Assisted suicide in Utopia

Think about a young man who for his entire life had pursued an ideal of freedom made of unconventional experiences, travels, sport and a great passion for music. A man hungry for life, a life which for him had to be a whirl of emotions rather than a sequence of strict rules of convenience and duty. That was the life he had wanted for himself and the woman he loved and the only one he had believed worth living for.Then, one day: darkness. He opened his eyes and found himself blind and quadriplegic after a car accident.

Fabiano, that was his name, tried any sort of therapy with the  hope of regaining a little independence and avoiding  being a complete burden to his family and partner. He desperately did anything he had in his powers. Nothing could ease his pain. Then, he understood: that was the only possible life he had to expect for himself for the rest of his days. He had been condemned to live in an “endless night“- these are his words – whose only way out was a door which had the name of death on. This is what he had understood and day by day the thought of death became sweeter and sweeter and even started to taste like that freedom he had dreamed for all his entire life. Of course, for anybody in his condition, it was impossible to reach that door alone, he needed the support of his family and friends, but that was not enough, as here in Italy euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal, and anybody who had endeavoured to help him would have risked 12 years in jail. He  would have needed the support of all those parliamentarians who had avoided the trouble to discuss that law which had been lying in some secret drawer for years. He wanted to die, but he couldn’t and despite the clamor on tv and newspapers, everything remained intolerably still. Till one day a helping hand from a foundation, took him to Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal, and set him free.

In 2017 the question about whether a man has the right to put an end to his own life, whatever the nature of his decision is, really sounds so medieval to me and the restrictions of laws absolutely pitiless.  However, it was 1516, therefore 500 years ago, when Thomas More,  a churchman, in his book “Utopia” dealt with issue of the end of life with more mercy. In Utopia “nothing is left undone” to help the sick, but for those who become terminally ill and suffer greatly “the priests and magistrates” therefore, the law and the Church hand in hand – “repair to them and exhort them, since they are unable to proceed with the business of life, are become a burden to themselves and all about them, and have in reality outlived themselves, they should not cherish a rooted disease, but choose to die since they cannot live but in great misery; being persuaded, if they thus deliver themselves from torture, or allow other to do it, they shall be happy after death”.

Well, but is this not a sin from a religious point of view? Not in Utopia, as those who decide to put and end to their life “act reasonably” and “consistently with religion for they follow the advice of their priests, the expounders of God’s will”. Hence, “those who are wrought upon by these persuasions , either starve themselves or take laudanum”. Of course, “nobody is compelled to end his life thus” and those who do not accept such an option are treated as kindly and tenderly as before. However; in case somebody commits suicide without the assent of ” the priests and senate,they honour not the body with a decent funeral, but throw it into a ditch”.

Well, despite the creepy ending, these are the most reasonable words I have ever read about the subject. After the emotional tide caused by the death of Fabiano, that law from that secret drawer was eventually taken and discussed in Parliament. There were only 20 MPs in that day.

 

 

 

The Sheep and Lion Dilemma

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pec3It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep”, a vigorous Donald Trump retweeted a few weeks ago, raising quite a few eyebrows. In fact the maxim has always been associated to Benito Mussolini, the Italian Duce, so when Trump was asked if he was aware that the motto belonged to Mussolini and if he really wanted to be related to a fascist, he replied: “No, I want to be associated with interesting quotes” and added “Sure. It’s OK to know it’s Benito Mussolini. Look, Mussolini was Mussolini. It’s OK. It’s a very good quote. It’s a very interesting quote. And I saw it and I know who said it. But what difference does it make, whether it’s Mussolini or somebody else?”  True. I have to confess that I use it myself many times, without thinking that somebody might regard me a fascist ( being very far from those political ideals), because it was used by Mussolini. Plus, the Dux was not original.

pec6Mussolini had found himself to rule a very young nation, which had suffered long dominations , whose positive heritage can be clearly seen in each of our regions in the variety of culture, food, music, language. But in those centuries of oppression, Italians had also gradually developed a high degree of scepticism and distrust against any form of administration. Cunning, unreliability, deceitfulness are “virtues” which are still associated to the Italian way of being, but they were also the weapons which had been developed in time to defend themselves from foreign rules. The problem is that once free and politically united, the making of a common identity was, actually, a slow process, because a chronic distrust in rulers runs in our veins and has always made us choose for the “individual” rather than the “common” way. That’s why we still tend to look for that charismatic one, who might solve all our problems, thus ending in the catastrophe everybody is familiars with. Our recent history makes no difference.

