Areopagus Volume LXVIII
Welcome one and all to the sixty eighth volume of the Areopagus. Tomorrow is the 11th November — Armistice Day, which marks the end of the First World War. Last year I dedicated an entire volume to it; this year, however, I shall but share with you a particularly moving poem written by the American poet Alan Seeger. He served with the French Foreign Legion and fought at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Seeger did not survive, but he has bequeathed to posterity some of the most striking war poetry ever composed. These are the closing stanzas of The Aisne:
After sweet Love, the majesty of Strife — I can never quite come to understand how a man who endured the hardships and terrors in the trenches of the First World War was able to write with such fortitude and dignity, devoid of bitterness or despair and yet without blind patriotism or some sort of bloodthirsty love of war; this is, as they used to say, noble prosody.
We move — and the seven short lessons are underway...
I - Classical Music
Song for Athene
John Tavener (1993)
Performed by the Westminster Abbey Choir
Mosaic from the Hagia Sophia
I suppose it is easy to imagine that religious music is something we no longer create. One thinks of the many centuries of Gregorian Chant, of Allegri's Miserere Mei, Deus, of Mozart's Requieu, and concludes: "they are a thing of the past!" Not so. John Tavener was an English composer who died less than ten years ago and left behind a legacy of extraordinary "modern classical music" including opera, requiems, hymns, masses, soundtracks, and vigils.
He is most popularly remembered because of Lament for Athene, written in 1993 and performed at the funeral of Lady Diana in 1997. Tavener wrote the piece in memory of a family friend who had died young. She was half Greek, and called Athene, and because Tavener had once heard her reading from Shakespeare at Westminster Abbey he decided to combine words from Hamlet with those of the Greek Orthodox Liturgy. An Orthodox nun called Mother Thekla helped him with the lyrics, and the result is Song for Athene — a haunting and moving choral piece worthy of any century. As Tavener later said himself about its composition, he wrote the music immediately after Athene's funeral:
As a postscript I should mention that there was another English composer with a similar name: John Taverner, with the extra R, who lived in the 16th century and also created a great many works of religious choral music — easy to confuse them, but even easier to enjoy their music!
II - Historical Figure
Truth on Trial
All too often historical figures become people who simply did X, Y, and Z, who went from one place to another and played their part in a story which feels somehow inevitable. In other words, historical figures can become like characters in a book or film, playing out some carefully planned role in a preordained series of events. But they were real people, just like you and I, who only dimly perceived the future, who had anxieties and fears, who often did not know exactly why they were doing what they were doing, and who could never have known that hundreds of years later we would be talking about them and their life with much more certainty than they ever did. For they — these people of history — were faced with situations, in the same way that we are, about which they had to make decisions. And it was in those moments of decision-making — to do what is easy or what is right, what is courageous or cowardly, what is obvious or what is unexpected — that they became the "historical figures" we speak about today.
And so I would like to write about Socrates; but rather than regaling the facts of his entire life, or the nature and influence of his philosophy, I merely wish to share with you a decision he made. This may, I think, tell you more about him than any pile of facts and dates ever could. See, Socrates asked too many questions. So in 399 BC, at the age of seventy, he was put on trial by his fellow Athenians. The charges? Corrupting the youth and offending the gods. Plato, his student, would later write an account of the trial called the Apology of Socrates. Here is what Socrates said, flatly denying that he had ever taught anybody anything:
Socrates explained during his trial that this was why so many people wanted him punished – his questioning had exposed their ignorance and thus aroused their hatred.
Socrates freely admitted that those who listened to him, especially the youth, had gone on to question their parents and the city’s elders – but he did not tell them to do so.
We really must stress the simplicity of Socrates’ philosophy in order to save him from any preconceived (and justified!) notions you may have about philosophers as incomprehensible windbags. As Michel de Montaigne said:
Alas, Socrates was sentenced to death by a margin of just thirty votes. But his punishment was delayed and he was given a chance to escape – he refused. Socrates believed that living the right way was more important than merely living, and that death was preferable to doing the wrong thing – either begging for mercy or going into exile, which would have been demeaning both for Athens and himself.
