October 4, 2003

1. Panofsky on Piero di Cosimo

In the last issue of Phlit, I discussed Panofsky’s remarks on Michelangelo and Neoplatonism, which can be found in his book Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance. Now I’d like to briefly discuss another chapter of that book, the chapter on Piero di Cosimo — more specifically, on Piero’s paintings of primitive man.

Panofsky notes that, from the time of the earliest Greek thinkers, primitive life has been viewed in two ways: soft primitivism (as found in Hesiod, for example), which viewed primitive life as a Golden Age, and hard primitivism (as found in Lucretius, for example), which viewed primitive life as “nasty, brutish, and short”. Panofsky borrows the terms “hard primitivism” and “soft primitivism” from Lovejoy, the famous historian of ideas (whose work I compared to Panofsky’s in an earlier issue of Phlit); Panofsky refers his readers to a book by Lovejoy and Boas called Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity. Panofsky notes that soft primitivism is congenial to religious thinkers, while hard primitivism is congenial to rationalistic and materialistic thinkers, such as Epicurus (and his expounder, Lucretius).1

Piero di Cosimo depicted primitive life in a realistic way: “the huts of untrimmed logs, the quaintly shaped boats [are] based on archaeological research and paralleled only in scientific illustrations.”2 (Click here to see one of Piero’s primitive scenes, “Vulcan and Aeolus as Teachers of Mankind”.) Thus, Piero is closer to the hard primitivists than to the soft ones.

Panofsky speaks of Piero’s “obsession with primitivistic notions and his magic power in bringing them to life by his brush.”3 Panofsky ascribes Piero’s deep feeling for primitive life to a kind of emotional identification with primitive man, as if Piero were a primitive man reincarnated. Panofsky calls Piero “an atavistic phenomenon,”4 and says that his paintings are the result of a “subconscious recollection of a primitive who happened to live in a period of sophisticated civilization.”5

Strange theory? Well, Piero was a strange man. His eccentricities were legendary, even in a profession where eccentricity is the rule. He loved animals, and had a corresponding dislike of his fellow man. “He would not have his workshop cleaned, nor the plants in his garden trimmed, nor even the fruit picked, because he hated to interfere with nature.”6 He lived on hard-boiled eggs, which he cooked in batches of fifty in order to conserve fuel.

Only Panofsky would set forth such a bold theory, would argue that Piero had an emotional identification with primitive man; Panofsky has a flair for ideas that are bold and profound. Panofsky’s view of Piero reminds me of some of Jung’s ideas. Jung believed that each of us repeats, in his development, the development of the human race; each of us lives through, in our early life, the early history of man. Is it possible that Piero remained stuck at a primitive stage of development?

Panofsky’s view of Piero also reminds me of Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious. According to this idea, the unconscious is the product of all the experiences of the human race, going back to primitive times. Perhaps Piero could identify with primitive man through the collective unconscious; Piero may have been able to access deeper layers of the unconscious than most people can.

2. Jung and Reincarnation

Panofsky’s view of Piero also reminds me of Jung’s musings on the subject of reincarnation. Jung identified with the 18th century in the same way that Piero identified with primitive times. As a young boy of 10 or 12, Jung had an obscure feeling that he was “not only grown up, but important, an authority, a person with office and dignity, an old man, an object of respect and awe.”7 This obscure feeling became clearer when “an ancient green carriage... drove past our house one day. It was truly an antique, looking exactly as if it had come straight out of the eighteenth century. When I saw it, I felt with great excitement: ‘That’s it! Sure enough, that comes from my times.’ It was as though I had recognized it because it was the same type as the one I had driven in myself.”8

On another occasion, Jung saw a statuette of an 18th-century doctor with “buckled shoes which in a strange way I recognized as my own. I was convinced that these were shoes I had worn. The conviction drove me wild with excitement. ‘Why, those must be my shoes!’ I could still feel those shoes on my feet.... Often in those days I would write the date 1786 instead of 1886, and each time this happened I was overcome by an inexplicable nostalgia.”9

Did Jung believe that he was the reincarnation of an 18th-century man? Did he believe that all of us are reincarnations of earlier people, perhaps of our ancestors? Jung doesn’t declare himself For or Against reincarnation, but the idea interests him, and so does the related idea of karma. Jung believed that we wrestle with issues that troubled our parents and other ancestors. Jung believed, for example, that he wrestled with the problem of the dark side of God because that was a problem that his father didn’t manage to solve.

