Schellhase on Tacitus

This book is hard to read at times because of its author’s personal commitments. Chief among them is his effort to maintain the neutrality of a classicist in an early modern intellectual history. Despite this, it’s a nice little account of the ways in which the Renaissance and early Enlightenment used Tacitus. Jean Bodin comes off as the villain of the piece, along with Baltasar Alamos and Boccalini. They, rather than Machiavelli, are the ones who used Tacitus’s admittedly gossipy chronicles as a guide to evil rather than a warning. From this, in fits and starts, emerged raison d’état. It’s not convincing, though, because it relies on an artificial distinction between Machiavelli’s republicanism and Bodin’s absolutist reaction to it (which recapitulates most of Machiavelli’s arguments but in the service of regalism). This is the work of an American in the middle of the Watergate scandal, but exactly because of this he should know better. His ambivalence about the typical clerical charge that people who read too much Tacitus are evil narcissists uninterested in good history (sometimes also leveled against Jesuits by other clergy and lay people) confuses rather than clarifies, especially since this was also something believed by Elizabeth I. There could have been more on why people from St Jerome through the middle ages to Protestant absolutism incarnate thought Tacitus too prurient and catty to be taken seriously, or why most of the early Christian humanists/eudaemonists chose quietly to ignore him (Erasmus and Vives recommended reading him as a “what not to do” guide). The stuff on Tacitus’s accounts of Germanic tribes and tribal leaders being a straight shot to German ethnic nationalism is considerably more developed. Some of it even came from Italian and German Catholics, as a rhetorical device to tell Germans to buck up morally, which only seals in my view that the decline-decadence trope was the original sin of the Renaissance. The decadence always seems to happen on a national scale, and it’s a straight shot from there to ethnic nationalism. Fortuna, herself a Machiavellian appropriation from Tacitus, picks out ethnic groups. Providence picks out sinners.

Mell on the Medieval Jewish Moneylender

Mell’s thesis at its heart is not so much that Jews were not involved in finance during the Middle Ages as that secular rulers after the eleventh century pursued usurers, especially Jewish ones, in an effort to prove their Catholic credentials, often over and against those of the Pope. Jews were not protected-exploited by kings, as so much historiography tells us they were, except insofar as they were a commune of free men answering to the king. Rather, royal policy becomes increasingly hard on usury and later on Jews specifically during and after the Crusades, ending in the expulsions from England, France and Spain. The Franciscans are also implicated in the “crusade” against usury, but not in their Joachite or apocalyptic aspect. Christian theology at large, which resembles Jewish theology on usury, is given a relative pass vis-à-vis kings and Friars Minor.

The thesis sounds right, although it’s not my area of expertise. Even the earliest, most moderate Christian eudaemonism (Vives, Ribadaneira, Erasmus, La Hoguette, More) is more “Franciscan” than the Franciscans about usury. As Elvira Vilches has shown, though, that’s not necessarily the case with Spanish scholasticism before eudaemonism entered the picture. The obsession with the gold standard does not preexist eudaemonism or, in fact, the Spanish conquest. What we have in Mell’s story is essentially a more emollient, ambivalent version of my story of eudaemonism running its course, but instead of a fully-fledged secular ideology we have a much vaguer ideal sometimes corresponding to a utopic society structurally free of excess and sometimes corresponding to a (also utopic) world in which the theological virtues have superseded the market through personal formation on the part of individuals (this is also an ambiguity in my term ‘eudaemonism’). The latter would be the dreaded “gift economy” of German (fascistic) historians against whom Mell so intelligently polemicizes, but I believe that Mell is correct to distinguish.

The 1) excess-free world is essentially an absolutist fantasy, usually oriented around the king until its later republican incarnation with Machiavelli; the 2) virtuously supererogatory world is a clerical fantasy; and the 3) ‘gift economy’ is a secular and modern fantasy based on reductionist fin-de-siècle ideas of “what feudalism was like” and oriented around the arch-casuist Otto Brunner. Mell ultimately comes to the same conclusion as I do, that 1 runs into 3 but 2 is something rather different. One of the things distinguishing early eudaemonists was that they weren’t all priests, and those who were priests didn’t always practice their vocation in any traditional sense. Correspondently, their fantasies were often more like 1 and 3 than like 2, although many were intensely hostile to Luther and to the secular utopias en herbe in Munster and Bohemia. Vives, as I may have mentioned, believed in the power of municipal boards to legislate pretty much everything, including the charitable activity traditionally the purview of the Church. Structuralism was part and parcel even of Christian eudaemonism. Those who overcame it also overcame eudaemonism.

