Areopagus Volume XLIV
Welcome one and all to the forty fourth volume of the Areopagus. We begin this week not with poetry but with some words of wisdom from one of the wisest there's even been:
That was written by Thomas à Kempis in the 15th century. A worthy attitude, even six centuries later. I cannot claim to be high or profound, neither devout nor simple, nor even if my words are simple truth. Only you, considering what is written, can be the judge of that. And so, for your consideration, seven more chapters of the Areopagus...
I - Classical Music
Marty O'Donnell and Michael Salvatori
Perhaps this isn't quite what you expected. But remember what Pliny the Younger wrote back in 105 AD to his friend Caninius Rufus:
What Pliny said nearly two thousand years ago remains true. For while we can talk about the great and the good and the not-so-good and the forgotten artists of yore, too close a focus on the past can lead us either to misunderstand or disregard the present. "Where are the Beethovens, the Mozarts, and the Bachs of the 21st century?" or something along those lines. Somebody alive in the 18th century might well have said the same thing. I suppose it's all about knowing where to look - no music was composed in a vacuum, and though music can be appreciated without any knowledge of its context (often it's better that way!) the question of where great art has gone (if it still exists) cannot be answered without a little investigation.
Hildegard of Bingen wrote music for Mass at her monastery in Eibingen; Claudio Monteverdi for the marriage of Duke Ferdinando of Mantua and Caterina de Medici; Handel for the coronation of kings; Bach for the Church of St. Thomas in Leipzig; Mozart for the hungry opera audiences of Central Europe; and it was Camille Saint-Saëns who wrote the first ever film score. The point is that as times changed, so did the medium or area in which composers worked.
Marty O'Donnell and Michael Salvatori composed and produced this piece of music for a video game called Halo, which was created by the developer Bungie and released in 2001. It spawned a hugely popular multi-media franchise and this track in particular is familiar not only to fans of Halo or even of video games but to the public more widely. It is, unquestionably, a modern classic. But is it classical? Well, its opening was inspired by and based on the great Medieval tradition of Gregorian chant, which was the dominant form of music in Western Europe for centuries. Notice the monophony - a single melody, whether sung by one voice or several. This is one of the defining traits of Gregorian chant. But, suddenly, all that brooding mystery explodes into a rousing orchestral section, full of breathless strings and driving percussion. In the background you'll notice a few more vocal parts. These are inspired by a different but equally rich tradition - that of Islamic Sufi devotional singing. The theme concludes with a return to Gregorian chant; from the vibrant, swashbuckling, dynamic drama of an orchestra in full swing back to the distant, monolithic monophony of Medieval plainsong.
If that isn't classical... what is? The Halo Theme is deeply atmospheric, instantly memorable, and immediately stirring; you can feel a story unfolding even if you don't know anything about the game itself. It has plenty in common not only with film scores, then, but also with the great tone poems of the Romantic Era. History tells us that context can hardly be considered the gatekeeper of classical music. Where there's an opportunity to write music, where there are commissions, where there is an audience or a purpose - that's where you'll find composers. In five hundred years people may not be listening to 21st century music at all. Or, if they are, it may be something written by a composer active now but entirely unknown. Or, perhaps, they'll be listening to our film scores and video game soundtracks. Maybe they'll even be listening to the Halo Theme...
II - Historical Figure
The Great Commentator
Abū al-Walīd Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad ibn Rushd (Ibn Rushd, for short) was born on this day, the 14th April, in the year 1126. He was the son of the high priest and chief judge of Cordoba, in modern-day Spain. Back then it was part of Al-Andalus, the Muslim-ruled part of the Iberian Peninsula, and a city with an immense artistic, cultural, religious, and scholarly heritage.
And so it was in this rich tradition, both of his native city and of his family, that Ibn Rushd was raised. His first calling was religious law, but there was seemingly nothing to which Ibn Rushd did not dedicate his intelligent and perceptive mind. Theology, philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, jurisprudence, music, poetry, medicine... the list goes on. Not only did he write books about all these things but he actively practiced them - Ibn Rushd served as the official court astronomer and court physician to the Caliphs. Nor was he only an academic. Ibn Rushd held important administrative and legal positions in Cordoba, Seville, and Marrakesh. He travelled between these three cities, not only in the service of Caliphs but always collaborating (or disagreeing!) with the many other philosophers, physicians, astronomers, and doctors active in the Almohad Caliphate at that time.
