sunnuntai 7. lokakuuta 2012

De virtute Romana

"Being a Man" by J. Sarsila is a deep and thorough research on the value system of Roman Republican society. J. Sarsila is not a cold, detached and neutral observer of the material he is dealing with, he is emotionally involved in his studies which he relates to his philosophical and ethical position: his opposition to the relativistic approach prevailing in modern world. For J. Sarsila Roman Republican society, built on a system of values centred on virtus, is not part of a past which is dead and gone, it can contribute to the discussion concerning the present and the future of mankind.

Anyway even though one might disagree with J. Sarsila's ethical and philosophical views one cannot but appreciate the seriousness of his work. His studies are absolutely reliable and shed new light on our knowledge of ancient Roman thought. 

Giuseppe Caruso
University of Jyväskylä

tiistai 2. lokakuuta 2012

Virtus clara aeternaque habetur

Being a Man

The Roman Virtus as a Contribution to Moral Philosophy

By Juhani Sarsila


"The Moral Power behind Roman Civilisation"

I came to this book as a result of curiosity. First, my University education in the late fifties in Aberdeen where I studied Moral Philosophy under Professor Donald MacKinnon and next, a sense of wonder at - along with the richness of their culture - what must have been the engine that drove the Romans to the conquering of such vast tracts of the earth's surface and their subjugation of so many civilisations and peoples. It had to be more than a blind urge to trample and conquer: what was the philosophy that spurred them on and held their vast empire together for so many centuries?

This study by Juhani Sarsila, "Being A Man: The Roman Virtus As A Contribution to Moral Philosophy" provides many intriguing answers to this. The notion of "virtus" (literally, "manliness") is so much more than just the possession or cultivation of warlike urges and valour - it encompasses a far wider spectrum. Early on, we find that the idea of a single brutish driving force is entirely inappropriate. "Virtus" has to be seen at many different levels in giving its life-long commitment to Roman society. And where do women fit into this? Are they totally sidelined by the driving male assumptions carried in this concept? Seemingly not. Indeed the Roman "virtus" can be extended to include the characteristics of woman - though here again, there are varying interpretations. W. Eisenhut (1973) had referred to the "disturbing" etymological connection with the root-word "vir" that long prevented "virtus" from being attributed to a woman. According to him, it would not have been until a letter of Cicero's to his wife that the meaning of "virtus" was extended to contain the "characteristics of a woman". Yet here there is a suggestion that this interpretation is solecistic. The terms "mulier" and "virtus" are in fact purposely contrasted. Cicero is actually stating that "virtus" applied to a woman does not really apply. The word indeed possesses purely masculine characteristics. And so this argument progresses fascinatingly through the interpretations of the works of Pliny the Younger, Juvenal and Ovid and many, many more.

Then there is the interplay of the genders as revealed in "Amphitruo" by Plautus where the thoughts of Alcmena dwell on the concept of military valour. She highlights "virtus" as the fundamental socio-political and individual value that ensures a safe and stable life for all members of (Roman) society. Indeed her subservience to this concept even goes so far as to suggest her own life's lack of real meaning without the presence of the all-powerful male "virtus". This picture then is further complicated when Alcmena has been praising the benefits of military valour for the whole of society - leading on to the clash of "amor" and "virtus". Are these two incompatible? The former emanating from and pertaining to the individual while the latter bonds and cements society? But just when this conundrum looms all is resolved in the further unfolding of events and we actually have "virtus" not contravening "amor", but actually reinforcing it.

The foregoing can only be only the tiniest glimpse into a fascinating study that covers a vast area of the philosophy, the art and the whole society of this ancient world - as the generous bibliography makes abundantly clear. The sheer complexity of this concept of "virtus" takes us on a journey from the earliest times, with Gaius Lucilius (2nd century BCE). Here we are shown the concept as something quite different again. "Manliness - or virtue - is being able to pay in full a fair price in our business dealings and in the affairs that life brings us; virtue is knowing what each affair has within it for a man; virtue is knowing what is right and useful and honourable for a man and what things are good and what are bad, what is shameful, useless, dishonourable; virtue is knowing the limit and the end of seeking a thing ......... and besides all this, thinking our country's interests to be foremost of all, our parents' next and then, thirdly, lastly our own". What an extraordinarily high - even unattainable - set of values for any social grouping to set itself! And here lies the intriguing feature of Sarsila's book - the revelation of the sheer scale of the concept of "virtus" in the Roman psyche. What at first just might appear to be merely an urge to conquer and expand by organised force of arms, takes on the mantle of an all-encompassing philosophy with many and varied facets.

The text is clear and crisp and to this monoglot anglophone this has to be viewed with a degree of respect. Respect that an academic can not only marshal the arguments of his thesis but can express them in so readable a manner in a language that is not his first. An important point to stress for potential readers in the English-speaking market, which might have a prejudiced tendency to look askance at (to them) foreign authors.

