sic tota die narrabatur.

Vir agris non longe abhorret. Sensus eius estheticus non est idem cum nostro. Non linea, forma, gratia formae moventis movetur, sed colore afficitur potenter, sicut omnes quos humanitas non excoluit. Wheat Flower igitur est coloris animali, voluptatem igitur audiendi se pulchram praedicabat, et ad propulsandam lasciviam, interdum robustiores blanditias, virilis iuventutis usque ab Sainte Hermine in Chantonnay. Florem, ubi vis, ibi congregabuntur apes. Ubicumque occurristi pulchritudinis, videbis homines ad pabulandum venientes, oculis et manibus et labiis. Inter urbem et patriam est sola differentia occasus.

Cuius fama ultra pagi fines propagata, Wheat Flower habebat admirantium turbas quae in vicinia per multos dies non visa sunt. Superbia eius in oculis suis praestringitur, et si ad Cleopatram, in quem spectata mundi obtutus dicta esset, non esset certum, quod regina Aegyptia plus prodesse putasset. Rus ancilla. Quam ob rem laudo, quod multam adorantium enumerare stulte lusum est. Regina autem mortua erat et puella rustica: optimum omnium argumentum.

Fabulae iucunda pars est, Wheat Flower, dum se ab omnibus admirari, et invidisse omnibus foeminis, animum suum fidum amico, qui noverat conciliare, in quo egregie a Cleopatra differebat. Ille autem amicus, quoniam ad confessionem tandem veniendus est, nullus alius fuit quam humilis servus tuus. Condonari possim istius advocationis superbiam: Wheat Flower amavi, et Wheat Flower sentiebat de me, quod exhibere minime nolebat. Sequebam eam circa prata cum cane suo “Rubrum Udones,” sic dicta propter quatuor fulvos manus, et dum grex nimis inepte pascebatur ultra limitem ruris custodiae, narravi ei omnia de Nannetensi, ubi. hiemem habui. Obstupui ex libris meis fabulis, aut mecum de animalibus, quid egerunt, quid sentirent, mecum locuta est; quae mihi narravit extraordinarias fabulas. Proximae sibi erant animae nostrae, non eadem pectora nostra dicam, nam tristis amor nostri pars erat, heu, viginti sex vel septem, si starem in gradu. Hoc non difficile est, alterutrum tamen alterum amplecti. Postmodum intellexi meam fortunam.

Nostri optimi dies erant in tempore messis. Nondum rus invaserat fumus arenae machinae nefandus. Scibis adhuc in usu erat. Luce prima viri ac feminae in partes divisae areae circuire incipiebant, motusque eorum numeroso impetu lignei flagelli, humi stramentis obvoluti; pars quadrille sensim cederet, media pars paulatim procederet. Necessitas observandi, et conatus silere deiectos. Sed quam cachinnus et cantus motus cum pice lignea subiguntur, positis paleis! Aspiciet instratam messoribus meridiana torva solis humum, fallaxque timet rusticus umbram. Ad ictum campanae, sonorus concentus scloporum iterum undique aerem replebat.

Ad vesperum erant choreae et carmina in quibus Wheat Flower excellebat. Sciebat omnis regionis illius cantus, et nasi, indocta voce canebat, delectamentum rusticae auris, poemata ingenua, in quibus “Filius Regis”, “Luscinia” et “Ros” in phantasmatibus apparuerunt; laeta vel tristis. Vatem loci etiam de Wheat Flower, carmen liberioris et liberioris dialecti, fecerat, cuius cantilena florem triticum sub messe flagelli dedere segetem dicebat. Wheat Flower sine pudore falso cantu celebravit se, et erant denique iurgia, si quidam adulescentuli per iocum crederent in agendo abstinentiam ponere.

Serius vel serius, Wheat Flower sub messoris flagello tenebatur. Atque hic lectoris animum ad hanc fabulam voco, cuius meritum est omnium fabulae. Nullius enim maioris erroris scio, quam ut singula- rum rerum casus opinari soleant, quae faciunt vitam iucundam. Si quis inspiciat, reperietur vere mirabilia ea esse quae nobis cotidie accidunt, eaque duella, sica, etiam autocineta, odio comitante, invidia, proditione, amore, perfidia, re vera vulgaria eveniunt. In enorme vitae communis a nativitate ad mortem.

Ut sine ulla nostra voluntate ad huius mundi conscientiam adferamus, fatali concatenatione gaudiorum ac dolorum subiaceat fortunae periculo, et finem in tarda corruptione, quae nos ad antecedentem statum reducit. Nostri, nonne hoc summum casus est? Quid magis opus est ut miremur? Quidam, qui pessimistae vocantur, quodam murmure accipiunt. Alii, optimates existimati, tantam fortunam considerant, ut ad eam per consolationem studiose addant somnium coelestis adventus, quem quisque liberet exornare quantum libet.

Wheat Flower eius mentem non ullo ex hoc vexavit. Viginti erat illa, eo occupatior. Audivit vocem adulescentiae suae sicut praegressae feminae et quae sequuntur eam in terra. In campis, natura tam propinqua, homines minime impediti sunt conventionibus socialibus magis minusve phantasticis, quae humanas necessitudines moderari incipiunt inter duas creaturas, inter se esurientes et sitientes.

Peculiare genus placentae, quae “échaudé” dicitur, praecipuum est fructus industriae meae villae: placentam ex farina et ovis, delectabilem recentem e clibano, sed gravem et gravem sititatis causa, tempore procedente per bracchium usque ad Niortum, Rupellam seu Fontenay. Noctu vehitur vectura longis bigis ab equina trahentibus, cuius tarda et stabilis incessus saxa somnos agitatoris et mulieris comitantis praeesset ad vendendum placentas. Hae plostra terribilia internuntius sunt. Odor filicis periculi plenus est. Iacent duo somno pariter, sub dio. Non semper dormiunt, etiam post longum diem laborem. Forum oppidum procul abest. Inhumani censoresque moenibus suis quattuor inclusi sunt. Temptatio augetur per succussos qui unum contra alterum proiciunt. Quare resistendum est, cum tandem cedendum sit?

Wheat Flower, qui in his liba locupletis domestici mangonis elaboraverat, diem unum egregium ei “dominum” duxit, postquam ei dedit, nemine mirante, duo certa argumenta dociliorum ad gaudium ac munia maternitas. Proximi ruri narrabunt nihil esse extra ordinem in vita. Vir eius tantum diebus dominicis post vesperas, quando nimium biberat, eam verberavit, nec plus vindicavit in eum, quam necesse fuit ut extraneis ostenderet quod ultimum verbum non haberet.

Post aliquantum temporis spatium iterum eam vidi. Manipulus farinae et furfures adhuc erat ibi. Lustrabant oculi, crinemque tenus ardentibus alis tena ardent. Sed mihi visus eius aspectus acutior, iamque labiorum curva taedium prodidit vitae. Pulchellus adhuc nomen ei adhaesit, sed flos florem amiserat. Illa adhuc risit, sed iam non canebat. Ad eam Fortuna venerat, annuli fibulae, torques aureae testatae. Diebus dominicis gerebat pallium sericum et praecinctorium ad ecclesiam, et librum deauratum portabat, rem utilem etiam ab iis qui legere non possunt, cum eis satisfaciat ad excitandam invidiam proximi.

