Welcome one and all to the seventy second volume of the Areopagus. As the waves of the sea are constant in their crashing but inconstant in their volume, last week's maelstrom shall by followed this week by a gentler swell. To the extent that I can, then, I have endeavoured to keep things brief. And to "kick things off", as they say, I offer you the wisdom of Hafiz, the great Persian poet of the 14th century who lived and died and composed his sumptuous verses in the rose-gardens and shaded pavilions of Shiraz:
This was translated by none other than the legendary explorer, diplomat, and archaeologist Gertrude Bell — two great minds and hearts united. Though wisdom is always labelled as "timeless", perhaps destroying the potential truthfulness of that wonderful word (to be timeless is surely rare and lofty praise), these lines of Hafez surely are. But timeless or not, time rolls on. Lights! Camera! Areopagus!
The Liberation of Ruggiero from the Island of Alcina
Francesca Caccini (1625)
You will know, if you have read previous volumes of the Areopagus, that the "Matter of France" is among my favourite literary traditions. These are the stories of Roland, the chevalier of Charlemagne, and of Rinaldo of Montalban and his brothers, among a host of other characters, told and retold from the 9th through to the 17th centuries. One of the major works in this tradition was Ludovico Ariosto's epic Orlando Furioso, written in the early 1500s; it is a swashbuckling, fantastical, comical, fever-dream of a poem.
In 1625 a composer, music teacher, poet, and singer called Francesca Caccini was inspired by Ariosto's famous work to write an opera called La Liberazone di Ruggiero. Opera was at that time a new form of music; the first ever opera had been written less than thirty years prior by Jacopo Peri, and Claudio Monteverdi was still hard at work perfecting this nascent genre — both Peri and Monteverdi have featured in the Areopagus before! Thus what you are listening to is the first ever opera composed by a woman. Caccini wrote it under the patronage of Maria Maddalena of Austria, wife of Cosimo II de' Medici and therefore Grand Duchess of Tuscany.
Caccini's opera retells of a delightful episode in Orlando Furioso whereby the knight Ruggiero is tricked by a wizard called Atlante into climbing aboard (is that the right word?) a hippogriff. This hippogriff then takes Ruggiero to a magical island on the far side of the world, beyond India, where he is bewitched by the enchantress Alcina and forgets all about the love of his life, a lady knight called Bradamante. Ruggiero eventually escapes this island with the help of a sorceress called Melissa (who was trained by Merlin and thereafter guards his tomb!) after she reveals Alcina's true, monstrous appearance. Ruggiero eventually marries Bradamante, but not before saving a maiden called Angelica from a sea monster... I told you Orlando Furioso was wild. The drawing in the video is from the original publication of Caccini's opera; it is by Alfonso Parigi, who designed sets for operas performed at the Medici court and did so for The Liberation of Ruggiero.
Did Ancient Greece Exist?
Rather than a historical figure I have decided that this week's second part shall be dedicated to a historical "fact", if we can call it that. Those who already know what I am about to say will think of it as obvious — but everything is obvious when you already know it! Thus, for those who are not aware of this curious "fact", it should prove to be useful, interesting, and even remarkable!
Ancient Greece was not a country. "Countries" as we understand them today didn't really exist in the ancient world. But, that being said, there were political entities similar enough to what we mean by "countries". When we hear about the Roman Republic, for example, we rightly imagine a certain extent of territory governed from the city of Rome itself — the capital. There are myriad differences between the nature of Roman rule and the manner in which we think of modern governments as "governing", but it is not wrong to think of the Roman Republic (or Roman Empire) as a single state.
