Saturday, April 02, 2022

Henryk Sienkiewicz, Quo Vadis


Opening Passage:

Petronius woke only about midday, and as usual greatly wearied. The evening before he had been at one of Nero's feasts, which was prolonged till late at night. For some time his health had been failing. He said himself that he woke up benumbed, as it were, and without power of collecting his thoughts. But the morning bath and careful kneading of his body by trained slaves hastened gradually the course of his slothful blood, roused him, quickened him, restored his strength, so that he issued from the elaeothesium, that is, the last division of the bath, as if he had risen from the dead, with eyes gleaming from wit and gladness, rejuvenated, filled with life, exquisite, so unapproachable that Otho himself could not compare with him, and was really that which he had been called, -- arbiter elegantiarum. (p. 3)

Summary: Marcus Vinucius, a young and handsome patrician, falls in love with Lygia, who is a beautiful hostage from a barbarian tribe, who has been raised by the general Aulus Plautius and his Christian wife Pompona Graecina. (The latter two are historical; Aulus Plautius was a reasonably successful general who governed Britain for a while, and Pompona Graecina was tried, and cleared, at one point for a 'foreign superstition', which may or may not have been Christianity, but is usually thought to have been so.) Vicinius's uncle is Gaius Petronius Arbiter (also historical, and generally thought to be the author of the satirical and bawdy Satyricon), who has special connections with Nero. Nero thinks of himself as an artist first and foremost, and as an artist he has an insatiable need to be admired by a properly appreciative critic whose taste is of the first water; as Petronius, who lives for poetry and beauty, is undeniably a critic of such taste, he has done well in Nero's court, able to navigate like no one else the emperor's swiftly changing moods. Petronius, whose love of his nephew is his one non-aesthetic motivation, uses his influence to get Lygia detached from Aulus Plautius. She, however, is a Christian, and horrified by the dissoluteness of Nero's courts; and Vinucius, not accustomed to resistance, presses his position much too hard. Lygia runs away, and Vinucius is desolate.

Petronius steps in again, hiring a wily Greek, Chilo Chilonis, to find her. Chilo realizes after just a few questions that Lygia must be a Christian, and he begins searching for her by pretending to be a Christian and infiltrating the local Christian community in Rome. After some time searching, he discovers that a major Christian leader, Peter the Apostle, is in town and the Christians will be going to hear him speak in a cemetery outside the city. Vinucius goes in the hope of seeing Lygia; to his own surprise, he is impressed by the speech of the old fisherman Peter, but he puts it all out of his mind when he sees Lygia. He follows her to where she has been hiding, but due to her loyal bodyguard Ursus, he does not succeed in carrying her away, but is wounded in the attempt. Instead of killing him, the Christians take him in and tend him until he is back to health. It becomes clear that Lygia and Vinucius are in fact falling in love, but Lygia cannot marry a non-Christian. She vanishes again, and Vinucius realizes he cannot pull her away from her faith. But he has begun to change, and, comparing his own behavior to that of the Christians, he recognizes that there was something very wrong with his prior way of viewing things, and he eventually converts. Lygia and Vinucius are betrothed with the blessing of Peter and the support of another Christian leader who has arrived in the city, Paul. 

But things in the broader world are slowly rumbling to a larger doom. The emperor Nero is composing his masterwork, an epic poem about the burning of Troy. But due to some comments by Petronius, he concludes that he is failing to achieve his true potential in the poem because he has never seen a city burn. Not long afterwards, Rome does, a fire started in multiple places. Ofonius Tigellinus, the prefect of the praetorian guard and Petronius's primary rival in the court, convinces Nero to blame the Christians. Petronius's star begins to fall with Nero as, out of fear for his nephew and Lygia, he attempts, futilely, to direct Nero's actions elsewhere. Chilo betrays the Christians yet again, telling Nero and his men where to find them. They are rounded up, including Lygia, and Nero plans a great games for the very public punishment of these terrible criminals for arson, which in the premodern world is perhaps the single greatest crime one can commit in a city. The bloodthirsty crowd rejoices to see the criminals die again and again, but as Nero, in his need for artistry, cannot avoid the grandiose, even some of the most bloodthirsty start sobering as the punishments go on and on and on, and start to wonder if it can really be the case that all of these people, men and women and little children, are behind the fire, and when Nero caps his entertainments with a lighting of Christians as torches while he sings his poem about the burning of Troy, he has already raised suspicions enough about who else might have started the fires.

Vinucius and Lygia will with difficulty escape it, but many will not. Peter will be crucified. Paul will be beheaded. And Petronius having burned all of his leverage with Nero in the attempt to save Vinucius and Lygia, recognizes that Nero will likely order his death. Refusing to give him the satisfaction, he hosts one final party, of the highest taste and quality, and slits a vein. With his death, the last of the great goods that still adorned the raw power of Rome, poetry and beauty, dies, nevermore to be seen again. But the death of the apostles is a different kind of death; it is in fact the birth of a new age.

One of the things I very much like about this novel is, in fact, the focus on Petronius, who is very well characterized. He is a cynical aesthete, believing nothing, almost nihilistic in values; he is very much not a Christian, and never will become one. But there are many worse things than a life devoted to poetry and beauty, and his loyalty to his nephew is portrayed very admirably. Even in the court of Nero, some of the greatness of prior generations has not been lost. But the life of poetry and beauty has no weapons against corruption, and it is a life that passes like the flowers of the fields. Something else is needed if you want something to endure.

"Quo vadis?" ("Where are you going?") is, of course, from the a part of the legend of the death of St. Peter, which is found in the novel. Peter is convinced that, for the good of the church, he should leave to avoid the persecutions. But on the way, he has a vision in which he sees Christ going the opposite direction. "Where are you going, Lord?" he asks. And Jesus replies, "I go to Rome to be crucified again." Ashamed, Peter returns to Rome to be crucified -- which, of course, although no one could have known it at the time, is the act that seals the destiny of Rome as a Christian city. But "Quo vadis?" does not just represent this. It is the question, whether they realize it or not, that all of the characters of the novel are facing: Where are you going? And whether we realize it or not, it is the question every reader's life is tasked with answering, as well.