Xenophon, one of his students, recounts that even as Socrates’ friends and followers wept and despaired he remained cheerful throughout the trial, right up until his death, comforting and even chiding them:
Socrates was not a philosopher who sat in his study reading and writing books, and he did not work at a university. He liked to sing and dance and drink and laugh with his many friends, though never too much. He had little money and no power, nor did he ever seek either. He was neither an ideologue nor an extremist and neither conservative nor revolutionary. He was merely Socrates, who asked “why?” and “how?” and “what?” until he could ask no more. He spoke simply and spent his time on the streets (always barefooted) talking to princes and beggars, and what concerned him wasn’t any sort of complex systematisation of the world. He wanted to find the truth, and he wanted to know how a human could live well and do right. And when he was sentenced to death by his own countrymen he cheerfully accepted their verdict and drank the poison hemlock like a cup of wine. Perhaps you can understand why Michel de Montaigne so revered him, and said:
It was later philosophers who created formal methods of logic and complex systems of reasoning, but we can trace the influence of Socrates’ inquiring mind directly from one student to another right through to the 21st century. He lit a flame which is still burning in all of us.
III - Painting
The Art of Architectural Fantasy
In 1795 a British artist called William Marlow decided to paint St Paul's Cathedral in London as if it were on a Venetian canal. Why? It's a capriccio. This is a term in both music and painting which means something like "fantasy" or "whimsy". The purpose is to explore a new idea without being overly serious, and to rely on one's imagination above all else. Our modern day cinematic equivalents might be the films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet or Wes Anderson, say.
The capriccio first appeared as a pure art genre in the 17th century. Of course, artists have always been "making things up" in some sense. Look at any Medieval or Renaissance work of art and the buildings you see therein will almost certainly either not exist at all or, more likely, not really look like that in real life. Consider a page from the Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry, created for him in the early 15th century by the Limbourg Brothers and Jean Colombe:
The difference with the capriccio is that it was solely about inventing a new, sometimes fantastical location, and at all times with a focus on architecture and proper architectural draughtsmanship. Or, in other words, the capricco is about imaginary but realistic architecture. Though art has always included buildings which don't technically exist, they were never the focus of the painting. But when Francesco Battagliolo painted this capriccio in the 18th century say, the architecture was the star of the show; there isn't even a scene here, as such. And, crucially, he pays close attention to the rules, proportions, and motifs of Neoclassical Architecture. This is a building which could, perhaps, have actually been constructed.
And it's no coincidence that the capricco first emerged in the 17th century. Landscape painting was becoming more popular, especially with the likes of Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin, two French painters who worked in Rome and painted scenes from classical mythology and history. And, just as importantly, the earliest traces of modern archaeology had started to appear. Renaissance and Baroque scholars like Leon Battista Alberti or Giovanni Battista Piranesi were paying more attention to ancient ruins, cataloguing and analysing them in a serious and methodological way. The possibilities of architecture were suddenly an exciting area of study. This, along with a growing number of European tourists coming to Rome and Venice, created the perfect storm for a new genre: the capriccio.
There was another genre of art know as veduti, which were highly accurate paintings of cities. These were also popular with tourists; once upon a time a veduta was the closest thing they could get to taking a photo. But these veduti artists, like Bellotto or Canaletto, also painted capricci.
And, moreover, they also set the "capriccio mindset", if you like, seep into their real cityscapes. Canaletto, for example, was famous for "rearranging" parts of Venice in order to suit his paintings and make them more visually appealling. In any case, not all capricci were about perfect architecture; many of them were fantasies of ruined buildings, of crumbling ancient temples and weatherbeaten monuments. The likes of Panini, Ghisolfi, and Spera all excelled at these moody and atmospheric, but always realistic, ruined capricci. One senses a whiff of Proto-Romanticism here!
