Areopagus Volume LXXXIII

Areopagus Volume LXXXIII

Welcome one and all to the eighty third volume of the Areopagus. During a rather comical encounter with an amphibian today, I remembered that the great and witty poet Kobayashi Issa wrote hundreds of haikus about the creeping creatures of the world. Here is one of them:

A huge frog and I / staring at each other / neither of us moves

I could not have put it better! But the frog I had to leave, for an Areopagus demanded to be written, and written it has been...

I - Classical Music

Piano Concerto in A Minor: Finale

Clara Schumann (1835)

Performed by the Alma Mahler Sinfonietta and Francesco Nicolosi
The Swan, No. 18, Group IX/SUW by Hilma af Klint (1915)

Clara Schumann's father wanted her to become a great pianist. He was a successful piano teacher and so, as a child, she had little choice in the matter. But Clara rose to meet the seemingly impossible standards her father had set; she became one of Europe's most famous touring pianists, famed for her virtuoso performances, and a respected composer too. The Piano Concerto in A Minor was actually the only piano concerto Schumann ever finished, and — if you can believe it — she completed it two weeks before her sixteenth birthday, in 1835.

Schumann would later become part of a conflict within the mid-19th century German musical scene. On one side were the conservatives, among whom Clara Schumann was a leading member, who believed that music should not be "about" anything. On the other side were the radicals, led by Liszt, who embraced "program music", whereby the music itself could become a form of narration. In which case, I suppose, the best way to listen to Schumann's Piano Concerto (of which we hear the third and final part here) is by letting it guide your emotions purely — that is, rather than trying to imagine what the music is about. Can such a thing be done? Schumann believed it could.

II - Historical Moment

A Restoration

364 years ago today something quite remarkable happened. A man called Charles arrived at the port of Dover, in southern England. He had not set foot on English soil since he was a teenager, over a decade earlier. Why? Because his father was King Charles I of England, Scotland, and Ireland, who had been defeated in the Civil War. Charles I was executed and his kingdom replaced by a republic, the Commonwealth, led by Oliver Cromwell; the younger Charles had fled.

Charles' return to England is a well-known historical event but, as with all things familiar, we usually fail to realise its strangeness. So, although this event is important for a hatful of reasons, let us put such historical significance aside for a moment. Because the return of Charles reveals something strange and vital about the nature of human civilisation more broadly. See, Parliament now declared that Charles was the rightful king, and had been since his father's execution. This was, if you are interested, their rather circumlocutory wording:

Although it can no way be doubted, but that his Majesty's Right and Title to his Crowns and Kingdoms, is and was every way completed, by the Death of his most Royal Father, of glorious Memory, without the Ceremony or Solemnity of a Proclamation; yet, since Proclamations in such Cases have been always used, to the end that all good Subjects might, upon this Occasion, testify their Duty and respect; and since the armed Violence, and other the Calamities, of many Years last past, have hitherto deprived us of any such Opportunity, wherein we might express our Loyalty and Allegiance to his Majesty: We, therefore, the Lords and Commons now assembled in Parliament, together with the Lord Mayor, Aldermen, and Commons of the City of London, and other Freemen of this Kingdom, now present, do, according to our Duty and Allegiance, heartily, joyfully, and unanimously acknowledge and proclaim; that, immediately upon the Decease of our late Sovereign Lord King Charles, the Imperial Crown of the Realm of England, and of all the Kingdoms, Dominions and Rights belonging to the same, did, by inherent Birthright, and lawful and undoubted Succession, descend and come to His Most Excellent Majesty Charles the Second, as being lineally, justly and lawfully next Heir of the Blood Royal of this Realm; and that, by the Goodness and Providence of Almighty God, he is, of England, Scotland, France, and Ireland, the most potent, mighty and undoubted King: And thereunto we do most humbly and faithfully submit, and oblige ourselves, our Heirs and Posterities for ever.

