Quotes & Commentary #42: Montaigne

Quotes & Commentary #42: Montaigne

Everything has a hundred parts and a hundred faces: I take one of them and sometimes just touch it with the tip of my tongue or my fingertips, and sometimes I pinch it to the bone. I jab into it, not as wide but as deep as I can; and I often prefer to catch it from some unusual angle.

—Michel de Montaigne

The pursuit of knowledge has this paradoxical quality: it demands perfection and yet continuously, inevitably, and endlessly fails in its goal.

Knowledge demands perfection because it is meant to be true, and truth is either perfect or nonexistent—or so we like to assume.

Normally, we think about truth like this: I make a statement, like “the cat is on the mat,” and this statement corresponds to something in reality—a real cat on a real mat. This correspondence must be perfect to be valid; whether the cat is standing on the side of the mat, or if the cat is up a tree, then the statement is equally false.

To formulate true statements—about the cosmos, about life, about humanity—this is the goal of scholarship. But can scholarship end? Can we get to a point at which we know everything and we can stop performing experiments and doing research? Can we reach the whole truth?

This would require scholars to create works that were both definitive—unquestioned in their authority—and exhaustive—covering the entire subject. What would this entail? Imagine a scholar writing about the Italian Renaissance, for example, who wants to write the perfect work, the book that totally and completely encapsulates its subject, rendering all additional work unnecessary.

This seems as if it should be theoretically possible, at least. The Italian Renaissance was a sequence of events—individuals born, paintings painted, sculptures sculpted, trips to the toilet, accidental deaths, broken hearts, drunken brawls, late-night conversations, outbreaks of the plague, political turmoil, marriage squabbles, and everything else, great and small, that occurred within a specific period of time and space. If our theoretical historian could write down each of these events, tracing their causation, allotting each its proportional space, neutrally treating each fact, then perhaps the subject could be definitively exhausted.

There are many obvious problems with this, of course. For one, we don’t have all the facts available, but only a highly selective, imperfect, and tentative record, a mere sliver of a fraction of the necessary evidence. Another is that, even if we did have all the facts, a work of this kind would be enormously long—in fact, as long as the Italian Renaissance itself. This alone makes the undertaking impossible. But this is also not what scholars are after.

A book that represented each fact neutrally, in chronological sequence, would not be an explanation, but a chronicle; it would recapitulate reality rather than probe beneath the surface; or rather, it would render all probing superfluous by representing the subject perfectly. It would be a mirror of reality rather than search for its fundamental form.

And yet our brains are not, and can never be, impartial mirrors of reality. We sift, sort, prod, search for regularities, test our assumptions, and in a thousand ways separate the important from the unimportant. Our attention is selective of necessity, not only because we have a limited mental capacity, but because some facts are much more necessary than others for our survival.

We have evolved, not as impartial observers of the world, but as actors in a contest of life. It makes no difference, evolutionarily speaking, if our senses represent “accurately” what is out there in the world; it is only important that they alert us to threats and allow us to locate food. There is reason to believe, therefore, that our senses cannot be literally trusted, since they are adapted to survival, not truth.

Survival is, of course, not the operative motivation in scholarship. More generally, some facts are more interesting than others. Some things are interesting simply in themselves—charms that strike the sight, or merits that win the soul—while others are interesting in that they seem to hold within themselves the reason for many other events.

A history of the Italian Renaissance that gave equal space to a blacksmith as to Pope Julius II, or equal space to a parish church as to the Sistine Chapel, would be unsatisfactory, not because it was inaccurate, but because its priorities would be in disarray. All intellectual work requires judgment. A historian’s accuracy might be unimpeachable, and yet his judgment so faulty as to render his work worthless.

We have just introduced two vague concepts into our search for knowledge: interest and judgment—interest being the “inherent” value of a fact, and judgment our faculty for discerning interest. Both of these are clearly subjective concepts. So instead of impartially represented reality, our thinkers experience reality through a distorted lens—the lens of our senses, further shaped by culture and upbringing—and from this blurry image of the world, select what portion of that distorted reality they deem important.

Their opinion of what is beautiful, what is meritorious, what is crucial and what is peripheral, will be based on criteria—either explicit or implicit—that are not reducible to the content itself. In other words, our thinkers will be importing value judgments into their investigation, judgments that will act as sieves, catching some material and letting the rest slip by.

Even more perilous, perhaps, than the selection of facts, will be the forging of generalizations. Since, with our little brains, we simply cannot represent reality in all its complexity, we resort to general statements. These are statements about the way things normally happen, or the characteristics that things of the same type normally have—statements that attempt to summarize a vast number of particulars within one abstract tendency.

All generalizations employ inductive reasoning, and thus are vulnerable to Hume’s critique of induction. A thousand instances of red apples is no proof that the next apple will also be red. And even if we accept that generalizations are always more or less true—true as a rule, with some inevitable exceptions—this leaves undefined how well the generalization fits the particulars. Is it true nine times out of ten, or only seven? How many apples out of a hundred are red? Finally, to make a generalization requires selecting one quality—say, the color of apples, rather than their size or shape—among many that the particulars possess, and is consequently always arbitrary.

More hazardous still is the act of interpretation. By interpretation, I mean deciding what something means. Now, in some intellectual endeavors, such as the hard sciences, interpretation is not strictly necessary; only falsifiable knowledge counts. Thus, in quantum mechanics, it is unimportant whether we interpret the equations according to the Copenhagen interpretation or the Many-Worlds interpretation—whether the wave-function collapses, or reality splits apart—since in any case the equations predict the right result. In other words, we aren’t required to scratch our heads and ask what the equations “mean” if they spit out the right number; this is one of the strengths of science.

But in other fields, like history, interpretation is unavoidable. The historian is dealing with human language, not to mention the vagaries of the human heart. This alone makes any sort of “objective” knowledge impossible in this realm. Interpretation deals with meaning; meaning only exists in experience; experience is always personal; and the personal is, by definition, subjective. Two scholars may differ as to the meaning of, say, a passage in a diplomat’s diary, and neither could prove the other was incorrect, although one might be able to show her interpretation was far more likely than her counterpart’s.