And there was another form of the capriccio in which artists painted real buildings, but not where they actually were. Thus somebody like Hubert Robert painted The Monuments of Paris in 1789, putting together several famous buildings into a single location which are, in reality, far apart.
Perhaps the most unusual of all capricci were those of the archaeologist, architect, and artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi. He created a series of imaginary prisons which were, and remain, rather terrifying visions of some dark and impossible dungeon.
The capriccio faded in the late 18th century, partly because of changing artistic tastes and partly because of political developments in Italy and France, which had been the home of the genre, but architectural fantasies lived on with 19th century painters like Thomas Cole or CR Cockerell. Consider this, The Professor's Dream, created by Cockerell — who was a prolific architect — for his students in 1848. It shows many of the world's greatest buildings, from across the ages, united as part of the same grand story of architecture.
Alas, even if the capriccio faded as a pure genre, its spirit of artistic imagination and of exclusive focus on location and mood rather than narrative lived on in the work of artists like the proto-Surrealist Giorgio de Chirico or the Art Deco draughtsman Hugh Ferriss. And, perhaps more than anywhere else, in the mind-bending drawings of M.C. Escher. This is capriccio in the age of nuclear war and quantum physics; no doubt Piranesi and co would have approved of these impossible architectural fantasies.
The capriccio as a genre is a reminder of how art is inevitably a product of its times — and, equally, how art is influenced by our surroundings. Had Italy not been filled with striking, awe-inspiring, and mysterious ancient ruins then the capriccio may never have emerged. And it also speaks to how closely art and architecture were united; they were considered two sides of the same coin rather than different disciplines. To be an architect was, in some sense, to be a painter — and vice versa, even if only in the imagination!
IV - Architecture
Great Mosque of Damascus
Monument to the Ages
Architecture is inevitably a product of the people who build and the age they are living in. Thus architecture evolves, and it never evolves quicker than in times of political, cultural, religious, and social change. Just as the rise of Christianity brought with it new styles of architecture, so too the early centuries of Islam were an era of architectural innovation, fusion, and discovery.
The Umayyads were the second of the great Islamic dynasties. They were preceded by the Rashiduns, rose to power in 661 AD, and were toppled in 750 AD by the Abbasids. The Umayyads chose for the capital of their tricontintental Caliphate — which stretched from the shores of the Indian Ocean to Spain — the Syrian city of Damascus. This was a place caught in the cross-winds of Hellenic, Roman, Mesopotamian, Byzantine, and Iranian culture, geographically well-located at the centre of the empire, and — it so happens — one of the world's oldest continually inhabited cities, with evidence of human settlement going back to at least 9,000 BC.
The first place of worship on this site was a temple to the Mesopotamian-Phoenician god Hadad, of which only a small and mysterious relief survives. In the 4th century BC Alexander the Great swept through Syria and it was the Seleucid Empire, founded after his death, which then reshaped Damascus and constructed there a vast Temple of Zeus. Later, when the Romans had taken control, it was renovated and expanded under the Emperor Septimus Severus — the remains of this expansion can still be seen at the Great Mosque. Things changed again once the Roman Empire was Christianised, and the grand Temple of Hadad-Zeus-Jupiter was converted into a church dedicated to John the Baptist. The shrine which is said to contain his head can still be found in the Great Mosque of Damascus.
In 646 AD Damascus was conquered by Muslims, who lived in peace with the Christians of the city and let them continue using the ancient church — in fact, both Muslims and Christians prayed together in separate parts of the building. But, as the years went by, the Muslim population of the city grew and it became clear that a large mosque would be needed. Hence the Umayyad Caliph al-Walid commissioned a new mosque in 708 AD; it would be completed just seven years later. This mosque, which al-Walid hoped would be the largest and greatest in the world, was funded by the colossal proceeds of the Umayyad conquests and, one may deduce, no expensive was spared. Its interior is covered by a vast array of marble panelling and gold-glass mosaics which made it, upon completion, famous throughout the Islamic world and further afield. We see trees, rivers, flowers, fields, mountains, and cities — albeit empty, because art depicting humans was forbidden in Islamic art — all arrayed in delicate patterns and glittering colour.