Visitatio mea ad pagum iam brevis et longe distans factus erat. Longe longe vixissemus, cum quadam die ei occurrisset, in una nostra alta via secat, ad pascuum ducentem vaccam. Senex, annosa, fracta, obsoleta mulier. Curabitur ut cessavimus. Mortuus est autem vir suus et reliquerat eam bonis, sed filii instarent ut omnia eis traderet. Dixeruntque “ad notarii” eius salarium se habituros.

“Debeo statuere animum ut faciam” finivit cum gemitu. “Credisne me heri verberare appropinquasse filium meum, eo quod nolui dicere necne?”

Decem amplius anni transierunt. Quodam die, cum per vicinum vicinum iret, mihi monstratum est gurgustium ruinae, et dicebatur “barbotte” ibi suos dies finire. Wheat Flower non fuit. Illa nunc erat “Barbotte” a nomine mariti sui Barbot.

Intravi. In media luce videre potui, sub reliquiis veteris pallii, caput quassans vetulae mulieris, facie siccante, retorrida membrana, oculis duobus flavis transfixis, in quibus obscurissima oculorum vestigia obdormierunt. Vicinus mihi narravit omnia de eo. Liberi non perstiterunt, quod nemo miratur. Res erat usitata. Aliquando, attulerunt ei frustum panis, interdum pulmentum, aut frusta ciborum die dominico, post missam. Anus infirma erat, et aegre se habebat. Putabatur autem servus semel in die venire et videre eam. Saepe oblitus est.

“Cur non querar?”, dixi inconsiderate.

“Dixit quodam die notarium mittere. Verberavit pro eo. Et quis vellet accipere nuntium suum? Nemo studet inimicis facere. Iam liberi eius nulli satis placebant ut quisquam intraret tuguriolum. Nolunt homines rebus suis miscere.”

Per hunc sermonem lacrimae lucebant in oculis nictantes flavo. “The Barbotte” me agnovit.

“Noli me turbari” dixit tenui voce timorem verberum prodidisse. “Nihil egeo. Pueri mei valde benigni sunt. Veniunt quotidie. Forsitan sis sicut ceteri, domine, putes me tempus grave in manibus meis invenire. Scisne quid agam, cum ego hic solus sum? Cano. In corde meo omnia carmina antiquitatis oblitus sum eorum et nunc revertuntur ad me tota die illa cantabo sine ullo sonitu et intus cano in medio eorum cum ego omnia complevi, iterum incipio. Est sicut grana mea narrans. Ridiculum est, annon?”

Et ridere conata.

“Monsieur le curé me obiurgat”, iterum sumpsit. “Vellet me dicere vota mea. Sed preces non prius institui quam carmina redire. Non possum. Meministine, nonne tu, Filius Regis?’ O filius regis! et ‘Luscinia?’ et ‘Rose?’ Tibi unum cantare volo, clare, pro meo animo. Quis? ‘Flos triticum!’ Flos triticeus! Ah… ” Cantare videbatur, sed inde fluens exclamavit: “Vexillum messoris venit. Frumentum sublatum est. Nihil restat nisi palea… et hoc male laeditur. Nimium trituratum est… Carissime domine, qui omnia nosti, potesne mihi dicere quare venimus in hunc mundum?

“Aliud dicam tibi, mi amice, cum iterum venero.”

Sed numquam recesserunt.

1920.


Featured: A Seated Peasant Woman, by Camille Pissarro; painted in 1885.


Scholarship Inferno—A Dantesque Meditation on Scholars in the Managerial Age

These thoughts were first delivered as an oration, the Third Stuart Saunders Memorial Lecture, given at the Auditorium of the Neuroscience Institute of the University of Cape Town, on May 22, 2023. This written version is considerably different.

“Lasciate ogni Speranza voi ch’ entrate,” said a placard outside the senior common room. A doctoral student must have posted it, in propitiation of a desired but improbable job given the “financial constraints,” I thought. I sat down and let my mind wander and wonder. What did that future jurist, or perhaps lawyer, mean? Why this gesture, this interpellation, this sorrow even? A moral claim, in any event. An occasion to reflect on scholarship?

In an age of universities and academics “ratings,” of Nespresso conferences offering quick and easy 15-minute presentations, and the vulgar business of journals held, in firm accountants’ hands, by international publishing groups, “sovereign” funds in disguise, in short a Hell university managers (and Presidents or Vice-Chancellors), refuse to consider, I took the grad student’s caveat literally, and I stepped forward, as it were, walking behind Dante, and Virgil.

This is no stroll up to the illuminating Ideas of the Table of Cebes, but a slow progress into the phantoms that inhabit scholarship’s morality. Mine is a tropological reading of Dante’s Inferno applied to the negative ethics of scholarship. It is not exhaustive. It is a rhetorical exercise in the very best sense of the word, clearing stuff that encumbers reason and argument—let us remember how at the very beginning of Rhetoric Aristotle calls for getting rid of rubbish, and opening a straight path. In this case, Iet us try and clear the rubbish indeed that stands in the way, the hodos, of a scholar’s progress.

Let us follow Dante.

1

In the first circle, Dante meets, in particular, ancient philosophers, Greek thinkers, such as Plato and Aristotle.

Why are scholars of ancient Greece, the source of all scholarly knowledge at the time, from physics to medicine, morals to logic? Why are they in Hell, and why at its most benign level? Reason is that they have perceived the truth of what it is to be a human being, be it in metaphysics or in physics, in ethics or in formal and informal reasoning. But they lacked a true concept of it.

Their scholarly endeavours lacked something fundamental. What French thought-libertines, such as La Mothe le Vayer called, with a bold oxymoron, “la Sagesse des Païens.” Wise, sage, indeed, but lacking a knowledge of divine truth, despite the aletheia-Revelation. Those words “wise, sage” were a trope for “knowing,” and to deny them the status of “doctors of the faith” which, undoubtedly, had they contemplated the Word made Flesh, and acceded to “knowledge” they would have earned (such was the tale which spared the French sceptics a dire fate).

However, ancient philosophy itself made a clear distinction between “knowing” and “knowledge,” aistheta kai noeta, to put it differently: “percepts” and “concepts.”

The wise ancients perceived a connection between human understanding and the human condition, but they lacked a concept of that relationship between what a human being can achieve, in a scholar’s case intellectually, and the purpose of the universe within which scholarly enterprise fits, which for Dante was its placement within a superior divine order. In this case, ancient scholars had a percept of the ultimate goal of scholarship, they did not have a true concept of it, that is of the truth of Nature. We know that the position of science regarding a divine scheme of Nature still rages on today.

A tropological, and moral, translation with regard to a scholar’s enterprise ensues: to be clever as a scientist or perceptive as a philosopher, to be intelligent and enterprising as a scholar, that is to follow the ways and uses of a given scholarly community, its properly named ethos, yet without a firm concept of truth, is advantageous, but fraudulent.

Often scholars stay there, and quite happily. They go through the moves, but remain at the level of percepts—cleverly constructed, persuasively presented as concepts, forcefully argued, but percepts, aistheta, none the less.

