Archive for January, 2002

Betty Bowers

January 30th, 2002

Mrs Betty Bowers is a better Christian than you! And she has a very fine website to prove it.

Walking across Afghanistan

January 29th, 2002

The world’s media is queuing up to write about Rory’s trek across Afghanistan. Here’s the opening few lines of the latest, from the Los Angeles Times (and they even have a photo!):

600-Mile Journey in Nowhere Land

Afghanistan: Scotsman sets off on foot through some of the Earth’s most forbidding terrain.

By DAVID ZUCCHINO, Times Staff Writer

HERAT, Afghanistan — For breakfast Sunday morning, Rory Stewart ate four fried eggs and a fistful of naan, the flat Afghan bread. Then he walked to the local bazaar and bought 20 tablets of the antibiotic Cipro, two dog-eared English-language books and a walking stick.

Now he was ready to walk across Afghanistan.

Stewart, an Oxford-educated Scotsman, set out Sunday afternoon on a 600-mile walk through some of the most inhospitable terrain on Earth. He intends to hike from Herat, in western Afghanistan, to Kabul in the east, through snow and ice, past bandits and gunmen, wolves and guard dogs, famine and drought.

Stewart is fairly certain–and there are no known challengers–that he was the first tourist to enter Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime late last year. He is unquestionably the most unconventional foreigner in these parts, with his skeletal 126-pound frame and his dream of walking the path once taken by Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane…

The LA Times does seem to have its finger on the pulse: they had the most detailed coverage of the American fad for Stoicism in 1999…

Thanks to Tim for drawing today’s article to the attention of the weblog.

Pierre Bourdieu et mort

January 24th, 2002

Thomas Ferenczi writes in Le Monde:

Les controverses suscitées par les interventions publiques de Pierre Bourdieu au cours des dernières années ont quelquefois obscurci l’image de celui qui est largement reconnu comme l’un des grands penseurs de la société contemporaine. Un de ses disciples, Louis Pinto, a rappelé, il y a deux ans, dans un livre consacré à “Pierre Bourdieu et la théorie du monde social”, comment le travail du sociologue a représenté “une révolution symbolique” analogue à celles qu’on a pu rencontrer dans d’autres disciplines, en musique, en peinture, en philosophie ou en physique.

Ce qu’a apporté Pierre Bourdieu à la sociologie, expliquait Louis Pinto, est avant tout une “manière nouvelle de voir le monde social”en accordant “une fonction majeure aux structures symboliques”. L’éducation, la culture, la littérature, l’art, qui furent ses premiers sujets d’étude, appartiennent à cet univers. Mais les médias et la politique, dont Pierre Bourdieu fit, à la fin de sa vie, son champ d’investigation privilégié, relèvent également de cette approche. Ce qui caractérise les “champs de production symbolique”, selon Louis Pinto, c’est le fait que les “rapports de forces entre agents” ne s’y présentent que “dans la forme transfigurée et euphémisée de rapports de sens”. Autrement dit, la “violence symbolique”, thème central des travaux de Pierre Bourdieu, ne s’analyse pas comme une pure et simple instrumentation au service de la classe dominante, elle s’exerce aussi à travers le jeu des acteurs sociaux. C’est sans doute cette volonté de surmonter les “fausses antinomies” de la tradition sociologique – entre interprétation et explication, entre structure et histoire, entre liberté et déterminisme, entre individu et société, entre subjectivisme et objectivisme – qui donne à la sociologie de Pierre Bourdieu son originalité.

Des Héritiers, un de ses premiers livres, publié en 1964 avec Jean-Claude Passeron, aux Structures sociales de l’économie en 2000, en passant par La Distinction en 1979 et l’ouvrage collectif La Misère du mondeen 1993, pour ne citer que quelques-uns des quelque vingt-cinq livres qu’il a publiés, il a ouvert une voie d’une grande richesse. En lui décernant sa médaille d’or, en 1993, le CNRS lui rendait un hommage mérité. Pierre Bourdieu, estimait le CNRS, “a régénéré la sociologie française, associant en permanence la rigueur expérimentale avec la théorie fondée sur une grande culture en philosophie, anthropologie et sociologie” Mais Pierre Bourdieu n’était pas seulement un chercheur exceptionnel, reconnu par ses pairs à travers le monde, il était aussi un intellectuel soucieux d’intervenir dans le débat public, dans la tradition française de Zola à Sartre. Il avait fait beaucoup, dans les années 1990, pour donner une grande visibilité au mouvement social et incarner ce qu’il appelait une “gauche de gauche”, c’est-à-dire une gauche refusant les compromis consentis, selon lui, par le Parti socialiste.

