The Collector

28 Jan. 2023
achilles penthesilea amphora deruet triumph amazons painting

 

When people think of ancient mythology and the warriors that occupied it, what may come to mind are the likes of Jason and the Argonauts, Achilles, Heracles, Theseus, and other great heroes. Although the ancient imaginary was indeed dominated by the presence of male warriors, just beyond the known Mediterranean world were fierce female warriors that could stand up to the greatest of these men. These warriors were the Amazons. Garnering a reputation for their bravery and combat prowess, tales of Amazons would forever be ingrained in the collective conscience of ancient Greece.

 

Amazon Warrior Women in Greek Mythology

amazons-versus-men-amphora
Amazon warriors versus men, by the Akragas Painter, 440 BCE, via National Archaeological Museum, Athens

 

Amazons were believed to be the daughters of Ares, the god of war. Figuratively or not the offspring of Ares, they were indeed fierce warriors with a skill for war, as evidenced in Greek mythology. Having escaped from the degradation, suppression, subjugation, assault, and murder that the women of the Greek world faced regularly, the Amazons formed their own nation. A nation that excluded the presence of men. A nation where women were given the potential for unbound growth as warriors. Near the Black Sea and beyond the known Mediterranean world, the Amazon nation would be named Themyskira. Though Themiskyra was the most recognized city-state of the Amazons in mythology, it was not the only place occupied by them. Cities such as Ephesus, Cyme, Sinope, Priene, Myrina, Lesbos, and Mytilene were credited to the Amazons as well.

 

Usually on the defensive, the Amazons would consistently be at the mercy of male aggression and conquest. With that being said, did the myth derive from the lips and minds of oppressed females to comfort themselves in a patriarchal world? Or did the myth serve as a tale demonstrating the superiority of males over the strongest of females? Or were the Amazons a real race of warrior women? No matter their original purpose in Greek mythology, the Amazons would stand up to the likes of demigods, kings, and nations.

 

5 Greek Myths with Amazon Women 

 

1. Queen Hippolyta and the Amazons vs. Heracles

heracles amazons amphora
Amazons confronting Heracles by a painter of the Batemen group, 530 BCE, via Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

 

The ninth labor of Heracles conferred on him by King Eurystheus required Heracles to travel to the Amazon island of Themyskira to recover the golden girdle of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons. The looming violence of Heracles’ arrival was subverted when Hippolyta surprisingly welcomed Heracles with open arms. However, the doomed fate of the Amazon queen was sealed.

 

Unbeknownst to Hippolyta, Hera, queen of the Olympians, interfered in the matter. Disguising herself as an Amazon warrior, Hera roused the Amazons into believing that Heracles and his shipmates were attempting to abduct Hippolyta. Showing loyalty to their queen, the Amazons attacked Heracles’ ship. A great battle took place that resulted in the death of Hippolyta at the hands of Heracles. Notably, another story suggests that Hippolyta fell at the hands of her sister Queen Penthesilea accidentally. While the Amazons were temporarily defeated, Heracles made haste to leave Themyskira and the island’s deadly occupants with Hippolyta’s girdle in hand, completing his ninth labor.

 

2. Queen Antiope and Theseus’ Abduction

watteau jupiter antiope painting
Jupiter and Antiope, by Antonie Watteau, 1715, via Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY

 

Following the murder of Hippolyta, another controversial story took place: the abduction of Amazon Queen Antiope, the sister of Hippolyta and Penthesilea. There are three significant versions of what happened.

 

The first story suggests that Antiope willingly boarded the ship of Heracles after the murder of Hippolyta due to being in love with Theseus. Antiope and Theseus would marry in Athens and would even have a child together. However, the Amazons would attack Athens in an attempt to rescue their thought to be abducted queen and retrieve Queen Hippolyta’s girdle. Facing her beloved sisters, Antiope would side with Theseus and the Athenian army to protect the city.

 

In the second story, Antiope was indeed abducted against her will. It is believed that upon the Amazons’ arrival, Antiope sided with her sisters in arms and attacked Athens to escape the grasp of Theseus.

 

The last significant story suggests that Antiope was in love with Theseus but did not side with him upon the Amazons’ arrival. In this version, Antiope willingly left her fellow Amazons for Theseus, but Theseus discarded her in favor of Phaedra. Enraged, Antiope plotted to kill all the guests at the wedding of Theseus and his newly beloved wife, Phaedra. It would take the efforts of Theseus, Heracles, and the Athenian army to stop Antiope’s warranted rage. Antiope meets her end in all three variations, as customary in stories with Amazons.

 

3. Queen Penthesilea Duels with Achilles

achilles penthesilea amphora
Achilles and Penthesilea by a painter of the Exekias painter, 540 BCE, British Museum, London

 

When people think of Achilles, the first thing that often comes to mind is his reputation as the greatest warrior and hero of the Trojan War. Indeed, Achilles was one of the most feared warriors in history, but there was one warrior who dared face him with delight and defeat him, Queen Penthesilea.

 

Aiding King Priamos after the death of Hector, Penthesilea decided the Trojan War needed the intervention of the Amazons. Penthesilea, along with her fellow sisters, rampaged through the Greek lines, slaughtering every soldier that stood in their way. The actions of Penthesilea and the Amazons did not go unnoticed. It was only a matter of time before Achilles and Penthesilea would challenge one another on the battlefield. After an epic confrontation, Penthesilea would go on to kill Achilles in combat. However, as Greek gods are always scheming, Zeus brought Achilles back from death, and Achilles killed Penthesilea. It is suggested that Achilles wept over the death of Pentheslea in admiration of her courage and beauty. Achilles would even kill Thersites, a fellow Greek soldier who dared to mock his mourning.

 

4. Queen Thalestris’ Attempted Seduction of Alexander the Great

alexander the great thalestris tapestry
Alexander the Great and Thalestris by unknown artist, 1595-1605, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago

 

In a world defined by war and conquest, only the strongest and most cunning could thrive. Knowing the tribulations of the ancient world, Queen Thalestris wanted to breed a race of children that would be able to navigate such a world with relative ease. Who would be more fitting for an Amazon queen than Alexander the Great, conqueror of most of the known world? Legend has it that Queen Thalestris greeted Alexander with 300 Amazon warriors, hoping he would father a warrior as great as him.

 

However, as with most legends, there is a lot of speculation involved, and the academic community, both ancient and modern, rejects that the story actually happened. Still, there is evidence that a Scythian king offered his daughter as a wife to Alexander.

 

5. Queen Myrina’s Conquest of Atlantians and Gorgons

perseus slaying medusa amasis vase
Perseus slaying Medusa, detail from an olpe, attributed to the Amasis painter, 550-530BCE, via British Museum, London

 

According to Diodorus Siculus, Queen Myrina was an Amazon whose name spread throughout Greece and Egypt. With an army of thirty thousand infantry, three thousand cavalry, and ruthless tactics, cities would surrender their land willingly to Myrina and her Amazons without conflict. Traveling to the mythical island of Atlantis, Myrina would destroy the city of Cyrenê. Making peace with the Atlantians after the brutal conquest, Myrina would attempt to aid Atlantis and rid it of the neighboring Gorgons. Notably, Diodorus rejected the idea that the Gorgons were monsters with snakes on their heads who, like the famous Gorgon Medusa, could turn mortals into stone. Instead, he favored the idea that Gorgons were a nation of warring tribal women.

 

The stories are divided between Myrina exterminating every Gorgon and her failing to accomplish her mission. Eventually, Myrina would lead her army toward Egypt and befriend Horus, the Egyptian god-pharaoh. Their partnership would lead to the defeat of the Bedouins, the Syrians, and west Asia. Despite all her conquests, Myrina would die in battle at the hands of Thracians and Scythians.

 

How to Spot an Amazon in Greek Art

amazon greek relief
Relief from a sarcophagus depicting a Greek soldier and Amazon by Carlo Calderi, 1710-1730, British Museum, London

 

To identify Amazon warrior women in Greek art, one has to ask a couple of questions. What are the characters wearing? And how are the characters displayed among the mediums?

 

Originally, the Amazons were modeled similarly to the goddess of war and wisdom, Athena. The Amazons would often be equipped with their signature labrys axe, bow, spear, a half-shield, and light armor. As time went on, Amazons were modeled more like the goddess of hunt and wilderness, Artemis. Wearing a dress, the Amazons were given what was believed to be a feminine characteristic to further differentiate them from their male counterparts. As the Greeks were exposed to foreign territories or the Other around 450 BCE, Amazons took the form of Scythian archers and Persians. Amazons would be depicted wearing caps, decorated trousers, and riding horses from then on.

 

After hearing about how Amazons destroyed mythological cities and armies, faced the most powerful demigods, and earned the respect of nations, you would expect the Amazons to hold a favorable position in Greek art, right? However, if you scroll back up, you will recognize a pattern among the Greek amphorae. A defining and underserved characteristic of Amazons in Greek art is that they are wounded, looking up to the man, and in their most vulnerable state.

 

Were the Amazon Warrior Women Based in Reality?

amazons versus greeks frieze
Amazons battle with Greeks, from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, 350 BCE, British Museum, London

 

As with most myths, scholars originally thought Amazons were a figment of Greek imagination. However, it is likely that the myths of the Amazons were based in reality.

 

According to a legend relayed by Herodotus, the Amazons were confronted by the Greeks near Thermodon, a river in modern-day Turkey. Having defeated the Amazons, the Greeks took some of them prisoner and attempted to sail home with them. However, the Amazons rebelled and killed all of the Greek soldiers onboard. Amazons would eventually land on the shore of Scythia. After brief altercations with Scythian warriors, Amazons and Scythian men would establish intimate relations. The offspring of such relations would be called the Sauromatians. The Scythians would eventually call these mighty warriors ‘oiorpata’, ‘the killers of men’.

 

deruet claude triumph amazons painting
Triumph of the Amazons, by Claude Déruet, 1620s, via Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

 

Despite the fanciful nature of the legend, archaeological evidence continues to verify that Sauromatian females were indeed warriors buried with full sets of weapons and sacrificed horses. Despite modern scholars often identifying the Amazons with Scythian women, if Herodotus’ ethnographic words are to be taken seriously — undoubtedly a big leap — Amazons believed themselves to be nothing like Scythian women. So, conceivably the Sauromatians were descendants of the Scythians and some people that inspired tales of Amazons with their valuing of warrior women. Or Sauromatian women inspired the legends of Amazons altogether.

 

Nevertheless, in the end, the tales of the Amazons show that women can be just as fierce, courageous, and skilled as any great man in history.

28 Jan. 2023
ideal world utopias according to famous philosophers

 

What would an ideal world look like? Most of us would agree that an ideal world is a place where everyone can live in peace and harmony; a place where there is no poverty or hunger, and where all people have the opportunity to reach their full potential. Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer to this question as it is, at least to some degree, a matter of personal opinion.

 

Some believe that the ideal state is one where everyone is happy and content with their lives. Others may think that the ideal state is one where there is perfect harmony and balance between all individuals and groups. Ultimately, what constitutes an ideal state depends on the values and beliefs we prioritize. In this article, we’ll take a look at the ideal world according to five famous philosophers: Plato, Thomas More, Campanella, Burke, and Godwin. We will explore what they believe the perfect world would look like and what it takes to get there.

 

1. Plato’s Ideal World: A Perfectly Balanced State

anselm feuerbach platos symposium painting
Plato’s Symposium, Anselm Feuerbach, 1869, via Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe.

 

The theory of the ideal state is most fully represented by Plato in the Republic, and it was further developed in the Laws. According to Plato, true political art is the art of saving and educating the soul; therefore, he puts forward the thesis that true philosophy coincides with true politics. Only if a politician becomes a philosopher (and vice versa) can a true state be built based on the highest values of the Truth and the Good.

 

The ideal state, according to Plato, like the soul, has a tripartite structure. Following this tripartite structure (management, protection, and production of material goods), the population is divided into three classes: producers or workers, auxiliaries, and guardians or soldiers. A fair state structure should ensure their harmonious coexistence.

 

The first and “lowest” class is formed from people whose lustful tendencies prevail. The second, protective class of people is formed from people in whom the strong-willed principle prevails. They feel a watchful duty and are vigilant against both internal and external danger. If the virtue of moderation and a kind of love for order and discipline prevails in a person, then they can be part of the most worthy class of people, and it is those who are meant to manage the state.

 

According to Plato, only aristocrats are called to govern the state as the best and most wise citizens. Rulers should be those who know how to love their City more than others and who can fulfill their duty with the greatest zeal. Most importantly, these rulers need to know how to recognize and contemplate the Good. In other words, the rational principle prevails in them, and they can rightfully be called “sages”.

 

So, a perfect state is the one in which the workers are guided by moderation, the military by courage and strength, and the ruling class by wisdom.

 

raphael school of athens painting
School of Athens, Raphael, 1511, via WikiMedia

 

The concept of justice in an ideal state is based on the idea that everyone does what they have to do; it concerns the citizens in the City in analogy with the parts of the soul in the soul. Justice in the outer world is manifested only when it is also present in the soul. Therefore, in a perfect City, the education and upbringing of citizens must be perfect, and this education will have to be tailored to each class in a specific way.

 

Plato attaches great importance to the education of guards as an active part of the population from which rulers emerge. Education worthy of rulers had to combine practical skills with the development of philosophy. The purpose of education is to give a model that the ruler should use in an effort to embody this Good in the state.

 

In the Republic Plato states that living in an ideal world is not as important as it might seem. It can be good enough to live according to the laws of this City, that is, according to the laws of the Good, Truth, and Justice. After all, before appearing in reality externally, that is, in history, the Platonic City is first born inside people themselves.

 

2. The Utopian Wonder Island by Thomas More

auhtor unknown utopia illustration
Utopiæ Insulæ Tabula, Author unknown, 1518, via Princeton University Library.

 

Utopia by Thomas More, written in 1516, is the book that gave the name to the corresponding genre in literature and the new model of the ideal world. More’s Utopia is an island nation. The king rules in this state, but the highest administrative positions are elected. The problem, however, is that every citizen of Utopia is tightly tied to their professional corporation, which means they have no chance of gaining access to management.

 

Since the rulers are very far-removed from the people, there is no single thought-out ideology or religion on the island: belief in a single deity is preferred, but everyone is free to think through the “details” at their own discretion. You can be Christian or a pagan. It cannot be said that some Gods are better than others or that no Gods exist at all.

