Saturday, October 28, 2017

BOOK: Girolamo Fracastoro, "Latin Poetry"

Girolamo Fracastoro: Latin Poetry. Translated by James Gadner. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 57. Harvard University Press, 2013. 9780674072718. xx + 537 pp.

I wonder what is it about medicine that gets so many physicians involved in things like literature and philosophy. Some of them write poems, some write essays, etc. Or is it just an illusion and is the percentage of physicians who write a little literature on the side no greater than in other occupations? In any case, Fracastoro was an early-16th-century example of this type, a doctor who also wrote a good deal of poetry. This book contains two longer poems of his, Syphilis and Joseph, which I found fairly enjoyable to read, and a number of shorter ones, which were more of a mixed bag.

Syphilis, or the French Disease

This (in)famous venereal disease might seem like an odd choice of subject for a poem, but I guess this is what happens when you have physicians writing poetry :P Syphilis is a minor epic poem of about 1300 lines and is probably Fracastoro's best known work; and if I understand correctly, this is actually where syphilis the disease got its name. The poem gives us a curious look at medicine at a stage when it was just beginning slowly to turn into a scientific area, but still had a long way to go to shed its mystical and paranormal background.

Regardless of what we may think about the subject, in terms of form this is a very proper epic. It begins with the sort of pompous introduction that would not be out of place in Vergil (“Now I will sing of the varied accidents of nature” etc.), it's all in hexameters (although sadly the translation is in prose, like usually in the ITRL series), etc. After a few lines dedicating the poem to the famous poet and prelate Pietro Bembo, Fracastoro begins with a discussion of the origins of the disease. The usual explanation is that Spanish sailors got it in America (1.32–52), brought it to Italy as part of the Spanish involvement in the wars in Italy in the early 16th century, and thence it soon spread to France because the French were also involved in those wars. From France it spread further, which led it to being known as “the French disease” in some countries. But Fracastoro is skeptical of this idea; he says that the disease has appeared so rapidly in so many places that it can't have simply spread like an infection (1.53–60). While “its origin and dwelling place are in the very air” (1.122–3), it was then the influence of the stars and planets that somehow activated the disease and caused it to spring up in so many places at once! (1.219–55, 413–20). This was a bit disappointing — one of Fracastoro's claims to fame is understanding that diseases can be transmitted by air, but (1) syphilis isn't (just imagine if it were... on second thought, maybe don't) and (2) in the end he opts for a fake astrological explanation anyway...

After this long excursion into astrology, the poem becomes a bit more sober again as Fracastoro describes the symptoms of the disease and tries to explain how and why it develops in the patient's body. Much of this is still based on the ancient theories of the humours and the like (1.330–48), and is a bit bizarre by our modern standards, but the descriptions of the symptoms are quite realistic and suitably disgusting (1.350–64, 400–3). He concludes book I with a bit of lamentation about the current state of Italy, which was at the time being ravaged by endless wars, often with foreign countries meddling in them as well.

Book II is mostly about treatment. Some of his ideas struck me as very odd; for example, he suggests that vigorous exertion outdoors is likely to get rid of the disease: “hunt boars, hunt bears relentlessly [. . .] Often have I seen men rid themselves of their affliction with much sweat, leaving the disease in the deep woods.” (2.89, 93–4) He also gives a long list of various kinds of food that should be avoided by the patient (2.116–44). Under some conditions, he recommends bleeding (2.165–73). He gives several fairly complex-looking combinations of herbs which might cure the disease (2.175–222).

Finally, there is the treatment with mercury (2.270), which if I understand correctly has actually been used to treat syphilis well into the 20th century. He devotes most of the rest of this book with a long fictional story about how this treatment was discovered; I guess this an imitation of the countless just-so stories that were so popular in ancient Greek mythology to explain the origins of various things. In Fracastoro's tale, a young man named Ilceus gets syphilis as a punishment from the gods for killing a sacred stag; then a nymph named Callirhoe takes pity on him and reveals the mercury treatment to him in a dream. He travels to an underground cave where he encounters “sulfurous streams and rivers of quicksilver” (2.355–6), out of which various nymphs then manufacture other kinds of metals, including silver and gold; still other nymphs take care of various other geological phenomena (2.380–400). I really liked this part of the story, it's like science fiction except that it starts from a pre-modern level of science.

At the end of book II, the poet gives some more details about how to actually apply mercury to treat syphilis: mix mercury with grease, some resins and herbs, smear the stuff over your body and wrap it up until all the filth has oozed out of your sores, a process that may take ten days (2.424–53).

Book III mentions another cure for the disease, namely the guaiacum, a kind of tree that grows on Hispaniola in the Caribbean. The natives apparently attribute numerous medicinal properties to the tree, and mostly use it by boiling its wood and then drinking the resulting liquid (3.30–71). Fracastoro spends most of this book weaving yet another fanciful tale about its discovery: a European expedition sails westwards and reaches what they take to be the mythical island of Ophir (3.120), and which I guess in practice is the Caribbean. Their encounter with the natives goes remarkably well and is suspiciously short on genocide, slavery and the other things that you usually hear about such encounters (3.216–31). The local chief explains that his people (who are actually descendants of ancient Atlanteans! 3.265–77 — I guess Ignatius Donnelly wasn't the first one to come up with that idea :)) are afflicted by the disease as a punishment from the gods because a shepherd named Syphilus had insulted the Sun-god some time ago (3.288–334). The disease was named after the shepherd. Fortunately, the goddess Juno took pity on them and told them about the curative properties of the guaiacum tree (3.335–51). Since the Europeans had just recently insulted the gods too, by shooting at certain sacred birds (3.151–73), the disease will soon hit them as well, and they follow the natives' exaple by drinking the guaiacum potion (3.390–9). [By the way, is it just me, or do these stories sound like the lamest excuse ever? ‘Yeah, I got these disgusting sores around my genitals by insulting the sun / shooting at some birds, and certainly not by screwing around / raping the natives, etc., why would that crazy idea ever cross your mind?!’ :)))]


This epic poem is just a little shorter than the previous one and is apparently based on a story from the Bible. Joseph is the youngest of twelve brothers, and as far as I can tell they don't seem to have any sisters, which suggests that their father must be some sort of freak of nature, a biblical Chuck Norris, so manly that he has two Y chromosomes instead of one X and one Y :P Anyway, Joseph has an odd dream about how he will eventually become some sort of king; he unwisely tells about this to his brothers, who are unsurprisingly a bit worried that he might one day really rise above them. At first they plot to kill him, but then one or two of them have second thoughts and in the end they ‘just’ sell him into slavery to some passing merchants. You might say that this was a bit of an overreaction, but I as a rabid egalitarian frankly found much to approve of in their impulse.

The merchants travel to Egypt where, hoping to curry favour with an official named Potiphar, they give Joseph to him as a present. As far as slavery goes, Joseph has it fairly easy, and soon becomes the head servant in Potiphar's household. But some demonic forces intervene (to my surprise, they are presented not as agents of the usual Judeo-Christian devil but of the classical Greco-Roman Pluto — but perhaps I shouldn't be surprised, as a similar thing was used in the tragedy of Ferdinand Preserved, which I read a couple years ago) and cause Potiphar's wife to fall in love with Joseph. He is under some sort of divine protection and thus impervious to her charms; she, suitably enraged and disappointed, resorts to that time-honoured plot device, the false rape accusation. Potiphar has Joseph thrown into a prison where he impresses some cell-mates with his ability to interpret dreams; before long, the Pharaoh has him brought out of jail to interpret a puzzling dream of his own. This is the famous dream of the seven fat cows and seven lean ones, which Joseph interprets as seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine. The Pharaoh promptly appoints Joseph as his second-in-command, and has him build granaries and purchase large amounts of grain to get ready for the seven lean years.

I was somewhat disappointed to see that when the famine came, the Pharaoh's granaries weren't doling out the grain on a rationing system, but were selling it “at a fair price” (2.468); fair it may have been, but after a few years, people ran out of money anyway and resorted to mortgaging their fields, “[p]romising to give the king the fifth part of their profit from any field” (2.475–6). So the Pharaoh could not only bask in the glory of saving his people from famine, but also made out like a bandit in the process — and let's not forget that the money which enabled him to buy up stockpiles of grain had come from people in the first place, through taxation. All in all this struck me as completely obscene and despicable.

Anyway, the famine seems to extend well beyond Egypt, all the way to Joseph's homeland. His brothers travel to Egypt to buy some grain from the illustrious Egyptian prefect who sells grain to everyone, having no idea that this is actually their brother Joseph. He recognizes them, but doesn't tell them who he is; he sells them grain, secretly returning them the money with which they paid for it, and bids them come back to Egypt once more. The poem is unfinished, so we don't see how the story would continue, but Joseph seems to be preparing a banquet for his brothers. Presumably he would finally reveal himself there.

I rather enjoyed this poem; the story has the makings of a fine revenge fantasy, and who doesn't like a good rags-to-riches tale, but one thing that bothered me was the excessive influence of supernatural forces — demons influencing Potiphar's wife, god's protection guarding Joseph, etc. I suppose this makes sense for a biblical story, but from a storytelling point of view these are surely just crutches which it would be better to dispense with.


The rest of the book consists of about 50 miscellaneous shorter poems. This was definitely my least favourite part of the book. There are various poetic epistles to notable persons, and a few occasional pieces on the deaths of various people, most of which didn't strike me as particularly memorable (Nos. 2–11).

