Ex controversia lux

Written on December 4, 2007 by Administrador de IE Blogs in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Miguel Herrero De Jáuregui

The statistics sent by Google tell us that this young blog has more and more readers every day from different countries and operating systems. Great news. But it is surprising that only a few of these hundreds participate in the discussions and comments which follow every post. Controversia_01_3 As the Burgundian controversy has shown last week, post-post comments often raise interesting questions which go far beyond the initial goals of the first post. In most academic conferences a sleepy audience wakes up with the sound of clapping when the speaker sits down, to start up a lively discussion which often is far better than the paper. Everyday politics have created the impression that discussing is repeating in a very loud tone the same simple idea (people with just one idea are very sure that it is right). Yet few things are more pleasant and illuminating that finding reasonable opposition. Controversies throw much more light on a subject than unanimity. But verba movent, exempla trahunt (all this Latin in hommage to Felicia), so I will mention a couple of instances of how polemics illustrate the essence of very different matters. You may take this post as an exhortation to participate and give us the honour of your comments.

In 1550 the issue of the conquest of America was in everybody’s mind. Emperor Charles V called to a meeting in Valladolid the two most conspicuous representants of the opposite positions at stake, to discuss them before a commission of theologians and lawyers. The Dominican Bartolomé de las Casas defended the rights of the American Indians not to be colonized by force, while the humanist Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda argued for the conquest in the name of civilization. Despite the rhetoric excesses of both contenders, each one made an excellent case for his own position. At the end the whole discussion focused on one point: the concept of natural slavery in the Politics of Aristotle, whether he had really defended it, and whether his authority had more weight than the Christian idea of brotherly love. The history of ideas gave the moral victory to Las Casas, while that of facts followed Sepúlveda. But their controversy remains a high point of political theory of all times, and in fact shows that the Spanish Empire was not so terrible as the widespread Black Legend holds (but that’s another post).

200pxnietzsche_later_years Let us turn our attention to a wholly different picture. In 1872 a young promising professor of Greek in Basel, Friedrich Nietzsche, published a book, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, in which he set up two new categories for the study of the ancient world: the Dionysiac vs. the Apollinean. Some months later another classicist (who had gone to the same private school), Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, made an extremely hostile review of the book in which he demolished Nietzsche’s arguments one after the other. Against the romantic vision of ancient Greece to make a life-philosophy out of it, he set up rigorous academic categories which held a truer vision of it –though much more distant from the minds and souls of our centuries. Wilamowitz ended up his review saying: “Professor Nietzsche may dwell with the maenads ravelling in madness… but he should leave his chair in Basel”. And Nietzsche did precisely that some years later: “I have abandoned the house of the wise slamming the door”. Then he sank into a spiral of genius and madness and he died completely off his mind in 1900, ignored by all except a few faithful friends (Wagner, Rohde). On the other side, Wilamowitz came to be the most prominent classicist in Germany, and one of the most respected intellectual figures until his death in 1933. Yet none of his books has been translated, and only some philologists care to read his learned papers –and most times to say that he was wrong. Just compare that with Nietzsche’s fortune in the history of philosophy.

Rilke was right: “Who speaks of victories? To survive is everything”.

            Two instances call for a third one, don’t they? After the famous summit of Valladolid and the most dramatic academic debate of all times, how about a blog discussion? The third controversy will hopefully take place in ST…


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