Lovesong of J. Alfred Somebody

I am Lazarus come from the dead to tell you all. No, that’s not what I meant at all.

Still positive from Covid today, staying positive in my room. But I’m more like those perplexed in the marketplace on the day of Pentecost. I watch TV police-dramas in which Italian is dubbed on American actors pretending to be actual Americans who murdered a lover, and I can’t really follow it. It’s not enough to know every other word. Questo I know. And something about sbaglio.

Libby, on the rooftop terrace

I look up the Italian for “wrong.” They don’t seem to have a word for wrong in the moral sense. It’s just “non” something, like niente di male (you haven’t done anything wrong). Dante’s Beatrice called sin mankind’s grande errore. Sbaglio means a mistake. Morally wrong is non giusto, not fair, unjust.

Right and wrong, in Italian roots, are about justice. In high school I learned to recite Cicero’s famous oration on the Cataline conspiracy. O tempora, o mores. I haven’t studied Cicero since then, but I believe that he and other Italian political philosophers (Livy, Machiavelli, Scorsese, Coppola) gave justice its architecture. Justice sits on Roman columns.

For something to be right, it needs to be fair. But life isn’t fair. Is it fair that I got Covid, even as I was doing everything right? Machiavelli had an answer for that, according to a great lecture I just watched on “The Prince” by a Cambridge historian. The unfairness of life was a fact called fortuna. To the classical Romans, the randomness of good luck and bad was almost a goddess, Fortuna. Machiavelli agreed.

But fortuna wasn’t fate. It could be coaxed and opposed, to some extent, by the other great force in human affairs that Machiavelli seized on, called virtù. There’s a whole history of philosophy behind that word, including Greek ethics, Roman “manliness” and the Christian cardinal virtues. But Machiavelli gave all that a Machiavellian twist. The ethical “virtù” of a good guy would be fine if people were good, he said. But they’re not. So an individual with virtù needed the good judgment to know when to be “just,” based on a provisional trust, when to have “courage” (a virtue, but one shared with an animal, the lion) and when to be “prudent” (like a fox, even with guile and deception). But what about Christian ethics, and Cicero? Machiavelli has a thin smile that says: Don’t be stupid.

But I keep going back to fortuna. I wonder if beneath this is something that theoretical science seems to have verified – randomness. At the subatomic level, as in the cosmos, there seems to exist a pure randomness. There’s a randomness, too, in the mutations that make life evolve, and triggered our daughter’s cancers. We create a surrogate for this randomness when we shuffle cards to play a game, but pure randomness is beyond simply not knowing the physical laws and conditions of something that seems random. In my humble opinion, it’s not even in God’s control, but it’s at the heart of Creation, beyond any laws. Then there are laws governing the order of things, and that’s at the other extreme of meaninglessness – because pure order admits of no freedom. Cell division and energy exchanges, animal behavior and optics, all following a solemn order.

And that leaves us humans. . .in the middle. In the muddle. Italy seems to be the perfect place to be there, whether sick or well, among friends and the beauty of a Renaissance city. I can sneak out onto a tiled terrace for warming sun, or to watch the swifts darting through the twilight and far below, little cars winding away on a curve that passes a little road called Niccolò Machiavelli.

I recognized our interpreter from 2019 — here, in the Piazza della Repubblica, wearing the laurel wreath of a new graduate of the University of Urbino. (She didn’t recognize me, but gave a nice pose with unicorn horn and fantastic dress.)

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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