The Bell Tower, Tower of London: Thomas More, Elizabeth I, and Other Histories, Part 1

Bell Tower, Tower of London, England

Saturday, May 4th, 2018

I first visited the Tower of London in January of this year with my friend Steven, a fellow student of history; I at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, he at King’s College, London. We had great fun, two history nerds running around London for a couple of days! While we at the Tower, I looked for the cell where Sir Thomas More was imprisoned for over a year before he was executed for treason on July 6th, 1535. Like many brought up in Catholic families after the film was made, I grew up watching the adaptation of Robert Bolt’s Man for All Seasons starring Paul Scofield, seeing it so many times I believe I could have parroted the dialogue from entire scenes with little effort. Going back now and watching clips, I still remember just about everything that every character will say and do ahead of time. The tragic story of and Scofield’s compelling characterization of the clever lawyer and saint captured my imagination. Since then, I’ve read more about him over the years and broadened my understanding of this man, who was much more complex than the stellar but somewhat two-dimensional martyr of integrity and righteousness portrayed in the film.

Bell Tower placard, Tower of London, England

Early on in our Tower visit, I spotted a sign near the base of the Bell Tower, just across and to the left of the place where visitors enter the Tower, which identified the Bell Tower as More’s place of imprisonment. Upon further inquiry, I discovered that it’s not open to the public. It had been for a short while many years back, but wear and tear caused by visitors there and in other especially historically significant places within the Tower caused them to be closed off again. The damage was minor but happened more quickly than expected, even given the very large number of people that pass through every year: almost three million in 2017 alone! I persisted in my inquiries, as my historically nosy self is wont to do, and discovered that historians can do seek and gain permission to visit. And so I did!

Simon Dodd, Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London

So on the morning of May 4th, 2018, I arrive at the Tower of London’s raven cages, this time with Laurence as my companion (unfortunately, Steven had prior engagement and couldn’t make it.) We’re a little early for our assigned meeting time of 11 am with a Yeoman Warder of the Tower, one of the ceremonial guardians also commonly known as ‘beefeaters.’ We’re bleary-eyed since we had pulled an all-nighter: I was unable to get the night before off work so I went straight to the airport after my shift in the very wee hours of the morning. Laurence very kindly met me there to keep me company. Fortunately, his sense of adventure is also strong and his knowledge of efficient travel to London excellent, so here we are, ahead of time. It’s a very sunny day, almost hot, much different than my first visit to the Tower which had been, appropriately, moodily gray and drizzly. As we wait, we watch the ravens. It’s long been a tradition to keep a certain number of these clever birds at the Tower, where they’re fed, groomed, and trained, their wings clipped just enough to keep them from going over the Tower walls but not enough to keep them from their perches. Some of them are roaming freely. Two of the ravens are nuzzling one another on a perch within one of the cages, one ducking regularly and enthusiastically to groom the other’s neck feathers.

Yeoman Warder Simon Dodd arrives and greets us. He proves throughout our time together to be an extremely friendly, knowledgeable, witty, and all-around delightful man, and very generous with his time. I couldn’t have asked for a better host or conversational partner. Laurence is particularly interested and well-read in military history and Simon has had a long and distinguished military career, so we all have a lot to talk about. I only hope, as we tour and talk, that my sleep-deprived brain can form intelligent questions and process his answers. I take no chances with its ability to successfully retain information: I take plentiful notes as we go. After introductions and a brief chat, we start right in on our tour.

Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein the Younger, ca. 1527, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Before I get into the details of the day’s explorations, though, let me offer a few more details about Thomas More just in case this is your introduction to him. Born on February 6th, 1478, he was a lawyer, scholar, writer, statesman, and Lord Chancellor of England from 1529 until he asked Henry VIII to release him from the post in 1532 when More found himself no longer able to support the King in his power struggle with the Pope. Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was the widow of his older brother. When the marriage failed to produce any living male heirs, Henry VIII sought to have his marriage to her annulled, freeing him to marry his paramour Anne Boleyn. Trouble was, Henry VIII had already sought and won a special dispensation to marry Catherine in the first place from the previous Pope, the new Pope was a virtual prisoner of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and Catherine was the Emperor’s aunt. So, as you can imagine, this whole annulment business was a sticky, tangled religious and political mess. Henry VIII solved the problem in a typically aggressive and self-aggrandizing way: he tore the Church of England away from the Catholic Church and placed himself at the head of it, ruining careers, taking away titles, confiscating lands and property, and chopping off heads along the way.