Like most of the world's great buildings, the mosque is something of a palimpsest built up, remodelled, and added to down the centuries — it is the work of many generations. After the fall of the Umayyads it was under the Abbasid Dynasty that the famous Dome of the Treasury was built and then, under the Mamluks of Egypt, that the colossal Minaret of Qaytbay was built in the 15th century. The Seljuks, Ayyubids, and Ottomans — who all ruled Damascus at one time or another — also left their mark on the mosque. But even after all these centuries the basic plan of the original Greco-Roman-Christian basilica survives in the layout of the main prayer hall.
The Umayyad Mosque is a glorious insight into the early art and architecture of Islam. Of course, as we said, there has been art and architecture in Damascus for literally thousands of years. But here was something new — Islam — which brought with it a socio-cultural change, still in its infancy, that adopted and adapted what it found there, along with inventing motifs of its own. This is, without doubt, one of the world's truly great buildings.
V - Rhetoric
How should you start a speech — or indeed any written work? Well, the captatio benevolentiae is a type of introduction. Because, after all, you can do whatever you like with your opening words: set the scene, explain some important facts, or make an important point right off the bat. Captatio benevolentiae, meanwhile, is translated not literally but appropriately, as "fishing for goodwill". The idea is to ingratiate yourself with an audience, to earn their trust, humour, and favour, so as to make what you say next more persuasive. It wasn't a technical term in Ancient Greece and Rome. By which I mean, although Aristotle writes about hyperbole, you wouldn't find him referring to something specifically called captatio benevolentiae. In this sense it is a neologism, then, but it was something both recommended and practiced in ancient rhetoric. As Quintilian said in his inimitable Institutio Oratoria:
What does captatio benevolentiae look like? Here is an example from the opening to Ab Urbe Condita, a history of Rome written in the 1st century BC by Livy. N
Then we have a more direct form of captatio benevolentiae; rather than presenting himself and his task humbly, Pliny the Younger goes straight for the jugular, as it were, in this speech delivered in the presence of the Emperor Trajan. It is, one might say, plain flattery — though Pliny does anticipate such an accusation and pre-emptively addresses it, which is another rhetorical technique called antanagoge:
And, finally, we have a speech given by Lord Byron to the House of Lords in 1812.
There is serious science to this: as humans we tend to reciprocate goodwill. When somebody makes an effort to show that they like us, we inevitably like them. And when you like a person you are much more likely to agree with what they said, or least listen to it in good faith.
Of course, whether or not to use captatio benevolentiae depends on your goal. Everybody from Aristotle to Quintilian wrote that every rhetorical element of composing a speech or essay should be arranged to suit the thing you hope to achieve. If you do not wish to "fish for goodwill", then, and would rather outright condemn those who hear your words, perhaps you might look to Oliver Cromwell and the speech he delivered to the Rump Parliament in 1653:
This we might call "fishing for ill will", I suppose.
VI - Writing
To be, or the contrary?
How to write? Well that is a difficult question. How not to write? That one we can answer with a little more certainty. In 1912 Arthur Quiller-Couch published a treatise called On the Art of Writing. It is far less well-known than other such advisory works, but ought to be much better-known; Quiller-Couch is a funny, incisive, and erudite writer.
