Massimo Lollini

For a more than human humanism

Posts tagged ‘Ethics’

Graphic design by Leonardo Lollini

I published this long article in the new issue of Humanist Studies and the Digital Age, that contributes to a better understanding of the future of humanity and the humanities in the age of AI and new information technologies. The first part (“Is there a future?”), discusses the idea of the future in the context of Carl Schmitt’s vision for the spatial revolutions of modernity, and then the idea of Anthropocene, as a synonym for an environmental crisis endangering the very survival of humankind. From this point of view, the conquest of space and the colonization of Mars at the center of futuristic and technocratic visions appear to be an attempt to escape from human responsibilities on Earth. The second part (“AI and other hyperobjects”) discusses the extent of intellectual hubris expressed in computation, AI (Garvin Minsky e Ray Kurzweil), and the philosophy of computing and information (Eric Fredkin), involved in the elaboration of new theoretical assessments on the ultimate nature of reality. Their vision is then contrasted and made to interact with that of philosopher Timothy Morton. He has taken the perspective of global warming and the possibility of ecological catastrophe seriously, avoiding all the futuristic enthusiasms and instead emphasizing the radical nature of the transformations that humans experience in the present. In this perspective, AI becomes one of the “hyperobjects,” like the Internet or climate change, in which humans are immersed. Morton’s hyperobjects delineate an uncanny view of the future; this uncanniness is not related to the supernatural but to the environment.

The third part (“More-than-human-humanism”) further reflects on the “uncanniness” that human perceive in the encounters with the manifestations of hyperobjects. It also seeks to understand the human position in the face of the radical technological transformations induced by cybernetics and AI. This section discusses Anti-humanism, Transhumanism, and Posthumanism within the broader category of more-than-human thought, which seems to be a more appropriate term to clarify the possible misunderstandings induced by the word “posthuman” and “transhuman.” The central question is not to empower (Transhumanism) or disempower (Posthumanism) humans, but to see them in relation to what is not human, including other animals, the environment, and the machine. The analysis considers the works of Cary Wolfe, Jane Bennet, Bryant Levi, among others, and introduces ethical debates on cyborgs, robots, and Autonomous weapons systems (AWS). The fourth section (“Ethical Perspectives”) continues this inquiry, concentrating on the non-standard ethical theories of Luciano Floridi (Computer and Information Ethics) and David Gunkel (The question of the Machine). It examines the opportunity and feasibility of including in the discussion on the ethics of our time – characterized by the pervasiveness of AI – the notions of consciousness as theorized by Emmanuel Levinas’s Humanism of the Other and Paul Ricoeur’s Oneself as Another.

Finally, the last section (“The time of the end?”) reflects on how the hyperobject, Anthropocene, re-establishes a sense of limits in human history and confirms the special responsibility of human beings, and supports the need for a more-than-human-humanism. The latter, in other words, means intertwining ourselves with a unique ecosystem which cannot be overlooked and which restores meaning to our relationship with the past, present, and future. The awareness of the current challenges of technology can and must express itself in different forms of resistance to the adverse effects of AI in our lives. The ethical approach based on the persisting role of human consciousness is essential, but it must be coupled with human decision-making and political action.

The complete article can be read and/or downloaded at this link.

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I present here some reflections initiated by a re-reading of Manzoni’s novel that I have completed in recent months during the outbreak of the Covid-19. Is there anything that this novel written two centuries ago can teach us today at the time of this Coronavirus? This question came to my mind when I realized that narrating the plague that struck Milan in 1630 in chapters 31 and 32 of The Betrothed, Manzoni reveals political, social, and cultural mechanisms very similar to ours struggling with the Coronavirus contagion. In this perspective, I thought, the reading of this 1630 story could become a mirror to look at what we can hardly see in our present.

The 1840 edition of The Betrothed also included the History of the Column of Infamy, published as an appendix, and illustrations created by a famous romantic painter, Francesco Gonin; Manzoni himself selected these images for publication. I am using some of these images curated by Guido Mura and Michele Losacco for the Biblioteca Braidense in my presentation.

The contagion in the Betrothed 

Manzoni sets his novel during the oppressive years of direct Spanish rule in Milan and Lombardy. In chapter 31, he recounts the plague contagion’s origin and how the population experienced it. Gonin introduces this chapter with this allegory of the plague:  

Francesco Gonin, Allegory of the Plague

The contagion was brought to Lombardy by the German troops allied with the Spanish ones who opposed the French ones in the war of succession of the state of Mantua. The physician Ludovico Settala was the first to report the plague to the Tribunal of Health. He alarmed the authorities, urging precise and rapid interventions. Still, political and medical leaders did not believe him and failed to take the timely decisions that were needed to contain the contagion.

The Spanish governor Ambrogio Spinola was busy with the war and told the authorities they should take care of the plague because he had “more important things to think about.” Therefore, the law that imposed the sanitary norms to protect Milan was issued only when the plague had already entered the city, provoking thousands of deaths and the lockdown of thousands of infected people in a special hospital named the Lazzaretto.

Another negligent attitude of both the political and religious powers favored the contagion’s spread. They could not renounce the public display of their powers’ symbols even in the epidemic’s lethal time. On the one hand, although informed of the plague, Governor Spinola decreed public festivities for Prince Carlos’s birth, King Philip IV’s firstborn son. He was uncaring of the danger of a great public gathering in those circumstances, “just as if the times had been normal, and no one had mentioned the plague to him at all,” Manzoni writes.

On the other hand, Cardinal Borromeo, pressured by public authorities, authorized a solemn procession through the streets, invoking divine help to contain the terrible calamity. The procession was held with an incredible crowd of people and crossed the entire city.

Francesco Gonin, The procession

The following day, however, as Manzoni underlines, the disease’s deaths increased dramatically due to the faster spread of the infection through the multiplication of contacts between people gathered in the street.

