My breakfast consists of cigars, but not in the conventional manner.
I favour various cigars – Partagas and Hoyo de Monterrey for flavour and punch, Romeo y Julieta for that touch of milk and honey. But not in any state of integrity. I shred and combine them into raucous blends.
Jaded men do flinch at the sight, but the resultant tangle is the ground and foundation of my morning ritual, which never varies. I wake up before dawn, brew a (diabolically) strong cup of coffee, take it into the garden conservatory, and sit down in the direction of oncoming dawn.
I pack my pipe with the chaotic strands of those cigars, open my tablet, and greet the day with coffee, tobacco, and a quiet book or two.
I read intensively throughout the day, but that reading consists largely of research into emerging technology. My morning reading is vastly different, and harks back to that other time when my life was spent among the departments of the Humanities.
In my current sphere of activity, the agitation of nascent technology predominates. But I devote my mornings to those great classics of literature, both Western and Oriental, that have informed my thought and education since my days at school.
Though they may appear to offer little relevance to a world whose horizons are as short as the next tick of a processor’s inner clock, these works contain a treasure trove of thought that can illuminate even a world standing upon the threshold of pervasive change.
Chance train of thought
I had barely scorched the surface of this morning’s pipe (two parts Partagas Serie E No. 2, one part Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 1, one part Romeo y Julieta Tubos No. 1) when the verses that I was reading pulled me up onto a chance train of thought. The passage was from Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy (Inferno VI, verses 77-87), and the verses run as follows:
I spoke thus to [that soul in torment]:
“I would hear more from you,
That you will of further words give me the gift,
Tell me about Farinata and of Tegghiaio,
men of such great worth in life,
And about Iacopo Rusticucci, Arrigo, and Mosca,
And the others who devoted themselves to the public good,
Tell me where they are, and let me know,
That which I desire so much to learn,
Whether they enjoy the sweetness of Heaven,
Or are tormented in hell.”
“They are”, he replied “among the blackest souls;
A variety of sins drags them deeper down
[into the bowels of hell]:
If you go that deep, there you will see them.”
The men he refers to were notable for their public service, yet he holds them damned by the weight of their private sin. Dante was a man enduring the misery of exile in consequence of the bad government of his beloved native city, Florence.
These verses underline his struggle to come to terms with the fact that men who had made significant contributions to the public good could be damned for their personal vice.
Dante’s confusion on this point arises from his education, as well as his political experiences. One of the most influential authorities of Dante’s time was the old Roman advocate and politician, Marcus Tullius Cicero, who has this to say about the matter:
“There is a specific part of heaven that is reserved for all those who protect their country, who serve it, who contribute to it. In that part of heaven, these blessed souls enjoy paradise forever. For nothing of all that takes place on earth is more pleasing to that sovereign God, who rules the entire universe, than the assemblies and unions of human beings established by law that are called ‘states’. The rulers and preservers of states come from that part of heaven, and there they return upon the end of their life.”
(Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Re Publica, Book VI, 13 et. seq.).
Dante’s misfortunes in life are due to political chaos, the ill governance of Florence. As such, the Ciceronian idea of the fundamental merit of public service would have been of particular resonance to him. Yet he rejects it, which I find remarkable given the weight of Ciceronian influence for so many centuries.
But Dante was also heavily troubled by a strong sense of personal guilt, as he lays out in the first sections of his poem. All throughout his masterpiece, he shows how public virtue is complemented by private virtue, indeed that public service without private virtue is tyranny, larceny, and depredation.
What kind of public service can you render if you are not a good man in private life? And if you are a good man in private life, why refrain from contributing to public life?
Might not the blockchain community benefit from such insight?
In the years that I have been active in this community, I have observed noise, chaos, scams, avarice, profligacy, glib tongues, simulated expertise, the regurgitation of spurious reading, and the incessant sequence of forgettable wares.
A blockchain summit, or symposium, is not infrequently reminiscent of the torsions of Dante’s Inferno. The blockchain community currently does look and sound rather like a Medieval Italian city-state – all sound and fury… and truly rich potential.
For to History and Classics, blockchain wears the form of one of those great moments in time that truly transform the world – such as Florence on the brink of the Renaissance.
In the centuries after Dante, titans like Michelangelo and Leonardo turned Florence into one of the most legendary communities in history. Incomparable artists, architects, philosophers, scientists, engineers, writers, and poets, all walked its streets after Dante.
Florence also became the home of the Accademia del Cimento, the first academy to make use of the new empirical methodologies emerging at the time.
The Accademia del Cimento is probably the first true scientific institution in history, and it was born out of Florentine thought, and founded on that very soil that Dante loved so much, but whose corruption had cast him out.
A similar efflorescence might come to pass for our blockchain community. But for it to do so, as it did in Florence, it might be an idea for those of us who dwell and act in this sphere to reflect on Dante’s verses. We have to understand that a valuable public contribution needs to spring forth from clear thought and sound values in personal life. Public excellence from personal virtue.
Philosophy is the alma mater of science, and to those venerable robes of the past, blockchain is a child appointed for the fall and rise of many.
Today, I carry out research in law, business, and computer science, and the intersections between them. But the Humanities also whisper in my ear. Here I shall share some fragments of my thoughts on new things as illuminated by the old. It will be an eclectic column.
This really means nothing more than that I mix, combine, blend, and mingle everything with more enthusiasm and intensity than delicate taste and clarity. I shred and mix my cigars for pipe tobacco with carefree abandon. This column will do the same with all the ideas that clash and jostle through my mind.
Joseph Debono is a Blockchain/Emtech consultant for Zeta Financial, a financial and corporate service provider based in Malta and the UK, and has been active in this space since 2016. He is also an academic researcher in Emtech, focusing on native fintech solutions and business innovations.
He has contributed numerous articles, papers, and translations to various fields of the Humanities and has co-edited two books. His latest publication, co-edited with fintech pioneer Patrick L. Young, is “DLT Malta: Thoughts from the Blockchain Island” (ISBN: 8362627026).
In a past life, he was a Historian and Classicist, passions for which continuously inform and inspire his life and mind.