So, Who Was Cicero?

CiceroBust
Bust of Cicero, aged about 60.

When I first wrote my introduction to The Culture Project I quoted the Roman statesman Cicero: ‘to know nothing of what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child.’

So, who was Cicero?

Marcus Tullius Cicero was born in 106BCE and died in 43BCE. He is considered to be one of the greatest orators, philosophers, and statesmen in the history of Rome, and quite possibly Europe. The rediscovery and translation of his letters by Petrarch (1304-1374) is credited with sparking the borderline obsession with all things Roman that marked the start of the Renaissance, and he was also hugely influential on Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke and David Hume. Continue reading “So, Who Was Cicero?”

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Poems You Should Know: Desiderata

From the Latin ‘Desiderata’, meaning ‘desired things’, this is a 1927 prose poem by Max Ehrmann (1872-1945) which expresses a kind of non-religious life guidance with a spiritual slant. Because of this it has successfully transcended religious boundaries to appeal to the spiritual and the secularist alike. I bought it on a poster years ago and still have it.

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

On My Reading List: October 2017

This month’s reading list consists of more interesting contemporary works than heavy literature, with a couple of heavyweights for balance.

Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott, is a carry-over from last month. Although the story is exciting and the characters engaging the language, while lyrical, is dense, so it’s taking me a while. It’s interesting to see the treat of Jewish characters: I suspect from his tone that Scott was progressive by the standards of his time, but I shall emphasise ‘by the standards of his time’ and leave it there.

Mrs. D is Going Within, by Lotta Dann. Dann’s first book, ‘Mrs. D is Going Within’ opened up the experience of an alcoholic going dry to me, through the eyes of New Zealander Lotta Dann, and her second book is giving me similar insight into an ‘ordinary’ Kiwi’s journey into the world of mindfulness. She’s got me interested, and I’m planning on reading more, and maybe giving it a go.

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The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir, is one of the heavyweights I mentioned. The world has changed a lot since 1949, when de Beauvoir first published what became the foundational text of Second-Wave feminism, and it’s fascinating to be recognise the genesis of modern ideas in her words. I’m already noticing, though, that in advocating for women de Beauvoir seems to have a certain disdain for the feminine, and a sometimes rather low view of women in general. Continue reading “On My Reading List: October 2017”

Musical Instruments: The Percussion Family

Bodhran
The traditional Irish drum, the bodhran, is a frequent accompaniment in Irish folk music.

The name ‘percussion’ comes from the Latin ‘percussio/percussus’, indicating beating or striking an object. Percussion instruments have been around longer than any other musical instrument, and are found in pretty much every culture. They can be ‘unpitched’, meaning that they produce a single sound which doesn’t sound like a particular musical note, and ‘pitched’, meaning that they produce notes with an identifiable musical pitch. Continue reading “Musical Instruments: The Percussion Family”

Paintings You Should Know: Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (c. 1819)

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Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) was a German Romantic artist. ‘Wanderer’ depicts a lone traveller standing on a precipice looking out over a mysterious landscape of rocks and fog. Who is he? Where has he come from? Where is he going? The fact that this painting so strongly evokes these questions has made it a favourite image for illustrating music and works which touch upon these questions, not only in a literal but also in a spiritual, psychological, or philosophical sense. It is likely that Friedrich, a Romantic, intended it to be interpreted in precisely these symbolic terms.

The landscape is inspired by the landscape of the Elbe Sandstone Mountains in Saxony and Bohemia, but rearranged by the artist for greater effect. ‘Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog’ is painted in oil on canvas and measures 98.4cm by 74.8cm. It is held by the Kuntsthalle Hamburg in Germany.

Poems You Should Know: The Man From Snowy River

First published in 1890, A. B. ‘Banjo’ Patterson’s ‘The Man From Snowy River’ is the breathless, action-packed story of a group of riders attempting to recapture an escaped horse. The late 1800s was a time when Australia, like many British colonies, was in the process of forming a sense of national identity, and poets like Patterson and Henry Lawson played a pivotal role in placing the image of the ‘rugged bushman’ at the heart of that image. The poem is a great read, and a particular favourite, and it seems I’m not alone in my love – over the years it’s inspired several movies and a television series. Continue reading “Poems You Should Know: The Man From Snowy River”

Playtime: A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire 1.jpgAnger, deceit, snobbery, sex, madness: Tennessee Williams’ 1947 play about two sisters in a small flat in the French Quarter of New Orleans has it all.

The flat belongs to the younger sister, Stella, and her husband, Stanley (that Louisiana observes ‘Napoleonic law, whereby the property of the husband is the property of the wife, and vice-versa’ is a plot point), who are poor, passionate, and apparently happy – until older sister, Blanche, turns up, broke and needing a place to stay.

Continue reading “Playtime: A Streetcar Named Desire”

Five Famous and Influential Works of Philosophy

Simone de BeauvoirAs I’ve read a bit more about the history of philosophy I’ve learned that there are some philosophers and some works of philosophy that have had an enormous impact on the way everyone who came after thought. Some of those works have become famous. Others remain largely unknown. Here are a few of the most famous ones. Continue reading “Five Famous and Influential Works of Philosophy”

Poems You Should Know: The Charge of the Light Brigade

I’ve been known to mutter the line ‘ours not to make reply, ours not to reason why’, occasionally adding ‘ours but to do and die, into the valley of death rode the six hundred’ when confronted with a particularly baffling instruction from an employer, but Alfred, Lord Tennyson, originally penned this poem in response to far greater events.

In 1854, Britain was at war with Russia in the Crimea. The ‘Light Brigade’ of just over six hundred light cavalry were supposed to prevent the Russians from moving captured Turkish artillery (a task well-suited to the fast, lightly-armoured light cavalry), but due to a miscommunication they instead found themselves making a full-frontal assault on 20 battalions of Russians holding the high ground on both sides of a valley supported by some 50 pieces of artillery. Continue reading “Poems You Should Know: The Charge of the Light Brigade”

Treasure Trove: Time in a Bottle

Every now and again, when I have nothing better to do with my time, I’ll find myself watching an episode of Hoarders. This nearly always leaves me with a desperate urge to get rid of at least some of the junk I keep in my house, and my collection of wine and alcohol bottles have recently been deposited at the recycling centre, but not before I took this photograph.

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Continue reading “Treasure Trove: Time in a Bottle”