Monday, February 24, 2014

Sexytime With Goddesses: Go For It!!

"I may be dumb, but I'm not a dweeb."

Sarah Veale had a blog post a while back ("The misfortunes that befall men who sleep with Goddesses") in which she tries to warn people (especially men) off from Divine Sex. And we are not talking just any old Divine Sex here, but full-blown horizontal piety with the Goddess of Love Herself, Venus.

There are a great many possible rejoinders to the cautionary tale that Veale tells, but probably the most cogent and to-the-point is: who the fuck cares what the consequences are? I mean, seriously, romantic entanglements with our fellow human beings usually end up very badly, if not downright tragically, but do we let that stop us (and if we do, are we not far worse off for it)?

In fact, if Veale's basic line of argument were to be applied to mortal love, then it would constitute nothing short of blasphemy against Eros. At least that was the conclusion reached by Socrates in Plato's dialogue Phaedrus. In the Phaedrus (see especially 242b-243e) Socrates is at first favorably impressed by the argument that Love is an insidious trap that inevitably leads to bad things like broken heartedness, self-degredation, and so forth. But then, having taken that position, Socrates is suddenly visited by his famous "sign", his personal daemon who always warns him against serious errors of judgement. Suddenly Socrates realizes that he has taken the name of Eros in vain, and must make amends.

The form of "purgation" that Socrates chooses to get right with Eros is to use words of praise as a corrective to his former words of scorn for Love. What follows is simply referred to by classical scholars as "The Great Speech", in which Socrates soars to rhetorical heights perhaps unmatched in all of western literature. For he not only praises Eros, but launches into a fantastic cosmological narrative recounting the journey of the soul throughout all the realms of existence. (If you are not familiar with any of this, a good starting place is the nice summary of the Phaedrus over at the very handy site

Anyhow, if disparaging normal human love, in all it's messiness, disappointment, duplicity, etc, can be construed as blasphemous, then how much worse is the position taken by Veale with respect to Divine Love?

Perhaps an even more fatal flaw in Veale's reasoning is that things really don't turn out so bad for old Anchises (or for Aeneas or Venus, for that matter):
  • The son that Venus bore Anchises, Aeneas, later saves his father's life during the sack of Troy.
  • When Anchises finally does die, as a contented old man of natural causes, he goes to Elysium.
  • Aeneas goes on to be the heroic legendary founder of the city of Rome.
  • As the mother of Aeneas, Venus becomes the patron Goddess of the most important civilization in all of western history. 
  • Although Anchises did suffer a grievous injury from one of Jupiter's thunderbolts, this was only because he broke his promise to Venus to never boast about their special time together.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

"No scholar, perhaps, ever lived so completely in the Heathenism of the past."

I have decided to post a very, very long excerpt from Ludwig Freiherr von Pastor's 1894 retelling of the tale of the Conspiracy of 1468 (specifically from the fourth volume of his sixteen volume History of the Popes). A lot of this overlaps (and even repeats) material already included in other installments in this series on "The Heathen-Minded Humanists" (a phrase lifted from von Pastor, by the way). But this post includes much more material, and, in particular, relates the denouement of the story: how the "conspirators" were eventually released and their later activities. von Pastor also engages in a quite a bit of shameless apologia on behalf of Paul II, and once he starts heading to far down that path I have to cut him off.

In my opinion, the affair of 1468 set the stage, and very dramatically, for the subsequent history of underground Paganism in Renaissance Europe. It should be kept in mind that this all took place during a relatively tolerant period, compared to what was to come soon afterward. The imprisonment and torture of the Roman Academicians, the fact that they only very narrowly escaped with their lives, and, most especially, what was required of them to accomplish that escape, all served to establish a very clear precedent for how far one could go in expressing one's true religious feelings, even in secret.

Clearly at least some of the Academicians had hoped, prior to 1468, to move in the direction of establishing in Rome something like what had until very recently (prior to the final Muslim conquest, of what remained of the eastern Roman Empire in 1453) had existed in the Byzantine Peloponnese: a self-conscious, organized, functioning, full-blown Pagan Underground. Of course, even in Mistra, this was truly an underground movement that could only be, at most, an open secret. But the suppression of the Roman Academy in 1468 made it painfully clear that even that much was to be denied the Heathen-minded Humanists of Rome, and other like-minded religious dissenters throughout western Europe, if they wished for their heads to remain attached to their necks.




THE great intellectual movement of the Renaissance was at the time of Paul II., still expanding and developing. Through each one of its phases the two currents of Hceathen and Christian tendency are always clearly discernible, but the attentive observer cannot fail to recognise a consider able difference between its condition under Nicholas V. and under Paul II.

In the time of Nicholas V. the genuine and noble Renaissance, which had grown up on Christian principles, and, while embracing classical studies with enthusiasm, had made them subordinate and subservient to Christian aims and ideas, still thoroughly held its own against the other tendency. Subsequently, a change took place, and the school which inclined to substitute the Heathen ideal of beauty for the central sun of Christianity, became predominant. In the second generation of Humanists that one-sided devotion to classical antiquity, which led to a completely Heathen view of life, gained considerably in extent and importance.

Opposition on the part of the highest ecclesiastical authority was inevitable. Even before the accession of Paul II. the Church and the Heathen Renaissance would already have come into collision, had it not been so extremely difficult to lay hold of this tendency by any external measures. A formal heresy might be condemned, but it was much harder to discern the many byways into which this new, and, in itself, lawful and salutary form of culture had strayed, and any interference with its course would almost necessarily have destroyed not only that which was evil, but also much that was excellent. Moreover, the partisans of the Heathen Renaissance carefully avoided any appearance of conflict between their learning and theology, and altogether contrived to assume such an innocent air of dilettanteism that it would have seemed ridiculous to attempt to deal seriously with them.

If, however, a case arose which did not admit of being excused as mere harmless classicism, the Humanists at once made the strongest professions of submission to the dogmas of the Church, and either altered or abandoned the theories which had been called in question. Thus, by their very frivolity and utter want of principle, the Literati were able to avoid any serious conflict with authority.