pec4Mussolini knew that he had to fuel his people with words that had to inflame hearts, thus trying to cement his fragmented country. Strength, courage, sacrifice, a country of lions rather sheep, this was what he wanted. Even if only for one day. This motto was one of Benito Mussolini’s most popular slogan. Starting from 1926,  it became a significant part of the fascist propaganda and ended on school books, coins,  graffiti etc., but as I have said before, the Dux was not original.The truth is that the phrase was written during the First World War, on the wall of a house in Fagarè (now Fagarè della Battaglia, the municipality of San Biagio di Callalta, province of Treviso). According to the newspaper  “Il Secolo D’Italia(but the primary source was “Il Corriere della Sera” of 19 February 1958, p. 6)  the author was Ignazio Pisciotta, mutilated in 1911, an officer in World War I.  On the ‘Corriere della Sera’ of 31 July 1918, in his war correspondence, Arnaldo Fraccaroli writes : “We find on the houses around here – on the ruins of the houses – the words of the soldiers traced by rapid brushstrokes  in the early days of the resistance(..)”All heroes! We will win the Piave, or  we will all die! “It is better to live one hour as a lion than one hundred years as a sheep!” Oaths were held. With these writings, the humble battered homes have a sacred majesty of a temple “.

pec7Mussolini himself, as a matter of fact, never said to be the author of these words, which he used (at least) on three occasions, but always recalling them as the words on the wall of the house collapsed in Fagarè. One of these was a visit at Umberto I barracks in Rome on 26 June 1926,  Mussolini said: It was good that in recent days it was remembered a phrase that should not be forgotten: the one written by an anonymous official or little infantryman, it doesn’t matter, on one of the houses on the eve of the battle of the Piave: “Better to live one day as a lion than one hundred years as a sheep “. Seeing the physical and moral strength of your troops, flower of the renewed nation, I am perfectly convinced that if it will be necessary tomorrow, all the grenadiers, all foot soldiers, all soldiers of Italy, all the people in Italy prefer to live one day as a lion than one hundred years as a sheep “.

Now, there is no doubt that the expression rightfully belongs to the fascist rhetoric dictionary, but to attribute the invention of the words to Mussolini only denotes the usual sloppiness that distinguishes certain journalists when reporting historical facts. And after all, would you really want to live all your life as sheep? C’mon!

 

 

 

 

The Enemy of Railways

I was surprised when I read about the meeting between Apple CEO Tim Cook and Pope Francis at the Vatican a few weeks ago. Even if we don’t know much about the real nature of the encounter, one thing is for sure: the Vatican must be undergoing a profound transformation, particularly for what concerns communication. Actually, everything started on 12 December, 2012 at 11.30 a.m. precisely, when @Pontifex, Pope Ratzinger in person, tweeted: “ Dear friends, I’m pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter. Thank you for your generous response. I bless all of you from my heart.”  And it was generous indeed, as a million of followers, who had eagerly waited for this tweet for days, retweeted it in few secs. The following Wednesday, twitter was used again to respond to some of the thousands questions that had been addressed the Pope through #askpontifex. Pretty amazing for a Pontiff, who had often been regarded as reactionary, especially if compared to his predecessor, John Paul II.

popeHowever, he had paved the way towards modernity and Pope Francis, who has certainly a natural talent for communication, followed and improved his example. He uses Google Hangouts to chat with children from around the world, and Twitter to share snippets of his preachings and comment on global news events and controversies . But Pope Francis is far from being tech-savvy. When one child asked if he liked to take pictures and put them on his computer, the Pope replied, “Can I be honest? I am really not so good at it…I don’t know how to work with a computer. It’s a bit of a shame.” Never mind, somebody helps him for sure. Going back to the meeting, I was really impressed by some words the Pope used to comment the event: “Technology cannot determine whether communication is authentic or not , but the heart of man and his ability to make good use of the means at his disposal(……)it has led to a widening of horizons for many people. This is a gift of God, and also a great responsibility”. Hence, the Internet is a gift of God, as the Pontiff had already stated during one of his Google Hangout sessions last year  .

