Areopagus LXXXIV

Areopagus Volume LXXXIV

Welcome one and all to the eighty fourth volume of the Areopagus. There was no instalment last week — life intervened! But we return, a fortnight later, and as I look at the Moon it is the 16th century poet Pierre de Ronsard who comes to mind:

Thou knowest, Moon, the bitter power of Love;
’Tis told how shepherd Pan found ways to move,
For little price, thy heart; and of your grace,
Sweet stars, be kind to this not alien fire,
Because on earth ye did not scorn desire,
Bethink ye, now ye hold your heavenly place.

For how many millennia have we been contemplating that silver orb in the night sky? This is one of the ways, I think, we can understand our most distant ancestors, all over the world, directly. They did it in times gone by — we now, even with our Digital Age and living in our cities of glass, do the same. But enough pontificating: onwards!

I - Classical Music

Langsamer Satz

Anton Webern (1905)

Performed by the Emerson String Quartet
Farm Garden with Sunflowers by Gustav Klimt (1907)

The story of this piece is simple enough — and makes perfect sense. It was composed in the summer of 1905, when Anton Webern was twenty one years old and just beginning his musical studies with the great Arnold Schoenberg. Under Schoenberg he would go on to become part of the "Second Viennese School", a group of radical 20th century composers who pioneered atonality and revolutionised classical music.

But all that was ahead of him; in 1905 Webern was still a devoted Romantic in the mould of Liszt and Wagner. When he wrote Langsamer Satz, which simply means "Slow Movement", Webern had been for a hike in the Austrian mountains with the woman who would later become his wife. He was young, in love, and learning more about music every day — and I think you can tell. Somehow we can hear him, high in the mountains on a summer's day, perhaps in a meadow, being swept away by his passions. As he wrote:

To walk forever like this among the flowers, with my dearest one beside me, to feel oneself so entirely at one with the Universe, without care, free as the lark in the sky above -- Oh what splendor...when night fell (after the rain) the sky shed bitter tears but I wandered with her along a road. A coat protected the two of us. Our love rose to infinite heights and filled the Universe. Two souls were enraptured.

And yet this piece of music lay in a box, unknown and unperformed, for six decades. It wasn't rediscovered until 1962, after Webern's death, at which point it was finally debuted. There is something poetic about the fact that such an outpouring of passion was concealed from the world for so long, and yet was able to reemerge and broadcast Webern's love to thousands of listeners around the world. Such is the power of music to contain emotion!

II - Historical Figure

Poggio Bracciolini

Indiana Jones of the Renaissance

What names come to mind when you think of the Italian Renaissance? Almost certainly artists like Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, or Botticelli. Probably writers like Niccolo Machiavelli and Petrarch, or architects like Brunelleschi and Bramante. Perhaps even politicians like Lorenzo de' Medici or Pope Julius II. But, submerged beneath this throng of legendary names, there is one that deserves more credit: Poggio Bracciolini.

He was born in the Republic of Florence in 1380 and died there in 1459, putting him firmly within the second generation of the Italian Renaissance. Poggio first worked as a copyist in Florence, writing out old manuscripts by hand, and then as a secretary for the Church. There he rose to the role of Papal Secretary and served no less than seven popes. Poggio was renowned for his command of Latin, his eloquence, and — perhaps above all — his beautiful handwriting. Poggio and his fellow copyists would write out old manuscripts of Classical texts made during the reign of Charlemagne five centuries earlier. Insodoing they redeveloped that old Carolingian font into a form of writing that became the basis of our most common modern-day typefaces. The very font I am writing in right now is based, essentially, on the work of Bracciolini and his colleagues.

Poggio was also a noisy scholar, and toward the end of his life was drawn into some major disputes with fellow humanists. The subject of these disputes seems suitably arcane or trifling now — much of it concerning the proper use of Latin — but, once upon a time, these were important matters. Poggio's own works have not much stood the test of time. His various essays, polemics, panegyrics, and histories — including a history of Florence, written in retirement at a villa filled with Greco-Roman artefacts — are the definition of obscure. The crowning moment of his career, surely, was when Poggio served as the Chancellor of Florence.