Favorite Passage: 

He had pressed his lips to her hands, white as jessamine, and for a time they heard only the beating of their own hearts. There was not the slightest movement in the air; the cypresses stood as motionless as if they too were holding breath in their breasts.

All at once the silence was broken by an unexpected thunder, deep, and as if coming from under the earth. A shiver ran through Lygia's body. Vinucius stood up, and said, --

"Lions are roaring in the vivarium."

Both began to listen. Now the first thunder was answered by a second, a third, a tenth, from all sides and divisions of the city. In Rome several thousand lions were quartered at times in various arenas, and frequently in the night-time they approached the grating, and, leaning their gigantic heads against it, gave utterance to their yearning for freedom and the desert. Thus they began on this occasion, and, answering one another in the stillness of night, they filled the whole city with roaring. There was something so indescribably gloomy and terrible in those roars that Lygia, whose bright and calm visions of the future were scattered, listened with a straitened heart and with wonderful fear and sadness.

But Vinicius encircled her with his arm, and said, --

"Fear not, dear one. The games are at hand, and all the vivaria are crowded."

Then both entered the house of Linus, accompanied by the thunder of lions, growing louder and louder. (p. 241)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.


Henryk Sienkiewicz, Quo Vadis: A Tale of the Time of Nero, Dover (Minneola, NY: 2011).

Friday, April 01, 2022

Renaissance Popes V: Sixtus IV

 Birth Name: Francesco della Rovere

Lived: 1414-1484

Regnal Name: Sixtus IV

Regnal Life: 1471-1484

Francesco della Rovere was born in the town of Celle Ligure, in Liguria, to a respectable but otherwise unremarkable family. He became Franciscan and studied at the University of Pavia. He was an excellent student and did a great deal of teaching for the order. In 1464 he became Minister General of the Franciscan Order, and under his supervision, the order underwent a massive series of very effective reforms. He was given the red hat in 1467 by Pope Paul II. He wrote a number of well-received theological treatises. It was a respectable kind of life. And then Pope Paul died suddenly, and the cardinals, wanting something very different, decided to elect the man of modest background and a vow of poverty with a good reputation for religious devotion and theological erudition, and Rovere became the pope, taking the name Sixtus IV.

In the short run, they found him a refreshing change. He talked to them, received them in audiences, treated them very well. But there were already signs that Sixtus was not quite what they had thought they were getting. Almost immediately, he began using his position to give his family an endless series of favors, honors, pensions, and the like. Perhaps up to that time there had never been any pope so brazenly nepotistic. It makes sense, in retrospect. Most of his family was relatively poor and unimportant. A mendicant friar, he had never before been in a position seriously to help them. Now he was. So he did. The Rovere family grew quite rich and powerful very quickly. Two of his nephews he made cardinals almost immediately, Pietro Riario and Giuliano della Rovere. Pietro Riario embodied every danger of ecclesiastical nepotism. He was frivolous, restless, profligate, and brazen. His uncle never told him no, and, indeed, put him in charge of the papal treasury. By some strange happenstance, he became extremely rich overnight, living a high life of luxury, throwing big, splendid parties, hosting huge celebrations for the people of Rome, showering his mistress, for he had a mistress, with gems and fine clothes. And what he said, went. He was not just a cardinal, he was the Big Boss Cardinal, il padrone cardinale. The papal court was perhaps saved from ultimate disaster by his sudden death after a diplomatic mission. Giuliano della Rovere, about whom we will learn more, was notoriously a simoniac and at one point managed to collect eight or nine different episcopal sees at one time, to collect income from them all, of course. He also had a mistress, Lucrezia Normanni, and they had a daughter, Felice della Rovere, in 1483. Other nephews were lavished with many honors and favors, as well.

He declared a new crusade against the Ottoman Turks. Unlike his predecessor, he was able to pull enough strings and pour enough money into the project to get an actual army on the move, which re-took Smyrna, and then went home. He was never able to get any more done along these lines. He started wars to increase territory (to get more land for his nephews). He traded favors. All of his projects were very expensive, so the papal treasury was continually being drained. So he handled it in a very direct fashion: he increased taxes in the Papal States and increased the number of offices, positions, and honors  at every level that could be bought. Truly, this Franciscan had a different way with money from any of his predecessors.

The most notorious event of his papal tenure was the Pazzi Conspiracy. The Medici of Florence had had a longstanding relationship with the papacy; they had been big supporters of the Pisan papal obedience, so when Martin V, who had also been a supporter of the Pisan popes, became the pope at the Council of Constance, they continued to be the papal bankers. However, the relationship began sliding very quickly from the moment Sixtus became pope. Lorenzo de Medici seems to have not had a high opinion of him, and seems, mistakenly, to have thought that he was easy to manipulate. But Sixtus is not without a considerable share of blame. It starts with his nephews again. For one of his younger nephews, Girolamo Riario, he bought the territory around the city of Imola from the Duke of Milan. That's a pretty nice gift. However, he did so by breaking into a deal that was already being made, because Lorenzo de Medici was attempting to buy it for Florence. Lorenzo had the higher offer in money, but Sixtus had something even better. Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan, had an illegitimate daughter, Caterina Sforza, and Sixtus offered a marriage between Caterina and Girolamo. Having outbid the Medici, Sixtus then expected the Medici, as the papal bankers, to finance the monetary portion of it. Lorenzo, furious, refused, at which Sixtus terminated the relationship with the Medici bank, working out relationships with other banks, of whom the most important was the Pazzi bank. Further, there was jockeying over ecclesiastical positions in Tuscany. Lorenzo managed to get Rinaldo Orsini, his brother-in-law, into the see of Florence after it was vacated by the death of Pietro Riario, despite the attempt of the Pazzis to get their friend, Francesco Salviati, into the see; then Francesco de'Pazzi got Salviati appointed to the see of Pisa without the consent of the Florentines, which angered the Florentines, and Lorenzo and his allies managed to cause a number of problems for him. Therefore, Girolamo Riario, Francesco Salviati, and Francesco de'Pazzi came to a conclusion together: Lorenzo de Medici and his brother Giuliano must die.