One thing that I liked better were the various short pastoral poems (Nos. 13–20), heavily influenced by ancient Greek mythology and imagery; you can easily imagine Fracastoro staying at his villa somewhere in the countryside and writing these little sketches about a slightly more idealized version of his surroundings. There is also an interesting slightly longer poem of this sort (No. 12), an epistle to Pope Julius III, which combines pastoral imagery with the fact that the pope is the “great shepherd of the divine flock” (p. 247).

Along similar lines, there's a nice eclogue in praise of bishop Giberti of Verona (No. 51). Fracastoro didn't actually finish the poem, so they simply printed it from his manuscript, consisting of about four drafts of the poem and several further variations on shorter parts of it. This creates an unusual impression, with the same things being said again and again but each time in a slightly different way. It was an nice opportunity to get a glimpse into how a poem is made.

There's also what you might call a didactic poem, on the care of hunting dogs (No. 1): the various breeds and what they are good for; how to breed and train them; and it goes into a lot of detail on the various (impressively complicated) concoctions used to treat their various diseases and injuries.

There's a nice hymn to Bacchus (No. 44) and a short epigram that uses the image of nymphs washing the infant Bacchus as a metaphor for the practice of mixing wine with water (No. 43). I had heard before that this was the usual practice in Ancient Greece, but it was interesting to see that this was still the case during the Renaissance as well (p. 488).


Sometimes I feel that I'm repeating myself like a broken record in my posts about the poetry volumes in the ITRL: parts of it were pleasant enough to read, but there was nothing to write home about — nothing really touching or exhilarating. The fact that it's all translated into prose doesn't really help either. I know that I am not incapable of being touched by poetry, as it has happened on a number of occasions when reading e.g. the 19th-century English poets; why then does it almost never happen here? I guess that's simply not what these neo-Latin renaissance poets were aiming for, so in a sense I'm simply the wrong audience for their work.

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BOOK: Paolo Giovio, "Notable Men and Women of Our Time"

Paolo Giovio: Notable Men and Women of Our Time. Edited and translated by Kenneth Gouwens. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 56. Harvard University Press, 2013. 9780674055056. xxi + 760 pp.

This dialogue features Giovio and two other interlocutors, inspired by real people: a military officer named d'Avalos and a lawyer/politician from Naples named Muscettola. Over the course of three days, they talk about notable military commanders, writers and poets, and famous women of the day. A very large number of people are presented in each of these three categories, and relatively little is said about each of them, an approach that I didn't find terribly interesting; but along the way, our protagonists take numerous detours into other more or less related topics, so that the book as a whole still makes for a relatively varied and fairly interesting read. I was also utterly stunned by the enormous effort of the editor/translator, who has managed to identify nearly all of the hundreds of people mentioned by Giovio (most of whom are far from notable by our present-day standards), and added little biographical endnotes about each of them.

Another very impressive thing about the dialogue is the identity of the speakers. Giovio has recently been working as a high papal official in Rome, which was then sacked by the Spanish army; he managed to get out and take refuge on the island of Ischia. And d'Avalos is a high-ranking officer in the Spanish army! And yet there is not the slightest trace of hostility between them, the conversation is utterly civil and friendly throughout the entire book.

Dialogue 1: Military commanders

This dialogue deals mostly with military and political topics. Renaissance Italy is notorious for its chronical warfare, and at the time this dialogue was written the situation was particularly bad, foreign rulers had begun to get involved in the action, a Spanish army had just recently sacked Rome, etc. The characters in the dialogue claim that this has been accompanied by an all-round decline of virtue, courage, etc. (they even hold up the Turks as an example of a society with more virtuous people and princes; 1.18–19), and start by asking why this is happening (1.21).

Apparently some people had suggested that this must be due to some sort of astrological influence of the stars and planets, but Muscettola, reasonably enough, rejects this silly idea (1.30). Instead he argues that the problems began when Italian states started inviting foreigners to interfere in their quarrels, and that the warfare hadn't been as cruel and brutal while it was just Italians fighting other Italians (1.33–4).

Giovio adds that the situation in Italy had been deteriorating ever since the late Roman empire, although it had improved briefly one or two generations before his time, i.e. in the 15th century (1.45–51). Muscettola praises the progress in that period: invention of cannons, printing, and the discovery of the New World (1.51–4). D'Avalos complains about the difficulty of maintaining discipline amongst the unruly mercenary soldiers of his day (1.61–6). Giovio suggests that present-day warfare is more brutal and dangerous than before thanks to technological progress (1.70–3).

Muscettola argues that the Italian soldiers are still brave and skilled, even if they fight under foreign rulers (1.76–8). D'Avalos agrees regarding the rank and file, but adds that there is now a lack of good commanders; he enters into a lengthy comparison of the present commanders with those of the previous generations (1.79–86, 100–6, 110–13). Giovio defends the ability of two contemporary leaders, Pope Clement and Doge Andrea Gritti of Venice (1.90–3).

D'Avalos briefly recounts the “thirteen pitched battles” since the coming of the French army into Italy (1.114–27), and describes a few contemporary commanders that he regards as praiseworthy (1.132–50), as well as a few slightly less illustrious ones (1.152–6, 163–7), and, having exhausted the cavalry and the infantry, he then moves on to naval commanders (1.173–6).

D'Avalos says that thanks to the current technological and political conditions, it's often a good idea to employ delaying tactics and avoid pitched battles (1.177–80). He mentions the various virtues that a good commander should have, and argues that none currently has all of them in a high degree (1.183–7). The discussion so far was about Italian commanders, and now d'Avalos moves on to foreign ones (1.188–97, 200–2). He declares all contemporary commanders inferior to his recently deceased cousin and comrade-in-arms, the marquis of Pescara, upon whom he heaps the highest praise (1.203–16).

Dialogue 2: Literature

Partly, this dialogue consists of brief presentations of various Italian authors of Giovio's time and of the recent past. Some of these are more or less well known and on several occasions Giovio and his interlocutors mention some of the works that I've already read in the previous I Tatti Renaissance Library volumes; but many of the poets and writers they mention are quite obscure (the translator's introduction, p. xv, describes them as “third-rate talents of whose works few scraps have survived” — ouch!). The translator's notes are wonderfully extensive and wherever Giovio mentions some writer and his works, the notes mention where those works have been published. For the better-known poets, this may be earlier ITRL volumes or other modern editions; but for the “third-rate talents”, the translator has invariably managed to dig up obscure 15th- and 16th-century editions, published by long-forgotten Renaissance printers. Compiling these notes must have taken an enormous amount of work.

Another topic that is often discussed in this dialogue (and which I found more interesting than the catalogues of authors) is that of language: is it better to write in Latin or in the vernacular language, i.e. in Italian? They spilled a lot of ink over this topic in Renaissance Italy, and it appears that by Giovio's time, Italian was pretty clearly winning. A couple years ago I read another ITRL volume from approximately the same period, Lilio Giraldi's Modern Poets (see my post from back then), and he was quite grotesquely contemptuous towards literature in Italian. Giovio and his interlocutors take a much more reasonable approach; they are a bit sad that Latin is declining, but they recognize that literature in Italian can be valuable as well.

Early on, d'Avalos observes that lately more and more authors write in Italian, even some of those who formerly wrote in Latin (2.9); Muscettola and Giovio suggest that this is because it's easier to write in the vernacular, you can express yourself more fully in your native language and you don't need such long years of study to do it (2.42–3); you can still borrow and translate successful passages and turns of phrase from Latin authors as well (2.10–11); you reach a wider audience and easier praise by writing in Italian (2.47, 2.76); skilled Latin orators are no longer encouraged and rewarded like they were in the past (2.77–8).

Some poets, on the other hand, went to the opposite extreme and neglected Latin in favour not of the vernacular but of Greek, or, in some cases, even Hebrew! Muscettola and Giovio don't think highly of such efforts, as they seem to be more about trying to show off than producing really good poetry (2.34–5).

Regarding the vernacular, they acknowledge that through the effort of various authors it will gradually be refined into a language no less respectable than Latin itself; and after all, the ancient Roman authors wrote in the vernacular language too, it's just that to them the vernacular language was Latin (2.39). Muscettola, who previously said that using Greek instead of Latin is pointless ostentation, recognizes that some day using Latin instead of Italian will be regarded in the same way too (2.40).

Muscettola mentions Bembo and Sannazaro (2.7–8) as examples of particularly good neo-Latin authors. Giovio goes into a longish catalogue of poets, most of whom were completely unknown to me (2.12–27, 32–3). Asked why so many poets seem to fail to develop after a promising beginning of their career, he suggests it's because they get corrupted by being praised too much and too soon (2.28–9); plus, your natural talent defines a plateu of ability beyond which you can't rise even with effort (2.30–1).

Here and there Giovio quotes short passages from the poems he discusses, and I was pleasantly surprised by how nicely they are translated here. ITRL translations of poetry often strike me as dull and most of the time they are in prose, but here they are in verse and really pleasant verse too.

