Areopagus Volume LXII
Welcome one and all to the sixty second volume of the Areopagus. Autumn is just around the corner (for those of us in the northern hemisphere) but Summer has in the last few days given a mighty, final showing of its golden glory where I am — four days of beating sun and burning nights. John Keats said that it is during Summer we are "nearest unto heaven". Was he right?
The Human Seasons is the name Keats gave to this handsome sonnet. Ruminating, then, and dreaming high, we embark upon the high seas of this week's seven short lessons...
I - Classical Music
In Nature's Realm
Antonín Dvořák (1891)
Performed by the Ulster Symphony Orchestra & conducted by Vernon Handley
Recruits by Vojtěch Bartoněk (1880)
Last week we had an important musical birthday — that of Johann Pachelbel. Now we have another. Two hundred and eighteen years ago today the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák was born. Of the many qualities that define Romanticism in music — which was related to but different from its equivalents in art and literature — Dvořák typifies just about all of them. The incredibly dramatic, emotionally compelling, and atmospheric nature of his music; the frequent sense of great scale in his orchestration; the choice of subject matter; drawing on the folk music of his native land for inspiration, and therefore also contributing to a sense of national identity; all these and more.
But which of Dvořák's works to include? Perhaps his delightful Slavonic Dances, or his swashbuckling New World Symphony, or the luxurious Serenade for Strings, or maybe Rusalka's Song to the Moon, which is surely among the most achingly beautiful arias ever written... impossible to decide. And so I have selected something a little less well-known: In Nature's Realm. It is an overture, written in 1891 as part of a tone poem trilogy including Othello and Carnival Overture, collectively dedicated to "Love, Life, and Nature."
Perhaps I needn't explain much more, or offer anything in the way of analysis, and let you simply bask in the grandeur and stirring melodies of what is, I think, among Dvořák's most underrated works. So, by way of ending, we turn to something Dvořák once wrote regarding his majestic 7th Symphony:
Suffice to say that his music has indeed moved the world and continues ever to do so. Všechno nejlepší k narozeninám, Antonín!
II - Historical Figure
A Hidden Life
The American director Terrence Malick is one of my favourite film-makers. His most recent film, released in 2019, is called A Hidden Life. I haven't watch it for over a year but, for some reason, it has been on my mind this week. It is about a man called Franz Jägerstätter.
Franz was born in a small Austrian village called Sankt Radegund in 1907. His father, who died during the First World War, had been a farmer. When his mother remarried it was to another farmer, Heinrich Jägerstätter, from whom Franz took his surname and whose farm Franz would eventually take over. He was, by all accounts, a normal young man: bright-eyed and full of boyish energy, with ruddy cheeks and strong shoulders. He liked to laugh, drink, and even fight! Franz was also a rather fashionable chap, and he was the first person in the village to own a motorcycle. But his jolly and simple youth soon became an adulthood of greater complexity; in 1933 Franz had an illegitimate child with a local milkmaid. He supported both mother and child financially and socially, but Radegund was a small community and this was a scandal, so Franz was forced to leave his home for the iron mines of Eisenerz in southern Austria.
Everything changed in 1935, when Franz returned to Radegund from the mines. Those who knew him described it a sudden and completely unheralded religious conversion. Though Franz had been baptised Catholic he was no more or less pious than the average villager. Now, suddenly, he was deeply and chiefly concerned with the morality of his life and of his choices. In 1936 he married Franziska Schwaninger, with whom he would have three children, and apparently became a leading figure in the village community. For when German troops moved into Austria in 1938 and started reshaping its polity they offered him the position of mayor. But Franz refused; he would have nothing to do with the Nazi regime. And later that year he was the only resident of Radegund to vote against Anschluss — the union of Germany and Austria. Franz made no secret of his opposition to Nazism, despite pressure from family and friends to keep his head down and go along with what was clearly an unstoppable process. But Franz refused. What disappointed him most of all was that many of his fellow Catholics readily embraced what he believed to be a regime morally incompatible with Christianity.
When first conscripted by the Wehrmacht in 1940 he completed his military training — but refused to take the constitutionally mandated oath to Hitler. Any potential trouble was resolved by sending Franz back to Radegund with the an official exemption because of his work as a farmer. But back home the pressure did not relent, and as rumours spread about what the Nazis were doing Franz grew ever more concerned. He went to see the bishop of Linz but was ashamed to find a mixture of apathy and complicity in the Church's response to Nazism.