Let me stop and review the many pitfalls on our road to perfect knowledge of the Italian Renaissance. First, we begin with an imperfect record of information; then we must make selections from this imperfect record. This selection will be based on vague judgments of importance and interest—what things are worth knowing, which facts explain other facts. We will also try to make generalizations about these facts—generalizations that are always tentative, arbitrary, and hazardous, and which are accurate to an undetermined extent. After during all this, we must interpret: What does this mean? Why did this happen? What is the crucial factor, what is mere surface detail? And remember that, before we even start, we are depending on a severely limited perception of the world, and a perspective warped by innumerable prejudices. Is it any wonder that scholarship goes on infinitely?

At this point, I am feeling a bit like Montaigne, chasing my thoughts left and right, trying to weave disparate threads into a coherent whole, and wondering how I began this already overlong essay. Well, that’s not so bad, I suppose, since Montaigne is the reason I am writing here in the first place.

Montaigne was a skeptic; he did not believe in the possibility of objective knowledge. For him, the human mind was too shifting, the human understanding too weak, the human lifespan too short, to have any hope of reaching a final truth. Our reasoning is always embodied, he observed, and is thus subjected to our appetites, excitements, passions, and fits of lassitude—to all of the fancies, hobbyhorses, prejudices, and vanities of the human personality.

You might think, from the foregoing analysis, that I take a similar view. But I am not quite so cheerfully resigned to the impossibility of knowledge. It is impossible to find out the absolute truth (and even if we could, we couldn’t be sure when or if we did). Through science, however, we have developed a self-correcting methodology that allows us to approach ever-nearer to the truth, as evidenced by our increasing ability to manipulate the world around us through technology. To be sure, I am no worshiper of science, and I think science is fallible and limited to a certain domain. But total skepticism regarding science would, I think, by foolish and wrong-headed: science does what it’s supposed to do.

What about domains where the scientific method cannot be applied, like history? Well, here more skepticism is certainly warranted. Since so much interpretation is needed, and since the record is so imperfect, conclusions are always tenuous. Nevertheless, this is no excuse to be totally skeptical, or to regard all conclusions as equally valid. The historian must still make logically consistent arguments, and back up claims with evidence; their theories must still plausibly explain the available evidence, and their generalizations must fit the facts available. In other words, even if a historian’s thesis cannot be falsified, it must still conform to certain intellectual standards.

Unlike in science, however, interpretation does matter, and it matters a great deal. And since interpretation is always subjective, this makes it possible for two historians to propose substantially different explanations for the same evidence, and for both of their theories to be equally plausible. Indeed, in a heuristic field, like history, there will be as many valid perspectives as there are practitioners.

This brings us back to Montaigne again. Montaigne used his skepticism—his belief in the subjectivity of knowledge, in the embodied nature of knowing—to justify his sort of dilettantism. Since nobody really knows what they’re talking, why can’t Montaigne take a shot? This kind of perspective, so charming in Montaigne, can be dangerous, I think, if it leads one to abandon intellectual standards like evidence and argument, or if it leads to an undiscerning distrust in all conclusions.

Universal skepticism can potentially turn into a blank check for fundamentalism, since in the absence of definite knowledge you can believe whatever you want. Granted, this would never have happened to Montaigne, since he was wise enough to be skeptical of himself above all; but I think it can easily befall the less wise among us.

Nevertheless, if proper respect is paid to intellectual standards, and if skepticism is always turned against oneself as well as one’s peers, then I think dilettantism, in Montaigne’s formulation, is not only acceptable but admirable:

I might even have ventured to make a fundamental study if I did not know myself better. Scattering broadcast a word here, a word there, examples ripped from their contexts, unusual ones, with no plan and no promises, I am under no obligation to make a good job of it nor even to stick to the subject myself without varying it should it so please me; I can surrender to doubt and uncertainty and to my master-form, which is ignorance.

Nowadays it is impossible to be an expert in everything. To be well-educated requires that we be dilettantes, amateurs, whether we want to or not. This is not to be wholly regretted, for I think the earnest dilettante has a lot to contribute in the pursuit of knowledge.

Serious amateurs (to use an oxymoron) serve as intermediaries between the professionals of knowledge and the less interested lay public. They also serve as a kind of check on professional dogmatism. Because they have one tiptoe in the subject, and the rest of their body out of it, they are less likely to get swept away by a faddish idea or to conform to academic fashion. In other words, they are less vulnerable to groupthink, since they do not form a group.

I think serious amateurs might also make a positive contribution, at least in some subjects that require interpretation. Although the amateur likely has less access to information and lacks the resources to carry out original investigation, each amateur has a perspective, a perspective which may be highly original; or she may notice something previously unnoticed, which puts old material in a new light.

Although respect must be paid to expertise, and academic standards cannot be lightly ignored, it is also true that professionals do not have a monopoly on the truth—and for all the reasons we saw above, absolute truth is unattainable, anyway—so there will always be room for fresh perspectives and highly original thoughts.

Montaigne is the perfect example: a sloppy thinker, a disorganized writer, a total amateur, who was nonetheless the most important philosopher and man of letters of his time.

Roaming in Rome: the Vatican

Roaming in Rome: the Vatican

This is Part Six of a six-part series on Rome, following this plan:

While I do have some scruples about including the Vatican in my series about Rome—since it technically is not a part of Rome—I think excluding it would be paying too much attention to official opinion at the expense of geographic fact.

To state the obvious, the Vatican is unique. The smallest state in the world, both by population and area, the Vatican is also distinguished for being a theocratic monarchy, governed by the bishop of Rome, the Pope. The Vatican’s economy is also unique, supported almost entirely by tourism.

The Vatican is not as old as you might imagine. In former times the Pope was as much a secular ruler as a spiritual guide; the Papacy had its own proper country, known as the Papal States—which lasted from the time of Charlemagne to the nineteenth century—which controlled a sizeable hunk of the Italian boot. This state was swallowed up by Italy during the rise of Italian nationalism after the Napoleonic Wars. The Vatican as we know it today was established in 1929 in the Lateran Treaty. It is thus only a little older than my grandmother.