We witnessed a similar situation in early 2020, at the beginning of Covid-19. We saw the irresponsible refusal to admit the contagion’s existence by various countries’ political authorities, including permission to hold political rallies, sports events, and religious services, despite the danger represented by the multiplication of contagion opportunities. The reappearance of similar irrational and irresponsible attitudes in the middle of the 21st century is disconcerting, especially when compared to times when science and the media had not yet provided the elements for a more sophisticated perception and analyses of the contagion.

Given the public authorities’ dismissing attitude, in 1630 Milan, most people took a denier and superstitious attitude. The people became angry and protested against the health authorities when they started requiring quarantine and confinement to the hospital. Then, began what historians call “conspiracy syndrome,” of which there are ample examples in the past and, as you know, in our present. This syndrome arises from the obsession with imaginary hidden enemies that would cause evil and destructive crises. This fear triggers aggression, violence, illegality, and the imposition of a state of exception.

Thus, Milan’s people started believing that particularly dreadful humans caused the plague, the untori, anointers, or plague-spreaders. Driven by political reasons or by perverse murderous tendencies, they would go around to scatter and stain things and public places like churches with poisonous unguents and greasy items. In this image, you can see how Gonin imagined one of these scenes in Milan’s cathedral where some thought they saw people in the cathedral greasing a floorboard, as Manzoni writes.

Francesco Gonin, Anointers in the Cathedral

This other drawing represents what happened in the church of St. Anthony, where an older adult prayed a little on his knees and then dusted the bench with the hood because he wanted to sit down. Mistaken for an infector, he was savagely beaten and taken to the police, where he was tortured. (Betrothed, Chap. XXXII).

Francesco Gonin, The old man beaten in the Church of St. Anthony

Foreigners, especially French people but also Spaniards, were suspected as such to be responsible for the conspiracy and the spreading of the plague. People often would beat them in the street and considered them dangerous enemies of the homeland (16). This is what happened to the three young French people represented in this drawing by Gonin. (Betrothed, Chap. XXXII).

Francesco Gonin, Three young French comrades

Similarly, today in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, Chinese citizens have been the object of gratuitous violence in Italy and elsewhere. Not to mention the conspiracy theories we hear about and the rise of racism and xenophobia that has affected the Asian Pacific population in the United States since the pandemic began. 

In seventeenth-century Milanese society, the opinion that in the end prevailed set aside political conspiracy by the French and focused on a delínquent plot instead, with the only intent of preparing for a disorder, robbery, and looting. Some Milanese people were identified as untori by the citizen obsessed by the fear of the contagion. Under torture, they admitted being guilty of something for which they were not responsible. Consequently, they were sentenced to death.  

The trial and conviction of the untori anticipated in chapter 32 of the Betrothed are at the center of Manzoni’s History of the Column of Infamy. I analyze the latter in another publication. Here I focus on some ethical reflections that Manzoni develops in the plague chapters.

Language, ethics and compassion

First, he expresses concerns about the use of language. Then, just as today, language could become the tool to create false statements, escape from an unwanted reality, or build an “alternative reality” to avoid personal or public responsibilities. This attitude is hazardous if we consider that, as Foucault writes

“… when humans remain alienated from what happens in their language being constrained by economic and social determinations without feeling at home in the real world, they live in a culture that loses any sense of objectivity and makes pathological forms possible at all levels of society.” (Michel Foucault, Mental Illness and Psychology).

Manzoni describes the process with great precision that leads to the alienation from language and reality, starting from the outbreak of the plague. At first, the political and medical authorities prohibited using the word plague and used the expression “pestilential fever” instead. As Manzoni writes, they admitted the idea of the disease only indirectly in the adjective. He adds,

“Then it was not real plague – that is to say, it was plague, but only in a certain sense; not true plague, but something for which no other name could be found. Finally, it was plague without any doubt or contradiction. But already another idea – the idea of poison and sorcery – had become attached to it, which altered and confused the meaning of the word that could no longer be suppressed.” (The Betrothed, ch. 31).

In recent months, we have witnessed the same linguistic denial process with the definition of Covid 19, first, as a kind of “flu;” then, as something more dangerous than the regular flu. Finally, for some political authorities, the virus became a “Chinese virus,” altering and confusing the meaning of a word that they could no longer suppress.

The general reflection on the hazards of the use of language that Manzoni develops is particularly important. It is worth pondering it with full attention. He writes that in defining

“… little as much as in great things, this long and winding path (in the use of language to define the contagion) could be avoided by following the method laid down for so long, of observing, listening, comparing, and thinking before speaking.” The Betrothed, ch. 31.

In other words, he suggests that instead of following the political and religious powers and their supportive crowds in using words as propaganda, one should always go back to the sources of the discourses, think of their motivations, and confront them with critical attention. Still useful advice, especially in a time like ours overwhelmed by fakes news and alternative facts.

Manzoni’s recommendation is not based on moralism, which limits itself to establishing good and evil, but on ethics that makes us understand the conditions and restrictions within which good and evil are practicable. Indeed, trying to explain the scarce practice of critical attention in the use of language, he concludes by saying with some irony,

“But speaking by itself is so much easier than all the others put together, that we, too – I mean we humans in general – ought to some extent to be forgiven” (Ibidem).

In short, he is suggesting that speaking immediately and reactively is much easier, and therefore widespread, than comparing and thinking critically. Thus, to some extent, one should excuse all human beings and, therefore, the writer himself for their mistakes. Thinking critically for Manzoni also means distinguishing between, on the one hand, human and historical truth and, on the other, eschatological, eternal truth, to which human beings have only limited access. For this reason, in his Observations on Catholic morality, Manzoni wrote that human beings never must make truth triumph. (8)  

“… human beings may sometimes have the duty to speak for the truth, but never to make it triumph.” 
A. Manzoni, Observations on the Catholic Morality, “To the Reader.”