In February 1943 Franz was called up for military service again. When he reported to the camp in Linz Franz declared himself a conscientious objector. And though he offered to serve as a medic rather than take up arms, the authorities nonetheless charged him with sedition and had him arrested. When the people of Radegund heard about this they sent the local priest to try and convince Franz to enlist; he refused. So he was moved to Berlin and on the 6th July 1943 a military tribunal sentenced him to death. On the 9th August he was offered the chance to repent of his objections, take the oath to Hitler, and walk free. For one last time, Franz refused. He was executed by guillotine later that day.
You can see that this is not a melodramatic story; Franz Jägerstätter's struggle was an essentially minor affair, especially when considered against the backdrop of the Second World War. Many films about it focus on the grand sweep of history, on the battles and the politics and the horrors. But this relative unimportance is precisely what makes Franz's life so important — so powerful. Here we have the simple story of a man who had the conviction and courage to refuse to do what he believed to be wrong, regardless of how often he was told that this was a meaningless act. I say simple very purposively: so often we turn moral questions into complex discussions and obscure right and wrong with the fog of practical concerns, of pertinence and appropriateness, of politics and other "considerations". For Franz it was very simple. He listened to his conscience, heard it clearly, and stuck to his principles. Doing the right thing is not a question of how many people are watching or the seeming stakes of the situation. As George Eliot wrote:
That is where Terence Malick found the title for his film. Now, I am suspicious of biopics. Too often they fail to find the right balance between retelling the facts of a person's life and expressing who they really were; the result is usually a tropey mishmash, either rushed or plodding. Not A Hidden Life. It is a marvellous film, beautifully shot and sensitively acted, often meditative and always engrossing. I thoroughly recommend it.
By way of conclusion I should mention that Franz Jägerstätter is now officially recognised as a martyr by the Catholic Church, and that in 2007 he was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI.
III - Sculpture
Five hundred and nineteen years ago today Michelangelo's David was unveiled in Florence. Though it may now be the most famous statue in the western world, there are many things people may not know about it — perhaps beginning, very justifiably, with why and how David is so famous! Let us see if we can uncover a few hidden truths about this statue and bring ourselves to see with fresh eyes something we have seen so many times before.
I suppose the first thing to mention is that David was immediately considered a masterpiece. Giorgio Vasari, the 16th century art historian and biographer, said that it "surpassed all ancient and modern statues, whether Greek or Roman, that have ever existed." But the story of David is rather complicated. It was originally commissioned in 1464 as one of twelve statues representing figures from the Old Testament to adorn Florence Cathedral, where Brunelleschi's dome had only recently been completed. Italian sculptors, like the Romans before them, got their marble from a quarry in Carrara, northern Italy, which produces snow-white marble of high quality, fine grain, and great strength.
For this particular commission they quarried one of the largest single blocks of Carrara marble ever cut. The original sculptor was Agostino, but he had barely even started before he became distanced from the project. Another sculptor was commissioned ten years later, but he soon gave up, the result being that this huge and expensive block of half-sculpted marble would stand untouched for twenty six years.
Colloquially referred to as 'the Giant', in 1501 the Florentine authorities decided it simply had to be finished. Leonardo da Vinci was reportedly asked, but ultimately it was a young and ambitious artist who received the commission. He went by the name of Michelangelo Buonarotti, and he had already sculpted the Pietà in 1499 at the tender age of twenty four. Thus he seemed a worthy candidate to take on this infamous project, both because of his technical skill and his sheer audacity.
The twenty six year old Michelangelo got to work in September of 1501, and it would take him a little under three years to finish David. But when it was completed the authorities realised they couldn't haul this six ton statue to the top of the cathedral; they had to find another location. A committee was set up, including Leonardo and Sandro Botticelli, who hotly debated where it should go. They decided on the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence's town hall, which is where the original David stood until 1873, when it was moved to its present location in the Galleria dell'Accademmia.
So, here's the first thing about David: he is simply colossal. You can't really tell from pictures, but the statue is seventeen feet tall! This must have something to do with its fame. Anybody who sees it can't help but be struck by the sheer scale of this figure. The fact that David was supposed to go on the roof of the cathedral explains both his size and his unusual proportions. The head, when viewed from the same level as the statue, is strangely large — because it was intended to be seen from below.