Ricardo Krebs Wilckens, El pensamiento histórico, político y económico del Conde de Campomanes

Typically of Campomanes scholars, Krebs attempts to paint a picture of a moderate middle between Jacobinism and a reactionary, medieval Catholicism associated with the Habsburgs. His terminology for Campomanes’s politics, “eudaemonistic utilitarianism,” is straight out of my own handbook, but the story he tells is colored by distinct emphases and a different Hayden-Whitean narrative from my own. The story here is that Campomanes could not have been a radical historicist because he was a man of action. Yet this “non-historicist” sees Europe emerging everywhere from the worst sort of darkness, is among the first (after Uztariz) to attribute purely economic causes to Spain’s alleged decadence.

Krebs, like many other historians, sees the eudaemonism of the 1750s as an antidote to a Habsburg or Habsburg-Bourbon obsession with war. For this reason he is willing to overlook Campomanes’s telluric nationalism, obsession with Gothic racial and religious purity, historicism, belief in mythic proto-religion and philology along what would become German lines, etc, because at least there was some autonomous, semi-secular and Vitorian notion of peace underneath it all. Eudaemonism, unfortunately, did not invent peace, and even if it had Campomanes was not particularly invested in it, since the underlying idea behind all his beliefs and superstitions was to get Spain to outpace the rest of the world again, not solely in terms of GDP but also educationally and, yes, martially.

Bruno again, Bataillon on Erasmus, Ficino

Today read Denis Robichaud’s Plato’s Persona, Marcel Bataillon’s Erasmus and Erasmism (no English version of this one I’m aware of), and the rest of Yates’s Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. Also consulted some works of Erasmus as I read.

Yates’s apophthegmatic version of Ficino as timidly into magic for mostly self-help reasons, Pico as ultimately contemplative and Cornelius Agrippa as desirous of real demonic or demiurgic power is at least useful. She does not seem aware of the degree to which esoterica draws upon a limited lexis and is likely to converge on a limited range of motifs. Her citation of the creepy costumes worn by the “priests” in Utopia does not expose any more freemasonry or deism in the project than is obvious at surface level. It’s also not useful to read its author, or Erasmus, as “tolerant” Catholics because they were almost freemasons like Bayle (her obvious implication) and the violence of the Reformation as specifically intolerant.

She does better with Campanella’s small-u utopia. Parallels with Vieira, probably responsible for some of the propagandizing around the Spanish monarch as the last emperor, but didn’t invent any of it. The eugenics aspect may be new-ish. His switch to France probably made its mark on French history, as Bruno’s defection to Elizabeth I, also mentioned, certainly did on English. Typical but welcome point made that Cartesian mathesis is more esoterica.

Robichaud’s book is not well organized. Ficino’s return to Christianity is real but the idea of some ur-Platonic Theology before Ficino became worried about blasphemy seems specious. Ficino was an inveterate casuist, and it’s fun reading about all the Augustine he takes out of context so he can use Porphyry and Hermes Trismegistus, but the book isn’t useful for Benjamin (because of the connections to Kabbalah) or for the dissertation (the orthodox side of Ficino is vaguely relevant but I only need to establish that the heterodox, thaumaturgic side existed, not go into it in excruciating detail).

Bataillon’s book is apparently a sequel to the magisterial Erasmus and Spain. It is also about Erasmus and Spain. For him, as for Yates, religious intolerance, personified by the Inquisition, is the great enemy. Vives resembles Erasmus in the back-to-basics impulses but Bataillon is correct to detect a lot of restraint in both men. For the later arbitrists and projectists, there were no good friars or homeless people, not the case with Vives. De subventione is dedicated to Erasmus and most of the ideas are probably from him. All the basics are in the Praise of Folly, which leans heavily to sola scriptura and the paring down of society, though Vives unlike Erasmus explicitly condemns communism (which he identifies with the Anabaptists). The huge litany of types of manipulative beggars is straight out of the arbitrist/projectist playbook, however.

Vives’s project is utopian, but Bataillon is correct to point out that this is a utopia of labor, not one of otium and cultural recreation like Utopia. There is an acute awareness of work as the consequence of original sin, but the project is utopian in that Vives attributes an almost supernatural power to municipal boards. Hospitals should be expropriated from the Church and handed over to them, all work should be assigned by them, etc. It was on these grounds that the friar Lorenzo de Villavencio attacked Vives.

The rest of the book is dedicated to proving Loyola and Cervantes to have been Erasmian. Loyola’s early career is indeed heavily tied up in the careers of Erasmian prelates, although his own preference was for the Imitatio Christi above all other works, and Don Quixote is probably the Senecan adventurer from the Praise of Folly. Not much else to go on, though, and Cervantes might have read Seneca himself.