In this statement, I see a theological reformulation of ethics of truth as it emerged at the origins of Western philosophical discourse understood as an endless search for wisdom. Once he has established the distinction between historical truth and theological truth, Manzoni undertakes to transcend it in a continuous and restless movement of references to one element and the other without ever reaching a definitive synthesis from their dialectical collaboration. In this perspective, Pierantonio Frare has defined Manzoni as a writer of restlessness. I argue that from this restlessness comes his need for continuous reflections on language use, which should be considered a form of ethics of writing. 

On the one hand, Manzoni underlines the difficulty of communication at all levels, and intellectuals’ responsibility. On the other hand, he points to the ease with which people using language in an uncontrolled way can contribute to unpleasant misunderstandings and violent discrimination in society, eventually ruining the lives of individuals and entire social categories. Let me provide a few examples of this ethics of writing. First, I would like to mention a memorable narrative sequence from Chapter XXVII of Manzoni’s Betrothed that stages the problem of communication from a distance

It is no coincidence that this sequence constitutes a turning point in the novel because from this moment on, Manzoni inserts Renzo and Lucia’s love story into a broader historical and tragic context—famine, the war for the Mantua succession, and finally, the plague. Separated from Lucia due to Don Rodrigo’s threats to prevent their marriage, Renzo intends to communicate with her. Still, since he is illiterate, he must hire a letter-writer. At this point, Manzoni comments that those who know the art of writing and depend on it are bound to misunderstand their interlocutors being unable to give faithful expression to their thoughts and sometimes even their own ideas. Then, he adds 

“… it even happens to us who write for a press.”

Manzoni points out the difficulties and limits implicit in written communication in general and literary writing for print. By extending his writing ethics to scribes and modern authors alike, he also addresses intellectuals’ responsibility in social communication. Indeed, he recognizes here the pitfalls of intellectual statements that claim to speak in the name of illiterate people. A problem that, for his own admission affects his novel as well. This problem is also alive today as, not by chance, there still is talk of a profound rift between the intellectual elite and the people. Today, by moving away from the world of handwriting and printing towards an ever more pervasive and fast digital writing, quite often, we have done nothing but multiply the communication difficulties reported by Manzoni.  

In light of today’s problems, Manzoni’s work reveals surprising, insightful, and far-sighted attention to the sociolinguistic elements that structure otherness’s marginalization. Like any great novel, as Bakhtin suggests, Betrothed also includes multiple languages ​​and a diversity of social speech types. The language of power that excludes in Manzoni’s novel is not only the cumbersome Latin of the clergy (Don Abbondio) and the legal profession (Dr. Azzeccagarbugli) in the service of the powerful. The language of the empire, Don Ferrer’s Spanish, which deceives and dominates the crowd, also finds a significant space in the macrostructure of power. On the other hand, a local Italian dialect, which affects and discriminates against migration, also acts in power’s microstructure. 

This form of discrimination is what Renzo experiences in chapter XVII; when to survive the economic disasters provoked by the war, famine, and plague, he decides to migrate to the province of Bergamo. In the absence of an Italian state, this meant migrating from Duchy of Milan under Spanish rule to Venice’s Republic.

Here he is forced to suffer the offensive slur baggiano (blockhead) with which Bergamo’s population called the Milanese migrants. Even in these sociolinguistic observations that testify to micro-aggressions against migrants, Manzoni’s novel reflects a current situation and problem. Our culture is often unaware of the terrible possibility that linguistic offense –alienating humans from reality– can lead to violence and destruction. 

The most resounding example of this dreadful possibility is the use of the word untore. The process of clouding of conscience that prevented the various social actors from identifying the plague is further explored in the analysis that Manzoni conducts in the historical appendix. Thus, it becomes increasingly clear that the contagion of the soul, of the human conscience is at the center of his investigation. With few exceptions, this contagion involves practically all people, including the two women who identified Guglielmo Piazza as an untore only because he had touched the wall of a house with a hand. Manzoni writes that the word untore, already full of what he calls “deplorable certainty” passed without checking or correction from the street people’s mouth into that of the judges.

Francesco Gonin, Caterina Rosa identifies an alleged untore

Faced with the threat of the plague, everyone has silenced their ethical conscience and forgotten the meaning of justice; everyone only saw what they wanted to see and eliminated any rational inquiry by surrendering to insane fears and unsupported beliefs. Manzoni concludes, 

“… fear and fury, when not controlled by reason and charity, are unhappily liable, on the flimsiest pretexts and following the wildest assertions, to presume the guilt of men who are simply unfortunate.” History of the Column of Infamy, ch. 1.  

Reason and charity well express the two primary sources of Manzoni’s culture, rational Enlightenment and evangelical culture. Reason and charity are for Manzoni what can control the irresponsible use of language, avoid obscuring conscience, and stop the violence. Charity, that is, the recognition of the other in his most immediate and urgent needs, is what can make human conscience re-awake, bringing it closer to that reality that was previously stubbornly and selfishly denied. 

Noble examples of this charity are the Capuchin friars who died with joy at the Lazaretto assisting the sick with the plague, responding directly to the extreme condition of their pain. The Capuchins did not remain prisoners of the lies about the epidemic in the collective madness that had taken Milan.

Gonin, The Lazzaretto

At the extreme levels, this madness revealed the dark areas of the human soul in the gratuitous and obscene violence of the monatti. These were people sentenced to death, prisoners, appointed by the municipalities to transport the sick or corpses to the hospital. They quite often saw the plague as an occasion for a macabre carnival feast.

Francesco Gonin, Renzo on the wagon of the monatti

 The Capuchins are not as concerned about defining the plague as doctors, intellectuals, and politicians. They are concerned only with responding unshakably to the dire consequences of the epidemic, and in this way, with a gesture of radical altruism, they regain a sense of reality. 

