Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Yesterday, one year ago, I was writing a piece, which became the spark to inspire my letters to you. I report it because, even if I might already have changed some of my ideas on the topic of ‘evil’, I still think that this has been one of the best things I’ve ever written on the Holocaust Memorial Day. So here it is, one more time.

27 January 2016

One month ago, as I was lazily staring out of the window of the 15 euros Flixbus I found to get to Prague from Erfurt, my eyes were caught by a strangely familiar view. I was tired because of the delayed departure and of the extra bag with the paintings I had left in the trustworthy hands of old friends in Germany. Prague wasn’t even meant as a stop in my brief journey, but it happened to be a pleasant break on the way back to my busy Viennese life. That’s why I was on that bus, travelling through the ashen, yet fascinating Thuringian landscapes. At times, raindrops rolled across the window glass, tracking their decaying paths toward the asphalt. I wasn’t aware I was approaching the hill, for it so gently rises. I noticed small groups of houses, unconscious villages perhaps. Even if I had it in front of me, barren at the bottom and topped by the beech forest, it took me a while to spot the white tower, and realize. I tried to take a couple of blurry pictures with my phone before giving up and letting the thoughts curl freely. How could you witness, from the distance, that something horrible were to happen on the other side, in the heart of the forest? The hill stands still, silent as the villagers at the bottom. How to imagine? How to think? How to believe when told? How, in the face of evidence?
In the last year, I got closer to the idea that evil can be objective. Sometimes it doesn’t depend on a particular point of view, nor it depends on a certain interpretation. Sometimes it is there, as real as water, these words or a historic event. We have tried so hard to keep it away from our sight, that now we are almost unable to recognize it again. Evil can be real in the deadly distance of the sea as in the safety of the apartment next to ours. It is an object of this world, whether you want it or not. Whether you live at the bottom of the hill, or you died in Buchenwald.

Forever yours,




Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Giacomo Leopardi was an Italian poet, philosopher and exceptional philologist, who lived the scientific revolutions of the early 19th century and ventured into the dark side of naturalist philosophy. His pessimism influenced the ideas of Arthur Schopenhauer and the future of modern philosophy and literature to come.

At the moment, I am reading parts of his ‘Zibaldone of Thoughts’, a diary he kept for his philosophical ideas among others. His uncommon sensitivity shines through the yellowed pages of my 1951 edition, and his high consideration of women is proven by his constant references to the writings of Mme de Stäel and to other Swiss and French femmes de lettres.

It is not my purpose to idealize his figure, nor to depict an anachronistic version of a man of his time. At any rate, Leopardi’s exceptionality is beyond doubt and deserves much greater international consideration.

I am rather ignorant concerning this author’s massive literary production of a quality more unique than rare, surprisingly vast especially for him, who died prematurely at the age of 38. None the less, I will attempt to pay him a brief tribute by analyzing an argument among those of Zibaldone, which led him to embrace pessimism.

As I understand it, this argument is formulated in two parallel ways. The first I will call argument from the infinity of pleasure, shortly “infinite pleasure argument” (IPA); the second is the argument from the projection in the future of our good, shortly “future good argument” (FGA).

IPA runs like this: we desire our pleasure always to be infinite. However, desire is all we can do with respect to infinite things, for infinity is unconceivable for finite creatures like us. Hence, our pleasure can never be satisfied, because everything we can ever experience is going to be finite.

FGA runs like this: our good is always projected in the future. Once we have reached it, we project it even further or are caught by boredom instead. Therefore good can’t, by its own nature, ever be reached.

Both IPA and FGA lead us to adopt one of these two pessimist conclusions: delusion about our true condition, or melancholy and hopelessness, which are the best ways to deal with our misery.

Reason has no liberating power from Leopardi’s perspective. Indeed, it is our “capital enemy”, who is concerned with destroying the illusions that could make our life happier.

You might guess that a sympathizer of rationalism such as myself would find this position uninteresting to say the least. Instead, I might surprise you by telling that I could even agree with Leopardi on a great amount of things. All I need is just a different interpretation of his own arguments.

If taken as descriptions of reality, both IPA and FGA are inexorably sliding into pessimism. But if we adopt a motivational/normative reading, we can see how they can have even an optimistic potential. I try to clear myself in what follows.

Imagine a world in which the infinity of pleasure were reached. Or imagine a world in which the good we always project in the future were in our hands. What kind of worlds would those be? Wouldn’t they be incredibly static worlds, with no possibility of doing anything whatsoever for it wouldn’t make sense to change our perfect condition? But there is something more to this thought experiment, I believe: would the notions of good and bad ever make sense anymore? If we couldn’t change our condition, what term of comparison would we have to define it as good? The assumption that our perfect static condition were good would be just as arbitrary as thinking it were perfectly bad.

