Feb 242019

Today is the birthday (1463) of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, an Italian Renaissance nobleman and philosopher. Not a common household name these days, although his influence was (and is) wide ranging. Those with some historical knowledge remember him for the events of 1486, when, at the age of 23, he proposed to defend 900 theses on religion, philosophy, natural philosophy, and magic against all comers, for which he wrote the Oration on the Dignity of Man, which some have called the “Manifesto of the Renaissance” because it lays out the details of Renaissance humanism and of what has been called the “Hermetic Reformation”. He was the founder of the tradition of Christian Kabbalah, a key component of early modern Western esotericism. He is often called Mirandola which is more of a geographic designation (like da Vinci) than a family name, although his family owned the estate of Mirandola. His actual family name is Pico.

Pico had an exceptional memory as a child and was schooled in Latin and Greek at a very early age. He was intended for the Church by his mother and was named a papal protonotary (probably honorary) at the age of ten and in 1477 he went to Bologna to study canon law. At the sudden death of his mother three years later, Pico renounced canon law and began to study philosophy at the University of Ferrara. During a brief trip to Florence, he met Angelo Poliziano, the courtly poet Girolamo Benivieni, and probably the young Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola. For the rest of his life he remained very close friends with all three. From 1480 to 1482, he continued his studies at the University of Padua, a major center of Aristotelianism in Italy. He studied Hebrew and Arabic in Padua with Elia del Medigo, a Jewish Averroist, and read Aramaic manuscripts with him as well. Del Medigo also translated Judaic manuscripts from Hebrew into Latin for Pico, as he would continue to do for a number of years. Pico also wrote sonnets in Latin and Italian which, because of the influence of Savonarola, he destroyed at the end of his life.

He spent the next four years either at home or visiting humanist centers elsewhere in Italy. In 1485, he traveled to the University of Paris, the most important centre in Europe for scholastic philosophy and theology, and a hotbed of secular Averroism. It was probably in Paris that Pico began his 900 Theses and conceived the idea of defending them in public debate. During this time two life-changing events occurred. The first was his return to Florence in November 1484 where he met Lorenzo de’ Medici and Marsilio Ficino and charmed both men. Lorenzo would support and protect Pico until his death in 1492. Without Lorenzo’s support, it is doubtful that Pico would have survived the Inquisition coming after him.

Soon after this stay in Florence, Pico was traveling on his way to Rome where he intended to publish his 900 Theses and prepare for a “congress” of scholars from all over Europe to debate them. Stopping in Arezzo he became embroiled in a love affair with the wife of one of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s cousins. It almost cost him his life. Giovanni attempted to run off with the woman, but he was caught, wounded and thrown into prison by her husband. He was released only upon the intervention of Lorenzo himself. The incident is representative of Pico’s audacious (perhaps reckless) temperament and of the loyalty and affection he nevertheless could inspire.

Pico spent several months in Perugia and nearby Fratta, recovering from his injuries. It was there, as he wrote to Ficino, that “divine Providence … caused certain books to fall into my hands. They are Chaldean books … of Esdras, of Zoroaster and of Melchior, oracles of the magi, which contain a brief and dry interpretation of Chaldean philosophy, but full of mystery.” It was also in Perugia that Pico was introduced to the mystical Hebrew Kabbalah, which fascinated him, as did the late classical Hermetic writers, such as Hermes Trismegistus. The Kabbalah and Hermetica were thought in Pico’s time to be as ancient as the Hebrew Testament. The most original of his 900 theses concerned the Kaballah. As a result, he became the founder of the tradition known as Christian Kabbalah, which went on to be a central part of early modern Western esotericism. Pico’s approach to different philosophies was one of extreme syncretism, placing them in parallel rather than attempting to describe a developmental history.

Pico based his ideas chiefly on Plato, as did his teacher, Marsilio Ficino, but retained a deep respect for Aristotle. Although he was a product of the studia humanitatis, Pico was constitutionally an eclectic, and in some respects he represented a reaction against the exaggerations of pure humanism, defending what he believed to be the best of the medieval and Islamic commentators, such as Averroes and Avicenna, on Aristotle in a famous long letter to Ermolao Barbaro in 1485. It was always Pico’s aim to reconcile the schools of Plato and Aristotle since he believed they used different words to express the same concepts. It was perhaps, for this reason, his friends called him “Princeps Concordiae”, or “Prince of Harmony” (a pun on Prince of Concordia, one of his family’s holdings). Similarly, Pico believed that an educated person should also study the Hebrew and Talmudic sources, and the Hermetics, because he thought they represented the same concept of God that is seen in Hebrew scripture, but in different words.