In any case, there is one part of his treatise where Quiller-Couch launches an attack on what he called "Jargon" — language which is needlessly complex, abstract, and technical. To give some sense of the problem with Jargon he rewrites the most famous soliloquoy in the English language; that of Hamlet, which I share with you here as a reminder of Shakespeare's yet-unequalled brilliance:
I need make no comment; four centuries of acclaim is pedigree enough for Hamlet's immortal, soul-stirring words. Now here is how Quiller-Couch rewrote the speech, using the "Jargon" that was so common in the essays, newspaper articles, books, and opinion pieces of his day.
I shall let you decide for yourselves which is better — and whether Quiller-Couch was right to advise against Jargon. And, more to the point, whether the problem of Jargon has gone away even a century later.
VII - The Seventh Plinth
Last week I asked you:
If you were given the power to introduce one new law in your country, what would it be?
And here are some of your answers
If I could introduce a new law I think it'd be that when a child is born plant a tree. Or you don't get to name the child and such a child won't have a birth certificate. You'd need 'a tree certificate'. It might sound funny but if your country has almost been consumed by the Sahara, you'd understand.
Every supermarket will be responsible of all the litter generated by the products sold by them, they being responsible of getting the trash back and treating it correctly. By doing this I believe we could make the Trash problem more easy to be dealt with, since the responsability would be in the hands of the big corporations and not on the people.
I would replace all democratic elections with democratic lotteries. The skills that it takes to win elections are not the skills required to govern well. Folks possessing the required skills could submit themselves as candidates in various categories. A first draw would be made to ensure sufficient representation across gender and core demographics. And then winners selected at random. Works all the way from school councils to the presidency. Hundreds of millions of dollars saved in campaign expenses - and a different kind of person encouraged to govern.
I live in one country but am a citizen of another. In the country where I live, the one new law I would introduce would be to enforce full environmental protection of the Amazon and its indigenous populations. The other thing Brazil really needs is a rationalisation of its tax and duties. As a UK citizen, I would introduce compulsory voting for all elections. There are other laws I would like to enact in the UK - the first would be to ban all faith-based schools which I think cause division and misunderstanding. The second would be prohibit anyone who was not domiciled in the UK to own substantial parts of the media.
Despite the fact that - to me - the most critical situation on our planet right now is urgently addressing Climate Change, that’s not what I would attempt to address with this ‘power.’ I live in the U.S., and I would pass a law requiring every citizen to vote. There are so many unnerving things happening here, along with massive issues that would also have an affect globally (and vice versa). A single environmental law would not solve the destruction of our democracy. And such destruction would feed the profit-hungry oil, gas, and other corporations that do not care about the condition of Earth. We are so close to the abyss now, even more so than 7 years ago, when I truly felt the worst had happened to America. I was wrong. It keeps getting worse. And the only way it can be addressed is for every single American to use their voice and vote. Just my two cents!
If I could introduce one new law in our country it would be to ban sectarian schooling and religious segregration in schools of any sort.
Certainly children should be taught about all religions but as part of social studies, explaining past religions and current religions, why there are so many religions in the world, how they arose and how they shape the world we see today but not as "religious education" and certainly not as religious dogma.
Schools should be a place of secular learning where children are allowed to think for themselves and not have the religous views of their parents imposed upon them.
I'm in America, and while it wouldn't be one new law it would be a sweeping change to architecture, zoning, and land-use.
First, every single building must be in a certain style to be determined by the municipality that governs said building. Deco would look out of place in Savannah, but not in other places. Likewise, Victorian would be obtuse in a mid-century setting.
Second, setbacks (the space between a sidewalk and a building front along with the space between buildings) are eliminated. All buildings must be built side by side and be pulled up to the sidewalk. No giant garages fronting the street in new developments.
Lastly, no minimum parking requirements (certain number of spots depending on the development) and all parking must be hidden from the street by being behind buildings or shielded with vegetation or fencing.
Those three rules alone would make a far more beautiful United States!
I am thinking people should write their own autobiography. For your grandkids. Warts and all. My dad died and all of his knowledge is gone (except for me). Just a thought.
