This is a cross-post from my personal blog. You might enjoy it if you're interested in progress studies or intellectual history.

The Italian Renaissance, like nearly every other time and place, is a real blank spot in my knowledge of history. I recently read The Book of My Life (1575), a memoir by the mathematician-doctor-philosopher Gerolamo Cardano, to try to get some feel for what was going on there.

My understanding is that Cardano was a top tier Renaissance intellectual. He made major contributions to algebra, wrote the first treatise on probability theory, and was invited to practice medicine on multiple kings. He put out more than one hundred books, all with titles like On Gems and Colors, Fourth Book of Hidden Knowledge, and Triceps. He wasn’t in the top five, I think, but he may have been in the top twenty.

In some regards, as a window into the period, The Book of My Life turned out to be a great pick. It’s written more like an encyclopedia of a Renaissance intellectual’s life than a personal narrative. Half of the chapter titles sound like terrible Jeopardy categories: “Religion and piety,” “Sports and exercise,” “Journeys,” “Dress,” “Those things in which I take pleasure.” There’s a chapter devoted to detailing his entire medical history and another chapter devoted to describing his habit of thinking while walking. One reason that old books can sometimes fail to give a good sense of setting is that the author has no interest in discussing the commonplace. That’s not a problem with The Book of My Life.

On the other hand, a major problem with using this book as a window into the period is that Cardano clearly can’t have been a normal guy. He is, for example, very upfront about his lack of desire to interact with almost any of his contemporaries. A representative quote, from the chapter “Quality of Conversation”:

I love solitude, and I am never more with those I love than when I am alone. For I love God and my good genius. Upon these, then, when alone, I meditate.

He goes on to present several distinct arguments against spending time with others, ranging from the point that “inventions are the result of the tranquil life” to the point that “some stink from their armpits.” He spends about as much time discussing his wife as he spends discussing this one time, many years ago, when a dog jumped clean over a mule he was riding.[1]

There’s a late-in-the-book chapter where Cardano lists all of the supernatural experiences he can recall from his life. Most of these are pretty lame. He thinks he smells a candle, even though there are no candles around, and then his neighbor dies the next day. He looks everywhere for a small box, before eventually finding it under a piece of paper, where he really should have noticed it earlier.

“Yet how did it happen to be hiding from me, under the very paper upon which I had been writing?”

He does tell one dramatic story about a voice that speaks to him from the darkness: it advises him to put an emerald in his mouth, as a remedy for grief. On another night, a shadowy farmer briefly appears in his doorway and says something in a foreign language. He occasionally hears mysterious thunderous sounds and rattling. He speculates that many of these events represent “mystic visitations” from a guardian angel, even though this theory raises a difficult question: “Why does he not advise me openly of what he would have me know?”

One possible interpretation of Cardano’s discussion of the supernatural is that he had an unusually loose grip on reality. However, I also don’t find it hard to imagine that many of his contemporaries could have produced similar lists of their own. The chapter suggests that only a vocal minority of intellectuals reject the possibility of this sort of thing: “I know certain men who, in order to appear satirical, scoff and incite derision in regard to any such apparently super natural occurrences.” This was also a time when — at least by Cardano’s count — astrology, alchemy, palmreading, and “enchantments” were among the thirty-six established branches of knowledge.

Beyond Cardano’s idiosyncracy and possible unreliability, the most fundamental issue here is that he was only one guy. Even if he was the most normal and grounded Italian Renaissance intellectual of all time, generalising from a sample of one is almost always unwarranted.

That being said, here are five unwarranted generalisations I’ve made.

1. Violence was common

Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, building on a long tradition, famously argues that pre-modern and early modern Europe was hyper-violent relative to Europe today. I’ve read papers pushing back against this claim, including a number of papers in this special issue of Historical Reflections that stop just short of calling Pinker an idiot. (Representative paper title: “Getting Medieval on Steven Pinker.”) The most important point is that we have no very reliable historical data on homicide rates.

