Areopagus Volume XLVII

published5 months ago
31 min read

Areopagus Volume XLVII

Welcome one and all to the forty seventh volume of the Areopagus. It was more or less one year ago that I decided to start a Twitter account and call it The Cultural Tutor. Now I'm here. What more can I do at this wholly unforeseen juncture than to offer my boundless gratitude to all of you, my Gentle Readers, and to Write of Passage, without whose continued support I could not bring my work to you and the so-called Twittersphere with such frequency and without cost.

It was ABBA who once sung thank you for the music. I suppose, to modify those famous words, I might say thank you for the subscribers. But, as John F. Kennedy said on Thanksgiving in 1963:

As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.

And so, beyond gratitude, it is another instalment of the Areopagus I write for thee...

I - Classical Music

8th Symphony "Unfinished"

Franz Schubert (1822)

Performed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Reefs by the Seashore by Caspar David Friedrich (1824)

How many movements does a symphony have? For nearly three hundred years the answer has almost always been four. One notable exception is perhaps the most famous symphony of all: Beethoven's 9th, which has five. But here is another. Franz Schubert's mysterious 8th, universally known as the "Unfinished Symphony." It only has two.

Franz Schubert, who was born in Vienna in 1797 and was raised on the music of Mozart and Haydn and the still-living, trailblazing Beethoven, wrote this in 1822. In it he was exploring something new, a musical language of the sort not really seen before. We needn't know anything about the technicalities of music to appreciate this fact. Just compare this music with what you imagine when you think of Mozart and the other composers of the Classical Era. This is enigmatic, violently expressive, dark, and so dramatic that it almost feels uncontrolled. Far from the assured, confident, clockwork brilliance usually associated with Vienna.

It was ahead of its time in 1822, and it was still ahead of its time when finally performed for the first time in 1865. This was already three decades after Schubert's early death at the age of just 31, brought on by syphilis. His 8th symphony had lain entirely forgotten in some dusty drawer in the study of a man called Anselm Hüttenbrenner, who had been given the manuscript by his brother Josef, who had himself received it from Schubert in 1823. The rediscovery was a marvel, the music an instant hit, and the mystery of its incompletion attended by feverish speculation. Surely, the musical world believed, the remaining movements might also be rediscovered in some Viennese cellar? Alas, a century and a half later, no such revelation. The 8th remains and shall forever remain unfinished.

But why did Schubert leave it incomplete? Many theories have been posited. Some say it was the syphilis, which struck him first in 1822 and made him too sick to work. Others suggest a sort of crippling artistic freeze brought on by Beethoven (whom Schubert, though they lived in the same city, famously avoided until Beethoven lay dying) with whose masterpieces Schubert perhaps felt no symphony of his could ever compete. Others still argue it was always intended to be a two-movement symphony. The truth is that we won't ever know. But nor need we. What Schubert left was, perhaps, embellished by its very incompletion. Polished and finished or retrospectively meddled with it might have lost the startling power for which it is now so famous.

II - Historical Figure


Self Help in the Middle Ages

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was born into a wealthy and aristocratic family in Rome in 480 AD. His father, who had served as consul, died when Boethius was only young. So he was adopted and raised by the esteemed Symmachus, another member of this circle of noble families who mixed devout Christianity with a commitment to the time-honoured traditions of the Roman Empire. Of course, the Western Roman Empire had fallen at this point and there was no longer a Roman Emperor. The last one had been Romulus Augustulus, defeated and deposed by the barbarian Odoacer, who became King of Italy in 476.

But the Roman Empire didn't really "fall" at all. It survived in the east as what is now usually called the Byzantine Empire, and in the west (with which the east maintained close and constant contact) it suffered something more akin to a slow disintegration. The Senate, for example, continued to meet until at least the 7th century. Still, this was Late Antiquity, and even if Roman institutions and ways of life endured, there was no longer an empire to speak of and what had once been Rome was slowly eroding and fracturing into what would become the Dark Ages. Odoacer was himself overthrown by Theoderic of the Ostrogoths, who replaced him as King of Italy in 493.

Boethius enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks of this Romano-Ostrogothic society. He became a favourite of both the King and of the Byzantine Emperor. He even became sole consul before the age of thirty, and in 1522, as a tribute to Boethius, his teenage sons were made joint consuls. Soon enough King Theoderic appointed Boethius his Master of Offices. In other words, Boethius was the most important official in the land and the leading member of the old Roman establishment, an important ally for the foreign ruler Theoderic (who was based in Ravenna rather than Rome) and a key intermediary in the political and religious tensions between Italy and the Byzantines.

