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Rome as a Guide to the Good Life

A Philosophical Grand Tour

A unique, portable guidebook that sketches Rome’s great philosophical tradition while also providing an engaging travel companion to the city.
 
This is a guidebook to Rome for those interested in both la dolce vita and what the ancient Romans called the vita beata—the good life. Philosopher Scott Samuelson offers a thinker’s tour of the Eternal City, rooting ideas from this philosophical tradition within the geography of the city itself. As he introduces the city’s great works of art and its most famous sites—the Colosseum, the Forum, the Campo de’ Fiori—Samuelson also gets to the heart of the knotty ethical and emotional questions they pose. Practicing philosophy in place, Rome as a Guide to the Good Life tackles the profound questions that most tours of Rome only bracket. What does all this history tell us about who we are?

In addition to being a thoughtful philosophical companion, Samuelson is also a memorable tour guide, taking us on plenty of detours and pausing to linger over an afternoon Negroni, sample four classic Roman pastas, or explore the city’s best hidden gems. With Samuelson’s help, we understand why Rome has inspired philosophers such as Lucretius and Seneca, poets and artists such as Horace and Caravaggio, filmmakers like Fellini, and adventurers like Rosa Bathurst. This eclectic guidebook to Roman philosophy is for intrepid wanderers and armchair travelers alike—anyone who wants not just a change of scenery, but a change of soul.

272 pages | 14 color plates, 2 halftones | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2023

Ancient Studies

Art: Ancient and Classical Art

Philosophy: General Philosophy

Travel and Tourism: Tourism and History

Reviews

“I have been a Roman for over half a century, but I’ll be sure to use Samuelson’s Guide the next time I visit my native city. I will look at it quite differently!”

Massimo Pigliucci, author of 'How to Be a Stoic'

Rome as a Guide to the Good Life immerses us in glorious works of art and architecture. But in Rome, every aspect of life, from Raphael to food to gesticulation, is an art. Rather than guiding us through the labyrinth of the city’s streets, Samuelson guides us through the labyrinth of life, more daunting than any streetscape.”

Ingrid D. Rowland, author of 'Giordano Bruno' and 'The Collector of Lives'

“In this elegantly written book, Samuelson takes us by the elbow and leads us to his favorite places and works of art in the Eternal City, spinning stories about their history, pointing out their beauties and contradictions, and reflecting on their philosophical meanings. Whether you travel to Rome with this book as your guide, or read it from the comfort of an armchair, Samuelson teaches us ancient lessons that can enrich our modern lives.”

Lori Erickson, author of 'Holy Rover,' 'Near the Exit,' and 'The Soul of the Family Tree'

Table of Contents

Introduction: Philosophy as a Guide to la Dolce Vita

I Build Not Thereon
1 Die on Your Journey: The Question of Rosa Bathurst’s Tombstone
2 Build on Tragedy: The Humility of Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath
3 Put Down Roots in the Uprooted: The Piety of Bernini’s Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius

II Remember Death
4 Be Not for Yourself Alone: Cicero in the Ruins of the Forum
5 Take the View from Above: Marcus Aurelius in the Saddle

III Reap the Day
6 Conquer Your Fear: Lucretius versus the Roman Triumph
7 Dare to Be Wise: Horace’s View of the City

IV Love and Do What You Will
8 Hold Humanity Sacred: Seneca or Augustine versus the Colosseum
9 Crash through the Floor: The Mysteries of the Basilica of San Clemente
10 Make a Golden Ass of Yourself: The Metamorphoses in Agostino Chiti’s Villa

V Make a Palace of Your Memory
11 Be the Conversation: The Philosophy of Raphael’s School of Athens
12 Unlock the Soul in Your Soul: Giordano Bruno in the Campo de’ Fiori
Conclusion: What Resists Time Is What’s Ever Flowing
Acknowledgments
Appendix: Rome by Way of the Winged Eye
Notes
Index

Excerpt

Why go to Rome? It’s easy to be cynical about the city’s tourists. Their wealth and freedom seem to have been purchased at the steep price of their holiness and nobility. They just want to brag, “Been there, done that.” They gripe about the unbearable first leg of the transatlantic journey (nine hours in a reclining chair with personal movies), get their selfies in front of the Pantheon (or is it the Parthenon?), dine near the Trevi Fountain on what they’ll boast is the best pasta ever (limp noodles with bacon bits and European ketchup), note the cultural differences of the McDonald’s in Termini (McTiramisù), and splatter photos of their “Rome in Two Days” tour on social media (next up, Venice!). I suspect most of us have a certain amount of ugly tourist in our makeup. I know I do. But there’s more to us—all of us—than the cynical interpretation captures. Our age may be doing its damnedest to turn us into zombies with roller bags, but our holiness and nobility aren’t undead yet! Under layers of greed and distraction, pasta and circuses, there’s a hunger to live a better life, what the ancient Roman philosophers call the vita beata—the blessed life, the good life. We sometimes go to Rome in search of our own humanity. We want more than a change of scene. We want a change of soul.
 