More and Henry VIII went way back. More first met Henry when the latter was a young prince. In 1499, More’s friend Erasmus brought him along to the palace where the royal family was staying. The bright, athletic, and precocious eight-year-old Henry was second in line to the throne behind his elder brother Arthur. More would become a huge influence on and trusted counselor of the King until the King turned against him when More refused to formally acknowledge Henry as supreme head of the Church in England. Erasmus was another central figure in More’s life. He was twelve years older than More, yet the two became very intimate friends very quickly. Erasmus called More ‘sweetest Thomas’ and More called Erasmus ‘my derlynge’ (my darling). These two humanist scholars bonded deeply over books and writing; Erasmus and More were inspirations for one another’s most enduring works, Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly (in fact, the book’s original Latin title Moriae Encomium is a pun on More’s name) and More’s Utopia. When More decided to turn his energies to a life of public service instead of scholarship, Erasmus was disappointed, but they remained friends. Sadly, according to More’s biographer John Guy, Erasmus effectively abandoned him in his troubles with the King, yet More continued to write to him as to a trusted friend up to the end.

A view of the Thomas More cell in the Bell Tower, Tower of London

The bonds of trust and friendship between More and Henry VIII only went so far, however, at least on Henry’s part. From the beginning, More made it clear to Henry that his beliefs regarding the annulment and papal authority did not accord with Henry’s actions or with what was included in the final version of the Act of Succession. Henry promised to allow More the freedom to act in accordance with his conscience, but like so many of Henry’s promises, this one turned out not to be worth much. Eventually, Henry (perhaps prodded by Anne Boleyn) demanded that More swear to the Act. More found he could not since the preamble of the Act specified that the monarch was the supreme head of the church in England rather than the Pope; as he told the King’s ministers charged with administering the Oath of Supremacy to him, ‘…it were a very hard thing to compel me to say either precisely with [the Act of Supremacy] against my conscience to the loss of my soul, or precisely against it to the destruction of my body.’

To return to the story of the day… Simon leads us first to the place I first sought: the cell where Sir Thomas More was held. Well, maybe he was held here. There’s plenty of dispute about this: there’s no contemporary written record of where exactly More was held. Historians disagree and their dispute continues in books, newspapers, and elsewhere. The Tower of London’s signage indicates that he was most likely kept in this Bell Tower cell, but Simon responds to my questions regarding this dispute that the chances may even be ‘fifty-fifty’ that he was held here or in the Salt Tower, another very secure cell where politically dangerous but distinguished and influential people like More were held. He goes on to explain that the southwest or southeast tower, the Bell Tower or Salt Tower respectively, were the only two likely candidates for More’s cell. Outside of rooms in the central White Tower, which was not a place of imprisonment at the time, the Bell Tower cell is the most secure, with 11 foot thick stone walls and 30 foot deep stone foundations. The Salt Tower was also pretty secure, though not quite to this degree.

A wider view of Thomas More’s cell, Bell Tower, Tower of London

Another More historian, Peter Ackroyd, believes More might have been held at least for a time in the Beauchamp Tower, where many other religious and political prisoners were held. But those cells were not so secure nor isolated as the Bell or Salt Tower cells. According to the notes for Ackroyd’s biography, Sonja Johnson of the Tower of London described More’s cell as ‘one of those apartments which were reserved for the more influential or privileged “guests” of the lieutenant. His was a pentagonal stone chamber, with a vaulted ceiling; it was some nineteen feet in height, with a floor space of approximately eighteen feet by twenty feet. The walls themselves were between nine and thirteen feet thick, the floor flagged through with rough and uneven stone, the windows merely arrow-slits or “loops”‘. And, it was cold: cold enough that, Simon says, it was used as a larder for a time. The cold, in fact, the very cool temperature helped preserve it, despite the damp. Johnson’s description fits perfectly with this high-ceilinged, chilly stone room we’re in.