And it isn't only David's scale that makes him remarkable. The anatomical accuracy of his every muscle, limb, sinew, and vein is also striking. Renaissance masters paid close attention to human anatomy; just think of Leonardo's famous anatomical sketches. He even said that every would-be painter or sculptor must study anatomy in order to create genuinely good art, for one must understand muscles and skin and bone if one wishes to express real emotion. Michelangelo evidently agreed. Hence David's face is so convincing: tense, nervous, alert, resolute, determined.
David is also the supreme example of contrapposto, which is where a figure places their weight mainly on one foot, therefore altering the body's whole pose. Compare him to a statue without contrapposto and you'll see what a difference it makes to how alive a sculpture looks.
But, even more importantly, David isn't merely "lifelike"; he is idealised. In this way he represents the consummation and apotheosis of the Renaissance as a whole. For it was to the Classical World, of Ancient Greece and Rome, that thinkers and artists and politicians turned in 15th century Italy. And here, in David, Michelangelo created for the first time since Antiquity a statue comparable — perhaps even better than — the "heroic nudes" of Greece.
There have been statues of David before and since, by the likes of Donatello and Bernini. But when placed alongside one another Michelangelo's David stands out. Why? Simplicity, perhaps. There is neither anything extraneous nor overly dramatic. For while many sculptures and paintings of David depicted him with Goliath's head at his feet, or at least in the middle of firing his sling, Michelangelo chose not to do this. Here we see David before he fought Goliath, poised and ready for action.
No wonder that David quickly became (and has remained) something of a symbol for the city of Florence itself. It's probably fair to say that Florence saw itself as David and Rome as Goliath; for it is no coincidence that when the statue was first installed they made sure David's intense gaze was actually facing toward Rome.
All these things taken together are what has made David so uniquely captivating. Its monumentality and intensity of expression, its lifelike yet idealised appearance, its extraordinary technical mastery, its conceptual embodiment of the Renaissance. But perhaps the mark of truly great art is that it stays with you. And from his first unveiling outside Florence's town hall in 1504, 419 years ago, until the 21st century, David has stayed with people. The right work of art, at the right time, in the right place.
IV - Architecture
Faith as Architecture, or Architecture as Faith?
This week I want to consider a piece of architecture not in terms of style, design, or historical context, but with regard to what it represents and, therefore, what makes it possible. We begin in the mountainous province of Guizhou, in southern China, where subtropical forests growing like moss around colossal spurs of black rock stretch to the horizon, frequently obscured by the billowing clouds of morning mist and interrupted only by occasional patches of agriculture, where chequered fields unfurl across any available flat ground, clustered round the townships and villages and meandering rivers of this fantastical landscape.
Upon the tallest of these mountains, called Fanjing, is a Buddhist complex comprising two temples. There are several hundred steps leading up to them and a narrow stone bridge connecting the twinned shards of granite, together known rather romantically as Red Cloud Golden Summit, on which they are built. One of them is dedicated to Shakyamuni, the present Buddha, and the other to Maitreya, a future incarnation of the Buddha who has yet to appear on earth. This is the place where the prophecies state he shall manifest, and it is therefore sacred to him. There have been temples here for over one thousand years, although various phases of destruction and abandonment have left a complicated architectural trail.
What could have compelled the original builders of this monastery to choose for it a location so isolated and so fraught with danger, perched like an eagle's eyrie on the precipitous heights of the Red Cloud Golden Summit and blasted by mountain winds? Perhaps it was the interests of safety. Here, as elsewhere, religious orders often retreated to inaccessible locations in order to be better protect themselves against the chaos and violence of the outside world. Think of Mont Saint-Michel in France or the monastery at Skellig Michael off the south-west coast of Ireland.
But we would be wrong to call this a practical matter of safety alone. For, to begin with, we must realise that one would only go to such lengths if one had something worth protecting. Because monks were not alone in having things to protect, or in fearing for their lives, and yet the vast majority of the population did not build in places like the Red Clouds Golden Summit. Why not? They had communities, towns, work, family, and responsibilities. For the monks any such considerations were secondary to their faith and to the isolation necessary for their worship. Though it may sound strange, the near-impossible task of first erecting these temples and hewing a staircase from the naked stone may not have been an arbitrary "choice" in the minds of its builders so much as the obviously and necessarily right thing to do.