A wonderfully active life, but one that does not explain the credit I claimed for him. See, there's more to Poggio's story. His real life's work was the rediscovery of lost manuscripts. In our age of the internet, of well-maintained physical archives, and of a colossal book publishing industry, we take for granted that books were once incredibly precious, fragile objects. We have lost a great many ancient writings, and those that have survived often did so in a handful of copies, or even as a single document. Poggio hunted them down, copied them out, and spread them around the continent. His most important finds were On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, an epic poem about Epicureanism, several speeches by Cicero, Quintilian's Institutes of Oratory, and Frontinus' De aquaeductibus. These represent only a handful of his discoveries, however. Where did Poggio find them? In the various monasteries of Europe, which he had occasion to visit during his time as a papal secretary. He would trawl through their libraries, even paying bribes when he was denied access, to hunt down any remaining classical fragments.

The total influence of these texts is essentially incalculable. Consider Poggio's repopularisation Vitruvius' De Architectura, the only surviving architectural treatise from Antiquity, which lays out in scrupulous detail the methods and motifs of classical architecture. Without this book there may never have been an architectural revolution and the many centuries of Renaissance, Baroque, and Neoclassical architecture — from St Peter's Basilica to the US Capitol — might have not happened.

"But somebody else would have found them!" one might be tempted to say. Not so. Partly because many of these manuscripts were deteriorating and may not have survived much longer, and partly because the discovery of these manuscripts was about timing as much as anything else. Had the likes of Vitruvius and Lucretius and Quintilian not been repopularised, thanks to the work of Poggio, precisely when they were, the Renaissance would have looked very different. And who's to say it would have resulted in the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment? In this sense Poggio was a pure Renaissance humanist, dedicated to secular learning and the uplifting of humanity by the power of education. Others wrote great treatises; Poggio searched out, by means fair or foul, lost books in the dusty corners of monastic libraries and church cellars.

We have much to thank Poggio for, and I am just one of these people. For though I love to talk about Lucretius or Vitruvius or Quintilian, and have often quoted them in these missives, without the hard work of Poggio Bracciolini it is entirely possible I would not have been able to do so. Although history so often seems like a coursing river, running unstoppably in one direction, the story of Poggio Bracciolini reminds us that from time to time it is the dedicated work of one person, tireless and frequently fruitless, that tilts the scales.

III - Painting

The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner

Edwin Landseer (1837)

Ever since its dawn the internet has been dominated by, among other things, photos and videos of animals: cute cats, loyal dogs, amusing apes, terrifying sea-monsters, and such like. Go on social media and you cannot browse far without finding yourself in a rabbit hole of animal antics. This is, like so much else, nothing new — and we have proof! Pretty much the first art humanity ever made was of animals, in cave paintings all around the world, some of them dating back forty thousand years:

But we fast-forward in time to Edwin Landseer, the most popular of the 19th century animal painters. What made him so good? It wasn't just the realism — although that was, clearly, a major part of Landseer's appeal. Rather, more importantly, Landseer seemed to genuinely sympathise with the animals he was painting. Whereas throughout human history animals were frequently depicted in art for their symbolic meaning, and after the Renaissance as scientific objects of study, Landseer chose to portray animals as they were in themselves — as living creatures. His animal portraits are often incredibly funny; Landseer had a talent for drawing out the idiosyncrasies and personality quirks of different dogs. But, in this case, rather than mere personality we also have emotion. Even without the title you know that this is a dog whose owner has died, and that the dog is sitting loyally by its owner's bedside despite knowing that he shall never return. Hardly ever before had animal art been so moving.

