Thursday, June 17, 2021

Books I'm Currently Reading or Just Finished Reading (A List For Any Potential Biography Writers)


Yes. How was this great man (me) 's thinking influenced? What were the influences on his way of thinking?@?!?*%?#!???

This is MY BLOG and I'll write about whatever I want to write about!!!!

First off is Lawrence Rothfield's wonderful The Measure of Man: Liberty, Virtue, and Beauty in the Florentine Renaissance. Basically, the book is about the ups and downs and eventual triumph of the Medici family within the context of the Tuscan city of Florence as an autonomous republic. Florence was a city dedicated to wool textiles and banking (as well as other industries). In the feudal era society was divided into "Those who pray, those who fight and those who work." This meant that the Catholic clergy were supposedly the highest members of society, followed by the warrior aristocracy, with the farming peasants being subordinate. Theoretically, society was a unified whole, with the clergy maintaining the purity of everyone's soul and therefore the possibility of eternal life. The aristocracy defended the society from outside enemies (especially infidel armies). And the peasantry provided the food that maintained the bodies of everyone. And, of course, everyone were all "Brothers and Sisters in Christ" and essentially equal in the eyes of the Lord. 

Aside from the fact that there is no God, this fantasy broke down in practical terms because the lower levels of the clergy were often staffed by despised illiterates with impoverished backgrounds; the heights of the Church were manned by the sons of the nobility, and the nobility itself operated more of a protection racket than they acted as protectors of their society. The nobility, being ordinary human beings born into positions of power and privilege, and therefore not having any special abilities beyond what they were trained to do, were at heart, incredibly insecure. They knew how to fight because they were trained at it from early childhood. The ability to fight was then based on this training and on their own inborn physical and mental capabilities. Their literacy and culture was often denied to the subordinate ranks and their whole self-perception as innately superior was based on excluding others from opportunity. They would always reinforce their supposed superiority by treating the people who provided their food and their income (from rent payments) as garbage.

Banking and profits from industry gave Florence's merchant class the liquid wealth to be able to afford education, luxury goods and (importantly) money for mercenary soldiers which they used to break the power of local nobles who attempted to extort payments in order to allow the city to export through their lands. As bankers, merchants and craftsmen, Florentine captialists were classed as "commoners" on the same level as peasants or wage workers. As such, no matter how wealthy they became they were despised by the nobility. Even when the Florentine's mercenaries successfully attacked and tore down the towers of the surrounding noblemen, there was still a socia gap that the nobility did everything in its power to maintain. 

This is taking too long. Suffice to say that Rothfield does an excellent job of describing the class conflicts and cultural tensions of Renaissance Florence, as they struggle to maintain their status as a Merchant Republic in the face of the wealthy banking family of the Medici's attempts to establish themselves as aristocratic overlords. It is an important story in the tale of Western Civilization.

Next up is The Italian Renaissance: Culture & Society in Italy (3rd ed.) by Peter Burke.

In this brilliant and widely acclaimed work, Peter Burke presents a social and cultural history of the Italian Renaissance. He discusses the social and political institutions that existed in Italy during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and he analyses the ways of thinking and seeing that characterized this period of extraordinary artistic creativity.

Developing a distinctive sociological approach, Peter Burke is concerned not only with the finished works of Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, and others, but also with the social background, patterns of recruitment, and means of subsistence of this ‘cultural elite.’ He thus makes a major contribution to our understanding of the Italian Renaissance, and to our comprehension of the complex relations between culture and society.

Indeed. Burke takes on much of the scholarship that has been produced since the first edition of his book came out many moons ago. There's been a lot more written about the continuities from the Medieval period to the Renaissance. A lot more histories centered on women as well as on everyday life. This is a very big book about many important topics (especially the changing social status of artists, from despised craftsmen to exalted super-star celebrities/geniuses who the most powerful, elevated members of Italian society were often forced to accomodate). Very comprehensive so far as I can see.

For instance, Leonardo da Vinci, when arguing for the inclusion of painting among the genteel arts of poetry and music, states how a painter can work while wearing fine clothes in dignified surroundings (I suppose one had to ignore the plaster for frescos and the smell of oils for oil painting!) whereas the sculptor has to get covered in marble dust, which, when mixed with the sweat from their labours makes the sculptor look like a baker.

I took a chance on a work of fiction: Rabbit Foot Bill by Helen Humphreys. This is the story told by a man who, when a lonely young boy, had a strange friendship with a reclusive odd-jobs man ("Rabbit Foot Bill" so named because he sells rabbit's feet which were once considered good luck charms) in his small Saskatchewan town. The boy witnesses his friend commit a murder and it obviously affects him. But as an adult the narrator comes into contact with his friend again and [to avoid spoilers I'll simply say] hijinx ensue.

The writing is good and the characterizations of the many minor characters are intriguing. My main problem is that the main character seems like somewhat of a cipher. He does make some decisions, but often seems to be carried along by events.  

Finally, I'm reading The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom by Graham Farmelo. A little while ago I tried to write some stupid science fiction about anti-matter engines and did a smattering of research and ended-up finding out that anti-matter had originally been predicted by British physicist Paul Dirac in his famous "Dirac Equation" which he wrote to reconcile special relativity with quantum mechanics. Evidently this was the first time that theoretical physics had predicted the existence of an undiscovered particle as opposed to explaining one that had been discovered in the laboratory through experimentation. Any writing about Paul Dirac soon brings up that he was a strange man. ("The strangest man" is how he was affectionately described by Niels Bohr.) (It's also almost always mentioned that Dirac and Cary Grant went to the same school together. I'm going to assume that readers don't need a link for Cary Grant. But who the fuck knows? Dirac was two years older so it's reasonable to assume they hardly knew the other existed. Especially since Dirac was so quiet and unsociable.)

Anyhow, the book is good telling of an interesting guy with a suprisingly interesting social life. The descriptions of the deep scientific ideas are fairly understandable for a moron such as myself. Faremlo does a very good job of situating Dirac's ideas and discoveries into the general progress of physics and quantum physics as a whole. 

So that's my recent reading in June in the Year of our Lord 2021. 

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