I cannot help but note that even today, at the time of Covid-19, the contagion’s reality often denied by some politicians, newsmakers, and ordinary people alike, was witnessed and recognized only in the reports of the front-line workers of the hospitals. They have faced their duties as caregivers tirelessly and heroically. In their compassionate gestures, they also helped re-establish contact with the language, reality, and a world where one no longer feels stranger but a participant in becoming a healer. Here then is how, in Manzoni’s writing, the plague, from an allegory of evil and madness that grips human bodies and souls, paradoxically becomes a cognitive apparatus revealing an authentic human condition, the bare life of suffering. As Artaud wrote in his The Plague and the Theater,  

“… the plague, is beneficial because it impels us to see ourselves as we are, making the masks fall and divulging our world’s lies, aimlessness, meanness and even two-facedness. It shakes off stifling material dullness which even overcomes the senses’ clearest testimony, and collectively reveals their dark powers and hidden strength to humans, urging them to take a nobler, more heroic stand in the face of destiny than they would have assumed without it.”  Antonin Artaud, The Theater and the Plague



Artaud, Antonin, and Victor Corti. “Theathre and the plague” in The Theatre and Its Double. London: Alma Classics, 2014. Print. 9-22.

Bakhtin, M M, Caryl Emerson, and Michael Holquist. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Foucault, Michel. Mental Illness and Psychology. Foucault. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. Print.

Gonin, Francesco, Manzonian images: sketches of the illustrations for the edition of “I Promessi Sposi” of 1840 / n. 316; 328; 329; 330; 412; 426; 442; 405; 454. Curated by Guido Mura and Michele Losacco. Internet resource. 

Frare, Pierantonio. La Scrittura Dell’inquietudine: Saggio Su Alessandro Manzoni. Firenze: Olschki, 2006. Print.

Lollini, Massimo. “Poetic Inspiration and Ethics of Writing as Source of Higher Narrative in Cervantes and Manzoni.” Epic and Other Higher Narratives: Essays in Intercultural Studies, eds. Steven Shankman, Amiya Dev. Pearson Education, India: 2010. 242-252. Print.

Manzoni, Alessandro, David Forgacs, and Matthew Reynolds. The Betrothed: And, History of the Column of Infamy. London: J.M. Dent, 1997. Print.  

—. Manzoni, Alessandro, and Franco Mollia. Osservazioni Sulla Morale Cattolica: Storia Della Colonna Infame. Milano: Garzanti, 1985. Print. 

Raimondi, Ezio. Il Romanzo Senza Idillio: Saggio Sui Promessi Sposi. Torino: Einaudi, 1995. Print.  


What do you think when you get to the top of a high mountain like the Marmolada (3,343 meters; 10,968 ft)? There are so many answers to this question, maybe as many as there are individuals climbing the mountains. However, there is a very ancient reflective tradition on the view from above that is still interesting today. Pierre Hadot studied this ancient tradition and came to the conclusion that the view from above, for ancient philosophers such as Platonists, Epicureans and Stoics, is a kind of practice, of exercise of physics, to the extent that – with the help of physical knowledge – the individuals conceive themselves as part of the totality of the world or of the infinity of the worlds.

Scientific knowledge in ancient culture was quite often combined with ethical reflections. Something that has been lost in the evolution of modern science. The following is a profound reflection on the view from above from the Stoic philosopher Seneca (c. 4 BC – AD65) in his Naturales Questiones (Natural questions), which is a combination of ethics and philosophical physics.

The second part of the post introduces modern reflections on the view from above, dialoguing with Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit (2003).

* * *

The soul reaches the full and perfect good of the human condition when, crushed every evil, turns upwards and penetrates the deepest breast of nature. Then, while the soul wanders among the stars, it rejoices in mocking the floors of the rich and the whole earth with his gold, and I mean not only the gold extracted and handed over to the mint to be coined, but also the gold that the earth keeps hidden for the avarice of posterity.

Only after contemplating the whole universe can the soul truly despise grandiose porches and coffered ceilings resplendent of ivory and thickets cut with care and waterways diverted to reach wealthy palaces. At that moment, the soul, looking from above down upon this narrow world –covered for the most part by the sea, with vast regions desolate even in the emerged lands and with areas either burned or frozen– says to itself, “Is it all here the pinpoint that many people fight over with iron and fire to conquer and divide?”

Oh, how ridiculous are the borders set by men! (0 quam ridiculi sunt mortalium termini)
Let our empire keep away the Dacians from the Ister (lower Danube) and confine the Thracians with the Haemus; let the Euphrates block the Parthians and the Danube mark the boundary between the territories of the Sarmatians and those of the Romans; let the Rhine place a limit for Germany, the Pyrenees raise their chain between the Gaul and Spain, a vast desolate and sandy desert lie between Egypt and the Ethiopians.

If the human intellect was given to ants, wouldn’t they divide a single area into many provinces? When you rise to those really great realities, every time you see armies marching with unfurled flags and the knights scouting in front or going to the flanks of the army –as if they were doing something grandiose– you will want to say: “a black swarm goes through the fields. This army is like a coming and going of ants that tire in a narrow space. What is the difference between them and us, if not the size of a tiny little body?”

That is an insignificant point on which you sail, on which you wage war, on which you create tiny kingdoms, tiny, even when the ocean meets it on both sides. At high altitudes, there are immense spaces, and the soul is allowed to possess them, but on the condition that it carries with it as little as possible of what comes from the body, it clears all impurities and raises free, light, and content with little.

When the soul has touched those heights, it finds nourishment, it grows, and, as free from chains, it returns to its origin. A proof of its divine nature comes from the fact that it is pleasantly attracted by the divine realities, in which it participates not as alien things but as things that belong to the soul itself. The soul calmly views the setting and rising of the stars and their orbits so different yet so harmonious; it observes the place where the stars begin to show the earth their own light, where their apogee and the highest point of their course are found, and how far they descend. As a curious spectator, the soul separates the individual details and investigates every natural and physical thing. And why should it not? The soul looking from above knows that all this, the entire universe, pertains to itself.

