11/21/2010

Cogito ergo sum


I think, therefore I exist

This is not a quote from an ancient author, but from a seventeenth century French philosopher. Of course, Rene Descartes (1596-1650). Although Descartes chose to write his seminal work, the Discourse on Method, in French (so that, in his words, "even women can understand it") and not in the international scientific language of the time, Latin, the quote that condenses its fundamental idea has become famous in that latter language and not in its original version: "Je pense, donc je suis." The Discours de la methode was first published in 1637 as an introduction to a number of other studies. A Latin version was finally published in 1656 under the title Dissertatio de Methodo
Cogito ergo sum is one of the most popular Latin quotations. Its meaning is not, however, equally well known. Descartes's assertion may seem, at first glance, trivial, but it must be understood in its context. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, philosophical skepticism was in a boom phase. It was a time of bloody wars of religion in which opposing dogmas generated in intellectual circles a strong tendency to relativism. To this was added the influence of the popularity of some ancient skeptic philosophers such as Sextus Empiricus. Descartes's goal in his Discourse on Method was to fight this skepticism and to provide a basis on which human knowledge could be developed. In the search of that unquestionably principle, Descartes applies systematic doubt to reject any assertion with the slightest possibility of falsehood. In this way he discovers that one can doubt about almost anything: the information our senses give us is not reliable, we easily fall prey to illusions, and there is no guarantee that the everyday world we experience is not just a fantasy of our own conscience or -as suggested by Descartes himself- the deception of a malignant deity.
Doubt seems, therefore, to destroy everything and leave no solid foundation for knowledge, but Descartes finds a point at which doubt must necessarily stop: there is a person who is thinking that everything is false and, if this person is thinking, this means she exists and that cannot be doubted. That is the idea expressed in the quotation under discussion, Cogito ergo sum. In his search for a method based on a totally rational foundation, Descartes finds a fundamental and undeniable truth: the existence of the self as the basis of all acts of unquestionable knowledge.
After finding this preliminary truth, Descartes extracts from it a general criterion that allows him to identify other truths: every simple intuition must be true or, put another way, all clear and distinct ideas must be true. I think that Descartes here contradicts the first and central of the four methodological principles he had laid down in the second part of his Discourse on Method: "not to accept as true anything, if there is not evidence that it is". Now, that an idea is clear and distinct is not enough evidence of veracity, besides, the clarity of an idea is appreciated differently by different people. As the humanist, historian and philosopher Giambattista Vico (1688-1744) said, if an idea seems us clear and distinct that does not mean it's true but only that we believe in it.

9/03/2010

concedo nulli


I yield to nobody

The Romans worshiped in the figure of the god Terminus the sanctity of boundary stones. According to legend (Livy, 1.55), when king Tarquin began construction of the temple of Jupiter on the Capitol, he ordered the removal of the altars and shrines of all the gods that were worshiped there, so the area could be devoted exclusively to the king of the gods. All were transferred without problems, except for Terminus, represented with a stone that could not be removed. The Romans saw in this fact a manifestation of divine will, and let the rock inside the temple. Hence the expression "I yield to no one", because Terminus had refused to yield to Jupiter himself. This fact was interpreted as an omen, meaning that the dominion of Rome would be everlasting. The prophecy proved valid for centuries.
The celebrity of the sentence “concedo nulli” is due to Erasmus, who took it as a personal motto in 1509, adopting the old god Terminus as its emblem. The young Erasmus was then in Italy, and began to enjoy international recognition for his work and abilities. Apparently, Erasmus received from his pupil Alexander Stewart a gem depicting the god Terminus, and this is what inspired him to take the image of the god and the Latin quotation discussed here as personal emblems. They appear in a famous commemorative medal minted for Erasmus, whose image you see below. Erasmus is also shown next to the god Terminus in a famous engraving by Holbein.


Erasmus' enemies saw this motto as a sign of intolerable arrogance. In 1528 Erasmus wrote a letter justifying his choice of these words and trying to disarm his critics: the "epistola apologetica de Termini sui inscriptione concedo nulli" There, the great humanist stated that the term did not represent his own words, but those of death, the only one that yields to nobody. But this explanation did not satisfy his enemies. Written almost twenty years after the original stay of Erasmus in Italy, it seems, in fact, a later reworking. Humility was never one of Erasmus virtues. Posterity has been, however, more benign in judging Erasmus than his contemporaries.

