Areopagus Volume LXXI

Areopagus Volume LXXI

Welcome one and all to the seventy first volume of the Areopagus, arriving in your inboxes on this very first day of December. For some of you this signals the approach of summer and of warmer days to come! For me, at least, where I am, it foretells of frost and snow.

A thousand hills, but no birds in flight,
Ten thousand paths, with no person's tracks.
A lonely boat, a straw-hatted old man,
Fishing alone in the cold river snow.

This was written by Liu Zhongyuan, a Chinese philosopher-poet who lived more than one thousand years ago. Even now his words ring true: no birds in flight, no tracks on the paths, and lonely wanderers among the "cold river snow". But let us stay warm! By whatever light you read may this volume of the Areopagus keep you company on this crisp and darkling December's day...

I - Classical Music

Suite from Christmas Eve

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1895/1904)

Performed by the Scottish National Orchestra
Winter Landscape by Jacques d'Arthois (1680)

Since December has officially arrived, even if it is not yet Winter, I can't but begin to find myself feeling the quakings of Christmas Cheer at work. Thus I offer you Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Christmas Eve Suite, a collection of five scenes from his opera of the same name, composed ten years earlier. It seems to call up that older sense of Winter, and of Christmas; a time of brief light intermingled with long darkness, of firelight among the frosts, of magic and love and strange tales at work, of ghosts holy or hurtful, of ancient mystery and timeless, quiet, unnameable delight. And this was, we may conclude, intentional. For Rimsky-Korsakov's Christmas Eve was inspired by Nikolai Gogol's 1834 short story collection Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, which tells of Ukrainian folk-tales, and includes among its tableaux the various stories of witches, sorcerers, devils, cossacks, and lovers. But when Rimsky-Korsakov's Christmas Eve was first performed in 1895 at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg the critics accused him of being "merely" atmospheric, and having sought to conjure the feeling of Winter, of Christmas, and of Gogol's f0lk tales, rather than producing music which had anything to say in its own right. These critics may have been correct, but perhaps that is exactly why Christmas Eve works so well.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, an avant-garde composer well ahead of his time, was one of "The Five". This was a group of Russian composers which also included Mily Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, César Cui, and Modest Mussorgsky. They sought to create a distinctly Russian style of classical music, if not entirely free than at least fundamentally different from that of Western Europe. They were sceptical of the Conservatories and Academies founded on such principles; none of The Five were academically trained. Opposed to them were the composers and teachers of the Russian cultural elite, who readily accepted the musical traditions of western Europe. And, between them, friends with both sides but intimate with neither, was Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Still, this did not stop Rimsky-Korsakov, who despite his lack of training was a preternaturally talented composer, from being appointed a professor at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory! And, in the end, he was also happy to learn from and adapt western European classical music to his own ends. Such was the context for Rimsky-Korsakov's Christmas Eve, then, combining his passion for Russian folk music, rural tales, avant-garde methods, and a sprinkling of traditional western practices. The entire opera is also worth listening to in full.

II - Historical Figure


Vitruvius is one of the two or three most important architects in history — and yet nothing he ever designed has survived. It may have even been the case that he never designed any buildings at all! What we know about his life we may address with short shrift: his name was Marcus Vitruvius Pollio; he lived in Rome in the 1st century BC; he served as a praefectus fabrum (military engineer) and artilleryman under Julius Caesar, fighting and working as far afield as modern-day Spain, France, Turkey, and Tunisia; and that he later received a pension from the Emperor Augustus.

What makes Vitruvius so important? During his retirement he wrote something called De Architectura, a comprehensive treatise — part history, part guide — on Greek and Roman architecture. This book is the only surviving architectural treatise from the ancient world. That is to say: without this book we would know far less about Classical Architecture, and would have had to reverse engineer our knowledge of the Five Orders and of Proportion by analysing ancient ruins. Vitruvius gives us all of that straight from the horse's mouth.

Its introduction is rather amusing, and reveals something of Vitruvius humble character:

Writing on architecture is not like history or poetry. History is captivating to the reader from its very nature; for it holds out the hope of various novel­ties. Poetry, with its measures and metrical feet, its refinement in the arrangement of words, and the delivery in verse of the sentiments expressed by the several characters to one another, delights the feelings of the reader, and leads him smoothly on to the very end of the work.

Among the many surprisingly funny parts of De Architectura is when Vitruvius relates a practice from the city of Ephesus he thought the Romans should have adopted — perhaps we ought to ressurect it also:

In the famous and important Greek city of Ephesus there is said to be an ancient ancestral law, the terms of which are severe, but its justice is not inequitable. When an architect accepts the charge of a public work, he has to promise what the cost of it will be. His estimate is handed to the magistrate, and his property is pledged as security until the work is done. When it is finished, if the outlay agrees with his statement, he is complimented by decrees and marks of honour. If no more than a fourth has to be added to his estimate, it is furnished by the treasury and no penalty is inflicted. But when more than one fourth has to be spent in addition on the work, the money required to finish it is taken from his property. Would to God that this were also a law of the Roman people, not merely for public, but also for private buildings.

