Areopagus Volume XLV

published5 months ago
15 min read

Areopagus Volume XLV

Welcome one and all to the forty fifth volume of the Areopagus. This week I'm trying something a little different. After all, is not variety the spice of life? That famous line comes from a poem called The Task, written by William Cowper in 1785:

Variety’s the very spice of life,
That gives it all its flavour. We have run
Through every change that fancy, at the loom
Exhausted, has had genius to supply,
And, studious of mutation still, discard
A real elegance, a little used,
For monstrous novelty and strange disguise.
We sacrifice to dress, till household joys
And comforts cease.

Aha! Turns out Cowper was offering sardonic praise of variety (and fast fashion)... one of those many lines that no longer mean what their authors intended. Still, what was it Aristotle said about moderation in all things? And so this week I have allowed myself no more than three hundred words for each chapter of the Areopagus. A challenge for me; something different for you. Seven short lessons every Friday, coming right up...

I - Classical Music

Hungarian Dances 1, 5, & 11

Johannes Brahms (1869/80)

No. 1 performed by Evgeny Kissin / No. 5 performed by Berliner Philharmoniker /No. 11 performed by Budapest Symphony Orchestra

What delightful music — memorable, whirling, intoxicating, and atmospheric even a century and a half later. No wonder they were so popular. Johannes Brahms was inspired to write his twenty one Hungarian Dances by a collaboration with the violinist Eduard Reményi and an exposure through him to the so-called "gypsy music" of Hungary. These are just three of them: the famous No. 5 and two of my favourites, Nos. 1 and 11. Though first written for piano duet they were later orchestrated by Brahms and other composers. To give you some sense of the difference I've included a piano version for No. 1 and orchestral versions for the other two.

Classical music does not preclude popularity; the Hungarian Dances were immensely successful and made Brahms a pretty penny. He was cashing in on the vogue for music based on the nimble, dancey folk tunes of Eastern Europe, many of which were simply called Hungarian even when they weren't. We think of Romantic music as dramatic and emotionally turbulent, but equally typical of Romantic composers was, whether out of patriotic fervour, creative curiosity, or popular appeal, to turn away from Europe's established classical tradition and seek out the melancholy or lively music of peasants and shepherds in the continent's lesser-travelled regions. Think of Antonín Dvořák's Slavonic Dances, Franz Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody, or Frederic Chopin's Mazurkas. Only as the industrial revolution was sweeping folk culture away did people realise what a rich heritage they had.

II - Historical Figure


Zero to Hero, Roman Style

Marcus Salvius Otho was born in 32 AD in Cremona to an established Roman family; he quickly became part of the Imperial administration himself. But when his wife, Poppaea Sabina, had an affair with the Emperor Nero, Otho was sent to the province of Lusitania in modern-day Portugal. He was governor there for ten years. In 68 AD a man called Galba, the governor of a neighbouring province and an ally of Otho's, led a revolt against Nero. By 69 AD Galba was the new emperor. But he turned on his back on Otho, who then led a succesful revolt himself.

Only a few weeks passed before Vitellius marched down from the north with the German legions and defeated Otho's army at the first time of asking. Still, the civil war was far from over. But rather than fighting on, the previously unremarkable Otho (characterised as dandyish, impecunious, and lucky) had a moment of revelation. After a meagre 91 days as emperor in what had already been a year of chaos, Otho decided it was time to end all this fighting. Encamped with his soldiers in the plains of northern Italy, Otho declared, per the historian Cassius Dio:

It is far more just to perish one for all, than many for one.

Then, as the biographer Suetonius tells us:

And now being prepared, and just upon the point of dispatching himself, he was induced to suspend the execution of his purpose by a great tumult which had broken out in the camp. Finding that some of the soldiers who were making off had been seized and detained as deserters, he said, “let us add this night to our lives.”
He then gave orders that no violence should be offered to any one; and keeping his chamber-door open until late at night, he allowed all who pleased the liberty to come and see him. At last, after quenching his thirst with a draught of cold water, he took up two daggers, and having examined the points of both, put one of them under his pillow, and shutting his chamber-door, slept very soundly, until, awaking about break of day, he stabbed himself.
He was not, so far as we can learn, a follower of any of the sects of philosophers which justified, and even recommended suicide, in particular cases: yet he perpetrated that act with extraordinary coolness and resolution; and, what is no less remarkable, from the motive, as he avowed, of public expediency only. It was observed of him, for many years after his death, that "none ever died like Otho."

