Areopagus Volume LXVI

publishedabout 2 months ago
22 min read

Areopagus Volume LXVI

Welcome one and all to the sixty sixth volume of the Areopagus. Last week's missive on the nature of mythology both ancient and modern was rather a long one. It is only right, then, that this week's Areopagus be short and sweet.

now it reveals its hidden side / and now the other — thus it falls / an autumn leaf

This was the final haiku composed by Ryōkan, a Japanese travelling monk and calligrapher-poet who evidently knew that a handful of words can do more than a bucketful. Onwards, then, and like the falling autumn leaf we go!

I - Classical Music

Festival March from Aladdin

Carl Nielsen (1918)

Performed by the Göteborgs Symfoniker
Midsummer's Eve Bonfire on Skagen Beach by P.S. Krøyer (1906)

Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) is now regarded as Denmark's greatest composer. That was not quite so during his lifetime; until 1916 he was a violinist with the Royal Danish Orchestra and, after that, a teacher at the Royal Academy. As is so often the case, continental and global recognition only came after his lifetime. Nielsen's influences were many and his output was equally varied, ranging from relatively experimental work to more traditionally Romantic music. Here, with Aladdin, we seem to have the latter: grandeur, scale, soaring emotion, and immense drama. He wrote it in Skagen, Denmark's northermost town and a fashionable summer destination filled with artists, tourists, and high society, hence the painting I have paired with this piece.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Nielsen's Aladdin is that it was written as "incidental music" for a brand new production of Adam Oehlenschläger's 1805 play Aladdin, to be performed in 1919 at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen. This production was ultimately unsuccessful and closed after fifteen performances; Nielsen's music, however, proved immensely popular. A modern comparison might be Vangelis' soundtrack for the 1992 film 1492: Conquest of Paradise. The movie was not a major hit commercially and is little spoken of today; the theme composed for it by Vangelis, meanwhile, remains popular all around the world.

And this comparison is more accurate than it might seem! Because "incidental music" is essentially an old-fashioned way of saying soundtrack. What Nielsen wrote was music to be performed as the drama of Oehlenschläger's play unfolded on stage in much the same way that a Hans Zimmer or John Williams track plays over characters talking, fighting, exploring, or anything else on the silver screen. This is just one more reason, if needed, why modern film-score composers ought to be regarded as no different from their Renaissance, Baroque, and Romantic predecessors — "classical music", whatever those two words precisely mean, is still very much alive!

II - Historical Figure

Dirk Willems

The lives of some people are remembered for a single act; sometimes but one decision of the thousands we make during our lifetime is the one that matters. One such person is Dirk Willems, and I'd like to share with you the simple — but moving and morally complex — story that has preserved his name for posterity.

Dirk Willems was born in a Dutch town called Asperen in the 16th century, at a time when Europe was in the throes of religious and political strife caused by the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent reaction of the Catholic Church. We can say little with certainty about his life other than that, at some point, he went to the city of Rotterdam and was there rebaptised as an adult. And so Willems became an Anabaptist — he believed that baptism should be a conscious decision rather than one taken on behalf of children. This was in direct contravention to established doctrine in both the Catholic Church and most of the major, recently-founded Protestant Churches. As such, Anabaptists were persecuted by all sides for their beliefs, and Willems was no different; after holding rebaptisms in his own house he was arrested and tried. I shall let Thieleman J. van Braght, whose 1680 book Martyr's Mirror compiled the stories of Christian martyrs, tell you the rest:

Concerning his apprehension, it is stated by trustworthy persons, that when he fled he was hotly pursued by a thief-catcher, and as there had been some frost, said Dirk Willems ran before over the ice, getting across with considerable peril. The thief-catcher following him broke through, when Dirk Willems, perceiving that the former was in danger of his life, quickly returned and aided him in getting out, and thus saved his life. The thiefcatcher wanted to let him go, but the burgomaster, very sternly called to him to consider his oath, and thus he was again seized by the thief-catcher, and, at said place, after severe imprisonment and great trials proceeding from the deceitful papists, put to death at a lingering fire...

