Areopagus Volume XLIII

published6 months ago
32 min read

Areopagus Volume XLIII

Welcome one and all to the forty third volume of the Areopagus. In Western Christianity today is Good Friday, although in the Eastern Orthodox Church it isn't observed until next Friday. It also happens to be the birthday of that great Romantic poet William Wordsworth. So here's a reminder from him not to spend too much time reading our books (or, more likely, using our phones) and instead spend a little time in nature. After all, is not Spring now unfurling into green and golden glory?

Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife,
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music; on my life
There’s more of wisdom in it.
And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
And he is no mean preacher;
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

Alas, William, not quite yet. Here's an Areopagus to keep us from Nature just a little longer...

I - Classical Music

St Matthew Passion

Johann Sebastian Bach (1727)

Consummatum Est by Jean-Léon Gérôme
Performed by the Engelbrekt Chamber Choir and Radiosymfonikerna

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) wrote the St Matthew Passion while he was musical director at the Church of St Thomas in Leipzig. It retells the Passion of Christ - his final days, from the Last Supper to Judas' betrayal and the arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, to the Crucifixion and the sealing of the tomb - as told in the Gospel of Matthew, with some its lyrics taken from Martin Luther's translation of the Bible into German. Bach's St Matthew Passion was first performed on this day, Good Friday, at the Church of St Thomas just shy of three hundred years ago in 1727. The whole thing is well over two hours long; this is simply the final chorus.

What type of music is it? An oratorio. These are similar to operas, in the sense that you've got an orchestra, a chorus, solo singers, and a narrative. Just as opera has its arias, so too does the oratorio. The difference is that oratorios tend to be concert pieces, performed without costumes and without actual drama unfolding on stage. That, and oratorios are composed for sacred subjects - saints and Biblical history - rather than opera's matrix of non-Christian mythology, history, folk-tale, and real-life stories. Still, oratorios range from what could basically be called religious opera (the oldest surviving oratorio includes ballet!) to purely sacred music. In Italy, where the form originated in the 16th century as a sort of moral musical lesson either side of a sermon, they quickly became rather exuberant. In Germany, meanwhile, the oratorio took on a more solemn and restrained form, though not without drama or emotional expression. It was in this more serious tradition that Bach was working. And, especially for music to be performed during Holy Week, we can imagine why there might have been a tension between the theatricality of narrative music and the necessary sobriety of the occasion.

The St Matthew Passion is also the piece that brought Bach back into the limelight. If you ask somebody now: who is the most important composer of all time? The answer will probably be Johann Sebastian Bach. But somebody in 1750, the year of his death, wouldn't have thought so. Nor somebody in 1800. By that point he had been all but forgotten. It was only in 1829, when Felix Mendelssohn conducted a performance of the St Matthew Passion, that Bach's reputation was revived. More than revived - his star rose higher than it had ever been in his own lifetime, as the full scope of his achievements and contributions to music were made apparent. Mendelssohn only knew about him through family connections, for the Mendelssohns were close to the Bachs; his aunt had been tutored been tutored by one of Johann Sebastian's sons. It's remarkable to think that Mendelssohn only knew about the St Matthew Passion because his grandmother had given him a manuscript of it.

What can we say about the St Matthew Passion? Well, some have written that it represents no great innovation in the oratorio genre, but nor does it need to; Bach simply mastered the form. It's two hours of music you won't regret listening to. An intricate, sometimes delightful, always profound, majestic monument to the Passion.

II - Historical Figure


The Historian with a History

Josephus is best known for being the most significant non-Biblical historical source for information about the life of Jesus. In Book Three of his Jewish Antiquities Josephus says this:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.

This passage has not been without controversy, for whatever Josephus himself actually wrote it seems to have been fiddled with. Alas, we shall leave that controversy aside for now. Because Josephus is, regardless of what makes him most famous, a fascinating figure nonetheless.

He was born as Joseph ben Matthias in Jerusalem in about 37 AD, which was then part of the Roman Province of Judaea. After three years as a hermit in the wilderness during his teenage years Josephus returned to Jerusalem and joined the Pharisees of New Testament fame. They were deeply conservative in one sense, but did not oppose Roman rule so long as Jewish religious independence was preserved. This was in tension with nationalistic Zealots, who wanted freedom from Roman dominion. So Josephus was, already, deeply involved in the politics of his nation, alongside being a priest and expert in Jewish law and history. He must have already been an important figure, for in 64 AD Josephus went to Rome as part of a delegation to secure the release of Jewish prisoners. And how could he not, seeing the marble metropolis and capital of the empire that ruled the known-world, be impressed by their culture, their military might, and their civilisation as a whole?