What this is supposed to show is that awareness of our existence comes with the question of whether our existence is good or bad. At the same time, it is only because of the variety and mutability of our reality that we can distinguish what is good from what is bad. And once we know that, we are suddenly provided with reasons to pursue what is good and reject what is bad.

Leopardi followed the path of pessimism, which drove him with great costs to greater philosophical and literary excellence. But that is not the only path permitted by his arguments. You could even uncover a source of motivation and normativity in them, because, once you exist, discrimination between good and bad is unavoidable and action necessarily follows.

No one ever said that achieving the good was as easy as not doing anything.

Forever yours,



Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

At a philosophical dinner I took part to few days ago, I had the opportunity to entertain an extremely interesting conversation with O, who calls himself an anarchist. I don’t know much of anarchism but I have always found the idea quite unappealing. A world without enforced laws has always seemed to me pretty unrealistic. That is why I was so happy to hear the words of someone who believes in anarchy.

In this letter, I will outline the main points of this conversation and my final rejection of anarchy as a plausible conclusion. But I would urge you to think about it not as a trivial issue. It is indeed interesting and the thought of anarchy shouldn’t be dismissed with the scorn I myself have treated it in the past.

O started by pointing out that we have gotten used to the idea of living in legal states. In these states, we must obey the law and deviance is sanctioned or punished. The police is itself an institution whose presence discourages such deviance and is justified to employ violence whenever the law permits or requires it. O poses then the question: is a unified legal system a good enough reason for permitting or even requiring violence? Is it good that we must obey something which we never agreed upon and be punished if we do not?

If these questions raise even the least of doubts, it is interesting to wonder whether our world must be legal. It is so, of course, but shall it be so?

O asks: on what ground do we think that law is required? He answers that we take improperly for granted that people are going to be bad and we need laws to “make them behave”. Isn’t this a story we tell ourselves just because we don’t know anything better than a legal system? At this point, M intervenes and says “I don’t take people to be bad, but I don’t want to take the risk that they are, therefore I think law will be helpful”. In my opinion, there is even a deeper worry than this: can I myself grant that I will always be fair without the external incentive of law?

O accepts M’s objection but insists “What do you think will prevent people from being bad? Law itself or the fact that rationality will tell them that being bad could make you incur legal sanctions?” Obviously the latter. But if we take a legal system to require human rationality, that means that rationality is more fundamental than the legal system itself. If you accept this, why shouldn’t you believe that rationality alone can grant living together? Wouldn’t that be a world similar to ours but without any arbitrary enforcement of something we have never agreed upon and without anything such as “legal violence”? Everyone would live according to their rules and principles, and without being forced to obey anything they disagree with.

If you think this kind of reasoning is sound, you might very likely be an anarchist already. Let me then point out my objections.

O’s argument is based on the presupposition of “natural rationality”, as if human beings were “born rational” and they would be so, independently of any kind of unified education. This is a very strong claim, which becomes even stronger as he says that individual rationalities would work just like a unified law in determining individual behaviors. Such rationalities would have to be based on systematic moral theories (or codes of behavior), but how can we grant that each individual will formulate her own systematic theory?

Even if we were to accept “natural rationality” and “natural formulation of moral theories”, the question of how such theories could be integrated in a beneficial way is still unanswered. But let’s be even more charitable and grant such “natural integration”. What if someone starts exploiting the integrated system by, say, evading taxes? We wouldn’t have any common ground to say: you shouldn’t do that. Actually, there would even be individual theories which would allow evading taxes to the extent that the system as a whole doesn’t crumble. How can we grant that that is not the case? Could we accept it? I suspect that there would be something in us protesting: that is unfair!

At this point, O is forced to grant some content to that natural rationality, but on what base? Agreement? That would already amount to a legal system. Some kind of innate universal morality? But that’s just absurd: morality is the last thing which can be innate and universal at once!

Here is what I think: rationality is not natural but is something we learn; not everyone has a systematic theory of morality, and those who have it didn’t produce it spontaneously; we aren’t perfectly integrated beings, and integration is often something we have to work hard to obtain; we need a legal system because we must be granted the chance to meaningfully protest whenever something goes wrong. And what if the law is wrong? We must change it!

Forever yours,



Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

In this letter I will address the question of art in its most general formulation: “what is art?”

Since I lack the knowledge on the topic of an artist, an art critic, an art historian or a philosopher of art, I will attempt a man-of-the-street approach to it.

