The women of Heinrich Schliemann

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On Christmas 1890 in Piazza Carità in Naples, Italy an unknown lonely old gentleman dressed in simple attire – clearly a foreigner – while strolling with an absentminded attitude silently faints and lies down on the sidewalk; succoured by the bystanders he is rapidly transported to the nearest hospital, in vain: he passed away after two days. This elderly tourist was Heinrich Schliemann, without any shade of doubt the most legendary archaeologist of all times, the very first explorer of Troy, Tyrint and Mycenae, the discoverer of the celebrated so called Treasure of Priam and Mask of Agamemnon, the precursor of the excavations of Crete and Orchomenus. The extraordinary successful and energetic pioneer was 68 and still ready for more expeditions and quarrying. Born in North-East Germany to a underprivileged family, thanks to his indomitable tenacity, highly uncommon practical intelligence and – of course, for it is always needed – a fair dose of luck, this incredible merchant had been able before reaching forty to accumulate quite a great fortune, to retire from business and finally devote himself to the pursuit of the very dream of his childhood: to become and archaeologist and, by following the clues traceable within Homer’s masterpieces, to identify, localise and uncover the city of Ilios – which he actually did.

Being a self-made man, with inconsequential curricular studies he was apathetically scorned by the European intelligentsia and aloofly derided by the academics. Furthermore he was continuously and strenuously fighting against home and foreign bureaucracy and political intrusions. Nevertheless, supported by his remarkable determination and – of course, for it always helps – by his fathomless bank account, he finally was rewarded with great discovering achievements and received many honours. Yet, there are good reason to believe that he was in his inner nature a gloomy and murky character, inclined to sadness and altogether convinced of being unappreciated and misunderstood. This more intimate side of his temperament is indeed palpable when examining his relationships, where contradictory feelings and behaviours show the contrast between the greatly resolute successful businessman and his insecure sentimental nature.

His adolescent love Minna Meincke, a neighbour girl of better condition, got married in 1847 with someone else, while he – quite naively indeed – expected to marry her himself on his way back to Germany: as meantime working in the Netherlands and Russia he had acquired a considerable social status and significant finances. He indirectly asked her to marry him, via a friend C.E. Laué who reported him the sad outcome, which prostrated him: “But to my horror I received a month afterward the news she had just got married

Immediately afterwards he proposed to a German young lady living in Saint Petersburg, Sophie Hekker, whose greedy father, in spite of her reluctances, was more than willing to force her to accept. However Heinrich broke the romance for a rush of jealousy and went to the USA. Later, on his way back from California he proposed again to her – and at the same time to an attorney’s daughter, Katherina Lyshin; for, being a shrewd entrepreneur, he had guessed his reiterated proposal to Sophie would have been rejected. By the way it occurred that the two prospect spouses were acquainted with each other… However, shortly after his return from San Francisco on October 7th, 1852 in Saint Isaac Cathedral of Saint Petersburg Heinrich married Katherina Lyshin, who gave him three children Serge, Natalia, Nadeshda. Nonetheless it was soon evident that Katherina did not love him at all, as he writes to a friend of his: “She enjoys to portray me to everyone as a terrible tyrant, a despot, a debauched…”

Basically she deprecated his juvenile scholar dreams and youthful intellectual attempts, despised travelling with him (during their marriage years  he had visited – all by himself – several major European capitals, Egypt, Japan, India, China, Singapore…) and abhorred the idea of leaving Russia to settle down in Paris, in spite of his numerous appeals and letters: “Every night I go to theatre or conferences held by the most famous professors of the world, Touvé, Beulé, the viscount de Rougé and I could tell you stories for ten years without ever boring you…”

Knowing she loved Dresden he offered to settle down there instead of Paris, but also this offered solution was of no avail. Greedy of opulence and social ostentation, it seems she never really understood what was really important to him. Katherina, who never shared any intellectual and spiritual interests with him, slowly pushed him away in a deeper solitude and discomfort. Evidently the transformation of her husband from a highly acclaimed trader and banker to a weird amateur archaeologist, derided by the entire academic world, scantily travelling to dusty remote places and meagrely living away from the jet set and its lust and comforts was something way beyond her comprehension and acceptance. On Christmas 1868 she literally ran away from him, putting him in a deep state of consternation, as he wrote her:

You fled from home just because you knew that your poor husband was about to come back home. I had come to see you and stay with you at least one week and try to restore harmony between us, at any rate; actually I swear to God Almighty I was willing to make any kind of possible concession, I was ready to sacrifice 1 million francs to re-establish domestic peace. But how you behaved towards me! I still shiver for the dismay and the horror of your infernal conduct…. Yet, surely you never heard me utter one single bad word, even when your terrible and execrable behaviour had broken my heart…

He finally realised he could not make happy a woman who detested him and filed for divorce. Nonetheless Heinrich was stubborn in his pursuit for conjugal contentment. He confessed to a friend of his: “I strongly need to have by my side a heart that loves me”. And consequently he was contemplating, this time with the intercession of his cousin Adolph, to marry a cousin of his, Sophie Bürger: a girl he had seen only once, three years before and that apparently fancied him… Thus, to Schliemann’s businesslike line of reasoning she seemed the right one, as he explained to a friend: “human nature leads us to always esteem and love those who are more educated than us in those sciences and disciplines that we most cherish, for this reason I think I would be very happy with her…”

Yet the couple did not tie the knot – seemingly because of the large age difference. So he asked, again in his peculiar modus operandi, to his friend and highly distinguished Greek teacher Theokletos Vimpos (an Orthodox Archbishop) to find him a Greek wife endowed with the same “angelic temperament of his mother and sister”! Actually writing to his brother in law he had made a less idyllic portrayal of his intentions and expectations, bluntly stating that Greece was able to offer girls “as beautiful as the pyramids” and  as poor as rats” chasing any foreigner to escape from poverty. However, consumed merchant as he was, he placed a detailed order to Vimpos: she was supposed to be young enough to have children, amiable, enthusiast of ancient Greece art and literature, ancient history and geography, willing to accompany him in his travels and more… Surprisingly Vimpos, who likewise cousin Adolph had profited of Schliemann’s paranymph assignment to recover from some slight personal financial distress, had found him two possible prospect brides: Polyxena Giusti and Sophia Engastromenos. When Schliemann saw their two pictures Vimpos had sent him for review he commented:

As I am an old traveller I am a good judge of countenances and I can promptly describe you the character of the two girls by just examining their portraits. … Polyxena Giusti is the right age to marry me, but she is bossy, authoritarian, despotic, irritable and vengeful. I think she has developed all these faults while performing her least enviable metier of school teacher. Sophia Engastromenos, is a splendid woman, open, indulgent, gentle and good housewife, full of life and well educated.

And almost immediately showed the utmost willingness and proposed to marry her within three months, although previously asking poor Vimpos all sort of questions!:

What is Mr. Engastromenos trade? What are his possessions? How old is he and how many children he has? How many boys and girls? In particular how old is Sophia? What colour is her hair? Where does the family live in Athens? Does Sophia play the piano? Does she speak any foreign language? Which one? Is she a good housewife? Does she understand Homer and the other ancient authors? Or does she completely ignore the idiom of our ancestors? Would she consent to move to Paris and to accompany her husband through his travels to Italy, Egypt and elsewhere?

Once ascertained that all features of Sophia corresponded to his requirements and quality standards, Heinrich finally decided to propose, although with extreme tact and caution, as he wrote her:

Unfortunately, as it seems, marriages in Greece are always arranged in great haste, even only after the first meeting, and for this reason half of them dissolve within one year. My feelings repel such disastrous practice. Marriage is the most splendid of all human institutions if its sole motives are respect, love and virtue; but marriage is the most ignoble bond and the heaviest yoke if it is based on material interest or sensual pleasure. Wealth contributes to matrimonial happiness, but it does not create it by itself and the woman who would marry me only for my money, or to become a great lady in Paris, would bitterly regret to have left Greece, because she would make me and herself wretched. The woman who marries me, ought to make it because of my worth as a man.

