Ce qui me tient à coeur

Aérotrain, high speed rail and nuclear technology: the lessons of Jean Bertin

Par Karel Vereycken, founder Agora Erasmus

A truth that has determined the fate of many civilizations now catches France. It is the simple universal physical principle that makes that any society or person, that doesn’t progress, lags behind.

While French president Nicolas Sarkozy can be proud of the sale of French EPR nuclear power equipment in the world and while our transportation minister fronts for the real commercial successes represented by the construction of high speed TGV lines in China, Argentina and Northern Africa, time has nevertheless come to open our eyes and those of our citizenry.

If today, France is the uncontested champion of these efficient and highly useful technologies, we’re obliged to face the fact, without hurting our national pride, that in these domains our nation is tragically lagging behind. And we think in particular about fourth generation nuclear equipment, air cushioned vehicles (ACV), Magnetic levitation, etc.

However, a major even, comparable to the choc provoked by the Russian launching of Sputnik in 1957 could wake us up.

Chinese high speed train.

Indeed, since January this year, the great nation of China has joined France, Germany, Japan and Korea as the fifth nation capable of constructing high speed rail trains, while not having as much experience as the other four nations in that the Europeans or Japan. Note also here that in December 2003, a Japanese made maglev (a train without wheels suspended by magnetic levitation) broke the world record of speed on rails with 581 km/h. The French TGV holds the record of 574 km/h, but as a train on wheels…

As usual, reality offers us two choices. We can look the other way and take a nap on the comfortable cushion of national pride. Typical of that approach was an article published by the French daily Le Figaro on December 27 reporting the Japanese decision to invest 32 billion euros in a Maglev line linking Tokyo to Nagoya (290 km) planned to be operational as of 2025.


Japanese magnetic levitation (maglev) train without wheels.

Le Figaro: “The Maglev resurfaces. This electromagnetic levitation train, about which one talks since thirty years and only functions for the moment in China” (…) “Otherwise, projects are regularly studied before they are abandoned. The [German maglev] Transrapid was a competitor with classical TGV for the liaison between Shanghai and Beijing, but the classical trains have been chosen. From their side, Germany considers since several years a Maglev line connecting the inner city of Munich with its airport, as well as a line between Berlin and Hamburg. But it seems the costs of such a line have brought the German authorities to drop it.”

Le Figaro then adds with bumptiousness: “There is hardly any chance a Maglev arrives in France ever. A project of a train on aircushions called ‘Aérotrain’ was studied at the beginning of the seventies as a possible alternative for the TGV, but was not adopted” because “such type of train is not made to operate in France.”

Reality today forces us to consider that in a couple of years from now, many nations will buy high speed rail, not made in France, but made in China or Japan and the same is coming true for the German maglev.

This lagging behind in innovation and applied technology, which has already provoked great damage in other areas of our economy, will have tragic consequences for the European industry. Are we ready to become a museum of perfume and wine and to learn the beautiful Chinese language to be able to sell postcards to the new tourists, or are we capable of mobilizing our creative potential with a real industrial policy based on the best of R&D?

Hence, the great European civilizations don’t lack great inventors and visionary discoverers but suffer from a residua of feudalism, scientism and oligarchic physiocrats, whose appears often as some sort of  “synarchy” always on top, committed, when failing to halt progress, to slower its pace, as to manage it in their interest.

The lost chances of Germany

France is not the only country among industrial nations to fail in this respect. In Germany, for example, beginning 1961, the Jülich research centre constructed a “pebble-bed” high temperature reactor (HTR). This revolutionary device, whose efficiency and security is largely superior to the current pressured water reactors (PWR), was abandoned in 1988 without any real scientific or economic reason. South-Africa, who worked on HTR technology since 1993 signed a cooperation agreement with China in 2005 on this technology which they will afterwards jointly commercialize

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German Transrapid maglev train.

Another German tragedy: the Transrapid magnetic levitation train. Developed jointly by Siemens and Thyssen Krupp on the basis of a concept invented in 1934, the first trial track was only operational in 1987 in Lathen, Lower Saxony where the vehicle reached the impressive speed of 500 km/h.

Invoking « a prohibitive price », the German government dropped in January 2000 the project of a 248 km transrapid maglev connection between Berlin and Hamburg. After a human originated accident in 2006, when 23 persons got killed when the Transrapid hit a smaller maintenance vehicle still on the track, the media cried for war against maglev technology. The Frankfurter Rundschau called it a “technical vision of another age” and blasted what it called the obsession of the German authorities always willing to favor a technology which certainly “can always go faster and further, but at costs always higher”. The budgetary argument is the one opposed the most for the construction of the line between Munich and its airport and so far, it is only the Chinese decision to construct the 30 km connection between Shanghai and its international airport at Pu Dong which gave birth to a commercial transrapid line in March 2004.

The United States

In respect to the United States, one measures the inertia blocking that country when one reads today the optimistic articles that appeared in the US press in the early nineties. Donald M. Itzkoff, in Railway Age of Sept 1990, in an article called:  “Washington puts high speed rail on a fast track” reported how “maglev mania” was taking over the US: “The surge began in May 1989, when the Argonne National Laboratory released its study urging the benefits of replacing short-haul airline flights with a national maglev network hubbed at major airports. The next month, in June 1989, the Maglev Technology Advisory Group (MTAC)–which included Grumman, General Dynamics, and other aerospace and technology interests–reported to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works that maglev represented a « crucible within which we can measure America’s competitive resolve as we enter the next century. » MTAC urged a multi-year $750 million program to develop a next generation superconducting maglev prototype to surpass our foreign competitors, thereby reasserting American technological leadership.”

But also there, it never was enacted.

The tragedy of the French Aérotrain

L’ingénieur Jean Bertin.

In France, it was the scrapping of the Aérotrain project, a Tracked Air Cushion Vehicle (TACV), sometimes called “hovertrain”, developed by visionary engineer Jean Bertin (1917-1975), which represents the kind of error we have to avoid at all costs.

Let’s be courageous. When one takes a wrong direction at the cross road, one sometimes has to go back to that crossing to finally head on in the right direction. If today, specialists admit that France, with Germany, would have been the world’s leading producer of Maglev technology if the Aérotrain project had been continued, the scrapping of that TACV technology has installed in the mind of many Frenchmen the extremely unfavorable prejudice. For the man of the street, it is very simply inconceivable that in such a reasonable and rational country as France, a viable, cheap and secure transportation technology could have been abandoned without reason.

If we will detail its history here, it is not out of nostalgia for the sixties, but to learn the lessons of errors done yesterday and continued today. If the technological choices of those days can be surely perfected, we remain convinced that a return to the “spirit of Jean Bertin” has to be considered with great urgency. Recreating a culture of scientific and technological discovery where each individual takes pleasure in perfecting the society with those contributions useful for the wellbeing for the current and future generations: that is a real source of inspiration capable to get us away from the current dominant pessimistic existentialism that leads nowhere.

Away with nostalgia, melancholia and the bitterness that paralyses those great men and women who partook this adventure.

Jean Bertin, the “American”

In L’Aérotrain ou les difficultés de l’innovation [The aerotrain or the difficulties of innovation » (*1), Jean Bertin tells the story of this battle.

Immediately after the Second World War, he writes, the French government was strongly willing “to regain the ground lost during the war in the area of science and technique”, and therefore was willing to “furnish the necessary financial means and equipment”.

Working as the technical director in charge of special studies on engines and propulsion of the team of project leader engineer Raymond Marchal at the Société d’Etudes et de Construction de Moteurs d’Aviation (SNECMA) [National Construction Company for Aerocraft Motors] between 1944 and 1955, Bertin was a passionate scientist and a French patriot.

Convinced one never had “to undertake anything without studying its technical, industrial, financial, but also historic and political environment” he travelled a lot, “mainly to England and the United States of America, whose aircraft came extremely powerful out of the war”. “In 1938, when I entered the Ecole Polytechnique, I held the conviction that a ‘new society’ was being constructed at the other side of the Atlantic…” “America more particularly, fascinated me,” he writes.

If a great number of discoveries had been made since the beginning of the century, it was only FDR’s victory program launched in 1938 to defeat Hitler which translated these discoveries, blocked till then, into technological leaps.

While visiting the US in the immediate aftermath of the war, Bertin notes with irony how he was intrigued by the “apparently casual way the Americans deal with equipment problems. For a Frenchman used to see electric and telephone poles nicely lined up with well tended lines, the spectacle one could admire in nearly all the suburbs mushrooming around Los Angeles were astonishing. The lines were sometimes suspended by trees in the gardens. The electric meters were standing in open air (…) The walls of the factories were generally constructed with the most elementary materials left unpainted” and “My astonishment reached a peak when I saw a powerful construction wharf for aircraft motors entirely in the open air except the testing cabins.”

Interrogated by Bertin, the American managers nearly all gave two answers to justify such “casualness”: investment was defined by the necessity not to waste money and this inside a framework of high competitiveness and very rapid change. Why waste money building nice factories if five years from now they will be too small anyway? All this brings Bertin to complete his training in law, political economy and as a metal turner.

Against “the scandal of pick and shovel”: the “relativity of energy”

With a degree of the Ecole Supérieure de l’Aéronautique in 1943, he realizes the huge progress that represented the reaction-propulsion engine compared to a piston engine. If its energy efficiency of a reaction engine is below that of its predecessor, it represents a major advantage: its permanent rotation eliminates those vibrations inherent to a piston engine. More over, its power makes enables airplanes to fly much higher doubling the height to eight to ten thousand meters. Flying that high, where the air’s density is smaller, reduces significantly the planes energy consumption and consequently increases the flying distance. The understanding of the principle of how increased power increases work brings Bertin to the comprehension that “any choice established on the unique criteria of energy consumption derives from a wrong economic approach.” This physical principle, that unites physical science with physical economy, will be defined with great precision in an article written by Bertin for the magazine L’ingénieur of 1967 (*2), “The relativity of energy”.

Uplifted with what he saw in the United States, Bertin “the American” attacks in the article what he calls “the scandal of pick and shovel” still dominating France at that time where a great number of workers from the countryside, while possessing a second hand car and sometimes a washing machine, spent five or six day a week working with their bare hands, for lack of modern machinery.

Besides the hardness of unqualified labor, Bertin identifies the economic consequences: “If the productivity of an individual is insufficient, or what comes down to the same, his labor is insufficiently amplified by the means of a form of energy different from his manual labor, the charge of providing his household with consumption goods and equipment is transferred on others”.

The cause of this state of affairs, adds Bertin, is the old French reflex which consists in wanting to spare energy and costly machines, an obsession “which often leads to the acceptance of human labor without realizing its real social cost.”

According to Bertin, “the problem of energy [converted into work via machines] is sometimes not really understood” (…) “I would like to tell certain engineers: you have too much tendency to consider energy as associated by itself to a certain result. In fact, that’s not what has to be considered, but rather the criteria of the furnishing of energy which are power on the one side, and the modalities of its application over time on the other side. The integral power/time gives indeed energy but that is secondary because with equal energy the practical result can differ in an extraordinary fashion depending on the power employed. The fantastic level of power one can produce by concentration the emission of energy on infinitely small units of time can give you results completely without relation to the quantity of energy consumed which remains, as such, unbelievably limited. If one wants to clarify even more that aspect, one can say that one should never ignore examine the case where one increases more and more the power made available to man, since it might happen, besides even the case where this permits man to accomplish things he couldn’t before, that he can succeed doing something, already possible, but this time with total energy consumption that is less. That’s not a paradox.” 

Applied to physical economy, Bertin concludes that « seen the continuous elevation of the cost of labor in modern societies » (…) « it will become ever more beneficial to replace human labor progressively with a certain consumption of energy [i.e. machines]” (…) “That’s where progress lies and not in the saving of energy considered in itself.”

Bertin the “inter-mediator”

Bertin, the « American », animated by the spirit of relaxed freedom, observed that at his job of building aircraft motors, engineers in reality rediscovered techniques for which the car industry had to spend fortunes in foreign patents. In those days, the separation of industrial sectors was radical and “the industrialists of the car industry were totally ignorant about what was going on in aerospace.” (…)  “Little by little, I realized the oddness of this situation but also the economic lesson it carried with it. There was a function to fill in, in a consistent future” (…) “to construct a bridge among these different industrial branches” (…) “One had to call into existence some sort of inter-mediator”.

If fare more limited in scope, it was somehow in the spirit of Colbert’s seventeenth century’s Academy of Sciences, thanks to which the German philosopher Leibniz could work with the Dutch scientist Huygens in Paris, Bertin thought that “the moment had certainly arrived to envision the creation of a Society whose objective would be the transfer of acquired knowledge among industrial branches.”

Putting his idea into action, Jean Bertin, without to much financial means, left the security of his well paid job at the SNECMA and founded with his friend Benjamin Salmon, the Société Bertin & Cie, a real “bureau of grey matter”, on February 27, 1956. A dozen of engineers, industrial designers and specialized workers and technicians rapidly joined the company. Over the years, the number of employees raised with the rising benefits of the company.

Eight years later, in a publicity brochure for the company, Bertin says the firm “has taken a major place in the area of industrial and applied research” (…) “with 85 engineers active in eight major departments who regularly work as well as for the private as for the public sector: external aerodynamics (aviation); internal aerodynamics and compressors; Science of heat and Energy; Propulsion and soundproofing; Physics of the atmosphere; Rockets (directional control and propulsion); Isotopical separation and physics; Magneto-hydrodynamics.”

Note here that there never existed an “air cushion” department, since Bertin thought that his personnel, in stead of “being integrated in an industrial branch, they are integrated in a branch of physics. Their temporary association with industrial teams gives these teams the required complementary qualifications as demanded by the problems of the moment. But their contribution is generally not limited under this direct form.”

Bertin’s firm will grow as one of the most important private research facilities of Europe and register, over more then a decade, an average of 40 patents per year, i.e. nearly one every week! Bertin’s name is quoted as inventor or co-inventor of 163 patents. In 2003, the aerospace magazine Aviation Week included Bertin among the list of the 100 greatest inventors having contributed to aerospace for his invention of the thrust reverser, a “motor brake” device commonly used by almost all larger airplanes.

Bertin & Cie’s professionalism in the domain of the mechanic of fluids was called on by the large state programs originating from the French state planning of those days. His firm participated at the construction of the Isotopic Separation Facility of Pierrelatte and the thermal protection of the nuclear power reactors. For the Defense Department, Bertin developed the missiles conceived to do the scientific measurements inside the radioactive clouds created at the testing phases of France’s force de frappe over the Pacific.

From Terraplane to Aérotrain by way of the Hovercraft

It is from this enthusiastic and daring « polytechnical » vision that the Aérotrain will spring. In 1957, one of Bertin’s collaborators, Louis Duthion, while working to soundproof an aircraft engine, identifies what is called “ground effect”, an aerodynamic effect due to a flying body’s proximity to the ground, i.e. the physical principle of the air cushion.


This aerodynamic effect can be generated by increasing the pressure of the air located inside a bell-shaped area separating a vehicle from the ground. The compressed air will tend to escape in all the remaining available directions. The science of Aircushion vehicles will consist of compensating the loss of air by a permanent injection of low pressure air and to manage the flows of leaving ear.

Bertin, Duthion and Salmon will file a patent for their discovery on July 16, 1957, but realize rapidly, while doing theoretical studies on the phenomenon, that (without the technological improvements they will craft later) “ground effect vehicles, aimed at traveling on uneven grounds where wheels are inefficient or on water” … “had no chance of economic success”, since, according to their judgment, to cross a one meter high obstacle, “the size of the diameter of lets say a circular vehicle should be between 100 and 200 meters.”

Since patents were expensive, and since Bertin and his crew lacked funding, they consequently, decided to withdraw their demand for the patent which was done on July 10, 1958.

But the filing of a patent had a good side effect, since it offered its initiator to get access to a certain amount of research accomplished by others on the same subject. “The past”, wrote Bertin, “even in the case of technological progress, is a very precious lesson; digging out that pas had become for us some kind of reflex and we never missed an occasion, when hazard confronted us with phenomena that were unknown to us.”

Bertin and his team, working through the archives of industrial property, discovered that “our ground effect was not new at all.”

Being relatively modest, Bertin never wanted to be attributed the originality of the discovery. As he outlined in December 1971 during a speech “Some reflections on the relations between research and industry”, he estimates that “the success of research is sometimes the fruit, not of a quantity of directly measurable work, but of intellectual and progressive maturation of the question” and that the solution to certain problems considered to be unsolvable at a given moment “can come from technological progress accomplished in the mean time in other branches.”

“An extreme example of this last category is well represented by air cushion vehicles. Some might think this is a recent invention. It is not. The nineteenth century is full of attempts to realise air cushion vehicles both terrestrial and maritime. In respect to the Aérotrain in particular, I got the chance to put a hold on the memoir of Louis Girard. This French engineer proposed already in 1860 a train sliding on an air cushion. Very rapidly, he realized that the technological means available at his times would not permit the compression of air as required. He then turned his attention to water, a liquid that is uncompressible, which largely simplified his problem while complicating it a little otherwise (recuperation of leakage water). Under these reservations, nearly everything stated in that memoir, applies to the Aérotrain.”

Convinced that old concepts had to be re-examined permanently “at the light of those new means of realization that fell into our hands thanks to technical and industrial progress”, Bertin told the audience, that, based on the same principle, “six years ago, we even renewed studying the steam engine.”

Bertin also found out that an Austrian with the name of Müller von Thomamhul had build during the First World War an air cushion ship, reaching 75 km/h, which he projected to become the model for a patrol boat torpedo tube. In 1921, it’s the Frenchman Gambin who filed a patent for some very special type of air cushion ship.

Air cushion vehicles (ACV) have to be necessarily very light and Bertin notes that at the time of his precursors “light alloys as well as powerful motors were inexistent” and this state of affairs condemned their attempts to failure.

However, thanks to the spectacular development of modern aircraft design, new materials could offer far more satisfying results.

Image associée

One year passed, and at the end of 1958, a British inventor Christopher Sydney Cockerell announced a new type of vehicle called Hovercraft.

Less then a year later, in 1959, the first hovercraft SRN-1, an aircushion vehicle using a peripherical design, crossed the Channel. It had been built in total secrecy by the National Research Development Corporation (NRDC), a British state institution.

This event was highly stimulating for the French team, since all their convictions were put into question. They went back to work and developed aerodynamically what became known as “flexible skirts” capable of managing the out flowing air while keeping the ground effect that offers the required sustentation for the vehicle.

But time had come to find new contracts and raise funds to develop the company. To do so, Bertin sent a letter to those French industrials susceptible to show interest in the construction and use of ACV technology in which many foreign car and ship builders were investing.

In that letter, Bertin proudly states that his team “was the first in France to demonstrate, as early as beginning 1957, the ground effect phenomenon with annular jets on which these new vehicles evolve and to study them systematically. We have contributed various ameliorations notably a very important increase of the efficiency of the system. We are otherwise specialized in that particular domain of aerodynamics since quite a long time.”

“While in that time many companies worked already on the ‘Hovercraft’, we received, as an answer to the twelve letters we had mailed out, only one mark of interest. And even that answer was limited to an agreeable conversation without any follow-up”, Bertin complains.

It was only after his encounter with “a very dynamic man”, chief engineer Massacrier, during those days leading the engineering division of the French army’s Direction des études et des fabrications d’armement (DEFA), that in 1961, a terrestrial air cushion vehicle will be crafted, the BC-4.

This experimental vehicle will permit Bertin to test out the “flexible skirt” technique which will insure the viability of those hovercrafts that crossed the Channel for a generation. Bertin wrote that his invention became a great success “not in France, but in Britain” since the British will imitate his design and will get congratulated by the press for the “flexible skirt scheme”…

Bertin obviously know that you don’t get a patent on a physical principle, but on a device that enables you to use such a principle. He writes: “All this is normal; this little war of imagination is even a necessary condition for progress. What is less acceptable, in the simple domain of ethics, is the absence of any reference to our contributions which has always characterized since that moment, British style, any presentation of the development of the hovercraft.”

The difference, he says, is that we “have spent about 300000 FF, while, from the British side, it was between 15 to 20 millions” since over there, “it is the public authority that financed the costs, while in France, it was our firm that had to act alone on a private level.”

Bertin immediately considered using ACV technology for civilian purposes, especially in those countries he called “new countries” of the southern hemisphere lacking roads and having large needs for all-roads trucks. In an expose presented in Montreal, “A philosophy of transportation in the developing countries ‘the Terraplane’”, he outlined the usefulness of the trucks he developed combining wheels and ACV technology.

The scientific breakthroughs accomplished during the realization of the BC-4 Terraplane, equipped with “flexible skirts” and capable of clearing obstacles, will give birth to the concept of the Aérotrain, since, “once we got the concept, we became aware it could also operate, in absence of obstacles, at extremely low flying heights on its pathway, which would have been unacceptable with the solid structures of the initial design for air cushioned vehicles. Under these conditions, the power needed for sustentation could be lowered to very low figures; hence it became possible to conceive vehicles circulating on pretreated tracks, free of any obstacle, similar to a vehicle with wheels but with a set of advantages, which when reflected upon, for us, seemed of great interest.”  (See box)

Innovation versus conservatism

As one realizes here, Bertin was a citizen of exception because he behaves as a normal human being. As a passionate scientist, it is essentially the use of scientific discoveries for the benefit of all of society that interested Bertin, a scientist who saw himself more as an innovator. Note here, that at that time, any person presenting himself as an “inventor” was considered not serious at all. It also the time that Charles De Gaulle, in a burst of anger had stated publicly that in France, “researchers that research” were easy to find, “but researchers that find, one is searching them…”

In any case, when in 1957, the creation of the Common Market in Europe will open up the borders among European countries and creates shocks on markets that operated so far in relative autarky many suddenly realized that the hour of competitiveness had arrived.

Bertin noted that “for any industry, competition is a hard law, analogous to a war; one needs a strategy.” For him, two fundamentally different attitudes exist. “One of the possible options corresponds to the conventional concept (…) to make as best as possible, a known product; the clients will prefer it because it has the best finishing, it will have the best paint, etc.; however, the number of criteria of those clients is so large that the efforts to be the best on the market requires an industrial power on the size of the competitor…” and victory is only obtained, as in war, by methodic application, preciseness and discipline.

The other option, adds Bertin, is the one of innovation. “It means refusing the battle on the conventional level –at least partially I mean – and to try to offer products incorporating elements of novelty sufficient to change those criteria defining the choice of the client. Innovation is a concept of action, which, in the end, gives a chance to intelligence and thinking over mere power and discipline. On condition not to abuse of it, it can be a useful method for certain French industries.”

However, even before starting the promethean project of the Aérotrain, five obstacles arose in front of Bertin: the British, the press, the banks, conservatism and the inherent inertia of a public authority that has drifted away from its original mission to become an instrument to protect the privileges of an oligarchy.


The Aérotrain : some definitions

As one observes in his terminology, for Bertin, an Air Cushion Vehicle (ACV) on land or on water, flies.

In a conference at the Ecole Polytechnique on January 23, 1963, Jean Bertin even said that “on could also say that it [the Aérotrain] is some kind of extension of aeronautics to which it owns a lot: building technique, general aerodynamics, motors and propulsions, etc… A simplified image would be to say that it is an ‘imprisoned’ airplane, flying without wings tight to the ground.”

In stead of trying “to ameliorate trains” by adding new technologies, Bertin will rethink the whole concept of land and sea transport from the higher standpoint of aerodynamics.

The Aérotrain is a Tracted Air Cushion Vehicle (TACV) which “hovers” and is guided by both horizontal and vertical aircushions. It advances on a concrete monorail in the form of a reverted T, large 3.40 m and 90 cm high. Propulsion can be of all kind: with airplane motors (reaction motors or propellers), with a silent LIM (Linear induction Motor), or with electric motors acting on a rack railway or by pressuring tires against the central guiding rail. The choice of a unique monorail and the simplicity of sustentation and guidance by aircushions offer ideal conditions for very high speed, since the absence of “physical” contact, besides air, reduce friction to nearly nothing.

If the energy consumption of the vehicle depends of its motorization, its direct energy consumption tends to remain elevated. This cost is largely compensated by the much lower cost for the construction and maintenance of the concrete monorail track itself, whose cost is estimated to be two or three times lower then for normal rail. The little weight of a TACV, whose weight is 300 kg per passenger, in stead of 1000 kg per passenger of a normal train, offers a double advantage. First, the air cushion exerts hardly any pressure on the track escaping rapid wear. Second, the track can be of light fabrication itself, and can be constructed on pillars. In this way, the track will cost less because the number of expropriations, level crossings, bridges and tunnels can sharply be reduced.

The anchoring of the vehicle around the central vertical guiding track makes derailing close to impossible and the low weight of the vehicle makes very short breaking distances possible. The thrust reversal of the propeller (engine braking), in case of normal breaking, can be complemented by brake shoes gripping the central vertical rail (similar to a car’s disc brake) and total cutting off of the sustention motors. In that case, the security shoes of the vehicle will energetically hit the track and produce a powerful slowdown.

Hence, according to the French Revue des Chemins de Fer of January 1973, the emergency brake distance required by a TGV, when driving at 240 km/h is 2300m. For an interurban Aérotrain carrying 80 passengers (I-80), driving at 250 km/h, the emergency brake distance was only 900 m, 2300 meters being the non-emergency brake distance! Furthermore, the non-emergency brake distance of a current TGV running between Paris and Lyon, at 270 km/h is estimated to be 8200 meters.

These performances result from the proportion between the vehicle and the track, since the operational stability of a high speed vehicle is more favorable when its mass is proportionally smaller to the track on which its runs. At the time of Bertin, a 116 tons locomotive was supported by 7.5 tons of rail track, i.e. 15.4 ton of vehicle per ton of rail. From his side, the I-80 Aérotrain only weighted 20 tons and was supported by 50 tons of track (without pillars), a proportion thirty times more favorable.

Concerning comfort, the 13013 passengers that were transported by the I-80 during the testing period over 59140 km were overwhelmed. Comfort was such that one decided to indicate speed in the cabin since most passengers refused they were traveling at a speed of 400 km/h…


Aérotrain: born in the slums of the Paris banlieu

Now the viability of the system had to be demonstrated. After a stay at his friend Gabriel Voisin rue des Paturages in Paris, Bertin and his friends moved to a small mansion located in a forgotten area of the bidonville area of Garenne Colombes in the Paris banlieue, in “one of those numerous streets of the Paris region which were certainly not planned to see one day automobiles run through them” he later recalled.

It is there, that Paul Guienne, an engineer that participated in the experimental work on the BC-4 Terraplane ACV vehicle was ordered to build a scale model of one meter fifty of the Aérotrain, functioning with an air compressor and a real air cushion.

A journalist of the weekly Paris Match that was send down to write a story reported “Joyous blue collar workers, with a Paris accent and a cigarette sticking in the corner of their mouths, were sending the model from one side to the other of a wooden constructed monorail.” 

It was this “dynamic” scale model that will, at first, “convince the whole team of Bertin & Cie of the viability of the concept” and later “many French and foreign personalities” which sometimes even failed to find the workshop, since going to the location was quite an adventure.

To convince the government, the scale model was transported and “was received with great honors at the Hotel Matignon where the prime minister had some fun, giving a little acceleration to the model, to send it over ten meters of the track. He was readily convinced: air cushion, no contact, so no friction, that’s where the entire miracle lies.”

There is no deafer man then he that doesn’t want to listen

Looking for eventual partners, Bertin immediately thinks about the public transportation companies and contact the French national railroad company SNCF and the Paris subway company RATP. Since the latter hadn’t modernized, neither tracks nor wagons since the outbreak of the war, the Paris metro had become so noisy that buildings eventually collapsed from the vibrations. Bertin suggested them that by “taking out tracks and ballast, it would be possible to operate with the Aérotrain without noise and vibrations offering great comfort to passengers without the cost of maintenance of infrastructure.”

In 1971, at a conference at the International Air Cushion Engineering Society on the theme of “The place of transport in Modern Society”, Bertin observes that nobody in those days contested the idea of building tunnels underneath inner cities to install public transportation systems. However, by extending this network to the periphery of the city, the cost of investment of a tunnel increases compared to a diminishing number of passengers. Bertin then outlines his concept of trans-urban Aérotrain transport, running in tunnels under the inner city but moving on pillars once outside the city while easily accessible from a normal metro station. In short, the type of organization Parisians know well with the Réseau Express Régional but operated by ACV technology at 200 km/h.

However, says Bertin, “nothing could shake the absolute convictions of these officials and engineers, according to whom only the wheel could offer an answer to their needs.”

Confronted with this refusal, Bertin focalizes on intercity links between 100 and 500 km where speed is a determining factor. On December 4th, 1963, a high level delegation of the national railroad company SNCF visits Bertin’s “not that splendid” factory wharf at la Garenne Colombes. Although a certain degree of interest appeared over the discussion and that the delegation finished admitting that on 300 to 500 km distances, this type of transport could beat the airplane, in particular connecting Paris with Lyons, the SNCF categorically refused to spend a penny to study such a project. “I hit into a clear refusal: we were proposing a new technique; it was up to us to prove its interest for that connection. That was pretty hard, but we only could accept.”

Bertin’s team then will work day and night to produce a detailed study exploring all the technical and economic aspects and the commercial exploitation of a fast speed rail connection between, Paris and Lyons: “the number of vehicles and in what frequency; security braking, repair, auxiliary propulsion, weather conditions where snow and ice cover the track, etc.”

Confronted with the most frequent objection against the Aérotrain, the one saying that it was “too much inspired by the spirit of aeronautics and could not be convenient for the conditions of land transport”, Bertin, who had seen the revolution is aeronautics by the going from propellers to reaction motors, became more and more convinced about the “necessity for such an inter-branches operation as ours [Bertin & Cie] for which this was precisely its mission”

Adding ridicule to stupidity, the SNCF, at the end of 1964 claimed that “there existed no foreseeable increase of traffic susceptible to justify a new connection putting the two cities [Paris and Lyons] at a 1hour15minutes distance including one or two intermediary stops”, before making clear she didn’t want to follow up on the matter!! [For non-Frenchmen one has to note here that today, the TGV travel time between Paris and Lyons (450 km) is 2h…]

Territorial planning

Jean Bertin presenting his invention to French President Georges Pompidou at the Elysée Palace.

When looking for credits to finance his projects, Bertin realizes with shock that the Department in charge of land transportation had no budget for R&D ! and that an innovation could only be financed by the ”Fonds d’Intervention pour l’aménagement du territoire (FIAT)” [State intervention fund in charge of territorial planning], a newly created public credit facility “whose primary objective, says Bertin, was to permit a certain unblocking of our French society. I think that that point, among many others, shows how much the idea of progress of public transportation was uncommon.”

However, a large national debate will give new chances to the Aérotrain. In front of the mushrooming growth of the Paris urban agglomeration, city planners evoked the necessity to structure new urban nucleuses, called “Villes Nouvelles” or artificially seeds of new cities.

Paris Match magazine noted in may 1965: “Bertin didn’t answer. He knew he had the key of one of the most frightening problems of our time. The question is already a problem for the Americans living on the east coast. A couple of weeks ago, Fortune magazine published the dramatic results of its investigation. The whole region that goes from Boston to Washington is hit by apoplexy. The construction of 5 or even 6 or 8 lane highways did nothing. The truth of the matter is there and evident: individual transportation in fatally condemned in the large suburbia, after it was condemned in the inner cities. It will be the unstoppable comeback of public transportation so timidly imagined in Paris with the “blue bus line”. Of course, this public transport should not be of another age. Remains that at the Paris Saint Lazare train station, for example, the largest part of trains serving the suburbs are fifty years old steam engines… (…) millions of Parisians are packed up each day in wagons dating from the times of President Fallières”. [elected in 1906]

Bertin succeeded nevertheless to convince French President Charles De Gaulle, Prime Minister Pompidou and his minister Olivier Guichard, that the Aérotrain, by doubling and even tripling the speed of transportation, could “spread human activities over an area four to ten times larger without demanding the people to spent more time for transportation then what they spent already with the current system.”

France in action

The government facility of Olivier Guichard, in charge of the task and directly under the supervision of the Prime Ministers office and intervening vertically at all levels of state power, is a study case for what Lyndon LaRouche in the Unites States and Jacques Cheminade in France call “public productive credit”

Hence, at the initiative of Guichard, it was on November 3, 1965 that the Délégation à l’Aménagement du Territoire et à l’Action Régionale (DATAR) [Department in charge of territorial planning and regional action] signed a contract with the Société de l’Aérotrain which brought in some private capital willing to take the risk of the adventure.

The public funding made it possible to build a first experimental vehicle, called 01, and the construction of 6.7 km long trial track between Gometz-la-Ville and Limours (Essonne, south of Paris) on an unused railroad track connecting Paris and Chartres.

Bertin knew from the beginning that the ideal vehicle for a medium range distance connection as Paris-Lyons (450 km) or Lyons-Grenoble had to offer 80 seats, be 20 meters long and weight between 18 and 20 tons and gather average speed 400km/h despite frequent halts at regular intervals.

For the experience to be conclusive the test vehicle was conceived to be at ½ scale and it finished having 10.11 meters long, weighting only 2.6 tons and it had to reach 200 km/h

Times of record

In less then two months, Bertin and his team constructed what was necessary and the experience could start on December 1965 when the vehicle was installed on the track. As soon as February 1966 the planned speed of 200 km/h was reached, and on December 23 of the same year, the amazing speed of 303 km/h was established.

Bertin’s target was to reach 100m per second (i.e. 360 km/h). To reach that speed, he mounted on the experimental vehicle a rocket and later a power reaction motor. It was this motorization that permitted the crew to “fly”, on November 1967 at 345 km/h.

If the Aérotrain 01 proved the workability of the Tracked Air Cushion Vehicle (TACV) technology, the next experimental vehicle 02 was immediately elaborated to reach the high speed objective. Equipped with a rocket and parachutes for braking, it was the Aérotrain 02, on January 22, 1969 that established the world record of TACV flying at 422 km/h at a 5mm height above the ground. The trial pilots we spoke with told us that on a longer track an even higher performance could have been reached without major difficulties.

Six months later, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong, while putting his foot on the Moon declared: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”  But, some might argue, that was a different epoch.

Then, in 1969, Bertin constructed again another experimental vehicle, this time for the sub-urban traffic, capable to connect airports to inner cities, or the northern (Roissy Charles De Gaulle) with the southern (Orly) airport of Paris and the Paris modern business district La Defense with a “new city” Cergy. The new vehicle will have 44 seats and the risky task was taken up to make it operate with a silent Linear Induction Motor (LIM) at that time in its very shaky early takeoff.

Taken all together, the experiences were very encouraging and the French state finally accepted to finance a single straight 18 km track in the north of Orleans between Ruan and Saran, aimed as an initial segment of a Paris-Orleans connection. This time, the track was a concrete monorail elevated on pillars 5 meters above ground level. The track was completed in September 1969.