John Fisher and Thomas More portraits in chamber below St Peter ad Vincula, Tower of London

There are other reasons to think More may not have been held in this cell, at least not during the entire time of his imprisonment in the Tower. Co-founder and editor of Tudor Times Melita Thomas tells us that Tower authorities tried to break up communication between More and fellow prisoner Bishop John Fisher, who was also opposed to the Act of Succession, much more openly than More, and also thrown into the Tower for it. The cell above this one in the Bell Tower, which at the time could be reached by a narrow staircase from this one, was the one that held Fisher, or at least, probably did. This leads Thomas to surmise that Fisher and Thomas would have been eventually placed where they could not communicate so easily with one another. I also consider the stories that Simon and others tell of More rapping on the ceiling to get Fisher’s attention in the room above. But, as you can see yourself from the photos and as Simon points out today, this hardly seems possible in the Bell Tower cell, no matter how hard you might pound on the ceiling if you found a way to reach it at all. Perhaps, then, More and Fisher were held, at least for awhile, in neighboring cells where such communication was possible. Or perhaps, the ceiling-rapping stories are apocryphal and More and Fisher communicated only by smuggled notes and letters, as we know for certain they did.

On the way from the Bell Tower’s lower cell to our next destination, we spot Merlin the Raven. Simon Dodd tells us that she was named prior to knowing her sex, which was later determined by DNA. That’s the only way you can tell, he says – other than by such behavior as egg-laying, of course.

Overall, given what I’ve read and heard, I think, like Ackroyd does, that at least More’s place of imprisonment changed at least once. In one of his letters written in 1534 from his prison cell to his eldest daughter and confidante Margaret Roper, who he called ‘Meg,’ More reports that he was returned to ‘close keeping’ and ‘shut up again.’ Does this mean he was imprisoned more securely, perhaps in a different room, or just not allowed to leave it? Ackroyd interprets More’s comments to mean he was held in solitary confinement, but perhaps it could also refer to his being moved to a more isolated, stronger cell away from others where escape or rescue was far less likely.

After spending some time looking closely at the cell, talking over its history, and discussing the likelihood and duration of More’s imprisonment in this cell, Simon, Laurence, and I re-emerge from the dim cell blinking against the bright sun’s light.

Next, we make a short visit to the Queen’s House. Simon tells us a bit about the history and historians of the Tower and that there have been 160 Constables of the Tower since 1066. He told us about the early-to-mid 19th century Constable Duke Wellington who worked to make the Tower function better, made it look more like it did in the medieval era, increased its military management, and who was dismayed when tourism to the Tower drastically increased during his tenure there. Simon recommends us to read and watch David Starkey’s, Lucy Worsley’s, and Anna Keay’s books and audiovisual productions to learn more about Tudor history in general. In researching this piece, I recently read a Telegraph article about Starkey’s sharp criticism of the BBC’s Wolf Hall‘s negative portrayal of Thomas More.

A room in the Queen’s House, Tower of London

Simon Dodd telling us history in the Queen’s House, Tower of London

Simon also describes changing features of the Tower over the centuries with reference to a lovely old painting of the Tower hanging on the wall, and indicates the route by which More would have been taken from the gate through which he entered the Tower to his cell in the Bell Tower.

We will see and talk about many, many more things during our day’s tour of the Tower so I’ve decided to break up this story into multiple parts. Stay tuned for more about our Tower adventure…

Patron of this Tower of London journey: Laurence Murphy ~ With warmest gratitude, thank you!

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

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Sources and inspiration:

Ackroyd, Peter. The Life of Thomas More. London: Chatto & Windus, 1998

Annual Survey of Visits to Visitor Attractions: Latest Results.‘ VisitBritain.org

Borman, Tracy. The Story of the Tower of London. London: Merrell Publishers Limited, 2015

Borman, Tracy. ‘The Tudors and the Tower.‘ Tudor Times website, 3 Aug 2015

Camden, William Norton, Robert; Hans and Hanni Kraus. The historie of the most renowned and victorious Princesse Elizabeth, late queen of England. Contayning all the important and remarkeable passages of state both at home and abroad, during her long and prosperous raigne. Composed by way of annals. Neuer heretofore so faithfully and fully published in English.
Sir Francis Drake Collection Library of Congress. London: Printed by N. Okes for B. Fisher; 1630

Collinson, Patrick. ‘Elizabeth I (1533–1603), Queen of England and Ireland.‘ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