He finished his Oration on the Dignity of Man to accompany his 900 Theses and traveled to Rome to continue his plan to defend them. He had them published together in December 1486 as Conclusiones philosophicae, cabalasticae et theologicae, and offered to pay the expenses of any scholars who came to Rome to debate them publicly. He wanted the debate to begin on 6th January (the Christian feast of Epiphany celebrating the introduction of the Christ child to the pagan world). After emerging victorious at the culmination of the debate, Pico imagined some kind of new (perhaps apocalyptic) epiphany when all the world would be convinced of the correctness of his conclusions.

In February 1487, Pope Innocent VIII halted the proposed debate, and established a commission to review the orthodoxy of the 900 Theses. Although Pico answered the charges against them, 13 of them were condemned. Pico agreed in writing to retract them, but he did not change his mind about their validity. Eventually all 900 theses were condemned. He proceeded to write an apologia defending them, Apologia J. Pici Mirandolani, Concordiae comitis, published in 1489, which he dedicated to his patron, Lorenzo. When the pope was apprised of the circulation of this manuscript, he set up an inquisitorial tribunal, forcing Pico to renounce the Apologia, in addition to his condemned theses, which he agreed to do. The pope condemned 900 Theses as:

In part heretical, in part the flower of heresy; several are scandalous and offensive to pious ears; most do nothing but reproduce the errors of pagan philosophers… others are capable of inflaming the impertinence of the Jews; a number of them, finally, under the pretext of ‘natural philosophy’, favor arts [i.e., magic] that are enemies to the Catholic faith and to the human race.

This was the first time that a printed book had been banned by the Church, and nearly all copies were burned. Pico fled to France in 1488, where he was arrested by Philip II, duke of Savoy, at the demand of the papal nuncios, and imprisoned at Vincennes. Through the intercession of several Italian princes – all instigated by Lorenzo de’ Medici – king Charles VIII had him released, and the pope was persuaded to allow Pico to move to Florence and to live under Lorenzo’s protection. But he was not cleared of the papal censures and restrictions until 1493, after the accession of Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) to the papacy.

The experience deeply shook Pico. He reconciled with Savonarola, who remained a very close friend. It was at Pico’s persuasion that Lorenzo invited Savonarola to Florence. But Pico never renounced his syncretist convictions. He settled in a villa near Fiesole prepared for him by Lorenzo, where he wrote and published the Heptaplus id est de Dei creatoris opere (1489) and De Ente et Uno (Of Being and Unity), (1491). It was here that he also wrote his other most celebrated work, the Disputationes adversus astrologiam divinicatrium (Treatise Against Predictive Astrology), which was not published until after his death. In it, Pico acidly condemned the deterministic practices of the astrologers of his day.

After the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici, in 1492, Pico moved to Ferrara, although he continued to visit Florence. In Florence, political instability gave rise to the increasing influence of Savonarola, whose reactionary opposition to Renaissance expansion and style had already brought about conflict with the Medici family (they eventually were expelled from Florence) and would lead to the wholesale destruction of books and paintings. Nevertheless, Pico became a follower of Savonarola. Determined to become a monk, he dismissed his former interest in Egyptian and Chaldean texts, destroyed his own poetry and gave away his fortune.

In 1494, at the age of 31, Pico was poisoned under mysterious circumstances along with his friend Angelo Poliziano. It was rumored that his own secretary had poisoned him because Pico had become too close to Savonarola. He was interred together with Girolamo Benivieni at the church of San Marco in Florence, and Savonarola delivered the funeral oration. In 2007, the bodies of Poliziano and Pico were exhumed. Scientists under the supervision of Giorgio Gruppioni, a professor of anthropology from Bologna, attempted to determine the cause of the two men’s deaths using modern forensic technology. In February 2008 they announced their results, which showed that both Poliziano and Pico had died of arsenic poisoning, probably at the order of Lorenzo’s successor, Piero de’ Medici.