 

There is no money and private property on the island. Organized distribution of goods has completely supplanted free trade, and instead of the labor market, there is a universal labor service. Utopians do not work very hard, but only because enslaved people do the dirty and hard work. The islanders enslave their citizens as punishment for shameful acts; alternatively, foreigners awaiting execution for a crime they committed can also be enslaved.

 

fra carnevale ideal city
The Ideal city by Fra Carnevale, late 15th century, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Under these conditions, no aesthetic diversity is possible: the life of one family is no different from the life of another; language, customs, institutions, laws, houses, and even the layout of cities throughout the island are the same.

 

Of course, the project of the English writer was never realized, but some of its features are easy to recognize in contemporary states. These similarities are not due to funny coincidences, but due to universal patterns. For example, More believed that rejecting private property inevitably led to a cultural unification – something that can be observed in states where private property was limited in some way. Another obvious insight we can take from More’s utopia is the following: without a technological breakthrough, it is possible to reduce the labor load for some citizens only by super-exploiting others.

 

3. The City of the Sun by Tommaso Campanella

author unknown city of sun illustration
Third edition of Tommaso Campanella’s The City of the Sun, 1643, via Di Che Cibo.

 

The ideal world model of Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun is perhaps the most famous and most “totalitarian” of all utopias. In the City of the Sun, according to the utopian idea, all kinds of teaching aids were to be depicted right on the walls: trees, animals, celestial bodies, minerals, rivers, seas, and mountains.

 

All troubles, all crimes, Campanella believed, came from two things – from private property and from the family. Therefore, in the City of the Sun, everything is a common good, and monogamous marriage and the right of parents to have a child are declared a relic of the past. “Solariums”, these new utopian citizens, always work together, they eat only in common dining rooms, and sleep in shared bedrooms.

 

The ideas of democracy are alien to solariums. A caste of priest-scientists leads the city: the high priest, named Metaphysician or the Sun, and his co-rulers – Power, Wisdom, and Love. Nobody chooses them; on the contrary, the supreme rulers appoint all the lower-lever leaders, priests-scholars of the lowest rank.

 

utopian arche
Utopien 04 by Makis E. Warlamis. Via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Science is the religion of solariums. The goal of their life is to climb the steps of rational knowledge. And it is built in strict accordance with scientific principles, which, in turn, are applied to everyday empiricism by priests.

 

At the top of the temple are twenty-four priests who, at midnight, at noon, morning, and evening, four times a day, sing psalms to God. They must observe the stars, mark their movements with the aid of an astrolabe, and study their powers and effects on human affairs. By doing this they know what changes have occurred or are about to occur in certain areas of the earth and at what time. They determine the best times for fertilization, the days of sowing, harvesting; they are, in a sense, transmitters and a link between God and people.

 

You might read this description and think: what is wrong with this harmonious system? Where does it fail? Why is a society governed by scientists and based on science not viable? One could argue that the City of the Sun is not a utopia because a person cannot be happy without the opportunity to be alone with themselves, with their wife/husband, children, favorite things, and even their sins. Like any other utopia that forgoes private property, Campanella’s utopia deprives a person of this type of happiness.

 

4. Burke’s Conservative Utopia

james sayers last scene illustration
The Last Scene of the Managers Farce, James Sayers, 1795, via National Portrait Gallery

 

Edmund Burke is the founder of the ideology of conservatism. His Vindication of Natural Society is the first conservative utopia. It was written by Burke in response to Viscount Henry Bolingbroke’s Letters on the Study and Use of History, in which the latter attacked the Church. Burke, interestingly, does not defend the institutions of religion, but the institutions of the state, showing that there is as much sense in their elimination as in the elimination of church institutions.

 

The philosopher resorts to an ironic form of presentation of an ideal world. He describes every form of government known to humanity. Burke says that all of them – in direct or roundabout ways – lead a person to slavery. Therefore, he suggests, let’s abandon the state and live according to the laws of a “natural society.” If political society, whatever form it may take, has already turned the majority into the property of a few and has led to the emergence of exploitative forms of work, vices, and diseases, then should we continue to worship such a harmful idol and sacrifice our health and freedom to it?

 

Burke believes that a completely different picture is observed in the state of nature. There is no need for anything that nature provides. In such a state, a person cannot experience any other needs than those that can be satisfied by very moderate work, and, therefore, there is no slavery. There is no luxury here either because no one alone can create the things necessary for it. Life is simple and, therefore, happy.

 

However, Burke is ironic. His point of view lies precisely in the fact that no development of society is possible without historical continuity, without relying on already existing political, social, and religious institutions. For him, the existing state is natural, and any revolutionary project that breaks social reality is artificial.

 

5. Godwin’s Anarchist Utopia

jacek yerka utopia painting
The Utopian Function in the Anarchist Imaginary, Jacek Yerka, via Autonomies.org

 

Many ignored Burke’s irony and seriously considered him as a theoretician of anarchism. One such person was William Godwin, inventor of the first real anarchist utopia. In the opening part of his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, he mostly paraphrases Burke, and in the second, he offers a positive program.

 

At the center of Godwin’s ideal worldview is the individual, whose entire behavior is determined by reason. A society can only be healthy if it is built on the principles of reason. There is only one truth, which means that the true structure of society is only one. It is hardly worth looking for this arrangement in the past because the whole history of humanity is a history of crimes. It is a history of state violence against an individual. And not only the state, but in general, everything that enslaves the mind imposes a unifying norm on it.

 

An ideal person in Godwin’s worldview is the eternal “enemy of the state”. Godwin believes that humanity is waiting for a New Era where small and self-sufficient communities populated by new people will replace states.

 

So, What Is The Ideal World? 

hieronymus bosch garden of delights painting
The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch, 1480-1505, via Khan Academy

 

It’s a question that many people have asked over the centuries, and no single answer has satisfied everyone. In this article, we looked at five different perspectives on the ideal state from famous philosophers. Each of them had their own idea about what constituted a perfect world and how to get there. While their views differed in some ways, they all agreed that striving for something better than the world we live in today was important. And to get there, we’ll need to change our ways and work together towards a common goal.

28 Jan. 2023
how tenochtitlan design was ahead of its time

 

Tenochtitlan is the ancient name for the current capital of Mexico – Mexico City. It is from a time when the Aztec people ruled the land with jaguar skins, obsidian swords, and ritual sacrifices to bloodthirsty gods – but it might surprise you that their urban planning, design, and engineering works were exceptional. So exceptional that conquistadors were amazed by its greatness. From aqueducts to drawbridges to dikes to the layout of the cityscape itself, the design of Tenochtitlan was ahead of its time.

 

The Aztecs Arrive in Tenochtitlan

aztec floating gardens
Depiction of Aztec Chinampas, via educateinspirechange.org

 

The Aztecs were a fragile alliance of three city-states. The most influential was Tenochtitlan, built in the middle of then-Lake Texcoco. This location was naturally defensible as a large island quite a distance from the shoreline of the lake. The city was built by people known as “Mexica.” The Mexica chose the location due to the fact that once they arrived at the valley where Tenochtitlan would be founded, nearly every other city-state claimed areas at the edge of the lake and no one wanted the drab island. The other city-states found the edges of the lake to be better for the types of agriculture that grew in 1400s Mexico, such as corn, beans, and squash.

 

Since the Mexica were late to finding a home in the area, they took the only place they could – an island that did not have the capabilities of growing the food they needed. If it were capable of doing so, the other cities would have already claimed it. But ingenuity struck the Mexica. With help from a neighboring city-state, the Mexica found a way to build floating gardens. The gardens consisted of woven reeds in a basket-like pattern which were covered in a few feet of mud. So that the gardens would not float away, they were then anchored to trees and provided space for canoes to pass via a canal.

 

tenochtitlan birds eye view
A Bird’s Eye View of Tenochtitlan after its development, latinamericanstudies.org

 

After the introduction of the floating gardens, called “chinampas,” the Aztecs turned their undesirable rock of an island city into a fortress. Now they had water working for them, not against them. The Aztecs grew the usual agriculture for the area – corn, beans, and squash. But they also grew more than just the staple crops, as the Aztecs also grew tomatoes, peppers, and even flowers! Thanks to the wonderful supply of fresh water that even conquistadors noticed, the Aztecs could grow food throughout the year. They then harvested this food about seven times each year, a considerable amount.

 

The Aztecs further mastered water with dams and sluice gates. One of these incredible dams is the Nezahualcoyotl Dike mentioned previously. The combination of all of this hydro-engineering infrastructure not only permitted great harvests but also an adept drainage system. The dike itself had a major role in reducing flooding from the saltwater of Lake Texcoco up to the freshwater of Lake Tenochtitlan. Most importantly, the dike appears to have performed its function. There are no records of flooding in Tenochtitlan from Lake Texcoco until after the conquistadors arrived and damaged the dike.

 

The Nezahualcoyotl Dike

aztec map mexico 1519
Map of Lake Texcoco and the surrounding area. Notice the Dike of Nezahualcoyotl, via semanticscholar.org

 

The most amazing piece of engineering for Tenochtitlan was the Nezahualcoyotl Dike, which split the salt waters of Lake Texcoco from the fresh waters of Lake Tenochtitlan. The Aztec capital was located in the freshwater portion of the two lakes, seated on a defensible and large island. The dike was approximately 16 kilometers (about 10 miles)! For a structure of that size, it would take an average person just over three hours to fully traverse the dike from end to end. The dike typically kept the water level on the freshwater side about two meters (about 10 feet) above the saltwater lake on the opposite side. The structure provided flooding control and desalination of the freshwater portion of the once-combined lake.

 

This dike, among many other engineering features, allowed the Aztecs to dominate their neighbors and become only conquerable by an alien colonial power. Common culture paints the Aztecs as a homogeneous, strong, and vast empire, but its ad hoc and shaky political situation was quite the contrast to the well-constructed Nezahualcoyotl Dike.

 

The Triple-Alliance Under Tenochtitlan

aztec founding tenochtitlan
The Founding of Mexico City by Jose Maria Jara, depicting the founding of Tenochtitlan, 1889, via useum.org

 

The City of Tenochtitlan did not master the waters and their enemies alone. The other two city-states of the shaky alliance are Tlacopan and Texcoco. Tlacopan was situated nearer to Tenochtitlan. It stood northwest of the island on the shore of the freshwater Lake Tenochtitlan. Texcoco was situated farther away in the opposite direction, on a river that fed into the salty Lake Texcoco. The group rose together in power due to the nature of power in 1300s Mexico.

 

Each city-state in and surrounding Lake Texcoco and its tributaries had a similar culture of military violence against neighbors. The result of this violence for the victors was multiple wives as tributes. In the same vein, women were also given as gifts to political allies as wives. The result of this confusing mixing of bloodlines of diplomatic rivals resulted in a battle royale of potential heirs just about every time a leader perished. The “kings” of these city-states were called tlàtoani, which means “speaker” or “mouthpiece.” In 1426, the tlàtoani of Azcapotzalco died.

 

Azcapotzalco was the most powerful of the city-states in the area at the time. A power vacuum quickly appeared, with Azcapotzalco leaderless and ripe for another succession crisis. What happened next catapulted the Triple Alliance into power.

 

aztec leader tlatoani cuauhtemoc
Depiction of a Tlatoani named Cuahtémoc, via mxcity.mx

 

The tlàtoani of Tenochtitlan was an heir to the Azcapotzalco throne. His name was Itzoatl, which means “Obsidian Snake.” Itzoatl did not have a great claim to the throne, as he was the son of an enslaved woman and a prior king. However, he was diplomatically witty and found allies to which one would not jump directly. The Tenochtitlan tlàtoani went after weaker city-states that could not rise to power of their own accord. He also conveniently sought allies who were previously harmed in some manner by the powerful Azcapotzalco.

 

This is where he found Tlacopan and Texcoco as allies. The three city-states worked together as a coalition and defeated the powerful and leaderless domineering Azcapotalco. This confirmed the Triple Alliance as the great power of the region.

 

Human Sacrifice (And Urban Planning)

nuremberg map tenochtitlan
Map of Tenochtitlan from Nuremberg, via Library of the University of British Columbia

 

As popular culture and world history education in high school has often reminded us, human sacrifice was at the center of Aztec culture. Above is the map of Tenochtitlan published in Nuremberg, which laid within the Holy Roman Empire in 1524. While the map is highly stylized, the center of the city draws one’s attention. It clearly shows the Great Temple (or Templo Mayor) as the center of the entire city.

 

The Templo Mayor appears to have been constructed soon after the Mexica people arrived on Tenochtitlan. Evidence shows that 1325 was when the temple was built. It was dedicated to the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli.

 

This temple firmly weaves two important aspects of the Aztec people together – their engineering feats and their large-scale human sacrifice. Soil mechanics studies proved that, like the chinampas that were built, the Templo Mayor was constructed on an artificial island. The god that this temple was dedicated to, Huitzilopochtli, is more or less the god of the Aztecs and the Mexica people.

 

aztec templo mayor
An engraving of the Templo Mayor from 1684, via Library of the University of British Columbia

 

Huitzilopochtli can be identified as the Aztec Sun God, but also their God of War. The Aztecs believed the god needed daily ritual sacrifice. It was so important that they developed a word for it: tlaxcaltiliztli. As one would expect, this nourishment would be provided with blood and human hearts.

 

Again, the sacrificial slaughter of people stands in direct contrast to the minds needed to design the city of Tenochtitlan. The city is very clearly grid-like, similar to Manhattan in New York City or the French Quarter in New Orleans. The grid was uniform and divided the city into four major areas. However, the temple dedicated to a bloodthirsty god had another use: it tracked the cycles of the sun.

 

Though the cycles appear in an unnatural 13 or 20-day cycle, the Templo Mayor seemed to be used as a calendar of sorts. However, it later appeared that these cycles of the sun with the use of the local landmarks and temples as markers were for agricultural means. This would have helped the Aztecs reap those seven harvests a year. And perhaps most interestingly enough, the temples were designed to catch both the summer and winter solstices. When the sun would rise on those days of the year, it would rise directly between the two temples; it would have been an ethereal sight. Unless you were a ritual sacrifice.

 

aztec sacrifice depiction
Depictions of Aztec sacrifices from the Codex Magliabechiano CL. XIII.3, (B. R. 232), via famsi.org

 

The Aztecs clearly had a huge demand for human labor for their rituals. Since volunteering for such a thing was likely as uncommon as today, especially in such large amounts, the Aztecs used prisoners of war. As the Mexican Valley at this time was clearly often riddled with violence and blood, prisoners of war were common. Since the Aztec Triple-Alliance was the uncontested ruler of the area after their defeat of Azcapotzalco, they had plenty of prisoners to choose from.