(Seneca, Naturales Questiones, I, 7-13; the translation is mine)


Rare manuscript of Seneca’s Questiones Naturales

* * *

Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit (2003) explores the reasons why humans are attracted to mountain-tops and the views from above. Macfarlane does not consider the contribution of ancient philosophers and religions to this topic but privileges a historical and cultural reconstruction to trace the genealogy of a “secularized feeling towards height (…) according to which the individual discovered pleasure and excitement in height for its own sake” (149). From this point of view, human attraction to the mountains is a fairly recent phenomenon, even though ancient religions and philosophies greatly appreciated the altitudes and believed the upper world was the home of the gods.

Not by chance, prophets and seers received their divine counsels from the top of the mountains. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, Mt Pisgah comes to mind: “The Lord ordered Moses to the top of this mountain and told him to look in all directions, thus revealing the Promised Land to the tribes of Israel” (Deuteronomy 3:27). Along these lines, one may recall that Moses ascended Sinai to receive the ten commandments. Moses departed to the mountain and stayed there for 40 days and nights to receive God’s commandments (Exodus 19, Exodus 24, Deuteronomy 4). These are just a couple of examples, and we should consider that the idea of mountainous altitudes as sites of the sacred is not exclusive to the Judaeo-Christian tradition but belongs to world religions.

The discovery of the pleasure and excitement in altitude for its own sake developed during a centuries-long process in Western civilization. Before the Eighteenth Century, humans were, in fact, scared of the mountains that were considered the sites of devils and monsters, very dangerous locations due to unpredictable meteorological phenomena. Except for mountain eremites, anachorites, and holy persons looking for the presence of God in altitudes, climbing the mountains was considered a crazy and dangerous idea. The starting point of the appreciation of altitude is considered the ascent of Mont Ventoux, in Vaucluse (in Provence; elevation 1912 meters), undertaken in 1336 by the Italian poet Francis Petrarch. He narrates his ascent in a famous letter written around 1350 (Letters on Familiar Matters, IV, 1). He claimed to be the first person since antiquity to have climbed a mountain for the view. But to reach the summit was not a straightforward process for him as it was for his brother Gherardo who was a monk. Petrarch feels weak and looks for easier paths. What was a vertical ascent for the religious person (Gherardo) became a zig-zag process for the poet.

When he reaches the summit, Petrarch reveals the ambiguity of the human spirit in front of the environment: on the one hand, the cupiditas videndi, the desire to view from a great height indulging in the visibility of the plain, an aesthetic pleasure, for its own sake; on the other hand, the search for the inward dimension, the inner immaterial reality. In other words, Petrarch turns from the physical to the metaphysical realm and reads a passage from Augustine’s Confessions on top of the mountain, praising the magnificent reality of the human soul. 
This letter remains within the framework of what Derek Pearsall considers the Middle Ages’ typical attitude toward natural phenomena that are presented in allegorical, kind of stereotyped form as a mode of expression for an interpretation of reality that transcends or even denies those phenomena in the name of God, the only true source of awe.

Religious ideas were still instrumental in developing a positive attitude towards mountains in early modernity. The doctrine of natural theology that developed at the end of the seventeen century and the beginning of the eighteenth is a prominent example in this regard. By emphasizing that any aspect of nature and whatever existed in the world was created as an image of God given to humans, theologians like Thomas Browne (1605-1682) transformed the observation and scrutiny of nature into a form of worship. For Browne, nature was a bible open to all, as he writes in his Religio Medici (Religion of a Doctor; 1645): “Thus there are two books from whence I collect my Divinity; besides that written one of God, another of his servant Nature, that universal and public Manuscript, that lies expans’d unto the eyes of all; those that never saw him in the one, have discovered him in the other” (32).

At this time, the mountains started to be conceived as a text in which it was possible to read the words of God. Macfarlane writes, “The natural theology movement was crucial in revoking the reputation of mountains as aesthetically displeasing” (208). Toward the end of the eighteenth century, these ideas became current, and the mountain-worship from religious became gradually secular. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Nouvelle Heloise (1761) is credited to be the manifesto of such a transformation. With him, the higher spheres of the earth became the site of a “supernatural beauty” that charms both the senses and the mind to the point that one forgets everything in the world, including oneself.

Since the eighteenth century, Macfarlane writes, ” climbing upwards came to represent -as it still does- the search for an entirely new way of being (…). The upper world was an environment which affected both the mind and the body in ways cities or the plains never did – in the mountains, you were a different you” (213). In other words, mountains started to reshape our understanding of ourselves and of our inner life in a way that was already evident in Seneca’s Naturales Questiones and Petrarch’s words in front of the view from above atop Mont Ventoux. Whereas Seneca and Petrarch privileged the inscape, starting from the eighteenth century on, there is much more appreciation of the landscape, the beauty of the mountains embodied in particular by the architectural gestures of the light as manifested in phenomena like the alpenglow, which is caused by the reflection of the sun on snowfields.

Mountaineers like John Auldjo (1805-1886) contributed substantially to developing modern mountain imagery and imagination. Auldjo, a Canadian-British traveler, geologist, writer, and artist, in his Narrative of an Ascent to the Summit of Mont Blanc: On 8 and 9 August 1827, describes his extreme suffering from the climbing and the sublime beauty of the mountain. In this regard, he writes,

My attention was now attracted by the sun rising, his rays
falling on Mont Blanc and the Dôme du Goûté, clothing them
in a variety of brilliant colours, quickly following one another,
from a light tint of crimson to rich purple, and then to bright
gold . These rapid alternations of reflected splendour, on a
surface so vast and sublimely picturesque, presented a scene of
dazzling brilliancy too much almost for the eye to encounter, and
such as no powers of language could adequately portray. (33)

The suffering of the ascent was compensated by the view from the summit of Mt Blanc. In the words of Auldjo’s account, one can perceive the distance from Seneca’s narrative of the view from above. Ancient philosophy’s moral and spiritual reflections are now replaced by a new emphasis on the aesthetic dimension in modern mountaineer literature. Auldjo’s book became very influential and triggered many other attempts to reach the summits. As Macfarlane writes, humans started to be attracted to the mountains by two intertwined ideas: “First, the abstract notion that reaching the summit of a mountain was a worthwhile end in itself; and second, the belief that the view from a great height (…) could be sufficiently beautiful to merit risking one’s life to see it” (166).