The conspirators approached Sixtus and asked him for his support. Sixtus seems to have replied with great precision that he could not condone assassination, but he would like kindly on anyone who removed the Medici from power. It's probably the case -- but we can only say 'probably' -- that he expected the conspirators to change to a plan to take the Medici brothers prisoner. The conspirators understood him to express his approval of their plan, perhaps just with a little caution for plausible deniability. The conspirators went back to Florence, where a number of events forced them, fatally, to improvise modifications to their plan. They ended up attacking Lorenzo and Giuliano at Mass, stabbing Giuliano to death. Lorenzo, however, managed to escape. Salviati took a band of men to attempt to take over the Palazzo della Signoria, but the Pazzis had overestimated how unpopular the Medici were; they expected a fair degree help from the populace who, however, refused to cooperate. Conspirators were seized left and right; about eighty people ended up being hanged over it, including Archbishop Salviati. Girolamo Riario escaped, but  Lorenzo also had seized Raffaelle Riario, another of the cardinal-nephews (who was seventeen at the time). Raffaelle had pretty clearly not been involved in the conspiracy at all. But he was a good hostage, at least for a brief period as Lorenzo attempted to get a grasp on the whole situation; in a few weeks he was sent back to Rome. Sixtus in response escalated again, apparently angered at the execution of Salviati: he excommunicated Lorenzo, put Florence under the Interdict, and began to support the desire of the Kingdom of Naples to take Florentine territory. Lorenzo by a dint of daring and diplomatic genius was able to nullify that third point; but the other two required rapprochement with Sixtus, and this was not happening. To say that the conspiracy damaged the role and image of the papacy in Italy would be an understatement.

What gives endurance to the Sixtus name, however, is that he was an extraordinary patron of the arts. He took the library of Nicholas V, separated out the official documents, and created the Vatican Library and the Secret Archives, the latter being essentially the library-sized filing cabinet of the popes (the 'secret' is the same as in 'secretary', and means, roughly, 'private or personal') and the former of which he massively expanded and opened to the public for the first time. He built the private chapel that now goes by his name, the Sistine Chapel, and had it decorated by the greatest painters of the day. He in fact supported artists of every kind of art, major or minor, and paid generously for their works in massive quantities, without regard for expense. He restored churches, buildings, plazas, bridges, fortifications throughout Rome and the Papal States. He poured out huge quantities of money, and largely got good results from it, in part because he poured it out on hundred and hundreds of different projects, most of them small and accessible. He was a firm believer in the idea of Nicholas V that all of this was a way to evangelize and to give glory to God, and he did at great length. The Franciscans, of course, benefited massively from his largesse, and he took special care to restore and upgrade churches dedicated to the Virgin.

One of the things that had led to his election as pope was his success as a reformer when he was Minister General. He was not entirely a disappointment in the area of Church reform; he did a large number of improving projects on religious orders, for instance. But then again, he was a nepotist to shame all nepotists. Nor was it just nepotism. He expanded the College of Cardinals (which the cardinals thought to be generally inconsistent with reform), and he expanded it in baffling ways. Besides family members, he gave cardinalates to extremely worldly people for political reasons. He made cardinals out of young men who, unlike, say, Pietro Barbo in the previous generation, had shown no obvious promise and had no obvious achievements. Indeed, as some of them had apparently no qualifications except being good-looking, tongues wagged at great satirical length about them. Some of his choices would perhaps not have made any less sense if he had instead just decided to give out red hats by lottery. It would not have had any worse results than his actual decisions. When we look at the semi-dynastic politics of the next several generations, the generations that more than any other give the Renaissance Papacy its reputation as a corrupt and worldly institution, a significant portion of it is due to Sixtus IV. 

For Sixtus had had a major hand in choosing the next generation of leaders of the Church. And there was much that was not right with the next generation. If this was not already clear before Sixtus's death, it became especially clear once he had died.

More Disposed vs. Disposed to More

 Erik Wielenberg has a well-known paper, "A morally unsurpassable God must create the best" [Religious Studies Vol. 40, No. 1 (Mar., 2004), pp. 43-62]; the title gives the point. 'Morally unsurpassable' is obviously a key idea here. He defines it as follows:

[D1] x is a morally unsurpassable agent in w =df. (1) x is an agent in w, and (2) it is not the case that there is some world w' and some being y such that y is a better moral agent in w' than x is in w.

This is not an entirely satisfactory definition, since there are obvious problems with what it means to be a "better moral agent". Are we to take it to be "a moral agent who does better things", "a moral agent with better character (i.e., better facility in doing good things)", "a moral agent with capacity to do better things", "a moral agent with better capacity to do moral things", "a moral agent who is better at doing moral things", or what? Wielenberg considers this, although in a somewhat roundabout way, discussing Wierenga's notion that 'better moral agent' is to be understood as 'more virtuous', which he then reglosses as "more disposed to pursue intrinsically valuable states proportionally". This is not a standard way to understand 'virtuous' in virtue ethics, since virtue is itself a proportional intrinsically valuable state, and many virtues pursue extrinsically valuable states, and most virtues don't pursue anything at all (they just do things) unless we're speaking very loosely. This is perhaps not surprising; he is adapting Hurka, and Hurka is a consequentialist, so we get a consequentialist account of virtue. But Wielenberg also recognizes this and builds an elaborate ad hoc workaround to leave out cases in which the morally unsurpassable agent wouldn't be more disposed to pursue intrinsically valuable states proportionally. It seems to me that this should raise red flags immediately, but let us set this worry aside, and just go with the interpretation of 'better moral agent' as 'more disposed to pursue intrinsically valuable states proportionally'. As we will see, this still doesn't end the problem.

