To believe out of boredom

“People who find their daily lives too empty and monotonous easily become religious; this is understandable and excusable, only they have no right to demand religiousness from those whose daily lives do not pass in an empty and monotonous way.”

Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human (I) 115, translated by Gary Handwerk (SUP)

I must have heard it more than ten times this year: people saying their religion saved them from a life of mindless consumerism. Do modern people embrace these anachronistic answers simply because they’re bored? And if they are, how is that possible?

Naerøyfjorden, by Karamell  [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0

Naerøyfjorden, by Karamell [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0

Nietzsche’s aphorisms on religion are often cited; the most controversial ones can be found everywhere. But he did more than declare himself to be the Antichrist. According to Nietzsche, it was historically inevitable that Christianity would become obsolete. In “The religious life”, the third chapter of his book “Human, All Too Human”, he describes how, a long time ago, people regarded nature as inexplicable, lawless and extremely powerful. They reacted by inventing rules and customs for humans, hoping that these would serve to influence nature in a magical way. They were looking to make it rain at the right time, to compel the sun to rise in the morning and they had no sense of causality.

“If one rows, it is not the rowing that moves the boat, but the rowing is instead only a magical ceremony by means of which one forces a spirit to move the boat.”

Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human (I) 111, translation Gary Handwerk (SUP)

He describes how the ancient Greeks were the first to realise that moira (fate) reigned over both humans and immortal gods.  The interaction between the Greeks and their heroes and gods was quite natural, they [did] not need to be ashamed in each other’s presence. Compared to their way of life, the Christian vision can be seen as a step back. According to that, humans are not simply a lesser nobility when compared to those that live on Mount Olympus: instead they are awaiting a gleam of divine pity from a state of complete depravity.

So when Nietzsche hears the church bells on a Sunday morning, he asks himself rhetorically:

“Surely in our time the Christian religion is an anachronism projecting out of the distant past … ”

HH 113, translation Gary Handwerk (SUP)

Boats on a lake, by Hiroshige [Public domain]

Boats on a lake, by Hiroshige [Public domain]

Is religion a fitting answer to the ennui that stems from having it all (as long as it’s made of plastic, somewhere in China)? Nietzsche looked past Christianity and felt the threat of nihilism, a philosophy that would be hard to embrace and to eventually transcend. Those he saw around him were more confident; they trusted science to come up with all the answers and the army to bring them lasting victories. Nietzsche knew there would come a time when those answers would no longer be valid.

“Modern science has as its goal: as little pain as possible, as long a life as possible — hence, a sort of eternal bliss, admittedly a very modest one in comparison with the promises of religions.”

Human, All Too Human (I) translation Gary Handwerk

At the time he wrote Human, All Too Human he thought humanity was moving forward although it might take millennia to register any progress. I wonder how many of us are rowing our own boats today.

The truth about Pandora

According to Greek mythology, Pandora was the first woman. She was created when Zeus was angry because Prometheus stole the fire.

Prometheus carrying fire, by Jan Cossiers [public domain]

Prometheus carrying fire, by Jan Cossiers [public domain]

Son of Iapetos, surpassing all in cunning, you are glad that you have outwitted me and stolen fire — a great plague to you yourself and to men that shall be. But I will give men as the price for fire an evil thing in which they may all be glad of heart while they embrace their own destruction.”

Hesiod, Works and Days (800-700 BCE) Translation Evelyn-White

Hephaistos, the lame god of fire, mixed earth and water into a lovely maiden and all the Olympian Gods gave her a gift to make her even more attractive. For instance, Hesiod describes how Aphrodite shed grace upon her head and cruel longing and cares that weary the limbs. The woman was called Pandora, which means All-Gifts. Hermes brought her to Epimetheus, who looked at her and forgot that he’d been advised never to accept a present from Zeus. He brought her home, where Pandora took the lid from the jar she carried. Fate came flying out, together with Hard Toil and Sickness and Plagues. All these found a home among men, whose lives were miserable because of it. Pandora and Epimetheus eventually had a daughter, Pyrrha; the first mortal woman.

Hesiod told his story to warn us there is no way to escape Zeus, even though Prometheus managed to temporarily outwit him. In his Theogony, he describes Pandora as “sheer guile, not to be withstood by men”. He certainly gives the impression that both Pandora herself and the jar she carried were unwanted gifts.

Pandora, by Alexandre Cabanel [public domain] CC 3.0 license

Pandora, by Alexandre Cabanel [public domain] CC 3.0 license

If we try to imagine a world without the beauty of women or the cruel surprises of fate, without hard work and sickness, it would not inspire us, however much this blessed but uneventful life might have appealed to Hesiod. I think Prometheus’ fire, Pandora and the contents of the jar conspired to make the life of the pre-Socratic Greeks tragic.

