Domine Quo Vadis?

It seems to be a simple question that recently had been put forward here

But what are people coming to Rome want to buy? What is the special pleasure, the experience they are looking for when doing to the so-called eternal city?

And it seems so simple that at the beginning, near those times of the very beginning at which we find the word,[1] a man supposedly had been asked

Domine Quo Vadis?

found an immediate answer. At least this is what had been handed down to us: he promptly replied to the Apostle who thus asked:

Romam vado iterum crucifigi.

But seen in the light of the answer the question takes a different form – and is surely not simple at all, especially not if we accept that an answer is it had been given is by no means self evident, will surely not given by most of us.

Sure, the danger of being crucified is today marginal – though one wonders about some things happening in this world, at this stage, in this place called Europe: enlightened and shining bright, claiming to be idol for the rest of the world. Sure, the danger of being crucified is marginal as cases where people are fixed to a bench with needles in their arm for death penalty are called execution of justice in the name of the USNA-law.

Anyway, though we wanted to go originally to Gandolpho, I changed plans after looking at the map – looked too complicated, too much hassle.

“OK to change plan?” – “OK. We can go to the Via Appia Antica – perhaps there you find an answer on yesterday’s question!?”

After briefly checking the map, I started the engine and …

“Ready?” – “Ready!”

The first, though tiny Quo Vadis? experience occurred somewhere near to the city walls at the other side of the city, the Appian mountains already in sight. There are about four lanes – the traffic light had been read and I stopped – to my right a van, I only saw relatively late that it had been police. No bother, the usual “Roman kick start”, moving on when the traffic light just starts t6o think about changing to green would not be wrong … – no sign of traffic on the left side – until a car just flew along, bypassing me, the police car and ignoring the traffic light, still “deep red”. I had been a bit puzzled to see the police car still standing there … – not for long: the traffic light changed, the car on my right started and stopped the other car on the next junction – two cars now blocking the traffic, giving just enough space to pass with the scooter.

The question remained unchanged – perhaps not for the driver of the car. But Via Appia Antiqua. I had been thinking about a friend who visited me a couple of weeks ago:

There is something here in Rome ….., hm, this feeling of walking where over two thousand years ago “these people” walked, talked, prosecuted and celebrated victories …

What could I reply?

Yes, but in some way one gets used to it: there you walk in the footsteps of Nero, there you sit down where Cesar had been sitting, and at the corner, it is the building much later erected under …. – and they are all present, not only the locals: xyz Raphael, Genteleschi (father and daughter [sic]!) and hundreds of others: Goethe, Stendhal, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Boromini, Bernini. All coming, leaving, asking, criticizing, agreeing ….. finding something new while permanently asking where they go – Well, you get used to it and at the same time you probably never get really used to it.

The engine switched off, the machine locked the real via is not passable with the scooter, at least it is not recommended (leaving aside that it is also prohibited). Quo vadis! – Perhaps it is just this question that brings so many people here: as the priest said during the sermon, it is about the father and redemption:

Io, io sono

– it is me that is

– and it had been added

By redemption it is that you can be – speranza: hope

After enlightenment this probably translates into esperienza: experience.

If we really can gain that experience we are expecting, or if it is another experience; if we are actually able to make any kind of such experience is another question, and looking for it is like walking on a tightrope. While we are walking further, I ask

Do you remember Jean-Paul Sartre, writing about hope?

Of course I new the answer:

– Sûrement, mais …

The reply comes with some hesitation from somebody who knows Sartre not as idol, not as writer, but as co-actor of those years in the late 60s, where he pleaded that intellectuals and workers belong together, where he ended one of his public speeches with the words like:

We (workers and intellectuals) will meet again: not because the intellectuals should tell the workers the truth; but to develop to something new

Seeing him in this way, his permanent questioning had been difficult to cope with: not because of the questions that he asked but because of the answers it evoked. And this had also been the permanent challenge: the freedom we are all striving for though we are apparently unable to deal with.

This is the similarity and difference if you want: The one had been asked Quo vadis and knew the way, which required much courage; the other asked himself and others permanently new questions and he did not know exactly the way – he only knew that we have to go it: Freedom had been for him action.

In any case, for both one question did not exist, had not even been possible to think:

Who sent you here?

Indeed, we can come back then to the question:

So what are people, coming to Rome, want to buy? What is the special pleasure, the experience they are looking for when doing to the so-called eternal city?

Perhaps they are just looking for the answer, although they know that the given answer remains unacceptable for them when they return. As Antonio Gramsci once wrote

To create a new culture does not only mean to make individually “original” discoveries, it also and especially means, to critically distribute discoveries that had been already made, in other words to “socialise” them and thus to establish them as foundation of vital actions, element of coordination and the intellectual and moral order.[2]

The crux is that people, facing the question Sartre posed, are easily referring to such new culture but do so only as long as somebody else makes the actual step, still saying for them

Romam vado iterum crucifigi.

Father, redemption and hope for eternity – not least as everything we do today has nolens volens, and if we know it or not eternal meaning.

And of course, as we all know that this kind of search, the huge numbers of tourists travelling from one country to another, moving between places is not without costs – not least for the environment – there is a new means at hand, allowing us following our sinful search, namely the modern way of selling indulgences: compensation in form of paying for charities that are active in the environmental area, a flight across the Atlantic is “charged” with about 60 Euro.

Of course, all this cannot be seen as rebuke – the challenge for us, who had been brought up in the tradition of the father, the redemption and the hope for eternity is nearly insurmountable, and possibly within this habitual way of thinking even logically impossible. We may remember Rosa Luxemburg’s words:

Freedom only for the members of the government, only for the members of the Party — though they are quite numerous — is no freedom at all. Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters. The essence of political freedom depends not on the fanatics of ‘justice’, but rather on all the invigorating, beneficial, and detergent effects of dissenters. If ‘freedom’ becomes ‘privilege’, the workings of political freedom are broken.[3]

This sounds simple but even Rosa, according to one biography, refused once to dance on a New Years Ball with [if I remember correctly] Kautsky, saying something like:

I cannot dance with you, while knowing that you will most likely attack me in the next parliamentary plenary.

This little episode sheds some light on the difficulties of welding general principles with individual behaviour – asking for redemption, unable to truly reconcile.



[1] Alluding to the Gospel according to St. John. Which begins with the words:

“{1:1} In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. {1:2} The same was in the beginning with God. {1:3} All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. {1:4} In him was life; and the life was the light of men. {1:5} And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” (The King James Version of the Holy Bible; 611)

[2] Gramsci, Antonio, 1932-33: Gefängnishefte. Elftes Heft (XVIII) [Einführung ins Studium der Philosophie]; Antonio Gramsci. Gefängnishefte. Bd. 6: Philosophie der Praxis; herausgegeben von Wolfgang Fritz Haug; Hamburg/Berlin: Argument Verlag, 1994: 1365-1493; hier: 1377)

[3] Rosa Luxemburg – Gesammelte Werke Vol. 4; Dietz Verlag Berlin, 1983: : 359, Footnote 3



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