Areopagus Volume XLI

published6 months ago
25 min read

Areopagus Volume XLI

Welcome one and all to the forty first volume of the Areopagus. This is my view as I write these words - the formidable walls of Edinburgh Castle.

It's an inspirational setting. Amazing with how many words the simple joy of a good view can fill you. And the city of Edinburgh is a charming and noble place in its entirety. No time here ever feels wasted. But nor do we have any time to waste - the show must go on. As Delia Smith once said: let's be having you!

I - Classical Music

The Four Seasons I: Spring

Antonio Vivaldi (1720)

Springtime in Italy by Isaac Levitan (1890)
Music performed by Julia Fischer and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields

The Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) wrote the Four Seasons in about 1720, when he was working at the court of Prince Philip of Hesse-Darmstad in Mantua, northern Italy. It is a set of four violin concertos (or concerti, if you prefer that plural) each of which is dedicated to one of the seasons and divided into three miniature movements of no more than a few minutes. The Four Seasons, or Le quattro stagioni in the original Italian, runs to about forty minutes in total. A violin concerto is an instrumental work in which one or more violinists are accompanied by an ensemble, whether a whole orchestra or something smaller.

Alas, Vivaldi's Four Seasons is one of the most famous pieces of classical music ever written, so much so that it has officially entered the domain of popular culture. How often do we hear the opening of Spring when some advert or television show wants to convey (often mockingly) an atmosphere of sophistication and high culture? Then there's the third movement of Summer, which you'll recognise from any number of montages attempting to drum up a sense of tension and excitement.

So what can be said about the Four Seasons? Part of me is inclined to comment on how its constant parodying has perhaps deprived us of the opportunity to enjoy it for what it is. Not only Vivaldi, but classical music more broadly, suffers from this sort of parody. There's far more vibrancy, vitality, danger, radicalism, beauty, and power to classical music than its frequent caricaturing as background music might lead people to believe. But I suspect, if you're reading these words, you already know that to be true.

So there's something else I want to talk about. Namely, that you don't have to like the greats. This doesn't just apply to music but to art, literature, and any other creative endeavour. The greats are the greats for a reason, of course. And if one particular artist has survived, highly regarded and widely appreciated for centuries, then there's probably a reason for that - they must've achieved something worthwhile. Tastes do change, however, and the artists most popular now will probably have been replaced by others we now dismiss or simply don't know about.

In any case, it becomes a problem when we feel compelled to enjoy (speaking of music) the works of Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Mahler, Vivaldi, and so on. There's nothing wrong with not liking these composers and their music. It doesn't indicate a lack of understanding to say that you really can't stand the Four Seasons. We all have different tastes and the world would otherwise be a boring place. We must be open-minded, of course, and ready to be convinced otherwise. But I do believe people should be bold and confident in their tastes: nobody is under any obligation to enjoy Vivaldi. There's a whole world of other composers out there.

The flipside to all this, and equally true, is that we shouldn't be afraid of loving the greats. Everybody's heard of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, right? And so some people can be rather snobbish about those who do love it (or any other of those classical works well-known to popular culture, like Debussy's Claire de Lune). This is no less unfortunate. For although I do believe we should try to cultivate our own tastes rather than simply follow what has been recommended to us by the canon, a genuine love of something is never to be dismissed. So, if you do love the Four Seasons, then that is a judgement in which you should be equally confident and bold.

To end, I should add that when the Four Seasons were first published in 1725, along with a selection of other violin concerti, Vivaldi included a sonnet for each of them. In this sense he was an early and even revolutionary exponent of narrative music. Here is the poem attached to Spring. Does his music do a good job of conveying the images expressed in his poetry?

Movement I: Allegro
Springtime is upon us.
The birds celebrate her return with festive song,
and murmuring streams are
softly caressed by the breezes.
Thunderstorms, those heralds of Spring, roar,
casting their dark mantle over heaven,
Then they die away to silence,
and the birds take up their charming songs once more.

Movement II: Largo
On the flower-strewn meadow, with leafy branches
rustling overhead, the goat-herd sleeps,
his faithful dog beside him.

