This week we have been looking at some examples of Castiglione’s concept of Sprezzatura, as part of the Blog of the Courtier’s 3rd birthday celebrations. Castiglione praised that ideal of seemingly effortless nonchalance which he believed a lady or gentleman ought to employ in all that they do: being competent or skilled at something, or many things, but not making a big fuss about themselves for so being. Now it is your turn to submit your ideas about the person or persons you believe embody this virtue in the present day, whether people of your own acquaintance or those whom you admire from afar. Birthday contest entries are due before the clock strikes midnight on the East Coast of the United States this Sunday, July 31st.
I have already received a number of entries that are very interesting candidates for this label of a modern-day practitioner of spezzatura, including a few nominations of candidates whom I actually know. To date, no one has nominated themselves, though of course that would not be sprezzatura at all. If we are to celebrate the fact that there are still people about, in our increasingly repulsive society, who try to behave graciously, have a curiosity about the world, and are seeking to better themselves at all times, without crying “Look at me!” all over the place, then such persons could hardly nominate themselves.
And this is the point, of course, because Castiglione’s ideal is not a dead, unobtainable thing. We can all think on cases throughout human history of people who tried to always do their best, and hold themselves up to a higher standard without trying to put others down in the process. Unfortunately the example of these people in the present age is lost not only because of a general celebration of the loud and the perverse, which holds sway at present, but also because by definition the courtiers whom Castiglione would seek out would never be quick to praise themselves in the first place. Their quiet competence and accomplishments get drowned out in a din of mediocrity, showiness, and immodesty.
It is this last which has done such a great deal of damage, despite in some cases having the best of intentions in aiding those who suffer from serious emotional or psychological difficulties. With the adoption of the ideal of “self esteem” to replace that of “self effacement” by the Baby Boom generation, and their indoctrination of that ideal into us, their children, Western society has been done a tremendous amount of harm. The worship of the ego, instead of God, and the command to “do what feels right for you”, instead of “do unto others”, has created a cacophony of selfishness that has led us to the rather muddled point in history where we now are.
This is why the higher standard, as advocated by Castiglione, is so important to a world which is seemingly intent on destroying itself not through wars, famine, and plagues, but by a kind of exaggerated narcissism coupled with celebrity worship. There are still people out men and women of good will can admire for their talent, their charity, their intellect, and their style, without descending into the depths of ridiculousness, as did Castiglione’s contemporary Machiavelli, who held out the moral reprobate Caesare Borgia as his ideal in “The Prince”. The worship of fame, wealth, and excess in oneself or in others has replaced the appreciation of dignity and common sense.
The world still needs Castiglione, not as someone who teaches us specifically how to live, but rather as someone who provides a different measuring stick by which to look at history. For centuries after his death, Castiglione’s “Book of the Courtier” was considered required reading by anyone hoping to live life well – not only for the titled wealthy, but for those in business, politics, the law, diplomacy, the arts, and so on. It is no surprise that now, Machiavelli is more widely read than his contemporary, because his avocation of selfishness and love of “whatever means necessary” over the quiet confidence of Castiglione seems more in keeping with out times.
The correct response, it would seem, is to reject that selfishness as not being the inevitable result of society. It is all very well for the pathologist to diagnose the cancer, but unless someone comes along and shows us how to get rid of that cancer, then all that is served is a recognition that evil exists in the world. Evil must be combated, not embraced, and this is why Castiglione should be embraced today.
My very best wishes of good luck to all of you who enter the Birthday Contest, and I will be announcing the winner on Monday.