The document which recorded Willems' trial has also survived:

Whereas, Dirk Willems, born at Asperen, at present a prisoner, has, without torture and iron bonds (or otherwise) before the bailiff and us judges, confessed that at, the age of fifteen, eighteen or twenty years, he was rebaptized in Rotterdam, at the house of one Pieter Willems, and that he, further, in Asperen, at his house, at divers hours, harbored and admitted secret conventicles and prohibited doctrines, and that he also has permitted several persons to be rebaptized in his aforesaid house; all of which is contrary to our holy Christian faith, and to the decrees of his royal majesty, and ought not to be tolerated, but severely punished, for an example to others; therefore, we the aforesaid judges, having, with mature deliberation of council, examined and considered all that was to be considered in this matter, have condemned and do condemn by these presents in the name; and in the behalf, of his royal majesty, as Count of Holland, the aforesaid Dirk Willems, prisoner, persisting obstinately in his opinion, that he shall be executed with fire, until death ensues; and declare all his property confiscated, for the benefit of his royal majesty. So done this 16th of May, in presence of the judges Cornelis Goverts, Jan van Stege Jans, Adriaen Gerritts, Adriaen Jans, Lucas Rutgers, Jan Jans, and Jan Roefelofs, A. D., 1569.

Willems must have known that stopping to save his pursuer made his recapture likely (along with the inevitable torture and execution that would follow) and yet he did so anyway. Doing the right thing was more important, for Willems, than escaping with his life. He made a choice — and people still talk about him to this day, taking inspiration from that single, courageous decision. You can see why Willems' startling example of moral integrity has made him a figure of immense veneration for so long, both among Anabaptists and further afield.

III - Painting

Georgi Asparuhov Mural

What is art? That's the question we so often ask ourselves, and one we frequently hear at the outset of any discussion about the subject. But, I must confess, I generally find this a rather boring place to begin, if only because it has been over-asked. Much more interesting, for me, is an alternative question: where is art? I may expand on this delightful (and incredibly useful!) question another time. For now, suffice to say, art is found not merely in our galleries or places of worship or civic buildings — it is also on the streets!

I have been in Sofia of late and there I noticed something interesting: a mural of the legendary Bulgarian footballer Georgi Asparuhov (1943-1971). It stands opposite the stadium named after him (known colloquially as Gerena), home to the club PFK Levski Sofia, for whom Asparuhov played and scored hundreds of goals. Here is a closeup of the mural, albeit in less-than-perfect quality — I took these photographs with my phone!

This mural of Georgi Asparuhov reminded me of the faded saint-murals I saw in Verona. Whereas we think of Medieval art as being restricted to churches and palaces, the truth is that those cities of five or six hundred years ago had streets bursting with colour. Whether gathered beneath eaves, squeezed into spandrels, or proclaimed over doorways, there was nothing unusual about the haloed heads of saints and angels with their graven faces and flowing robes crowding round the arches and windows of a bustling street.

This colossal painting of Georgi Asparuhov is a direct continuation of this sort of art — this same impulse to decorate the places we live with images that uplift and inspire us, recording great deeds or venerating our heroes. After all, where do we find the world's oldest art? In the caves where our ancestors lived. Whether for entertainment or ritual or any other reason, these 40,000 year-old bison and boars and hyenas were daubed with red ochre in the homes of the people who made them. These, and the Medieval Veronese saints, and the Georgi Asparuhov mural, all represent that elemental human instinct to decorate our surroundings with art.

How many streets around the world — how many streets you walk or drive every day — would be improved by public art of this sort? I don't mean to say that every spare scrap of wall should be splashed with paint, of course. But, I think, there is something to say for murals like this one: an honest act of veneration for a local hero, painted with care and skill; a burst of colour on a busy street; something which draws us to look up; something which makes our day a little more interesting, a little more beautiful; and something which contributes to the character and identity of a place. And, if only to make all this even more evident, we end with a view of the same building before the mural of Georgi Asparuhov was made. Perhaps you can see how much of a difference it makes.

IV - Architecture

Lüneburg Wasserturm

Infrastructure as Architecture

This is not a castle, an architectural folly, a palace, a library, or anything of the sort. It is a water tower in the German town of Lüneburg, built one hundred and sixteen years ago — and, more than this, it is a glimpse into a different way of thinking about infrastructure. The Lüneburg Water Tower was built in 1907 in the middle of the city’s old town, surrounded by Medieval streets and churches. Hence the council decided that it should fit in with its urban environment. And so it was designed by the local architects Richard Kampf and Franz Krüger — who otherwise worked on schools, churches, and civic buildings — in a Neo-Gothic style inspired by the 15th century Uenglinger Tower in the nearby town of Stendal.