popeAt this point, I think we are not too blasphemous, if we say that railways were ,somehow, the nineteenth century equivalent of the Internet. The world became smaller and faster thanks to the making of those iron nets, as not only goods but also information was more easily accessible to a larger number of people. Did the Vatican “welcome” the new technological discoveries of the time with the same reformed enthusiasm of modern Popes? Were railways “gifts of God” as well? You may judge yourself from Pope Gregory XVI’s words, who “gently” defined railways as “weapons of the devil“. Gregory XVI (1831-1846) understood well the danger of those new means of communication as they not only accelerated the circulation of news, but also revolutionary ideas, that’s why he never consented them to be built in the Papal States. In the encyclical “Mirari Vos”, Gregory XVI firmly opposed to all the innovations of the time which he regarded as ” the triumph of a cynical wickedness, shameless science and unlimited laxity“. In the same encyclical he also condemned the freedom of conscience, press and thought and railways were, for sure, the means that could have spread those “viruses” in the Papal States, thus undermining the stability of his fortress.Therefore, we may say,  that almost after a couple of centuries  the Vatican seems to have finally learnt to cope with “the devil” pretty well. 😉

 

 

The White Man’s Burden

wm1When Theodore Roosevelt read  Rudyard Kipling ‘s poem: “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and The Philippine Islands”, was so very favourably impressed that he copied the poem and sent it to his friend Senator Henry Cabot Lodge with the following comment : “rather poor poetry, but good sense from the expansion point of view“. The publication of the poem in McClure’s Magazine in February 1899  coincided with the beginning of the Philippine-American War and U.S. Senate ratification of the treaty that placed Puerto Rico, Guam, Cuba, and the Philippines under American control. In his poem Kipling invited the U.S: to take up the “burden” of the empire, as Britain and other European nations had done. Kipling thought that the white man had the duty to help the less fortunate peoples of the empire and the goodness of their civilizing mission would have crushed any resented opposition even if, choosing the word “burden” to define this glorious accomplishment, Kipling somehow underlined that it was not such a simple task. More than one hundred years after the publication of this poem, just reading through the pages of any newspaper, we know there must have been something underrated in that optimistic vision.

wm2The fact is that the “civilising mission” consisted not only in expanding a more modern economic and social system – certainly more for the sake of the civilizers rather than the  civilized – but imposing those values and habits typical of western cultures without caring much of the sensibility of the “captives” that Kipling defined in the poem “half devil and half child”. In these last two expressions there is all the blindness and hypocrisy of an age. The natives were seen as devils, that is “sullen”, dark , evil; therefore, they needed to be redeemed. At this point we should remember the role of the Church in promoting the idea of the expansion of the empire as fundamental for the spreading of the Christian faith. Since the discovery of America, economic and religious issues had always gone hand in hand, in fact. However, that childish trait should have made easier the “salvation” of those poor souls, because of their “natural” naivety and gullibility. Needless to say that such representation earned Kipling bitter accusations of racism.

wm3Certainly in those words there was nothing new, but a prejudice which had been commonly shared for ages; therefore, the civilizing mission of the white man was deliberately indifferent of those values expressed by the cultures of the subdued peoples of the empire, which were considered inferior. Even Robinson Crusoe, after all, was a prototype of this vision. He feeds Friday, teaches him British good manner and even if they are alone on a desert island the master and servant relationship is preserved: Robinson wants to be called “Master” and names his companion “Friday”, rather than giving him a proper name; therefore, he does not seem to consider him a person, he just wants him to remember the day Robinson/ the Master saved him and then he proceeds with his own private civilizing mission. Had he been interested, he would have made the effort to ask his name, but maybe it sounded too democratic for the time.