 

The need for large-scale human sacrifice was more of a result of the Triple Alliance’s pursuit of power, rather than a direct desire to commit massacres. To maintain its position as the most powerful nation in the area, the alliance chose to rule through fear – as many empires do. Just like the Nazis sacrificed hundreds of thousands on the Eastern Front as they pushed further into the Soviet Union to maintain control, the Aztecs did the same. And while there were songs and poems rallying against the unnecessary violence, in much the same way as the Nazis, those in power saw no other option but to continue the massacres.

 

map new spain
Map of New Spain by Emmanuel Bowen, 1747, via raremaps.com

 

And just like how rebellion and resistance assisted in decapitating the German Reich from the lands they invaded, the same eventually happened to the Aztecs. However, it took about a year after the death of Montezuma in 1520 for the resistance to spread. Once the Tlaxcalans and other groups of the area recognized the technological superiority in compasses, cannons, ships, and weaponry of the Spanish, they decided to join the Spanish.

 

And with the coalition of the Spanish and local rivals, the Aztecs fell in 1521. Tenochtitlan was sieged and raided and razed to the ground. Just as many other Native Americans died of disease, so did many Aztecs in their fortress island capital. The Nezahualcoyotl Dike was damaged. Human sacrifice ceased with the spread of Spanish Catholicism. And the city of Tenochtitlan became the capital of New Spain.

27 Jan. 2023
lucian bust strang true history illustrations

 

A True Story, also known as True History, was written by Lucian in the 2nd Century CE. Lucian of Samosata was a Syrian-born satirist known for his literary and philosophical criticism of popular classical works. A True Story is considered among the best of his works. In this novel, Lucian’s literary objective was to expose authors, such as Homer or Herodotus, who paraded their narratives as truth. A True Story is, therefore, absurdly exaggerated to parody these travel narratives through a fantastical trip to the furthest place in classical imagination, the moon.

 

The Purpose Lucian’s True History 

lucian satirist bust
Lucian the Satirist, by W Faithorn, circa 1830, via The British Museum

 

“I shall tell the truth in saying that I lie.”
A True Story, Book 1

 

In the prologue, Lucian states that there is a singular truth within his narrative that everything is a lie. The aim of A True Story was to expose ancient authors who masqueraded their overly exaggerated tales as historical events, satirizing their work by pushing the fantasy of the past to an extreme. The unrealistic nature of the novel allowed for a voyage that transgressed earthly limits, unintentionally allowing Lucian to develop the first science fiction novel.

 

Whether A True Story can be considered a science fiction novel has been largely debated. However, the novel undeniably fulfills several facets of the genre. As such, it is widely considered the earliest surviving work of science fiction.

 

Synopsis

turner fishermen sea painting
Fishermen at Sea by J.M.W. Turner, exhibited 1796, via The Tate London

 

Lucian and his companions begin their journey at the Pillars of Heracles before sailing onward to a mysterious island inhabited by a deadly species. After this episode, they are whisked away by a storm to the moon, where they find themselves in the middle of a war between the sun and moon inhabitants. During this time, they encounter and learn about the strange lifeforms and cultures that exist in space.

 

On their return to earth, they observe many places, including a curious city of animated lamps. There is no rest for the travelers as they finally arrive on earth and find themselves swallowed by a gigantic whale. Remarkably, they find whole civilizations and lands within its belly. After killing and escaping the whale, they quickly jump from a sea of milk, where exists an island of cheese, to the land of the Blessed. There they meet and interact with infamous characters of the past.

 

The book ends suddenly with Lucian promising that their travels will continue in future books, his final lie. Although absurd, strange, and unbelievable, jampacked with a variance of places and characters, Lucian contributes an unprecedented story to classical literature.

 

Alien Seduction: The Island of the Vine-Women

strang vine women illustration
The island women, for an 1894 edition of the True History illustrated by Willian Strang, J. B. Clark, and Aubrey Beardsley, via Old Book Illustrations

 

A True Story begins with the travelers landing upon and exploring a mysterious island. Here, they find peculiar phenomena such as a river of wine and beautiful women-like beings made of vines. Seduced by these creatures, a few of the men become permanently entrapped in their vines. This first abnormal encounter, in fact, takes place on earth in the form of a classic alien seduction.

 

Near the end of the book, the episode is recalled when the men come across the “Ass-legs”. These creatures, who disguised themselves as prostitutes, are revealed to have the upper body of a woman and lower half of a donkey. They attempt to seduce the men, like the vine-women, but are unsuccessful. Hybrid creatures are notably observed when the travelers are on the moon, connecting the alien to the earthly.

 

Journey to the Moon

méliès square in eye film illustration
“Square in the Eye”, illustration from Georges Méliès’s film “A Trip to the Moon”, 1902, via The New York Times

 

After leaving the island of the vine-women, the men are whirled away by a storm and ascend toward space. Unlike the strange and otherworldly island, the place appears to be familiar to the travelers being described as a civilized and inhabited land. This feature of science fiction is called “cognitive estrangement”, ensuring relatability by describing unfamiliar concepts as familiar and vice versa. Captured by men on gigantic vultures, the men are taken to their king, who reveals that they are on the moon. He informs the travelers that they are at war with the inhabitants of the Sun, giant ant-riders, over the colonization of the Morning Star.

 

During their space journey, the men observe animals and insects reinvented as enormous monsters introducing the science fiction motif of giganticism. Indeed, the men are later swallowed by a 320-km-long whale in which exists cities, forests, and tribes of fish-men.

 

Sun & Moon Natives 

strang space war illustration
The battle of the turnips, for an 1894 edition of the True History illustrated by Willian Strang, J. B. Clark, and Aubrey Beardsley, via The Smithsonian Magazine

 

As the inter-planetary war commences, Lucian describes a variety of strange alien lifeforms, hybrid creatures and bizarre weapons. The cavalry of the Moon consists of men mounting “Horse-vultures” or “Salad-wings” described as giant birds adorned with various herbs and feathers of lettuce. The army also contains “Millet-throwers” and “Garlic-men”, food throwers as the name suggests, as well as “Flea-archers” being colossal fleas the size of elephants.

 

On the other side, the army of the Sun is comprised of other hybrid beings who ride the “Horse-ants” and “Sky-gnats”. The rest of their army includes the fatal radish throwers called the “Sky-pirouettes”, the “Stalk-fungi” who used mushrooms as shields and the “Dog-acorns”, dog-faced men who fought on winged acorns. Ultimately, the army of the sun is victorious over that of the moon.

 

strang leg born babies illustration
Lucian’s True History, for an 1894 edition of the True History illustrated by Willian Strang, J. B. Clark, and Aubrey Beardsley, via The Smithsonian Magazine

 

After the war, Lucian provides a lengthy biology of the moon inhabitants confirming their alien status. He describes explicitly the creation of the “Tree-men” who are formed through the castration of the lunar people and subsequent planting of the genitals. The moon natives are bald and hairless, with a single toe on each foot and a tail of cabbage. They can remove their eyes as they wish. Their mucus is honey, their sweat is milk, and they have marsupial pouches for their young.

 

Remarkably, women do not exist on the moon. The men are considered the ‘wife’ until the age of twenty-five after which they become the ‘husband’. Male pregnancy occurs in their calves. These leg-born babies are born dead and brought to life by breathing wind in their mouths. The resemblance in appearance and biology to a stereotypical portrayal of an alien is unmistakable.

 

Artificial Intelligence: The City of Lamps 

 

Nearing the end of the book, the narrator describes Lychnopolis, the City of Lamps, where the inhabitants are animated lamps who have formed their own society. The objects of humans forming their own civilization seem to incorporate a small artificial intelligence-esque addition to the world of True History. Another technological aspect is mentioned earlier during the lunar episode, where on the moon exists a marvelous mirror hanging over a well in which an observer could see anything on earth. In other words, a fantastical type of telescope.

 

Utopian and Dystopian Islands

bosh garden earthly delights painting
The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosh, 1503-1515, via Museo del Prado

 

Commonly found within the science fiction genre, utopian fiction constructs the image of an ideal society. One of the earliest examples of utopian fiction is Plato’s Republic, a clear influence on the utopian inclusion with A True Story.

 

Nearing the end of the book, the men arrive at the Island of the Blessed. The island is described as the ultimate paradise with cities of gold, walls of emerald, rivers of oil, clothes of spiderwebs, and land filled in abundance with fruit and flowers. The inhabitants of the island are significant classical figures ranging from Odysseus to Ajax to Socrates, to name a few. True to his satirist status, Lucian mocks the notion of a utopia by stating that Plato does not reside on this island but on his own envisioned utopia from The Republic. He goes on to express that the utopian society is purely a hypothetical idea and is only awarded worth through the minds of those from a normal society. The group is soon banished from the island when one of the travelers attempts to flee with Helen, a minor allusion to the Trojan War.

 

Continuing their journey, the men find themselves in a hellish place, smelling the roasting of human flesh, seeing nothing in the darkness, and hearing the crack of whips as well as screams. Climbing jagged rocks, they come across grounds of knives and stakes surrounded by rivers of slime, blood, and flames. Directly contrasted with the previous utopia, the travelers arrive at a kind of dystopian island. A dystopia, also commonly found in the science fiction genre, is an imagined society that is entirely undesirable and defective.

 

The Influence of Lucian’s True History on Science Fiction 

lix scene gullivers travels painting
Scene from Gulliver’s Travels, by Frederic Lix, 1890, via AKG Images

 

A True Story has undeniably influenced the science fiction genre, impacting many famous authors. Jonathan Swift, inspired by Lucian’s satiric yet fantastical journey, created his own in Gulliver’s Travels. In The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall, Edgar Allan Poe writes of a similar voyage to the moon. The anthropology and biology of alien creatures, seen in A True Story, was drawn upon in Voltaire’s Micromégas. Certainly, A True Story has impacted other famous science fiction works as well, demonstrating that it must be regarded within the genre of science fiction itself.

 

A True Story certainly satisfies the typical criteria of the sci-fi genre with the inclusion of space travel, alien creatures, space colonization, interplanetary war, and marvelous technology. Lucian’s sole purpose may have been to create an overly absurd travel narrative, challenging his literary predecessors. However, in doing so, he inadvertently aided in the creation of the science fiction genre.

27 Jan. 2023
best philosophical concepts to know

 

What is the meaning of life? What are good and evil? What is justice? These are some of the questions that philosophers have been asking for centuries. Philosophy is a complex and fascinating field of study that can sometimes seem daunting to beginners. And while there’s no one answer that everyone will agree on, it’s still important to know some of the most fundamental ideas in philosophy. Here are ten common philosophical concepts everyone should be familiar with, regardless of educational background.

 

1. Plato’s Theory of Ideas

gustave courbet la grotte de la lue painting
La Grotte de la Loue, Gustave Courbet, 1864, via National Gallery of Art

 

Plato was the first to separate the “world of things” from the “world of ideas.” According to Plato, the idea (eidos) is the source of a thing, its prototype, the underlying reality of any particular object. For example, the “idea of a table” can either coincide with a particular table in reality or not match. But the “idea of the table” and the “concrete table” will continue to exist separately.

 

A vivid illustration of the division of the world into the world of ideas and the world of objects is the famous Platonic myth of the cave, in which people see not objects and other people but only their shadows on the wall of the cave. In this metaphor, the shadows projected on the wall of the cave correspond to the individual objects in the world, while the objects whose shadows are on the wall correspond to the ideas – which are more fundamental and real, in Plato’s view.

 

The cave for Plato is an allegory of our world, where people live, believing that the shadows on the walls of the caves are the only way to know reality. However, in reality, the shadows are just an illusion. Still, because of this illusion, it is difficult for people to pose critical questions about the existence of reality and overcome their “false consciousness.”

 

Developing Platonic ideas, philosophers of later times reached the concept of the transcendent and the “thing-in-itself.”

 

2. The Concept of Introspection

van gogh self portrait painting
Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat, Vincent van Gogh, 1887, via Van Gogh Museum

 

Introspection is a way of achieving self-knowledge during which a person observes their internal reaction to events in the external world. Introspection is motivated by a fundamental human need to examine the self carefully, to explain to themselves why they believe what they believe and whether there is a possibility that their belief is wrong.

 

The founder of introspection as a method of inquiry is the British educator and philosopher John Locke, who, relying on the ideas of Rene Descartes, pointed out that there are only two direct sources of all knowledge: the objects of the external world and the human mind. In this regard, all significant psychological facts of consciousness are open to study only by the subject of knowledge itself. It may well be that “blue” for one person is not at all the same as “blue” for another.

 

The method of introspection helps to keep track of the stages of thinking, breaking down feelings into elements and providing a complete picture of the relationship between thoughts and actions. Introspection teaches us to think more abstractly and broadly, for example, to perceive a “big red apple” as a sensation of red, replaced by an impression of a round one and a trace of a taste sensation. But do not go too deep into introspection – excessive focus on tracking your own impressions can dull the perception of reality.

 

3. The Concept of Solipsism

author unknown mysterious stranger illustration
Illustration to the book Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain, Author unknown, via Project Gutenberg

 

Solipsism is a philosophical concept according to which a person recognizes only their mind as the only reality that always exists and is always available. Mark Twain demonstrates the main message of solipsism in his story The Mysterious Stranger:

 

“There is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell. It is all a Dream, a grotesque and foolish dream. Nothing exists but you. And You are but a Thought – a vagrant Thought, a useless Thought, a homeless Thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities.”

 

The same idea, in general, is illustrated by the films Mr. Nobody, The Beginning, and The Matrix.

 

According to solipsism, only a person’s perception of reality and their thoughts are available to them, while the entire external world is beyond the bounds of certainty. Therefore, the existence of things for a person will always be only a matter of faith, since if someone requires proof of their existence, a person will not be able to provide them.

 

In other words, no person can be sure of the existence of anything outside of their consciousness. Solipsism is not so much doubt about the existence of reality as a recognition of the importance of the role of one’s own mind. The concept of solipsism either needs to be assimilated as it is or to accept “solipsism in reverse,” that is, to give yourself a rational explanation of the relative external world and justify why this external world still exists.

 

4. The Theodicy: The Attempt to Vindicate God

sandro botticelli sant_agostino painting
St Augustine, Sandro Botticelli, 1480, via WikiArt

 

If the world was created according to some higher plan, why is there so much absurdity and suffering in it? Most believers sooner or later begin to ask this question. Theodicy comes to the aid of the desperate. It is a religious and philosophical concept according to which God is unconditionally recognized as an absolute good, from which any responsibility for the presence of evil in the world is removed.