The Restoration may not have happened, or at least in the way it did, without General George Monck. He had marched to London from Scotland at the head of an army to insist that Charles be invited to return; if not, Monck suspected, chaos would ensue. Monck's call was answered and Charles duly set out from the Netherlands, arriving in Dover on 25th May 1660. Crucial to this was the Declaration of Breda, issued by Charles a month earlier, where he offered a pardon for all crimes committed during the Civil War, along with several other reconciliatory promises. Much has been missed out in this brief retelling, of course, and much of great significance — but the headline is that, in 1660, it was decided that England would once again become a monarchy... and it did.

What am I driving at? That the thing we call "the state" or "the government" does not exist in the soil or the stars; you cannot find it with a microscope. This does not mean it "isn't real", as some might be tempted to say. Rather, its reality rests on our ability to understand the ideas underlying government, and then — this being the crucial step — agree about them. Thus they are peculiarly fragile, these things we call governments, because ultimately they rely on people accepting their existence. "Obvious!" some may cry. Perhaps, but I dare say it is a thing easily forgotten. And the Restoration, symbolised by Charles' return to England all those years ago today, is a perfect example of this strange but vital truth in action.

III - Art

Visions of Paris

Charles Meryon

Charles Meryon was born in Paris in 1821, the son a French opera dancer and an English physician. He joined the navy, sailed around the world, and took up art on the high seas. When he returned to France he fought in the Revolution of 1848 and, several bouts of schizophrenia and depression later, interspersed with phases of creative ecstasy, died in an asylum at the age of 46.

What sort of art did Meryon produce? Well, he wanted to be a painter. But the trouble is that he was severely colourblind. Thus he turned to engraving — and became a master of this medium instead. For his subject he took the world around him, and Paris above all. The beauty of Meryon's work — not so different from that of the English watercolourist Samuel Prout — is how architecture seems to be a character of its own. Hence I have included a handful of his prints, rather than focussing on one, to give you some sense of his multi-faceted portrait of Paris. Notice Meryon's command of light and shadow: how gloom clusters beneath arcades or scaffolding, how sunlight seems to glitter on the tower-tops. It is all fabulously Gothic, defined by the contrast between imposing architecture and miniature, often industrial, frequently grimy vignettes. Little wonder Victor Hugo and Charles Baudelaire were among his admirers.

So they are true works of art. But that's not all — Meryon's engravings also serve as a wonderful historical record of a world now lost. There are other paintings, and also photographs, of the Medieval Paris that was destroyed during Baron Hausmann's grand renovation in the second half of the 19th century. But Meryon's engravings, precisely because of their atmosphere, and because they show us the city through the eyes of a man with an intense personality, give us a feeling of that lost Paris otherwise only accessible in poetry and prose.

IV - Architecture

The Dunmore Pineapple

The Dunmore Pineapple is, as you can see, a sort of small neoclassical pavilion with a colossal stone pineapple on top. This is a folly, an architectural whimsy, of the sort that became popular all around Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. What defines a folly? They have no obvious "purpose" and they are usually extravagant, experimental, or fantastical in some way. Think of mock Gothic towers in the grounds of the British aristocracy, or the fake Roman ruins at Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna:

The Dunmore Pineapple was commissioned by John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, in the 1760s. It sits in the grounds of Dunmore Park, the ancestral home of the Earls of Dunmore in the Scottish county of Stirlingshire, and is surrounded by large gardens. The building itself was connected to a greenhouse where, among other things, pineapples themselves were grown.

But... why the pineapple? Because these were then among the most fashionable and expensive objects in Europe. A single painting should tell you as much — it is the aforementioned King Charles II being presented with the first ever pineapple grown in England. That such a moment apparently deserved memorialising says everything.

Pineapples did become an entirely serious decorative feature of British architecture and design, hence their prevalence on gateposts, fences, and even the Wimbledon trophy. But the Earl of Dunmore's wildly oversized pineapple is a knowingly frivolous take on this fashion craze. Though, that being said, as an architectural project it was taken very seriously. The craftsmanship of the stone pineapple is astonishing; that it is in such good condition nearly three centuries later is testament to how well it was planned, executed, and assembled.