But trouble was coming. In 66 AD a revolt against Roman rule broke out, the Imperial procurator was ousted, and an independent government established in Jerusalem. Though he had always favoured compromise Josephus was, reluctantly as he would have us believe, appointed as a military commander in Galilee. Soon enough the Roman response came, led by the future emperor Vespasian, and all Josephus' efforts at resistance were quickly quashed. For nearly fifty days he held out in the fortress of Jotapata but that, too, was overrun, and he retreated to a cave with forty of his soldiers. Josephus' story is that they killed one another (rather than committing suicide) until just two were left, one of which was him; these final two surrendered. When paraded before the victorious Roman general Josephus, perhaps hoping to save his skin, prophecised that Vespasian would one day become emperor.

He spent two years in a Roman camp but, after Nero's death in 69 AD and the chaos of the Year of Four Emperors, Vespasian did become emperor and Josephus, to all evidently a learned, wise, and experienced man, was set free and entered into the entourage of Titus, Vespasian's son and a future emperor himself. When it came to the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD Josephus tried to act as a mediator - to no avail. Jerusalem was retaken and the Temple destroyed; treasures looted from the city are displayed on friezes on the Triumphal Arch of Titus. Three years later in 73 AD the war would end with the fall of Masada.

So Josephus went to Rome and adopted the name Flavius Josephus in recognition of the family whose client he had become: Vespasian and Titus were members of the Flavian Dynasty. He became a citizen, received a pension, gave his children Roman names, and was handed a tax-free estate back in Judaea. Was Josephus a traitor, then? Well, in Rome he set about writing history. First came his History of the Jewish War, which he had experienced first hand, and after that his monumental Jewish Antiquities, a history of the Jewish people from the creation of the earth to the time of the revolt. These were both written first in Aramaic and then, seemingly with a little help, translated into Greek (and later into Latin). He also wrote a defence of himself against his many detractors and a general defense of Judaism, called Against Apion. In all cases Josephus had very clear intentions. The first, as he explains, was truthfulness:

I was compelled by those who had mistreated the truth in their writings to give a full account of the war that the Romans had waged against us Jews, both of the events in the war and the way it turned out, since I knew these things by experience.

Nor did he did suffer liars lightly:

Such writers dare to entitle their works histories... they wish to show the Romans as great while they deprecate and diminish the Jews and their resources. Yet I do not see how those who conquer the small can have the reputation of being great. These writers have no respect for the length of the war nor the abundance of sufferings experienced by the Roman army, nor the greatness of the generals, whose success has been minimised.

Josephus was not only interested in facts. No doubt other writers involved their own feelings in the writing of history, but Josephus is clear about his intention to do so. Here we do not have a dispassionate scholar but one who, even if he pursues the truth in all things, cannot but bring himself into the work:

I shall go through the deeds of both sides with accuracy, and I shall give my emotions the opportunity to bewail the misfortunes of my country.

The second of Josephus' intentions, which comes out more strongly in the Jewish Antiquities and Against Apion, was to educate the Graeco-Roman world about Judaism. He felt that they were ignorant of its long history, its ancient traditions, its philosophical sophistication, and its heritage of wisdom and law:

I have taken this present work in hand because I believe that it will seem to all Greeks worthy of their attention, for it will embrace all of our early history and the constitution of our state translated from Hebrew records.

But Josephus' project was about more than merely raising awareness. He wanted to explain Judaism to the Hellenistic world, perhaps even seeking a way to reconcile these two world views:

So now I call on those who read these books to turn their thoughts to God, and to test if our lawgiver understood his nature worthily, and attributed deeds to him that were always fitting to his power, and took care to speak of him always in a manner that was free of the inappropriate mythical material found in others. And yet he would have had great freedom to do such a thing given the length of time and his antiquity, since he was born two thousand years ago, a time to which their [i.e. Greek] poets did not even dare to ascribe the births of the gods or the deeds of men or their laws.

That last sentence strikes a theme common to Josephus' writing, and one with which we are not so familiar. He regularly points out that Greek history, by comparison with that of other civilisations, was not very ancient at all:

It occurs to me to be utterly amazed at people who think that when it is a matter of the most ancient deeds, they should give their attention to the Greeks alone and learn the truth from them, while disbelieving us and the rest of mankind.
Everything that has to do with the Greeks will be discovered to be new and to have happened yesterday or the day before, one might say, and I mean the foundings of their cities, their inventions of the arts, and the codification of their laws.

