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The value of proper scholarship in cultural and civic battles and the EU economic recovery

The tragedy wrought by war in the heart of Europe, with its atrocities, the victims’ pain, the danger of the conflict escalating towards the threat of a nuclear attack, while, on the economic and social front, loom the shadows of tangled inflation and recession. We are living through dark times, with the COVID-19 pandemic still lingering and leaving behind a trail of death and long-term illness, and with the threat of impending climate change disasters. Dramatic times, combining Ulrich Beck’s “risk society” with an “age of uncertainty” whose dimensions are much more complex than those contemplated – with considerable foresight – by John Kenneth Galbraith in the 1970s, while the elusive, multifaceted and contradictory “liquid society” so vividly described by Zygmunt Bauman turned out to be encumbered by tensions and plagued by “retrotopia” – the longing for a magical past when things were reliable and the future was bright. Cracks appear in our vision of myths of “progress”, “reason”, long-term economic growth and the triumph of a globalisation to the benefit of all and, amongst the sorrowful flowing of events that, only yesterday, we’d never foreseen (those rare and unexpected radical crises called “black swans”), disappointment thrives, people take foolish comfort in “magical thought” and “conspiracy” theories, and the attraction towards authoritarian leaders and absolutist alternatives intensifies.

Should we then give in to downfall and decay? Should we then let ourselves be “sucked down into hell?” Far from it. If anything, by rereading the wise ending of Italo Calvino’s Le città invisibili (Invisible cities), we can actually understand the necessity to “seek and learn to recognise who and what, in the midst of hell, are not hell, and make them endure, give them space.”

The war, the ongoing pandemic and the environmental disasters are our “hell” and, precisely in such difficult and controversial times, the responsibility to instigate critical discussions about the political, economic and social balance that we need to reassert, as well as to draw new and improved maps about this changing world, clearly falls on scholars and social actors who have at heart the quality and stability of a better future. We need critical opinions based on science and expertise, the exact opposite of that vainglorious and disjointed chattering found on TV talk shows and social media, and we also need maps that plainly illustrate values and relationships – maps that are rid of nostalgic, melancholic thoughts but are brimming with projects and tools suitable to new systems of governance focused on developing relationships, interests, business, values.

In times like ours, we need to rely on legitimate scholars – magisters in Latin, with an emphasis on the root magis, “more”, to mean greater intellectual quality rather than mere additional quantity, which would otherwise be indicated by plus (a major etymological distinction, well pointed out by a wise jurist, Natalino Irti). Further, and precisely owing to the value embodied in critical thinking, we need to learn to discern more and better than before: culture from propaganda, intellect from mainstream thought (which can also affect cancel culture, as well as countercultural chit-chat), received knowledge from an earnest desire to scrutinise conflicts, contradictions, and the senseless hurry to elicit agreement in opinion polls without a care for the impact this might have on political and social assets.

Indeed, let’s return to Latin, the meticulous language of “reason”, and let’s recall the distinction we made in our previous blog from 1 February between eloquens, a person “who speaks well, ethically” (those who know what they’re talking about), as opposed to loquens, a person who simply “speaks” (often inappropriately, without caring about the weight and value of the words they utter). Similarly, in French – another rigorous language – we find an unambiguous distinction between écrivain, a writer (Pascal, for instance, who, according to Saint-Beuve, was an admirable ècrivain) and écrivant, a person whose job entails writing in a technical, bureaucratic language, with neither depth nor intellectual and creative qualities.

Indeed, these are times for scholars who know how to speak, write, reason, and who can wage a veritable war of ideas in order to defend, reiterate and revive the values of an open society, of a liberal democracy that is far from “decadent and obsolete”, of critical thinking and sustainable, environmental and social development, nurtured within an economic democracy and a market economy.

Further, these are times for dialogue, between the democratic West and the rest of the world, appreciating the diversity of cultures and values, with no attempt to “export democracy” yet nonetheless defending the “rule of law” (speaking of which, rereading the works by Giovanni Sartori, prominent scholar of liberal and parliamentary democracy who passed away five years ago, is really worth it, as aptly suggested by the Corriere della Sera, Sunday 3 April).

These are the times when we should assert the role and significance of an EU that, having successfully implemented an effective response to the pandemic and its economic consequences through the Next Generation Recovery Plan, is now debating autonomy and strategic security, with talks concerning shared defence policies, energy, scientific research and technological innovation. Lucrezia Reichlin is indeed right when she argues that “in order to respond to the Ukrainian crisis, we need a new system of economic governance” (Il Sole24Ore, 2 April) in order to “build a shared economic capacity” that can tackle the recession, the energy and digital transition, and any subsequent social tension that may arise.

No one really knows how and when we’ll recover from this crisis. What we do know, however, is that we need political and cultural responses able to address the geopolitical challenges that are affecting not only the business world, but, above all, our democratic and civic assets – a whole value system that we cannot relinquish.

So, here we are again, back to the open-minded views of proper scholars, rereading, with just a trace of hope, the words of Isaiah: “Guard, how much of the night is left? ”Morning is coming, but then night will come again. If you have something else to ask, then come back later and ask.” In harsh and uncertain times like ours, we need to move forward, understand, seek – without ever giving in to despair, without ever surrendering.