Movement III: Allegro
Led by the festive sound of rustic bagpipes,
nymphs and shepherds lightly dance
beneath spring’s beautiful canopy.

II - Historical Figure

Angelica Kauffmann

I'm surprised Angelica Kauffman isn't more famous. She was, along with Mary Moser, one of only two female founding members of the Royal Academy. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Where did the story begin? Angelica Kauffman wasn't English. She was born in Switzerland in 1741 to Johann Josef Kauffmann, an impecunious and itinerant artist who made a living decorating churches and castles. Thus followed an upbringing on the road, going everywhere with her father and helping in his work; she learned on the job. They travelled around Switzerland and Austria before eventually going to Italy: Florence, Milan, Venice, Bologna, and Rome.

Kauffmann's reputation grew quickly, not only because of her ability as a painter but because of her musical talents too. She was an excellent singer, called by the great German scholar Johann Winckelmann one of the finest of the age. Years later Kauffmann made a self-portrait entitled Hesitating Between the Arts of Music and Painting. She could only pursue one professionally, and it was painting she chose. Kauffmann was also renowned as a conversationalist and for her fluency in German, Italian, French, and English.

In 1764 she became aquainted with Lady Wentworth, wife of the English ambassador in Venice, who convinced Kauffmann to return to England with her. Kauffmann promptly made the journey to London and there, thanks to Lady Wentworth, was immediately introduced to British high society, including the Princess of Wales and other members of the Royal Family. She also struck up a long-lasting friendship with Joshua Reynolds, the leading establishment painter of the day. Their friendship was subject to plenty of rumour and even a little scandal, for he was much her senior and accusations of romantic involvement were occasionally bandied around. In 1767 Kauffmann was conned into marrying an imposter who presented himself as a Swedish nobleman called Count Frederick de Horn. One year later she managed to procure a divorce.

In 1768 Kauffmann joined Reynolds as one of thirty six founding members of the Royal Academy of Art. A painting was made to celebrate this occasion. But you'll notice there are only thirty four people in the room, all men. Where are Mary Moser and Angelica Kauffmann? Those two portraits on the wall are their stand ins. See, they weren't allowed to be in the room...

Ever since the Italian Renaissance there had been a number of well-regarded female artists; Giorgio Vasari wrote about several of them in his landmark 16th century Lives of the Eminent Painters. Still, there were limitations placed upon them. Not least that women were stridently barred from using nude models or even being in the presence of nudity. Hence why Kauffmann and Moser weren't present for Zoffany's painting of the first members of the Royal Academy - there were life models posing for the picture, too.

Studying the nude was a crucial element in the training of any artist - learning about human anatomy and how to portray it - and so this restriction naturally limited the sort of art women produced. For this reason most of the female painters we can speak of between the 16th and 19th centuries were, by and large, either experts in portraits or still lifes. There were exceptions, such as Plautilla Nelli and Artemisia Gentileschi, but they were relatively uncommon. And that's what makes Angelica Kauffman so interesting. She did make plenty of portraits (and counted among her sitters just about every lord and lady and socialite worth their salt in Britain) but it was history painting to which she dedicated herself and for which she became famous.

Portrait of Sarah Harrop (Mrs. Bates) as a Muse & Portait Alexander Gordon, 4th Duke of Gordon

What is history painting? Any depiction of a scene from Biblical and Classical history or mythology, especially ones on a large scale, with multiple figures, complex composition, and plenty of classically-inspired nudity. This was regarded for centuries in Western Europe as the highest form of art. Landscapes, capricci, veduti, portraits, still lifes, so-called genre paintings (of peasants, say, or any scene from ordinary life) were seen as inferior. So women were often barred from the highest echelons of art simply because they weren't allowed to practice one of the skills most important to history painting - human anatomy. And yet Kauffmann painted many of them: scenes from the Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, and Tasso's Liberation of Jerusalem; scenes from Roman and Greek history, including portrayals of Virgil, Augustus, and our old friend Pliny the Younger, along with various mythological and allegorical works.