After some more – mainly epistolary – negotiatory courting Sophia eventually responded:

Yes, my dear Heinrich, nothing would make me happier than your resolution to take ma as your spouse. If you decide to take this step, I will be grateful for my entire life and will consider you as my sole benefactor.

On September 23rd, 1869 the wedding took place. They had two children: Andromache and Agamemnon. Sophia was everything he had always wanted, beautiful, intelligent, interested in his job, apparently enjoyed helping him in his expeditions and excavations and was as enthusiastic as him about Iliad and Odyssey. But not all that glitters is gold: Sophia was also psychologically weak and slightly unbalanced, causing Heinrich a miserable family-life mixed with few sweet moments, though.. This circumstance was worsened by Schliemann’s atavic fears of giving himself to someone who did not really care about him. This highly shrewd merchant, smart investor, adventurous globetrotter and archaeologist, who in his loneliness loved to find refuge in a legendary poetical past, was deep inside very frail and vulnerable, and depressively nurtured and kept his suspicions and doubts of not being loved until his death. He wrote:

I do not deceive myself with foolish illusions. I know very well that a young and pretty girl cannot fall in love with a man like me for his looks. Because of the simple passing by of the years a man is no more physically attractive. But I’ve thought that a woman endowed with a character that perfectly harmonises with mine and enlightened by the same enthusiasm and desire for knowledge could respect me… then I dare hoping that with time she would learn to love me…

And later on he wrote her:

I suffer because of the many displeasures you give me everyday… Night and day an idea torments me: you would be happy with a young husband and maybe your compatriot…

Ultimately this unparalleled personage, who was able to achieve what perhaps anybody else would not ever dare dreaming of: success, money, adventure, travels, honours… never really uncovered what he himself considered the real treasure, as he sadly wrote:

Domestic happiness is the greatest of all earthly blessings

Catullus: kiss and poetry

Romanticism and passion, intensity and love are definitely Catullus main characteristics – albeit additionally, of course it cannot be denied he oftentimes used vulgar expressions, straightforward sexual references and offensive tones. Son of a well off Northern Italian family, Catullus not seldom loved playing the role of the disgraced artist, fancying the wearing of bohémienne clothes and striving to pretend being the forerunner of a poète maudit. He firmly despised any social, civil or political involvement and even scorned Julius Caesar (who by the way was also a family friend…).

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His heart and his love were only for poetry and devoted to Lesbia (conventionally identified with the deceitful Clodia, prosecuted by Cicero in Pro Caelio, though this is still to be ascertained) a woman who apparently captured his soul first and afterwards, with her unreliable frame of mind and false behaviour, broke his heart. His verses range therefore from the chanting of the utmost blissful moments of his love-life and devotion:

Nulla potest muli tantum se dicere amatam
uere, quantum a me Lesbia amata mea es.
nulla fides ullo fuit umquam in foedere tanta,
quanta in amore tuo ex parte reperta mea est.

[Never a woman could call herself so fondly beloved
Truly as Lesbia mine has been beloved of myself.
Never were Truth and Faith so firm in any one compact
As on the part of me kept I my love to thyself.]

to the mourning in the deepest despair derived from the abandonment:

Wretched Catullus, stop making a fool of yourself.
And consider lost that which you see has come to an end.
The bright suns once shone for you,
When you were often coming where the girl was leading—
No girl will be loved as much as she had been loved by us.
When those playful things were happening there,
Which you were willing to do and the girl was not unwilling,
Truly the bright suns shone for you.
Now at last that girl is not willing; you also, though lacking self-control, be unwilling,
And do not pursue she who flees nor live as a lovesick man,
But endure with a determined mind; be resolute.
Goodbye, girl. Already Catullus is hardened,
And neither looks nor will ask for you unwilling girl.
But you yourself will be sorry when you are never asked for again.
Wicked one, woe to you! What life awaits you?
Who will come to you now? To whom will you seem cute?
Whom will you love now? Whose will you be said to be?
Whom will you kiss? Whose lips will you nibble?
But you, Catullus, remain hardened.

from the sweetest and cheerful remembrances of his unforgettable love moments:

Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
rumoresque senum seueriorum
omnes unius aestimemus assis.
soles occidere et redire possunt:
nobis cum semel occidit breuis lux,
nox est perpetua una dormienda.