I’ve heard many definitions of art in the past. Many think it is a particular way of expressing one’s own subjectivity. Some people think it is the work of genius, namely the creation (or interpretation) of something, which has never been seen or heard before. Some other think it is a particular way of vehiculating messages – political, moral, philosophical, existential, etc.

To a certain extent, I believe that all these definitions are sensible. At the same time, none of them is invulnerable to objections.

Consider the first view I’ve mentioned. If art were to be understood only as the particular expression of one’s own subjectivity, art would hardly send messages about the world as it is often said to do. If all art can do amounts to expressing what one feels or subjectively thinks, there wouldn’t be any such thing as politically or morally loaded art.

The second view, that of genius, faces a direct objection: how can we define what is truly new? If we look closely, we would see that nothing is, for, as David Hume remarkably argued, everything we can imagine is the product of our own experience. If nothing can exceed our experience, then nothing is truly new. But there is indeed innovation in the connections that art originates, so maybe that’s the meaning of the work of genius. However, wouldn’t this view be still too elitist? Wouldn’t we like to grant the status of artist even to minor painters, musicians, poets and movie directors? There seems to be a gradualism in art that the concept of genius is too coarse to notice.

After all, art might be just a way of vehiculating all kinds of messages, so our third view. This view is able to account for both art as subjective expression as well as “art about the world”. Moreover, it blocks the accusation of elitism. However, it remains vulnerable to the all-too-common objection that “everything goes” (in a certain sense, the first view faces the same problem). If art is a way of vehiculating messages, how can we draw the line between art and other more trivial ways of expressing messages such as writing an article, bringing cookies to our neighbor, burning a flag, and so on? The risk is that everything goes, and art would be meaningless. We don’t want art to be meaningless, do we?

Thinking about art provides us with quite a headache. Perhaps it is impossible to give a positive account of art. But maybe a negative is still possible. Instead of thinking what art is, we could ask ourselves what art isn’t. If something can be better defined as a psychological experiment, a treaty about economics or the unintentional effects of a psychotic person provided with paint and brushes, why employ the concept of art then?

I think that the term “art” can be used with parsimony as the term to explain something which other terms can’t better explain. You stumble on your feet and your camera takes by chance an astonishing shot after falling? Well, that’s what it is: a casual event producing something beautiful, but no art is involved. The same can be said about the Niagara falls: they are “by chance” beautiful, but it would be counter intuitive to call them a “work of art”, for no artist was involved in their production.

It is important to point out two consequences of such considerations: 1) contrarily to what many people believe, art is not in the eyes of the observer, but rather in the eyes of a community of observers, who can apply definitions and in general agree about what isn’t art or simply have shared feelings about it; 2) the negative definition of art allows relativism about what art is but, at the same time, helps us find a meaning to it which is quite rigorous, namely that of excluding from the domain of art all that can be better explained by other concepts.

A last thing that I would like to underline, is that this theoretical approach to art has a parallel in practice. Not only it defines art negatively, but it tells also what one is supposed to practically do to “produce art”. Art is something that is originated when all other means of expression are deemed inadequate.

Art is the last possibility for limited beings such as ourselves to express what otherwise would be impossible to express for us. Good art is the only, irreplaceable, remaining way to say something, when all the other attempts have already failed. On the other hand, the easier it is to replace a work of art, the worse it is. Bad art can be much better expressed by better art, an article or nothing.

Forever yours,



Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

2017 has been a year of revelations. One of the things that has struck me the most has been my reticence to believe victims. Why was I so suspicious when the words of the witnesses of the Chechnya gay purge started being reported in April by Novaya Gazeta and later confirmed by The Guardian? Why was it so hard to acknowledge the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, as there was evidence it started at least in February, under the eyes of Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi? Why couldn’t I believe at first the allegations of actresses against Harvey Weinstein in October, which led to an unprecedented upheaval of allegations against sexual abusers in the heart of the liberal and politically correct Hollywood?

These three apparently disconnected happenings, have something in common: they concern victims talking and an audience listening. In one word, they are about the credibility of testimony.

Many philosophers have wondered how can we ascribe credibility to testimony. This is not the question of my current concern. I will rather focus on a psychological question. We don’t want to believe everything that the news report but, at the same time, we ought to believe things that, other things being equal for us, are based on sufficient evidence from our point of view. The question is then the following: how, despite enough evidence obtains, we remain sometimes skeptical about the truthfulness of testimony? To put it differently: why, in the face of evidence, we still find it hard to believe actresses denouncing their harassers, to trust reports on the Rohingya diaspora, or to concede credibility to victims of systematic deportation, detention, torture and assassination of male homosexuals in Chechnya?

