Archive for January, 2008
Admirers of the Parthenon often mention the fact that its proportions often approximate the “golden ratio.” What exactly does this mean?
Wikipedia has a concise and accurate definition of the golden ratio: “two quantities are in the golden ratio if the ratio between the sum of those quantities and the larger one is the same as the ratio between the larger one and the smaller.” This is probably a bit confusing, so an example might help.
Let’s consider two values, a and b, with a being the greater of the two values. The values form a golden ratio if the value of a divided by b are equally to the value of a+b (the sum of the values) divided by a (the larger of the two):
If you do the math, the proportion between a and b comes out to about 1.618 to 1.
A fascinating instance of the golden ratio is a golden rectangle, that is, a rectangle with sides that have the relationship 1:1.618. If you take a rectangle of this size and remove the square formed by the shorter side, you’re left with another golden rectangle. In the image of a golden rectangle below, for instance, the sides a and b have the relationship 1:1.618. Remove the square formed by the shorter side (the one in blue) and the rectangle that’s left (the one in pink) is itself a golden rectangle. You can repeat the process to infinity.
So what does all of this have to do with the Parthenon? It turns out that the facade of the Parthenon is a golden rectangle, and important elements of the structure, like the sculptures in the frieze, are deliberately placed in areas where new golden rectangles are formed by the process described above. It seems that the Parthenon’s reputation for exactitude and perfection is well earned.
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The Biblical Noah is one of the most famous personalities of Western civilization, and his story, recounted in chapters 5-9 of the Book of Genesis, includes some of the most influential moments in Western narrative, from the infamous ark to the “Curse of Ham.” (For a fascinating new account of this “curse” and its importance to history, check out David Goldenberg’s new book The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.) However, the Talmudic Noah also plays an important role in something most often associated with Moses: the Law. The Law of Moses (or the “Mosaic” Law) includes the Ten Commandments as well as 613 “mitzvot” or additional commandments given in the Torah. These laws cover everything from judicial procedure to the proper procedure for collecting eggs from a bird’s nest. However, these laws only bind the Jewish people, with whom (the Torah claims) God has a special relationship, or “covenant.” There were also a set of laws given to Noah, but Noah’s Laws (or the “Noahide” Laws) did not apply only to the Jews. They applied to all humankind.
The Noahide Laws do not appear in the Torah. They are codified in the Talmud, which includes the Mishnah (a transcription of the “Oral Laws” of the Jews) and the Gemorrah (a commentary on those laws). Unlike the hundreds of laws given to Moses, there are only seven Noahide laws:
“seven precepts were the sons of Noah commanded: social laws [i.e., establishing courts of justice]; to refrain from blasphemy, idolatry; adultery; bloodshed; robbery; and eating flesh cut from a living animal.” – Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 56
The extremely detailed Mosaic Laws were meant to fulfill God’s covenant with the Jews. The far broader Noahide Laws are meant to establish the most general baseline for civilization as such. (Because everybody else was wiped out during The Flood, the “sons of Noah” refers to all humanity.) Remarkably, these laws bear a great resemblance to another fundamental text of Western civilization: Homer’s Odyssey. In his travels, Odysseus encounters many groups explicitly described as barbaric, and their barbarism was often demonstrated by their violation of the very precepts given to Noah, from the Cyclops eating a living goat to the philandering of Circe. In two very different cultures, then, the baseline for civilization was seen in almost exactly the same way. But then again, the authors of the Talmud and the Homeric Epics were much closer to the birth of civilization than we are today.
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“Remember how…beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities (for he has hold not of an image but of a reality)…”
-Plato, Symposium, 210
Thus Socrates—that is to say, Plato’s incarnation of Socrates—would have us believe that a stranger from Mantineia first clued him into the notion that beauty is in the eye of the beholder (many prefer Shakespeare’s rendering of the phrase). Although the preceding quotation appears in a passage concerning the good of friendship, one wonders what, if any, kind of aesthetic standards the philosopher attached to physical beauty.
Socrates was famously ugly—all that imperious, barbate statuary can be misleading—the extant sources are very clear in making a point of his brutish demeanor. He had bulging eyes, a snub nose, and fleshy lips “like an ass.” Nor was the philosopher in the business of improving upon the stamp of rude nature: He went about barefoot and unwashed, moving with a strange gait (so odd, it was said to intimidate enemy soldiers), and carrying a cudgel. He evidently never changed his clothes, using the same garments for his day-wear and pyjamas. Ever the gadfly, Socrates also let his hair grow long after the Spartan fashion, a look that couldn’t have amused the Athenian patriots of the day, still smarting from their defeat in The Peloponnesian War.