But however complaisant the Literati might be in matters of this kind, it was quite another affair wherever their material interests were concerned. Any one who failed to treat them in this respect with the greatest indulgence and consideration must be prepared for the most violent attacks. Neither age nor rank were any protection against the envenomed tongues and pens of the disciples of Cicero. Lies and slanders pursued Calixtus III. and Pius II., even to their graves. And the same fate in a yet greater degree befell Paul II.


A measure passed in the very beginning of his Pontificate gave occasion to a calumny which has not even yet completely died out, and which represents him as a barbarous enemy of classical studies and of all intellectual activity, in fact a "hater of learning."

The measure in question affected the College of the Abbreviators of the Chancery. In November, 1463, Pius II. had made a Decree that this body should be composed of seventy members, of whom only twelve were to be appointed by the Vice-Chancellor. The work and the pay were to be distributed only amongst these seventy, and not directly by the Vice-Chancellor. In May, 1464, Pius II. reorganised the College; the former officials were suppressed, and a number of Sienese, chosen from the Humanist party, were appointed, some by favour and others by purchase. Paul II., who had always kept up friendly relations with the Cardinal Vice-Chancellor, reinstated him in his former powers, and reversed the arrangements made by his predecessor. Thus the Abbreviators, who had enjoyed the favour of Pius II., lost both their places and their means of living. This was undoubtedly a hardship to those who had bought their positions, although an order was given that the purchase money should be refunded.

The indignation of those affected by this change was extreme. The secretaries, poets, and Humanists at the Roman Court really considered themselves the most important persons in the world; they seriously believed that they "conferred on the Papal Court as much honour as they received from it," and were firmly persuaded that "men of their stamp were absolutely necessary to the Pope, and that he must seek them out from all parts of the world, and attach them to himself by the promise of rich rewards."

The distress of these self-important men was equal to their astonishment. They resolved, in the first instance, to have recourse to friendly representations; and even the lowest members of the Papal Court were importuned for assistance to obtain them an audience. For twenty consecutive nights they besieged the entrance to the Palace without gaining access to the presence of Paul II.

One of their number, Bartolomeo Sacchi da Piadena (a small place between Cremona and Mantua), known as an author by the name of Elaji^a, the Latin form of Piadena, then resolved on a desperate measure^ He wrote a pamphlet in the form of a letter, and, by his own confession, addressed the Pope in the following terms : "If it is permissible for you to despoil us, without a hearing, of that which we had justly and fairly purchased, it must be allowable for us to complain of so undeserved an injury. Since we find ourselves contemptuously repulsed by you, we will address ourselves to the Kings and Princes, and urge them to assemble a Council, before which you will be constrained to justify yourself for having robbed us of our lawful possession." The letter concluded with the subscription : "Servants of Your Holiness, if the new regulations are cancelled."

Platina gave this letter sealed to the Bishop of Treviso, the Pope's most confidential Counsellor, remarking that it was written by the Humanist, Ognibene da Lonigo.

Hitherto Paul II. had kept silence; now he acted. Platina was summoned to the Papal Palace, where he appeared with a defiant air, and, when the Bishop of Treviso called him to account for his conduct, answered very insolently. He was committed to St. Angelo, where, notwithstanding the intercession of Cardinal Gonzaga, he had that same evening to undergo an examination by torture, " I am very anxious on his account," wrote one of the Ambassadors, then in Rome, on the I5th of October, (< for the Pope has spoken very violently about him to many, and no one ventures to take the part of a man guilty of so great a crime."* On the following day another writer mentions that Paul II. had talked of having him beheaded. " As Platina is an excellent author," he adds, " every one laments this mischance, more particularly Cardinal Gonzaga, in whose service he was at one time ; but he is unable to help him in this matter. It is true, however, that when the Pope spoke to the Cardinal, he excused Platina as a madman. This deed of folly, indeed, proves him to be such."f

In the cold solitude of St. Angelo, Platina had full time for reflection. When, after four months of confinement, Cardinal Gonzaga s persevering intercession procured his release, he could hardly stand. He was obliged to promise that he would not leave Rome. The Papal enactment was never repealed, and the ejected Literati, and more especially, their ill-starred leader continued to meditate vengeance.


The meeting of these malcontents, and of the Heathen-minded Humanists, took place in the house of a scholar well know throughout Rome for his intellectual gifts and for his eccentricity. Julius Pomponius Laetus was an illegitimate scion of the princely house of Sanseverino, had come to Rome at an early age from his home in Calabria, and had become Valla's disciple, and afterwards succeeded him as Professor in the University. "Of all the worshippers of antiquity, whose exclusive ideal was ancient Rome and the oldest words of the Latin tongue, he was the most extreme." No scholar, perhaps, ever lived so completely in the Heathenism of the past; "the present was to him a mere phantom; the world of antiquity was the reality in which he lived and moved and had his being."

Pomponius Laetus lived in antique style, in haughty poverty, like a second Cato. In the cultivation of his vineyard he followed the rules of Varro and Columella. He would often come down, with buskined feet, before daybreak to the University, where the hall could hardly contain the crowd of his eager scholars. The vivacious little man might frequently be seen wandering alone through the ruins of ancient Rome, suddenly arrested, as if in a rapture, before some heap of stones, or even bursting into tears. He despised the Christian religion, and passionately inveighed against its adherents. As a deist, Pomponius believed in a Creator, but, as one of his most devoted disciples tells us, as an antiquarian he revered the "Genius of the City of Rome", or what would, in modern language, be called "the Spirit of Antiquity".

His house on the Ouirinal was filled with fragments of ancient Architecture and sculpture, inscriptions and coins. Here, in an atmosphere charged with the spirit of Heathen Rome, he assembled his disciples and friends. Disputations were held on ancient authors, and philosophical questions, discourses and poems were read, Comedies of Plautus and Terence were sometimes performed, and an infatuated admiration for the old Republic was cherished.

Such was the origin of a "literary sodality", called the Roman Academy, whose object was the cultivation of pure Latinity, and of the ancient national life of Rome. "Pomponius, the founder of the Society, went so far as to refuse to learn Greek, lest he should injure the perfection of his Latin pronunciation."

Around Pomponius, the representative of pagan Humanism, soon gathered a number of young freethinkers, semi-Heathen in their views and morals, who sought to make up for their lost faith by a hollow worship of antiquity.

