A storm is coming. Literally. As I type I regularly check the radar to see what’s happening to Nicholas.
Currently a tropical storm, Nicholas looms large over the Gulf, gaining momentum and inducing fear. The grocery store was packed and panicked… the streets are slowly becoming deserted.. And the children are enjoying a hurricane home day.
You see, the residents of Houston and Galveston, and all the coastal community nearby are used to this sort of thing. Flooding and natural disasters come with the territory, after all. Everyone knows what they need to do, but they are also terrified because they know just how bad it can be.
Not only was 2017’s deadly catastrophe – aptly named Harvey – very recent memory, but a good portion of Hurricane Katrina’s long term refugees still call Houston home.
And that’s not all… the deadliest natural disaster in United States history occurred a mere 55 miles from where I sit right now. In 1900, the great Galveston Hurricane flattened the island. Indeed, for anyone who has happened to tour the coastal resort city, you’ll notice windows buried and oddly located doors. In efforts to make the town higher, they rebuilt again on top of the hurricane’s ruins.
Of course natural disasters are nothing new… They are momentous black swans, pivotal marks that often unpredictably change the course of history itself.
Pompeii obviously springs to mind. So does the Theran Eruption, devastating the Aegean and all the Minoans within. And there was the Rhodes earthquake, which toppled her famous striding statue. The 426 BC Malian Gulf tsunami or the Cymbrian flood, which literally changed forever the coastline of Denmark and instigated the invasion of the sea peoples in the Mediterranean.
So yes, obviously these catastrophic events are part of life. And while we may smugly look at our radar and our fancy apps and reassure ourselves that technology will be here to save the day, the reality is that nature is still dangerous.
We can stock up on water and canned goods… make sure we have a full tank of gas and board up the windows… but that is only for the disasters that we know of… or we think we know. This, dear reader, brings me to this week’s question:
How can we prepare for the worst? Especially when we don’t even know what the worst is? And how can we be mentally ready without living forever in fear and worry?
I was a little… surprised. Last friday, along with 17 other million viewers world wide who also tuned in, I watched the beginning of the Olympics and listened to John Lennon’s eternal lines.
Didn’t anyone else notice the irony? Why would you blast out lyrics proposing no countries as thousands of young athletes march under their individual nations’ flags? As the line snaked around the stadium and the list of countries were announced, we were simultaneously reminded that in the end, we are all human with the same motivations and dreams of gold, as well as separate peoples with histories of war and violence.
Makes you wonder, no? Makes you think – what is the purpose of the Olympics in the first place?
But before we delve into today’s question, perhaps a quick review of the games themselves – their ancient versions at least – kindly supplied by contributing writer, Divya Gupta:
The ancient Olympic game began as a regional religious event and reached the heights of national importance when the Greek empire spread in the 5th century B.C. What was once a friendly and fun-loving event, became a matter of colonial pride!
The winner of the first Olympic Games was Koroibos, a cook hailing from the town of Elis who won the only game, stade (origin of the word stadium). Stade was a 192-meter-long footrace that continued to be the only sport for 13 Olympic festivals.
There were many other sporting competitions, but the Olympics remained the most prestigious one. After 13 successful games, two more races were added: the diaulos (around 400-metres race) and the dolichos (a 1500-meters race). In 708 B.C. the very famous pentathlon (a race with five events: a foot race, long jump, discus, javelin throws, and wrestling match) was introduced. Many other games were added through the years like boxing in 688 B.C., chariot racing in 680 B.C., and pankration in 648 B.C.
Olympic Rules and Regulations
Greeks took these games pretty seriously. Every athlete had to report to the events one month before the games and had to declare that they have been training for a minimum of ten months. Non-Greeks, lawbreakers, slaves, and murderers were prohibited from participating. Many cities, including Sparta in 420 B.C., were excluded from the games too.
The Hellanodikai judges from Elis were trained specially to organize the event. They had the power to disqualify and punish participants who infringed the law. On the breaching of any rules, the athlete or the city he represented had to pay hefty fines.
It is speculated that almost 45,000 people would attend these famous games. Food vendors, musicians, and artists would all come together to entertain people. Masses would extend their support with boisterous activities and hooting. No wars were allowed during the period and people would excitedly gather to celebrate the prestigious event.
End of The Ancient Olympics
Around the mid-2nd century, the Roman Empire conquered Greece and eventually the standard and quality of the games fell. In 393 A.D., Emperor Theodosius banned all ‘pagan’ festivals including the famous Olympics. The ancient game lasted for nearly 12 centuries with 293 successful Olympiads before coming to an end.