Many of the principles laid out by Vitruvius are no less true now, or ought to be no less true, than they were two thousand years ago. Air conditioning may have levelled the playing field, but perhaps we should pay attention to what he said:

If our designs for private houses are to be correct, we must at the outset take note of the countries and climates in which they are built. One style of house seems appropriate to build in Egypt, another in Spain, a different kind in Pontus, one still different in Rome, and so on with lands and countries of other characteristics.

Vitruvius also set high standards for the architect; he evidently thought of it as a role with great dignity and responsibility. He says, first, that they must have both theoretical and practical knowledge:

...architects who have aimed at acquiring manual skill without scholarship have never been able to reach a position of authority to correspond to their pains, while those who relied only upon theories and scholarship were obviously hunting the shadow, not the substance. But those who have a thorough knowledge of both, like men armed at all points, have the sooner attained their object and carried authority with them.

He also argued that architects must know about drawing, art, history, music, chemistry, astronomy, poetry, and philosophy, among other things. Why philosophy?

It makes an architect high-minded and not self-assuming, but rather renders him courteous, just, and honest without avariciousness.

Why music?

So that architects may be able to tune ballistae, catapultae, and scorpiones to the proper key.

Also medicine:

The architect should also have a knowledge of the study of medicine on account of the questions of climates, air, the healthiness and unhealthiness of sites, and the use of different waters. For without these considerations, the healthiness of a dwelling cannot be assured.

And even law:

And as for principles of law, he should know those which are necessary in the case of buildings having party walls, with regard to water dripping from the eaves, and also the laws about drains, windows, and water supply.

But none of this fully explains the importance of Vitruvius. See, although his book survived in many manuscripts during the Middle Ages, copied by hand all across Europe's monastic scriptoriums, it wasn't until the 15th century Italian Renaissance that he became an architectural superstar. When Poggio Bracciolini, a famous manuscript hunter, found a copy of De Architectura in the Abbey of St Gall in 1414 and published it to his contemporaries, it caused an architectural revolution unlike anything else in history.

For good or for bad Vitruvius' De Architectura became the book that any self-regarding, fashionable, up to date architect simply had to read. It was the fount of knowledge and rules according to which Renaissance, Baroque, and Neoclassical architecture were designed and built for the next three centuries. Over the following century more treatises appeared, whether by Alberti, Bramante, Palladio, or Piranesi, all of them further refining the new architectural language of Europe and all them firmly rooted in Vitruvius. We often say that so and so person has "shaped the world"; in Vitruvius' case this is literally true.

He established the three virtues to which all buildings should aspire: Firmitas, Utilitas, and Venustas; meaning Strength, Usefulness, and Beauty. Vitruvius went on to define the five governing principles of all true architecture in Greece and Rome — Order, Arrangement, Eurythmy, Symmetry, Propriety, and Economy, each of which he explains and defines in detail. This way of conceptualising architecture, as a fine and noble art bound up with philosophy, appealed to the humanist imagination of the Renaissance.

But, even more importantly, he explained the origins and design specifications of Three Classical Orders: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. An Order, you may recall, is the name for a column, its capital, and the entablature which rests upon it, along with all associated rules of proportion and decorative motifs. It was these Three Orders — or Five, if you include Tuscan and Composite — which defined Greco-Roman Architecture and all Neoclassical Architecture since then. I shall only quote one part of Vitruvius' delineation of the orders, here regarding the Ionic. It will give you some notion of just how detailed it was, and therefore how useful Renaissance architects found his work in their own attempts to resurrect Classical Architecture:

...the rule for the capitals will be as follows. If they are to be cushion-shaped, they should be so proportioned that the abacus is in length and breadth equivalent to the thickness of the shaft at its bottom plus one eighteenth thereof, and the height of the capital, includ­ing the volutes, one half of that amount. The faces of the volutes must recede from the edge of the abacus inwards by one and a half eighteenths of that same amount. Then, the height of the capital is to be divided into nine and a half parts, and down along the abacus on the four sides of the volutes, down along the fillet at the edge of the abacus, lines called "catheti" are to be let fall. Then, of the nine and a half parts let one and a half be re­served for the height of the abacus, and let the other eight be used for the volutes.

Make sense of that if you can!

Vitruvius' detailed description of human proportions, which he claimed to be the basis of Classical Architecture, inspired one of history's most famous drawings: Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man.