[Let us live, Lesbia, and let us love,
And let’s not give a dime to every
mean whisper of the puritanical old men.
The day’s light comes and sets, and then returns again,
But for us the brief light shines but once,
And night stretches forth in one long sleep.]

to the most furious rage originated by jealousy, deceit and dejection. Consequently his production – the celebrated Liber – can altogether be considered as the Spiegel of his soul, as his personal Journal de bord, through which we can identify, analyse, share and enjoy all the different – and yet so common – stages of love, absolutely unchanged in over 2000 years. Catullus was particularly fond of the kiss, I guess he considered – and I do totally agree with him – the kissing as the highest expression of fondness between two lovers. I actually deem that under different circumstances, moments, locations, situations a kiss can be passionate, but also can be delicate, it can be comforting and soothing, but can also be warm and ardent:

da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum;
dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,
conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus,
aut ne quis malus inuidere possit,
cum tantum sciat esse basiorum.

[Give me a thousand kisses, the a hundred more,
Another thousand, a second hundred or two,
A thousand and still a hundred hundred more.
Then when we have kissed a thousand thousand times
Let the countless number fly away before we pause
Counting, nor let some envious eye devise a plot
Knowing that so many kisses can be kissed]

And again, more passionately:

Quaeris, quot mihi basiationes
tuae, Lesbia, sint satis superque?
quam magnus numerus Libyssae harenae
lasarpiciferis iacet Cyrenis,
oraclum Iouis inter aestuosi
et Batti ueteris sacrum sepulcrum;
aut quam sidera multa, cum tacet nox
furtiuos hominum uident amores;
tam te basia multa basiare
uesano satis et super Catullo est,
quae nec pernumerare curiosi

possint nec mala fascinare lingua.

[You ask how many of your kisses do I need,
Lesbia, how many kisses will suffice.
As many as the grains of Libyans sands
That lie upon the perfumed Cyrenian plain
Between the sweltering shrine of fiery Jove
And the sacred sepulchers of ancient kings.
Or as many as the countless stars in quiet night
That stare down on the furtive loves of men.
Only such a number of your kisses, only this
Will be enough and above for your crazy lover,
Which neither curious eyes can number up
Nor evil tongues enchant to bind our play.]

And furthermore with tinges of modern romanticism:

Kiss me softly and speak to me low;
Trust me darling, the time is near,
When we may live with never a fear
Kiss me dear!
Kiss me softly, and speak to me low

No doubt then that Catullus is the precursor of the “poetry of the kiss”. He seems to open a ventana on Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sweetest and tender, alabaster skin maiden:

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I fear thy kisses, gentle maiden;
You needest not fear mine;
My spirit is too deeply laden
Ever to burthen thine

I fear thy mien, thy tones, thy motion;
Thou needest not fear mine;
Innocent is the heart’s devotion
With which I worship thine.

and paving a footpath to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s passion and ardour:

For lo! even now my lady’s lips did play
With these my lips such consonant interlude
As laurelled Orpheus longed for when he wooed
The half-drawn hungering face with that last lay.
I was a child beneath her touch,–a man
When breast to breast we clung, even I and she,–
A spirit when her spirit looked through me,–
A god when all our life-breath met to fan
Our life-blood, till love’s emulous ardours ran,
Fire within fire, desire in deity.