After the neo-Latin poets have been exhausted, Muscettola provides a similar catalogue of those writing in Italian (2.56–66), and Giovio continues in a similar way with Italian prose writers (2.67–74, 79–82). He also talks a little about his own life and work, especially his Histories of his own time (2.86–96). They mention that lately the study of Latin is making better progress abroad than inside Italy (2.100), and towards the end of the dialogue Giovio mentions a few noted foreign authors, especially French ones (2.118–21). They also have some discussion about the usual problems of how to become a good neo-Latin author: whom to imitate, how closely to imitate, how much to borrow, etc. (2.106–14). A few years ago, there was an entire volume on that topic, Ciceronian Controversies (see my post from back then), and I still think that all this mostly just proves that trying to write good literature in a foreign language (especially a dead one) is largely futile.

Dialogue 3: Famous women

It seems that this sort of thing was practically a minor genre during the Renaissance; the very first volume in the ITRL series was a book by Boccaccio on exactly the same topic. Anyway, this dialogue starts with some eminently reasonable ideas. In an interesting contrast to what he was saying about military captains in the first dialogue, d'Avalos now says that women of the present generation are no less eminent than those of the past, and that any claims to the contrary are just misguided complaints of cranky old men (3.9–10); Giovio adds that they are in fact even better now because more attention than formerly is being paid to women's education and not just to their fertility (3.12). Giovio and Muscettolla take ancient Greeks and Romans to task for describing (and treating) women as inferior to men (3.20–6). Muscettolla points out that it is unjust to deny women an education and access to public life, and that if they were not denied these things, “it would be clear [. . .] that they had not lacked the natural abilities for attaining the honor of glorious virtue, but only the opportunity for doing so” (3.27).

After such a promising start, I was a bit disappointed by how the dialogue continued. D'Avalos agrees with Muscettolla in principle, but says that in practice this unjust treatment of women cannot be fixed as it would disrupt everything: “These things aren't possible without there being a destructive confusion in all affairs” (3.35). After that, the catalogues of famous women begin in earnest and mostly follow the criteria summarized by d'Avalos thus: “fame of lineage, distinction of beauty, and refinement of intellect and character” (3.37), to which he then adds a fourth requirement: chastity. As a result of this, most of the women mentioned here are various upper-class ladies who are invariably described as beautiful and presumably reasonably well brought up, as you might expect in that class, but who for the most part aren't described as having done anything particularly memorable. I thought they would manage to dig up some women who had written some literature or painted something or taken up some sort of career, but there's almost none of that, just an endless procession of idle aristocrats.

This catalogue of famous women is organized along geographical principles, moving from region to region, from town to town. Giovio deals with Milano (3.45–53), Venice (3.54–64), various minor cities of northern Italy (3.68–74), Genoa (3.75–85), Florence (3.87–96), Siena (3.97–8); then Naples (3.100–39), Rome (3.141–79), concluding with a long section in praise of Vittoria Colonna (3.179–209), at whose estate on the island of Ischia Giovio lived for a while after escaping from the Sack of Rome.

One good thing about this dialogue is that when dealing with a certain city, they don't just talk about women from there, but also a little about the city itself, its customs, the character of its people, etc. It's a nice reminder of the times when culture varied much more even over relatively short distances. We get a few curious factoids along the way; for example, apparently in Venice the dowries were so cripplingly high among the upper classes that a father who was so unlucky as to have several daughters might very well just marry off one of them, and pack the rest into a convent. As a result, the nunneries, being full of young women that didn't really want to be there and had no real sense of religious calling, seem to have become veritable hotbeds of fornication (3.58–9).

But that's nothing compared to Genoa where, if Giovio is to be believed, the whole city is practically a big den of decadence and depravity like something straight out of a 1920s pulp story. “Throughout the city during wintertime, in accordance with longstanding practice, nightly vigils suitable for nurturing love affairs are thronged to an almost unbelievable extent.” (3.77) “[T]hrough every season of the year Genoese women engage continually in love affairs and the pleasures of the wellborn. [. . .] even the very slave girls, bought from Scythians and Numidians, devote their holidays to lovemaking. They occupy themselves in licentious games and in unrestrained dances [. . .] But there is no greater opportunity for lascivious behavior or for making impudent advances to women than when matrons in small boats cruise along the shores and sail into the open sea to catch fish.” (3.79) I can't help feeling that the truth probably was considerably less exciting, but it makes for an enjoyable read anyway.


All in all, this was a pleasant enough book to read, but best taken in moderate doses. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found the dialogue about the poets to be the most interesting; the one about women was a bit of a disappointment as I was hoping to hear more about women writers or artists instead of just idle aristocrats; and as for the dialogue about military commanders, it wasn't as boring as I feared it would be in view of my lack of interest in military matters.

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BOOK: Francesco Filelfo, "On Exile"

Francesco Filelfo: On Exile. Edited by Jeroen de Keyser, translated by W. Scott Blanchard. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 55. Harvard University Press, 2013. 9780674066366. xxvi + 485 pp.

This book reminded me a little of Pontano's dialogues, which I read a few months ago (see my post from back then). Filelfo's book is likewise presented in the form of dialogues, and although exile is nominally their main topic, the speakers tend to talk about a number of different things and jump from one subject to another often (though not as often as they did in Pontano's dialogues).

Like dialogues usually do, these have a bit of a back story, which is apparently closely tied up with the turbulent political life of 15th-century Florence. Cosimo de' Medici had gradually risen from being ‘merely’ a rich banker to become one of the most influential people in Florence; eventually, his opponents — who seem to have been mostly traditional aristocrats that resented the influence of this new upstart — managed to get him expelled from the city, but soon afterwards he got back and then it was his opponents' turn to be exiled. Filelfo's sympathies clearly lie with the anti-Medici faction, and several of its notable members appear as characters in this work; the dialogues are presented as conversations amongst them at a point in time when they have already been sentenced to exile but haven't actually departed from Florence yet.


Book I mostly consists of efforts by Palla Strozzi, one of the soon-to-be exiles, to comfort his son Onofrio, who complains bitterly about having to go into exile (1.17–18). I'm not really sure if there's anything one can usefully say to comfort a person in such a terrible situation, and Palla's efforts certainly didn't strike me as particularly useful. He mostly follows the ideas of ancient Stoic and Cynic philosophers and even goes so far as to quote a number of letters and anecdotes about Diogenes, after whose nickname Cyon (“the Dog”; 1.104–5) the whole school of cynicsm got its name.

I've ranted against stoicism a number of times before, so there's not much point in repeating myself yet again here. Its main underlying idea seems to be that you shouldn't get too attached to anything and then you won't have any reason to feel sad or upset. This is trivially obvious and also completely useless, because it's simply too much at variance with human nature (and sometimes at variance with elementary physiology; see one Theodorus claiming to be unfazed at the prospect of being crucified, 1.79). One might well ask whether a life without such attachments would be worth living at all, even if it were possible to achieve it; but for most people it isn't possible anyway.

Similarly, I doubt that Palla's anecdotes about Diogenes are particularly helpful here. Sure, exile and nearly every other misfortune probably won't perturb you much if you're willing to live like Diogenes did — as a beggar utterly devoid of nearly every possession (as illustrated by the famous anecdote where he decided to forego having a cup once he realized he could just use his hands as a temporary cup while drinking water out of a stream; 1.91). But people generally don't want to live like that, and for very good reason too. At the same time, Palla's praise of Diogenes' attitude strikes me as hypocritical because I strongly suspect that neither he nor the other exiles in this book came anywhere close to any real poverty, even in exile.

Many of Palla's other arguments here also struck me as dubious and unconvincing. When his son complains that they are being exiled unjustly (1.220), Palla suggests that this simply means their persecutors are unjust, and a ‘wise man’ (that largely fictional creature that hasn't yet been seen outside of the pages of Stoic philosophy) naturally won't care what unjust and unwise people think about him (1.83–4).

Occasionally, Palla tries to bring in some ideas that seem inspired more by christian religion than by ancient philosophy, which doesn't really help at all. It's better to be condemned unjustly than justly, he suggests, because at least this means that you didn't actually commit the crime for which you are being condemned (1.221–2). Another religious idea is that all life is a kind of exile anyway, since your true home is with god in heaven, so what does it matter if you live in Florence or somewhere else? (1.183–95; Palla goes on to argue that one shouldn't be too attached to one's homeland, 1.199–212 — easier said than done.) These things maybe make sense if you really believe that god is somewhere out there keeping score and planning to reward you in the afterlife (1.88); but from my perspective as a non-believer, it's completely useless.

But I don't want to seem to harsh on Palla; some of the things he says are useful and interesting, e.g. when he gives examples of notable people who seemed to take their exile pretty well (such as Hannibal, 1.69–72).

Besides, it's not just Palla that I'm annoyed by; Onofrio for his part often paints too bleak a picture of exile and imagines everything in the worst possible terms. He fears that he will be regarded as infamous, that people will imagine he must surely have committed some great crime or he wouldn't have been exiled (1.60); but the impression I got from reading about the history of Renaissance Italy is that it was fairly commonplace for one segment of the political class to get expelled by the other, and then vice versa a few years later and so on. So I imagine that people at the time would understand that just because Onofrio got exiled, that doesn't mean that he was guilty of anything more heinous than having the bad luck of ending up on the losing end of a political struggle for power.