Sikh officers of the British 15th Punjab Infantry regiment, shortly after the Indian Mutiny, 1858But is it really possible to cohabit just fixing the rules of a master/servant relationship based on an alleged superiority, without caring about the nature of that servant? There is a great risk, in fact. It could happen that  the Fridays in the world one day might rebel, just because of the carelessness of a Robinson for whom a little detail may be meaningless, while it is, actually, so meaningful for them, just like a trivial cartridge, for instance. We are talking about the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857. The British had issued the Sepoys, the native Indian soldiers of the Bengal Army, with new gunpowder cartridges. To load their rifles, the soldiers had to bite the cartridge first, but this simple action was considered an insult to both Hindus and Muslims, as they believed that the cartridges they were supplied with were greased with lard (pork fat) which was regarded as unclean by Muslims and tallow (cow fat) which angered the Hindus, as cows were equal to goddess to them. The Sepoys’ British officers regarded these claims unimportant, and suggested to grease a batch of the new cartridges with beeswax or mutton fat.  For the Sepoys this was evidence that the original cartridges were indeed greased with lard and tallow. Hence, a meaningless cartridge became the cause of a meaningful uprising that in all Indian History books is regarded as India’s first War of Independence.

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The Miracle of the Sun

abu 3abu 1Whenever we think about the prodigious monuments of the past like Stonehenge, the pyramids in Egypt and Mexico, The Mohai of Easter Island, for example, we cannot but see them as surrounded by an aura of magic. Some of them are huge tombs erected for the pharaohs or the rulers of the time, but for what concerns many others we may just suppose the reason why they were erected. Take the case of  Stonehenge: was it an observatory, a temple, a market place or a truce ground? Who knows? However, they were all thought to be huge as if they were meant be seen not only by people as symbol of the terrifying power of the ruler, but by somebody above, as link between the earth and the divinity. That is why they were usually built on plains, deserts or on the top of the hills: they had to be clearly visible to the gods. One clue that the builders were often with their nose up to the sky is the alignments chosen for these monuments, which seem to follow astronomical events like solstices, equinoxes or in the case of the pyramids of Giza it has been said that they “were a terrestrial map of the three stars of Orion’s belt“. One thing is for sure, the makers of the past knew the laws of nature very well, with such a degree of precision that sometimes cannot be surpassed by modern engineers with all the technological devices at their disposal. One of these cases is at Abu Simbel.

abu 4Abu Simbel is a village in Nubia, southern Egypt, near the border with Sudan.There you may find the two Abu Simbel temples, which are very likely  the most impressive, fascinating temples I have ever seen in my life ( I live in Rome, remember 😉 ). They are two massive rock-cut temples situated on the western bank of Lake Nasser, about 230 km southwest of Aswan. The twin temples were originally carved out of the mountainside during the reign of Pharaoh Ramesses II in the 13th century BC, as a lasting monument to himself and his beloved queen, the beautiful Nefertari, to commemorate his victory at the Battle of Kadesh.The main temple was dedicated to two sun gods, Amen-Re and Re-Horakhte. Standing 100 feet (33 metres)  tall, the temple was carved into a sandstone mountain on the banks of the Nile. Four colossal statues of Ramses, each 66 feet (22 meters) high, guard the entrance to the temple. Rising to the pharaoh’s knees are smaller statues of family members: his mother, Nefertari, and his son . A second temple at Abu Simbel is dedicated to Nefertari and the goddess Hathor. It seems that Nefertari, who was already sick and exhausted by the long navigation down the Nile, died as soon as she entered the temple.

abu 5On passing to the interior, a shadowy light emphasizes the mysterious and evocative atmosphere of the place. Going through a vast rectangular hall flanked by eight Osiris pillars ten meters tall arranged in two rows, representing Osiris with the features of Ramses, you reach the  sanctuary, the most intimate and secret part of the temple: a small room, four meters by seven, where  the statue of the deified Ramses II  sits together with the triad of “Ptah”, “Amen-Ra” and “Harmakhis”. It is in this place that the so-called “miracle of the sun” happens: twice a year, the rising sun penetrates the heart of the mountain and illuminates the statues in the sanctuary gradually flooding them in light. It takes about twenty minutes for the light to pass. According to the ancient Egyptians, the sun rays would thus recharged of energy the figure of pharaoh. Ptah is never struck by the sun’s rays, in fact, he is the god of darkness and the dead.  This event happened twice a year, the 21st of February and the 21st of October, the former seems it was the day of Ramses’s birth, while the latter was the day he was crowned .