Catullus can be thus considered the most romantic of the classic poets, as I personally adore this masterful portrait of a couple Septimius and Acme caught in their secluded private own world, a wonderful scene of intimacy and sweet words of love that only two lovers can conceive and share while hiding in their timeless nest neglecting time, space and the outer rest:

Septimius holding his love Acme
on his lap said “My Acme,
if I do not love you desperately and am ready to love you further
continuously for all my years,
as much as one who loves most desperately,
alone in Libya and scorched India
let me come face to face with the green-eyed lion.”
As he said this, Love on the left as before
on the right sneezed approval.
Then Acme, gently bending back her head,
and kissing the intoxicated little eyes of her sweet boy
with that rosy mouth
said “Thus, my life, my little Septimius,
let us be slaves to this one master,
as a much more eager fire burns
in my soft marrow.”
As she said this, Love on the let as before
on the right sneezed approval.
Now, having set out from favorable omens
with mutual passions they love and are loved.
Little love-sick Septimius prefers Acme alone
to Syrias and Britains:

faithful Acme makes her delights and pleasures in
Septimius alone.
Who has seen any people more blessed?
Who has seen a more favoured love?


Are classic studies worthless nowadays?

After reading Mary Beard’s post where she quoted a capital question a speaker asked rhetorically to a symposium audience:

… whether the whole project we were engaged on was now worthless and time-expired. Hadn’t Classics really had its day? Shouldn’t we be going off and learning Chinese and Arabic?…(omissis).… Shouldn’t we get real?

I have been meditating on the subject and I wish to report some of my conclusions. Naturally I am aware that this issue has involved in the past numerous and endowed academics, consequently I am humbly positive I will not be able to add any particular advancement to this debate – which, besides, is far from being in my blog’s aims; nevertheless I will employ this commentary as my personal justification for my own studies.

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It is not false rhetoric to underline the strategic pivotal role of education in a culture: the celebrated Greek Παιδεiα, as well as the Institutio oratoria for the Romans, the ratio studiorum for Jesuits are just a few significant examples.

I will leave to your personal meditation Cicero’s celebrated apophthegm “Historia Magistra vitae” and point out instead Niccolo’ Machiavelli (1469-1527) who emphasize the importance of learning lessons from the past experiences:

…(omissis) quanto onore si attribuisca all’antiquità, …(omissis) e veggiendo, da l’altro canto, le virtuosissime operazioni che le storie ci mostrono, che sono state operate da regni e republiche antique, dai re, capitani, cittadini, latori di leggi, ed altri che si sono per la loro patria affaticati, essere più presto ammirate che imitate; anzi, in tanto da ciascuno in ogni minima cosa fuggite, che di quella antiqua virtù non ci è rimasto alcun segno; non posso fare che insieme non me ne maravigli e dolga. E tanto più, quanto io veggo nelle diferenzie che intra cittadini civilmente nascano, o nelle malattie nelle quali li uomini incorrono, essersi sempre ricorso a quelli iudizii o a quelli remedii che dagli antichi sono stati iudicati o ordinati: perché le leggi civili non sono altro che sentenze date dagli antiqui iureconsulti, le quali, ridutte in ordine, a’ presenti nostri iureconsulti iudicare insegnano. …(omissis)

Nondimanco, nello ordinare le republiche, nel mantenere li stati, nel governare e’ regni, nello ordinare la milizia ed amministrare la guerra, nel iudicare e’ sudditi, nello accrescere l’imperio, non si truova principe né republica che agli esempli delli antiqui ricorra. Il che credo che nasca non tanto da la debolezza nella quale la presente religione ha condotto el mondo, o da quel male che ha fatto a molte provincie e città cristiane uno ambizioso ozio, quanto dal non avere vera cognizione delle storie, per non trarne, leggendole, quel senso né gustare di loro quel sapore che le hanno in sé. Donde nasce che infiniti che le leggono, pigliono piacere di udire quella varietà degli accidenti che in esse si contengono, sanza pensare altrimenti di imitarle, iudicando la imitazione non solo difficile ma impossibile; come se il cielo, il sole, li elementi, li uomini, fussino variati di moto, di ordine e di potenza, da quello che gli erono antiquamente.