Here, it seems, we are seeing Graeco-Roman civilisation from the other side. Rather than their greatness we hear of ignorance; rather than of civility we find narrow-mindedness. Josephus, fully aware of his own people's heritage and of their scripture and literature which far predated even the earliest Greek writings, simply could not endure this Hellenistic arrogance.

His writing writhes with personality and purpose. It may be a weakness for the scholar to feature so heavily in their own work, and sometimes Josephus' insistence that he alone knows how to write proper history borders on arrogance.

Handing down to memory events which have not been recorded previously and composing an account of the events of one's own time for posterity is something worthy of praise and commendation. The hardworking writer is not the one who alters someone else's plan but the one who speaks of recent events and fashions a work of history that is his own. And although a foreigner, I nonetheless, at great expense and with the greatest efforts, am offering this record of virtuous actions to Greeks and Romans.

In that last line we get a sense of Josephus' ego. His writing is, if not filled with self-praise, then certainly far from an exercise in humility. He is always ready to talk of his own personal travails, to indirectly praise his own work as noble, to explain how hard he has worked, to emphasise that while he alone is truthful everybody else is a liar, and to have no compunction with attacking them for it:

I wish to say a few things to Justus, the very one who has written an account of these events, as well as to the rest who promise to write history but have little regard for the truth and who, because of either hatred or favour, are not ashamed of falsehood. Justus, for example, when he attempted to compose an account of these events did not tell the truth even about his own country. And so now I, who have had these falsehoods told about me, am compelled to defend myself, and I shall speak on matters about which up to this point I have been silent.

But Josephus was responding to unjustified criticism and untruths, it would seem, and so his thorniness can surely be forgiven. I think this also brings Ancient Rome to life, for through Josephus we see authors and historians fighting among themselves, disputing what the other has written and even attacking their respective national histories. A lively intellectual scene; not so much a paradise of rational discourse as a cauldron of factionalism and scholarly squabbles. Fake news was as much a concern for Josephus as it is for people in the 21st century.

Ultimately, Josephus is one of those rare personalities who not only wrote important works of history but played an important role in the history he retold, controversial in his own time and controversial ever since, characterised as a traitor and educator, a fraud and an educator in equal measure. Well, going from a respected priest and a rebel leader to a captive and a friend of emperors, never shy and always ready to speak his mind, there's certainly one thing nobody has ever called Josephus: boring.

All translations of Josephus by John Marincola

III - Painting

The Many Crucifixions

How many different ways can you paint the same thing?

The Crucifixion of Jesus, and the Passion more generally, have been a theme of art ever since the second century AD. What we have, then, is two thousand years of artists - whatever their intention or context - depicting those familar and fateful scenes time and time again, even as the world around them was in eternal flux.

Looking at different portrayals of the same subject is one of the best ways to see how art has changed over time, not only in terms of style but also context (why did they paint it? and for whom?) and personal or social preference (how did they depict this scene? what interested them about it?) and even the socio-political, religious, and cultural environment in which it was created. And so here we shall briefly examine eight hundred years of crucifixions...

Berlinghieri's diptych from 1255 is a splendidly Gothic work of art. How so? Notice the human figures first of all. They are not particularly "lifelike" and they all have rather stiff poses, more like statues more than real people. Is this rigidity a flaw? Not at all, for it seems to have been quite intentional. There's a certain graveness to these stylised forms, with their elongated fingers and simple, solemn faces. And nor does it prohibit expressiveness; Christ's face is a vision of sorrow and torment. His body might look a little odd to us, especially when compared to later Renaissance work. But Renaissance art, influenced by that of Greece and Rome, was much more comfortable with the unadorned human body. In Gothic art we find people almost always clothed, and even when naked (say, in depictions of Adam and Eve) we see it portrayed with a sense of shame or disinterest rather than the confidence and beauty of, by comparison, Michelangelo's David. These were two different world views entirely.

Next pay attention to the overall composition - how everything is arranged. This isn't taking place in a "real" environment. The background is plain gold and there are multiple scenes happening at once. What we have is not a portrayal of the real world (or of an imagined world) but of something closer to a story told in pictoral format, where what is "possible" doesn't remotely inhibit Berlinghieri's freedom to create a crowded - though not unclear - retelling of the Passion in visual form; we are not seeing it take place so much as being told what happened.