The members of the Academy looked upon themselves as a Confraternity; they laid aside their ordinary names, and adopted ancient ones instead. The original name of Pomponius, who was venerated by all as their leader and teacher, is not even known. Bartolomeo Platina and Filippo Buonaccorsi, who was called Callimachus, are the most noted of the other members. We also hear of Marcantonio Coccio of the Sabine country, called Sabellicus; Marcus Romanus, or Asclepiades; Marinus Venetus, or Glaucus; a certain Petrus or Petrejus; Marsus Demetrius, Augustinus Campanus, &c.

It may be admitted that this use of Heathen names was a mere fancy, for which a parallel may be found in the increasing preference for such names, and even those which were of evil repute, in baptism. But other practices of the Academicians cannot be thus explained. The fantastic "enthusiasm of the adherents of the old Calabrian Heathen" found vent in religious practices which seemed like a parody of Christian worship. The initiated constituted their learned Society into "a formal Antiquarian College of Priests of the ancient rite, presided over by a pontifex maximus, in the person of Pomponius Laetus". The sentiments and the conduct of these "pantheistic votaries of Antiquity" were certainly more Heathen than Christian. Raphael Volaterranus, in his Roman Commentaries, dedicated to Julius II, plainly declared that the meetings of these men, their antique festivities in honour of the birthday of the City of Rome and of Romulus, were "the first step towards doing away with the Faith."


There was certainly some ground for the charges brought against the Academicians of contempt for the Christian religion, its servants and its precepts, of the worship of Heathen divinities and the practice of the most repulsive vices of ancient times. Pomponius Laetus was the disciple of Valla, and was certainly an adherent and disseminator of the destructive doctrines of his master. A Heathen idea of the State, hostility to the clergy, and the dream of substituting for the existing government of Rome a Republic of the ancient type, prevailed in this circle, together with Epicurean and materialistic views of life. "Experience had already sufficiently shown that the enthusiastic veneration of the old Roman commonwealth was not unlikely to have practical consequences."

This Heathen and republican secret society seemed all the more dangerous in the increasingly excited state of the Roman populace. Many of the youths of the city were ready for any sort of mischief, and numerous exiles lurked on the Neapolitan frontiers. In the June of 1465, when Paul II went to war with Count Everso of Anguillara, there was a decided movement in favour of the tyrant. A year later, many adherents of the Fraticelli were discovered; their trial revealed the opposition of their rites and doctrines to those of the Church. Further inquiry showed that the partisans of this sect were at work not only in the March of Ancona, but also in the Roman Campagna and in Rome itself. There is no proof of any connection between these heretics and the Roman Academy. It is, however, certain that various fanatical demagogues, and some of the angry Abbreviators, held intimate relations with the Academicians, and that in their assemblies strong language against the Pope was freely indulged in. Thus "all the hostile elements of Heathenism, Republicanism and Heresy seemed to have their centre in the Academy."


In the last days of Fcbruary, l468, the inhabitants of Rome suddenly learned that the police had discovered a conspiracy against the Pope, and had made numerous arrests, chiefly among the Literati and members of the Roman Academy.

Disquieting reports of various kinds had, for some time, been prevalent in the city, and predictions of the Pope's speedy death had been circulated. Paul II. had attached no importance to these rumours, but, after receiving a warning letter from a temporal Prince, he looked on the matter in a more serious light. His anxiety increased, and his determination to act was confirmed, when some of the Cardinals also made communications of an alarming character. On the same night an order was issued for the arrest of the ringleaders of the Conspiracy. Four members of the Roman Academy, viz., Callimachus^ Glaucus, Petrejus, and Platina, had been, named to the Pope as the chiefs. The first three, having received intimation of the danger which threatened them, succeeded in making their escape. Callimachus, himself, in a letter subsequently written for his own justification, declares that he had at first remained hidden in Rome, and then fled secretly to Apulia.

Others who had been connected with the Academicians were, together with Platina, incarcerated Jn St. Angelo, and afterwards examined by torture. "Every night some one is arrested," wrote the Milanese Ambassador. Johannes Blanchus, on the 28th February, "and every day the matter is better understood; it is not, as Cardinal Ammanati supposed, a dream, but a reality, The plan would have succeeded if God had not protected the Pope."

It is most interesting to observe the manner in which Paul II himself took the whole affair. Hitherto, we have had little save the somewhat scanty account of his biographer, Canensius, to guide us. He informs us that the pope had taken measures to make an example of an infamous band of young Romans of corrupt morals and insolent behaviour. They had maintained that the Christian religion was a fraud, trumped up by a few Saints, without any foundation in facts. Hence, it was allowable to copy the Cynics, and give themselves up to the gratification of their passions. "These persons," Canenstus goes on to say, "despise our religion so much that they consider it disgraceful to be called by the name of a Saint, and take pains to substitute Heathen names for those conferred on them in baptism. The leader of this Sect, whom 1 will not here name, was a well-known teacher of Grammar in Rome, who, in the first instance, changed his own name, and then those of his friends and disciples in this manner. Some abandoned men associated themselves with him : as, for example, the Roman, Marcus, who is called Asclepiades ; the Venetian, Marinus, who is called Glaucus, a certain Petrus, who has styled himself Petrejus; and Damian, a Tuscan, who is known as Callimachus. These had bound themselves to murder the Pope."

This account enables us to look at the affair from the point of view of the Pope's position as "Guardian of Faith and Morals," and recently discovered Reports of the Milanese Ambassadors serve yet more clearly to elucidate its significance In this respect Their independent character, and the direct nature of their testirnony, entitle them to be considered as documents of the greatest im- portance.f

It was not easy for the Ambassadors of the League, then in Rome, to obtain really authentic information regarding the events which had just taken place there, for the most varied and fantastic accounts were circulated.* Many different staten:ients were made as to the day fixed upon for carr>'ing the plot into effect. Some said that Pau] II. was to have been murdered on Ash- Wednesday, at the Papal Mass, others that the crime was to have been perpetrated on Carnival Sunday, when all the people, and even the Papal Guards, would have gone to Monte Testaccio for the accustomed festivities. Others again declared Palm Sunday to be the day selected. It was further reported that the conspirators had, with a view to the accomplishment of their purpose, associated with themselves Luca de Tocio, a banished Roman, belonging to the party of the Orsini, who was a member of the Council at the Court of Ferrante I. at Naples, This man was believed to be in league with other banished persons. Four or five hundred of them were to enter the city secretly, and to hide themselves in the ruins of the houses which had been pulled down in order to enlarge the Papal Palace. On the other side, forty or fifty partisans were to join the conspirators, and begin an attack on the attendants of the Cardinals and Prelates^ who would be waiting in the Square in front of the Palace. By this means the Pope's small Guard would be occupied, and the conflict was to serve as a signal to the hidden outlaws, who would then make their way into the Church and murder the Pope and those about hira. General pillage was to ensue, and Luca de Tocio was to establish a new Constitution.