Elevated in that way, few obstacles could hamper the ride. Infrastructure costs were greatly lowered because few space of the ground surface is occupied by such infrastructures. The number of required tunnels, bridges, and level crossings was reduced and expropriation costs limited to the minimum,

While at each end of the track a special platform was installed so that the vehicle could make a turnaround, in the middle of the track there was a central platform with a hangar where the vehicle could be stored and repaired.

The Aérotrain I-80 (interurban 80 passenger capacity) weighted 24 tons. It was powered by twin Turboméca Turmo III E3 turbine engines through a ducted propeller with seven blades. A 14 turbo engine powered the air compressors. The vehicle was installed on the track on September 10, 1969 and reached 250 km/h three days later. While the initial run was successful, it was just not fast enough, so the machine was upgraded with a Pratt & Whitney JT8 D11 turbofan. It subsequently broke the land speed record for railed vehicles at 430.4 km/h on the 5th of March 1974.

What had been a dream had now become a reality. If one recalculates traveling times on a 200km/h basis for suburban and on a 400 km/h on inter-urban connections, the physical world in which we operate looks quite different. In a little brochure, written nine years before the splendid performances of the Aérotrain, Paul Guienne, the engineer that constructed the initial small scale model, envisioned the following travel times:

Lyon – Grenoble                                              87 Km                      20 à 26 min

Paris – Orléans                                                      120 Km                      25 à 35 min

Lyon – Givors – Saint-Étienne                           55 Km                      14 à 16 min

Metz – Nancy                                                            57 Km                      15 à 17 min

Paris – Orly                                                                12 Km                      4 à 5 min

Le Bourget – Paris-Nord                                     30 Km                       10 à 12 min

Marseille – Marignane                                          25 Km                      6 à 18 min

Paris – Lyon                                                            450 Km                      1h10 à 1h30

Rennes – Lorient – Quimper – Brest             260 Km                      1h à 1h10

Bordeaux – Angoulême – Périgueux            175 Km                      35 à 40 min


Aérotrain : Fly to New York

The media coverage given to this vast open air scientific experience of a new transportation technology attracted more then just the curious. On September 7, 1972, the US democratic Secretary of Transport John Volpi, and the mayor of Los Angeles came to France to assist personally to the test rides, as did representatives and transport specialists from over 18 countries send to France to study and report on these developments.

At least two dozen countries became highly interested in the project and Bertin’s Société de l’Aérotrain conducted pre-construction studies for a dozen of them, of which China-Taiwan (KeeLung – Ka Hsiung), Japan (Tokyo – Narita airport), Argnetinia, Brasil (Sao Paolo – Rio de Janeiro), Italy (Rome – Milan), South Korea, Canada (Montreal – New York), Sweden, Belgium, Switzerland (Brussels – Geneva) and the Netherlands (Amsterdam – Schiphol airport).

While the French press ran articles titled “The Aérotrain crosses the Atlantic”, the US press wrote “Aérotrain: Fly to New York”.

US industrialists engaged to build this new technology. Rohr Corporation in California, at that time already working on Maglev technology and financed by the Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA) decide to build an Aérotrain vehicle under a French Bertin license. The vehicle was tested successfully in California, where it is carefully conserved.

The “new countries” as Bertin called them, the African nations starting to be freed of colonial rule and became highly interested in acquiring TACV technology, since no large power grids were required to operate the system. All these projects were waiting for one single event: the construction of a commercially operated Aérotrain connection in France.

If you want to kill your dog, accuse it of rabies

The revolution of a train without wheels provoked wild oppositions. Bertin, when protected by De Gaulle and Pompidou identified this opposition as coming, not from the people or the higher echelons, but from the “intermediate bodies”.

It is useful to examine, with time having gone by, the so-called arguments against the Aérotrain, since they are identical with the arguments opposed to today’s Maglev. Seen from 2008, it is easier to see their absurdity and their dishonesty.

Let’s take them one by one:

1) The Aérotrain is incompatible with the existing rail infrastructure. This handicap makes it harder to penetrate urban agglomerations and will be costly. The users will have to first go outside the city to get access to this mode of transportation.

  • TRUE: TACV transports needs it own track.
  • UNTRUE: If the French high speed TGV train can run on a conventional track, any high speed train needs a special track for such a purpose.

2) All transport tries to reduce “intermodality”, the switching from one mode of transportation to another one which implies a loss of time and energy. Adding the Aérotrain increases the switching instead of reducing them.

  • UNTRUE since the Aérotrain can directly reach inner cities by tracks and tunnels.
  • TRUE, since a new mode of transportation. However, this attitude can lead to sterile conservatism. Where airplanes or ships refused for this reason?

3) The Aérotrain consumes too much fuel, and energy becomes expensive, especially after the “oil shock”

  • UNTRUE since oil reserves have remained far larger than the insane prophecies of the Club of Rome. By obliging the Aérotrain to adopt the Linear Induction Motor (LIM) at its early stage of development, the enemies of the Aérotrain tried to kill the project by increasing the cost of its development. Alternative modes of motorization did exist already at that time but were discarded. Second, as Bertin himself scientifically demonstrated, direct energy consumption is only one cost factor among many others and economic viability has to be evaluated by taking all factors into account, and not only one.

4) The Aérotrain is expensive

  • TRUE, since all new technologies need an initial investment.
  • UNTRUE: If direct energy cost for high speed traveling and the construction of the track represent a relatively high investment, maintenance costs of “zero friction” TACV technology are extremely low for both vehicle and track, estimated to be two and three times less than conventional rail systems. As Bertin underlined, the investment in power always pays off. How much money did we loose in terms of lost working hours due to the absence of these rapid transportation systems?

5) The Aerotrain pollutes the environment and traumatizes cows and other animals.

  • UNTRUE: The media have played up the images of the noisy prototypes that were powered by noisy rockets and airplane motors. They were nothing but prototypes and not planned for commercial use.
  • TRUE: Bertin, a specialist in noise reduction technology for airplanes had many on shelve solutions ready to solve these problems. Especially today, electric Linear Induction Motors would make TACV technology entirely noiseless.

6) The Aérotrain is a mode of transportation for the wealthy; building it might give “a bad example”.

  • TRUE: The impression was given that people had the right to develop! How shocking!
  • UNTRUE: This argument came up to oppose the construction of the connection between the two Paris airports, Roissy and Orly, a project Bertin ultimately accepted only because all doors had been closed for any more promising project such as the Paris-Lyons connection.

In respect to the Aérotrain being a privilege for the rich, one has to remember that the Paris metro still had 1st and second class wagons till august 1991… Also, in its beginnings, the bike, the car, the airplane and also the TGV were presented as for rich people only…

As soon as 1970, one can find all these fallacies of composition in a condensed form in the arguments employed by M. Coquand, President of the “Groupe fonctionnel voyageurs” at the Transport Commission of the “Commissariat general du plan et de la productivité”, in his written answer that highlights the conclusions of the report of the commission in charge of studying the servicing of the Paris-Orléans connection.

In that letter, M. Coquand pretends that “seen the cost of the access into urban areas, whose evaluation remains problematic, the infrastructure for the Aérotrain will cost about 20% more then that of the conventional railroad” [that existed already!]

On top, the commission estimated that “the total cost per passenger/km by Aérotrain at 250 km/h seems to be 30 to 40% more elevated then the Turbotrain (of the SNCF), and that cost would be even higher at 400 km/h (…) the time gain would not compensate this difference [of cost] but for those passengers that estimate that their time has a relatively high value – more than 30 FF per hour…”

The “higher cost” calculation was nothing but a trick, since:

  •  The commission itself admitted that SNCF would benefit from preexisting infrastructure to penetrate inner city areas, while the new Aerotrain infrastructure had to be constructed.
  • Costs for that infrastructure were not calculated employing the same criteria. A footnote of the report says that “value added tax was not included in the cost of infrastructure for SNCF (a state company), since the latter could deduce the cost of VAT.”
  • The same applied for the cost of fuel. SNCF benefited from tax free domestic diesel fuel, while Aérotrain paid the full price for it…
  • Without any real reason, the price of the commercial Aérotrain vehicle was overestimated by 25% in respect to its theoretical cost, while each prototype had entirely respected the fixed amount of credits it had received.

In short, those that want to kill their dog, accuse it of rabies. Besides the fundamental economic error of confusing a short term “financial accountants” approach with long term real economic profitability deriving from the impact of its spin-offs in the global physical economy, the case of the opposition to the Aérotrain demonstrates the horrors of the feudal vision that still dominates our technocrats.

Despite all these maneuvers and oppositions, an initial contract for the construction of rapid Aérotrain connection servicing La Défense and Cergy Pontoise was signed in March 1971, a project that both Brasil but also Japan, among others, were closely watching since eager to build such systems at home.

A media campaign took off to demolish the positive image of the Aérotrain and its inventor Bertin, now a symbol of progress. The images of the noisy prototypes were shown again and again to nourish a public outcry in defense of the environment.

At the center of this international offensive, the Hamburg based “Club of Rome”, founded on April 8, 1968, four days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, by a high official of NATO Aurelio Peccei and a British civil servant at the OECD Alexander King, obsessed with the rising proportion of colored people on the planet. The Club of Rome brought together economists, professors, government officials and industrialists willing to take into consideration “the complex problems facing our societies, industrial societies as well as developing ones.”

After the killing of American President Robert F. Kennedy in June 1968, this image became nothing but a mask to impose a “post-industrial” society promoting financial speculation now possible by the destruction of the Bretton Woods monetary agreements decided by president Nixon in August 1971.

The normal preoccupation of the population for an healthy environment was politically exploited and became an instrument for emotional control by the financial oligarchy as a buttering ram against the right of development of nations, especially those of the southern hemisphere.

Nearly a bible for the newly born green movement, the first report of the Club of Rome, “The Limits to Growth” (1972) was followed in October 1973 with the Yom Kippur war. Following that war, even if the Suez Canal was blocked since 1967, the oil producing countries decided to increase by 70% the price of a barrel of oil leading to the first “oil shock”. Then, in 1974, the Club of Rome published its second report: “Beyond the age of waste” that launched a real psychosis of scarcity of energy.

Giscard d’Estaing and the Schneider synarchy

Despite this growing hostile environment against progress, and after endless administrative obstacles, the green light was given to construct the Cergy-Pontoise connection on June 21, 1974.

Some weeks earlier, in May 74, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was elected as President of the French Republic. Three weeks after the initial “definitive” signature to build the project, and directly from the Elysée, on July 17, Giscard stopped the whole program and Le Monde hypocritically wrote that the Aérotrain was “sacrificed by the austerity policy”

Jean Bertin, who had a cancerous tumor, sick and overworked after a decade of endless efforts, died one year later, on December 1975. In 1977, the project is definitely abandoned and the I-80 Aérotrain will make its last trip on December 27, 1977.

Why such a passion against the Aérotrain? The presidents wife, born Anne-Aymone de Brantes, was the granddaughter of Eugène Schneider, the “maitre de forges of Le Creusot” and co-founder with François de Wendel of the famous “Comité des Forges” [Coal, iron and steel cartel], ancestor of the current UIMM, finally investigated for decade long corruption. The Schneider family,pronounced “Schneidre”, are an old family of the worst synarchist tradition.

If it is seen as highly likely that the “Empain-Schneider Empire” was a major campaign contributor to Giscard’s presidential election, the Schneider dynasty have been and are still a pillar of the history of the French railroad and steel industry. Hence, the innovation of the Aérotrain (to be build by the aircraft industry) would not, in the short run, have made them more wealthy and one can easily imagine that a train without wheels does not get much enthusiastic approval of the feudal wheel producers.

One also has to note here that the Empain-Schneider group, through its subsidiary Framatome-Creusot-Loire owned the Westinghouse license of the Pressured Water Reactors (PWR), the only type of technology chosen for the French state’s nuclear power equipment under the Giscard presidency. Some sources indicate that Giscard’s cousin, Jacques Giscard d’Estaing was in 1975 the director of SOMAIR, the company controlling the uranium mines of the Aïr region in Niger and in a similar position in Gabon before concluding his career at the Cour des Comptes [French state budget verification office].  According to an article published in 2003 by the weekly l’Expansion, “The Brotherhood of Giscard d’Estaing’s”, Jacques’ son, Antoine Giscard d’Estaing, was a financial director at Lyonnaise des Eaux before becoming financial director of today’s Schneider Electric.

While Giscard d’Estaing, already as finance minister during the Pompidou government, was blocking the development of the TGV high speed rail, as president he was obliged to accept such high speed rail; for the Aérotrain experiments had made it the standard and proven to be real. Some even claim that the only reason there exists today a stop of the TGV at the small 26.500 habitant city of Le Creusot, the cradle of French steam powered locomotives, is the that its mayor was Eugène Schneider, Anne-Aymone’s grandfather…

While Rohr industries in the US carefully stored its Aérotrain in Colorado, financing of the project was suspended. In France, on July 17, 1991, the S-44 Aérotrain prototype was destroyed by fire in its storage facility at Gometz-la-Ville and in 1992 the unique I-80 Aérotrain stationed in Chevilly is destroyed by arson, in an ultimate attempt to prevent any comeback of the Aérotrain concept.

The tragedy of the Aérotrain as the failure of territorial planning (since one out of four Frenchmen still lives in the giant Paris area), do nothing but revealing the tragedy of an entire epoch.

After thirty years of uninterrupted growth known as the « glorious thirty », a financial mafia took over the control of our nations. They imposed a radical counterculture praising the search of immediate individual pleasure as opposed to a collective project of the pursuit of shared happiness. From the gems of optimism emitted by the Apollo space colonisation program, achievement as the French Caravelle airplane, Concorde or the Aérotrain, we fell into the pessimism of the Club of Rome and the narcissist vomiting of Jean-Paul Sartre. Time is overripe to catch up and we are confident that the spirit of Jean Bertin will inspire us in that task.


Notes :

(*1) Jean Bertin et Raymond Marchal, « L’Aérotrain ou les difficultés de l’innovation scientifique », Bibliothèque Aviation International, Société des Amis de Jean Bertin, republished in 1989.

(*2) Jean Bertin, « De la relativité de l’énergie » [On the relativity of energy], L’Ingénieur, Organe de l’Union Régionale des Ingénieurs Dauphiné-Savoie, 1er trimestre 1967, 19ieme année, N° 73.














Ce qui me tient à coeur

Albrecht Dürer’s fight against “neoplatonic” melancholy

Karel Vereycken, founder Agora Erasmus, June 2005

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Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I (1514), Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe.


Do such that by all thy efforts
That God gives you the eight wisdoms
One will call easily wise a man
The one that will not accept to be blinded
Neither by wealth neither by poverty

The one who cultivates great wisdom
Supports equally pleasure and sadness
Is also a wise man
The one that supports shame
As well as glory

The one who knows one-self
and withholds from evil,
That man is on the road of wisdom
Who instead of vengeance
Takes his enemy in pity
He distances himself
by wisdom from the flames of hell

The one who knows to discern
the temptation of the devil and Knows
to resist it with the wisdom that God gave him
The one who in all circumstance keeps his heart pure
Has accepted the coronation of wisdom.
And the one who really loves God
Is a pure and pious Christian.

(Albrecht Dürer, 1509)


Albrecht Dürer, self-portrait at the age of thrirteen, 1484, Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienne.

Nuremberg, cradle of genius

Albrecht Dürer’s (1471-1528) self-portrait of 1484 “done in front of a mirror”, at age 13 shows us a kid filled with wonder. The father who guided him in that effort, was an of Hungarian origin goldsmith settled in Nuremberg and trained by Flemish “grand masters” in the difficult drawing technique of silverpoint in which they excelled.

Trade, mining and metallurgic centre furnishing the court of Prague, Nuremberg, around 1500, was a city of 50.000 souls attracting talents from far beyond Germany. Important city of the birth of rising printing industry, Anton Koberger (c.1445-1516) alone ran about 24 printing machines employing about a hundred skilled workers. Friedrich Peypus, the printer of the humanists published the great platonic Erasmus of Rotterdam (1469-1536). Nuremberg produced bibles and esoteric writings, but also every humanist author one could find in Italy, besides the scientific works of Nicolas of Cusa (1401-1462) or the correspondence of Enea Silvio Piccolomini (pope Pius II). Astronomers, geographers, mathematicians, craftsmen, sculptors (one thinks of Veit Stoss and Adam Kraft), goldsmiths, architects and poets, all flourish in Nuremberg. A medical doctor, Hartman Schedel (1440-1515) writes and prints his famous Chronicle, illustrated with 1809 engravings. Martin Behaim (1459-1509) whose family residence was close to the one of Dürer will build in the city the first earth globes.

Profiting from this exceptional intellectual, cultural and scientific environment, it is undisputable that Dürer, similar to Rabelais or Mercator, was a child of the “Erasmus generation[1]”. Any analysis of Dürer’s work and life must therefore start with a profound understanding of that author, because his worldview represent the giant step from feudalism to freedom, and understanding this impulse remains fundamental to circumscribe the humanism that animated the artist. Another giant, this one a scientist, will give Albrecht Dürer a supplementary extra help.

From Bessarion to Dürer, passing over Regiomontanus

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Portrait de Regiomontanus using an astrolabe.

In 1470, Dürer’s year of birth, the geographer, mathematician and astronomer Johannes Müller (1436-76), named Regiomontanus decides to settle in Nuremberg. He’s quite assured to find in the city what he’s looking for: erudites as he and highly skilled craftsmen specialized in the construction of scientific precision instruments, in particular for astronomy.

At the death of the Viennese mathematician Georg Peuerbach (1423-61) who was his mentor, Regiomontanus made it into his own mission to accomplish what Peuerbach had committed himself to for the Greek Cardinal John Bessarion[2] (1403-1472): retranslate and publish the abbreviated form of the Almageste of astrophysicist Claudius Ptolemy (90-168), supposed to give a coherent explanation of the planetary movements of the solar system. This work concluded in 1463 and printed for the first time in 1496 under the title Epitoma in Amagestum Ptolemei (with some illustrations of Dürer) will nourish the great controversies taken up by Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler.

In service of Bessarion, Regiomontanus travels through Italy between 1461 and 1467. He produces an astrolabe, writes on trigonometry and the armillary sphere. At the University of Padua he exposes the ideas of al-Farghani and writes a critique of the Theorica Planetarum attributed to Gerard of Cremona.

Starting from his own observation, has he states the matter in a letter to astronomer Giovanni Bianchini, Regiomontanus observes that neither Ptolemy’s, nor all the astronomical science known at his day could offer a coherent explanation of the observations he had made. By launching an appeal for an international cooperation among scientists for doing so, Regiomontanus arises as the man who set the agenda for the theoretical revolution to be made in astronomy, ultimately accomplished by Johannes Kepler.

Over more, Regiomontanus, in his luggage, brought with him to Nuremberg an exceptional collection of manuscripts. We still have today a “prospectus” [catalogue] dating from 1473 that lists those manuscripts he projected publishing in his newly founded print shop. This rare and prestigious collection was unparalleled at that time for its scientific content: the works of Archimedes, four codex of Euclid (of which a version of the Elements belonging to Bessarion and translated at the beginning of the XIIth century by Abelard de Bath), the De arte mensurandi (of Jean de Murs), on the Squaring of the Circle of Nicolas of Cusa or still the De speculis cimburrentibus of Alhazen among many others.

Maintaining his correspondence with Paolo Toscanelli[3] (1397-1482), Regiomontanus and his pupil Berhardt Walther (1430-1504) elaborated and printed in Nuremberg the famous ephemeredes for the period 1475-1506, who, together with the famous map of Toscanelli, gave the tools to intrepid navigators, such as Columbus, to enlarge the horizons of humanity thanks to a new science: astronomical navigation[4].

Despite being very talented for drawing, the young Dürer will be trained as a craftsman and metalworker in the workshop of his father, a goldsmith. Dürer will then enter, at the age of fifteen, the studio of Michael Wolgemut (1434-1519), an engraver active as illustrator of Regiomontanus’ publications. After Regiomontanus death in 1476, Walther will inherit the rich library, while following up on the research program. When in 1501, Walther buys the house of Regiomontanus, –which Dürer will acquire in turn in 1509 when he becomes a member of the political body of the Great Council of Nuremberg– he undertakes the construction of a little window and a platform in the southern gable to operate it as an astronomical observatory.

But, deprived of sufficient knowledge of Latin and Greek[5], the adult Dürer was obliged, to unravel this treasure of documents, to spend long evenings with the turbulent correspondent of Erasmus, the patrician Willibald Pirckheimer[6] (1470-1530) and other humanists of his circle.

Dürer might have met there the nephew of the Duke of Milan, Galeazzo de San Severino (1458-1525), a friend of Pirckheimer from his university years, who went in exile in Nuremberg in 1499. It was in the stables of San Severino that Leonardo da Vinci had conducted his extensive research on the proportions of horses, and it is established today that some anatomical drawings of Dürer are mere copies of those of Leonardo.

Concerning geometry, it is thought of that Dürer profited the advice and friendship of another familiar of the Pirckheimer circle, the priest astronomer and mathematician Johannes Werner[7] (1468-1528), known for his love to exchange and share his knowledge with ordinary craftsmen on the wharfs and in the workshops.

Hence, Dürer, initiated into engraving by a collaborator of Regiomontanus, settles in the house of the scientist possessing by far the richest collection of manuscripts collected by Bessarion and Cusa. One could say that before discovering the Renaissance during his trips to Italy, the best of Italy’s fifteenth century renaissance had come to his encounter.

“Melencolia I”, or Plato against Neoplatonism

While the kernel of Dürer’s fame and glory derives mainly from the large number of engravings on wood and copper featuring religious themes (Apocalypse, small passion series, engraved passion series, etc.), today he’s mostly liked for his very detailed studies of natural subjects (the hare, tall grass, etc.). We’ve taken here one of his most enigmatic creations.

Three engravings, known as “meisterstiche” [master engravings] are readily seen together to facilitate understanding them. One can present from left to right “Saint Jerome in his Study” (1514), “Knight, Death and Devil” (dating from 1513), and “Melencolia I” (equally dated from 1514).

At the center, “Knight, Death and Devil” throws to the viewer the brutal question of human existence. The man on the horse pursues his road, undisturbed by a nearly ridiculous Devil and Death showing an hourglass to the soldier and the viewer. Often surrounded by bones or joined by a skull, its significance is not so much death as such, put the inexorable passing by of time assimilated with a momento mori (“recall that you have to die”), an invitation to live a life of reason, too precious to be wasted.

Then, very different from a contemplative life retreated from worldly matters, “Saint Jerome in his study” shows us a man busy with optimistic activity. Even more than the skull and the hourglass, it is the giant pumpkin hanging on the sealing that worries us here. For its many pits, it is a symbol of fertility and consequently as nourishment for immortality. A Chinese saying brings in the question of the meaning of life: “Am I a calabash which has to remain suspended without being eaten?”

Saint Jerome was the idol and the model for the Erasmian humanist current, since his undertaking of the translations of the Holy Scriptures brought us the beauty of Christianity. Jerome’s life, in that sense was dedicated to the advantage of the other[8].

Finally, the enigmatic “Melencolia I” has been, and certainly will remain a subject of intense controversy and speculation since it was conceived, and as we shall see, that is certainly not an accident.

The engraving identifies, in a twilight zone disturbed by the glow of a falling comet and what some have called a “moonbow”, a winged figure that remains seated on the floor. She sits in front of some kind of monument standing in front of a large lake bordered by a town in the distance. While possessing some male features, she carries on her head a crown of leafs and is clothed with a nicely embroidered dress. She carries a well filled purse and a set of keys. She is surrounded by a collection of objects and instruments relating to geometry (a pair of compasses, a ruler, a sphere, a strange polyhedron); to craftsmanship (a plane, a gauge, a hammer, some nails, tongs, a saw, a crucible with pincers, a ladder, a pair of scales, a sandglass with a sundial); to numbers (a magic square), to literature (an inkpot, a closed book) and to music (a bell).

Sitting besides her, one sees a little angel who looks quite inspired and sits on a rug hanging over a millstone. While this putto concentrates on his activity of writing, a miserable looking dog curves his back on the floor. On the upper left, a bat holding a sign with the text “Melencolia I” seems bounded to fly out of the picture. To penetrate this work, we will proceed stepwise.

An Aristotelian virus: melancholy

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Aecedia, later renamed melancholy or spleen

No need to be initiated in all the secret significances of objects and attitudes to identify the general meaning of this artwork. The figure that incarnates melancholy seems suffering gravely from its own passivity, showing even some jealousy towards the happy, hardworking putto.

The studies of art historian Erwin Panofsky[9], building of those of Karl Giehlow dating from 1903, usefully recall the origin of the theme: melancholy (of the Greek melas [black bile]), similar to aecidia, has always been considered by Christians as a sin[10]. This “overwhelming sadness”, this “torpor of the spirit incapable of undertaking the good” is not a simple sluggishness in the sense of laziness.

According to antique medical knowledge, melancholy is but the fourth of the four humors (temperaments, characters) affecting all human beings. But if one of them dominates too much, it can lead to vice and even folly.

1) The sanguine (associated with youthfulness, the morning and the element air): a passion for women, the love of voluptuousness.

2) The choleric (yellow bile, associated with mature virility, noontime and the element fire): irascibility, brutality, scandal mongering.

3) The melancholic or atrabilious (associated with middle age, evening time and the element earth): jalousie, sadness, bitterness.

4) The lymphatic or phlegmatic (associated with old age, night time and the element of water): inertia, sleepiness.

As Erasmus underlined in his Enchiridion [Manuel of the Christian Soldier] (1501), these humors have certainly painstaking defaults, but to a well-tempered man, they also leave some space for certain qualities capable of compensating the problems and weaknesses of character: “It happens sometimes that nature, as if she was balancing between two accounts, compensates one sickness of the soul with a contrary quality: such or such individual is doubtlessly brought towards voluptuous pleasure, but in no way choleric, in no way jealous; another one is of incorruptible chastity, but slightly haughty, tempted by rage and scrappy.” [f.46]

During the middle ages, melancholy was often represented similarly as laziness (aecidia), personified as a spinster having stopped spinning (unwinding the thread of life), who by its inaction becomes vulnerable to the devil. Dürer treated this theme, though differently, in an undated engraving called “The dream of the Doctor [11]”.

But Dürer’s melancholy has nothing to do with this laziness and here we are in front of something radically different: the winged figure is in a state, as one could say, of super awakenedness. Its face is darkened by the shadow, its eyes express intellectual search for the absolute, intense but sterile. It has suspended its laboring, not because of indolence, but because this work has lost, for her eyes, any purpose. As Panofsky wrote: “It is not sleep that paralyses its energy, it is thinking.”

Marsilio Ficino at the origin of romanticism?

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Marsilio Ficino


This “new” interpretation of melancholy arrived with what is misleadingly called “neo-platonic ideas”. In reality it was a perverse attack against the very essence of platonic thinking delivered by the person, work and followers of Marsilio Ficino[12] (1433-1499), himself a staunch follower of the neo-platonic school of Alexandria.

As Giehlow, Panofsky noted, long before us, that this dominant personality of the neo-platonic academy of Florence had inversed the concept of melancholy, in particular in his treatise De Vita triplici [The three books of life] (1489). That Albrecht Dürer became familiar with these ideas is established fact. Already, Pirckheimer himself, when studying in Pavia in Italy, had sent back to his father a copy of this particular book. Anton Koberger, Dürer’s “godfather”, had printed in 1497 in Nuremberg, the letters of Ficino dealing with the same subject. More broadly, Ficino’s works were translated into German and circulated widely during that time. So there is no doubt that these ideas could have escaped from being discussed at Pirckheimers circle.

In chapter 3, 4, 5 and especially chapter 6 of the first book of the De Vita triplici, Ficino integrates the ideas of Plato’s enemy number one, Aristotle. The latter, in his Problemata XXX, 1, defines the “melancholic by nature” character as someone with such a particular sensibility that his thinking and emotions oscillate so much between paralysis and hyperactivity (the modern manic-depressive) that he can turn over into madness, delirium or mental incapacity. But, for Aristotle, “all beings really exceptional, for it being in the domain of philosophy, of statesmanship, poetry or art, all are melancholics –some of them to the point that they suffer of the troubles provoked by the black bile”.

Ficino makes an effort to give even more substance to Aristotle. After some pseudo-medical arguments he concludes that black humor “has to be looked for and nourished” as much as the white one, because, if correctly exploited, it can give a formidable force to the soul: “And everything she [the melancholic soul] reaches for, easily she invents, and clearly perceives, and judges sincerely and retains till she has made up her judgment. Add to this, as we have demonstrated above, that the soul through this instrument corresponds with the centre of the world, which (so to speak) receives the soul as in its centre, and always tends towards the centre of all things, and penetrates there deeply. Over more she corresponds with Mercury and Saturn of which one is the highest planet which uplifts man to the search of the highest secrets. From there come the singular philosophers, principally when the soul is abstracted of the external movements and of the proper body, and close to the divines, she is made instrument of divine things. Hence being filled with divine influences and oracles from above, she always invents something new and unusual and predicts things of the future. This is affirmed not only by Democritus and Plato: but also Aristotle in the book of Problems and Avicenna in the book of divine things, and in the book of the Soul, do confess it.”

Aristotle will say elegantly, that if the melancholic succeeds in walking on the narrow ridge between madness and genius “the behavior of his anomaly becomes admirable for its equilibrium and beauty”.

By this stratagem, the Florentine neoplatonists adopted the Aristotelian doctrine for which “furor melancolicus” was the scientific foundation of the platonic conception of “furor divinus[13]”! Even if the process of human creativity, sometimes called “creative agony”, implies, following the extinction of a given level of hypothesis, qualitative jumps to “higher geometries”, that process, while bypassing mere rationality, obeys a harmonic legitimacy. To establish an automatic equivalence between madness and creativity has been a sophisticated instrument of the oligarchy to promote a factor of arbitrary irrationalism, destructive for both the arts and sciences.

Having regained lustrum thanks to this deceitful mixture, melancholy, till then considered evil, would wreath itself with the sublime[14]. Melancholy with its new halo will become the essence of a grave cultural disease of which the world suffers till today: romanticism[15].

Agrippa, Trithemius and Zorzi

The rising influence of Erasmus of Rotterdam and Thomas More, the two great platonic reformers of state and church of that day will provoke growing ire and rage of the oligarchy, an oligarchy basically centered on the financial holdings and intelligence services of the Venetian “republic”[16].

Before Luther entered on stage, Venice will be engaged in the massive promotion of occultism, alchemy and cabbalism to confuse the erudite minds of those discovering the Greek and Hebrew cultural heritage. One of these was Johannes Reuchlin (1455-1522), who after having met Ficino and Pico della Mirandola will go down into the mysticism of the cabbala[17] that Pico made into fashion. Some time earlier, Erasmus had defended Reuchlin for his opposition to the burning of the Hebraic books by the Inquisition – a wild obsession since the arrival of Torquemada. Erasmus tried to recruit Reuchlin for his own project, the soon to be founded three languages college, a body of honest scholars that would retranslate the holy scriptures from the original Greek, Latin and Hebrew manuscripts in order to do away many of the misunderstandings that had originated from bad translations and reinterpretations.

The Erasmus networks rapidly decided to go after the alchemist operation. Erasmus himself in his In praise of folly (1511) wrote against: “those who by new practices and mysteries try to change the nature of element and are looking for a fifth one, i.e. the quintessence, over the land and the sees… They have always in mind some marvelous inventions that dissipate them and they hold on so much to illusion that they loose all their belongings and have nothing left to build their last furnace.”

To encourage real science, Erasmus later wrote the preface of De Re Metallica (published in 1556) of Georg Agricola (1494-1555) on geological processes, fossils, minerals and their useful transformations for mankind.

Other denunciations of alchemy were common, as the Ship of Fools of Sebastian Brant (1458-1521), published in Strasbourg in 1494 and for which Dürer made some woodcuts, and of course Pieter Breughel the elder’sAl-ghemist” (he missed all) of 1558 whose children are taken away and put on welfare.

At the centre of this alchemist offensive stood Agrippa of Nettesheim[18] (1486-1535).

In 1510, he traveled with the young Swiss physician Paracelsius (1493-1541) to Prague to meet the Benedictine abbot Trithemius[19] (1462-1516). With the latter, Agrippa founded, first in Paris and then in London, an international secret society called the Community of Magicians. As many other “astrologers” and alchemists of that time, Agrippa functioned as a diplomat, a spy and an agent of influence. Agrippa will first be the ambassador of Emperor Maximilian I of Austria, official protector of Nuremberg. In that capacity, Agrippa will be posted in London where he meets and works with the nefarious ambassador of Venice, Francesco Giorgio[20] (Zorzi). While at the surface the Vatican hierarchy had made Luther their official enemy, their covert operations will promote the Lutheran anti-erasmian “heresy”, as a comfortable pretext for maintaining a spiritual power that had become sheer earthly power. Consulted to give his advice on king Henry VIII’s divorce, Zorzi vividly encouraged him to break with Rome, along a strategy forged by the young elites of Venice out to make England into their “Venice of the north” at the epicenter of the new geographical reality between the new world and the old one centered around the Mediterranean.

That network, with all its deceitful appearance, will penetrate deeply into the humanist elites. Agrippa himself tried to maintain a correspondence with Erasmus. In England, he settled in the residence of Erasmus’ friend John Colet (1469-1519), equally in contact with Ficino and Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494). Zorzi kept also relations with Guillaume Postel[21] (1510-1581), one of French kings François I esoteric super spies. In De Harmoni Mundi (1525), Zorzi’s major work that he dedicated to pope Clement VII, one finds the classical hermetic themes of the seven spheres, angelology and the influence of the planets, with cabbalism in addition. In reality, the real subject was to introduce paganism and try to prove it was perfectly coherent with Christian doctrine.

This esoteric offensive will bring the subject of melancholy fully at the center of debates. An initial writing of Agrippa, On the uncertainty and the vanity of all sciences and arts deals already with this subject. Initially written, by the negation of the author’s cabbalistic beliefs, to escape from the Inquisition, De vanitate appears as a book written by a depressed personality or somebody magnificently deceitful, stating that nothing makes sense, everything is in vain, even metaphysics.

As Panofsky keenly remarked, Agrippa, in chapter 60 (LX) of his book De occulta philosophia (written in 1510, and printed in 1530 in Antwerp), praises Aristotle’s melancholia[22] via Ficino. The work established Agrippa’s reputation as an occultist and is build by bits and pieces taken from Hermes Trismegistus, Picatrix, Ficino, Pico della Mirandola and Johannes Reuchlin. Here one finds symbol-minded theories on the soul of the world, the spirit of the world and the occult virtues of a world on three levels (theory of Plotinus, turned into a worst caricature by Ficino): elementary, celestial and intellectual. These three levels correspond each to a given type of magic (perfumes, philters, poisons, how to bring the death back to life, etc.). In book II, Agrippa reveals the secrets of the celestial world thanks to mathematics and astrology. With the aid of magic squares (as the one present in Dürer’s engraving), it is supposedly possible to obtain a symbolic representation of each of the planets. (Somebody remarked that unfortunately, the magic square that is supposed to correspond with the theme of Melancholy [Saturn] possesses nine figures and not sixteen as the one shown by Dürer…). Book III focuses then on the magic rituals necessary for a small circle of initiates to get access to “the truth”.

