Learning from Boccaccio's humanism — “Umana cosa è aver compassionedegli afflitti" — It is human to have compassion for those in distress

Illustration from a ca. 1492 edition of Il Decameron
Readings: Song of Songs 4:16-5:2

From Robert Pogue Harrison: “Gardens—An Essay on the Human Condition”, University of Chicago Press, 2008, p. 71).

What is one to do in so-called dark times, when the world that "comes between men" no longer gives them a meaningful stage for their speech and actions, when reasoned discourse loses its suasion, when powerlessness rather than empowerment defines the citizen's role in the public sphere? There are times when the thinker, patriot, or individual has no choice but to withdraw to the sidelines, as Plato did when he gave up the idea of becoming a statesman and founded a school on the outskirts of Athens. In her book "Men in Dark Times" Hannah Arendt writes: "Flight from the world in dark times  of impotence can always be justified as long as reality is not ignored, but is acknowledged as the thing that must be escaped. The same could be said of the sanctuary that gardens have traditionally offered people when their human condition is under siege. A garden sanctuary can be either a blessing or a curse, depending on the degree of reality it preserves within its haven. Some gardens become places of escape that try to shut out reality . . .. Other gardens, by contrast, become places of humanization in the midst of, or in spite of, the forces of darkness (From the chapter "The Garden School of Epicurus").

(From Robert Pogue Harrison: “Gardens—An Essay on the Human Condition”, University of Chicago Press, 2008, pp. 94-95).

Giovanni Boccaccio
Boccaccio was no moralist. He was not a reformer or would-be prophet. He was not especially preoccupied by human depravity or humanity’s prospects for salvation. He did not harangue his reader from any self-erected pulpit of moral, political, or religious conviction. If the ethical claims for the Decameron which he lays out in his preface are finally extremely modest (the author hopes through his stories to offer diversion and consolation to those in need of them), it is because the human condition itself is a modest one. The plague demonstrates as much. To be human means to be vulnerable to misfortune and disaster. It means periodically to find oneself in need of help, comfort, distraction, or edification. Our condition is for the most part an affair of the everyday, not of the heroic, and our minimal ethical responsibility to our neighbour, according to Boccaccio’s humanism, consists not in showing him or her the way to redemption but in helping him or her to get through the day. This help takes many modest forms, not least of which is rendering the sphere of social interaction more pleasurable through wit, decorum, story-telling, fellowship, conversation, courtesy, and sociability. To add to the pleasure rather than the misery of life: that is the arché or first principle of Boccaccio’s humanism, which is not the  triumphalist humanism of later eras (which saw self-reliant humankind as the glory of all creation) but the civil humanism of neighbourly love. (It is not by chance that Boccaccio begins his preface with the word umana, or human: Umana cosa è aver compassione degli afflitti [It is human to have compassion for those in distress]) (From the chapter "Boccaccio's Garden Stories).

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Address
Learning from Boccaccio's humanism — “Umana cosa è aver compassione degli afflitti" — It is human to have compassion for those in distress

This week a song by Loudon Wainwright kept coming back into my mind, its chorus goes as follows:

          It's been a hard day on the planet:
          How much is it all worth?
          It's getting harder to understand it
          Things are tough all over on earth.

These lines have certainly been true every day of the past few weeks and none of us can failed to have heard, over and over again, the harrowing reports of the most awful kind of violence being metered out upon countless numbers of innocent people in Gaza and Israel/Palestine, Ukraine, Libya, and Iraq and, if that were not enough, we are also likely to have been alarmed by the increasingly dangerous Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Those of you who follow the news carefully will know that, although these are the events that are currently making the headlines, there are plenty of other grim stories out there just waiting their own turn in the limelight some of which are to be found right here on our own doorstep.

Now, I'm just about to go away for my summer vacation and I can assure you that I fully intend to try and put wholly to one side most of these events for the duration of my break.