“Dix ans de pouvoir socialiste ont porté à son achèvement, nous déclarait-il en 1992, la démolition de la croyance en l’Etat et la destruction de l’Etat-providence entreprise dans les années 1970 au nom du libéralisme”. Face au silence des politiques, il en appelait à la mobilisation des intellectuels. “Ce que je défends, expliquait-il dans ce même entretien, c’est la possibilité et la nécessité de l’intellectuel critique”. Il ajoutait : “Il n’y a pas de démocratie effective sans vrai contre-pouvoir critique. L’intellectuel en est un, et de première grandeur”.

Ce combat contre le néolibéralisme sous toutes ses formes, Pierre Bourdieu y avait consacré ses dernières forces. De plus en plus, il s’efforçait de combiner la posture du savant et celle du militant en mettant ses connaissances scientifiques au service de son engagement politique. “Je me suis trouvé par la logique de mon travail, soulignait-il dans un de ses derniers ouvrages (Contre-feux 2, Pour un mouvement social européen), à outrepasser les limites que je m’étais assignées au nom d’une idée de l’objectivité qui m’est apparue comme une forme de censure”. Il se disait soucieux de “faire sortir les savoirs de la cité savante” afin d’offrir de solides bases théoriques à ceux qui tentaient de comprendre et de changer le monde contemporain.

Cette lutte passait aussi par une mise en cause des médias, que Pierre Bourdieu jugeait soumis à une logique commerciale croissante et auxquels il reprochait de donner la parole, à longueur de temps, à des “essayistes bavards et incompétents”. Dans l’une de ses dernières interventions, en 1999, il s’était adressé aux responsables des grands groupes de communication. Dans ces “Questions aux vrais maîtres du monde”, il affirmait notamment : “Ce pouvoir symbolique qui, dans la plupart des sociétés, était distinct du pouvoir politique ou économique, est aujourd’hui réuni entre les mains des mêmes personnes, qui détiennent le contrôle des grands groupes de communication, c’est-à-dire de l’ensemble des instruments de production et de diffusion des biens culturels”.

Il s’élevait contre cette mondialisation-là, refusant le choix entre la mondialisation conçue comme “soumission aux lois du commerce” et au règne du “commercial”, qui est toujours “le contraire de ce que l’on entend à peu près universellement par culture”, et la défense des cultures nationales ou “telle ou telle forme de nationalisme ou localisme culturel”. Loin des souverainistes, il plaidait au contraire inlassablement pour plus d’universel. En se prononçant pour “un mouvement social européen”, comme première étape d’un internationalisme bien compris, il défendait cet idéal, fidèle à son rôle d’intellectuel critique.

Il restait en même temps attaché à sa conception de la sociologie, telle qu’il avait exposée, en 1982, dans sa leçon inaugurale au Collège de France. “La sociologie n’est pas un chapitre de la mécanique, disait-il, et les champs sociaux sont des champs de forces mais aussi des champs de luttes pour transformer ou concerver ces champs de forces”. Il ajoutait : “Le rapport pratique ou pensé que les agents entretiennent avec le jeu fait partie du jeu et peut être au principe de sa transformation”. Contre tous ceux qui l’accusaient de donner trop de poids aux structures et de s’en tenir un déterminisme démobilisateur, il proclamait ainsi sa croyance en la liberté de l’homme. Sa vie et son Å“uvre sont là pour témoigner de cette forte conviction.

First Nozick, then Bourdieu. At a steady rate of one a day, this is startlingly similar to The Name of the Rose.

Right-Wing Politicians Seek the Hobbit Vote

January 24th, 2002

From Reuters (with thanks to Naunihal for passing this my way):

ROME (Reuters) – The rest of the world may see box office smash The Lord of the Rings as a mythical tale of hobbits and goblins but some young members of Italy’s far right hope to use the film to promote their political ideals.

“We want to use the event as an incredible volcano to help people understand our view of the world,” said Basilio Catanoso, youth wing leader of the far-right National Alliance party.

Right-wing thinkers and publishers, who introduced the Italian public to the fantasy classic in the 1970s, see the 1,000-page tome by Britain’s J.R.R. Tolkien as a celebration of their own values of physical strength, leadership and integrity.

