6. Book Reviews
HISTORY OF IDEAS
- Section : Reviews - Book Reviews S. Mammola, E. Pasini
. Gastronomy and Revolution (M. Albertone – E. Pasini)
Section 2: Articles. Special Issue: Erasmian Science
. Lorsque le luxe bégaye: enquête sur les relations entre État
et ‘choses banales’. France, XVIII-XIX siècles (A. Millet)
. Writing for Women at the Beginning of the Seventeenth
Century: Hugh Pla’s Delightes for Ladies (D.-C. Rusu)
. Algérie, terre promise. Plaidoyer pour une Algérie
française dans la pensée de Buchez et ses disciples.
() (M. Lauricella)
. Review-Interview with Roger Cooter. e Critical
Intellectual in the Age of Neoliberal Hegemony (P.D. Omodeo)
. Book Reviews (S. Mammola, E. Pasini)
Section 5: News & Notices
. Activities of the GISI | Les activités du GISI ()
e enthusiastic blurbs on the back cover notwithstanding, this is a work of
scholarship. e Author is a well-known Renaissance scholar with a focus on
Marsilio Ficino, and the book is rich in learned enquiries and scientific sources.
To “get a sense of how our ideas of angels have been formed” (), Biblical texts
and their later commentators, as well as Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman
sources, and Neoplatonists ancient and early modern, and innumerable
suchlike, are invoked; even “entirely fictional” accounts, when they “have helped
to shape our perceptions of the angelic world” (, referring to Milton). And
“there is still room for discovery” ().
e book parades an engaging theme indeed—we inherit the interest in
angels from a shadowy side of the Western ᵗʰ century, with its long-lasting
nostalgia and desire for angelic beings, from Rilke to Wenders, from Klee to
Kushner. Angels present the combined appeal of the religious and, at least now, of
the unfamiliar. Unfailing messengers, indefatigable guardians, angels are true
Journal of Interdisciplinary History of Ideas (), , p. :–:. Non peer-reviewed.
cultural “archetypes” (); representations of angels have to do with ‘higher
powers’ drawn to us (-). But they, or our ideas of them, have a backstory of
deep transformation. Angels have strange and disparate origins: seraphs were
dragons () and cherubs were chariots (-), and their imagined aspect
was oen complex and terrible, before the iconographic uniformation of
mature Christianity and the assimilation of angels to certain classical images of
winged human creatures.
A crucial chapter concerns the midway position of angels between heaven
and earth that modernity will consign to humans. It is one of the best parts
of the book, with the exception of two discomforting pages devoted to a very
short history of astronomy (-, with a clumsy note on Ptolemy at p. ;
it makes one wonder who is the ‘target’, the lecteur virtuel that the writer has
in mind). e coalescence of Christian and classical sources in Ficino’s
ᵗʰcentury angelology, so on the verge of modernity (-), is the high point both
in the historical development of those ideas of ours, and in the chapter. In fact,
aer Ficino, the chapter (and the history) goes somewhat kaput, because angels
do not seem to keep pace with the times—although later in the book the reader
will enjoy again John Dee’s late-ᵗʰ-century conversations with angels and the
ensuing ludicrous adventures (-).
“Aer Descartes”, the Author concedes, “angels had no place in a mechanistic
universe” (); they would remain only in imaginative thinking and arts, and
in “popular affection” (the Author does not even suggest popular devotion, and
this is a bit of a surprise). Angelology becomes the exertion of bizzarre spirits,
be they professional theologians or not. One might observe that, for Descartes
himself, differently from our souls, angels, although unextended, can exercise
their power on the parts of the extended substance (Leer to Henry More, apr.
; AT V, ); and that, before and aer Descartes, it is not easy to take
philosophers at face value. In a stimulating article of the ’s, Macdonald Ross
had already been able to to show how difficult a theme is “the extent to which
philosophers and others must be taken literally when they have wrien about
angels” and other supernaturalities¹.
e maer is overall very complex and the book is sometimes a history,
sometimes a catalog of stratified ideas on angels, ordered by kinds, or by names.
Sometimes it is like ‘anything angels’ (at p. we even meet the Auschwitz
physician Mengele, an infamous ‘angel’ indeed). At p. the Author hints to a
very broad perspective on winged creatures in innumerable cultures, but then
focuses on the three religions of the book and on ‘us’. Concerning the
firstperson plural pronoun, by the way, it must be noted that its use to appeal to a
common feeling, or even experience, of angelic presences, sometimes surfaces.
But it is kept within prudent bounds.
e wider perspective, anyway, returns only occasionally and with some
slips like: “the dakinis of Tibetan Buddhism seem to bear a particularly close
relation to the daemons of Iamblichus and Proclus” (); be it true or false that
they seem to do so, was sollen wir damit anfangen? At time, when the
perspective really broadens, it seems that ‘our ideas’ on angels are simply open to the
projection of any problem, any (other) idea, of any need for an image in
metaphysical thinking—see pp. -, and at pp. - the author makes it clear to
the reader that with the idea of angels any confusion becomes possible and even
sought for. In the end, thus, the book is not exactly a contribution to knowledge
as every genuine work of scholarship intends to be. It is rather a quintessential
exemplar of history of ideas in its commercial stage of development. Such a
stage, in our society, is common fate of many revolutionary things.
¹ George Macdonald Ross, “Angels”, Philosophy (): -.