Volendo, pertanto, trarre li uomini di questo errore, ho giudicato necessario scrivere, sopra tutti quelli libri di Tito Livio che dalla malignità de’ tempi non ci sono stati intercetti, quello che io, secondo le cognizione delle antique e moderne cose, iudicherò essere necessario per maggiore intelligenzia di essi, a ciò che coloro che leggeranno queste mia declarazioni, possino più facilmente trarne quella utilità per la quale si debbe cercare la cognizione delle istorie. [Discorsi sopra la prima Deca di Tito Livio, I, Proemio]

Relatively more recently Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) was firmly positive on the higher importance of classic studies, – although on a elitist and almost discriminatory basis – confirmed by his statement of a concomitant necessity for the restrictedness of their teaching:

Une étude peut être utile à la littérature d’un peuple et ne point être appropriée à ses besoins sociaux et politiques.

Si l’on s’obstinait à n’enseigner que les belles-lettres, dans une société où chacun serait habituellement conduit à faire de violents efforts pour accroître sa fortune ou pour la maintenir, on aurait des citoyens très polis et très dangereux; car l’état social et politique leur donnant, tous les jours, des besoins que l’éducation ne leur apprendrait jamais à satisfaire, ils troubleraient l’État, au nom des Grecs et des Romains, au lieu de le féconder par leur industrie.

Il est évident que, dans les sociétés démocratiques, l’intérêt des individus, aussi bien que la sûreté de l’État, exige que l’éducation du plus grand nombre soit scientifi­que, commerciale et industrielle plutôt que littéraire.

Le grec et le latin ne doivent pas être enseignés dans toutes les écoles; mais il im­por­te que ceux que leur naturel ou leur fortune destine à cultiver les lettres ou prédis­pose à les goûter trouvent des écoles où l’on puisse se rendre parfaitement maître de la littérature antique et se pénétrer entièrement de son esprit. Quelques universités excel­lentes vaudraient mieux, pour atteindre ce résultat, qu’une multitude de mauvais collèges où des études superflues qui se font mal empêchent de bien faire des études nécessaires.

Tous ceux qui ont l’ambition d’exceller dans les lettres, chez les nations démocra­tiques, doivent souvent se nourrir des oeuvres de l’Antiquité. C’est une hygiène salutaire.

Ce n’est pas que je considère les productions littéraires des Anciens comme irré­pro­chables. Je pense seulement qu’elles ont des qualités spéciales qui peuvent mer­veil­leu­sement servir à contrebalancer nos défauts particuliers. Elles nous soutiennent par le bord où nous penchons [De la démocratie en Amérique, vol. II, I, Ch.XV].

Undoubtedly the importance of classic studies relies on both similarities and diversities between past and present. In the first place the study of similarities has often guided those early historians who tried to teach, by means of their writings, lessons to future generations and thus hoped to prevent them from committing the same mistakes. This approach, as we have witnessed in these last 2000 years, has proven to be somewhat naïve and unfortunately ineffective – this does not imply that we must stop trying, though… Nonetheless this course of studies, we should admit it, has probably over-exploited the classic sources and texts.

On the other hand, the interpretation of the diffrences to the past through the present “multidisciplinary and magnifying lens” opens a never ending course of studies. Following this approach events, terms, concepts, sources and characters of the past can be re-studied and re-interpreted by using findings from other disciplines and modern technologies, and enhanced by easier and more frequent contacts and relations among scholars – and this sounds very promising for classic disciplines that have been declared almost dead…

However, in my opinion, the real barycentre of the question needs to be shifted to what we ought to expect from education. The problems lies into the interpretation of what we consider adaptation of our schools and institutes to current and modern needs. It seems to me that without teaching the classics, schools and universities will progressively lose their main function: to educate – where for Education I mean the crucial transmission of principles, moral, values and knowledge.

The proliferation of enriched school programs with more management, foreign languages and IT oriented subjects in spite of classic and human studies, solely for the sake of seeking a hopefully immediate impact on the labour market does not mean to me true Education. Thus ultimately, the main issue is: true Education or mere technical training? Which in the medium-long range ought to be read as: are we trying to “generateman and women and conscious citizens, or just aspirant employees and managers?