5/21/2010

Habent sua fata libelli


Books have their fates
Only a tiny fraction of the literary production of the ancient world has survived. This fraction has been transmitted by a very thin thread that throughout history was countless times close to breaking. Reflecting on the hazards that have determined what has survived and what has perished, it is inevitable not to agree with this statement: books, like men, have their fates.
The author of the quoted sentence is an example of this process. The grammarian Terentianus Maurus lived in the second century AD and was of African origin, as its name suggests. His major work, De litteris de syllabis, de metris (About pronunciation, syllables and metric), is conserved only in a fragmentary state. Forgotten during the Middle Ages, a manuscript with the text was discovered in 1493 and disappeared shortly after the first printed edition was published in Milan in 1497.
The most curious fate of some books is that their content is sometimes misunderstood or interpreted in a very different way from that desired by the author. Terentianus' phrase is a clear example, the meaning with which we have discussed it here and which is often cited, is not the one he intended. The verse from which it was taken reads:
Pro captu lectoris libelli habent sua fata
Books have their fates according to the reader's capacity

8/07/2009

Homo homini lupus - Man is a wolf to man


This famous Latin phrase is first attested in a comedy by Plautus (250-184 BC). There, a character says:

Lupus est homo homini, non homo, non quom qualis sit novit

Wolf is the man for man, not man, when he does not know who is the other.

Erasmus included this phrase in his collection of adages, but his celebrity is due to the modern British philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). Hobbes is known today mainly for his groundbreaking developments in the field of political theory (especially in his work Leviathan, whose cover is here reproduced), but he was also a philologist and eminent scholar of classical antiquity, as is evidenced by his -still today frequently reprinted- English translation of Thucydides.

Having experienced the atrocities and cruelties of the English Civil War, one of Hobbes’ central aims was the discovery of the rational principles that could help building a stable political regime. The state of nature (i.e., the absence of government) was considered by Hobbes as a synonym for a permanent state of war of all against all, in which the achievements of civilized life would be impossible. Only a government with concentrated power can, in his conception, avoid that conflict. The Latin phrase homo homini lupus illustrates this idea with great force. If a greater authority does not impose restrictions on their brutal instincts, men behave like beasts ready to fall on each other.

This pessimistic view of human nature has been criticized from every position imaginable, perhaps rightly so. History, however, shows beyond doubt that man is the most formidable predator of its peers.

7/24/2009

Cave canem!


Beware of the dog
(From a Pompeian Mosaic)

The ruins of Pompeii bear -for its wealth of information- unique testimony to the richness and variety of daily life in an ancient Roman city. Visitors of the modern archaeological park near Naples are doubly surprised, because Pompeii offers an unexpected mix of known and strange things. The first impression the city gives is one of “modernity”, the urban design and the buildings seem remarkably familiar to us. This familiarity is, however, only superficial, and visitors soon marvel at the many exotic elements in every corner of the city.

Among the many surprisingly familiar things, there is a beautiful little mosaic depicting a chained dog together with the brief text Cave Canem, beware the dog. The mosaic is on the floor of the entrance hall to the House of the Tragic Poet, (a house famous for its particularly exquisite decoration with mosaic floors and frescoes depicting well known scenes from Greek mythology). A similar picture is described by Petronius (Satyricon 29) and it is sure that mosaics like this one were a popular motif for the thresholds of Roman villas and rich houses.

This short phrase (quite different from the deep and philosophical reflections normally discussed in this blog) has for me a special charm. In my opinion, it illustrates how Latin can give a powerful force even to the more banal thoughts and expressions.

7/15/2009

Fortuna multis dat nimis, satis nulli




Fortune gives too much to many, enough to no one

Martial, Epigrams, 12, 10, 2.

Satirical wit and brevity are the essence of epigram and Martial is the undisputed master of the genre. The poet is a cynical observer of imperial Rome, and an intelligent critic of its vices and miseries. His poems are classics because its criticism transcends time and reflects the flaws that plague human nature at all times. Insatiable greed is one of them. The tone of the Martial Epigrams is, however, never too harsh, never quite damning. In his work, a decadent and sophisticated society looks itself, and this, rather than to reproach, moves to laughter.

7/04/2009

Ars longa, vita brevis

Life is short, art long

Seneca, De brevitate vitae1

This is the Latin translation of one of Hippocrates’ aphorisms:
βίος βραχς, δ τέχνη μακρ, δ καιρς ξς, δ περα σφαλερ, δκρίσις χαλεπή
Vita brevis, ars longa, occasio praeceps, experimentum periculosum, iudicium difficile

Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting, experiment dangerous, judgment difficult.

Anyone who has ventured into a field in pursuit of human knowledge knows the feeling of helplessness that this proverb evokes. There is so much to learn, reality is so complex that many lives would not suffice to quench our thirst for knowledge. Thus science is like a torch, which is transmitted from generation to generation, each making only the small contribution that the narrow limits of his mortality and transience allow. But Seneca quotes this phrase at the beginning of his treatise on the brevity of life to express his disagreement:

We have not received a short life, but made it short. We are not poor in time, but wasteful.