For the human body is so designed by nature that the face, from the chin to the top of the forehead and the lowest roots of the hair, is a tenth part of the whole height; the open hand from the wrist to the tip of the middle finger is just the same; the head from the chin to the crown is an eighth, and with the neck and shoulder from the top of the breast to the lowest roots of the hair is a sixth; from the middle of the breast to the summit of the crown is a fourth. If we take the height of the face itself, the dis­tance from the bottom of the chin to the under side of the nostrils is one third of it; the nose from the under side of the nostrils to a line between the eyebrows is the same; from there to the lowest roots of the hair is also a third, comprising the forehead. The length of the foot is one sixth of the height of the body; of the forearm, one fourth; and the breadth of the breast is also one fourth.

Alas, all the fuss about De Architectura as the Bible of Classical Architecture — though that is true — obscures the fact that it is, on the whole, a very peculiar treatise. Upon reading it you will be struck by how much of the book is dedicated to, say, instructions for building siege towers, roads, acqueducts, machines of war, clocks, and water organs:

A wooden base is constructed, and on it is set an altar-shaped box made of bronze. Uprights, fastened together like ladders, are set up on the base, to the right and to the left (of the altar). They hold the bronze pump-cylinders, the moveable bottoms of which, carefully turned on a lathe, have iron elbows fastened to their centres and jointed to levers, and are wrapped in fleeces of wool. In the tops of the cylinders are openings, each about three digits in diameter. Close to these openings are bronze dolphins, mounted on joints and holding chains in their mouths, from which hang cymbal-shaped valves, let down under the openings in the cylinders.

Where to locate a city:

For fortified towns the following general principles are to be observed. First comes the choice of a very healthy site. Such a site will be high, neither misty nor frosty, and in a climate nei­ther hot nor cold, but temperate; further, without marshes in the neighbourhood. For when the morning breezes blow to ward the town at sunrise, if they bring with them mists from marshes and, mingled with the mist, the poisonous breath of the creatures of the marshes to be wafted into the bodies of the inhabitants, they will make the site unhealthy. Again, if the town is on the coast with a southern or western exposure, it will not be healthy, be­cause in summer the southern sky grows hot at sunrise and is fiery at noon, while a western exposure grows warm after sunrise, is hot at noon, and at evening all aglow.

How to find water:

If there are no springs which gush forth, we must search for them underground, and conduct them together. The following test should be applied. Before sunrise, lie down flat in the place where the search is to be made, and placing the chin on the earth and supporting it there, take a look out over the country. In this way the sight will not range higher than it ought, the chin being immovable, but will range over a definitely limited height on the same level through the country. Then, dig in places where vapours are seen curling and rising up into the air. This sign cannot show itself in a dry spot.

A guide to the production of colours:

Methods of making blue were first discovered in Alexan­dria, and afterwards Vestorius set up the making of it at Puz­zuoli. The method of obtaining it from the substances of which it has been found to consist, is strange enough. Sand and the flowers of natron are brayed together so finely that the product is like meal, and copper is grated by means of coarse files over the mixture, like sawdust, to form a conglomerate. Then it is made into balls by rolling it in the hands and thus bound together for drying. The dry balls are put in an earthern jar, and the jars in an oven. As soon as the copper and the sand grow hot and unite under the intensity of the fire, they mutually receive each other's sweat, relinquishing their peculiar qualities, and having lost their properties through the intensity of the fire, they are reduced to a blue colour.
Burnt ochre, which is very serviceable in stucco work, is made as follows. A clod of good yellow ochre is heated to a glow on a fire. It is then quenched in vinegar, and the result is a purple colour.

Exhaustive descriptions of the zodiac:

The word "universe" means the general assemblage of all nature, and it also means the heaven that is made up of the constellations and the courses of the stars. The heaven revolves steadily round earth and sea on the pivots at the ends of its axis. The architect at these points was the power of Nature, and she put the pivots there, to be, as it were, centres, one of them above the earth and sea at the very top of the firmament and even beyond the stars composing the Great Bear, the other on the opposite side under the earth in the regions of the south. Round these pivots as centres, like those of a turning lathe, she formed the circles in which the heaven passes on its everlasting way. In the midst thereof, the earth and sea naturally occupy the central point.

All of this along with detailed guides for the production of bricks, lime, and mortar, and how to construct walls, and so and so forth. He even theorises about the origins of architecture itself, and goes on to relate some interesting anecdotes and musations thereon, as when he compares the achievements of athletes to philosophers:

What does it signify to mankind that Milo of Croton and other victors of his class were invincible? Nothing, save that in their lifetime they were famous among their countrymen. But the doctrines of Pythagoras, Democritus, Plato, and Aristotle, and the daily life of other learned men, spent in constant industry, yield fresh and rich fruit, not only to their own countrymen, but also to all nations. And they who from their tender years are filled with the plenteous learning which this fruit affords, attain to the highest capacity of knowledge, and can introduce into their states civilized ways, impartial justice, and laws, things without which no state can be sound.

