Saturday, January 7, 2012

The education and spirituality of our Renaissance cousin Fanny

January 7, 2012
Fanny’s parents hailed from Toscana, the heart of the Renaissance, and after reading her “Of Arts and Letters” chapter, I would describe Fanny as a Renaissance woman, which can be defined as “a person who is skilled in multiple disciplines and has a broad base of knowledge.” While immensely successful as a business woman, she devoured books from early childhood onward. Her librarian friend commented that she had never seen a young girl read so many books. Fanny quotes liberally from the writings of Plato, Socrates, Machiavelli, Dante and Shakespeare, but she also enthusiastically embraced the latest ideas from social scientists, philosophers and psychologists of her own era. Her comments on music, painting, literature, wisdom and the human psyche are full of depth and insight.

Fanny’s columns also offer many insights into her fascinatingly rich personal life. She describes an important incident from her childhood where, while aboard a ship bound from Europe to the United States, she met opera singer Lina Cavalieri, called “the most beautiful woman in the world” in 1916. Fanny also reveals that she averaged four hours of sleep a night, but on the nights she wrote her weekly columns, she would forgo even those hours of sleep.

“Creative thinking for me is accomplished only during the night; my stream of consciousness is of the type that flows only in absolute quiet (how I envy folks who can write with noise all about them), and so 18 years of writing has cost me more than 6,000 hours or perhaps more of sleep . . . I haven’t missed that sleep, because my energy level is high and my blood pressure is low.”

While extolling the virtues of reading, she emphasizes that knowledge should be used for reflection and personal development: “Now while knowledge and wisdom seem to be the same, one may be well educated, that is, with an intellectual knowledge of many subjects, and yet have very little wisdom. The world is full of educated men but not enough wise men.”

She points out that some people who have less formal education than others but are well read— like her own father—can be very wise. The way they apply their knowledge is the key.

“The power of reasoning and judgment developed in childhood through reading will never result in the adult who discovers his limitations in his ability to reason . . . Sometimes a ditch digger can run rings around an educated ‘uneducated’ man without the kind of common sense needed to face the everyday kind of world.”

Her use of the word “uneducated” reminds me of the word maleducato, which is an important and serious insult in Italy. It literally means badly educated, but it is used more broadly to mean rude, ill-mannered or impolite. In Italy, to be educated also meant to be refined and polite, and Fanny was aware of these cultural values.

Fanny’s writing also shows her spiritual side: “Words have no value as regards improving our lives, unless the idea that lies behind them is understood. They have to be digested and assimilated by getting our little petty selves out of the way . . . and letting God take over. I have discovered that the more ‘educated’ some people become, the narrower, rather than broader, they become in mind . . . witness the number of people who think it is not fashionable but corny to believe in God. I am constantly shocked by people of good education and breeding who think that people who believe in God are ‘square’ simply because the nonbelievers don’t know how to think profoundly, because they have never taken the time (and it takes time and meditation) for the real power of spiritual thought to manifest itself.”

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