Aside from the pilgrims, many millions of secular tourists visit the Vatican each year, and all of them to see three things: the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica. This is what I saw, and this is what I’m here to tell you about.

The Vatican Museums

The first thing you should know about visiting the Vatican is that you must buy your tickets ahead of time. (Here in the link.) If you don’t, you will be one of the hundreds of people waiting—probably in vain—in the enormous line that stretches out the museum’s entrance and curves around the Vatican’s walls. I felt a mixture of pity and, I admit, self-congratulation upon seeing this line, its members sweating in the relentless sun, unremittingly pestered by tour guides.

I scheduled my visit to the Vatican for my first full day in Rome. I did not trust myself to figure out the public transportation, so I walked, which took me about an hour and a half. I was so worried about missing my entrance-time that I didn’t stop to eat or drink. Added to this, it was hot and humid, and I stayed in a room without air conditioning or even a window; so I slept poorly the night before. When I arrived, I was sticky with sweat, dehydrated and dizzy, my stomach filled with foam, disoriented by the heat and sleep deprivation, my legs a bit shaky, my heart pumping like mad, my body full of adrenalin. It was, in other words, a normal vacation day for me.

The Vatican Museum is one of the largest and most visited museums in the world. Begun in the fifteenth century by Pope Julius II, it displays some of the finest pieces in the papal collection, and thus some of the most important works in Western history. There are over 20,000 works on display; I will content myself with some highlights.

Monumental Bust of Caesar Augustus, with an updated hairdo

The real shame of the Vatican Museum is that most tourists rush through it to get to the Sistine Chapel. I do not blame the tourists: when you have something like the Sistine Chapel waiting for you, it is hard to take your time. Nevertheless, in the process visitors walk past one of the most impressive museums in the world.

Before visiting, I had hardly an inkling of the size and scope of the museum’s collection. In the Museo Gregorio Egiziano, for example, there is an enormous collection of Ancient Egyptian artifacts, including mummies, sarcophagi, papyruses, statues, and even reproductions of the Book of the Dead; the museum boasts a similarly complete collection of Etruscan art. In another wing, much further along the visit, is a collection of modern religious art. Added to all this is a seemingly endless collection of Greek and Roman statues. In the Museo Chiaramonti, for example, such a huge number of busts and sculptures—of emperors, heroes, and gods, all white marble—are pilled up on top of one another that it seems as though you’ve wandered into a warehouse of a sculpture factory.


The museum is notable not only for its works, but for its spaces. In the Sala Rotunda (“round room”), larger-than-life statues occupy niches in a circular room, built to imitate the Pantheon; and in the middle of the room is a gorgeous ancient mosaic. The Gallery of Maps is a long hallway; the decoration of the ceiling is unspeakably ornate—totally covered in floral designs, patterns, paintings, and decorative moldings—lit up with a golden glow; and its walls, as befitting its name, are covered in a series of lovely maps of Italy.

The Cortile della Pigna, or Courtyard of the Pine Cone, takes its name from the Fountain of the Pine Cone. This fountain, of Roman origin, was moved in 1608 from its original location near the Pantheon to decorate a large niche in the courtyard’s wall. (At the time, this courtyard was twice as large, and was known as the Cortile del Belvedere; the Apollo Belvedere used to be displayed here, which is where it gets its name.) In the center of this courtyard is a version of Arnoldo Pomodoro’s famous statue, Sfera con sfera—a large golden sphere, cracked and broken, with another similarly damaged sphere inside. There is also a monumental bust of Augustus, who was given a new hairdo in during the Renaissance.


Among the hundreds of excellent sculptures, my favorite is Laocoön and His Sons—a work that can also be said to be the founding piece of the Vatican Museum. The statue was made sometime around the first century BCE (we think), and later found its way to the palace of the Roman Emperor Titus, where it was praised by the Roman writer Pliny the Elder (first century CE). At some point in antiquity the statue was lost; it was only rediscovered during the Renaissance, in the February of 1506. The antiquarian and art-loving Pope, Julius II, was immediately informed of this discovery; Michelangelo went to investigate and sent an enthusiastic report of the statue; and one month later, Julius had the magnificent sculpture on public display in the Belvedere Courtyard. The statue now stands in the Museo Pio-Clementino.


The statue depicts a moment from Virgil’s Aeneid. The Greeks have given up trying to knock down the walls of Troy; instead they are following Odysseus’s sneaky plan, to gift them the Trojan Horse. The big, wooden horse is wheeled up to the walls, and the Trojans obligingly come out to admire it; soon they decide to bring the horse inside the walls. Laocoön, a priest, is the only person against this plan. “Beware of Greeks bringing gifts!” he says. At that moment, spurred on by the malevolent gods, two enormous snakes appear and strangle both him and his two sons. The Trojans interpret this as an omen, thinking that the gods disapproved of Laocoön’s skepticism. In reality, the gods were on the Greeks’ side.

The statue is extraordinary. Far removed from the Classic Greek ideals of perfect form and sublime grace, it is full of suffering and fear. The bodies are contorted and twisted, the faces scrunched up with pain; the snakes’ slithering bodies are wrapped around arms and legs, tying all the figures together into a writhing mass of limbs. Every detail is exaggerated. Indeed, the statue could have been melodramatic, even silly, if not for its perfect execution. Every detail seems just right: the arrangement of the figures, the anatomy, the posture, the expressions, the technical execution. It is one of those few masterpieces of art that impress themselves upon the memory after a split-second of viewing.

I stood for a long while admiring the work. How could so much movement be conveyed by immobile stone? How could an entire story be told instantaneously? The feeling evoked by the statue is one of gruesome tragedy. Laocoön will die even though he was right, and his sons will die even though they are innocent of any crime. All of them will die publicly, and in immense pain, for nothing, and with nothing to look forward to except oblivion. The image is much too exuberantly violent to be melancholy, much too grisly and ghastly to be beautiful. It is, rather, sublime: instead of conforming to your aesthetic sense, it overawes you, trampling over all your tastes and preconceived notions, soaring above all your attempts to measure or define it, leaving you simply dazed at the power of human art.