But we shouldn't think of Ibn Rushd as an entirely orthodox man. He was, in fact, rather audacious. To give but one example, he wrote something called The Incoherence of Incoherence in response to a book written several decades earlier by the scholar Al-Ghazali, called The Incoherence of the Philosophers.
There we see Ibn Rushd's sense of humour, perhaps - and something more important. For Ibn Rushd's greatest legacy was his defence and expansion of philosophy. Conservatives like Al-Ghazali were deeply suspicious and saw it as a thread to religious doctrine; Ibn Rushd thought of theology and philosophy as inseparable, and of logical enquiry as wholly congruous with faith. Not everybody agreed.
But Ibn Rushd was irrepressible. And he addressed the very same problem that had long troubled Christian scholars (and which would continue to do so for centuries). Namely, how to reconcile the philosophy of the pagans with monotheism. The Ancient Greeks and Romans were clearly very wise and had much to offer. But they had many gods, not one. What was their place, then?
The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who lived in the 4th century BC, was Ibn Rushd's favourite. He produced exhaustive commentaries on the works of Aristotle, explaining his ideas for those unfamiliar with them, exploring them in the context of Islam, and expanding upon them in a more general sense. These commentaries were prompted by Abu Yaqub Yusuf, the second Almohad Caliph, who was interested in but could not fully grasp Aristotelianism. Where did they get hold of Aristotle's works? They had been brought to Marrakesh from cities like Baghdad and Damascus, where for centuries Islamic scholars had been preserving Ancient Greek philosophy and literature by translating it into Arabic.
And so Ibn Rushd tried to unite classical philosophy with Islamic theology, challenging contradictions in the Quran and boldly asserting a place for rational enquiry in the world of faith. Alas, Ibn Rushd was too bold. He had long been walking a fine line, but the publication of The Incoherence of Incoherence was too much. Accusations of heresy and atheism came thick and fast and he was put on trial, his teachings condemned, and his books burned. Exile quickly followed.
Ibn Rushd's most enduring influence would not be in Al-Andalus or on Islamic scholarship but in Christian Europe. His commentaries on Aristotle (and on Plato's Republic) were translated from Arabic into Latin and quickly spread throughout Europe, where his name was Latinised from Ibn Rushd to Averroes. Such was their fame that he became known simply as "The Commentator". Dante even mentions him in the Inferno, where he resides in the city reserved for best and most virtuous non-Christians of history:
A whole philosophical movement known as Averroism cropped up in Europe, particularly in Paris and in Northern Italy, where scholars continued his attempts to synthesis theology with classical philosophy. But here, too, Averroes' ideas were not entirely welcome. The immensely influential theologian and scholar Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) took issue with Averroism. He wrote a tract called On the Unity of Intellect, against the Averroists while he was at the University of Paris, where he had been sent specifically to deal with the rise of Averroism. Eight centuries later such disagreements seem unimportant (whether or not the human intellect is comprised of one or two parts, say), but that was Medieval Scholasticism, a tradition of hair-splitting arguments about the precise nature of God; it was against this sort of trifling and divise pedantry that Erasmus spoke out in the early 16th century.
But there was something radical about Averroes' views and his warm embrace of pagan philosophy. They promoted a level of free thinking, of divergence from authority, and subversion of religious doctrine that was not only a conceptual threat to the establishment but a political danger, too. Persecution did not abate; one of the later Averroists, an Italian called Pietro d'Abano, was arrested by the Inquisition in the year 1315 on charges of heresy and atheism. And so, by the end, Averroism as a specific school of thought was crushed both in the Islamic and Christian worlds. His legacy, though, endured.
Averroes' contributions to the Renaissance, not only by renewing interest in classical writers and philosophers like Aristotle but also by exploring and explaining their work, synthesising it with Abrahamic theology and promoting proper engagement with ancient philosophy, is hard to overstate. For proof enough of the immense regard in which Averroes was held we need look no further than Raphael's School of Athens. It was one of several murals he painted in the Vatican for Pope Julius II, and by far the most famous. In it we see the great philosophers and thinkers of Antiquity, including Plato and Aristotle. And among these great minds... we also find Averroes.
III - Sculpture
Greek versus Roman
There are different ways of thinking about a work of art. One approach is to simply take something on its own merits and ignore its context, the intentions of the artist, or what it reveals and implies about the society that produced it - we just look at what we can see and disregard everything else we know. How does it make us feel? What does it make us think? Then there's the opposite method, which is to view a work of art as a product of its times and context, with a meaning and a narrative and a moral weight, whether positive and instructive and negative and repulsive. They are not mutually exclusive and can be mixed together, but they do lead us to different conclusions. Critics have argued for a long time about which approach is best, but we're not going to do that here. Instead, we shall fully indulge the second method: what does art tell us about the people who made it? And how better to conduct this experiment than by comparing the sculpture of Ancient Greece with Ancient Rome?