And so, most importantly, that this is a Buddhist temple cannot be separated from its extraordinary location. The mere sight of those thrusting eaves and stone parapets teetering three hundred feet high on these twinned pinnacles of rock inspires even in those who have never heard of Buddhism a sense of awe and sublimity. Think, then, of how much greater the impression first was — and still is — for those who truly believe this to be a sacred mountain.
Architecture is not only a question of style, of whether we want to build in Gothic or Classical, Bauhaus or Constructivist. And nor is it only a question of choice, of what sort of building we want to create, whether a library or school, office block or hospital. It is, even more than any of these, a matter of faith. That which we believe to be true, and to be most important — be this religious, economic, or otherwise — is far upstream of these other questions. It was because of their beliefs that the builders of the Fanjingshan temples decided to construct them on the Red Cloud Golden Summit. For when we believe that something is both right and necessary we almost always accomplish our goal. The process that has led to urban skyscrapers, to sports stadiums, and to cathedrals, is much the same as that which led to the creation of the Fanjingshan temples — in all cases, at all times, it begins with belief.
V - Rhetoric
Oratory in action... literally
I have written before, and shall continue to do so, that a study of rhetoric is important and useful in almost every walk of life. And, furthermore, that despite its negative modern connotations, rhetoric is all around us — and we usually love it. Last month I gave a short analysis of Russell Crowe's speech as Maximus Decimus Meridius in Gladiator; here is another examination of rhetoric in cinema.
This time we look to Aragorn, played by Viggo Mortensen in the incomparable Lord of the Rings. Spoiler alert, by the way, for those who have not seen these films. Here, in The Return of the King, the finale of the trilogy, we find Aragorn giving a speech to the soldiers of Gondor and Rohan as they prepare to face the impossible odds of fighting Sauron's hordes of orcs before the Gates of Mordor itself:
Aragorn's speech begins with epizeuxis — the repetition of a short phrase (or single word) in quick succession, the purpose usually being to grab your audience's attention or place particular emphasis on the words, especially if they have emotional or conceptual weight. In this case, I suppose, it is the former.
Moving on to the first line of his speech proper, one suspects that Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens (the screenwriters; this speech was not in Tolkien's book) took some inspiration from William Shakespeare. "Sons of Gondor, of Rohan, my brothers..." bears more than a passing resemblance to "Friends, Romans, countrymen..." from Julius Caesar. This is, in the first place, a tricolon — three successive clauses of equal word-count or syllables. "Veni, Vidi, Vici," is the most famous example. In Aragorn's case it is "of Gondor, of Rohan, my brothers." Trinities are always effective, and isocolons also tend to create a naturally pleasing sense of rhythm.
But this is also hendiatris, a specific form of isocolon in which the three successive words or phrases all express the same idea in different ways. These usually come in the form of mottos — think of the French "Liberté, égalité, fraternité" — but need not necessarily be reduced to singular words. Aragorn's aim here is to create a sense of unity and to remind the soldiers of what they have in common: that they are all free men joined in fighting for the good of the world.
Aragorn's speech is also replete with several forms of parallelism and repetition. Notice that the word "day" is used four times, in every instance either to begin or conclude a sentence. Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses, and epiphora at the end. When combined, as Aragorn has done, this is called symploce — the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning and end of successive clauses. It is incredibly emphatic — Aragorn is focussing on this day, on the here and now and what it means — and, again, contributes to a sense of rhythm. This speech is also riddled with alliteration and assonance, the most notable example being that run of four words in the fourth sentence: fails, forsake, friends, fellowship.
The most striking non-technical rhetorical feature of this speech is aporia; the rhetorical expression of doubt, whether real or pretended. Think of Hamlet's famous to be or not to be. Aragorn, noticing the soldiers' fear and saying that it would "take the heart of me", and going on to suggest that the courage of men may indeed fail, is admitting the danger and uncertainty in what is about to happen — admitting what all present know to be true. But then he resolves this aporia with a phrase of mighty conviction: "it is not this day!" Any clause spoken twice, and separated by an intervening word or phrase, is called diacope. And it doesn't get much more powerful than this.