Otho was much-praised in the decades and centuries that followed. In one brief moment, by a single decision, he became a hero. You learn much about a society from its heroes and the qualities they embody. What great virtue did Otho possess? In the end, it seems, a sense of civic pride greater than any personal ambition. Only by removing himself from the equation could the lives of his own soldiers and those of Vitellius, and of all Romans and the peace of the empire, be saved. It didn't entirely work. Vitellius was himself later deposed by Vespian; 69 AD was the Year of the Four Emperors. In any case, we needn't necessarily think Otho a hero. But that he was a hero to the Romans tells us much about how they thought of themselves and the qualities they esteemed. Which might lead us to ask: what do our heroes say about us?

III - Painting

Jupiter and Semele

Gustave Moreau (1895)

Gustave Moreau (1826-1898) was one of the great Symbolist painters; Jupiter and Semele, which depicts a scene from Graeco-Roman mythology, is one of the great Symbolist paintings. Symbolism was a movement which first appeared in Europe in the 1860s, was flourishing in the 1880s, and had largely disappeared by the time of the First World War. Encompassing poetry, theatre, music, and art, Symbolism was the successor to Romanticism, continuing its struggle to deal with the implications of industrialisation and the rise of science and technology. The world was being reshaped not only physically (cities expanding, smog smothering the skies) but also conceptually (the theory of evolution, say) and practically (people worked in factories rather than on the land, for example). Symbolism represents one attempt to deal with that. How? By rejecting both the modern world and, truthfully, the "real" world in all its guises.

Symbolism, as the name suggests, was a form of art in which everything had a hidden meaning, where what we see is a always symbol for some personal and thoroughly subjecive feeling or idea. But not all Symbolist art is the same. Any stylistic links - vivid and rich colours, luxurious textures, Early Renaissance perspective - are relatively few. What does unite all Symbolism is its thematic embrace of the fantastical and dreamlike, of mythology, religion, spirituality, and folklore, of endlessly mystifying allegory, of occult allusion, of visions as beautiful as they are gloomy.

Here we see a retreat inwards, a melancholy flight from the perils and tedium of modern civilisation, where science had stripped all mystery from the world, into the enchanting realms of imagination. Such art wasn't supposed to appeal to our intellect so much as our instinctive sense of beauty; we aren't supposed to rationally understand Symbolist art but, through its elusive metaphorical imagery and sumptuous decorations, feel it. Moreau's masterful Jupiter and Semele perfectly exemplifies this: it's like a tapestry woven from threads of ruby and emerald; a pearlescent, darkly magical, obscure, phantasmagorical vision of impenetrable meaning. And in no way connected to the "real" world. A return, perhaps, to the allegorical spirit of the Middle Ages.

We can see why people accused Symbolism of decadence and meaninglessness; in Symbolism no purpose was ever apparent. This was, in a changeful and objectionable world, the elaborate and enigmatic art of the rebellious and withdrawn individual. Surrealism, Expressionism, even Cubism and Abstract Art; all have their roots in Symbolism. It was, perhaps, the first truly modern art movement.

IV - Architectural Masterpiece

The Library of the Royal Portuguese Cabinet of Reading

Luminous Lusophone Library

The Royal Portuguese Cabinet of Reading (a delightful name, no?) was founded in 1837 by a group who sought to preserve and promote Portuguese literature in the newly independent Empire of Brazil. A noble aim; and in Rio de Janeiro, between 1880 and 1887, they constructed a suitably noble headquarters and library for their organisation.

It was built in the 19th century and so, in keeping with the architectural trends of the day, looked to the past for inspiration. Specifically, the architect Rafael da Silva e Castra used the Jerónimos Monastery (which I've written about before in the Areopagus) as a template. That distinctive ivory-coloured Lioz limestone, also known as Royal Stone because of its regular use in palaces, was even shipped over the Atlantic from Lisbon for the façade. In particular the Cabinet Library calls on the motifs of the Manueline style, that branch of Gothic architecture unique to 16th century Portugal, which incorporated design elements inspired by Portugal's seafaring exploits (ropes, sea creatures, navigational equipment) into its ornamentation. Consider the decorative stonework above and around these doors:

Inside the Manueline motifs continue, though here they are transplanted onto more modern materials like cast iron, rather than the traditional Lioz stone. There are three levels of shelving and over three hundred thousand books in here, splashes of gold on the coiled pillars of black iron snaking between the tiered bookcases, rising up through the delicately painted and patterned Gothic vaults to the magnificent stained glass skylight above. A majestic sight to behold, straight out of a film or novel.

Not a bad place to read a little Camoens or Pessoa, I dare say... and a fine example of how old architecture can be successfully revived; for a home of Portuguese literature they chose the most uniquely Portuguese of styles. It also has a fabulous lecture hall, again with the distinctive decorative tendrils and armillary spheres of the Manueline.