The National Alliance youth wing is looking back to the 1970s when Italian rightists spun its own interpretation of Tolkien’s mythical world to bolster their image, already imbued with Celtic legends, knights and a cult of personal strength.

“There is a deep significance to this work. The Lord of the Rings is the battle between community and individuality,” Catanoso said.

But the tale can be seen supporting either end of the political spectrum. ”The destruction of the ring of power, the multiracial aspect — hobbits, elves, men and dwarfs united against evil are all leftist ideals,” said Francesco Alo’, editor of Italian film Web site www.caltanet.it.

Tolkien always denied any political intent in the book.

The story follows the struggle of a young hobbit named Frodo Baggins, played by Elijah Wood in the film, to destroy a ring of power which holds the key to the future of civilization.

The cult book evokes a fantasy world peopled by goblins, hobbits and elves.

“Only in Italy is The Lord of the Rings seen as right wing, no other country in the world has a similar reading of Tolkien,” said Valerio Evangelisti, an Italian fantasy writer.

In the 1970s, neo-fascist summer training centers nicknamed ”Hobbit Camps” were set up by the National Alliance’s predecessor, the neo-Fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI).

The National Alliance split from the MSI in the mid-1990s. Its current leader, Gianfranco Fini, who is also deputy prime minister, has tried to give the party a new image.

The National Alliance has five ministers in the center-right government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

But tradition still echoes in the party’s ranks.

National Alliance’s youth wing plans a campaign to boost membership, inviting students to “enter the fellowship,” an allusion to The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book of the Tolkien trilogy.

The film opened on Friday in 700 cinemas in Italy. So far it has grossed more than $500 million worldwide.

I’ll stop posting tonight soon, I promise.

Robert Nozick, RIP

January 23rd, 2002

From the Harvard Gazette:

Philosopher Nozick dies at 63
University professor was major intellectual figure of 20th century
By Ken Gewertz, Gazette Staff University

rofessor Robert Nozick, one of the late 20th century’s most influential thinkers, died on the morning of Jan. 23 at the age of 63. He had been diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1994.

Nozick, known for his wide-ranging intellect and engaging style as both writer and teacher, had taught a course on the Russian Revolution during the fall semester and was planning to teach again in the spring. His last major book, “Invariances: The Structure of the Objective World,” was published by Harvard University Press in October 2001.

According to Alan Dershowitz, the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law and a longtime friend, Nozick had been talking with colleagues and critiquing their work until a week before his death.

“His mind remained brilliant and sharp to the very end,” Dershowitz said.

He added that Nozick was “constantly probing, always learning new subjects. He was a University Professor in the best sense of the term. He taught everybody in every discipline. He was a wonderful teacher, constantly rethinking his own views and sharing his new ideas with students and colleagues. His unique philosophy has influenced generations of readers and will continue to influence people for generations to come.”

Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers said of Nozick’s passing, “I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Robert Nozick. Harvard and the entire world of ideas have lost a brilliant and provocative scholar, profoundly influential within his own field of philosophy and well beyond. All of us will greatly miss his lively mind and spirited presence, but his ideas and example will continue to enrich us for years to come.”

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Jeremy R. Knowles said, “Bob Nozick was a luminous and wide-ranging philosopher who engaged students and colleagues from across the University and beyond. The loss to philosophy and to Harvard is grievous.”

Philosophy Department Chair Christine Korsgaard described Nozick as “a brilliant and fearless thinker, very fast on his feet in discussion, and apparently interested in everything. Both in his teaching and in his writing, he did not stay within the confines of any traditional field, but rather followed his interests into many areas of philosophy. His works throw light on a broad range of philosophical issues, and on their connection with other disciplines. The courage with which he faced the last years of illness, and the irrepressible energy with which he continued to work, made a very deep impression on all of us.”

Nozick’s controversial and challenging views gained him considerable attention and influence in the world beyond the academy.

His first book, “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” (1974), transformed him from a young philosophy professor known only within his profession to the reluctant theoretician of a national political movement.

He wrote the book as a critique of “Theory of Justice” (1971), by his Harvard colleague John Rawls, the James Bryant Conant University Professor Emeritus. Rawls’ book provided a philosophical underpinning for the bureaucratic welfare state, a methodically reasoned argument for why it was right for the state to redistribute wealth in order to help the poor and disadvantaged.