Here it seems that my three examples diverge significantly. Indeed, it seems that what was hard to believe in one case was different in another. In the case of the Muslim minority of the Rohingya, for instance, it was the silence of a (not-anymore-?) champion of human rights such as Aung San Suu Kyi to hold me from accepting the accusation of ethnic cleansing. Actresses reporting Weinstein were easier for me to believe, but the delicate enterprise of understanding harassment and the worry of focusing too much on mediatic scapegoats prevented me from taking a strong position on the matter, whereas I didn’t treat with the same circumspection friends of mine taking part in the mass-campaign against sexual harassers.

I found the horror of Chechnya particularly unbelievable. How was it possible, in 2017, that concentration camps were still a reality? How could anyone possibly forget the horrors of Nazi-Germany? At first, I took it as an exaggeration. “Perhaps they are ‘just’ oppressed” I said to myself “like it is common practice in many homophobic countries, but the allegations are way too dramatic for my understanding”.

Chechnya is defined an “ultra-conservative” country of the Russian Federation, with a  certain degree of independence, which means that the federal law goes hand in hand with the local Islamic beliefs. It was when the political and religious head of state, Ramzan Kadyrov, declared that there were no homosexuals in his country that I started looking deeper in the related articles. And my trust in the victims’ reports is now beyond my personal ability to doubt.

So what was the nourishment of my skepticism? The strength of my former beliefs? The complexity of a scandal? The extraordinary nature of a terrible event? All of them, for sure, but there is something more.

What links the three kinds of skepticism is, in my opinion, the fact that we tell ourselves stories about reality to make it more easily intelligible. These narratives we construct attempt to be as rational as possible. We ascribe motivations and plans to the characters populating our world, and causal chains to events that shape our reality.

Sometimes, this way of “rationalizing reality” is improper. Sometimes we fail because we have been blindly worshipping a hero, who was after all a human being – we forgot that all heroes are. We have confused a simple ideal with a much more complicated individual life. Sometimes we prefer to focus on the conspiracy, rather than on the burden of accusing someone of sexual abuse, as if the abuse itself wasn’t enough of a burden already. Sometimes, our world must be just more rational, more secular, less oblivious than what it is. And when we discover its filth, we are overwhelmed by anxiety and we unconsciously stick with all our mental strength to our clear and rational (and wrong) depictions.

2017 has been a year of revelations. I am especially grateful for those which took place within myself.

Forever yours,



Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

At a first glance, the concept of private and public property seems unproblematic. If you buy something only for yourself, that thing is usually considered your private property. The same happens when someone buys you a present. Private property can also be what you inherit or produce for yourself. Public property, on the other hand, is what a group of people owns. The right to private property is a fundamental right in liberal societies, while it seems that very often social groups can be defined as owners of some public property.

One interesting question is to wonder what makes something a property. The most direct answer could be that a property is something that is appropriated by someone, like an individual, or by something, like a state. Since the concept of appropriation is derived from that of property, it seems however unlikely that such explanation will give any meaningful answer to our question.

Another way to answer the origin of the concept of property is to appeal to control. A property could be considered something you can exert control upon. This seems to be intuitively right. For instance, I can say that my smartphone is my private property because I have control on it. But what if someone steals it, depriving me of the control I had? Would we say that the smartphone is not my property anymore? If it were so, I wouldn’t have any possibility to reclaim that smartphone as mine. Indeed, there is a very important sense in which we have still the right to say that the stolen smartphone, of which I lost control, is still my private property.

The notion of control doesn’t capture this sense and it proves to be insufficient. But then, what on earth is property supposed to be derived from? Maybe our properties are intrinsically ours. They have some sort of substantial relation to their owners. But this is only a desperate move, for private property can be transmitted from individual to individual and public property between institutions or by being privatized (of course private property can also become public).

I think that the best way to conceive of private and public property is that of the social norms regulating them. A property of mine is such, if I can appeal to norms ascribing that property to me within the limits of that norm. Hence, a thing I consider my private property is not linked to me by my appropriation of that thing, or by the control I can exert on it or by any necessary link between that thing and me. My private property is related to me only insofar as the society I live in can recognize it as my private property. In the same way, public property is determined by the norms of a society.

There is a caveat to be added. The way one has acquired something as her property doesn’t justify the fact that that thing is now considered a property of hers. Consider this example: I steal your jumper in New Zealand and I fly to Marokko making you and the police lose track of me. In Marokko I start sporting the jumper as my own, in a way that makes it be considered my private property. Still, my acquisition of it was illicit.