So this building is a tripartite reminder of the age of follies, of the pineapple craze that once swept Europe, and of the fact that architecture can — though we often forget it — be funny. And would not the world benefit from a few more buildings that took themselves a little less seriously, or buildings that refused to be — like so much else around us — merely boring? Yes, buildings can make us laugh, can raise our spirits even for a moment, and the Dunmore Pineapple is one of these.

V - Rhetoric


In Victor Hugo's Les Misérables there are several lengthy digressions on subjects as varied as the Battle of Waterloo, the nature of life in a nunnery, and the construction of sewers. One of them concerns argot, which can be translated as the French word for slang, but in truth has a larger meaning. An argot is essentially the vocabulary of a specific group, one usually used an exclusionary tool that marks you out as belonging to that group — or not! You may have come face to face (or ear to ear?) with an argot before, as when you enter a new line of work or attend a party where everybody is from a particular group and find yourself unable to understand what they are talking about.

The most famous argots usually emerged among criminals; it provided a way for people to talk about what we might euphemistically call untoward topics without raising unwanted attention. Still, consider what Victor Hugo said in his musings on argot, writing with typical sympathy about a topic — slang — that continues to attract derision:

Now, when has horror ever excluded study? Since when has malady banished medicine? Can one imagine a naturalist refusing to study the viper, the bat, the scorpion, the centipede, the tarantula, and one who would cast them back into their darkness, saying: “Oh! how ugly that is!” The thinker who should turn aside from slang would resemble a surgeon who should avert his face from an ulcer or a wart. He would be like a philologist refusing to examine a fact in language, a philosopher hesitating to scrutinize a fact in humanity. For, it must be stated to those who are ignorant of the case, that argot is both a literary phenomenon and a social result. What is slang, properly speaking? It is the language of wretchedness.

But it's not only criminals, of course; gurus and specialists and bureaucrats have often created their own, exclusionary argots. Sometimes highly technical words are clearly necessary, but none too frequently we find experts intentionally slipping into a vocabulary that only their peers can understand. Still, I don't want to give the impression that argot is always somehow malicious. Any group, when united by circumstance or profession, will almost inevitably end up producing its own lingo. Creating an argot is also an effective literary tool. The most famous example of this is surely the nadsat spoken by Alex and his droogs in Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, who are perfectly capable of speaking standard English but choose to talk of shlaga instead of club, pooshka instead of gun, and millicent instead of police officer. Perhaps you have even developed something of a minor argot with your friends! I certainly have — were I to speak of "the bunker", "frepping", or "posting", it would mean nothing to any but a handful of people.

VI - Writing


Thomas Carlyle has a seductive writing style. It is wholly unlike anything else you will ever have read (in the English language, at least!) and for that reason it is very tempting to try and learn from or imitate his methods. But consider what the critic Matthew Arnold said about him, as reported by Frederic Harrison:

Matthew Arnold was ever taking up his parable—"Flee Carlylese as the very Devil!"

Why would Arnold say such a thing? Arthur Quiller-Couch, writing a few decades later, gives us at least one reason:

I grant you, to be sure, that the claim to possess a Style must be conceded to many writers—Carlyle is one—who take no care to put listeners at their ease, but rely rather on native force of genius to shock and astound. Nor will I grudge them your admiration. But I do say that, as more and more you grow to value truth and the modest grace of truth, it is less and less to such writers that you will turn: and I say even more confidently that the qualities of Style we allow them are not the qualities we should seek as a norm, for they one and all offend against Art's true maxim of avoiding excess.