There you have it, dear reader, a nice brief recap of the ancient games to whet your appetite for the current events.
But as you are cheering or booing or perhaps ignoring the spectacle all together, it’s always worthwhile to question the value of the things in which we are participating… or not.
To that end, I ask you: Do the Olympics Unite or Divide Us? Do they have meaning and value in our modern world?
I’ll be brief today dear reader. You see, I’ve taken my small family up north to the windy second city to enjoy a bit of culture, food and friends. We’ve been very successful in the latter categories and now it’s time to catch up on the former.
Indeed, today is the day I finally get to see one of my favorite paintings of all time at the Art Institute of Chicago.
You see, I love going to art museums. I love being surrounded by beautiful, thought provoking or emotive works. I love the scene of calm, the feeling of the sacred. I’m invigorated by being close to the actual art itself, knowing the artist once touched that very same canvas.
It’s like a portal into the past, into another mind, and into the serene.
But being surrounded by ‘beauty’ also makes us ask, what beauty is in the first place?
Of course this is a question that has been long discussed and analyzed by the ancients. Socrates associated beauty with ‘the good,’ while Aristotle, in his usually overly analytical ways, defined beauty in Metaphysics as having order, symmetry and definiteness which the mathematical sciences exhibit to a special degree.
But what does this tell us about the concept of beauty today? When we walk around an art museum, how do we know what is truly beautiful?
To that end, I ask you, dear reader:
Is beauty in the eye of the beholder or in the work of art? Is great art connected to a deep study of nature, as Leonardo da Vinci believed? How much of art is shaped by culture or by the personal vision of the artist?
I’ll post your responses next week… and if you are interested in this subject, then I encourage you to check out this upcoming event by Classical Pursuits, taking place a week today.
Join art and literature lovers from around the world for a lively program on the nature of beauty. The panelists, philosopher Wendy O’Brien and painter Sean Forester, will engage in a friendly debate on the above fundamental questions about art this July 19:
Do you ever finish a book or leave a concert hall, theatre or museum fired up, wishing you had someone to talk with about what you had just read, heard or seen? Are you looking for a cultural experience with a difference? Try one of our distinct but complementary options: online seminars, small-group travel, and our Toronto summer salon.
Online, on the road or in Toronto, seminar discussions are at the heart of what we do. In a Classical Pursuits seminar, you’ll find your mind and heart fully engaged as you ask questions about love, beauty, knowledge, power, faith, justice, death, and ambition. Questions that have captured our imaginations since the beginning of humankind. Through the lens of your seminar readings, you’ll examine your most deeply held beliefs about the world—and perhaps even change them.
It’s a big and exciting undertaking, but you won’t be going it alone. With you will be others who share your passion for making books and art come alive through conversation. As you build on each other’s observations, you’ll find yourself reflecting more broadly and deeply than you could in solitary reading. Accompanying your group will be a skilled leader who is intimately familiar with the territory you’ll cover. This is not to say leaders profess the meaning of a work or give the “right” answers. While our leaders often have professional expertise in the seminar topic, their primary role is to ask questions that spark exchanges and help participants make their own discoveries.
It seemed an unlikely spot to bring up a philosophical question of such importance. This was essentially the set of Tiger King, after all. The ring, the cage and the unnatural animal combinations with clever portmanteaus, like Liger and Tigon, gave the impression of one of those side circuses of a bygone era.
We were in Florida, doing Florida what Florida does, when the overly enthusiastic presenter began his show. Not long into his dramatic introduction, he proposed the issue:
What should our relationship be with animals?
Oh! Excellent question I thought to myself.
In between little dogs, complete with matching neckerchiefs, jumping through hoops, our multi-generational Big Cat Habitat host continued his inquiry. Masterfully ducking leaping mammals, he delved into the difference between animal welfare versus animal rights and pontificated on what role we should have in the lives of our beastly counterparts.
I was certainly impressed with the multitasking of this philosophical trainer!
In part because his question isn’t as simple as it may first appear. After all, humans and animals have been co-dependent, symbiotic as well as completely at odds since the beginning of mankind itself.
On the positive ledger of relationships, hunting dogs immediately spring to mind. Though that bond existed long before the time period in which we concern ourselves, the Greeks are often credited as the first to invent spiked collars to protect their canine friends from wolves. They were protectors and hunters but companions as well… and they made plenty of appearances in mythology; Greek goddesses Artemis and Hecate had dogs as well as Hades’ many-headed best friend.