How Kauffmann managed to become a skilled and celebrated history painter was thus, even in her lifetime, something of a mystery. Her commissions, by the way, came from people as eminent and varied as Catherine the Great of Russia and Pope Pius VI. One retrospective published in 1809 concluded that she must have studied Classical statues and drawn from them her knowledge of proportion. This may be true. And yet, perhaps because of what she was not allowed to do, Kauffman brought something idiosyncratic to the genre of history painting. Consider this line from the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica: "her men are masculine women". People at the time certainly didn't think this was a problem. That same 1809 retrospective noted that even while she had been at a disadvantage to male painters because she was not allowed to study the human form "from nature", her more feminine take on history painting had introduced something new to the genre.

Kauffmann married the London-based Venetian painter Antonio Zucchi in 1781 and soon afterwards moved with him to Rome. He died in 1795. She spent the rest of her life in Italy, occasionally sending work to the Royal Academy in London but otherwise enjoying her retirement as a commercially and critically successful artist. She died in 1807 at the age of sixty seven. Shortly after her death a biography was published, along with several romance novels inspired by her life, and for some idea of the high esteem in which she was held we need only note that her funeral was directed by the renowned neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova and based on that of Raphael, whose casket was accompanied by singers and a procession of his paintings. Angelica Kauffmann received the same treatment, plus fifty priests and the entirety of Rome's Academy of Saint Luke. A majestic end to what had been, by all accounts, a majestic career.

III - Painting

The Sulawesi Pig


What we are looking at here is among the oldest works of art ever discovered. It may even be the oldest figurative painting we know of (figurative here meaning that it depicts a recognisable object from the real world). What does it depict? A warty pig. Where is it? In the Leang Tempuseng cave on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. How old is it? According to the latest estimate, based on the not always infallible methods of carbon dating, about 45,500 years old. A number of other cave paintings have been discovered in the area, including hand-stencils and other depictions of wild animals and hunting scenes.

Who painted this pig? Why did they paint it? Was it merely to pass the time? Was it to mark the cave as their home? Was it simply to decorate their home? Was it a record of their achievements? Was it the object of religious worship? Was it supposed to hold some spiritual force, whether to aid in the hunt or to pay testament to the life of the pigs on which they lived? Was it the work of one eccentric individual or the collective effort of a community? Was it was simply a means of conveying information? Something to the effect of: in this area you'll be able to hunt and eat pigs that look like this.

These are all questions to which no answer will ever be conclusively appended. Because we cannot speak to the prehistoric humans who made these paintings. But we can speak to ourselves, and to one another. For this cave painting draws us to ask, above all: what is art? And when we answer that question we can begin to imagine why our ancestors painted these pigs.

Art is older than civilisation, if by civilisation we mean cities, societies, and laws. Long before the invention of writing or even the domestication of animals, humans were painting. Indeed, a far greater gulf of time separates these paintings from the invention of the wheel than the wheel from the internet. The act of creation, it seems, is one of our oldest and deepest impulses. When we place a photograph on our bedroom wall (or even, I dare say, when we set a particular background to our phones or computers) we are invoking precisely the same urge as those humans in the caves of Sulawesi over forty thousand years ago. This is not a trivial truth.

In any case, what can we deduce? Well, it's surely no coincidence that so much prehistoric art either depicts animals or humans in the act of hunting them. These were hunter-gatherer societies who lived by foraging and by hunting. Knowledge and experience was passed down from generation to generation; animals were of central importance to the everyday lives of these people. So whether the Sulawesi pig shown here was instructional or somehow religious it surely shows something important to those who painted it. Even if it was merely decorative the point still stands; they decorated the walls of their cave with something they knew enough about to portray with accuracy.

This might lead us to wonder what art in the 21st century says about us. One day, thousands or tens of thousands of years from now, people of the future will look back and try to understand us through what we have left behind. I'm not even talking about the galleries and the auction houses and the multi-billion dollar art industry. I'm talking about every day art, the little things with which we decorate our lives. And when you do begin to think about it, despite all the ways in which the world has changed, the pig in Leang Tempuseng cave is really not so far away.