I could spend hours and pages in ecstasies over other works in the museum, but I will exercise self-restraint. The only other individual works I will mention are Raphael’s frescoes.

These were commissioned by that same Pope Julius II, in 1508, to decorate the papal apartments. They occupy four rooms, now called the Raphael Rooms: the Sala di Constanto, the Stanza di Eliodoro, the Stanza della Segnatura, and the Stanza dell’Incendio del Borgo. Needless to say, each one is a masterpiece and worthy of study. But by far the most famous of these are in the Stanza della Segnatura. This was the first room that Raphael completed. At the time, this room contained the Pope’s personal library, which is why Raphael set about creating intellectual allegories.

No place in the world more perfectly captures the Renaissance blending of art and science, of classical education and effective government, of pagan philosophy and Christian theology. In the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, Raphael depicts theology as a collection of saints, popes, and religious poets engaged in a discourse on the nature of God, while Jesus and the Father sit enshrined above. In The Parnassus we find an allegory poetic inspiration, Apollo and the Muses stand with a collection of melodramatic bards and troubadours, all crowned with laurels, crowded on top of a hillside. (Dante is the only figure to be represented twice in the fresco sequence, appearing both among the theologians and the poets.) And in the Cardinal Virtues, both human and divine virtues are depicted in allegorical form, the human virtues—prudence, fortitude, and temperance—as women, and the divine virtues—charity, hope, and faith—as accompanying cupids.

Parnasus 1

The last and incomparably most famous is the School of Athens. Even if you do not know its name, it is an image you have undoubtedly seen countless times. At least three books in my library have this painting as their cover image. It is one of the iconic images of Western art: a symbol of the Renaissance, of humanism, of philosophy, of science, and of the entire intellectual tradition. Like other iconic images—The Mona Lisa, Guernica, The Creation of Adam—it is somehow unforgettable: every detail is classic, perfect, and instantly memorable, and it is carried with you the rest of your life.

School of Athens_Fotor

In his classic documentary, Civilisation, Kenneth Clarke tells us that Raphael’s works must be looked at long and hard to be truly appreciated. Rather like Mozart’s music, Raphael’s art is so perfectly balanced, so immediately appealing to the senses, so intuitively intelligible even to the ignorant, that it seems as if they are devoid of serious substance. Raphael’s painting is just so seeable. The painting unfolds itself to you; it almost sees itself for you. The viewer is not asked to do any work, just to enjoy. Every relevant detail is taken in at a glance. Again, like Mozart’s music, everyone might agree that Raphael’s work is pretty, charming, and pleasant, but many might not guess that it is also profound.

To sense this profundity, you must learn to unsee it before seeing it again: you must fight the immediate familiarity, the apparent ease, and try to see the painting as it might have appeared to its first viewers: as striking, imaginative, triumphant, and so utterly convincing that one man’s individual vision soon became a model for classic grace.

This is, of course, much easier said than done. It is especially difficult if you are standing in the middle of a crowded room, buffeted by tour group after tour group, trying to find a good angle to photograph the painting. By this time, I was thirsty, hungry, and feeling not a little claustrophobic from the swelling crowds. I tried to look at the painting long enough to see what Clarke saw; but the contrast between Clarke calmly meditating on the painting in solitude, and myself sweating and painting in the noisy crowd, was too much to overcome. After fifteen minutes of staring, I turned and left. I was about to enter the Sistine Chapel.

Sistine Chapel

(If you want to take a virtual tour of the chapel, there is an online version that you can find here. I recommend viewing it while listening to Georgio Allegri’s beautiful “Miserer mei, Deus,” composed for performance in the Sistine Chapel.)

Stepping into the Sistine Chapel is an unforgettable mixture of sublime awe and petty annoyance. Security guards are posted all around the room, keeping the gaping tourists out of main channels, preventing the entrance and exit from getting blocked, and repeatedly reminding tourists that no photos are permitted. Hundreds of people were packed into the room, all of them standing elbow to elbow, standing singly or in tight groups, everyone with their eyes turned upwards. It reminded me of those cartoons in which turkeys drowned themselves by looking up, mouths agape, during a rainstorm.

The hushed and hurried sounds of voices, some whispering, some laughing, reverberated in the stone chamber, creating a decidedly unmeditative din. Every five minutes or so, a voice crackled onto a PA system and told everyone, in four or five languages and to respect the sacred space. This created about thirty seconds of respective silence until the talking irrupted again, and the process started over. Even in this place, the most important space in the world for Western art, a holy place for Catholics and humanists alike, we recreate the same silly dynamic as in a middle school classroom.

Even without Michelangelo’s frescos, the Sistine Chapel would contain enough artwork to make it a necessary visit for any art-lover. To pick just one example, Botticelli’s Temptations of Christ, an obvious masterpiece, is on one of the lower walls, along with numerous other paintings of similarly high quality. And yet it is nearly impossible to pay any attention to these paintings; indeed, I bet most visitors do not even notice them. Michelangelo’s ceiling frescos are so overpowering that you cannot look at anything else. Every visitor stares helplessly up at the ceiling, painfully craning their neck like Rodin’s statues.


The work is so famous that it seems superfluous to say anything about it. Everybody has seen it. Everybody knows the story of Michelangelo, tortuously arching his back on the scaffold, slowly and scrupulously completing the frescos almost single-handedly. Michelangelo even wrote a sonnet about his own discomfort (this is a translation by Gail Mazur):

I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy
(or anywhere else where the stagnant water’s poison).
My stomach squashed under my chin, my beard’s
pointing at heaven, my brain crushed in a casket
my breasts twisted like a harpy’s. My brush,
above me all the time, dribbles paint
So my face makes a fine floor for droppings!

(You can read the rest of the poem here.)

Both artwork and artist have been turned into one of the great creation myths of European history. The work even seems to allegorize its own heroic origin: Just as God, sublime and omnipotent, reaches out with one delicate figure to delineate the reclining figure of Man, so did Michelangelo himself give form to the ideal image of Man. Here is the perfect symbol of creativity.