abu 2You have to know that the Abu Simbel temples do not sit in their original location. Because of the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s,  rising waters flooded a number of important archaeological sites along the banks of the Nile and dislodged thousands of people who lived in the area. Even the temples of Abu Simbel were threatened, therefore, Members of the United Nations Education, Science, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) coordinated a massive construction project that moved the temple back 690 feet to its present site. Piece by piece, the two temples we cut into massive blocks of sandstone up to thirty tons and were carefully reassembled on a new steel and cement “mountain,” safe from the water’s edge. And you know what? Despite the measurements, calculations, technology, well, it has not been possible to reproduce “the miracle of sun” when it was originally planned, that is, the 21st of February and October, but the days of illumination have shifted by one !! 😀

 

 

Rhythm And Poetry (RAP)

min3Greek education by the end of 450 B.C. was mostly centred on athletics, grammar but particularly on music. We understand the importance of the latter,only if we think that the word music derives from the Greek word“μουσικός”, Mousikos, that is, relative to the Muses, the goddesses of Greek and Roman mythology who were considered of the inspiration of literature, science, and the arts, hence the very were source of knowledge.The word refers also to “technique”, which also comes from the Greek word “τέχνη” / techne, therefore music is the technique or better the art of the Muses.  Originally the term did not indicate a particular art, but all the arts of the Muses, so it was referred to something “perfect” and harmonious. As Plato said:

Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.

Musical innovation is full of danger to the State, for when modes of music change, the laws of the State always change with them.

min8That is why rhapsodes and aedi were held in higher estimation at those times.They were not only the living  memory of the history of  a country, but they could use the art of all arts to celebrate the deeds of their heroes to impress them in the minds of the listeners. Aedi, in particular, were sacred figures, who were also considered prophets. They were traditionally portrayed as blind, like Homer, for instance. Their blindness allowed them to sharpen their sensitive skills so that they could get in touch directly with the gods (through the eyes of the soul) that inspired them . “Goddess, sing me the anger, of Achilles, Peleus’ son, that fatal anger that brought countless sorrows on the Greeks….”. Homer invoked at the beginning of the Iliad. The Muse spoke through him.

min9Aedi were part of the so-called face-to-face society. The transmission of the text, in fact, was done orally, with a “performance” in which the aedo was in direct contact with the audience. As he did not have a written text, he became a composer in turn. Oral transmission required the use of a clear and direct language, so there is a great use of similes and the language is characterized by a formulaic style, with many repetitions and the presence in large amount of names as surnames, as well as the so-called topos, that is, the sites where the narration takes place. In case the aedo had forgotten the next stanza ,well, he could “dwell” on what he was still singing using the tools of his trade.

min2However, these figure were not typical only of the Greeks, the powerful combination of musical rhythm and poetry was well-known in other societies. For instance the Bards formed, along with the Druids and the foreseers, the three priestly castes of the Celts. The Bards were considered the guardians of knowledge and were instructed to store all the traditions and myths of the people. In some regions they were distinguishable from the other two orders for a special cloak they wore. In the Gaelic society  a bard was a professional poet, committed to compose eulogies for his lord and if  his employer refused to pay the compensation decided, the bard composed a satire against him.

In medieval Ireland there were two distinct group of poets : the bards and the fili. Despite the formers constituted a professional hereditary caste of highly trained, learned poets,  they were considered lesser class poets, not eligible for higher poetic roles as described above; while the latters were visionary poets, associated with lorekeeping, versecraft, and the memorisation of vast numbers of poems. They were also magicians, as Irish magic is intrinsically connected to poetry, and the satire of a gifted poet was a serious curse upon the one being satirised. However, it has also been argued that the distinction between filid (pl. of fili) and bards was a creation of Christian Ireland as the filid were more associated with the church.

min6In Anglo-Saxon England before the Norman Conquest, the professional poet was known as a scop (“shaper” or “maker”), who composed his own poems, and sang them to the accompaniment of a harp. In a rank much beneath the scop, were the gleemen, who had no settled abode, but roamed about from place to place, earning what they could from their performances. Late in the 13th century, the term minstrel (from the Latin “ministralis” “retainer”)  began to be used to designate a performer who amused his lord with music and song. Minstrels created their own tales, but they also memorized and embellished the works of others. Love, magic, death, war, these were the themes they amused and entertained  the high society with, but as the courts became more sophisticated, minstrels were eventually replaced at court by the troubadours, therefore many became wandering minstrels, performing in the streets.