Nozick’s book argued that the rights of the individual are primary and that nothing more than a minimal state – sufficient to protect against violence and theft, and to ensure the enforcement of contracts – is justified. “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” won the National Book Award and was named by The Times Literary Supplement as one of “The Hundred Most Influential Books Since the War.”

A former member of the radical left who was converted to a libertarian perspective as a graduate student, largely through his reading of conservative economists Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, Nozick was never comfortable with his putative status as an ideologue of the right.

In a 1978 article in The New York Times Magazine he said that “right-wing people like the pro-free-market argument, but don’t like the arguments for individual liberty in cases like gay rights – although I view them as an interconnecting whole. …”

Whether they agreed or disagreed with the political implication of the book, critics were nearly unanimous in their appreciation for Nozick’s lively, accessible writing style. In a discipline known for arduous writing, Nozick’s approach was hailed as a breath of fresh air.

He explained his approach in the article cited above: “It is as though what philosophers want is a way of saying something that will leave the person they’re talking to no escape. Well, why should they be bludgeoning people like that? It’s not a nice way to behave.”

Despite the notoriety and influence that his first book brought him, Nozick moved on to explore very different territory in his second book, “Philosophical Explanations” (1981). This need to be intellectually on the move at all times characterized his career. He once told an interviewer, “I didn’t want to spend my life writing ‘The Son of Anarchy, State, and Utopia.'”

In “Philosophical Explanations,” Nozick took on subjects that many academic philosophers had dismissed as irrelevant or meaningless, such as free will versus determinism and the nature of subjective experience, and why there is something rather than nothing. In dealing with these questions, he rejected the idea of strict philosophical proof, adopting instead a notion of philosophical pluralism.

“There are various philosophical views, mutually incompatible, which cannot be dismissed or simply rejected,” he wrote in “Philosophical Explanations.” “Philosophy’s output is the basketful of these admissible views, all together.” Nozick suggested that this basketful of views could be ordered according to criteria of coherence and adequacy and that even second- and third-ranked views might offer valuable truths and insights.

Nozick continued to develop his theory of philosophical pluralism in his next book, “The Examined Life” (1989), an exploration of the individual’s relation to reality that, once again, emphasized explanation rather than proof.

In his book, “The Nature of Rationality” (1995), Nozick asked what function principles serve in our daily life and why we don’t simply act on whim or out of self-interest. “Socratic Puzzles” (1997) was a collection of essays, articles, and reviews, plus several examples of Nozick’s philosophical short fiction.

His next work, “Invariances: The Structure of the Objective World,” (2001) looks at the nature of truth and objectivity and examines the function of subjective consciousness in an objective world. It also scrutinizes truth in ethics and discusses whether truth in general is relative to culture and social factors.

Nozick’s teaching followed the same lively, unorthodox, heterogeneous pattern as his writing. With one exception, he never taught the same course twice. The exception was “The Best Things in Life,” which he presented in 1982 and ’83, attempting to derive from the class discussion a general theory of values. The course description called it an exploration of “the nature and value of those things deemed best, such as friendship, love, intellectual understanding, sexual pleasure, achievement, adventure, play, luxury, fame, power, enlightenment, and ice cream.”

Speaking without notes, Nozick would pace restlessly back and forth, an ever-present can of Tab in his hand, drawing his students into a free-ranging discussion of the topic at hand.

He once defended his “thinking out loud” approach by comparing it with the more traditional method of giving students finished views of the great philosophical ideas.

“Presenting a completely polished and worked-out view doesn’t give students a feel for what it’s like to do original work in philosophy and to see it happen, to catch on to doing it.”

He also used his teaching as a way of working out his ideas, often leading to views that he would later present in book form. “If somebody wants to know what I’m going to do next, what they ought to do is keep an eye on the Harvard course catalogue,” he once told an interviewer.

Nozick, who grew up in Brooklyn and attended public school there, came to philosophy via a paperback version of Plato’s “Republic,” which he found intellectually thrilling. Nozick described the experience in his 1989 book, “The Examined Life” – “When I was 15 years old, or 16, I carried around on the streets of Brooklyn a paperback copy of Plato’s �Republic'; front cover facing outward. I had read only some of it and understood less, but I was excited by it and knew it was something wonderful.”

Nozick obtained an A.B. degree from Columbia College in 1959, and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Princeton in 1961 and 1963, respectively. After stints at Princeton and the Rockefeller University, Nozick came to Harvard as a full professor in 1969, at the age of 30. He became Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Philosophy in 1985 and in 1998 was named the Joseph Pellegrino University Professor.