The Sistine Chapel was commissioned by the same Julius II—the most important of the Renaissance Popes, perhaps—and interrupted Michelangelo’s work on the Pope’s tomb. This tomb, by the way, was never completed on the scale originally imagined. The half-finished sculptures that were to form a part of it are now considered to be among Michelangelo’s masterpieces, such as the Dying Slave in the Louvre. Although originally planned for St. Peter’s Basilica, the tomb, as eventually realized, is in San Pietro in Vincoli, a church near the Colosseum; this tomb is now most famous for its statue of Moses.

The most striking thing, aside from their awe and splendor, about Michelangelo’s frescos are their focus on man. I use “man” deliberately, because the vast majority of the figures are men, aggressively so. Michelangelo does not portray landscapes, vegetation, or animal life; there are hardly any objects to distract us from the people. Michelangelo was entranced by the body—its musculature, its skeletal structure, its twistings and turnings, its living flesh. This is most striking in his Last Judgment, an obscene explosion of naked bodies.

The Catholic Church has traditionally had a fraught relationship with the human body, to say the least; but Michelangelo seems not to have shared this aversion. If you believe that humanity was made in God’s image, his fascination for the human form is sensible: by studying the human, you might get a glimpse of the divine.


I end this section feeling much as I did when I walked out of that room: overwhelmed. What are you supposed to say when face to face with such a work of art? How are you supposed to feel? How can you even understand what you are seeing, much less properly appreciate it? Can you, through any means, do justice to the experience? Michelangelo’s frescos are, for me, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Beethoven’s final symphony: a work that reduces me to the same stunned speechlessness as the starry sky.

St. Peter’s Basilica

By the time I left the Vatican museum—winding my way down the double-helix staircase—I was hungry, thirsty, and totally dazed. I bought an overpriced coca-cola from a vending machine, gulped it down, and then bought a bottle of water. Soon I was out on the street again. I had just seen some of the greatest art in the world; but every trace of aesthetic pleasure vanished in the hot sun.

I wanted to go home and sleep, but I didn’t have time to waste. I still had to go see the Vatican’s Basilica.

San Pietro in Vaticano is the church at the very center of the Catholic world. It is the last of the four major basilicas (I’ve written about the other three here), and the most important. The building, as it appears today, is actually the second St. Peter’s Basilica; the first was built during the time of Constantine, and had fallen into such disrepair during the Avignon Papacy that it was clear repairs were needed. The infinitely ambitious Pope Julius II—the ever-present specter of this post—was not content with mere repairs, however, and conceived a project far more daring: to tear down the original St. Peter’s and rebuild it on an even grander scale.

If you bear in mind that the original church was one of the most venerable, most historical, and most important churches in Europe, not to mention one of the biggest, you can get a notion of how bold this plan really was. Julian wanted not only to rival, but to surpass the great ruins of Rome that still towered above everything else in the city.

A contest was held for designs of the new building, and Donato Bramante’s design was the winner; he called for a Greek cross and a massive dome, modeled after the Parthenon’s. One hundred years earlier, the architect Brunelleschi had designed the massive dome the cathedral of Florence, still the biggest brick dome in the world, and Bramante wanted to build something even bigger. But construction was slow in getting off the ground; and it was not long before both Bramante and Pope Julius died. The leadership eventually passed to Raphael, who altered the design to include three main apses; but Raphael died, too, and the project changed hands many times again. When Charles V’s troops sacked Rome, in 1527, this did not help matters. Eventually Michelangelo, then an old man, begrudgingly took on the job; and nowadays his contributions are regarded as the most important.

The Basilica sits at the end of St. Peter’s square. This is a massive plaza, closed to vehicles, that is enclosed by two sprawling colonnades that welcome the visitor in a gigantic embrace. The square was designed by Bernini during the 17th century, and is visibly a product of the Counter-Reformation: grand, impressive, and crushingly huge. The colonnade is four columns deep, and is topped by a row of statues that are difficult to identity from the ground. In the center of the plaza is an obelisk, originally taken from Egypt during the reign of Augustus (a visible marker of the continuity between the Roman Empire and the Roman Church).


On any given day, the plaza is probably one of the most diverse places on earth. Visitors from hundreds of countries, sporting clothes of every imaginable style, speaking a befuddling mix of languages, crowd the massive square. The one thing they all have in common—at least on a sunny, summer day—is that they are very sweaty, and are busy taking photographs.

I was certainly sweaty when I got on the line to enter the Basilica. To pass from the plaza to the Basilica, you need first to go through security: this means waiting in line for the metal detectors. After you pass through security, however, you can waltz right inside. The Basilica is free to visit, which means that you can still see one of the great works of Renaissance architecture even if you forget to buy tickets for the Vatican Museums.

A list of the popes, going all the way back to Peter

When you walk into St. Peter’s, the first and most persistent impression is the sense of space—open space, empty space, expanding space flooded with light. Everything is on such a huge scale that it is difficult to keep it in perspective; the ceiling is far above you, but sometimes does not appear so high up because everything is proportionally large; and it is only when you compare the little men and women scurrying about on the floor that you realize how big is everything.


The next impression, for me, was an overpowering sense of splendor and fine taste. As in so many Italian churches, but on an even more magnificent scale, the decoration of every surface is lush: shiny, colorful, and finely textured. Statues adorn nooks and crannies—heroic statues of popes and saints—each of them of the highest quality; and yet there are so many, and each is so consistently masterful, that no single thing particularly attracts your attention. Instead, all of the decoration and the statues create an atmosphere of awe.


Seeing the dome of St. Peter’s from the inside is somewhat surreal. It is so big, and so far away, that it is difficult to gauge exactly how big and how far away it is, exactly. Underneath the dome is one of the most famous works in the Basilica, Bernini’s Baldachin. This is a canopy, somewhat like a pavilion, that sits above the main altar. And it is gigantic: stretching to 30 meters (98 feet) in height, it is the largest bronze object in the world. (And despite this, it still looks tiny in the massive space of the Basilica.) The most distinctive and, for me, the most attractive feature of the work are the twisting, swirling columns that support it.

