January 23, 2016

Gerolamo Cardano on Happiness, Gratitude, and Staying Alive

Through the vehicle of writing sometimes, a voice is able to teleport up through the ages and almost stand there beside you, continuing the conversation.

Now that I'm living in Florence I've been reading everything I can get my hands on the European Renaissance: the art, architecture, the literature, science, politics, and the philosophy. It seems so present, even if gooped up a bit by all the tourism and Dan Brown-inspired reverie for Da Vinci. I want to be able to decipher what was real and revolutionary about the Renaissance, and what remains both in a physical sense and in how we still see and understand the world.

One character I've come across in my readings, whose name I'd never heard before, is Gerolamo Cardano, otherwise known as Hieronymus Cardanus in Latin or Jérôme Cardan in French. He was born illegitimately in 1501 in Pavia, northern Italy. His mom moved there just before he was born to escape the Plague in Milan, which had killed her other three kids. His dad was strict and overbearing and the young Gerolamo had to defy him in order to study the then more freethinking disciplines of science and philosophy at university rather than law, as his father had demanded.

Gerolamo went on to become a physician but was denied entrance to the College of Physicians on account of his low birth and feisty spirit. But he practiced anyway, soon making a name for himself for working with Plague victims and for describing for the first time typhoid fever.

In addition to medicine, he plunged into math and perhaps because he gambled, a pastime the Church on the eve of the Counterreformation couldn't have looked favourably on, he wrote the first treatise on probability. He also made the first widespread use of negative numbers and acknowledged those algebraic mindbenders, the imaginary numbers.

That would've been enough for a lifetime but Gerolamo also became interested in philosophy and mysticism, channeling such bigheads as Aristotle, Plato, and the Spanish Muslim Ibn Rushd, or Averroes. He wrote about the interdependence of life and transcendental matters such as "celestial heat," dreams, and the magical path to knowledge. He was out there, for sure, but also grounded in everyday concerns. He argued that deaf people were capable of using their minds, that they could learn to read and write without learning to speak first, and he fought for their right to an education.

In his personal life, one of his sons was executed and the other was a gambler who stole from him. Gerolamo himself was arrested and jailed for publishing the horoscope of Jesus, among other impieties, but also because he was just such an eclectic and screwball.

Which is to say, in my books anyway, wise. We learn from people like this. Here he is on the very quotidian concern of happiness, and gratitude, and simply staying alive. Carry this around with you - I can't say I've ever heard it put better.

"Although happiness suggests a state quite contrary to my nature, I can truthfully say that I was privileged from time to time to attain and share a certain measure of felicity. If there is anything good at all in life with which we can adorn this comedy's stage, I have not been cheated of such gifts."

He goes on to list them: "rest, peace, quiet comfort, self-restraint, orderliness, change, fun, entertainment, pleasant company, coziness, sleep, food and drink, riding, rowing, walking, obtaining the latest news, meditation, contemplation, good education, piety, marriage, merry feasts, a good and well-ordered memory, cleanliness, water, fire, listening to music, beholding the beauty surrounding us, pleasant conversation, tales and stories, liberty, continence, little birds, puppies, cats, the consolation of death and the thought of the eternal flux of time as it flows past happiness and misfortune."

And, he adds, "there is always the hope for some unexpected good turn of fortune; there is the practice of an art one is skilled in; there are the manifold changes of life, there is the whole wide world!"

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