That was not the case in Ancient Greece — not at all! There was no single political entity, no single state, no capital, no government, and no empire or kingdom. "Ancient Greece" was a collection of city states spread right across modern day Greece, the Balkans, Turkey, the Eastern Mediterranean, Egypt, North Africa, Italy, Sicily, and even France. These city states had their own political assemblies and systems — some were republics, some were oligarchies, and some were kingdoms. They had their own separate calendars, monetary systems, laws, and — in many cases — their own languages. From time to time one city state would become powerful and subject other cities or regions to its rule: the "Athenian Empire" saw Athens extract financial tributes from and impose democracies on a number of Greek islands in the Aegean Sea, and in cities on the coasts of modern day Turkey and Ukraine. That was in the 5th century BC. In the 3rd century BC there was something like the "Achaean League", an alliance of cities in the Peloponnese. For a time many of the Greek cities were conquered by Philip II of Macedon, who made himself ruler of the Hellenes — another name for the Greek peoples. But none of these unities ever represented more than a relatively brief alliance, rather than the sort of single political entity we have in mind when we hear the word "country".
What actually connected all these cities down the many centuries of Ancient Greek history is sometimes quite hard to say. Some of them shared a common heritage, and all of them had a shared religion (albeit with regional differences!), language, and (in broad terms) culture. For example, there were the Panhellenic Games, four athletic contests held at different places on the Greek mainland: the Olympic, Nemean, Isthmian, and Pythian Games. Athletes, spectators, officials, poets, and representatives came from as far afield as Sicily to attend or compete in these games, hoping to win both personal renown and glory for their home city. There were also Panhellenic places of worship. The famous Delphic Oracle, for example, was a prophetess at the Temple of Apollo on Mount Parnassus, and this temple was sacred to all Greeks.
There were countless attempts to create greater political and sociocultural unity among the city states, especially when threatened by the Persians, and after them the Macedonians, and long after that the Romans. Alas, the Greek cities could never form themselves into a single, coherent "country" — a fact much lamented by Polybius, a Greek historian who lived under Roman rule in the 2nd century BC. The history of his peoples was an ever-revolving matrix of alliances, factions, wars, tyrants, republics, betrayals, and destruction — with a great deal of art, philosophy, political theory, theatre, and architecture thrown in.
When we say that Socrates was from "Ancient Greece" this is not wrong, but it would be more appropriate to describe him as an Athenian. The same is true of Epaminondas, that great leader from Thebes who made his city, briefly, the most powerful in all the Greek World. I do not share this with you in the interests of pedantism. Rather, I hope it will clarify some of the confusion that arises from not knowing this about the Greeks, and thus of wars between Athens and Sparta, for example, and when you hear about Corinth, or Thebes, or Megalopolis, or Thessaly, or Akragas, or Syracuse, or Ionia, Miletus, Halicarnassus, and so on and so forth. It should, above all, help to paint a clearer picture of this vitally important period of history and to imagine more vividly what life was like in those long and storied centuries.
Full Moon in Winter
Louis Douzette (1869)
There is much we might say about this painting, but I have promised in this volume to speak with brevity and precision. Louis Douzette was a German painter who became known as "Mondschein-Douzette" — "Moonlight Douzette" — because of his expertise in creating moonlit landscapes. He had been academically trained but, as the years went by, was drawn to the methods of the Barbizon School, a group of French Realists who painted outdoors and in some ways pre-empted the Impressionists.
There is only one thing I shall say about Douzette's winter landscape: pay attention to its use of colour and light. Specifically, pay attention to the window of that steeply gabled cottage, otherwise buried in snow and shrouded in gloom. Orange! And, in the lower-right windowpane, a brighter patch of yellow — the source of this light; a fire. Some colours are "warm" and others are "cold". The majority of the colours in this painting are cold — not only the shadows of the trees and rocks, but even the ghoulish green light of the moon, refracted among the clouds and reflected by the snow. This one patch of warmth — the firelight — transforms the painting entirely. And this is not only because of the "association" between orange and firelight, and thus warmth, in contrast with the snow, ice, and obvious cold outside. The colour orange does not merely "tell" us this — in literally makes us feel that warmth, psychologically. The Devil is in the Details, as they say, and what much of what makes art "work" lies in this matrix of colours, what we associate them with, and the psychological reactions they produce.