England’s occultist John Dee (1527-1609) and others will make Agrippa’s Occulta the founding text for the early Rosicrucian order and its freemasonic offshoots.

So this explains (nearly) everything!


So, at first glance, a symbolical or alchemistic reading of the engraving seems to give us all the keys of it!

The magic square in Dürer’s engraving integrates the date of the mother of the artist, just some months before the making of the image: May 17, 1514. If one adds 5 to 15 and 14, one gets the figure 34, 34 being the number that limits all magic squares of 4 times 4 figures, whose addition, vertically, horizontally or in diagonal give all the sum of 34.

Wasn’t Dürer himself a geometer and great architect? On the left, we see the crucible with a pair of small pincers, typical equipment of the alchemist purifying impure matter, metaphor for the process ongoing in the soul of the melancholic genius? The dark face of the figure doesn’t that remind the famous nigredo, the black working which constitutes the first phase of the alchemic process? Aren’t these tools and objects waiting for the awakening of the suffering genius?

Ladder of Jacob, 1519-1528, Chants Royaux sur la Conception Couronnée du Pays de Rouen, Paris BNF, Mss, Fr. 1537.

The ladder (with seven steps) isn’t that a clear reference to the road of ascension of the soul traveling upward through the seven spheres, a metaphor one finds already in Genesis (XXVIII, 11)? “And there stood on the earth a ladder whose summit reached heaven; God’s angels were going up and down” .

The two wings of Melancholia, aren’t they the two virtues which Ficino takes from Plato? Also, if one knows that Dürer’s father’s name was Ajto (Hungarian for door), Germanized into Thür (to become Dürer)[23] and if one rearranges the letters of the word “Melencolia”, one gets “limen caelo[24]” or “door to heaven”…

But wasn’t Dürer a melancholic, as Ficino reportedly was? One of his first self-portraits shows him pretty affected and sad looking, the head supported by the arm and elbow? In another drawing that he sent to his physician, Dürer indicated a precise spot of his torso: the bile[25]…  Melanchton, directing his school in Nuremberg mentions “Dürer’s excellent melancholy”.

So as you can see, all the “objective” conditions exist to have us believe that there was something to it. Since Dürer mentions himself the “platonic ideas” as soon as 1510, and since Trithemius was befriended to Pirckheimer, one could belief, with Panofsky, that Melencolia I “is, in a sense, a spiritual self-portrait of Dürer”: an artist, if not a follower, or certainly heavily influenced by the zeitgeist polluted by Agrippa and his Venetian networks.

Everything, or nearly everything, seems to find intellectual cohesion, besides the fact that it is hard to imagine how such a staunch Christian such as Dürer and especially someone as strongly committed to the education of broad layers of people (see box I) could ever engage in such a manifesto of heretical hermetic beliefs. It seems we forgot an essential detail of the engraving: its author.

Plato versus neoplatonism

A recent discovery made quite some sensation. A London art historian, Patrick Doorly, in an article published in the Art Bulletin [26] in 2004, threw a rock in the tranquil waters of the Panofskyian lake. While reading one of Plato’s first dialogues, the Hippias Major, Doorly realized there exist strong iconographical correlations between the language of the philosopher and the one of the artist.

Hippias of Elis (around 450 BC), one of the worst sophist around, is cornered by Socrates who interrogates him on the real nature of beauty in itself. Trying one answer after the other, Hippias lines up a series of things to which beauty can be attributed, (a young woman [287e], gold [289e], being wealthy [291d], being powerful [296a], a speech that persuades the many [304a], etc.), while never accepting the conceptual challenge thrown to him by Socrates to answer the question of beauty in itself. At that point, Socrates, without losing nerves tells him: “It is beauty in itself, dear man, that I ask you to describe to me, and I’m incapable of making myself understood like if I was sitting in front of a stone, or rather as a millstone with neither ears nor brain!” [292d].

Suddenly this story gives some meaning to the millstone on which sits the little angel, right in the middle of Dürer’s engraving! One of the reasons why this new track of investigation, of a melancholy personified by Hippias, sheds new light on the matter, derives from the fact that, while completely redefining the general sense, it maintains the validity of the meaning of certain critical details, while completing the meaning of those lacking.

From this new standpoint, melancholy clearly seems an ironical attack against the followers of Agrippa (who was known for having always a big black dog with him called Monsieur) and his belief, as Trithemius, in the magical power of angels. The fact that Dürer denounces a sick state of mind is confirmed by the fact that the crown of leafs, a caricature of the crown of bay leafs offered to the best poets, in this case is composed of branches of water ranunculus and leafs of watercress! An irony many symbol-minded interpreters will simply ignore because they lack most of the time themselves a humorous character. In reality, since the melancholic humor was associated with fire and dryness, the ancient physicians advised their patients to apply aquatic plants to counterbalance the sickness…

Also, Plato’s dialogues Hippias Major and Minor describe the physical wealth of the sophist, what would explain the sophisticated embroidered Venetian dress (Hippias reputedly manufactured his own cloths, belt and shoes). That he is wealthy and powerful is stated clearly with the filled purse [wealth] and the large set of keys [power][27]

The disturbing polyhedron and the legacy of Piero della Francesca

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Albrecht Dürer, preparatory sketch of the polyhedron for Melencolia I, Dresden sketchbook, 1514.


Especially, one can see that it is uniquely the hypothesis of the Hippias Major that gives a real meaning (ironical-metaphoric and not mystical-symbolic) to the strange polyhedron so prominently occupying the center of the composition. That this volume was one of the key elements of the composition is clearly shown by the surviving preparatory drawing.

At a first glance, our senses identify five-sided irregular surfaces. The pentagon has always been the subject of unending speculative conjectures. Luca Pacioli’s book, De Divina Proportione, published in 1509, established that the pentagon cannot be constructed without this specific relationship of divine proportion. The dodecahedron, a volume constructed with 12 pentagons, is over more the “boundary” volume in which all the others can be inscribed, as Plato develops that in the Timaeus. Since the volume Dürer presents us here doesn’t figure among those that Leonardo drew to illustrate Pacioli’s book, one wonders what the nature of this polyhedron might be.

Dürer seems to have chosen to deliberately deceive our sense perception and by doing so, our certainties, a deceit of which Plato accuses the painters of in his Republic [602d]. Also, in Hippias Minor [on cheating], he says that “if there exists a man which can deceit us about geometrical figures, it is the one we’re talking about, the competent geometer, since he is capable to do so” [367e].

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Partially truncaded cube (constructed by the author).

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Partially truncated rhombohedron (constructed by the author)

If one tries to physically build the volume we see, one gets the impression we’re facing an “impossible” volume, one that exists “in between” a partially truncated cube and a partially truncated rhombohedron.

By forcing the perspective foreshortening of a cube[28], which by himself, when seen from a certain angle is already difficult to distinguish from a rhombohedron (unless its surfaces, [diamond-shaped] lozenges, have pointed angles beyond eighty degrees, i.e. close to the 90 degrees of a square), Dürer creates here a geometrical in-betweenness that is identified in geometry with the instable or non-generic viewpoint[29]. Dürer selected here a particular angle of view and a particular perspective construction[30] bringing the two volumes to “rub” each other by their closeness –unless that closeness results directly from the closeness of the angles chosen for lozenges of the rhombohedron with those of the squares of the cube.

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Evolution of a pentagon, a truncated square and a truncated lozenge, as a projected image on a forward/backward tilted screen (section of a visual cone). (drawing by the author)

This closeness derives also from the “familiarity” that exists between the partially truncated square, the partially truncated lozenge and the pentagon, since they seem to belong to the same “species”. One can represent the first two of them as vertical sections of a visual cone indicating the projected image of a pentagon tilted forwards or backwards. The science of geometrical ambiguity was the original contribution of the Italian renaissance painter Piero della Francesca whose science and knowledge will be reduced to mere amusement after the famous anamorphoses still present in Holbein’s painting, the Ambassadors, and a sketch of Leonardo in the Codex Atlanticus.

For Piero, this type of paradox, which blows our senses to the limits, became the backbone of any real work of art, since it represents the unique method of communicating ideas of the level of the incommensurable, i.e. the divine. A simple (linear, Cartesian) geometry, which doesn’t appeal to the complex domain, locks up mans mind him inside a finite “dead” system.

Anticipating the calculus, Dürer, according to some, takes up the platonic idea that by truncating the angles and by replacing them with facets, one could generate ever more complex volumes capable of generating a good approximation of bodies bounded by given curvatures, including those of the human body. Pacioli projected to continue that process of truncation till the infinite.

But the real message here is a metaphysical, philosophical one. Dürer seems to tell us here: beauty and truth are nothing but one and the same substance, united in the One. Agrippa and his followers, as Hippias the sophist, are living in a state of denial of reality and therefore are incapable of understanding what beauty and even reality is all about. This might explain us why the ladder stands behind the monument and not in front: by fixating on numerogy and symbols, one gets to it from the wrong angle!

Plato’s conclusion of his dialogue is very tough and demanding: “And how will you then know, (…), which speech is produced beautifully or not beautifully, and equally for all other action, since you don’t know what beauty is? And as long as you are in that state, do you believe it is better to live rather than to die?” [304d]

Hence, Melencolia, prisoner of the senses while lost in her dreams cannot but measure the visible, and unless accepting change and transformation, will never reach the invisible. The daring idea of bringing together in a single person the winged Fortuna descending from her sphere, an angel personifying Geometry and Plato’s Hippias to tease ironically Agrippa and those who believed his nonsense, was an idea full of hubris (Greek word for de-measure)!

The gloom of the passing comet brings about a rainbow, such as the one announcing a new alliance between man and God after the deluge. Its light is sufficient to drive out of the picture the vespertilio, the bat with a lizard tail, symbol of an evil force operating in the dark that carries here the sign Melencolia I[31].

If music can also heal melancholy, it is up to the viewer to grab the rope and ring the bell… since, as Socrates concludes in Hippias Major: “It seems that I understand what can signify the proverb that says that ‘beautiful things are difficult’” [304e].


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Portrait of Luca Pacioli.


Dürer’s geometry:
“to bring in the open and teach”, the knowledge useful to workmen, “kept secret by the erudites”.

At the closing of the winter of 1506, Dürer returns from Venice committed to write a vast treatise on the training of the artist and the craftsman. As soon as 1513 he thinks of the work as “food for painter apprentices” [speisen der malerknaben]. As any real humanist, he desires to make available to the many the most beautiful and useful knowledge of humanity and denounces the oligarchs out to confiscate that knowledge for their own power grabbing.

Great progress needed to be accomplished in Dürer’s time. If many artist kept their “master techniques” jealously secret, many writings existed as mere manuscripts (Toscanelli, Leonardo da Vinci) while others were published without any illustrations, including Leon Battista Alberti’s famous treatise on perspective De Pictura of 1432, and Pomponia Gauricus De Sculptura printed in Florence in 1504.

One has to recognize that the first printed treatise on perspective in Europe was the one of the former secretary of the French king Louis XI, canon Jean Pélerin Viator[32] (before 1445-1524), De Artificiali Perspectiva, published in Toul in 1505. Regarding geometry, it is now recognized that Dürer integrated several parts of the Geometria Deutsch of Matthaüs Roritzer, printed in German in 1498.

Following a nearly revolutionary political situation and repression against the reformation[33], Dürer is obliged, as Erasmus was, to leave the Netherlands at the beginning of the summer 1521. More and more affected by the malaria he contracted (see footnote nr.25), he returns to Nuremberg where he tries to put on paper all his research into a single treaty. At the end, only three parts, written in German, will result of the effort, of which a geometry manual, the Unterweysung der Messung [Instructions for measurement with ruler and compass of lines, surfaces and solids, united by Albrecht Dürer and printed with the corresponding figures for the use of all the art lovers, in the year 1525], a treatise on fortifications (1527), and the famous Four books on the proportions of man, published in 1528 by his friends after his death.

The origin of that passion to communicate “secrets” might originate from an experience Dürer personally went trough. On April 20, 1500, the Venetian painter Jacopo dei Barbari (c.1445-1515), then resident of Nuremberg showed him “a man and a woman he had done after proportions”, while unwilling to give any explanation about how to proceed in their construction. Criticized in Italy for drawing clumsy figures[34], Dürer, as Leonardo, studied the Ten books of Architecture of the roman architect Vitruvius (first century after D.C.).

During his stay in Italy, it is quite probable that Dürer met the Franciscan monk, and “traveling mathematics teacher”, Luca Pacioli[35](c.1445-1517). Pacioli was at that time the most acknowledged scholar on the Greek mathematician Euclid (325-265 B.C.)[36], whose identity was then mistakenly seen as identical with that of Euclid of Megarus (c.450-c.380 B.C.), a pupil of Plato.

As a pupil of Piero della Francesca (1420-1492) and collaborator of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) at the court of Milan, Pacioli was on top of all the major scientific, mathematical and intellectual discoveries of the Italian Quatrocento. In his book De Divina Proportione (1509), he demonstrated that the golden section is a specific case of geometrical mean dividing a length into an extreme and middle reason, as indicated by Euclid in his Elements. In relation with architect Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) in Rome, Pacioli incorporated Piero’s contributions into his own treatise that got illustrated by Leonardo. In Milan, Pacioli assisted Leonardo to read and understand the Latin text of Euclids Elements. Dürer, as many others of his time, projected to translate Euclid into German.

Encyclopaedical synthesis uniting the craftsman’s know-how with the German, French and Italian treatises enriched with own original contributions, the Unterweysung der Messung might be one of the first pedagogical exercises. To be accessible to all, it goes from simple to more complex: starting from straight lines and curves one generates the surfaces, the volumes and the polyhedra, to evolve into drawing of shadows and perspective.

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A. Double projection of an elliptical section of a cone [Book I, fig.34]. Also present together Piero della Francesca study of a head of the De prospectiva pingendi with one of Dürer in The four books on Human Proportions.

I quote here the excellent writings of Jeanne Peiffer[37] who describes Dürers geometry work as follows: “Those who studied Euclid’s Elements will find nothing new, Dürer warns in the opening pages. However, it is quite something different than a compilation of Euclidian propositions that one find in his work. His geometry isn’t demonstrative, but constructive. Dürer’s aim is here to construct the forms useful for the craftsman, by procedures easy to operate with commonly used instruments, the ruler and the compass in particular and easy to repeat. There is no single calculation of area and of volume, so characteristic for the geometry practiced at his time. Dürer obtains his most original results, when he applies craftsman workshop’s methods to abstract mathematical objects. Hence, by applying the method of double projection (Fig. A), familiar to masons, stonecutters and architects, to conical sections, he obtains a very original construction, whose method will be codified by [the founder of Ecole Polytechnique] Gaspard Monge’s constructive geometry at the end of the eighteenth century. His conception, in the section dedicated to architecture, a wreathed column, Dürer is lead to conceive the envelope of spheres with constant radius and having their centre on a curve [Book III, fig. 10] (Fig. B).

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B. L’Unterweysung der Messung, [Book III, fig.10].

(…) Or also, Dürer indicates the original construction of an otherwise unknown curve [a conchoid, or shell curve], useful for the architect and that serves him, according to the drawings conserved in Dresden (Fig. C), to obtain the desired curbed shape of Renaissance towers. The generation of that curve is made explicit: a constant length (c) moves with one of its extremities on a vertical axis, in such a way that the length of the curve generated by its second extremity is proportional to the distance covered on the vertical axis.

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C. The conchoid (shell curve) of Dürer, with Fig.151 Dresden sketchbook, (in Annexe 4 of J. Peiffer).

The example of the duplication of the cube, and the use that can be made of it, are particularly revealing for the practical orientation Dürer intended to give to his geometry, but also to the work style of the painter. Dürer knows the problem goes back to antiquity, and originates from the legend –since it was at the demand of Apollo and to save the city that the Athenians[38] are found to be looking to double the volume of the cubical altar. He repeats this tale, and renders homage to Plato for having been capable of indicating the right solution, since he says: ‘Since this knowledge is very useful to workers, and since has been kept hidden and in great secret by the erudite, I propose to bring it in the open and teach it.’ Why is this knowledge useful? Dürer indicates: ‘One could melt the bombards and the bells, double their volume and aggrandize them as wanted, while conserving their proportions and weight. Similarly one will be able to aggrandize barrels, coffers, gauges, wheels and everything one wants.’ He gives three solutions to the problem, those recognized in classical literature as those of Sporus, Plato and Heron, and for the latter, he even indicates a demonstration.”
(Fig. D)

D. L’Unterweysung der Messung, [Book IV, fig.44].

How Ficino’s Neoplatonism gave Plato a bad reputation

Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) was a doctor and son of the personal physician of Cosimo di Medici (1389-1464). Cosimo had become very impressed by the speech of Georg Gemisthos Plethon (1355-1450), a wise old man that had come with John Paleologus of Byzantium to attend the Council of Florence in 1438. Plethon, who resolutely opposed Aristotle, was one of the actors of the Council. Between the meetings, he enthusiastically organized the Florentine population by making them discover Plato, but also the neoplatonists of Alexandria[39].

It was therefore not astonishing that Plethon got accused of drifting toward paganism since he brought to discover, to a world basically centered on Christianity (the only religion that was right to believe in), the existence of other religious beliefs (Judaism, Zoroastrism, Islam, Chaldean oracles, Orphic hymns, etc.), beliefs of which everything was not necessary worth assimilating.

In any case, it is Plethon that got Cosimo so enthusiastic that he decided to initiate a project to translate from the Greek into Latin, the totality of Plato’s works, hardly known in the west. Cosimo seems to have cultivated some doubts on the capacities of the translator he selected for the job, the young Marsilio Ficino. When the latter offers in 1456 his first work, The Platonic Institutions, Cosimo asks him kindly not to publish this work and to learn first the Greek language…

But seeing his age advancing, Cosimo finally gave him the post. He allocates him an annual stipend, the required manuscripts and a villa at Careggi, close to Florence, where Ficino would organize his “Platonic Academy” with a handful of followers, among which Angelo Poliziano (1454-94), Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) and Cristoforo Landino (1424-1498).

Astonishingly, each single gathering of this academy will be attended by the ambassador of Venice, notably the powerful oligarch Bernardo Bembo (1433-1519), father of “poet” cardinal Pietro Bembo, later special advisor to Pope Julius II.

But before translating Plato, and at the specific demand of Cosimo, Ficino translates first (in 1462) the Orphic Hymns, the Sayings of Zoroaster, and the Corpus Hermeticum of Hermes Trismegistus[40] the Egyptian (between 100 and 300 after BC), a manuscript brought by a monk from Macedonia.

It will be only in 1469 that Ficino will finish his translations of Plato after a nervous breakdown in 1468, described by his contemporaries as a crisis of “profound melancholy”.

In 1470, and with a title plagiarized from Proclus, Ficino writes his Platonic Theology or on the immortality of the Soul. While completely taken in by esoteric Platonism, he becomes a priest in 1473 and writes The Christian Religion without changing his convictions, since he starts then a whole new series of translations of the neoplatonists of Alexandria: he translates the fifty four books of Plotinus, Porphyry and Proclus.

In 1489, he publishes a book combining astrology and health, The book on the three lives, and in 1492, before dying, he starts translating Iamblichus.

The Florentine neoplatonic Academy will serve as a “Delphic” operation: defend Plato to better destroy him; praise him in such terms that he becomes discredited. And especially destroying Plato’s influence by opposing religion to science, at a point where Nicholas of Cusa and his followers are succeeding to do exactly the opposite. Isn’t it remarkable that Cusa’s name doesn’t appear a single time in the works of Ficino or Pico della Mirandola, so overfed with all encompassing knowledge?

Ficino maintained epistolary relations with the elites of his epoch. In Venice, it was the Aldine Academy, the circle of printer Alde Manuce, which was the outpost of Ficino’s operation. According to Ficino’s biographer in 1505, Giovanni Corsi, Ficino nearly dictated the Neo-Platonic themes of Sandro Botticelli’s paintings, sensuous wedding between paganism and Christian thematic. His evil influence on Raphael, Michelangelo and Titian is equally well documented.


More from the same author:


Useful reading:

  • Allonsius, Daniel-Jacques, Créer avec un compas, Dessain et Tolra, Paris, 1986.
  • Battistini, Matilde, Astrologie, magie et alchimie, repères iconographiques, Hazan, 2005.
  • Brion-Guerry, L. Jean Pélerin Viator, Belles Lettres, Paris, 1962.
  • Chastel, André, Marsile Ficin et l’Art, Droz, Geneva, 1996.
  • Della Franscesca, Piero, De la perspective en peinture, In Medias Res, Paris, 1998.
  • Doorly, Patrick, Durers Melencolia I: Plato’s abandoned search for the beautiful, The Art Bulletin, June 2004, Internet.
  • Dürer, Albrecht, Géométrie, presented and translated by Jeanne Peiffer, Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1995.
  • Dürer, Albrecht, Les quatre livres d’Albrecht Dürer, peinctre & Geometrien tres excellent, De la proportion des parties & pourtraicts des corps humains (1613). Editions Roger Dacosta, Paris, 1975.
  • Dürer, Albrecht, The human figure by Albrecht Dürer, the complete Dresden sketchbook, Dover Editions, New York, 1972.
  • Dürer, Albrecht, Chroniques Familales, Editions de l’Amateur, 1996.
  • Dürer, Albrecht, Instructions sur la manière de mesurer, Flammarion, 1995.
  • Dürer, Albrecht, Das gesamte graphische Werk, 2 volumes, Pawlak, Rogner & Bernhard, Munich.
  • Eichler, Anja-Franziska, Albrecht Dürer, Maîtres de l’art allemand, Editions Könemann, Cologn, 1999.
  • Ficin, Marsile, Les trois Livres de la Vie, Fayard, Paris, 2000.
  • Ficino, Marsilio, 7th Letter, De divino Furore (On divine Frenzy), Internet.
  • Finkelstein, R., The relativity of Albrecht Dürer », Georgia Institute of Technology, April 24, 2005, Internet.
  • Gagnon, Claude, Alchimie, magie et kabbale au XVIe siècle, Encyclopédiede l’Agora, Internet.
  • James, Bonnie, Albrecht Dürer, the Search for the Beautiful in a Time of Trials, publication project for Fidelio, Schiller Institute, 2005.
  • Mackinnon, Nick, The portrait of Fran Luca Pacioli, The Mathematical Gazette, Vol. 77, July 1993, N° 479.
  • Makowsky, Claude, Albrecht Dürer, Le songe du Docteur et la sorcière, Editions Jacqueline Chambon/Slatkine, Geneva, 1999.
  • Morrison, Stanley, Pacioli’s classic roman alphabet, Dover Editions, 1994.
  • Panofsky, Erwin, La vie et l’art d’Albrecht Dürer, Hazan, Paris, 2004.
  • Peiffer, Jeanne, La géométrie d’Albrecht Dürer et ses lecteurs, Internet.
  • Peiffer, Jeanne, La géométrie de Dürer, un exercice pour la main et un entraînement pour l’œil, Alliage, numéro 23, 1995. Internet.
  • Postel, Claude, L’homme prophétique, Science et magie à la Renaissance, Belles Lettres, 1999.
  • Platon, Hippias majeur et Hippias mineur, Garnier Flammarion, Paris, 2005.
  • Platon, Ion, Edition Ellipses, Paris, 2001.
  • Russell, Francis, The world of Dürer, Time/Life Nederland, 1978.
  • Schmitz, Maria, Albrecht Dürer und die deutsche Renaissance, Ibykus, N° 86, 2004.
  • Strieder, Peter, Dürer, Fonds Mercator, Albin Michel, Antwerp, 1982.
  • Zacharia, Constantin, La parole mélancolique, une archéologie du discours fragmentaire, Internet.



[1]Erasmus of Rotterdam admired very dearly his personal friend Albrecht Dürer and asked him several times to have his portrait done. He said that “Dürer, (…) knows how to render monochromatically, i.e. with black traits [in engraving] –what does he knows not to render! Shadows, light, brilliance, heights and depths, and… (Perspective). Even better, he paints what is impossible to be painted: fire, thunder, lightening and even, as one says, the clouds on the wall, all the sentiments, and finally all the human soul reflected in the disposition of the body, and nearly the word itself.” Dürer’s last engraving was a portrait of Erasmus, who was also one of the first to receive a copy of his treatise on geometry.

[2] Born in 1403 in Trebizonde (today Turkey), on the shores of the Black Sea, John Bessarion was one of the key organizers of the successful great Ecumenical Council of Ferrare/Florence, together with Nicolas of Cusa, Ambrogio Traversari and pope Eugene IV in 1437-38. After being a monk of Saint Basilius in Constantinople, he attended for six months the teachings of Georges Gemisthos Plethon at Mistra. Bessarion became later the Catholic bishop at Nicea. After the fall of Constantinople in 1454, he went in exile and settled in Vienna.

[3] Paolo Toscanelli del Pozzo (1397-1482), one of the greatest scientific minds of his time, was in the same time befriended with the architect of the Florentine dome Philippo Brunelleschi, the painter engineer Leonardo da Vinci and the Cardinal philosopher Nicolas of Cusa.

[4] See K.Vereycken, Percer les mystères du dôme de Florence, Fusion N°96, mai/juin 2003, p. 18-19.

[5] This is notably proven by a letter of Dürer to Georges Spalatin in January 1520, asking him to send him everything “doctor Martinus [Luther] writes new and is in German.”

[6] Nearly of the same age as Dürer, Pirckheimer, who studied in Padua and Pavia, was a cultivated Hellenist who authored some 35 translations of classical writers among which Cicero, Lucian, Plutarch, Xenophonus, or Ptolemy. While being a high level political official, this high ranking military commander animated also a literary circle, where people as Christoph Scheurl, Johannes Camerarius and Thomas Venatorius. Numerous correspondents occasionally would meet there, such as the poet Conrad Celtis, the Hebraiser Johannes Reuchlin, Ulrich von Hutten, Erasmus’ friend Melenchton or Conrad Peutinger, i.e. the hard core of what would become the reformation in Germany. With Erasmus, Pirckheimer had a common friend: Beatus Rhenanus. Erasmus got repeatedly invited but could never make it. In Italy, Pirckheimer became familiar with the ideas of Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola. Art historian Victoria Salley believes that in Milan, Pirckheimer “met Donato Bramante (v.1444-1515) and Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)” but without giving any indications to make that statement convincing.

[7] Werner published in 1522 his Libellus super vigintiduobus elementis conicis, a treatise on conical sections followed by the discussion of the problem of doubling the volume of the cube and the eleven solutions that were discovered in antiquity to solve that problem if one believes Eutocius. Werner had translated from Greek to Latin Apollonius treatise on conics, of which a copy existed in Regiomontanus’ library. Werner’s influence on Dürer is generally identified in Dürers Unterweysund der Messung (on the art of measuring), where the problem of the doubling of the cube is treated in Book IV, 44-51a.

[8] Erasmus of Rotterdam, in his Life of Saint Jerome (1516), says that “his works contain nearly as many miracles as they contain phrases.”

[9] Erwin Panofsky, The life and art of Albrecht Dürer, 1943,Princeton University Press.

[10] Thomas of Aquinas (1224-1475), in his Summa Theologica (Question 35) specifies that “Hence, since a spiritual good is a real good, sadness deriving from a spiritual good is bad in itself. Concerning the sadness deriving from a real thing of badness, it is bad in its effects when it affects man to the point of preventing him of acting for the good. Also Apostle [Paul] (2, Co 2, 7) does not want those that are penitent to ‘go down in excessive sadness’ when facing their sins. So, because acedia, as we conceive it here, and as a sadness originating in a spiritual good, it is bad twice: in itself and through its effects. And this is why acedia is a sin, because, and we have shown so, what is bad in the movements of the appetites is a sin…”

[11] Claude Makowsky, in his essay Albrecht Dürer, the dream of the Doctor and the Witch shows in a convincing way that the doctor sleeping behind his furnace with the devil blowing air in his ears, is not a luxurious dreamer in front of Venus. It is very probable that this is a polemic against the alchemists, who, waiting for hundreds of hours to see how impure metal becomes gold, would generally fall asleep and make themselves incapable of grabbing the chances thrown to them by Lady Fortuna, as does the little angel, playfully mounting on its stilts.

[12] See box II, How Ficino’s neoplatonism gave Plato a bad reputation.

[13] In Plato’s dialogue Ion, Socrates, to harass the rhapsode, says that “a poet is something light, winged and sacred, which cannot compose before being inspired by a god, before losing his reason, before having lost it. As long as a man remains master of his intellect, he is perfectly incapable to generate poetry or to sing the oracles.” When Socrates realizes that the rhapsode Ion wants to be the slave of the divinities [534d], on top that he’s out for financial compensations [535e], he compares him to Protee [Egyptian sophist] [541e]. For Plato, divine inspiration has to bring man to the self perfecting sovereign reason and as such towards freedom. A contrario, in The Laws, VII, 709d, Plato brings up the “evil of the Corybants”, the mythical priest that honored the mother goddess [of fertility] Cybele with their frantic dances.

Ficino, for his part, cultivates this confusion in the preface of his translation of Plato’s dialogue Ion, “De furore poetico” (1482). After stating that a first type of madness can make man fall “below human appearance and (…)in a sense to the level of the beast”, Ficino, imitating Plotinus, claims that there is another kind of delirium, which is divine (mystical ecstasy). By this delirium, man is “uplifted above human nature, and joins with God. The divine frenzy is the illumination of the rational soul, by which God pulls the souls fallen from the heights and lifts them from below towards those here. The fall of the soul, since the One, principle of all things till the body, operates by successive degrees: intelligence, reason, opinion and nature. In effect, since there are six degrees in any order of things, the most elevated being the One in person, the lowest being the body, the intermediary degrees as foresaid, it is therefore necessary that everything that falls from the first till the last passes by the four intermediaries. The One is the limit of all things, and its measure, free of infinity and multiplicity.”

Also in Ficino’s Seventh letter, published by Dürer’s godfather Anton Koberger in 1497, the Florentine states again that the soul, according to Plato, after having been able to contemplate ideas (justice itself, beauty, wisdom, harmony, and the marvelous beauty of divine nature) in the heavens, our soul finds itself degraded by the desires for earthly things. According to a beautiful metaphor of Socrates, the soul can fly thanks to two wings (two virtues): justice obtained through a (active) moral behavior and (contemplative) wisdom. One could see here the Knight and the Saint Jerome. The fact that Dürer represented his melancholia with wings has its own platonic reasons. When the soul sees a beautiful form, it is “fired by this memory and, shaking its wings, by degrees, purges itself from contact with the body and its filth and becomes wholly possessed by divine frenzy.” (…)

But, insists Ficino, “Plato says that this kind of love is born out of human sickness and is full of trouble and anxiety, and that it arises in those men whose mind is covered over with darkness that it dwells on nothing exalted, nothing outstanding, nothing beyond the weak and transient image of this little body. It does not look to heavens, for in its black prison it is shuttered by night.”

[14] The school of Athens of Raphael shows us a Heraclites with the physical resembling of what is believed to be Michelangelo, pausing in a melancholic attitude. After 1519, Michelangelo used the same attitude for his Pensieroso on the tomb of Lorenzo de Medici, himself a frequent visitor of Ficino’s “platonic” academy; The French sculptor Auguste Rodin will transpose it into his Penseur [The Thinker], an enlarged version of a detail of the figure sitting in front of his initial work, the Gates of hell. Goya, mocking the romantics warns against melancholy in his Sleep of Reason creates monsters.

[15] Neoplatonism in the domain of aesthetics insisted on the beauty that comes from the grace of visible forms and not from the beauty of an invisible principle of truth. This doctrine, put forward most prominently by Pietro Bembo’s poems, the Asolani, and by Balthasar Castiglione’s book The Courtier will drive art from Bella Maniera into Mannerism. Romanticism, the official art imposed on Europe by the Congress of Vienna in 1815, will give birth to Symbolism, which, in its final metastases of utter degeneration will give us modern and contemporary “art” as imposed after WWII by the Congress for Cultural Freedom, run by Allan Dulles, then head of the CIA. One same invariant remained: the suffering and melancholic heart will be the unalterable essence of the accursed artist. Gérard de Nerval would speak about “the black sun of melancholy, while Victor Hugo said ironically that “melancholy is the happiness to be sad.”

[16] See K. Vereycken, Comment la folie d’Erasme sauva la civilisation, French language website : www.solidariteetprogres.org

[17] Johannes Reuchlin met Pico della Mirandola in 1490. He exposed his cabbalistic ideas in De Verbo Mirifico and in De Arte cabalistica (1517).

[18] Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim (1486-1536), jurisconsultus, doctor, astrologist, was an important transmitter of the neoplatonism of Ficino, Pico della Mirandola and Cie. Agrippa crisscrossed Europe, took position in defense of Reuchlin who’s works he plundered and supported the humanist Lefèvre d’Etaples. Follower of Abbot Trithemius, as Paracelsius he founded in Paris the “Community of the Magicians”, a network engaged in the promotion of the occult, alchemy and other hermetic magic, all of it in service of his masters in Venice.

[19] Johannes Heidenberg, or Johannes von Tritheim (Thritemius) (1462-1516) became the head of the Benedictine cloister of Sponheim. There he organized a collection of over 2000 esoteric writings and operated an alchemist workshop, including a furnace. Agrippa inherited his library. Thritemius wrote also the Steganographia a method for the codification of secret messages, a work much appreciated by many secret intelligence agencies.

[20] See article of Christina Huth: Venice, the methodology of Evil, American Almanac, The New Federalist, May 30, 1994.

[21] See book of Claude Postel, L’Homme Prophétique, Sciences et Magie à la Renaissance, Les Belles Lettres, 1999, Paris.

[22] H.C. Agrippa of Nettesheim, De occulta philosophia, Chap. 60, “Of Madness, and Divinations which are made when men are awake, and of the power of a Melancholy humor, by which Spirits are sometimes induced into men’s bodies”; “It happens also sometimes, that not only they that are asleep, but also they that are watchful do with a kind of instigation of mind, Divine, which Divination Aristotle calls ravishment, or a kind of madness, and teaches that it proceeds from a melancholy humor, saying in his Treatise of divination: Melancholy men, by reason of their earnestness, do far better conjecture, and quickly conceive a habit, and most easily receive an impression of the Celestials.”

[23] The blazon of the Dürer family features indeed a gate open to the nothing.

[24] A hypothesis developed by David R. Finkelstein, in « The relativity of Albrecht Dürer », April 24, 2005.