Even more alarming than the plot itself was the reported extent of its ramifications. The King of Naples was accused of taking part in it, and some were of opinion that the King of France was also engaged, while others declared Sigismondo Malatesta to be one of the conspirators.*

These varied accounts led the Ambassadors of the League to seek from the Pope himself more accurate information, and, at the same time, to express their sympathy and otTer assistance on behalf of their several masters. An account of the Audience was drau'n up hy the Milanese Ambassadors personally, and in duplicate.f This document makes it perfectly evident that, from the very first, the Pope dearly distinguished between the Anti-Christian and im- moral life of many Academicians, or their " heresy," as the Ambassadors shortly style it, and the Conspiracy against his person. I

On the first of these points Paul II. made some very important statements, representing the Academicians as complete heathens and Materialists. They deny, he said. the existence of God, thej' declare that there is no other world than this, that the soul dies with the body, and that, accordingly, man may t»ive himself up to the indulgence of his passions without any regard to the law of God ; all that is needed is to avoid coming into collision with the temporal power.*


Paul II. had much more to tell of the evil deeds of these Epicureans, who seem, indeed, to have adopted the doctrines promulgated by Valla in his book "On Pleasure." They despised the commands of the Church, he said, ate meat on fast-days, and reviled the Pope and the Clergy. They said that the priests were the enemies of the laity, that they had invented fasting and forbidden men to have more than one wife. Moses, they taught, deceived the Jews, his law was a forgery, Christ was a deceiver, Mahomet a great intellect, but also an impostor. They were ashamed of their Christian names and preferred those which were Heathen, and they practised the most shameful vices of antiquity. Some of these free-thinkers are said to have contemplated an alliance with the Turks. Predictions of the speedy death of the Pope were circulated by them; then there would be a new Election and a complete change in the state of affairs.

Paul II. named Callimachus, Petrejus, Glaucus, and Platina as the ringleaders of the Conspiracy. He deeply regretted that the first three had escaped beyond the reach of justice. He evidently considered the matter to be most important, and expressed to the Ambassadors his determination to root out this "heresy," and his regret that he had not sooner become aware of its existence, In regard to the Conspiracy against his person, the Pope said he had heard the prevalent reports, but added that he could form no decided opinion as to whether they were well-founded or not, because those believed to be the leaders in the plot had escaped. According to the report of one of the Ambassadors, Paul II. had, at first, a suspicion that Podiebrad, the Hussite King of Bohemia, might be implicated; it appeared to him not improbable that one heretic might help iinother.

The Pope was particularly disquieted by the rumour about Luca de Tocio, who had taken part in the troubles in the time of Pius II. He at once sent a courier to Naples to ascertain whether he had really left that city. As it was also affirmed that Tocio had given looo ducats to the guards of St, Angelo, as a bribe to induce them to deliver up the fortress, the Pope caused searching enquiries to be made, but very little information was obtained. Even at the time, it was suspected that these reports had been set afloat by persons whose Interest it was to raise a cloud of dust as a stratagem to escape punish me nt.f

A reward of 300 ducats was offered for the discoveiy of the whereabouts of Callimachus, Glaucus, and Petrejus, and 500 for that of Luca de Tocio. The Pope hoped to get hold of some, if not all, of the conspirators-J On the 29th February, it was believed that a clue to Callimachus' abode had been found; he was considered next in importance to Luca de Tocio.§


The houses of the fugitives were, of course, searched, and the licentious poems which were found furnished fresh proof of the immorality of the Academicians.
"We cannot wonder that the Pope did not consider the existence of such a Conspiracy as in itself incredible. He had incurred the bitter hatred of the aggrieved Abbreviators. Stefano Porcaro, the head of the conspiracy against Nicholas V., had also been a Humanist, and had dreamed of the restoration of the ancient Republic. The Ghibelline bands in Rome were still in existence, and their alliance with the party-chiefs of the city, and with the fugitives and exiles beyond its limits, constituted an abiding danger. Again, in the days of Pius II., young Tiburzio, at the head of a similar Catiline band, had stirred the people up to cast off the priestly yoke, and revive the ancient liberty of Rome. By his decided action, Paul 11., at any rate, repressed disorder, and provided himself with material for investigation." [Voigt, II., 240, 2nd ed.]

Until the official documents are brought to light, it will be impossible to give an exact account of these proceedings, which were conducted by Cardinal Barbo, and watched with the greatest interest by Paul II. They would furnish us with the means of checking; the detailed relation of Platina, whose participation in the events renders it necessary to receive his statements with the greatest caution. In many cases they are. moreover, at variance with facts otherwise established. [see especially Zeissberg, 351.]

He certainly is guilty of gross misrepresentation in his Life of Paul II., when he affirms that, in his examination, he had shewn the indolent Callimachus to be incapable of independently originating a Conspiracy. In Platina's letters, written during his imprisonment, we find him, on the contrary, laying the whole blame on the blustering folly of Callimachus. "Who," he asks, in one of these letters, "would believe that the drunken dreams of this man, whom we mocked at and despised, could have brought us into such trouble? Alas! for us, poor wretches, who must pay for the silly temerity of another! That crazy bestower of treasures and kingdoms roams about freely, drunk with wine and glutted with food, while we, for being imprudent enough not to reveal his mad dreams, are tortured and shut up in dungeons." In almost all the other letters of this period Platina reiterates these accu- sations.

The constancy with which Platina claims to have undergone examination and endured torture must also be relegated to the domain of fiction.