For instance, the so-called “robust” debates on climate change, the nasty controversies about the warring situation in Eastern Europe, and the opposing arguments about Covid, rest, among scholars (I am not talking here about the public), on a constant game between percepts and concepts, opinions presented by scholars as veracity, and established facts or arguments logically valid as well as exact.

When scholars behave like the public who is naturally swimming in the amniotic liquid of percepts, they fail being scholars.

I have tried that notion on some of my brighter graduates. They see the point, but they do not see what to do about it, and with it—as scholars. They often prefer to fall back on percepts. Many are “wise,” smart, perceptive, and that suffices to sustain an academic or professionally “learned” career. Scholars they are not.

2

In the second circle of Hell, Dante meets those who lead lives driven by passionate love. Love, human love, is supposed to be what people, especially in the Western mindset, are made to believe as being a superior feeling. Some cultures do without it and are none for the worse. Roland Barthes, a critic unorderly decried today, wrote A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments to debunk the narrative of human love—as just a narrative. By contrast, he had read Loyola closely, when the Jesuit saint’s Spiritual Exercises were a terra incognita to secular critics (but oddly he gets no credit for it). He had a clear idea that “love,” dispassionate, is a travail of the mind, an active arming of the mind, as the word exercitium says, and Barthes knew his Latin (and his Greek).

But how does “love” relate to scholarship?

Again, tropology: scholars are not supposed to fall in love with ideas, theirs or others’. They are not supposed to be in love with what they think. They must maintain a distance. Getting infatuated with a topic, a research theme, an author, an idea, is dangerous. One gets ensnared by the self-loving turns of a narrative about one’s own mind. Some of us get caught in the loving knots of libido sciendi.

Why? It has to do with fetishism.

There is often a fetishist approach to a scholar’s endeavours, just like love is in essence fetishist.

Now, what is a fetish? A fetish is a strategy of replacement. In it most serious form, someone who is deeply mentally disturbed will hallucinate that an object, any object, is reality; reality meaning the subject of desire—“love.” An object replaces a subject.

Benign example: Buying an expensive perfume or getting into debt for an expensive car are fetishist acts: you replace the lifestyle you cannot afford with a fetish of that lifestyle. You fulfil your desire, and hallucinate that which you cannot have (worse, is denied to you, and in full display—cruelly, hence feeding the narrative of endless dis-satisfaction).

In intellectual matters the desire, the passionate love for fetishes is a very strong “drive,” especially among younger scholars. “Drive” is correct, but placed here in-between inverted commas, because those who use it all the time are evidently ignorant of its true meaning: it is the Trieb of psychoanalysis—Eros and Thanatos at work. It coheres.

It is indeed a natural bend, exacerbated by the demands for “teamwork,” “collaborative research,” and the like. But it leads to repetitive research. One cannot let go and move on. One has found one’s object of desire, and one wants to stay with it. You can call it silo thinking if you wish. In reality, it is a fetish. Roland Barthes, him again, warned his students: do not fetishize your dissertation into a book.

That sort of fetishist behaviour is often encouraged by funding agencies and managers: many, not all, want to see how a scholar has a trajectory, follows a path, undertakes a “journey” even as some say, having read that book by Coelho, and, nail in the coffin of noeta: a track record. Funding outfits often look at deviations from the course as proof of a lack of focus. Of course, they would, since they think along managerial lines—and their own fetish.

What is their fetish?

The magic bullet of Management: POLC, plan, organize, lead, control. With it the panacea of “lean management,” where things have “got to” move fast and in one direction, and “produce” “deliverables.” Ideas do not “move fast.” When you hear “productive” about a scholar, hear the alarm bell ring. It is a red flag for managerial fetish. Thanatos, that fundamental Trieb, reigns.

That sort of intrusion in the life of scholars produces a poorer intellectual life indeed. Which does not mean a poorer academic life. Both lives need not coincide. It is an error to envision that colleges and universities are places for scholarship. They may be places of scholarship, where some scholars can follow their path. But they are not places for scholars. That is no longer their teleology, their final cause. Universities may be the efficient cause of scholarship, but it mostly is no more that—“efficient” is a concept naturally adopted by the managerial university.

3

The third circle is about gluttons. That is, figuratively, about those who instead of being satisfied with meeting basic, bodily, needs, always want more.

In other words, their body has replaced their life. They are not human beings but recipients for other bodies, meat, vegetables, fruits, drinks. They eat animal and vegetal life in order to augment their own bodily life. I often wondered if the disgust strong-minded vegans feel toward meat-eaters, does not come from the carnivorous image of bodies eating bodies.

What about scholars? When I read verses from Canto VI, and I look for a tropological meaning, I am reminded of the expression: body text. And then I think of bloated footnotes in research papers, or one word followed by a bracketed string of So-and-So, page such-and-such, sometimes running for an entire line.

A gluttony of so-called references. Swelling the body of an article with others’ scholarship without, usually, any sort of pointed, coherent explanation between this word, hopefully concept, referenced and that kebab of data on a skewer. One feeds on anything that comes close and within grasp.

Others’ ideas and “body of work” do not exist to merely being gorged on, and regurgitated, often half-digested.

It is an illness most perceptible in the social sciences, in their strained effort to pass for “sciences,” less in the pure humanities whose scholars still see themselves members of a club, the Republic of Letters; but scientific papers are far from exempt from a rhetoric of agglutination and precedence to tick the boxes of credits parsed down to the least intelligent lab gesture by X (fifth “author”).

There is also little value in demanding from students, in their apprentice-ship of scholarship, to chew on so-called literature reviews and methodology parading. What is the actual value of filling up two compulsory chapters of a dissertation with those pre-emptive strikes? Or inane preliminaries, in academic articles, reciting a litany of saints of a particular faith as a preamble to get on with the job? Yes, we know what Agamben said about emergency; spare us triteness, show us what you do with it. What I want to see at work, in the body of an analysis, is how sources are activated in the course of a dissertation, or a paper, how a methodology is put into action.

To refer to them is not a scholarly gesture.

To infer from them, is a scholarly gesture.

4

In Hell 4 Dante casts the misers and the spend-all.

First, why are they stuck together in Hell 4? Because, possibly, they are a living hell to one another, as in a Balzac’s novel.

Figuratively both are the two sides of the same delusion: either they indulge in material goods by accumulating them, in order not to share them. Or they indulge in throwing away everything without any regard to the value of each item, which is a way of not sharing, as sharing has to be discriminate in order to fit the purpose of generosity.

A tropological reading sheds yet another light on the threats to scholarship.

How does a scholar hoard? What is a miser-scholar, if I can coin that word?

A hoarder scholar indulges in never deviating from his, her primary hoarding, be it a doctoral dissertation or a book. Everything always goes back to it. Niches can be comfortable, but if you are alone in it, what is the value of being so specialized? You stay in your dog-pen (“niche”), chewing on your bone.

By contrast, the reverse indulgence is forever turning yourself into an open house, having an open table, laying out whatever you have developed in terms of ideas, percepts often, to everyone. Large conferences, select colloquia, new associations that spring up all the time—made worse since the virus emergency—workshops on this and that, training about x, y z, compounded now by the invasive remote attendance, are all perfect avenues for academic spendthrifts.