The Uenglinger Tower also has that striking combination of a rectangular lower section and a cylindrical tower above. But the Lüneburg Water Tower’s cylindrical part is much elongated — because it contained a water tank with a capacity of 500 cubic metres! This was, first and foremost, a building with a specific infrastructural purpose. After seven decades of service the Lüneburg Water Tower was supposed to be demolished in the 1980s. But doing so would have been expensive; the council decided to maintain and renovate it instead. And so this peculiar old building has become an observation tower from which you can look over the picturesque city of Lüneburg — it now receives more than 100,000 visitors per year. Its lower rooms have also been converted into a space where exhibitions, music concerts, and even weddings can take place.

What might have been a purely functional piece of infrastructure has become a major part of the urban fabric of Lüneburg, contributing to the atmosphere of this Medieval city rather than detracting from it. Some would argue that the effort expended on building such a water tower — with blind arcades, crenellations, turrets, and decorative brickwork — is a waste. Why spend all that extra money when it could have been built more quickly and cheaply?

The authorities certainly could have tried to hide it away or save money on its design. But, instead, with the help of Kampf and Krüger, they saw the necessity for this new water tower as an opportunity to improve the aesthetic character of their city. And so the Lüneburg Water Tower is, at the very least, a reminder that good architecture and urban design aren’t only or even primarily about major projects — they are about the details of ordinary buildings and structures, whether bus stops or water towers or lamp posts.

Roads, power stations, bridges, water towers, broadcast towers, dams… these are all infrastructure, and the most important thing is that they function. Sometimes such things are aesthetically pleasing in their own right — the vast concrete curve of the Hoover Dam is probably the most famous example. But, more often than not, they are treated as things which do not need to be aesthetically pleasing. The Lüneburg Wasserturm says: perhaps they should be! For it reminds us that infrastructure can also be architecture — that the words “infrastructure” and “beauty” do not have to be mutually exclusive.

Lüneburg is not the only city to be graced with such an interesting water tower. All around the world there are countless more examples of these infrastructurearchitecture fusions. Something about the nature of the water tower (perhaps its height, prominence, and importance?) has invited wonderful architectural experiments down the years:

V - Rhetoric

Tu Quoque... beware!

Not all rhetoric is good rhetoric. For though I tend to focus on the rhetorical devices that can improve and vivify our writing and speaking, it would be straightforwardly incorrect to pretend that rhetoric does not also have its dark arts.

There are many such examples, but among those we hear most often is the ad hominem — that is where we criticise a person rather than what they are saying. This arouses anger and indignation among the audience, thus distracting us from any flaw in the accuser's argument and focussing our attention squarely on the accused. It's a trick as old as time, and mightily effective.

There is a specific form of ad hominem called "tu quoque", Latin for "you too". This is where we respond to a criticism by pointing out that the criticiser is (or seems to be) guilty of the very same thing. Let me give you a hypothetical example using two of Shakespeare's most famous characters:

Hamlet: Brutus, it was very wrong of you to murder Caesar in cold blood. How can you justify the assassination of a man who trusted you?
Brutus: Well, dear Prince, did you not kill Polonius? How can you accuse me of wrongdoing when you have done the very same thing?

You can see the problem here. Whether or not Hamlet has committed murder has no bearing on whether Brutus was wrong to do so. But, by pointing out what appears to be Hamlet's hypocricy, Brutus has suddenly shifted our attention away from him and onto his opponent. There is no logical reasoning in what Brutus has said. He could have attempted to justify his actions — and perhaps even convinced us that he was right! Alas, it is much easier to simply deflect our attention and not actually address the question posed by Hamlet.

And so using a tu quoque, much like ad hominem, is effective — but that does not make it right, nor even, as Socrates pointed out in his clash with the Sophists of Ancient Athens, bring us any closer to the truth. Does the existence of such oratorical dark arts make the study of rhetoric problematic? Perhaps not. Studying rhetoric is important not only because it can make us better communicators — it also allows us to think more clearly about we read and hear, so that we can spot rhetorical manipulations whenever we hear them. To be aware of tu quoque is also to be wary of it — and to be ready for it. Perhaps Hamlet might have continued, in the strange scenario outlined above:

Hamlet: I did not say that I was right to murder Polonius — in fact, I was wrong to do so! But my actions have nothing do with yours. If you accept that I was in the wrong, as I already do, then surely you were also in the wrong?