Here are four sculptures originally made in Greece. I say originally because they are all copies made in later centuries.
Top Left: Diadumenos by Polycleitus / Top Right: Pericles by Kresilas
Bottom Left: Alexander the Great by Lysippos / Bottom Right: Discobulus by Myron
And here are four Roman sculptures, all made in the 1st century BC.
Top Left: Osimo Head / Top Right: the Arles Bust
Bottom Left: Cato the Elder / Bottom Right: Priest
First, some disclaimers. The Greek statues are all examples of what is known as the Classical Greek Style, which flourished in the late 5th and 4th centuries BC, largely concurrent with the Golden Age of Athens. Greek (or Hellenistic) sculpture changed quite a lot in the centuries that followed. The Roman sculptures, meanwhile, are all from the closing decades of the Republic. In 27 AD Augustus became Emperor and thereafter Roman sculpture also changed significantly.
So, what does these statues tell us? Most immediately striking is how different their faces are. One gets, when surveying them, wholly opposite impressions. But they are all, Roman and Greek alike, very naturalistic. We can see that these are humans and that they are men. On the Greek side we have Alexander the Great, Pericles, and two athletes. On the Roman side we have Cato the Elder, a priest, (possibly) Julius Caesar, and an anonymous old man. So they are all real people. Both, then, are deeply interested in humanity. But there the similarities end.
For though the Greek statues are still extremely naturalistic - convincing depictions of human anatomy - they go beyond being merely lifelike and instead enter the realm of idealisation. Here we do not see the face of a specific person so much as the face of an ideal person. Everything is harmoniously proportioned and smoothly, gracefully realised. Beauty, it seems, was the aim. But this is not a dramatic beauty. Notice the expressions. They are distant, calm, almost severe in their serenity, and even a little god-like. It is an expression shared by all four faces, a single ideal of physical and spiritual beauty to which all are callibrated.
The Roman statues, meanwhile, are very different from one another. Each has the idiosyncratic features of a real person who could be easily recognised from their likeness in stone. There is no ideal model or set of proportions here: jowls, eyebrows, ears, wrinkles, jawbones, and hairlines are all as varied as those we see on the streets around us. But, it seems, the Romans have also gone beyond being merely lifelike. Only, rather than pursuing an ideal beauty, they have pursued an ideal ugliness - the worldly, rugged, furrowed faces of these weatherbeaten men are magnified. And nor are they much more emotionally expressive than the Greek statues. We sense that such calculated harshness is an aspiration towards internal as opposed to external virtue. It isn't warts and all for the sake of it; it's warts and all as a sign of noble character.
So we may conclude that an Ancient Greek was sophisticated, elegant, and outwardly graceful, interested in the beauty and the refinement of life, while an Ancient Roman was serious, straightforward, rough, and unpolished. Well, they'd probably both want us to think that. For even if these statues don't actually represent what those societies were like, they do tell us what they wanted to be like - or at least how they viewed themselves.
Pindar was a poet who lived in the 5th century BC and wrote odes (called epinikia) for victors at the four Greek athletic games - Pythian, Isthmian, Olympic, and Nemean. In his victory odes the athletes are compared with the heroes and gods of Greek mythology, and he sings of their everlasting glory and of the renown they have won for their family and their city. Athletic contests had immense religious significance for the Greeks, so we shouldn't be surprised that a discus thrower was made to look like Apollo.
Now take Cato the Elder. He lived in the early 2nd century BC and was a staunch opponent of the Hellenisation of Rome. Cato thought Greek art and philosophy was too obsessed with beauty, luxury, wealth, and pointless thought-experiments tantamount to daydreaming. For Cato the success of Rome relied on men who were hard-headed, simple, warlike, frugal - even poor - fundamentally agricultural, and noble because of such abstinence. Cato's uncompromising bust is, by design, the perfect counterpoint to those Apollonian athletes.
These statues tell us what the societies that produced them were like and, perhaps more importantly, the ideals they held. So now, through art, we can learn something about the difference between Greece and Rome. And, more pertinently, it might draw us to ask what art in the 21st century says about us.
IV - Architectural Masterpiece
In 1927 an organisation called the Deutscher Werkbund organised an exhibition. It was held in Stuttgart, Germany, and it was entitled Die Wohnung. That means The Dwelling. Its aim was to present a clear vision of what the house of the future would look like. Specifically, the houses of working people. Houses that would be affordable, healthy, suited to modern life, and pleasant to live in.