Jung felt that he had a special relationship with Goethe (an 18th-century man), perhaps because he was a descendant of Goethe, perhaps because his unconscious contained some “Goethe residues”. There was a tradition in Jung’s family that his grandfather was a natural son of Goethe. This tradition (Jung said) “made an impression upon me insofar as it at once corroborated and seemed to explain my curious reactions to Faust.... Faust struck a chord in me and pierced me through in a way that I could not but regard as personal.”10

Just as Jung solved problems that had defeated his father, so too he solved problems that had defeated Faust. “I consciously linked my work,” Jung said, “to what Faust had passed over: respect for the eternal rights of man, recognition of ‘the ancient,’ and the continuity of culture and intellectual history.”11 Jung built a stone tower with his own hands, and placed the following inscription over the gate: Philemonis Sacrum — Fausti Poenitentia (Shrine of Philemon — Repentance of Faust).

Jung felt that his preoccupation with alchemy was another indication of his kinship with Goethe. Jung felt that Goethe’s Faust was concerned chiefly with alchemical issues; Faust himself, the legendary scholar and magician, was involved with alchemy.

Jung finds it significant that one of his ancestors was involved with alchemy. Dr. Carl Jung, who died in 1654, probably studied alchemy because pharmacology was then under the influence of alchemy. Jung thinks that this ancestor probably read the alchemist Gerard Dorn (also known as Gerardus Dorneus), who lived in a neighboring town. Dorn is one of Jung’s favorite alchemists; “more than all the other alchemists [Dorn] dealt with the process of individuation.”12

3. Family Feeling in Iraq

I recently read an excellent article in the New York Times, “Iraqi Family Ties Complicate American Efforts for Change” (9/28/03). It argues that Iraqis are so devoted to their families that they can’t conceive of “the national interest”, “the public good”, etc. This devotion to relatives will make it difficult to establish democracy in Iraq.

Ed Banfield found the same devotion to relatives in a poor village of Southern Italy. In his book, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society, Banfield argued that people in the village felt no moral obligation to non-relatives; he termed this condition “amoral familism”.

In my book Conversations With Great Thinkers, I argued that Christianity created a universal morality, a morality that went beyond the family. Evidently this universal morality didn’t reach every poor village in Southern Italy. It did, however, have a profound effect on Western nations, facilitating communal enterprises, both political and economic.

My thoughts on this subject were influenced by Fustel de Coulanges, author of the classic, The Ancient City. This book argues that religion was once family-based, consisting of ancestor-worship.

The Times article on Iraq didn’t mention the effect of Christianity on family-feeling, nor did it mention family-based religion. The article emphasized marriage customs — specifically, the custom of marrying one’s cousin. It said that “nearly half of marriages [in Iraq] are between first or second cousins.... Saddam Hussein married a first cousin who grew up in the same house as he did, and he ordered most of his children to marry their cousins.... Cousin marriage was once the norm throughout the world, but it became taboo in Europe after a long campaign by the Roman Catholic Church. Theologians like St. Augustine and St. Thomas argued that the practice promoted family loyalties at the expense of universal love and social harmony.” Cousin marriage is illegal in half the states of the U.S., but permitted elsewhere in the world.

Amoral familism makes it difficult for people to cooperate with non-relatives, and makes it difficult to create a democratic society. The Times article quotes an anthropologist, Robin Fox: “Liberal democracy is based on the Western idea of autonomous individuals committed to a public good, but that’s not how members of these tight and bounded kin groups see the world. Their world is divided into two groups: kin and strangers.”

T. E. Lawrence, better known as “Lawrence of Arabia”, attempted nation-building in the Arab world during World War I, but was frustrated: “The tribes were convinced that they had made a free and Arab Government, and that each of them was It.... this entailed a negation of central power.”13

The Times reporter interviewed an elderly man who showed him his family tree. “It was on a scroll 70 feet long, with lots of cousins intertwined in the branches.” The elderly man said that he discouraged his children from joining any civic groups or professional associations. “We don’t want distractions. We have a dynasty to preserve.” The reporter, John Tierney, refers to civic groups as “the pillars of civil society that observers since de Tocqueville have been crediting for the promotion of democracy.” One scholar warned, before the recent invasion of Iraq, that it would be far more difficult to establish democratic institutions in Iraq than it was to establish them in Germany and Japan after World War II: “The deep social structure of Iraq is the complete opposite of those two true nation-states, with their highly patriotic, cooperative, and (not surprisingly) outbred peoples.”14

4. Crime Stories

In earlier issues of Phlit, I mentioned that I work as a free-lance computer consultant, usually for small businesses in Providence, Rhode Island. I do database programming, website work, and tutoring. I call my business Database Tailoring, LLC. I’ve been doing this sort of work since 1995.