I have seen intelligent colleagues, smart and astute, erudite even, cast to the winds whatever they have achieved, just for the sake of being present at, being heard at, publishing in. Relentlessly.

Clearly, spending or hoarding has to do with value—whether you hoard or you give away by largesse, you do so because you believe (percept…) it is valuable.

To go one step further: in scholarship there is worth, and there is value.

A scholar may have great worth, and lesser value.

The difference between the two is the following: worth is intrinsic. It resides within the field and discipline in which the scholar creates ideas. Value is extrinsic. It is assigned from outside the field and discipline.

Worth? I remember a colleague who never wrote a single monograph. He/she wrote short notices in small journals independent from the publishing industry. She/he never thought it necessary to share beyond a small circle of like-minded scholars, nor to assemble notes in a book, not even in that ersatz of the academic economy: the edited volume. That colleague placed no value in doing it, but knew her/his worth. So did friends.

Value? Clearly the prevailing ideology recoils at the worthy scholar. The industrialisation of academia discourages such scholarship. But scholars must have value for their institution as the vast majority of them usually belong to academia. Value is then assigned by outside processes—you know what they are: deans’ reports, funding agencies fantasies, internationally accredited “goals,” “visions” so-and-so, fabricated by overarching institutions. These are neither bad nor good; they are processes that reflect a current state of affairs in a managerial society. It is a fact. However, bending to extraneous facts uncritically is not what a scholar does.

Time lo leave Hell 4.

5

Secure in their frail skiff, Dante and Virgil now float on a stream of slime, and overboard they look at a slurry and at… the Dissatisfied.

A river of slime is a powerful image for those who see time and life pass them by, flow by irremediably, irretrievably, and fall into a deep dissatisfaction as they would do into sludge.

Being dissatisfied, especially when you are employed by a university, is quite common.

Among academics, dissatisfaction ranges from annoyance, to despondency, from hatred to self-hatred, from disdainful retreat to bilious withdrawal. In the classical theory of emotions, all these “passions” fall under one umbrella: anger.

It is one the strangest features of scholarly life in academia: a tendency to be fiercely angry, which befits sanguine characters, or to be bitterly morose, which befits more reserved ones. Aristotle, in his Rhetoric, which contains the first fully-fledged systematic theory of emotions and how they impact social life and are turned into public arguments, anger is the key emotion: anger surges forth when a feeling, a knowing (a percept) or a knowledge (a concept) of injustice, takes over.

For classical thought, anger is the driving force of politics, from subdued dissatisfaction to open rebellion, but it is always caused by a belief that an injustice has been done. The dissatisfied usually believe they have been treated unfairly. Academics do, as a rule.

The paradox is that, being intellectuals, scholars have all the means at their disposal to reflect on and analyze their own dissatisfaction. That is, to move beyond opinion to fact and argument. After all they spend their lives weighing hypotheses, testing results, refining conclusions. Their lives are immersed not in a slurry of bad ideas, but bathed in the clear waters of reason.

Presumably.

And yet a scholar, mildly or strongly dissatisfied, will channel one’s sense of injustice and dissatisfaction rarely along lines of reason, but along lines of opinion, mostly ideological lines.

Often a dissatisfied scholar will turn a personal grievance into an intellectual battle, will rally forces as must be necessary to show that it is not a personal grievance at root, but a case valid for a group.

Dissatisfaction and anger do produce results, in terms of power; it is doubtful they produce scholarship. It can pass for it. It rarely is.

Ideology is alienation as Marxist philosophy teaches us. An ideological scholar is alienated, on top of being angry.

Conversely a scholar who inflicts onto oneself the self-injury of withdrawing from confrontation, and turns anger inwards, becomes melancholiac. In the Renaissance it was deemed that melancholy was the right composure for a scholar. A scholar was supposed to brood over matters of the mind. Hence needs to retreat from too much intercourse, too much company, too many distractions. It is a pleasant melancholy; it is not dark, but the soft penumbra under the foliage of a grove-like retreat.

The irony of that fantasy could not be lost on Dante who wrote his masterpieces while being thrown out of his city, hounded, condemned to death and threatened to be burnt at the stake. He, a scholar, did not write in anger or melancholy—but in the quietening of fear.

He retreated.

Retreat is an idea which during a good millennium was central to the intellectual enterprise, and no longer is: it was called skhole. In the classical world, and that of Dante’s, a scholar lives in, and lives, skhole. The word “scholar” echoes it but it is a pale ectoplasm of the original concept. In the classical world skhole meant leisure, otium in Latin. The Augustinian tradition would call it, for its own ends of course, vita contemplativa. The application differs, but the concept is the same: skhole.

Leisure to what end? To provide a scholar with time and quiet to think without the pressures of negotium, life outside, social engagement, and working.

“School,” the word, copies skhole the idea, and indeed schools should provide the quiet time necessary to learn, without negotium interference. Children who attend school also should think about enslaved children who work in factories: they work, they don’t go to school.

Indeed skhole, peace and quiet to read and think, has always entertained a complex relationship with work. Real work. Backbreaking work.

It is interesting that in the 1950s a French socialist, Joffre Dumazedier, invented a new sociological notion which revived, in contraposition to working, the antique practice of skhole, with a new twist: “society of leisure.”

More than an idea it was an intellectual activism at the service of those who, actually, work: training and methods were set up and implemented to give workers “leisure,” time and space, that is skhole, in order to cultivate their minds, to learn how to argue and analyse; that is: how to reflect knowingly (noeta) on why being exploited made them so angry, or dissatisfied, and thus turn instinctive “knowing” (about the workers’ conditions) into an actual knowledge. The “society of leisure” was a form of scholarship. Leisure society was the humanist response to class struggle. A new skhole, to sum.

No longer today. Today “leisure” is quite the opposite: it is fabricated with consumer goods, in order to prevent workers from having time to think about their conditions, and make them hallucinate fetishes of the Good Life through more consumption. They are not afforded skhole but merchandise to be distracted from their condition, and from thinking, and to allow their masters to extract more work out of them.

Thus, when a scholar, who belongs to an institution, is dissatisfied, the first question to ask is: are you angry because you are a worker? Are you a worker? How do you define work? How do you retreat into leisure?

6

Dante and Virgil are now standing at the gates of the City of Hell.

In bolgia 6 are relegated heretics, religious dissenters, and partisans, political fanatics.

I am setting aside the religious aspect, but I retain Dante’s figurative intent: what to make of a scholar who holds partisan views within the scholarly enterprise? Not outside of it, as an individual engaged in society—many are not bothered, and often are not cleverer than the average citizen when it comes to politics—but what of those who, inside scholarly endeavours, activate partisanship as a part of, or even a drive for, their scholarship?

In intellectual intercourse scholars encounter, inside and outside academia, other intellectuals who are entirely devoted to defend a cause. That cause can be anything, but its function, when activated, is to override everything else.

Scholarship is then an expanding of personal prejudices, of firmly held percepts. Scholarship is put at the service of a set of opinions, a set of feelings, a set of values: it becomes secondary to reason. It is domesticated to serve a potent master that often suffers no contradiction.