Juhani Sarsila sets out to show that Roman "Virtus" makes a contribution to Moral Philosophy. My conclusion is "quod erat demonstrandum"

For all who wonder at the extraordinary thing that was Roman Culture, this book is a must.

I recommend it highly.

Brian Denoon

August 2006

lauantai 12. syyskuuta 2009

Omnia praeter virtutem caduca sunt

Aristippus, discipulus Socratis, cum naufragio ad Rhodiensium litus eiectus animadvertisset figuras geometricas in arena discriptas, ad comites exclamavisse traditur: "Bene speremus; hominum enim vestigia video!" Confestim in oppidum Rhodum contendit et recta in gymnasium devenit. Ibi de philosophia disputans eiusmodi donatus est muneribus, ut non tantum omnia sibi necessaria acceperit, sed etiam iis comitibus, qui una cum eo in navi fuerant, et vestitum et cetera, quae opus essent ad victum, praestare potuerit.

Cum autem comites in suam quisque patriam reverti statuissent interrogarentque eum, quidnam vellet se domum renuntiare, eos civibus suis ita dicere iussit: eius modi possessiones et viatica liberis eorum quam celerrime oportere parari, quae etiam e naufragio una cum iis possent enatare.

Namque ea sola praesidia sunt vitae agendae, quibus neque fortuna iniqua neque publicarum rerum mutatio neve belli vastatio valet nocere.

Simili modo Theofrastus, quem discipulum Aristotelis esse constat, homines potius ad doctrinam humanitatemve quam ad pecuniam comparandam adhortans virum doctum affirmat ex omnibus solum neque in alienis locis peregrinum esse neque umquam inopem amicorum, sed in omni civitate esse civem difficilesque fortunae casus sine metu despicere posse; at qui non doctrinae sed felicitatis praesidiis credat se esse munitum, eum instabili et incerta conflictari vita. - Satis constat (ut spero) regem Croesum fortunae suae confisum multa passum esse.

perjantai 25. huhtikuuta 2008

Deus defunctus

In this outstandingly godless and desacralized world of ours, blasphemy, I think, is no longer worthy of intellectual discussion. "God is dead", as was over a century ago, quite convincibly stated by Friedrich Nietzsche. Nominalism, congruous with secularism or nonreligiosity as it most certainly is, seems to have become the final (/last) word of philosophy - if not the the point where all philosophy comes to an end. Blasphemy means, or has previously meant, impious utterance or action concerning God or things sacred.

It is in history and not in the present world that examples of blasphemy as well as those of heresy are to be sought. In the sphere of religion, heresy (from Gr. haíresis, wrong choice) means an opinion at variance with or contrary to the doctrine of the orthodox church.

In his monumental work in four volumes Henry Charles Lea discusses the heyday and decline of the Spanish Inquisition. From the early modern era he provides stimulating specimina of more or less spontaneous sayings, for which some unfortunate people, by the mighty and energetic Holy Office or Inquisition, were prosecuted. Lea names such actually dangerous, and, to my mind, innovative sayings as "God cannot do me more harm" (meaning that God is not omnipotent since he is incapable of doing me more harm), and, "in this world you will not see me suffer". The latter expression implies the most unclean disbelief in the Final Judgment, or, in Latin, "Dies irae", the Day of Wrath (see Lea, iv, 332).

sunnuntai 10. helmikuuta 2008

Ad maiorem Dei gloriam

From the third century AD on, the actual target of Neo-Platonist philosophers has been to reach personal understanding of and unification with the higher spheres of reality. In their metaphysics, no room is given to the principle of evil. For these thinkers, of whom Plotinus, Iamblichus and Proclus are regarded as the most important, neither matter nor evil is posited to be real.

If matter and evil were real, they, in Neo-Platonism, would deserve an equally independent reality as they do in Manichaeism, which, as far as I can see, is a more consistent philosophico-religious system than Neo-Platonism. According to Manichaeism, there are two ultimate principles of being. One is good; the other is evil. This means that both good (represented by God and the soul) and evil (represented by Satan and the body) are real, or really existent, in terms of metaphysical dualism.

In 415 AD, Hypatia, head of the Neo-Platonist school in Alexandria, is made a martyr of philosophy [never mentioned by name in Severinus Boethius' book 'De consolatione philosophiae' from 524/6 AD]. She is publicly tormented and murdered by the fanatical Christian mob; "the they", so to speak, were instigated by their equally fanatical or even more barbarous leaders, the bishop of Alexandria not excluded.

Hypatia, who never did anybody any harm, was murdered by having her skin stripped off with sharp sea-shells; what remained of her was consigned to the flames.

Let us say that evil really exists. Spectacular violence, as a form or manifestation of the primal evil, cannot be said to be non-existent. Crowd behaviour is unanimously described as being action-oriented. Characteristically, it lacks moral responsibility. "Anything goes."