However, something must have endeared this smelly, unsightly, forbidding man of intellect to his fellows, or, at least, those of his fellows who did not force him to drink hemlock for “corrupting the youth of Athens.” Perhaps it was his inimitable way of bringing new perspective to old problems, often peppered with characteristic humor and irony. In Xenophon’s Symposium (V 1-10), Socrates compares his physical abnormality with Critobulus’ more pleasant aspect; by using use-value as his criterion for beauty, Socrates is able to prove himself the handsomer of the pair.
The stranger from Mantineia was in the right: In beauty, as in life, the nimble mind can outshine the fairest matter.
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It is not clear that St. Augustine would be a welcome guest at the new and immensely popular Creation Museum in Northern Kentucky. While the Bishop of Hippo has been traditionally revered by most Christian denominations, one of his most influential doctrines supported the allegorical, or metaphorical, understanding of Scripture.
During its earliest days, Christianity appealed mostly to the enslaved and disenfranchised subjects of the Roman Empire—in many ways, it represented a system of values that necessarily precluded a strong following in the imperial upper classes. However, by the time that St. Augustine was born (354 A.D.), the situation had changed. Though he was a Berber from North Africa and ostensibly provincial, the young St. Augustine grew up propertied, educated, and Catholic.
Thus, Augustine and many of the other Church Fathers of his day, like St. Ambrose and Origen, brought a new level of sophistication to Christian philosophy and theology that drew on their familiarity with classical Greek and Roman thought (the study of Plotinus played an enormous role in Augustine’s break with Manichaeism and return to the Catholic fold). In particular, Augustine was schooled in rhetoric—he was one of the discpline’s most eminent “professors” in the Roman world—and he brought the method of allegoresis to bear on the interpretation of the newly canonized Christian Bible.
One of St. Augustine’s most famous tracts was entitled “The Literal Interpretation of Genesis” (unfortunately, unavailable electronically) which argued against a literalist understanding of creation. Rather, he believed that “in the matter of the shape of heaven, the sacred writers did not want to teach man facts that would be of no avail for their salvation,” effectively rendering any scriptural evidence concerning the science of creation insignificant. And while the saint himself was a proponent of “simultaneous creation,” the notion that God made manifest the universe all at once and that the six day account of creation in Genesis was revealed so as to provide a logical framework for understanding it, he was not, by any means, bound by this opinion:
“in matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision … we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.”
One gets the impression that Augustine would have supported Pope John Paul II’s embrace of “theistic evolution.”
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The Bust of Nefertiti, the most famous work of Egyptian art, and among the most famous images of female beauty in the world, is not located in its country of origin. It is located in Egyptian Museum in Berlin, Germany. This has always been a controversial matter, much like the fact that the famous Elgin Marbles reside in the British Museum in London rather than their original position in the Greek Parthenon. The case of Nefertiti has been a long and odd one: a group of German archaeologists removed the bust from Egypt under false pretenses in 1912, and the Egyptian government has repeatedly attempted to have the bust returned. The first such attempt was made in 1933, when Hermann Goering offered to return the bust to King Fouad I of Egypt in return for a political alliance between Egypt and Nazi Germany. Hitler himself refused to let this happen: “”I know this famous bust. “I have viewed it and marveled at it many times. Nefertiti continually delights me. The bust is a unique masterpiece, an ornament, a true treasure!” The Führer would never let the bust leave Germany.
In the years since the controversy over the bust has died down somewhat, but it was reawakened recently by two Hungarian artists who named themselves “Little Warsaw.” In 2003, the pair conceived of a project that would involve creating a body for Nefertiti and briefly displaying the bust on top of it. Unlike the famous sculpture, however, The Body of Nefertiti would not represent an idealized beauty. As the artists put it in a statement about the work, “The marks time leaves on the woman’s body, her age and lifestyle, and the traces of her pregnancies mean more for Little Warsaw than any further analysis of beauty.” The idealized bust, and the body designed to represent “beauty on far more realistic grounds” made an odd pair. The sculpture of the body itself was first displayed at the Venice Biennial, and then briefly put on display in Berlin’s Egyptian Museum with the bust placed on top of it.
The Egyptian government was furious. They declared that the project demonstrated the museum’s inability to properly care for this masterpiece of human achievement and restated their demands that the sculpture be returned to Cairo, along with the famous Rosetta Stone (which is currently in Great Britain) and other famous works of Egyptian Antiquity. Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt, said he wanted the pieces returned by 2012 so that they could be displayed in the new Grand Museum meant to open that year near the great pyramids in Giza. So far, every request has been turned down.