But Boethius was not only a politician. He was also a scholar who sought to reconcile Christian teachings with Graeco-Roman philosophy. And he was, to use modern terms, an exemplary educator. Boethius' dream was to translate all of the great Greek philosophers into Latin, thus broadening their reach and broadening the minds of those who would now be able to access their wisdom. So he translated thinkers like Aristotle, added extensive commentaries to explain their work, and even wrote treatises of his own on everything from Christian theology to astronomy. It is not without reason that he has been called the last Classical and the first Medieval philosopher; he is a bridge between these two worlds, not only because he lived very much in the transition between them but because his work consolidated the former and was foundational for the latter.

But what happened to Boethius in the end? His life of unblemished success came crashing down. In 1524 the senator Albinus was accused of treason: he had, so his accusers claimed, been trying to stir up a rebellion against Theoderic with the support of the Byzantine Emperor Justin. Boethius jumped to the defence of Albinus, apparently stating boldly before the king:

The charges against Albinus are false. But if they are true, then I and the whole senate acted with one mind. It is false, my lord king.

Well, Boethius' boldness did not go down well with Theoderic; he was increasingly paranoid that the senate in Rome might inculcate a revolt against his rule. Albinus was executed and Boethius, also charged with treason, was imprisoned in the city of Pavia. Meanwhile Theoderic instructed the senate to pass sentence on him and, without allowing Boethius a chance to speak in his defence, this special senatorial court pronounced the death sentence. In 426 Boethius, formerly the leading light of his day, was executed.

But, in his cell, awaiting death, Boethius had written something called the Consolation of Philosophy. It is not a bitter or nihilistic tract, lamenting his fall from grace or despairing at his situation. It is, rather, a musation on the unpredictability of life and a discussion of the nature of true happiness. Its conclusion is that one can be happy even when suffering immensely — even when facing death. It is a short work, only one hundred pages or so, which takes the form of a dialogue between Boethius and Philosophy, which is allegorised as a wise and ethereal woman, with some poetry thrown in. And, to borrow a modern phrase, it was what we might call a best-seller.

The Consolation was translated all over Europe by every succeeding generation and held sway over Medieval thought, literature, and culture for centuries. I dare say there wasn't a notable person in the Middle Ages who hadn't read Boethius' little masterpiece. To give you some idea of its popularity, both Alfred the Great and Elizabeth I made their own translations of the Consolation, seven hundred years apart. It was also his book which popularised the idea of the Wheel of Fortune, or the Rota Fortunae, which without warning makes us prosperous one day and miserable the next. Boethian thinking permeates the Middle Ages.

Well, why was it so popular? If you'll forgive what sounds like flippancy, I think if the Consolation of Philosophy had been published in 2023 we'd call it Self Help. For this is essentially a manual, informed above all by ancient philosophy and sprinkled with some Christian ideas, about dealing with life. That it was written by a man who had lost everything in the blink of an eye and was facing death makes it only more remarkable and impactful. Here are but a few excerpts from this marvellous book.

On the power of our mindset:

Nothing is miserable unless you think it so; and on the other hand, nothing brings happiness unless you are content with it.

On the only thing we truly possess:

One's virtue is all that one truly has, because it is not imperiled by the vicissitudes of fortune.

On dealing with misfortune:

Balance out the good things and the bad that have happened in your life and you will have to acknowledge that you are still way ahead. You are unhappy because you have lost those things in which you took pleasure? But you can also take comfort in the likelihood that what is now making you miserable will also pass away.

On how material possessions can never bring us complete happiness or satisfaction:

'So I first enquire of you as one who until recently possessed abundance of riches: when you had all that money, was there never a time when you were worried and disturbed in mind through some wrong you sustained?'
'I have to admit,' I answered, 'that I cannot recall ever feeling free from one worry or another.'
'And this was occasioned by the absence of something which you wanted, or the presence of something you did not want?'
'Just so,' I said.
'So you regretted the absence of one, and the presence of the other?'
'Yes,' I admitted.
'Now if a person longs for something,' she asked, 'is he short of it?'
'He is,' I said.
'And if he is short of something, he is not wholly self-sufficient?'
'He is far from it,' I answered.
'So in your own case you felt this lack in spite of your abundant wealth?'
'Yes, of course,' I said.
'So wealth cannot free you from want, and make you self-sufficient, in spite of its apparent promise to do so.'

On perspective:

How many people exist, do you reckon, who would think that they were in heaven if they enjoyed the merest fraction of the fortune which is still yours?