We move forward two hundred years to the Early Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna, who painted his version of the Crucifixion in about 1460. You'll notice immediately how much has changed. This scene takes place in a fully realised, three-dimensional world: there is depth here, the humans have weight, and they occupy real space in relation to one another. Linear perspective, worked out with mathematical precision, had entered art. Notice the sitting soldier in the bottom right of the painting. His extended leg is almost an exercise in foreshoretening. Unlike Berlinghieri's pictoral story, here we simply see the scene unfolding before our eyes.

But this is still far from pure realism. Mantegna's bold outlines and tendency for painting everything as though it were carved from stone creates a highly stylised world. And one which, I dare say, retains some of that Gothic spirit: it is heightened, dramatised, bold, and grave.

Just two decades later we come to one of Pietro Perugino's paintings of the Crucifixion. Perugino was a tutor of Raphael, one of the three defining figures of the High Renaissance, and I think by comparing Mantegna with Perugino we can see the difference between Early and High Renaissance art. Whereas Mantegna still chanelled some of that old Gothic stylisation and savagery (intended not as a pejorative but as praise!), Perugino presents a vision of absolute clarity and harmony. The colours are mellow and any harshness has been melted into soft contours and gentle light. Even the expressions on the faces of the figures are less strained and dramatic than those in Mantegna. What we have here is more lifelike and subtler; Perugino aimed at gracefulness rather than power.

Let's travel northwards. Jan Breughel the Elder, son of Pieter Brueghel, was one of the leading Flemish painters at the very start of the Dutch Golden Age. He had clearly inherited his father's interest in highly detailed worlds with hundreds or even thousands of different figures and dozens of vignettes and details to be discovered and enjoyed. Even Mantegna's, though a busy scene, is nothing like this. Breughel has zoomed right out and given us a huge sequence to observe. More than anything, it seems, Brueghel was bringing the Crucixifion to life. Here was a sight people might have been able to imagine happening in their own town, with all the bustle and chaos of scattered peasants, soldiers, officials, wagons, and animals.

Italian artists didn't much care for landscapes at the time. They functioned as backdrops and it was humans who always took centre stage. Here we see the Northern interest in landscapes reveal itself, where the landscape is as much as part of the painting as the people. Brueghel's choice of perspective does this, for unlike in Mantegna or Perugino neither the sky nor the distance are obscured. Sharp blue mountains beneath brooding stormclouds occupy a third of the painting and bring a tonal, atmospheric, almost poetic depth to the hectic Crucifixion scene taking place. What might have been a little too chaotic or too realistic is framed in greater magnitude by those clouds and mountains.

Now we have Francisco de Zurbarán's Christ on the Cross, from 1627, painted as part of a large commission for a Dominican monastery in Seville. Not without reason Zurbarán has been called the Spanish Caravaggio. It seems only likely that Caravaggio's famous style of intense contrast between light and dark, bathing his scenes in heavy shadow, influenced Zurbarán.

Most remarkable, and in striking contrast with all the other depictions, is that Zurbarán has removed everything other than the cross and Jesus upon it; the background is but deep darkness, hardly of this world, and so it feels more like a mental image of the Crucifixion than a pictoral retelling or a scene of it actually taking place. The details are strikingly lifelike, but that spaceless setting transforms Zurbarán's Crucifixion into a work of dreamlike intensity. This was much in keeping with the Counter-Reformation (the Catholic Church's response to Protestantism) which included guidance for how artists ought to portray scenes from the Bible. Well, Zurbarán certainly rose to the task.

In the 18th century came Giambattista Tiepolo, the ultimate Rococo painter and (you probably won't be surprised to learn) a set designer. This was the age of opera and of theatre, after all, and it is theatricality that defines Tiepolo's Crucifixion. What we see is rather like a set with actors in costumes, but if Tiepolo's art feels staged it is not to his discredit; what he did, he did better than just about anybody else. His many frescoes and murals are among the most exquisite (a word peculiarly suited to Tiepolo, I think) paintings you'll see anywhere. The colours of his Crucifixion are certainly gloomier than elsewhere and the theatricality has been toned down, but it strikes me that Tiepolo's style doesn't quite have the monumentality of Mantegna or the piety of Zurbarán. None of which is to say it's worse, only different.

You can certainly see how much art had changed since the Baroque of the 17th century. Here everything is fluid rather than merely dynamic; there is energy, action, and drama not so much of the intense as the excitable sort. This also has much to do with Tiepolo's style and preference for loose brushwork. The clear figures of previous centuries are melting into more liberated, agitated forms, and colours are escaping their outlines.