[25] Medical experts, examining Dürer’s description of his being unwell, are convinced he contracted malaria when rushing into the quagmires of Zeeland in the Netherlands, looking for an allegedly giant whale thrown on the beaches.

[26] Patrick Doorly, Durers Melencolia I: Plato’s abandoned search for the beautiful, The Art Bulletin, June 2004. Doorly, who establishes the similarities between the imagery of Hippias Majeur and Melencolia I, completely fails in his conclusions. He pretends that Dürer, as Socrates = Hippias, abandons the very idea that beauty can be known, supposedly “admitting” beauty is merely relative and subjective. In brief, he teams up with what Immanuel Kant, in his Critique of the faculty of judgment establishes as “party line” for modern scholars. To prove his case, Doorly lines up a series of out of context quotes from Dürer.

[27] Dürer writes on one of the preparatory sketches: purse=wealth; keys=power. One can note also that Ficino wrote a letter with the title Quinque Platonicae Sapientiae Claves, [The five keys of Platonic theology].

[28] One of the vanishing points of the polyhedron seems to join the same location as the ladder: heaven.

[29] See K. Vereycken, in Quand l’ambiguïté devient science géométrique en peinture, Fusion n°105, juin/juillet 2005, p. 42-43. Or, same author: The egg without a shadow of Piero della Francesca, Fidelio.

[30] Jean Pélerin alias Viator, former secretary of Louis XI, who printed the first perspective treatise north of the Alps, De Artificali Perspectiva, in 1505, introduced a perspective system with two lateral vanishing points. This approach, known by Dürer, transforms legitimately a four angle (quadrangle) into a lozenge. Pascal’s geometry teacher, Gerard Desargues, will elaborate his geometrical science on this subject. Dürer’s engraving of the Presentation at the temple, uses the image of a room with colonnades taken out of Viator’s treaty (fol. 21, v.).

[31] Many guesses exist concerning the “I”. One often does not regard the little sign in between, some kind of “&”. The title would then be: “melancholia and the one”, the One being the obsessive subject of the neoplatonists, but also the Christian One, God, measure of all things, “fons et origo numerorum”. After all, the origin of the word religion comes from the Latin religare, i.e. to link man (the multiple) with the divine (the One).

[32] Jean Pélerin alias Viator allegedly was in contact with Alberti, Piero della Francesca and could possibly be the “maestro Giovanni Francese” mentioned by Leonardo in his Codex Atlanticus. He was one of the driving forces of the Collège Vosgien, a meeting place for humanists and scientist in Saint-Dié.

[33] Following the despicable “placards” imposed by Charles V on May 8, 1521, any person printing, illustrating or merely reading the bible, was to be considered as a “heretic”.

[34] Dürer wrote to Pirckheimer, on February 7, 1506 : “I have amidst the Italians, good number of excellent friends that forewarn me not to eat or drink with the painters here. Many of these are hostile to me; they copy my works in the churches or elsewhere, and slander them otherwise, arguing that they are not done after the antique style, they can’t be any good.”

[35] While already mastering a good deal of perspective, he writes from Venice, on October 13, 1506 to Pirckheimer : “Then I will travel to Bologna to learn the secret art of perspective that someone proposed me to teach to me. I will stay there eight to ten days before passing over Venice again.”

[36]While Euclid’s method and pedagogy are nothing but a far distant shadow of the great living Greek science, the history of modern science will be the great battle to master and overturn Euclid and to rediscover the lost pre-Euclidean method.

[37] Excerpt of La Géométrie de Dürer, un exercice pour la main et un entraînement pour l’œil », in Alliage, nr.23, 1995. See also Jeanne Peiffer, Dürer géomètre, in Albrecht Dürer, Géomètre, Editions du Seuil, November 1995, Paris, and her contribution to the 2001 conference of Lille La géométrie d’Albrecht Dürer et ses lecteurs during the national day of the National Association of Mathematic teachers of the public education sector. Her contribution, which simple acknowledged Dürer’s contribution to the history of science, was violently criticized by nit picking Professor André Cauty of Bordeaux, scandalized that one could see in Dürer a forerunner of Gaspard Monge.

[38] Jeanne Peiffer, in a footnote, p. 324 of Albrecht Dürer, Géométrie, explains that the only manuscript that interchanged Athens for Delos, was the manuscript of cardinal Bessarion, a manuscript that became part of Regiomontanus library to which Dürer had access.

[39] The neoplatonics of Alexandria were also called School of Athens, since they operated simultaneously out of Alexandria in Egypt and Athens in Greece.

Plotinus (205-270 after B.C.), born and trained in Egypt, was its founder, though essentially active in Rome. His philosophy is seen as “a religiosity that objectifies spiritual realities”. Starting from Plato’s Parmenides, Plotinus develops an idea of the One that is not the many but engenders multiplicity. In the same time, he will be the great architect of a complementarity between Plato, Aristotle and the stoics. In a basically interiorizing approach, Plotinus abandons any commitment to ameliorate the earthly conditions of mankind, while concentrating on the individual will to “penetrate the system, even the principle”. Plotinus thinks that it is in ourselves that we have to learn to discover the spiritual world, since it is “up to the Gods to come to us, and not to me to rise towards them”. To this procession of the One towards the many responds the ascension towards the One, which operates by the work of the soul acting on the soul. This “immanentism” brings Plotinus to despise religious rituals which draw heavy focus on “exteriority”, including the Christian rites.

His follower, Porphyry of Tyre (234-310 BC) will go much further. Starting from an hysterically symbolical reading of Plato, he denounces Christianity. He was followed by Iamblichus (250-330 B.C.). This neoplatonism became so deliciously pagan that emperor Julian l’Apostate tried to use it to replace Christian religion.

The neoplatonic school found a new impulse during the fifth century B.C. with Proclus (412-485) in Athens, where the Academy will be closed by Emperor Justinian in 529. Very much studied by Nicholas of Cusa, translator of Proclus, one should admit that a “melancholic” reading of the neoplatonics became a source of inspiration for Nietzsche (Zoroaster = Zarathoustra) , Léo Strauss, Hanah Arendt and Heidegger.

[40] Ficino, referring to Augustine, makes Trismegistus the first of all theologians: his teachings would have been transmitted successively to Orpheus, to Aglaopheme, to Pythagoras, to Philolaus and finally to Plato. Later, Ficino will place Zoroaster at the head of these prisci theology [first theologians] . At the end he attributes an identical role to Zoroaster and Mercury for the genesis of antique wisdom: Zoroaster taught it to the Persians while Mercury taught it to the Egyptians.

Ficino underlined the prophetic character of Trismegistus writings. He would have predicted “the ruin of ancient religion, the birth of a new faith, the coming of Christ, the Last Judgment, the Resurrection, the glory of the elected and the punishment of the evil”. Ficino’s translation of Trismegistus, printed as early as 1471, was the starting point of a real rebirth of philosophical hermeticism. Hence, it is with a quote of the Asclepius [another writing of Trismegistus] that Pico opens his famous Oratio de hominis dignitate [Oratio on Human Dignity]; and it is through this process, that in 1488, the image of Trismegistus was engraved on the tiles of the cathedral of Sienna, allegedly by Giovanni di Stefano.











Ce qui me tient à coeur

Grands travaux : l’exemple inspirant du « Plan Freycinet »

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Le viaduc ferroviaire de Garabit (15) construit par Eiffel en 1879. Il faudra deux ans pour façonner les pièces métalliques (1450 tonnes) dans les ateliers de Levallois-Perret.

Créer une « plate-forme plus productive »

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Charles de Freycinet (1828-1923).

En 1878, le ministre des travaux publics, l’ingénieur et polytechnicien Charles de Freycinet, proche de Gambetta, lance un ambitieux programme de travaux publics, principalement le parachèvement des voies ferrées, mais aussi la construction de canaux et d’installations portuaires, l’ensemble conçu comme un tout intégré où chaque partie apporte sa contribution.

L’analyse de Freycinet sur les buts de la science économique se résume en une phrase :

Le progrès économique, c’est la plus grande satisfaction pour le moindre effort.

Si l’objectif phare est de donner accès au chemin de fer à tous les Français, il s’agit de favoriser le développement économique du pays par le désenclavement des régions reculées. Les promoteurs du plan veulent également aboutir à un contrôle plus strict de l’État voire au rachat des compagnies de chemins de fer.

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L’analyse de Freycinet sur les buts de la science économique n’est pas sans rappeler la pensée de Leibniz qui a tant inspiré la démarche de Lyndon LaRouche et Jacques Cheminade : « La science économique étant l’étude des causes qui concourent à la satisfaction des besoins matériels de l’homme, le progrès économique peut se résumer d’un mot : c’est la plus grande satisfaction pour le moindre effort. En d’autres termes, il consiste dans l’accroissement continu de la production pour une somme de travail déterminée. Ainsi, rendre son effort de plus en plus efficace, de plus en plus fécond, tel est le véritable problème pour l’économie. Telle est la voie qui le conduit à l’affranchissement dont nous parlions et qui permet d’entrevoir cette vie idéale, de xxx et de lumières, qui est à la fois la plus noble des jouissances et l’accomplissement du plux impérieux des devoirs. On remarquera en quoi le progrès économique, tel que nous le comprenons, diffère de l’idée qui généralement a cours. On considère assez souvent comme étant un progrès une société dans laquelle la richesse augmente. Pour nous, ce signe extérieur ne suffit pas… ». (Page 1 de son projet de livre « Le Progrès économique » de 1887, manuscrit jamais publié)

Pour sa mise en œuvre, le « plan Freycinet » est inscrit dans la loi de Finances et une première loi est votée le 18 mai 1878. Ensuite, il fait l’objet de trois lois promulguées par Jules Grévy, président de la République, à quelques jours d’intervalle :

1. Nouvelles lignes ferroviaires nationales et secondaires

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Poseurs de rail.

La première concerne la construction de 8700 kilomètres de nouvelles voies ferroviaires soit 154 lignes dites d’intérêt général (avec un écartement des voies d’1m43) afin de desservir toutes les sous-préfectures du pays. Leur construction est assurée, soit par les grandes compagnies privées, le coût étant le plus souvent pris en charge par l’État, soit par l’État lui-même. Freycinet est ainsi à l’origine de la compagnie de l’État (loi du 18 mai 1878).

Dans le même temps il s’agit de désenclaver tous les chefs lieux de cantons par des réseaux secondaires (lignes dites « d’intérêt local » avec un écartement des voies d’1 m) construites principalement à l’initiative des conseils généraux. La longueur des ces réseaux départementaux passera de 2187 kilomètres en 1880 à 17 653 km en 1913.

2. L’aménagement du réseau fluvial

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Le pont canal de Briare, construit en 1890.

Dans le domaine de la navigation fluviale le plan Freycinet ambitionne la création d’un réseau national unifié et cohérent de voies navigables, par l’amélioration de 14 600 km de voies existantes et par la mise en service de 1900 km de canaux supplémentaires.

Le plan Freycinet porte les dimensions des écluses à 39 m de long pour 5,20 m de large, afin qu’elles soient franchissables par des péniches de 300 à 350 tonnes. En conséquence, les bateaux au gabarit Freycinet ne doivent pas dépasser 38,5 m sur 5,05 m. Le « gabarit Freycinet » correspond aujourd’hui au gabarit européen de classe I. En France, 5800 km de voies fluviales ont conservés cette taille et en 2011, 23 % du trafic fluvial y transite.

3. La modernisation des ports

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Le port de Bordeaux en 1900.

Au niveau portuaire, Freycinet déplore que :

Les crédits accordés pour ces travaux [la modernisation des ports] n’aient jamais été à la hauteur des besoins et tandis que les Anglais, les Hollandais, les Belges dépensaient sous nos yeux des centaines de millions pour créer ou transformer leurs magnifiques établissements de Liverpool, de Glasgow, d’Amsterdam ou d’Anvers, nous restions toujours fort loin en arrière.

L’originalité du plan Freycinet, au niveau portuaire, recouvre trois aspects : le souci de l’interconnexion, l’étendue et le mode de financement. La modernisation des ports, affirme-t-il :

Est imposée par la transformation du matériel naval, par le développement incessant des chemins de fer et des autres voies de communication, par les besoins de célérité et de régularité qui s’introduisent chaque jour davantage dans les habitudes du commerce et de l’industrie.

Freycinet mettra donc l’accent sur l’amélioration de l’intermodalité, ce qui signifie l’extension des quais, la multiplication des bassins, notamment à flot, l’approfondissement des chenaux, afin que « l’installation générale soit appropriée à la fois aux deux modes de transport qui viennent s’y rencontrer ».

Alors que l’État financera les superstructures, les infrastructures, l’outillage sera à la charge des chambres de commerce ou des particuliers par voie de concession. 116 ports sur 188 sont ainsi modernisés.

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Port de Marseille en 1890. Notez la présence du rail sur le quai.

La longueur utile des quais passe de 140 km en 1879 à 205 km en 1900, une augmentation de 46 % ; le nombre de ports présentant plus de 7 mètres de profondeur s’est élevé de 9 en 1878 à 15 en 1900 ; le tonnage de jauge de navires entrés et sortis a progressé de 64 % entre 1878 et 1898 ; aux mêmes dates, le poids des marchandises importées ou exportées a augmenté de 75 %, passant de 17 à 30 millions de tonnes.

L’abaissement du prix du fret, l’accroissement de la rapidité et de la régularité des transports, le perfectionnement des moyens de manutention sont autant de progrès à enregistrer.

Un plan décennal

Dans son chiffrage initial, largement dépassé au final, le plan prévoyait de consacrer environ 3 milliards de francs aux lignes de chemin de fer, 1 milliard aux canaux et 500 millions aux ports. Le tout était financé par un crédit d’État à 3 %, remboursable en 75 annuités.

Si à l’origine, le « plan Freycinet » aurait du être réalisé en dix ans, la faillite retentissante de l’Union générale en 1882 (cadre du roman L’Argent de Zola) et la crise économique qu’elle engendrera, retarderont sa mise en œuvre.

La crise du crédit public brise l’élan et entraîne à moyen terme le ralentissement considérable du rythme des réalisations. Cet arrêt brutal aura deux conséquences. D’une part, l’allongement des délais de construction provoque une élévation de leurs coûts, et de l’autre, l’abandon prématuré du système de financement imaginé par la loi du 11 juin 1878.

Ainsi, ce n’est qu’en 1914, c’est-à-dire après 36 ans, que l’ensemble du plan arrivera, à quelques détails près, à son stade de réalisation. Entretemps, cette mobilisation des forces productives, par effet d’entrainement, à fait naître le savoir-faire permettant la réalisation de la tour Eiffel ou les écluses du canal de Suez et celui de Panama.

Faute de crédit productif public et de volonté politique réelle, à part quelques miracles accomplis à l’époque De Gaulle/Pompidou, la France n’a jamais connue une initiative de cette ampleur visant à susciter un « choc de productivité » par l’investissement en infrastructures. Quel candidat aura aujourd’hui le courage et la compétence pour défendre un « Nouveau plan Freycinet » ?

Ce qui me tient à coeur

Pourquoi il nous faut un vrai plan Marshall pour le port du Havre

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Terminaux de conteneurs du port 2000 au Havre avec derrière, la « darse de l’Océan ». Relier les deux par une écluse permettrait de décongestionner le port.


Par Karel Vereycken, fondateur d’Agora Erasmus


Les difficultés auxquelles se confronte aujourd’hui le port du Havre ne sont que le symptôme de la dérive de tout un système. Face au danger de voir la situation se dégrader, le candidat présidentiel Jacques Cheminade, dans une déclaration, a affirmé qu’il partageait la colère du Havre et reconnaissait la nécessité d’un effort conséquent d’investissement dans les infrastructures.

Et en guise de réponse au plan stratégique présenté par l’Union maritime et portuaire (UMEP) voici notre analyse et quelques pistes de solution.

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Guillaume Gouffier, seigneur de Bonnivet, amiral de France, né probablement vers 1482, fut l’un des principaux conseillers de François Ier et ami de Léonard de Vinci.
Crédit : Dessin de Jean Clouet

Alors qu’on s’apprête à célébrer ce 7 février le 500e anniversaire de la cité et du port du Havre, le premier port français pour les conteneurs craint « d’être rayé de la carte maritime mondiale » écrit Le Monde.

Dans ses vœux de nouvelle année, le maire LR du Havre Édouard Philippe, a rappelé qu’en 1517, François 1er était devant un choix cornélien : ériger « sa » nouvelle capitale à Romorantin ou répondre aux besoins géostratégiques de son époque en créant un port fortifié dans l’estuaire de la Seine ? S’il n’existe aucune preuve directe que Léonard de Vinci ait été dépêché pour fonder le Havre, c’est à son ami l’amiral Guillaume Gouffier de Bonnevet que le roi confie cette mission.

En tout cas, aujourd’hui, il y a péril en la demeure, martèle Michel Segain, le président de l’Union maritime et portuaire du Havre (UMEP), qui, le 5 janvier, a présenté son « plan stratégique à 2050 » pour éviter le naufrage. Et ce qu’il appelle un « véritable Plan Marshall » a été transmis pour discussion à l’ensemble des candidats à la présidentielle. Enfin, les infrastructures s’invitent au débat !

Car si Le Havre reste le 2e port de commerce français, il perd du terrain par rapport à ceux d’Europe du Nord. En 1995, Le Havre traitait 1 million de conteneurs, Anvers 2 millions, et Rotterdam près de 5 millions. En 2016, le port français a vu passer quelque 2,5 millions de conteneurs. Une progression d’environ 150 % en 21 ans. Cependant, Anvers a, de son côté, annoncé fin décembre avoir franchi le cap des 10 millions, c’est-à-dire une progression de 500 % sur la même période, tandis qu’en 2016 Rotterdam dépasse largement les 12 millions de conteneurs par an, c’est-à-dire 5 fois plus que Le Havre.

« La question de la marginalisation du Havre est posée », constate le géographe Antoine Frémont, directeur de recherche à l’Institut français des sciences et technologies des transports, de l’aménagement et des réseaux. Essayons de comprendre pourquoi et trouvons les remèdes que l’on pourrait y apporter.

Un peu d’histoire

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Le port du Havre en 1536.

Quand, le 7 février 1517, le roi François 1er ordonne la création du Havre pour « tenir en sûreté les navires et vaisseaux de nos sujets naviguant sur la mer océane », il répond à un double souci : d’une part la volonté de développer un établissement portuaire apte à répondre aux nouvelles perspectives du commerce international, transatlantique notamment ; d’autre part renforcer les moyens de défense de la région de l’estuaire de la Seine, très malmenée depuis environ 200 ans par les attaques et occupations anglaises.

Toutefois, le site choisi est ingrat : c’est une étendue formée par la conjonction de cordons littoraux de sables et galets transportés par les houles et de dépôts d’alluvions fines, parcourus de canaux. Ces mêmes alluvions dont l’envahissement régulier sous l’action des marées n’a pas permis la survie des deux ports d’Harfleur et Leure, immédiatement voisins dans le temps et dans l’espace.

Le programme des premiers aménagements, dont les objectifs restent d’une actualité brûlante pour aujourd’hui, comprennent :

  • la création d’un pertuis d’entrée à travers le cordon de galets pour un accès aux criques existantes qui constituaient l’embryon de l’avant-port et du futur bassin du Roy ;
  • la construction d’un quai de 64 m de longueur, de faible hauteur ;
  • un canal reliant le nouveau port à Harfleur et de là, à la Seine.

Commencés en avril 1517, les travaux sont achevés en 1524, à l’exception du canal qui ne sera réalisé qu’au siècle suivant. Au cours du XVIe siècle se sont développées une enceinte fortifiée et une première citadelle. Ensuite, c’est au cours du XVIIe siècle que de nouveaux aménagements sont apportés sous l’impulsion de Richelieu et de Colbert. Une nouvelle citadelle est tout d’abord substituée à la première en 1627, dans la partie Est du port. Dans le bassin du Roy, toujours réservé à la Marine Royale, de nouveaux quais sont construits en maçonnerie ; le pertuis d’accès est équipé d’une écluse en 1667-69. Un arsenal y est créé en 1669. On y construira plusieurs centaines de navires jusqu’en 1823.

Colbert et Vauban

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Le Canal Vauban reliant Le Havre à Harfleur et ensuite à la Seine.

Enfin, c’est en 1669 que Colbert et Vauban inaugurent le canal reliant le port du Havre et le port d’Harfleur. Il doit contribuer à l’assainissement des emprises traversées, à l’alimentation des bassins de chasse et permettre l’implantation d’industries desservies par voie d’eau.

Le « canal Vauban » sera remplacé, dans le cadre du Plan Freycinet en 1887, par le canal de Tancarville de 25 km qui permet aux marchandises en direction de Paris d’éviter l’estuaire de la Seine. Venu compléter le chemin de fer arrivé au Havre en 1847, le canal assure un accès à la Seine et donc une articulation avec l’hinterland (l’arrière-pays, c’est-à-dire aussi bien Rouen et Paris sur la Seine que l’Oise).

Ensuite, c’est à la veille de la Révolution qu’avec le plan Lamandé (1787) une nouvelle extension du port est entreprise. Vers 1800, non sans raisons, le premier consul Bonaparte considère Le Havre comme « le port de Paris » et affirme que Paris, Rouen et Le Havre ne forment « qu’une seule ville dont la Seine est la grande rue ».

Jusqu’à la fin du XVIIIe siècle, Le Havre servira des objectifs militaires nationaux et son activité portuaire et marchande ne prendra son élan qu’au gré du développement du port de Rouen où s’organise le commerce des grains : avec le déclin des ports d’Harfleur et de Leure, les armateurs et négociants rouennais sont de plus en plus tributaires d’un avant–port sur l’estuaire, où les navires de plus de 180 tonneaux ne pouvant remonter la Seine peuvent transborder leurs marchandises.

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De 1825 à 1865, la capacité moyenne des navires a plus que doublée, avec l’apparition dès 1816 de petits navires à vapeur. Du café, du cacao, du bois, des peaux et du sucre y arrivent du Brésil et des colonies françaises. Premier port baleinier en 1825, on y arme également à la pêche à la morue à Terre-Neuve et durant les années 1815-1850, une quinzaine de négociants persistent à armer à la traite négrière alors qu’elle était illégale.

À la fin du XIXe siècle, le commerce du Havre repose sur les céréales dont le riz, le charbon, les bois pour la construction et l’ébénisterie, les extraits tinctoriaux, le coton, le café, les huiles de pétrole, les oléagineux, tissus de coton et de soie, les métaux dont le cuivre et le nickel, le sucre, le tabac, le cacao, la laine, le poivre, le caoutchouc et les cuirs. Chaque filière amènera sa main d’œuvre spécialisée, ses équipements et ses besoins logistiques. Si le premier bassin aux pétroles est ouvert en 1926, les hydrocarbures représenteront 64 % des importations du port en 1938.

Comme le disent fièrement certains dockers du Havre aujourd’hui : « on alimente toute la France ! »

Les causes du déclin

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Dans un article précédent, nous avons résumé les causes plus générales du déclin des ports français mises en lumière par les derniers rapports parlementaires : absence de vision, cacophonie administrative, désengagement financier de l’État, sous-investissement chronique dans les infrastructures de transport ferroviaires et fluviales, contraintes normatives absurdes, etc. Elles montrent bien que ce qui inquiète, n’est pas ce que font « les autres » (Anvers, Rotterdam, Hambourg, Barcelone, etc.), mais ce que « nous » ne faisons pas.

Après avoir fait le constat que « pour les conteneurs, le Port d’Anvers est aujourd’hui le premier port alimentant Paris », le président de l’UMEP regrette que soit lancée la construction du Canal Seine Nord Europe, projet qu’il estime avoir été imposé par l’action de puissants lobbies opérants à Bruxelles.

Comme d’autres professionnels, il craint que, sans investissements majeurs dans les équipements portuaires du Havre, le chantier d’un canal de 107 km reliant le bassin de la Seine avec celui de l’Escaut, pose immédiatement « le risque majeur de voir les volumes de conteneurs siphonnés par les ports du Nord » et « profitera majoritairement à nos concurrents belges et hollandais ».

Si en 1972 Le Havre inaugurait l’écluse François 1er (voir carte ci-dessous), à l’époque la plus grande du monde. L’ouvrage, long de 400 mètres et large de 67 mètres, relie la darse de l’océan, le grand canal, le canal Bossière et dessert le centre roulier, ainsi que l’ensemble de la zone industrielle du Havre. Aujourd’hui, suite à un investissement de 382 millions d’euros, c’est une écluse d’Anvers qui tient le record.

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Carte actuelle du port du Havre. En bleu pâle, le projet de raccordement du Grand canal avec le canal de Tancarville. (cliquer pour aggrandir)

Triumvirat et massification

Techniquement, profits obligent, nous sommes devant la massification à l’extrême de la charge. Rêvant de lendemains qui chantent, les armateurs se sont lancés dans une course folle au gigantisme. La taille des porte-conteneurs a doublé en dix ans ! Une stratégie délibérée qui a permis de réduire fortement les coûts de transport. « De loin, tous les gros-porteurs se ressemblent, mais il y a 20 à 30 % de différence de coûts entre un bateau de 14 000 conteneurs et un autre de 18 000 », confie un connaisseur. Ainsi, faire venir aujourd’hui un téléviseur depuis la Chine ne coûte en moyenne que 5 dollars, car les bateaux toujours plus gros créent des économies d’échelle considérables.

Or, avec le « Projet 2000 », Le Havre s’est doté d’un terminal de conteneurs en mer profonde capable d’accueillir des porte-conteneurs de 400 mètres de long de type « post-panamax ». L’un d’eux, le CMA CGM Bougainville est long de 398 mètres (à titre de comparaison : la tour Eiffel fait 313 mètres) pour 54 mètres de large : sa surface est équivalente à environ celle de quatre terrains de football. Il peut contenir 17 722 conteneurs.

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MSC Oscar, le plus grand porte-conteneur du monde fréquente sans problème le port du Havre.
Crédit : meretmarine

Cependant, comme le note l’UMEP, « pour assurer un taux de remplissage de leurs géants des mers, les armateurs poursuivent leur concentration au sein d’un nombre d’alliances de plus en plus restreint. Ainsi, entre l’Asie et l’Europe, ils ont articulé leurs schémas opérationnels sous la forme de 3 grandes alliances, qui leur permettent de charger les conteneurs sur les navires de leurs partenaires ».

Au niveau du trafic des conteneurs, l’alliance 2M des deux plus grand armateurs Maersk (15,4 %) et l’italo-suisse MSC (13,5 %) domine. Juste derrière, Ocean Alliance où l’on retrouve le français CMA CGM (11,3 %) allié au chinois Cosco.

Dans les faits, c’est ce triumvirat de tête qui impose sa loi et choisit les ports dans lesquels s’arrêteront leurs porte-conteneurs de taille mammouth. Et c’est à chaque port d’attirer les puissants !

Seulement, comme le souligne le plan stratégique de l’UMEP, « cette concentration des mouvements sur un même espace portuaire oblige (…) à l’accroissement des parts modales ferroviaire et fluviale pour garantir fluidité et respect de l’environnement ». Or, à ce jour, c’est 87 % des mouvements entrée/sortie du port du Havre qui passent par le mode routier créant des énormes goulots d’étranglement.

Sans cette écluse, tout s’écroule !

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Sur ce dessin visualisant le projet Port 2000 figure le chenal et l’écluse (en bas), jamais construits, reliant les terminaux de conteneurs de Port 2000 à la Darse de l’Océan (à droite) reliée au canal de Tancarville.

Pour le fluvial, souligne le plan stratégique de l’UMEP, le problème est que « le Port du Havre et ses principaux terminaux à conteneurs situés sur Port 2000 ne sont pas reliés à la Seine et donc pas accessibles aux transports fluviaux classiques et notamment aux [barges] pousseurs ».

Pourquoi ce vice de fabrication ? « Le canal reliant le bassin de la Darse de l’Océan [voir carte] à Port 2000 n’a jamais vu le jour, alors qu’il était demandé par les opérateurs de manutention dès la conception de Port 2000 et qu’il avait été inscrit dans le projet initial.[voir dessin du projet] »

En 2006, suite à l’inauguration de Port 2000, Christine Leroy, écrivant dans L’Usine Nouvelle, disait tout haut ce que tout le monde savait et ce qui s’avère malheureusement exact aujourd’hui : « Sans cette écluse, tout s’écroule » :

Le ministre Dominique Perben a dévoilé son dimensionnement : l’écluse de Port 2000 mesurera 135 mètres sur 15,5 mètres. Elle laissera passer simultanément deux barges ou un navire fluvial côtier de cinq conteneurs de front, l’équivalent de 250 semi-remorques d’un seul coup ! Il ne reste plus qu’à trouver les financements correspondants. Quelque 166 millions d’euros à réunir… Le ministre a chargé officiellement le préfet de la région Haute-Normandie ‘de trouver le maître d’ouvrage le mieux adapté et de faire des propositions pour son financement’. Le port du Havre joue gros. (…) Sans écluse, tout s’écroule. ‘Faute de passage entre le canal de Tancarville et les nouveaux quais, des centaines de milliers de conteneurs devront être transférés sur le réseau routier déjà congestionné entre Le Havre et Paris. De quoi décourager les compagnies maritimes, souvent soumises à la loi du juste-à-temps, de faire halte à Port 2000’, souligne-t-on au sein de l’AUTF (Association des utilisateurs du transport de fret).

Neuf ans plus tard, 30 décembre 2015, le même journal relève que :

Dominique Perben, ministre des transports avait bien annoncé en 2006 la construction d’une écluse à grand gabarit. Mais celle-ci jugée trop chère, avec un coût estimé de 166 millions d’euros, n’a jamais vu le jour. Quant au système de ‘chatière’ [mécanisme d’ouverture dans la digue Sud du port donnant, à tout type de navire fluvio-maritime et par tout temps, l’accès permanent aux terminaux] (Carte), qui coûterait environ 100 millions d’euros, permettant à des barges fluviales d’accéder aux terminaux de port 2000 par tout temps, il n’est qu’à l’étude.

Au niveau fluvial

Si nous partageons avec l’UMEP l’avis que cette écluse est de la plus haute importance, nous nous permettons d’y rajouter un autre projet bien connu qui nous semble de nature à compléter l’ensemble.

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Félicitons-nous d’abord qu’un programme de travaux de modernisation des deux écluses de Tancarville (Carte) a été initié fin 2015 et prévu d’ici 2019, d’un montant de 15 millions d’euros.

Ces écluses, qui assurent la jonction entre la Seine et le canal de Tancarville pour rejoindre le port du Havre, comptent environ 5000 passages annuels.

Le chantier consiste d’abord à rénover l’ancienne écluse (qui date de 1890 et était en arrêt depuis deux ans…), puis la nouvelle écluse, datant de 1976, dont les derniers arrêts remontent à une quinzaine d’années.

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À cela, à notre avis, pour aller au-delà dans le sens de la fluidification des trafics fluviaux, il faudrait creuser la boucle permettant de relier le « grand canal du Havre » (Carte) [Qui se termine, pour l’instant, dans un cul-de-sac] au canal de Tancarville.

A cela s’ajoute le fait que, avant même le lancement des travaux pour Port 2000, toute la zone industrialo-portuaire du Havre fut cadenassé par le décret n°97-1329 du 30 décembre 1997 signé Lionel Jospin et Dominique Voynet faisant de l’estuaire de la Seine une réserve naturelle… Bravo les artistes !

Dépeçage du fret ferroviaire

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Alors que nos responsables portuaires n’ont cessé de réclamer des infrastructures de fret ferroviaire pour pouvoir organiser un transport combiné et intermodal, c’est bien la SNCF et ceux qui en tiennent les rênes, c’est-à-dire les différents gouvernements de droite et de gauche, que refusent de relever le défi. Privé de financements d’État à long terme et à bas taux, comme cela était possible avant le changement du statut de la Banque de France en 1973, la SNCF s’est endettée à des taux usuraires notamment pour lancer le réseau TGV.

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Depuis, pour payer les intérêts, tout les moyens sont bon pour faire du cash y compris la suppression des lignes non-rentables et le développement du transport routier par des filiales de la SNCF (Geodis, Géodis Calberson, c’est-à-dire le premier opérateur de messagerie et de transport express en France, etc.).

Vient ensuite l’ouverture à la concurrence, un désastre orchestré par la Commission européenne. L’État français, juge-t-elle, subventionne beaucoup trop Fret SNCF (la filiale marchandises de la SNCF, depuis la séparation des activités décidée dans les années 90 précisément pour préparer l’ouverture à la concurrence), ce qui barre la route aux fameux opérateurs privés. Puisque le monopole persiste, il s’agit d’une grave entrave à la concurrence !

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Comme le précise un article excellent d’Antoine Sturel posté sur le site alternatif Le vent se lève :

En 2001, le fret ferroviaire est structurellement déficitaire en raison de politiques orientées vers la route depuis des décennies, mais reste relativement dynamique avec des volumes proches des plus hauts historiques. En fait, le fret est un secteur qui coûte de l’argent à l’État (les routes n’en coûtent-elles pas ?) mais permet d’éviter de nombreux camions sur la route (à l’époque 30 % du trafic routier) et les nuisances qu’ils entraînent. Il est aussi une forme de subvention à un réseau dense de petites industries souvent anciennes qui sont reliées par des « embranchements », parfois depuis plus d’un siècle. Souvent, leur destin est lié à celui de cette connexion au réseau ferré, comme le site de la Seita à Carquefou ou les eaux du Mont d’Or en Auvergne.

Tout ceci est bien éloigné des préoccupations de la commission et de l’exécutif de l’époque : la saignée a été décidée et elle doit avoir lieu. Des pans considérables de l’activité sont stoppés net, des services trop peu rentables (trains courts) aux petites lignes trop chères à conserver. La filiale de transport de colis SERNAM est privatisée. C’est le plan Véron. Ses conséquences pour Fret SNCF vont s’avérer catastrophiques car des investissements massifs sont déjà en cours, et que la sous-utilisation du réseau et du matériel qui découle du plan se révèle ruineuse. Le trafic de Fret SNCF, en monopole, chute alors de 30 % entre 2001 et 2006, et les pertes deviennent abyssales.

Entre 2001 et 2014,

La part modale du fret ferroviaire dans le transport de marchandises en France est passée dans le même temps de 17% à 9%, ce qui équivaut à des dizaines de milliers de camions en plus chaque année. 25000 emplois ont été supprimés à la SNCF en dix ans, la SERNAM a abandonné complètement le rail pour la route et a fait faillite en 2012, avec 1500 emplois détruits depuis sa privatisation.

Dépeçage du transport routier

Si vous croyez que la mort du fret ferroviaire allait faire prospérer le transport routier, vous n’avez rien compris de la vraie nature de la finance folle qui nous dévore.