Vitruvius, who is repeatedly self-critical throughout his treatise, apologising for his unfamiliarity with the arts of fine writing, makes for a compelling character. He evidently revered architecture as a discipline, speaking always with admiration and scrupulousness about its history, laws, and nature. We do not have to agree with him, however, and we may rightfully argue that Classical architecture is neither the best way, nor the truest way, to build. But what we cannot deny is that Vitruvius changed the course of history; De Architectura, we can safely say, is the most important architectural book ever written. There would be no White House, no Buckingham Palace, no St Peter's Basilica, no Louvre, nor any Renaissance, Baroque, or Neoclassical building — or, at least, as we have come to understand them — without Vitruvius. He sought to preserve the learning and the methods of his times; this he achieved in a way he could hardly have dreamed. Next time you see an Doric Order, a pediment, or a voluted capital, and should you like what you say, forget not to say, "thank you Vitruvius!"

III - Painting

Pure Whiteness of Winter

Xu Jing (1441)

If one were to generalise then one might say traditional Chinese art was more concerned with the essence of a landscape than its outward appearance. Thus to paint but a few branches of a single tree was sufficient to convey the sense of the natural world in winter; in Europe, at the same time, such a small detail, devoid of broader context or any apparent narrative, would not have even been considered a proper work of art. Hence Xu Jing's Pure Whitness of Winter, painted in the early 15th century, tells us a great deal about Chinese art as it emerged, developed, and was maintained for well over one thousand years.

One can appreciate this painting without knowing anything at all, of course; it speaks directly to the experiences and sensations of winter by picking out a single aspect of it with which we are all familiar — snow gathered on the branches of a tree against a milky-white sky — and does so with apparently effortless elegance. But there is more going on here: for the plum blossoms of the tree represent one of the most important symbols in the time-honoured traditions of Chinese court painting, established during the Song Dynasty and lasting for centuries thereafter. They would have evoked, for whomsoever saw this scroll flickering in the firelight, thoughts of solitude, romance, changefulness, and the eventual return of Spring. Its title, too, speaks to the nature of Chinese poetry and its long association with painting. These two art forms were closely linked; thus a merely descriptive title would not have sufficed. Pure Whiteness of Winter, like the art we see, is an evocative, lyrical, and delicate title which does not merely describe what we see but becomes part of the work of art itself.

A similar example from one hundred years earlier, painted by the polymath soldier-painter-poet-scholar Wang Mian, is Fragrant Snow at Broken Bridge. It also features plum blossoms withering in winter — and a delightfully poetic title. This should give you some idea, I think, of the immense respect with which artistic traditions were treated in China. The goal of an artist like Xu Jing was not to be "original"; rather, all he could hope was to master the principles passed down to him. "Good on him", one is tempted to say.

And we cannot forget that both of these paintings were painted on silk. Thus the backdrop I mentioned earlier — what seems to be a milky-white winter sky — is, in fact, simply the material on which the branches were painted. To leave parts of a canvas unpainted and say that not only is the painting complete, but that this very unpainted space is part of the painting, would have been unthinkable in Renaissance Europe! I do not mean to say that either approach is better; it seems to me, simply, that they have different goals and achieve different ends. In conclusion I share with you a view of Pure Whiteness of Winter as it really exists — not as a canvas or a mural, but as a hanging silk scroll. Delightful.

IV - Architecture

Flamboyant Gothic

Last Flowers of the Middle Ages

What you are looking at here is the romantically-titled "Hall of the Lost Steps" in the Palace of Poitiers, in Western France, built for the Duke of Berry at the end of the 14th century. No doubt your eyes will have been immediately drawn to that screen of finely carved stone. And you will notice it has been installed in front of the thin "lancet windows", which were a defining quality of early Gothic Architecture. This set of ornamental windows is newer, then, and noticeably different. Here we see the beginnings of the final age of Gothic Architecture in France — a style known as the Flamboyant Gothic. It appeared toward the end of the 1300s and dominated for a further century or two until, eventually, the neoclassical architecture of the Renaissance superceded it.

How best to describe the Flamboyant? Gothic Architecture, which first emerged in the 12th century, had until the late 14th century been tempered by a certain restraint. The Flamboyant cast off its bridle entirely: those once-sober traceries and once-judicious vaults blossomed into wildly elaborate, lace-like forests of finely carved stone. You need only look at Rouen Cathedral, comparing the lower with the upper sections of its towers to see the difference between Flamboyant Gothic and the styles that came before it. Notice the progression from relative simplicity toward baffling complexity.

