Areopagus Volume XXXIX
Welcome one and all to the thirty ninth volume of the Areopagus. It's difficult to believe we've arrived at the 10th March already - how time flies! Perhaps we can find some solace in the verse of John Hall, whose 1627 poem On an Houre-Glasse is a rather beautiful rumination on the rushing of time:
By all those little Sands that thorough passe.
See how they presse, see how they strive, which shall
With greatest speed and greatest quicknesse fall.
See how they raise a little Mount, and then
With their owne weight doe levell it agen.
But when th’ have all got thorough, they give o’er
Their nimble sliding downe, and move no more.
Just such is man whose houres still forward run,
Being almost finisht ere they are begun;
So perfect nothings, such light blasts are we,
That ere we’re aught at all, we cease to be.
So perfect nothings, such light blasts are we. Exquisite. Even if we don't agree with Hall's conclusions about the human condition, it's hard not to revel in his splendid verse. Alas, the hour glass runs on! And so the seven short lessons must begin...
I - Classical Music
Euridice (Scene II: Consolati Desir & Cruda Morte)
Music by Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini, libretto by Ottavio Rinuccini (1600)
What you are listening to here is the first ever opera. Like everything else in this world, opera had a beginning. And in this case its origins - like so much else - are in the Italian city of Florence. Jacopo Peri wrote Euridice for the marriage of King Henry IV of France and Maria of the famed Medici family; it was performed at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence in October of the year 1600 as part of their marriage festivities. The image above is of the Palazzo Pitti, to give you some idea of opera's courtly origins.
For that is where opera started. The Medici court at Florence was a hive of theatrical and musical activity. A convention arose whereby the intervals between the acts of a play were given over to musical performance. These "intermedi" soon became rather lavish performances in their own right, complete with costumes, singing, acting, and dancing. It was from within this burgeoning tradition that Peri emerged; he had been a composer and performer of intermedi at the Medici court. His greatest contribution was the invention of "recitative", a style of dramatic delivery which is neither entirely spoken nor wholly sung, but lies somewhere in between; Peri's innovative method would define opera for centuries.
But I tell a lie. This isn't the first opera - it's the oldest surviving opera. Jacopo Peri, composer of Euridice, had written an opera called Dafne two years earlier. That was, it is generally agreed, the first. But it has been lost. And so here we have a continuation and expansion of that original musical invention. It was written in collaboration with Giulio Caccini, another leading member of the musical scene in Florence. This is important: opera was not the invention of one person, but of a group of musicians and scholars with strong humanist principles who sought to give music greater storytelling ability and emotional depth.
They were fascinated by Ancient Greek theatre, which had included music as well as performance. What Peri, Caccini, and the other composers of the Italian courts sought to recreate was the all-encompassing performance art of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. That explains why the subject of this opera is classical. The legend of Orpheus and Eurydice was taken by the librettist Ottavio Rinuccini from the Metamorphoses, an epic poem and mythical compendium written by the Roman poet Ovid in the early 1st century AD. It recounts how the musician Orpheus descends into the underworld to bring back his beloved wife, Eurydice.
The great Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) is usually credited with inventing opera. That isn't strictly true, but there is a way in which it makes sense. His Orfeo, which premiered in 1607 and was also based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, perhaps marks the first full realisation of opera's potential. Because it's possible that you don't find this piece from Peri's Euridice overly emotionally engaging. That would be a fair conclusion, and that's what makes Monteverdi so special. He, more than any of his contemporaries, managed to imbue music with emotional character. This shift is part of what defines the Baroque Era (1600-1750) in music. There are other factors too, including technical and musicological elements, along with new genres and instruments, but a focus on music's emotional capabilities is just as important.
None of this is to disparage Peri. Whatever Monteverdi achieved with opera was built on foundations that Peri, Caccini, and their other contemporaries first laid. Opera quickly became a form of popular entertainment, moving away from the courts of royals or nobles and into the specially-built opera houses that would soon appear all over Europe. But its origins are here, in the Palazzo Pitti, among a group of radical, experimental, deeply learned, and passionate musician-scholars who sought to bring something back from the Ancient World and insodoing created something entirely new.
II - Historical Figure
It makes sense that certain figures dominate history: titans of politics, literature, art, science, and religion who get (perhaps rightfully) most of the attention. But human civilisation is the work of more than these famous few. Over 100 billion people have lived and died on this earth and they have each contributed, in some way, to the story of humankind. Many of them are far less well-known than they should be; let's change that.
So, as I did with architecture several weeks ago, I'm asking you to send me a miniature biography of a historical figure you believe to be important, interesting, or simply worth knowing about. It could be somebody who has shaped the course of world history; it could be somebody who played a role in the history of your local area or town; it could even be somebody you knew.