English Monarchs website: ‘The Bell Tower’ and ‘The Queen’s House

Freeman, Thomas S. (2002). ‘`As true a subiect being prysoner’: John Foxe’s notes on the imprisonment of Princess Elizabeth, 1554-5.‘ (Notes And Documents). The English Historical Review, 117(470), 104-116

Furness, Hannah. ‘Wolf Hall is ‘Deliberate Perversion’ of History, says David Starkey.The Telegraph, 26 Jan 2015

Guy, John. A Daughter’s Love: Thomas and Margaret More. London: Fourth Estate, 2008

Guy, John. ‘For What Did Thomas More So Silently Die?’ Lecture published at Tudors.org

House, Seymour Baker. ‘More, Sir Thomas [St Thomas More] (1478–1535), Lord Chancellor, Humanist, and Martyr.‘ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Ives, Eric William. ‘Henry VIII (1491–1547), King of England and Ireland.’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Jones, Jonathan. ‘Wolf Hall is Wrong: Thomas More was a Funny, Feminist Renaissance Man.‘ The Guardian, 29 Jan 2015

Kennedy, Maev. ‘Historians Scorn Claims over Thomas More’s Cell.The Guardian, 10 Jan 2000

Marc’hadour, Germain P. ‘Thomas More.’ Encyclopædia Britannica

More, Thomas. The Apology of Sir Thomas More, Knight. from The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, Vol. 9. Yale University Press, published online by The Center for Thomas More Studies

More, Thomas. Conscience Decides: Letters and Prayers from Prison Written Between April 1534 and July 1535. Selected and arranged by Dame Bede Foord; preface by Trevor Huddleston; introduction by Germain Marc’hadour. London: Geoffrey Chapman Ltd, 1971

More, Thomas. The English Correspondence of Sir Thomas More, 1947 Rogers edition, Princeton University Press, published online by The Center for Thomas More Studies

Moynahan. God’s Bestseller: William Tyndale, Thomas More, and the Writing of the English Bible – A Story of Martyrdom and Betrayal. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003

Plowden, A. ‘Grey [married name Dudley], Lady Jane (1537–1554), Noblewoman and Claimant to the English Throne.Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Roper, William. The Life of Sir Thomas More1556. Ed. Gerard B. Wegemer and Stephen W. Smith. Center for Thomas More Studies, 2003

Stanford, Peter. ‘Sir Thomas More: Saint or Sinner?’ The Telegraph, 20 Jan 2015

Teysko, Heather and Melita Thomas. ‘Tudor Times on Thomas More.’ Renaissance English History Podcast: A Show About the Tudors, episode 55, Sep 16, 2016

 

Happy Birthday, David Hume!

In honor of David Hume‘s birthday, May 7, 1711, let me share anew my history of ideas travel series and other pieces I’ve written in honor of my favorite philosopher if I was pressed to chose only one. I fell in love with his native Edinburgh when I originally visited in the spring of 2014 but even so, I wouldn’t have predicted I would now be living here furthering my education at his alma mater, the University of Edinburgh. It would have been even more impossible to predict that the window of my flat would be located directly across the narrow square from the University’s David Hume Tower. I was moved to observe one day, and still am whenever I think or tell of it, that the windows of that glassy tower often reflect the light of the rising sun into my window. I could imagine no more poetic image than that of how this great Enlightenment thinker has influenced my life.

Here they are in the order I wrote them, starting several years back. Perhaps you’ll find, as I do when I return to old pieces from time to time, that my thinking has developed and my mind has changed, to various degrees, on some things:

First Day in Old Edinburgh: Hume Sites and Monuments
Hume’s New Scene of Thought, and, It’s Good to Be Able to Say ‘I Don’t Know’
Hume Sites and Monuments, Part 2
The Consolations of Philosophy, and A Death Free from Fear
Scotticisms
Happy 303rd Birthday, David Hume!
The Debate Over Government and Freedom
The Tale of the Magic Toe – Superstition? Or What?
Hume Sites and Monuments, Part 3
Water of Leith
Last Day in Edinburgh, May 13th, 2014
Hume, Aristotle, and Guns
A memory quilt I created for my Edinburgh trip:
A Hill and a Wall in Edinburgh, 2015, 102″ x 69″
Enlightenment Scotland: Site of James Boswell’s Home in James Court, Edinburgh
Enlightenment Scotland: Advocates Library, Edinburgh
Chirnside and Ninewells, Scottish Borders, Childhood and Summer Home of David Hume
Enlightenment Scotland: Edinburgh’s Select Society
Photobook: Robert Adam, Architect of Edinburgh
Photobook: Letter from David Hume to James Balfour, Mar 15, 1753

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Happy Birthday, Niccolò Machiavelli!