With this example we understand that the right to private property, however fundamental, is not substantial. It is a fundamental right because it protects the freedom of people and significantly sustains their flourishing, but it is not substantial in the sense that it is intrinsically fair or substantially good. For if I acquired my private property by means of robbery, that property can’t be considered substantially good, but only good insofar as it permits my individual flourishing and protects my individual freedom.

If property is transitory and non-intrinsically good because of the possibility of controversial acquisition, what normative relation do we have to it? What is the character of the norms, which regulate property? We decide. Human animals, unlike other animals, create norms and decide what they should be like. And we want our norms to be beneficial, but also moral. The direction of our decision has a name: responsibility.

Private and public property are ruled by the norm of responsibility, rather than by that of control or of the divine right to ownership. When we forget this, we perpetrate a moral injustice or we damage ourselves and the things we value. This applies to individuals in a society of consumers, as well as to states facing environmental issues or problems related to the disadvantaged parts of their populations.

Forever yours,



Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

There are at least two reasons why I don’t talk often about art. The first is that I have never had a true interest in the discipline of aesthetics, and that makes me even less of an expert than what I am on an average with respect to other topics. The second is that I love to contemplate art with my poor knowledge of art history, rather than necessarily try to find a meaning to it. Still, as you have probably by now noticed, I like to explore the paradoxical nature of certain phenomena and, in this sense, “art” offers me the perfect field for today’s little inquiry.

In particular, I will focus on the following question: Should we enjoy the work of an artist, even if we know she is a horrible person?

Few months ago, after the Weinstein’s scandal, the wildfire of allegations for sexual harassment and violence has been spreading and has reached many men in powerful positions. Probably, the most rumored of the “targets” of such allegations has been the actor Kevin Spacey. Many people consider him an extraordinary good actor, and his exclusion from House of Cards’ last season – the tv series of which he has played the leading character so far, has caused outrage.

According to the allegations, Spacey has been involved in several cases of moral misconduct. If this picture is correct, we might conclude that Spacey has been an extraordinary good actor over a considerable amount of time, while being a sexual harasser. Our dilemma is ready: are we justified in enjoining his movies, if we believe that he has been a sexual harasser?

Apart from watching a couple of episodes of House of Cards almost a year ago – without understanding much of what was going on, I really don’t have any knowledge of the actor’s ability – I can’t judge actors in general, for the record. To put myself in Spacey’s fans shoes, I will refer to an example, which has been more familiar to me, but still presents the same dilemma.

In 2009, the singer Chris Brown was taken to trial with the accusation of domestic violence against his girlfriend at the time Rihanna. When the photos of Rihanna’s bruises were released, my repulsion for Chris Brown mounted to the point that I couldn’t hear or read his name anymore. Every time I could recognize even the least of his background vocals at the radio, I automatically changed station. Chris Brown was to me a dead man.

Was I justified not to listen to a singer, who is considered by who-knows-how-many-people a music genius, just because he beat up to death another human being, insofar as she is a woman?

There are two perspectives, which we should consider when confronted with such cases. The first is the historical one. According to the historical perspective, the events in a person’s life are a sequence of interlocked facts. A person is the direct and indirect cause of her doings and can be directly or indirectly influenced by external happenings in being what she is.

This perspective is just descriptive of a person’s psychology and history, but it doesn’t allow to ascribe justification. It is impossible to say that “because she is aggressive-genial-depressed-…, she is justified in doing immoral/artistic things”. The historical perspective simply links events: person X is depressed and depression is linked to her doing immoral and/or artistic things, for instance. This doesn’t mean X is justified in doing those things.

The second perspective is the evaluative one. From this point of view, we have the faculty to “stop time” and judge. We stop time at the moment when Chris Brown is singing and we judge his performance as an extraordinary one. We stop time at the moment where he raises his hands over his girlfriend and we judge his action as loathsome.

For this time, I must surrender to skepticism. Chris Brown, Kevin Spacey, Caravaggio, Woody Allen, etc. are unified human beings, hence we can’t detach the two perspectives or separate our feelings for them insofar as they are artists rather than immoral individuals. We shouldn’t endorse the activity of a horrible person but, at the same time, we can’t deny that that horrible person has done very valuable things.

However, there is something that differentiates Caravaggio from the other men I’ve mentioned. Caravaggio died a murderer in 1610. And he belongs without doubt to the most restricted club of the greatest painters ever. It is the time that has passed that allows us to adopt the historical perspective and detach the evaluative ones from one another. That is, if ever there is a value to the other above mentioned men, only future history will tell. And future history will do justice to their triumphs as well as their baseness. Or will just forget.

Forever yours,