And so on and so forth, though obviously far more eloquent and subtle had Shakespeare really written such a conversation! The point in all of this, other than telling you about tu quoque, is to suggest that rhetoric is not only a sword; it is also a shield.

VI - Writing

On Thinking for Oneself

Arthur Schopenhauer is not the sort of person I usually write about in the Areopagus. He was a philosopher, after all, and I maintain that philosophers must be treated with caution! But, recently, somebody suggested that I read a few of his shorter essays. One of them, simply titled On Thinking For Oneself, caught my attention. I have included it in the Writing section of this newsletter because thinking and writing are in many ways synonymous: the better we think, the better we write, and vice versa.

So, how does one think for oneself? The thrust of Schopenhauer's advice is that we shouldn't rely too much on reading:

Reading is a mere makeshift for original thinking.

That is not to say we shouldn't read, of course. Schopenhauer's point is that we mustn't confuse reading (which can be very useful) with thinking:

The difference between the effect produced on the mind by thinking for oneself and that produced by reading is incredibly great... reading forces on the mind ideas that are as foreign and heterogeneous to the tendency and mood it has at the moment, as is the seal to the wax whereon it impresses its stamp.
...the mind is deprived of all its elasticity by much reading as is a spring when a weight is continually applied to it; and the surest way not to have thoughts of our own is for us at once to take up a book when we have a moment to spare. This practice is the reason why erudition makes most men more stupid and simple than they are by nature and also deprives their literary careers of every success. As Pope says, they remain, "For ever reading, never to be read."
Scholars are those who have read in books, but thinkers... are those who have read directly in the book of the world

Schopenhauer uses a rather neat analogy for the difference between reading and thinking:

Those who have spent their lives in reading, and have drawn their wisdom from books, resemble men who have acquired precise information about a country from many descriptions of travel. They are able to give much information about things, but at bottom they have really no coherent, clear, and thorough knowledge of the nature of the country. On the other hand, those who have spent their lives in thinking are like men who have themselves been in that country. They alone really know what they are talking about; they have a consistent and coherent knowledge of things there and are truly at home in them.

And he goes on to argue that we must begin with our own opinions rather than those of other people:

Thus the man who thinks for himself only subsequently becomes acquainted with the authorities for his opinions when they serve merely to confirm him therein and to encourage him. The book-philosopher, on the other hand, starts from those authorities in that he constructs for himself an entire system from the opinions of others which he has collected in the course of his reading. Such a system is then like an automaton composed of foreign material, whereas that of the original thinker resembles a living human being.

It isn't easy to find our own opinions, of course, but Schopenhauer argues that effort in doing so is entirely worthwhile:

Even if occasionally we had been able very easily and conveniently to find in a book a truth or view which we very laboriously and slowly discovered through our own thinking and combining, it is nevertheless a hundred times more valuable if we have arrived at it through our own original thinking. Only then does it enter into the whole system of our ideas as an integral part and living member; only then is it completely and firmly connected therewith, is understood in all its grounds and consequents, bears the colour, tone, and stamp of our whole mode of thought, has come at the very time when the need for it was keen, is therefore firmly established and cannot again pass away

I shall leave it there for now. Schopenhauer, though he has been accused of many things, is rarely accused of not being an original thinker. In an age when the internet makes it all too easy to pass our time consuming the words (and, therefore, the thoughts and opinions) of others, he offers a timely reminder to step back and put in the work ourselves. As always, I recommend reading the essay in full. It is only brief and easily found online — albeit with the caution to apply Schopenhauer's advice to his very own words!

In conclusion, however, I must add a counterpoint from the marvellous Michel de Montaigne. I have written about him in the Areopagus before, and even quoted these very words. But they are worth quoting again in this context, I dare say:

Truth and reason are common to every one, and are no more his who spake them first, than his who speaks them after: ‘tis no more according to Plato, than according to me, since both he and I equally see and understand them. Bees cull their several sweets from this flower and that blossom, here and there where they find them, but themselves afterwards make the honey, which is all and purely their own, and no more thyme and marjoram: so the several fragments he borrows from others, he will transform and shuffle together to compile a work that shall be absolutely his own.