“…since tragedy no less than beauty may be said do exist only in the eyes of the beholder, whose sensibility has been formed and cultivated by art.” Richard Schacht, Making Sense of Nietzsche, in an essay on the Birth of Tragedy

What always fascinates me, is that Hesiod’s is not the only way to tell this particular story.

Homer says in his Iliad that there were two urns, one filled with evils and one with blessings. Zeus can mingle these and bestow them at will. Theognis in his Greek Elegy (6th century BCE) describes the inverse of Hesiod: Pandora opens the jar and all the good gods come out and instantly leave for Mount Olympus: Trust, Restraint and Charitas are lost forever. Therefore, people forget about the rules of conduct and acts of piety. In this version, the people are not the innocent victims of a wrathful Zeus but they become forgetful and can no longer trust each other. This is what brings tragedy to their lives.

Maybe the beautiful maiden was innocent, too. Aesop claims Pandora’s husband had no self-control and opened the jar. (Aesop’s Fables # 526, 6th century BCE). There is one thing all these writers agree on: Hope was kept in the jar, either because Pandora closed it in time or because Zeus had designed it to happen like that.

Is that a good thing? After all, hope does nothing to protect us from the tragedies of life. However, Aeschylus is not alone in arguing that it keeps us alive instead:

Prometheus: Yes, I caused mortals to cease foreseeing their doom.

Chorus: Of what sort was the cure that you found for this affliction?

Prometheus: I caused blind hopes to dwell within their breasts.

Chorus: A great benefit was this you gave to mortals.

Aeschylus, from the Greek Tragedy “Prometheus Bound” (5th century BCE) translation Weir Smyth

The texts cited above were found on the Greek mythology site theoi.com.

To know thyself by aphorism

“Philosophy triumphs easily over past evils and future evils; but present evils triumph over it.”

François de La Rochefoucauld, 1664

I’d like to know if that is just an observation, based on the French nobleman’s own experiences and those of the people he saw around him, or a timeless truth. What do you think?

La Rochefoulcauld, Inner Court, by Thierry de Villepin [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

La Rochefoulcauld, Inner Court, by Thierry de Villepin [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

An aphorism is a short, pithy statement of an evident truth concerned with life or nature. The word was first used by Hippocrates in 400 BCE in his collection that started with the words: “Life is short and Art long; the crisis fleeting…”

Everyone who thinks they’ve heard that before doesn’t need to be convinced of the usefulness of aphorisms: they stick in your mind, even though they are often remembered incorrectly or misappropriated. Such a short statement easily gets misinterpreted, of course, but I like to think that is part of its charm. I first encountered La Rochefoucauld’s collection because Nietzsche apparently read them, when he was in Sorrento working on Human, All Too Human in the company of Paul Rée. Nietzsche remarked that writing aphorisms in German is almost impossible, because one always ends up with a cumbersome load of auxiliary verbs at the end of an otherwise terse sentence. He also wondered if a person who had never tried to write one could appreciate the work involved.

“…for even the subtlest mind is not capable of properly appreciating the art of polishing maxims if he has not himself been brought up for it and competed at it … Hence, the present-day readers of maxims get a relatively paltry satisfaction from them, hardly any pleasure in tasting them, so that they respond to them just like people generally do in looking at cameos: they praise them because they cannot love them, and are quick to admire and even quicker to run away.”

Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, I: 35 SUP 1995

Cameo, by Bellezzedinapoli [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Cameo, by Bellezzedinapoli [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

On a French website, I read how La Rochefoucauld used the second half of his life to write about his experiences in the first half. And most of those were disappointing. He was married at fifteen and joined the army a year later. He fought in the aristocratic uprisings of his time and got seriously wounded, once by a bullet in the head. These experiences and his being a French nobleman made him a pessimist in a detached, elitist way.

“We are never so happy or so unhappy as we suppose.”

In the introduction to his “Reflections; or Sentences and Moral Maxims” he makes such an effort to describe his own face to his readers that I wasn’t surprised to find quite a few thoughts on vanity and  amour-propre. He writes that self-love is the greatest of flatterers and that “Whatever discoveries have been made in the region of self-love, there remain many unexplored territories there.” This inspired the translator to say that La Rochefoucauld wished to find a motive for all our actions in pride, vanity and egotism.

La Rochefoucauld, salon, by Thierry de Villepin [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

La Rochefoucauld, salon, by Thierry de Villepin [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

La Rochefoucauld certainly identifies these as our driving forces, rather than nobility, morality and love:

“If there is a pure love, exempt from the mixture of our other passions, it is that which is concealed at the bottom of the heart and of which even ourselves are ignorant.”