 

Leibniz created this doctrine to conditionally “justify” God. The main question of this concept is: why does God not want to rid the world of misfortunes? The possible answers can be reduced to four: either God wants to rid the world of evil but cannot, or he can but does not want to, or he cannot and does not want to, or he can and wants to. The first three options do not correlate with the idea of God as the Absolute, and the last option does not explain the presence of evil in the world.

 

The problem of theodicy arises in any monotheistic religion where the responsibility for evil in the world should theoretically be assigned to God. In practice, laying responsibility on God is not possible since religions recognize God as a kind of ideal being who has the right to the presumption of innocence.

 

One of the main ideas of theodicy is that God created the best of all possible worlds, and, therefore, only the best is collected in it, and the presence of evil in this world is considered only as a consequence of the need for ethical diversity. Recognizing theodicy or not is a personal matter related to one’s faith, but it is certainly worth exploring the concept.

 

5. Moral Relativism

frederic shoberl hindoo woman painting
An Hindoo Woman Throwing Herself on the Funeral Pyre of Her Husband, Frederic Shoberl, via WikiMedia

 

Life would be much easier if good and evil were fixed, absolute concepts. But often, we are faced with the fact that what is good in one situation may be evil in another. We are approaching moral relativism, becoming less definite about what is good and what is bad. This ethical principle denies the dichotomous division of the concepts of “good” and “evil” and does not recognize the existence of mandatory, absolute moral norms and categories.

 

Moral relativism, unlike moral absolutism, does not hold that there are absolute universal moral standards and principles. It is not morality that dominates the situation, but the situation over morality. That is, not just the fact of some action is important, but its context.

 

The philosophical doctrine of “permissiveness” recognizes each individual’s right to form their own system of values and their own ideas about the categories of good and evil and allows us to assert that morality is, in essence, a relative concept.

 

6. Categorical Imperative or the Golden Rule of Morality

rembrandt peale court of death painting
The Court of Death, Rembrandt Peale, 1820, via Detroit Institute of Arts

 

“Treat others how you want to be treated” – surely many of us have heard this phrase or its semblance at least once. We usually agree that it is perceived as something familiar and self-evident. However, this is not just a common expression or proverb; this phrase is similar to an important philosophical concept in ethics, which is called the “categorical imperative” or the “golden rule” of morality.

 

The term “categorical imperative” was introduced by German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who developed the concept of an ethics based in autonomy. According to this concept, moral principles always exist, do not depend on the environment, and must constantly connect with each other. The categorical imperative says that a person must use specific principles that guide their behavior.

 

According to this ethical concept, a person must act according to the maxim, which, in his opinion, could become a universal law. Also, within the framework of this concept, Kant proposes not to consider the other person as a means to an end, but to treat them as the ultimate goal. Of course, such an approach will not save us from mistakes, but decisions become much more conscious if you think that every time you choose, you do so not only for yourself but for all of humanity.

 

7. Determinism/Indeterminism: Are Our Fates Sealed?

jon krause free will illustration philosophical concepts
Free Will Illustration, Jon Krause, via Harvard Magazine

 

If we want to investigate free will, fate and predestination, we have to consider the concept of determinism – the philosophical doctrine of predestination, the interconnectedness of everything that is happening, and the presence of a unique cause for everything that exists. Everything is predetermined. Everything will happen according to a given pattern – this is the main postulate of determinism.

 

Free will, according to this doctrine, does not exist, and in different interpretations of determinism, the fate of a person depends on various factors: either it is predetermined by God or by an extensive philosophically comprehended category of “nature.”

 

Within the framework of the doctrine of determinism, no events are considered random but are the consequence of a predetermined, but unknown to man, a chain of events. Determinism excludes belief in free will, in which all responsibility for actions lies with the person themselves, and forces the individual to entrust their fate entirely to the external world’s causality, regularity, and omnipotence. Because of this, determinism is a convenient idea for those who don’t want to take responsibility for themselves.

 

8. Cogito Ergo Sum: I Think, Therefore I Am

jonas suyderhoff rene descartes portrait philosophical concepts
René Descartes, Jonas Suyderhoff, 1650s, via National Gallery of Art

 

“I think, therefore I am” is a philosophical concept originating from the rationalist philosopher Rene Descartes, and a good starting point for those who doubt everything. This formula arose when Descartes was trying to find the primary, indisputable and absolute truth, based on which one can build a philosophical concept of absolute knowledge.

 

Descartes questioned everything: the outside world, his feelings, God, and public opinion. The only thing that could not be questioned was one’s own existence since the very process of doubting one’s own existence was proof of this existence. Hence the formula appeared: “I doubt, therefore, I think; I think, therefore I am,” which was transformed into “I think, therefore I am” – this phrase became the metaphysical basis of modern philosophy. It proclaimed the dominant position of the Subject, around which it became possible to build reliable knowledge.

 

9. “God Is Dead”

edvard munch friedrich nietzsche portrait
Friedrich Nietzsche, Edvard Munch, 1960, via WikiMedia

 

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us?”

 

In saying “God is dead,” Nietzsche was not implying the death of God in a literal sense. He meant that in traditional society, the existence of God was a fact; he was in a single reality with people. But in the era of modernity, he ceased to be part of external reality, becoming an internal idea. It caused a crisis in the value system, which was previously based on the Christian worldview. It means that the time has come to revise this system – in fact, this is what the philosophy and culture of postmodernity are doing.

 

10. Existential Crisis: A Contemporary Philosophical Concept

benton spruance to freedom painting philosophical concepts
To Freedom, Benton Spruance, 1952, via Whitney Museum of American Art

 

Existentialism, one of the main philosophical currents of the 20th century, focuses on the uniqueness of human beings. It is also called the “philosophy of existence.” The forerunner of existentialism was the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Back in the 19th century, he first formulated the concept of “existence,” opposing it to the “system” of the German idealist Hegel.

 

An existential crisis is a feeling of anxiety and anxiety associated with the loss of the meaning of life. Existential psychologists such as Irvin Yalom and Rollo May have widely studied this concept. Essentially, an existential crisis is the loss of the meaning of life.

 

An existential crisis can be provoked by a difficult situation in the world, uncertainty in the economic sphere, the illness of a loved one, a direct encounter with death, and great life upheavals. An existential crisis is always connected with how a person lives their life, how fully and deeply, and occurs either when this life is threatened – directly or indirectly, or in a situation where a life does not “suit” the person living it.

 

The notion of existential crisis resulted from the collapse of the traditional value system described above. It is generated by the idea that human existence has neither a predetermined purpose nor an objective meaning. It goes against our deepest need to believe that human life has value. But the absence of the original meaning does not mean the loss of meaning in general. According to the concept of existentialism, the value of life is manifested precisely in the way a person fulfills themselves, in the choices made by them, and in their actions.

27 Jan. 2023
the most important cities of hellenistic world
The Acropolis of Pergamon, reconstruction 1882

 

The Hellenistic cities were one of the most visible legacies of Alexander the Great’s legendary conquest. Alexander’s massive Empire collapsed soon after the young ruler’s death. However, the Hellenistic World outlived Alexander, becoming his lasting legacy. And its most recognizable feature was the city. Inspired by the classical Greek polis, all of the towns had a similar plan and the same set of public buildings: the city council (boule), colonnaded walkways (stoa) surrounding a public square (agora), temples, theaters, libraries, and gymnasia.

 

The streets and squares were filled with monuments, statues and inscriptions, celebrating the achievements of wealthy patrons — rulers and prominent city members. As centers of culture, trade and politics, the cities for centuries acted as a prime movers in creating and spreading the unified Hellenistic culture, which left a lasting mark on a vast area stretching from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Himalayas. Their importance was so great that once the Roman Empire took this area, the Hellenistic cities retained their importance and rights under the new regime.

 

Alexandria ad Aegyptum – The City of Alexander the Great

egypte alexandrie vue generale jc golvin
Ancient Alexandria, by Jean Golvin

 

Located on the shores of the Mediterranean, in the Nile delta, Alexandria ad Aegyptum (Alexandria by Egypt) was the greatest of all Hellenistic cities. Founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC, Alexandria became the capital of the powerful Ptolemaic Kingdom. By the 2nd century BC, Alexandria grew into a cosmopolitan metropolis of 300.000 people. Its famed Library attracted scholars, philosophers, scientists, and artists from all over the Hellenistic World, turning the city into a cultural and intellectual powerhouse. In addition, Alexandria was renowned for its magnificent buildings, including the lavish tomb of its founder, the Royal Palace, the giant causeway (and breakwater) the Heptastadion, and most importantly, the majestic Lighthouse of Pharos. Even after the Roman annexation in 30 BC, Alexandria retained its importance, second only to Rome.

 

Antioch ad Orontes – The Jewel of the East

jc-golvin-antioch-orontes-city-painting
Antioch, Jean Claude Golvin

 

Soon after Alexander the Great’s death, his vast empire fell apart. In 301 BC, one of Alexander’s diadochi, Seleucus I Nicator (Victor), founded a new city at the bank of the Orontes in the fertile valley near the Mediterranean Sea. Soon, Antioch became the western capital of the vast Seleucid Empire. Antioch’s wealth originated from its strategic location at the west terminus of the Silk Road, a major trade route linking distant China with the Eastern Mediterranean. Like Alexandria, Antioch was a cosmopolitan metropolis, attracting people from all corners of the Hellenistic world.

 

It was also a city noted for its luxurious living, reflected in the magnificent mosaics and remains of the opulent villas. The fashionable suburb of Daphne, built halfway between the city and its port, became a favorite retreat for the wealthy and powerful, both in the Seleucid, and later, in the Roman period. The Daphne parks hosted the great temple of Pythian Apollo, one of the major centers of pilgrimage.

 

Seleucia – The Heart of the Empire

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Seleucus in a chariot drawn by four elephants, from Seleucia ad Tigrim, British Museum, London

 

The Seleucid Empire was the largest of all Hellenistic kingdoms, stretching at its height from Asia Minor and the eastern Mediterranean coast all the way to India. Right amid the vast territory was Mesopotamia, and in its center, on the banks of the Tigris, was Seleucia. Another foundation of Seleucus I, Seleucia was one of the largest Hellenistic cities. At its height, during the second century BCE, the city and its immediate surroundings supported over half a million people. Seleucia was also an important center of trade, culture and government. The great city on the Tigris benefited from its optimal location in the middle of the Silk Road, the famed trade route of the ancient world. However, following the collapse of the Seleucid Empire, Seleucia’s role decreased. Eventually, the city of Seleucus became part of Ctesiphon, the capital of the Parthian Empire.

 

Ephesus – The Gem of Asia Minor

ephesus hellenistic world city
Ancient city of Ephesus, by Jean Claude Golvin

 

Unlike the Hellenistic cities founded by the heirs of Alexander, we can trace the history of Ephesus and Pergamon back to the classical Greek period. After all, Ephesus was home to the Great Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. During the Hellenistic period, the city had to be moved two kilometers inland to its present-day location due to the silting of the old port and the emergence of unhealthy marshland. Most of its famous monumental architecture, however, comes from the Roman period, when Ephesus became one of the most important cities in the Empire.

 

Pergamon – The Hellenistic City That Replaced Athens

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Base Frieze of The Pergamon Altar, Pergamon Museum, Berlin

 

For the first time mentioned by Xenophon as one of the locations of the March of Ten Thousand, Pergamon (or Pergamum) rose to prominence as the capital of the Attalid dynasty. The Attalids wanted to create a second Athens, a cultural and intellectual hub of the ancient Hellenistic world. The Acropolis of Athens inspired Pergamon’s Acropolis, and the Library of Pergamon was second only to the Library of Alexandria. Pergamon continued to be an important center of Asia Minor during the Roman period, especially under philhellene emperor Hadrian, who commissioned an ambitious building programme: massive temples, a stadium, a huge forum, a theatre and an amphitheatre.

27 Jan. 2023
how are cultural rules created deleuze hume illustration

 

How is culture created? What are the parameters by which social rules are set? This article focuses on the creation of culture, and in particular the creation of the underlying rules by which culture is regulated. These are the rules by which the interests, desires or partialities grounded in a particular perspective come to be subsumed in rules determined for the good of the whole society, or all those who can be counted within a certain culture.

 

This article begins by focusing on the relationship between culture and ethics. It then proceeds to consider the extension of the passions as the basis for cultural rules, such as those we often call ‘justice’. Lastly, this theory of culture is related back to what Deleuze takes to be Hume’s philosophical project: an analysis of human nature.

 

Culture and Ethics in Deleuze and Hume

painting david hume
David Hume, 1711 – 1776. Historian and philosopher, Allan Ramsay, 1766, via the National Galleries of Scotland

 

Deleuze argues that Hume’s conception of culture depends on his conception of ethics, and so Deleuze turns to focus on ethics first of all. He begins by arguing that, for Hume, there are two elements of our natural ethical functions: that of moral conscience and perspective. Moral conscience is what prompts us to such things as praise or blame. Moral conscience is the stimulus of distinctly ‘ethical’ judgments. Moral conscience has an ‘original nature’, which establishes it as oriented towards character in general.

 

However, we also naturally make judgments which are grounded in our particular point of view. The question, then, is how we can learn to be thoroughly sympathetic – meaning, how we can learn to liberate our native, generalized moral conscience from our particular point of view. If social organization is defined by rules which govern this organization, the problem of generalization underlies the creation of such cultural and social rules for Hume. His project is to investigate the extension of sympathy.

 

The Restraint of Individuals

justice painting ovens
Justice, Jürgen Ovens, 1662, via Google Arts & Culture

 

It is conventional, in certain contexts, to associate the principles by which societies are governed as those which restrain individuals in the pursuit of their own interests. Certainly, this conception is alive and well in the popular conception of the role of the state. However, as Deleuze points out, Hume is skeptical of the idea of the ‘individual interest’ in the modern, liberal capitalist concept.

 

For one thing, desires or passions find their resolution in a social context; very few desires are genuinely orientated exclusively towards the individual. What we have are better regarded as partialities – preferences towards certain social groups, or even certain forms of social resolution (resolution, that is, for our desires). For another thing, Hume doesn’t believe that social rules can or should aim to restrain our desires, passions, or partialities. This latter point bears some further explanation.

 

Natural Needs, Artificial Means 

hume painting allan ramsay
Portrait of David Hume, Allan Ramsay, 1754, via the National Galleries of Scotland.