It is to John Ruskin, as ever, whom I turn for a more precise explanation of this approach to animals. Here he is, after describing the beauty of a bird's nest, arguing for how we ought to think about that bird:

...I would much rather have to undeceive you in attributing too much intellect to the lower animals, than too little. But I suppose the only error which, in the present condition of natural history, you are likely to fall into, is that of supposing that a bullfinch is merely a mechanical arrangement of nervous fibre, covered with feathers by a chronic cutaneous eruption; and impelled by a galvanic stimulus to the collection of clematis.
You would be in much greater, as well as in a more shameful, error, in supposing this, than if you attributed to the bullfinch the most deliberate rivalship with Mr. Street’s prettiest Gothic designs.

Ruskin does not say the bird was thinking of Gothic architecture when it built its nest, but he does say that this is a better way to think of birds than viewing them as nothing more than a biological machine. Had Landseer thought of animals in this latter way he could surely not have painted the dog with such striking emotional expressiveness. This view may not seem so striking to us now, but Landseer's art and the view of animals it conveys was once almost radical. Another reminder, if needed, that art inevitably expresses the worldviews, however superficial or deeply considered, of the people who made it.

IV - Architecture

Beauvais Cathedral

For a certain period of French history the dream of all architects was to build the tallest cathedral possible. Gothic Architecture had emerged in the middle of the 12th century and for the next two hundred years there was almost a competition to see who could raise up vaults and arcades higher and higher. What gave rise to the Gothic? There were many influences, from the Romanesque to the Byzantine, but the flashpoint was the arrival of the pointed arch from the Middle East, where it had been pioneered in Islamic architecture. The pointed arch was much stronger and more versatile than the round arch it had replaced, and so an architectural revolution was triggered — not only of decoration and appearance, but also of scale.

This French obsession with height was taken to its literal zenith at Beauvais, a small city in northern France. It was started in 1225 on the site of an old Romanesque basilica and intermittent work continued for the next three centuries — but it was never fully finished. Thus what we see must be one of the strangest churches anywhere in the world. From the east we see a perfect example of the Rayonnant style, of flying buttresses cascading down like roots of stone, of the narrow monumentality that defined so much of the French Gothic:

But from the west we see... a small Romanesque nave, beautifully simple, dwarfed by the colossal choir and transepts of the Gothic church. Putting aside how bizarre this looks for one moment, the contrasting halves of Beauvais are a perfect example of the difference between Romanesque and Gothic architecture.

Beauvais also had a tower 153 metres tall. This made it the tallest building in the world... but only for four years. It fell down — one of several accidents that befell the ambitious engineering of Beauvais — and was never rebuilt. These masons were pushing Gothic architecture to its limits — and crossing them. Still, this cathedral isn't only tall externally; the interior vaulting of Beauvais is 47 metres high. This gave it the highest ceiling of any religious building in the world until the 19th century.

And, here in the apse, notice the quantity of windows. This was, in many ways, the whole point of flying buttresses. Vaulting has an outward thrust, you see, and in order to prevent a collapse its supporting walls must be incredibly broad and thick, thus making large windows impossible. But flying buttresses — vertical pillars of stone connected to the wall by an arch — were able to take on the thrust of the vaults and permit thinner and narrower walls, leaving room for colossal windows that could be filled with painted glass.

A good way to think about flying buttresses is as a mechanism by which the walls of a church could be made perpendicular to the building itself.

An ingenious solution, and in few places was it used so masterfully and to such striking effect as at Beauvais. Later churches achieved larger windows, but here we see one of the first examples of that element of Gothic now so famous, whereby these great buildings seemed almost to have walls of glass. We can even think about Beauvais Cathedral as the Medieval equivalent of the Burj Khalifa. There was a race to construct the tallest structure possible — and the masons at Beauvais won.

V - Rhetoric

Carthago delenda est!

Politicians having catchphrases is nothing new. I needn't offer any examples — we are all familiar with those many individuals who land upon a motto and trot it out in every speech they give. We may be inclined to imagine that this is a modern phenomenon, but the history books tell us otherwise.