The letters written during his imprisonment also testify against him. Anything more abject than his petitions addressed to the Pope can hardly be imagined. His error, in not shewing up the drunken Callimachus, had been one of negligence, not of malice. For the future, however, he promised, whenever he hears anything against the name or the welfare of the Pope, even from a bird of the air, at once to report it to His Holiness. He approves of the measures taken for the repression of Humanistic license, inasmuch as it is the duty of a good shepherd to preserve his flock from contagion. He confesses that, when turned out of his office, he accused God and man; he repents of this, and will not again so far forget himself. Finally, he promises, if restored to liberty and secured from want, to become the Pope's most ardent panegyrist, to celebrate in prose and verse "the gotden age of his most happy Pontificate"; he is even ready to abandon classical studies and devote himself entirely to Holy Scripture and Theology. The Humanist, however, again comes out when he reminds the Pope that poets and orators confer immortality on Princes : Christ was made known by the Evangelists, and Achilles by Homer. The prevailing tone of the letter is expressed in its concluding words: "Only give hope to us who, with clasped hands and bended knees humbly await your mercy."

Utterly broken and crushed, Platina in his distress built much on the assistance of Rodrigo Sanchez de Arevalo, Bishop of Calahorra and Prefect of St Angelo, and besieged him with elegant letters. Rodrigo had the courtesy to grant Platina's request that he would refresh him with a letter. This led to a brisk correspondence between the two Humanists, one of whom was a representative of the Christian and the other of the Heathen Renaissance. Rodrigo sought to calm and elevate Platina's mind by presenting to him religious motives of consolation. It is curious to see how difficult the latter found it to respond to the Bishop's thoughts. In spite of some convulsive snatches after Christian reminiscences, the antique element is the one that predominates in his letters, and certain fatalistic observations which escaped from his pen, induced Rodrigo to enlighten him as to the manner in which a Catholic ought to speak of Fortune and of Fate.

The letters in which Platina invoked the intercession of a number of the Cardinals and Prelates are as deplorable as the "abject and fulsome flatteries" with which he overwhelmed his gaoler. A1l these letters are full of the praises of those to whom they are addressed, and of Paul II. and Sanchez de Arevalo. In one of them Platiua confesses that he contemplated suicide. In answer to the accusation of irreligion, he maintains that, as far as human frailty permitted, he had always fuifilled his religious duties, and denies: that he had ever impugned any article of Faith. He is conscious of no crime save his silence regarding the babble of Callimachus.


Pomponius Laetus, who was delivered up to the Pope by Venice, during his detention at St. Angelo's shewed little of the ancient Roman stoicism which he had so ostentatiously professed. At first he seems to have given some sharp answers to his examiners; but he soon followed the example of his friend Platina, and sought by obsequious flattery to win the favour of his gaoler and of the Pope. He protested in the strongest terms that he was innocent. and, at the same time, begged for some books to read in his solitude. Instead of Lactantius and Macrobius, for which Pomponius asked, Rodrigo de Are\-a!o sent him his treatise on the errors of the Council of Baste. Pomponius was little gratified by the substitution, but thanked him in an offensively fulsome letter. This was meant to pave the way for another petition, and, on the same day, he expressed a wish for a cheerful companion, with whom he might interchange ideas. In support of his request, he quoted the words of Scripture : " Bear ye one another*s burthens, and so you shall fulfil the law of Christ." This application was granted.

The Apology drawn up by Pomponiua Laetus, while in prison, is also a pitiful production.* He meets an accusa- tion, in regard to his relations with a young Venetian, by an appeal to the example of Socrates. He had withdrawn from all intimate intercourse with Callimachus from the time he had become aware of his wickedness. Every- where, and especially in Venice, he had extolled Paul 11. He confesses with regret that he had spoken strongly against the clergy; he had said these things in anger because he had been deprived of his maintenance ; he begs to be forgiven for the sake of the sufferings of Christ. He brings forward witnesses to prove that he had fulfilled his Easter duties, e.vplains his disregard of the law of fasting by the state of his health, and declares that he had received the necessary dispensation. Finally, in evidence of his Christian sentiments, he refers to the verses which he had composed on the Stations of the Cross, to his discourse in honour of the Blessed Virgin, and his treatise on the Immortality of the Soul. He concludes by a penitent admission that he has done wrong, and prays that, for the sake of the Risen Saviour, mercj"^ ni3-y prevail over justice.

This pitiful document seems to have decided the fate q{ Pomponius. Paul II. came to the conclusion that the writer of such a letter was incapable of origmating' a Con- spiracy, and, with regard to the other charges against him, he probably considered that the severe lesson which he had received was sufficient to reform him. The reason of Platina's far longer detention in prison was evidently that the suspicions against him were stronger, owing to his former conduct.* iPaul 11. still hoped that the ringleaders of the Con- spiracy would fall into his hands, and, if we may believe Platina, Fetrejus was actually apprehended, but confessed nothing.!

That the affair had a political side is evidenced by the fact that, immediately on the discovery of the plot, the Pope transferred his residence from St- Peter's to S, Marco, "in order to remove from the neighbourhood of the Orsini and place himself near the Cotonna." " But," as the Ambassador, from whom we learn of this change, remarks, "danger is everywhere.":!:

Things, however, did not now seem so alarming. The report of the departure from Naples of Luca de Tocio, the partisan of the Orsini, and of his participation in the Con- spiracy, proved to be mistaken. Paul II., nevertheless, con- sidered it well to surround himself with a strong guard. The Carnival amusements, as Augustii^us de Rubeis, on the 4th March, informed the Duke of Milan, took place just as usual. " Regarding the Conspiracy against the Pope's person,'' writes the same Ambassador, "' enquiries have been most carefully made, but as yet nothing has been dis- covered but some blustering talk of murdering the Pope, which may easily have arisen in the way I have already tlescribed. As the populace and the whole Court are dis- contented, it was only necessary for some one to make a beginning in order to carry all with him."*

The obscurity in which this Conspiracy is involved will never be completely cleared away, Platina and Pomponius Laetus, " with touching unanimity concur in laying all the blame on the cunning of the fugitive who was not there to defend himself." Even in distant Poland, where he hoped to find sure refuge with Paul II/s enemy^ King Casimir, Callimachus had good cause to guard his lips, for the Pope made great, though ineffectual, efforts to get him into his power. Again, in the year 1470, the Papal Legate, Alex- ander, Bishop of Forli, urged the General Diet at Fetrikau to deliver up the conspirator, who only escaped through a combination of favourable circumstances.f


Although enquiries regarding this Conspiracy were finally abandoned in Rome for want of evidence, yet the prose- cution of what was designated as the " heresy " of the Academicians, was carried on, and this with aU the more reason, inasmuch as Platina himself had not ventured to deny the charge of heathen practices. Unfortunately, trustworthy information on this subject is but scanty. From many sources, however, we 5eam that Paul IL medi- tated measures of extreme severity against the heathen and philosophical extravagances of the Professors and Literati.