 

As Deleuze tells us, even though Hume does hold that our needs are natural, he nonetheless affirms that the satisfaction of all our needs is possible through artificial means: industry and culture. This introduces artificiality into our identification of our interests – they are not immediate, holding in light of our nature, but in light of the ways in which we affect the world. It is this which allows passions to be ‘liberated’ from their natural limits.

 

Now, there certainly seems to be a kind of progressive aspect here, insofar as we are encouraged to think of our pre-artificial desires as real and distinct. In any case, taking the liberation of the passions rather than their suppression as the function of cultural rules, allows Deleuze to make the following claim about justice (which is often taken as the exemplary instance of a social rule): “passions are not limited by justice: they are enlarged and extended”. The thought here is, presumably, the same passions that are normally governed by the bounds of partiality should be intensified such that those boundaries can be broken.

 

Reflecting Our Interests 

la justice painting
La Justice, Eustache Le Sueur, 1650, via Wikimedia Commons

 

This conception of social organization seems, on the face of it, quite appealing. For one thing, it constructs the relationship between our passions and social organization in such a way as to exclude the need to either repress or coerce our passions. What is involved in the construction of cultural rules is the extension of what is already native to our passions. What is called for, thus, is not a “reflection on interest but a reflection of interest”. Deleuze quotes Hume thus:

 

“There is no passion, therefore, capable of controlling the interested affection, but the very affection itself, by an alteration of its direction. Now this alteration must necessarily take place upon the least reflection.”

 

What is so fascinating about this conception of how individuals and their passions relate to societies or cultures is that it posits that the most extensive, most free manifestation of an individual’s passion is that which they express only when it is directed towards everyone. Implicitly, the concept of the furthest extension of an individual’s passion can also be taken to define the boundaries of a culture. Certainly, there are more arbitrary and less useful definitions.

 

Affections of the Mind 

states of mind painting
States of Mind III: Those Who Stay, Umberto Boccioni, 1911, via MoMA

 

Deleuze’s reading of Hume also offers a conception of reason in which it is subsumed within the ‘affections of the mind’, the category of which passion is a part. Reason is not a separate faculty, but rather an act of determination or direction. Reason and affection, nature and artifice, even passion and social conscience: these are just some of the false dualisms which Deleuze sees Hume’s work as opposing. Rather, Deleuze sees Hume as opposing nature including artifice, and the mind which is affected and determined by this.

 

This dualism has a hierarchical (or possibly directional) structure: one determines the other, one precedes the other. It is this division, particularly in contradistinction to the division between nature and artifice, which gives social and cultural rules their force as rules: “the fact that the meaning of justice is not reduced to an instinct or to natural obligation does not prevent the existence of moral instinct or natural obligation; above all, it does not prevent the existence of a natural obligation to justice, once the latter is constituted”.

 

Inventiveness

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A photograph of Gilles Deleuze, 1990s, via Wikimedia Commons

 

The integration of artifice within the category of nature is due, as Deleuze puts it, to the intrinsic inventiveness of human beings. Here he refers to French philosopher Henri Bergson, who holds that – whilst habits are not themselves natural, the taking up of habits is.

 

The point here is to say that, as much as we are able to construct our habits and practices for ourselves, what is natural and inescapable is that we should take up these artificial habits. Here the identification of the boundaries of culture and the constitution of social or cultural rules now reverts to an analysis of human nature: this is, after all, both where Hume’s investigation starts and where it must end.

 

History is a part of human nature, and human nature is a kind of residue or affect of history. As Deleuze puts it, “Nature is what history does not explain, what cannot be defined, what may even be useless to describe, or what is common in the most diverse ways of satisfying a tendency”.

 

Deleuze on Claims About Human Nature

great deal human nature man
Great Deal of Human Nature in Man, Alfred Jacob Miller, between 1825-1870, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Whether implicitly or otherwise, many claims are made on human nature in philosophy, in political discourse, in the human sciences. Deleuze raises the possibility that the sheer extent of naturalization that is possible within an empiricist program might even make human nature itself useless to describe. If this sounds implausible, it shouldn’t. If nature is defined broadly enough, so as to include all that is contingent about human activity and thought, then fixating on what is fixed might tell us far less than we imagine.

 

When we attempt to theorize human nature, we often seem to be in pursuit of limits: of delineating what we cannot do, of the further extent of human power. What Deleuze seems to be building into his analysis of Hume is an answer to the following question: what are the consequences of adopting an empiricism in which the basic units of thought are those derived from experience in such a way that they are qualitatively identical to perceptions?

 

If human nature involves faculties of perception and associations, no matter how extensive these might be, to speak of faculties or nature in itself might turn out to be superfluous. The implication for culture is that we need not distinguish the history of culture from the nature of its inhabitants: we are free to create universalizing systems of cultural rules.

26 Jan. 2023
attila hun portrait death villeclere painting

 

Attila the Hun is one of the few names from antiquity that prompts instant recognition, along with Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Cleopatra, and Nero. He is widely considered “the barbarian” of the ancient world. After all, this man was called flagellum Dei – the Scourge of God.

 

In the mid-5th century CE, Attila ruled over a vast Eurasian Empire. The fear he instilled lingered for centuries. Medieval artists stressed Attila’s inhumanity, depicting the Hunnic leader with a goatish beard and devil’s horns.

 

For Enlightenment historian Edward Gibbon, Attila was a “savage destroyer” of whom it was said, “the grass never grew on the spot where his horse had trod.” During the Great War, the British emphasized the “otherness” of their opponents, by calling them “Huns.” Recently, however, historians have reconsidered Attila’s life and reign, giving us a more nuanced perspective on the man “born into the world to shake nations.”

 

1. Attila the Hun Came from a Privileged and Educated Background

feast of attila the hun mor
Feast of Attila, by Mor Than, 1870, via the Hungarian National Gallery

 

Far from the stereotype of the unwashed, uneducated barbarian, Attila the Hun was born into one of the most powerful families on the northern bank of the Danube River. His uncles — Rugila and Octar — jointly ruled the Hun Empire in the mid-fifth century CE. As members of the Hunnic nobility, both Attila and his brother Bleda were trained in archery, sword-fighting, and, most notably, for a Hun, horse-riding. The Huns were renowned for their ability to shoot arrows accurately from horseback during battle.

 

Interestingly, both brothers spoke (and possibly read) Gothic and Latin, the latter being the lingua franca of the weakened but still formidable Roman Empire. They also got an education in the art of diplomacy. Both Attila and Bleda were present when the Hunnic kings hosted Roman ambassadors. One of them was Priscus, who left us the most reliable account of the Huns. Among the Romans present at the Hunnic court was future general Aetius, who had spent his youth as a hostage with the Huns and had grown up with Attila.

 

2. Initially, Attila Was a Roman Ally

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The map showing the approximate position of the Hunnic Empire in the mid-5th century CE, via Thoughco.com

 

Following the deaths of their uncles in 434, Bleda and Attila inherited joint control over the Hun Empire. Unlike their predecessors, who waged a series of wars against the Roman Empire, the new rulers negotiated a treaty with the emperor in Constantinople. Emperor Theodosius II agreed to pay around 700 pounds of gold annually to keep the peace between the Huns and the Romans. However, only a few years later, Attila resumed hostilities, claiming that the Romans had violated the treaty.

 

Exploiting the absence of Roman border troops sent to fight the Vandals, Attila crossed the Danube, advancing deep into imperial territory. The city of Naissus (modern-day Niš), the birthplace of emperor Constantine the Great, was razed and remained in ruins for centuries afterward. Once again, Theodosius was forced to sue for peace, paying Attila the staggering sum of 2100 pounds of gold per year (!).

 

While Attila waged war against Constantinople, his relations with the Western Roman Empire were more amicable. In fact, for more than a decade, the Huns were close allies of the Roman general Flavius Aetius. Aetius, who had previously been a hostage of the Huns, used Hunnic horse-riders to suppress threats from internal revolts and hostile Germanic tribes, such as the Franks, Visigoths, and Burgundians. As a result, with the help of the Huns, Aetius managed to stabilize Roman control over Gaul (modern-day France). In turn, those victories solidified Aetius’ control over the Western Roman army, making him the emperor in all but name.

 

3. His brother Died a Mysterious Death

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Attila and his Hordes Overrun Italy and the Arts (detail), Eugene Delacroix, 1843-47, via the Web Gallery of Art

 

Not much is known about the relationship between Attila the Hun and his brother Bleda. They seem to have tolerated each other, jointly ruling over the Hun Empire for over a decade. They led their warriors on raids against Sassanid Persia and the Roman Empire. In 443, unable to take Constantinople, the Hunnic kings made peace with Theodosius II and withdrew back to the Pannonian plain.

 

The details are hazy, but in 445, Bleda was dead. We do not know how he met his end. According to classical sources, however, Bleda probably fell victim to his brother’s ambition. Priscus, the Roman historian, and diplomat who visited the Hunnic court on several occasions, blamed Attila for Bleda’s death. Perhaps Bleda opposed Attila’s war with the Romans. Two years after his brother’s mysterious death, Attila led another attack on the Eastern Roman Empire. The Huns stormed through the Balkans and went as far as Greece until the imperial forces managed to stop them at Thermopylae. Once again, the Romans had to sue for peace, on even harsher terms.

 

4. Attila the Hun Invaded Gaul to Win Himself a Wife

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Wooden relief showing the liberation of the besieged city, 5th century CE, via the Museum of Byzantine Art, Berlin

 

While the Eastern Roman Empire was a prime target for extortion, the imperial resistance had become more organized. In addition, Constantinople remained an insurmountable obstacle for the Huns. Even Hunnic siege engines could not break the Theodosian Walls. Attila now turned his eyes towards the Western Roman Empire. Attila had evidently planned such a move for some time, but his raids were officially provoked after he received a letter from Honoria, the sister of Emperor Valentinian III. According to seventh-century historian John of Antioch, Honoria sent a love letter to Attila, accompanied by a ring, asking the Hunnic leader to get her out of a bad marriage.

 

Attila used this flimsy pretext to invade the West, claiming that he had come to get his bride and that half of the Western Roman Empire was her rightful dowry. In spring 451, Attila crossed the Rhine River and advanced into Gaul at the head of the vast army. The Roman legions were occupied elsewhere and offered only token resistance. The Huns ravaged Gaul, using the siege weaponry to take many huge well-defended cities, including the former imperial capital of Trier. It remains unclear why Attila changed his strategy so suddenly. It may be that to stay in power; he required a major demonstration of strength. Alternatively, it may be that he felt that the emperor in Ravenna simply had not paid him enough respect (or gold).

 

5. Attila Suffered His First, and Only Defeat, at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains

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Artist’s impression of the Visigoth cavalry preparing for the charge during the Battle of Catalaunian Plains, via italiastoria.it

 

Whatever the reason, Attila’s Huns ravaging Gaul gave a major headache to his former friend, ally, and de-facto ruler of the Roman West, Flavius Aetius. As the imperial army alone could not halt the Huns, Aetius made a deal with the devil. He formed an alliance with Theodoric I, the king of the Visigoths, whom Aetius had fought and defeated with Hunnic help only a few years ago. The joint Roman-Visigoth army intercepted Attila’s forces while approaching Orleans, forcing the enemy into a pitched battle.

 

The Battle of Catalaunian Plains, also known as the Battle of Chalons, was a messy affair. Both sides suffered huge losses, but it seems that the Romans were victorious in the end. Aetius had a reason to celebrate. Not only had he defeated Attila, but his rival/ally Theodoric perished in the battle. Interestingly, the Romans allowed Attila to flee the battlefield. It is unclear why. Perhaps Aetius felt that the Huns may yet prove useful to him. Theodoric was dead, but without the Hunnic menace, the Visigoths could again become a danger to Roman control of Gaul and Aetius’ position at court.

 

6. Attila’s Last Battle

leo great attila the hun
Encounter of Leo the Great with Attila, by Raphael, mid-16th century, via Musei Vaticani

 

Aetius’ plan ultimately backfired. Attila’s ambition was more than a simple personal affair. For Attila, raids against the Romans were a political necessity. To keep his warriors happy, he needed the loot and the “gifts.” At first, this meant raids, then war, and as his empire grew, a full-scale conquest. Perhaps Attila felt that marriage to Honoria, a member of the imperial family, would make him eligible for the throne? His victory in Gaul would also undermine Aetius’ position at the court, allowing Attila to take the place of the Roman commander.

 

But his next move shocked the Romans. In 452, Attila returned with an even larger army, this time striking deep into northern Italy, and aiming for Rome itself. The Hunnic army was now in the imperial heartland, and Aetius was powerless to stop them. After taking a dozen cities in the Po valley, including Aquileia, and the old western capital of Milan, the Huns halted their advances, not because of military defeat but because of disease and famine. Following a meeting with Pope Leo the Great, Attila turned back and retreated to Pannonia for the last time.

 

7. Attila Died Horribly (and Mysteriously) on His Wedding Night

villeclere attila hun death painting
Death of Attila, J. Villeclère, 19th century, Musée des Beaux-Arts Nice, author’s private collection

 

The retreat from Italy marked the beginning of the end for Attila the Hun. In 453, while he was planning a new attack on the Eastern Roman Empire and its new emperor Marcian, Attila decided to take a new wife. Her name was Ildico, and she was probably a Germanic princess. However, on their wedding night, a tragedy occurred. The historian Jordanes tells us Attila suffered a seizure after “giving himself to excessive joy.” In the morning, appalled attendants found Attila dead, with a weeping young woman at his bedside.

 

Some suggested that Ildico played a part in his death or that he fell victim to a conspiracy engineered by Marcian; others dismissed it as a freak accident or a cautionary tale about the dangers of binge drinking. The most probable explanation is that the veins in Attila’s throat, enlarged by years of drinking, burst. Thus, Attila choked to death on his own blood. Attila’s death deprived the Huns of a great and charismatic leader. Within a few years, the Hunnic empire had disintegrated. The Western Roman Empire soon followed, with the fall of Rome in 476.

 

8. Attila the Hun’s Burial Site Remains a Secret

attila the hun 19th century portrait
A nineteenth-century depiction of Attila, by Carlo Brogi, via Wikimedia Commons

 

According to Priscus, the sudden death of the Hunnic leader was followed by a day of grief, feasting, and funeral games. Attila’s body was encased in three coffins: the innermost covered in gold, a second in silver, and a third in iron. The gold and silver symbolized the plunder Attila had seized from the Romans, while the gray iron recalled his victory in war. Then, under cover of darkness, Attila was buried in secrecy.