This book also contains a few digressions into other topics that are at best only distantly related to exile. For example, near the start, Palla spends a good deal of time talking about the importance of cultivating wisdom and philosophy (1.23–34) and then trying to define reason, emotion and various related concepts (1.35–54), which struck me as one of those typically philosophical things where I have the feeling that they pulled a lot of verbiage out of where the sun doesn't shine, and that I'm no wiser after having read it than before. A more interesting digression occurs near the end of the book, where Poggio Bracciolini (who appears in this volume as a kind of Epicurean, though of a considerably more base and physical sort than the original Epicurus) provides a nice counterbalance to some of the previous ideas with a long praise of drink and good food (1.142–78).


Book II is ostensibly about infamy, but much of it is spent on other things that are only vaguely connected to it. There's a long report (2.26–64) of a speech that one of the soon-to-be exiled noblemen, Rinaldo degli Albizzi, made to pope Eugenius, in which he spends a lot of time arguing that the accusations against himself and his colleagues should not be believed, because they are after all noblemen and therefore honourable and trustworthy and have no reason to harm their city, whereas their accusers (the Medici party) aren't any of those things (especially not noblemen :P). (See e.g. 2.39, 2.41–2, 2.48, 2.62.) Much is made of the fact that Cosimo de' Medici is a banker* and therefore obviously deceitful, greedy, corrupt etc., and his surname sounds like the word for a physician, which was not a very respectable profession in Renaissance Italy and which Filelfo therefore likes to use as the basis of anti-Medici puns (2.65). It's somewhat sad to think that there was a time when some people thought that things of this sort were a reasonable way to argue...

[* I was interested to find in the Wikipedia that Palla Strozzi (one of the central characters of these dialogues, whom we already saw in Book I above) was himself a banker as well :))]

The conversation then finally briefly turns to infamy — Onofrio complains that infamy is an evil (2.68–70), much like he did about exile in the previous book — but is soon derailed again: instead of talking about whether good reputation is really a good and infamy an evil (instead of both being something indifferent), they start to discuss the concept of good in philosophy, a long discussion which was mostly too technical for me (2.95–106, 2.112–54). For good measure, they finish this by taking a detour on the topic of reason, intellect, intelligence and various fine distinctions betwenen these things (2.155–61).

In any case, as far as I'm concerned, they don't end up having any useful advice for poor Onofrio; his father suggests that one has to simply behave virtuously and good reputation will come sooner or later (2.163) and waves away any difficulties in the usual Stoic manner: “those who are just and good cannot suffer infamy, especially in the eyes of good and wise men [. . .] all ill-repute directed at men who are upstanding and have integrity, since it is supported by no roots, must quickly fade and die” (2.172–3). This strikes me as a bit too optimistic; if you are in a position where a lot of people have an unfairly negative opinion about you, this will impact your life adversely in ways that you can't simply wave away with a bit of empty philosophizing. (Of course, in the specific situation that we see in this dialogue, we may well wonder whether sending these people to exile and making them infamous was actually unfair or not; Filelfo is hardly an unbiased observer here.)


Book III treats poverty in much the same way as the previous book treated infamy. There is a good deal of philosophical discussion that was rather too technical for my taste. For example, they start by arguing whether poverty is a bad thing at all, and before deciding that they seem to think it's useful to discuss a very general-purpose division of things into good, bad and indifferent (3.19–32). A certain type of philosopher seems to have loved this sort of pointless taxonomizing, and we see a good deal of that here. For example, good things can be divided into internal and external (3.21); they waste time discussing how to divide a “class” into several “species” (3.26–7), etc. None of this strikes me as the sort of thing that would actually shed light on anything, least of all on poverty.

Given the uselessly simplistic idea of dividing everything into good, bad and indifferent, one of the speakers (Leonardo Bruni, who was otherwise also a real person, like many of the speakers in this book) proposes that virtue is good, vice is bad, and everything else is indifferent (3.31). This is convenient since it allows you to conclude that wealth and poverty are neither good nor bad in themselves, which can be illustrated by the fact that someone can be rich and yet evil (like that bankster Cosimo de' Medici, the chief villain of this book), or virtuous and yet poor (like the aristocrats fallen on hard times who are the characters of this book, and whose side Filelfo is obviously a supporter of).

Filelfo tries to bolster his case by citing yet more examples from the lives of Diogenes, Crates and the like, which are just as unconvincing and just as useless to a normal person than they were in earlier parts of this volume. If you forget for a moment that Diogenes is a Famous Ancient Greek Philosopher™ and think about him without that aura for a moment, you have to admit that he is basically a homeless beggar who wanders the streets raving and ranting to himself. Nobody should be expected to live like that. If Filelfo can seriously suggest that this is a tolerable way to live, it can only mean that he is completely unfamiliar with anything like real poverty as well as completely devoid of imagination.

Another cheap and entirely unconvincing rhetorical trick is tinkering with definitions, which Filelfo attempts in 3.94: “wealth is not that with which the outer man is adorned by by which the inner man is equipped and embellished”, etc. etc. It's depressing to think that anybody could be expected to fall for this sort of ‘argument’.

From my perspective, the only sane person in this discussion is Poggio, who keeps trying to point out blindingly obvious things like that it's better to be comfortable than homeless and starving, but everyone else gangs up on him and Filelfo takes delight in presenting him as a foolish, shallow, gluttonous, grotesque caricature of a low type of Epicurean (3.126, 3.144). “But who commends Poggio, Rinaldo? Artisans, bakers, philistines, every shameless person.” (3.144. Here's that annoying aristocratic prejudice against tradesmen again.) He must have really had something against Poggio, but to me this is the one sympathetic character in this dialogue. Here's Poggio providing some sensible perspective in 3.85: “That obscure and joyless teaching for living and dining which, I see, originated with Antisthenes, was augmented by Diogenes, and reinforced by Crates, is proper to beasts, and savage ones at that, not to refined human beings.” And that's exactly it — any sort of civilization requires a certain material basis. Living in the sort of poverty advocated by Diogenes & Co. is completely antithetical to that. I suspect that this was as blindingly obvious to most Diogenes's contemporaries as it is to most of us today, and that he was already regarded as a deplorably misguided freak back then as well.

Towards the end of the book, the conversation veers off into another highly technical philosophical discussion (which has little to do with poverty itself), this time about voluntary and involuntary actions (3.107–23, 134–8, 145–62). I don't pretend to have understood very much of that, and I certainly didn't find it particularly illuminating, but I was interested to learn a new word here, namely “appetency”, which I don't think I've ever heard before. One of the speakers, Palla, makes a short conclusion which tries to connect this discussion back to poverty: “choice is not simply will of opinion but something that consists of opinion and appetency together when, after consultation, both agree on a single goal. It remains not only that we need not fear poverty but that we should choose it as the least encumbering of companions for the journey to happiness.” (3.162) But, once again, that's easier said than done.

Still, this book isn't all bad. There are a few paragraphs of fine invective against Cosimo de' Medici, again with the inevitable puns about physicians (3.63) etc.; “Cosimo is a banker, a hireling and a filthy usurer, the single greediest man in all of recorded history. No other vice is more loathsome, more worthy of punishment, none more at odds with an invicible and lofty soul than this.” (3.62.) “Poggio. You speak as though Cosimo spends nothing to equip churches and to provide dowries for young girls. — Leonardo. He provides prostitution for young girls, Poggio! — as if you were the only one who doesn't know that Cosimo makes a practice of furnishing money to certain poor and humble parents on condition that he be the first to pluck the flowers of their virgin dauthers!” (3.65) :)))


What to say at the end? I don't think this book is very useful as a consolation to people about to be exiled; and besides, I don't particularly sympathize with the exiles of this book anyway; but much of it was nevertheless pleasant to read, and I had a quite good time ranting against it while writing this post.

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BOOK: Michael Marullus, "Poems"

Michael Marullus: Poems. Translated by Charles Fantazzi. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 54. Harvard University Press, 2012. 9780674055063. xx + 476 pp.

Marullus was a 15th-century author with an interesting life story. His parents were Greeks from Constantinople and he was born very shortly after that city was taken by the Turks. He spent most of his life in Italy, much of it working as a mercenary soldier, and wrote his poetry in Latin; but he seems to have never stopped feeling as somewhat of an exile, and the sad fate of Greece is a frequent topic of his poems. I found it easy to sympathize with him about that, as I always thought that the fall of Constantinople was one of the greatest tragedies in history.


Most of his poems, however, struck me as pleasant enough in themselves but not terribly memorable. There are four books of epigrams — lots and lots of short poems varying in length and on a variety of topics. He has many poems about a woman named Neaera, which I initially found a bit annoying as it seemed to be yet another of those typical situations where a poet sighs about a woman from a distance without anything much ever actually happening; but admittedly, he does go so far as to propose marriage to her at one point (p. 77), and he briefly mentions her funeral near the end of his collection of epigrams (p. 187), a touching reminder that this collection of poems must have been written over a long period of many years. There are also several poems in praise of Alessandra Scala, daughter of the noted humanist Bartolomeo Scala, one of whose books I read some time ago (see my post from back then). Alessandra seems to have been not only beautiful but also a talented author in her own right; Marullus praises her as a tenth Muse (p. 115) and he eventually married her.

There are several epitaphs, many of them to his various uncles, grandfathers, etc., all of whom invariably died fighting the Turks. Although perhaps these epitaphs individually are nothing special, I couldn't help feeling impressed by their cumulative effect; you can really get a sense of how this whole business of losing Greece to the Turks must have been hanging over his life like some sort of grim, dark cloud.