It needn't be more than a few lines, but feel free to write as much as you like. I'll include as many as I can in a future edition of the Areopagus. I can't wait to see what you send me and don't doubt that together we can create a little treasury of history's unsung heroes.
III - Painting
Hanami at Azuma
Yōshū Chikanobu (1896)
In Japan there is an ancient tradition called hanami, and it is still ongoing in the 21st century. Every year, beginning at the end of March and concluding in early May, the cherry trees comes into bloom. Their branches, naked and bleak throughout the winter, are suddenly and ever so briefly clad in the shimmering pink-and-white of cherry blossom, called sakura in Japanese. It is quite something to behold, and one of those natural sights so self-evidently delightful that no explanation for their beauty is needed. Hanami is the tradition of gathering to enjoy the sakura while its blossom lasts, even as they are falling from the trees. That might include simple strolls, picnics, or even fairly boisterous parties, both during the day and at night.
The hanami, predictably, has been a regular theme of Japanese art down the centuries, whether focussing on natural beauty or on the social side of the tradition; there has been as much satire as anything else, and no less interest in the fashion trends of the day - the dresses, gowns, makeup, and hairdos, especially of women - than in the sakura itself. Yōshū Chikanobu produced many popular prints of contemporary fashion, and our old friend Junichiro Tanizaki wrote over a century ago about how the popularity of hanami and other traditions involving the natural world (such as gathering to observe the full moon) could abrogate the original purpose of being there. As the 19th century poet Masaoka Shiki wrote:
What's beautiful about this print in particular is its unusual depiction of the cherry blossom - or lack thereof. I've included here a photograph of the cherry tree in bloom to give you some idea of its extraordinary beauty; from Yōshū Chikanobu's depiction of hanami you'd have no idea what it looks like.
Because there's something else going on here. The cherry trees are in blossom for a very brief period of time, in some cases only a few days. Their beauty, then, is brief and ephemeral. And the appreciation of such transience has been a key theme of Japanese art, literature, religion, and culture for centuries. Whereas in the west beauty - even natural beauty - is seen as something that can be conquered or maintained (think of the great, ordered gardens of places like Versailles) in Japan any efforts to control nature are much less pronounced. Better to meditate on the inherent impermanence of life and admire each passing moment in its own way than to hold on too tightly. As the 18th century poet Onitsura wrote:
Or Buson, another master of the haiku:
Which brings us back to Yōshū Chikanobu's depiction of the hanami. What he shows us, then, is a perfect embodiment of the spirit of hanami. He could have taken great care over the sakura itself and delicately portrayed the colours and shapes of the cherry tree's blossom. But he didn't. What we have is a scatter of falling petals, each coloured with a little dash of pink, and a mother and her child gazing with wonder at them, the mother perhaps even straining too hard too see it, the child simply awe-struck. Maybe this gives us a better sense of the transient beauty of sakura than any painting of the tree itself ever could.
IV - Architectural Masterpiece
The Church of Saint Sava
Rastko Nemanjić, born in 1174, was the son of the Grand Prince of Serbia. But he turned his back on royal life and became a monk, taking the name Sava. He later became the first Archbishop of Serbia and a key figure in the country's religious and political history. This church is built on the site where the bones of Sava himself were burned by order of the Ottoman Grand Vizier Koca Sinan Pasha in 1595. That was in response to a Serbian uprising against the Ottoman Empire, which had conquered and ruled Serbia since 1459.
The church was originally planned in the late 19th century, at a time when many of the Balkan nations who had gained independence from the Ottomans were seeking to establish a firm national identity. Serbia itself had gained independence in 1867, and in 1895 - exactly three centuries after Saint Sava's remains were burned - a society was founded to fund and lead the construction of a church in his honour.
A public competition to design the church was held in 1905, only for every submission to be rejected. Then came the Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913 and the First World War a year after that. Progress stalled. But in 1925 the society pulled together sufficient funds to restart the project and held another design competition. This time there was a successful submission. It came from the architects Aleksandar Deroko and Bogdan Nestorović, along with the civil engineer Vojislav Zađina. Their design was modelled on the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, built in the 6th century AD by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian and the defining work of all Byzantine architecture; most Neo-Byzantine architecture in the 19th and 20th centuries also owe their design and form to the Hagia Sophia, which was the biggest church in the world for over one thousand years.
But the story of the Church of Saint Sava is long and complicated, not wholly unlike the Sagrada Família in Barcelona, which has yet to be completed despite being started over one hundred years ago; there's a reason they call it the Sagrada Família of the Balkans. Because although construction finally started in 1935 according to the plans of Deroko, Nestorović, and Zađina, it was halted during the Second World with the German occupation of Serbia in 1941. This is how the church looked at that point, and how it would remain for over four decades:
Despite repeated efforts by the Serbian Church, the post-war Communist regime of Yugoslavia was hardly an ally of organised religion and forbid the construction of Saint Sava. That is, until 1985, when their stance softened and construction restarted according to an updated design by the architect Branko Pešić. One of the biggest challenges in the construction of Saint Sava was lifting its colossal dome into place; it weighs over 4,000 tons and took forty days in 1989 to lift it from the ground level to where it now rests, eighty metres high. The church was largely finished by 2009, although its interior still remains incomplete.