 

According to legend, the Huns diverted a river, buried Attila, and then allowed the river to run its course. Nothing was left to chance. Those who had taken part in the funeral were killed, leaving no witnesses for the location of the Attila the Hun’s burial site. However, it is hard to say how reliable this account is. Attila’s tomb has never been found and remains a secret today.

26 Jan. 2023
st thomas aquinas philosophy thomism

 

St Thomas Aquinas was a philosopher who lived in the 13th and 14th century. Today, he is considered one of the most important thinkers in the history of western philosophy. In addition to this, Thomas Aquinas is one of the most authoritative religious philosophers; he combined the Christian doctrine, primarily the ideas of Saint Augustine, with the philosophy of Aristotle. His philosophy, known as Thomism, is still widely studied and discussed today. In this article, we will discuss some of the basic ideas of Thomism and how they might be relevant to modern life.

 

Who Was St Thomas Aquinas?

carlo crivelli St thomas aquinas painting
St Thomas Aquinas, Carlo Crivelli, 1476, via The National Gallery.

 

Thomas Aquinas was one of the most famous philosophers and theologians of his time. He was also one of the most influential religious figures of the Middle Ages. Aquinas is considered a follower of Aristotle, and he managed to combine in his works the religious and philosophical views of his predecessor.

 

Thomas Aquinas was born in Italy in 1255. His father had the title of count and lived in a castle near Naples. The family wanted Thomas to become an abbot at a monastery not far from the castle. At the age of five, the boy was sent to a Benedictine monastery and lived there for almost ten years. Later, he was accepted to study at the university for four years. There, Thomas Aquinas got acquainted with the teachings of the Dominicans and, at the end of his studies, decided to join their order.

 

But Aquinas’ decision violated the family’s plans, and the future philosopher was kidnapped. Thomas was imprisoned in a fortress, where he spent two long years. In 1245, after Aquinas was released, he still became a member of the Dominican Order. He then went to study at the University of Paris, where he became a student of Albert the Great.

 

Three years later, the future famous theologian, together with his teacher, went to the university in Cologne, where he spent two years. Finally, he returned to the Dominican monastery in 1252, but just four years later he was sent to teach theology at the University of Paris, where his first works appeared.

 

Francisco Zurbarán thomas aquinas painting
The Apotheosis of St. Thomas of Aquino, Francisco de Zurbarán, 1631, via Wikimedia commons.

 

In 1259, Aquinas was called by the Pope to Rome and was appointed as an adviser on theological issues. Thomas spent the next decade teaching in Anagni and Rome. In parallel, he was working on theological and philosophical writings. In 1269, Aquinas again found himself in Paris, where he fought with Siger of Brabant and with the Arab interpreters of the teachings of Aristotle. Thomas ensured that the works of Aristotle, translated by the Arabs, were banned.

 

In 1272, the famous treatise On the Unity of the Intellect Against the Averroists was published. Then, the philosopher was asked to come to Italy, where he was appointed as head of the new Dominican school in Naples. But a year later, Aquinas was forced to leave teaching due to poor health.

 

In 1274, Thomas Aquinas was supposed to attend a church council, but he died on the way there. In 1277, the Archbishop of Paris recognized some of the works of Thomas Aquinas as heretical; the philosopher was accused of excessive intellectualism. But despite all, the interest in his works only increased until the entire Catholic world recognized him. Thomas Aquinas began to be called the Prince of Philosophers and the Angel of the Schools.

 

In 1323, the Pope canonized Thomas Aquinas. His memory is honored on January 28. Today, the relics of the saint are in Toulouse.

 

The Origins of Thomism and Its Main Ideas

thomas Aquinas Summa theologiae book
An excerpt from the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas, 1482, via Wikimedia commons.

 

Thomism is a school of thought that stresses the importance of reason and tradition. It is, of course, named after St Thomas Aquinas. Thomism has been influential within the Catholic Church and has also been taken up by Anglicans, Lutherans, and Calvinists. Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, a document of religious studies dating back to the Middle Ages, is still influential and highly referenced today by the Catholic Church.

 

The philosophy of Thomism is based on the belief that reason and faith are both necessary to achieve true knowledge. It means that Thomists acknowledge there is a natural order to things that can be known through reason. At the same time, revelation from God is required to know certain truths about God and morality. The main ideas of Thomism are that God is the ultimate source of knowledge and that human beings can know things about God through reason and revelation.

 

Thomism also emphasizes the need to harmonize faith and reason and to use both in our search for truth. Finally, Thomism holds that there is an objective moral order that we can discover through reason. This philosophy has significantly impacted Western thought and has been a major influence on the development of Catholic theology.

 

Thomists also hold that humans are rational and social by nature and that we should use our reason to pursue truth and the good. Furthermore, Thomists believe in the existence of objective moral values and that we have to uphold these values. However, Thomists believe that true happiness is only achievable in the afterlife.

 

The Unity of Religion and Philosophy

author unknown st anselm portrait
St Anselm, Author unknown, via the National Portrait Gallery.

 

“I believe in order that I may understand.” 

 

This statement by the medieval philosopher Anselm of Canterbury became the motto of a new science – scholasticism. Scholasticism was engaged in the unification of religious faith and knowledge and tried to substantiate the dogmas of faith from the point of view of philosophy. Representatives of this philosophical trend believed that the path to God is not only faith but also a rational understanding of the laws of the universe.

 

Scholasticism reached its peak in the work of St Thomas Aquinas. He believed there are no contradictions between philosophy and religion; they complement each other and form a unity. The world is the creation of God, and, therefore, it carries the mystery of the Divine plan, which we can try to unravel.

 

In what ways can this be done? First, with the help of reason. It is not a straight path and will not give us full understanding because the human mind’s capacity is limited. Nevertheless, it can be used to draw closer to God. Thus, for all its importance, philosophy is still secondary to religion. St Thomas Aquinas called philosophy “the servant of theology.”

 

The second way to comprehend the great plan of God is faith. The original concept of the teachings of Thomas Aquinas was divine revelation, something that eludes the human mind but is necessary for the soul’s salvation.

 

Wisdom, according to Thomas Aquinas, is the highest knowledge about God. The philosopher singled out three types of wisdom: the wisdom of grace, the highest of all; the wisdom of theology, based on faith but using reason to understand; and metaphysical wisdom, whose instruments are reason and knowledge.

 

Aquinas on Matter and Form

author unknown st thomas aquinas painting
Saint Thomas Aquinas, Author unknown, 1690-1695, via Google Arts & Culture

 

Even though St Thomas Aquinas sought to reconcile faith and knowledge, he considered the mystical path of knowledge to be more significant. If a contradiction arises between faith and reason in some positions, it means that reason is mistaken because faith, based on Divine revelation, cannot be mistaken. But most often, the philosopher believed, contradictions arise not because philosophy is mistaken but because philosophers cannot correctly apply reason to religion.

 

Thomas Aquinas himself knew how to use the achievements of philosophy to explain the questions of the universe without conflicting with religious teachings. To explain being, he largely used Aristotle’s theory of form and matter. Every existing thing is a unity of form and matter. Matter itself is non-specified, and objects exist only because of form. The form is the final cause of everything. The individuality of things and phenomena appears due to the combination of the principle of form and constantly oscillating unstable matter.

 

The matter is the “weakest form of being,” the furthest from Divine grace. This definition of Thomas Aquinas became fundamental in scholastic science and shaped its attitude towards matter. God is the only true being. Everything else is created by Him, and all objects are manifestations of His essence. There is a hierarchy of beings; on the upper step, closest to God, are the angels. But they do not have independence either, and they are also the Creator’s inventions.

 

The Place of the State in Society

philipp foltz discurso funebre pericles painting
Discurso Funebre Pericles, Philipp Foltz, 1877, via WikiMedia

 

Like Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas was convinced that man is a social being and cannot live outside of a state. He believed the state’s goal was not only to create favorable living conditions for citizens but also to strengthen virtue and religiosity. Exploring political science, which began in ancient times, the philosopher identifies six types of government. Thomas Aquinas considers the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the potlis system, similar to the one that existed in ancient Greece, to be fair forms of social organization. Among unjust forms, he names tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy.

 

What is the best way to govern? St Thomas Aquinas argued that monarchy is the best form of governance because it is closest to the form of the Divine order of the world. The correct development of society and its movement towards the good and towards God is best carried out if management comes from one source.

 

Thomas Aquinas provided answers to many philosophical and religious questions and eliminated many contradictions between faith and knowledge. Because of this, some contemporary philosophers called him the “angelic doctor.” At the same time, “doctor” is the highest academic degree in medieval philosophy. The teachings of Thomas Aquinas are still considered fundamental by the Catholic Church.

 

Five Proofs for the Existence of God

raffaello Crocefissione painting
Crocefissione, Raphael, 1499-1500, via The National Gallery

 

Combining the teachings of Aristotle with Christian doctrine, Thomas Aquinas offered Quinque Viæ  – five proofs of the existence of God. These proofs were supposed to be an empirical way of comprehending religion, eliminating the need for spiritual revelation:

 

  1. Argument from motion.
  2. Argument from an efficient cause.
  3. Argument from necessary being.
  4. Argument from gradations of goodness.
  5. Argument from design.

 

Five proofs follow from the question of how the universe originated. Aquinas argued if you can answer this question, you will know the nature of God. The universe, he explained, is a sequence of constant changes and movement, a string of causes and effects, and the first cause is an immovable mover, a kind of first mover that is not driven by anything or anyone – God.

 

An object cannot move on its own; it needs an impulse from another moving object. This “motor,” in turn, is driven from its place by another impulse, and this series of movements can be traced back into time. But somewhere, this movement has to start. If it doesn’t have a start, then how does the chain of events begin? This leads him to conclude that God is the first cause of events, creating movement and not needing an impulse from another mover – he is the immovable mover.

 

caravaggio supper at emmaus painting
Supper at Emmanus, Caravaggio, 1601, via The National Gallery

 

Aquinas uses a similar argument about cause and effect: God is the “efficient cause” that brings the first effect into existence, which in turn causes another, and so on.

 

The third proof discusses the “possibility” of objects – many objects can exist, but do not have to. The universe cannot be entirely composed of possible objects because this opens up space, and at some point, for nothing to exist in the universe. Therefore, it is necessary to posit something necessary in itself, which does not have the cause of the necessity of something else but is the cause of the necessity of something else, and this something is God.

 

The fourth proof says that some things are better than others, but this comparison is meaningless until we have a final, absolute standard; and that standard is God.

 

Finally, in the fifth proof, Aquinas uses the Aristotelian concept of teleology, the idea that everything in the universe has a purpose and everything moves towards its final state. Objects cannot have a concept of their purpose by themselves; therefore, the Universe must be controlled by a mind that sees and determines where everything is moving – towards its end.

 

The Modern Relevance of St Thomas Aquinas

santi tito vision of thomas aquinas painting
Vision of St Thomas Aquinas, Santi di Tito, 1593, via Web Gallery of Art

 

Thomism has been greatly influential in shaping Western culture and thought, especially in the areas of ethics and natural law. In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in Thomistic philosophy, particularly in light of the rise of secularism and moral relativism. Many scholars and thinkers have argued that the philosophy of Thomism is more relevant than ever before in today’s modern world.

 

There are several key aspects of Thomistic philosophy that make it particularly relevant in today’s society. First, Thomism upholds the importance of reason and objective truth. In an age where many people are quick to dismiss anything that does not conform to their own individual worldview, the philosophy of Thomism provides a much-needed voice for rational thought and objective truth.

 

Secondly, Thomism emphasizes the dignity of the human person. In a world where human life is often treated as disposable and expendable, Thomism reminds us of the inherent value and worth of every human being.

 

The philosophy of Thomism is clearly still relevant in today’s world. Its emphasis on reason, objective truth, and the dignity of the human person offer a much-needed counterbalance to the prevailing trends of relativism and nihilism. Thomism also provides a valuable perspective on creating a just and thriving society. For these reasons, Thomism is a philosophy that is well worth studying and considering in today’s modern world.

26 Jan. 2023
alexander the great most important accomplishments map

 

Alexander the Great is, without a doubt, one of the most iconic figures in all of history. His achievements and feats are legendary. After inheriting the Kingdom of Macedon from his father, Philip II, he united all of Greece and embarked on the Persian campaign. In only a few years, the young conqueror toppled the Achaemenid empire, leading his armies to the end of the known world. The result was a vast Empire stretching from Greece and Egypt all the way to India. While Alexander the Great died young, and his empire collapsed in the wars of the Diadochi, he left behind a lasting legacy – the Hellenistic world, whose influence we still feel today.

 

Alexander United All of Greece

alexander the great marble portrait bust
Marble portrait head of Alexander the Great, 2nd–3rd century BCE, via the British Museum

 

After Phillip II’s assassination in 336 BCE, his son Alexander became the king of Macedon. The new ruler was only 20 years old. His youth did not stop Alexander the Great from embarking on the first of many military campaigns – the subjugation of Greek city-states. The young king was aware that only united, the Greek world could confront its ancient nemesis – the Achaemenid Empire. Taking personal leadership of the well-trained and disciplined Macedon army and the elite companion cavalry, Alexander moved against the leading Greek city-states of Thebes. In 335 BCE, the Macedon army defeated the Thebans and razed the city. With the whole of Greece united under one banner, Alexander turned to the East, ready to invade the Persian Empire.

 

The Young Conqueror Toppled the Persian Empire

mosaic alexander battle naples
“The Alexander Mosaic” depicting the Battle of Issus, Naples Archaeological Museum, discovered in Pompeii

 

One of Alexander’s major accomplishments was the destruction of the ancient Persian Empire. The Persians were a thorn in the Greek side since the Greek-Persian wars of the fifth century BCE. The Greeks managed to defend their homeland, scoring a decisive victory at the Battle of Marathon, but the Peloponnesian War prevented any offensive in Asia. Alexander finally took the initiative and, in 334 BCE, invaded Persia. His Persian campaign is filled with iconic battles, like Granicus, Issus, and finally, Gaugamela. In each of those battles, the young conqueror’s superior leadership and strategy won the day, allowing his troops to defeat the more numerous Persian forces of Darius II. Darius’ death marked the end of the Persian Empire, leaving Alexander in control of the vast territory.