" If God preserves my life," said the Pope to one of the Ambassadors very soon after the discovery of the plot, " I will do two things ; in the first place, I will forbid the study of these senseless histories and poems, which are full of heresies and blasphemies, and, secondly, I will prohibit the teaching and practice of Astrology, since so many errors arise thence," " Children," continued the Pope. '■ when hardly ten years old, even without going to school, know a thousand villanies. What, then, must they become when, later on, they read Juvenal, Terence, Fiautus, and Ovid? Juvenal certainly makes a shew of blaming vice, but he leads his readers to the knowledge of it." * There are many other books, he added, through which a sufficient amount of learning may be attained ; it is better to call things by their true names and to avoid poetical circum- locution. These Academician^ are worse than the heathen, for they believed in God, while these deny Him. The Ambassadors expressed their agreement with the Pope, especially Lorenzo of Pesaro, who delighted him by demonstrating the faith of the ancients with a great dis- play of learning. The Ambassadors also considered it very advisable to forbid Ecclesla-stics to study Poetry and Astrology, The Pope concluded by declaring that he also meant to take measures against the Roman habit of spreading false reports-f

In the Consultations, which were held during this time, to devise the best means of attacking the false Renaissance, the Pope may have had in his mind a treatise which Ermolao Barbaro, the excellent Bishop of Verona, had dedicated to him in I4SS' This author, looking at the matter exclusively from a moral point of view, vehemently protests against the undue estimation in which the ancient poets were commonly held, and in some places altogether condemns the whole of the old heathen poetr>'. He goes through the whole series, first of the Greek, and then of the Latin poets, and cites a number of extracts ffom the writings of the Fathers, in which immoral poets are condemned. In his opposition to the fanatical admirers of ancient poetry, Barbaro sometimes flies to the other extreme, and completely condemns the art in itself. The conclusion which he deduces is, that if the study of these heathen writers, even by the laity, requires much circum- spection, this must be still more necessary in the case of religious and priests.*

One of the Ambassadors expressly states that, in the middle of March, 1468, all the teachers in Rome were, on account of the danger of heresy, forbidden to make use of the old poets; further details are wanting. It is, however, probable that the Papal prohibition was confined to the schools. At any rate, it did not apply to all poets, but only, as the Pope clearly explained to the Ambassadors of the League, to those who were objectionable on the score of morals. Every one must admit that the moral aspect was the one which a Pope was bound to consider in forming a judgment on the Classics. The vindication of the Christian moral law in this domain was therefore, a most salutary act. Poison is poison still, even if contained in crystal vials.

As regards the issue of the trial, we have only Platina's report, and it cannot be looked upon as trustworthy. According to him the Academicians were acquitted from the charge of actual heresy, nothing more than flippancy and undue licence in language being proved against them. Accordingly, the prisoners were now no longer shut up, but merely detained in the Papal Palace, then within the precincts of the Vatican, and finally, at the intercession of some of the Cardinals, especially Bessarion, only in the City of Rome; but the Academy was dissolved, and certain limitations were imposed upon classical studies.

The severe lesson given by Paul II. to the wanton insolence of the Humanists, was no doubt a salutary one. No one can deny that the Pope was acting within his rights when he took measures against the practical Heathenism of the Academicians. Platina, himself, in a letter to Pomponius Laetus, confessed that the Heathenish practices of the Academy must, necessarily, give offence.

"And so," he adds, "we must not complain if the Pope defends himself and the Christian religion."


The action of Paul II. towards the Roman Academy has received a remarkable justification from recent investigations in the Catacombs.

Until the I5th century the subterranean necropolis of the early Christians had, with the exception of the Catacomb of St. Sebastian, been completely forgotten. Traces of visitors begin to reappear from the year 1433. First, we have names of Monks and Pilgrims, led there by devotion. "I came here," writes Brother Laurentius of Sicily, "to visit this holy place, with twenty companions of the Order of the Friars Minor, on the 17th January, 1451." Then, suddenly, we come upon the autograph scratches (Graffiti) of Humanists and Roman Academicians : of Pomponius, Platina, Volscus, Campanus, Pantagathus, Ruffus, Histrius, Partenopaeus, Perillus, Calpurnius, &c. They call themselves "a company of venerators and students of Roman antiquity, under the leadership of the pontifex maximus, Pomponius." Pantagathus describes himself as "Priest of the Roman Academy." These men were in search, not of Christian, but of Heathen, antiquity. In his large collection of inscriptions Pomponius inserted but one which is Christian, and this one because it was metrical, and its polished form had a flavour of Heathenism. Even more characteristic is the fact that these "modern Heathens " ventured, in the venerable vaults of the Catacombs, where the very stones preach the Gospel, to scrawl flippant inscriptions on the walls! With this evidence before us, therefore, we cannot wonder that, even after their liberation from prison, the contemporaries of the Academicians should persist in maintaining that they were Heathens rather than Christians.

Of all the Academicians no one had been treated with more severity than Platina. After his release he cherished the hope that his cringing flattery would, at least, have secured him some appointment from the Pope. Paul II. however, did not see any necessity for employing the pen of this violent and immoral man. This disappointment intensified the hatred of the Humanist. He swore that he would have his reyenge, and took it, after the death of Paul II., in his wide-spread "Lives of the Popes."