Remember also Aristotle's Three Rhetorical Appeals: logos (reason), pathos (emotion), and ethos (a mix of identity, trustworthiness, and authority). Here Aragorn relies almost entirely on pathos — this is not the time for a complex argument and solid logic; his purpose is to rouse the soldiers for battle. But, notice, that his pathos begins with an appeal to ethos. Aragorn identifies himself with the soldiers, first of all by calling them his brothers and then, more subtly but powerfully, by explaining that he recognises their fear and feels it himself. He ends the speech with a very simple use of logos, however, urging them to fight for all that they hold dear. In some sense this is about their emotional attachment to the things they are fighting to protect — their families and homes, say. But it is also a rational observation: that the only way to protect those things is to fight right now, to "hold your ground" and "stand", in Aragorn's words.
There is more we could analyse, but I think that is enough for now. A reminder, as ever, of the manifold uses of rhetoric even in the 21st century. And here is the speech as delivered by Viggo Mortensen in The Return of the King — recall, as Quintilian said, the success or failure of a speech rests on its delivery.
VI - Writing
In the beginning...
I have gathered here, for your perusal, the opening lines of several of history's most famous epic poems. Read them — not forgetting to enjoy and admire them, of course — and see if you can tell what they all have in common:
The Iliad of Homer
The Odyssey of Homer
The Aeneid of Virgil
Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto
The Lusiads by Luís Vaz de Camões
Jerusalem Delivered by Torquato Tasso
The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser
Paradise Lost by John Milton
Paradise Regained by John Milton
So, what do these opening lines all have in common? There are certain models you can probably detect which, once established, were imitated, whether Virgil's original arms and the man I sing or some sort of Homeric invocation to the muses. But, in all cases, the connection is deeper and much simpler. In every example of epic poetry given here the poet wastes no time telling you exactly what the poem shall be about, and usually in very direct language. Shakespeare did the same thing at the outset of Romeo and Juliet:
The reason I share all this is not only out of some scholarly interest. Rather, it's an important reminder not to fail to see the wood for the trees when we begin to write something. Tell the reader what they are about to read. Not all epic poems begin in this way, but the fact that many of them do should not be forgotten. Because, for all their length and complexity, their myriad characters and numerous plot-lines, the poet is in each case focussing on a single event or circumstance or theme, to which everything else is subsidiary. This clarity of intention is not be underestimated. For if we begin with a single, simple intention in mind, and however complex the task becomes let it always be our north star, then we shall be surer of success and of creating something good than if we set out without a clear notion of where we are going. So, you see, these directly stated opening lines are for the poet as much as the reader. Any writer, of any sort of material, stands to gain by bearing this simple truth in mind.
VII - The Seventh Plinth
This week's Seventh Plinth I have decided to dedicate to Write of Passage. Why? Well, they are not my "sponsors". When they contacted me in 2022 and offered to support my work they made it very clear that I was under no obligation to mention this support, nor ever to promote them. This has changed my life, and for their generous patronage I am, and shall always remain, deeply grateful.
What is Write of Passage about? The internet has changed the world, but not everybody realises quite how much. They firmly believe — and have proven — that the difference between your life now and the one you want to lead can be as simple as the decision to start writing online. And so that is what they teach people to do: how to write online. It's more than that, of course, because Write of Passage have also fostered a global community of people both likeminded and wildly different, in all cases united by a passion for writing. Their stated aim is to help you get your best ideas out of your head and into the world, and to start publishing your ideas and building an online audience.
The good news? Enrolment for their next cohort of students is opening soon. You can join their newsletter here to be notified when it opens, and to hear more about Write of Passage straight from the horse's mouth.
Question of the Week
Last week's question to test your critical thinking was:
Is there any truth to ancient mythology? If so, what is it? And, if not, why did we tell these myths for so long?
Here were some of your answers...
And, finally, from an anonymous respondent:
Now, for this week's question to test your critical thinking...
Is the idea of the "Golden Age" just nostalgia, or was there really a time in the past when things were better than they are now? If so, when?
Email me your answers and I'll share them in next week's newsletter.
And that's all
The sun rises and falls, the moon waxes and wanes, the stars rotate in their firmament, and the Areopagus concludes for another week. Or, better yet, as Edmund Spenser wrote:
Timely Night, endowed with wondrous beauty, is upon us — may it kindle love in your hearts, Gentle Readers!
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