For whatever it’s worth, Cardano’s memoir is pretty clearly consistent with the Better Angels claim. Interpersonal violence seems to have been a big part of life in Italian cities of the time. Cardano spends a lot of his childhood learning skills such as “how to snatch an unsheathed dagger, myself unarmed, from the one who held it.” He feels the need to carry a weapon as he goes about his day. He tells a story, at one point, which involves him slashing an acquaintance who cheats at cards and then magnanimously deciding not to murder the acquaintance’s house-servants when they plead for their lives. Cardano’s son allegedly poisons his own wife, and is then beheaded, possibly due to the machinations of Cardano’s academic rivals. Most remarkably, Cardano claims that his rivals have attempted to murder him on two separate occasions. On one occasion, for example, they balance a huge lead weight over the entrance to a room so that it comes crashing down when he opens the door.

It is entirely possible that Cardano was an unusually violent, delusional, or killable guy. At the same time, I’ve read some memoirs by twentieth century academics, and I don’t remember anyone ever bragging about not murdering someone else’s house servants.

2. Memorizing ancient philosophers was key to intellectual status

The defining intellectual trend of Italian Renaissance was a rising awareness and appreciation of ancient Greek and Roman writing. I knew that a few specific writers, like Aristotle, were held in especially high esteem. The Book of My Life suggests, though, that I was badly underestimating how much Renaissance intellectuals deferred to their views.

In a book that’s not actually a work of philosophy or medicine, Cardano references either Aristotle or Galen an average of once every five pages. He also suggests that his early reputation an intellectual was mostly built on the fact that he has done an unusually good job memorising ancient works. Here are the stories he tells of his two big breaks:

The first of these occasions [in which I demonstrated my skill for debate] was at Pavia. Branda Porro, formerly my master in philosophy, had interrupted the course of an informal debate which I was holding with Camuzio in philosophy…. Branda was citing Aristotle as an authority, whereupon I, when he had quoted the words, said, “Take care; there is a ‘non‘ after ‘album‘ which you have forgotten to include, and which contradicts your proof.” Branda exclaimed loudly, “You don’t mean it!” I, clearing my throat of the phlegm which constantly collected therein, gently maintained my opposition, until he, thoroughly angered, sent for the codex, and upon my request, ordered the text to be put into my hands. I read as it was written therein; but he, suspecting that I was falsely emending the text, snatched the book from my hands, cried out that I wanted to cheat the audience, and himself began to read. As he came to the word in question, he read it and was silenced. All present were amazed and stared at me in wonder.

It happened also during these same days that Branda went to Milan. The whole incident had been written to the Senate at Milan. The Senators asked if the story were true. Branda, a sincere and honest man said, “Surely it is true; only too true; I believe I was drunk on that occasion.” The senators, smiling, had nothing to say.

The second occasion on which I was challenged was at Bologna, by Fracanziano, Professor of the Practice of Medicine. He was engaged in a discussion about the passage of gall to the stomach, and was quoting from a Greek authority in the presence of the whole academy, for an anatomical dissection was then in progress. I said that oὐ was lacking in his citation. Whereupon it was not he, for a truth, as I quietly defended my correction, but the students, who cried out that some one should send for the codex. Fracanziano gladly sent, and it was brought at once. He read, and found that it was as I had said, to a hair. He was silenced, amazed, and filled with admiration; the students, who had literally dragged me forcibly to the place, marveled even more.

From that day, the professor actually fled from any occasion for meeting me; and he even warned his servants that they indicate whenever they saw me coming, so that he might avoid an encounter in the street. And when once, for a joke, the medical students had fetched me into his presence when he was busily engaged in a lesson in anatomy, he hurried away in such confusion that he stepped on his cloak, and fell headlong. All who witnessed this were bewildered at his action; and he himself shortly afterwards resigned as a professor, for he was at that time a man well along in years.