Yet it is a choice. Or “heresy”: “heresy” is a not specifically religious, it means choice.

In matters of belief, it refers to an intellectual choice. Theologians called a heresy a “sententia humana,” a human statement—departing from the logos of the Scriptures. Today, outside the Christian frame, we could call a heresy a “personal choice.”

Scholars who allow themselves to push forward their “choice” of opinions, about politics mostly, over truth, have chosen a set of beliefs, percepts, as guidance for their erudite work. They have chosen to cast their scholarship into the mould, the chosen mould, of a knowing, not a knowledge.

They become partisans within their own fields of intellectual enquiry.

Some fields of enquiry are more fertile than others in allowing partisan choice to take over rational enquiry. Scholarship then often takes the public, publicized, claimed form of dissenting, in order to push forward the choice that drives it, and helps pass partisan opinion for reasoned scholarship. Grandstanding ensues. Intellectual “heresy” and partisanship are presented as more dignified, more important, more ethical, more useful to society than the prevalent scholarship. They claim the moral high ground. Some scholars build careers on their sententia humana—a personal choice driven like a nail into scholarship, and driving it.

However, those who really are in danger are young scholars.

For young scholars to declare upfront, “I believe that… I am passionate about” gives them an emotional drive, of course. But is it a scholarly approach?

When my MA or PhD students embark on a dissertation, and I have supervised for 40 years now, I always warn them: never begin your analysis by knowing what you want to prove. Do not have a conclusive opinion on the matter. Let the evidence lead you to what is the rightful, truthful conclusion. Never discard what goes against what you believe.

You may not like it, as it may not fit your belief, but then you have three choices.

First, you can review all the evidence and then lay it out in such a way that it will give you the result you wish, in line with your belief. You will side-line all that disproves your belief. What you will then perform is not scholarship, but an act of advocacy. It requires agility to do so.

As for me, I will be observing how smartly you do it, and possibly I will evaluate you on that skill, regardless of the veracity of the outcome. Nobel laureate in physics, Richard Feynman, famously called it “cargo cult science,” when he indicted funder-satisfying research. Long before Latour, he had, as a scientist, uncovered the inherent “rhetoric” of industrial, politically driven research: an exercise in advocacy, and in epideixis (orating on the “virtues” of an extraneous factor, be it political or industrial).

Or, second, you may not engage in that sort of selective work, and do a proper scholarly work. Confronted with an outcome that goes against your belief, you will ask yourself a moral question. That question will not be about the truth of the protocols you followed, since you have decided not to engage in cargo cult science, nor in epideixis (playing up to what funders want, in fawning obedience).

No, the question will be a moral question you will have to ask yourself: why was my initial belief so wrong? Yes, I was wrong but why did I believe in it? It takes courage to admit error in perceptions of reality, especially social, political. That is what a true scholar does.

But, third, if you lack that ethical courage—which can also be a professional safety mechanism in a hostile environment—then you have a third choice, a choice of pure partisanship: you retreat from rational scholarship back into belief, and say, well, yes, that is the correct outcome, but I don’t like it. It does not suit me. Very few have the perversity to do that in full awareness of the fact they are doing it. But it happens. And it is a violence against reason.

In short, in Circle 6, inside the City of Hell, Dante allows us to reflect on intellectual violence.

Which leads Dante to confront other forms of violence—against human nature.

7

Hell 7 is, indeed, the dwelling of the truly violent ones. Of perpetrators of violence against human nature, immersed in a river of boiling blood. Their crimes are not what we would today, in democratic societies, call violent crimes, such as rape. These crimes against nature are quite unique. And loaded with tropological meaning with regard to scholarship.

Dante speaks of the fraudsters, the corrupt, the suicides, the blasphemers and—the bankers.

Let us look at the apex of crimes laid out by Dante, leaving aside the fraudsters: suicide, blasphemy, lending money at profit.

What is the logic behind that sequence, not immediately obvious to our flat, linear way of reasoning? Tropologically, it tells a different story. Dante’s argument is about violence against human nature, and it is connected to the idea of giving.

Suicide? Today suicide has become a societal issue: bullied teenagers, workers harassed by managers, and also terminal patients, euthanasia.

Whatever the euphemism: to kill oneself or let oneself being killed is suicide.

In Dante’s time, suicide was an eminent crime, and for two reasons: first it is murder; second it is murder of the gift of life. In the Christian tradition, suicide is not laudable and honourable, and legal, as it was in ancient Greece and Roman stoicism, or still today in Shinto, but it is the violent, criminal refusal of the gift of life. This unique gift does not belong to the human individual, but to God alone.

Now, how does a scholar commit scholarly suicide? Or, to rephrase it, how does a scholar reject the gift of scholarship? It is a tough one, I admit, to read tropologically. Let us set it aside for now. But let us store the idea of gift.

Blasphemy? All major religions, of the Book or not, have some interdict against insulting the divine. That is, nature itself. The human shall not insult what is above human condition. The creature shall not insult the Creator. Still today in many societies that are, or close to being, theocratic, insulting God is a crime punished by death.

The reason why, in the religions of the Book, blasphemy is a violent crime issues from the fact God cannot retort in words: God cannot speak back; the one who utters a blasphemy arrogates language. Saint Augustine called it “operatio per linguam” (De Moribus manicheorum II, 10, 19).

That is why, already in Leviticus (24.16), the law, human law, responds in lieu of the divinity, by imposing legal sanctions. It is for human law to punish that crime against nature, blasphemy, as God is nature itself.

You will find the same network of ideas regarding “save the planet,” whereby daring to query “nature” as portrayed by “climate change-apologists,” is cast as a blasphemy against Nature—Nature that cannot speak back, hence needs human surrogates and legal rejoinders.

Where is the gift? In a religious vision of nature, God has given humanity the gift of speech, unique among living creatures, a gift now turned against the giver, God. A gift defiled.

Usury, money-lending at interest? Against nature?

That complex argument occupied scholars for some six centuries in Europe, in the distant wake of Roman jurisprudence on mutuum (loan), mediated by Christian theological interpretations, and may be boldly summed up as follows: the lender of money uses money as a measure to decide on interest rates, hence commits a moral fault. What is moral is charity. Natural justice wants you to give, not to lend at profit. Lending money at interest or expecting a refund is immoral. Charity is immeasurable.

Let us keep in stock the idea of a moral fault; that is a crime of violence against natural law, here charity—and again the idea of giving.

To sum we have, reading Hell 7, three crimes against Nature; all three bound to the idea of the gift. How does it relate to scholarship?

Suicide? For a scholar, suicide is not to realize that scholarly activity is bound by and to the “nature” in which a scholar lives, as we say without thinking seriously about what it implies: a natural environment.

If you are a scholar at a university, the university is your natural environment. It does not mean you agree, in private, with its diktats and arbitrary fancies; it means that you have fully understood what that “nature” requires of you.

Some institutions used to, some still do, require adherence to a set of explicit values, faith or ideologically based. That is their nature, and like in Dante’s world, the scholar who does not comply is perceived as committing a grave injustice, a moral fault, of violence against the nature for the university, refusing the gift of belonging to it.