Car :

Tout en démantelant le transport ferré, les politiques européennes de déréglementation ont également dépecé le transport routier français de marchandises. Libéralisé à son tour d’insoutenables entraves à la concurrence, le transport routier sous pavillon français a vu son volume de trafic décrocher d’une base 100 en 2007 à 73 en 2015. De plus, la part de marché du transport français en Europe est laminée, autrefois très largement leader (proche de 50%), le camion français sur les routes européennes a quasiment disparu.

Que s’est-il passé ? La réglementation européenne a autorisé le cabotage des transporteurs étrangers sur le sol français. En clair un camion polonais peut charger et décharger en France en s’affranchissant des règles et cotisations sociales françaises pendant 7 jours avant de devoir repasser par la Pologne (la Pologne a fait du transport routier international sa spécialité industrielle en quelques années). En parallèle, la commission européenne encourage les gros acteurs français du secteur à faire appel aux travailleurs détachés, là encore affranchis du régime social français, pour maintenir leurs marges.

Les géants du secteur, qui ne sont jamais très loin des décisions bruxelloises, restent donc assez discrets car ils tirent sournoisement profit de la situation. L’émission d’Élise Lucet, Cash Investigation, a montré comment le transporteur GEODIS, filiale de la SNCF, supprimait des chauffeurs en France en ouvrant parallèlement des filiales en Roumanie, vouées à venir livrer des clients… français. Une délocalisation qui ne dit pas son nom. (…) Le résultat de ces politiques odieuses : des faillites quatre fois supérieures à la moyenne chez les transporteurs français, c’est à dire une hécatombe chez les plus petits d’entre eux ; une fraude sociale endémique et plus de 20 000 emplois supprimés en quelques années. Pourtant, l’explication donnée par nos gouvernants repose toujours sur un coût du travail trop élevé et un manque de compétitivité des entreprises françaises.

On supprime les bus qui remplacent les trains…

Et ce n’est pas terminé ! La prochaine étape ne concerne plus les marchandises, c’est l’ouverture à la concurrence du transport ferroviaire de passagers. La SNCF s’y prépare en ayant de plus en plus recours au car en substitution des trains sur les petites lignes, préfigurant leur fermeture. La loi Macron, promulguée à l’été 2015, participe également de cette dynamique. Elle est une libéralisation du transport de passagers par le transfert du rail vers la route en ouvrant des lignes de car privées en parallèle de lignes ferroviaires, ce que la réglementation interdisait jadis.

Cela a eu pour conséquence immédiate la fermeture de nouvelles lignes de chemin de fer dans le Massif central en 2016. Le bilan en terme de créations d’emplois se révèle très médiocre, et il n’aura pas fallu attendre plus d’un an pour voir apparaître les premiers plans sociaux, avec la faillite de Mégabus. De plus, les prix sont en très forte augmentation et les compagnies ont déjà suspendu leurs liaisons les moins rentables. C’est ainsi qu’à Guéret, dans la Creuse, le bus qui a d’abord chassé le train est aujourd’hui, faute de rentabilité, supprimé à son tour….

Fret ferroviaire : baisse en France, hausse en Allemagne

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Le fret n’a pas besoin de cette contre-publicité tant il est affaibli en France. C’est le seul pays d’Europe occidentale où il se soit ainsi effondré en une quinzaine d’années. Entre 2000 et 2013, le trafic a chuté de plus de 42 % en tonnes/kilomètres (tkm). Aujourd’hui, près de 90 % du transport de marchandises en France passe par la route.

Cette situation a forcément contribué à affaiblir l’attrait du Havre par rapport à ses concurrents d’Europe du Nord. Lorsque les modes fluviaux et ferroviaires confondus représentent 15 % des modes d’acheminement sur Haropa (Ports du Havre, Rouen et Paris), ils peuvent monter jusqu’à 30 % sur les ports nord-européens.

Il existe plusieurs explications, précise un expert. Tout d’abord, le mode routier est un mode performant et plus souple. Pour le ferroviaire, le sujet est plus complexe. Il y a la qualité des sillons [plages horaires vendus par la SNCF pour faire circuler des trains] qui entre en jeu, mais aussi la capacité des trains de fret à pouvoir circuler. Pour réserver un sillon par exemple, il faut s’y prendre à l’avance car le service voyageur de la SNCF passe toujours avant le fret. Et ce service voyageur est très dense sur l’Île-de-France. Les travaux de rénovation des voies ferrées se font souvent la nuit, en dehors des heures de passage des trains de voyageurs, à une heure où sont censés circuler les trains de fret. Là encore ça pose problème… Le système est à la fois rigide et congestionné. Le fret ferroviaire, c’est un peu le parent pauvre en France.

En 2007, près du quart du fret ferroviaire de l’UE est à mettre à l’actif de l’Allemagne : 107 milliards de tkm sur les 395 milliards de tkm dans l’UE recensés en 2006. L’Allemagne se place ainsi au premier rang devant la Pologne (44,3 Mrd de tkm) et la France (40,9 Mrd de tkm).

« Le transport de marchandises et la logistique constituent une base importante de notre prospérité, mais dont la portée est rarement estimée à sa juste valeur », précisait en 2008 le ministère allemand des Transports dans son livre blanc sur le trafic des marchandises et la logistique. Cette dernière est en effet l’activité sur laquelle repose l’ensemble de la structure économique allemande. Selon les estimations du groupe de travail « Technologies des services de Logistique » (ATL) de l’Institut Fraunhofer qui a collecté les données éparses et partielles à diverses sources, ce secteur se situe en 3e position en termes de chiffre d’affaires dans la structure économique de l’Allemagne, au même rang que la construction mécanique (170 M€ en 2004) et après l’industrie automobile (285 M€) et le secteur de la santé (250 M€).

Ainsi, alors qu’on l’a abandonné en France, en Allemagne ce secteur génère 2,5 millions d’emplois directs, auxquels il faut ajouter un demi-million d’emplois indirects.

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Jean-Louis Le Yondre, le président du Syndicat des transitaires et commissionnaires en douane du Havre, s’interroge sur la capacité de la SNCF à « modifier son organisation pour répondre au marché ». Celle-ci est impliquée dans la rénovation de la ligne de fret ferroviaire Le Havre-Paris, dite « ligne Serqueux-Gisors » [permettant de contourner Rouen et le centre de Paris], ligne qu’elle vient d’aménager pour les TER…

Et lorsque les officiels du Havre ont interpellé François Hollande, en déplacement au Havre le 6 octobre, sur la question, le chef de l’Etat a cyniquement répondu : « Il faut que la SNCF fasse son travail. »

À sa décharge, le projet de modernisation de Serqueux-Gisors, que le port du Havre réclame depuis plus de quinze ans, est bloqué du fait de la mobilisation des communes du Val-d’Oise opposées à une intensification du trafic. L’enquête publique qui aurait dû débuter en septembre 2016 a été repoussée, le préfet du Val-d’Oise n’ayant pas signé l’arrêté d’ouverture d’enquête publique…

Il est évident pour nous que pour parer à l’immédiat, l’aménagement de cette ligne est d’une extrême urgence. À terme, c’est la « séparation des flux » (voyageurs et marchandises) qu’il faut mettre en œuvre.

Le projet de l’UMEP

Les solutions avancées par le projet stratégique de l’UMEP se déclinent en trois volets :

  • Phase 1 : à court terme : 850 millions € pour en priorité « la chatière », l’électrification du tronçon Serqueux-Gisors et l’achèvement des postes 11 et 12 de port 2000 ;
  • Phase 2 : à moyen terme : 1,743 milliard € pour l’extension de la ligne de fret ferroviaire au nord d’Amiens direction Allemagne ; extension de Port 2000 ; refonte du Port intérieur et réalisation du prolongement du Grand Canal ;
  • Phase 3 : à long terme : 10 à 15 milliards pour la réalisation (par la SNCF) de la Ligne Nouvelle Paris Normandie pour les voyageurs [permettant ainsi de libérer les voies anciennes pour le fret ferroviaire].

Ce que nous en pensons ? Si nous sommes favorables à la réalisation de la chatière (100 Mio€) et à l’électrification du tronçon Serqueux-Gisors que comprend la phase 1, nous pensons qu’on doit en même temps entreprendre la réalisation de la fameuse écluse (166 millions) reliant la Darse de l’Océan avec le Port 2000. Ne pas la faire, c’est de se priver de la solution la plus efficace.

La phase 2 se justifie pleinement par rapport à tous ce que nous venons d’aborder sous condition que le Canal de Tancarville et ses écluses puissent réellement fonctionner comme un canal à grand gabarit performant.

Pour la phase 3, nous pensons qu’il existe une alternative crédible. Il faudrait immédiatement financer une étude de faisabilité d’une ligne aérotrain nouvelle génération reliant Paris au Havre en reprenant les études déjà réalisées sur ce trajet par les équipes de l’ingénieur Jean Bertin. Étant donné que l’on pourrait pour une bonne partie l’ériger sur pylônes sur la berme centrale de l’autoroute A13, son coût sera au moins cinq fois inférieur à la LNPN que propose la SNCF.

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On aurait pu y penser avant : la construction d’une voie d’aérotrain nouvelle génération sur pylônes, reliant en moins d’une heure Le Havre et Paris, permettrait de libérer les voies ferroviaires classiques pour le fret.

Avec le recul, on constate l’énorme erreur qu’a constituée l’abandon de l’aérotrain. En effet, en faisant appel à cette technologie révolutionnaire, la SNCF aurait pu reconvertir une partie de son réseau classique en réseau de fret et prendre de l’avance sur le reste du monde…

Illusion européenne

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Quant à l’ambition de l’UMEP de pouvoir obtenir des financements européens pour son plan (315 M€ de prêts bonifiés du Fonds Juncker, Mécanisme pour l’interconnexion en Europe (MEI, 33,2 M€), vu la faillite morale, économique et financière des institutions européennes et de la monnaie unique, nous pensons qu’il est illusoire de penser pouvoir compter dessus.

Nous avons détaillé ailleurs de quelle façon la réforme du crédit et du système bancaire que préconise le candidat Jacques Cheminade peut nous libérer de cette occupation financière qui, en le privant des investissements essentiels, empêche le port du Havre de se projeter avec sérénité dans l’avenir.

À nous de ressusciter ensemble une volonté politique en faveur d’une politique qui a fait ses preuves sous François 1er, le cardinal de Richelieu, Jean-Baptiste Colbert et Charles de Freycinet lorsqu’ils ont mis le crédit et l’argent au service, non pas des bulles spéculatives, mais au service d’une économie réelle et en particulier des grands projets d’infrastructures de génie civil.

Connaitre son adversaire

Neo-Platonism and Huxley’s « Doors of Perception »

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Aldous Huxley.


By Karel Vereycken, Founder Agora Erasmus


In 1954, British novelist Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) wrote his book, The doors of perception. There he details his experience with the hallucinogenic drug mescaline, originally obtained from peyote, the root of a Mexican cactus. Officially, Huxley was brought into drug experiences after discovering the research of British born psychiatrist Dr Humphrey Osmond (1917-2004).

Osmond, a personal protégé of Allan Dulles and a key operator for the CIA’s MK-Ultra-project, advocated the use of mescaline to simulate schizophrenia on doctors involved in the treatment of mental illness and gave LSD to architects in the hope that the drug would sensitize them to the spiritual needs of psychotics…

Another friend and collaborator of Huxley and Osmond was Dr. Louis Jollyon West, later a director of the “anti-cult” organization called the American Family Foundation. West killed and elephant by giving him LSD.

Huxley wrote that “In spite of seventy years of mescaline research, the psychological material at his disposal was still absurdly inadequate, and he was anxious to add to it. I was on the spot and willing, indeed eager, to become a guinea pig”. Huxley did so and was interrogated on a large variety of subjects, notably on space, time, color, poetry and music while drugged. All conversations were recorded on a dictating machine.

Already before, Osmond and Huxley believed, as any person brainwashed into radical empiricism, that all knowledge derived exclusively from experience. The logical conclusion from that axiom is that knowledge simply cannot be communicated:

“Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies – all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes”.

So, asks Huxley:

“How can the sane get to know what it feels like to be mad? Or, short of being born again as a visionary, a medium, or a musical genius, how can we ever visit the worlds which, to Blake, to Swedenborg, to Johann Sebastian Bach, were home?”

As we see here, Huxley shared the convictions of Ficino, Aristotle and Agrippa of Nettesheim, for whom melancholy and madness were the essential characteristics of all true genius. Huxley had already vastly explored the subject of “Acedia” (sloth, or literally “without-care”) in his book “On the Margin” (1948), noting the fact that melancholy had first evolved from a sin towards a sickness, to become at the Renaissance the symbol of genius trough Ficino’s dialectical « neo-platonic » tactics.

But, even if Osmond feared to be accused to be “the man that drove Aldous Huxley mad”, the latter took his pill of mescaline. Huxley reported:

“I was not looking now at an unusual flower arrangement. It was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation –the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.

’Is it agreeable?’ somebody asked.

‘Neither agreeable nor disagreeable,’ I answered. ‘it just is.’


Through the annihilation of the sovereign power of the individual, there is no more good or bad, no more agreeable or disagreeable, things just are. Huxley, clearly sharing the oligarchy’s hatred of real Platonism then attacks Plato, which he treats as a poor fool, for unifying being with becoming and with idea.


« Istigheit –wasn’t that the word Meister Eckhart liked to use? “Is-ness.” The being of Platonic philosophy –except that Plato seems to have made the enormous, the grotesque mistake of separating Being from becoming and identifying it with the mathematical abstraction of the Idea. He could never, poor fellow, have seen a bunch of flowers shining with their own inner light…”


William Blake

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William Blake


In reality Huxley thought succeeding what visionary mystics had accomplished without chemicals. Huxley admired the unbridled imagination of the prolific 18th century esoteric nutcase, the painter and poet William Blake (1757-1827), who became Huxley’s alter ego. Blake had no need to take drugs to have his imagination at work. His wife Catherine once told visitors that she had “very little of Blake’s company; he is always in Paradise”

The symbol-minded Blake believed he was living in the end days, and that the American and French revolutions were the purifying violence that was prophesized in the Bible as the prelude to a new heaven on earth. Blake considered Dante’s Divine Comedy as too cruel and thought that Dante took pleasure in casting his enemies in the torments of hell. Blake therefore wanted to “correct” Dante’s errors. On the back of one of his watercolors, Blake wrote that where “Dante saw Devils where I see none – I see only Good”. He believed heaven and hell were purely mental states that we experienced subjectively.

For Blake, in a ridiculous caricature of Plato, the spiritual journey begins in our tomb or grave in this world, and then ascends through a series of experiences straight out of the Purgatory. The work of the French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) and his Gates of Hell, with the famous melancholic Thinker [originally the poet] sitting in front of them, are largely inspired by Blake’s symbolism.

Blake concentrated on trying to paint that what was eternal, and, as one biographer wrote:

“what was eternal did not reside in the features of a face or in the details of the moment or in any particular vista before the eyes. In fact, he felt that to paint the world visible to the senses would only encourage us to continue to freeze our experience on the lower level perceptible to our senses. But he also believed that it was only through this world –through the sunflower or the grain of sand or whatever—that we could see this informing world, this active world, beyond the world of our senses once, as he put it, the doors of perception were cleansed and we could see the things of our senses as they were in essence—that is, infinite and eternal.”

This is precisely what Huxley thought of getting when taking the drug mescaline. In a couplet that Huxley sent to Osmond he suggested to call the hallucinogenic drugs phanerothymes: “To make this world sublime/Take half a Gramme of phanerothyme”. Osmond found the label too stupid and suggested “psychedelic”: “To fathom hell or soar angelic/Just take a pinch of psychedelic.”

From Dürer to Jim Morrison

William Blake possessed a great number of engravings among which Albrecht Dürer’s “Melencolia I”, the only print he dearly kept with him when he sold his entire collection to survive under extreme poverty. Blake mistakenly considered Dürer as an initiate of occult science, capable of opening the doors of perception.

The sad irony is the fact that indeed, Dürer’s name is thought to be derived from the German translation of the Hungarian name Ajto, Thür [door].

As we have demonstrated the case in the preceding article, Dürer’s engraving poses the daring platonic challenge of going beyond mere sense-perception. But Dürer’s eyes, as those of Cusa, are not the “eyes of the flesh”, but “the eyes of the mind”, capable of joyfully discovering and communicating legitimate processes of transformation that increase man’s power over the universe for the benefit of mankind, processes totally the opposite of the “eternal” abstract essences to be experienced by ecstatic or chemically whipped up super-senses.

Huxley’s title for his book The Doors of Perception was directly taken from Blake’s pseudo-Platonic babblings (out of Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, plate 14:

The ancient tradition that the world will be consumed in fire at the end of six thousand years is true, as I have heard from Hell. For the cherub with his flaming sword is hereby commanded to leave his guard at the tree of life, and when he does, the whole creation will be consumed and appear infinite and holy whereas it now appears finite & corrupt. This will come to pass by an improvement of sensual enjoyment (emphasis added).

But first the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul is to be expunged; this I shall do, by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives [etching], which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid. If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. (emphasis added) For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narow chinks of his cavern”.).


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Huxley’s Doors of perception became a bible for the generation of Timothy Leary and Alan Watts. Their mind-expanding, chemically altered states, promoted by Allan Dulles’ Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), “made drug tripping mandatory for most intellectuals and the generation of youths who identified themselves as hippies”. Huxley wondered “maybe this world is another planet’s hell”, so for him, leaving didn’t seem a big deal. “But the man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the man who went out.”

While Huxley injected himself a doses of LSD on his deathbed in 1963, Jim Morrison, who died from an overdose, unsurprisingly named his rock band The Doors after Huxley’s book. As many brainwashed young adults killed through this cultural warfare operation, he, as so many of the baby boomer generation, went through the window but never returned.

Connaitre son adversaire

Leopold Kohr’s European blueprint for a fascist world government

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A map of Europe designed by Wesselink at the request of beer magnate Freddy Heineken breaking up Europe into a myriad of micro-states of about 5 million.


By Karel Vereycken, founder Agora Erasmus



If I would tell you: there exists a fascist conspiracy to wipe France and Germany of the map, few of you would take me serious. First, the idea of a “conspiracy” is not politically correct and the word “fascist” is always excessive. Our movement has always been very reluctant towards notions that imply such intellectual laziness represented by conspiracy theorists. In stead of investigating real chains of causality shedding light on facts and events, the latter are too easily satisfied with simplistic explanations.

But the passages I just discovered of the “Breakup of Nations”, a book written in 1945 and published in 1957 by Leopold Kohr have altered my judgment since they go far beyond anything I knew so far.

Hardly known in France, this economist and political theoretician of Austrian descent, develops in his book why he thinks large nations should be shopped up and his strategy to succeed for doing so.

With the distance of time, one could argue that Kohr made only one error, when he wondered if his plans would ever be realized and answers with “No! It will not be done!”

However, it has to be observed that since fifty years, before our eyes, day by day, and step by step, Kohrs policy is half secretly sneaked into reality and the tragic-comic break-up of Belgium, a country that became laughing stock worldwide, risks to turn out a decisive phase in a world program that qualifies for fascism.

Enter Leopold Kohr

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Kohr is born in 1909 close to Salzburg, Austria and dies in 1994. With a degree in political sciences if Vienna, he flees the Nazis and enters the London School of Economics at a time another Austrian, Friedrich von Hayek crystallizes opposition towards the school’s director Lord Beveridge, a follower of the Webbs, accused to be “to social”. One of Kohr’s teachers and inspirers is the famous Henry Calvert Simons, the economist that assisted at the founding of the Mount Pelerin Society in Switzerland and will take the charge in Chicago to breed the school of monetarism under the leadership of his pupil Milton Friedman, later an advisor to both Margaret Thatcher and Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

During the Spanish civil war, Kohr works as a freelance correspondent for The New York Times and earns his reputation as an anarchist fighting both totalitarian fascism and communism. He shares the office of Hemingway and gets acquainted with a certain Eric Blair, better known to the world as George Orwell, a former employee of the British imperial police in Burma and a proven asset and spy for the Information Research Department of the British interior ministry while perversely denouncing such “Big Brother” practice in books such as “1984”…

The geopolitical objectives of the break-up

In 1941, Kohr publishes an article in the catholic leaning New York based magazine The Commonweal his article “Disunion Now”, arguing for a society based on small self-governed units, where the kernel of his ideas is presented.

In the debate among the ruling Anglo-American elites of that era, ideas and concepts are elaborated for the structures of governance for post-war Europe, structures essentially conceived to break German nationalism and its likes. Kohr starts his article by analyzing the specificity of the Swiss confederation. He observes that, although several languages (French, German, Italian, etc.) do co-exist in Switzerland, the existence of 22 cantons offers the advantage to break the dominance of a single language bloc and creates appropriate precondition for equilibrium.

“The greatness of the Swiss Idea” says Kohr, “is the smallness of its cells [the cantons] from which it derives its guaranties.” One has to divide to better unite, he tells us. If the defense of the Kleinstaat, the small state, brought Kohr to claim that “When something is wrong, it is too big.”, his friend and follower Fritz Schumacher got known by repeating Kohr’s saying “Small is Beautiful” which will be used to brainwash a generation of environmentalists of the boomer generation.

For post-war Europe, Kohr says in the same article that:

“If the Swiss experience should be applied to Europe, also the Swiss technique – not merely the appearance of its result – will have to be employed. This consist in the dividing of three or any number of unequal blocks into as many smaller parts as is necessary to eliminate any sizable numerical preponderance. That is to say that one should create 40 or 50 equally small states instead of 4 or 5 unequally large ones. Otherwise even a federated Europe will always contain 80 million Germans, 45 million French, 45 million Italians, etc., which means that any European federation would end up in a German hegemony with just the same inevitability as the German federation, in which 24 small states were linked to the one 40-million power of Prussia ended up in Prussian hegemony.”

(…) “The suggestion, therefore, is to split Germany into a number of states of seven to ten million inhabitants.”

But: “The splitting up of Germany alone, however, would have no permanent effect. With the natural tendency of all growing things, Germany would reunite unless the whole of Europe were to be cantonized at the same time. France, Italy and Russia must be divided too.”

(…) “Then the Great Powers, which are the womb of all modem wars, because they alone are strong enough to give to war its modern frightfulness, shall have disappeared. But only through splitting up the entire continent of Europe will it be possible to eliminate honorably Germany or any other Great Power without having to inflict on any the odium of a new Versailles.”

Here obviously the cat is out of the bag, since we discover that the real motive of the Kohrs discussion on the “ideal state” is to formulate an imperial policy of domination for his British masters.

How to make this project acceptable

In chapter 10 of “The Break-up of Nations” Kohr reveals his strategy to get his policy adopted. First, Kohr observes that tyrants and dictators have the powers to split up nations, “But war is fortunately not the only means by which great powers can be divided.”

Kohr also writes he doesn’t really believe one can convince big nations to become smaller:

“Engulfed in a swamp of infantile emotionalism, ant attaching phenomenal value to the fact that they are big and mighty, they cannot be persuaded to execute their own dissolution. But, being infantile and emotional, they can be tricked into it. While they would reject their division, if it were presented to them as a demand, they might be quite willing to accept it, if offered to them in the guise of a gift. This gift would be: proportional representation in the bodies governing the federal union of which they form part. The acceptance of this offer would cause nothing less than their eventual disappearance.”

And Kohr adds:

“France –to illustrate the technique of division on a country clinging with particular tenacity to power and glory concepts—would never agree to be split up into her original historic regions. But she would certainly not object to the invitation to sit in the representative bodies of the European Council with, let us say, twenty voting delegates compared with, let us say, one delegate from Luxembourg, three delegates from Denmark, and five delegates each from Belgium and the Netherlands.”

The small countries would be furious since such a situation “would make an unpleasant condition legal”. “But the smaller countries” says Kohr, “would raise few objections if the twenty members of the French delegation were elected, not nationally, but regionally” “Such a shift” (…) “would bring about the eventual dissolution of France” Kohr adds that “However, the mere division of France into European-Council districts would not be enough”. World federalism, argues Kohr, is the first step towards in the right direction: “As a preliminary step towards successful integration in a larger international organization they would have to transform their present centralized systems into decentralized federations.”

Here, Kohr quotes his teacher Henry Calvert Simons at the LSE who said:

“A great virtue of extreme federalism or decentralization in great nations is that it facilitates their extension towards world organization or their easy absorption into still larger federations. If central governments were, as they should be, largely repositories of unexercised powers, held simply to prevent their exercise by constituent units or extragovernmental organizations, then supranational organization would be easy if not almost gratuitous.”

Would France ever accept such a proposal?

For Kohr:

“The answer is yes, and for a variety of reasons. In the first place, (…) division would be presented in form of a gift.” Also, “with no official act terminating the state of France, no patriotic feelings would be hurt. The revolutionary change would be purely internal in character. It would be destruction by which nothing that counts is destroyed. It would be elimination without victims. There would be no foreign laws, no foreign occupation, no change in traffic or commerce except the fat that government and sovereignty would suddenly have come closer to the individual, endowing him within the smaller sphere of the new sovereign units with a dignity and importance not previously possessed. He would find this charming, not distasteful.”

Aldus Huxley, whose classes Orwell attended, also wrote in 1959 that:

“there will be within the next generation or so a pharmacological method of making people love their servitude, and producing … a kind of painless concentration camp for entire societies, so that people will in fact have their liberties taken away from them but will rather enjoy it”

One should note here that when Kohr, in 1945, suggests the creation of a European Council with its seat in Strasbourg, it didn’t yet exist. One has to wait till 1948 for the Congress of Den Haag of 1947, presided by Winston Churchill, who, before Raymond Aron, Denis de Rougemont, Coudenhove-Kalergi and Mitterrand among others, gave a vibrant speech for “The United States of Europe”. The agreement reached in Den Haag will become the treaty of London in 1949… Kohr’s book will only be made public in 1957, the year of Sputnik and the foundation of the European Common Market. Let’s build Europe!

Northcote Parkinson and Freddy Heineken

Later, another employee of the British Empire, the British naval historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson (1909-1993) will publicize Kohr’s theory in his own way. If Kohr presented the multiplication of new states as a formidable opportunity for a multitude of people to feel important, Parkinson though the other way around, claiming that vast states secrete large lazy bureaucracies (his famous “Parkinson law”) while small monarchies know how to run things with few means available and little personnel. Parkinson was also the mentor and friend of John Train, the New York banker who hired a special salon of media freaks to slander Lyndon LaRouche and his friend Jacques Cheminade in France. In memory of “Cyril”, Train created the Northcote Parkinson Foundation initially aimed to defend “free enterprise”. The fund was renamed John Train Foundation and distributes the Civil Courage Award. Parkinson at one point got to meet the Dutch beer magnate Freddy Heineken (1923-2002), according to some in good terms with the queen of the Netherlands and French president François Mitterrand. Heineken in a letter recounts how he, after his encounter with Northcote Parkinson, hired a team of geographers to redo the map of Europe according to Parkinson’s principles. Weeks after the signing of the Maastricht treaty, Heineken published a booklet “The United States of Europe (a Eurotopia?)” recommending the break-up of Europe into 75 regions or mini-states possessing an “optimal” size between 5 and 7 million inhabitants, loyal to the precepts of Kohr and Parkinson. The project provoked quite some discussion at that time. Heineken was even obliged to redo his initial map. The Greek government had declared an embargo on Heineken beer imports to Greece after discovering that vast territories of Greece had been included into Macedonia. Certain Serbians remain puzzled by the striking similarity between Heineken’s map and the current borders agreed on by diplomats after the Balkan wars. In his country of origin, Heineken’s map became also controversial. The infernal logic of returning to old “nations” applied by the Heineken team would not break-up Belgium between Flemings and Walloons (a horizontal split), but between Flanders reunified with the region of Holland in the Netherlands and the north of France on the one side, and the Flemish Brabant reunified with the Dutch Brabant (vertical split)…

How globalization means war against nation-states

If till now heads of government such as General De Gaulle, or others, considered these schemes as evil nuisances or mere conjectures of spoiled brads, the new economic and financial factors of globalization have transformed the world in such a fashion as what seemed strange and lunatic yesterday might very soon unfold as reality today.

On the ground, in its consequences on the ground, “globalization” has operated as a battering ram against nation-states: the wild privatizations public and private enterprises, the mergers and acquisitions with vast international corporations and trust and the policies of outsourcing production to low wage countries have killed any emotional attachment of the population for the nation state it inhabits.

Belgium, not to name it, has seen entire sectors of its national economy “disappear”: the French group Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux acquired the totality of the Belgian Societe Generale, once the greatest economic player of the country (60% of the economic activity). Anglo-French oil giant Total took control over the Belgian Petrofina, ING bought the Belgian Banque Brussel Lambert, the French Usinor got control over the Belgian Cockerill Sambre, the French bank Dexia took over the Belgian Crédit Communal and the French insurance giant Axa got the Belgian insurance company Royale Belge. The steel mills of Forges de Clabecq were closed, outsourcing closed down the Renault Vilvoorde plant and the Belgian airline Sabena went bankrupt after a failed try to merge with Swissair. Far from “creating” small countries, and strikingly similar to Nazi occupation, while promising “Flemish” or “Walloon” independence to the credulous, globalization “evaporates” the plat pays.

However, so far, two important issues withheld candidates from independence: the monetary issue –since creating one’s own currency isn’t that easy– and the issue of guaranteeing access to large markets to sell one’s produce. However, as we will discover, if candidates for independence are part of a larger “monetary zone”, things look totally different.

Robert Mundell and “optimal monetary zones”

It has to be noted here that the “father of the Euro”, who was simultaneously the “mother of the European Central Bank”, is the Canadian neo-Keynesian economist Robert Mundell, born in 1932 and Nobel Price of Economics in 1999. Mundell is also a product of the London School of Economics and currently professor at Columbia University New York. Among his followers one counts the current president of the Italian national bank Mario Draghi. Draghi, the former deputy CEO of Goldman Sachs Europe masterminded most privatizations in Italy and was at the centre of the unsavory Britannica scandal. Also Alberto Giovannini, the former CEO of LTCM is another production of Mundell’s “genius” while in 1998, the bankruptcy of the LTCM hedge fund brought the international monetary system to the brink of a “financial Tchernobyl”.

In terms of “economic science”, Mundell with Marcus Fleming elaborated the theory of “optimal monetary zones”. As soon as 1960, only a couple of years after the foundation of the EEC and the publication of Kohr’s book, Mundell argues that for economic zones to be “optimal”, members belonging to the zones should not suffer different rates of inflation, should not be vulnerable to asymmetric chocks but on the contrary should benefit from free circulation of individuals (labor factor) and free circulation of financial flows (capital factor). Now you realize where the Bolkestein directive (labor factor) and the famous purely monetary “criteria of convergence” preceding the introduction of the Euro come from, the package being counterproductive from the standpoint of the physical economy.

As we have demonstrated, the very fact to be member of a monetary zone greatly facilitates secession. The second question, implicit in the first one, remains the need of a “new” country to have access to a large market different than a domestic or national market. The transformation of Europe in a large free trade zone open to globalization offers a European market integrated into the world market.

The case of Belgium

This toxic thesis is at the centre of the Break-up of Belgium. They were refreshed by the book “The Size of Nations”, a provocative book published in 2003 at MIT by two reputed Italian economists working in the USA, Alberto Alesina, head of the Economics section of Harvard, and Enrico Spolaore of Tufts Unversity. Both have worked for the IMF and the European Commission and have responsibilities at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), a private institution funded exclusively funded by the four main family foundations that finance the radical neo-conservative cult in Washington: Bradley, Scaife, Olin and Smith Richardson. Also, in June 2005, Alesina went with Mundell to China, where the latter is hired as an advisor to the government.

Uniting Kohr’s and Mundell’s lunacies, the two authors claim that borders of nations have nothing to do with a willing to live together, essence of any republic, but are mere results of pragmatic trade-offs between the advantages of a large territory and the costs of heterogeneity. In short, one applies cost/benefit analysis already insane for commercial companies to entire nations for the herding people treated as human cattle. After analyzing the advantage of a large territory (low cost of public services per capita, sharing of tax burden or easier defense) the authors take a look at wealth. If a large nation should be theoretically wealthier, they say that in reality wealth is proportional to the “openness” to commercial markets. From there on, by simple Aristotelian logic, they assert that “economic integration leads to political disintegration.” The message is crystal clear: globalization (economic and financial integration) leads, by its own nature, to the breakup of nations. One easily can understand now, why The Size of Nations became the handbook of the Flemish secessionists in Belgium.

Frans Crols, the director and editor of the leading Flemish economic weekly Trends and passionately pro-independence resumes the argument of the book:

“In 2004 was published the Size of Nations of Alberto Alesina and Enrico Spolaore, two Italian economists that teach in major US universities. Spolaore has been a researcher for a couple of years at the Free University of Brussels. The subject they were interested in was: on federalism and decentralization there exist many studies and articles. But about the phenomenon of the ever faster rise of new states, no handbook exists, no text to guide. That’s what this well received book The Size of Nations tries to answer. What are its conclusions?

1)     There exist more nations in a democratic world than in a non-democratic world (democracy is growing fast and the number of nations will continue to grow. [it went from 74 in 1945 to 193 in 2003]

2)     The number of nations will keep growing because vast zones of free trade are created such as the European Union and Nafta. For Quebec, nothing will change after leaving Canada, since she will remain part of Nafta; for Flanders, nothing will change, and both Flanders and Wallonia will continue to be part of the single common European market and the EU.

3)     The costs of heterogeneity of a country can become so high that citizens of a more homogeneous subdivision decide to lower costs by creating together a low cost country based on more cohesion, more social capital, les disputes and less loss of time.”

Note here that, after forty years of evermore complicated forms of sophisticated federalism, suddenly the smart guys come up and tell us that all of this is too expensive and a waste of time and that separation could be so much cheaper! Kohr’s plan worked, as planned.

Frans Crols is one of the authors of the Manifesto for an independent Flanders in Europe, published in December 2005 by the right wing leaning think-tank “In de Warande” which argues, on the basis of “purely economic” considerations, for the break-up of Belgium following the model of the 1992 “velvet divorce” of Czechoslovakia. For Crols and associates, it is preferable that Flanders and Wallonia become independent nations while Brussels, today a French speaking enclave inside Flemish territory, could get a statute akin to Washington D.C.

We have documented elsewhere in great detail the neo-conservative nature of their project especially aimed at killing one of the most advanced social welfare systems of the planet, the Belgian one. If after 1960, the money transfer (not to be equated with wealth transfer) inversed between Walloons and Flemings, Flemish money has mainly been siphoned into large Brussels based banks in stead of populations.

For our argument here, we only want to underline that the manifesto, full with statistics, only gives more flesh to the line of argument developed by The Size of Nations. Did it come from simple honest militants? No, the president of the think-tank is the Flemish specialist of financial derivatives Remi Vermeiren, former CEO of KBC Banque & Assurance, also on the board of a copper mining company that came out of the famous Union Minière of the Belgian Congo. Members of “In de Warande” are in essence a group of businessmen often politically invested in the independence parties.