Part of this deep desire to see Rome, preceded as are all deep things by shallowness, comes from vague associations with la dolce vita: the sweet life of good wine, fresh vegetables, sharp clothes, ancient monuments, cobblestone streets, and charming company late into the Mediterranean night. It’s often awakened by movies, like those of Federico Fellini, who called Rome “the most wonderful movie set in the world.”1 Part of it has to do with our suspicion that there is truly great art in Rome, a hunch that can’t be wipeout even by weapons-grade versions of consumerism and postmodernism. Part of it has to do with our awe at the dominance of the Roman Empire in its heyday—not just our crass admiration for power, though definitely that too, but our appreciation for commanding expressions of who we are, good and bad. But part of it, like all deep desires, is mysterious. We’re looking for something intangible. In my experience, even when Rome gives us our heart’s desire and then some, we still don’t quite know what it is. All that business about gods and angels isn’t totally crazy.
 
A long-standing reason to travel to Rome is religious. It’s one of the prime spots of Christian pilgrimage. In some ways it’s more the home of Christianity than Bethlehem or Jerusalem, such that Dante can speak of “that Rome where Christ is a Roman.” Judea, where Jesus lived and preached, was a Roman province. Peter, the “rock” on whom the church was built, was crucified on Rome’s Janiculum Hill during the reign of Nero and buried under what was to become St. Peter’s Basilica. Christianity spread through the world that Rome conquered and unified. The Catholic Church continued that dominance by taking Roman culture to the four corners—and four rivers—of the earth, and carries it on to this day in ubiquitous churches and schools. There’s a reason it’s called Roman Catholicism. Before modernity created tourists, the church created religious pilgrims. From the Middle Ages to today, they’ve come to Rome not exactly in search of the good life but in search of gracing their spiritual life. They sought—and still seek—things like a papal blessing of a rosary, a saint’s relic, an especially holy version of a holiday, communion with the global body of Christ, and, like all travelers, something novel, unexpected, extraordinary—for instance, in the Middle Ages, the dragon that was said to dwell in the Forum right next to the mouth of hell.
 
(...)
 
After obsessing over art books in high school, learning Latin in college, and studying Italian philosophy in graduate school, I stumbled into Rome for the first time in my mid thirties, over a decade ago, invited along as a faculty helper on a subsidized study abroad trip for working-class college students. In two weeks, I, a so-called teacher, learned more than I had in the previous two decades. I’ve been lucky enough to go back on that trip every summer since, with the sad exception of the pandemic years. There’s plenty to hate about dirty, bureaucratic, decadent Rome, which, according to James Joyce, makes its money “like a man who lives by exhibiting
to travellers his grandmother’s corpse.” Following in a long line of wide-eyed small-town boys, I experience Roma as a living being and am sometimes guilty of romanticizing a city I probably couldn’t live in full-time. But aren’t cities made of our desires and fantasies? Why not err on the side of adoration, particularly when it comes to the city that supplies the etymology of the word “romanticize”? It didn’t help that a few years ago, in the Mithraeum under the Basilica of San Clemente, I fell head over heels for an art historian and tried her patience with poetry until she married me.

Is Rome a guide to the good life? Yes and no. It’s certainly not so simple as that the city embodies wisdom and happiness! Sure, if you’re in search of the beautiful best of humanity, Rome will give you jolts of gelato and Borromini capable of momentarily redeeming the tragedies and stupidities so characteristic of the rest of our lives. But if you’re looking for evil sufficient to condemn Western civilization, humanity, or the belief in the goodness of God, the history of Rome will furnish you with several airtight cases. And there’s everything else too, including loads of trinkets, pickpockets, idiots, and tourists. That’s just it. In the beginning of Plato’s Republic (nota bene: we still use the translated Latin title for Plato’s Politeia), Socrates says that if you were trying to read a text with minuscule print, you’d be grateful to find a large-print version. Likewise, he says, if you want to understand the individual soul, it helps to have the soul writ large, which is what a city is: a bustling text of all aspects of our character. Rome is the city, the place where our humanity is writ large.

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