V - Rhetoric


Litotes isn't a useless rhetorical device. Or, as I might have said: litotes is a useful rhetorical device. Is there a difference between those two statements? Is the first, by virtue of its negation, needlessly wordy and harder to follow? Perhaps, or perhaps not.

Litotes is a form of meiosis, which is any kind of rhetorical understatement — say, calling Shakespeare a respected Elizabethan playwright. Litotes, specifically, is the use of a negative to state a positive. It's a device you've used many times before, as when you have said that isn't bad or you're not wrong or I won't be sorry to see him go. What's the point of litotes? There are many.

  • Politeness: saying what's obvious in a less pointed way, perhaps to avoid hurting somebody's feelings, such as "your book wasn't awful."
  • Modesty: downplaying one's own achievements, along the lines of "I haven't been unsuccessful."
  • It can also, of course, be humorous, by understating something obviously extraordinary. Perhaps, "Diego Maradona wasn't a half-decent footballer."
  • Then we come to irony, even slightly barbed satire. Something like, "he isn't unhelpful." We all know what that means.
  • It can also be rather phlegmatic. As, when faced with a catastrophic situation, one might say: "this isn't ideal." Is that mere flippancy? Well, words are powerful. What we speak becomes reality; calm speech induces calmness.

And so the beauty of litotes is its subtlety; litotes is always context dependent. But it should be used sparingly and purposively. Only when there's a reason to understate should we do so. Otherwise, perhaps, the words will lose their power.

VI - Writing

Who's Afraid of Poetry?

"It doesn't need to be poetry." A standard riposte when we try to write with a little flourish. But poetry is unfairly villified by such statements. May well one ask: is poetry not all fluff and flair and little substance? May well Thomas Gray say: no. Consider this stanza from his Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, from 1751:

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th' inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

This language is elevated and fine, but it is not fancy, it is not frivolous. The paths of glory lead but to the grave. I challenge anybody to write a better line than that. Let us imagine what it would be like if written without poetic flourish:

No matter how materially rich or powerful you are, you will still die, along with everything beautiful or prestigious.

Perfectly clear, but far less memorable or impactful. See, poetry predates writing. Rhythm and meter and rhyme were once tools for memorisation; these methods are centuries in the making. The paths of glory lead but to the grave. Now that you've read it, if you hadn't already, it will be hard to forget those words. And as the words stay with you — so too does the meaning. And so, when somebody suggests it doesn't have to be poetry, you can say, sometimes it really does need to be poetry.

VII - The Seventh Plinth

A Little Comparison

How has the world changed? Has it changed for the better, or for the worse, or both? I find the best place to start with such questions is by simple comparison. Here is one for your consideration.

Once upon a time there was no such thing as a second. Once upon a time there weren't even minutes. Once upon a time the length of an hour varied depending on the time of year. Scholars and monks and princes had complex machines for keeping track of time. Then mechanical clocks were invented in the 14th century — but they divided hours into third or quarters, not sixtieths. And even when the minute and the second were finally created, in the 16th century, they were for monasteries with rigorous prayer schedules, nobles with money to spare, or merchants with money to make. The common people didn't need minutes and seconds. They measured time by the length of familiar actions: sneezing, boiling an egg, or ploughing a field. It was a less precise world. People had tasks to complete, not timesheets. The crops needed sowing, the cows milking, the sheep lambing, the olives harvesting. Time was a free and unfettered thing, defined neither by the clock nor the shift-manager but by the arc of the sun and the wheel of the stars, the rolling of the seasons and the demands of the fields and oceans and beasts of the earth.

Things have changed. A second, as of 2019, is officially defined as:

Taking the fixed numerical value of the caesium frequency ∆ν, the unperturbed ground-state hyperfine transition frequency of the caesium 133 atom, to be 9 192 631 770 when expressed in the unit Hz, which is equal to s−1.

A tribute to the achievements of science. And surely we are better off with the miracles of modern life, but to be grateful does not preclude recognising what we might have lost; that, however greater our material quality of life, there might be some ways in which we are less free than our ancestors, however greater the material misery of their lives. Everything in our lives is planned to the minute: we set alarms for 5:30am, we have Zoom meetings at 3:15pm, we catch the bus at 5:48pm... you know what I mean. What might it be like, even for a day, to live in a world without minutes and seconds?

Question of the Week

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

Where does evil come from?