In this work he describes his enemy as a monster of cruelty, and a barbarian who detested all learning. This "biographical caricature" has for centuries imposed itself on history. Even scholars, well aware of Platina's bias, have not succeeded in avoiding the influence of the portrait, drawn with undeniable skill and in a bright and elegant style. Some few over-partial attempts to vindicate his character have only served to increase the confusion, until, at length, recent critical investigation of the Archives has brought the truth to light. It must always be remembered that Paul II. was not an  opponent of the Renaissance in itself, yet he is not to be looked upon as a Humanist, like Nicholas V. The boastfulness and conceit of its adherents repelled him : he preferred men of practical knowledge and practical tendencies. Poetasters had little to expect from him, and, in view of the pseudo-classical rhymes of a Porcello or a Montagna, this was not much to be regretted.

The favours which Paul II. granted to the Roman and other High Schools - as well as his generosity to a number of learned men, prove him to have been no enemy of culture and learning. While still a Cardinal he repeatedly visited Flavio Biondo in his last sickness, gave him assistance, and promised to provide for his children. As Pope, he fulfilled this promise by giving the charge of the Registers to Gas- paro Biondo, in recognition of his father s deserts. J When the pious and enthusiastic scholar, Timoteo Maffei, fell ill, Paul II. sent him a present of money and a skilful physician, and, on his recovery, he conferred on him the Bishopric of Ragusa. Bishoprics were also bestowed on the three former preceptors of the Pope, and one of them, Amiens Agnifilus, was even raised to the purple. Learned men, like Perotti, were promoted to positions of some importance in the States of the Church. Niccolo Gallo, Professor of Jurisprudence, when seriously ill, asked for a Confessor furnished with faculties to absolve from every sin ; the Pope granted his request, and added a present of 20 ducats. He summoned to Rome many scholars whose acquaintance he had made while a Cardinal ; for example, Domizio da Caldiero and Gasparo da Verona, who was sub sequently his biographer. The Florentine, Lionardo Dati, was made Bishop of Massa, and Sigismondo de Conti and Vespasiano da Bisticci bear witness to the Pope s affection for him ; the latter declares that, if the life of Paul II. had been prolonged, Dati would have been a Cardinal. In the year 1470, Paul II. shewed the interest he took in historical studies by causing some Chronicles to be copied for him. .....

The Heathen-Minded Humanists
  • Part One provides the background of the struggle between Pope Paul II and the Roman Academy
  • Part Two describes the crisis of 1468;  
  • Part Three (what you are reading now) presents the denouement, in which all charges are dropped and the Heathen Academy survives intact.
  • Part Four  tells the tale of the surprising evidence discovered four centuries later of the literally underground Paganism that existed in Rome in the 15th century; 
  • Part Five looks at the other Roman Academy and its head, Cardinal Bessarion.]
  • Part Six gives a nice thumbnail sketch of Pomponius Laetus.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

"Your ancestors would not have behaved thus ...."

"The new learning had become an insidious solvent 
of any definiteness in religious beliefs"

Today's reading is from  Mandell Creighton's A history of the papacy from the great schism to the sack of Rome, Volume 4, 1887 pp. 46-49. In this passage, Creighton touches briefly on George Gemistos Plethon and Cardinall Bessarion, but the main focus is on Pomponius Laetus, the mysterious ringleader of the Pagan underground in Reinaissance Rome. Please refer to the original for sources, footnotes, etc.

The interested reader is also encouraged to further explore the the fascinating story of the Roman Pagan underground in several previous installments of this blog that are linked to at the bottom of this post.

The influence of Gemistos Plethon was carried to Rome by his distinguished scholar, Cardinal Bessarion, whose orthodoxy was above suspicion, but who nevertheless was in some degree imbued by his master's spirit. On the death of Gemistos, Bessarion wrote a letter of condolence to his sons. 'I hear,' he says, 'that our common father and guide, laying aside all mortal garments, has removed to heaven and the unsullied land to take his part in the mystic dance of the Olympian Gods.' This is strange language in a Cardinal's mouht, but does not show that Bessarion had any sympathy with the Paganism of Gemistos. It shows, however, the double life which the Humanists led: they were ready to talk the language of the Bible or the language of classical antiquit, as occasion needed. They had ceased to be conscious of much antagonism between the two, each of which corresponded to different sides of their nature. The new learning had become an insidious solvent of any difiniteness in religious belief.

Bessarion did much for the study of Plato. He freed himself from the extravagances of Gemistos, and in the controversy which raged between the partisans of Aristotle and those of Plato he held a moderating position. But George of Trapezus [George of Trebizond] carried his attack upon Plato so far that he drew from Bessarion a work 'Against the Calumnator of Plato' which raised the knowledge of Plato to a higher level than it had before reached, and established the claim of that philosopher to the attention of the orthodox. Bessarion, moreover, was the centre of a literary circle, and the Academy called by his name was famous throughout Italy. He formed a large library, which he bequeathed to Venice, where it formed the nucleus of the library of S. Marco.

The system of Academies rapidly spread throughout Italy, and gave men of the new learning a definite organisation whereby they became influential bodies with a corporate existence. In Rome Bessarion's example furnished a model to the Roman Academy, whose founder was another of those who owed something to the influence of Gemistos. He was a strange man who loved to shroud his private life in mystery. He called himself Pomponius, as being a good old Roman name, and to this he added Laetus, as a description of the joyousness of his tempera ment, though at times Lsetus was exchanged for Infortunatus. The real name of Pomponius Laetus was Piero : he was a native of Calabria, a bastard of the noble house of the Sanseverini. In early life he came to Rome and was a pupil of Lorenzo Valla, whom he succeeded as the chief teacher among the Roman Humanists. Whether he travelled in Greece or no we cannot say; but he seems to have come in the way of Gemistos, 1 who probably quickened his taste for a revived paganism. Pomponius, however, was not a Platonist, and did not devote his attention to the study of Greek antiquity. He had no interest in inaugurat ing a new religion, but was content to imbibe the inspira tion of the city of Rome, and gave himself unreservedly to its influence. 'No one', says his friend Sabellicus, 'admired antiquity more ; no one spent more pains in its investigation'. He explored every nook and corner of old Rome, and stood gazing with rapt attention on every relic of a bygone age : often, as he looked, his eyes filled with tears, and he wept at the thought of the grand old times. He despised the age in which he lived and did not conceal his contempt for its barbarism. He sneered at religion, openly expressed his dislike of the clergy, and inveighed bitterly amongst his friends against the pride and luxury of the Cardinals. A story is told that one day an enemy asked him publicly if he believed in the existence of God ; Yes, he answered, because I believe that there is nothing He hates more than you . The deity which Pomponius adored was the Genius of the City of Rome. He set an example, which was long followed, of celebrating the city s birthday with high festivities amongst a circle of congenial spirits. In later times men dated from the festivals of Pomponius the beginning of the downfall of faith.