V0025171 The ascent of Mont Blanc by John Auldjo's party in 1827: mou

The ascent of Mont Blanc by John Auldjo’s party in 1827, lithograph

Nonetheless, another idea resurfaces in modern accounts of reaching the summits of mountains, an idea that was crucial in ancient literature: reaching the summit empowers humans and enriches them with the appreciation of sublime beauties but at the same time puts them in touch with something that is more-than-human and induces humility and recognition in front of what is not human-made.


Auldjo, John, Narrative of an Ascent to the Summit of Mont Blanc: On 8 and 9 August 1827. London: Thomas Davison, Whitefriars, 1828.
—. The ascent of Mont Blanc by John Auldjo’s party in 1827, lithograph. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
Browne Thomas. Religio Medici (Religion of a Doctor). Boston: Robert Brothers, 1878.
Seneca, Lucius A, and Thomas H. Corcoran. Seneca in Ten Volumes: 7: Naturales Questiones. 1. London: Heinemann, 1971. Print.Hadot, Pierre. N’oublie Pas De Vivre: Goethe Et La Tradition Des Exercices Spirituels. Paris: Albin Michel, 2011. Print.
Macfarlane, Robert. Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit. New York: Vintage Book, 2003.
Pearsall, Derek A, and Elizabeth Salter. Landscapes and Seasons of the Medieval World. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973

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This post is my translation of an excerpt from the short article by Primo Levi entitled “Butterflies” in which he describes an exhibition on the butterflies he visited in a museum.

Why are butterflies beautiful? Certainly not for the pleasure of human beings, as Darwin’s opponents claimed: there were butterflies at least a hundred million years before the first human being. I think that our very concept of beauty, necessarily relative and cultural, took its configuration over the centuries from them, as from the stars, the mountains and the sea. We have proof of this when we consider what happens when we examine the head of a butterfly under the microscope: for most observers, admiration is replaced by horror or disgust. In the absence of cultural habit, this new object baffles us; the enormous eyes without pupils, the horn-like antennae, the monstrous mouth apparatus appear to us like a diabolical mask, a distorted parody of the human face.

In our civilization (but not in all) bright colors and symmetry are “beautiful” and so are butterflies. Now, the butterfly is a true factory of colors: it transforms the foods it absorbs and even its own excretion products into dazzling pigments. Not only this: it knows how to obtain its splendid metallic and iridescent effects with pure physical means, only by exploiting the interference effects that we observe in soap bubbles and in the oil slicks floating on the water.

But the fascination of butterflies does not only come from colors and symmetry: deeper motives contribute to it. We wouldn’t call them so beautiful if they didn’t fly, or if they flew straight and fast-moving like bees, or if they stung, or especially if they didn’t cross the perturbing mystery of the metamorphosis: the latter takes on the value of a partially deciphered message in our eyes, a symbol, and a mysterious sign. It is not strange that a poet like Gozzano (“the friend of the chrysalises”) studied and loved butterflies with passion: it is strange, nonetheless, that so few poets have loved them, since the passage from the caterpillar to the chrysalis, and from this to the butterfly, projects beside itself a long admonitory shadow.

As butterflies are beautiful by definition, they are our yardstick of beauty, so the caterpillars (“insects in default”, said Dante) are ugly by definition: clumsy, slow, stinging, voracious, hairy, obtuse, they are in turn symbolic, the symbol of what is coarse, incomplete, and represents a perfection not reached.

The two documentaries that accompany the exhibition with the portentous eye of the camera show us what very few human eyes could see: the caterpillar that suspends itself in the aerial temporary tomb of the cocoon, turns into an inert chrysalis, and then comes out to light in the perfect shape of the butterfly; the wings are still inept, weak, like crumpled tissue paper, but in a few moments they become stronger, stretched, and the newborn flies off. It is a second birth, but at the same time it is a death: the one who has flown away is a psyche, a soul, and the torn cocoon that remains on the ground is the mortal body. In the deep layers of our consciousness the butterfly with a restless flight is a soul, fairy, sometimes even a witch.

The strange name it bears in English (butterfly, the “the fly of butter”) evokes an ancient Nordic belief that the butterfly is the goblin who steals butter and milk, or makes them sour; and the Acherontia Atropos, the great domestic nocturnal moth with the sign of the skull on the corselet that Guido Gozzano meets in the villa of Signorina Felicita, is a damned soul, “which brings pain”. The wings that the popular iconography attributes to the fairies are not feathery wings of a bird, but transparent and ribbed wings of a butterfly.

The furtive visit of a butterfly, which Hermann Hesse describes on the last page of his diary, is an ambivalent announcement, and has the taste of a serene premonition of death. The old writer and thinker, in his Ticinese hermitage, sees “something dark, silent and phantom” rise in the air: it is a rare butterfly, an Antiopa with dark-violet wings, and lands on his hand. «Slowly, with the rhythm of quiet breathing, the beauty shut and opened the velvet wings, holding on to the back of my hand with six very thin legs; and after a brief moment it disappeared, without my detecting its withdrawal, in the great warm light».


Jan Vincentsz van der Vinne, A Caterpillar. [Drawings]. Retrieved from

Primo Levi, “Farfalle” in L’altrui mestiere. Torino: Einaudi, 1985. pp. 133-135. My translation, the original Italian follows.