In any case, he adds to this two other definitions:

[D2] Possible world w is surpassable for x =df. there is some possible world w' such that (1) x can actualize w' and (2) w' is better than w.

[D3] x is creator =df. x actualizes some world or other.

Possible worlds are not 'actualized' except as a loose figure of speech; it's the actual world that is 'actualized' (by something existing and doing something), and the actual world is not a possible world in the sense of possible world semantics. Wielenberg at one point says that possible worlds are states of affairs. This is also not strictly true -- possible worlds are logical objects mapped to claims with truth values, interpreted as describing ways the actual world can be -- whereas states of affairs, whatever else they may be, involve mappings to gerund clauses, not complete propositions. But if one did hold that possible worlds were states of affairs then, 'actualizing a possible world' would mean 'being the cause that is the reason why a world-sized state of affairs obtains'. The real idea here is that the actual world would be surpassable for x if x actualizes the actual world and there is some possible world (which describes a possible way the actual world is) that is better than the possible world(s) whose description is closest to the description of the actual way the actual world is. x, on the other hand, is creator if x actualizes the actual world, whatever way the actual world might be. 

But take the definitions as they are. Then Wielenberg reasons as follows to conclude that a morally unsurpassable agent must create an unsurpassable world. Suppose A creates a world whose value has measure v and B creates a world whose value has measure v', and suppose that v' > v. "Unsurpassably proportional pursuit" requires that when you have two things that you can bring about, and you can't bring about both, and one is better than the other, you bring about the better one. Therefore B is more disposed to pursue intrinsically valuable states proportionally. Unfortunately for this line of reasoning, there is a slip of scope here; the argument doesn't prove that B is more disposed to pursue intrinsically valuable states proportionally, but that B is disposed to pursue intrinsically valuable states more proportionally. Just going on (D1) as interpreted in terms of disposition to pursue intrinsically valuable states, we have no reason to regard these as equivalent; it seems entirely possible that A could be more disposed (or as disposed, since Wielenberg is assuming that A and B are both omniscient and omnipotent and that nothing else is relevant to how they are disposed) to pursue intrinsically valuable states proportionally even though B is disposed to pursue them more proportionally. My point above about the different ways to interpret 'better moral agent' was not a quibble; even with the definitional work Wielenberg does, it resurfaces again. If we slim down to just A, we run into the same problem. Wielenberg thinks that if A creates a surpassable world, then, since A is "otherwise identically disposed" whether he creates this world or a better one, then he is more disposed to pursue intrinsic valuable states proportionally if he creates an unsurpassable one. But the 'otherwise' is a little sleight of hand here whose vague suggestion that there is some difference relevant to the disposition is not motivated by anything in the set-up; given Wielenberg's assumptions about the dispositions of creators, A's disposition in both cases is identical. In either case A is disposed to pursue intrinsic valuable states proportionally, and in both cases it is exactly the same disposition. Now if dispositions and actions necessarily have to match up one-to-one, so that any difference in action at all is a difference in disposition, it's true that we would then have to say that, since the actions are not the same, the dispositions are not the same. But even if that extremely substantive and controversial assumption were made, we have no particular to reason to say that they would not be the same specifically in that one was a greater degree of the actual disposition to pursue intrinsically valuable states proportionally, as opposed to some other way of being different -- such as being equal as to disposition but one being disposed to a slightly different way of handling proportionality. That is to say, the same ambiguity arises with A alone as when we were comparing A and B. 

More disposed to do something Y-ly is in general not the same as disposed to do something more Y-ly. Being more disposed to cross a street with care is not the same as being disposed to cross a street with more care; for instance, in the first case you could be more eager to cross a street, as long as it is with care, whereas in the second you might not be particularly eager to cross a street, but if you do you will be very, very careful. If Joe is really enthusiastic at crossing streets with basic reasonable precautions, for instance, this is not the same as if he were crossing streets with more than basic reasonable precautions. The point is actually an important one for ethics, since Wielenberg is not the only person to confuse the two, by any means. The necessity of distinguishing them falls fairly from a number of common ethical positions, such as the Doctrine of the Mean. (Wielenberg in a footnote actually tries to link proportionality to the Doctrine of the Mean, but has not, I think, thought through carefully enough the way in which disposition relates to the mean.) Being more disposed to speak truthfully is one thing; being disposed to speak more truthfully is another. If you are an honest person or a blabbermouth truthteller, you are more disposed to speak truthfully than a liar; if you are a blabbermath truthteller, you are disposed to speak more truthfully than an honest person would (which means you have a vice, not a virtue), but you are not necessarily more disposed to speak truthfully than an honest person is (this is purely a matter of how intensive or deeply rooted your disposition has become). You don't become more honest by saying things that are more true (which would perhaps imply that just reading a list of tautologies aloud is maximal honesty), nor by saying more truths; you become more honest by becoming better disposed with regard to saying truths.