Emmanuel B spoke of the relationship between good and evil:

I believe life is inherently structured on different grounds. It is structured on humans and their personalities, their experiences, opinions and philosophies. This is what forms the numerous abstract qualities like: Love, Hate, Good, Evil, Law and Sin.
'Good' is like Ying, it must have an accompanying Yang. Evil is an effect and not a cause. It's an interpretation of an occurrence. And sometimes, that which we see as Evil, may not be judged so in the eyes of another. This does not mean some things are not inherently Evil. It however points to the earlier claim I made on the interpolated loop of human beings. We are made and fashioned by that which we are inwardly and that which surrounds us. And the relationship between our inward nature and the environment is expressed as Evil, or Good. And the complexities of human relationships and the extent to which we would do anything to get what we want, (for all of human deeds is motivated by our desires) finds expression in Good, or Evil.

While Michael N considered how we judge animal behaviour differently:

Evil comes from the directives, the fabricated philosophies of those who wish ill . Our fellow species on the planet are rarely accused of evil actions, we rationalize even their parasitic behaviors as biological imperatives. So evil is human to human, but more specifically it is directed behavior. The reason lions or wasps are not considered evil is that evil is a built construct. Evil depends on the ability to maintain abstraction, not a skill we expect from other animals. Evil does not drop as a fully formed philosophy, but is built as a set of logical actions given a constructed hatred. Those who gleefully post themselves cutting body parts from their perceived enemies in the 21st century are driven animals, but are driven by hatreds fabricated by those whom they consider superior. So evil comes not from the actors, but from the writers and directors of the hatred plays. Evil implies an understanding and willingness to use hatred, and to build it within the actor.

Donald H questioned the question:

This presupposes that evil, as a noun, as opposed to an adjective exists. One might question whether anyone or anything is purely evil. Rather that within their make up they have a preference or predilection for things that we consider evil. And perhaps evil is also the flip side of the coin of an obsessive belief in the purity of an ideal often nationalist or religious in nature where the desire to attain conformity with that ideal leads to the totalitarian intolerance of those who take a different view. As Franco famously said: “All those who are not with me are against me.” Hitler was an extreme narcissist and obsessive but was he evil? He seemingly loved children and animals, was famously a non smoking, teetotal vegetarian but had an obsession that Germany had been betrayed, had a destiny for greatness that took precedence over other nations and that the Jews were an obstacle and an impurity that had to be removed. Similarly the wars of religion after the Reformation where acts of extraordinary brutality (evil) were carried out in the name of orthodoxy. So great evil, is when such ideas or people championing them come to prominence.

And Bonnie B looked for ways of obviating evil:

I think it's very easy to get into a nurture versus nature argument about evil, certainly if we are only speaking to evil of and within humanity. But debating those two poles of influence doesn't address the varied and complicated individuals who do evil or are evil.
From my perspective, evil is brokenness, however formed. Whether because of a chemical imbalance, an ingrained narcissism, or protective indifference, evil is not being able to authentically connect. And, so, broken.
And, I think many societal aspects are created to prevent or repair brokenness (and, therefore, evil). Religion seeks to bring wholeness to its followers, whether through the sacrament, Shabbat, or pilgrimage. Education tries to instill wholeness through well-rounded curricula which includes the physical, artistic, academic, and social. Politics, in its best form, tries to fortify wholeness by providing identity, laws, and tangible benefits.

Victory emphasised the power of choice in avoiding evil:

There's a bible verse that says the heart of man is desperately wicked. From it, I understand there are human tendencies to be selfish and self-centered and that, for me, is the source of evil: a disdain or indifference for others. Evil is this unquenchable need to choose yourself and revel in the suffering of others. However, when we seek the wellbeing of others that is "good". Going back to the Bible verse, I believe we all need to make a conscious decision to be good, lest we fall into the trappings of evil.

And, to end, Derick O shared a thoroughly apposite quote from the Bard of Avon:

Evil resides in mind or it may be a mere fantasy. Based on the words of William Shakespeare, “There is nothing good or bad under the sun but judgement makes it so." An act that is perceived evil in one community can be a measure of value in another community. I therefore concur that evil comes from judgement of man's actions under the sun.

And for this week's question to test your critical thinking, riffing on the theme of Otho's self-sacrifice:

Is there such a thing as the greater good?

And that's all

I may only pray, Gentle Reader, this Lilliputian instalment of the Areopagus was to your liking. Be it so, be it not, let me know, or tell me not. Said John Ruskin 'tis in the balance of monotony and change that we are most pleased; as though looking upon an ocean, at once monotonous by its immensity, withal changeful in the ever-rolling waves.

And so — the wave rolleth on. Good morning, good afternoon, & good night to you all.


The Cultural Tutor


The Cultural Tutor

A beautiful education.

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