The Imponderability of the Past

(We bloggers have been enjoined to post this summer on travels that we have taken to Europe. The reflection below was derived from a trip to Italy [Rome, Florence, and Oriveto] and Istanbul, Turkey.)

In the late 900s, the Byzantine Emperor Basil (“the Bulgar Slayer”) led an army from Constantinople against the Bulgars who had invaded his territories in Greece. Defeated at first, he raised new armies and kept returning to the fray. The turning point finally came in 1014 when his imperial troops managed to capture fifteen thousand Bulgar warriors. Instead of killing his captives, he decided to blind them, except for one in every one hundred, whom he left with one eye each so that they could lead their comrades back home.

One hundred and fifty eyes short of the blind leading the blind, the image of the mutilated Bulgars marching home, defeated, possesses an arresting, suggestive power. Those of us who attempt to know the past and claim that knowledge of it affords some guidance to the present might well identify with the one-eyed Bulgars: we see in part and we have a capacity to lead; but we recognize our defeats and limitations, the stubborn lacunae of what we cannot see and do not know.

This awareness was driven home to me recently on a study trip abroad, in which I led several former students to Italy, to the cities of Orvieto, Florence, and Rome. Afterward, I continued traveling on my own to Istanbul, Turkey, the erstwhile “Nuova Roma” or Constantinople (330) until its sack by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, a red-letter date in world history. It was this latter, personal leg of the journey that prompted me to read up on the history of Istanbul, during which I encountered the curious story of Basil and the eyeless Bulgars.

But for the theme of this essay—the imponderability of the past—the first part of the trip with the students and the solo one afterward must be understood together. For the study trip to Italy, we had selected as our topic: “Virtue and Vice: Explorations in History, Ethics, and Art, and Place,” a capacious set of foci, I admit. Our joint readings included Dante’s Purgatorio and some short works by the twentieth-century Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper, notably one of his classics, The Four Cardinal Virtues. In it, Pieper discusses the cardinal or classical virtues of Prudence, Justice, Courage, and Temperance, which first appear in Plato’s Republic. They were later baptized into Christian thought, most influentially in Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, and subordinated to the New-Testament theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love.

During our trip, we paired our readings with actual sightings of the virtues, frequently rendered as female allegorical figures in medieval and Renaissance art. They appear on the walls and ceilings of the Vatican museums, for example; in several places in fact, but most dramatically in Raphael’s stanza della segnatura, in the same room as his famous School of Athens. We discovered them often in Florence: on the doors of the Duomo’s Baptistery, on the side of the Duomo’s bell tower, at the Franciscan church of Santa Croce, in the Uffizi museum, and above the head of Thomas Aquinas in a provocative fresco, “The Triumph of Saint Thomas,” painted by Andrea di Bonaiuto da Firenze in the chapter room of the Santa Maria Novella, once the leading Dominican monastery in Florence . . .

The article was first published as an essay in the journal The Cresset (2014). In its entirety, it can be found here

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