This illicit pattern is in fact found in pretty much all "the best agent must make the best thing" arguments, of whatever kind. Maybe you could have one without this illicit move, but I haven't come across it. And we know it's illicit because there are many, many counterexamples. The best writer might not write the best essay; for instance, the writer might be deliberately writing a bad essay in a writing workshop for teaching purposes. The best advisor might not give the best advice; for instance, she might settle for lesser advice that is the best to which people will listen. The best drawer might not make the best drawing; for instance, it might be a case of playing around a bit with different kinds of sketches just for the fun of it. The best chess player might not make the best move; for instance, he might find the game itself interesting enough that he wants to see where his opponent is going, strategy-wise, rather than starting a crushing endgame now. (Chess is an interesting example, because there is an entire history of virtuoso chess in which great chessplayers make suboptimal moves to show that they can still win even when giving their opponents absurd advantages; virtuoso-style play was very popular in the eighteenth century, and you have examples of things like great chess players deliberately losing half their pieces before coming back to win.) And so forth and so forth and so forth. And we get this result in part because being the best at something typically means you have a wider, not a narrower, scope of action; if you are the best painter, the range of ends you can achieve by painting is greater than the range of ends that can be achieved by the merely good painter, and massively greater than the range of ends that can be achieved by the bad painter. To be sure, you could say something like, "The best writer in writing the awful essay for teaching purposes is writing the best awful essay for those purposes", but this changes the subject, because now we need to know exactly what those purposes are, and the very same thing can be the best thing for one purpose and not the best thing for another, and the bare statement, "the best agent must make the best thing" is no longer true simpliciter, but only with significant qualifications, if it is even really true at all.

We should thus be extraordinarily skeptical of the idea that the best of all best agents, with an omniscient ability to consider ends that we cannot even conceive, and with an omnipotent power to achieve them, is capable of making one and only one kind of thing, rather than being capable of making many different kinds of things suitable for many different purposes.

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Renaissance Popes VI: Paulus II

 Birth Name: Pietro Barbo

Lived: 1417-1471

Regnal Name: Paul II. According to stories we have, which may or may not be true, he had some difficulty settling on this, first considering Formosus and then Marcus, but being convinced that the first (which means 'Good-looking') might be misunderstood as vain and that the latter (which was associated with Venice) might cause political problems.

Regnal Life: 1464-1471

Born in Venice, Pietro Barbo in his early years was training to be a merchant. But then his maternal uncle became Pope Eugene IV. At that point, Barbo switched careers, and was ordained. Pope Eugene, who had had bad experiences with the leftovers of his predecessor's nepotism, doesn't in general seem to have gone out of his way to lavish Barbo with any favors or honors, but a clever and competent man with such good connections already in hand will move up very quickly, and for an ecclesiastical career, it helps to be a man the pope knows personally. He was made cardinal at the young age of twenty-three, and became a significant player in the Curia. And 'player' is perhaps a good word for it. Martin, Eugene, Nicholas, Callixtus, and Pius were not exactly what one would call ecclesiastical politicians. But Pietro Barbo was an ecclesiastical politician through and through. And with him a new element enters the Renaissance Papacy, one for which it would become famous: ambition. Of the popes that preceded him, only Pius showed an actual ambition for ecclesiastical position, and even with Pius the ambition came late in his career and manifested itself mostly as a swiftness to seize an opportunity when it arose. But Cardinal Barbo was a maker of opportunities; he played the game of ecclesiastical politics as a career professional, not as an amateur.

In ecclesiastical politics, however, ambition is a two-edged sword. It certainly made Barbo a significant person in the Curia across the tenure of multiple popes. It also made him a significant candidate in multiple conclaves.  But there is an old saying that the man who enters a papal conclave as pope leaves as cardinal, and Cardinal Barbo is a good example: always a name brought up, always struggling to get enough votes however he campaigned (and he definitely campaigned), with the result that he was always a popemaker, never a pope. Perhaps the purest expression of this was in the conclave that elected Pius II; the cardinals were actively looking for an Italian, he was a significant candidate, and yet it became clear to him very quickly that he would have to throw his support behind Piccolomini if he was to avoid the even worse fate of a French pope. In 1464, however, his time came; whatever the cardinals might have thought of him, there was no obvious other candidate, and so he was elected on the first ballot and took the name Paul II. 

Prior to the voting, the cardinals agreed to a capitulation, which is a term for a formal agreement that if any of them were elected pope that they would do certain things. Such capitulations are illegal under canon law now, but for a period of several centuries they were quite common in papal conclaves. A very significant feature of this particular capitulation was that it required that whoever would be elected pope would call a general council within three years. It also involved promises to prosecute war against the Ottoman Empire, to reform the Church, never to have more than twenty-four cardinals, never to have more than one cardinal who was related to the pope,  to make cardinals only with the consent of the College of Cardinals, and so forth. All of the cardinals, and especially all of those hoping to get any votes, signed it. Given what happened after his election, it is virtually certain that Paul II had signed the capitulation with every intention of violating it. Almost immediately after his election, he began to complain to people about the capitulation. One of the provisions in the capitulation required that the pope publish a papal bull reaffirming it within three days of his election. Paul pulled together the opinions of a number of canon lawyers who argued that such capitulations have no binding force, then, instead of a reaffirmation of the capitulation, gave the cardinals a list of his own preferred provisions and forced them to sign it. The cardinals were absolutely livid, and rumors of a new schism started spreading. Fortunately, no schism occurred. Paul II basically tried to buy the cardinals off by giving those who were less well off special privileges and better pensions. This was probably inadequate; the Church was likely saved from yet another schism simply by the recognition by the cardinals that a schism wouldn't actually resolve anything.

This and other early problems in Paul's pontificate were exacerbated by a peculiarity that completely threw everyone off balance. Paul II was a night owl, in part because he thought it was good for his health. Once he became pope and could completely decide his own schedule with no one daring to tell him otherwise, he slept during the day and did almost all of his business at night. If you tried to schedule an audience with him, you would probably be scheduled for your audience at two or three in the morning. What is more, Paul did not particularly put a high priority on meeting with people; some sources say that even his friends had to schedule meetings with him two weeks in advance, and if you weren't scheduled that far ahead, you might wait for hours and still be sent home. Pius II had not had a reputation for treating cardinals well, but he was usually fairly efficient about meeting with people. Not so Paul II. But even if you met with him, you could not be guaranteed to get any answer about any issue you raised; Paul II soon had a reputation for indecisiveness. He went back and forth, back and forth in his mind for almost every issue that arose. Nonetheless, when he did eventually make up his mind, he was always extraordinarily generous.