The Queens House
In 1616 an English architect called Inigo Jones was commissioned by Anne of Denmark, wife of King James I, to design a house for her at the Palace of Greenwich in London. He had recently returned from a tour of Italy, where he had been exposed to the Neoclassical architecture of Andrea Palladio. Jones learned Italian, read both Palladio's I quattro libri dell'architettura and Vitruvius' De Architectura (which you may recall from last week's Areopagus), and became an apostle of Classical Architecture. And it was the "Palladian" style that Jones chose for the Queens House; uncomplicated, almost austere, harmonious, and painted bright white. Construction stopped after the death of Anne and was only restarted in 1629, at the behest of Henrietta Maria of France, wife of King Charles I, and finished in 1635.
Regardless of the specifics of Jones' Palladian style, this was the first time in well over one thousand years that anybody had built "classical architecture" in Britain — not since the retreat of the Romans had there been so much as a Corinthian capital carved in the British Isles! There had been plenty of loosely classical architecture, but only inasmuch as, say, the Normans had taken inspiration from Roman and Byzantine churches. With Jones it was different. This time there were rules — Vitruvius' rules, specifically — of design, decoration, and proportion. Think what a sight it must have been, this pure and symmetrical and snow-white villa, in comparison with the red-brick crenellations and turrets of something like Hampton Court Palace.
Inigo Jones thus created the model for classical architecture in Britain, established on the foundation of Andrea Palladio in Italy: simply, restrained, quietly sophisticated. In mainland Europe it was Baroque Architecture that had become fashionable — Classical in many ways, but defined by exuberant decoration, manifold detail, and flowing lines. Had Inigo Jones preferred that sort of thing then perhaps the streets of Britain would never have been filled with those rows of austere but elegant Georgian houses, most famously in the city of Bath. Queens House, then, is remarkable not only because it marks the advent of Classicism in British architecture, but also because it tells us just how important a single building can be, or even a single architect, in defining the tastes and aesthetics of a whole nation.
Garlick > Food
It is an eternal truth of rhetoric — in all its forms: speeches, essays, adverts, novels, slogans — that whenever you want to make something more impactful, meaningful, and memorable, using specific or concrete words will help. What do I mean by these terms? Specific is the opposite of generic, and concrete is the opposite of abstract.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez did not merely write of "trees"; he wrote of almond trees — from a generic group noun to something specific. We can say that Mansa Musa was a "very wealthy king", or we can say that when he went on a pilgrimage to Mecca he left behind so much gold that he ruined the Egyptian economy. The words "very wealthy" are abstract and conceptual; the fact that Mansa Musa was rich enough to give away sufficient money to damage an economy — that is an action, and it is concrete. A handy question, one asked most often by those in the copywriting business, is: "can you visualise it?"
Consider the King James Version of the Bible, compiled by a committee of forty-two translators and published in 1611 under the patronage of King James I. It is probably the most influential single book ever written in English; the King James Bible has shaped the English language itself — how it was spoken and written — for centuries thereafter. And little wonder! Those translators wrote a work of exemplary literary and linguistic clarity, simplicity, dignity, and elegance. They also had a wonderful penchant for using highly specific, marvellously concrete language. Consider this verse, where the Israelites are turning against Moses as they look back fondly on their time in Egypt:
By speaking of cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlick — all of which are specific and concrete, each of which we can visualise and taste — the yearning of the Israelites is much more apparent to us than if they had merely alluded to the "nice food" or "good times" they once knew. Simple, but utterly transformative.
So reread something you have written and replace any generic or abstract words with specific and concrete words. Nine times out of ten it will be an improvement. And yet — I must interpose a caveat — there is nothing necessarily wrong with generic or abstract words so long as we really intend to use them. The problem, rather, is that we so often use abstract and generic words without really meaning to, and thus devalue the quality of our writing.
