Summary of Roots: Tradition, Identity, Memory

Maurizio Bettini is well known among classicists. His important scholarship applying anthropological methods to Ancient Rome has been translated into English, and he has been the Sather Lecturer at UC Berkeley (2018). His public scholarship, however, seems less well known among anglophone classicists. Germany and France are better served with translations, perhaps because Bettini’s public interventions often have a European focus, which presumably interests English speakers less. Aside from the book discussed here, I can also recommend two I read last year: “Who needs the Greek and Romans” (Einaudi 2017) and “Homo Sum: Being Human in the Ancient World” (Einaudi 2019).

Cover of the book, showing a tree with many names and images descending vine-like from it.

Given the recent and recurrent interest in tradition, I thought Bettini’s book about “roots” should be better known. There are in fact two books, a short pamphlet published in 2012 entitled Against Roots (Contra le radici) and this book. The second book, also published by il Mulino (2016), reproduces the first book with minor changes and includes a new second part. It is not entirely true that no English translation exists, since I made a translation for a friend who wanted it for her research.

Introduction: The Return of Tradition

Bettini explores possible reasons for increasing appeals to tradition in Europe (especially Italy) and elsewhere. Ruling out simple social and cultural changes, he suggests that the cause stems from an increase in homogenization between countries and cultures. Appeals to tradition serve as a final defense of difference, a way to distinguish (dangerously, Bettini specifies) us from them, a way to support group identity. Bettini describes the dynamic as follows:

We are thus increasingly entangled in a “presentist” assimilation caused by cellphones, clothing, music, entertainments, technology, and so on. But we desire difference, and so we appeal to places past and to every type of tradition. Sunk in a (real) anthropology of homogenization, we create from it an (imaginary) anthropology of difference.

He then identifies another impulse behind appeals to tradition: the presence of “others,” that is, immigrants, who appear distinct in identity and traditions. Naturally, they are less distinct than they are made to seem. Bettini points out that a person of African descent selling t-shirts on the street may have a university education, obtained in France or in Africa, likely speaks multiple languages, and may know Europe better than an Italian who has never left Tuscany. Yet, the color of his skin and accented Italian conjures up an image of foreign tribal identity.

This current situation suggests that it would be worthwhile to look at the complex and sometimes contradictory return to tradition, particularly the ideas of identity, memory, and roots that frequently accompany contemporary discussions of tradition.

Part 1: Against Roots

The first, earlier, part consists of ten chapters. The first chapter explores the relationship between identity and tradition, starting with the idea that immigrants threaten our identity because they have different traditions. It is true that traditions (childhood language(s), family dietary habits, ways of thinking) contribute to a person’s identity. The extent to which these elements are shared creates a sense of group identity, though that group identity exists on a scale. There is also what Bettini calls the “encyclopedic culture,” the many other ways of thinking and understanding the world, which, if we make the effort to engage them, unite us with aspects of that “encyclopedic” tradition. It is necessary to reject the binary that individuals are either passive, imprisoned carriers of tradition or exist outside of tradition.

Culture is always changing, and the past is not determinative. In contrast to this insistence on change, Bettini cites examples from a few speeches of Marcella Pera and the controversy over inserting “Christian roots of Europe” into the Treaty of Lisbon. These and many other sources invoke “roots.” Bettini insists that such images are not neutral, but influence how we understand the world. The image of “roots” allows us when dealing with “such an abstract construct as the philosophical and anthropological determinism” to “substitute explicit argument with a vision.”

The second chapter turns to how metaphors work to construction authority. When we use metaphors like “roots” to describe abstract ideas like ‘tradition’ or ‘identity,’ the process not only makes the abstractions feel more concrete and natural, it also creates mechanisms of authority. A set of ideas from the metaphor of “roots” are grafted onto the abstraction, more or less unconsciously. Roots are natural, and who wants to oppose nature? Roots nourish and sustain the plant. Without the roots, the plant dies. If we claim, as some do, that Christianity or Greco-Roman civilizations are the “roots” of our tradition or identity, it not only grants them authority, it imports this set of biological notions into the discourse. Can a branch decide not to belong to the tree that grows from its roots?

In the third chapter, Bettini analyzes the metaphorical consequences of other common metaphors for tradition: turning from the metaphor of roots, which imagines cultures as growing up from a foundation, this chapter explores the metaphor of summits and family genealogy, the set of ideas that imagine tradition and identity as descending from an elevated point. The language of Marcello Pera also serves as the starting point. Pera stated that “our” history descends from three hills: Sinai, Golgotha, and the Acropolis. Bettini not only describes how the metaphor works but also the obviously arbitrary and allusive way this language elides the specificity of the past. The way, for example, Greek culture developed in contact with other cultures around the Mediterranean. The selectivity of the procedure of determining roots, parents, or summits not only elides the selectivity involved but also obscure the fact that it is impossible to find the first ring in this supposed chain of influences.