I can't say Jean-Leon Gerome's Consummatum Est, painted in 1867, is a typical work of 19th century French Academic painting. That was a style which harked back to Raphael and the High Renaissance, with emphasis on drawing, outlines, clarity, grace, harmony, appropriate theming, and all that. Upon first inspection this is rather more Romantic, what with such heavy emphasis on landscape and atmosphere. Then again it almost feels Symbolist, for it is a deeply unorthodox portrayal of the Crucifixion. We see no cross. Instead there are three shadows in the lower right corner, indicating the presence of the crosses just out of view, illuminated from behind by some great light and their silhouettes lain stark on the blanched white rocks of Golgotha. It is powerful, mysterious, slightly frightening, almost apocalyptic imagery.

This, if anything, shows the perils of talking about art in terms of movements. All of history, no less art, is made up of individuals rather than movements. The "High Renaissance" didn't paint the Mona Lisa; Leonardo da Vinci did. Personal idiosyncracies, intentions, or context always come first. So movements are only helpful inasmuch as they help us to understand a painting better. As for Consummatum Est, or any other of these works, it is perhaps better not to throw around words like Academic and Romantic and Symbolist if it risks not looking at the painting on its own merits and seeing what it means to us.

Now things are really starting to change. Paul Gauguin's famous Yellow Christ, painted in 1889, represents something like an early rallying cry for Modern Art. The flattened perspective, the heavily outlined and clearly separated blocks of colour, those vivid and unlifelike colours themselves, the strangeness, the odd framing, the lack of modelling... no wonder Gauguin was such an influence on all who came afterwards; art was finally freeing itself from a long heritage going right back to the Early Renaissance.

Or was it? However revolutionary we might call Gauguin's Post-Impressionist, Cloisonnist, Proto-Modernist art, it bears more than a passing resemblance to those old Gothic portrayals of the Crucifixions. Artists then weren't shackled by realism. There's an extent to which Impressionism and all the radical art movements at the beginning of the 20th century were simply a rediscovery of this freedom.


And there we have it, a journey through eight Crucifixions from Gothic to Modern art. And one which, in the end, seems almost cyclical. There's a world of difference between Berlinghieri and Gauguin, of course - one was painting in Medieval Italy for a patron and the other in an industrialised world for his Parisian friends - but you see my point. A more interesting question is what these paintings say about the eras in which they were made. But that, I'm afraid, is a question for another day...

IV - Architectural Masterpiece

Geghard Monastery

The first mention of Christianity in Roman writing comes in a letter from our old friend Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan. He was the governor of Bithynia, in what is now north-western Turkey, and wanted advice about how to deal with members of a religious sect who refused to acknowledge the Graeco-Roman deities. That was in 112 AD, two centuries before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire and long before the Nicene Creed, which formally laid down the beliefs and core practices of most Christian denominations.

I suppose what we sometimes fail to remember is that the first foundations of Christianity weren't laid in Northern or Western Europe, nor even truly in Rome, but in the Eastern Mediterranean and further afield. Many of the world's oldest churches and monasteries are in Egypt, and Alexandria was once the beating heart of Christian theology. Saint Antony, known as the Father of All Monks, lived as a hermit in the deserts of Egypt. Syria, too, was home to many early Christians and saints and Church Fathers, especially around Antioch. Constantinople, now Istanbul, was also important. The long-ruined Jubail Church in what is now Saudi Arabia is one of the oldest churches anywhere in the world, and there were churches in Ethiopia and Iraq long before there were any in the British Isles.

But let's talk about Geghard Monastery. It lies in one of the gorges of the Azat River in the Gegham Mountains of central Armenia, framed by steep mountains and a verdant but rugged wilderness. Armenia was the very first place to adopt Christianity as its official state religion, all the way back in 301 AD under King Tiridates III. Geghard Monastery was founded by Gregory the Illuminator, Armenia's patron saint, at some point in the 4th century, and though little of the original building survives I think we can still detect here the immense age of this place.

Its original name was actually Ayrivank, meaning "Monastery of the Caves", because much of the complex was carved directly into the cliffs around the main church: two chapels, the tombs of various noble families and princes, prayer rooms, living quarters for monks, and a number of elaborately carved crosses known as khachkars. Its current name, Geghardavank, means "Monastery of the Spear"; the lance used to pierce the side of Jesus during his Crucifixion was allegedly brought to Armenia by St Thaddeus and kept at this monastery for five hundred years. Most of what we now see, including a large defensive wall, had been constructed by the 13th century.

