Posted by: Jim | March 25, 2009

It Moves By Itself

menocchioAs some of you know, I’ve gone back to school with the notion of (maybe) getting an MA in History. Much of the reading material I’ve had this semester has been nice, but not what I would choose to read if I weren’t in school.

However, I’m now reading a wonderful book called “The Cheese and the Worms” by Carlo Ginzburg. My only regret in having to read this book is that I’m forced to rush. It’s a very rich retelling of a story found in documents created during the inquisition in Italy in 1599. The trial was for a man called “Menocchio,” who was a common miller with some very uncommon beliefs.

Menocchio was probably a genius, but suffered under the rubric of Catholicism during its most horrible years. His response seems perfectly normal: to reject the world view of his oppressors and find another one—any other one. He taught himself to read, and began exposing himself to whatever books he could find. After what the author believes must have been years of synthesizing what he’d read with his own observations, Menocchio formed his own very unique world view. It included a form of spontaneous generation, which was the only “scientific” (non-religious) explanation of life at that time. In short, Menocchio was an atheist. At least I think he was. He would speak of God, but God was always an abstraction, something that was formed by—and with—the chaos.

The inquisitors found Menocchio fascinating. So even though they knew very early in the trial that they would have to burn Menocchio at the stake—a verdict that was probably not lost on the plaintiff—they spent weeks questioning him. They could not fathom how a common peasant could have devised such a rich and complex world view without the aid of the church.

I found one line of questioning particularly inspiring:

Inquisitor: Who moves the chaos?

Menocchio: It moves by itself.

After 410 years, I would like to you Menocchio, for having the courage to think clearly amid a world gone mad.

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Responses

  1. Jim,

    I don’t think that this guy, interesting as he is, is alone, inasmuch as, if one reads, for example, another genius, Descartes, it is fairly clear that God does not constitute a set of teachings but is something postulated by logic, and while a morality may flow from this, through the notion of living in harmony with truth, etc, there is no actual dogma, there is no church.

    This conception of the laws of nature and the search for truth as bringing one nearer to God was once a commonplace, whereas equally, there has been a historical movement, by the clerisy, against such a search for its capacity to overturn the truths of the church, evolution, the heliocentric solar system, the controversies surrounding whether morality was innate, and therefore from God, or was a product of sense experience alone (Hume, for example, ran afoul of this)…

    The clerisy has always practised moral relativisim in this, adjusting its stance with regard to 1) how damaging the truth in question is, and 2) the constraints in place on the church at that particular time and place.

    This is why, time and again, I have had to take issue with the fundamental notion that the Church stands for any sort of self-evident or timeless morality and provides something consistent while society transforms itself, etc. This is just one of the many myths of the Christian church.

  2. It’s actually an elegant answer and no different really to the notion of God as the First Cause, the only one without a precursor.

    Except here, I suppose, we’d have some bible thumper yelling about “Worshipping Chaos as a God?”

    Chaos actually meant chasm, rather than our more modern conception of disorder, in its earliest renditions, it is often wrongly attributed afterwards.


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