Sometimes we must say no to our favourite writers — not because they are bad, but because they are different. That somebody else writes in a particular way, and writes well, does not mean it is the only way to write. Hard though it always is, we must find our way of writing. This asks of us a difficult task: to look our favourite writers in the face and say, "no!" Put that book down, cleanse its style from your mind, and forge a way of writing that is yours, not theirs.

VII - The Seventh Plinth

Changing Times?

A short comment for you:

Modern thought is distinguished from ancient by its cultivation of the "relative" spirit in place of the "absolute"... To the modern spirit nothing is, or can be rightly known, except relatively and under conditions.

When do you suppose this was written? The syntax may give away its age, but the substance of the message will sound rather more recent to many of you. Well, that was the critic and novelist Walter Pater writing in 1866. Yes, although we have this notion that "in the past" things were more fixed, Pater seems to suggest not — at least, in 19th century Europe. Do I mean to say things have not changed in the last 160 years or so? Of course not. Rather, I simply present you an observation that does sound startlingly modern, and the real age of which is genuinely surprising. Make of it what you will!

Question of the Week

Last week's question was:

What is the real meaning of "success" in life?

Here were your responses, ever lyrical and eye-opening:

Michael M

The real meaning of success in life is determined by the individual dealing with the question and that individual's values (and, if one wants to be picky, the weight the individual attaches to each value).One can make a judgment about another person's success but that judgment might not be the same as the other person's judgment. The other person's judgment about her/his own success always rules.One can make a judgment about one's own success and, after discussions with others, adjust that judgment, but one's judgment (whenever given) about one's own success always rules.I could extend these comments quite a ways with many contrasting examples but the importance of any particular item (e.g., money, possessions, achievements, health, family) to one's success always depends on one's values at the time the assessment is made. IMHO, to speak further would be to add nothing.

Reeshabh C

Success is something everyone wants but no one tries to understand. The definition varies person to person. For some, it is the scaling of a summit or money in the pocket or materialistic things around them or irrelevant recognition. Everyone has their own definition of 'success' and they are judged by 'society' by their own notion of 'success'. And then it makes you wonder whether there is a globally accepted definition of success?
Chasing in a rat race and ending up as a winner is not success. You achieve a certain status in a group, reach at the top of it and then join another group where you feel left out and then the chase begins again. True meaning of success goes deeper than that.
A successful life is a life lived with sustained health, wealth, love and contentment. A life where every turn was for a road towards the higher purpose of life, can be deemed to have achieved full potential. Success is inversely proportional to anxiety. So, if you are content with your life, full of gratitude for this gift of life and have love in your heart, you are SUCCESSFUL.

Jennant B

Being found in Christ and. Being about His work. Being authentic!

Chris M

The march of time can be a crewel thing in the lives of many people. Failing health, dwindling friendship groups and memory loss for example. But hang on a moment and let me offer you a rich taste of success that will lift your heart for nothing more than the cost of time shared. Janet is in her mid 80's. She lives alone in small bungalow and although still confident and physically able she is isolated by her failing memory of recent event. I say recent because if, as I did, you take the time to talk about her past life and delve into those golden nugget experiences, you discover a person who has much to share and cherish. Her eyes shine bright, her smile broadens out, her posture relaxes, she looks and sounds younger and in that moment you genuinely take a step back in time together. A time that takes her to a joyful place that she enthusiastically shares in such detail you could almost have experienced it with her. Ask the question and you will go back in time together. Listen to the details and search out the unexpected. Feel the prickly summer sun on your face. Smell the salty sea air. Listen out for the laughter. See the hands held tightly together. Taste the strawberries and cream. Success? That's my success this week and I can't wait for the next chapter. Oh and I did cry a little.

Bob C

Success...a loving and supporting family around you, active membership in a community of admirable people, control of your time and priorities and the ability as well as willingness to give back your time, advice and money to those in need.