Perché sono belle le farfalle? Non certo per il piacere dell’uomo, come pretendevano gli avversari di Darwin: esistevano farfalle almeno cento milioni di anni prima del primo uomo. Io penso che il nostro stesso concetto della bellezza, necessariamente relativo e culturale, si sia modellato nei secoli su di loro, come sulle stelle, sulle montagne e sul mare. Ne abbiamo una riprova se consideriamo quanta avviene quando esaminiamo al microscopio il capo di una farfalla: per la maggior parte degli osservatori, all’ammirazione subentra l’orrore o il ribrezzo . In assenza dell’abitudine culturale, quest’oggetto nuovo ci sconcerta; gli occhi enormi e senza pupille, le· antenne simili a corna, l’apparato boccale mostruoso ci appaiono come una maschera diabolica, una parodia distorta del viso umano.

Nella nostra civiltà (ma non in tutte) sono « belli» i colori vivaci e la simmetria e così sono belle le farfalle. Ora, la farfalla è una vera fabbrica di colori: trasforma in pigmenti smaglianti i cibi che assorbe ed anche i suoi stessi prodotti di escrezione. Non solo: sa ottenere i suoi splendidi effetti metallici ed iridescenti con puri mezzi fisici, sfruttando soltanto gli effetti di interferenza che osserviamo nelle bolle di sapone e nei veli oleosi che galleggiano sull’acqua.

Ma la suggestione delle farfalle non nasce solo dai colori e dalla simmetria: vi concorrono motivi più profondi. Non le definiremmo altrettanto belle se non volassero, o se volassero diritte e alacri come le api, o se pungessero, o soprattutto se non attraversassero il mistero conturbante della metamorfosi: quest’ultima assume ai nostri occhi il valore di un messaggio mal decifrato, di un simbolo e di un segno. Non è strano che un poeta come Gozzano ( «l’amico delle crisalidi») studiasse e amasse con passione le farfalle: è strano, anzi, che così pochi poeti le abbiano amate, dal momento che il trapasso dal bruco alla crisalide, e da questa alla farfalla, proietta accanto a sé una lunga ombra ammonitoria.

Come le farfalle sono belle per definizione, sono il nostro metro della bellezza, così i bruchi («entomata in difetto», li diceva Dante) sono brutti per definizione: goffi, lenti, urticanti, voraci, pelosi, ottusi, sono a loro volta simbolici, il simbolo del rozzo, dell’incompiuto, della perfezione non raggiunta.

I due documentari che accompagnano la mostra ci fanno vedere, col portentoso occhio della cinepresa, quanto pochissimi occhi umani hanno potuto vedere: il bruco che si sospende nella tomba aerea e temporanea del bozzolo, si muta in crisalide inerte, ed esce poi alla luce nella forma perfetta della farfalla; le ali sono ancora inette, deboli, come carta velina stropicciata, ma in pochi istanti si rafforzano, si tendono , e la neonata prende il volo. È una seconda nascita , ma insieme è una morte: chi si è involato è una psiche, un’anima, e il bozzolo squarciato che resta a terra è la spoglia mortale. Negli strati profondi della nostra coscienza la farfalla dal volo inquieto è animula, fata, talvolta anche strega.

Lo strano nome che essa porta in inglese (butterfly, la «mosca del burro») rievoca un’antica credenza nordica secondo cui la farfalla è lo spiritello che ruba il burro e il latte, o li fa inacidire; e l’Acherontia Atropos, la grande notturna nostrana con il segno del teschio sul corsaletto che Guido Gozzano incontra nella villa della signorina Felicita, è un’anima dannata, «che porta pena ». Le ali che l’iconografia popolare attribuisce alle fate non sono ali pennute di uccello, ma ali trasparenti e nervate di farfalla.

La visita furtiva di una farfalla, che Hermann Hesse descrive nell’ultima pagina del suo diario, è un’annunciazione ambivalente , ed ha il sapore di un sereno presagio di morte. Il vecchio scrittore e pensatore, nel suo romitaggio ticinese, vede levarsi in volo «qualcosa di scuro, silenzioso e fantomatico»: è una farfalla rara, unAntiopa dalle ali bruno-violette, e gli si posa su una mano. «Lenta, al ritmo di un respiro tranquillo, la bella chiudeva e apriva le ali di velluto, tenendosi aggrappata al dorso della mia mano con sei zampette sottilissime; e dopo un breve istante sparì, senza che io ne avvertissi il distacco, nella gran luce calda».

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The following is a partial translation of Hermann Hesse’s beautiful essay Über das Reisen (1904, On Traveling).


About the question of how modern man should travel there are several books and booklets, but among these I do not know any good ones. Anyone who is leaving for a leisure trip should still know what he does and why he does it. Today, the traveling citizen does not know why they do it. They travel because in summer it is too hot in the city. They travel because by changing air and people and environments they hope to find some rest from the hard work. They travel to the mountains tormented by dark nostalgia to return to nature, the land and plants; they go to Rome because it is a cultural journey. But above all, they travel because all their cousins ​​and neighbors do it, because then they will be able to talk about it and boast about it, because it is fashion and because later, at home, they will feel so pleasantly again.


Traveling should always mean experiencing, feeling deeply, and you can experience something precious only in places and environments with which you establish a spiritual relationship. A beautiful occasional excursion, a cheerful evening in any tavern, a boat trip on any lake, these are not in themselves real experiences capable of enriching our life, if they do not instill in us strong and lasting stimuli.

Before leaving travelers should inform themselves, even only on a map and in passing, about the essential characteristics of the country and the place where they are going to go, and of the relationship in which these places are located, in terms of position, territory, climate and population, with respect to the home and places familiar to them. If they go abroad they should try to empathize with what is characteristic of the region. They should contemplate mountains, waterfalls and cities not only in passing and as attractions, but learning to recognize them as necessary and appropriate to the places where they are, and therefore, beautiful.