The first thing that’s crazy here is the apparent reputational implications of messing up a single quotation from a Greek philosopher. You may feel shamed into resigning your post early. Foreign senators will find out and want to question you about what happened.[2]

The second thing that’s crazy here is the implication that public debate — or at least what the translator expresses as “debate” — largely consisted of people quoting Greek philosophers at one another. As late as the early 1500s, people are settling disagreements about the stomach through references to ancient Greek writing, even when there is a stomach right there in front of them.[3]

3. Most of the new intellectual work happening was probably pretty bad

I suppose there are various ways to explain the level of deference intellectuals paid to ancient writers. A partial explanation might be that — even though a fair amount of new work was happening — most of this new work was still pretty bad.

This is Cardano’s view, at least. His chief complaint is that his contemporaries’ work was derivative or trivial. They lacked the same creative impulse that animated ancient Greek philosophers.

Men copy; they no longer compose. Talent is not lacking, but something else. What is there, then, that I may hope for from the society of men? They are garrulous, greedy, false and scheming. Show me, even in this century so flourishing and with opportunity so useful as the invention of printing offers, one man who has discovered even a hundredth part of those things which Theophrastus discovered, and I give him my hand. Rather, by their trifles, their oὐ and their őv, they confound this fair and beautiful invention.

Poor methodology in many domains also seems to have been a major unrecognised problem. Some of Cardano’s work, especially in mathematics, was apparently rigorous and good. But it sounds to me like a lot of his research was just totally misguided in its approach. Insofar as he was a highly respected intellectual, it’s probably a reasonable guess that whatever errors he made were not unique.

Here, for example, is a passage from the chapter “Thing of Worth Which I Have Achieved in Various Studies.” Cardano is recounting his main achievements in natural philosophy:

In natural philosophy I withdrew fire from the number of the elements and showed that all things were essentially cold; that the elements were not reciprocally changed; and I upheld the doctrine of palingenesis. I demonstrated that there were only two true qualities: heat and moisture. I set forth the essential qualities of salt and oil. I proved that the principle which underlies the generation of perfect creatures consists not in the act of coition unless that be attended by heat of atmospheric origin.

I taught that God ought to be called infinite; that all things which possess differentiated and organized parts have a life-principle; that the existence of our own life-principle and its immortality is, according to the philosophers, real, not a shadowy dream; that all things go by numbers — as, for instance, in one variety of plant there are the same number of leaves in a group and the same number of seeds.

I demonstrated that the principle of analogy consists in a process active through one medium and one material, and that from this results so many varieties and so much beauty. The earth is a thing of itself and not, as it were, mingled with water, wherefore it happens that often the one thrusts itself out into the opposite lying parts of the other.

I have no idea what it would means to say that “the principle which underlies the generation of perfect creatures consists not in the act of coition unless that be attended by heat of atmospheric origin.” I would bet though, though, that whatever this means, it’s not a valid insight that’s been lost to time. Cardano is doing something wrong here. Vague concepts and insufficient empiricism are probably the two biggest issues, but not anything like the full story. I’m reminded of an entertaining esssay by David Stove on philosophy research that’s lost the plot.

Everyone can tell that…_something _has gone appallingly wrong; or more likely, several things. Thinking like this is a perfect example of how you ought not to think…. Now what I would like to know, and what every philosopher ought to want to know, is: what is it that is wrong with the thoughts I have been speaking about: for example, with the quotations I gave above? And here I find myself at a loss.

Above all else, during his lifetime, Cardano was known for his contributions to medicine. He also spends more time talking about his medical work than he spends on any other topic. It’s not clear to me, though, that any of his major findings here were actually correct. His main methodology seems to be close textual analysis of ancient writing, under the incorrect assumption that the ancients had reliable medical knowledge.

I have shown how in a repeated study of one book – three or four readings – an understanding and method of treatment of divers diseases may be obtained. The true and shorter procedure of operating for hernia was called back into common usage through my efforts. I wrote a trustworthy history of urinary diseases, since we possess only certain obscure remains of these studies.

Superstitious reasoning also plays a role in his medical practice. On one occasion, for example, Cardano finds that a young boy has an irregular pulse and writes out a prescription. Then he remembers a recent dream about a “serpent of huge proportions,” takes it as an omen, and replaces the prescription with a prescription for “pearls, bone of unicorn, and gems” ground into a powder. The boy throws up, but he doesn’t die.