The situation is perverse when the nature of the institution is not declared contractually: often, universities speak of their “values,” of their “vision,” of their “goals,” yet without having themselves (and their communication office) a clear idea of what it entails and what these words mean. In fact, they are creating a nature against which scholars can be held accountable for blasphemy, and may be led to commit, figuratively, suicide.

But what about usury, the third crime against nature? To recall the argument that it is the opposite of giving: Scholarship is in essence charitable. It is a gift. Some academics are scholars, many are not. And that is fine. It is part of the division of labour that makes up an academic workforce. But the gift of scholarship is generosity: sharing without expecting a return, a profit; and conversely accepting gracefully to be given knowledge.

There are two factors at play here: freedom and value.

Concerning a scholar’s freedom, a true scholar must retain the right to choose with whom scholarship should be shared, and thus be able to share it freely, and not under duress of “protocols” and what not. In order to make sharing it a real gift, an act of free choice. Giving under rules of obligation, thus for non-scholarly reasons, is not giving. It is not caritas. It is an economic transaction to satisfy “stake holders.”

Current college ideology is to push for Open Source, and indiscriminate sharing of research “products.” I suggest that it is not such a good scholarly practice. Scholarship requires to be selective. A scholar’s freedom is not to share everything with all and sundry, or with “partners” imposed by outside protocols; that is a false freedom. It is a usurpation.

A scholar’s freedom, that is to exercise one own’s freedom as a scholar, is to decide who is worthy of being given the fruits of scholarship. The Republic of Letters of pre-modern Europe was not a network of free loaders: it was a consciously aware and careful exchange of ideas. The current, and often fraudulent “peer-review” nonsense is a mendacious copy of the true peerage of scholars of the defunct respublica literaria.

This inane, and innate now, percept of “sharing” scholarship is perilous.

At a banal level, we know how the Internet can translate complex scholarly arguments into political propaganda, concepts into percepts, veracity into partisan opinions. My mentor in rhetoric, Marc Fumaroli, used to say, scholarship rests on “des têtes d’épingle” (on pinheads), meaning: it is hard to share ideas with those who do not wish to understand minute nuances, which make “all the difference,” and prefer to believe in brushstroke “knowing.” Popularized knowledge cannot care about decisive, often imperceptible, nuances, the media hardly, the Web2.0, that agglutinative mess, never.

That alone should guard us against placing scholarly knowledge within the reach of anyone and everyone.

At a deeper level, the Open Source managerial ideology, as it is one, is based on a fallacy regarding the rewards of scholarship for the natural environment in which a scholar operates.

Here is how: universities expect returns from sharing all scholarship. When I say “expect,” I do not imply any explicit strategy but, as all ideologies, it is an internalized mindset hardly ever brought out into full light. That expectation is based on the capitalist notion of value.

Or rather, surplus value.

Scholars create surplus value, that is wealth in excess of the work they perform, and the costs attached to it. Some colleges use the “cost of employment” method of calculation in order to avoid measuring value. This is why academic institutions that retain a faint sense that academia is somewhat different from the service industry, have developed a system of rewards, in cash, in privileges or in titulature. It is made to supplement salaries, materially or symbolically, out of a sense, perhaps moral, perhaps amoral, in any case practical, that surplus value should be recognized, without being admitted fully.

As we all know, workers have no control on surplus value, no more than scholars have control of the surplus value they create. What remains surprising is how meekly scholars, and academics, accept that the surplus value they create has, in reality, next to no value to them. In that respect alone academic scholars are workers.

And here, on this controversial note, we shall leave Dante and Virgil when they enter the fantastic and fiery world of Hell 8, with its 10 pits, and finally reach the frozen lake of Hell 9: there they will contemplate Evil Incarnate chewing the brains of three ultimate human evils, three traitors. This will demand another ten pages.

Some References

Blasphemy:
Irène Rosier-Catach. Le blasphème—Perspectives historiques, théoriques, comparatistes. Annuaire de l’École pratique des hautes études, section des sciences religieuses (2018-2019), 127, 2020, pp. 535-550.

Cargo cult science:
Richard P., Feynman. Surely you’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! New York: W. W. Norton, 1985.

Charity and self-love:
Jean-Robert Armogathe, “Conférences,” in Annuaire de l’École pratique des hautes études, section des sciences religieuses (2005-2006), 114, 2005, pp. 333-339.

Epideixis (of scholars):
Philippe-Joseph Salazar, “Nobel Rhetoric, Or Petrarch’s Pendulum,” Philosophy & Rhetoric, 42(4), 2009, pp. 373-400.

Heresy:
Marie-Dominique Chenu, “Orthodoxie et hérésie. Le point de vue du théologien,” in Annales. Économies, sociétés, civilisations, 18(1), 1963, pp. 75-80.

Libido:
Antonio Calcagno, “Hannah Arendt and Augustine of Hippo : On the Pleasure of and Desire for Evil,” in Laval théologique et philosophique, 66(2), 2010, pp. 371-385.

Republic of Letters:
Marc Fumaroli. La République des Lettres. Paris: Gallimard, 2015.

Science as percepts:
Gustavo Bueno. ¿Qué es la ciencia? La respuesta de la teoría del cierre categorial. Oviedo: Pentalfa, 1995.

Skhole and work:
Elisabeth-Charlotte Welskopf, “Loisir et esclavage dans la Grèce antique,” in Actes du colloque 1973 sur l’esclavage, Actes du Groupe de Recherches sur l’Esclavage depuis l’Antiquité (1976), 4, pp. 159-178.

Society of leisure:
Joffre Dumazedier. “The Masses, Culture and Leisure.” Diogenes 11 (44), 1963, pp. 33-42.

Usury:
John T. Jr Noonan. The Scholastic Analysis of Usury, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1957.

Vita contemplativa:
Christian Trottmann. “Vita activa, vita contemplativa : enjeux pour le Moyen Âge,” in Mélanges de l’École française de Rome. Moyen-Age, 117, n°1, 2005, pp. 7-25.

Wisdom of the Ancients:
François de La Mothe Le Vayer. De la patrie et des étrangers et autres petits traités sceptiques (first modern edition). Paris: Desjonquères, 2003.


French philosopher and essayist Philippe-Joseph Salazar writes on rhetoric as philosophy of power. Laureate of the Prix Bristol des Lumières in 2015 for his book on jihad (translated as, Words are Weapons. Inside ISIS’s Rhetoric of Terror, Yale UP). In 2022, the international community of rhetoricians honoured him with a Festschrift, The Incomprehensible: The Critical Rhetoric of Philippe-Joseph Salazar. He holds a Distinguished Professorship in Rhetoric and Humane Letters in the Law Faculty of the University of Cape Town, South Africa.


Featured: Chart of Hell, by Sandro Botticelli; painted ca. 1480-1490.

Paul Valéry, A Magnificent Jack-of-all-Trades

Paul Valéry (1871-1945) was a writer, poet and philosopher, elected to the Académie française in 1925. An eminent figure in the world of letters, he left a rich and varied body of work that is always worthy of interest. Here’s a brief overview.

