Author’s Note: I wrote this essay last summer during the collapse of a “technocratic government” in Italy led by the former president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi. After it went to press, Italians went to the polls on September 25 in a snap election. The coalition led by the rightwing Brothers of Italy, led by Georgia Meloni, won the election convincingly, as expected. Meloni assumed office as Prime Minister on October 22. Today she leads the first far-right government in Italy since the fall of Mussolini.
The morning after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, my partner Skyped her parents back home in Italy. I finished my coffee, and they chatted. At some point her mother asked where I was: I had broken my usual pattern of dropping in to say ciao. My partner slid the laptop over to direct the camera’s gaze at my head, slumped onto our dining room table. “What happened?” the voice on the computer asked. “Trump won,” I explained.
It is not that my in-laws did not appreciate the gravity of the event; they were stunned too. Born under Mussolini, they preferred to look fondly upon the United States whenever possible. After all, the U.S. Army helped liberate their country from fascism. Like many outside the United States, and unlike many Americans, they appreciate the power the U.S. government enjoys abroad. After sharing in the dour mood, to console me, my mother-in-law asked, “Well . . . what is there for lunch?”
The question was a nudge back from the brink of political despair. But many questions could have accomplished that end. She asked about lunchtime. Having been visiting Italy regularly for over a decade, I could understand why.
Lunchtime in Italy is not only about what to eat for lunch. It is also about time. The event halts the day. In places like Viterbo, the provincial medieval town of 60,000 outside Rome where my in-laws live, the city nearly completely shuts down. One has little choice but to engage in the ritual. A tablecloth must be spread, a table fully set. Timeworn recipes; the food, even if abundant, should be basic and familiar, not indulgent or creative. Surely, a glass of wine. The sociality of the event is important. Lunchtime must be marked with others, the meal lingered over communally. Whenever American friends or family visit us here, at some point they usually give me the look: “When will this ever end?” It ends when the espresso arrives to even out the wine and to properly launch reentry back into the working day.
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True—for many Italians, lunchtime is more a widely shared aspiration than a daily reality. The steady rise of dual-income households has threatened the practice, which long found women in the kitchen, preparing the meal. In cities much larger than Viterbo, the workday does not allow for lunchtime. Even in Viterbo, in recent years outside the medieval wall a rim of big box retail stores popped up that do not close for lunch. Workers take a U.S.-style lunchbreak; they do not enjoy an Italian-style lunchtime. Still, even if not everybody can participate in it every day, the ideal of lunchtime lives on in Italy. It survived the whistles and bells of industrial clock time, the mechanized factory stroke. Very likely, it will survive the threats of today.
My mother-in-law’s question left an impression on me then, which has only continued to resonate since. We left the United States in the summer of 2020, and our family has spent most of the pandemic in Italy, much of it in Viterbo. Living here, I have become passionately invested in lunchtime. I could go on at length about how good the food is. But no less, I have found the unhurried daily rituals of the communal event—especially the demand that the day if at all possible should be organized around it—soothing and anchoring.
Is there anything worth making of this feeling? I have come to believe my suocera’s question reveals something important that has gone very wrong with U.S. life. From abroad these past two years, at times homesick, as I watched the United States experience COVID-19, the election of 2020, January 6, QAnon, the early years of the Biden presidency, thousands of mass shootings, the reversal of Roe v. Wade, talk of a “crisis of democracy” in the United Sates sounds almost willfully euphemistic. More fundamentally, it appears, U.S. society has simply become deranged.
My sense—impressionistic, no doubt—is that the Italians I know and have lunched with over these past two years, whether, say, an academic historian (like me), a doctor, a grocery store clerk, an architect, or a retired construction foreman, have a different kind of investment in politics than most of the Americans I know—truth be told, a more highly educated and wealthy set, many of whom appear to have been positively consumed by the histrionics of recent U.S. politics.
Might we be better served if we had more rituals comparable to lunchtime in Italy? Specifically, might U.S. politics be better served? Not because it would mean we would care less about politics, but rather because—by providing some respite from its storms—it would mean we could care less frantically, perhaps more productively. But dangers lurk here, too. Machiavelli, a Florentine, argued as forcefully as anyone that, for a republic to flourish, its members must not withdraw into their private lives. They must practice public virtù. They must care about politics. Without good politics, in the end, they cannot enjoy the good life (no matter what there is for lunch). But just how much should one care about politics, and what kind of caring are we talking about?