IV - Architectural Masterpiece

Great Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe is a ruined city in southeastern Zimbabwe, on the plains between the Limpopo and Zambezi Rivers. It was first built at some point in the 10th century, in an area which had until then been sparsely populated. By the 13th century it had become the flourishing capital of a Bantu-speaking kingdom. The word zimbabwe means "house of stone" in Bantu, and so this site, the most significant of the many ruined cities all across the region, became known as Great Zimbabwe. It is from this city that the country got its name, first among the parties of the independence movement in the 1960s and then officially in 1980, when what had been Rhodesia became Zimbabwe.

The site is made up of three distinctive areas: the Hill Complex, the Valley Ruins, and the Great Enclosure. Historians and archaeologists have proposed that the hill was where the king lived, the enclosure the aristocracy, and the valley the rest of the population of the city state. There are other theories. One suggests that the hill complex, a sort of acropolis, was in fact a centre of religious worship. It's also the oldest part of the city, with evidence to suggest that it dates, in part, to the early 10th century.

In any case, all that survives of Great Zimbabwe now are the stone buildings, most of them circular and all constructed with large and rather impressively assembled blocks of unmortared granite, some of them ten metres tall. There are also the ruins of mudbrick structures called daga, although many of these have deteriorated into grassy mounds; they may once have been as large as the stone buildings. The extensive archaeological remains at Great Zimbabwe suggest its population, at peak, could have been something like 20,000. What was life like in the city? Among the many artefacts that have been unearthed there are pottery, iron gongs, carved ivory, copper wire, farming tools, bronze spearheads, gold bracelets, pendants, and weapons. Plenty of cow bones have also been found; cattle husbandry was clearly a big part of life in Great Zimbabwe. Still, none of this explains where the wealth or impetus came from to build and sustain such a large city.

Well, some other finds give us that answer: porcelain from China, gold coins from Arabia, and faïence from Persia. Great Zimbabwe was at one end of a vast, intercontinental trading network that reached to the far side of the Indian Ocean. As far as we can tell it controlled the export of gold, ivory, and copper from inland southeast Africa to the coast, from where it would have been exported all across Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. I wrote about the 15th century Chinese admiral Zheng He several weeks ago. We know his great treasure fleet came to the eastern coast of Africa, and it is entirely possible that he traded with the Kingdom of Great Zimbabwe.

The city seems to have been abandoned by the 16th century. Why? Historians have speculated that over-population, a decline in soil fertility as a result of over-farming, deforestation, droughts, competition from rival kingdoms, and the exhaustion of gold mines may have contributed to its decline. When the Portuguese first arrived in the 16th what they found were the ruins of a once-glorious city. The people of Great Zimbabwe had migrated elsewhere. Still, it was a place of continuing spiritual and religious importance for centuries afterwards.

Those first Portuguese seafarers didn't investigate the city's origins - their accounts were limited to amazement at its great size. It was only in the late 19th century that European colonists became fully aware of Great Zimbabwe. In the 1870s a slew of archaeologists, historians, explorers, prospectors, geographers, and treasure hunters, both amateurs and professionals, descended upon the site and took anything of value they could find. Eight large birds carved from soapstone were discovered by a German explorer called Willi Posselt. One of them he hacked off and sold to Cecil Rhodes, who then dispatched an archaeologist to bring back four more to his home in South Africa. A pedestal also ended up in a Berlin museum. Upon Zimbabwean independence all but one of the five birds were returned by the South African government, and in 2003 the pedestal in Berlin was returned. It's impossible to know how many other artefacts were lost, destroyed, or dispersed into private hands.

What did Europeans make of Great Zimbabwe? The initial consensus was that it must have been built by the Phoenicians, the famous seafarers from whom were descended the Carthaginians in North Africa, or perhaps even the Greeks or Egyptians. They were sure it must have been the work of an ancient Mediterranean civilisation. That it might have been constructed by people indigenous to that part of Africa was simply inconceivable to them. Less than inconceivable - unacceptable. An early voice in opposition to this was David Randall-MacIver, a British-American archaeologist who argued in 1906 that it had nothing to do with Europeans and was most likely built in the Middle Ages by the ancestors of the Shona. Still, the myths persisted. Some even postulated that it was the site of the legendary mines of King Solomon or the palace of the Queen of Sheba. Several decades of serious archaeological study, both by Zimbabwean and international experts, have since proven Randall-MacIver right.