If they develop this good will they will discover for themselves the simple secrets of the art of traveling. And (…) they will not travel to foreign countries without knowing, at least a little, his language. They will not judge landscapes, inhabitants, habits, cuisine and wines on the meter of their country, and they will not want to see stereotypes like the fiery Venetian, the silent Neapolitan, the gentle Bernese, the sweetest Chianti, the coolest riviera, the steepest lagoon coast. Instead, they will try to adapt their lifestyle to the customs and character of the place where they are; they will rise early in Grindelwald and late in Rome, and so on. And above all, they will try everywhere to get close to the local people and understand them.


The poetry of traveling does not consist in refreshment from the monotony of one’s country, from the fatigue of work and contrasts, not in the company of other people and in the contemplation of different images, nor in satisfying a curiosity. The poetry of traveling is in experience, in inner enrichment, in the organic assimilation of the innovations experienced, in the growth of our ability to understand unity in the manifold, the great intertwining made up of earth and humanity, in finding ancient truths and laws in completely new situations.


 Who in foreign regions and cities, not only chases after the famous and most surprising things, but wants to understand the truest and most profound reality and grasp it with love,  will notice how casual encounters and little things will appear covered with a special glow. When I think of Florence, the first image I remember is not the Duomo or the ancient Palazzo della Signoria, but the small pond with the goldfish in the Boboli Gardens. There, during my first Florentine afternoon, I happened to talk to some women and their children and I listened for the first time to the Florentine dialect; and it was the first time I really felt the city –that so many books had made me familiar– like something real and alive, like a city with which I could talk and which I could grasp with my hands. And this did not make me miss the Duomo, Palazzo Vecchio and all the monuments that made Florence famous. I actually think I lived them and made them my own in a better way and with more passion than many scrupulous tourists with their good Baedeker travel guide; these monuments come to mind in a clear, unitary way, from small marginal experiences. Even though I have forgotten some beautiful pictures of the Uffizi, I remember the evenings spent chatting in the kitchen with the landlady, or the nights spent in small taverns talking with men and boys (…). These trifles often become the fulcrum of the most precious memories.


But we must not forget, beyond the fortuitous, the essential, or beyond the romantic, poetry. Being carried around and relying on good luck is certainly a good practice, but every journey, if we want to live it with satisfaction and as a profound experience, must have a very specific content and meaning. Strolling through boredom and dull curiosity in countries whose intimate nature remains foreign and indifferent, is sacrilegious and ridiculous. Like a friendship or a love that is cultivated and for which sacrifices are made, like a book that has wisely been chosen, bought and read, so every journey of pleasure or study is an act of love that involves the desire to learn and spirit of sacrifice. Its purpose is to make a country and its people, a city or a region, the spiritual heritage of the traveler, who with love and passion must scrutinize a reality that is foreign to him and strive with perseverance to understand the mystery of its being. The rich merchant of cured meats, who for ostentation and a misunderstood sense of culture travels to Paris or Rome, does not achieve any of this. But who in the long and ardent years of youth has cultivated within himself/herself the dream of the Alps, of the sea or of the ancient cities of Italy, and has finally managed to put together some time and money, will take possession of each landmark with passion, of every wall of a monastery illuminated by the sun and covered with climbing roses, of every snowy peak and of every stretch of sea, and will not let them escape from the heart before having understood their language, before it has become alive what was dead, and gifted with speech what  was silent. He/she, in one day, will infinitely enrich his/her experience and will try many more things than a fashion representative in years of travel, and will carry with him/her for life a treasure of joy and understanding, a sense of happy fulfillment .


From the lazy contemplation of a golden summer evening and from the comforting contact with the pure and light air of the mountain to the intimate understanding of nature and landscape, there is still a very long road. It is wonderful to lie down and lounge for hours on a sun-heated lawn. But full enjoyment, a hundred times more profound and noble, is granted only to the one who is perfectly familiar with this landscape, with this meadow, with its land and its mountains, the streams, the alder woods and the chain of peaks soaring to the horizon towards the sky. To be able to read in this piece of land its laws, see the necessity of its conformation and its vegetation, grasp the bond that unites it to history, to the nature, architecture, language and customs of the inhabitants: all of this requires love, dedication, exercise. But it’s worth it.

In a country that thanks to your loving attention has become familiar to you, every meadow, every rock on which you have paused, reveals all their secrets to you and gives you the energy that is not given to others. You say that not everyone can study the piece of land on which you have chosen to spend a week as geologists, historians, dialectologists, botanists and economists. Of course not. It’s about feeling, not knowing names. Science has not yet made anyone happy. But whoever feels the need not to walk in the void, to feel constantly living in the whole and to be an integral part of the fabric of the world, spontaneously opens the eyes everywhere to what is peculiar, authentic, tied to the earth. Anywhere in the soil, in the trees, in the mountainous profiles, in the animals and in the humans living in a particular land he/she will be able to perceive a common element, a fixed point on which to concentrate all the attention, instead of pursuing the chance. One will discover that this common, typical element is also manifested in the smallest flowers, in the most delicate colors of the air, in the slightest nuances of dialect, architectural forms, dances and folk songs. Depending on one’s disposition, a popular saying or a scent of leaves or a bell tower or a small rare flower will become the formula that safely and concisely encapsulates all the essence of a landscape. And it is a formula that cannot be forgotten.

But that’s enough. Only one thing I would like to add: I do not believe in a particular “talent for travel”, which is often spoken of. Those who travel and are soon able to become familiar with a foreign country, who are able to grasp what is authentic and precious, are the same people who have been able to recognize a sense of life in themselves, and who know how to follow their star. The strong nostalgia for the sources of life, the desire to become familiar with everything that exists, work, grows, is their key to the mysteries of the world, which they pursue enthusiastically and happily not only during their journeys to distant lands, but also in the rhythm of life and everyday experience.

“Über das Reisen”, in Hermann Hesse, Betrachtungen Und Berichte I: 1899-1926. Frankfurt a.M: Suhrkamp, 2003. Print, pp. 28-37. Translation by Massimo Lollini.


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