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Ernest “Papa” Hemingway was a well-known boozer, brawler, and bull fighter—he liked to “live his fiction.” Wallace Stevens, stubborn insurance agent and unparalleled modernist poet, is generally thought to have led a far more staid lifestyle. Not so, at least during one battle of literary heavyweights in 1936.
Hemingway’s sister, Ursula, happened to be in attendance at a Key West party one evening when Stevens had had quite a bit to drink. He proceeded to slander Hem’s literary bona fides, concluding with his wish that “he [Hemingway] was here” so that he could “knock him out with a single punch.”
Upon her brother’s arrival at the party, dutiful Ursula told him of Stevens’ calumnies, and, as Hemingway reported in a letter, the poet “swung that same fabled punch but fertunatly [sic] missed and I knocked all of him down several times and gave him a good beating.” After calls were made for a fair fight, without glasses (Hem’s), Stevens got the chance to throw one more haymaker. He connected. And, according to Hemingway at any rate, broke his hand on the novelist’s jaw.
In the interest of fairness, it should be noted that, although Stevens weighed in at 6’3”, 220 lbs., he was fifty-seven at the time of the scrape—twenty years his opponent’s senior. Perhaps that is why Hemingway “promised not to tell anybody and the official story is that Mr. Stevens fell down a stairs.”
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A new edition of The Intellectual Devotional, this time with a focus on American History, is now available in stores. (Click here to order your copy.) As well as continuing to expand on posts from the General Edition, “The Devoted Intellect” blog will introduce and expand on material from the American History devotional.
As the past recedes into the Past, kings and battles begin to blur. So many treaties, alliances, and ententes lose their peculiar shape and contour in the bowels of the memory hole. Most Americans—really anyone who has been paying attention to American mythology in the last hundred years—are familiar with the great saga of the Cowboys and the Indians. More recently, they have may learned of the sad plight of western Native Americans—those one-time villains—in incidents like the Trail of Tears or Wounded Knee. However, going back to the earliest Colonial times, only the stories of Pochahontas and Squanto at the first Thanksgiving are widely known: the saga of the Puritans and the Indians has very little historical resonance.
The region of the United States now called New England was extensively inhabited and cultivated by a range of indigenous tribes with whom the earliest English settlers coexisted, often uneasily. Massasoit, the chieftain of the Wampanoag, who lived in today’s southwestern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, maintained an alliance with the Massachusetts Bay Colony, particularly after his people were decimated by outbreaks of smallpox. This brought the twin benefits of European tools and military superiority over their traditional rivals, such as the Narragansett. However, as client states throughout history have come to learn, patronage is a double-edged sword. In return for their goods, the colonists demanded concessions of land and, less explicitly, pulpit-space from which to evangelize the Indians.
In the 1670s, the situation came to a head. Massasoit’s second son, known variously as Metacom, Metacomet, Pometacom, and Philip (the latter to the English) ascended to the chieftaincy of the Wampanoag upon the death of his brother, Wamsutta (or “Alexander” after the European fashion). His increasing distrust of the burgeoning Puritan population and the territorial squeeze it placed upon his people, not to mention the religious inroads that colonists were making into Indian cultural life with institutions like “praying towns”, led Metacom to plan raids on outlying colonial settlements. However, he was betrayed by one of his closest advisors, John Sassamon, a Christian convert and early Harvard graduate, who was promptly killed upon the discovery of his treason.
The Bay Colony tried and hung three Wampanoag for the alleged murder of Sassamon; an Indian reprisal on the settlement of Swansea soon followed. Within a month, the conflict evolved into a general war, contested on the one hand by the Wampanoag, Narragansett, Podunk, and Nipmuck tribes and a newly forceful New England Confederation and several Puritan-friendly Indian tribes on the other. Metacom’s forces took the early victories; both Providence, Rhode Island and Springfield, Massachusetts were burned. However, the colonists’ superior supply lines and Metacom’s failure to win over potential strategic allies like the Mohegans and the Mohawks guaranteed that he was hemmed in on all sides. Following his death (shot by a bounty hunter, later drawn, quartered, and beheaded), the war was effectively over.
The English colonies quickly recovered—they were experiencing an astounding growth rate during which the population doubled every twenty-five years at the time in question—but the Algonquian tribes who had opposed them fared differently. They were never able to reestablish their holds on territories in eastern New England; many were sold in bondage to the Caribbean or fled to live with more westerly tribes.
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