Classic studies educate, silently and minutely, to logic, aesthetic and psychology; they produce the habit to reflection and analysis and develop a natural reluctance to passive acceptation of new concepts and impositions – something nobody should ever give away.

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Farewell Jean-Pierre Vernant

Jean-Pierre Vernant, one of the most renowned scholars of the ancient world has left us last Wednesday in Sèvres, he was ninety three and yet I feel he still had more to give us. He leaves a sense of emptiness within the community of Ancient Greece lovers, both academics and non academics, which we all will try to fill in by re-reading and re-studying all his writings.

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Vernant was born in Provins in 1914, and soon became an orphan, as his father died during the Great War. After attending secondary school and gymnasium at Carnot and Louis-le-Grand in Paris he went to University at Sorbonne, where he and his brother brilliantly completed their classical studies in 1937. During these years at Sorbonne he met Prof. Ignace Meyerson (1888-1983) a Polish refugee who would have soon joined the French resistance against the Nazis and become a close friend of his. After the University, Jean-Pierre and his brother were in the army in Narbonne until 1940, when he left the army and was appointed as teacher of philosophy in a school in Touluse. Meanwhile he founded the Armée Secrète (1942), and assuming the identity of Colonel Berthier, he organised the resistance movement for the entire Haute-Garonne carrying out the liberation of Toulouse (1944).

By the end of the War Vernant would have gone back to teach if Prof. Meyerson and Louis Gernet (1882-1962), famous historian, philologist and sociologist would have not succeeded to convince him to join the National Centre of Scientific Research which he did in 1948. He began to work to a dissertation about the notion of work in Plato, and carried out researches into Greek civilisation from a social and psychological perspective as suggested by Prof. Ignace Meyerson. He was trying to seek a general vision – from the ancient Greek man perspective – of all the typical and common expressions of human nature like time, space, memory, power of will, fantasy and sacrifice. He also tried to figure diversities in these concepts between the Greeks and the other ancient societies, as well as between ancient Greeks and the modern Western world.

He was admitted (1958) to École Pratique des Hautes Études, where he joined Fernand Braudel. He was in those years an eclectic scholar studying on a comparative basis ancient anthropology and philology.

His first masterpiece, Les origines de la pensée grecque, was issued in 1962 and obtainied an extraordinary success. However he had already written extensively before and his past essays and articles were then harvested in Mythe et pensée chez les Grecs (1965). Since then all his writings were wonderful examples of deep research and passion for the ancient Greek world. His last book, Entre mythe et politique, was published in 2004.

In 1964 he founded his own research centre on comparative research on ancient societies. His group included expert historians and anthropologists on ancient Greece, Rome, Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China and Africa and gave to religion a pivotal role in studying the various aspect of all societies. His centre was considered a real school of thought in comparative ancient anthropology and sociology. Nonetheless with time the researches became more focused on the classical world and in 1969 he handed over its direction to his friend and collaborator Pierre Vidal-Naquet (who died 29th July last year). His centre has become one of the most eminent schools of Greek and Roman history.

From 1975 he was Professor of comparative history of ancient religions at the Collège de France, where he was able to continue demonstrating the validity of his comparative approach. He used to say that focusing only on one culture makes you tend to forget the rest, and so you start and keep studying like there is no other possible culture. Nevertheless as soon as you widen your vision and compare the culture you are studying with others like Indian or Assyrian or Babylon’s, the whole perspective changes. The comparative method does not mean just compare diverse cultures, but mainly to change completely the way you approach the culture you are studying.

Vernant did not take for granted any classical Greek assumption. He was not simply one of the many praising ancient Greek culture, he wanted to understand the conscience and the feelings of the human beings immersed in that time and space, over two thousands years ago. His aim was to revitalise for research purposes, somehow, the social context of that golden Age by measuring the uniqueness, capabilities as well the gaps between the Greek man and us – who he considered his heirs… He was convinced that when comparing, differences should push the researcher to understand, to deepen and to comprehend the very reasons of diversity. Following his credo Vernant devoted all his life to study the Greek man, in any and all his expressions: religion, philosophy, conflict, literature, poetry, art, architecture, urbanistic, politics, science, exploration and technique, as he was positive that the Greek man cannot be considered separated by the social and urban structure he had lived in.