The personal intersects obliquely with the political. Italians can be passionate about politics, of course, and not only from the fascist right. There are rich leftist traditions, from Antonio Gramsci to operaismo (“workerism”), Wages for Housework, and anti-Soviet Eurocommunism. But for all this, Italians may be better than Americans at finding, or perhaps inheriting, better ways to cope with political crisis in their private lives. That does not mean they have figured everything out. On the contrary, the country has faced its own three-decade political crisis, which only keeps groaning on.
The current Italian government is what is called a “technical” one. When a parliamentary majority formed after the 2018 general elections collapsed in 2021, the president of the republic appointed the former European Central Bank president Mario Draghi as the new prime minister. His mandate was to form a nonpartisan, national unity government to carry the country over until the next constitutionally mandated general election of 2023. Draghi ruled the country having never once faced an election.
Most every narrative I know for how Italian politics ended up here begins with the tangentopoli (“kickback city”) corruption scandal of the early 1990s, which felled Italy’s “First Republic,” founded after World War II. Leading national politicians were disgraced, and some went to jail or fled the country. The center-left Social Democrats and center-right Christian Democrats, who had taken turns ruling the country after fascism, collapsed. After the fall of the Berlin Wall the Italian Communist Party, historically the largest and most influential in Western Europe, voted itself out of existence.
From these ashes arose media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, who first became prime minister in 1994. A genuine premonition of Trump, he formed a party around himself, and Italian politics became about Berlusconi, including his reputedly sex-crazed private life. In this respect, the 1990s in Italy and the United States were much the same: a decade that “slowly chipped away at the division between public and private,” in the later words of Monica Lewinsky. But in other ways, personal and social life up until then in Italy was highly politicized. Which café or bar one frequented, which football club one rooted for, had ideological stakes.
After all, Gramsci’s theory of hegemony had it that everyday culture must be conquered first, before the halls of the state. The Italian left took that teaching to heart. With the rise of Berlusconi—who, much like Trump after him, condemned leftist infiltration of the country’s cultural institutions, from its universities to its television stations—at first all this intensified. My wife, a university student in Rome during some of these years, recalls many a lunch back then in which friends shouted at each other over politics, and sometimes ceased to be friends.
In the Berlusconi years, Italian politics appeared full of action. But nothing much really happened. Ultimately, many Italians became ever more aloof from politics, with bad results. In the end, very little was done to move the country in any direction. In recent decades, average Italian incomes have declined. The history of the Second Republic is one of aimless drift.
In 2011, during the European austerity crisis, the world’s bond owners dumped so much Italian public debt that the Italian political class had to shuffle Berlusconi off stage. He went quietly enough, after having been prime minster for eleven out of the last seventeen years. Arguably, Italian politics has still not moved on from Berlusconi. A short-lived “technical government” collapsed in 2013, amidst the sudden rise of the antiestablishment Five Star Movement. The 2014 prime ministry of the youthful centrist Matteo Renzi lasted but two years. Berlusconi-like, in 2021 Renzi fled the center-left party, which he had once led in power, and formed a personal party of his own as he worked behind the scenes to help maneuverer Draghi into office.
In power, Draghi has increased state spending, drawing from European Union injections of cash. Recently he addressed a group of Italian students: “The pessimist accomplishes nothing and is only sad. You have to be in the future to win it. Enjoy yourselves!” But not long ago, over lunch in Bologna in the Piazza Aldrovandi with an Italian colleague, I asked her what, if anything, Draghi’s public investment programs have accomplished so far. She smiled, and waved her hand: “Do you see anything new?” Plates of tagliatelle al ragù, a regional specialty, arrived, and we dropped the matter. For better or worse, Italians seem to know how and when to do this—how to compensate for present and future anxieties by taking solace in quotidian continuities with the distant past. When she waved at the Piazza Aldrovandi, I saw strikingly beautiful fourteenth-century buildings. Legend has it tagliatelle dates to the late 1400s.