Without surprise, in June 2005, Enrico Spoloare, the co-author of The Size of Nations, was asked to deliver the keynote speech at an important colloquium of the Flemish Parliament. At the debate, Bart de Wever, the president of the radical pro-independence party Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (formerly Volksunie) said that “romanticism is important, but does not convince the young Flemings of the 21st century. We have to rationalize our argumentations” (i.e. talk to people’s cupidity…). The tragedy of Belgium today is that De Wever, a Leuven trained historian who vindicates the tradition of the reactionary Edmond Burke, is officially part of the team in charge of negotiating a new government for a country he wants to break-up! His presence last May at the funeral of his friend, the founder of the xenophobic Vlaams Blok, Karel Dillen, along with the French “boulangist” Jean-Marie Lepen who gave more then verbal support to the Flemish far-rightists, has also to be taken in account.

On September 6, 2007, The London Economist, who published Northcote Parkinson’s articles in the past and gave a warm reception for The Size of Nations, observes cynically, after three months of stalemate in the formation of a new government, that it is “Time to call it a day. Sometimes it is right for a country to recognize that its job is done.”

The Economist:

“Rancour is ever-present and the country has become a freak of nature, a state in which power is so devolved that government is an abhorred vacuum. In short, Belgium has served its purpose. A praline divorce is in order. Belgians need not feel too sad. Countries come and go.”

However, arrivals are slower than leavings. As under Nazi occupation, the defenders of independence have dangerous illusions hoping the devil himself will offer them “a beautiful little republic” Our advice to the honest one: read also the last pages of lunatics Kohr and Alesina and not only the first chapters of their books…

Maastricht and Eurocities

One often forgets that the 1991 Maastricht treaty, on top of adopting the “principle of subsidiarity” –which states that matters ought to be handled by the smallest (or, the lowest) competent authority–, also gave birth to the creation of the “European Committee of Regions”. To give more impetus to the drive, a network of major cities and regions founded a powerful lobby if favor of decentralization labeled Eurocities, whose current president is Michel Delebarre, the socialist mayor of Dunkerque, while Paris, Lyons and Nantes figure among the French members.

In 2002, shortly before his death, Freddy Heineken exposed his lunatic scheme before a closed door session of the representatives of Eurocities gathered in Amsterdam. Heineken jokingly told them that to solve the political problem of European integration one should take all the European population and ship them to the United States before bringing them back to Europe… Observing Heineken’s map, a participant full of opportunism and optimism stated that the location of Heineken’s 75 “United States of Europe” nearly completely coincided with the location of the 75 cities who are members of Eurocities…

In reality the plan is not to have mini-states at all, but the “United Cities of Europe”. What some rightly call Kohr’s “medieval regression” is not a simple return to former nations that disappeared centuries ago, but the founding of a global empire composed of city-states more or less de-territorialized. The Austro-British designer Christopher Alexander, who also was present at the session, is another spokesman for this scheme. Referring to the degenerate counter-cultural British Lord Weymouth –who thinks that optimal demographic limits of a region are between 2 and 10 million people—Alexander told the audience: “Do what you can to establish a world government composed of a thousand independent regions to replace the countries.” His inspirer, Lord Weymouth proposed a world government composed by a single representative of countries having each about 10 million inhabitants. Not astonishing is the fact that in the Netherlands, a “Club of the 10 million” exists inspired by Lord Weymouth and out to find the means to reduce the population of the Netherlands, today over 16 million, to only 10 millions. Maybe legalized euthanasia will help?

In economics, it is clearly not by chance that Robert Mundell cultivates the old fantasy of a single world currency. In 2003, he brought together in his Renaissance palace in Siena a handful of powerful bankers to discuss the scheme. The now deceased Robert Bartley, who was Mundell’s close friend and editor emeritus of the Wall Street Journal (known for his animosity towards LaRouche) said that “If the euro can replace the franc, mark, and lira, why can’t a new world currency merge the dollar, euro, and yen? » Such a new world currency, he avers, could be called the “dey” (short for “dollar, euro, yen”). Bartley added that “This suggests success for the grandest reform of all, a supranational central bank.”

As one sees here, behind the Kohr-Parkinson-Heineken model, the aim is the creation of a worldwide Malthusian government. The model of Swiss cantons, regionalization, federalism and today secessions and the rising power of cities over nation-states are nothing but different angles of attack of a policy aimed at shopping up the big nations in order to destroy more easily the smaller ones.

See Venice and die

As one sees on the cover of The Size of Nations –since it features a zoom of a map of Venice– for Alberto Alesina, the model is the oligarchic Republic of Venice, a “poor” country full of immensely rich people! In chapter 11 of The Size of Nations (p.176), Alesina says that the three centuries that followed the dark ages “were characterized by the economic growth of the city-states: Venice, Lisbon, Genoa, Antwerp, and Amsterdam in chronological order of leadership.” Over more, “The city-state of this period is a clear example of a political entity (i.e., a country in our models) that could prosper economically even if extremely small because its market was unrelated to its political borders.”

Obviously, not a word about the slave trade, the colonial loot of vast regions, the wars and crusades or the financial racketeering that made Venice –and the British Empire—so powerful.

Leopold Kohr was also a fervent admirer of Venice. In his political fiction essay “The Duke of Buen Consejo”, Kohr imagines a scenario in which a shanty town in the suburbs of Porto Rico becomes a glorious and prosperous city by following his precepts. How? It is sufficient to select a millionaire and give him the pompous title of Duke of the location. However, certain specific restrictions apply. First, he is obliged to live on his estate and raise his own children on site. Obviously, the duchess, when opening up her delicate curtains in the morning, gets a horrific view on the stinky slums. She will then tell her husband Duke to build something more attractive around the palace. Once the children will need to go to school, the Duke will call in the best teachers of the planet and erect beautiful schools which all the other children can also profit from… The stimulus of the shock between the active private duke and the lazy crowds will bring them to work hard to resemble him, the Duke.

“Fiction?” asks Kohr, “It pictures not theory but history as it unfolded itself in a vast number of villages, cities, and city states all over Europe during the Middle Ages, or in the countless urban foundations of Greek and Phoenician antiquity. They all were developed through nuclear seeding rather than comprehensive planning.”

And Kohr adds: “When Peisistratos appeared on the scene, the major part of Athens consisted of hovels. When he departed, there stood an array of buildings of whose immortal beauty Pausanias could write hundreds of years later that, when they were new, they already looked ancient. Now that they were old, they still looked new. Similarly, Venice started her scintillating career as an abysmal slum. Had she followed modern advice and waited with her development until Italy had been united, the United Nations established, the Common Market formed, she would still be a slum today. And so would Urbino, Perugia, Assisi, Parma, Padua, and most of the glamorous rest. By going ahead on her own in the fashion of the Duke of Buen Consejo, she violated all principles of sound politics, economics, planning, location theory, indeed of intellectual levelheadedness itself. For who except a fool or bohemian slummer would build in the midst of a lagoon. But she gave us Venice.”

The United States and France

If you believe this is an American conspiracy to destroy Europe, you are strongly mistaken. Alesina for example explicitly attacks James Madison’s argument developed in the Federalist Papers where Madison develops the advantages of a large national territory and heterogeneity of population.

Recently, secessionist movements have been set up in the United States with links to their European counterparts. They see “republics” in Vermont, New Hampshire, Texas, California or the creation of a new country called “Hudsonia” around the Hudson River… On October 4, 2007, a handful of delegates gathered at Chattanooga, Tennessee adopted the “Chattanooga Declaration” Bypassing the right-left division –since matters of freedom bypass such cleavages—they state that the influence of large corporations on government is a threat to the welfare and health of the American citizen. They observe that “The American Empire is no longer a nation or a republic, but has become a tyrant aggressive abroad and despotic at home.” In the name of the inalienable rights defined by the US Constitution (the right to break away from England), the Chattanooga declaration calls for the break-up of the United States. If the effort has been steered by radical greeny Kirkpatrick Sale, an expert on the Luddites, and Thomas Naylor, a libertarian professor of Duke University, the initiative remains folkloric. However it got large media coverage by AP, USA Today, the British daily Independent and even The New York Times. On the webpages of the Middlebury Institute headed by Sale entire chapters of Kohr’s The Break-up of Nations are proudly presented and Sale was the first to publish the book in the US in 1977. US secessionists are out to shop up the United States, through Kohrs “nuclear seeding”, into a close to infinite number of small nucleus of habitation. The new political fact however is that Sale and Naylor, rather green and lefty, did not resist joining hips with the nostalgic fellows of the neo-confederate pro-slavery Southern League created by Dr James Michael Hill in 1994. Hill, as a historian is an expert on the “Celtic wars” of the sixteenth century conducted by Ireland and Scotland against England. Hill says time has come to educate the youth of “Dixie” and presides the League of the South Institute (LSI) created with funding from the Mary Noel Kershaw Foundation of Nashville, Tennessee. That foundation funds the building of commemorative monuments to honor the great “heroes” of the pro-British Confederates and LSI announces it is publishing of a “Grey Book”, a blueprint for the independence of the South.

In France, Kohr’s lunacies have penetrated in two fashions. Firstly, Kohr, who went to live in Gloucester, Wales when he retired in 1977, wrote for a friend, who was the founder of the Welsh independence party in the UK, a booklet called “Is Wales viable”. That book was translated into French by the European federalist and defender of the independence of Bretagne, Yann Fouéré. Fouéré had the smart idea to replace the word “Great Britain” with “France”, and the word “Wales” with “Bretagne”. This way, Kohr’s book is available in France under the title “Une Bretagne libre est-elle viable?” Fouéré is one of the co-founders of the “Celtic League” and wrote that “one can introduce measure into as well capitalism as socialism by reducing the scales of societies of all nature on which this applies, increasing on them in the same time the control of local powers, the citizens, the producers and those that are ruled, thanks to what Dr Kohr called the ‘transparency of the small’.”

The other movement that recently got promoted in France is the “Decroissance” movement. At the creation of the Fourth World Educational and Research Association Trust, Kohr was a member of its board together with the American radical greeny secessionist Kirkpatrick Sale and the British aristocrats Lord Beaumont, John Seymour and the unavoidable Edward Goldsmith, chief editor of “The Ecologist”. Goldsmith has been the early protector of the French “Asterix” José Bové and a sponsor of the “Décroissance” movement, French word for the term “de-development” that appeared for the first time in Goldsmith’s The Ecologist in 1977. Their fight for the “defense of the environment” is nothing but a moral pretext to combat the modern nation-state. The fact of the matter is that the intelligent use of nuclear power or other advanced technologies implies a division of labor and a management of time and space uniquely attainable by modern nation-states. For them, it is not the “nuclear” issue that worries them, but a society that progresses by the permanent rethinking of its “certitudes” and prejudices and the axioms of rural imbecility that contaminated the boomer generation currently living in our citi

From now on, I think it is safe to say that “Small is often not beautiful at all”.



Connaitre son adversaire

How “Neo-Platonism” gave Plato a bad name


Pictured from left to right in a detail from Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Zachariah in the Temple are Marsilio Ficino, Cristoforo Landino, Angelo Poliziano, and Demetrios Chalkondyles.


By Karel Vereycken, November 2005

 After many years of laziness, I decided to study more closely a “black hole” in our epistemological clarity: the great fog of Florentine neo-Platonism.

As most of my friends, I was initially profoundly enchanted by the common idea of a renaissance revival of Plato translations and its offspring into republican humanism. However, a closer look behind the label to what passes for “neo-Platonism” gave me a far different picture.

That fog was never cleared to most of us because we somehow refused to assimilate Lyndon LaRouche’s epistemological rigor to challenge what we “learned” in school from the current art historian academic textbooks.

The intrinsic fantasy ridden, melancholic vision of “culture” as some sort of past “golden age” pops up regularly as the comfortable cushion for aging baby boomers and tweeners, dreaming to bring about something that in reality never existed.

Of course, the early fifteenth century’s rediscovery and love for Plato (Bruni, Cusa, Piccolomini, Bessarion, etc.) and their reworking of Archimedes and Euclid from the superior standpoint of Plato’s Timaeus and Parmenides gave us the foundations of the golden Renaissance in science, technology, astronomy, statecraft and other many sciences culminating in the great ecumenical council of Ferrare-Florence of 1437-38 and the creation of Louis XIth’s nation state, France.

One can suspect that it was precisely because Plato’s heritage reemerged through that golden renaissance culminating in the concept of Filioque at the council of Florence, that the oligarchy immediately acted to pervert and eradicate any real comprehension of Plato’s accomplishments.

Already, since Socrates judicial murder and Plato’s death, official neo-Platonism became not only an ugly un-Platonic bad joke, and mutated into something far worse: a straight forward anti-Platonic countergang.

That revival was integral of the Venetian (Persian magi) political operations intended to eradicate the true Platonic heritage. As we will document here, and it might surprise only some of you, Marsilio Ficino’s so-called “Platonic academy”at Careggi(Florence)appears as a central instrument in this anti-platonic operation.

Hence, if we want to revive real Platonism today, no more fog can be tolerated on these crucial matters.

We are not the first in warning you about the dangers of neo-Platonism. Already the great Plato-loving Saint Augustine, in his “On Christian Faith” [II, 40] states that

“Moreover, if those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it.” Their teachings should be appropriated by the Christian: “therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel.”

Leibniz, also strongly warns against the “neo-Platonists” demanding that Plato be studied in his original writings rather than through his commentators, however brilliant they might be “non ex Plotino aut Marsilio Ficino, qui mira semper et mystica affectantes diceren tanti uiri doctrinam corrupere.” [Plato should be studied, but “Not from Plotinus nor Marsilio Ficino, who, by always striving to speak wonderfully and mystically, corrupt the doctrine of so great a man."]

Today, many synarchists and neo-cons do evil things in the name of neo-Platonism. Leo Strauss for example says: “Let us beware of pursuing a Socratic goal with the means, and the temper, of Thrasymachus”. French synarchist Alexander Kojeve wrote a full book called “Histoire raisonnée de la philosophie païenne” based on his notes on the neo-Platonist school and showed great enthusiasm for Julian l’Apostate, the fascist roman emperor that tried to uproot Christianity and replace it with neo-Platonism. Hannah Arendt and Heidegger also claim to be experts in their evil interpretations of Plato.

Neo-Platonism before Ficino

The doctrine of “Neo-Platonism” is in general identified with the “school of Alexandria” equally known as the “school of Athens” since it operated on two legs, an Egyptian one (Alexandria) and a Greek one (Athens).

The school is personified by four figures being Plotinus, Porphyry, Jamblicus and Proclus. After the relocation of Aristotle’s library to Alexandria around 300 BC, the Platonic Academy in Athens and the Neo-platonic school in Alexandria operated in parallel for eight centuries (from 300 BC to 529), until the closing of the Athens Academy by Justinian in 529. Meantime, a secondary centre had developed in Byzantium.

1) Plotinus (205-270) was born in a Christian, roman family and trained in Egypt, while mainly active in the latter part of his life in Rome. At age 28 he got interested in philosophy and followed for eleven years the teachings of Ammonios Saccas (175-242), who established a “Neo-Platonic School” in Alexandria in 195 DC, also labeled the school of “Eclectic Platonism” since it aspired to unify of many different beliefs into one single one. Plotinus was maybe even more influenced by the teachings of another forerunner of Neo-Platonism, the Greek Numenius of Apamea (who lived in Syria around 150 after DC)

When Plotinus was thirty-nine the emperor Gordianus III (255-244) launched a war against Persia. Plotinus joined the expeditionary force. Gordianus was slain in Mesopotamia in 244, perhaps through the intrigues of his successor, Philip the Arabian, and Plotinus had to flee for his life. With great difficulty he eventually reached Antioch and thence proceeded directly to Rome. There he established a school for philosophy, gathered disciples and taught orally for ten years. In 253 A.D. he began to set his thoughts on paper, composing fifty-four treatises in the next sixteen years. About the time he began writing, he received as close friend the emperor Gallienus (218-268). The emperor had become quite worried about the declining morals and culture of the Roman Empire. Since Gallienus saw neo-Platonism as something better fitted for the survival of the empire, he decided to make Plotinus his official philosopher and even gave him the mission to build a new city, Platonopolis, based on his teachings. The projects never came about.

Plotinus reportedly never wrote anything himself. His life and doctrine is uniquely known through the transcriptions of the orphans he adopted and tutored. One of them is Amelios Gentilianus, but what is known about his ideas doctrine was written up by Porphyry.

2) Porphyry of Tyre (234-310) was a student of the Greek rhetorician Longinus (c.213-273) in Athens. From 263 on, Phorphyry will follow Plotinus in Rome and write up Plotinus Enneads (54 pieces, symbolically arranged in 6 groups of 6 times 9), completed in 301 i.e. written 31 years after Plotinus death. Porphyry also wrote “Against the Christians” and “The life of Pythagoras”. Porphyry thought that among the basic tenets of the Pythagoreans, a grouping that operated in secrecy, existed the beliefs that reality at its deepest level, is mathematical in nature; that philosophy can be used for spiritual purification; that the soul can rise to union with the divine; and that certain symbols have a mystical significance. Porphyry’s immediate follower was Iamblicus.

3) Iamblichus of Chalcis (250-330) got supported by another roman emperor, Julian l’Apostate, who was out to uproot Christianity and even thought of replacing it with “Neo-Platonism”. Julian l’Apostate is honored today in France by the pro-pagan “Nouvelle Droite” (New Right) and praised heavily by Russian expatriate and synarchist neo-hegelian Alexandre Kojève. Iamblichus also wrote “On the Pythagorean life”.

4) Proclus (412-485) gave a new impulse to the Neo-Platonist school during the fifth century in Greece “School of Athens”, where the Academy will be closed by Emperor Justinian in 529.

Oligarchs running empires have worked for centuries on developing synthetic belief structures or pseudo-religions capable of giving an answer to people’s “spiritual needs” while downbreeding their capacities to act as real citizens of a republic and transforming them into slaves of an imperial system.

Why did they get so interested with “neo-Platonism”?


Starting from a purely textual and symbol-minded literal interpretation of Plato’s Phedron, Plotinus elaborates a mechanical philosophical system.

Plotinus teacher Numenius takes Pythagoras as his highest authority, while at the same time pretending to follow Plato. He calls the latter an Atticizing Moses. His chief divergence from Plato is the distinction between the first god and the demiurge. Numenius is the first one that establishes three hypostasis, i.e. rigorous hierarchical steps of the “procession” of the One towards the multiple.

In reality Numenius, and later Plotinus, suggest that there are three Gods. First, the supreme deity, second the creator of the world, and third the world itself. This is presented as a reflection of the Valentinian Gnostics and the Jewish-Alexandrian philosophers (including Philo and his theory of the Logos).

This theory brings then the conclusion that the creation is nothing but a terrible “fall”, a dispersion and loss of the divine. To escape from sin, the soul has to climb up again towards God, the One, going upwards through the same steps it went down with.

For Plotinus, God is an absolute. It is the original One, of which all and everything comes from and to which everything returns. Since Aristotle’s logic specifies that something can not be one thing and in the same time it’s opposite, and since God has a spiritual, uncreated nature, everything which is created is NOT God, and therefore necessarily impure.

Plotinus here echoes the old Persian “mystery” religions of Mazdeism (1000 years BC) and Zorastrism. (emerged around 600 BC). In these beliefs, the idea that the body of man is nothing but pure evil is so strong that they forbid to burry the dead because they don’t want to pollute the earth with the flesh of the human body! The physical remains of men are placed on “towers of Silence”, where the vultures eat what is offered. After a while, the bones are finally thrown into a central hole of the tower. Plotinus shared that hatred of the creation to the point that he refused to have his portrait done.

This eclectic mixture makes God both the beginning and the final idea, being simultaneously the productive essence described by Plato’s Timeus and the immobile mover of Aristotle, who, for his perfection not be spoiled, has neither to create nor to know. This conciliation (concord) of Plato and Aristotle (which characterizes the neo-platonic) operates through the dogma of three hypostasis.

1) THE ONE: The highest hypostasis is the ONE, which contains all things in themselves. The one, or the good, is above every reality, inconceivable and infinite. Nevertheless the one gives life and unity to everything. Plotinus attacks Aristotle for conceiving the prime mover as capable of thinking by himself. Thinking (or not thinking) involves establishing a relationship between two things. Therefore claiming that the One is intelligent is some king of blasphemy because a negation of its absolute oneness. God is before anything else a pure Unity, ineffable, and especially superior to any determination, to any thought, even to any essence. God is also simultaneously one and three-fold.

2) THE INTELLECT: By the second hypostasis, he is the nous, the thought of thought, that contemplating itself, discovers the platonic ideas, the intelligible model of the universe (autozôon). The “procession” or “production” (proodos) from the One to the multiple generates the second, lower hypostasis, the INTELLECT (nous), or Beauty. This is the One that exists, Being, Life, Mind. That procession is beyond time since the One and the Intellect coexist eternally.

3) UNIVERSAL SOUL: It is only by the third hypostasis that the One participates decisively to the multiplicity of the world by becoming the soul of the world, creative principle and demiurge. It contemplates the eternal beings of the intellect and generates dispersed images of it, which are the many physical things that exist on earth, each animated by a particular soul. Our world is nothing but the end phase of expression of the dispersion of the richness of the One.

For the orthodox Christians the three hypostasis are three principles incarnated into one single being, recognized by all the neo-Platonists: the ONE which is the father, the INTELLECT which is the son, and the SOUL which is the universal principle of life. In the Latin Catholic Church, the word hypostasis (from the Greek upostasis) was progressively replaced by the word “person”. The trinity involves one God with three persons: the father, the son and the Holy Spirit. As we will see, the real Christian Platonists fought for giving a humanist content to that trinity principle.

Human nature

This “perfect” theory runs into big problems once it has to define human nature. To explain it, Plotinus does not hesitate to attribute man two souls, or one dual soul, one divine, and the other corrupted. One part of the individual human soul is part of the universal world soul, while the other part lives in the intellect, in direct filiation with the Good (the One) which is its father. But man, as a physical creation, is essentially evil.

Plotinus here omits the fact that in Plato’s original metaphor of the Phaedron, there are not two forces, but a third one: the charioteer guiding his two horses, one white horse being attracted to go higher, the other black and attracted by lower realities.

For Plotinus, man is even more problematic since most souls, by their narcissism, retire from the intellect only willing to take pleasure of themselves. Forgetting their creator, they fully suffer the torments of the world. That is the essential nature of mankind. Human existence reduced to such a violent conflict between the animal side and the spiritual side reduces human existence into permanent and painstaking melancholic suffering in the prison of his body. Melancholic (romantic) suffering becomes the fundamental emotion of human existence.

To milder the suffering, Plotinus copies the remedies of the stoics. Virtues and self-limitation can bring man towards unity with God, but man should realize that perfection is not of this world, since man remains part of the created. Creativity and perfection of the creation are seen as completely useless since comforting man in his evil state of creation.

Only the soul, being immortal, can reach perfection, but only after life on earth, once one gets rid of its created envelope. In his interiorizing approach, Plotinus abandons in fact any commitment to ameliorate the earthly conditions of mankind, while concentrating on the individual mystical will to “penetrate the system, even the principle”. Plotinus thinks that it is “in ourselves” that we have to learn to discover the spiritual world, since it is “up to the Gods to come to us, and not to me to rise towards them”. To this procession of the One towards the many responds the ascension towards the One, which operates by the work of “the soul acting on the soul”. This “immanentism” brings Plotinus to attack religious rituals which draw heavy focus on “exteriority”, in particular the Christian rites.


However, according to Plotinus, through the perception of beauty, the human soul can get an early glimpse of the One. He can travel back to the original unity by “conversion”. Using Plato’s metaphor of the winged souls that fly back to the One, Plotinus says the soul has to move upwards from one hypostasis to the other: go from the body to the intellect and from the intellect to the One. The soul wants to totally unite with God and therefore desires its own extinction, absorbed into the unity of the One, similar as the teachings of what Zen Buddhism calls “dying before dying”.

In Plotinus’ own words: « Abandon the duality of seer and seen, and count both as one, so that he in its vision does not distinguish, nor even imagines a duality. He has changed, does no longer own himself, but belongs to the One, a centre joined with the centre. He will behold a solitary light suddenly revealing itself – not from some perceived object, but pure and self-contained. We must not enquire its origin, for there is no « origin. » The primal One does not come on cue, it is not like one who enters, but who is eternally present. Like one who has entered the temple’s inner sanctuary and left the images behind, the self is perfectly still and alone. This is liberation from the alien that besets us here … »

Hence, before arriving there, there are on earth some rare and unique moments, where man can see the original One. Such a moment of mystical ecstasy happens only very rarely in a human lifespan, maybe once or twice, although Porphyry reports that Plotinus had such illumination nearly once a year…

Radical dualism

Plotinus and Porphyry married the radical agnostic dualism of Aristotle with a textual interpretation of Plato into a mystery religion. The systematic defense of a harmonic concord of Plato and Aristotle will be the key marker to identify the neo-Platonic disease. Plotinus in fact mangled together with Plato the doctrines of Aristotle, the Stoics, and the Chaldeans (Zoroastrians and Persian magi). While a “philosophical” version of this dualism appears later with Descartes, Kant and Hegel, the uglier, “religious” version will relive from the Cathar abomination to Torquemada’s inquisition, leading into Joseph de Maistre’s “catholic” synarchist “religion”. (For de Maistre, man is evil. Only two things can lead him to salvation: a strong authority of state and religion and the shedding of innocent blood, capable of buying back the sins of the sinners. God sacrificed the blood of his own innocent son Jesus for the redemption of not so innocent mankind.) The shedding of innocent blood was introduced by the Persian magi, the same magi that defended the bull slaughtering of the Mithra cult, (against the failed Zoroastrian reforms aimed at halting sacrifice).

Neo-Platonism fighting Christianity

The absolute abstract One of the neo-Platonists ran obviously against Christianity and the Christian doctrine completely contradicted their follies.

After the Roman emperor Constantine had recognized the Church in A.D. 313, neo-Platonism would nourish many disputes about the true nature of the Christ, since for them he was NOT God himself. The Latin Church had always maintained that Christ was truly the Son, and truly God. “They worshipped Him with divine honors and they would never consent to separate Him, in idea or reality, from the Father, Whose Word, Reason, Mind, He was, and in Whose Heart He abode from eternity”.

The first ecumenical Council of Nicaea of 325 tried to settle the matter on the occasion of the heresy of Arius.

Arius (250-336) described the Son as a second, or inferior God, standing midway between the First Cause and creatures; as Himself made out of nothing, yet as making all things else; as existing before the worlds of the ages; and as arrayed in all divine perfections except the one which was their stay and foundation. God alone was without beginning, unoriginate; the Son was originated, and once had not existed. For all that has origin must begin to be.

The Council, opposing Arius, stated: “We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten of the Father, that is, of the substance [ek tes ousias] of the Father, God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of the same substance with the Father [ homoousion to patri], through whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth; who for us men and our salvation descended, was incarnate, and was made man, suffered and rose again the third day, ascended into heaven and cometh to judge the living and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost. Those who say: There was a time when He was not, and He was not before He was begotten; and that He was made our of nothing (ex ouk onton); or who maintain that He is of another hypostasis or another substance [than the Father], or that the Son of God is created, or mutable, or subject to change, [them] the Catholic Church anathematizes.”

So as you see here, against the evil pessimism implied by Plotinus pagan neo-Platonism, the church adopted, shortly after the Council of Nicaea of 325 the famous “Nicene creed” that would be so powerfully become the centerpiece of the union between the western and eastern church at the Council of Florence of 1438.

The Nicene Creed states explicitly: “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets.”

Nestorius (381-451) brought another variety of the same neo-platonic heresy, by denying that Mary could be the mother of God, since God was the One and origin of everything. He was refuted at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD.

Plotinus direct follower Porphyry, in his book “Against the Christians” attacks his former fellow student Origen, who became one of the early fathers of the Church: ”As an example of this absurdity take a man whom I met when I was young, and who was then greatly celebrated and still is, on account of the writings which he has left. I refer to Origen, who is highly honored by the teachers of these doctrines. For this man, having been a student of Ammonius, who had attained the greatest proficiency in philosophy of any in our day, derived much benefit from his teacher in the knowledge of the sciences; but as to the correct choice of life, he pursued a course opposite to his. For Ammonius, being a Christian, and brought up by Christian parents, when he gave himself to study and to philosophy straightway conformed to the life required by the laws. But Origen, having been educated as a Greek in Greek literature, went over to the barbarian recklessness. And carrying over the learning which he had obtained, he hawked it about, in his life conducting himself as a Christian and contrary to the laws, but in his opinions of material things and of the Deity being like a Greek, and mingling Grecian teachings with foreign fables…”

The very special case of Plethon


Portrait of Gemistus Pletho, detail of a fresco by acquaintance Benozzo Gozzoli, Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence, Italy.

After the burning of the Alexandrian library ordered by Caliph Omar I in 642, only Byzantium became the last remaining stronghold of neo-Platonism.

George Gemistos (1355-1452), was a follower of the radical neo-Platonist Michael Psellos (1018-1080). Around 1410 Gemistos created a neo-Platonic academy in Mistra (near the site of ancient Sparta) and added “Plethon” to his name to make it resemble to Plato. He was also an admirer of Pythagoras, Plato, and the “Chaldean Oracles”, which he ascribed to Zoroaster.

Gemistos came for the first time to Florence when he was fifteen years old and became an authority in Mistra. So at the time of the Council the Emperor, John VIII Palaeologos, “knew they were going to face some of the finest minds in the Roman Church on their own soil; he therefore wanted the best minds available in support of the Byzantine cause to accompany him. Consequently, the Emperor appointed George Gemistos as part of the delegation. Despite the fact that he was a secular philosopher — a rare creature at this time in the West — Gemistos was renowned both for his wisdom and his moral rectitude. Among the clerical lights in the delegation were John Bessarion, Metropolitan of Nicaea, and Mark Eugenikos, Metropolitan of Ephesus. Both had been students of Gemistos in their youth. Another non-clerical member of the delegation was George Scholarios: both a future adversary of Gemistos and a future Patriarch of Constantinople as Gennadios II.”

Initially, Gemistos was opposed to the unity of the western and eastern churches. Not assisting at every theological debate during the Council, he went in town to give lectures to intellectuals and nobles on the essence of Plato and Neo-platonic philosophy. Plethon also brought with him the text of the “Chaldean Oracles” attributed to Zoroaster.

While most of Plethon’s writing were burned, since he was suspected of heresy, a large number of Plethon’s autograph manuscripts ended up in the hands of his former student Cardinal Bessarion. On Bessarion’s death, he willed his personal library to the library of San Marco in Venice (where over 4000 Greeks resided). Among these books and manuscripts was Plethon’s Summary of the Doctrines of Zoroaster and Plato. This Summary was a summary of the Book of Laws, which Plethon wrote inspired by Plato’s laws. The Summary, since it is short, can be presented here. It shows a mixture of polytheistic beliefs with neo-Platonist elements.

“These are the principal doctrines that ought to be acknowledged by one who will be prudent.

[1] The first of these is one about the gods: that they are. One of the gods is Zeus, the supreme sovereign, both the greatest and the best that it is possible to be. He is set over this whole order and singular in highest divinity. He is himself being in its entirety and completely ungenerated; both father and highest creator of all the other gods. His eldest child, also motherless, and second god is Poseidon. Secondary matters have been entrusted by Zeus to him as master of all the things below; and, moreover, Poseidon is the origin and creator of the heavens here. He uses the other gods as coadjutors, as brothers, all motherless supercelestials–these include both the Olympians and the Tartareans. He himself then begot from Hera, a goddess productive of the matter, other gods within the heavens, both the celestial offspring of the stars and then the chthonian offspring of the spirits who are close to us by nature. Who even in Helios, the eldest of his own children, he placed his trust as the master of the heavens here, and, moreover, Helios is the source of the mortal things in it. Nevertheless, he achieves this with Kronos, he who is one of the Tartarean Titans and their leader.

The Tartareans are different from the Olympian gods. The Olympians are the creators and rulers of the immortals in the heavens, but the Tartareans rule the mortals here; so that Kronos of the Tartareans, himself the leader of the Titans, rules over the mortal form altogether. Hera, appointed second after Poseidon among the Olympians, is the creator and ruler of the highest matter, itself indestructible. She did this for the things made with Poseidon himself. Poseidon himself rules the entire form of both the immortal and the mortal. He is the master in the universe. He himself has truly ordained the whole order. Since Zeus, alone in the singularity of his highest divinity, rules apart over the universe. Let this then be the first doctrine that one is to understand and believe.

[2] Next that these gods provide for us. On the one hand, they grasp hold of themselves immediately, on the other, they through themselves grasp those inferior, and all are entirely set right according to the laws of Zeus.

[3] Next that they are not responsible for any of the evils, neither to any other in the universe nor to us, however, they themselves are most responsible for the good things.

[4] And in addition to these things, that by an unalterable and inexorable destiny proceeding from Zeus, each effects its purpose in accordance with the best. These are the doctrines concerning the gods.

[5] Concerning the universe, first that this universe is eternal. Both the second ranking and the third ranking gods are in it. This universe was begotten by Zeus; it was neither begun in time nor will it come to an end.

[6] Next that from the many universes it was joined into a unity.

[7] Next that the best out of those possible has been made, precisely because it was made by the particularly best being. Once it had been made, it was such that nothing had been left out and anything added to it would be excessive.

[8] In addition to these things, that just as it was set down in this form so it shall always be preserved undisturbed. These then are the doctrines about the universe.

[9] Concerning we ourselves, first that our soul, being of like kind to the gods, is immortal and remains in this universe the whole time and is eternal.

[10] Next that the soul is sent down for the purpose of partaking in a mortal body here each time by the gods, at one time in one body, at another in another, on account of the harmony of the universe. That, even though we have a share in mortal things, one thing in us is from the immortals and this is our form. In this way, the universe itself is united to itself.

[11] Next that the good is in us, naturally by our ties to the gods, and this is the fit end of life.

[12] In addition to all this, that our happiness is in our immortal part, put there by the gods who unite our kind, and that is the substance and most important part of man.

These then, twelve altogether, are the principal doctrines concerning the gods, this universe, and our nature. If one, motivated by prudence about considerations of what is necessary, will also really be prudent, then one ought to acknowledge and be mindful of these things.”

However, Plethon was a strong self-taught and independent mind and delivered to the Florentine humanists at the Council of Ferrara-Florence his treatise « On the Difference Between Aristotle and Plato”. Plethon also introduced the Geography of Strabo to the West (where it had hitherto been unknown) and led the way to the overthrow of Ptolemy’s erroneous geographical theories. He thus greatly affected the Renaissance conception of the configuration of the Earth and so played an important, if indirect, role in the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, who cited Strabo among his principal authorities.