Bettini continues in the fourth chapter with a different metaphor, one of a river with streams, headwaters, tributaries all flowing into it. This horizontal metaphor replaces the vertical ones of roots and summits. The metaphor is both exempli gratia, showing how different metaphors contribute to different conceptions of tradition, but also seriously suggested as a useful, if obviously partial, way to think. He then turns to another implication of the metaphor of roots: it imports the idea of autochthony. He compares Umbricius of Juvenal’s 3rd satire with the Umberto Bossi and followers of the separatist Northern league and reminds us of the danger identitarian ideas can have, as in the case of ex Yugoslavia.

The fifth chapter addresses the important fact that people learn a tradition, they do not inherit it. As an example, Bettini relates a story about knowledge of the tabernacle in a Latin translation exam. Students did not understand that translating the Latin taburnaculum (tent) as “tabernacle” produced a comic effect because they did not know precisely what the tabernacle is in Catholic Churches. Few Italian kids are brought up in a way that would impart that knowledge. This chapter also addresses the importance of writing in transmitting, and indeed, creating or recreating traditions. It is at this point that Bettini makes the expected reference to Hobsbawm and Ranger’s The Invention of Tradition. Bettini illustrates this aspect of tradition with a discussion of the Melanesian people of New Caledonia and their independence movement.

Chapter six is short and focuses on memory, using Halbwachs’ distinction between collective and historical memory. Unlike historical memory, collective memory requires social frameworks to function and determine its content. Collective memory constantly reconstructs the past, adapting it to present frames. The seventh chapter turns to the discussion of Juno and Jupiter in Aeneid twelve as an example of a mythological construction of tradition. Vergil’s text serves as a mythological paradigm for the construction and reconstruction of identity and tradition. The eighth chapter turns to how this phenomenon can have tragic consequences, as in the example of the topography of Jerusalem. Chapter nine continues to explore the problems that invented traditions can cause, focusing on the Rwandan conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi.

The final chapter of the first section is less tragic. In it, Bettini explores how tourism has affected the town of Corte in Corsica. This procedure turned to city from a place of memory to a place of forgetting.

Part 2: New Questions about Roots

In the second part, Bettini continues to explore the power and danger of the metaphor of roots. Bettini examines his sadness at the changes immigration caused in the historical center of Livorno, where his father had brought him as a child and where he had brought his daughter. This sadness is caused by nostalgia and the inevitable changes of the passing of time; it was not caused by the loss of cultural roots. Nostalgia does not help us understand history and social processes, which Bettini illustrates by discussing the history of Livorno, where his personal experience is only a snapshot, a small moment in a history of constant change.

The next problem is how someone so interested in cultures, someone worried about the loss of cultural knowledge, can write a book against cultural roots. Bettini points to two different, opposed attitudes toward cultures: one thinks of cultures as resources for ways of living, and the other thinks in terms of “our” culture. The student of culture celebrates difference and openness; the appeal to roots closes off and excludes others to create an (imaginary) singular identity.

The impulse behind roots can also be found in the search for original, pure, and authentic cultural forms. This impulse was especially marked in classical studies of the 18th and 19th centuries, where great efforts were made to distinguish authentically Greek or Roman cultural forms from foreign influences. The desire to find the “true roots” of our culture runs into the same problem of selecting the forms supposedly free from foreign influences. Bettini looks at the selection problem also through the lens of protests again marriage equality, which often appeals to “traditional” Christian values. Yet, there is evidence of men celebrating marriages with other men in the 16th century: how is this not part of the tradition? Indeed, it nearly impossible to specify what is and isn’t traditional within such a long and complex history. Bettini concludes:

When addressing controversial questions, such as gay rights or other critical aspects of social life, questions that involve emotions, freedom, that involve, in short, people’s very life, it is preferable to appeal to rights and not to presumed “cultural roots.” Cultural roots are too flexible, too intricate, too mutable to be able to furnish a valid reference point in such circumstances.

This variety of appeals to tradition is further illustrated with the different ways Germany and other EU states spoke of the Hellenic “roots” of Europe during the debt crisis. It does not make sense to speak of the “Greek invention of democracy,” nor of the Hellenic “roots” of modern democracies. Yet, it is often politically useful to do so. As so often, appeals to roots are about our contemporary needs and issues.

It is hard to imagine a book about tradition, written from an Italian perspective, ignoring completely the question of traditional cuisine and Bettini dedicates a chapter to problems gastronomic. He shows how recent many of the traditions are and how many are indeed mixed. The famous American saying about an apple a day keeping the doctor away began as marking by apple producers who needed to sell their stock because prohibition had destroyed the hard cider market.

The final chapters focus on how appeals to roots select specific moments in the past that can serve contemporary concerns. He thus returns to Greek financial crisis and Hellenic roots, and to the insertion of “christian roots” into various EU state constitutions. The appendix explores the same problem in the statute of the Veneto region. These Christian roots are highly selective and say more about contemporary political issues than the past.

Conclusion

I have not seen many references to Bettini’s Radici: Tradizione, identità, memoria among classical scholars. I hope this summary will help make the work better known.

The online pseudonym of the other online pseudonym Leopold “Poldy” Bloom. Really, tho, who I am doesn’t matter.