The aspect of Pico’s humanism that surely pissed off the powers-that-be in the Church, was his endlessly repeated mantra that humans can be whatever they choose to be – with or without God. That’s the quintessence of free will. I don’t know that peasants working on his family estate would exactly have agreed with him, but I don’t imagine that he was talking about them. Perhaps we can give him the benefit of the doubt and argue that he believed that with adequate training anyone could do anything, and the reason that peasants were stuck in old ways is that they had no opportunity for education.

I’ve given many 15th century recipes from Libro de arte coquinaria by Maestro Martino de Como. Here’s a simple one for fried slices of vegetable marrow (zucca in modern Italian), that is not so very different from contemporary recipes, except for the fennel and liquamen sauce.

Zucche Fritte

Togli de la zucche e nettale bene. Et dapoi tagliale per traverso in fette sottili come la costa d’un coltello. Et dapoi gli fa’trare solamente un boglio in acqua, et cacciale fore; et dapoi le poni a sciuttare. Et poneli de sopra un pocho pocho di sale et involtale in farina bella, et frigile in olio. Dapoi caciale fore et togli un pocho di fiore de finocchio, un pocho d’aglio et di mmollicha di pane; et pistali bene et distempera con agresto in modo che resti ben raro, et passa per la stamegnia, et getta questo tal sapore sopra le ditte zucche. Le quali etamdio son bone ponendogli solamente di sopra agresto, et fior di finocchio. Et se voi che’l ditto sapore sia giallo metevi un pocho di zafrano.

Fried Vegetable Marrow

Take marrows and clean them well. Slice them crosswise in slices as thin as the blade of a knife. Give them a quick boil in water, remove them, and let them to drain. Sprinkle them with a very small amount of salt, toss them in flour, and fry them in oil. Then remove them. Take a little fennel seed, a little garlic and the inside of a slice of bread; grind these together, mixed with a very little verjuice. Pass this through a sieve and sprinkle this sauce on the marrow. They are also good seasoned only with verjuice and fennel seed. If you prefer the sauce to be yellow add a little saffron.

Jul 202016


Today is the birthday (1304) of Francesco Petrarca, commonly anglicized as Petrarch, Tuscan scholar and poet, and one of the earliest Renaissance humanists. Petrarch’s rediscovery of Cicero’s letters is often credited with initiating the 14th century Renaissance, in fact. In the 16th century, Pietro Bembo created the model for the modern Italian language based on Petrarch’s works, as well as those of Giovanni Boccaccio, and, to a lesser extent, Dante Alighieri. Petrarch was later endorsed as a model for Italian style by the Accademia della Crusca. Petrarch’s sonnets were admired and imitated throughout Europe during the Renaissance and became a model for lyrical poetry. He is also known for being the first to develop the concept of the Middle Ages as “Dark Ages.”

Petrarch was born in the Tuscan city of Arezzo in 1304. He was the son of Ser Petracco and his wife Eletta Canigiani. His given name was Francesco Petracco. The name was Latinized to Petrarca. Petrarch’s younger brother was born in Incisa in Val d’Arno in 1307. Dante was a friend of his father. Petrarch spent his early childhood in the village of Incisa, near Florence. He spent much of his early life at Avignon and nearby Carpentras, where his family moved to follow Pope Clement V who moved there in 1309 to begin the Avignon Papacy. He studied law at the University of Montpellier (1316–20) and Bologna (1320–23) with a lifelong friend and schoolmate, Guido Sette. Because his father was in the profession of law he insisted that Petrarch and his brother study law also. Petrarch however was primarily interested in writing and Latin literature and considered these seven years wasted. Additionally he proclaimed that through legal manipulation his guardians robbed him of his small property inheritance in Florence, which only reinforced his dislike for the legal system. He protested, “I couldn’t face making a merchandise of my mind”– he viewed the legal system as the art of selling justice.

Petrarch was a prolific letter writer and counted Boccaccio among his notable friends to whom he wrote often. After the death of their parents, Petrarch and his brother Gherardo went back to Avignon in 1326, where he worked in numerous clerical offices. This work gave him time to devote to his writing. With his first large scale work, Africa, an epic in Latin about the great Roman general Scipio Africanus, Petrarch emerged as a European celebrity. On April 8, 1341, he became the first poet laureate since antiquity and was crowned by Roman Senatori Giordano Orsini and Orso dell’Anguillara on the holy grounds of Rome’s Capitol.