In Italy, Plethon’s pupil Manuel Chrysoloras (1355-1415) was perhaps the first of Byzantine scholars, arriving in winter 1397, with texts of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, and other classics. The Byzantine scholars translated texts from Greek to Latin and supervised translations by others. Finally, along with the texts of the philosophers, they brought texts of commentators, especially on Aristotle.

Gemistos other pupil was John Bessarion (1403-1473), theologian, philosopher, philologist, humanist, and diplomat. After priestly ordination (1430) he went to Mistra to listen to Gemistos. Bessarion’s two years in Mistra (1431–1433) had a decisive influence on his philosophical formation, since it was there where he became familiar with the whole Pythagorean, Platonic, and neo-Platonic tradition. Cardinal Bessarion regarded this tradition is one continuum of eternal wisdom, but where Psellos and Bessarion drew on this tradition to confirm Christianity, Gemistos employed it to build and spread a new religion based on neo-Platonism and opposed to the Christian religion. Despite great respect for his teacher Gemistos, Bessarion did not share his polytheistic, anti-Aristotelian, (and some say anti-reunion) tendencies. Demetrius Kydones, a translator of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas into Greek and the spiritual father of unionism developing in Greece would put the idea of ecumenicism into the mind of the young Bessarion through his pupils (Manuel Chrysoloras and Manuel Kalekas). In the further development of his attitude, Bessarion was also influenced by the writings of John Vekkus, the first pro-union Patriarch of Constantinople. In 1437, as Metropolitan of Nicaea, Bessarion took part in the Council in Ferrara and Florence (1438–1439), and as the representative of the Greek he signed the decree of the Florentine Union.

Nevertheless, Bessarion held to the principle: “I honor and respect Aristotle, I love Plato” (colo et veneror Aristotelem, amo Platonem) and he thought that Platonic thought would have the right of citizenship equal to Aristotelian thought in the Latin world only when it appeared in an irenic interpretation to Aristotelianism and as not in contradiction with Christianity, since only such an interpretation of Platonism could succeed at that time.

In Rome, Bessarion organized the first meetings of learned Greeks and Latins in his home. In this way he started the so-called Academy of Bessarion where discussions were held in Greek and Latin at the gatherings and critical versions of texts were developed. Bessarion’s first lectures (1441–1444) were intended to be stylistic exercises in the newly learned Latin. Together with Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457), Bessarion exposed the blatant fraud of the Donation of Constantine.

So as we can see here, Plato was already largely discussed before Ficino came around.

Marsilio Ficino

According to Ficino, who was only five years old at the council of Florence in 1438, Cosimo di Medici (1389-1464) became so inspired by Gemisthos that he acquired a complete library of Greek manuscripts. He bought a copy of the Platonic Corpus (24 dialogues) from Gemistos, and a copy of the Corpus Hermeticum of Hermes Trismegistus, acquired in Macedonia by an italian monk, Lionardo of Pistoia.

Cosimo also decided to initiate a project to translate from the Greek into Latin, the totality of Plato’s works, allegedly “hardly known in the west”.

This is somehow an overstatement since Leonardo Bruni (1369-1444), who after having been papal secretary became chancellor of the Florentine republic from 1427 till 1444, had already translated many works of Aristotle, Plato, Plutarch and Demosthenes into Latin[1].

Cosimo seems to have cultivated some doubts concerning the capacities of the translator he had selected for the job, the young Marsilio Ficino (1433-99), the son of his personal physician. When the latter offers in 1456 his first work, The Platonic Institutions, Cosimo asks him kindly not to publish this work and to learn first the Greek language… which Ficino learns then from Byzantine scholar John Argyropoulos (1415-1487), an Aristotelian pupil of Bessarion.

But seeing his age advancing, Cosimo finally gave him the post. He allocates him an annual stipend, the required manuscripts and a villa at Careggi, close to Florence, where Ficino would organize his “Platonic Academy” with a handful of followers, among which Angelo Poliziano (1454-94), Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) and Cristoforo Landino (1424-1498).

Ficino’s “academy”, taking up the ancient neo-platonic tradition of Plotinus and Porphyry (as Ficino states himself) would organize a ceremonial banquet “neglected since one thousand two hundred years” on November 7, thought to be simultaneously the birthday of Plato and the day of his death. After the dinner, the attendants would read Plato’s Symposium and then each of them would comment one of the speeches. The comments are demonstrations, without any real dialogue and void of the essence of real platonic thinking: irony.

On top of that it is remarkable that most gatherings of Ficino’s academy were attended by the ambassador of Venice in Florence, notably the powerful oligarch Bernardo Bembo (1433-1519), father of “poet” cardinal Pietro Bembo, later special advisor to Pope Julius II.

It was this alliance of the ever more degenerated Medici family, the Venetians and the neo-Platonists that took over the Roman Catholic Church

But before translating Plato, and at the specific demand of Cosimo, Ficino translates first (in 1462) the Orphic Hymns, the Sayings of Zoroaster, and the Corpus Hermeticum of Hermes Trismegistus[2] the Egyptian (between 100 and 300 after BC).

Hence, it is with a quote of the Asclepius [another writing of Trismegistus] that Pico opens his famous “Oratio on Human Dignity”.

It will be only in 1469 that Ficino will finish his translations of Plato after a nervous breakdown in 1468, described by his contemporaries as a crisis of “profound melancholy”.

In 1470, and with a title plagiarized from Proclus, Ficino writes his “Platonic Theology or on the immortality of the Soul.” While completely taken in by esoteric neo-Platonism, he becomes a priest in 1473 and writes “The Christian Religion” without changing his convictions, since he starts then a whole new series of translations of the neo-Platonists of Alexandria: he translates the fifty four books of Plotinus “Enneads”, Porphyry and Proclus.

Ficino versus Prometheus

Ficino, in his own writings, copies extensively Plotinus. Wrongly presented as an exponent of renaissance philosophy, Ficino, in a chapter of his “Five Questions Concerning the Mind” called “The immortal soul is always miserable in its mortal body” explicitly attacks the Promethean conception of man: “Nothing indeed can be imagined more unreasonable than that man, who through reason is the most perfect of all animals, nay, of all things under heaven, most perfect, I say, with regard to that formal perfection that is bestowed upon us from the beginning, that man, also through reason, should be the least perfect of all with regard to that final perfection for the sake of which the first perfection is given. This seems to be that of the most unfortunate Prometheus. Instructed by the divine wisdom of Pallas, he gained possession of the heavenly fire, that is, reason. Because of this very possession, on the highest peak of the mountain, that is, at the very height of contemplation, he is rightly judged most miserable of all, for he is made wretched by the continual gnawing of the most ravenous of vultures, that is, by the torment of inquiry…” (…)

“What do the philosophers say to these things? Certainly the Magi, followers of Zoroaster and Hostanes, assert something similar. They say that, because of a certain old disease of the human mind, everything that is very unhealthy and difficult befalls us…”

In 1489, he publishes a book combining astrology and health, “The book on the three lives”, and in 1492, before dying, he starts translating Iamblichus.

The Florentine Neo-Platonic Academy will serve as a “Delphic” operation: defend Plato to better destroy him; praise him in such terms that he becomes discredited. And especially destroying Plato’s influence by opposing religion to science, at a point where Nicholas of Cusa and his followers are succeeding to do exactly the opposite. Isn’t it remarkable that Cusa’s name doesn’t appear a single time in the works of Ficino or Pico della Mirandola, so overfed with all encompassing knowledge?

Ficino maintained epistolary relations with the elites of his epoch. In Venice, it was the Aldine Academy, the circle of printer Alde Manuce, which was the outpost of Ficino’s operation. Alde Manuce was a school friend of Pico della Mirandola.

Also, according to Ficino’s biographer in 1505, Giovanni Corsi, Ficino nearly dictated the Neo-Platonic themes of Sandro Botticelli’s paintings, sensuous wedding between paganism and Christian thematic. His evil influence on Raphael, Michelangelo and Titian is equally well documented.

Ficino’s “dissident” pupil, Pico della Mirandola will also come up with some dangerous kooky ideas. In his “Oration on the dignity of Man”, besides starting with a quote of Trismegistus, Pico, willing to show that God gave man total freedom without necessity, says God “took man as a creature of indeterminate nature and, assigning him a place in the middle of the world, addressed him thus: “Neither a fixed abode nor a form that is thine alone nor any function peculiar to thyself have we given thee, Adam, to the end that according to thy longing and according to thy judgment thou mayest have and possess what abode, what form, and what functions thou thyself shalt desire…”

(…)”Thou shalt have the power to degenerate into the lower forms of life, which are brutish. Thou shalt have the power, out of thy soul’s judgment, to be reborn into the higher forms, which are devine.”

(…) “And if, happy in the lot of no created thing, he withdraws into the center of his own unity, his spirit, made one with God, on the solitary darkness of God, who is set above all things, shall surpass them all. Who would not admire this our chameleon?”

Pico admits that he took this from the Persian Magi: “For this reason the Persian Euanthes, in describing the Chaldean theology, writes that man has no semblance that is inborn and his very own but many that are external and foreign to him; whence this saying of the Chaldeans: “Hanorsih tharah sharinas,” that is, “Man is a being of varied manifold, and inconstant nature.”

No wonder they all fell for Savonarola’s doomsday teachings and capitulated instantaneously when the French troops of Charles VIII enter into Florence in November 1494.

From peeping Tom to debauchery

Another heritage of Ficino’s hegemony over Platonism was the idea that “platonic” love was purely “ideal” (as based on Plato’s ideas), and rejecting any physical engagements, or love that started “from the neck up”. Ficino coined the term amor platonicus, referring to the affection between Socrates and his young male pupils, a love sometimes mistakenly called “chaste pederasty”.

In Plato’s Symposium, it is Diotima that defines love: 1. Love is the desire to possess the good (or the beautiful) forever. 2. This desire is not only the openly sexual kind (what is usually called « love »), but also the desire of riches, the artist’s desire of beautiful works, or the philosopher’s love of wisdom. 3. All lovers desire to create–either children, or such more intellectual things as art works and political systems. By being creative lovers achieve some sort of immortality. 4. The beauty and offspring of the mind are more honorable than those of the body. The most admirable lovers are those who move from the love of the physical and individual to the love of the intellectual and general.

But for Ficino, things go different. His most influential work was precisely his “Commentary on Plato’s Symposium” written in 1469, composed as a series of speeches commenting Plato’s Symposium after a ritual commemoration of Plato’s birthday and day of death on Nov. 7., a book dedicated to Lorenzo de Medici.

In chapter II, 9, Ficino, from his dualist prison, defines his idea of beauty: “For the rest, what do lovers look for, when they love each with a common love? They look for Beauty. Because love is the desire to take pleasure of Beauty. And Beauty is a splendour that ravishes the human soul. The beauty of the body is nothing else than this splendor manifest in the colors and the lines.” But for Ficino it are “the eyes alone that can take pleasure of the beauty of the body. And since Love is nothing else than the desire to take pleasure of Beauty, and since only the eyes can catch that Beauty, he who loves the body is fully rewarded by vision…” …“Concerning the desire to touch…(…) it is an anger and a disorder unworthy for a free man…”

The whole is a strange mixture of Plato’s elevation toward the essence, Aristotle’s notion of friendship, the erotic love of the troubadour tradition and a pseudo-Christian monastic sort of love for a disincarnated humanity.

But then the question arises how to reach the ONE? Ficino’s mad textual interpretation outlines quite literally that it is a progression by degrees: from the love of a beautiful body to the love of several beautiful bodies; from the beautiful forms to the beauty of the behavior and knowledge. Only at the end of this progression one reaches the beauty in itself (the ONE)…

This Venetian perversion, the erotic interpretation of Plato by Ficino will introduce a rotten apple into the basket of the Renaissance and lay the foundations for the romanticists and the subsequent culturel perversion spread by the oligarchy via its tool, the Congress for Cultural Freedom.


























[1] Bruni refused however to translate Plato’s “Republic” because “there are many things in these books that, to our ways, are loathsome” (Manuel 105). One such problem is that of Plato’s abolition of the family within the ideal city—“All these women shall be wives in common to all the men, and not one of them shall live privately with any man; the children too should be held in common so that no parent shall know which is his own offspring, and no child shall know his parent” (Plato 119). This abolition of the family is made worse by a belief in the need for eugenics, in that “the best men must have intercourse with the best women as frequently as possible, and the opposite is true of the very inferior” (Plato 121). The prescription of eugenics pales, though, in comparison to the belief in the value of infanticide—“the children of good parents they will take to a rearing pen in the care of nurses living apart in a certain section of the city; the children of inferior parents, or any child of the others born defective, they will hide, as is fitting, in a secret and unknown place” (Plato 121-122). Obviously, then, Plato’s Republic, although in many ways a very Humanist work, also stands in opposition to a number of key Christian beliefs and tenets.

[2] Ficino made Trismegistus the first of all theologians: his teachings would have been transmitted successively to Orpheus, to Aglaopheme, to Pythagoras, to Philolaus and finally to Plato. Later, Ficino will place Zoroaster at the head of these prisci theology [first theologians]. At the end he attributes an identical role to Zoroaster and Mercury for the genesis of antique wisdom: Zoroaster taught it to the Persians while Hermes (Mercury) taught it to the Egyptians. Ficino underlined the prophetic character of Trismegistus writings. Trismegistus would have predicted “the ruin of ancient religion, the birth of a new faith, the coming of Christ, the Last Judgment, the Resurrection, the glory of the elected and the punishment of the evil”. Ficino’s translation of Trismegistus, printed as early as 1471, was the starting point of a real rebirth of philosophical hermeticism. Hence, it is with a quote of the Asclepius [another writing of Trismegistus] that Pico opens his famous Oratio de hominis dignitate [Oratio on Human Dignity]; and it is through this process, that in 1488, the image of Trismegistus was engraved on the tiles of the cathedral of Sienna.


Ce qui me tient à coeur

The Art of Feeding Mankind: from Henry A. Wallace to the “Green Revolution”

JPEG - 36.2 ko


By Karel Vereycken, Founder Agora Erasmus, 2008.

In a powerful speech entitled “The Price of Free World Victory” delivered to the Free World Association in New York City on May 8, 1942, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Vice President Henry Agard Wallace laid out his vision to bring mankind into the “Century of the Common Man.”

It stood as a sharp polemic against the anglophile pro-Morgan interests, of such folk as Time magazine’s Henry Luce, which had called earlier in 1941 on America to follow the model of the 19th Century’s “British Century,” and rename it the “American Century.”

America, argued Wallace, after having being freed from slavery by President Abraham Lincoln in the 19th Century, and after freeing the world of the slavery of the Nazi system at that time, had to commit itself, once the war terminated, to also free the common man from the slavery of daily want—the slavery of hunger, sickness, and social insecurity.

Wallace’s words were based on his own experience. As FDR’s Secretary of Agriculture, he had played a key role in the “New Deal” that brought the United States out of an otherwise hopeless depression, which included feeding its own people.


“Modern science,” said Wallace in his 1942 speech, “which is a by-product and an essential part of the people’s revolution, has made it technologically possible to see that all of the people of the world get enough to eat. Half in fun and half seriously, I said the other day to Madame Litvinov: ‘The object of this war is to make sure that everybody in the world has the privilege of drinking a quart of milk a day.’ She replied: ‘Yes, even half a pint.’ The peace must mean a better standard of living for the common man, not merely in the United States and England, but also in India, Russia, China, and Latin America—not merely in the United Nations, but also in Germany and Italy and Japan. »

“Some have spoken of the ‘American Century’: I say that the century on which we are entering—the century which will come out of this war—can be and must be the century of the common man. Everywhere the common man must learn to build his own industries with his own hands in a practical fashion. Everywhere the common man must learn to increase his productivity so that he and his children can eventually pay to the world community all that they have received. No nation will have the God-given right to exploit other nations. Older nations will have the privilege to help younger nations get started on the path to industrialization, but there must be neither military nor economic imperialism. The methods of the 19th Century will not work in the people’s century which is now about to begin. India, China, and Latin America have a tremendous stake in the people’s century. As their masses learn to read and write, and as they become productive mechanics, their standard of living will double and treble. Modern science, when devoted wholeheartedly to the general welfare, has in it potentialities of which we do not yet dream.”

Today, that great vision remains largely unfinished. At the beginning of the 21st Century, out of the roughly 1.43 billion farmers of this planet, the majority of them women, only 27 million (less than 2%!) have tractors, fewer than 300 million use animal labor, and close to 1 billion are enslaved to the limited resources of their own muscles. As a result, some 530 million very poor farmers compose the core of those 900 million of the world population struck with chronic hunger.

The solution for this problem is perfectly known. As we will document here, Wallace’s agricultural policies and scientific optimism define a coherent concept of the art of feeding mankind, a concept that has proven its efficiency and served as a crucial reference point for launching the “Green Revolution,” first in Mexico by Wallace himself, and then later in the early 1960s in India and Asia, and later in Africa. The same concept was also one of the sources of inspiration for De Gaulle’s and Adenauer’s 1962 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), a policy aimed to ensure permanent peace and security through food security.

Henry Agard Wallace

Henry A. Wallace was born in Iowa on October 7, 1888. His father, Henry Cantwell Wallace, was the editor of a farm paper called Wallaces’ Farmer and served as Secretary of Agriculture in the Administrations of Presidents Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge from 1921 until his death in 1924.

George Washington Carver, the first black teacher that Iowa State ever hired, used to take long walks into the surrounding fields to study plants for research. On some of these walks he took a little boy with him, the 6-year-old son of a friend and dairy science professor. Carver shared his love of plants, and the boy responded enthusiastically. At the age of 11, that boy began performing experiments with various varieties of corn. His name was Henry A. Wallace, who would study plant genetics and cross-breeding in the same university under Carver.

Already then, the young Henry Wallace discovered and patented a successful strain of corn that produced a greater yield while resisting disease better than normal corn. As an adult, Wallace’s fascination with corn continued. He developed some of the first hybrid corn varieties and even published his findings in his father’s paper, Wallaces’ Farmer Magazine. He also founded Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc.

Planting his hybrid seeds, the per acre yields of Midwestern corn doubled and even tripled. This triumph allowed the young Wallace to found his own business to manufacture and distribute the plants, a venture that gave him valuable experience for his later career in public service.

The Wallaces had traditionally been a Republican family, but the shock of the Great Depression and its impact on rural America brought Henry to shift political affiliations. Disgruntled by the Coolidge and Hoover agricultural policies, Wallace threw his support to the Democrats. In 1932, Wallace supported Franklin Roosevelt, who in turn selected Wallace as his Secretary of Agriculture.

Secretary of Agriculture

A firm supporter of government economic intervention, Wallace vigorously implemented the “controversial measures” of the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), enacted on May 12, 1933. For the first time, Congress declared that it was “the policy of Congress” to balance supply and demand for farm commodities so that prices would support a decent purchasing power for farmers.

After some study, economists for the U.S. Government decided that during the time from 1909 to 1914, the prices that farmers got for their crops and livestock were roughly in balance with the prices they had to pay for goods and services they used in the production of crops and livestock and family living. In other words, a farmer’s earning power was on a par with his or her purchasing power. This concept, incorporated in the AAA, was known as “parity.”

Never before in peacetime had the Federal Government sought to regulate production in American farming, with government planning designed to battle the main problem of that period in U.S. farming—overproduction and low prices.

Although the stock market crash of October 1929 represents, for many, the onset of the Great Depression, the decade of the 1920s was one of depression for much of agricultural America.

World War I had severely disrupted agriculture in Europe. That turned to the advantage of farmers in the United States, who increased production dramatically and were therefore able to export surplus food to European countries. But by the 1920s, European agriculture had recovered and American farmers found it more difficult to find export markets for their products. Production had flourished under the high prices generated by World War I. Wartime demand ended suddenly with the Armistice in 1918. The 1920s saw overproduction and declining prices. Farmers continued to produce more food than could be consumed, and prices began to fall. The loss of income meant that many farmers had difficulty paying the mortgages on their farms. Farm mortgage debt rose from $3.2 billion in 1910 to $9.6 billion by 1930 and brought many American farmers into serious financial difficulty. However, with the Great Depression gripping cities as well as rural areas, there were few alternatives.

Overproduction resulting from shrinking domestic and foreign markets and the sharp drop of purchasing power collapsed prices dramatically. In South Dakota, for example, the county grain elevators listed corn as minus three cents a bushel—if a farmer wanted to sell them a bushel of corn, he had to bring in three cents. Fields of cotton lay unpicked, because it could not be sold even for the price of picking. Orchards of olive trees hung full of rotting fruit. Oranges were being sold at less than the cost of production. Grain was being burned instead of coal because it was cheaper.


Such drastic times required drastic measures, and as soon as FDR was elected, Secretary Wallace gave responsibility for drafting legislation to Mordecai Ezekiel, a senior Agriculture Department economist, and Frederic P. Lee, a Washington lawyer employed by the American Farm Bureau Federation. Roosevelt sent the draft to Congress on March 16, stating: “I tell you frankly that it is a new and untrod path, but … an unprecedented condition calls for the trial of a new means to rescue agriculture.”

Congress passed the far-reaching legislation, and it was signed on May 12, 1933, as the AAA. This Act authorized production adjustment programs that were a direct outgrowth of the experience of the Federal Farm Board. It authorized the use of marketing agreements and licenses, which had been used already by producers to promote orderly marketing of perishable fruits and vegetables. Also, under authority of the AAA large quantities of surplus food were distributed via Food Stamps to needy households through and to school lunch programs.

The day after the AAA was adopted, on May 13, 1933, in a radio speech labeled “A Declaration of Interdependence,” Wallace, combining determination and great compassion, told farmers over the radio:

“In the end, we envision programs of planned land use; and we must turn our thought to this end immediately; for many thousands of refugees from urban pinch and hunger are turning, with little or no guidance, to the land. A tragic number of city families are reoccupying abandoned farms, farms on which born farmers, skilled, patient, and accustomed to doing with very little, were unable to make a go of it. In consequence of this back-flow there are now 32 million people on the farms of the United States, the greatest number ever recorded in our history. Some of those who have returned to farming will find their place there, but most of them, I fear, will not.”

He added: “The adjustment we seek calls first of all for a mental adjustment, a willing, reversal, of driving, pioneer opportunism and ungoverned laissez-faire. The ungoverned push of rugged individualism perhaps had an economic justification in the days when we had all the West to surge upon and conquer; but this country has filled up now, and grown up. There are no more Indians to fight. No more land worth taking may be had for the grabbing. We must experience a change of mind and heart.”

Hence, the first goal set with the AAA was to reduce the amount of crops that farmers produced and the number of livestock sent to slaughter. Less crops and fewer animals would mean that prices for agricultural products would rise, increasing farmers’ abilities to pay off debts and enhancing their purchasing power. To convince farmers to reduce production, the AAA authorized the Federal Government to pay subsidies to farmers for growing smaller crops and raising fewer animals.

In an earlier speech, “The Farm Crisis,” delivered by radio on March 10, 1933, Wallace keenly had observed that “During the few years just preceding 1929, we were selling in foreign markets the product of roughly 60 million acres of land. The value of those exports this past fiscal year was 60% below that of 1929. We must reopen those markets, restore domestic markets, and bring about rising prices generally; or we must provide an orderly retreat for the surplus acreage, or both.”

In “The Cotton Plow-Up,” a speech delivered on radio on August 21, 1933, Wallace defended his policy: “On one of the largest cotton plantations in Mississippi I saw a dramatic instance of America’s present effort to catch its balance in a changed world. There were two immense fields of cotton with a road between them. On one side of the road men with mules and tractors were turning back into the earth hundreds of acres of thrifty cotton plants nearly three feet high. On the other side of the road an airplane was whipping back and forth at 90 miles an hour over the same kind of cotton and spreading a poison dust to preserve it from destruction by the boll weevil. Both of these operations were proceeding side by side on the same farm, and both in our present critical state of economic unbalance were justifiable and necessary.”

To tackle that problem, Wallace offered hog and cotton farmers a single opportunity to improve their stagnating markets by plowing under 10 million acres of cotton and slaughtering 6 million pigs and 220,000 pregnant sows. For the losses, the government would issue relief checks totaling millions of dollars. Wallace scorned those who ridiculed his plans without considering the logic behind them, observing, “Perhaps they think that farmers should run a sort of old-folks home for hogs.”

After these dramatic short-term measures to curb overproduction and provoke a rapid price increase, the AAA controlled the supply of seven “basic crops”—corn, wheat, cotton, rice, peanuts, tobacco, and milk—by offering payments to farmers in return for taking some of their land out of farming and not planting a crop.

Although it earned Wallace the nickname “The Greatest Butcher in Christendom,” the program essentially worked, and the market experienced a 50% rise in prices.

Meanwhile, FDR’s New Deal banking reforms and industrial renaissance increased the population’s overall purchasing power and former agricultural workers found productive jobs in industry and great infrastructure construction programs. Dams and rural electrification gave farmers the means to modernize production and access to fertilizer and irrigation.

Today’s Problem

Today, we are obviously not at all in the same situation as FDR was in 1933, but the same principles are at stake. Over the past two decades, globalized free trade and partisan deregulation, combined with reductions of subsidies and inventories, have driven world food prices down while reducing many nations’ population’s living standard and buying power.

Already in itself, the “world food price” is by itself a fraud. For example, if today’s world cereals production is close to 2 billion tons, only 200 million tons (10%) are traded on the world market, while that “world price” becomes the price of reference for the remaining 90%. And of those 200 million tons, 80% are traded by only three giant agro-cartels—Cargill (U.S.), Archer Daniel Midland (U.S.), and Louis Dreyfus (France).

Correctly identified in the early 1920s and 1930s by Wallace’s advisor Mordecai Ezekiel as the “inelasticity” of the food and agriculture market, a small discontinuity (e.g., drought, catastrophe) in the supply or demand of food and agricultural products, if unregulated, is sufficient to provoke major price instabilities.

Hence feeding the planet is a time needing process. While financial speculation prospers by “surfing” on rapid shifts of commodity prices, food security, as a policy, is uniquely based on stability, because a price too low prevents farmers from planning and investing in tomorrow’s production, while a price too high destroys the population’s access to food, both in quantity and quality.

The success of FDR’s New Deal and Wallace’s AAA established a valid and proven model that was as far distant from Soviet-style totalitarian regulation as it was from British free trade looting and, as such, became a model for the post-war reconstruction period.

It only required for something that the Anglo-Dutch financier cartels hate the most—governments that govern, rather than being mere tools of some kind of special interests.

Norman Borlaug and the “Green Revolution”


Several weeks ago, Helga Zepp-LaRouche called for a “new Green Revolution” to solve the world’s food crisis.

What are we talking about?

What used to be understood as the “Green Revolution” (before the Malthusian greenies arrived) refers to a great scientific and economic mobilization that took place in India, a country six times larger than France and populated by more than 1 billion people, when a basic form of food self-sufficiency was attained, a goal achieved in the domain of rice and wheat in the extraordinarily short period of about 15 years.

As a result, India’s wheat production increased from 12 million tons per year in the 1970s to 70 million tons today. The “Green Revolution” got started in India, when in May 1962, M.S. Swaminathan, later an advisor to Indira Gandhi, invited to India the American agronomist Norman Borlaug to bring the “Green Revolution” from Mexico to India.

Born on March 25, 1914 and raised in Cresco, Iowa, Norman Ernest Borlaug worked as an adolescent on his father’s farm in Iowa, the state of Henry Wallace. Later he specialized in agronomy and genetics and was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1970 for his development of high-yielding wheat. According to Borlaug, one of his motivations derived from the shock he experienced in 1935 upon discovering the effects of rampant malnutrition among youth when he was leading a group of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a program designed by FDR to bring young Americans back into some kind of organized working practice. During the war, Borlaug’s laboratory would work, as many did, for the war effort.

After the election of 1940, Wallace took a vacation trip to Mexico. There he found the yield of corn, an important part of most Mexican families’ diet, to be much lower than that of American farmers that planted hybrid corn varieties.

Wallace had an idea to create agriculture experimental stations like those in Iowa. The stations would develop improved corn varieties adapted for the climate and soil of Mexico. On his return to the United States, he proposed the idea to the Rockefeller Foundation and convinced them this was in the “strategic interest” of the United States. The decision was made to help the Camacho administration to increase substantially Mexico’s agricultural output and an experimental station was built. To achieve that goal, Borlaug, as many others, was called on to join the effort. After finishing the war, working a well-paid job at Dupont, and leaving temporarily behind his pregnant wife, Borlaug flew to Mexico to join the station started by Wallace.

By studying the agronomic conditions of the region, Borlaug and his team realized they could speed up breeding by taking advantage of Mexico’s two growing seasons. Building on frequent travels in the region to exchange ideas and results on experiments, Borlaug helped to set up a network of agricultural scientists later to become the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maiz y Trigo [CIMMYT]).

Borlaug’s plan encountered massive opposition from his patrons, and only after a big battle in which he threatened to resign did he get the green light to go ahead. In the summer he bred wheat in the central highlands as usual, then immediately took the seeds north to the Yaqui Valley research station near Ciudad Obregon, Sonora. The difference in altitudes and temperatures allowed more crops to be grown each year. Besides the extra cost of doubling the work, Borlaug’s plan went against a then-held principle of agronomy that has since been disproved. It was believed that seeds needed a rest period after harvesting, in order to store energy for germination before being planted. As of 1945, wheat would then be bred at locations 700 miles (1,000 km) apart, 10 degrees apart in latitude, and 8,500 feet (2,600 m) apart in altitude. This was called “shuttle breeding.”

As had Wallace, Borlaug was interested in improving plant varieties. One of his specialties was “dwarfing.” While taller wheat grasses better compete for sunlight but tend to collapse under the weight of larger seed heads—a trait called “lodging”—dwarf plants produce thick stems and do not lodge. In 1953, Borlaug acquired a Japanese dwarf variety of wheat that had been crossed with a high-yielding American wheat variety. Borlaug cross-bred this variety with disease resistant cultivars to produce wheat varieties adapted to tropical and sub-tropical climate areas. Borlaug’s new semi-dwarf, disease-resistant varieties changed the potential yield of spring wheat dramatically. By 1963, 95% of Mexico’s wheat crops used the semi-dwarf varieties developed by Borlaug. That year, the wheat harvest was six times larger than in 1944, the year Borlaug arrived in Mexico. Corn production had doubled, and Mexico had become fully self-sufficient in wheat production and a net exporter of wheat.

From Mexico to India

The governments and elites of the world and especially in Asia had followed hour by hour these developments. As we said before, under the impulsion of M.S. Swaminathan, Borlaug’s contributions were mobilized for India. Swaminathan especially succeeded in convincing the Indian minister Subramanian to import the high-yield seeds from Mexico, even if their prices were twice as high as the Indian seeds. After achieving major progress for wheat, Borlaug then focused his energy to ameliorate problems facing another cereal—rice. The improvement of the Indian rice production was undertaken simultaneously in the entire region and supported by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) based in the Philippines.

All these successes brought William Gaud, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), to declare in 1968: “These and other developments in the field of agriculture contain the makings of a new revolution. It is not a violent Red Revolution like that of the Soviets, nor is it a White Revolution like that of the Shah of Iran. I call it the Green Revolution.”

But the “Green Revolution” would never have become green without the following ingredients, defined as a single “technological as well as political package.”

First, the three “technologies” to be mobilized were:

  • High-yield seeds, such as those developed for wheat and corn in Mexico and rice in Asia.
  • Fertilizers and pesticides, which India would initially import before setting up its own production.
  • Irrigation. India started its first rice program in regions already steeped in the tradition of irrigation, such as the Punjab. Irrigated farmland was tripled between 1950 and 1996. The water used for irrigation in both Mexico and India is paid for by the state, and prices of electricity for operating pumps have been close to zero or moderate till recently.

The French agronomist and economist Michel Griffon, in his book “Nourrir la planète” (Feeding the planet), emphasizes that the Green Revolution cannot be merely reduced to a simple set of scientific techniques, such as those represented by high-yield seeds, but consists of a global, state-regulated agricultural policy akin to FDR’s and Wallace’s New Deal.

Griffon writes: “For M.S. Swaminathan, what was first called the wheat revolution in 1968, was in reality at the same time a technology as well as measures, such as rural electrification to pump ground water, the creation of an agricultural commission capable to recommend efficient prices, the creation of the Food Corporation of India to buy the wheat of the producers at prices dictated by the state, and the creation of the National Seed Corporation to produce high-yield seed varieties….


“To be even more precise, the economic model that went along with the green revolution, and similar revolutions that spread over Asia and the world, was characterized by the following basic measures:

  • The producer has the guarantee that his harvest will be bought.
  • The producer has the guarantee of the price of his harvest before production.
  • Subsidies for fertilizer and seeds.
  • Subsidized loans of agriculture credit for the yearly purchases and equipment, such as irrigation pumps and tillage equipment.
  • Free training and vulgarization of knowledge.”

“This voluntaristic policy,” writes Griffon, “is not very different than the policy which was applied and still is applied by Western nations in the same period. The Marshall Plan that was partly set up to overcome food shortages in the post-war period and the policies of General McArthur in Japan to rebuild the economy were based on the same massive effort combining a new technology and aid measures highly stimulating. The same principles also inspired during the same period the French agricultural policy and then the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).”


The “White” and “Yellow” Revolutions


In India, the “Green Revolution” was followed by the “White Revolution”—the revolution of producing milk. In 1968, India created the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) to broaden the creation of milk cooperatives, more efficient than state-run milk collection. In 10 years, 13,000 milk cooperatives were set up and their number reached 95,000 in 1995. The cooperatives also assisted the upgrading of production through providing veterinary services, animal feed, artificial insemination, and cross-breeding with high-producing dairy cows such as the Holstein variety.

Between 1970 and 1985, milk production was doubled, nearly entirely to the benefit of very small farmers, 70% of them having fewer than two cows. Today, India is the biggest milk producer in the world and 70 million families live from the dairy sector.

To produce milk, you need cows. But to produce cows, you need animal feed. Consequently, as a spin-off of the “White Revolution,” emerged the “Yellow revolution,” and the NDDB, flush with its success, was called on to accomplish the same effort for the oleaginous production capable to grow animal feed and start the production of edible oil.

Griffon: “The NDDB undertook massive market interventions using three means: it bought up foreign imports, it bought up production on local markets when production was abundant, and organized delivery centers for the edible oil industry. The result was a lowering of imports, price stabilization, and a stimulation of demand and the development of local production. As early as the 1990s, national production was increased, increasing from about 10 million tons to close to 25 million tons.”

The total cumulative effect of the “Green,” “White,” and “Yellow” revolutions gave India the opportunity to effect a “food transition”—as do all nations that develop—from a diet based on roots and dry vegetables to cereals, and from cereals to animal protein complemented with fresh fruits and vegetables.

Who Killed the Green Revolution?