Cardano mostly seems to have attracted international fame by killing an unusually small portion of his well-known patients. So far as I can tell, the main thing going on here is that Cardano’s treatments were typically ineffective rather than actively harmful. He treats a baby suffering from seizures by lifting the baby’s head extremely slowly and then telling his wet-nurse to refrain from eating meat. He treats a fever patient, who’s actually free of respiratory issues, by having him spit up mucus. And so on. These kinds of benign-but-not-helpful treatments, along with his clear intelligence and deep knowlege of ancient writing, apparently allowed him to stand out from the pack.

The impression I get is that, in the first half of the sixteenth century, the fields of natural philosophy and medicine were more-or-less complete messes. It’s not just that leading European intellectuals held inaccurate beliefs. It’s that the methodologies they were using to generate knowledge were close to hopeless. In certain fields, people simply weren’t doing the sorts of things you need to do to make progress.

4. It was obvious that the Renaissance was a weird time to be alive

Cardano devotes the chapter “Natural Though Rare Circumstances of My Own Life” to listing unusual aspects of his life. At the top of his list is the simple fact that he is alive during an unusually notable century. He thought it was a strange coincidence to have been born right around the discovery of the Americas and the circumnavigation of the globe.

Among the extraordinary, though quite natural circumstances of my life, the first and most unusual is that I was born in this century in which the whole world became known; whereas the ancients were familiar with but little more than a third part of it.

He also recognized the recent emergence of gunpowder, the printing press, and the compass as developments of extreme significance.

[M]eanwhile we shall rejoice as in a flower-filled meadow. For what is more amazing than pyrotechnics? Or than the fiery bolts man has invented so much more destructive than the lightning of the gods?

Nor of thee, 0 Great Compass, will I be silent, for thou dost guide us over boundless seas, through gloomy nights, through the wild storms seafarers dread, and through the pathless wilderness.

The fourth marvel is the invention of the typographic art, a work of man’s hands, and the discovery of his wit — a rival, forsooth, of the wonders wrought by divine intelligence. What lack we yet unless it be the taking of Heaven by storm! Oh, the madness of men to give heed to vanity rather than the fundamental things of life! Oh, what arrogant poverty of intellectual humility not to be moved to wonder!

When I read old writing, one thing I now keep an eye out for is people’s sense of where they are in history. Do they think they live in a special time? If so, what do they think is special about it?

I think that it’s useful to know what people in different times thought about these questions, because it can help us to evaluate claims that the present is special in certain ways. Will MacAskill has suggested that people might be biased toward believing that that the events of their lifetimes are or will be especially consequential. If that’s right, then, he suggests, we might want to discount present-day arguments (e.g. singularitarian arguments) that imply we live at the “hinge of history.” On the other hand, if people often fail to notice or believe that they live in special times, then we might want to take these arguments more seriously.

Cardano clearly believed he lived at a special time. However, I actually don’t want to log this as a case of bias. Many present-day historians agree that the discovery of the Americas, the invention of the printing press, and the spread of gunpowder were some of the most notable developments in human history: they help to mark the transition from the “pre-modern” world to the “modern” one. I think that Cardano’s assessment was pretty solid.

5. It wasn’t obvious that there was much more room for intellectual and technological progress

Cardano didn’t seem recognize, though, that the Renaissance was the start of something larger. We now know that it would be followed by four centuries of increasing rapid intellectual and technological progress in Europe. Cardano, on the other hand, seems to have doubted that there was much more for intelletuals and engineers to do.

It’s worth noting, first, that his reaction to recent inventions is to exclaim: “What lack we yet unless it be the taking of Heaven by storm!” The suggestion seems to be that he struggles to imagine the printing press, compass, and gunpowder being surpassed. Geography, the domain he picks out for having enjoyed the most significant recent progress, is also one where opportunities for further progress were clearly running out.

