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Posts Tagged ‘history of ideas

“As long as art lives never shall I accept that men are truly dead”*…

From a self-portrait by Giorgio Vasari [source]

An appreciation of Giorgio Vasari’s seminal The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, the beginning of art history as we know it

I found Giorgio Vasari through Burckhardt and Barzun. The latter writes: “Vasari, impelled by the unexampled artistic outburst of his time, divided his energies between his profession of painter and builder in Florence and biographer of the modern masters in the three great arts of design. His huge collection of Lives, which is a delight to read as well as a unique source of cultural history, was an amazing performance in an age that lacked organized means of research. […] Throughout, Vasari makes sure that his reader will appreciate the enhanced human powers shown in the works that he calls ‘good painting’ in parallel with ‘good letters’.”

Vasari was mainly a painter, but also worked as an architect. He was not the greatest artist in the world, but he had a knack for ingratiating himself with the rich and powerful, so his career was quite successful. Besides painting, he also cared a lot about conservation: both the physical preservation of works and the conceptual preservation of the fame and biographies of artists. He gave a kind of immortality to many lost paintings and sculptures by describing them to us in his book.

His Lives are a collection of more than 180 biographies of Italian artists, starting with Cimabue (1240-1302) and reaching a climax with Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). They’re an invaluable resource, as there is very little information available about these people other than his book; his biography of Botticelli is 8 pages long, yet on Botticelli’s wikipedia page, Vasari is mentioned 36 times…

Giorgio Vasari was one of the earliest philosophers of progress. Petrarch (1304-1374) invented the idea of the dark ages in order to explain the deficiencies of his own time relative to the ancients, and dreamt of a better future:

My fate is to live among varied and confusing storms. But for you perhaps, if as I hope and wish you will live long after me, there will follow a better age. This sleep of forgetfulness will not last forever. When the darkness has been dispersed, our descendants can come again in the former pure radiance.

To this scheme of ancient glory and medieval darkness, Vasari added a third—modern—age and gave it a name: rinascita. And within his rinascita, Vasari described an upward trajectory starting with Cimabue, and ending in a golden age beginning with eccentric Leonardo and crazed sex maniac Raphael, only to give way to the perfect Michelangelo in the end. It is a trajectory driven by the modern conception of the artist as an individual auteur, rather than a faceless craftsman.

The most benign Ruler of Heaven in His clemency turned His eyes to the earth, and, having perceived the infinite vanity of all those labours, the ardent studies without any fruit, and the presumptuous self-sufficiency of men, which is even further removed from truth than is darkness from light, and desiring to deliver us from such great errors, became minded to send down to earth a spirit with universal ability in every art and every profession.

This golden age was certainly no utopia, as 16th century Italy was ravaged by political turbulence, frequent plague, and incessant war. Many of the artists mentioned were at some point taken hostage by invading armies; Vasari himself had to rescue a part of Michelangelo’s David when it was broken off in the battle to expel the Medici from Florence.

And yet Vasari saw greatness in his time, and the entire book is structured around a narrative of artistic progress. He documented the spread of new technologies and techniques (such as the spread of oil painting, imported from the Low Countries), which—as an artist—he had an intimate understanding of.

This story of progress is paralleled with the rediscovery (and, ultimately, surpassing) of the ancients. It would take until the 17th century for the querelle des Anciens et des Modernes to really take off in France, but in Florence Vasari had already seen enough to decide the question in favor of his contemporaries—the essence of the Enlightenment is already present in 1550…

Art history, cultural history, tech history, the history of ideas– a review of Vasari’s The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects by @AlvaroDeMenard.

* Giorgio Vasari


As we frame it up, we might recall that it was on this date in 1946 that the first Cannes Film Festival opened.  It had originally been scheduled for September, 1939 as an “answer” to the Venice Film Fest, which had become a propaganda vehicle for Mussolini and Hitler; but the outbreak of World War II occasioned a delay.


“In wonder all philosophy began, in wonder it ends”*…

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) stands tall in the cultural pantheon for his poetry. It’s less well known that in his own lifetime, and in the decades following his death, this canonical poet had an equal reputation as a philosopher. His published works containing much of his philosophical prose span from The Statesman’s Manual (1816), which set out his theory of imagination and symbolism; Biographia Literaria (1817), one of the great and founding works of literary criticism; The Friend (1818), which includes his philosophical ‘Essays on the Principles of Method’; Aids to Reflection(1825), where he expounds his religious philosophy of transcendence; and On the Constitution of the Church and the State (1829), which presents his political philosophy.