Niccolò Machiavelli statue at the Uffizi

Cary Nederman introduces us to his piece on Niccolò Machiavelli for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy thusly:

Why an entry on Machiavelli? That question might naturally and legitimately occur to anyone encountering an entry about him in an encyclopedia of philosophy. Certainly, Machiavelli [May 3, 1469 – June 21, 1527] contributed to a large number of important discourses in Western thought—political theory most notably, but also history and historiography, Italian literature, the principles of warfare, and diplomacy. But Machiavelli never seems to have considered himself a philosopher—indeed, he often overtly rejected philosophical inquiry as beside the point—nor do his credentials suggest that he fits comfortably into standard models of academic philosophy. His writings are maddeningly and notoriously unsystematic, inconsistent and sometimes self-contradictory. He tends to appeal to experience and example in the place of rigorous logical analysis. Yet succeeding thinkers who more easily qualify as philosophers of the first rank did (and do) feel compelled to engage with his ideas, either to dispute them or to incorporate his insights into their own teachings. Machiavelli may have grazed at the fringes of philosophy, but the impact of his musings has been widespread and lasting. The terms “Machiavellian” or “Machiavellism” find regular purchase among philosophers concerned with a range of ethical, political, and psychological phenomena, even if Machiavelli did not invent “Machiavellism” and may not even have been a “Machiavellian” in the sense often ascribed to him. Moreover, in Machiavelli’s critique of “grand” philosophical schemes, we find a challenge to the enterprise of philosophy that commands attention and demands consideration and response. Thus, Machiavelli deserves a place at the table in any comprehensive survey of philosophy…’

Learn more about the often contradictory, ever controversial, always fascinating and relevant Niccolò Machiavelli:

The Inverted Advice of Niccolò Machiavelli – by William J. Connell for the Times Literary Supplement

Machiavelli and the Italian City States – Melvin Bragg in conversation with his guests Quentin Skinner, Evelyn Welch, and Lisa Jardine

Niccolò Machiavelli – by Cary Nederman for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Niccolò Machiavelli: Italian Statesman and Writer – by Harvey Mansfield for Encyclopædia Britannica

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Happy Birthday, Morton White!

Morton White in 1981

The world lost Morton White (April 29, 1917 – May 27, 2016) less than two years ago, and I first learned of him through reading his obituary in The New York Times. As I read, I knew this is a man and an approach to philosophy I must learn more about.

White was a philosopher and historian of ideas. According to the Institute for Advanced Studies, ‘he maintained that philosophy of science is not philosophy enough, thereby encouraging the examination of other aspects of civilized life—especially art, history, law, politics and religion—and their relations with science’. And as William Grimes put it for TNYT, his ‘innovative theory of “holistic pragmatism” showed the way toward a more socially engaged, interdisciplinary role for philosophy’.

I studied philosophy with great love and enthusiasm as an undergraduate, yet I found myself then as now just as curious about other disciplines, especially history and the arts, and have often felt that the lines dividing these areas of study are sometimes artificial and even impediments to understanding. Since then, I’ve been pursuing my studies in the history of ideas more broadly, informally for the past several years, formally now at the University of Edinburgh. No doubt, White has influenced the direction my studies in intellectual history will take in ways I’ll learn as I go along, and in many more ways than I’ll ever know.

Learn more about White and his fascinating ideas:

Holistic Pragmatism and the Philosophy of Culture‘ – chapter 1 of A Philosophy of Culture: The Scope of Holistic Pragmatism, New Jersey: Princeton University Press 2002, in which White summarizes what his holistic pragmatism is all about

Morton White, Philosopher of Holistic Pragmatism, Dies at 99‘ – Obituary by William Grimes for The New York Times, June 10, 2016

Morton White 1917–2016 – His memorial page at the Institute for Advanced Study website, June 08, 2016

And you can find his selected bibliography at Wikipedia

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Happy Birthday, David Hume!