So, under the direction of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, seventeen architects from around Europe created thirty three designs for these houses of the future. Some were detached, some terraced, and some apartments. It took only five months to build them all, because there had been an emphasis on using prefabricated materials and modern construction methods. This was supposed to be revolutionary. Several hundred thousand people came to see the Weissenhof Estate and it received worldwide attention. Despite some damage in the Second World War (and some postwar meddling) the Estate survives mostly intact.
When we look at the buildings, however, they probably don't look very futuristic. In fact, they are almost shockingly ordinary. But we must remember that they are almost one hundred years old; they were revolutionary at the time. In an age of historical revivalism (Neo-Gothic, Neoclassical, Neo-Romanesque, Neo-Baroque...) and of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, the stunning simplicity of these houses must have been extraordinary. And, I dare say, it did look rather cleaner, healthier, and happier than so many of the decrepit, cluttered, confused, and filthy houses or tenements with which Europe was filled at the time.
The names of those who designed houses for the Weissenhof Estate read like a who's who of the most influential architects of the 20th century: Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Peter Behrens, Bruno Taut, and (very nearly, if he hadn't been kicked out) Adolf Loos. Many of them were members of the Bauhaus School, which had been founded a decade earlier and sought to solve the problems of architecture and design in the world of industrial mass-production and machines. But they were all forced out of Germany after the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s, and so they took their ideas around the world. A radical but relatively small group was suddenly a global force of change.
I suppose whether or not you think the Weissenhof Estate is a masterpiece will depend on how you feel about modern architecture. Then again, the same is true of any style. But what we can say for certain about the Weissenhof Estate is that it was prophetic, and represents something like the flashpoint of modern architecture. For though the houses do differ from one another in some regards, they are united by the same foundational principles: flat roofs, a total lack of decoration, simple geometry, clean lines, abundant use of glass, and the employment of modern materials and methods in all circumstances. This is the International Style, and after the Second World War it was the solution to which governments all around the world turned in that phase of global rebuilding and exapansion. And so the Weissenhof Estate looks so ordinary precisely because the revolution it hoped to foment turned out to be a triumph.
But there remains a question of colossal importance and one which has no clear answer: did these architects of the Weissenhof Estate influence and create the architecture of the modern world, or did they simply predict what was inevitable? By which I mean, was the International Style a choice, or was it - as Le Corbusier thought it - a necessary and unavoidable solution to the problem posed by the conditions of the modern world?
V - Rhetoric
A Treatise of Schemes and Tropes
The world is filled with delightful but forgotten books, long out of print and hard to find online, never mind in your local bookshop. This is one of them: A Treatise of Schemes and Tropes, written by Richard Sherry in 1550. The 16th century saw a wave of rhetorical texts in England (and elsewhere in Europe), although they tended to be of a certain type. Rhetoric was stripped back to become the pure study of style. Specifically, it was about the clever devices and methods any writer or speaker could use to add flourish, wit, and ornament to their words. We must remember this was the bridge between the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, when that old Medieval love of decoration - in words and art both - was still present. What in Greece and Rome, for Aristotle or Cicero, had been an all-encompassing study of communication, persuasion, thought, speech, writing, virtue, and truth was reduced to the pursuit of stylistic eloquence. And so Sherry's Treatise of Schemes and Tropes isn't filled with the all-round educational rigour of Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria; it is a glossary of rhetorical techniques. Still, it was part of a renewed interest in rhetoric, however narrowly defined. Soon afterwards came Henry Peacham's splendidly titled Garden of Eloquence and Thomas Wilson's The Art of Rhetorique, to name but two.
I suppose a regular theme of the Areopagus is examing how some things never change, finding in people who lived centuries or millennia ago the same problems, hopes, fears, jokes, and dreams that we all share in the 21st century. But equally important is to find what does change. Sherry's introduction to his little treatise is interesting in this way. For he at first mentions the poor regard in which the English language was held:
People complaining that we don't speak as eloquently as we once did? There's nothing new. But Sherry did something about it. Most remarkable (and important) about A Treatise of Schemes and Tropes is that it was written in English. Sherry knew Latin and he had evidently read all the great classical writers. What he did was to share the gifts of the ancient study of rhetoric, previously limited to those who could read Latin, with anybody and everybody who could read (and, by extension, merely speak) English. He is aware of the novelty of this:
And yet he shirks not what he felt a duty to help his fellow English speakers by sharing with them the linguistic skills to speak more eloquently - to enrich the English language. For speaking is but a way of thinking; the better we can express ourselves, the more clearly and effectively we can think. A profoundly hopeful educational thrust runs through his introduction:
I have preserved Sherry's original spelling because that was how he wrote the words and, I think, it carries across the colour and character of his time. I rather like his analogy of the garden, and his contrast between somebody who knows the names of all the many plants and flowers (and of their various properties, too) and somebody who merely peruses it for pleasure. The garden is an allegory for the world at large and the names of the plants rhetoric; Sherry argues that language is what brings us into fuller, more effective, and more meaningful contact with the world. A profound notion.