Bernini's Thing.jpg

After wandering my way through the Basilica for a while—open-mouthed, exhausted, too dumbstruck and tired to really process any of the experience—I turned to leave. But there, on the way to the exit, was the most famous artwork of all: Michelangelo’s Pietá. The statue now sits in a side-chapel near the front portal, protected by a shield of bulletproof glass. (This glass was not always there. In 1972, a mentally disturbed Australian geologist attacked the statue with a geological hammer, while shouting “I am Jesus Christ!” He managed to destroy Mary’s arm and nose, and it was only through painstaking reconstruction that the statue was restored to its previous appearance. The world is an odd place.)


The statue is extraordinary. Jesus lays sprawled on Mary’s lap, while she looks down at his lifeless body. Jesus’s face is impossible to see clearly, since it is turned limply toward the sky; but Mary’s face is fully visible. For a woman old enough to have an adult son, she is strikingly youthful and beautiful. Her expression is a masterpiece: so quietly sad, so mournful, and yet not despairing; a tranquil and meditative grief. The viewer cannot help but recall all the images of the Virgin with the Christ Child, rosy-cheeked and smiling, sitting on her lap; now Christ still sits on her lap, a grown man, gaunt, tortured, and put to death. The mother gave life to the son, and now he is gone; but the son will return, and he will give life to mankind. Death and life are united in one image—the tragedy of mortality and the injustice of the world, and the hope of immortality and the justice of the universe.

I stood there for a long while, admiring the statue, and then turned to go. There was only one thing I had left to see: the crypt. St. Peter’s contains the remains of over 100 people, most of them Popes. This crypt is free to visit. To get there, I walked around the side of the building and then down a staircase.

What surprised me, most of all, was its plainness. The walls are white and mostly devoid of decoration; the tombs are relatively simple—at least, compared to everything else I had seen that day. If memory serves, many of the tombs had little plaques near them, explaining who the Pope was and what were his most notable accomplishments. I paused to read some of these, but I find that I normally do not remember much when I do this, so I skipped most. (In retrospect, I was right: I do not remember anything I read.)

At the end of the crypt I came to one far more ornate than the rest. It was not a sarcophagus, but a whole shrine—filled with gold and marble—visible through a glass window. I noticed many people pausing, crossing themselves, and praying before the tomb. Who was he? Then I realized: it was the tomb of St. Peter himself.

According to the story, St. Peter was crucified here on Vatican Hill, during the reign of Nero. He was crucified head downward, at his own request, so as not to die in the same manner as his savior. Peter is traditionally regarded as the first Pope, largely because of this passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew (16.18-19): “I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” It was for this reason that Constantine decided to build the original St. Peter’s in this spot.

In the 20th century, archaeologists investigated the area underneath the Basilica’s main altar—right underneath Bernini’s Baldachin. Several burials, tombs, and bones have been discovered under the Basilica. It seems that the area had been used as a gravesite before even the Christian era; coins and even animal bones were discovered. In 1968 it was finally announced that the bones of St. Peter’s had been identified. How any bones could be confidently attributed to St. Peter is another question; what matters, I suppose, is that they were given the official sanction, which makes them officially St. Peter’s bones.

Whenever I visit a cemetery, a tomb, or a graveyard, I think about human finitude. Our bodies are so frail, and will inevitably fail one day. Death comes for us all. And when I see these big stone structures we build for our bodies, it seems as if they are attempts to cope with this finitude. Maybe I will die, but my tomb will survive, and my name will be known, and my memory will live on. But this form of immortality is sterile. What is a tomb but a pile of rock? What is a name but a puff of air? What is a memory but a vague light flitting in darkness?

But when I see Laocoön and His Sons, The School of Athens, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica, it gives me pause. So much imagination, effort, will, knowledge, and force is compressed into these things that they seem as if they cannot die. This is fanciful thinking, of course. Everything can die, and everything will. But how could anything so splendid be undone, even by destruction? These works seem to transcend their earthly matter and break into the realm of pure forms, immaterial and everlasting. Why I feel this way, and why I choose to express myself using metaphysics and metaphors, I cannot quite say. What I can say is that these works of art do give me a certain feeling of faith: a faith in the human spirit.


Quotes & Commentary #28: Nietzsche

Quotes & Commentary #28: Nietzsche

I would believe only in a god who could dance.

—Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra.

This is one of Nietzsche’s most famous quotes. Like a catchy tune, it sticks effortlessly in the memory after one hearing. Perhaps this is only because it conjures up such a silly image. I imagine the God of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, bearded and robed, skipping and dancing from cloud to cloud, filling heaven with capricious laughter.

But why is this image so silly? Why was Michelangelo, along with so many others, inclined to picture God as solemn, grave, and frowning? Why is a dancing deity such a paradox?

A true god would have no need to be serious and severe; those values are for stern parents, Sunday-school preachers, and ruler-snapping teachers. I know this from my own teaching experience: Putting on a strict, frowning, joyless countenance is a desperate measure. Teachers do it in order to reduce their yapping, fidgeting, giggling, scatterbrained kids into hushed, intimidated, obedient students. But would a god need to resort to such scare-tactics?

This observation is part of Nietzsche’s aim, to resuscitate the Dionysian in European life. By Dionysian, Nietzsche meant the joys of passion, disorder, chaos, and of creative destruction. The Dionysian man identifies with the stormy waves smashing the shore, with the lion tearing into its prey. He is intoxicated by earthly life; every sensation is a joy, every step is a frolic.

This is quite obviously in stark contrast with the Platonic ideal of a philosopher: always calm and composed, scorning the pleasures of the body, worshiping logical order and truth. A true Platonist would never dance. Christianity largely adopted this Platonic idea, which found ultimate expression in the monastic life—a life of routine, celibacy, constant prayer, scant diet, and self-mortification—a life that rejects earthly joys.

I have found myself thinking of this quote because I recently went to a dance club, something I seldom do. Now, at least in theory, I consider myself more of a Nietzschean than a Platonist when it comes to dancing. I don’t see any reason why it should be scorned. And yet every time I get into a situation where I need to dance, I find it distasteful.

The whole thing is a physical ordeal. There must be a better way to find a mate. Behind a booth, a DJ stand there (this one was a middle-aged man, clean-shaven), his head bobbing under the weight of headphones that look more like earmuffs, digitally splicing together song after song, which blare and pound on the strained speakers.