Jane L

If we can look back on our life and know that we have made a positive impact on the lives of others, either by our work or in our personal relationships that seems to me be the marker of a successful life.
Not everyone can be a winning sportsperson but many can inspire others to live an active life and learn to be team players.
Most people will not acquire great wealth (which to some seems to be a marker of success) but we can all share any good fortune we have and be generous with time, skills or friendship.
Not many will be captains of industry, but those who are employers can be just in their dealings with their workforce and ensure their products are for the greater good of the people.
While most of us in unremarkable and sometimes unnoticed jobs can have a significant effect on the communities in which we work and live.
This sounds rather preachy but as I look back over seven decades I see that happiness doesn’t come from material success or even high achievement in academia or other fields but from building and sustaining relationships with those we encounter as we travel through life. And that, I think, is success.

Ross J

I believe that much of success is defined personally, but for me it entails reaching a level of stability and peace. I'm in my mid-20s, a pretty cutting-edge and competitive time where members of my age group are all figuring out what "success" means to them, and the advent of social media leads to a lot of genuine, as well as manufactured pride- not that there's anything wrong with that.
Sure, my close friends just broke six figures working remotely, but as a school librarian, I get paid to talk to young minds about Steinbeck and Bradbury. I win.

Jonathan R

Everyone measures “success” in life differently. My measure of success in life could be broken down into three areas:
1. Relationships
2. Financial and Career
3. Philanthropy

A successful life to me would indicate a healthy relationship with my immediate family as well as my extended family to a degree. Consistent communication and in person time with my parents, my sister and brother-in-law. Periodic check-ins and reunions with aunts and uncles, grandparents, cousins, and brother-in-law’s family. Maintaining close friendships (personal, through work, or through mentorships) and nurturing the relationship over the years via communication and vacations or get-togethers is an important measure of success to me. And finally a romantic relationship that allows me to build a family of our own.
Financial freedom to pursue what truly inspires and fulfills me on a day to day basis. My corporate job currently meets these criteria, but if that were to change then I would like to feel confident in pursuing my own path without income restrictions. The career component is closely tied to this. It is entirely possible that my measure of success in my career will be to stay with the same company for 20 years, but I think it is far more likely that it will involve me having worked in several industries, with different roles, perhaps leading my own businesses, etc. I’m the type to want to try different things and be able to look back and say I did the damn thing, I lived and learned and now I am dedicating my time to what I enjoyed the most.
From a very young age I have had an interest in philanthropy. My first major goal in life was to become a professional soccer player with the ability to use all my excess cash to giving back to my family and the communities that helped and supported me in my journey. This has shifted, but the philanthropic desire is still well within me. This is as simple as going to a dog shelter once a week or joining volunteering organizations and hopefully as I grow can expand to include endowments or other financial contributions.
In conclusion, my measure of success shifts as I reach different stages in life. However, the three main pillars have and will always be relationships, financial/career, and philanthropy.


I'm pretty young - in my early twenties - and still to this point, my life has barely had a cogent narrative. In any given snapshot of my past, I'm participating in what feels like multiple side quests (be it my job or jobs at that moment, one of a couple of hobbies, etc). Is it really possible for a complex structure made up of thousands of individual threads all in various degrees of 'completion' to have an endpoint that can qualify as a definitive success or failure? For a majority of my life, I've believed that success can be measured only by the individual. But, after reading the question in this edition of Areopagus, and going about my day thinking about it, I might have changed my own mind!
This question used to come up a lot with my family. Coming from immigrants on both sides, success has been pretty clearly defined in parallel with its societal definition - some upper middle income, and usually the result of a clamber up a corporate or institutional ladder or the creation of art with mainstream appeal. Something to make my cousin's parents say, "wow!" and give their own children a nudge. The view I held before today probably emerged as a small form of rebellion. If I can define success differently for myself, I can abstractly attain fulfillment without having to follow in the path my parents had planned for me. Sometime, in the years since I've thought deeply about the measure of success, my view has shifted.
After thinking about it all of yesterday - I've landed on a conclusion that, at least for the time being, satisfies me. A successful life is one marked by perseverance . After three and a half years of "trying," and five months of trying, to quit smoking cigarettes, I've successfully kicked the habit about a month ago. This success is deeply meaningful to me, and certainly hard won, but standing alone would not be indicative of the relative success of the greater and larger life outside of it. It is the many persistances in seeking out smaller wins working in tandem with each other that creates success. While I persevere in practicing my guitar, in reading and writing in my mother tongue, work hard at my job, nurture the people around me, and nurture myself, I will find myself closer to success than I otherwise would have under any definition I had established before. And I have you to thank for that. :)