Nozick was the recipient of many awards and honors, among them the Presidential Citation from the American Psychological Association in 1998, which described him as “one of the most brilliant and original living philosophers.”

Nozick was also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the Council of Scholars of the Library of Congress, a corresponding fellow of the British Academy, and a senior fellow of the Society of Fellows at Harvard. He served as the president of the American Philosophical Association’s Eastern Division from 1997 to 1998, was a Christensen visiting fellow at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford University, 1997, and a cultural adviser to the U.S. Delegation to the UNESCO Conference on World Cultural Policy in 1982.

In the spring of 1997, he delivered the six John Locke Lectures at Oxford University. He held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.

He is survived by his wife, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, and his two children, Emily Sarah Nozick and David Joshua Nozick.

Nozick will be buried in a private ceremony. A memorial service is being planned for sometime in February.

Time for some serious retrospective activity…

Enron

January 23rd, 2002

This is rather blissful, and comes from the satirewire:

ENRON CHAIRMAN QUITS TO JOIN E.N.R.O.N.,
ENERGY NATIONAL RESOURCE ORGANIZATION of NIGERIA
Asks For Your Confidential Assistances, Bank Accounts Numbers
Lagos, Nigeria (SatireWire.com) � Saying he had finally found a venue worthy of his business model, Kenneth Lay resigned today as chairman of Enron to join the Energy National Resource Organization of Nigeria, which needs your confidential assistance in the transferring of offshore funds into a new company of Nigeria that will provide incredible profit on paper by the trading of energy contracts.

According to an email sent to undisclosed recipients by Lay, who now identifies himself as a “close advisor” to the Nigerian National Petroleum Ministry, he is interested to do business with you because of credible reports that you will recognize this opportunity of great wealth. All that is required, the letter stated, is your banking accounts number and your purchase of stock of this energy trading company that has no traceable losses or shell companies or indictable irregularities of any kind.

Dr. Tunde Momoh, director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Ministry, which is coordinating the E.N.R.O.N. initiative, said the addition of Lay to his staff has given a boost to all Nigerian government ministries, which traditionally earned revenues by asking you to provide your bank account number so as to make possible the transfer of $US50 million from a soon-to-be-exposed Ministry fund. For your assistance, you would receive 20 percent of these moneys.

“We are thrilled to have now someone of Mr. Lay’s experiences,” said Momoh. “It is rare to find a non-Nigerian who is familiar with our methods and objectives, and his idea for the creating of the energy trading company E.N.R.O.N. is inspired.”

“When I am first hearing of it, I admit it has the sound of crazy,” Momah added, “but (Lay) is telling us that based on his experiences, this could work for years.”

Contacted at his confidential fax number, Lay said he was excited by the change, and predicted he would adapt easily to Nigerian methods. “It’s a new country and I’ve had to learn to muddle a bit my syntax, but the basic business approach is something we both have in common,” he said. “I only wish I had started here first.”

Lay added that, as he did at Enron, where he served as both chairman and chief executive officer, the new job will enable him to take part in several Nigerian businesses, including stints as Dr. Chukwuma Mbaduwa, an accountant in the Nigerian Transport Ministry, Abu Idomu, a top official of the federal government contract review panel, and the Lady Maryam Abacha, wife of late Gen. Sani Abacha, ex-military head of state of Nigeria, whose assets have been frozen except for $50 million she stuffed in a box labeled as photographic materials which she deposited in a security company where her brother-in-law works as general manager and she now needs your assistance in retrieving these moneys.

Click here to read the letter.

Many thanks to Nick for drawing this variation on a now-familiar theme to the attention of the weblog.

Shakers

January 22nd, 2002

I was lucky enough earlier this evening to come across the email address of the last remaining Shaker community in the United States, so I sent them a polite note to express a modicum of admiration and find out how they were getting along. They replied within a couple of hours to report that there were now five Shakers, aged between 38 and 74, that they continue to be open to new members, that the most recent arrival became a Shaker in May of last year, and that they continue the traditional Shaker way of life, farming cattle, sheep and pigs, and growing various vegetables. It is excellent to hear from them.