Cardano kicks off the chapter “Things of Worth Which I Have Achieved in Various Studies” by reminding the reader that “there is practically no new idea which one may bring forward.” He frames most of his own intellectual contributions as either rediscoveries or improvements to existing doctrines. For example, although he acknowledges that he “advanced” the field of algebra, here is how he describes his other mathematical achievements:

I also expounded the numerical functions already discovered, showing either a simplified treatment or some uncommon formula method, or both. In geometry I dealt with confused and reflex proportions, and the treatment of infinity with finite numbers and through finite, although it was first discovered by Archimedes. In music I discovered new tones and new intervals, or rather brought back into practice and use such tones and intervals as were already found according to the treatises of Ptolemy and Aristoxenus.

Most interestingly, even Cardano wrote what was arguably the first treatise on probability theory, he seems to believe it is infeasible to actually evaluate probabilities of outcomes when gambling. When talking about the difficulty of interpreting omens, he writes:

It is all like trying to calculate one’s chances in gambling: the system comes to naught or is ambiguous.

It goes without saying that this take was too pessimistic, especially since the primary form of gambling he has in mind is gambling with dice. I find it hard to imagine looking deeply at this problem and then ultimately deciding that it’s intractable. But that at least seems to be what Cardano has done here.[4]

There is, overall, nothing in this memoir that suggests optimism about future progress. This absence is consistent with the “invention of progress” narrative, which says: In most times and places, people tend to assume that there is little that can be done to improve the existing stock of technology, ideas, and ways of doing things. In this narrative, belief in the possibility of major progress did not really emerge in Europe until the Enlightenment era.[5] The common present-day expectation that the future will bring world-changing inventions, solutions to long-standing puzzles, and so on, is a rare and unnatural thing. Some economic historians, like Joel Mokyr, believe that this new attitude toward progress was a central pre-condition for Industrial Revolution.

I also think that examining past beliefs about progress can help to inform present-day debates. If historical people have tended to severely underestimate opportunities for future progress, then we should be wary of making the same mistake. We should, for example, feel some reflexive skepticism toward the predictions of growth pessimists like Robert Gordon, who worry that most really important inventions have already been developed. Like Cardano reacting to the inventions of the 1400s, they look out at electricity and plumbing and the internet and ask: “What lack we yet unless it be the taking of Heaven by storm?”

Still quite a lot, would be my guess.[6]


[1] Cardano, waxing poetic on the subject of his wife:

She lived with me fifteen years, and she was the cause of every misfortune that happened to me throughout my life.

[2] It’s interesting to think about how the still-limited availablity of ancient works might have contributed to status games around knowledge of them. As an analogy, my sense is that it used to be easier to impress people by showing your familiarity with obscure albums: you had to put serious effort into tracking things down, had to be part of a network of people with music knowledge, and so on. Now that websites like Spotify exist, though, it’s much harder to show off this way. Demonstrating your familiarity with some minor Galen manuscript may have been the 16th century equivalent of demonstrating your familiarity with some minor Captain Beefheart album.

As a totally amateur theory, I wonder if the rising availability of books might have pushed intellectual competition in a more creative direction. If you can no longer impress people so easily, just by quoting existing work, then maybe you need to start coming up with genuinely new ideas instead.

I remember a similar theory, from the book The Intellectual Lives of the British Working Class, that rising levels of readership in late 19th and early 20th century Britain pushed literature in a more experimental direction. Once working class people started reading stuff like the Illiad, and composing literary works in conventional styles, upper class people needed to bump up their consumption and production of new and increasingly unconventional work.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, when literary modernism was emerging, the self-educated had only just mastered the great English classics. By the time the masses caught up with post-Victorian writers, literary elites had moved on to still more advanced authors. It was not until 1929 that Norman Nicholson, a Cumberland tailor’s son, discovered modern literature in Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells. These two eminent Edwardians already had all their great works behind them, and were considered obsolete in avant-garde circles: five years earlier, Virginia Woolf had dismissed their entire generation in her essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.”