On the illusion of fame:

As you have learned from the astronomers, it is certain that the entire circumference of the earth is a mere pinprick when measured against the universe. And as tiny as our planet it is, only about a quarter of it is inhabited. Then you, if you subtract from this quarter all the areas occupied by seas and marshlands and tracts of lands laid waste by drought, only the narrowest confines remain for human occupation. So hemmed in and circumscribed as you are within this tiny microcosm of a microcosm, why is your mind intent on glorifying your name and publicising your reputation?

On how everybody has problems:

One man has abundance of wealth, but is ashamed of his inferior origins; another is celebrated for his noble birth, but is beset by domestic poverty. One man is richly endowed with both nobility and wealth, but laments his life as a bachelor; a second is happily married but childless; a third is blessed with a family, but the failings of a son or daughter cause him distress. So no person is easily reconciled to his allotted condition; every human faces drawbacks, whether unknown because not yet experienced, or grim because already encountered. Moreover, the most fortunate people are also the most squeamish. Even trifling reverses detract from the sum of happiness of those who are most privileged.

On hatred:

There is no place whatever for hatred in the minds of the wise. Only an utter idiot would hate good men, and it is irrational to hate the wicked; for if vice is a species of mental disease comparable to illness in the body, since we regard those who are physically ill as wholly undeserving of hatred and deserving rather of pity, then men with minds oppressed by wickedness, a condition more dreadful than any sickness, should all the more be pitied rather than hounded.

On good times and bad:

Good times pass away, but then so do the bad. Mutability is our tragedy, but it’s also our hope. The worst of times, like the best, are always passing away.

On finding good in every situation we face:

All fortune is good fortune; for it either rewards, disciplines, amends, or punishes, and so is either useful or just.

On obsession with money:

Let the rich man increase his hoard—it is never enough. All that gold, and all those Red Sea pearls that hang from his pudgy neck, they only weigh him down. Out in his fields, hundreds of oxen plough, but still the furrows of care are deep in his creased brow, and he worries about those riches he can’t take with him.

Little wonder Dante turned to Boethius for consolation after the death of his beloved Beatrice, nor that Elizabeth I found his advice helpful in the travails and troubles of her reign. To read Boethius is to understand the Middle Ages far better. This alone makes him worth reading. And, what's more, his "self help" book topped the proverbial charts for more than a thousand years. If we accept that the human condition changes little, if at all, then this book has something to offer us. Rather than a Self Help book published in the last half dozen years, one which is unlikely to be in print even a decade from now, why not try the most successful ever written?

III - Painting

Sainte-Chapelle, Paris

Aha! This is not a painting. Nor is it even a sculpture. And what I wish to draw your attention to here is not Sainte-Chapelle itself, though it be a supreme example of the French Gothic, but to its windows. After all, when one talks of Michelangelo's paintings in the Sistine Chapel, one does not often speak of the building itself in the same breath. But, to give the facts of Sainte-Chapelle in brief, it was built over the course of twenty years in the mid-13th century and consecrated in April of 1248. Sainte-Chapelle means "Holy Chapel" - it was built to hold relics belonging to King Louis IX of France, including what was believed to be part of the crown of thorns placed on Christ's head during the Crucifixion.

This is the case I lay before you today: that we ought to look at stained glass the same way we do a fresco or painting or statue. We speak of Raphael and Monet and Rodin, but what of the equally-talented artists who put together these walls of coloured glass? Now is not the time to explore how stained glass was made, though it is a fascinating process. I only wish to note that it was one which involved several stages of complex manufacture and a great many people. They were also, unsurprisingly, incredibly expensive. And so stained glass windows usually represent the collective efforts, both of craft and finance, of entire communities. Windows often contain miniature portraits of those who helped fund them. These donors were not only kings and princes but also guilds of shoemakers, masons, and blacksmiths. A stained glass window was something to be proud of.

And no wonder! They are marvels no less mystical or beautiful now than they were when first unveiled. What was their purpose? Like much Medieval and Renaissance art, stained glass windows depicted the stories of the Bible and the lives of the saints. This would have been invaluable for those who could not read. And yet these windows are often high and distant - impossible to see in sufficient detail - and so this explanation doesn't tell the full story. They were also an abstract way of sharing the religious message. What with their beauty, their light, their colour, their scores of saints and heroes, these windows elevated the already-beautiful cathedrals and churches into something of even greater celestial majesty. It was a vision of Heaven on Earth; a means to uplift the soul and encourage life according to the virtues of scripture and in imitation of the saints.