He traveled widely in Europe, served as an ambassador, and has been called “the first tourist” because he traveled just for pleasure, which was the basic reason he climbed Mont Ventoux. During his travels, he collected crumbling Latin manuscripts and was a prime mover in the recovery of knowledge from writers of Rome and Greece. He encouraged and advised Leontius Pilatus’s translation of Homer from a manuscript purchased by Boccaccio, although he was severely critical of the result. Petrarch had acquired a copy, which he did not entrust to Leontius, but he knew no Greek; Homer, Petrarch said, “was dumb to him, while he was deaf to Homer.” In 1345 he personally discovered a collection of Cicero’s letters not previously known to have existed, the collection ad Atticum. Henceforth he disdained the scholarship of what we now call the Middle Ages, coining the term “Dark Ages.”

Petrarch recounts that on April 26, 1336, with his brother and two servants, he climbed to the top of Mont Ventoux (1,912 meters (6,273 ft)), which he undertook for recreation rather than necessity. The exploit is described in a celebrated letter addressed to his friend and confessor, the monk Dionigi di Borgo San Sepolcro, composed some time after the fact. In it Petrarch claimed to have been inspired by Philip V of Macedon’s ascent of Mount Haemo and that an old peasant had told him that nobody had ascended Ventoux before, and warned him against attempting to do so. The 19th-century Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt noted that Jean Buridan had climbed the same mountain a few years before, and ascents accomplished during the Middle Ages have been recorded, including that of Anno II, Archbishop of Cologne.

Scholars note that Petrarch’s letter to Dionigi displays a strikingly “modern” attitude of aesthetic gratification in the grandeur of the scenery and is still often cited in books and journals devoted to the sport of mountaineering. In Petrarch, this attitude is coupled with an aspiration for a virtuous Christian life, and on reaching the summit, he took from his pocket a volume by his spiritual mentor, Saint Augustine, that he always carried with him. As the book fell open, Petrarch’s eyes were immediately drawn to the following words:

And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.

Petrarch’s response was to turn from the outer world of nature to the inner world of “soul”:

I closed the book, angry with myself that I should still be admiring earthly things who might long ago have learned from even the pagan philosophers that nothing is wonderful but the soul, which, when great itself, finds nothing great outside itself. Then, in truth, I was satisfied that I had seen enough of the mountain; I turned my inward eye upon myself, and from that time not a syllable fell from my lips until we reached the bottom again. […] [W]e look about us for what is to be found only within. […] How many times, think you, did I turn back that day, to glance at the summit of the mountain which seemed scarcely a cubit high compared with the range of human contemplation.


Petrarch spent the later part of his life journeying through northern Italy as an international scholar and poet-diplomat. His career in the Church did not allow him to marry, but he is believed to have fathered two children by a woman or women unknown to posterity. A son, Giovanni, was born in 1337, and a daughter, Francesca, was born in 1343. Both he later legitimized.

Giovanni died of the plague in 1361. In the same year Petrarch was named canon in Monselice near Padua. Francesca married Francescuolo da Brossano (who was later named executor of Petrarch’s will) that same year. In 1362, shortly after the birth of a daughter, Eletta (the same name as Petrarch’s mother), they joined Petrarch in Venice to flee the plague then ravaging parts of Europe. A second grandchild, Francesco, was born in 1366, but died before his second birthday. Francesca and her family lived with Petrarch in Venice for five years from 1362 to 1367 at Palazzo Molina; although Petrarch continued to travel in those years. Between 1361 and 1369 the younger Boccaccio paid the older Petrarch two visits:  first in Venice, second in Padua.


About 1368 Petrarch and his daughter Francesca (with her family) moved to the small town of Arquà in the Euganean Hills near Padua, where he passed his remaining years in religious contemplation. He died in his house in Arquà on July 19, 1374 – one day short of his seventieth birthday. The house hosts now a permanent exhibition of Petrarch’s works and curiosities

Petrarch’s will (dated April 4, 1370) leaves 50 florins to Boccaccio “to buy a warm winter dressing gown”; various legacies (a horse, a silver cup, a lute, a Madonna) to his brother and his friends; his house in Vaucluse to its caretaker; for his soul, and for the poor; and the bulk of his estate to his son-in-law, Francescuolo da Brossano, who is to give half of it to “the person to whom, as he knows, I wish it to go”; presumably his daughter, Francesca, Brossano’s wife. The will mentions neither the property in Arquà nor his library; Petrarch’s library of notable manuscripts was already promised to Venice, in exchange for the Palazzo Molina. This arrangement was probably cancelled when he moved to Padua, the enemy of Venice, in 1368. The library was seized by the lords of Padua, and his books and manuscripts are now widely scattered over Europe.