Cato the Elder, a most curious man I have written about before in the Areopagus, was just such a politician. He railed against Carthage, with whom Rome had fought two major wars in the previous hundred years, ceaselessly. This was in the first half of the 2nd century BC, when Rome was still a republic and had only recently become a superpower around the Mediterranean. After the second war (of Hannibal and elephants fame), which had ended in 201 BC, Rome imposed a punitive peace on Carthage. But, Cato believed, several decades of complacency had allowed Carthage to quietly regain its strength. Thus he ended all his speeches with the words:

And I am also of opinion that Carthage must he destroyed.

One can imagine it very clearly: his supporters waiting to cheer, his opponents ready to roll their eyes, as Cato approached the end of any given speech in the senate house.

And nor was Cato a stranger to political stunts. The most famous is recounted for us here by Plutarch:

After these words it is said that Cato threw down in the senate house some ripe figs which he had brought on purpose; and when the senators admired their size and beauty, he remarked that "the country which produced this fruit is only three days' sail distant from Rome."

The country in question here is Carthage, of course; Cato wanted to vivify its closeness and thus the threat it posed. So you see, then, that political theatrics are as old as politics itself. An opponent of his, Publius Scipio Nasica, even inverted Cato's phrase and ended all of his own speeches with:

And I further am of opinion that Carthage should be left alone.

As ever, you may be either disheartened by or find consolation in the fact that the worst or strangest of modern politics inevitably have abundant historical precedent.

VI - Writing


Euphuism a strange word that one does not hear very often these days! Why? Because euphuism has long been out of fashion. What is it? A highly specific way of writing that became popular in 16th century England, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and quickly went out of fashion. It is, on the whole, quite hard to describe — but you know it when you see it. Let me give you an example:

To love and to live well is wished of many, but incident to fewe. To live and to love well is incident to fewe, but indifferent to all. To love without reason is an argument of lust, to live without love, a token of folly. The measure of love is to have no meane, the end to be everlasting.

That comes from John Lyly, writing in 1580. It was his book, called Euphues after the protagonist, that gave this style its name. Euphuism was, as you can see, defined by the use of perfectly balanced sentences. This was true in terms of sounds — notice the alliteration — and also ideas or objects. This latter device is, in rhetorical terms, called antithesis. But that's not all. Euphuism was also about indulging in frivolous puns and conjuring elaborate imagery. Consider these lines from Robert Greene's Groats-Worth of Wit, which are a not-so-subtle attack on a certain young playwright by the name of William Shakespeare:

Yes, trust them not: for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Iohannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey.

Or, for an even more extreme example, take this from Thomas Dekker:

AND why to the Reader? Oh good Sir! theres as sound law to make you give good words to the Reader, as to a Constable when hee carries his watch about him to tell how the night goes, tho (perhaps) the one (oftentimes) may be served in for a Goose, and the other fitly furnish the same messe: Yet to maintaine the scurvy fashion, and to keepe Custome in reparations, he must be honeyed, and come-over with Gentle Reader, Courteous Reader, and Learned Reader, though he have no more Gentilitie in him than Adam had (that was but a gardner) no more Civilitie than a
Tartar, and no more Learning than the most errand Stinkard, that (except his owne name) could never finde any thing in the Horne-booke.

Have you ever read a paragraph with so many similes and metaphors piled up? Notice also the overwhelming sense of irony; this was another tenet of euphuism. Stephen Gosson was, in particular, a master of this ironic register:

And I will caste Ancor in these abuses, rest my Barke in the simple roade, for grating my wits upon needelesse shelves. And because I accuse others for treading awry, which since I was borne never went right ; because I finde so many faultes abroade, which have at home more spots in my body then the Leopard, more staines on my coat then the wicked Nessus ; more holes in my life the on the open sive ; more sinnes in my soule than heares on my hed : If I have beene tedious in my Lecuture, or your selves be weary of you lesson, harken no longer for the Clock, shut up the Schoole, and get you home.