Stained glass went through a number of stylistic changes. This was usually a result of newer technologies and updated methods of production. As they became more advanced the images became more precise and more complex. The colours changed, too, and the glass itself became purer. You'll notice the windows of Saint-Chapelle are dominated by heavy blues and intense reds. These are typical of stained glass during the 12th and 13th centuries. With time these colours were replaced by golds and greens and it became common practice to place smaller coloured sections within plain glass to let in more daylight.

Not Saint-Chapelle, this is Medieval stained glass at its purest and most magnificent. That it has survived is a miracle. Glass is incredibly fragile and most Medieval glass has been destroyed, whether intentionally or otherwise, by iconoclasts, bombs, inclement weather, or stray footballs. Sainte-Chapelle was lovingly and scrupulously restored in the 19th century, a careful process to which its current splendour is owed, and so some of the glass we see is not original. But what was added in the 19th century was made according to original Medieval methods, which tended to produce thicker panes and less consistent colouration.

I think the stained glass windows of Northern Europe are works of art no less worthy of praise or attention than the altarpieces, canvasses, and frescoes with which we usually associate "art". I stress Northern European there because, in Italy at least, influenced by the Byzantines, churches tended to have smaller windows and had their interiors decorated with murals. Sainte-Chapelle is France's Sistine Chapel; to Italy's Giotto, Fra Angelico, and Michelangelo, Northern Europe answers with its stained glass.

This is a rather general and heavy-handed theory, but not one without some truth, I wager. All I wish to do is give stained glass windows their due. For they are an entirely unique form of art, wholly unlike sculpture or painting, and even photography or cinema. No other medium has such an intractable relationship with light, and given that it is by light we see, no art form works so directly on our senses. With each passing moment, as the sun is obscured by clouds or ruddied through haze, the intensity of the shimmer and the brilliance of the hues of a stained glass window changes. A changing illumination which transforms the church, too, as its arcades and vaults range through shadow and flame, amber and crimson, Tyrian purple and forest green. For the stained glass window is also more closely intertwined with colour than any other art form. This is the fundamental substance by which it communicates with us. And its colours are never, not even within the same minute, not even twice in a millenium, the same. For as the light of day changes, a light influenced by clouds and dust, by rain and smoke, by reflections of water and of nearby buildings, by snow and autumn leaves, by spring blossom and the blanched streets of summer, so these windows change also. Scarlet and vermillion, ultramarine and indigo and violet, rust-red and bronze, cardinal and cerulean... there's simply nothing else like it.

To me, then, the stained glass windows of Northern Europe are the equivalent to the frescoes of Italy, the icons of Orthodox nations, and the tilework of mosques. Let us, as they say, give the stained glass window its flowers.

IV - Architectural Masterpiece

Shibam, Yemen

Manhattan of the Desert

The ancient city of Shibam is in Hadhramaut, in central Yemen. Hadhramaut is a huge region in the far south of the Arabian Peninsula, dominated by mountains, deserts, and wadis — large, dry valleys created by infrequent but sudden flash floods. Shibam is in a colossal wadi, as you can see. Its unusual design — a cluster of fortified towers surrounded by a wall — was largely a result of defensive necessity: to protect the city, once a wealthy trading outpost, from rivals and wandering bandits.

Over the centuries a complex system was developed for managing floods, storing rainwater, and using them to irrigate the crops which fan out around Shibam. The city was built on a shallow rocky outcrop lying slightly above the wadi floor to protect it from flooding. Its towers, some of which are eleven storeys tall, are made with wooden frames and mudbricks — a mixture of earth, water, reeds, and other binding materials baked in the sun. But mudbricks erode quickly and require frequent maintenance. And so although many of these towers date to the 16th century, they have been remodelled, repaired, and restored time and time again. The skyscrapers of Shibam, though ancient, are a constant work in progress.

Which is exactly what makes this city so remarkable. Not only its age, but how its architecture is suited to local conditions. Whether because the materials needed to sustain it are readily available or because the height and density of the buildings offers shade from intense heat. Construction methods have been passed down from one generation to the next and the town lives on. So Shibam isn't merely a beautiful place or a fascinating remnant of traditional architecture; it is not an ancient ruin but a living city and a home to thousands. This is vernacular architecture at its finest, using local materials to suit local needs.

You can see why the traveller Freya Stark called it the Manhattan of the Desert when she came here in the 1930s. There were few places in the West with a similar density of highrises, and none (other than places like Bologna in Italy, perhaps) that were 500 years old and built without "professional" architects and engineers. And so these aren't really skyscrapers at all. The "skyscraper" is a modern building indifferent to local conditions, made possible by concrete, steel, and a colossal construction industry. Shibam's highrises are the opposite: a triumph of traditional architecture.