Paul Valéry is unclassifiable. He eludes us all the time: neither quite novelist, nor philosopher, and really at ease in verse, given to ideas, epitomizing that last race of masters we call “men of letters.” When people try to give him credit for the arts or literature, Valéry shirks, dodges and sabotages. He hates history, loathes philosophy, reviles literature and reviles the novel. He excelled everywhere; prodigious, he cavorted with and surpassed everyone else by way of a single idea. Antiquarian, he mingled with the modern, foresaw, gifted with a talent for anticipation, like a soothsayer.

This illustrious writer, sometimes a Faustian scholar, sometimes a dandy, bow tie tied and ringed little finger, nicknamed the “civil servant of literature” by Paul Nizan, for his acts of resistance and his glory as a writer, was entitled to national homage in 1945. He was first and foremost a remarkable orator, whose speech in honor of Goethe, model “among all the Fathers of Thought and Doctors of Poetry, Pater aestheticus in aeternum,” is a perfect illustration of his talent. His eulogy for the “Jewish Bergson” is a measure of his courage under the Occupation, in 1941. This modern Bossuet, under the wings of the eagle of Meaux, paid tribute to his ancestor in Variété II (1930), praising his grandiose prose, the strength of his style, his talent for saying everything, his brilliant orations, monuments of what remains, in language, when the ideas of a time are outdated and men, distant from their tributes, end up unknown.

Valéry had no theorized philosophical system, unlike the dominant German thought. We find him somewhere between Descartes, rigorous in method, and Leonardo da Vinci, edified by the architecture of intelligence. Still inhabited by the Greeks, he used the form of dialogue, Eupalinos (1923) and L’idée fixe (1932), like Plato, and returned to the simple idea that philosophy is a quest: a quest for the absolute, for truth and purity. In his Cahiers (published, 1973-1974—Ed.), he writes: “I read philosophers badly and with boredom, as they are too long and their language is unsympathetic to me.” Sensitive to the sentence, the maxim, that make up the French charm of thought, he went everywhere, said what he wanted, constrained his free thought, meandered through ideas under the strict arches of art, in fragments and leaflets.

First there was that famous night in Genoa. On a night that resembled a crisis, he was converted. Thereafter, he devoted himself to intelligence, to the realm of the spirit, to the quest for precision. In 1896, at the age of twenty-five, this mystic of the Idea wrote La soirée avec Monsieur Teste, a strange novel-essay in which, through the intermediary of his double, Monsieur Teste himself, high priest of the Intellect, Valéry begins to think about the detachment of the soul and sensibility, in the wake of Méditations métaphysiques. And nothing but that.

Austere and Solemn?

Among the innumerable papers, texts and published thoughts, Valéry is, in Tel quel (1943) or in his Cahiers, haunted by the idea of a hidden God: “The search for God would be man’s most beautiful occupation.” The importance and quality of these notes show that a project to write a “Dialogue des choses divines” (“Dialogue of things divine”) preoccupied Valéry all his life. “Everyone keeps his own mysticism, which he jealously guards,” he insisted. Man finds himself only insofar as he finds his God.

All too quickly, Valéry’s austere, solemn character is attributed to his poetry, which is frozen and mumbling. What is taken for gelid is icy other than a classical demand taken to the heights. “Most men have such a vague idea of poetry that the very vagueness of their idea is for them the definition of poetry,” Valéry, obsessed with perfection, wanted this “holy language.” This quest, resolutely, detached him from the world of letters, novelists and journalism: “The writer-whore exists only to surrender himself. To this class belong those who claim to say what they are, think and feel;” and he adds in Tel quel: “There is always something fishy about literature—the consideration of an audience. So, there’s always a reserve of thought in which lies all the charlatanism of which every literary product is an impure product.” Then to finish off literature as if in the arena: “A novel is the height of crudeness. We’ll see one day. Those who look from the deep, rigorous side already see it.” So much for that.

Behind his reputation as a pure wit, Valéry was a great sensualist. His poetry is a perfect demonstration of this. The charm of bodies, the trance of music, long, delicate movements, the sign of the hand, the form of the dance, the praise of water—this is the Valéry universe. In Album des vers anciens (1920), inspired by Mallarmé, we find, under the appearance of a solid poetic arch, lascivious and moving, volatile and light figures and forms taking shape, as in “Baignée” (“Bathing”) which, through a play of periphrases, makes us guess a young woman in the water:

A fruit of flesh bathes in some youthful pool,
(Azure in trembling gardens) but out of water,
Singling curls with strength of the casque,
Gleams the golden head which a tomb slices at the nape.

Above the Fray

Later, Valéry wrote La Jeune Parque (1917). In this song of love and death, where life mingles with mythology, we can admire these lines: “island… summit that a fire fecundates barely intimidated, woods that will hum with beasts and ideas, with hymns of men filled by the just gift of ether.” These rhymes sound like onomatopoeia, making us believe for a moment that Valéry, a musician, is moving from the Académie to a jazz club.

At twilight, in Corona & Coronilla (published in 2008—Ed.), the old man writes a few poems to his young lover, Jeanne Voilier, whom he knows to be far from his arms:

You know it now, if you ever doubted
That I could die by the one I loved,
For you made my soul a leaf that trembles
Like that of the willow, alas, that yesterday together
We watched float before our eyes of love,
In the golden tenderness of the fall of the day.

This poem, written on May 22, 1945, two months before the poet’s death at the age of seventy-four, denotes a tenderness, a touching intimacy, not devoid of flowery lyricism. It’s a far, far cry from the night of Genoa.

Bruised by the horrors of war, Valéry descended from the clouds, returning inter homines, deluded by certain illusions. He no longer believed in history, as he wrote in Regards sur le monde actuel: “History justifies whatever one wants. It teaches rigorously nothing, because it contains everything, and gives examples of everything… The danger of letting ourselves be seduced by History is greater than ever.”

With History out of the way, Valéry seemed to turn to mathematics, as he murmured in his drafts: “Simple solutions, expedients, that’s all-human conduct, in politics, in love, in business, in poetry—expedients, and the rest is mathematics.” He confessed in 1944 in Le Figaro: “Politics is the maneuvering of the more by the less, of the immense number by the small number, of the real by images and words; in other words, it’s a mechanics of relays.”

Paul Valéry was above the fray. Neither stupidly left-wing, nor fatally right-wing. He was a circumspect observer of nations. He was an eminent member of intellectual Europe, like Rilke in Trieste, Zweig in Vienna or Verhaeren in Brussels. Like the others, Valéry saw the great Europe of letters and sovereign nations, shattered by the appalling world war. Did he already see the post-war era? “Europe will be punished for its policies; it aspires to be governed by an American commission”—that’s for sure.

Europe, according to Valéry, is inhabited by tradition. This Europe, saved from technocracy and finance, is a civilization, “Romanized and Christianized, subject to the disciplinary spirit of the Greeks,” starting from Jerusalem, Athens and Rome. The grandiose axis. Yet this remarkable Europe, shaped by a superior spirit, remains no less fragile. This is Valéry’s despairing assessment of a Europe whose ancient parapets have been overcome by technology, the mass of a fin de siècle: “We civilizations now know that we are mortal.”