Great Zimbabwe is now recognised for the truly remarkable place it is, and a stylised representation of its soapstone bird statues features on the flag of Zimbabwe. The city itself has become an important national symbol, and in 1986 it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

V - Rhetoric


Ekphrasis means "description" in Ancient Greek. And that's exactly what it is: the description of an object, person, scene, or work of art. It was one of the final progymnasmata, the rhetorical exercises carried out by teenage students in the Graeco-Roman schools of Late Antiquity. According to Aphthonius of Antioch, whose book of progymnasmata is the most famous to have survived, ekphrasis was among the hardest of these exercises and one of the last the students would attempt. I should note that the thing described didn't have to be real, and very often it wasn't.

Why was ekphrasis a useful exercise? It engages both our creative and analytic faculties. You've got to be imaginative, even artistic, to describe something well. It draws us to find and use words we might not otherwise employ, words with real visual power. And it requires that we thread them together elegantly. But we've also got be very clear, because there's nothing worse than a fanciful and vague description. Nor we can write about every element of the thing or person in question. We've got be selective and decide what is important. Not an easy task.

As revived during the Renaissance ekphrasis became almost exclusively focussed on works of art, whether sculpture or painting. In 1475 Sandro Botticelli even painted The Calumny of Apelles, which was based on an ekphrasis by the ancient writer Lucian on a lost work by the great Greek painter Apelles. It was in the following centuries that the ekphrasis became as much a commentary on a work of art as a description of it, bringing to bear upon the reader the full emotional, intellectual, and spiritual force of a painting or sculpture.

Because ekphrasis is and always has been much more than just a practice rhetorical exercise; students were trained in them because they were useful and would be expected to use them. One of the most celebrated passages in the Iliad is Homer's account of the shield made by Hephaestus for Achilles, where he describes in wonderful detail all the many scenes with which it has been decorated. That's ekphrasis. So too is John Keats' famous Ode on a Grecian Urn. But it needn't only be poetry. Every time you read an article or book in which some painting or building or work of art is described, that's also ekphrasis. You can see how pervasive and how important it is. Good ekphrasis is both useful and delightful, an endeavour sometimes as beautiful as the work of art itself or one which often brings us to a greater understanding of the work in question. Ekphrasis is an important tool in your arsenal as a writer; it has been for two thousand years.

So I recommend trying it out. Take your favourite painting and describe it as though your reader has never seen it before. There's no way one way to do an ekphrasis. Some present a visual description of the entire thing and some focus on a handful of important details. Others omit description and seek either to convey the feeling of seeing it or the ideas the artist manages to capture. Ekphrasis can also be incredibly imaginative: you might ponder why the artist did what they did, or even explore the imagined world in which the painting seems to take place. The possibilities are endless. But remember why you're doing it. Remember that it's for a reader who has never seen this work of art before. It will sharpen you up both creatively and analytically. And, I think, it should be a great deal of fun. There's always something to learn from the progymnasmata...

VI - Writing

The Imitation of Rodin

This isn't specific writing advice so much as an approach to the art and craft and reality of writing. Sometimes what one needs is to be cool and steady, to write dispassionately and calmly, to assess the facts and be composed. At other times, however, we need to embrace the mad vitality of the written word and let ourselves be completely consumed by creative passion. We must trust in its force and, almost without looking, see where it takes us.

In the 1920s the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, then nearing the end of his life, struck up a correspondence with the young Polish painter Balthus. Rilke's correspondence with Franz Xaver Kappus from the early 1900s, usually published as Letters to a Young Poet, is far more famous. But Rilke's letters to Balthus are also worth reading. Different in tone, I suppose, both because of Rilke's advancing years and because he is writing to a painter rather than a fellow poet, but no less filled with tenderness, wisdom, and a sort of moving, worldly sensitivity.