This summer, in late July, as our family began to make our preparations to finally return to the United States, the Five Star pulled out of Draghi’s government, suddenly plunging Italian politics back into crisis. Berlusconi, who still heads his own party, joined a vote of no confidence in the government, which collapsed. Draghi resigned as prime minister and is now a caretaker only. A snap election will be held early this fall. If current polls are any guide, the next Italian prime minister may well be Georgia Meloni, of the Fratelli Italiani (Brothers of Italy), a far-right party that has never before been in power, and which descends from Mussolini’s fascists.
Perhaps Italians take too much solace from leaning on the past. “Nobody can take politics seriously who does not hope to make things better for future generations”: those are the words of the late American philosopher Richard Rorty. A case can be made that reveling in lunch is something to do to pass the time when one has cynically abandoned public life altogether—a way of “opting out,” as Rorty put it, “becoming an ironic spectator of the nation rather than a participant in its political life.”
Recalling these reflections lately, I decided to reread Rorty, an easier task given the recent publication of a collection of his popular political essays, What Can We Hope For? (2021). Rorty died in 2007, but after Trump was elected, his writings resurfaced due to a prophetic passage in his book Achieving Our Century: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (1998) that predicted U.S. politics might soon succumb to a right-wing demagogue should socioeconomic inequality increase and leftists focus exclusively on “cultural politics,” by which he meant the politics of identity. I dimly recalled his arguments about an appropriate “split” in our moral lives between public and private, remembering it had something to do, in Rorty’s philosophy, with issues of goodness and aesthetics, as well as, in his view, Americans’ unique orientation to the future and dismissal of the past.
I went back to a passage in Against Bosses, Against Oligarchs: A Conversation with Richard Rorty (1998) called “Private and Public,” which revisits Rorty’s treatment of the same topic in his book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989). Rorty defends himself against his many left critics at that time, stating:
The original misinterpretation came from Nancy Fraser, who said, ‘Rorty didn’t realize the personal is political.’ I think she and I were at cross purposes. I was thinking of one sense of private, something like Whitehead’s definition of religion: ‘what you do with your solitude.’ Fraser was thinking of the private as the kitchen or bedroom, as opposed to the marketplace and the office. There was no relevance to what I was saying.
There is relevance to what I am saying, however. Lunch is cooked in a kitchen. Rorty’s interlocutor responds, “I can understand keeping your will toward self-creation private if you’re Nietzsche.”
(Friedrich Nietzsche, as it happens, was a passionate admirer of the Piedmont Italian city of Turin, where he settled and wrote both Twilight of the Idols: Or How To Philosophize with a Hammer  and his last book, the autobiographical Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is , before succumbing to insanity. In a chapter in Ecce Homo titled “Why I Am So Clever,” Nietzsche states that, “the ‘salvation of humanity’ depends to a far greater degree than it does upon any piece of theological curiosity: I refer to nutrition.” He concludes, after a lengthy culinary digression, that “German intellect is indigestion” while “the best cooking is that of Piedmont.”)
“What do you say,” the question is next put to Rorty, “to the person whose sense of poetic self-creation requires other people and the opportunity for public transformation?” Rorty responds: “I would tell her to go into politics. I didn’t say everybody had a public/private split, but some people do. There is a spectrum here. Some people have no public consciousness. This is the case of the sociopath; he simply doesn’t think that there are any moral subjects out there.” Rorty continues: “My public/private distinction wasn’t an explanation of what every human life is like. I was, instead, urging that there was nothing wrong with letting people divide their lives along the private/public line. We don’t have a moral responsibility to bring the two together.”
Perhaps I am simply one of those humans with a public/private split. In my private life, after two years in Italy, I have come personally to value Italian-style lunchtime a lot. According to Rorty, I need not feel too guilty about this—nor should I, according to Fraser, if I am carrying an equal burden of the labor that goes into its preparation and into the cleaning up afterward. Although, all the better that I do feel guilty. This is evidence that I do have a “public consciousness,” and that my passion for lunchtime is not—at least, not yet—sociopathic.
And yet, something about Rorty’s argument is not completely satisfying. “Moral responsibility to bring them together,” no—but do we not all have a need to integrate, however minimally, our different selves, including our many public and private selves, into the same working psyche? When we do not, perhaps our public and private selves both suffer the worse for it, and perhaps this part of what has gone wrong with U.S. life lately.