The sound waves bounce off the floors and the walls, creating a super-charged intensity in the atmosphere that makes every molecule in your body vibrate uncomfortably. Conversation is impossible. Men and women shake, jiggle, step rhythmically to the left and the right. None of them are sure what to do with their arms: some arms thrash about haphazardly, some hands are tensed into tight fists. A few are good dancers; the rest are ridiculous.

A few of the men come on rather strongly; they do nothing but prowl around the women, looking for openings. Most of this sort are not the most impressive specimens. Meanwhile, it is hot. Every bouncing body is covered in sweat, and occasionally you’ll get whiffs of the odor.

In short, I find it a bit ridiculous. My usual inclination is to stand in the corner, sipping a drink, wryly observing. But that’s anti-social. So I try to make myself dance. Usually, however, I am far too sober and aware of my surroundings to take any pleasure in it. I would rather have a conversation and learn about somebody else than stand there and bob next to them.

There have been times—not many, but a few—where I have successfully overcome my initial distaste. I need to be in a very specific mood, when I am simply tired of thinking, full of energy, and comfortable with my surroundings. And I admit, I had a good time dancing. I wish I could access this state of mind more consistently. I don’t like being so judgmental, delicate, and self-conscious (seeing everyone around me looking so silly makes me feel silly too). But no matter how hard I try, usually I can’t make myself enjoy it. So I do like I did the other night: I go home.

I don’t think Nietzsche did much dancing himself, anyway. Like him, I’d rather write.

The Writing of Will Durant

In my several reviews of Will Durant’s Story of Civilization, I have consistently praised his writing. The more I read, the more I want to read; and the more I digest, the more impressed I become. For this reason, I wanted to collect some samples of Durant’s prose, both for my own benefit, to serve as models for my prose, and to show others why I recommend Durant so highly.

For me, Durant is a writer of rare caliber, capable of being clear, charming, and graceful through thousands of pages. In many ways, Durant epitomized the pedagogical approach William Zinsser suggests in his book, Writing to Learn. Through his writing, Durant explored nearly every subject and epoch. He wrote his way through metaphysics and mercantilism, through paintings and plagues, through English law and ancient engineering. So, without further preface, here is a sampling of Durant’s prose. And mind you that these excerpts are not atypical, but representative of his whole work.

Durant on Religion. He is giving an overview of the Catholic Church; from The Reformation (Volume VI):

Through a formative millennium, from Constantine to Dante, the Christian Church offered the gifts of religion to men and states. It molded the figure of Jesus into a divine embodiment of virtues by which rough barbarians might be shamed into civilization. It formulated a creed that made every man’s life a part, however modest, of a sublime cosmic drama; it bound each individual to in a momentous relation with a God Who had created him, Who had spoken to him in sacred Scripture, Who had descended from heaven to suffer ignominy and death in atonement for the sins of humanity, and Who had founded the church as the repository of His teaching and the earthly agents of His power. Year by year the magnificent drama grew; saints and martyrs died for the creed, and bequeathed their example and their merits to the faithful. A hundred forms—a hundred thousand works—of art interpreted the drama and made it vivid even for letterless minds.

Durant on Home Life. He is painting a portrait of the home in medieval Europe; from The Age of Faith (Volume IV):

There was not much comfort in the medieval home. Windows were few, and seldom glassed; wooden shutters closed them against glare or cold. Heating was by one or more fireplaces; drafts came in from a hundred cracks in the walls, and made high-backed chairs a boon. In winter it was common to wear warm hats and fur indoors. Furniture was scanty but well made. Chairs were few, and usually had no backs; but sometimes they were elegantly carved, engraved with armorial bearings, and inlaid with precious stones. Most seats were cut into the masonry walls, or built upon chests in alcoves. Carpets were unusual before the thirteenth century. Italy and Spain had them; and when Eleanor of Castile went to England in 1254 as the bride of the future Edward I, her servants covered the floor of her apartment at Westminster with carpets after the Spanish custom—which then spread through England. Ordinary floors were strewn with rushes or straw, making some houses so malodorous that the parish priest refused to visit them.

Durant on Visual Art. He is describing the Sistine Chapel; from The Renaissance (Volume V):

[Michelangelo] divided the convex vault into over a hundred panels by picturing columns and moldings between them; and he enhanced the tridimensional illusion with lusty, youthful figures upholding the cornices or seated on capitals. In the major panels, running along the crest of the ceiling, Angelo painted scenes from Genesis: the initial act of creation separates light from darkness; the sun, moon, and planets come into being at the command of the Creator—a majestic figure stern of face, powerful of body, with beard and robes flying in the air; the Almighty, even finer in form than in the previous panel, extends His right arm to create Adam, while with his left arm He holds a very pretty Angel—this panel is Michelangelo’s pictorial masterpiece; God, now a much older and patriarchal deity, evokes Eve from Adam’s rib; Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the tree, and are expelled from Eden; Noah and his sons prepare a sacrificial offering to God; the flood rises; Noah celebrates with too much wine. All in these panels is Old Testament, all is Hebraic; Michelangelo belongs to the prophets pronouncing doom, not to the evangelists expounding the gospel of love.

Durant on Architecture. He is evaluating the palace of Versailles; from The Age of Louis XIV (Volume VIII):

Architecturally, Versailles is too complex and haphazard to approach perfection. The chapel is brilliant, but such flaunting of decoration hardly accords with the humility of prayer. Parts of the palace are beautiful, and the stairways to the garden are majestic; but the compulsion laid upon the designers to leave the hunting lodge intact, merely adding wings and ornament, injured the appearance of the whole. Sometimes the proliferating pile leaves an impression of cold monotony and labyrinthine repetition—one room after another to the spread of 1,320 frontal feet. The internal arrangement seems to have ignored physiological convenience, and to have presumed upon remarkable retentive power in noble vesicles. Half a dozen rooms had to be traversed to reach the goal of desire; no wonder we hear of stairways and hallways serving in such emergencies.