This thought meant that, when it came to writing this, my final address before leaving, there was an immediate, almost overwhelming temptation to produce what we might call a “flight from reality sermon” by concentrating on some obviously pleasant topic which had a chance of leaving you (and me) with a certain sense of contentment and hope even if, ultimately, it achieved this by simply ignoring all the current horrors. But, ultimately, I didn't feel that this was at all the right thing to do because, whether we like it or not, these events are clearly pressing upon all our psyches and I think it would be foolhardy, and perhaps even psychologically dangerous, to pretend otherwise.

So what to do? Well, it took me three days and the writing of two failed addresses before it came upon me how I might be able to offer up a right (enough) word for this situation. On Friday night as I began to fall asleep Giovanni Boccaccio’s (1313–1375) “Decameron” (1353) came quietly into my dreams.

The year is 1348 and there is a terrible plague running unchecked in Florence. As Robert Pogue Harrison says:

In the city, civic order has degenerated into anarchy; love of one’s neighbour has turned into dread of one’s neighbour (who now represents the threat of contagion); the law of kinship has given way to every person for himself (many family members flee from their infected loved ones, leaving them to face their death agonies alone and without succour); and where there was once courtesy and decorum there is now only crime and delirium (Gardens, p. 84).

To escape this horror a group of seven young women and three young men decide to go to out of the city for two-weeks to a secluded villa within a wonderful walled-garden and there "to engage in conversation, leisurely walks, dancing, storytelling, and merry-making taking care not to transgress the codes of proper conduct" (Gardens, p. 84). What could be more different from the horrors of Florence than this garden idyll.

At first sight it might seem that their retreat to this villa and its gardens was precisely the flight from reality that I have admitted to being wary of. But, as Harrison points out:

While their escapade is indeed a ‘flight from reality’, their self-conscious efforts to follow an almost ideal code of sociability during their stay in the hills of Fiesole are a direct response to the collapse of social order they leave behind. In that respect their sojourn is wholly “justified” by Hannah Arendt’s standards [when she says]: “flight from the world in dark times of impotence can always be justified as long as reality is not ignored, but is acknowledged as the thing that must be escaped (Gardens, p. 84).

This seems to me to be a vital insight to hold on to — not only by myself, as I go on vacation but also by us in our day to day life as a church.

That this is so became apparent to me because this address was finally begun the day after a conversation with a colleague in which I had just admitted that, after my sabbatical of 2008, an important change had occurred in my own outlook.

In my early years as your minister I brought into play — with varying degrees of success and failure — the tradition of political, social and religious activism I had inherited from my youth. It was a stance which brought with it a global vision and hope and, whenever I needed to explain this (either to myself or others), I generally said something akin to Karl Marx’s eleventh thesis found in his “Theses on Feuerbach”: “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it”. In this effort to change the world the large-scale, nineteenth-century Christian Socialist movement was my basic starting point, it was an activist tradition shared by own own liberal religious movement. (At the end of this address I’ll return to Marx’s aphorism and offer it up again but in a very different key.)

But it is clear that the world today is not what it was in the nineteenth-century, it is not even the world of the 1960s into which I was born and which had its own fair share of radical activist movements. In the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries we have all become increasingly suspicious of those who promote, and attempt to enact, the kind of grand, world-changing schemes I had been so strongly influenced by. Technology and globalisation have brought with them new kinds of fragmentation and democratisation — some aspects of which we will feel to be good, some bad — and they have all definitely cut against the old style political and religious activism I inherited. Boccaccio’s humanism, at least as it was presented to me by Harrison, played a key role in the process of reassessment I have had to undergo since 2008.

This process helped me begin better to see that “[o]ur condition is for the most part an affair of the everyday, not of the heroic” and, in turn, this allowed me to begin to move away from what Harrison calls “the triumphalist humanism of later eras (which saw self-reliant humankind as the glory of all creation)” and decisively towards “the civil humanism of neighbourly love.”

The primary consequence of this has been a recognition of the need to live out, again as Harrison notes, some kind of “minimal ethical responsibility to our neighbour” which, “according to Boccaccio’s humanism, consists not in showing him or her the way to redemption but in helping him or her to get through the day” and to state strongly and clearly: “Umana cosa è aver compassione degli afflitti" (It is human to have compassion for those in distress).