The effect of those last two books was so impressive that John Stuart Mill named Coleridge as one of the two great British philosophers of the age – the other being Jeremy Bentham, Coleridge’s polar opposite. His thinking was also at the root of the Broad Church Anglican movement, a major influence on F D Maurice’s Christian socialism, and the main source for American Transcendentalism. Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Coleridge in 1832, and John Dewey, the leading pragmatist philosopher, called Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection ‘my first Bible’.

Yet philosophical fortunes change. The almost-total eclipse of British idealism by the rise of analytic philosophy saw a general decline in Coleridge’s philosophical stock. His philosophy languished while his verse rose. Coleridge’s poetry resonated with the psychedelia of the 1960s and a general cultural shift that emphasised the value of the imagination and a more holistic view of the human place within nature. Today, Coleridge is far more often remembered as a poet than a philosopher. But his philosophy was spectacular in its originality and syntheses…

Though largely remembered only as a poet, Coleridge’s theory of ideas was spectacular in its originality and bold reach; Peter Cheyne explains: “Coleridge the philosopher.”

For other literary philosophers, see “On Exploring Philosophy in Fiction and Autobiography: A Reading List.”

[image above: source]

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Aids to Reflection


As we muse on meaning, we might spare a thought for one of Coleridge’s philosophical beneficiaries, Ralph Waldo Emerson; he died on this date in 1882.  The essayist (“Nature,” “Self-Reliance,” et al.), lecturer, and poet who led the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century, he was one of the linchpins of the American romantic movement, and friend and mentor to Henry David Thoreau.



“Progress is the attraction that moves humanity”*…


Steam Engine Crushing A Wall, 1770.

A 1770 engraving of a steam engine crushing a wall


How and why did the modern world and its unprecedented prosperity begin? Many bookshelves are full of learned tomes by historians, economists, political philosophers and other erudite scholars with endless explanations. One way of looking at the question is by examining something basic, and arguably essential: the emergence of a belief in the usefulness of progress.

Such a belief may seem self-evident today, but most people in the more-remote past believed that history moved in some kind of cycle or followed a path that was determined by higher powers. The idea that humans should and could work consciously to make the world a better place for themselves and for generations to come is by and large one that emerged in the two centuries between Christopher Columbus and Isaac Newton. Of course, just believing that progress could be brought about is not enough—one must bring it about. The modern world began when people resolved to do so…

Progress: humans invented it—and not that long ago.  Joel Mokyr unpacks its cultural history, and explains why “Progress Isn’t Natural.”

See also J.B. Bury’s The Idea of Progress- an Inquiry into its Origins and Growth and Robert Nisbet’s History of the Idea of Progress.

* Marcus Garvey


As we deliberate on direction, we might recall that it was on this date in 1910 that French chemist, engineer, and inventor Georges Claude switched on the first public display of neon lights– two large (39 foot long), bright red neon tubes– at the Paris Motor Show.  Over the next decade, Claude lit much of Paris.  Neon came to America in 1923 when Earl Anthony purchased signage from Claude, then transported it to Los Angeles, where Anthony installed it at his Packard dealership… and (literally) stopped traffic.

Claude in his lab, 1913




Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 3, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Belief can be manipulated. Only knowledge is dangerous.”*…




Denis Diderot and the encyclopedists had a plan to catalog knowledge that seemed harmless enough; but what they intended was far more subversive– to restructure knowledge itself:

Far more influential and prominent than the short single-authored works that Diderot had produced up to this point in his life, the Encyclopédie was expressly designed to pass on the temptation and method of intellectual freedom to a huge audience in Europe and, to a lesser extent, in faraway lands like Saint Petersburg and Philadelphia. Ultimately carried to term through ruse, obfuscation, and sometimes cooperation with the authorities, the Encyclopédie (and its various translations, republications, and pirated excerpts and editions) is now considered the supreme achievement of the French Enlightenment: a triumph of secularism, freedom of thought, and eighteenth-century commerce…