The tragedy wrought by war in the heart of Europe, with its atrocities, the victims’ pain, the danger of the conflict escalating towards the threat of a nuclear attack, while, on the economic and social front, loom the shadows of tangled inflation and recession. We are living through dark times, with the COVID-19 pandemic still lingering and leaving behind a trail of death and long-term illness, and with the threat of impending climate change disasters. Dramatic times, combining Ulrich Beck’s “risk society” with an “age of uncertainty” whose dimensions are much more complex than those contemplated – with considerable foresight – by John Kenneth Galbraith in the 1970s, while the elusive, multifaceted and contradictory “liquid society” so vividly described by Zygmunt Bauman turned out to be encumbered by tensions and plagued by “retrotopia” – the longing for a magical past when things were reliable and the future was bright. Cracks appear in our vision of myths of “progress”, “reason”, long-term economic growth and the triumph of a globalisation to the benefit of all and, amongst the sorrowful flowing of events that, only yesterday, we’d never foreseen (those rare and unexpected radical crises called “black swans”), disappointment thrives, people take foolish comfort in “magical thought” and “conspiracy” theories, and the attraction towards authoritarian leaders and absolutist alternatives intensifies.

Should we then give in to downfall and decay? Should we then let ourselves be “sucked down into hell?” Far from it. If anything, by rereading the wise ending of Italo Calvino’s Le città invisibili (Invisible cities), we can actually understand the necessity to “seek and learn to recognise who and what, in the midst of hell, are not hell, and make them endure, give them space.”

The war, the ongoing pandemic and the environmental disasters are our “hell” and, precisely in such difficult and controversial times, the responsibility to instigate critical discussions about the political, economic and social balance that we need to reassert, as well as to draw new and improved maps about this changing world, clearly falls on scholars and social actors who have at heart the quality and stability of a better future. We need critical opinions based on science and expertise, the exact opposite of that vainglorious and disjointed chattering found on TV talk shows and social media, and we also need maps that plainly illustrate values and relationships – maps that are rid of nostalgic, melancholic thoughts but are brimming with projects and tools suitable to new systems of governance focused on developing relationships, interests, business, values.

In times like ours, we need to rely on legitimate scholars – magisters in Latin, with an emphasis on the root magis, “more”, to mean greater intellectual quality rather than mere additional quantity, which would otherwise be indicated by plus (a major etymological distinction, well pointed out by a wise jurist, Natalino Irti). Further, and precisely owing to the value embodied in critical thinking, we need to learn to discern more and better than before: culture from propaganda, intellect from mainstream thought (which can also affect cancel culture, as well as countercultural chit-chat), received knowledge from an earnest desire to scrutinise conflicts, contradictions, and the senseless hurry to elicit agreement in opinion polls without a care for the impact this might have on political and social assets.

Indeed, let’s return to Latin, the meticulous language of “reason”, and let’s recall the distinction we made in our previous blog from 1 February between eloquens, a person “who speaks well, ethically” (those who know what they’re talking about), as opposed to loquens, a person who simply “speaks” (often inappropriately, without caring about the weight and value of the words they utter). Similarly, in French – another rigorous language – we find an unambiguous distinction between écrivain, a writer (Pascal, for instance, who, according to Saint-Beuve, was an admirable ècrivain) and écrivant, a person whose job entails writing in a technical, bureaucratic language, with neither depth nor intellectual and creative qualities.

Indeed, these are times for scholars who know how to speak, write, reason, and who can wage a veritable war of ideas in order to defend, reiterate and revive the values of an open society, of a liberal democracy that is far from “decadent and obsolete”, of critical thinking and sustainable, environmental and social development, nurtured within an economic democracy and a market economy.

Further, these are times for dialogue, between the democratic West and the rest of the world, appreciating the diversity of cultures and values, with no attempt to “export democracy” yet nonetheless defending the “rule of law” (speaking of which, rereading the works by Giovanni Sartori, prominent scholar of liberal and parliamentary democracy who passed away five years ago, is really worth it, as aptly suggested by the Corriere della Sera, Sunday 3 April).

These are the times when we should assert the role and significance of an EU that, having successfully implemented an effective response to the pandemic and its economic consequences through the Next Generation Recovery Plan, is now debating autonomy and strategic security, with talks concerning shared defence policies, energy, scientific research and technological innovation. Lucrezia Reichlin is indeed right when she argues that “in order to respond to the Ukrainian crisis, we need a new system of economic governance” (Il Sole24Ore, 2 April) in order to “build a shared economic capacity” that can tackle the recession, the energy and digital transition, and any subsequent social tension that may arise.

No one really knows how and when we’ll recover from this crisis. What we do know, however, is that we need political and cultural responses able to address the geopolitical challenges that are affecting not only the business world, but, above all, our democratic and civic assets – a whole value system that we cannot relinquish.

So, here we are again, back to the open-minded views of proper scholars, rereading, with just a trace of hope, the words of Isaiah: “Guard, how much of the night is left? ”Morning is coming, but then night will come again. If you have something else to ask, then come back later and ask.” In harsh and uncertain times like ours, we need to move forward, understand, seek – without ever giving in to despair, without ever surrendering.