Shibam, and Hadhramaut more generally, have been inhabited for well over two thousand years. The Roman name for Yemen was Arabia Felix, meaning "Fertile Arabia" or "Blessed Arabia". Why? Because it was in this region that precious spices such as frankincense, myrrh, and cinnamon were produced and traded. The Ancient World was far more connected than we realise, and the whole of Hadhramaut, including Shibam, was connected to the intercontinental network of trade in spices and other goods. Roman historians like Pliny the Elder and Diodorus even wrote about Hadhramaut. Yemen was right in the middle of this ancient network, and was vital not only as a producer of valuable spices but as an intermediary between the east and the west. The Silk Road went over land, but the maritime spice trade coming from the Indian Ocean passed through Yemen.

Shibam has been inhabited ever since; a caravan stop for inland traders bringing spices to the coast. The city we see today was largely built in the 16th century after the old town was destroyed during a flood, though parts of it date back to the 9th and 10th centuries. But Shibam is not unusual; its clustered towers are typical of Hadhramaut architecture. The wadis and mountains of this region are filled with cities, palaces, fortresses like the breathtaking towns of Al-Hajarayn and Wadi Dawan or the tiny village of Haid al-Jazil, built on an escarpment at the bottom of a narrow wadi. This gives you a good sense of the landscape and environment of Hadhramaut, one to which local people adapted their architecture and urban planning.

The towns of Hadhramaut are beautiful — and evidence that "skyscrapers" are centuries old — but they are more than just beautiful. To call Shibam the "Manhattan of the Desert" does it a disservice. These living cities are a supreme example of vernacular architecture.

V - Rhetoric

The Structure of a Speech

There was a clear and time-honoured model in the Graeco-Roman world for structuring speeches. It developed over the course of centuries, from Aristotle down to Cicero, and you'll find upon inspection that most classical speeches employ it (with varying degrees of orthodoxy, at least). I suppose if something worked for about a thousand years then we may well be able to glean something of value from it. Here, then, is how a Greek or a Roman would have structured a speech. Bear in mind that this is for a speech in which the goal is persuasion.

Part I: Exordium

This is the introduction. You explain the subject and the purpose of the discussion. You establish the tone for the rest of the speech and, perhaps, give the audience a reason to listen. This could be pathos (emotion) or logos (reason) or ethos (character), the three persuasive appeals as laid down by Aristotle. Pathos might be painting yourself as a victim of some kind, having suffered grievous injustice. Logos might be talking about how you want to discover the truth of the matter. Logos might be offering your own track-record, thus giving people a reason to trust you. As Cicero explains, "an exordium brings the mind of the listener into a proper condition to receive the rest of the speech."

Part II: Narratio

Here you state the "facts of the case", so to speak. That sounds legal, but it applies to all situations. Simply done it states how you have arrived at the present situation and the events or ideas you're talking about. But, used effectively, it can also be an act of persuasion in itself. The key is only including what is relevant. As Quintilian says, "narratio is only supposed to include the facts that are pertinent to the presentation the speaker wants to make." The order in which we lay out the facts, the particular facts we stress, the ones we omit, the additional information we give: these are tools to make narratio more than a simple summary.

Part III: Divisio

Next you outline the arguments and issues at hand by dividing them up. You tell the audience what you'll be talking about and in what order. You also explain what you hope to prove. Short and sweet. Though, as ever, a proper use of language and careful embellishments can always make your words more than merely functional.

Part IV: Confirmatio

This is the star of the show, and likely the longest part of the speech. You make the case for your side of the argument, going through your points one by one to explain why your view is the correct one. Here we can use any of Aristotle's persuasive appeals as we see fit; each argument calls for different methods. And, more often than not, a speaker will start with their weakest point and build up to their strongest.

Part V: Confutatio

Now comes the opposite: a refutation of counter-arguments. Some may already have been made, and others you may have predicted. It's like playing Devil's Advocate with yourself and explaining the flaws in any and all of the arguments that have been or could be made against your position.

Additional Part: Digressio

This one isn't universal, perhaps because it has the greatest risk of going wrong and is, ostensibly, the only "unnecessary" part of a speech. But, employed effectively, the digressio can be a wonderful tool. What is it? As the name suggests, a digression. You go off topic and talk about something seemingly unrelated. An anecdote, maybe, or another issue entirely. But then, ideally, you bring this digression back to the matter at hand. Perhaps you have given some additional but useful background information, or you might have illustrated one of your earlier arguments with a memorable story.