Recall the three ornamental windows at the Palace of Poitiers; this word — ornamental — almost defines the Flamboyant Gothic. No doubt Gothic Architecture had always been richly ornamented, but any such decoration was almost either in service of a narrative — such as the depiction of a Biblical scene, or the life of a saint — of some imaginative fiction — gargoyles, grotesques, angels — or directly imitative of nature — thistles, berries, flowers, boughs, branches. In the late 14th century and throughout the 15th, however, Gothic stonemasons turned away from this tradition and embraced abstract, purely ornamental design motifs. Compare the doors of Amiens Cathedral, constructed in the 13th century, with the Flamboyant Trinity Abbey in Vendôme. Notice how dramatically the volume of figurative statuary has been reduced, to be replaced with fabulously complex, flowing webs of interwoven stone decoration, all of it abstract.

Another defining feature of the Flamboyant Gothic, coincidental with that of its obsession with ornamentation, was the disintegration of solid walls. Have a look at the Church of St Maclou in Rouen. There, as at the Trinity Abbey in Vendôme, it is actually rather difficult to find a solid surface on which to rest your eyes. Everything is perforated, everything is movement; any sense of solidity has faded beneath a lattice of stonework.

This was technically masterful — some would argue the Flamboyant Gothic represented a certain hubris, as sculptors and masons simply indulged in technical fripperies rather than offering anything of serious meaning or genuine beauty. Be that as it may, the embellished ornamentation of Flamboyant Gothic and the preference of its builders for curvilinear patterns are where its name comes from: Flamboyant means Flaming in French. Notice, in all of the examples here given, the likeness of flames in the decorative stonework. And, here, in the rose window of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris:

This flowering of Flamboyant Gothic in France soon branched off into related but distinct forms around Europe: the Isabelline in Spain, the Manueline in Portugal, the Sondergotik in Germany and Central Europe, and all sorts of peculiar experimentation in northern Italy, especially Milan. Each of them have certain characteristics in common, most obviously that striking accumulation of ornament to the point of overabundance. And, in addition, a clear preference for flowing lines, and for experimental, lacy patterns.

And even if Britain remained unique among European nations with its sui generis style of Perpendicular Gothic, which emphasises austere vertical lines above all else, there were still signs of that Flamboyant mindset in Britain's 14th and 15th and early 16th century Gothic buildings. Take the ceiling of King's College Chapel in Cambridge, or of the Henry VII Chapel at Westminster Abbey; this elaborate method of creating ceilings is called "fan vaulting". Thus, it seems, artistic and creative minds all across Europe were being simulatenously drawn toward this maximalist flowering of ornamental Gothic architecture. Everything had become fine, delicate, exuberant, and almost frivolous.

What is Flamboyant Gothic, fundamentally? It represents the final flourish and last stand of Medieval architectecture in Western Europe, the last phases of a school of architecture that had been germinating for centuries and burst into life in the 12th. The classically-inspired architecture of the Renaissance, founded on the principles and rules laid out in Vitruvius' De Architectura, were soon to conquer Europe. Crockets, pinnacles, spires, flying buttresses, fan vaults, gables, and ogival arches were soon to be replaced by rounded arches, entablatures, pediments, domes, and the Five Orders. Some, like John Ruskin, have considered this Flamboyant Gothic (and its many regional variations) to represent the death throes of Gothic Architecture, and even of European art more generally, showing in its absurdly elaborate ornamentation — a corruption of the pure style of earlier centuries — a sort of architectural hubris and spiritual exhaustation. Maybe! But, five centuries on, the ceaseless sophistication of Flamboyant Gothic never fails to impress.

V - Rhetoric

Begging the Question

Rhetoric inevitably blurs over into logic. Why? Much of rhetoric is about argument, and whenever we talk about argument we must deal with rationality. Thus any study of oratory inevitably requires some study of how to construct logically sound arguments — and how to identify and pick apart those which are flawed! I have said before, and shall again, that the purpose of rhetoric is not only to make us better speakers, but also to make us better listeners.

One of the most devious rhetorical sleights of hand, though we often use it without realising, is known as "begging the question." This is when the premises of an argument assume its conclusion. What does that mean? It sounds something like this:

I know the story of Noah's Ark is true because that is what it says in the Bible.

"Begging the question" is a very loose translation from Aristotle, who first wrote about this problem over two thousand years ago. It was then, and remains, a frequent error — or, perhaps, intentional deception! — in all forms of writing and speaking. Aristotle meant something more general in his original formulation. Rather than simply using your conclusion to prove your argument, Aristotle criticised any statement which included premises that had not been proven.

We know the earth is round because that is what scientists have told us.