What makes Saint Sava interesting, beyond its religious and national significance and the convoluted story of its creation, is that it has been largely built with modern construction methods and materials. From the outside it looks like any other great cathedral or church - the type you'd imagine to be built from great blocks of masonry, perhaps limestone. Certain elements - including its exterior facing and various windows, arcades, columns, and capitals - are made from marble or granite. But the whole superstructure of the church is made entirely from reinforced concrete. You wouldn't know this if you visited Saint Sava, however, because the church's interior has been entirely transformed and decorated with Orthodox icons, paintings, and mosaics. What we have here, then, is a highly successful collusion between modern construction methods, traditional architectural design, and craftsmanship. Reinforced concrete, power tools, industrial machinery, and all the other trappings of modern engineering were just as important as the classically trained sculptors and painters who were employed to create the icons and decorations of Saint Sava.
Like the Rangooniha Mosque in Iran, which I wrote about several weeks ago, the Church of Saint Sava in Belgrade is proof that modern construction methods or materials and the modern construction environment generally does not preclude the use of older architectural styles. Here we have colonnades, semi-domes, squinches, barrels, vaults, apses, and arcades - all features of Graeco-Roman, Byzantine, and Gothic architecture - rendered in concrete reinforced by steel. Yet that takes nothing away from the beauty of Saint Sava.
There's also something to be said for the length of time it has taken to build. Most cathedrals and great buildings throughout history have been the work of more than one generation; those who laid their foundations rarely lived to see them finished. One (admittedly extreme) example is Cologne Cathedral, whose construction was started in 1248 and halted in the late 1500s; it wasn't completed, according to the original Medieval plan, until 1880. Saint Sava is a similar project, the work of multiple generations and one of immense passion and deep meaning over a century in the making.
V - Rhetoric
Shakespeare & Rhetoric
William Shakespeare was a master of rhetoric as much as he was of verse, drama, and human psychology. We should always be wary of reading too much into the many great speeches scattered throughout the works of Shakespeare (or any dramatist or writer, for that matter) but there is still plenty to be learned from them. Real life and art aren't so far apart as we might sometimes believe. As Sir Philip Sidney once said:
So here is one of Shakespeare's very best. It comes from Julius Caesar, written in 1599, and the context is that Caesar has just been assassinated by Brutus and the other would-be defenders of the Roman Republic. Mark Antony, one of Caesar's closest friends and political allies, has stepped up to address the crowds gathering round his body:
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest–
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men–
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.
There's much we could analyse here - perhaps you'll recognise some of the rhetorical devices I've written about before. We see apophasis (mentioning something by saying you don't want to mention it) when Antony says that he speaks "not to disprove what Brutus spoke". There's polyptoton (the repetition of words with the same root) with "grevious" and "grievously", "ambition" and "ambitious", and most markedly of all with "brutish", a clear pun on the name of Brutus. We also have aporia, which is the rhetorical expression of doubt in one's own argument or belief, running throughout Antony's masterful oration.
But there are two in particular I want to mention. The first is repotia, which refers to the repetition of a single phrase with differences in context or tone. You know which one I'm talking about: Brutus is an honourable man. What seems at first to be an honest statement on Mark Antony's part slowly but surely evolves into one of doubt, then one of seeming rejection, and finally one of bitter irony. The phrase does not change, but as the speech unfolds and we realise what rhetorical game Antony is playing, they take on a wholly different meaning.
Second are the three persuasive appeals of rhetoric, as expounded by Aristotle: pathos (emotion), logos (reason), and ethos (character). Mark Antony's speech is a brilliant exercise in the use of all three, carefully shifting from one to the other and even blurring them together.
Antony begins with ethos, as he describes how Caesar's conquests brought wealth to Rome and its people; here was a man of upstanding character. People should pay attention to that rather than whatever Brutus says. Then he moves to logos, making the very rational point that had Caesar really been ambitious he would not have rejected the crown when Antony offered it to him. Finally we have pathos. Antony reminds the people that they loved Caesar once, before expressing his own love by saying "my heart is in the coffin there with Caesar" and stepping down from the podium, unable to continue because he is so overcome by emotion.
As I said, this isn't a "real speech" per se, but it would be unwise not to learn something from this masterful exercise in rhetoric, placed by Shakespeare in the mouth of Mark Antony. It has been performed many times, by many great actors. Here is Marlon Brando's delivery from the 1953 cinema adaptation of Julius Caesar:
VI - Writing
The Lost Art of Letters
The modern world is a miracle. But for everything that is gained something is inevitably lost. A prime example is instant messaging, whether via text or social media. Its benefits are immense and indisputable and the world is undoubtably a better place because of it. But instant messaging has also deprived us of several things, including a certain degree of personal space, and not least the capacity to really write to one another.