Of course, every solution applied by man creates new types of interesting problems and only a policy of permanent discovery of new physical principles can sustain permanent economic and demographic growth. For example, intensive irrigation using slightly salty water will cover any farmland over a longer period with a thin crest of salt. Modern science and technology can tackle such a problem overnight, and only sick minded environmentalists or Stone Age Malthusians would call for scrapping irrigation totally.

In reality, the real reason why yields and productivity have not continued rising over the past decades, is not because of Green Revolution policies, but because these policies were dismantled and key components were scrapped, especially for the sake of the policies imposed by international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. The trilogy of stabilization, adjustment, and liberalization was the crux of these anti-Green Revolution policies. These three soldiers of the Apocalypse have dismantled the public agriculture sectors that were developing, as much as possible, and with all their problems, out of the Green Revolution.

Griffon observes that “In each country, [Green Revolution] development resulted in a process very rationally laid out, bringing into being a group of institutions and economic circuits necessary for the Green Revolution and regional development.” In short, the Green Revolution developed political nation-states.

Hence, the global empire of Anglo-Dutch financial globalization is not ready to tolerate the formation of even the shadow of a nation-state. Therefore, regulated farming had to be destroyed, and in name of the “Washington Consensus,” public budgets where slashed and often eliminated in the early 1990s, provoking several countries to return to hunger and food insecurity. If before the breakdown of the Soviet Union nations were partly allowed to feed themselves for not falling into the hands of a communist rival empire, they were not any longer allowed to do so afterwards.

Can a New Green Revolution Succeed Again Today?

In terms of new technologies, many promising leads exist already and yields and productivity can still be increased. Even if this author is not aware to what extent the following discoveries have been translated into common practice, it is interesting to note that in 1997, the Population report of Johns Hopkins University indicated the following three promising leads to increase world food production:

  • Super Rice. The International Rice Research Institute of the Philippines has developed a new variety of rice capable of a 25% yield increase, which represents an extra 100 million tons of rice per year, or the required volume to feed 450 million people. The variety so far seems to perform well only on highly irrigated farmland.
  • Maize. Wallace’s and Borlaug’s CIMMYT of Mexico has developed several varieties of maize that could increase yields another 40%. These varieties could be cultivated on marginal farmland and would be especially useful for poor farmers. If these varieties were broadly used, an estimated extra 50 million people can be fed each year.
  • Potato. The International Potato Center headquartered in Lima, Peru, claims that if the required $25 million were invested, the Center can produce a new variety of potato capable of resisting severe diseases rampant on many continents.

M.S. Swaminathan has called for a “double” Green Revolution, meaning that today’s scientific knowledge gives us more responsibilities today than in the 1960s. For him, the issue is not just raising productivity and yields at all costs, but to cooperate with the biosphere, because the neo-liberal economic free trade policies end up looting both man and the creative potentialities of the biosphere.

Soil erosion can be overcome by better water management, alternating production, water desalination with nuclear energy, and a more targeted use of fertilizer and pesticides.

Without falling into the trap of green pessimism, American economist Lyndon LaRouche has emphasized that man cannot just “eliminate” all the “unproductive” varieties of plants and animals we have around us for the mere reason that we do not have yet the science to use their vast potential. The decrease of biodiversity equally decreases the chances of mankind to find its resources for survival, argues LaRouche. The science of cross-breeding and genetic modification, if taken out of the hands of mega financiers and political “big brothers,” will continue to help mankind to develop.



Ce qui me tient à coeur

What the world should learn from Chinese fish farming

By Karel Vereycken, June 2016

Chinese Carp Painting - This is an Original Painting


Fish is essential to feeding humanity. According to the 2014 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s SOFIA (State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture) report, in 2010, fish provided more than 3 billion people with almost 20 % of their intake of animal protein, and another 4.3 billion people with about 15 % of such protein. A portion of 150g of fish can provide up to 60 % of an adult’s daily protein requirements as well as healthy fats like Omega3.

Both marine and inland capture of wild fish, thanks to more efficient fishing techniques, multiplied threefold between 1950 and 1969. However, it started stagnating at the end of the 1980s. For one simple reason: the technique outdid the resource.


In 2012, global fisheries and aquaculture production totaled 158 million tons. This is approximately 10 million tons more than in 2010. In the mid-1990s seafood production was around 75-85 million tons.


Only the fast growing practice of fish farming (aquaculture) which dominates in Asia and China, allowed a net increase of the world’s fish consumption, today at 19.2 kg per year per capita. Asia has the highest consumptions of seafood as a continent, combining high per-person consumptions with large populations. In France, consumption increased from 23 kg in 1990 to 35 kg today, i.e. twice the amount of 1960.

Exit pre-history

The reality of wild fish, is that it is about to go extinct. So far, in terms of fishing, humanity, instead of creating new and larger resources, maintains a policy of looting the oceans, pretty much identical to that of pre-historical man living in a hunting and gathering society. Indeed, before domesticating animals and developing agriculture around 10,000 BC, man barely survived by looting policies. Today, as long as mankind refuses for various reasons to change his prehistoric behavior of looting, the risk of disappearing remains dead real.


Today, FAO statistics of 2015 indicate that 50 % of world fish stocks are “fully” exploited and 30 % of them are exploited “beyond renewal capacities”. It means several species, as herring, considered as being “naturally” available, if nothing is done, are threatened to disappear! Today, worldwide, with modern fishing techniques using sonar to identify targets, fishing capacities are estimated three times larger than the available fish resources to be captured! 50 % of all fish is captured by only 1% of the worlds fishing fleet, mainly in the hands of giant multinational sea food corporations.

The lesson of the great cod disaster


Did it happen before? Yes, it did, but few people know about it. The world has hidden and seems quite reluctant to learn the lessons of the dramatic collapse of the Atlantic northwest cod fishery (kabeljouw, stockfish).

Historically, since the beginning of the XVIth century, generations of European fishers from Spain, Portugal, Britain, France, etc.) went fishing and captured millions of tons of cod in New Foundland (Terre Neuve) before the coast of Canada, Groenland and Iceland. There, the availability of cod seemed infinite. A good breeder, this big and tasty fish could be dried and easily conserved with salt.

But when fishing techniques became more performing and fleets increased, after an initial explosion of captures, the stocks of cod collapsed entirely.

As a result, since 1993, year after year, the interdiction to fish cod in this area has been renewed and stocks are slowly regenerating. Of course, without fish, the fishing industry specialized in cod went bankrupt. Today, cod eaten in Europe comes mainly from the North East Atlantic, especially the Barents Sea north of Norway where stocks are managed with care. While before, one cod could weigh up to 35 kg, today 5 kg is the average. Elsewhere in the world, the species is in a precarious situation.


Today, overfishing, i.e. looting for pure short term financial profits remains the overall rule and nothing really serious is done to implement policy decisions aimed to reverse such suicidal tendencies. Fishing companies, to increase profits, are increasingly practicing “trawling”, a method of fishing that involves pulling a giant fishing net through the water behind one or more boats. Midwater trawling catches pelagic fish such as anchovies, shrimp, tuna and mackerel, whereas the very destructive and largely unproductive practice of bottom trawling targets cod, squid, halibud and rockfish.

In short, the same practice which provoked the great cod disaster of 1993 is still used in the Atlantic today. So far, despite many resolutions and campaigns, nothing has been done to outlaw this practice.

And since there isn’t too much to steel any more in the Atlantic, how about steeling elsewhere? Since large fish is extinct, fishing multinationals are increasingly looting Africa and Latin America. With the small fish and the shrimps they catch (37% of all captures), they produce fish oil and fishmeal (mainly for high-protein feed) and fish oil (as a feed additive in aquaculture). The small fish, rather than feeding the bigger fish, are used both as fertilizer as well as food for pet animals, poultry, pigs and cows in the rich countries…

On top, per year up to 30 million tons of fish (30 % of total) are stolen in Africa, Asia and Latin America by non regulated “pirate fishing”! Poor countries, dramatically lacking navies to protect their fishermen are of course the primary targets.

The EU, once so abundant in fish, is already importing 40 % of its consumption. At best, officials talk about “managing” stock, while the creation of new stock should be the issue.

Farming the oceans

For J.F. Kennedy, which decided in 1963 to invest 2 million dollars, oceanic exploration was not just getting out oil, gas and raw materials. In 1962 he said that the US “intensified effort to expand knowledge and understanding of the vast resources held by the oceans through basic research and surveys of geologic and living resources will surely result in extending our known resource base, with encouragingprospects for improving our standard of livingand adding protein-rich marine products to the diets ofthe hungry people of the world.” And in 1962 he declared that“In addition, we can make the most extraordinary gains in getting food from the ocean depths in the next 10 or 20 years. This question of oceanography has also occupied the attention of the Congress and this administration, how we can double the amount of protein which is available to people around the world. This is a whole new area ofconservation, unknown to those who preceded us but which is now coming into public understanding as a result of your efforts and the efforts of others, and which can make the most profound difference to the lives of people who live rather listlessly because of inadequate proteins.”

China and the invention of aquaculture

While in 1980, only 9 % of seafood came from fish farming, its share rose to 47 % in 2010. Today, 88 % of all fish farming takes place in Asia. China alone, with one-fifth of the world’s population, represents 62 % of the world’s fish farming capacity. China’s fish production has tripled in the past 20 years and employs millions of people. The principal aquaculture-producing regions are close to urban markets of the middle and lower Yangtze valley and the Zhu Jiang delta.

In the great classical handbook Aquaculture science, Rick Parker says that China is, of course, “the cradle of fish farming” and fish farming was and remains crucial to its rise. “Aquaculture began in China about 3500 BC in China with the culture of the common carp. These carp were grown in ponds on silkworm farms. The silkworm pupae and feces provided supplemental food for the fish. (…) In Chinese, the word for fish means surplus. Indeed, fish were equated with a bountiful harvest. (…) In 475 BC, (politician) Fan-Li wrote the oldest document on fish farming (Yang Yu Ching, or Treatise on fish breeding. Original document is in the British Museum.). (…) Fan-Li’s document described methods for pond construction, broodstock selection, stocking, and managing ponds”.

Carp are native to China. They are good to eat, and they are easy to farm since they are prolific breeders, do not eat their young, and grow fast. The common carp was the number one fish of aquaculture in antiquity, and today, worldwide, is still extensively cultured. Carp represents 46 % of today’s Chinese aquaculture.

The confucion tradition allowed the Chinese to understand the harmony of nature’s “intelligence”. Two things which most of us consider self-evident, in reality do not exist in nature: waste and unemployment. Vernadsky understood this principle. A leaf falling from a tree will become the breeding ground for other forms of life. Therefore, in China, fish farming was not considered something separate but a key element in the chain of an integrated aqua-agricultural economy.

Rick Parker: “In the Zhujiang Delta of South China, a dike-pond system of agriculture still exists after more than 500 years. Mulberry, sugarcane, fruit, forage crops, vegetables, silkworm breeding, and pig raising integrate with fish rearing. Crops and crop residues are fed directly to various species of carp, bream and tilapia”.

During the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD), the farming of common carp was banned because the Chinese word for common carp sounded like the emperor’s family name. Anything that sounded like the emperor’s name could not be kept or killed. The ban had a productive outcome, because it resulted in the development of polyculture, the growing multiple species in the same ponds. Different species feed on different foods and occupy different niches in the ponds. In this way, the Chinese were able to simultaneously breed four different species of carp, the mud carp, which are bottom feeders, silver carp and bighead carp, which are midwater feeders, and grass carp which are top feeders. Another development during the Tang dynasty was a fortunate genetic mutation of the domesticated carp, which led to the development of goldfish.

From 1368 AD, the Ming Dynasty encouraged fish farmers to supply the live fish trade live, which dominates Chinese fish sales to this day. From 1500 AD, methods of collecting carp fry from rivers and then rearing them in ponds were developed.

In the past, fish culture in China has been a family business, with traditional techniques passed from generation to generation. Then, in the late 1960s the Chinese government began a move to the modern induced breeding technologies, which resulted in a rapid expansion of freshwater aquaculture in China.

China key to the future of seafood

Today, the choices made by the Chinese government for the future of China’s aquaculture will fix world trends.

Ancient China was full of wisdom. In terms of fishing it made three excellent choices which should guide us, including China, today.

1)     The first choice was to start creating its own resources by the development of aquaculture.

2)     The second was to select a species of fish, such as carp, that was not carnivore but omnivore. Why is this important you will understand in a moment.

3)     The third choice was to feed the fish it was farming with herbs, insects and waste, and not with fresh animal protein.

To understand the wisdom of these three decisions seen as a totality, one has to know some of the basics of aquaculture. While aquaculture is generally presented as more environmental friendly, the reality can be the opposite.

The difference comes in the first place from the eating habits of species produced: carnivore, herbivore or omnivore. Today, in the West, the main species farmed in fish farms are carnivore species such as salmon, trout, etc. However, these carnivore species can only be fed with some form of animal protein: to obtain 1 kg of carnivore fish, between 1.5 to 4 kg of other fish are required!

Therefore, fish farmers farming carnivore depend on fishmeal and fish oil made from wild-caught species, as said before, a practice depleting wild fish stocks and destroying the ocean’s ecosystems. Chile, Peru and Iceland are the main producers of fishmeal and fish oil mainly used for fish farming. Some unregulated Chinese fishers are fishing so-called “trash fish”, i.e. species unfit for human consumption that end up in animal feeds, including fishmeal. What the fishers don’t realize is that they are taking away the food of the fish they will not be able to fish any longer tomorrow!

Therefore, the world has to go back to ancient Chinese wisdom:

1)     Fish producers should emphasis on farming omnivore and herbivore fish species;

2)     Fishmeal should be produced exclusively from the waste by-products from seafood processing plants and not from wild fish. A team of researchers from Stanford University observed that in China, this waste, which can be 30 to 70 percent of the incoming volume of fish, is often discarded or discharged into nearby waters. They also said that even if the waste is lower in protein than wild-caught fish, this can be overcome by adding plant-based protein sources to the fishmeal, like algae or ethanol yeast;

3)     The mass production of insects can and should be organized, not to feed humans, but to replace fishmeal as food for fish;

4)     New techniques of fish farming, not in ponds but in the open ocean, can and should be developed without delay.

5)     In the West, the promotion of herbivore fish species in our daily food habits will also be required.

6)     Vaccination of fish stocks, as done with great success in Norway, rather than saturation with anti-biotics is also the way to go.

7)     Silk production should not be considered something of the past but of the future. Many other insects, besides “silkworms” can produce interesting treads. Scientists are convinced that silk can become the basis of replacement for our current plastics which, while falling into nano-particles, are a huge source of pollution in the oceans (giant garbage patches in the main oceans). If one extrapolates current trends, in 2050, the weight of the garbage floating on the oceans will bypass the weight of seafood ! Tomorrows “bio-plastics” made from silk can become a substitute for current plastics, replace titanium in razors and play a key role in medical prosthesis.






Ce qui me tient à coeur

Ce que le monde devrait apprendre de l’aquaculture chinoise

Par Karel Vereycken, fondateur d’Agora Erasmus


Le 30 juin 2016, après quatre années d’intenses négociations, l’UE, suite à une forte mobilisation citoyenne exigeant l’interdiction de la pêche en eaux profondes, a fini par imposer des normes contraignantes visant à réguler cette activité.

Mesure phare, le chalutage (raclage des fonds marins avec d’énormes filets qui endommagent notamment les récifs coralliens) sera interdit dans les eaux profondes de plus de 800 mètres.

Bien que les scientifiques réclament comme limite les 600 mètres et que la règle ne s’appliquera que dans les eaux communautaires (et non pas dans les eaux internationales) à partir de 2017, saluons un pas dans la bonne direction.

Ce qui manque, c’est l’horizon prometteur d’une pêche réellement scientifique et durable qui passe par un plan de modernisation pour la pêche et l’aquaculture dans son ensemble. Après notre dossier La mer, avenir de l’homme, voici quelques pistes.

Le poisson est essentiel pour nourrir l’humanité. Selon le rapport de la FAO de 2015 qui fait le bilan de la pisciculture et la pêche mondiale, en 2010, le poisson a fourni 20 % des protéines animales pour trois milliards de personnes et 15 % pour 4,3 milliards de personnes supplémentaires. Une portion de 150 grammes de poisson peut satisfaire jusqu’à 60 % des besoins quotidiens en protéines d’un adulte et lui fournir des graisses saines comme les omega-3.

Entre 1950 et 1969, grâce à des techniques plus performantes, le tonnage de poisson sauvage capturé, aussi bien en mer qu’en eau douce, a été triplé pour finir par stagner à la fin des années 1980. Et ceci pour une raison très simple : la capacité de capture dépassait de loin la ressource.

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Production mondiale de poisson en millions de tonnes. En bleu le volume des captures de poisson sauvage (quasiment stable depuis 1990), en jaune le poisson d’élevage (en forte hausse depuis 1990).
Crédit : World Ressources Institute

En 2012, la production mondiale cumulée de la pêche et de l’aquaculture totalisait 158 millions de tonnes, quelque 10 millions de tonnes de plus qu’en 2010. Or, ce total n’était que de 75 à 85 millions de tonnes au milieu des années 1990.

En réalité, c’est la croissance fantastique de l’aquaculture qui domine en Asie et en Chine, qui a permis à l’humanité d’augmenter sa consommation en poisson pour atteindre la moyenne de 19,2 kg par an par personne. L’Asie, en tant que continent, est le plus grand consommateur mondial de produits de la mer, combinant une forte consommation par personne et une importante population. En France, la consommation est passée de 23 kg en 1990 à 35 kg aujourd’hui, c’est-à-dire le double de 1960.

 Sortir de la préhistoire

La vérité, c’est que le poisson sauvage risque l’extinction. Car en termes de pêche, l’humanité, au lieu de créer des ressources plus vastes et nouvelles dans ce domaine, perpétue le pillage des océans, tel l’homme préhistorique se satisfaisant d’une société vivant de la chasse et de la cueillette. En effet, avant la domestication des animaux et le développement de l’agriculture il y a environ 10 000 ans avant JC, l’homme survivait grâce aux politiques de pillage des ressources « naturelles ». Aujourd’hui, tant que l’homme refuse d’abandonner ce comportement préhistorique et non-scientifique, le risque que le poisson, et in fine l’homme lui-même, disparaissent, est bien réel.

D’après les statistiques de la FAO de 2015, 50 % des espèces halieutiques sont « pleinement » exploitées et 30 % sont exploitées « au delà des capacités de renouvellement ». En clair, plusieurs espèces, dont par exemple le hareng, considéré universellement en Europe comme « naturellement » disponible ad infinitum, si rien n’est fait, est menacé de disparition !

A l’échelle mondiale, avec les techniques de pêches ultramodernes utilisant le sonar pour identifier les cibles, les capacités de pêche estimées sont trois fois supérieures à la ressource disponible ! Notez également que 50 % du poisson capturé, l’est par à peine 1 % de la flotte de pêche mondiale aux mains de multinationales géantes.

 Le « grand désastre » de la morue

A-t-on connu des catastrophes de ce type ? Oui, mais bien peu de gens le savent. Le monde a caché et semble réticent à apprendre de l’effondrement dramatique des réserves de morue (cabillaud, stockfisch) dans le nord-est de l’Atlantique.

Historiquement, depuis le début du XVIe siècle, des générations de pêcheurs espagnols, français, portugais, anglais, allemands, hollandais, etc. partaient pêcher des tonnes de morue à Terre Neuve (New Foundland) devant les côtes du Canada, du Groenland et de l’Islande. Là, la disponibilité de la morue y semblait infinie. Bon reproducteur, ce grand poisson goûteux était facile à sécher et à conserver avec du sel.

Cependant, lorsque dans les années 1950 et 1960 les techniques de pêche se sont perfectionnées et lorsque les flottes se sont multipliées, après une hausse initiale et spectaculaire des captures, les réserves de morue se sont entièrement effondrées.

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Historique du processus de surpêche ayant conduit à la quasi-disparition de la morue dans le nord-ouest de l’Atlantique.

Résultat ? Un moratoire sur la pêche de la morue, renouvelé chaque année depuis 1993, en attendant que très lentement les stocks se régénèrent. Et forcément, l’industrie de la pêche spécialisée dans la pêche à la morue, a disparu avec elle. Aujourd’hui, la morue et le cabillaud que nous mangeons en Europe proviennent de l’Atlantique nord-est, c’est-à-dire la mer de Barents au nord de la Norvège, ou plutôt devant Saint-Pétersbourg où les ressources sont gérées avec soin. Alors qu’une morue pouvait peser jusqu’à 35 kg, aujourd’hui son poids moyen n’est que de 5 kg. Et ailleurs dans le monde, la survie de la même espèce est dans une situation précaire.

 La surpêche

Ainsi, aujourd’hui, la « surpêche », ou plutôt le pillage en vue d’un intérêt financier à court terme, est généralement la règle et rien de vraiment sérieux n’a été entrepris pour faire appliquer des politiques capables d’inverser de telles tendances suicidaires.

Avec une main d’œuvre sous-payée, et une course à la rentabilité, la tentation est grande de pratiquer le « chalutage en mer profonde », une méthode de pêche utilisant des filets géants en forme d’entonnoir tirés par un ou plusieurs bateaux.

On distingue :

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Chalutage « pélagique »
  • Le chalutage « pélagique » qui permet de pêcher à la surface des poissons de pleine eau, surtout les « poissons bleus » : sardines, anchois, maquereaux, thons, etc. ;
  • Le chalutage de fond à moins de 600 mètres de profondeur qui cible les espèces dites « benthiques » : cabillaud, lieu noir, merlan, églefin, etc. ;
  • Le « chalutage en eau profonde » qui, depuis les années 1980, racle les fonds océaniques jusqu’à 2000 mètres pour y capter des espèces abyssales : grenadiers, empereurs, lingue bleue, lingue blanche, sabre, etc.
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Chalutage de fond

Or, en raclant les fonds marins, on ravage inévitablement au passage coraux et éponges dont on découvre de plus en plus le rôle crucial. Non-sélective, cette technique qui ramasse tout, a une faible efficacité et il en résulte des rejets énormes. C’est également une pêche non-durable car, au-delà de 400 mètres, la lumière est nulle et les sources pour se nourrir sont plus limitées. De fait, les écosystèmes se développent et se reproduisent plus lentement ce qui les rend plus fragiles. Les scientifiques soulignent que les cycles reproductifs des espèces profondes sont trop longs pour que celles-ci puissent être exploitées de manière à la fois durable et rentable. Alors que les anchois, dont l’espérance de vie est de 3 à 5 ans, se reproduisent dès leur premier printemps, la durée de vie moyenne des poissons en dessous des 600 mètres est de 36 ans et il faut en moyenne 12 ans pour qu’ils soient capable de se reproduire. « L’empereur », un poisson de 75 cm qui vit entre 180 et 1800 mètres de profondeur peut atteindre l’âge de 149 ans et atteint la maturité sexuelle à l’âge de 20 ans ! Si vous le pêchez aujourd’hui, attendez au moins 20 ans avant de revenir !

En bref, les mêmes pratiques qui ont causé le grand désastre de la morue en 1993, restent pratique courante dans l’Atlantique. Et jusqu’ici, en dépit des résolutions et des mobilisations, peu a été fait pour faire changer ou faire évoluer les pratiques.

 Pêche minotière

Étant donné qu’il ne reste plus grand-chose à extraire de l’Atlantique et de la Méditerranée, pourquoi ne pas aller piller ailleurs ? Et bien que les grandes espèces s’y fassent rares, les multinationales de la pêche se focalisent de plus en plus sur l’Afrique et l’Amérique latine. Avec les petits poissons et les crevettes qu’ils attrapent (37 % du total de la pêche mondiale), ils produisent de la farine et de l’huile de poisson, très demandées en Europe et en Asie comme… nourriture pour les poissons d’élevage. Le reste est vendu comme « engrais bio » et comme complément alimentaire pour nourrir nos animaux domestiques, nos cochons, nos poules et nos vaches…

A cela s’ajoute qu’en Afrique, en Asie et en Amérique du sud, environ 30 millions de tonnes de poisson sauvage (30% du total) sont accaparés par la « pêche pirate » ! Les pays pauvres, faute d’une marine capable de protéger ses pêcheurs, sont évidemment leurs cibles de choix.

Et l’UE, jadis si riche en poissons, importe déjà 40 % de sa consommation. Au mieux, les autorités parlent de « gérer » les ressources, alors que c’est la création de nouvelles ressources qui devrait être le sujet.

 JFK : labourer les océans

En 1963, le président américain J.F. Kennedy décida d’investir 2 millions de dollars dans l’exploration océanique. Pour lui, il ne s’agissait pas simplement d’en extraire du pétrole, du gaz et des matières premières. En 1962 il déclara que les États-Unis allaient : « intensifier l’effort pour accroître la connaissance et la compréhension des ressources immenses que contiennent les océans ».

Pour lui,

la recherche fondamentale et l’étude des ressources géologiques et du vivant allaient sans doute nous permettre de disposer de ressources plus grandes avec des perspectives intéressantes pour améliorer notre niveau de vie et l’ajout de produits de la mer, riche en protéines, aux régimes alimentaires des peuples affamés du monde.

Et toujours en 1962, il ajoute :

nous allons pouvoir obtenir des apports nutritionnels des fonds des océans dans les 10 à 20 ans à venir. Cette question de l’océanographie a retenu l’attention du Congrès et de ce gouvernement, comment pouvons-nous doubler le nombre de protéines disponibles aux habitants du monde. C’est un domaine entièrement nouveau qui émerge (…) et qui peut faire une énorme différence pour la vie de gens qui vivent dans la léthargie faute de protéines adéquates.

 La Chine berceau de l’aquaculture

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L’augmentation spectaculaire de la production piscicole chinoise depuis 1980.

Alors qu’en 1980, seulement 9 % des produits de la mer venait de l’aquaculture, cette proportion est passée à 47 % en 2010. En clair, un poisson sur deux, consommé dans le monde, est un poisson d’élevage.

Aujourd’hui, 88 % de la pisciculture se fait en Asie. Rien que la Chine, avec un cinquième de la population mondiale, représente 62 % de la pisciculture mondiale. La production chinoise a triplé depuis vingt ans et emploie des millions de gens. L’essentiel de la production chinoise se concentre dans la vallée du Yangzi et le delta de la rivière Zhu Jiang (« delta des perles ») près de Canton.

Rick Parker, dans son manuel d’aquaculture affirme que « la Chine est le berceau de la pisciculture », une production qui, historiquement, a été et reste fondamentale à son essor.

L’aquaculture a vu le jour en Chine vers 3500 avant JC avec la culture de la carpe commune. Ces carpes étaient élevées dans des étangs au sein des exploitations des vers à soie. C’est au stade de chenille que l’insecte produit la précieuse fibre sécrétée en une bave abondante qui, en durcissant, se transforme en un fil unique de soie brute avec lequel la chenille fabrique un cocon. Les déjections des chenilles et les pupes (stade intermédiaire entre l’état de larve et celui d’insecte lors de la mue) fournissent des apports nutritionnels aux poissons (…) En chinois, le mot poisson signifie également « surplus ». En effet, le poisson était le symbole d’une récolte fructueuse.

(…) En 475 av. JC, l’homme politique Fan-Li a écrit Yang Yu Ching, ou le traité sur l’élevage des poissons, de loin le plus ancien document sur la pisciculture dont l’original se trouve au British Museum. (…) Ce manuel enseigne comment construire les étangs pour la pisciculture, comment sélectionner les reproducteurs et comment gérer les étangs.

 La carpe

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La carpe est originaire de Chine. Elle est bonne à manger et se reproduit facilement. La carpe ne dévore pas ses petits et grandit rapidement. La carpe commune était le principal poisson d’élevage de l’antiquité. Sa culture reste très répandue de nos jours, et en Chine elle représente aujourd’hui 46 % de la production piscicole.

La tradition confucéenne permit aux Chinois de comprendre l’harmonie qui gouverne « l’intelligence » de la nature. En réalité, deux choses que nous aurions tendance à considérer comme normale, n’existent pas réellement dans la nature : les déchets et l’inoccupation.

Le grand scientifique Vladimir Vernadski comprenait ce principe. Une feuille morte qui tombe de l’arbre deviendra le terreau sur lequel pousseront d’autres formes de vie. Avec grande intelligence, la pisciculture n’était pas conçue comme une filière à part mais comme une partie fondamentale au cœur d’une chaîne de production aqua-agricole en cascade.

Rick Parker :

Dans le delta de la rivière Zhujiang en Chine méridionale, un système agricole d’étangs et de digues existe toujours depuis cinq siècles. La mûre (produit par les mûriers dont les feuilles nourrissent les vers à soie), la canne à sucre, les fruits, les productions fourragères, les légumes, le ver à soie et l’élevage de cochon s’intègrent à la pisciculture. Les surplus des récoltes et les déchets servent à nourrir directement différentes espèces de carpe, de dorade et de tilapia.

En clair, le rôle qu’occupait le cochon dans l’agriculture française il y a un siècle, c’est la carpe qui l’occupait en Chine (animal omnivore).

Lors de la dynastie Tang (618-907 après JC), l’élevage de la carpe commune fut banni parce que le mot chinois pour désigner le poisson sonnait étrangement comme le nom de famille de l’empereur… Or, tout ce qui portait le nom de sa famille ne pouvait pas être enfermé ou abattu.

 La polyculture

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Cette nouvelle situation suscite la mise au point de la polyculture, c’est-à-dire l’élevage dans un même étang de plusieurs espèces différentes se nourrissant de substances différentes et évoluant dans une niche propre.

De cette façon, les Chinois ont su cultiver quatre espèces différentes de carpes, la carpe de vase, qui se nourrit au fond de l’étang, la carpe argentée et la carpe à grande tête, qui naviguent entre le fond et la surface et la carpe « amour blanc » (du fleuve Amour) qui ne vit qu’à la surface.

Un autre développement lors de la dynastie des Tang a été la mutation génétique d’une carpe domestique en poisson rouge !

A partir de 1368, la dynastie des Ming a encouragé les éleveurs de poissons à vendre le poisson vivant, une pratique qui continue à dominer les ventes de poissons aujourd’hui. A partir de 1500, des techniques ont été développées pour récolter des alevins de carpe dans les rivières pour les élever en étang.

Par le passé, la pisciculture était essentiellement une affaire d’entrepreneurs familiaux qui se passaient les secrets du métier de génération en génération. Ensuite, vers la fin des années 1960, le gouvernement a commencé à encourager des techniques d’élevage modernes permettant de passer à la dimension industrielle.


Aujourd’hui, les choix que fera le gouvernement chinois pourront fixer les tendances mondiales. La Chine ancienne a su faire preuve de grande sagesse. En termes de pêche, elle a su faire trois choix excellents qui devraient nous inspirer pour l’avenir de la pêche mondiale :

  1. La Chine a choisi, et ceci longtemps avant le reste du monde, de cesser de piller les océans et les rivières et de produire ses propres ressources en poisson ;
  2. La Chine a su sélectionner des espèces de poissons, telle que la carpe, qui étaient, non pas carnivores, mais omnivores, un choix dont vous allez comprendre l’importance ;
  3. La Chine a nourri ses poissons d’élevage avec des insectes, des herbes, des légumes et des déchets agricoles et non pas avec de la protéine animale. Elle a donc su convertir de la protéine végétale en protéine animale ;

Pour comprendre la sagesse et la cohérence de ces trois décisions, on doit comprendre le b.a.-ba de la pisciculture. Alors que cette dernière est souvent présentée comme « plus sympa » pour l’environnement, elle peut tout autant impliquer le contraire.

Ceci découle directement des habitudes alimentaires de l’espèce de poissons cultivée : carnivore, herbivore ou omnivore. Aujourd’hui, en Occident, la majorité des espèces élevées en pisciculture sont des espèces carnivores, notamment le saumon et la truite. Le problème, c’est qu’on ne peut nourrir ces espèces qu’avec des protéines animales. Ainsi, pour obtenir 1 kg de poisson carnivore, il faut 1,5 à 4 kg de protéines animales sous forme de farine de poisson !

Et, comme nous l’avons documenté plus haut, la production de farine de poisson se fait au détriment des réserves poissonnières et des écosystèmes marins. Le Chili, le Pérou et l’Islande sont les producteurs principaux de farine et d’huile de poisson essentiellement consommées en pisciculture. Certes, certains pécheurs chinois hors la loi pêchent ce qu’on appelle le « poisson de rebut », c’est-à-dire du poisson inapproprié pour la consommation, qui finit transformé en farine de poisson pour l’alimentation de nos animaux de compagnie. Ce dont les pêcheurs ne se rendent pas compte, c’est qu’en retirant de la mer ce qui sert de nourriture aux poissons, ils finiront par ne plus en avoir à pêcher.

 Retourner à la sagesse chinoise

  1. Les pisciculteurs du monde devraient se concentrer sur l’élevage de poissons herbivores et omnivores ;
  2. La production de farine de poisson devrait se faire uniquement à partir des déchets des usines qui transforment les produits de la mer et non plus à partir de poisson sauvage. Une équipe de chercheurs de l’Université de Stanford a constaté qu’en Chine, ces déchets, qui représentent de 30 à 70 % du volume des produits de la mer, sont rarement utilisés et finissent généralement à la poubelle. La qualité nutritionnelle est certes inférieure à des produits frais mais ceci peut être surmonté en additionnant des protéines dérivés d’algues et de la levure d’éthanol ;
  3. La production en grande quantité d’insectes peut et doit être organisée, non pas pour nourrir directement les humains, mais pour remplacer la farine de poisson comme nutriment pour les poissons d’élevage ;
  4. Des nouvelles techniques de pisciculture, non plus en étang mais en pleine mer, peuvent et doivent être développées rapidement ;
  5. En Occident, afin de faire évoluer nos habitudes alimentaires, nos cuisiniers auront comme tâche de promouvoir les variétés de poissons herbivores et omnivores ;
  6. La vaccination des poissons d’élevages, déjà une réalité en Norvège, doit être préférée à l’utilisation massive des antibiotiques ;
  7. La production de la soie ne doit plus être conçue comme un métier du passé mais comme un secteur important d’avenir. A part les vers à soie, de nombreux autres insectes peuvent nous fournir des fils de qualités remarquables. Nos scientifiques ont la conviction qu’à terme, la soie peut nous offrir (enfin !) de vrais plastiques biodégradables. Ceux d’aujourd’hui, certes, se décomposent mais les résidus de nanoparticules sont à l’origine du sixième continent, c’est-à-dire les énormes tourbillons de matériaux plastiques qui polluent les océans. Si l’on extrapole linéairement les tendances actuelles, le poids des ordures dépassera en 2050 le poids des produits de la mer ! Le rôle de la soie, déjà essentiel par sa biocompatibilité pour les prothèses, a le potentiel de nous fournir des alternatives au plastique et même aux lames en titane de nos rasoirs jetables.

Ce n’est qu’en corrigeant le comportement humain dans cette direction que l’océan, les pêcheurs et l’humanité saura survivre et prospérer.