So pure euphuism was a highly artificial, carefully constructed style of writing. One can understand why it has been derided as overly affected, needlessly complicated, and downright silly. Why was it ever popular? Because those were the early days of English literature, when prose and poetry and drama were yet forming. Writers still had to figure the best ways to write in English, and under the influence especially of Spanish and Italian literature euphuism emerged. It was essentially a short-lived literary experiment intended to push the bounds of language. That its lifetime was so brief speaks to its unsustainability, but euphuism did have a lasting influence on English literature.

In any case, I do wonder whether this bizarre but gloriously colourful manner of writing could have something to offer in the 21st century, an era of much more straightforward, blandly effective, tonally gentler writing... or not!

VII - The Seventh Plinth

"Because he was he, because I was I..."

Two weeks ago I asked you:

What is friendship?

And these were your answers...

Tariq M

It is a relationship of equality and trust beyond one’s family.

Chimwekele O

Friendship is forged when your soul meets with another person, and does not feel the need to hide its fullest expression.

Paris C

I believe friendship is the magic that exists when companions form bonds that fundamentally change who they are for the better. We are all mosaics comprised of little pieces of people, places, and things that are important to us; friendship is the art that is made by the people we are close to.

Diegwu E

Volumes had, and could be written about friendship. Because it's love, and love is inexhaustible. Or rather, infinite. I'll stick with Cicero, or was it Sallust?
Idem velle, idem nolle. To love the same, to dislike the same.
Man, that's love. And therefore, friendship can't be engineered. As love is, it happens.

Serena S

To me, friendship is the mutual choosing of one another. A friend wakes up and chooses you every day, not for any reason other than simply because they want to. Friendship is a necessary part of life. It is one of the purest forms of love. Here are some quotes of friendship I love:
“We did nothing. It was so much fun.”
“The intimacy of ‘How did you know that?’ ‘Because I know you.’”
“Isn’t it all about old friends? Like everything? All of it?”
“The best friends of our childhoods are the loves of our lives.”
“I don’t care if it’s 4 AM. You’re my best friend, and I’ll take care of you.”
"Life is so hard a lot of the time, but I want one more bowl of pasta with you."
“I learn that love - whether we call it friendship or family - is the work of mirroring and magnifying each other’s light. Gentle work. Steadfast work.”
“I love my friends, and I care about them, and I think I make them happy.”
“My childhood friends are strangers to me, and I don’t know anyone better.”
“My friends laughing in the kitchen while I make dinner feels religious.”
I love friendship. I am never alone because of them. Thank you for this question.

Donald H

What is friendship? Many friends will be those we have around us and share our life with. But to my mind, the truer friendship is one that can endure a long period of separation caused by divergence in the path of life, but survives and rekindles with great joy many years, maybe even decades, later. It is also a common aphorism, after Ennius, that “a friend [who supports when] in need is a friend indeed.” So that absent friend shows themself to be true by rallying in your time of crisis while others may be content with more shallow expressions of sympathy.

Tom W

Love without blood.

Monica D

Friendships are the rare and valuable relationships we share with a handful of people. They are the souls that sit with us in the muck of life as well as the pinnacles of success and triumphs. They are not to be taken for granted and should be nurtured. Few are here for a lifetime and some are collected as we go through life. My friends are the rich connections I have with only a few people - I can be vulnerable with them without judgment. We mutually support each other through laughter, tears, wine, carpooling kids, birthday celebrations, dying parent support and everything in between. I love my friends.

Terry D

I’ll hardly be the only one to point out that good friends help you move house but real friends help you move bodies.

Deborah G

Friendship is deep affection and complete acceptance of another person. I have several cherished friends, and each of these friendships look a bit different depending on our personalities. However, affection and acceptance are at the core of each one. Shared experiences are also essential, as friendship develops over time. Finally, friendship must be nurtured. To maintain trust, you need to reach out and stay connected.