Well, Aristotle would ask, why should we trust these scientists? You haven't proven that what they say is true, or even explained how they discovered that the world is round. Or, say:

You can tell Blade Runner is a bad film because nobody went to see it in the cinemas.

Here the speaker is assuming that if a film does not attract a large audience then it must be bad. But they have not proven this; it has merely been bundled into the statement and taken as true. Still, in its most simplified form, "begging the question" looks ridiculous:

Taxes are good because they are good.

However, with a few layers of linguistic variation and syntactic complexity added in, such incoherent arguments can easily be obscured. Alas, language is loose and provides ample opportunity for smuggling in logical inconcistences!

Taxes are beneficial because they help people.

This statement is merely an opinion — the definition of beneficial is that it helps people! — and yet it sounds like an argument. To "beg the question" is a rhetorical sleight of hand, then, because one can make a statement which seems very convincing, and might even convince those who hear it, but which upon closer inspection, turns out to rely on circular or incomplete reasoning.

VI - Writing

A Fool's Cure

Does any writer know of a greater curse than writer's block? A blank page, and... nothing! The internet is filled with solutions for this ancient authorial plague. A related problem is when we feel the urge to write, or when we "want to become a writer", but do not know what to write about. "What should I write about?" is a question people have often asked me.

Here I propose a solution to both of these, and perhaps all, writing problems. I ask you to read the first of the one hundred and eight sonnets that comprise Astrophil and Stella, a sequence of poems written by Sir Philip Sidney in the late 16th century:

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she, dear she, might take some pleasure of my pain,—
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,—
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe;
Studying inventions fine her wits to entertain,
Oft turning others' leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburn'd brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting invention's stay;
Invention, Nature's child, fled step-dame Study's blows;
And others' feet still seem'd but strangers in my way.
Thus great with child to speak and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
"Fool," said my Muse to me, "look in thy heart, and write."

How many people, facing writer's block, have been like Sidney biting his truant pen and beating himself for spite? A wonderful description, I think, of the unequalled frustration of sitting before a blank page and finding yourself totally unable to write anything, even a letter or word. And how does Sidney resolve this problem? Fool, says his Muse, you must look in your heart. Is this not obvious? Yes! And yet so few would-be writers seem to abide by the pure and uncomplicated truth of what Sidney's Muse tells him. As soon as we ask, "what should I write about?" we are already losing. That question cannot exist; the question is, instead, "what do I want to write about?" Or, better yet, "what do I need to write about?" In ninety nine cases out of one hundred writer's block is merely the result of trying to write about the wrong thing, or of trying to write about something you don't even want to write about, or of simply trying too hard. Thus, when you suffer this curse, remember Sidney's words: Fool, look in thy heart and write. Whatever it is, however strange or obscure or unclear, follow that lamp within your heart and let it be your guide as a writer!

If that is not enough then I present the ninetieth sonnet from Astrophil and Stella, which contains a similar message:

Stella, think not that I by verse seek fame,
Who seek, who hope, who love, who live but thee;
Thine eyes my pride, thy lips my history;
If thou praise not, all other praise is shame.
Nor so ambitious am I, as to frame
A nest for my young praise in laurel tree:
In truth I sweare, I wish not there should be
Graved in mine epitaph a Poet’s name:
Nay if I would, could I just title make,
That any laud to me thereof should grow,
Without my plumes from others’ wings I take.
For nothing from my wit or will doth flow,
Since all my words thy beauty doth endite,
And love doth hold my hand, and makes me write.

And love doth hold my hand, and makes me write. There is the cure we seek! Alas, we humans are creatures of confusion who cannot help but fill our minds with preconceptions and pre-judgments, with fears of ought and should and could. Forget all that! Let love — love here representing whatever it is that moves you, excites you, interests you, angers you — be that which moves your hand, and nothing else.

VII - The Seventh Plinth

Why not Duodecember?

Decem means ten in Latin. Thus December means, in Latin, the "tenth month". So why is it... the twelfth month of the year? Well, the first thing you may rightly conclude is that our modern months, and indeed our modern calendar, were created by the Ancient Romans. Specifically, they had an ancient calendar dating back to the earliest days of the city, supposedly created by the mythical Romulus, founder of Rome. This was modified under the Roman Republic and then heavily reformed in 46 BC by Julius Caesar, before being tinkered with by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, thus creating our modern "Gregorian" calendar. There are many fascinating stories from the history of our dating system, including why months have different numbers of days and the "longest year in history", when Caesar's reforms meant that 46 BC had 455 days!