Some of his poems are about “philological” subjects, mostly criticizing a contemporary of his, Poliziano, for getting some word or another wrong in his edition of some classical text. But judging by the translators' notes at the end of the book, Marullus's complaints are invariably wrong (“Another philological squabble between Poliziano and Marullus, with Poliziano the victor, as always”, p. 417; “Wrong again!”, p. 418).

A nice case of poetic self-confidence: “You give me jewels and gold, I give you only poems: but if they are good poems, mine is the greater gift.” (To Antonio, Prince of Salerno, p. 11.) He later has another poem praising the same prince (p. 30): “Asked once what he would leave to himself after giving so much to anyone at all, Antonio replied, ‘Whatever I gave to others: for all else I do not consider to be mine.’ ”

A fine epitaph: “If you learn about his ancestry, you will despise him, but you will marvel at his deeds: the first is the result of chance, the other of native ability.” (Epitaph of Francesco Sforza, p. 15.)

A nice bit of sycophancy: “Good Lorenzo, that you alone love and reward poets is no surprise: you alone do things worthy of poetry.” (To Lorenzo de' Medici, p. 17.) Still, I can't help feeling somehow nostalgic for the days when rich and powerful people would spend their money on supporting poets, which doesn't strike me as a very widespread custom today.

Renaissance popes never disappoint: “He had scarcely heard that Italy was united by a good treaty when Sixtus exclaimed, ‘That's the end of me,’ and died.” (On Sixtus IV, p. 21.) “Filth, gluttony, avarice and sluggish sloth lie in this tomb, Innocent VIII, where you are buried.” (Epitaph of Innocent VIII, p. 177.)

Here and there his epitaphs manage to be really touching. Here's from one for a girl named Albina: “Spread leaves upon the earth, do not spare the spring flowers: she too, who is ash, was once a flower of spring.” (P. 25.)

He has a few mentions of the ancient Spartans, whose example I guess he found inspiring both as a soldier and as someone who perhaps still hoped that Turks could somehow be kicked out of Greece again. Of course, from a modern-day point of view, Spartans and their grim commitment to warfare are nothing short of hilarious. Marullus's poem “On the fortitude of a Spartan woman” (p. 57) is a fine example: “A Spartan mother, seeing her son return unharmed, after having abandoned his shield on the battlefield, advancing toward him thrust a sword into his side, uttering these reproaches over his dead body: ‘Away from here, die, offspring unworthy of me; away, you have betrayed your country and your race!” ” With family like this, who needs enemies :)))

Hymns to Nature

These hymns are somewhat longer poems dedicated to various (natural phenomena disguised as) deities from classical mythology. One thing I found interesting about them is how completely pagan they seem; they really struck me as something that could have been written by some ancient poet who has never even heard of christianity, as there aren't any traces of it in these hymns.

Apart from that, I can't say that I had any clear idea of what to do with these hymns. Were they supposed to evoke feelings of awe, sublimity, perhaps piety (or whatever the ancient pagan equivalent of that was)? I was mostly just bored. Marullus seems to have a great interest in certain ancient philosophers (especially Lucretius) about which I know next to nothing, and occasionally it was clear that he's using technical terminology (“world machine”, p. 283; see also p. xii) that went completely over my head.

The one hymn I really liked was a hymn to Bacchus (p. 213); the translator's introduction describes it as being “written in rushing galliambics” (p. xiii) and I couldn't help feeling that some of this rush, this bacchantic excess, is even present in the prose translation (which is all I can read, unfortunately, as I don't understand any Latin).

The Education of a Prince

This is probably the longest poem in the book, almost 700 lines long, but unfinished, perhaps because the prince for whom it was intended ended up dying very young (p. x). I was mostly amused by Marullus's peculiar obsession with breastfeeding, to which he dedicates nearly a hundred lines of the poem :)) And he's fairly hardcore about weaning the child: “And you will offer them breasts that are smeared with mud or black pitch or impregnated secretly with the taste of aloes so that the child will become disaccustomed of its own accord to the desire for the sweet nectar, disgusted by the repeated deceitful stratagem of the substituted bitter drink.” (ll. 87–90).

The book ends with two letters from Marullus, one of which contains a fine example of Stoic advice to a recipient who has recently lost his brother: “what greater and more manifest madness is there than when you weep so unremittingly over the death of one who you know was destined to die” etc. etc. (p. 399). I'm always baffled by the Stoics. Did they, like, know any human beings at all? I mean, their advice is so obviously true and so completely useless that I can't imagine how they thought it would accomplish anything. What he is saying is true, but to imagine that someone will be consoled by it is just incomprehensible.

What to say at the end? There were a few interesting things in this book, but nothing to write home about, and overall it's not exactly one of my favourite ITRL volumes so far.

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Saturday, September 30, 2017

BOOK: Giovanni Pontano, "Dialogues" (Vol. 1)

Giovanni Gioviano Pontano: Dialogues. Vol. 1: Charon and Antonius. Edited and translated by Julia Haig Gaisser. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 53. Harvard University Press, 2012. 9780674054912. xxvii + 403 pp.

Pontano was a 15th-century humanist who spent most of his life in Naples. I read a volume of his poetry, Baiae, from the ITRL series some time ago (see my post from back then). This present book contains two of his dialogues, Charon and Antonius; according to the translator's introduction, he wrote three more, which will hopefully appear in a subsequent volume (p. x).

I don't quite know what to make of these dialogues, as I've never read anything like them before. They are a kind of strange combination of fiction and essay. Neither of the two really has much of a coherent topic; Pontano's characters just chat about various things and change their subject every few pages. I suppose you could even say that there's something realistic about that, and one could imagine that Pontano and his humanist friends used to have conversations of this sort, and that Antonius in particular was inspired by them.


Of the two dialogues in this book, I liked the first one, Charon, better than the second one. It is shorter and not as much of it was spent on topics that I found uninteresting. The setting is a sort of Greek underworld; besides the titular Charon we see two of the infernal judges, Minos and Aeacus, as well as the messenger-god Mercury. These characters talk to each other in various combinations, and occasionally with the souls of dead people that pass through the area as Charon is ferrying them across the Styx.

Some of the passages reminded me a little of Dante's Inferno — we see a few scenes with grotesquely brutal punishments being meted out to the dead souls (¶6–7, 16) — but most of the dialogue consists of philosophising conversations and most of the dead spirits involved are anonymous fictional people rather than real historical figures like they are in Dante (a rare exception being the appearance of two ancient cynic philosophers, Diogenes and Crates; ¶42–4).

Another difference is that the underworld here is more Greek than christian, whereas in Dante it was the other way around. (There's a curious passage in ¶7–;8 when Minos briefly refers to an appearance of Jesus in the afterworld after he got executed: “by us and by these crowds to whom he was unknown, he was instantly worshipped and adored at first sight” — and yet the underworld is still consistently shown as a pagan rather than christian place.)

The dialogue doesn't really have a plot; the closest it gets to it is the fact that the influx of new dead souls has gone down in the last few days and news of ominous earthquakes and other portents has reached the underworld, and now Minos and Aeacus are trying to figure out what's happening on Earth. In ¶45–8, Pontano uses this as an excuse to complain a little about the present state of Italy, which I imagine must have been a rather well-worn practice at that time.

Some of the other topics on which the dialogue touches at some point are: hope (¶3); silly puns (that only work in Latin; ¶4); human nature (¶9–10); poking fun at horny gods and priests (¶18) and at physicians (¶24); flowers (¶26); ominous earthquakes (¶2, 29–30), a comet (¶31, 35) and a strange solar eclipse (¶35); fate and free will (¶32–4); superstition (¶36–40); odd antics and ideas of Diogenes and Crates (¶20–3, 42–4); silly pedantic grammarians (¶49–53; one of them is actually named Pedanus!); conversations with various shades of the dead (¶56–65).


The other dialogue, Antonius, is nearly twice as long as Charon, and was pleasant enough to read in small doses but overall I didn't like it as much. One notable difference is that the setting here is more realistic: a visitor comes to Naples, hoping to see Antonio Beccadelli, the respected humanist scholar; unfortunately it turns out that Antonio has recently died and the dialogue mostly consists of his friends talking about the sort of things they used to discuss with him, and occasionally reminiscing about his ideas and opinions. Thus you could say this dialogue is a sort of tribute by Pontano to his late friend Beccadelli (whom Pontano succeeded as the head of the Neapolitan Academy). Pontano himself does not appear in the dialogue, but his son does at one point, talking about how Pontano's wife is angry at her husband over his numerous marital infidelities (¶99–101; Pontano doesn't seem to be taking his wife's complaints particularly seriously).

Many of the discussions in this dialogue are a bit more technical and philological than in Charon, and a lot of them went right over my head as a result. The translator's introduction has a few interesting remarks about this, suggesting that this sort of discussions were of interest to the humanists because they wrote in Latin themselves and “wanted not merely to read the ancient Latin authors, but to have the knowledge to understand their every nuance [. . .] They wanted, paradoxically and impossibly, to turn themselves into native speakers of a dead language.” (P. xxii.)