Geghard is exemplary of Armenian Church Architecture, one the finest and oldest architectural traditions anywhere in the world. What defines Armenian Church Architecture? Those distinctive conical domes raised on a short cylindrical or octagonal tower (called drums or barrels), the small and narrow windows, the compact overall plan (often taller rather than wider), elaborate ornamental carvings, and - most strikingly - the ubiquitous use of stone. The walls, the windows, the barrels and spires and domes, the doorways, the interior vaults, and even the shingles on the roofs - all is made from that same volcanic rock, quarried into great big blocks of masonry which look both impossibly ancient and absolutely indestructable. And though it isn't strictly a part of their architectural style, I don't think the environment in which these churches are built can be wholly separated from their it. Vitruvius once wrote about how different parts of the world were suited to different architectures, and here I think there is a sort of correspondence between the Armenian highland - its plateau and mountain and gorge and forest - and the look, design, and feel of the building itself.

The impression one gets from an Armenian church is one of compactness, verticality, robustness, and age. Perhaps dark and sombre, serious and sturdy, but somehow mysterious because of these very qualities. Beautiful without being pretty, captivating without being charming, a sort of sentinel or guardian with sheer cliff-faces and valleys cascading all around it. There's something truly sublime about Geghard - and about Armenian churches more generally.

I also think Geghard gives us some idea of how monasteries first appeared and the purposes they once served. For while we might think of monasteries as these rather peaceful places of seclusion, whether governed by strict rules or populated by the comical and squabbling monks of Boccaccio's Decameron, perhaps in a leafy forest and surrounded by flower beds and beehives, they weren't all quite like that.

Many monasteries were, quite literally, places of retreat. Not only for the spirit but for the body and for culture. In a feudal world of warfare and persecution monasteries were centres of learning where books and knowledge and relics were preserved against the vagaries of the outside world. Think of Britain's Dark Age abbeys, scattered all along the wind-blasted islands and coastlines of the North Sea, or the great Orthodox monasteries of the Balkans, hidden among its rugged hills and dark forests. These were places where culture survived, often flourishing but frequently threatened. This is also true of Geghard, where the monks had a library and a scriptorium and even ran a school. It was here, beneath these magnificent stone vaults, that their lasting contributions to Armenian culture were made.

V - Rhetoric

Playing the Devil's Advocate

For many centuries there was an office in the Roman Catholic Church called Promotor Fidei, meaning Promoter of the Faith. Their duties were, during the process of beatification and canonisation (when people were officially proclaimed saints) to investigate the individual under consideration and present all possible evidence to the contrary: why they should not be canonised. It wasn't that they necessarily wanted to do so, but the idea was to ensure that nobody was turned into a saint who did not truly deserve it. This role came to be known as the advocatus diaboli. Or, in English, the Devil's Advocate.

It's a phrase which has entered common parlance. Usually along the lines of, "oh, you're just playing Devil's Advocate" or, "don't worry, I was only playing Devil's Advocate." But this is also an ancient rhetorical tool. There's an anonymous 4th century BC Greek text which stressed the importance of considering any given proposition from different points of view. This text is known as Dissoi Logoi and it has given its name to the rhetorical exercise of inhabiting an alternative view both to strengthen one's own (by finding weaknesses in it while arguing against it) and to learn the weaknesses of the other, as we try to defend it. It's also been called antilogike (that's what the philosopher Protagoras called his teaching method) and it features prominently in almost all Graeco-Roman writing.

As it should, because dissoi logoi or playing the Devil's Advocate is a crucial part of critical thinking. To be able to argue for a point of view which we do not ourselves hold, and especially one with which we deeply disagree, is important for several reasons. As has been established, it is really quite practical and we only stand to benefit from finding weaknesses in our own beliefs and thus strengthening them. Simply put, you'll be better both at defending and arguing a point.

And yet there's more to it than that. By exploring what other people believe and we do not, we begin to learn that those with whom we disagree often have very good reasons for believing what they do. It encourages greater understanding not only with those on "our side" but those on the "other side", so to speak. Such bipartisan sympathy can only, I think, be a good thing.