Durant on Literature. He is discussing Shakespeare’s language; from The Age of Reason Begins (Volume VII):

The language is the richest in all of literature: fifteen thousand words, including the technical terms of heraldry, music, sports, and the professions, the dialect of the shires, the argot of the pavement, and a thousand hurried or lazy inventions—occulted, unkenneled, fumitory, burnet, spurring… He relished words and explored the nooks and crannies of the language; he loved words in general and poured them forth in frolicsome abandon; if he names a flower he must go on to name a dozen—the words themselves are fragrant. He makes simple characters mouth polysyllabic circumlocutions. He plays jolly havoc with the grammar: turns nouns, adjectives, even adverbs into verbs, and verbs, adjectives, even pronouns into nouns; gives a plural verb to a singular subject or a singular verb to a plural subject; but there were as yet no grammars of English usage. Shakespeare wrote in haste, and had no leisure to repent.

Durant on Engineering. He is summarizing the Roman techniques for constructing roads; from Caesar and Christ (Volume III):

The consular roads were among their simpler achievements. They were from sixteen to twenty-four feet wide, but near Rome part of this width was taken up by sidewalks (margines) paved with rectangular stone slabs. They went straight to their goal in brave sacrifice of initial economy to permanent savings; they overleaped countless streams with costly bridges, crossed marshes with long, arched viaducts of brick and stone, climbed up and down steep hills with no use of cut and fill, and crept along mountaintops or high embankments secured by powerful retaining walls. Their pavement varied with locally available material. Usually the bottom layer (pavimentum) was a four- to six-inch bed of sand, or one inch of mortar. Upon this were imposed four strata of masonry: the statumen, a foot deep, consisting of stones bound with cement or clay; the rudens, ten inches of rammed concrete; the nucleus, twelve to eighteen inches of successively laid and rolled layers of concrete; and the summa crusta of silex or lava polygonal slabs, one to three feet in diameter, eight to twelve inches thick. The upper surface of slabs was smoothed, and the joints so well fitted as to be hardly discernible.

Durant on Music. He is explaining the development of musical notation; from The Age of Faith (Volume IV):

We owe to our medieval forebears still another invention that made modern music possible. Tones could now be determined by dots placed on or in between the lines of the staff, but these signs gave no hint as to how long the note was to be held. Some system for measuring and denoting the duration of each note was indispensable to development of contrapuntal music—the simultaneous and harmonious procedure of two or more independent melodies. Perhaps some knowledge had seeped from Spain of Arab treatises by al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Avicenna, and other Moslems who had dealt with measured music or mensural notation. At some time in the eleventh century Franco of Cologne, a priest mathematician, wrote a treatise Ars cantus mesurabilis, in which he gathered up the suggestion of earlier theory and practice, and laid down essentially our present system for indicating the duration of musical notes. A square-headed virga or rod, formerly used as a neume, was chosen to represent a long note; another neume, the punctum or point, was enlarged into a lozenge to represent a short note; these signs were in time altered; tails were added; by trial and error, through a hundred absurdities, our simple mensural notation was evolved.

Durant on War. He is describing the aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War; from The Age of Reason Begins (Volume VII):

The towns suffered only less than the villages. Many of them were reduced to half their former population. Great cities were in ruins—Magdeburg, Heidelberg, Wurzburg, Neustadt, Bayreuth. Industry declined for lack of producers, purchasers, and trade; commerce hid its head; once-wealthy merchants begged and robbed for bread. Communes, declaring themselves bankrupt, repudiated their debts. Financiers were loath to lend, fearing that loans would be gifts. Taxation impoverished everyone but generals, tax collectors, prelates, and kings. The air was poisonous with refuse and offal and carcasses rotting in the streets. Epidemics of typhus, typhoid, dysentery, and scurvy ran through the terrified population and from town to town…

Morals and morale alike collapsed. The fatalism of despair invited the cynicism of brutality. All the ideals of religion and patriotism disappeared after a generation of violence; simple men now fought for food or drink or hate, while their masters mobilized their passions in a competition for taxable lands and political power. Here and there some humane features showed: Jesuits gathering and feeding deserted children; preachers demanding of governments an end to bloodshed and destruction. “God send that there may be an end at last,” wrote a peasant in his daybook. “God send that there be peace again. God in heaven, send us peace.”

Durant on Science. Here he explains the consequences of Newton’s work on light; from The Age of Louis XIV (Volume VIII):

When [Newton] passed a small ray of sunlight through a transparent prism he found that the apparently monochrome light divided into all these colors of the rainbow; that each component color emerged from the prism at its own specific angle or degree or refraction; and that the colors arranged themselves in a row of bands, forming a continuous spectrum, with red at the one end and violet at the other. Later investigators showed that various substances, when made luminous by burning, give different spectra; by comparing these spectra with the one made by a given star, it became possible to analyze in some degree the star’s chemical constituents. Still more delicate observations of a star’s spectrum indicated its approximate motion toward or from earth; and from these calculations the distance of the star was theoretically deduced. Newton’s revelation of the composition of light, and its refraction in the spectrum, has therefore had almost cosmic consequences in astronomy.

Durant on Trade. Here he gives us a picture of Roman trade in the first century; from Caesar and Christ (Volume III):

The improvement of government and transport expanded Mediterranean trade to unprecedented amplitude. At one end of the busy process of exchange were peddlers hawking through the countryside everything from sulphur matches to costly imported silks; wandering auctioneers who served also as town criers and advertised lost goods and runaway slaves; daily markets and periodical fairs; shopkeepers haggling with customers, cheating with false or tipped scales, and keeping a tangential eye for the aedile’s inspectors of weights and measures.

Durant on Philosophy. Here he is summarizing Spinoza’s metaphysics; from The Age of Louis XIV (Volume VIII):

We may conclude that in Spinoza substance means the essential reality underlying all things. This reality is perceived by us in two forms: as extension or matter, and as thought or mind. These two are “attributes” of substance; not as qualities residing in it, but as the same reality perceived externally by our senses as matter, and internally by our consciousness as thought. Spinoza is a complete monist: these two aspects of reality—matter and thought—are not distinct and separate entities, they are two sides, the outside and the inside, of one reality; so are body and mind, so is physiological action and the corresponding mental state.