And then again, there is the horse. Whether large and wooden, or real and ridden, they feature extensively in ancient warfare. Where would Boudica be without her Iberian steed? Can you imagine the many calvaries sans stallions? And how bizarre is Marcus Aurelius’ statue without his horse to sit upon?
And we certainly can’t exclude those big creatures either… How would Hannibal fare in the history books without his trusty elephants? What corner of the Roman empire was not visited by Batrican camels? And how boring would Minoan frescoes be if there was no bull to jump over?
Then, of course, we must mention all the animals that were eaten… No doubt anything and everything that could be consumed was consumed. (Though there was a diet which was called abstinence from beings with a soul (Greek ἀποχὴ ἐμψύχων) and many famous vegetarians have been recorded, though none as a memorable as Pythagoras and his followers.
Finally, on the farthest side of the spectrum, and one that brings us full circle to our Floridian source of inspiration for today’s mailabag, was the fear and violence of ancient animals, most notably, lions.
According to Aristotle, who provided some data on their distribution, behaviour, breeding as well as anatomy, back in the 4th century BC, lions were more numerous in North Africa than in Europe. Apparently they had approached towns, and attacked people only if they were old, or had poor dental health.
Now there’s a good reason to tell your children to brush their teeth!
But jokes aside, we once more circle back to the question at hand, which is primarily:
What should our relationship be with animals? How should we interact with our beastly counterparts? Should there be animal rights or welfare? Or are they tools, food or unthinking things at our disposal?
Before getting ready for tomorrow’s event, I’ll admit I was woefully unknowledgeable about the man. After all, I deal with the 12th century BC to the 5th AD…. what did I have to do with an Italian living in the 1300s? That’s positively modern in my books!
But just in my preparatory readings, I have already been hugely inspired. Not necessarily by his specific philosophies (those are interesting of course), but by his way of thinking… and his way of thinking about thinking.
Considered to be the father of humanism, the first tourist, the first mountaineer and the man responsible for finding and preserving so many ancient Latin texts and thus making them popular, Petrarch is credited with beginning the entire Renaissance.
What did this man discover that kicked off an entire enlightenment? And how can his profound insights help our here and now?
We barely made it out… the window in which the Argentine border was open and flights were leaving closed almost 24 hours after we safely landed in Houston Intercontinental.
Yes, dear reader, we made it to America… and just in time for the summer. And while many of you nationwide are enjoying the unofficial start to the season with outdoor BBQs, lakeside swimming or frantic online shopping, we do want to pause for a moment to reflect on the reason for the holiday.
Here in Texas, the streets are lined with American flags, lest you forget it is Memorial Day. It is a day to remember and mourn military personnel who died in the line of duty.
Throughout history it was often considered the greatest glory to die for your country and the ancient world was no exception. In fact, Sparta may exemplify this expectation more than any other place or time in history.
Pluratch described it best:
“Another, as she handed her son his shield, exhorted him, saying, “Either this or upon this.””
ἢ τὰν ἢ ἐπὶ τᾶς,
Ḕ tā̀n ḕ epì tâs
“Meaning “either you will win the battle, or you will die and then be carried back home on your shield”.“
“It was said by Spartan mothers to their sons before they went out to battle to remind them of their bravery and duty to Sparta and Greece.”
“A hoplite could not escape the field of battle unless he tossed away the heavy and cumbersome shield. Therefore “losing one’s shield” meant desertion. (Plutarch, Moralia, 241)“
“Come back with your shield – or on it” was supposed to be the parting cry of mothers to their sons. Mothers whose sons died in battle openly rejoiced, mothers whose sons survived hung their heads in shame.
Spartans probably did not need a ‘Memorial Day’ to honor their war dead; the conscious act of respecting fallen warriors was most likely part of every day, seamlessly integrated into their daily routine.
Today, however, the practice seems… a little out of sync with modern culture. Anachronistic, if you will… A throwback to when we still worshipped heroes.
Nowadays it seems as if we live in the age of the victim. Young folks scrambling to collect as many points as possible in order to get ahead. Even our comic book blockbusters focus on the tragic tales of the villains rather than glorifying the triumph of the hero.
In fact, when looking up another synonym for hero just then, the online thesaurus only referred to a sandwich!!!
Which brings me to today’s mailbag question…
What happened to HEROES? Have we lost the concept completely? Are we living in a culture of victimhood? And should it – could it – reverse?
But before you go, a brief moment of housekeeping…
We are opening up registration for our Summer Course. If you haven’t taken the Essential Greeks Course yet, then now is the time! Sign up to make sure you reserve your spot and finally understand the Essential Greeks. From Homer to Aristotle, we cover the historians, the philosophers, the dramatists, and the poets.