The suggestion is that you don’t get experimental stuff like Mrs. Dalloway or The Waste Land until classical work becomes sufficiently accessible. Then class anxiety ratchets things forward. If this theory is right, then maybe a similar dynamic held for science and philosophy.

[3] Wikipedia tells me that Italian researchers had been performing disssections for a couple hundred years by this point. Still, it supposedly took mainstream anatomists until the middle of the sixteenth century to start moving past their deference to ancient sources.

[4] I looked up a commentary on Cardano’s probability research to see if it’s actually plausible that he thought that calculating probabilities in games of dice was intractable. Apparently he drew a distinction between “chance” and “luck,” claimed they were both at play in dice games, and suggested that one cannot have “rational knowledge” of luck. This seems like a really interesting mistake, which might be intertwined his supernatural/non-mechanistic view of the world.

[5] Belief in the possibility of radical progress also apparently emerged pretty gradually among Enlightenment intellectuals. For example, I remember an anectdote, from somewhere in The Dream of Enlightenment, that Locke believed the mechnical laws of nature would never be discovered. He thought it would be necessary to get a good look at small things, but that, unfortunately, our eyesight was simply too bad for this.

[6] The Book of My Life might be my favorite book I’ve read this year. Beyond its interest as a period piece, I think it’s also funny and strangely touching. At one point, as a nice little illustration, Cardano writes out a long list of the good things in life, and his list includes “cats” and “consolation of death” as back-to-back entries. The book is full of stuff like this.

Let us live, therefore, cheerfully, although there be no lasting joy in mortal things, whose substance is evanescent, inane, and vacuous. But if there is any good thing by which you would adorn this stage of life, we have not of such been cheated: rest, serenity, modesty, self-restraint, orderliness, change, fun, entertainment, society, temperance, sleep, food, drink, riding, sailing, walking, keeping abreast of events, meditation, contemplation, education, piety, marriage, feasting, the satisfaction of recalling an orderly disposition of the past, cleanliness, water, fire, listening to music, looking at all about one, talks, stories, history, liberty, continence, little birds, puppies, cats, consolation of death, and the common flux of time, fate, and fortune, over the afflicted and the favored alike. There is a good in the hope for things beyond all hope; good in the exercise of some art in which one is skilled; good in meditating upon the manifold transmutation of all nature and upon the magnitude of Earth.

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This was an awesome post! I don't have anything else to say.

Memorizing ancient philosophers was key to intellectual status

Cardano's accounting of these incidents sounds almost exactly like

[4] I looked up a commentary on Cardano’s probability research to see if it’s actually plausible that he thought that calculating probabilities in games of dice was intractable. Apparently he drew a distinction between “chance” and “luck,” claimed they were both at play in dice games, and suggested that one cannot have “rational knowledge” of luck. This seems like a really interesting mistake, which might be intertwined his supernatural/non-mechanistic view of the world.

It's not clear that he's wrong, or what he's wrong about. What did he call "luck", and what did he call "chance"?

To be charitable to Cardano:

1. If you buy a lottery ticket you probably won't win.

2. But someone will win.

3. In other words, chance are your odds before. If "Lucky" is being the unlikely case, then to say 'one cannot have rational knowledge of luck' is to say 'you can't (rationally) know you're going to win the lottery, the odds are against you.' It is precisely that understanding which conveys why buying the lottery ticket is a fool's errand: because you don't know you will be lucky. You don't know you 'have a chance'.

I also think that examining past beliefs about progress can help to inform present-day debates. If historical people have tended to severely underestimate opportunities for future progress, then we should be wary of making the same mistake. We should, for example, feel some reflexive skepticism toward the predictions of growth pessimists like Robert Gordon, who worry that most really important inventions have already been developed. Like Cardano reacting to the inventions of the 1400s, they look out at electricity and plumbing and the internet and ask: “What lack we yet unless it be the taking of Heaven by storm?”

You have outlined that in context that phrase was pessimistic. But, today it sounds very different. It sounds like someone saying a) "We have everything we need to start colonizing the stars." b) that's our next goal.