But there's also a danger here. I've written about eristic before - the art and skill of arguing merely for the sake of it. That is not the purpose of playing the Devil's Advocate, nor of dissoi logoi. This was something Plato explored in a philosophical dialogue (in which Socrates is a character) called Phaedrus:

SOCRATES: Let us put the matter thus: suppose that I persuaded you to buy a horse and go to the wars. Neither of us knew what a horse was like, but I knew that you believed a horse to be of tame animals the one which has the longest ears.
PHAEDRUS: That would be ridiculous.
SOCRATES: There is something more ridiculous coming: suppose, further, that in sober earnest I, having persuaded you of this, went and composed a speech in honour of an ass, whom I entitled a horse, beginning: 'a noble animal and a most useful possession, especially in war, and you may get on his back and fight, and he will carry baggage or anything.'
PHAEDRUS: How ridiculous!
SOCRATES: Ridiculous! Yes; but is not even a ridiculous friend better than a cunning enemy?
PHAEDRUS: Certainly.
SOCRATES: And when the orator instead of putting an ass in the place of a horse, puts good for evil, being himself as ignorant of their true nature as the city on which he imposes is ignorant; and having studied the notions of the multitude, falsely persuades them not about 'the shadow of an ass,' which he confounds with a horse, but about good which he confounds with evil — what will be the harvest which rhetoric will be likely to gather after the sowing of that seed?
Translated by Benjamin Jowett

There's an extent to which the dialogue as a literary form itself involves playing the Devil's Advocate. The whole point was to enact a conversation (whether real or fictional) between people with different ideas about the world and, perhaps, by exploring them together coming to a conclusion.

I recommend playing the Devil's Advocate. You may be surprised at just how well you come to understand another point of view and, in so understanding it, learn also its weaknesses. Or, shockingly, you may end up finding that point of view more reasonable and justifiable than your own and... change your mind. Similarly, if you'd prefer to write it out rather than argue, why not compose a little dialogue yourself? Imagine a conversation between people with different points of view (one of them could be you, and the others could be fictional or indeed real people) and have them duke it out. You'll be amazed how quickly you learn.

VI - Writing

Freedom from the Land of Babel

Riffing on the theme of Josephus' translation of his works into Greek as part of a push toward greater knowledge and understanding, I suppose there's no better time to write in praise of translators. Where would we be without them? So the Biblical story goes, all of humankind once spoke the same language, and it was only when the ambitious builders of the Tower of Babel tried to reach Heaven with an earthly tower that God caused them to each speak a different language so that they could not understand one another and construction necessarily ground to a halt. Those are the mythical origins of the many languages of the world.

Well, I suppose that was once the case, in some sense. But thanks to the tireless work of linguists and translators we can now understand one another rather well. They've been doing it for thousands of years and, without their scrupulous and tireless work, so much cross-cultural and intergenerational wisdom would not have been transmitted; the world would be a darker and far less connected place.

The translation of the King James Bible between 1604 and 1611 was a magnificent achievement, not least because it was done by committee. And not just one committee but six, comprising forty seven members in all. Anybody who has ever attempted Work By Committee will know what a miracle it is that they managed to finish anything... In any case, the King James Bible has played a role of greater significance even than Shakespeare in shaping the use of the English language. Why? Well, it's the one book everybody owned. But one part of it receives far too little attention: the Translators' Note to the Reader. It's a remarkable passage, giving justification in full for the need to translate the Bible out of Latin and into English for common people to hear, read, and understand. Indeed, it's almost like a rallying cry for literacy and a manifesto for translation as one of humanity's great unifying forces. Here is, perhaps, my favourite excerpt: is necessary to have translations in a readinesse. Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtaine, that we may looke into the most Holy place; that remooveth the cover of the well, that wee may come by the water, even as Jacob rolled away the stone from the mouth of the well, by which meanes the flockes of Laban were watered. Indeede without translation into the vulgar tongue, the unlearned are but like children at Jacobs well (which was deepe) without a bucket or some thing to draw with: or as that person mentioned by Esau, to whom when a sealed booke was delivered, with this motion, Reade this, I pray thee, hee was faine to make this answere, I cannot, for it is sealed.

And so I suppose this is really just a little love letter to translators. To say: thank you. For without them, most of us could not read Dante, Shakespeare, Latin American literature, any of the Classics, Mesopotamian poetry, Byzantine legal codes, Egyptian mythology, or even the Bible itself or many other religious texts. And nor would the many great minds of history, the scientists and doctors and lawyers and engineers who have made the world safer and brighter, and all our lives better, have been able to collaborate or share their wisdom.

VII - The Seventh Plinth


In 1911 a film called L'Inferno was released. It's not much more than an hour long but it was Italy's first ever feature film and it took three years to make. Its subject is, of course, Dante's famous Inferno, a journey through the nine circles of Hell with Virgil as his guide and the first part of his legendary 14th century poem, the Divine Comedy.

Silent films are wonderful. I thoroughly recommend exploring the cinema of the first three decades of the 20th century. The medium was entirely new back then; there were no rules (often literally!) about how things should or should not be done. Everything was experimentation, every successive release an innovation. You'll find it full of things you've never seen before and you'll be surprised by what you find: many of these early films are rather more scandalous than we might expect.