I had not read Rorty in a decade. Over that time, not only had What Can We Hope For? come out, but so had Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism (2021), an edited series of ten lectures that Rorty gave in Spain in 1996. At the high tide of late twentieth-century globalization, Rorty traveled to Europe, where he fully spelled out for the last time his mature version of the most self-consciously “American” philosophical project.
In the first lecture, Rorty states his theme: that the great American pragmatists of the turn of the twentieth century—William James and John Dewey—should be read as completing the Enlightenment project of antiauthoritarianism. They did that, Rorty argues, by extending the Enlightenment political critique of absolute sovereignty to epistemology and metaphysics. If there are no good reasons to submit to kings, then there are no better reasons to submit to a nonhuman, capital-R “Reality,” or a capital-T “Truth” independent of ourselves. Deep “rational foundations” to liberal democracy do not exist, Rorty holds. There are only uncertain political projects, occurring in the stream of Darwinian evolution, that either make human life better or worse. They make life better, Rorty argues, not if they correspond to eternal, universal truths, like abstract principles of justice, but rather if they diminish suffering and generate social institutions that humiliate no one, making possible greater happiness in the future. This happens through projects of individual self-creation but also through community. For once we abandon commitments to things like timeless reality, and swap out eternity for futurity, we find we are only left with ourselves and with one another—not with Truth, but sensate emotional attachments to living, breathing communities.
But all this poses an obvious question. Why didn’t Enlightenment thinkers go all the way themselves, completing their own project? To answer this question, the first lecture makes a sharp turn halfway through. Rorty creatively explores a resonance between pragmatism and what he calls one of Sigmund Freud’s “wacky” books, Moses and Monotheism (1939). In it, Freud presents a genealogy of civilizational progress, first found in his Totem and Taboo (1913), by which social cooperation first emerged from parricide. In this story, a band of brothers murdered their “primal father,” a domineering figure with unchecked power over the community. To ritualistically distribute his power among them, the fraternal alliance gathered for a grand feast and cannibalized the murdered primal father for their meal. (Was it for lunch? Freud does not say, though according to one biographer, lunch was Freud’s “main meal” of the day.)
Afterward, the fraternal alliance, feeling guilty and rudderless and hoping to banish the memory of their deed, decided to sacralize the primal father’s memory in a physical totem, which they began to anxiously idolize and worship. Later, Freud speculated, monotheism simply replaced idolatry with God worship. Rorty supplements Freud by adding that Platonism replaced Hellenic polytheism with the worship of timeless, perfect Ideas, including the “Idea of the Good,” discoverable by Reason. The Enlightenment, drawing from Platonism, in the end replaced God worship with Reason and Truth worship. However strongly psychologically motivated, this was nonetheless a philosophical and political mistake. Thus Nietzsche, whom Rorty saw as a philosophical if not political ally, recommended focusing upon the significance of nutrition and not theology—the all-too-human scale of lunchtime, that is, rather than eternal Truth.
According to Rorty, much of Western philosophy can be interpreted as a defense formation, intellectualized as “metaphysics”, which expresses unconscious yearnings for a lost parent to love, as Rorty puts it, “with all one’s heart and soul and strength.” Only pragmatism “reaps the full advantages of parricide,” he thinks, by celebrating “fraternity freed from memory of paternal authority.” Rorty remarks that the debates of his lifetime in philosophy about “realism,” and even the broader culture about “Truth,” were debates between “two types of people” describable in Freudian terms: “the type of people who are still subject to the need to ally themselves with an authority-figure and those who are untroubled by this need.” In other words, those who integrate their psyches around a fixed point of authority and certainty, and those who simply do not feel the need.
We are almost back to lunch. Supporting the above claims, Rorty draws another contrast—between the beautiful and the sublime. Whereas the sublime is unrepresentable, indescribable, and ineffable— like Plato’s Idea of the Good, the God of monotheism, or Reality in modern Western metaphysics—“a merely beautiful object or state of affairs unifies a manifold in an especially satisfying way.” Whereas “the beautiful harmonizes finite things with other finite things,” by contrast the “sublime escapes finitude, and therefore both unity and plurality.” Whereas “to contemplate the beautiful is to contemplate something manageable, something which consists of recognizable parts put together in recognizable ways,” “to be swept away by the sublime is to be carried beyond both recognition and description.”