At first glance, [Diderot’s] large map of topics, which ranged from comets to epic poetry, seems quite inoffensive. Indeed, the Encyclopédie’s earliest critic, the Jesuit priest Guillaume-François Berthier, did not quibble with how Diderot had organized the “System”; he simply accused Diderot of stealing this aspect of Bacon’s work without proper acknowledgment. Diderot’s real transgression, however, was not following the English philosopher more closely. For, while it was true that Diderot freely borrowed the overall structure of his tree of knowledge from Bacon, he had actually made two significant changes to the Englishman’s conception of human understanding. First, he had broken down and subverted the traditional hierarchical relationship between liberal arts (painting, architecture, and sculpture) and “mechanical arts” or trades (i.e., manual labor). Second, and more subversively, he had shifted the category of religion squarely under humankind’s ability to reason. Whereas Bacon had carefully and sagely preserved a second and separate level of knowledge for theology outside the purview of the three human faculties, Diderot made religion subservient to philosophy, essentially giving his readers the authority to critique the divine…

The only other subject more problematic than religion was politics. In a country without political parties, where sedition was punished by sentencing to a galley ship or death, d’Alembert and Diderot never overtly questioned the spiritual and political authority of the monarchy. Yet the Encyclopédie nonetheless succeeded in advancing liberal principles, including freedom of thought and a more rational exercise of political power. As tepid as some of these writings may seem when compared with the political discourse of the Revolutionary era, the Encyclopédie played a significant role in destabilizing the key assumptions of Absolutism.

Diderot’s most direct and dangerous entry in this vein was his unsigned article on “Political Authority” (“Autorité politique”), which also appeared in the first volume of the Encyclopédie. Readers who chanced upon this article immediately noticed that it does not begin with a definition of political authority itself; instead, it opens powerfully with an unblemished assertion that neither God nor nature has given any one person the indisputable authority to reign…

From a fascinating excerpt of Andrew S. Curran’s  Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely.  Read the piece in full at “How Diderot’s Encyclopedia Challenged the King.”

* Frank Herbert


As we note that knowledge is power, we might recall that it was on this date in 1920 that the League of Women Voters was founded.  Created to support women’s suffrage, it remains nonpartisan, neither supporting nor opposing candidates or parties, and advocating for (now more broadly understood) voting rights and for campaign finance reform.  The League sponsored the Presidential debates in 1976, 1980, and 1984, but withdrew in 1988, when the demands of the two parties became untenable. Then-LWV President Nancy Neuman said that the debate format on which the parties were insisting would “perpetrate a fraud on the American voter” and that her organization did not intend to “become an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”

200px-LWV_Logo.svg source


Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 14, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Economic theory is the art of pulling a rabbit out of a hat right after you’ve stuffed it into the hat in full view of the audience”*…



Many critics were disappointed the 2008 crisis did not lead to an intellectual revolution on the scale of the 1930s. But the image of stasis you’d get from looking at the top journals and textbooks isn’t the whole picture — the most interesting conversations are happening somewhere else. For a generation, leftists in economics have struggled to change the profession, some by launching attacks (often well aimed, but ignored) from the outside, others by trying to make radical ideas parseable in the orthodox language. One lesson of the past decade is that both groups got it backward. Keynes famously wrote that “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” But in recent years the relationship seems to have been more the other way round. If we want to change the economics profession, we need to start changing the world. Economics will follow.

From J.W. Mason‘s helpful survey of economic thought since the Crash of 2008: “How a Decade of Crisis Changed Economics.”

* Joan Robinson


As we contemplate counting, we might send revolutionary birthday greetings to Alexander Hamilton; he was born on this date in 1755 (or 1757, there is some scholarly debate about the year, but not the date).  A Founding Father of the United States, Hamilton created the Federalist Party (proponent of stronger national government than provided by the Articles of Confederation), the United States Coast Guard, and the New York Post newspaper.  But he was probably most notably the creator of the new nation’s financial system.  The main author of the economic policies of George Washington’s administration, he took the lead in the Federal government’s funding of states’ debts, and established a national bank, a system of tariffs, and friendly trade relations with Britain.  His vision included a strong central government led by a vigorous executive branch, a strong commercial economy, a national bank supporting manufacturing, and a strong military…. in all of which he stood most frequently opposed to Thomas Jefferson, who favored agrarian and small government policies.

220px-alexander_hamilton_portrait_by_john_trumbull_1806 source


Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 11, 2019 at 1:01 am

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