The temper of Pomponius, as shown in the affairs of life, was that of a Stoic. He was poor and sought none of the prizes which literary men in his day so keenly pursued. When his wealthy relatives wished to claim him after he had become famous, and invited him to come and live at Naples, he returned them an answer which has become famous as a model of terseness. 'Pomponius Laetus to his relatives sends greeting. What you ask cannot be. Farewell.' He lived simply in a little house on the Esqui- line, and hired a vineyard in the Quirinal, which he culti vated according to the precepts of Varro and Columella. His other amusement was to keep birds, whose habits he carefully observed. He always dressed in the same manner; though simple in all things, he was scrupulously clean and neat. His only interests were in exploring classical antiquity and teaching the students who flocked to his lectures. He rose early in the morning, and often needed the help of a lantern to guide him to his school, where there was scarcely room for the overflowing audience which had already assembled. There was nothing striking in his appearance. He was a small common-looking man, with short curly hair that turned grey before its time, and little eyes deep-set beneath beetling brows ; only when he smiled did his face become expressive.

Pomponius was a genuine teacher, who was interested in his scholars. He did not try to make a name by writings, for he said that, like Socrates and Jesus, his scholars should be his books. He gave his attention to his lectures, and delighted in organising revivals of the old Latin comedies. Pie trained the actors and superintended the smallest details of stage management when any great man opened his house for the representation of a play of Plautus or Terence. He took the young men of Rome under his fatherly care, and would reprove their misdoings by a shake of the head and a remark, 'Your ancestors would not have behaved thus.'

The house of Pomponius was filled with relics of classical art, and the Academy which centred there was the home of very unorthodox opinions. After the Roman dissolution of the College of Abbreviators the Roman Academy became naturally the meeting place of the aggrieved scholars. There they abused the Pope to their hearts content, while Pomponius sat by and smiled. They vented their spleen by organising a foolish protest against the Church and its ceremonies ; and the example of Pomponius suggested to them a plan by which they bound themselves into an esoteric society. Instead of their baptismal names, given them from Christian saints, they chose new names from classical antiquity. Filippo Buonacursi called himself Callimachus Experiens, and we find besides Asclepiades, Glaucus, Petreius, and the like. The festival which Pomponius had instituted for the observance of the foundation day of the city suggested in like manner a parody of pagan rites. As a protest against Paul II., Pomponius Laetus was hailed as Pontifex Maximus, and many of the others took priestly titles. They held meetings in the catacombs, and parodied the beginnings of the Christian Church. It was an outburst of silly petulance on the part of men whose heads were turned by vanity, till they showed their spite against the Pope by threatening a revival of paganism.

The Heathen-Minded Humanists
  • Part One provides the background of the struggle between Pope Paul II and the Roman Academy
  • Part Two describes the crisis of 1468;  
  • Part Three presents the denouement, in which all charges are dropped and the Heathen Academy survives intact.
  • Part Four  tells the tale of the surprising evidence discovered four centuries later of the literally underground Paganism that existed in Rome in the 15th century; 
  • Part Five looks at the other Roman Academy and its head, Cardinal Bessarion.]
  • Part Six (what you are reading right now) gives a nice thumbnail sketch of Pomponius Laetus.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

"We call many of these religious movements something genuinely new, but ...."

In my previous post I looked at J. Gordon Melton's 2007 article on "New New Religions" ("What is wrong in some societies where new religions are relatively absent?"). In that post I also included a table listing some of the major "new religions" that have appeared in Japan since 1925. That table was drawn from a collection of essays by Susumu Shimazono titled From Salvation to Spirituality: Popular Religious Movements in Modern Japan (Trans Pacific Press, 2004). In a review of that collection, Daniel A. Metraux (a religion scholar of some note in his own right) describes Shimazono as "one of the foremost scholars of the contemporary religious scene in Japan." Metraux's whole review is available online here:

In this post I want to call attention to the fact that Shimazono has raised serious doubts about just how "new" the so-called shin-shûkyô of Japan really are, by emphasizing both (1) the fact that real objective similarities exist between the teachings of various ancient religious traditions (especially Buddhism and Shinto) and ideas characteristic of "new spirituality movements", and (2) the fact that many proponents of these "new spirituality movements" subjectively feel a very strong affinity to ancient traditions (especially Buddhism). In discussing this section in his review, Metraux appears willing to go a little further, or at least to be somewhat more direct, than Shimazono, when he (Metraux) states: "We call many of these religious movements something genuinely new, but scholars such as Shimazono correctly point out their strong roots in more traditional Buddhist or Shinto culture in Japan."

Here is the relevant section of Metraux's review of Shimazono's book:

Shimazono makes links between more traditional Buddhism and some of the New Religions and New Spirituality movements. There are concrete differences between the new spiritualism and traditional Buddhism in that some of these newer movements do not focus as much on an awareness of human suffering and lack a concept of personified agents such as God, gods, or a sacred Other. But, he notes (p. 302) that
[I]f we interpret Buddhism as a teaching that every person can undergo the Buddha’s enlightenment as one's own experience if one follows the righteous paths based on the truth, then Buddhism is rather close to the new spirituality movements and culture. Significantly, some persons involved in the new spirituality movements and culture are so sympathetic to Buddhism that they consider their own quest in the new spirituality movements and culture as merely a new evolution of Buddhism for the contemporary world.
This last point is well argued and most interesting. We call many of these religious movements something genuinely new, but scholars such as Shimazono correctly point out their strong roots in more traditional Buddhist or Shinto culture in Japan. To get back to the Soka Gakkai, there are those who assert that the Soka Gakkai is not a real "Buddhist movement," but Shimazono's chapters on the Gakkai, as well as Reiyukai and other Lotus Sutra-based New Religious Movements (NRMs), indicate that many of the most popular of these groups are indeed very Buddhist in their orientation — and quite traditionally Buddhist at that.