He said that man as we find as protagonist of the Greek tragedy is still particularly modern and present; meaning the enigmatic man, the man who has no choice but to follow the stream of the events; the man that contemplates, ponders and decides between two or more courses of action and yet afterwards recognises that the choice he made, and thought was the best one, is the worst. Often modern man – just like the heroes of ancient tragedy – when planning his life and goals tries to build up an ideal world, and yet probably reaches involuntarily the very opposite aim. This tragic feeling is stronger in our days since many things we gave for granted in the past now are not as certain as we supposed.

People should have come by now to realise that the efforts in programming their future, as history shows, may be vain and even, sometimes, disappointing.

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Why and whys of Philosophy

Why Philosophy? In other words what is the use of Philosophy, especially nowadays: in a hyper technical world, characterised by a fast, often brief and strongly superficial communication and even more by a quite rare inclination to introspection and meditation, and a tough reluctance to activities without a direct either social, career-wise or financial return.

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Well I must admit that the response is not an easy one. I would start by saying that in the first place the enquiry itself is not well formulated and it already contains and shows at the same time the limits of a widely diffused current way of thinking: not all the activities a person performs must necessarily have a direct usefulness, in terms of present return or even of future spendability.

If you consider it, you will realise that Philosophy itself is the repudiation of this principle, since it means love for study, research and intellectual speculation. This love for knowledge is pure and uninterested and its only aim is knowledge.

This approach has lead – and still leads – the philosopher to ask himself questions which not necessarily, and rather seldom, have answers. Regardless the difficulties or impossibility of proposing answers philosophers have been asking themselves on behalf of the whole human kind the most capital whys and hows. Why do we live? Why we feel necessary to believe in something supernatural? What are the laws of the universe? How is the world born? What is the sense of life? Is there something after death? Should we believe in an overall supernatural justice? Is everything already written somewhere or we have the power of changing the course of our life? What is the conduct we should maintain in our life?

I know it is overwhelming: for over three thousand years the early scientists, thinkers, religious at the beginning and the true sole philosophers afterwards have been trying to contemplate responses to these questions. Some, but not all, of their explanations and solutions might seem naïve, especially when you go to the dawn of these studies, in the Greek Ionian City-states located on the West coast of what we call now Turkey.

Of course within these three millennia the progress in scientific studies and their technical applications have been enormous, but what is remarkably important is to note the strong need for these people, along all these centuries and still now, to ask themselves and try to give answers, a constant research which demonstrates the consistency of the inquisitive aspects of human nature, regardless the achievements, discovers and inventions. Some scientific theories, therefore, have been surpassed, and many inventions have been outshined; but I challenge you to throw the entire thought of an ancient Philosopher, some or even many of his findings cannot be considered old and inapplicable to our times.

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Naturally still now, most if not all, of these question are unanswered – which makes Philosophy so present. A very controversial situation, in a world into which people are so used to believe that there are answers ready made for everyone…

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I personally believe that Philosophy ought to help anyone to give to things and events the right weight and significance, to balance the judgment of situations, persons and relations, to develop a deeper consciousness of being.

Thus it ought to be studied, not for the sake of reaching responses, since, as it is easily understandable it would be a real disappointing exercise; but for the sake of the questions themselves. The research, the introspection, the speculations will widen the spectrum through which reading of our experiences and hopefully to break the often narrowness of our vision of the world.

Then expect a new, more critical approach to the interpretation of life, against the supine acceptance of the too widely and invasively proposed standards and cliché.

Don’t you think it is worth? I know I myself fell into the trap of proposing to study philosophy in order to achieve a direct goal, the real freedom of thought… after all also I am a child of these times…

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