The 1 new law I would institute would be that all adults must attend elementary school 1 day a month. It would need a rotation and other logistics, etc. The reason for this is to stay connected to what matters most in life - wonder. We can all be helpful to each other, and in this way we would be helped by the children to stay connected to the possibilities that Jesus pointed to when he said we must have faith like a child’s.
Laws and ‘acts’ have somehow merged ; too many of both. A substitute for everything is : Do (unto others) as you would be done by (them) .
I'm an ardent advocate for compulsory voting. My mother is Australian - Australia being amongst the minority of countries that enforce compulsory voting, alongise Luxembourg and Chile - and I am aware of the arguments against the notion, although I don't find them convincing.
Present turmoil in the Middle East reflects the value in providence and the right to (and salience of) political self-determination. The incalculable number of lives sacrificed in the name of attaining franchise across the tides of history speak to the perceived necessity of the right to vote for those who have endured living without it. Yet, now we have franchise, nearly 40% of eligible voters in the UK regularly fail to vote at general elections... I find that figure inexcusable, and I can't help but feel that Britons have lost sight of both our civic responsibilities and our civic duties. (I believe the right to vote forms part of the latter.) Can we really turn to one another and justify a ~60%+ turnout as admirable - noble even - on some tenuous argument that the freedom of expression encapsulates the freedom to say nothing? I don't buy it - particularly when the freedom to say nothing is aptly captured by a spoiled ballot paper.
Many children would not go to school unless they were forced to, notwithstanding that the benefit of attendance is clear (if not to children themselves, to those with responsibility for children of their own); even if only to confirm that a child's future lies beyond the field of academics. The same can be said of adults and voting. Many adults don't vote because they don't care, because they don't feel the need to or because they don't think anything would change if they did. Their opinion will never change - indeed, we will never even know if it's true - unless and until we are compelled to vote, and hopefully, forced to appreciate the benefits of an appreciation and understanding of, and influence over, one's surroundings; even if only to reflect that one cares not for their surroundings.
That every seven years, the fundamentals of the laws pertaining to the natural and the built environment must be thoroughly revised in light of what scientific knowledge has changed in our understanding of how the world works, in order to preserve the landscapes, the soil, water, and biological world, without our encroaching any further into and upon it. And every twenty-five years, we have a review of some of the limits and negative outcomes that our purported rights and human-benefit policies have run up against, such that they too need adjustment and clarification and redirecting and repurposing.
We have always known how to live lightly. We have always shirked our ability to plan and collaborate, it’s like we do a bad job of everything on purpose because we want to limit our responsibilities to a narrow tranche and shrug our shoulders at the yawning gaps between - and we love forcing those around us to follow the model we put in place, no exceptions. It’s been of many people’s self-interest to substitute political talk for actual coordination.
We’ve always had the ability to maximize efficiencies and rebuild things better. We just have a legal and cultural framework biased to be as wasteful and expedient and status-oriented and as permissive as possible (when some things should be absolutely taken out of play, the politician and businessman considers them as long/term resources to exploit later). We ignore our limits, and we don’t give two nuggets about the limits of anything else if someone wants to grab it or drive it down as a side effect. So we have to be forced, by law, to rewrite our laws to follow the best of what we know, and the best self- and world-preserving vision we can. Because we are playing games, doubling down on old models and paradigms by pretending our appetites are self-sustaining and that we will always win. We don’t even listen to any of the losers until it has all been lost.
A Law about the enforcement of the existing Laws . It was proposed c. 1895 but had never voted for (Greece).
A law that would have subsidized haircuts.
Question of the Week
And for this week's question, to test our wit rather than our critical faculties — although they may be related — I ask:
What is your favourite joke?
Email me your answers and I'll include them in next week's newsletter.
And that's all
We end where we began — with the First World War. There is much I might say, but I shall leave any and all words to The Corries:
Fare thee well, get thee gone, and until Friday next I bid you fair adieu, my Gentle Readers.
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