Louis Dupré on Enlightenment

Good book, mostly traces the unintended reemergences of metaphysics in progressively more materialist authors. Suffers slightly from the supracategory of “self-awareness” used mostly on the sensationalists, empiricists, emotivists, etc of Western Europe from about 1750. Yes, they’re all about self-knowledge, but that’s not the problem, or we’d have to write off Augustine as part of the problem (the author is Catholic). Validly suggests that Cartesian thought is a reduction of Greek since at least the Greeks believed in divine reason emanating through everything. Tackles the is-ought problem nicely when he talks about how for most of the authors treated observation becomes “apodictic truth” “asymptotically,” as the proliferation of data points becomes a heap. As Cassirer ventures, there’s no reason we should see the heap as a system, let alone a closed one. But this neglects the fact that Enlightenment authors who knew there was a Gödelian limit to their knowledge are at least as common as ones who wanted a totalizing system, and the two are coeval.

Some Enlightened, as Dupré admits, did have a hierarchy of nature (Linnaeus, Kant). Doesn’t state explicitly the problem everyone has with Leibniz, the lack of theorization among monads. Standard progression from Condillac to the Princess of Clèves because of the self-awareness fixation. Then to men weeping in public (emotivism) and the rise of autocratic biography. No more Boethian consolations or dialogues of comfort against whatever, which is partly cultural (those were saints who read Plato) and partly, as Dupré obliquely suggests, because we aren’t dealing with saints at all. John of the Cross or Teresa of Ávila were at least in conversation with God, although then the cultural side starts to take on Nietzschean overtones where talking to God was just a prelude to bourgeois unlanguage.

Pelagian and semi-Pelagian ideas, according to Dupré’s genealogy, may have encouraged suspicion of law along Schmittian lines from the late Middle Ages on. Knew that historicist, tribal critiques of monarchy like Boulainvilliers’s were common enough, but Dupré doesn’t seem to realize that the arguments for absolutism, in France, Spain, and elsewhere, were also historicist and tribal and differed only in evaluation. Isolating things to the Enlightenment gives the false impression that it was circumscribed by radical and republican ideas, and it makes people like Vico look warm and fuzzy for defending the family (more or less the same way Freud did), when actually we just have to look at the whole secular Renaissance and see the same arguments being used for militarism, colonialism, the divine right of kings, and all kinds of other things that the Middle Ages disliked but which the Enlightenment thought were the Middle Ages.

Still, Dupré does manage to point out minor distinctions I wouldn’t have thought of myself, like the non-determinism of Gibbon, and the fact that his anti-imperialism is precisely his ethnic nationalism (like Herder), but there are so many Viconian overtones that I wonder if the distinction isn’t a little academic. Malebranche seems to have reintroduced emanationism through the back door, by saying that matter is a set of switches conditioning God’s existence, modifying Spinoza’s strong panentheism to a weaker one, but not exactly back to pre-Duns-Scotan weak panentheism. These distinctions just add up to a Duns Scotan/non-Duns-Scotan dichotomy which ends up being more useful than periodization based on the original distinctions, as long as we admit that Greek/Linnaean/Kantian emanation of reason may still be Duns Scotan, like Burke’s secular organicism.

Which is why I don’t buy the self-awareness thing. It’s self-awareness plus the lack of anagogy, which is just another way of saying Duns Scotism.

Yates: Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition

Today read Florence Yates’s Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition and Louis Dupré’s The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture. More on Dupré later, but Yates is relevant to my dissertation, which draws heavily on the corpus of Renaissance humanism, as well as to my work in Jewish studies, on Walter Benjamin.

Did not know, for instance, that Pico thought kabbalah to be the quickest and easiest way to confirm the truth of the New Testament and the divinity of Christ. He also associated it with whatever Raymond Llull was doing in the Ars Magna. Not surprised to find Pseudo-Dionysius’s “powers” associated  (equated by Cornelius Agrippa) with the sephiroth or emanations. Pico got most of his ideas from Abraham Abulafia, according to Scholem, although I know from my research on Benjamin and Scholem that he was the only kabbalist either of them read for a long time, so depending on when Scholem said it there may be confirmation bias.

Not surprised to find the nous-demiurge as a subordinate deity in every author but Ficino (who was timid and psychologistic about the whole endeavor, more Platonic than neo-Platonic). Interesting that most of the bishops to respond to Ficino and Pico with orthodoxy were Spanish. Also not surprised to find that the big neo-Platonic hierarchy strongly resembles the Great Chain but with more emphasis on human artifice, which fits well with the Renaissance-as-Arts-and-Crafts thing from Maravall yesterday.