Petrarch is best known for his Italian poetry, notably the Canzoniere (“Songbook”) and the Trionfi (“Triumphs”). However, Petrarch was an enthusiastic Latin scholar and did most of his writing in Latin. His Latin writings include scholarly works, introspective essays, letters, and more poetry. Among them are Secretum Meum (“My Secret”), an intensely personal, guilt-ridden imaginary dialogue with Augustine of Hippo; De Viris Illustribus (“On Famous Men”), a series of moral biographies; Rerum Memorandarum Libri, an incomplete treatise on the cardinal virtues; De Otio Religiosorum (“On Religious Leisure”); De Vita Solitaria (“On the Solitary Life”); De Remediis Utriusque Fortunae (“Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul”), a self-help book which remained popular for hundreds of years; Itinerarium (“Petrarch’s Guide to the Holy Land”); invectives against opponents such as doctors, scholastics, and the French; the Carmen Bucolicum, a collection of 12 pastoral poems; and the unfinished epic Africa. He also translated seven psalms, a collection known as the Penitential Psalms.

In addition, Petrarch published many volumes of his letters, including a few written to his long-dead “friends” from history such as Cicero and Virgil. Cicero, Virgil, and Seneca were his literary models. Most of his Latin writings are difficult to find today, but several of his works are available in English translations. Petrarch broke radically with the much-praised Dante and his Divina Commedia. In spite of the metaphysical subject, the Commedia is deeply rooted in the cultural and social milieu of turn-of-the-century Florence. Petrarch confessed to Boccaccio that he had never read the Commedia.  Probably this was untrue but shows that Petrarch wanted to distance himself from Dante.

Petrarch polished (some say “perfected”) the sonnet form inherited from Giacomo da Lentini and which Dante widely used in his Vita nuova to popularise the new courtly love of the Dolce Stil Novo. It was later copied (with suitable changes) by Shakespeare and others outside of Italy.

Petrarch was highly introspective and, as such, shaped the nascent humanist movement a great deal. Many of the internal conflicts and musings expressed in his writings were seized upon by Renaissance humanist philosophers and argued over continually for the next 200 years. For example, Petrarch struggled with the proper relation between the active and contemplative life, and tended to emphasize the importance of solitude and study. In a clear disagreement with Dante, in 1346 Petrarch argued in his De vita solitaria that Pope Celestine V’s refusal of the papacy in 1294 was as a virtuous example of solitary life. Later the politician and thinker Leonardo Bruni argued for the active life, or “civic humanism.”

I’m very much on Petrarch’s side in this debate. I live alone and spend my days in writing and contemplation. This life suits me. Of course I venture out to engage with the world when need be, but I am happiest alone.

Here’s a 14th-century Italian recipe for “mountain mushrooms” from Libro di cucina del secolo XIV.

Fungi di Monte

Toglie fungi di monte, e lessali: e gittatene via l’acquaa, mettili poi a friggere con cipolla tritata minuto, o con bianco di porro, spezie e sale e dà a mangiare.

[Take mountain mushrooms and boil them. Discard the water then fry the mushrooms with finely sliced onion, or the white of a leek, spices, and salt. Then serve.]


Simplicity itself. I used fresh porcini to make this dish because I had some left over from a trip to the market. I used leeks because I love them. The spices are the only challenge. Cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves were common in 14th-century Italy, but all of them are a little overpowering for me for use with mushrooms that have a strong, but delicate, flavor. If you are using common agarics (white commercial mushrooms), add what you want.

There is no need to boil the mushrooms first. Just roughly slice them and the leeks. Sauté them together over high heat in butter (preferably) or extra virgin olive oil. All I added was a few grinds of black pepper and served them over bread fried in olive oil. Great breakfast.


