Sweet Nothings

Chalk Cliffs on Rugen by Caspar David Friedrich

Much like how rationalism diminished the credibility of religious authority during the Enlightenment, the Romantic period brought a deluge of irrationalism and eroded confidence in reason. While it’s questionable whether Romanticism was motivated by a genuine search for the truth or by the tedium and conservatism of rational inquiry, reason as the exclusive guideline was gradually dethroned, as was the presumption that the world was an coherent and structured system.

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de Sade

Bust of the Marquis de Sade by Man Ray

For centuries, the Marquis de Sade’s blasphemous works, full of detailed and elaboration of sordid sexual perversions, were dismissed as the ravings of a rotten and corrupt mind. His life was a never-ending scandal, and now his name is immortalized as sadism – the compulsion to achieve sexual satisfaction by inflicting pain on others.

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Nothing but Sophistry and Illusion

Un diner des philosophes by Jean Huber

We often designate the 18th century as the Age of Enlightenment or the Age of Reason due to the pervasive confidence in rationality and the burgeoning optimism that distinguished the era. According to many virtuosos of rationalism, the possibility of mitigating all of our problems – social, psychological, and material – seemed not just feasible but inevitable.

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Nothing Exceeds like Excess

The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa by Bernini

From the early Seventeenth century to the early Eighteenth, artists abandoned the moderation of Renaissance classicism for a luxurious, embellished style that better expressed the extremes of their times. During this period, ongoing brutal doctrinal wars that began with the Reformation diminished the prestige and authority of Christendom. The appalling Thirty Years war (1618-1648) that devastated central Europe and reduced Germany’s population by a third, was but one of the conflicts initiated between Roman Catholics and Protestants.

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A History of Nothing

Chapter 1: In the Beginning… There was Nothing.

Chapter 2: Ex Nihilo

Chapter 3: We Know Nothing

Chapter 4: Null and Void

Chapter 5: Nihil Perpetuum Est

Lucretius

Seneca

Chapter 6: Apropos of Nothing

Chapter 7: A Crack of Light between Two Nothings

Chapter 8: Nihil Sub Sole Novum

Machiavelli

Montaigne

Shakespeare

Chapter 9: Nothing Exceeds like Excess

Pascal

Chapter 10: Nothing but Sophistry and Illusion

Jonathan Swift

Voltaire

de Sade

Chapter 11: Sweet Nothings

Nihil Sub Sole Novum*

Galileo sculpture by Aristodemo Costoli in Uffizi

Discontent with the increasing wealth and unchecked corruption of the Roman Catholic church helped to interrupt and eventually break down the stagnant worldview of the Dark Ages, and the long slumber of free inquiry slowly began to end. For the first time in a thousand years, investigations into the nature of things could be directed without clerical tampering and the threat of heresy.

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A Crack of Light Between Two Nothings

Chichen Itza

A key element of Aztec philosophy was duality: in Aztec poetry and the noble-dialect of Nahuatl, figure of speech and symbolic metaphors were based on paired words that were often contradictory such as “Water Fire,” which meant war. Quetzalcoatl, the chief Aztec god, was described by the duality between the mundane (earth, snakes) and the divine (sky, birds).

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Apropos of Nothing

Statue of Roman Emperor Constantine

In 314, the Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan assured the Christian hegemony over several competitors. You’d think the anxieties and melancholia present during the Roman Empire’s decline would be partially alleviated with the official sanction of Christianity. Hardly!

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