Anyway, there's one short comment in Rilke's letters to Balthus I want to share with you. It is in reference to the sculptor Auguste Rodin, regarded in his own lifetime as the greatest artist of the age. Rilke and Rodin had known one another for a few years. And, writing to Balthus, Rilke recounts something Rodin once told him. See, Rodin spent a great deal of time reading The Imitation of Christ. This book, though its star has faded, is among the most widely-read works of Christian literature after the Bible. It was written in the 15th century by a Dutch priest called Thomas à Kempis as a sort of guide to living virtuously in the model of Jesus, with a particular emphasis on serious internal devotion rather than external shows of it.

But, so Rodin told Rilke, whenever he read The Imitation of Christ he would replace the word "God" with "sculpture" in his mind. Was this sacreligious? Perhaps. But such was the immensity of the energy, passion, and devotion with which Rodin approached his work. So that when he read of the Creator of the Universe, of the greatest good imaginable, of the Prime Mover, what he imagined was the art of sculpture. It became Rodin's personal God.

None of this can be quite rationalised and it's hard to formulate Rodin's anecdote into an actionable model. But we don't need to think about this too much. Sometime you don't need to think; you just need to feel. Sometimes, like Rodin, we need to find an almost extreme way of framing our creative work, a narrative in which we can lose ourselves and too much concern for what we should or should not do. It is in this moments, at times ecastic and at others despondent, that our best work often appears, almost of its own accord rather than by intention. But that's the key. You can't pursue the good stuff. You can only create the conditions for it to manifest. And that's exactly what Rodin was doing when he reimagined God as Sculpture.

VII - The Seventh Plinth

A Different Kind of Spring

Poets love flowers, do they not? We shouldn't be surprised that spring has inspired some of the most delicate and lyrical of all nature poetry, not only because of spring's external beauty but because of its rich symbolism. New life and love and all that. But not all spring poetry is as simple as a celebration of petals and cuckoos emerging from the steady thaw of winter, nor of heedless romance among the cherry blossoms. So here are three alternative spring poems for you, which put a rather different spin on things.

Spring by Edna St. Vincent Millay

To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

Lines Written in Early Spring by William Wordsworth

I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.

To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.

Through primrose tufts, in that green bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;
And ’tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.

The birds around me hopped and played,
Their thoughts I cannot measure:—
But the least motion which they made
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.

The budding twigs spread out their fan,
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.

If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be Nature’s holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?

The Spring by Thomas Carew

Now that the winter's gone, the earth hath lost
Her snow-white robes, and now no more the frost
Candies the grass, or casts an icy cream
Upon the silver lake or crystal stream;
But the warm sun thaws the benumbed earth,
And makes it tender; gives a sacred birth
To the dead swallow; wakes in hollow tree
The drowsy cuckoo, and the humble-bee.
Now do a choir of chirping minstrels bring
In triumph to the world the youthful Spring.
The valleys, hills, and woods in rich array
Welcome the coming of the long'd-for May.
Now all things smile, only my love doth lour;
Nor hath the scalding noonday sun the power
To melt that marble ice, which still doth hold
Her heart congeal'd, and makes her pity cold.
The ox, which lately did for shelter fly
Into the stall, doth now securely lie
In open fields; and love no more is made
By the fireside, but in the cooler shade
Amyntas now doth with his Chloris sleep
Under a sycamore, and all things keep
Time with the season; only she doth carry
June in her eyes, in her heart January.

Question of the Week

Last week's question to test your critical thinking was:

Can any good deed be truly selfless?

Laura W delineated the differences between selfless, self-interested, and selfish:

I feel the underlying assumption of this question is that selflessness is antithetical to selfishness. Thus for an act to be truly selfless, it must be devoid of any notion of self-interest.
But we are not uniform beings, nor is our welfare independent from those around us. Sometimes the most selfish thing we can do is be selfless.
Therefore, we should not deride actions that we perceive to be fueled with self-interest. Nor should we place actions on a pedestal if we cannot detect a hint of self-interest. A selfless good deed arises due to self-interest, not in its absence.