Though Sherry does not seem to have been an amazingly influential scholar that is not to his discredit. Progress is not built on the most famous individuals alone; any era is packed with people who made minor but mighty contributions to the prosperity and goodness of their society. Sherry seems to be one such case. For every person who came across his work and, encountering it, enriched their language and power to think and speak, both that individual and the community around them benefitted. So rather than bemoaning the state of eloquence in his day, Sherry set out to do something about it. I'd like to think, even five centuries later, that we have gained even a little from his earnest contribution.
VI - Writing
The Most Important Thing...
But there's another side to all this talk of rhetorical skill and linguistic competence. The great 19th century critic John Ruskin wrote about everything under the sun. I've mentioned him before and he will, inevitably, crop up again. For now there's one small but profoundly importance piece of advice (if it can be called that!) Ruskin once gave, that I wish to share with you.
When he delivered in the inaugural speech at the Cambridge School of Art in 1858, Ruskin said this:
I'm tempted to leave Ruskin's words alone. There's little of value I can add to what is already a powerful invocation. Here is the foundation, the skill which precedes all other skills. We can have all the eloquence in the world, but without seeing the world, by which Ruskin means engaging with it, observing it, living in it, all that eloquence will amount to nothing. And this is true, I suppose, in every walk of life. It is here, in seeing, that everything else has its beginning.
VII - The Seventh Plinth
Zhou Enlai and the Long View
In 1972 President Richard Nixon visited China. There, in a lengthy conversation with the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, France came up. Nixon asked him what he thought was the impact of the French Revolution. Zhou Enlai replied, unflappable, "it's too early to say."
But there had been a misunderstanding. Nixon's interpreter later revealed, after Zhou Enlai's quote had been beamed around the world as a supreme example of China's long-term stance on geopolitics, that the Premier had not been asked the same question Nixon posed. Zhou Enlai thought they were talking about the nationwide protests that had rocked France in 1968, not the famed French Revolution of 1792. Alas, the perils of translation!
Still, even unintended, there's an important lesson here. For how are we to understand the world in 2023? In popular discourse I don't suppose you often hear people going further back than a half a dozen years, perhaps two or three decades in rare cases. And yet, when we talk about "history", we are quite happy to bunch together events and eras separated by centuries. Somebody might talk about how the 15th century Renaissance paved the way for the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment and then the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, for example. Or somebody else might argue that the Congress of Vienna in 1815, which concluded the Napoleonic Wars, created the conditions for the First World War. Anther person might claim that Charlemagne being crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope in the year 800 created an inbuilt power balance which prevented Europe from being too chaotic or too ordered for the next six hundred years... such and such are the theories.
Why don't we think about the 21st century like that? Taking Zhou Enlai's view, what events of one or two or three hundred years ago are still shaping the present today? Perhaps, viewing ourselves not as divorced from the past but as the conclusion of everything that has come before, as the next phase of narratives (intentional or otherwise) unfolding over the course of generations, we will better come to understand the the world of 2023.
Question of the Week
Last week's question to test your critical thinking was:
Is capital punishment right or wrong?
Marcus K questioned whether capital punishment is really a form of punishment at all:
While Kay J looked to Aristotle and Aquinas:
Bastien B explored the difference between capital punishment in an ideal world and the world we actually live in:
This was Serena S's response:
And, to end, a laconic answer from Mary F:
This week's question to test your critical thinking is:
Where does evil come from?
And that's all
We go full circle, ending where we set out, with Thomas à Kempis:
I think there's solace in the acknowledgement of ignorance. It's both an invocation to learn more and a reminder that we shouldn't be too hard on ourselves for not knowing as much as we think we should. Alas, Gentle Reader, I thank you for coming thus far with me in our steady journey toward a little more knowledge and a little more understanding. Until next time, & a jolly weekend to you all!