Much of our understanding of history is due to the letters that have been written down the centuries; I often share quotes from letters in this newsletter. But that's not what I'm driving at here. After all, there will be no shortage of documentation about life in the 21st century (notwithstanding the potentially fragile lifespan of digital data). Rather, this is an entirely personal matter.
Instant communication, even email, is usually fairly brief. A text of a few words, a message of a few lines, an email of one or two paragraphs. And why wouldn't it be? If anything needs clarifying or adding, the other person can ask us to do so immediately. It's very conversational in that sense. Were letters any different? Well, there are plenty of letters that are also pretty short. A few lines to say I'm here or I'm there or how's so and so or any news? Plenty more are rather longer. This is a kind of writing that simply doesn't exist anymore. We can't hear directly back from the other person, so we've got to include as much as we think is necessary, presupposing what they might ask or want to know about. We're writing in solitude - there's no voice or message to bounce off. We let our pens and - crucially - our minds run on. I'm all for brevity in writing, but there are some things you simply can't say with ten words. Sometimes a paragraph is needed. Writing letters has always been a way of bringing more out of ourselves. It isn't always easy to think of something to say (though, sometimes, the problem is that we've got to much to say) but writing a letter forces us to look inwards and spell out what we find more clearly than any instant message ever truly can.
Writing is a form of thinking, but blog posts, essays, Twitter threads, newsletters, books, and articles are of a different character to letters. We still write them, of course, happy to put several hundred words together in analysing a particular trend, discussing a certain artist, or musing over the news. But the kind of thinking that comes with a letter is rather different - it's personal and inter-personal. We understand one another better when we explain ourselves, our feelings, and our thoughts in greater depth.
What do I advise? Not that we ought to communicate exclusively with letters. Rather, that everybody should try writing at least one or two letters and see what it does for them. It doesn't have to be twenty pages long; just a few paragraphs or couple of pages. So pick a friend or family member, even a colleague or somebody you just met, and write them a letter. Just see where it goes. Your mind and heart may relish the solitude and space that comes with freedom from instant communication. You may discover parts of yourself you didn't know were there, and perhaps learn how you really feel about another person, for better or for worse.
VII - The Seventh Plinth
Now let's flip the previous section around. Audiobooks and podcasts seem like awfully modern inventions. People can't do anything without listening to something these days, right? Even in the bathroom we find ourselves consuming content. Perhaps, once upon a time, people simply did nothing. Perhaps our ancestors were more comfortable in the presence of their own thoughts, without any content (mindless or otherwise) to hold their attention. I think this is, in some ways, true. But the truth is rather more complicated.
Here is but one example - and one of my favourites. Gaius Plinius Secundus, known in English as Pliny the Elder, was a polymath regarded even in his own time as a genius of the highest order. His many books, which ranged from philosophy to history and from art to education and naval and military matters, were circulated and sold all around the Roman Empire. He was also a practising lawyer and public servant who held numerous posts in the the Imperial administration. And so people were fascinated by this man. What they couldn't quite understand is how he managed to get so much work done alongside so much reading and writing.
His nephew and heir, Pliny the Younger (of whom I have written about fondly in this newsletter before) was asked by a friend about his uncle's habits. Here's what he said:
We can see how he managed to be such a devoted public servant and a prolific writer at the same time. But what I love most about this is that Pliny the Elder was essentially listening to audiobooks or podcasts, only that they were read aloud by one of his servants rather than coming from a phone or computer. And, more broadly, he was always consuming (or creating) content. Even in the bathroom! Our modern content-addiction is perhaps not so modern a reality as we might think, then.
Question of the Week
Last week's question to test your critical thinking was:
What is the best way to persuade a person to change their mind?
Bryan O emphasised the importance of listening, so often overlooked:
Here was Ryan P's thoughtful and eloquent analysis:
Sarah F took the view that reasoned persuasion itself is a fruitless endeavour - persuasion by experience is best:
While Luca G argued that it's not so much what we say as how we say it that makes a difference:
And Andrew W refuted the premise of the question entirely:
As for this week's question to test your critical thinking:
Where do good ideas come from?
And that's all
Spring is not far off now; the nights are drawing in and warming up, even if a little frost still emerges at dawn and endures in the shadows of the day. A beautiful time of year, as life prepares to re-establish itself upon the earth and all the many creatures great and small, the buds and blossoms, burst suddenly back into being. I wish you a prosperous and joyous weekend - and encourage you not to feel so bad if you're reading this in the bathroom. Pliny the Elder was guilty of just the same. Adieu!