VII - The Seventh Plinth

Did I choose to ask you about free will?

Two weeks ago I asked you this:

Does free will exist?

I like to include as much of your writing as possible, my Gentle Readers, and so the Seventh Plinth is yours once again, for you responded (as ever!) with insight, discretion, and nuance:

Carson H

As both an existentialist and an intent observer of the natural world, I believe that free will is not real, and, at the same time, that if we as humans are to live our physical and spiritual lives fruitfully, then we must never think, act, or talk as if we do not have free will.I believe we exist to do our best job of existing in the time that we have - this entails all the best and worst parts of the human experience: Love, passion, sitting around doing nothing, sorrow, pursuit, growth, eating a good cheeseburger, failure, learning, watching the sunset (or a sunrise, for the morning people out there), laughing with friends, toiling in one's hard work, and engaging with all that we have access to innocently and naturally.

We've been gifted with such potent consciousness that we are able to ponder whether we exist, whether we truly think freely, and whether our actions and thoughts have any "real" meaning. While these are great things to explore - after all, it's this that leads me to my own belief that free will isn't true in the fantastical way we mean it in! - it is in our actions and righteous doing in the world and in our personal development that we must act, think, and speak as if we have more free will than we can fathom. This makes us as innocent and in line with our natural state as the deer in its field - carrying out her work of eating and walking, not asking questions that tighten up her mind and inspire a freeze in her, or a stopping of her important motion on this earth, just to question whether eating from this patch of grass means anything in the grand scheme of things, or if escaping a predator makes her a bad creature since she just denied another living thing it's life-sustaining meal.
The difference between believing and not believing in free will is completely trivial, to me, when compared to the difference between acting as if free will does or does not exist. This difference is seen, I think, in the subtle but palpable line between nihilism and existentialism. If we're not free, is that beautiful, or is it dreadful? Does it inspire one to not care because they cannot equivocate themselves to a god, or does it inspire one to be as beautiful a piece of nature as a falling leaf, a lighthearted stranger, or a dying star?

Andrew S

A pre-requisite of human responsibility is that decisions are made based on character and circumstance. Rewind to a point in time when a decision was made, and because that decision was based on the same character and the same circumstance, the repeated decision should be the same. Were this not to be the case, and that with successive rewinds the repeated decisions were to go different ways, then decisions are no longer based on character and circumstance, but chance. And if our decision making is based on chance, then we are not responsible for our actions. Free will, human responsibility and predeterminism can all be reconciled in the sense that when a decision is made, it is made freely, but it is made based on character and circumstance, and any decision made would always have been made the way it was. We choose freely, but would always have chosen the way we chose because our choice was based on our character and circumstance.

Manuel G

I believe that the answer to this question depends on what meaning is given to the term "free will." If "free will" means that in our society everyone has the freedom to do what they want and there is nothing to restrict that freedom, I am sure that is not the case. I think that in our society there is an illusion that "we are all free", but that is not true because whenever there is social inequality there will be no freedom, since poor people cannot be free.
For example, we could say that technically in our society "everyone is free to travel wherever they want," because there is no law or article in the Constitution that prohibits people from traveling. However, poor people CANNOT travel, even if they want to and even if they are not prohibited from doing so. Therefore, not all of us have the freedom to travel. And this same fallacy is repeated with many other beautiful "freedoms" that many people are proud of.
That is why I say that for individual freedoms to exist, collective freedoms must exist, and that if the latter do not exist, the first cannot exist either.

Andrew A

Fiercely debated by philosophers and scientists over centuries (of which I’m neither…so forgive me). The truth surely is: nobody can say for certain. It seems to me that any action taken is driven by some aspect of self-interest. Biologically speaking, we’re programmed to “survive”. We must eat, drink, keep warm, sleep, and maintain our health, and although there maybe many ways individuals meet these needs (from rich to poor): the fact they’re a physical imperative surely compromises the underlying notion of free will. Similarly, our environment constantly constrains our behaviour. From the natural world to society’s norms and conventions: our World makes constant demands of us (we adapt). Can free will be said to exist within such narrow parameters?