Jane L

My 91 year old neighbour, June, lamented that all her friends had died. I protested that she had lots of friends - we’ve been good neighbours for 45 years and she knows and is friendly with most people on our street. But she asserted that ‘real’ friends were the ones she’d known all her life, and they are all dead.
I replied that I didn’t agree. She’s loved and valued by all of her neighbours and by everyone at the Tuesday Club at the church at the end of the street. But she would not be persuaded.
So, while I can deeply sympathise with her sorrow at the death of her close friends, it seemed to me that friendships shouldn’t be defined by duration or proximity. And I also think that the friendships we make throughout our lives are all to be valued and cherished in different ways.
Some deep bonds are made when circumstances throw us together. As a young mother with no idea what to do with a screaming baby, it was the other mothers sharing the same challenges who were at that time, my closest friends. The mutual support, the freedom to share matters that couldn’t be shared with anyone else forged deep bonds. Decades later those women have scattered, some have died, but that love and support lives on in the way it influenced my life and the lives of children.
In our working lives there is always someone who is the person with whom you feel at ease, who is supportive and encouraging but is unafraid to be very truthful when necessary. It’s a different kind of friendship but nonetheless it’s still friendship.
And then we retire, take up new interests, volunteer, mind the grandchildren or take up gardening - all activities where we meet and form friendships with others through circumstance or or proximity.
And sometimes there can be friendships formed online which in my youth would have seemed bizarre, although a pen friend (remember those) would have been a forerunner. I met a dear friend through an online group for grandmothers fourteen years ago and our friendship has been a great blessing.
However, of my three very close friends, one is from school, one from when we were both students and one from my first job in this country. And although we may not see one another in person so frequently they are the ones I cherish closest to my heart.
So, what is it that is at the core of all these three relationships? In each case there has been an indescribable instant connection, I suppose a psychologist could analyse it, but in each case we were both doing something slightly subversive. Jackie and I at eight years old were picking candle wax off the stand avoiding the basilisk eye of the sacristan, D and I met in a field both skiving off what we felt was a pointless lecture and M and I were playing ‘spot the jargon’ at an inservice training day when we spotted each other recording the words at the same time. At the words ‘drill down’ ‘deep dive’ and ‘higher order thinking’ we were both overcome with stifled chortles and had to excuse ourselves.
Beyond the fun however there has been support, love, respect, sharing and the knowledge that your friend is bound into your life in a different, and just possibly, a more equal way than any family member.
So maybe, June has a point after all.

Jonathan R

Friendship is a compilation of memories and shared experiences. Loyalty, support, laughter, company and advice are healthy pillars of a strong friendship.

Jill M

Friendship is when someone travels with you as if you are dust motes experiencing the expansive universe. Sometimes you land side-by-side, each knowing the other is there. Sometimes you dance away with laughter but are never lost to each other.

Reeshabh C

Aristotle once said, "Only two virtuous people can be friends". And he also said, "The friend to all is a friend to none". So what he wanted to convey?He further defined that there is friendship of utility and then friendship of pleasure along with friendship of virtue, which he considered the truest form of friendship. His intention was not to demean the earlier two kinds of friendship, yet he wanted to give a message to humankind that if you are on a spiritual path, then it is the friendship of virtue which will last with you.
Virtue is a combination of power and wisdom. To find purpose in life you need wisdom and to walk on that spiritual path you need power. And only those with common wisdom, purpose and power can be true friends.

Question of the Week

And for this week's question to test your thinking, inspired by the discussion of euphuism:

What makes writing good?

Email me your answers and I'll share them in next week's newsletter.

And that's all

How to conclude? With one of those euphuists, Stephen Gosson, who wrote what is surely among the greatest prefaces ever composed:

Bookes are but poore gifts, yet Kings receive them: upon which I presume, you will not turne This out of doores. Yet cannot for shame but bid it welcome, because it bringes to you a great quantitie of my love: which, if it be worth litle, (and no marvell if Love be solde under-foote, when the God of Love himselfe goes naked) yet I hope you will not say you have a hard bargaine, Since you may take as much of it as you please for nothing.

The Areopagus, I hope, you will not turn out of doors. Until Friday next, farewell!


The Cultural Tutor

The Cultural Tutor

A beautiful education.

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