Topics mentioned in Antonius include: the tarantula and its bite (¶5; it conveniently provides the Apulians with “a ready excuse for their insanity”); people who flaunt their (unimpressive) knowledge of Greek (¶9–10); Cicero and Quintilian on the purpose of oratory (¶19–26); on ‘status’ and ‘constitution’, two technical terms from rhetorics (¶27–36); Etna (¶38–53); on Virgil being unfairly criticized by Macrobius (¶54–65) and others (¶65–8); the (Latin) word fama and its many meanings (¶59–60); Antonius's ideas in support of Virgil (¶69–70) and against his detractors (¶73–5); poking fun at various towns (¶78), at immorality in Rome (¶79), at grammarians (¶80, 72–91), at other countries (¶81–2), at corrupt monks (¶91), at theological debates (¶95); a parade of masks (¶104).

This dialogue ends with a minor epic poem (about 600 lines long) about the battle at the river Sucro between Pompey and Sertorius in 75 BC (p. 377). It was probably inspired by similar descriptions of battles in actual ancient epic poems. I really had a hard time seeing why anyone could have liked this sort of poetry. Modern-day blockbuster movies are often criticized for having boring pointlessly long action sequences, and the minor epic poem here in Antonius is basically the same thing in a different medium. Most of it is little else than a long sequence of descriptions of hacking, slashing, stabbing, with plenty of details just where a spear entered someone's body, where a horse got slashed along with its rider, etc. etc. There are plenty of things in ancient epic poems that one can enjoy and imitate, but descriptions of battles are not one of them and I can't see why anyone would choose to do so. No doubt I'm just missing the point spectacularly yet again, like I often do.

The poem does get a little more interesting towards the end when a big fire erupts and, with some help from a friendly wind-god, intervenes in the battle. I guess you could again compare this with certain action-movie cliches, but at least I like descriptions of disasters better than of people hacking at each other with swords.

Another thing I liked about this poem is how Pontano sneaked the names of various friends of his into the story, by naming some of the warriors after them (see translator's notes 181, 196, 197, 223, 226, 231). I thought this was a rather amusing idea, especially since most of these people would have been humanist intellectuals and thus probably not particularly warlike (except for Marullus, who spent a part of his career as a mercenary soldier).


In Antonius ¶97, one of the interlocutors tells the joke of a man, his son and a donkey, who switch between various configurations of riding the donkey (just the man, just the boy, both, neither) in response to complaints by various passers-by. I didn't realize that this joke was so old; the translator's note 164 (p. 374) says that it's “an old fable that exists in several versions, including those in Petrarch and San Bernardino”.

Pontano's son says in Antonius ¶100: “my mother duly confessed both her own sins and my father's to the priest” :))

One of the characters in Antonius (¶106) is surprised to see a carnival parade, and comments that it's “a new import from northern Italy”. See also translator's note 186 on p. 377: Carnival “is first recorded in Venice and the Veneto in the thirteenth century, but began to spread to southern Italy at the end of the fourteenth”.

Pontano likes to poke fun at the French as being stupid: “the Gauls have no brain”, says Mercury (Charon ¶16); “the French are dreadfully dull and take more care for their bodies than for their minds” (Suppazio in Antonius ¶81). Perhaps some of this anti-French sentiment is because Pontano's employer, the king of Naples, was under serious threat from the French army (p. viii).

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Sunday, May 22, 2016

BOOK: Joachim Joesten, "Rats in the Larder"

Joachim Joesten: Rats in the Larder: The Story of Nazi Influence in Denmark. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1939. Online at

One of my favourite sub-genres of WW2-related books are those about how Nazi Germany infiltrated other countries and tried to weaken them from within. I recently read Joesten's book about the Nazi influence in pre-WW2 Sweden (see my post about it) and there heard about his previous book about Denmark, Rats in the Larder, so I decided I would read that book as well. (Rats in the Larder is its American title; the British edition appeared as Denmark's Day of Doom.)

“Larder” in the title is a reference to the fact that Denmark was a large exporter of foodstuffs, especially pork and butter. In fact, as Joesten explains early in the book, Denmark's economy depended vitally on exporting these products and importing everything else. Its main customers used to be Britain and Germany (pp. 25–6), but it was increasingly cut off from the British market, partly because Britain could not afford to import as much due to the Great Depression and partly because it gave preferential access to agricultural products from the dominions, e.g. New Zealand. Thus Denmark was now largely dependent on exporting to Germany, for which Germany could now extort various concessions, not only economic but also political (pp. 34–8).

German interest in Denmark was partly economic (access to food from Denmark could help prevent food shortages such as those that had been a big problem for Germany during the WW1; pp. 66–70), partly military: having control of Danish territory would enable Germany to threaten most of the rest of Scandinavia and control access to the Baltic Sea; and conversely, if Denmark was under control of Germany's enemies, various important industrial and farming areas in northern Germany would be exposed to attack (pp. 70–2).

Apparently, the roots of Denmark's regrettably self-defeating attitude towards Germany went some time back in history. Following Denmark's major defeat by Prussia in 1864 (in which Denmark also lost the provices of Schleswig and Holstein), an opinion became widespread that since Denmark is bound to lose in any all-out war against a Great Power, there's no point in even trying to prepare for defense in such an event; partly because of this and partly because of the balance of power between various Danish parties, Danish foreign policy had ever since the start of the 20th century been controlled by a clique of “defense nihilists” who regarded any sort of military preparedness as futile (p. 94). Even before the WW1, Denmark got into the habit of asking Germany before taking any sort of military steps, with the result that Germany encouraged Denmark to develop defenses that would be useful against a naval attack by Britain, but to neglect anything that would be useful against a German attack overland or by air (pp. 100–8). Danish neutrality during the WW1 was also heavily biased in favour of Germany (pp. 229–44).

This seems to be a kind of self-reinforcing loop: the Danish politicians thought that Denmark was defenseless and would be easily overrun by Germany; therefore they didn't bother setting up its defenses; therefore it was defenseless and would be easily overrun by Germany, etc. Joesten argues that it needn't have been like that; a German attack on Denmark would only occur in the context of a major war between Germany and other Great Powers, therefore Denmark would not be facing Germany's full strength, nor would it be standing alone in the fight; and if it made an effort to fortify its southern border with Germany and establish anti-aircraft defenses around Copenhagen, it could delay German attackers long enough to give allies time to help (pp. 87–8, 114–5). (Of course, in hindsight one can't help wondering if it would really have been like that. We know how slow and ineffective Britain and France were about helping Poland, for example.)

There are a few chapters about the mechanics of spreading Nazi influence into Denmark; these gave me almost a sense of deja vu because they are so similar to how things went in Czechoslovakia and other countries. After WW1, plebiscites were carried out in Schleswig, based on which the northern part of the region went back to Denmark; thus, a small German minority was left on the Danish side of the border (pp. 146–52). Under the influence of German propaganda, several Nazi parties emerged amongst this minority, they set up their own paramilitary units (“it is a safe guess that their effective numbers at least equal those of the Danish border troops”, p. 167), the German press could always invent something to complain about whenever Germany wanted to exert some pressure on Denmark — and the Danish politicians, scared shitless, caved in every time. Germany also financed private German-language schools in Denmark, where the pupils could be bombarded by Nazi propaganda (pp. 173–4). Another familiar mechanism was a kind of German-sponsored bank that provided favorable loans to German farmers wishing to buy land in Denmark (pp. 176–7).

In an increasingly desperate effort to avoid anything that might give the Germans an excuse to complain and pose new demands, Denmark instituted a sort of unofficial censorship of anything to do with foreign policy (pp. 212–3); refrained from protesting about the numerous German violations of Danish air space and territorial waters (pp. 52–9); refused to perform marriages of foreigners if one was Jewish and one German (pp. 209–10); returned political refugees and deserters to Germany, even though they faced certain death there (p. 210); weakened its ties to Britain and the Scandinavian countries (pp. 197–206); etc.

Joesten concludes the book with the hope that Denmark might still change its policy and stand up to Germany, but as we now know, this didn't happen. He wrote this book in 1938 (it was published in 1939), and two years later, Germany overran Denmark, later in fact than he had predicted (as he thought it would happen as soon as the war broke out). I found this book to be quite an enjoyable read, both because it's a contemporary account and because I knew next to nothing about Denmark and the WW2, so everything here was new and interesting to me.

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Sunday, March 27, 2016

BOOK: Joachim Joesten, "Stalwart Sweden"

Joachim Joesten: Stalwart Sweden. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1943. 215 pp. Online on

Joachim Joesten was a German-American journalist; due to his connections with the communist party, he had to run from Germany soon after Hitler came to power. He spent much of the late 1930s and early 40s in Scandinavia, working as a correspondent for various European newspapers. This book, written in 1943, is partly an account of his time in Sweden, but mostly it's a warning that Sweden's pro-Axis leanings are stronger than has been commonly supposed in the West. By the time Joesten was writing this book, it was clear that the war was going in the Allies' favour and that they would probably sooner or later try to liberate Norway and Denmark from German occupation. Most everyone assumed that once it came to this, Sweden would either stay neutral or even join the war on the Allied side, but Joesten is trying to make the case that while this is possible, it is not certain and should not be taken for granted.

“There is a Swedish myth in America [. . .] Its roots go back to the early thirties, when roving reporters and ‘social tourists’ discovered Scandinavia [. . .] searching the globe for a place where people lived peacefully and prosperously in an atmosphere of social progress and international co-operation, found Scandinavia, and, in particular, Sweden, came very close to their dreams [. . .] they eagerly rushed their findings into print.” (Pp. 2–3.) Joesten argues that while this enthusiasm had at one point been justified, Sweden has since then declined considerably from that ideal, but made considerable efforts to prevent this from becoming widely known abroad.