In honor of David Hume’s birthday, May 7, 1711, let me share anew my history of ideas travel series I created in honor of my favorite philosopher in his home city of Edinburgh, Scotland. I’ll soon be in Edinburgh again, this time for at least one year, to pursue a Master’s Degree in Intellectual History at the University of Edinburgh. I can hardly express how thrilled I am at the prospect! I’ll be expanding this Hume series while I’m there.

To Edinburgh I Go, In Search of David Hume

Hello, friends of Ordinary Philosophy! I’m pleased and excited to announce my upcoming adventure: my first philosophical-historical themed adventure, and my first trip to Edinburgh, Scotland!

Here’s my plan:

I’m taking a series of trips to places around the world, where I explore the lives and ideas of great thinkers in the places where they lived and worked. I’ll follow in the footsteps of thinkers who are no longer alive, since those who are still telling their own stories. But those who are no longer alive in the body live on in the ideas that they pass on, and in the example they provide for us to follow.

I’ve decided to start with the philosopher I most admire as a person as well as a thinker, the great David Hume. He was not only revered for the brilliance of his ideas and his honesty in presenting them, but also as a premier example of a genial, generous, great-hearted person; so much so, in fact, that one of his closest friends nicknamed him ‘Saint David’.

Hume is often described as the greatest philosopher to write in English and among the greatest philosophers of all time, period. He was a central figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, and a profoundly influential empiricist and moral philosopher

So off to beautiful Edinburgh I go! There, I’ll visit the places where he worked, thought, wrote, studied, and rested. I’ll be traveling there in the first two weeks of May, and will be writing throughout the trip. I’ll be writing in this blog not only about his ideas, but about what I can discover about his everyday life, and whatever feeling of his time and place I manage to uncover in my time there.

If you have any questions for me to answer while I’m there, or pictures you’d like me to take for you, or any information you have that could help me with this project, I’d love to hear from you!

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Here are my essays on Hume as I discover him in my travels, in (roughly) chronological order:

First Day in Old Edinburgh: Hume Sites and Monuments
Hume’s New Scene of Thought, and, It’s Good to Be Able to Say ‘I Don’t Know’
Hume Sites and Monuments, Part 2
The Consolations of Philosophy, and A Death Free from Fear
Scotticisms
Happy 303rd Birthday, David Hume!
Cycling Through Edinburgh, First Time
The Debate Over Government and Freedom
The Tale of the Magic Toe – Superstition? Or What?
Hume Sites and Monuments, Part 3
Water of Leith
Last Day in Edinburgh, May 13th, 2014
Hume, Aristotle, and Guns
and a memory quilt I created for my Edinburgh trip:
A Hill and a Wall in Edinburgh, 2015, 102″ x 69″

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Niccolò Machiavelli!

Niccolò Machiavelli statue at the Uffizi

‘Why an entry on Machiavelli? That question might naturally and legitimately occur to anyone encountering an entry about him in an encyclopedia of philosophy. Certainly, Machiavelli [born May 3, 1469] contributed to a large number of important discourses in Western thought—political theory most notably, but also history and historiography, Italian literature, the principles of warfare, and diplomacy. But Machiavelli never seems to have considered himself a philosopher—indeed, he often overtly rejected philosophical inquiry as beside the point—nor do his credentials suggest that he fits comfortably into standard models of academic philosophy. His writings are maddeningly and notoriously unsystematic, inconsistent and sometimes self-contradictory. He tends to appeal to experience and example in the place of rigorous logical analysis. Yet succeeding thinkers who more easily qualify as philosophers of the first rank did (and do) feel compelled to engage with his ideas, either to dispute them or to incorporate his insights into their own teachings. Machiavelli may have grazed at the fringes of philosophy, but the impact of his musings has been widespread and lasting. The terms “Machiavellian” or “Machiavellism” find regular purchase among philosophers concerned with a range of ethical, political, and psychological phenomena, even if Machiavelli did not invent “Machiavellism” and may not even have been a “Machiavellian” in the sense often ascribed to him. Moreover, in Machiavelli’s critique of “grand” philosophical schemes, we find a challenge to the enterprise of philosophy that commands attention and demands consideration and response. Thus, Machiavelli deserves a place at the table in any comprehensive survey of philosophy…’ ~ Cary Nederman, “Niccolò Machiavelli”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 

To introduce yourself to or learn more about the often contradictory, ever controversial, always fascinating and relevant Niccolò Machiavelli, read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article linked above and listen to this discussion between one of my favorite broadcasters and public intellectuals Melvin Bragg, and his guests Quentin Skinner, Evelyn Welch, and Lisa Jardine.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Lovely But Sterile?