Roger P

There was a piece in New Scientist about this recently. My view is that it doesn't and that the only reason we ask the question so often is that we really, really want it to exist.Why are we so keen? It may have something to do with being able to punish transgressions. It makes no sense to punish people if they had no choice but to act the way they did.It may also make the people who have done very well feel less important. All the clever decisions they made that got them so well off were... inevitable. Their success is hollow.I'm not much into punishing people. Rehabilitating, yes, and protecting society from dangerous people, sure. But simple punishment seems a bit pointless really.And I don't really mind if the billionaires feel a little less smug.

David R

I think we have to follow here the “precautionary principle” and continue to assert that free will does exist until we are obliged by convincing evidence to declare that it doesn’t. Why that then? At the very least because free will is the foundation of our system of criminal justice. A world without justice is an intolerable prospect.
How shall we gather any such convincing evidence, given that we think of free will as a property of the human mind and the only tool we have available to look for the existence of “free will” is the same, the human mind. So, the enquiry whether free will exists is mere navel-gazing, which I guess has no real prospect of coming up with an answer. It will take some entity more intelligent than we humans to tell us whether we humans have free will or not.
Ergo: for the time being at least, I declare, free will does exist.

Deborah G

We aren’t pre-programmed, and I don’t think “destiny” is a real thing, so yes, we have free will. It’s more complex than choice. Prisoners, for example, don’t have the same range of choices as most people, but they do have free will in selecting their mindset and attitudes, regardless of external factors.
Naturally we’re constantly influenced by our values and past experiences. I’d say that’s universal, so let’s not expect a free will independent of influences. We start from where we are, and use all that’s inside us to make our decisions, and move forward in our lives.


This is a question that I've been pondering over for about two years now and I think I have a theory.Imo, free will exists, but not in the sense we would expect it to. Based on the following theories:So, I believe time is circular and not linear. If that's taken to be true, everything has already happened. The past, the present, and the future all exist at once. That would probably imply that we have no free will. However, I believe that infinite realities also exist, with infinite pasts, presents and futures. When you make a choice, multiple realities where you made that choice already exist. As you keep making further choices, you're jumping realities that align with their consequences.Then, so to speak, everything has already happened and you've already made all the choices you're going to make in the future. BUT, the possibility of infinity still allows us to have the free will to choose your reality.

Conall C

Sam Harris’s argument, (Free Will, 2012) that our actions are either predetermined or random seems cogent especially when supported by advances in psychology and neuro-imaging in ‘backward masking’ (Harris 2012, 70). Even the degree of effort we might make to act differently is itself determined by prior causes. This runs entirely counter to the compatibilist argument that acting upon a desire attests to the existence of free will which seems grounded upon a conflation of determinism with fatalism. The second limb of Harris’s argument i.e., that our ability to act or not is governed by prior causes clarifies that distinction.

Jide O

If we define free will as the freedom to do as we please, then yes, free will certainly exists. It gets interesting when we include the idea of consequence to the free will equation. We have the freedom to will, but not the freedom to get absolved of the consequences (good or bad) of our will.

Question of the Week

This week, instead of an age-old philosophical problem, I am setting you a challenge inspired by the mural of Georgi Asparuhov in Sofia:

Send in a photograph of some public art near you, or of any that you have come across before. Feel free to add your opinion — if you like it, why? and if not, why not?

Email me and I'll share them in next week's newsletter!

And that's all

Short and sweet was the mission statement — my farewell must be brief, then. The concluding words of this week's Areopagus I shall simply give to the great Albanian poet Migjeni, born on this day one hundred and twelve years ago:

Sing your song, youth, and laugh like children!
Let the sound of your voice rise to the heavens
And echo back to us again, from the envious stars.
For we adore you, as we adore the sun.
Sing, youth! Sing your joyful song!
Laugh, youth, laugh! The world is yours.

Goodbye for now, Gentle Readers, & I shall see you anon!


The Cultural Tutor

The Cultural Tutor

A beautiful education.

Read more from The Cultural Tutor

Areopagus Volume LXXI

6 days ago
33 min read

Areopagus Volume LXX

11 days ago
18 min read

Areopagus Volume LXIX

19 days ago
22 min read