Early in his papal tenure, Pope Paul became enmeshed in a struggle with the literati of Rome; seeking to reduce the number of offices, and inclined to think that many of these humanists were in fact crypto-pagans, he began to restrict the positions in the College of the Abbreviators and the Roman Academy, on  which they relied for income. This made him highly unpopular in literary circles. What exactly happened next is very unclear, but one possible reading of the evidence is that a number of them became involved in an assassination conspiracy against the pope. Investigation did not fully clarify the matter, but in 1648 Paul cracked down on a number of those to whom the evidence pointed. There were arrests and further investigations, but all those arrested were eventually let go, because, despite indirect evidence of the conspiracy, there was never anything sufficiently definite to implicate anyone in particular. Since a number of those who were subject to arrest went on in the next pontificates to write the history of Paul's pontificate, later generations would regard him as a philistine, and given that the Renaissance is an era that is not noted for its restraint in gossip, a cruel, ignorant, effeminate philistine, at that. Nonetheless, he was an extensive patron of the arts. Even as cardinal he had lavishly built up his house in Rome, the Palazzo Venezia, and it was his preferred residence even while pope; there he pulled together a massive collection of works of art. He was enthusiastic about gemstones, antiquities, and fine textiles. But he also spent a great deal on amusements for Romans.

Throughout his pontificate, he attempted to pull together a crusade against the Ottoman Turks. Paul recognized that money was needed to make such an endeavor successful, and he attempted to raise it, without much success; people were not happy about paying extra taxes even on the justification of defending from Ottoman invasion. Very little was accomplished beyond the strengthening and reaffirmation of a few defensive alliances. Much of the latter part of his tenure was tangled up in international politics, both in Italy and with France under the cunning Louis XI. But the most serious was perhaps the flare-up of the tensions between the Hussite Bohemians and the rest of the Church. Paul II supported the provisions of the Council of Constance, and therefore attempted to summon King George of Bohemia before a Church council to answer for his support of the Hussites; George refused, and was excommunicated. Things escalated on both sides; eventually King George and Pope Paul attempted a reconciliation but the attempt was cut short by the sudden death of the pope in 1471.

The death of Paul II is a kind of mystery. One day he was well, and apparently in good health. The next day he felt ill after dinner and collapsed, with some foaming at the mouth. Of course, the sudden death of a man with as many enemies as Paul spreads talk. Some claimed he died from overeating melons. One story, typical of Renaissance gossip, claimed that he died while being sodomized. Probably it was a heart attack. But regardless of the how, he had died. He was a man who made enemies, as vain men do, but he was also a competent if somewhat slow and indecisive administrator and was extremely liberal with the common people. He was, unlike his uncle, very nepotistic. He lived luxuriously, aided others generously, schemed and plotted but also actively worked to solve real problems. He was not as effective as his predecessors in reform, but his predecessors sometimes had better men on which they could rely. Paul II had his supporters, but they were scattered. But one reason why his effectiveness was so limited was that he was willing to try to address very serious problems directly, an approach that made him very unpopular with many of those affected. The external problems with which he had to deal were also not small. His sudden death left Europe in crisis -- the Hussite problem in Bohemia unresolved, the Turks winning victory after victory in the East with no obvious Western response, and Paul had alienated many people during his pontificate even when, sometimes especially when, resolving prior problems.

After Paul II, competent but hated, vain of his looks and living in luxury, people wanted a pope who would more firmly push forward with ecclesiastical reform than the career Church-politician did. The cardinals decided to elect a poor man renowned for his piety. What they got would be rather different from what they planned.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Seasons of Loss and Gain

The Plaint Human
by James Whitcomb Riley 

Season of snows, and season of flowers,
Seasons of loss and gain!--
Since grief and joy must alike be ours,
Why do we still complain? 

Ever our failing, from sun to sun,
O my intolerant brother:--
We want just a little too little of one,
And much too much of the other.

Renaissance Popes V: Pius II

 Birth Name: Enea Silvio Bartolomeo Piccolomini

Lived: 1405-1464

Regnal Name: Pius II

Regnal Life: 1458-1464

Enea Silvio Piccolomini is arguably the Renaissance pope about whom we have the most information, because he himself gives us an extensive amount. He was born in Corsignano, near Siena; the family was a noble one, but rather impoverished; he eventually attended university first at Siena then at Florence. He spent some time at a tutor, but eventually got a position with Cardinal Capranica, one of the greatest cardinals of the day, who needed a secretary during his trip to the Council of Basel. Piccolomini went with him, and did odd secretarial jobs for others in Basel when Capranica's funds eventually run out. He was selected by Bl. Niccolo Albergati, who happened to be serving as Pope Eugene's legate at the council, for a special mission to Scotland. We have no clear idea what was involved in that, and Piccolomini himself describes it in very different ways. It was an eventful trip, however; he came back from it partly lame and having fathered an illegitimate child who died shortly after birth.

Returning to Basel, he became active in helping and supporting the bishops at Basel as their conflicts with the pope intensified. He was encouraged by several to become ordained, and was promised even to be made a cardinal if he did (because the council was at the stage in which it was beginning to consider deposing Pope Eugene and electing a new pope). He declined because he did not think himself capable of the requirement to be sexually continent. Instead, he became secretary to the Felix V after the bishops at Basel elected him pope; while in that position, he fathered another illegitimate child, who also shortly thereafter died. He was involved in various diplomatic activities. Throughout all of this, he dabbled in various literary matters, and at about this point wrote what was perhaps his most famous work, The Tale of Two Lovers, which has the curious distinction of being the only erotic novel written by a man who later became pope. Piccolomini, while not a scholar, in fact became well known for his literary productions; he was especially well known in his day for erotic poetry. In any case, he eventually overcome his worry about sexual continence and was ordained.