Statue of Athena, goddess of Philosophy and War, in the Vatican Museum. Like so much of traditional academic philosophy: elegant, cold, impersonal, the purview of the wealthy, and white…

W.E.B. DuBois once wrote that academic philosophy is the ‘lovely but sterile land of philosophical speculation.’ He decides to turn his attention to history and the social sciences so he can offer more concrete answers and practical help to his beleaguered fellow black citizens.

I’ve been inclined to agree with DuBois now and again, out of irritation, out of impatience, out of out of distaste for the obscurantist language and arch tone philosophy is sometimes delivered in, and no doubt, out of my own inability to comprehend. While I often find academic philosophy enthralling, elegant, interesting, and beautiful, I sometimes think, well yes, this is interesting, this is clever, this is fun, but in the end, what does it do? What is it for, and who is it for? Why care about those fine points, technical details, and subtle nuances that academics and scholars go on about that are seemingly unrelated to practical matters of general human wellbeing? Are they just entertaining and impressing themselves and occasionally each other?

I’ve heard people make a similar critique of the arts as DuBois makes of philosophy. ‘Real art’ shouldn’t be primarily about pleasure, about beauty for beauty’s sake, though it can be beautiful too. Its primary purpose should be to transform, inspire, even disturb and shock the viewer so as to make them an agent of change.

Here’s the thing: as much as I love history, ethical theory, civil rights movements, the arts as described in the previous sentence, and so on, I also love human artifacts which have no apparent reason to exist other than their interest and beauty. This is sometimes portrayed as frivolous: why please ourselves with ‘useless’ things which don’t do any work, which don’t inspire action? But I counter: why does everything have to be useful to us, to do work for us? Putting aside the practical value of philosophy (which I and so many other lovers of philosophy contend is quite high) and the arts, is there no place for sheer beauty, sheer interest? Is there no value in just pleasing our senses, from our most basic and instinctual to our most highly refined? Are the deep desires for intellectual exercise and beauty any less central to the human psyche than the needs for love and liberty and life itself? I know sustaining life and expanding liberty is valuable not only because they help us to survive but because they give us access to those things which make life beautiful.

I also know, for myself, that the beauty and interest I find everywhere in the world, be they in products of nature or of human creativity, impact my heart directly and immediately. I enjoy them without wondering why they exist, if they have a right to exist, or if they are useful to me or others. With human artifacts, it’s only after that first impact that I wonder about the personality and motives of the artist, think about what they’re trying to convey, and find inspiration, whether it be to further refine of my sense of beauty or to change the world or myself in other ways.

Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, posted from Paris on May 12, 1780. From the Massachusetts Historical Society collections

I think of something John Adams once wrote to his wife Abigail: ‘The Science of Government it is my Duty to study, more than all other Sciences: the Art of Legislation and Administration and Negotiation, ought to take Place, indeed to exclude in a manner all other Arts. I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.’ For Adams, the purpose of work to change the world for the better is in order that beauty can exist in the world more plentifully, to be promoted and protected for its own sake, and in order that everyone would ultimately have an equal right to access and enjoy in that beauty. Just so for art, for philosophy, for the natural world and for human society alike.

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

I think DuBois agrees, actually. He clearly loves philosophy for its own sake and thinks it beautiful; after all, he describes it as ‘lovely’ instead of merely dismissing it as useless. But he feels his own talents are best directed at making the world more just for himself and for others who are still routinely denied access to academic philosophy, the high arts, and any other realm of thought and creativity they might want to engage in. Some don’t have the leisure time or disposable income; some are deprived of the right to education or access to the funds needed to pay for it; some live in war-torn places unable to support or protect educational and arts institutions. Like Adams, Dubois feels it his duty and his calling to be an agent of change in his time. And like Adams, DuBois lives a life of philosophy-in-action, his work driven by his convictions about justice and the good life. This demonstrates that for him as it is for countless others, philosophy is fertile indeed.

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