Potestas Essendi

A Virtual Space for Thoughts on the Middle Ages, by Nicola Polloni

Gundissalinus World Tour – pt. 1

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The first ten days in the US have passed: two lectures and many precious moments of enrichment, reflection, discussion and (often quite underestimated) fun. It all began in a very bad way: the journey Durham – South Bend lasted 45 (you’re not misreading: forty-five) hours, a time during which I had the occasion to cultivate a crucial and painful virtue: patience (a vast amount of it). But once the plane did land in Chicago, and I entered the train to South Bend, all the stress and the fatigue of the long trip suddenly disappeared.

Notre Dame is a strange place. A golden campus in the middle of nowhere, a peculiar geographical position thanks to which the Winter is so cold that once, when I tried to visit the campus (and even heading downtown: how foolish of me), I had to run home very fast since I couldn’t feel my feet and hands anymore. And all that after just 15 minutes at -23! It was February 2015, and I was there for my SIEPM fellowship, a crucial moment, I can see that now, looking backwards to my PhD. In those months spent in South Bend, Indiana, I had the occasion to make friends with the squirrels and learn from prestigious scholars; I tasted my first pineapple pizza and my first grapples; I saw the contradictions of the American welfare state and the astonishing wonders of the American dream. I loved it, and sometimes I hated it: but going back to South Bend has been like going home and meet with old good friends (and I do not mean the squirrels).

The return to Notre Dame could have been just great, but spending those day with Therese and David Cory has been more than brilliant. They had arranged a true American experience for me, from the typical eggs-bacon-jam breakfast to pumpkin carving and trick-or-treating, yummi dinners, excursions to multi-coloured farmer’s markets, and… football! What an astounding experience, being there, the crowded stadium, the golden helmets, an exciting game whose outcomes were uncertain till the very end. And a good one for the Fighting Irish!

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Then, the day of my lecture finally came. I was a bit concerned, for the topic (epistemology) and the authors I had to deal with (Augustine, Isidore, Hugh of St Victor, and Gundissalinus): in such a prestigious university, considering the extremely high level of both faculty and students of the MI, what could I expect to be asked about? And again, the magic of Notre Dame – fondly required, especially with a paper on alchemy and necromancy – converted the very substance of that lecture in one of the best moments of discussion and debate ever, comparable only to what came a few days later (spoiler!). We spent a lot of time discussing the implications that astrology has on the human free will, the ‘political problem’ arising from alchemy as aurifiction rather than aurifaction (but in both cases it was a huge problem), the overall epistemological problems of Gundissalinus’s classification of sciences, and how these border-line disciplines survived the condemnations by the Church.

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After Notre Dame, I moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, right on the other side of Lake Michigan. Marquette University, one of the most prestigious academic institutions in America for medieval philosophy (and beyond). A bit anxious for the ‘big happening’, I was so eager to know what the people at Marquette think about the first reception of Avicenna in the Latin West. And the two days I spent in Milwaukee have been, by this viewpoint, definitely astonishing! Indeed, it’s always a pleasure to discuss your research with scholars dealing with topics related to yours, especially when they are so great scholars as Richard Taylor. But the discussion after my talk had something else, something difficult to define or describe (so Plotinian). A two-hours discussion, talking with Richard Taylor, David Tweteen, and the other members of the Mid-West seminar on the sources of Gundissalinus’s epistemological system, its peculiar merging of al-Farabi and Avicenna, the cosmological derivation of the universe and the influence of Abraham ibn Daud on this peculiar aspect of Gundissalinus’s reflection. But we also had the chance to discuss the intriguing treatise On the Peregrinations of the Soul in the Afterlife, a curious writing describing the ascent and descent of the soul after its separation from the body. One of the most precious moments of discussion, in general, and whose outcomes could be crucial under many respects for our understanding of the dynamics by which Avicenna and ‘the Arabs’ became part of the Latin philosophical tradition.

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The days I spent in Milwaukee were then crowned by two further events. The first one is my attendance at Richard Taylor’s graduate course, where I met Marquette’s graduate students. They are so prepared and working on many interesting issues, and it is awesome to see how philosophy and research perpetuate themselves into the new generations – and the spirit of Avicenna appeared. Philosophy and knowledge in general have a development similar to what the Persian philosopher stated (following another friend of us) on the individuals who perpetuate the species through their offspring. But we often forget that when we give to anyone even just a glimpse of reflection (a lecture, a lesson, or just a few words), we are performing a maieutic operation, so important and  so precious. The second event in Milwaukee is quite unrelated to academia or medieval philosophy, but not less historical: the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, and that’s a sort of ‘huge happening’ that I am so proud to have witnessed, even if just watching it on TV. Baseball is such a mental game – I’d even say, the ‘perfect’ game – and its discovery has been one of the best gifts I received by the period I spent in Notre Dame last year. As a chess game with a different ‘spirit’, baseball is like a medieval disputatio: you have to possess a vast knowledge of the authorities, reflect carefully, perform efficiently… and also have a bit of luck!

From Milwaukee I flew to Washington DC (with another flight cancelled and rebooked!), where I am now, revising my paper for the Colloquium at the University of South Carolina. Tomorrow afternoon, a long train trip (10:30h) will take me to Columbia, SC: I am sure I will have many things to add to this short update very, very soon. And in three days: presidential election!

 

 

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