May 052014


Today is the birthday (1818) of Karl Heinrich Marx, German philosopher, economist, sociologist, historian, journalist, and revolutionary socialist. Marx’s work in economics laid the basis for the current understanding of labor and its relation to capital, and has influenced much of subsequent economic thought. He published numerous works during his lifetime, the most well known being The Communist Manifesto (with Friedrich Engels) and Das Kapital (Capital).

Marx was born into a wealthy middle-class family in Trier in the Prussian Rhineland and studied at the University of Bonn and the University of Berlin, where he became interested in the philosophical ideas of the Young Hegelians. After his studies, he wrote for a radical newspaper in Cologne, and began to work out his theory of dialectical materialism. He moved to Paris in 1843, where he began writing for other radical newspapers and met Friedrich Engels, who would become his lifelong friend and collaborator. In 1849 he was exiled, and moved to London together with his wife and children where he continued writing and formulating his theories about social and economic activity. He also campaigned for socialism and became a significant figure in the International Workingmen’s Association.

Marx's daughters

Marx’s daughters

Marx’s theories about society, economics and politics hold, famously, that human history is the history of class struggle: a conflict between an ownership class that controls production and a dispossessed laboring class that provides the labor for production. He called capitalism the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie,” believing it to be run by the wealthy classes for their own benefit; and he predicted that, like previous socioeconomic systems, capitalism produced internal tensions which would lead to its self-destruction and replacement by a new system: socialism. He argued that class antagonisms under capitalism between the bourgeoisie and proletariat would eventuate in the working class’s conquest of political power in the form of a “dictatorship of the proletariat” and eventually establish a classless society, socialism or communism, a society governed by a free association of producers. Along with believing in the inevitability of socialism and communism, Marx actively fought for their implementation, arguing that social theorists and underprivileged people alike should carry out organized revolutionary action to topple capitalism and bring about socio-economic change.

Following the death of his wife, Jenny, in December 1881, Marx developed a catarrh that kept him in ill health for the last 15 months of his life. It eventually brought on the bronchitis and pleurisy that killed him in London on 14 March 1883. He died a stateless person; family and friends in London buried his body in Highgate Cemetery in London, on 17 March 1883. There were between nine and eleven mourners at his funeral.

Several of his closest friends spoke at his funeral, including Wilhelm Liebknecht and Friedrich Engels. Engels’ speech included the passage:

On the 14th of March, at a quarter to three in the afternoon, the greatest living thinker ceased to think. He had been left alone for scarcely two minutes, and when we came back we found him in his armchair, peacefully gone to sleep – but forever.


Marx is justifiably considered one of the most influential figures in human history. Revolutionary socialist governments espousing (their interpretation of) Marxist concepts, took power in a number of countries in the 20th century, leading to the formation of such socialist states as the Soviet Union in 1922 and the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Many labor unions and workers’ parties worldwide are influenced by Marxism, while various theoretical variants, such as Leninism, Stalinism, Trotskyism, Maoism, and Dengism were developed from them. Marx is typically cited, along with Émile Durkheim and Max Weber, as one of the three principal architects of modern social science.

Rather than attempting to summarize Marx’s theoretical work here, I am going to give a short personal appraisal based on my own reading and teaching of his work. For years I taught Marx both in general education classes for freshmen and in advanced social theory classes for sociology and anthropology majors. Here I am going to summarize a few of my major themes.

I will begin by saying that there is a wide gulf between Marx and Marxism, the latter coming in a kaleidoscope of colors. There is a wide gulf between all profound thinkers and their followers: Freud was not a Freudian, Darwin was not a Darwinian, and Jesus Christ was not a Christian. Marx himself is reported to have said that he was not a Marxist. The problem with all original thinkers is that their works are voluminous and complex, and their ideas can sprawl all over the place. Frequently earlier thoughts are revised, and sometimes even contradicted by later ones. What happens, though, is that disciples narrow down a dense and complicated body of work into bumper stickers. What is, in reality, a nuanced and detailed set of reflections becomes distilled into a set of “core principles” which become identified with the original thinkers as the totality of their philosophy, whereas such principles are always simplistic, and sometimes outright mistaken.

As a social scientist myself, I’m given to believe that this distillation into “core principles” is inevitable. Anthropologists have written a great deal about the process of moving from the first generation (the original thinkers) to the second generation (the followers). The first generation is full of free flowing ideas that tumble out every which way; the second generation has to make sense of it all and put the ideas into practice. Quite commonly second generation thinkers are more rigid than the first generation, and do not always understand the message of the first generation. If you want to understand Marx, read what he wrote and not what Marxists have written.