But that is all for another time. Now we only wish to know: why is December the twelfth month? In that ancient Roman calendar, attributed to Romulus, there were only ten months, each of 31 or 30 days, called:

  • Martius (Month of Mars)
  • Aprilis (Month of Aphrodite)
  • Maius (Month of Maia)
  • Iunius (Month of Juno)
  • Quintilis (Fifth Month)
  • Sextilis (Sixth Month)
  • September (Seventh Month)
  • October (Eighth Month)
  • November (Ninth Month)
  • December (Tenth Month)

Ancient Rome being then an agricultural society, they simply left the period between December and Martius undated — a long and dark and dateless winter. Thus March was the first month of the Roman year! But during the days of the Republic, as Roman society grew more sophisticated, this system became obviously untenable. Hence two new months were added, called Ianuarius and Februarius, and the start of the Roman new year was moved to Ianuarius. The old months, meanwhile, kept their names — even though they did not make any strict chronological sense. Quintilis was later renamed in honour of Julius Caesar (July), and Sextilis in honour of Augustus (Augustus). This is the naming system which has endured right down to the 2023, and thus December, the "Tenth Month", is the Twelfth.

Question of the Week

Two weeks ago I asked you:

Can money ever make a person truly happy?

And here were your answers:

David M

I’m sure others will remind you of a quote from Spoke Milligan, the famous depressive. But here goes anyway:
Money can’t buy you happiness but it does bring you a more tolerable form of misery.


As I understand the scholarship on the subject, money correlates quite linearly with happiness in many societies...up to a certain point. There are thresholds, of course, most of them pointing to something like an upper-middle class income level, and with signifiers like being debt free, having disposable income, and lacking the stresses that come with living in poverty, or living paycheck to paycheck. I'm sure Maslow's Hierarchy is referenced in such studies, or at least in the more surface-level media reports on them. But having been in these depths for several years of my life, I can vouch for financial stability accounting for a fair amount of happiness. Excessive wealth, I believe, sees a drop in overall happiness compared to these heights, though. So we can perhaps take some small solace that the ultra-wealthy are, on average, not as fulfilled as those simply living quietly within their means.
Insofar as true happiness comes from less tangible matters, in things like personal connections, love, faith, creative endeavors, curating a higher purpose to one's life, and so on, no, money can't guarantee or sometimes even facilitate these things. But financial freedom brings with it other freedoms, including the ability to more actively pursue these deeper purposes. I don't consider it coincidental, for example, that a recent positive shift in my professional life triggered enough desire and energy to dive back into the dating pool, which has resulted in a new, promising relationship for the first time in years. My mental state was not conducive to this for years prior. And while not all of it was directly tied to finances, at least some portion of it was. To turn it into something more pithy: money affords one greater freedom to be truly happy, but in itself is not sufficient for it.

Sam A

The dictionary defines money as “Legal Tender”, this is acceptable in most exchange, although not all. Happiness is a true state of wellbeing ranging from contentment to immense joy. It can not be forged completely in my opinion. Bearing these in mind the answer would be a resounding YES. For if you had the money to make my life as comfortable as possible, it would make me very happy and I would like to think other people would feel the same way too, because as the bible says in “ Eccl 10:19 A feast is made for laughter, wine makes life merry, and money is the answer for everything.”
Having answered your question with the little knowledge I have, I would like to ask something in return if you would oblige me… If money can make people truly happy, then how long can we say this happiness lasts? Because in our world today, we see so many filthy rich people who are miserable beyond words.

Sofia Z

I believe money makes us happy, not for the things we buy, but for the relief and freedom it gives us- that allows us to do the things that make us happy.(ex. money can buy you comfort, let's say you hire someone to clean your house. what makes you happy is the relief of not worrying about the cleaning, and the time you now have available to use in something you enjoy instead of chores. The relief of removing a simple stress. The relief of knowing you can do so, because you have the money) The happiness doesn't come directly from money, but from the calming feeling of having it and avoiding every day stresses. So strictly, no, it's not the money itself, but yes.

Cristina P

My 80 year old Greek grandmother has always said that if 'a problem can be fixed with money, then it is not a problem.' Given her long life has been filled with considerable hardship (including many sorrows which are not so easily dealt with), I think there is some wisdom in this. Too many difficulties in life cannot be solved in such concrete terms, but the idea that we can work hard, earn money and address correctable issues, surely allows us to eke out space for happiness and contentment.


Yes it can. It's temporary happiness though. Having money leads to buying stuff - going on holiday which you're happy you went on and you're happy whilst you're on it... until they become a memory (which can still be happy but you won't be thinking about them every day); buying new clothes which make you happy... until you buy new ones because fashion and our tastes constantly change.
So it can bring you those moments of happiness. It can eliviate any stresses you might have that not having money cause. But it can't be your only source of happiness. You can be a millionaire but without family or without friends or even without an animal companion, I don't believe you could truly be happy.


