Why "dolce stil novo?": Dante, Galileo and the Mid-Life Crisis?
I am writing my first official blog post on New Years Eve 2022 at 5 pm Central European time in Firenze, Italy. My apartment is steps away from the Arno River and the Piazzale Degli Uffizi. What this really means is that I am writing this after 3 espressos and after just gazing at some of the most important historical pieces of Art & Science. More on that in a moment.
New Years Eve also means my birthday on New Years Day. I guess it is fitting that I bought a copy of Dante's Divine Comedy and sat next to the river reading it. Here are the first 9 lines of the Commedia:
At one point midway on our path in life,
I came around and found myself now searching,
through a dark wood, the right way blurred and lost,
How hard it is to say what that wood was,
a wilderness, savage, brute, harsh and wild.
Only to think of it renews my fear!
So bitter, that thought, that death is hardly more so.
But since my theme will be the good I found there,
I mean to speak of other things I saw.
I found this fitting, not because its ominous or dark or foreboding...but because it is exactly what I felt as a philosopher who has studied Greek and Roman Philosophy for almost 30 years now.
It is hard to be steeped in the Philosophy of the Ancient Western world and not be completely blown away the moment you step foot in the heart of Firenze. I teach and write about both the good things and the problematic things we inherit from the ancient Greeks & Romans.
...and, AND!!!!!: I have been thinking A LOT about what it means to approach 50! So, here's a great recipe for how to reflect on getting older: study Philosophy for 30 years, then come to Firenze right as you approach 50 after, what I call, the humbling-experience-of-living-and-trying has really hit you! (If you have not heard my youtube hit song "your own dynamic way" you'll see this theme in that song!)
Scholars will tell you (at least the ones I'm reading) that, before the Commedia, Dante started his career, along with other contemporaries of his, as a poet writing love poetry in a sophisticated new form. Dante refers to the poets who write this way as stil novisti, poets of the "sweet new style." He sought to set himself apart from these love poets and develop his own dolce stil novo (sweet new style), by writing the Divine Comedy. What is the inspiration for Dante's style that will set him apart from his contemporary love poets? None other than Virgil!
Dante was (at least, in part b/c there's also Beatrice!) inspired by the Ancients to develop a new style. He is not reinventing the wheel. I could start getting super scholarly, but I want to share what this means to me
I needed a sweet new style about 5 years ago... and I'm glad I did not try to re-invent the wheel. If there's anything I've learned about my life it is that I should probably have listened to my mother much more. And, when I turned 43, I finally did....and I've been happier for it. So, I guess my Mom is like my Virgil leading me through the circles of Hell? (That's a huge compliment Mom!) Most of you reading this will know what I mean. When I was younger, I really should have just taken a deep breath and a good honest look inside myself and taken my time. Just slow down and take it step by step.
So, I start my journey leading this program with the thought of taking it one step at a time and learning from each experience taken individually. This blog will be one way I try to bring together the experiences and share it with the people who mean a lot to me.
I visited Museo Galileo!!!! OH. MY. LORD!!!
I taught a History of Philosophy of Science course last year and I regularly teach Aristotle's Physics & Metaphysics. Galileo and Aristotle are fun to teach! Motion, motion, motion!!! I can't post everything. But today I saw (with pictures to accompany them)......
TWO OF GALILEO'S ACTUAL TELESCOPES!!!! LORD ALMIGHTY! We used to teach Siderius Nuncius (Starry Messenger) in our first year seminar at Lewis & Clark, and I was blown away imagining Galileo holding those telescopes and looking at the heavens. I actually almost fell over b/c I did not know those were going to be there!!!
Check it out!!
I ALSO SAW GALILEO'S MIDDLE FINGER!! Is he pointing to the sky or is this one last act of defiance towards the church???? YOU GO G-MAN!!!
Here's Galileo in the Piazzale Degli Uffizi:
And here's Dante Alighieri,
What does reading Dante AND seeing Galileo's telescope & middle finger mean to a philosopher at the end of 2022? It means that science and art are so VERY intertwined. There is a floor of the Museo Galileo devoted to how science is social, political and intertwined with business, war, prosperity... and Philosophy. Philosophers have always tried to understand how it is that very different ways of looking at the world hang together so we can try to make some sense of it.
I guess that's why I love Galileo's middle finger so much. It helps me think of the idea of comedy, or commedia, as recognizing how puzzling and fun it is to just inquire as to whether the world and life make sense. I think its fine to say that maybe they don't make a whole lot of sense. But I'll just keep trying one step at a time to see in what ways they do and do not.
I find myself about to turn 48, approaching 50, with some things going incredibly well in my life and some things that still do not make any sense to me. But, at this moment, while I type this, here in Firenze: the bells of the duomo are ringing through my window, a man is yelling and a woman is yelling back MUCH LOUDER... horns, music and firecrackers burst and a man is playing (I'M NOT JOKING!) What Wonderful World (ya know....Louis Armstrong???).
It reminds me that I should just go step by step and enjoy each moment. It also makes me tear up with joy...I expect that I will often sound like I'm 21 again and in Europe for the first time. So sue me! I feel so inspired and so lucky to be doing this. I need more than a pinch.
I'll end this first post with a photo of the moon over the Piazalle Degli Uffiti. Umm...Galileo...the Moon...overturning the Aristotelian model of the Universe...am I the ONLY who sees the deep meaning in this photo I took? I guess I will have to wait until over 300 years after my death to be appreciated!....figures!
See you in 2023. If you are reading this it means I care very much about you! Happy New Year!! Love, Joel