 

Alexander Created One of Largest Empires in History

alexander the great conquest
A map of the route that Alexander the Great took to conquer Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, and Bactria

 

On the ashes of the Achaemenid Empire, Alexander built his own, creating an enormous realm that encompassed three continents – Europe, Asia and Africa. One of the most important regions was Egypt, which Alexander the Great conquered early in the Persian campaign, and where he took the title of pharaoh. It was in Egypt where Alexander laid down the foundation for the capital of his vast empire – Alexandria-ad-Aegyptum. After founding the world’s first metropolis, Alexander established several more cities on his way towards India, all bearing the name of their founder. His unstoppable forces finally halted their advance in India. It was there where Alexander’s faithful horse – Bucephalus – died, and where his companion built a city in his honor.

 

He Created the Hellenistic World

alexandria hellenistic kingdom golvin
The Canopic Way, the main street of ancient Alexandria, running through the Greek district, by Jean Golvin, via Jeanclaudegolvin.com

 

Alexander’s Empire collapsed following its ruler’s sudden death in 323 BCE, in the Wars of Diadochi. Yet, his lasting legacy – the Hellenistic World – remained, outliving the famous conqueror. His armies did more than conquer. They also spread Greek ideas and customs during their advance eastwards. Greek soldiers married local women, creating the core of the fascinating mélange culture, which led to the creation of Hellenistic civilization. From Greece to India, the heirs of Alexander ruled over the Hellenistic kingdoms, building cities, patronizing art, and exchanging ideas, knowledge and people. But perhaps the most significant success was the Hellenization of the Roman Empire, which ensured that Alexander’s legacy was preserved up to the present day.

 

Alexander the Great Became a Legend

alexander the great horse
Statuette of Alexander the Great on Horseback, 1st century BCE, via the Metropolitan Museum

 

Alexander the Great never lost a battle, although he had a brush with death on many occasions. Most notably, he was heavily wounded while storming the fort in India. Despite being shot in the lung with an arrow, he continued to fight, inspiring his soldiers who saved their commander. Alexander also shared the hardships with his troops while on the campaign. During the infamous retreat across the great Gedrosian desert, he suffered all troubles, famine and lack of water alongside his men. Thus, it is not surprising that all great military leaders, from Hannibal and Caesar to Napoleon and Patton, admired Alexander’s charisma and talents, considering him a role model. After all, Alexander the Great’s accomplishments changed the course of history, helping to pave the way for the rise of the Roman Empire, the spread of Christianity, and centuries of Byzantine rule.

26 Jan. 2023
Bertrand Russell praise idleness work

 

Idleness has long been associated with wickedness and bad character. When we are growing up, our parents tell us to work hard, to try our best, to put our backs in to whatever we are doing. Even if we don’t achieve our goals, we can escape too much criticism if, and only if, we can show that we have really tried and put in the work. ‘At least you tried’ our teachers say. The idea that idleness is bad doesn’t only apply to children, it follows us as we grow up and become adults. We can see its continued influence in political debates about social security and welfare policy. Whereas the lazy ‘benefits queens’, the ‘idle poor’ deserve nothing, the hard working poor should rightfully be given support. In his 1932 essay ‘In Praise of Idleness’ Bertrand Russell sets out to challenge the view that work is valuable, or the be all and end all of our lives.

 

This idea is, Russell argues, deeply harmful, even if it is difficult for those who were brought up to believe this to give it up in action.

 

What Is Work According to Bertrand Russell? 

Portrait Bertrand Russell
Portrait of Bertrand Russell in 1957, via Nationaal Archief.

 

Bertrand Russell argues there are three types of work. First, there is the work of ‘altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter’ (p. 3). This type of work is labor proper. The second type of work consists in telling other people to do the first kind of work. In other words, management. The third type of work is advising those who do the second kind of work on how to do it. In other words, consulting.

 

Whereas the first type of work is generally dirty, unpleasant, and poorly paid. The second and third types of work are generally well paid, and not generally unpleasant (unless, that is, one dislikes being in charge and issuing orders).

 

This raises the question, if so much of the work that gets done is unpleasant, how come we do so much of it? How did the counterintuitive idea that work is virtuous become so prevalent?

 

The simple answer is that, for much of human history, vast amounts of work by enormous amounts of people has been necessary to survive. Prior to the industrial revolution the task of taming nature, raising crops, building shelters, finding fuel, and making clothing took up the vast majority of most people’s days.

 

Time Rewarding Work
Time Rewarding Work and Punishing Laziness, by Robert Boissard, 16th century. Via the Met Museum.

 

The only people who could avoid spending their lives in toil were the small minority of people who could either convince other people to give them what they needed to survive, or take what they needed through force and fraud. In other words, warriors and priests. The former threatened earthly harms as punishment for disobeying them,  the latter celestial harms.

 

Over time, this view becomes internalized into our culture. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism Max Weber, the father of modern sociology, argued that this is particularly the case amongst protestant groups in northern Europe. Protestants, and particularly Calvinists, placed great ethical importance on secular work, seeing success in this life as a portent of what is to come in the afterlife. This belief, in turn, influenced believers to develop successful enterprises, engage in trade, and accumulate wealth for reinvestment in productive enterprises. Leisure, in this view, is wasteful and thus to be avoided. Instead, one must spend their lives in toil to achieve salvation.

 

Less Work, More Play

Iron and Coal William Bell Scott
Iron and Coal, by William Bell Scott.

 

This situation, however, is no longer inevitable. Moreover, it hasn’t been inevitable for a long time. Even as far back as 1932, prior to widespread automation, robotics, and AI; the enormous technological transformation that the industrial revolution represented was plain to see. Bertrand Russell writes:

 

‘Modern technique has made it possible for leisure, within limits, to not be the prerogative of small privileged classes, but a right evenly distributed throughout the community. The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need for slavery.’ (p. 5)

 

As evidence for this, Russell gives the fact that during the first world war enormous amounts of the population were engaged in fighting and producing war related goods (e.g. munitions). Despite subsequent negative economic effects, people were still fed and housed, showing that ‘it is possible to keep modern populations in fair comfort on a small part of the working capacity of the modern world’ (p. 6).

 

Sunbathing Tompkins Park
Photo of Tompkins Square Park, by David Shankbone.

 

If we can do this for war, why not for leisure? Russell argues that liberating the majority of the population from the burdens of long hours would enable them to pursue the best things in life. The first benefit Russell foresees is a resurgence in the  importance given to lightheartedness and play, which has been ground out of us by the cult of hard work. The second benefit is a resurgence in pleasurable pastimes in which people participate actively, such as dancing, making music, or learning.

 

A world in which no one is compelled to work more than 4 hours a day would be one in which ‘every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving’ (p. 14). This, in turn, could have important political consequences, as increased leisure time will enable people to research and learn about the business of government, making them more informed voters. Most importantly, less work will give us more  ‘happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia’ (p. 14).

 

What Happened to the 4 Hour Day? 

Portrait Keynes
Photo of John Maynard Keynes (left) with Kingsley Kingsley Martin. Via the Harvard University Library.

 

Writing at about the same time, the new deal economist John Maynard Keynes also argued that modern technology had the potential to reduce the amount of work people needed to do. Since then, information technology and robotics have increased the efficiency of people’s labor even further. This raises the question, how come the 4  hour work day never came to fruition? What happened to the dream of working less?

 

The reason Russell gives is that, instead of increased efficiency leading to shorter working hours, what happens is that people still work 8 hours, but less people are employed. Those who lose their jobs are compelled to find work elsewhere. This, in turn, leads to new industries arising.

 

Another reason is that most people seem to have preferred greater incomes (and spending power) over greater leisure. Despite the transient popularity of anti-consumerist countercultural movements in the 60s and 70s, most people have bought more (and more expensive) stuff instead of taking up more leisure activities. Goods and services such as cars and air travel which would have been the preserve of the wealthy when Bertrand Russell was writing in 1932, are today available to a greater cross-section of the population. There are also entirely new types of goods to spend money on (e.g. computers and smartphones) which would have been unfathomable in Russell’s time.

 

The Refusal of Work

Monk Writing Desk
Monk at Writing desk by G.F. Rodwell, 1877.

 

This desire for greater consumption and income, however, is not universal. In his book The Refusal of Work, sociologist David Frayne interviewed people who are opting to work less and live more. Some would take on intensive work for long enough to save up money, and spend it going traveling. When the money ran out, they’d find another job and start again. Others were choosing to work part time to pursue hobbies and other pursuits such as writing, or making art. Although not all of the participants were working a 4 hour day, what they had in common was their willingness to forgo income for increased leisure.  Although still a minority preference, two recent cultural phenomena point to a growing desire for a better balance between work and leisure.

 

The Legacy of Bertrand Russell: The Great Resignation and Quiet Quitting 

Quitting Job Poster WWII
WAIT DON’T QUIT YOUR JOB – THERE’S LOTS OF WORK AHEAD – LETS FINISH THE JOB, by Office for Emergency Planning (1941-1945). Via the National Archives and Records Administration.

 

The first cultural phenomenon is what has been termed ‘The Great Resignation’ or ‘Big Quit’. Since the beginning of the COVID pandemic in 2020, record numbers of people have been quitting their jobs, reaching a climax during 2021. True, not all of these resignations were motivated by a desire to have more leisure. Many were motivated by poor pay and working conditions. However, many were motivated by a desire to find work that fit with people’s desire for a better work-life balance, for example remote work which enables them to reduce commuting and live where they want to live.

 

The second cultural phenomena is the rise of quiet quitting.  Although there is some debate about how prevalent quiet quitting is, and how new the phenomenon is, Quiet quitting refers to continuing to do one’s job, but doing only the minimum required. In other words, doing one’s job mediocrely . Quiet quitters go through the motions, but are psychologically disengaged from the task at hand. They don’t volunteer for extra tasks, and don’t let on that they aren’t busy. Quiet quitting, like the great resignation, is a way of re-evaluating one’s relationship to work. It is motivated by avoiding burnout, and seeking jobs that work with people’s desire for increased work-life balance. Instead of seeing work as the only source of self-worth available to us, and consequently over-investing, quiet quitting is a way of seeing it as a means of supporting what is truly valuable: leisure time.

 

Although the 4 hour work day hasn’t materialized yet, there is hope for Russell’s plea for increased idleness and a renewed valuation of leisure in these two recent tendencies. Whether it will come to pass depends on those who have better bargaining positions in market economies making our leisure expectations clear, quitting jobs which leave little time for leisure, and perhaps (as a consequence) becoming content with the reduced income and consumption power that comes from increased leisure.

 

References: 

 

Russell, Bertrand. (2004) In Praise of Idleness. Routledge Classics., London.

25 Jan. 2023
photo alan watts smiling
Photo of Alan Watts

 

The modern age brings comfort to our lives that our predecessors weren’t lucky enough to enjoy. We’re cushioned from the myriad of tragedies that happen daily in certain parts of the world and shielded from the pain, sorrow, and misery that afflicts them. Yet, instead of counting our blessings and being grateful for our circumstances, we tend to take that for granted. Not only that, we want more. More security, material possessions, money, status, and desires. And the famous philosopher Alan Watts seems to know why this is. Watts wrote over 25 books and held over 400 lectures, becoming one of the most famous philosophers of his time. His philosophy draws from Zen and Buddhism and holds invaluable life lessons that’ll help you adopt a fresh perspective on life and living.

 

Following are 6 lessons from Watts’ book, The Wisdom Of Insecurity that can help us see our tendencies to seek more comfort and learn how to transform those desires into a new perspective on life.

 

1. The More We Search for Security, the More Insecure We Are 

search security more insecure alan watts quote

 

According to Watts, the more we search for comfort and security, the more we remind ourselves that we lack them. The more we seek certainty, the more we feel uncertain. The more we want to shield ourselves from insecurity, the more we feel insecure. The more we desire money and status, the more we feel like we’re poor and on the lower rung of society.

 

It’s not an issue that we want those things. The problem is that we feel anxious in the process of chasing them. We tense up and enter a fight-or-flight state in which we tell ourselves that we must get those things no matter what.

 

If to enjoy even an enjoyable present, we must have the assurance of a happy future; we are “crying for the moon.” We have no such assurance. The best predictions are still matters of probability rather than certainty, and to the best of our knowledge, every one of us is going to suffer and die.”
Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity

 

painting meditation Birger Carlstedt
Meditation by Birger Carlstedt, 1945, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Throughout our lives, we’re constantly trying to find ways to shed our insecurities. For some people, that’s a necessity. But for many others, it’s a goose chase. You see, the more you try to escape insecurity, the more you invite it into your fold. When you isolate yourself from others for fear that relationships can negatively affect you, you’re depleting yourself of the opportunity to grow, hear other people’s ideas and opinions, even question your outlook on life and how you live it.

 

Or, when you’re slaving away at the desk 60+ hours a week, with the excuse that you’re earning more money, achieving a higher status, or working for that coveted promotion.

 

But you’re doing that at the expense of your energy and time that you could spend pursuing hobbies, personal interests, or spending time with family and friends. Activities that provide you with life energy instead of depleting it.

 

We’re never guaranteed security. Today is all we have, so why go through life without enjoying it to the fullest?

 

2. We’re Constantly Looking to the Future for Happiness

alan watts portrait
Photo of Alan Watts via Twitter.

 

“For the animal to be happy, it is enough that this moment be enjoyable. But man is hardly satisfied with this at all. He is much more concerned to have enjoyable memories and expectations—especially the latter.”
Alan Watts

 

Ambitions and aspirations… seem to never materialize, don’t they? The perfect partner, the million-dollar idea, the promotion that could arrive any day: they’re all ideas that we keep in our mind to prevent us from feeling the pain we’ll feel if those moments don’t arrive. Clinging to future expectations and desires only prevents us from enjoying our life. 

 

Instead of thinking about what good (or bad) things await us in the future, it’s infinitely better to focus on what good things we have at the moment. You can be grateful for your family and your loving and supporting friends, or your health is in check, and you can provide for yourself.

 

There are countless moments around you that you can appreciate, small or big.

 

3. We Allow Our Past to Define Us 

dont let your past define you alan watts

 

The past and future are real illusions, that they exist in the present, which is what there is and all there is.”
Alan Watts

 

As much as we place our hopes on a better future, we allow our past to define our present with the same enthusiasm. We often cringe at moments of the past or cling to some image of ourselves that we feel we somehow must showcase today. Change isn’t possible since we are the same person, we think.

 

It’s a fallacy to think that our past influences our present or future in any way. You always have a choice on how to live life.

 

4. To Be Happy, You Must Accept Suffering 

suffering photo boulogne
Figure 19: Suffering by Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne de Boulogne, 1854–56, printed 1862, via the Met Museum.