L'Inferno is decidely not light viewing. Dante's grotesque and terrifying vision of Hell has been effectively transmuted to the silver screen; it is a gloriously realised and fantastically disturbing work of art, veering between art house and blockbuster, at once creepy and beautiful, and always transfixing. We are conditioned by frequency to expect films to take a certain shape and follow a particular path. L'Inferno follows no such rules. And some of its special effects are remarkable. The last thing I'll say is that you perhaps oughtn't watch it right before bed.

You can watch L'Inferno online for free. It's on YouTube and a number of other sites. There's more than one version, because it has been restored at different times by different people, including a colourised remaster, and some have even given it music. If any of you choose to watch this old masterpiece then do let me know what you make of it.

Question of the Week

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

To what extent does a person's beliefs (political, religious, philosophical, or otherwise) affect their behaviour?

Here was Divyam A's answer:

Behaviour is inherently no more than a reflection of what values and beliefs a person possesses. While I can agree that the societal ethos expect man to be non-partisan but what does man have over fabricated intelligence if not his flawed and innocently biased self.
Every manner a man behaves in is essentially rooted to what ideas he upholds, or should I say, allows his mind to uphold while rejecting those that do not suit his own tilt of justice and rationality.

And this anonymous respondent looked to experiences as well as beliefs:

I'm Nigerian and we recently concluded our elections. Through that process, it was frustrating to see how people's definitions of fundamental truths were skewed based on the candidate they supported. They were willing to overlook their candidate's precedents and moral flaws because of their political affiliation. It also gave me a very different perspective on religion. My country is deeply religious, but party lines held more weight for so many people rather than religion. A person's beliefs affect their behaviour but are not always rooted in religion, politics or philosophy. Many times they are built based on their experiences and upbringing.
To what extent does it affect behaviour? In almost everything. Our actions are a reflex response to our environment and those reflexes are rooted in our beliefs.

David R explored the difference between beliefs and convictions:

When I ask myself what "beliefs" I have (religious, political) I get the answer "none". I have "convictions" but is that the same, or are they something distinct and different from beliefs? The way I see it, convictions can be changed by persuasive argument, beliefs less so.
The extent to which my convictions govern my behaviour is, I suspect, very great. I doubt that my behaviour is ever free of the influence of my deeply-held convictions, irrespective whether I am in dispassionate and reflective mood, or at my most hair-trigger impulsive.

And Luca G flipped the question round, asking how behaviour influences our beliefs:

I think your question can be written either way round; there is both the idea of how a person’s beliefs affect their behaviour, but it is also possible to consider how a person’s behaviour affects their beliefs.
The amount of atheistic/agnostic people in the world is growing, such as the amount of apolitical and an increasing lax attitude towards philosophical learning. As a member of Gen Z, I see these increases at an alarming rate amongst my peers, that is until a certain age. There is a point that I have noticed, often when face their first major road block in life and need something to believe in. Because previously they had no political/religious/philosophical siding, they become drawn to the one that most agrees with their actions and beliefs. They may look for a religion that sees their current life as acceptable, for example an avid partygoer and drinker may be less inclined to find themselves drawn to Islam, while someone with a meat heavy diet may find themselves less drawn to Judaism as what would be required to to join that religion would have a rather large impact on their day to day life.
So as much a person’s beliefs often affect their behaviour, I believe that, especially in the younger generation (I say this as it’s my generation), the inverse is becoming more and more prevalent, that a person’s behaviour affects their beliefs.

And for this week's question to test your critical thinking... well, it's a classic:

Is capital punishment right or wrong?

And that's all

To one and all I offer my deepest gratitude and profoundest hope that your Easter, whether celebrating it or not, this week or next, is fulfilling. And now I realise this has been a rather long volume of the Areopagus. Well, here I might borrow some words from the translators of the King James Bible, who said at the end of their opening note:

Many other things we might give thee warning of, gentle Reader, if wee had not exceeded the measure of a Preface alreadie.

Well, gentle Reader, had I not exceeded the measure of a newsletter already, there's many other things I'd like to write for you. It shall have to wait. Fare thee well & so on. Adieu, adieu!


The Cultural Tutor


The Cultural Tutor

A beautiful education.

Read more from The Cultural Tutor

Areopagus Volume LXIII

4 days ago
16 min read

Areopagus: The Golden Age?

12 days ago
19 min read

Areopagus Volume LXII

20 days ago
25 min read