Joesten locates the source of the problem partly in the long-traditional pro-German feelings in Sweden, especially among its ruling classes (p. 22); partly in its equally traditional deep distrust of Russia; and partly in a sort of isolationism which led the Swedish government to abandon the system of collective security that the League of Nations had been trying to promote (p. 25; this system, it seems, was mostly based on sanctions against aggressor states, which invariably proved ineffective), deciding to put its trust into strict neutrality and bilateral treaties with the various great powers (p. 28).

There's a very interesting chapter on steps taken by Nazi Germany to promote pro-German attitudes in Sweden, mostly through influencing the media, writers, journalists etc. Influencing Swedish writers was made easier by the fact that many of them depended on the German market, where they sold more books than they did in their native Sweden (p. 52). Several Nazi parties were also set up in Sweden, but they were tiny and had little influence (pp. 32–3). Joesten points out a number of rabidly pro-German Swedes in the army, in business, in the press, etc.; among them there's also the famous explorer Sven Hedin: “He is a great scientist, to be sure, but whenever he dabbles in world politics—which he does, alas, very frequently—he reveals an almost incredible ignorance and naïveté.” (P. 42.)

One of the main reasons why Sweden was strategically of interest to both sides in the war were its large deposits of very high-quality iron ores; German rearmament in particular would have been impossible without steel imported from Sweden (p. 65).

Another chapter that I found very interesting was about Swedish attitudes towards Russia. In many parts of Europe under Axis influence, it was the hatred of communism that encouraged various collaborators to side with the Axis and fight against Russia; but in Sweden, the anti-communism was, so to speak, just the icing on top of a much larger and older anti-Russian cake. Sweden and Russia had often been at war until eventually, in the early 18th century, Russia emerged from these conflicts as a winner: “Sweden ceased to be a Great Power and Russia became one” (p. 70). Another blow came in 1809 when Russia conquered Finland, which used to belong to Sweden ever since the middle ages. The Swedes seemed to honestly think that Russia would sooner or later try to seize the rest of Scandinavia as well, to get access to ports on the Atlantic coast. German propaganda of course did its best to stoke such fears.

I noticed a good deal of this anti-Russian sentiment in Sven Hedin's 1942 book, America in the Struggle of the Continents, which I recently read; in it, Hedin spends an inordinate amount of time whining about the godless bolshevik hordes that are about to flood western Europe and bring an end to all civilization etc. etc. etc., and he endlessly airs out all the historical grievances between Russia and Sweden that he can think of, from the Viking era onwards. I thought it was just his personal obsession but judging by that Joesten writes here, it was a widespread obsession in Sweden at the time.

I always thought of neutrality as a simple idea, but it turns out to get a bit more complicated when you look at it up close. What exactly must a country do or avoid doing in order to remain neutral? In 1938, the Nazis came up with the perverse if ingenious concept of ‘integral neutrality’: “a small country could not be deemed neutral unless it also refrained from criticizing the Great Powers—especially Germany. [. . .] Germany would not feel bound to respect the proclaimed neutrality of any country whose government did not impose upon its press and public opinion a complete ideological neutrality” (pp. 78–9).

The Swedish government was, quite reasonably, scared shitless of what the Germans might do, so it started exerting more and more pressure on the Swedish press to refrain from criticizing Germany. This gradually developed into a curious situation where Sweden had freedom of the press in all matters except international politics, in which area it was controlled by the government almost as tightly as it would be in a totalitarian regime (pp. 183–90). After the German occupation of Norway, the Swedish government prevented any pro-Norwegian agitation in Sweden (p. 173), and allowed German troops to travel on Swedish railways (p. 178); this arrangement was ostensibly meant for soldiers travelling on leave, but in practice gave Germany a free hand in moving soldiers between Norway and Denmark.

Joesten also writes a little about his personal experiences, which I thought was a great idea as it made for fairly exciting reading and livens up the book considerably. He had been reporting truthfully for the international press on the extent of Swedish appeasement of Germany, much to the annoyance of the Swedish government, which was trying to prevent this appeasement from becoming more widely known. This eventually led them to expel him from the country in 1939, and being stateless, the only country where he could settle was Denmark. He lived there until April 1940 when it was suddenly occupied by the Germans; knowing that the Gestapo would probably be coming for him very soon, he fled, managing to reach Sweden on one of the last boats to cross the Sound. He evaded the Swedish authorities for a few days, hoping to make his way to the as-yet-unoccupied part of Norway, but the Swedes eventually arrested him and interned him. He describes the internment camp as a “peculiar compromise between the innate decency and humanism of Sweden and the invading Nazi zeitgeist” (p. 158). One of the most problematic aspects of it was that the inmates were forced to perform manual labour, even though they had not even been charged with any crimes, let alone found guilty of them. After a few months, he managed to arrange a visa to Costa Rica and was allowed by the Swedes to depart. He eventually settled in the USA and worked there as a journalist.

By the time he was writing this book, it was becoming clear that the Allies would win the war, and Sweden was therefore starting to reduce its various concessions to Germany (pp. 191–5). Joesten concludes with some thoughts on what Sweden might do when the Allies attack the German positions in Norway, as they would sooner or later have to do. He thinks it is unlikely that Sweden could remain neutral in such an event, and points out that Allied statesmen tended to assume that if it would not remain neutral, it would enter the war on their side. Joesten agrees that this is the likeliest outcome, but suggests that it's also a very real possibility that Sweden might join the Axis instead, or perhaps try to seize Norway for itself so as to prevent any spread of Soviet influence into Scandinavia (pp. 202–3), or even that Sweden, torn between these various options, might descend into civil war (p. 204).

Some of these undesirable scenarios struck me as somewhat implausible, and in hindsight we know that none of them happened. The German-occupied parts of Scandinavia were only liberated in the spring of 1945, i.e. not as early as Joesten had hoped; Sweden remained neutral but helped the Allies in various small ways.

This book was an interesting read, partly because I knew so little about Sweden during WW2 and partly because it's a contemporary account, and I always like to see how some historical event was viewed while it was actually happening.


  • Joesten's previous book, Denmark's Day of Doom (1939; the U.S. edition was titled Rats in the Larder), about the Nazi influence in Denmark. He mentions it here on p. 121; it “gave warning of the Nazis' aggressive designs on that country and bared the carelessness, if not the complicity, of the Stauning-Munch regime. [. . .] The Danish Government naturally was furious about my disclosures—which subsequent events have proved to be so tragically true to the last detail.”

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Saturday, February 20, 2016

BOOK: Lorenzo Valla, "Dialectical Disputations"

Lorenzo Valla: Dialectical Disputations. Vol. 1: Book I. Edited and translated by Brian P. Copenhaver and Lodi Nauta. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 49. Harvard University Press, 2012. 9780674055766. l + 397 pp.

Lorenzo Valla: Dialectical Disputations. Vol. 2: Books II–III. Edited and translated by Brian P. Copenhaver and Lodi Nauta. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 50. Harvard University Press, 2012. 9780674061408. v + 591 pp.

Valla was a 15th-century author, whom I first encountered a few years ago when I read his delightful debunking of the Donation of Constantine (see my post from back then). The present work, Dialectical Disputations, is a very different beast, a technical work in philosophy, and I found myself more or less completely out of my depth when reading it — perhaps even more so than with the earlier books about philosophy in the ITRL series (e.g. Ficino's neo-platonic commentaries). I'm not even sure that I really understand what dialectic is; it seems to be basically the art of arguing, related to logic on one side and on rhetoric on the other, and the borders between these things seem to be somewhat fuzzier than I would like them to be.

Valla's treatise is divided into three books, proceeding from smaller units towards more complex ones: the first book is about terms, the second about propositions and the third about entire arguments. I thought this was a good idea, and it could be the basis for a fine introductory book on this subject — but unfortunately this wasn't really that book. It wasn't written for people like me, who know next to nothing about this subject; Valla more or less assumes that the reader is already familiar with established ideas about dialectic, e.g. from Aristotle and various medieval logicians, and he mostly presents his own ideas by way of criticizing and arguing against those established ones. This no doubt made a lot of sense for him and his original readership, but it does mean that the book is largely unsuitable for someone like me. The translators, to their credit, have tried to help by providing extensive notes and commentaries, but frankly that wasn't enough. If I really wanted to get anything out of a book like this, it seems that I'd first have to spend a lot of time reading what e.g. Aristotle has written about these things, but from what I've seen here both of his and of Valla's ideas on the subject, I'm not really inclined to want to read more about them.

For example, these people seem to be expending a great deal of energy on complications arising from the fact that they're doing all their arguing in natural language (Greek or Latin, in their case) — perhaps with a few constraints (“regimented language”, as the translators call it in their very interesting and extensive introduction, p. xii), but still basically natural human language, which inevitably comes with all sorts of messiness and ambiguity. And so Valla in his first book spends a huge amount of time talking about the meaning of words like “every” and “any”, or “some” or “none” — or of some of their odd-looking synonyms with which Latin appears to have been unusually rich, and which the translators somewhat desperately had to translate into English by employing monstrosities like “not-none” and “not-any” (see e.g. vol. 2, n. 16 on p. 480). Negation is another big minefield, as when you're using negation somewhere in a sentence it's very easy to introduce some ambiguity as to which part exactly you're trying to negate.