Miguel R

Success is often bedfellows to happiness and contentment. Indeed, these states, without a spirit that fosters and protects them are priceless in advanced age. Happiness and contentment belie a kind of Wisdom, which makes me reflect on Erik Erikson's eighth psychosocial stage of personality development, Wisdom vs Despair. But some of us might not make it to the age of 65 and beyond, so what's success for us then? Some risk their happiness in the prurient gardens of adultery or are robbed of contentment in the swamp and muck of addictions. Success is a funny thing, for let us not disabuse the addict their version of success - to finally catch that elusive dragon... Thus, I find it is that thing I've already mentioned that precedes the states of happiness and contentment that measures real success, the kind of success that an impartial observer would care to pursue - sorry gardeners and swamp pioneers.
The development of a spirit (character, principle, call it what you will) that gives an individual the requisite elan to deny itself impulsive pleasures. This development was the chief concern of Quintilian pedagogy, propounded for centuries before going out of fashion in the 1800s-1900s. To develop noble characteristics consistent with a just human being; decent to their fellows and enemies alike. It seems with the abandonment of that curriculum we're confused about what success is, and, still yearning for it, we're constantly seeking or being served prototypical archetypes of it. Riches, violent glory, adventure, sexual conquests, social dominance, happiness & contentment, how can we measure all the competing types of success? It could (and should) be argued these versions of success are not equal, and that some of them have a decaying value after their achievement. Indeed, a basic human psychological satisfaction is tied inextricably with the lasting feeling of happiness & contentment, so lets stick with that as the sine qua non for evidence of success. In order to achieve a version of success that includes happiness & contentment, you need to be able to control yourself, you must obey your spirit and deny your flesh. If you have a capable spirit that has yoked your flesh then you've already succeeded. Even if you fail to achieve some worldly objective, there must be some residual satisfaction to having commanded yourself in a manner enviable to yourself and observers; As Frank Sinatra croons "I did it my way."

Tom W

To die at a ripe old age, with your family larger, stronger and happier than it was when you joined it.

Deborah G

Success is satisfaction through achievement. When you meet a goal or expectation, you feel pleased and content. That’s success. It is achieved, not bestowed. It has more to do with gaining inner fulfillment than with being recognized. Ultimately, success is about finding a comforting sense of fulfillment.

Matthias L

"Success" has been mired by modern consumerism. It's been divorced from its useful context (a success in battle) and has been turned into a catch-all, meaningless trope. "What does success
look like?" "Will you be successful?" It's gross and is completely self-serving. There were (and still are) craftsmen that would spend decades doing the same thing and ensure that their sons would do the same thing. They didn't franchise, they didn't market, they had no social media presence, they simply did their duty. They had no inklings of "making it."

At the risk of sounding like a liberal, this puts so much downward pressure on young people. We never promote the virtue of living a good life, thinking, caring for your fellow man or of being content. The whole western education system guides us to contributing to the GDP and so we derive "success" based on who contributes to that pot the most.

"Success" is being born into the greatest period of human wealth ever known and not succumbing to infant mortality. Everything else is a cherry on top. Seek contentment, not success!

And for this week's question...

What is friendship?

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

And that's all

We end with a poem shown to me by a good friend. For as I sit here, in the dark of the night, pondering things past and present, wondering whether you will find anything of interest or use in this week's Areopagus, it was these lines that wandered, unasked for, into my mind:


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