Maravall and Knowles

Have been reading Maravall’s Estudios de historia del pensamiento español and David Knowles’s Evolution of Medieval Thought, both survey works. This is the fifth or sixth book by Maravall I’ve read. He is one of the most perceptive intellectual historians of Renaissance and Enlightenment Spain, despite semi-Marxist commitments whose implications I question. One of the main questions of Estudios is how to define the Renaissance: by classicism, by a new consciousness of historical time or by historicism, by the idea of renewal, by an idea of man’s dominance over nature, or by something else? Maravall settles, uneasily, on the Renaissance as a kind of Arts and Crafts Movement. Especially in Spain, the theme of the tool or instrument crops up frequently in the early sixteenth. Sometimes Maravall highlights the production of artifice, the Renaissance man as homo faber, and sometimes he generalizes the point to the glorification of praxis generally. He notes, as I do, that the glorification of manual labor had been inédite since Xenophon when it showed up in St. Thomas More, although as a Spaniard Maravall identifies it in Vives first but claims its appearance in More is a case of convergent evolution, which is dubious as they were close friends.

Sometimes the historicism and the artsy-craftsy aspects of the Renaissance converge, as when the friar Tomás Mercado (yes, otherwise a mercantile thinker) claims that “time perfects all the arts,” which is the materialist teleology in a nutshell. There’s also a subplot through all the essays on the tension between the Anglo-Venetian ideal of mixed government and the ascendancy of absolutism. Maravall seems to think the two were coeval and he’s probably right. This ties in well with the identification of raison d’état with semi-Pelagian artifice (as the word statecraft implies). There’s a weird reading of tradition in the background, though, which isn’t exactly wrong but it’s a perennialist reading of medievality as having been “about” subsidiarity and universalism. It might have been that for the Habsburgs and for some Renaissance Platonists, but we can’t neglect revealed religion here. As we all know, Maravall most of all, some eudaemonists saw the whole endeavor as anagogical, and we’re not at philological infallibility yet. Also, Maravall does not seem to realize that organicism is early modern. Its medieval ancestry is spotty at best.

Maravall’s citation of Ramírez de Prado to the effect that what distinguishes raison d’état from prior political theory is the fact that its theorists wish to use it predictively is exactly right.

June 28 – Cultural Dimension II

9:30-12:30 “Persian Gulf Command: Jewish Refugees in Wartime Iran”

Atina Grossmann, Cooper Union

Venue: Faculty of Arts, Celetná 20, Room 331

14:00-17:00 Fieldwork: Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Meeting point: Faculty of Arts, Celetná 20


Atina Grossman’s presentation was solid. Suspicions of “me-search” were soon allayed by heavy contextualization supporting any personal anecdotes, not to mention exogenous anecdotes. Knew Talal Asad’s dad was a convert from Judaism but there’s a whole story behind it. Grossman also talked about how many Cold-War-era Jewish immigrants to the US lied about having spent the war in the USSR, and interesting information on how being a stateless person was sometimes better than having Polish nationality. Also plenty on interfaith relations within Iran.

Radio Free Europe was a rushed tour comprising at least half security checkpoints. Ritual efforts to divest themselves of all the Cold War connotations took up most of the remaining time. The presentation we actually got was about a moment in Armenian politics whose stakes were difficult to determine, and if RFE won the great political victory claimed, they would be initiating procedures to pull out of Armenia.


June 27 – Cultural Dimension I

9:30-11:00 “Central Asian Migrations in the Early Soviet Period from a Perspective of Translocality”

Kamoludin Abdullaev, Dushanbe, Tajikistan

11:00-12:30 “Roots of religious radicalization in Central Asia”

Mukhtar Senggirbay, Suleyman Demirel University

14:00-17:00 “Islam and Globalization: Muslim networks from South Asia in Europe”

Dietrich Reetz, Free University Berlin

Venue: Faculty of Arts, Celetná 20, Room 331

Dr. Abdullaev strawmanned some purely telluric notion of society in order to defend a formalizing, sociological history of the mujahideen (and their anti-Soviet precursors) as part of a non-localized and transnational social network. Hard to see the point.

Dr. Senggirbay explained the rise of Islamic radicalism in Central Asia in terms of the inadequacies of Soviet-appointed Muslim clergy. Islamist groups “provided straightforward answers to life’s big questions.” Did not know that most of ISIS was from the former USSR.

Dr. Reetz’s presentation was excellent. Took about ten pages of notes, but the quickie version is that he summarized every major Islamic movement in South Asia, starting with the most conservative through more civic-educational movements like Jamaat-e-Islami and finally to heretics like the Ahmadiyyahs. Although he spoke about a few Muslim communities in Western Europe in terms of their social class and school of thought, he argued that it was government policy, not the community itself, which would determine the latter’s ability to assimilate. His example was Spain vs Portugal, and I think he’s mostly right, but along the way he mentioned most Westerners’ inability to identify heretics and I do think that cases like Teplice where Ahmadiyyahs or Ismailis appoint themselves as head of a small Islamic “millet” are a great recipe for resentment. His suggestion that Muslim migrants should be guided into employment before language or culture classes sounds correct to me.