This tension between the order of civilization went hand-in-hand with a defiant and suspicious view of governments. We owe him this simple, trenchant phrase, mingled with cynicism and raw lucidity: “War, a massacre of people who don’t know each other, for the benefit of people who know each other but don’t massacre each other.” Sounds like Bardamu at the start of Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night)! Who’d have thought Valéry an anarchist?


Nicolas Kinosky is at the Centres des Analyses des Rhétoriques Religieuses de l’Antiquité and teaches Latin. This articles appears through the very kind courtesy La Nef.


Featured: Portrait of Paul Valéry, by Georges d’Espagnat; painted in 1910.


Mirum-Vultus Homo

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Parvus vicus inter montes villae iacebat, ex qua quadriennio ad pugnam egressi sunt. Primo ierant optimi viri, deinde senes, deinde iuvenes, postremo pueri ludi. Videbitur neminem in villa remanere nisi pervetustis ac imbecillis corporis, qui mox exstinctus est, propter rei publicae belli rationem, ut pereat inutilis quo plus escae esset utilior.

Contigit autem omnibus hominibus praeterquam quod remanserant in tarta fame, pauci redierunt, pauci vero debiles et variis modis deformati. Iuvenis unus tantum partem faciei habebat, et pictam larvam stanneam induerat, sicut festus fabricator. Alius duo crura habebat sine bracchia, alius duo bracchia sed non crura. Vix unus a matre aspici poterat, exstinctis oculis de capite, donec instare morti aspiceret. Non bracchia, non crura, furens insuper aerumna, totumque diem in cunis velut infans iacebat. Erat autem ille senex admodum, qui nocte ac die strangulatus a veneni vapore; et alius juvenculus, qui, sicut folium in alto vento, a concharum concussione concussit, et ad sonum clamavit. Et ipse quoque manum et partem faciei amiserat, etsi non satis larvam ei sumptum ad warantizandum.

Hos omnes, praeterquam qui sui horrore extorres erant, ingeniosis adjumentis instructos, ut partim se sustentarent, et de tributis, quae victae genti onerabant, satis mereretur.

Ire per illum pagum post bellum erat quasi perambulans viculum vitae mediocris cum omnibus figuris mechanicis glomeratis et strepitantibus. Tantum pro figuris novis, hilaresque et bella, quassata et deridicula et inhumana.

Forent molendinum, et ferrariam, et domum publicam. Ordo casularum, villa, ecclesia, cataractae scintillantes, campi multicolores diffunduntur instar collium panniculorum, volucrum pompae, caprae et vaccae, etsi non multae postremae. Fuerunt mulieres, et cum eis aliqui pueri; perpaucae tamen, quia rationabiles feminae erant, et iam nollent habere filios, qui eis inermes ac furiosi aliquando remitti possent, in cunis gestari, fortasse multos annos.

Adhuc juniores, molliores impulsu, pepererunt aut duas. Horum unus, secundo belli anno natus, tribus admodum flavis et globulus scelestus fuit, truculento aere et piratico ingenio. Sed eae notae pueris satis teneris annis ineunt, et fuit quasi ludicra vicus, hic, illic, et ubique, in familiarissimis belli naufragiis, quod reipublicae gubernatio fecerat.

Ille in stagno quaesivit larvam et crus pistoris mechanicum ludebat, ita indulgens illi libidini suae; et saxum superflue oblectabat cunabula hominis, qui sine membris erat, et patrem.

In ac foras cucurrit, et flexis adsuevit. Alii amisisset filium, alii filium habere posset, si mundus aliter discessisset. Aliis brevis umbra futuri sine spe evasit; aliis tamen diversitas horae. Hoc maxime verum erat de caeco, qui ad fores suae veteris matris casae scopae ligaturae sedit. Praesentia pueri visa est ei sicut calidum solis radium per manum incidens, et eum ad morandum alliceret permittens tentare magnas caeruleas goggles quas in publico optime gestare invenit. Nulla tamen deformitas vel deformitas homunculi hominem terrere visus est. Haec ab infantia prima ludibria.

Quodam mane, mater, lotis vestibus occupata, eum solum reliquerat, confidens se mox aliquod fragmentum militis amicissimum quaesiturum, et usque ad meridiem et inedia se oblectaturum. Aliquando autem pueri habent notiones impares, et contrarium eorum quae quis supponit.

Hac aestate praeclaro mane puer solitariam vagari in ripa montis fluvii existimabat. Vage lacunam altius sursum petere voluit, et in eo lapides ejicere. Nunc in parvas valles, vel anates vias persequentes, lente errabat. Ante decem, quam virides nitentes spumeusque lacusque desuper adeptus erat, canae saxi delapsus in umbram, ter cui pinus in novo vertice plana flectitur aura. Sub illis, aspiciens puerum quasi nubem albam in viridi coelo, stabat juvenis pulcher, qui divei in meram ripam libratus. Vno momento ibi constitit umbra et sole obsita, proxime ita perite ediderat ut vix aquam circum se spargeret. Tum atro rorante caput constitit, micatque bracchia fixo navit ad litora. Alius divei scopulum conscendit. Has actiones in puro lusu et vitae laetitia repetivit toties ut spectatoris eius vertiginis excubiae fierent.

Tandem ille satis procubuit abiectis vestibus. Hos in occultiore loco gerebat, celeriter indutus, puer luscus et mirabundus, quippe qui multa in animo haberet.

Duo bracchia, duo crura habebat, totum vulto oculis, naso, os, mento, auribus, plenum. Videbat enim eum vestitum perstrinxisse. Loqui poterat, magna canebat. Audire poterat, nam cito ad stridorem columbarum alarum post se deflexerat. Pellis eius toto orbe teres erat, nusquam in eo atro coccineo tabulae, quas in brachiis, facie, et pectore exustis puer reperit. Non omne strangulavit pusillum, aut insano tremit, et ad sonum clamat. Vere inexplicabile, ideoque terribile.

Incipiente puero ad nutantem, tremefacit, matrem suam circumspectat, adulescens eum animadvertit.

“Bene!” avide clamabat, “si puer non est!”

Accessit per pontem peditem gratissimo risu, hoc enim primum illo die, quem puerum viderat, et mirum putabat, tam paucos natos esse in valle, ubi, cum haberet. Ante quinquennium ita fuerat, ut vix tot denarios invenire potuissent. Itaque “Salve,” inquit, “laete, et in loculos scrutatus est.”

At stupefactus puer flavos puerulus perterritus exclamavit in arma propere ad puellam confugit. Illa eum evidenti subsidio amplexa est, atque in eum modum objurgationis et deliciarum largiebatur, cum viator accessit, quasi laesus affectus.

“Mana mehercules,” inquit, “me modo filiolo tuo hos denarios dare voluisse.” Inspiciebat se admirationis. “Quid in terris est de me ut puerum terreat?” queritur quesiuit.

Utroque indulgens risit rustica virgo, ingemuitque puer, vultumque in oram abdidit, et in puero perplexum et formosum adulescentem.

“Est quia invenit Herr hospes tam inusitatus,” inquit, flectens. “Parvus est,” inquit, exiguitatem gestus ostendit, “et est primum totum hominem videri.”

(1917)


Featured: Untitled, by Gustav Wunderwald; painted ca. 1940s.