Digressio also offers the chance for an entertaining or interest aside to what might otherwise be a fairly serious discussion. It adds texture and colour to your speech, and is one of the best places to show off a few flourishes of rhetorical style.

Part VI: Peroratio

And, finally, we come to the conclusion. The goal here, firstly, is to summarise your arguments and refutations in brief to ensure your audience remembers them. And, secondly, to make one final impression. This could be using pathos to enliven your audience and spark their emotions - ending on a high, so to speak. It could be reminding them of why they shouldn't trust your opponent - a devious use of ethos. Or it might be something witty - using humour to make the audience like you.

You can do as much or as little as you like; the point is to end strongly. But it isn't without reason that Cicero says peroratio "requires the greatest exertion of the powers of eloquence". It is the last thing the audience hears; this is what will remain clearest in their mind.


This structure might sound formulaic, and up to a certain point that's true. But all the ancient writers on rhetoric stressed that it was a basic model to which amendments might be made as suited the occasion and the ends. There is also extensive advice on how to best develop each of the sections, though perhaps I shall go into them another time. It is a tried and tested method and the proof is in the pudding: it worked for centuries. This formal rhetorical structure was also used by writers in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, who often organised their essays according to this sexpartite system. So even if you're writing an essay (or an email!) rather than giving a speech, if this structure was good enough for Pericles, Lysias, Demosthenes, Brutus, Cicero, and Pliny, then I dare say it's good enough for us!

VI - Writing


Edward Lear was born on this day in 1812. What he was known and is remembered for, above all, is literary nonsense. He simply (though it's far from simple to write such things!) wrote amusing gibberish and combined it wonderfully nonsensical illustrations. Lear also popularised the limerick. In technical terms it is a poem of five lines in anapestic trimeter with an AABBA rhyme scheme. Colloquially, it's a short and funny poem, not infrequently rude.

So, if only to indulge our less-serious side and to remind us that literature and culture needn't all be highfalutin stuff, and to celebrate the birthday of the man himself, I thought I might share a few of Lear's whimsical scribbles.

There was an Old Man in a boat,
Who said, "I'm afloat! I'm afloat!"
⁠When they said, "No, you ain't"
⁠He was ready to faint,
That unhappy Old Man in a boat.


There was an Old Man of Apulia,
Whose conduct was very peculiar;
⁠He fed twenty sons
⁠Upon nothing but buns,
That whimsical Man of Apulia.


There was an Old Man of the coast,
Who placidly sat on a post;
⁠But when it was cold
⁠He relinquished his hold,
And called for some hot buttered toast.


The Quangle Wangle's Hat

On the top of the Crumpetty Tree
The Quangle Wangle sat,
But his face you could not see,
On account of his Beaver Hat.
For his Hat was a hundred and two feet wide,
With ribbons and bibbons on every side
And bells, and buttons, and loops, and lace,
So that nobody ever could see the face
Of the Quangle Wangle Quee.

The Quangle Wangle said
To himself on the Crumpetty Tree, —
"Jam; and jelly; and bread;
"Are the best of food for me!
"But the longer I live on this Crumpetty Tree
"The plainer than ever it seems to me
"That very few people come this way
"And that life on the whole is far from gay!"
Said the Quangle Wangle Quee.

But there came to the Crumpetty Tree,
Mr. and Mrs. Canary;
And they said, — "Did ever you see
"Any spot so charmingly airy?
"May we build a nest on your lovely Hat?
"Mr. Quangle Wangle, grant us that!
"O please let us come and build a nest
"Of whatever material suits you best,
"Mr. Quangle Wangle Quee!"

And besides, to the Crumpetty Tree
Came the Stork, the Duck, and the Owl;
The Snail, and the Bumble-Bee,
The Frog, and the Fimble Fowl;
(The Fimble Fowl, with a corkscrew leg;)
And all of them said, — "We humbly beg,
"We may build out homes on your lovely Hat, —
"Mr. Quangle Wangle, grant us that!
"Mr. Quangle Wangle Quee!"

And the Golden Grouse came there,
And the Pobble who has no toes, —
And the small Olympian bear, —
And the Dong with a luminous nose.
And the Blue Baboon, who played the Flute, —
And the Orient Calf from the Land of Tute, —
And the Attery Squash, and the Bisky Bat, —
All came and built on the lovely Hat
Of the Quangle Wangle Quee.