We may say, therefore, that the core idea the poets sung in their poems, tales or ballads reflected the societies that produced it. Hence the evolution goes from the magical to the  heroical and finally to the domestic, while its function changes from encouragement to entertainment. And today? Who are the closest depositaries of this tradition? Fine narrators, with a mastery in rhyming, use of similes, refrains etc. Somebody who can still beautifully re-create that magic narration made of Rhythm And Poetry. Well, the answer is :the rappers. RAP is the acronym of Rhythm And Poetry, didn’t you know it?
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The Prophecy of Rapanui

 

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ea1When the first Polynesian settlers arrived in Easter Island  with their large canoes more than a thousand years ago, they found a luxuriant, heaven like land covered with palm trees.The place was actually less hospitable than it seemed. The island was volcanic in origin, but its three volcanoes were dormant. Both temperatures and humidity were high and the only fresh water available was from the lakes inside the extinct volcanoes. Only a few species of plants and animals inhabited the land: there were no mammals, only few insects and two types of small lizards. Furthermore, as the waters that surrounded the island weren’t very fishy, the first inhabitants had to learn to live basically mainly on sweet potatoes and chickens.

ea6The islanders heavily depended on its native plants: giant palms, toronimo trees and basswood (hau).The woods from the giant palm trees were used for shelters and in particular for big canoes which enabled the settlers to fish in richer waters and catch dolphins. The basswood was used as fuel to cook or to keep warm and its fibers were used to make ropes or fishing nets. However, the forests were slowly cleared to improve farming and grow sweet potatoes. All this brought to a rapid increase in population (more than 15.000 inhabitants), but as the island was very small, its natural resources declined rapidly.

ea2Instead of taking measures of life sustainably, the clan leaders started to build large stone platforms, known as Ahu, which were used as burials, ancestor worships and to commemorate past clan chiefs. The majority of these constructions were built near the coast, around the island’s perimeter. One day they stated to erect huge monolithic stone statues (Moai) on these platforms, which took up immense amounts of  labour. Almost all the Moai have overly large heads three-eighths the size of the whole statue, which seemed to represent their deified ancestors. More than the carving, the greatest problem was the transport of the massive statues from the quarry to the Ahu and as they lack any draught animals, they had to rely on the effort of men who could only drag the statues across the island using tree trunks as wheels.

ea7The enigmatic faces of the Moai rapidly spread all over the island and they were always more and more enormous, in fact the bigger was the statue the stronger was supposed to be the clan which had made it, therefore a never-ending, competition among clans started; a devastating contest which required amazing quantities of timber. By 1600 as the island was almost completely deforested, the statue erection had to be stopped leaving many of them stranded and incompleted at the quarry. But, when did they exactly stop? When it was too late.

ea5The shortage of trees had already made people stop building houses from timber and find shelter in caves. Canoes couldn’t be built any longer, so it was now impossible to go fishing or even abandon the island. It had also become impossible to make nets for fishing. Furthemore the early deforestation had brought the island to a rapid desertification.The only source of food on the island was the chickens which became precious and primary object of theft. The lack of proteins available brought to cannibalism.The islanders were now trapped in their insane world and they  couldn’t escape the consequences of their self-inflicted, environmental collapse.

ea8Moreover the drop of the resources resulted in a state of almost permanent warfare. One of the main aims of warfare was to destroy the Ahu of opposing clans, therefore only a few burial places remained and many of the magnificent stone statues – which had cost so much – were pulled down. Only few remained standing.When the Dutch Admiral Roggeveen visited Rapa Nui on Easter Sunday 1722, the island had now become a barren wasteland, whose 3,000 inhabitants lived in a primitive state in squalid reed huts or caves, had resorted to cannibalism in order to escape famine and were still engaged in perpetual warfare.

 

The question is, how can it be that they didn’t realize what they were doing to their environment? Why didn’t they stop in time? Or better, will we be able to stop in time?