While Jackson K made the point that self-interest which benefits other people is doubly good:

This is a case where my answer goes against my own intuition. However, it may be the term “selfless” that causes the mismatch. I don’t think any good deed can be truly selfless, with the exception of the very first time in your life you do something for someone else unprompted.
After that first instance, most people learn, whether consciously or not, that it feels good psychologically to do a good deed, and each subsequent good deed reinforces this learning. Therefore, even if you do something 99.9% for the good of another, some part of you knows that you will reap a psychological reward. To be clear, I don’t think this is a bad thing. After all the result of the deed is still 100% positive. It’s just that it is a positive effect that goes both ways. And one of those was is toward the self. And we’re probably better off for this fact. After all, different people have a higher bar for doing something good. If we didn’t get a little high off our own supply. There might be far fewer good deeds to go around. I can’t imagine a world in which we have a bunch of brand-new college facilities named after “anonymous.”

And Bastien B made the case that there is such a thing as a selfless act:

I believe that what we would technically consider a truly selfless deed would be one we do despite being reluctant to it and it not making us feel any better, but also not one we do because we are forced to.

Scott S argued that while every single decision unavoidably involves self-interest, they are not all equally self-interested:

I look at this in two parts: that there is no such thing as a selfless act, but there are degrees of selfishness. So let’s look at the first part.
One cannot commit an act of selflessness due to the fact every act is in and of itself, selfish. An example of extremes shows a woman crossing the street and a car barreling headlong toward her. She is undoubtedly going to be hit and possibly killed if she doesn’t get out of the way. You are a witness to what is transpiring and are presented with two choices: run to her aid at great peril to yourself in an attempt to save her from being hit, or become the bystander and watch as she dies a horrific death that could have been avoided if you had taken action— thus leaving you with the lifelong memory of having done nothing. Risk own life for another or risk nothing but self worth. Both are selfish acts. Which brings me to the second part of my argument: that there are only degrees of selfishness.
Giving of oneself for another is a degree of selfishness leaning heavily in favor of less self-interest, while taking someone’s property, place or life are all acts of deep self-interest. “I” and “we” shows us there is always self-interest in every decision just measured by degrees, but never selfless.
“I” alone puts me and my decision making first. “We” still puts me in the equation, but the question is by how much?

And Marcus K explored, as many of you did, the meaning of selflessness itself:

Not to engage in semantics, but how does one define selfless? Any deed enacted by a person is surely driven by their own self, a self which is intrinsically interested in its own self-preservation and success by the nature of our single and subjective existence. Even a good action which is of no direct benefit, or even direct harm to its enactor, is driven by a desire to act upon one's morals - rewarding the perpetrator with at least a slight glow of pride. Simply put, surely any consciously good decision is at least rewarded by the arguably selfish glimmer of self-satisfaction gained?

And this week, to test your powers of description rather than your critical thinking (though I dare say there's a connection) here's your challenge:

Write an ekphrasis about your favourite work of art.

They don't need to be more than a few lines. But feel free to write more, of course. I'll share as many as I can in next week's newsletter. Can't wait to see what you write.

And that's all

Spring, at last! The vernal equinox has passed and in the Northern Hemisphere the ever-lengthening sunlight hours shall bring with them warmer weather, buds, blossoms, bees, and an explosion of greenery and wildlife. That's what I'm telling myself, anyway, because any talk of spring feels rather premature: right now it's pouring with rain. Alas, such is the wont of British weather!

But that isn't a complaint. I know of few greater joys than writing to the sound of falling rain. And with Edinburgh Castle looming overhead, almost more noble when cast against a grey rather than a blue sky, I realise how truly blessed I am. To each of you I wish the most splendid first weekend of spring (if you're in the Northern Hemisphere) or of autumn (if you're in the Southern Hemisphere). Take care & all that. Ciao ciao.


The Cultural Tutor


The Cultural Tutor

A beautiful education.

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