I couldn't help feeling that the vast majority of these complications could be avoided simply by using symbolic notation like we do nowadays. Nowadays you can write things like “∀x: P(x)” and if you want to negate something, you put a ¬ there and it's quite clear what exactly is being negated — or you can add parentheses if necessary. Probably half if not two-thirds of what Valla is talking about would be rendered completely superfluous if notation like this were available to him. I don't mean this as a criticism of him or of other early logicians, of course — clearly this sort of notation isn't as obvious as it may appear to a naive observer like me, otherwise it would have been invented earlier and they would have saved themselves a lot of trouble.

There's an interesting comment on this in the translator's introduction (vol. 1, p. xix): “Valla misses, or wants to miss, a key point about philosophical speech: that no natural language will do the job for the philosopher. [. . .] philosophers need a language of their own, [. . .] philosophy cannot always conform to classical usage. When logic or metaphysics speaks about language itself, philosophy pushes hard against the limits of speech.”

Perhaps another reason why he wouldn't be too keen to employ symbolic notation (even if it was available) is that he seems to be clearly interested in arguing as a practical activity, not just as a game of shuffling symbols around a sheet of paper. He constantly gives examples of arguments in the context of law, oratory, philosophy etc., which inevitably have to occur in a more-or-less natural language.

Here's a fine example of the sort of word salad which comes from insisting on doing everything in natural language (and which ends up covering probably half the book): “ ‘Someone’ also differs from ‘anyone’ and ‘anybody,’ which are — in a sense — half way between ‘some’ and ‘any,’ as I shall explain later when dealing with negation. And it differs from ‘not-none’ which, in a sense, is half way between ‘some’ and ‘a certain,’ so now I shall discuss the distinctions betweeen them.” (2.5.16)

The first book also contains several sections that seemed to me to be digressions into areas that have nothing at all to do with logic or dialectic, and I have no idea why he included them. He has long chapters “on spirit and on god and angels” (1.8), “on the soul” (1.9), “on virtues” (1.10); there's plenty of discussion about things like species and genera, a division which seemed to me somewhat arbitrary (sure, you can come up with several levels of increasingly large and abstract groupings of things, but why would you arbitrarily declare some of these to be species and some to be genera? but then what do I know, no doubt I'm missing the point spectacularly anyway) — see e.g. 1.7.10–12 for some fine examples of this kind of pointless taxonomizing (“bodiless substance, meaning ‘spirit,’ is divided into creating and created; created into angelic and nonangelic; angelic (if you like) into celestial and infernal” etc. etc.); and Valla has a great deal to say about Aristotle's categories (or “predicaments”, as he prefers to call them), another set of very abstract concepts whose usefulness seemed less than obvious to me. Valla is trying to simplify Aristotle's system a bit, which struck me as a good idea, but the result still looked like a not particularly illuminating bunch of abstractions.

The second book is about propositions, which in this context mostly means simple sentences of the form “every / none / some x is (not) a y”. With a bit of stretching, this sort of sentences can express many things: membership in a group (“Socrates is a man”), being a subgroup of (“every man is an animal”), or even an action (“Socrates is running”). I wondered whether it was a good idea to make these very different sorts of claims so much alike in form. Anyway, Valla then introduces or discusses a great deal of terminology related to these propositions, most of which probably shouldn't be blamed on him as I guess it was established long before his time. Thus we learn that a proposition contains a subject (x) and a predicate (y), that it has quality (affirmative or negative) and quantity (universal or particular), that there are about four ways in which two propositions (with the same subject and predicate) can be (somewhat) opposed to each other: contradictory, contrary, subcontrary and subalternate; that sometimes one proposition can be “converted” into a different one with the same meaning (e.g. “no x is a y” ⇔ “no y is an x”). (The translator has provided very nice appendices with an overview of this stuff; Vol. 2, pp. 449–65.) This is all well and good (and true), but again I couldn't help feeling how much clearer and simpler this would all be with symbolic notation, and how much of the terminology could be avoided along the way, as being unnecessary.

The third book treats arguments in a similar way as the second book treated propositions. Valla is particularly interested in syllogisms, which are short arguments in which two propositions (premises) lead to a third one (conclusion), e.g. “every man is an animal; Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is an animal”. As we saw earlier, each proposition can take several forms, depending on whether it uses “every” or “some”, whether it uses negation, etc.; and thus there are quite a lot of possible forms for the syllogism as a whole. Some of these combinations will make a valid argument, most won't. All of this seemed to me to be perfectly obvious when you see the syllogism written out as a series of three sentences (or, even better, when you write it in symbolic notation), but for these early logicians this wasn't enough — they were obsessed with classifying and naming these various types of syllogisms, like a tribe of entomologists run amok. Valla describes the classification of syllogisms into “figures” and “moods”, and mentions in passing the ingenious system of mnemonic names (like “Barbara”, “Celarent” and so on) which had been devised for the various forms of syllogisms. The vowels tell you the forms of the three propositions in the syllogism, but I didn't quite understand what the consonants were for.

This was in a way interesting, but I couldn't help being reminded of Rutherford's (in)famous phrase: “just stamp collecting”. Sure, it's nice to classify the nineteen or however many valid types of syllogism (Valla dislikes some of them, saying that they can be reduced to some of the others; 3.9); but does it really lead us to understand anything any better than we did before? Would someone who has studied this stuff really use it during a real argument? — as in, “oooh, this politician has just used a syllogism of such-and-such a form, which is not one of the nineteen valid ones — bad politician, bad!” (*whacks him with a rolled-up newspaper*). I don't think so. In practice you evaluate an argument by thinking about it in its own terms, not by trying to pattern-match it to one of the nineteen types that you've learned by heart during a course in dialectic.

Some of the other chapters in this last book were more interesting, especially where Valla presents various types of arguments which are often used in a fallacious manner: sorites (3.12), dilemma (3.13), induction (3.16).

What to say at the end? Although I missed the point of much of this book, there was also a lot of interesting stuff in it. As I already said, the translators' introduction and notes are extensive and interesting (though they would need to be still more extensive if they wanted to make the book accessible to someone like me — but that was of course not their purpose, and there's no good reason why it should have been). I also enjoyed Valla's style (whenever he gets away from strict logical technicalities), for the same reasons as in the Donation of Constantine — he adopts a mock-exasperated tone when arguing against Aristotle or Boethius or whoever else happens to be his current target; he ends up writing like an impassioned orator or a defense lawyer. Those passages liven up the text considerably and were a delight to read. (“Boethius abuses many people, as well as his own language”, 1.20.2; “you babbling Cyclops, you fool! You family of Peripatetics who cherish nonsense! You nation of lunatics! Have you ever heard anyone arguing like this?”, 3.9.3.) I'd definitely be interested in reading more of Valla's work, if he wrote anything less technical.


I so don't want to know what happened here: “This is just the monstrosity that Aristotle describes: in the unborn fetuses of certain mice are found other fetal mice.” (1.8.16)

Translator's note 104 in vol. 1, p. 348: “letters from Perotti, who seems to have believed that Valla succeeded in squaring the circle, which is entirely compatible with his grasp of mathematics” :))

I don't know if this delightfully mean comment refers to Perotti or Valla, but the following couple of quotes show that Valla certainly had a poor grasp of physics (not that we should hold this against him, I guess the 15th century was pretty early for physics after all):

“Yet there is no weight in air. Bags are no heavier when inflated than when they have collapsed, nor are ships or boxes heavier than the material from which they are constructed.“ (1.11.17)

“I am also doubtful that there is any lightness in air or fire. For if a sense judges lightness or heaviness, then how will this sense judge a quality of those elements if it does not sense it? I do not sense the whole sky and all the air being held up by me.” (1.14.3)

Valla cites an interesting passage from Quintilian in 2.8.16: “in Livy I find there was some teacher who directed his followers to make their statements obscure [. . .] and thus giving rise to that singular compliment, ‘not even I understood’ ”.

“Arellius, a painted in ancient times and otherwise a good and famous artist, being always passionately involved with some woman, nearly always painted goddesses; but such were the likenesses that he made of his lady friends that you could not tell whether he was making harlots out of goddesses or goddesses out of harlots.” :))

A fine passage from Valla's introduction to Book III: “When two of us dispute with one another, we are not really enemies, as those people are when they fight; both of us soldier under the same commander — the Truth.” He goes on to condemn those who argue just for the sake of winning, regardless of whether truth is on their side or not. Alas, many people still do that nowadays.

In 3.15.31–2, he cautions against using arguments by analogy in situations when the cases are not actually analougous. That's well and good, but the example he uses to illustrate this is: “If familiarity with a male slave is shameful for the mistress of the house, familiarity with a maidservant is disgraceful for the master”. In Valla's view, this is a fallacious argument and is easily refuted by pointing out that the cases are in fact dissimilar: “A master's having sex with a maidservant is not like a mistress with a slave”. I'm not really surprised that this sort of double standard existed, but I am a little surprised that he was so blunt about it :))

A fine example of Roman decadence: note 143 in vol. 2, p. 500 mentions “Lucius Cornificius who prosecuted Brutus for Caesar's assassination and used to ride an elephant to dinner on special occasions”.

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