Rather than Happiness, I would say that money can provide comfort and ease. Having experienced both sides of the coin (ha) of having and not-having money in various amounts throughout my life; there is a very particular soft bubble that people who don’t need to worry about their home or the next meal in ANY way dwell in.
There is an edge, a sharpness which the insecurity of these 2 simple things brings to existence. A layer of fretfulness and anxiety which permeates everything. And sometimes those who have experienced lack and then abundance forget all about this. But then there are those who never do, and use their fortune to help others. Let’s hope they’re still around!

Deborah G

Perhaps money can make a person happy, but it certainly can’t keep one happy. True happiness comes from meaningful relationships, a sense of purpose, overall health, moments of joy and contentment, and personal growth. None of this stems from money.
We all have ups and downs, so I assume being “truly happy” takes this into account. In other words, we aren’t aiming for an unrealistic happy-all-the-time state…but general satisfaction. That doesn’t come from money.

Diane BG

Yes, with a caveat. Look, I continue to work on becoming a better person and make choices according to my moral compass and count my blessings daily but as long as I’m worried about my future I can’t be truly happy. Ignoring money problems leaves a giant white elephant in my happiness room.

Graham M

Over time I've come to the view that happiness doesn't really exist on its own, but is rather a side-effect of satisfaction with your place in life. But that we don't assess our place in life according to where we are now, but rather we always have an eye on where we're going next (or after-next, depending on how one feels about delayed gratification). We're measuring the derivative, not the absolute height. Woody Allen's 'dead shark' test, in a way.So to be satisfied with your place in life, what you're really doing is anticipating that the near(ish) future will be good. Yes, money can very much help with that. But it can't complete it on its own, as it can't buy the other structures that you need for a good life – society of loved ones, most particularly.There are exceptions – for some people money won't make much difference to whether you can enjoy the society of loved ones at all, either for positive reasons (they will love you regardless) or negative ones (you are incapable of love).And I suppose there must also be exceptions who need no society and don't delay gratification at all, but live entirely in the moment. Those lucky few want nothing more than to drink diamonds from a golden bucket, and for them money does indeed bring perfect happiness.

Kim S

No, money alone cannot make a person truly happy but, once one has enough money to pay for necessities (food, shelter and other daily needs) with a little bit of cash left over to play with, one can be pretty much as happy as one decides to be.
On the other hand, lack of money can make a person truly miserable because the necessities can't be paid for so hunger, homelessness and preventable disease may become one's life. Suffering and trying to survive the day then become the only two items on the To Do list.
So, money can't make a person truly happy but lack of money can make a person profoundly unhappy.

Marcos F

No, it can't. The material aspect of life has nothing to do with the spiritual one.
Modern times are so materialistic that sometimes we tend to think there must be a connection between money and happiness, but actually there isn't, which may be quite surprising or counter-intuitive.
In fact, modern times are also so generous, even, but not only, from the materialistic point of view, that we should be grateful for so many possibilities we have nowadays, especially if we compare to the world decades or centuries ago.
I receive, for example, weekly emails from a Cultural Tutor, and they make me happy, because they usually have some interesting content on Art and History. And you can get them for free! I won't even mention the thousands of amazing books and music that can also be found online for free, and they can also make one truly happy.
So no, one does not need money to be truly happy. And money can not make one truly happy. The connection is not between money and happiness, it is most likely between happiness and the generosity of others.

Jane S

I think we would all like more to test the outcome...

Eric V

What kinda money are we talking about?

David R

Yes, it can make a person “truly” happy, but not the money itself; rather the giving of it away.
To explain: I can envisage a person desperately unhappy because of some other person or people’s distress. I can well imagine that the giving away of a significant fortune to the distressed person or people, successfully alleviating that distress, can make the giver “truly” happy.

And for this week's question to test your critical thinking...

Are video games a form of art?

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

And that's all

This Areopagus now drawing to a close, as this brief day closeth also, and night folding in... 'tis time to sleep. Thus we open the long-thumbed leaves of the poetry of Sir Philip Sidney one last time, and turn to the thirty ninth of the Sonnets of Astrophil and Stella, wherein it is written:

Come Sleep! O Sleep, the certain knot of peace,
The baiting-place of wit, the balm of woe,
The poor man's wealth, the prisoner's release,
Th' indifferent judge between the high and low.

Or, better yet, should you be a "night owl" like me, from the ninety ninth:

But when birds charm and that sweet air which is
Morn's messenger, with rose-enamel'd skies
Calls each wight to salute the flower of bliss,
In tomb of lids then buried are mine eyes,
Forc'd by their lord, who is asham'd to find
Such light in sense, with such a darken'd mind.

The certain knot of peace awaits; I bid you Good Night, Gute Nacht, Лека Нощ и сладки сънища — until Friday next, adieu.


The Cultural Tutor

The Cultural Tutor

A beautiful education.

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