Recently, a strange thing happened — the strangest that I’ve seen in eight years of computer work. The bookkeeper for one of my chief customers embezzled a large sum of money, perhaps $350,000. I had known him for years, and I suspected nothing, nor did anyone inside the company suspect anything. He was always pleasant, and got along with everybody. The company had only about seven employees, and it was financially strapped. “So how did he manage to embezzle so much money?”

The company had an arrangement with their bank, whereby the bank paid their invoices immediately, and then the company re-paid the bank over time. As an example, let’s pretend that the company sold something to IBM for $100, and sent an invoice for $100 to IBM. The bank would immediately pay the company perhaps $90. The bank would be repaid over time, using the $100 that would eventually be paid by IBM. Such an arrangement is fairly common, and is sometimes called “funding the receivables”.

The embezzler created false invoices. The bank, not knowing they were false, reacted by putting money into the company’s account, just as they would for legitimate invoices. If the embezzler created a false invoice for $25,000, the bank would put perhaps $23,000 into the company’s account. Then the embezzler would withdraw that money from the account by creating checks, forging a signature on the checks, and cashing the checks. The checks were not made out to himself (that might have aroused suspicion) but rather to “Petty Cash”. His forged signature was almost indistinguishable from the real signature, perhaps because he practiced, perhaps because he used tracing paper.

The embezzling continued for perhaps two years, before it was finally detected. It was detected when the bank audited the company’s books, and noticed false invoices. When the embezzler was accused of wrongdoing, he didn’t confess; rather, he said that the checks had been signed by the owner, then cashed, and the cash had been placed in the company’s coffers, like any other Petty Cash. When he was called into court, he repeated that story. Eventually, he’ll probably be prosecuted and sent to jail, but meanwhile he has ample opportunity to spend the money, or hide it, so the company may never retrieve more than a small fraction of it.

It’s not uncommon for employees to steal from the companies they work for. In fact, it’s difficult to build enough jail cells to hold such people, and some prison reformers say that embezzlers and other non-violent criminals shouldn’t be imprisoned.

Another of my customers was also the victim of employee theft. He had three employees in his warehouse, and two of them had teamed up to steal merchandise, and sell it to a fence (a dealer in stolen goods). Their thefts continued for years. We often wondered why there was a discrepancy between the number of goods in the computer, and the number of goods in the warehouse. When suspicion fell on the warehouse workers, and the boss questioned them, they would say things like, “if you think we’re stealing, put a camera in the warehouse.”

Finally the third warehouse worker became convinced that something was amiss, and contacted the police, who staked out the building and stopped one of the thieves as he was driving away with a trunkfull of goods. One of the two thieves confessed, and testified against the other, who may end up in prison. The owner of the business may eventually recover some of his losses.

My first computer customer was my father’s business, where I worked for several years before I started my own business. This company had several salesmen on the road, and each of these salesmen had a company credit card to buy gas, etc. A secretary in the company managed to obtain her own credit card, and used it to buy gas for her family, and perhaps to sell gas to her friends and neighbors. This continued for years before it was finally discovered. It was discovered by the company that issued the credit card; such companies see so many cases of fraud that they develop a nose for detecting it. After the secretary was caught, she was fired but not prosecuted.

© L. James Hammond 2003
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1. The phrase “nasty, brutish, and short” comes from the English philosopher Hobbes, a modern example of hard primitivism (combined with materialism), as Rousseau is a modern example of soft primitivism. back
2. Studies in Iconology, ch. 2, p. 67 back
3. ibid back
4. ibid back
5. ibid back
6. ibid, p. 66 back
7. Memories, Dreams, Reflections, ch. 2, p. 33 back
8. ibid, p. 34 back
9. ibid back
10. ibid, ch. 8, p. 234, 235 back
11. ibid, p. 235 back
12. ibid, p. 233 back
13. quoted in the NY Times article back
14. Steve Sailer, quoted in the NY Times article. Does amoral familism have an effect on nationalism? Does it dilute nationalism? Or do familism and nationalism go hand-in-hand since they rest on the same foundation, lack of individuality? back