Nietzsche writes about the pros and cons of these psychological observations and decides they are necessary, not from a need for witty coquettishness, but because they tell us how we are human. A good aphorism looks us in the eye and tells us an uncomfortable truth, which was certainly Nietzsche’s intention. To end on a suitably pessimist note:

“We have all sufficient strength to support the misfortunes of others.”

La Rochefoucauld

Petrarca’s cat

Francesco Petrarca lived from 1304 to 1374. His father wanted him to have a career in law, but he chose poetry, and was crowned poet laureate in Rome. His speech, commemorating the Classic poets who inspired him, was seen as the first Renaissance manifesto. Petrarch is often called the first tourist; he travelled for pleasure and was remembered for climbing the Mont Ventoux. He was a devout Catholic, but is called the father of humanism because he thought God wanted humans to use their intellectual and creative potential to the fullest.

During his life, the period he named the Dark Ages gave way to the Renaissance and in his personal life there is evidence of many conflicting wishes and thoughts: at first he was a priest and felt the attractions of a contemplative life but he also wanted a family. He spent a large part of his life travelling for pleasure but he also tried to find a place to settle down. He was a Catholic who voiced criticism of church leadership and a romantic who wanted to dedicate his life’s work to a woman he loved from a distance. All these influences can be found in Petrarca’s poetry, his letters and his often unfinished books. He considered his sonnets a work in progress and kept rewriting them all through his life.

In 1327 he saw a woman called Laura in a church at Avignon and fell in love with her. Since she was already married, Petrarca expressed his love and later his grief over her death in sonnets and in songs (canzoniere).

I find no peace, and yet I make no war:

and fear, and hope: and burn, and I am ice:

and fly above the sky, and fall to earth.

and clutch at nothing, and embrace the world.

Petrarca, Canzoniere, 134

He never married, but he had a son and daughter he later legitimised. At his former house near Padua the mummy of his cat can still be seen, with these epigrams in Latin written by Antonio Quarenghi in 1604.

The Tuscan bard of deathless fame

Nursed in his breast a double flame

Unequally divided;

And when I say I had his heart

While Laura play’d the second part

I must not be derided.

Oeil, by Guylaine Brunet (posted to Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

Oeil, by Guylaine Brunet (posted to Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

For my fidelity was such,

It merited regard as much

As Laura’s grace and beauty;

She first inspired the poet’s lay,

But since I drove the mice away,

His love repaid my duty.

Manuscrito_de_Petrarca.jpg: Manu Matthaei [Public domain]

Manuscrito_de_Petrarca.jpg: Manu Matthaei [Public domain]

Through all my exemplary life,

So well did I in constant strife

Employ my claws and curses,

That even now, though I am dead,

Those nibbling wretches dare not tread

On one of Petrarch’s verses

Sadly, the website mentions that the embalmed cat was probably put there by a later owner of the house and that Petrarca has never mentioned a cat in his own writings. Scientists recently opened Petrarca’s tomb preparing to make a reconstruction of his face, but they discovered the skull fragments in there did not belong to him. As with many people who lived a long time before us, we’ll never know the whole story. But that is part of the attraction. As is the fact that poems prove more resistant to passing centuries than big, marble tombs. As Petrarca himself predicted.

A feather tale

“This feather may look worthless, but it comes from afar and it carries with it all my good intentions.”

Amy Tan, the Joy Luck Club

The feather Amy Tan describes is a swan feather, the sole reminder of a swan that was carried from China and wasn’t allowed into the United States. Her character kept the feather as a token. The paradox appealed to me. One swan feather looks exactly like another; nothing Chinese about it. Only the story remains.

Mirrored, by aussiegall from sydney, Australia (Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://cc.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

Mirrored, by aussiegall from sydney, Australia (Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://cc.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

Here, at pipteinpteron, you might catch a falling feather. It may seem worthless, or not. At best, this blog will start you musing. The writer’s quill is powerful, but who said I was a writer?

This won’t get personal and it won’t get opinionated. I’m looking for those fragments of knowledge that spark a thought, open your eyes or make you feel like flying, if only for a moment. Just imagine how:

“What opposes, unites.” Heraclitus DK 8

I’m delighted to see the many translations of ancient texts on the internet. Many people spend their time creating these sites, making the work of philosophers like Heraclitus more accessible than ever before. So that’s all good. Or is it?

“Your invention [of writing] will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.” Plato, Phaedrus

Maybe a genuine interest in philosophy means you read closely, and read again. And then you write about it. And hopefully, someone reads you.