We received this book called First Light. Perhaps it would be beer to call it
“Too Much Light”: too much to the point of confusing the view, rather than
facilitate it. is feeling arises immediately browsing the challenging
subtitle, according to which this book should contain “a History of Creation Myths
from Gilgamesh to the God Particle”. All too easy to remind us of Gramsci’s
Brevi cenni sull’universo¹. We admit that it may be only a transient prejudice,
inspired by the vaguely New Age cover on which the undulating profile of
Ayers Rock stands under a very clear sky. e reading, however, does not help to
reverse this prejudice, but rather confirms it. First of all, this book speaks truly
of many, too many things, belonging moreover to that kind of topic typical of
certain television shows in which everything is brought together, from
Egyptian myths to Vedic doctrines through Greek cosmology, hermetic tradition,
biblical exegesis, African or Scandinavian beliefs, in an inevitably
doxographical mixture that simply evokes questions rather than discussing them critically.
On the other hand, such an alleged encyclopedical approach is then betrayed
by the peculiar point of view of the author, who is still a professor emeritus
of Medieval Philosophy and dedicates therefore more space to cosmological
theories of Church’s Fathers than to the founding myths of the Polynesian or
pre-Columbian cultures, which - logically - should be fully examined by a
“History of Creation Myths”. Aer all, the chapter in which references to legends
of the non-European people find some space reveals even from its title (“Going
to See”, p. -) a eurocentric perspective: it is resolved substantially in a
brief description of the misunderstanding, more or less ideologically oriented,
that has marked the look of Europeans on the civilizations that they have
gradually encountered in their expansion process, taking reports of explorers and
missionaries of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century as almost exclusive
sources. Nothing to do, however, with Giuliano Gliozzi’s research about the
European debate on the origins of ‘indios’ in Adam et le Nouveau Monde.
Cap¹ aderno /XXVIII, § ; “A caricature of a pedantic and pretentious headline: ‘News Briefs on
the Universe’” (Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, ed. by Joseph A. Buigieg, New York: Columbia
U.P., , p. ).
tains and religious people are introduced just to conclude that “aitudes which
recognised the full humanity of all human beings and the equal claims of their
accounts of creation were slow to emerge” (p. ).
Here and there, sketches of possible interdisciplinary investigations emerge,
condensed for example in the sections dedicated to the intersection between
“travel, science fiction and theological speculation” in the works of Daniel
Defoe (p. -), or to exotic paintings of omas Daniell (p. -). But it is
a maer of simple hints piled up without effective coordination between them.
e same can be said about the “cosmographic” chapter of the work (“What is
the layout of the cosmos?”, p. -), which refers to a series of problems
familiar to anyone who has dealt with issues related to the production of “images of
the world”, such as the demonstration of the sphericity of the Earth, its division
into climatic zones or the discussion about the existence of the antipodes. Also
in this case, topics are only juxtaposed without having completed the
excavation work necessary to unearth the connections, perhaps underground, which
link authors, disciplines, logic and systems of representation different from each
other—that is what constitutes the true meaning of a real interdisciplinary study
(which can be exemplified, to remain within the subject, by the beautiful History
of the World in Twelve Maps wrien by Jerry Broom).
It is rather clear that this is not what interests the author. Her effort to single
out various ways of understanding the concept of Creation—as an event
complete in itself or as a dynamic system that contains within itself the laws of
its own development or even as an event destined to repeat itself cyclically—is
aimed instead, as she puts it, to “the search for a key” (title of chapter eight),
meaning a possible underlying theme that unifies all the stories that
humanity has been able to produce on the origin of the world. Truly speaking, since
the very first line Evans makes clear that a definitive answer akin to the one
developed by the supercomputer in e Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy does
not exist. is view is echoed in the conclusion: “creation stories are
kaleidoscopic. A shake, and the colourful scraps sele into another paern. It is hard
to fix principles on which to consider one of these ephemeral pictures more
‘true’, ‘beautiful’ or ‘meaningufl’” (p. ). It follows that aempts to access the
archetypes of a collective unconscious or to rebuild comparatively the rules of a
unified mythology of mankind are therefore doomed to fail: “there is no single
unifiying version of the end any more than there is of the beginning” (p. ).
is is probably not the most exciting conclusion that can be given by a book of
more than two hundred pages. However, it is precisely this question—namely,
if you can give a definitive “story” about the origin of all things—the stimulus
that somehow sustains the whole research, and it is inevitable that, put in these
terms, it can only result in an esoteric account à la René Guénon or in skeptical
considerations of minimum common sense.
In all this, what of the “God particle” recalled on the cover? e two photos
of LHC in CERN that open and close the gallery available along with the book
allude to it implicitly, but it is mentioned only for few lines at the end of a
paragraph dedicated to Democritus’ atomism, simply as latest discovery in the
research of the infinitely small. Is this simply the last of the “creation myths”
elaborated by humanity – and in this sense, science is only one of many possible
“stories” with which men try to explain the meaning of the world—or is the
scientific approach, reasoning about the “principle” but not necessarily about
the “creation”, escaping by its very nature such a discussion? It is an aporia that
is not openly resolved. At the end of a chapter entitled “What is the evidence?”,
Evans writes that “within the parameters of the grand options identified down
the centuries, whether to believe the text of a sacred book, think the maer
through by pure reasoning or make inferences from observation of the universe,
there has proved, then, to be a good deal of room for manoeuvre and changes of
fashion”. en, she asks, “has there been progress?”—and she does not provide
an answer (p. ).
On balance, the feeling is that the author has ordered the copious personal
readings accumulated over a lifetime, directing them towards a wisdom
reflection rather than to an interdisciplinary research, of which this book is, so to
speak, just a simulation. e basic idea is that the question of the origins is a
question that has always accompanied mankind and continues to remain open,
even today, even if sometimes reformulated in scientific language. At this point,
however, it is best to leave this task to those who can perform it much beer
and give ourselves the pleasure of reading a book such as Gore Vidal’s Creation,
of which Evans quotes some passage. Even for a scholar, great literature is more
useful than a banal academic monograph.
Paul Klee, Angelus novus, (Rees, From Gabriel to Lucifer, fig. ).