You’re reading this journal by simple virtue of the fact that you’re connected to a source of electricity and to the internet, but it wasn’t so very long ago that people used strange things called libraries to acquire information. You can acquire knowledge by a variety of other means, of course, the most obvious being by engaging someone else in conversation and listening to what they have to say. If you require specialist knowledge on Stonehenge, the cultivation of nasturtiums, the anatomical quirks of a komodo dragon or anything else, then it stands to reason that you must consult with an expert on the matter and pay them for their services.
However, in sixteenth century Italy, one man came up with a truly ingenious and exhilarating solution that avoided the necessity of visiting the library or paying experts for consultations, while at the same time giving him unfettered access to the finest minds that the human race has produced.
Niccolo Machiavelli was a Florentine ambassador who was deeply interested in political affairs, and he acquired a profound insight into these matters by using a method he described in a letter to a friend, confessing that, after returning from a night in the tavern, he would dress himself in robes of state, then retire to his study to hold conversations with men long dead, men such as Julius Caesar, in a bid to understand more of the thinking of the ancients.
“When evening comes, I return home [from work and from the local tavern] and go to my study. On the threshold I strip naked, taking off my muddy, sweaty workday clothes, and put on the robes of court and palace, and in this graver dress I enter the courts of the ancients and am welcomed by them, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born. And there I make bold to speak to them and ask the motives of their actions, and they, in their humanity reply to me. And for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death; I pass indeed into their world.”
Well, this sounds far more entertaining, satisfying and informative than using a search engine, but the truth is that Machiavelli was far from being alone in consulting supernatural entities in search of enlightenment. William Blake spoke to his dead brother as many as twelve times a day and learned a new method of copperplate engraving from the shade of his deceased sibling. Nostradamus tells us that he felt fear and trembled in the presence of a god when he made his predictions, but men have been doing such things since Saul asked the Witch of Endor to summon up the ghost of the prophet Samuel, and probably long before that.
While these matters have long fascinated me and will doubtless continue to do so, I’m not averse to the use of technology. I’ve been using a laptop and the internet for many years now, but it simply never ceases to amaze me how I can browse the internet, chat to friends on different continents and receive text and images in the blink of an eye.
It is literally magical, but it doesn’t begin to compare with Machiavelli holding court in his study with the likes of Plato and Hannibal. Instead of cherry-picking information, Machiavelli lived for a few hours each night in the world of the ancients, meaning that his personal ‘Mindscape’ was peopled with animated, living beings and adorned with marble courtyards, trickling fountains and shaded galleries.
Aside from the mental stimulation and food for thought that this scenario offered, it also gave Machiavelli a blessed release, because “…for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death…”
As Lord Byron once exultantly exclaimed “The power of thought! The magic of the mind!” So, as time progresses, you are welcome to wander with me by the dead of night in my own Mindscape, if you wish, through a region that encompasses all times, all lands and all worlds known to Man.
Dennis Price; writer, archaeologist & Ghost Finder.