And the Quangle Wangle said
To himself on the Crumpetty Tree, —
"When all these creatures move
"What a wonderful noise there'll be!"
And at night by the light of the Mulberry moon
They danced to the Flute of the Blue Baboon,
On the broad green leaves of the Crumpetty Tree,
And all were as happy as happy could be,
With the Quangle Wangle Quee.


The Table and the Chair

Said the Table to the Chair,
'You can hardly be aware,
'How I suffer from the heat,
'And from chilblains on my feet!
'If we took a little walk,
'We might have a little talk!
'Pray let us take the air!'
Said the Table to the Chair.

Said the Chair unto the Table,
'Now you know we are not able!
'How foolishly you talk,
'When you know we cannot walk!'
Said the Table, with a sigh,
'It can do no harm to try,
'I've as many legs as you,
'Why can't we walk on two?'

So they both went slowly down,
And walked about the town
With a cheerful bumpy sound,
As they toddled round and round.
And everybody cried,
As they hastened to their side,
'See! the Table and the Chair
'Have come out to take the air!'

But in going down an alley,
To a castle in a valley,
They completely lost their way,
And wandered all the day,
Till, to see them safely back,
They paid a Ducky-quack,
And a Beetle, and a Mouse,
Who took them to their house.

Then they whispered to each other,
'O delightful little brother!
'What a lovely walk we've taken!
'Let us dine on Beans and Bacon!'
So the Ducky, and the leetle
Browny-Mousy and the Beetle
Dined, and danced upon their heads
Till they toddled to their beds.

VII - The Seventh Plinth

The Dog Barks...

In 1539, when Michelangelo was hard at work on The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, Pope Paul III was given a private preview of the unfinished fresco. He brought with him his Master of Ceremonies, a priest called Biagio da Cesena. Biagio was shocked by what he saw:

"It was most disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully, and that it was no work for a papal chapel but rather for the public baths and tavern."

Well, we know what Michelangelo made of Biagio's criticism. How? He made Biagio a part of The Last Judgment. This venerable official of the Vatican was turned into Minos, the judge of the underworld, complete with donkey's ears and the company of rather unfriendly serpent.

Alas, we cannot say Michelangelo's bodacious response was necessarily the best approach. But how should we respond to those who criticise us? This is a problem for everybody, not only artists. Thomas à Kempis once wrote:

Let not thy peace depend upon the tongues of men. For whether they put a good or a bad interpretation on what thou hast done, thou art still what thou art.

Wise words. Not so dissimilar from something a famous football manager once said...

This is the legendary José Mourinho, a football manager who certainly has a way with words and who would have been right at home in the rhetorical cauldron of the Roman Senate. Here we find him responding to what we might call unconstructive criticism. The dog barks and the caravan goes by. I gather it's an old Arabic proverb, one that has made its way around the Mediterranean. And what a delightful sentiment it is! Always better, I dare say, to shrug off baseless or puerile criticism rather than engage with it. What the devil cannot bear, so they say, is to be scorned or ignored.

Question of the Week

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

What is the ideal political system and why?

Rafael WdS presented an argument for technocracy:

Technocracy. A form of government in which the decision-makers are selected based on their expertise in a given area of responsibility, particularly with regard to scientific or technical knowledge. For instance, only the doctors vote for the person who will be in charge of the Ministry of Health, only the economists vote for the person who will be in charge of the economy and so on.
What do I have against democracy? "The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter." - phrase attributed to Winston Churchill.

While Jack C argued in favour of monarchy:

The answer to your question: Monarchy. I beleive monarchy is the best system of government because it can also be the worst. Systems are simply tools and what makes a governmental tool the best is its effectiveness at achieving its goals. What that specific monarchy is aimed at is what is important. What makes Monarchy better than any kind of dictorship is that a monarchy has direct ties to the people in the sense that it has a mythical/spiritual reason to take care of the demos. Rather than a dictator who make have jsut muscled their way in.