He was heavily involved in the reunification by which Felix submitted to Eugene. It's perhaps in this work that he became friends with Tommasso Parentucelli, and when the latter became Pope Nicholas V, he was made a bishop, first of Trieste, then later of Siena. He continued to do diplomatic work under first Nicholas then Callixtus III. Piccolomini's great ambition at this point was to be made cardinal; Nicholas died before he got around to it, Callixtus preferred to give the red hat to family and friends he knew he could trust, but eventually he won enough trust with the latter that he was made cardinal.  Then Pope Callixtus died, and we know a great deal about the papal enclave of 1458, because Piccolomini will later write about everything that happened.

The conclave opened in a bit of confusion. The previous one, of course, had deadlocked over a lack of a clear candidate. As Callixtus lay dying, it had seemed that Cardinal Capranica was the obvious choice, but he died too. This left things more up in the air. The conclave was basically a contest between the French and the Italians; the Italians had the advantage in conclave numbers, but the lack of an obvious Italian candidate after Capranica's death made a French choice more likely, since the most obvious next candidate was Cardinal d'Estouteville. Piccolomini, seeing an opportunity, went to work. The cardinals had not been happy with how Pope Callixtus had treated them, so he played on that. He also played on the Italian worries about the possibility of a French pope, and managed to unite most of the Italian bloc on the principle that almost any Italian would be better than a Frenchman; the key to this was Cardinal Barbo, a perpetual papabile who was perpetually left out for one reason or another; Barbo put all of his support behind Piccolomini. Piccolomini managed just to get the required number of votes. Overcome with emotion, he burst out crying at the result and took the name Pius II. The Romans were happy at the election of an Italian, and everything was off to a swimming start.

Of course, the treasury was not in great shape, because so much of it had been used by Callixtus trying to pull together the crusade against the Ottoman Empire, and as Pius was fully agreed with his predecessor about the importance of the Ottoman threat, he himself attempted to pull together a crusade, with not much more success, although he did manage, after huge amounts of diplomatic work, to help build a few important defensive alliances and to pull together an army of sorts toward the end of his tenure. Because of the lack of extensive funds, he disappointed a great many expectations from people who were expecting a new Nicholas. Pope Pius II lacked Nicholas's erudition but was in some ways a more literary man, and he did a great deal of work in protecting the ancient monuments of Rome and throughout the Papal States, but he never had the money to do the kind of extensive books-and-buildings campaign, or the extensive art patronage, that Nicholas had done so well. This is not to say that he didn't try. He did a number of interesting projects, including completely rebuilding his hometown of Corsignano and renaming it Pienza after himself. (It still exists today as a major example of Renaissance architecture and one of the earliest experiment-grounds for Renaissance urban planning.) And he did engage in some patronage, although many artists found that the pope was quite a remarkably finicky critic. Nonetheless, he was scrupulous about making sure repairs were done on churches and older buildings, and made it illegal to harm ancient Roman monuments even when they were on private property.

Most of his accomplishments, however, were diplomatic, and interestingly enough, a consistent theme of skepticism about general councils, and an insistence that general councils were not above the pope, is found in his diplomatic decisions. (He went so far as to formally and officially repudiate any writings he had ever written that might have suggested otherwise, a sign of how far the spell of conciliarism had receded.) This is not to say, however, that he was not firmly committed to the reform of the Church; in fact, drawing advice from Bl. Nicholas of Cusa and St. Antoninus of Florence and others, he worked out a complete plan for official Visitations throughout the Church to investigate and address problems, and set to work reorganizing the Curia. But such an ambitious project was perhaps outside his means, given the Turkish and the increasingly tangled diplomatic situations in Europe, and only parts of his plan for reform were ever fully implemented.

One would expect a pope of his background to tend toward the dissolute when given the office of the pope, but it was not really so. Perhaps he had by this point settled down and reformed. I don't know whether that is completely so, but I think it is fair to say that Pius II took the office of the papacy very seriously and above all things wanted to fulfill it well. Everything else had to be subordinated to it. He continued writing, however, including writing the only autobiography written by a sitting pope, the vast multi-volume Commentaries that were published posthumously and which serve to give us a wealth of information -- albeit from Pius's own not entirely impartial view -- about all the great events that happened in his lifetime. He also wrote various minor historical and theological works.

Toward the end of his life, he managed to pull together a small army to oppose the Ottoman Turks. He had the dream of going with them to the defense of the Dalmatian coast and the city of Ragusa, which he attempted to do, although the Venetians failed to give him adequate ships for it. However, he had never been in great health, suffering from gout and other ailments, and he died near Ancona waiting for the Venetians finally to come through with their promised transport, which they never did.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Renaissance Popes IV: Callixtus III

 Birth Name: Alfons de Borja (often Alfonso de Borgia)

Lived: 1378-1458

Regnal Name: Callixtus III

Regnal Life: 1455-1458

Alfonso de Borgia was born in the Kingdom of Valencia in the Crown of Aragon; he attended the University of Lleida, where he studied law and at which he eventually became a law professor. According to a common story, at one point he attended a sermon by St. Vincent Ferrer, who in comments afterward told him that he was destined to be an ornament to his house and country, and that he therefore must take care to keep on the path of virtue. He was an active supporter of the Avignon papacy, but about the time of the Council of Constance, in which Aragon did not participate, he began arguing strongly for the importance of church unity, and he was eventually a major player in working out the reunion between Clement VIII of Avignon and Martin V of Rome. In reward, Pope Martin made him bishop of Valencia; Pope Eugene later elevated him to the cardinalate when he helped heal a breach between the pope and the king of Aragon.