Given that we here have begun to hold from time to time “Epicurean Gatherings” it is worth remembering in passing that Boccaccio’s “Decameron” is considered by Harrison to be “one of the most elegant, if non-doctrinal, expressions of Epicureanism in its genuine latter-day form.”

Anyway, the news of the last couple of weeks — and our own everyday lives with their own real vicissitudes — shows clearly that in order to achieve this, “periodically” we all find ourselves “in need of help, comfort, distraction, or edification” in which we can “escape reality”. But, and it is a hugely important but, this escape must always be undertaken according to Hannah Arendt’s standards, namely, that “flight from the world in dark times of impotence can always be justified as long as reality is not ignored, but is acknowledged as the thing that must be escaped”.

Contingent historical events have meant that we are now a very small community and, whilst we can still from time to time display a successful activism (e.g. in the support of same-sex marriage legislation), we have to acknowledge that we are no longer an effective, single activist force for change in our society.

Consequently, I think that, today, this liberal church community best placed to offer, at least once a week, something like the garden to which Boccaccio’s ten youngsters escaped when they made their way into the hills six-hundred and sixty-six years ago.

Today, we are clearly at our most effective in our ability to render one to another “the sphere of social interaction more pleasurable through wit, decorum, story-telling, fellowship, conversation, courtesy, and sociability” and “[t]o add to the pleasure rather than the misery of life” and, as I hope this address has made relatively clear, we are able to do this to Hannah Arendt's standards. The real (if modest) hope is that those who come here on a Sunday morning or evening, when they return to reality on Monday morning, will find they are better able to get through the next day and week. At the very least we can provide some kind of meaningful support for the modest activism each individual is able to undertake themselves.

It’s important to realise that after two weeks the ten storytellers in the "Decameron" also make a return to reality. Although it was as true for them, as it is for us, that time spent together in fellowship — sharing story, song and conversation — may seem to have little or no immediate, direct effect on the “outside” world, it is not true that nothing has changed. What the ten friends, and we, do together is something we may call “recasting reality” and, as Harrison notes,

By recasting reality in narrative modes, they allow what is otherwise hidden by reality’s amorphous flow of moments to appear in formal relief” . . . [and the magic of stories and gardens is that] they transfigure the real even as they leave it apparently untouched.

As I have put it at other times, whilst it is true there is no other world than this one, there is another world, namely, this world seen or interpreted differently. To paraphrase what I often say about prayer, though we may doubt our interpretations change anything, let it never be forgotten that interpretations change people and people change things.

With this point I can begin to draw to a close today by returning to Marx’s famous words I mentioned earlier, that “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it.” Those of you who know me well know that I am a great admirer of the contemporary Italian philosopher, Gianni Vattimo. He, and his colleague Santiago Zabala, feel that in our new situation and condition Marx’s statement needs to rephrased as follows:

“The philosophers have only described the world in various ways; the moment now has arrived to interpret it” (Hermeneutic Communism, Columbia University Press, 2011, p. 5).

In other words, in our wholly new historical, political, religious and social situation, it seems to me that the best and most effective way a small liberal religious movement like our own can change the world today is to continue to gather together with wit, decorum, story-telling, fellowship, conversation, courtesy, and sociability” in order to offer ourselves and the world more creative, compassionate and civilising interpretations of the world than those we are currently being offered by reality.

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We were pleased to welcome to the service this morning the Revd Dr. Kenneth Torquil MacLean who is the minister emeritus of the UU Church of the Desert, Rancho Mirage, California. He is an old friend of our own minister emeritus, the Revd Frank Walker. After the service we thought it would be fun to have our photo taken together and I add it here. Below that I have also posted a photo of the sky outside the church taken shortly afterwards and just before the heavens opened.
L. to r.: Andrew, Ken and Frank
Outside the church just before the heavens open on Emmanuel Road
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