This anonymous reader use the analogy of caterpillars to explain politics:

The ideal political system is no political system at all. Why? Because politics is like a processionary caterpillar:
Processionary caterpillars feed upon pine needles. They move through the trees in a long procession—one leading and the other following—each with his eye half-closed and his head snugly fitted against the rear extremity of his predecessor. Jean-Henri Fabre, the great French naturalist, after patiently experimenting with a group of these caterpillars, finally enticed them to the rim of a large flower pot, where he succeeded in getting the first one connected up with the last one, thus forming a complete circle which started moving around in a procession which had neither beginning nor end. The naturalist expected that after awhile they would catch on to the joke, get tired of their useless march, and start off in some new direction. But not so. Through shear force of habit, the living, creeping circle kept moving around the rim of the pot, around and around, keeping the same relentless pace for seven days and seven nights, and would doubtless have continued longer had it not been for shear exhaustion and ultimate starvation. Incidentally, an ample supply of food was close at hand and plainly visible. But it was outside the range of the circle, so they continued along the beaten path. They were following instinct, habit, custom, tradition, precedent, past experience, “standard practice,” or whatever you may choose to call it, but they were following it blindly. They mistook activity for accomplishment. They meant well, but they got no place.
Politics is a processionary caterpillar. You’re always busy, you’re always active, but you have no place to go, and therefore, you’re going around and round and doing the same old stupid thing again and again. You have no destination. You have no objective. You have no goal. And therefore you can have no accomplishment. And it’s a mistake of activity versus accomplishment. There is no possibility through politics of changing anything for the better. All you can do is change the name of the tyrant.
An ideal society would be a free society. Freedom, as defined by astrophysicist Andrew J. Galambos, is: "The societal condition that exists when every individual has full (100%) control over his own property." A productive society based on voluntary, contractual “win-win” exchanges of property as opposed to the “win-lose” philosophy of politics. The only question you have to answer in order to begin to solve any societal problem is: Whose property is it? Your greatest protection of property lies in your ability to choose: Do I want to buy this, or not? What is called “government” in our political society of today is nothing more than being ordered around by a salesman with a gun. “You must buy my product, or else.” You get to choose your own ruler. That's politics. With politics you are saying, "I'm not smart enough to run my own life, but I am smart enough to elect someone else who can!" Brilliant system. Galambos said, “When you have a productive society that is not bent upon coercion, where human relationships are based upon production and not destruction, there’s no war. It’s not that you fought those who wanted to attack you; it’s that you’ve eliminated the cause and the source of the problem. That’s what we’re coming to.”

David R spoke of how the ideal system necessarily depends on what outcomes we seek:

It is a difficult question because there is no correct answer without further elaboration. It is like asking what is the ideal car or the ideal way to dress. If I want to race I choose a different model than if I want to park downtown. I don’t dress the same way to change the oil as I do to attend a birthday party at an expensive restaurant. The disparity of answers rests upon the fundamental differences in human nature that marks our diversity as a species. Although much is made of how diverse we are due to gender, race, sexual preferences, culture etc. these are relatively minor and shallow compared to the more profound differences found in both the object & strength of our desires and passions - let alone our rational abilities.
A regime that rewards honour does not serve those ruled primarily by a desire for comfort and safety, for example - a point Hobbes makes in response to Machiavelli - so if you want to ask what the ideal political system is you need to first clearly state its purpose. Do you wish to establish an Athens - which still attracts wonder & admiration some 2,500 years later but only lasted around a hundred years & was wracked by political violence and corruption or is your purpose to emulate Sparta which has little attraction for we moderns but gave its citizens over a 1,000 years of stable & secure rule? Or perhaps you prefer our democratic model which, at bottom, is based upon no particular human virtue but allows individuals to rise or sink more or less according to their abilities. A proposition that sounds attractive in theory but guarantees a slow decline as the weakest - who are the majority in every society - demand a continual lowering of standards that eventually deteriorates into anarchy or oligarchy.
You can pick your poison, as the old saying goes, but the poison does not have the same effect on everybody who it is fed to.

And, to end, here is what Laura W said, inspired by the great Thomas More:

This is a rather pertinent question for me as I have just finished reading Thomas More's Utopia. I think the biggest takeaway from this for me is that there is no ideal system of governance because we do not live in an ideal world, nor are we ideal beings.
Perhaps the ideal political system is one that recognises the fallibility of this aim and attempts only, in More's words, to 'make as little bad as you can.' Often, the opposite of a bad idea is also a bad idea and the opposite of a good idea is also a good idea.

This week, rather than critical thinking, I pose a question inspired by Mourinho's magnificent adage:

What is your favourite proverb?

Email me your answers; I look forward to sharing them in next week's newsletter.

And that's all

What was today has become yesterday and what was tomorrow has become today — the sun rises! Just as the stars ascend and decline in the heavens, so the Wheel of Fortune spins on. Who can ever truly know what will happen next? But, as dawn breaks, I'm reminded of Arthur Hugh Clough's famous lines:

And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light,
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
But westward, look, the land is bright.

Until Friday next! Adieu, adieu.


The Cultural Tutor


The Cultural Tutor

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