The Fleeting Hopes of the Present
I much prefer "upstream" writing advice — principles of writing rather than specific, technical rules. For as soon as one creates a rule for using this word instead of that word, somebody will break that rule in a most glorious way and thereafter establish a new rule, only for that one be broken again in due course. Principles, however, operate on a level above and beyond specific technical rules; they guide us rather than dictate what we must do. Here is a principle of writing from Lucian of Samosata, then. This Lucian was a biting satirist and perceptive thinker who lived in Syria when it was under Roman rule; he may well have been the funniest man of the 2nd century AD. At some point he wrote an extended letter to one of his friends, deeply critical of the fashion for writing history that had then overtaken the Greco-Roman literati. Lucian says
Given this crop of subpar impersonators and would-be historians, Lucian goes on to outline for his friend how to write good and worthwhile history, throwing shade at a great many of his contemporaries in the process: their laziness, foolishness, partiality, lack of literary competence, and ridiculous methods. Lucian, when he finds it within himself to be serious, also argues for literary principles which hold no less true today than they did in his lifetime, foremost among them:
Powerful stuff. Lucian sets a standard that all of us can only hope to reach but surely must endeavour toward, however haltingly — write for all time, not only the flattery of the present day. And his How To Write History is a wonderful treatise throughout. It has the rare quality of being both useful and funny. Read it in full for a swathe of stellar literary analysis, apposite anecdotes, still-hilarious takedowns, broad principles, and handy practical advice.
"Awake, thou that sleepest"
I know I have often quoted John Ruskin before; I cannot help but quote him again. And in so doing I am only taking after William Morris, after all, that great pattern-maker, public intellectual, patron of the arts, poet, and quasi-revolutionary. He said this, once:
I agree. And so I simply must share with you a passage from the fifth volume of Ruskin's Modern Painters. This was a series of books he started writing in 1843, when he was only twenty four, and which was not completed for another seventeen years. The original aim of them had been to prove that J.M.W. Turner, whose art had received mixed reviews from British critics, was the greatest landscape painter who ever lived. Much of Turner's current reputation is thanks to Ruskin, even if Turner did say of him:
But Modern Painters was far more than a panegyric for Turner. It was, in many ways, a vast treatise on art itself. Among its most beautiful passages is this, where Ruskin describes the way in which great art does not only demand the full soul and intellect of the artist — it also demands our soul and intellect.
Ruskin had a way of explaining with supreme accuracy things which I have often thought but been unable to express with any firmness. You will understand, I think, why William Morris said what he did.
Last week's question to test your critical thinking was:
Are video games a form of art?
And these were some of your answers:
And for this week's question to test your critical thinking...
What does it mean to "be a good person"?
Email me your answers and I'll share them in next week's newsletter.
We end with Stéphane Mallarmé, one of the prophets-poets of Symbolism; in Symbolist art and poetry, so shrouded as it is in mystery and dreamlike allusions, one can quickly find a release from the hard facts and anxieties of the external world:
Let us say with Mallarmé, then, that "we have read all the books" and that it is "time to go." Be that to sleep or the sea I know not, Gentle Readers, but wherever it is that you next venture I pray for your safe passage and enduring prosperity.
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A beautiful education.
Areopagus Volume LXXVI Welcome one and all to the seventy sixth volume of the Areopagus — simultaneously the closing of 2023 (I wrote it "last year") and the opening of 2024! But first, as they say, I interrupt your broadcast to make an important announcement: this will be the last Areopagus until February. There are some projects at hand that demand full attention. And so it would be a disservice to you, my Gentle and Perceptive Readers, were I to divide my attention between those projects...
Areopagus Volume LXXV Welcome one and all to the seventy fifth volume of the Areopagus. Winter is at the door; the Solstice has passed and with it many an ancient festival is upon us. Jollity, mystery, sanctity, loneliness, passion — 'tis a season for feelings many and all deep. It was John Milton that first came to mind when, in the cheerful chaos of London, I saw the Christmas lights today: Ring out ye crystal spheres!Once bless our human ears (If ye have power to touch our senses so)And...
Areopagus Volume LXIV Welcome one and all to the seventy fourth volume of the Areopagus. Something different this week. People often ask me what books I would recommend. Inasmuch as I have any right to do such a thing, that is what I have chosen to do. And so, it being the Christmas Season, I offer you a metaphorical "advent calendar" of twenty four books. Some of them you may recognise from previous volumes of the Areopagus; others, I suspect, will be completely new. The criteria for my...