The Shakers are, of course, the oldest communal association in the United States, with a history of over two hundred years of utopian socialism in action. You may have come across their furniture, of course, which is fine (if a little expensive these days); and the tune of the classic hymn “Lord of the Dance” is an old Shaker tune, which Aaron Copland appropriated for his Appalachian Spring, and for which Sydney Carter supplied a new set of words. There were once many thousands of Shakers across the North and East of the United States — and now, we learn, there are five; but from the evidence of this message, they still seem to be in good spirits, and we all wish them well.

For more on the Shakers, try www.shakers.org or the Sabbathday Lake community.

Very rarely do men know how to be altogether wicked or altogether good

January 22nd, 2002

From Machiavelli’s Discourses, I.27:

When Pope Julius II went to Bologna in 1505 to expel from that state the house of Bentivogli, which had held the princiapte of the city for a hundred years, he also wished – as one who had taken an oath against all the tyrants who seized towns of the church – to remove Giovampagolo Baglioni, tyrant of Perugia. Having arrived near Perugia, with this intent and decision known to everyone, he did not wait to enter that city with his army, which was guarding him, but entered it unarmed, notwithstanding that Giovampagolo was inside with many troops that he had gathered for defense of himself. So, carried along by that fury with which he governed all things, he put hiimself with a single guard in the hands of his enemey, whom he then led away with him, leaving a governor in the city who would render justice for the church. The rashness of the pope and the cowardice of Giovampagolo were noted by the prudent men who were with the pope, and they were unable to guess whence it came that he did not to his perpetual fame, crush his enemy at a stroke and enrich himself with booty, since with the pope were all the cardinals with all their delights. Nor could one believe that he had abstained either through goodness or through conscience that held him back; for into the breast of a villainous man, who was taking his sister for himself, who had killed his cousins and nephews so as to reign, no pious respect could descend. But it was concluded that it arose from men’s not knowing how to be honorably wicked or perfectly good; and when malice has greatness in itself or is generous in some part, they do not know how to enter into it.

So Giovampagolo, who did not mind being incestuous and a public parricide, did not know how – or, to say it better, did not dare, when he had just the opportunity for it – to engage in an enterprise in which everyone would have admired his spirit and that would have left an eternal memory of himself as being the first who had demonstrated to the prelates how little is to be esteemed whoever lives and reigns as they do; and he would have done a thing whose greatness would have surpassed all infamy, every danger, that could have proceeded from it.

From the translation by Harvey C. Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov.

111 Today

January 22nd, 2002

Happy birthday, Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), everybody’s favourite dead Sardinian militant. You are one hundred and eleven today!

Image of the Week, #6

January 22nd, 2002

Thanks to Heather for sending this my way.

Anniversary

January 21st, 2002

It’s the two hundred and ninth anniversary today of the execution of Louis XVI! Also the anniversary of the death of Lenin (1924), but everything rather pales into insignificance set beside a full-blown regicide.

Domus Aurea

January 21st, 2002

I was lucky enough to be in Rome at the weekend, and visited the “Domus Aurea”, Nero’s “Golden House”, which is carved out underneath the Caelian Hill. Suetonius has this marvellous description of what it was once like, from his life of Nero in The Twelve Caesars:

“His wastefulness showed most of all in the architectural projects. He built a palace, stretching from the Palatine to the Esquiline, which he called ‘The Passageway'; and when it burned down soon afterwards, rebuilt it under the new name of ‘The Golden House’. The following details will give some notion of its size and magnificence. A huge statue of himself, 120 feet high, stood in the entrace hall; and the pillared arcade ran for a whole mile. An enormous pool, more like a sea than a pool, was surrounded by buildings made to resemble cities, and by a landscape garden consisting of ploughed fields, vineyards, pastures and woodlands – where every variety of domestic and wild animals roamed about. Parts of the house were overlaid with gold and studded with precious stones and nacre. All the dining-rooms had ceilings of fretted ivory, the panels of which could slide back and let a rain of flowers, or of perfume from hidden sprinklers, shower upon his guests. The main dining-room was circular, and its roof revolved slowly, day and night, in time with the sky. Sea water, or sulphur water, was always on tap in the baths. When the palace had been decorated throughout in this lavish style, Nero dedicated it, and condescended to remark: ‘Good, now I can at last begin to live like a human being!’.”

It would be lovely, if implausible, to think that this was what Nero’s tutor Seneca was thinking of, when he issued his famous injunction at the end of his treatise De Ira (On Anger) that we should learn to “cultivate our humanity” (colamus humanitatem).

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