In this scheme, lunch may be beautiful, sublime, or neither. A lunch that unifies a manifold in an especially satisfying way could well be beautiful—bello, as Italians would call it, a word they use not only for objects and places but also experiences and states of being. But, if in their solitude one wants to know what a particularly delicious mozzarella is, as a thing-in-and-of-itself, by striving to know it by tasting it, and to be swept away by the sublime experience beyond description, then one certainly has the right. Should one find lunchtime companions so motivated, no problem there, either—you have started a new religion. Or perhaps lunch holds no value for you whatsoever. That is fine, too.
Rorty’s point is that we must not look for sublime experiences in public life. Or, if we do, this will always involve the powerful forcing the powerless to submit to their version of the sublime, the Good—their description of timeless, universal truths. We should only try for the beautiful. That is enough. Note here, how small the political gains of anti-Trump liberals have been when defending “the Truth” amidst Trump’s lies, while how central the word “beautiful” has been to the success of Trump’s political rhetoric. (“Build that big, beautiful wall.”)
What Can One Hope For? pleads again and again with leftists to come up with beautiful new descriptions of what a future “global cooperative commonwealth” might one day be like. The foretelling of Trump in Achieving Our Country has led some to see Rorty as a prophet of political doom. This gets him exactly wrong. His political sensibility was in fact very much of his times: the late twentieth century, an era of optimism after the end of the Cold War, when democracy was triumphantly on the global march, before Bush v. Gore, 9/11, the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, and the Great Recession. In the 1990s Rorty tried his best to pick up the mantle of James, Dewey, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Abraham Lincoln to fashion a philosophically anti-foundationalist rhetoric of “social hope” in the homespun idiom of American pragmatism. Reading his popular political writings collected in What Can We Hope For? more than two decades later is like reading Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign speeches.
It is hard to know whether to be inspired by the hortatory political optimism or to grimace at the naiveté. Nowadays it is hard to be so optimistic. Recently, over lunch in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome with my family visiting from Texas, it was my twelve-year-old nephew who, taking the measure of Europe for the first time, quipped to the family, “America is good for two things: racism and guns.”
Thomas Aquinas was born in 1125 just outside Aquino, an area in the center of Italy that produces a genuinely sublime mozzarella. It is also the site of one of the deadliest battles of the Italian campaign during World War II, before the Allies bombed a German position at Mount Cassino, destroying a hilltop abbey that dated back to 539. It was Aquinas who said that God, and only God, can see the past, present, and future in a single vision. That is the one truly sublime perspective, which has no business informing our shared, public life, according to Rorty.
We cannot see the past, present, and future all at once, so we live torn among them.
One of Freud’s most powerful insights was that, in practice, psychic integration cannot help but to revolve around rituals of repetition. Regarding politics, in particular, we might wonder about the degree to which repetitions veer toward pathology—both individually and collectively. Are we suffering in private, scrolling Twitter a thousand times a day and calling it politics? Or are we taking private pleasure in the daily enjoyment of communal practices, while at the same time engaging in the repetitive tasks of building social movements for greater justice?
Morally speaking, Rorty was correct that one of political liberalism’s great strengths is that it treats the public and private as realms that do not need to be unified into the same metaphysical whole, yet he was wrong to picture public and private ideally as “split,” because they do require practical, working integration in the spaces of our individual and collective psyche. If all liberal democracies must face the problem of where to draw the line between public and private, then a no less important task is to integrate them, while somehow still holding them distant. For this to happen, there must be practices through which the temporalities of private and public life, keeping their margins, nonetheless meet in communal life.
Even if just as an aspiration, lunchtime in Italy does this. It is a private matter, distant enough from politics. But the rituals of its practice, from the rhythms of its pacing to the standard recipes that one does not meddle with, are shared public goods inherited from the past, as tangible as the country’s architectural patrimony. They maintain a minimal, baseline solidarity in civic life.
Society holds. One marks time with friends, family, strangers, and comrades, waiting for the next political opening—to build a better future for all. We cannot know when, but the moment will come around in Italy, and it will come around in the United States, too. Let us hope that it will be soon.