As it became clear to people that Pope Nicholas was dying, there was a great deal of worry about the future. There were no particularly obvious candidates to replace him and with international tensions being as high as they were, there was a worry that if any major faction did not get its way, there would be another schism. We know from comments made by those who were participating that the College of Cardinals quickly settled into what looked like a stagnant stalemate as different factions absolutely refused to vote for each other's candidates. An agreement was therefore made to pick none of the favored candidates but instead a man who could be expected to be at least tolerable to each faction and who was also elderly so that he would die soon. Thus Alfonso de Borgia was, in effect, selected as a compromise candidate to be provisional pope, with everyone hoping that he would die in a few years. An inauspicious beginning, and it only got worse when, on his coronation day, a stray comment he made led to a riot between Christians and Jews and then he had to stop, completely independently, yet another fight over trivial matters that threatened to break out into an actual battle. The halcyon days of Pope Nicholas were gone. But the new pope, who took the name Callixtus III, went to work very quickly, and not long afterward canonized St. Vincent Ferrer.

Almost all of the money that under Nicholas had been flowing to artists and authors, to books and buildings, began to dry up immediately, to the endless complaints of those who had benefited. Callixtus was not particularly interested in such subjects. A law professor to his very marrow, he always said very little in conversations unless they turned to some technicality in canon law or civil law, at which he would suddenly become very animated. And he was a man of very practical priorities. Tied to this practicality, however, there was one thing he carried over from his predecessor. After the Fall of Constantinople, Pope Nicholas had attempted to stir up a crusade against the Ottoman Empire, and Callixtus was, if anything, even more sure that this had to be done, particularly as the Ottomans were advancing, winning victory after victory. Pope Nicholas's attempts had repeatedly failed. Pope Callixtus was more singleminded. The buildings on which he did spend were fortifications; most of the papal revenue that had gone to humanist concerns now went to try to pull together armies to fight the Ottomans. Large numbers of papal nuncios were sent out to try to call the nations of Europe to war. Every delegation that visited him began to get an earful about the importance of meeting Turkish invasion.

It is a clear and evident proof that the Age of Crusade  was over that Callixtus, devoting so much of his resources to a crusade against the Turks, barely managed to scrape anything together. The nations of Europe were more interested in bickering with each other than sending an army to help the Hungarians. And in 1456, Mehmed the Conqueror came up to the walls of Belgrade and laid siege. Hunyadi Janos, the major Hungarian military figure, had pulled together what he could to defend the city, but it was not much. A significant part of his forces, raised by St. John Capistrano preaching crusade for the pope, were peasants armed with farm equipment. Hunyadi was able to use a flotilla to break the Ottoman naval blockade, but by this point Ottoman cannons had breached the walls, so Mehmed pushed forward rather than retreating. Hunyadi got the defenders to use tarred wood, of which they had a great deal, to seal the breaches in the walls with fire. The fire cut off those Janissaries that had already entered, and they were slaughtered; meanwhile it kept the main Ottoman forces out for one more day. What happened next is unclear. Hunyadi had ordered his troops not to venture out, but a significant portion of the recruited peasants did, presumably in the hope of finding loot. The result was that both armies found themselves suddenly involved in a full-scale battle for which they had not fully planned, in part because both armies would have regarded it as suicidal for the Hungarians to try to engage in direct assault on the fortified Ottoman encampment. But a large group of peasants being led by John Capistrano found themselves right in the middle of Ottoman cannon placements as the Ottomans in the confusion began to flee the vanguard (as they thought) of the host that had suddenly descended upon them. In vain Mehmed and his generals tried to restore order. In the confusion, Sultan Mehmed himself was wounded. And the result was that the Ottoman army, with every advantage over its opponents, led by perhaps the greatest military minds of the day, retreated in panic and confusion from a battle they could certainly have won.

Pope Callixtus, hearing of this, ordered every church in Europe to ring its bell at noon to celebrate the victory, a custom that still exists in many parts of Europe, and also raised the status of the Feast of the Transfiguration on August 6, the day on which he heard of the news.

While Callixtus may have been primarily focused on the crusade, other things did happen, as it were by the byway. One very fateful thing that happened was that he created a number of cardinals in order to have a reliable base of support; several of the cardinals were family members, thus beginning the role of the Borgia family in the Renaissance papacy. He also confirmed some of the compromises and concessions that his predecessor had made with the Portuguese and ordered a re-trial of Joan of Arc, who had been condemned as a witch by a trial under the English, both as part of his diplomatic efforts. But he was an elderly man, and in 1458 he died, on the Feast of the Transfiguration.

The man who would succeed him would be very different.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Links of Note

 * What Those Holes in Your Electrical Plugs are For

* James Clark Ross interviews Sophie Grace Chappell.

* John Grove reviews Against the Tide, a collection of Roger Scruton's columns.

* Matthias Brinkmann, Freedom to Roam (PDF)

* Paula Oliveira E Silva, Facing the Ambiguities of Aquinas: The Sixteenth-Century Debate on the Genesis of Ius Gentium

* How Many Plants Would It Take to Produce Enough Oxygen for One Person?

* Andrew Leatherbarrow, What Set Fukushima Apart?

* Chad Engelland, Amo, Ergo Cogito: Phenomenology's Non-Cartesian Augustinianism (PDF) -- a very nice whirlwind tour of many of the ways in which philosophical phenomenology has drawn on St. Augustine.

* Daniel Whiting, Cavendish's Aesthetic Realism (PDF)

* Elena Yi-Jia Zeng, Empire and Liberty in Adam Ferguson's Republicanism (PDF)

* Keerthik Sasidharan, The way of dharma

* Lawrence Blum, Iris Murdoch, at the SEP

* Applied Complexity Science reflects on Christopher Alexander, author of A Pattern Language and The Timeless Way of Building, in Imagination is Not Creativity. (Christopher Alexander died March 17; an obituary is here.)

* Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman, Free speech doesn't mean hecklers get to shut down campus debate