The most damaging delusion concerning what Marx wrote is to equate his philosophy with the governing principles of communist states that emerged in the 20th century, such as the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. Marx most emphatically did NOT advocate totalitarian, repressive regimes as a replacement of capitalism. This is a hideous distortion of what he wanted from social revolution. When he talked about “the dictatorship of the proletariat” he was not suggesting that one form of tyranny, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, should be replaced by another. He was suggesting just the opposite: his vision of communism was a state of affairs in which workers were free and happy. Because the word “communism” has taken on such a perverted meaning since the 20th century it might be better to find a different word to denote Marx’s vision of a new order.

My second summary point is that because most people do not read Marx, but think of him in terms of bumper stickers, they not only misunderstand what he wrote, but as often as not agree with him even though they think they don’t. When you feel as if you are oppressed by your job and that all you are doing is enriching others, you are thinking like Marx. When you decry the crass materialism of Christmas, you are thinking like Marx. When you lack a sense of self esteem because your worth as a person is dependent on your place in a system you do not control, you are thinking like Marx. What is more, the economic theories of the left AND the right use Marx in one way or another. A colleague of mine specializing in political economy once said “I don’t know of a Wall Street banker who is not a Marxist,” meaning not that Wall Street bankers believe in the redistribution of wealth, but that they use Marx’s principles – unknowingly – in their economic dealings.

I am not a Marxist (or any other kind of “-ist”), but there are many ideas he proposed or espoused that I am sympathetic to. Perhaps chief of these is his notion of “value,” more specifically the difference between “use value” and “exchange value.” The use value of an object is its value to YOU. A chef’s knife is a critical tool in the daily work of a professional chef; but may be an object that lies unused in the drawer of an indifferent home cook. Their use value is quite different to the two owners, but the two knives cost the same amount at the store. Their cost is their exchange value – or market value. Or take a different kind of example. You may own a piece of costume jewelry that means worlds to you because it was owned by your great grandmother, so its use value (emotional use) is extremely high, yet it is virtually worthless in the market place. A major social problem arises, according to Marx, when we confuse use value and exchange value – or, rather, when we believe that the ONLY value of an object is its exchange value. The deepest tragedy of all is when we come to believe that our personal worth is determined by what we can sell our labor for in the marketplace, and that what we can afford to buy is the measure of our worth as human beings.

I’m not in a position to teach you much about Marx in a few paragraphs. All I can hope to do is to motivate you to want to know more about his works. If you read Marx with a fresh eye, and not in the shadow of history, you will undoubtedly find words that inspire and engage you, words that make you think more deeply about the world in which we live, and about yourself.


My researches revealed that Marx was partial to fish, but his favorite dish was pickled beets with hollandaise sauce. You have to be a little skeptical of such pronouncements, but I’ll work with what I have and suggest a dish of poached salmon with pickled beets in hollandaise as a side dish. My photo shows pejerrey (Argentine smelts) as the fish because salmon is rather pricey nowadays in Argentina. I gave a recipe for hollandaise two days ago (3 May 2014), so I do not need to repeat it, and poaching salmon (or other fish) should not raise any issues. So here is the basic method for pickling beets if you don’t want to buy them. If you happen to be close to a good kosher deli, I’d get them there.


Pickled Beets


1 large red onion, peeled, halved, and sliced
1 cup tarragon wine vinegar
1 ½ tsps kosher salt
½ cup sugar
1 cup water

For roasted beets:

6 medium beets
2 large shallots, peeled
2 sprigs rosemary
2 teaspoons olive oil


Preheat the oven to 350°F/175°C.

Scrub the beets well and cut the tops off. Mix them with the rest of the roasting ingredients so that they are lightly coated with oil, and then place them in a tightly sealed foil pack and roast for 40 minutes in the oven.

Let the beets cool slightly and peel them. The skins should just rub off. Then slice them.

Layer the beets and sliced onion alternately in mason jars.

Bring the vinegar, salt, sugar, and water to a boil. Pour the mixture over the beets and seal the jars.

They can be eaten after 3 days, but 7 is better; and they will keep for up to 1 month.