 

This, then, is the human problem: there is a price to be paid for every increase in consciousness. We cannot be more sensitive to pleasure without being more sensitive to pain.”
Alan Watts

 

Nothing good comes in life without pain or suffering. If you want more money, you need to work hard. If you want to be slim and in shape, you must workout and get rid of junk food. It sounds scarier than it is, though. If we’re shielded our entire lives from going through difficult situations, how can we expect to react appropriately to what life throws at us?

 

And sure enough, life has some curveballs to throw as time passes. We could lose loved ones, face health ailments, or other challenging scenarios threatening our material or physical livelihood.

 

Truth is, you can only get long-term satisfaction with some short-term sacrifice. That sacrifice can come in different forms, but it always entails suffering, whether heartbreak, refusing to eat highly-processed foods, or having that difficult conversation. The more you escape your comfort zone and be comfortable with discomfort, the more you’ll grow and be capable of taking on life’s challenges.

 

5. Embrace Minimalism

embrace minimalism less is more alan watts

 

Instead of adding more stuff and items to the to-do list, practice scarcity. Instead of chasing more stuff, be content with the stuff you already own. Chasing more money, material possessions, or friendships may give you immediate pleasure.

 

But there are diminishing returns to this: how many deep friendships can you sustain? How many sleepless nights can you endure? How many missed birthdays, anniversaries, or date nights are you willing to sacrifice?

 

Some people are OK with this sacrifice. And that’s perfectly fine. But most people will find enjoyment in the “little” things in life and will be miserable if they miss those moments year after year.

 

Ask yourself, what can you remove from your life and still be happy, even more so than before?

 

6. Accept That Security Doesn’t Exist

am i good enough

 

The notion of security is based on the feeling that there is something within us which is permanent, something which endures through all the days and changes of life.
Alan Watts

 

Understand that perfect security is impossible and unattainable. The more you cling to the notion that you can be secure in this day and age, the more insecure you’ll be. As opposed to that, there’s freedom to be found in embracing insecurity. In allowing your life to be flawed in some shape or form.

 

Admitting that you’re not perfect and that no one around you is perfect liberates you from the expectations and desires you might have and expect to be fulfilled by you or others.

 

Tying It All Together

virgil tomb moonlight wright
Virgil’s Tomb by Moonlight, with Silius Italicus Declaiming by Joseph Wright (Wright of Derby), 1779, via the Met Museum.

 

The truth is revealed by removing things that stand in its light, an art not unlike sculpture, in which the artist creates, not by building, but by hacking away.”
Alan Watts

 

It always starts with awareness. Simply being aware of the feelings and thoughts that arise when you yearn for security is the first step toward escaping its clutches. Then, you can let go and let life unfold before you. You’ll find that insecurity won’t destroy you. It liberates you.

 

The Wisdom of Insecurity helps us realize that life is about simply living. Stop overthinking everything and take each day as it comes. Give your best every day to be present with yourself and others. You may sometimes falter but keeping this in mind is essential. Perfection is the enemy of progress.

 

Watts teaches us that if we spend too much time and effort worrying about things, we’ll simply forget how to live. And isn’t that what we’re here to do, live?

25 Jan. 2023
The Kunsthaus Zurich’s theft
Schweiz Tourismus / Oliver Baer

 

The Kunsthaus Zurich’s possible painting larceny is under the Swiss police investigation. Switzerland’s largest art museum sent the paintings for cleaning. But then, they never saw them again. First, the museum conducted an internal investigation. Overall, it led to the conclusion that theft possibly happened.

 

Paintings Sent on Cleaning Due to Fire, Then Went Missing

The Kunsthaus Zurich’s theft
Robert van den Hoecke, Soldiers in the camp (mid-17th century). Courtesy of the Kunsthaus Zürich.

 

The museum sent two masters paintings on cleaning and restoration due to the recent fire (August 2-3). “The Kunsthaus Zurich is on the lookout for two paintings from its Old Masters collection”, the museum stated on Tuesday. The museum also thinks this could be theft, because of so many conducted unsuccessful investigations.

 

The two missing paintings are Robert van den Hoecke’s Soldiers in the Camp (no date) and Dirck de Bray’s Daffodils and Other Flowers in a Glass Vase on a Marble Slab (1673). The museum already filed a complaint with unknown individuals, and asked police to start investigating.

 

The Kunsthaus
ANNASPIES/FLICKR

 

Both paintings are private permanent loans. The “Art Loss Register,” the largest database for lost and stolen art, has the  works listed as missing. The fire caused a major cleaning of more than 700 works in their old section. Also, both missing paintings were among those 700 works.

 

“Our work does not end with the involvement of the police” – The Kunsthaus Zurich’s Representative

The Kunsthaus
MATTEOCOZZI/GETTY IMAGES

 

The institution’s director, Ann Demeester said so many collectors over the years had great trust in the museum to keep their pieces safe. Demeester also said that almost seventy-five percent of their inventory came from lengthy loans or private gifts. The museum is shocked that something like this can happen, despite well safety measures.

 

In order to recover the missing paintings, The Kunsthaus formed a crisis response team. At the same time, the museum is conducting their own private search for the lost works. “Our work does not end with the involvement of the police”, Demeester added. She also stated that the museum speaks to everyone affected by these events.

 

The Kunsthaus Zurich’s theft
Dirck de Bray, Daffodils and Other Flowers in a Glass Vase on a Marble Slab (1673). Courtesy of the Kunsthaus Zürich.

 

The museum will also not close their eyes to the possibility of the paintings still being inside the museum. The location of all other pieces is known, but we still need to wait for the update on the recent events. Hopefully, the paintings will be located.

25 Jan. 2023
marcus aurelius coin equestrian statue

 

One of Rome’s most famous rulers, the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus is widely considered a model stoic, an ideal representative of virtue and manliness. Thus, it may come as a shock to many to discover that Marcus Aurelius, the author of the famous Meditations, spent nearly all his reign on the battlefield. Conflict with Parthia in the east, wars on the Rhine and the Danube in the north, and a violent uprising by one of his governors, threatened to plunge Rome into chaos.

 

On top of all that, a deadly pandemic outbreak took the life of his brother and co-emperor, Lucius Verus, devastated the Empire’s economy, and decimated the army. War and warfare followed Marcus Aurelius to his death. The emperor died in a military camp while campaigning against the northern barbarians. While his heir Commodus failed to follow the precedent set by his father, Marcus Aurelius’ efforts bolstered the frontier’s defenses and secured the Empire’s stability.

 

1. Marcus Aurelius Was Adopted into the Imperial Family

antoninus pius aurelius marcus young coin
Gold coin, laureate portrait of emperor Antoninus Pius (obverse) and portrait of young Marcus Aurelius (reverse), Rome, ca. 140 CE, via the British Museum, London

 

It might surprise you, but Marcus Aurelius was not predestined for the imperial throne. His father, Marcus Annius Verus, was from a noble Roman lineage and could boast of senators and consuls among his ancestors. However, he was not part of the imperial family. Following his father’s death, the three-year-old boy was adopted by his grandfather, who was close to the reigning Emperor Hadrian. Young Marcus caught the emperor’s attention quickly, probably owing to his grandfather’s high status at court.

 

From here, things went quickly. At six, Marcus was enrolled into the equestrian order, and at seven, the emperor introduced Marcus to the priestly college. Yet, the boy was too young for the purple. That honor was given to his uncle Titus Aurelius Antoninus, whom Hadrian also adopted. However, Hadrian had grand designs for the boy. Antoninus could take the throne only if he adopted Marcus and his adoptive brother Lucius Verus as his heirs.

 

2. Marcus Aurelius Jointly Ruled With His Brother 

marcus aurelius lucius verus bust
Detail of the marble portrait of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, 2nd century CE, Fondazione Torlonia; with Detail of the marble portrait of the co-emperor Lucius Verus, ca. 161 – 169 CE, via Wikimedia Commons

 

While Marcus Aurelius is one of the best-known Roman emperors, he did not rule the Empire alone. When in 161 CE, the emperor Antoninus Pius died, Marcus and Lucius Verus took over in his stead. For the first time in its history, the Roman Empire had two emperors. Both Marcus and Lucius received a good education in Greek and Latin, spending their youth immersed in studies. While Marcus Aurelius developed a keen interest in Stoic philosophy and the works of Seneca, his ten-years younger adoptive brother was more of a poet.

 

At first, everything went smoothly. The transition of imperial power to the adoptive brothers was peaceful, secured by a traditional payment to the praetorian guard, the soldiers, and their officers. The first few months were quiet, allowing Marcus to immerse himself fully into philosophy. However, by the end of the year, the emperors had to face the first of many troubles that would plague Marcus Aurelius’ reign. The following year, Rome was at war with its powerful eastern neighbor, the Parthian Empire. While Marcus stayed in Rome, Lucius took command of the army, leading the legions during the five-year-long conflict.

 

3. He Had to Confront the Deadliest Plague in Rome’s History

delaunay plague rome
Plague in Rome, by Jules Elie Delaunay, 1869, via The Atlantic

 

The Parthian war ended with a Roman triumph. Victorious, Lucius’ army brought back to Rome wagons full of gold. Yet, unbeknownst to the emperors and their subjects, the jubilant legionaries also brought an invisible and lethal enemy. Sometime in the late 160s, a deadly pandemic — known as the Antonine plague — struck Rome, spreading quickly to all corners of the vast realm. Then, in 169, Lucius Verus fell sick and died, probably a plague victim. Marcus Aurelius was now the sole emperor of the Roman Empire. Unfortunately for the philosopher king, he also inherited a state of chaos.

 

The Antonine Plague (probably smallpox) devastated the Empire. According to Cassius Dio, a contemporary eyewitness, there were up to 2,000 deaths daily in Rome. Modern historians believe that 5 million people died from the disease, although the number could be as high as 7-10 million. Enormous losses weakened the Roman Empire, hitting the economy hard and devastating its army. Even the emperor Marcus Aurelius fell ill, provoking a political crisis, and bringing the Empire to the brink of civil war.

 

4. Marcus Aurelius Had to Deal with a Dangerous Revolt

golden coin marcus aurelius trophy
Gold coin of emperor Marcus Aurelius, showing the war trophy and the captives, 175-176 CE, via the British Museum, London

 

While the plague ripped through the Roman Empire, a rumor spread that the emperor himself had died. Allegedly fearing for the Empire’s security, in 175, the governor of Roman Egypt — Avidius Cassius — declared himself emperor. Although Cassius soon discovered that the emperor’s death was just a rumor, he remained committed to his cause. After all, he was now an attempted usurper. Always a Stoic, Marcus Aurelius was devastated by the news of Cassius’ betrayal and implored his friend to rethink his course of action. He even ordered his troops to capture Cassius and not harm him.

 

But Marcus was not afforded this opportunity to show mercy. As his legions were about to depart to Alexandria, news reached the court of Cassius’ death. A centurion named Antonius had stabbed Cassius in the neck and then cut off his head to present to the emperor. Marcus Aurelius refused to look at the head and had it buried. He also ordered all the correspondences of Cassius  burned. Everyone who supported the usurper was pardoned. Marcus’ generosity was a result of his stoic way of life. In truth, he had more pressing issues to solve. Cassius’ rebellion diverted his attention from a real threat — the barbarian invasion to the North.

 

5. The Worst Threat Rome Had Faced

relief roman barbarian
Relief fragment showing Roman soldier fighting barbarians, 2nd century CE, via Fineartamerica.com

 

At the same time Lucius Verus was waging war against Parthia in the East and while the Antonine Plague made inroads into the Roman Empire, trouble was stirring in the North, beyond the large rivers, the Rhine and the Danube. The arrival of a large group of people (most notably the Goths) in Central Europe put pressure on those living closer to the imperial frontier. Once again, Rome was at war. The Marcomannic Wars were a series of protracted conflicts fought between the Romans and various Germanic tribes, including the Chatti, the Quadi, the Sarmatians, and the Marcomanni.

 

While the Roman legions managed to defend the limes from barbarian raids in the initial phase of the conflict, the increased barbarian attacks and the ill-manned imperial defenses due to the plague, led to a catastrophe. In 169, the Germanic warriors crossed the Danube and inflicted a heavy defeat on the Romans at the Battle of Carnuntum. More than 20, 000 Romans perished in the battle, leaving the road to Italy open. Marching into the Po Valley unopposed, the barbarians plundered and razed Opitergium (Oderzo), and laid siege to the major Italian city of Aquileia. Not since the days of Hannibal Barca had Rome experienced a foreign army so close to home. Eventually, Marcus Aurelius reconsolidated the Roman forces and pushed the enemy back. By late 171, the legions, personally led by the emperor, managed to restore control over the Danube limes.

 

6. A Miracle Saved Marcus Aurelius and His Army

rain miracle
The scene from the Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome, showing the so-called “The Rain Miracle”, and the miraculous escape of the Twelfth Legion “Fulminata” from certain destruction, via the author’s private collection

 

In 172, the war continued with a Roman counteroffensive. Marcus Aurelius was awarded the title Germanicus, and coins were minted to commemorate his triumph. Yet, the war almost went south. While campaigning deep in enemy territory, the Twelfth Legion, “Fulminata” (“Thundering”), found itself under attack by a large Quadi force. Surrounded and without water, the legion faced certain destruction. However, when disaster seemed inevitable, a sudden torrential thunderstorm saved the Romans. While the legionaries satiated their thirst, lightning struck the Quadi. So important was the “Rain Miracle,” it is depicted on the Aurelian Column, still standing in Rome as a witness to the grand victory.

 

By 174, the subjugation of the Quadi was complete, and the imperial army defeated the Sarmatians the following year. Finally, a favorable treaty with Iazyges brought peace. When in 176, Marcus Aurelius returned to Rome to celebrate his triumph, it was the first time he had seen the capital in 8 years. However, the scholar emperor was not destined to stay in Rome for too long. His fate led him to the battlefield one last time.

 

7. Emperor Marcus Aurelius Died in a Military Camp

equestrian statue marcus aurelius
Bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, 161-80 CE, via Musei Capitolini, Rome

 

Marcus Aurelius spent most of his twenty-year long reign waging war. In fact, Marcus’ “Meditations,” the emperor’s most famous work on the tenets of Stoicism was written in the environs of a military camp. Besides leading the army to battle, the emperor did everything he could to ensure a smooth and peaceful imperial succession. Following Cassius’ failed grab for power, the emperor accelerated the promotion of his son and successor, Commodus. In 177, Marcus declared Commodus Augustus. He now had the same status as his father, formally, if not in reality. Commodus was also made consul, becoming the youngest person in Roman history who held that prestigious office.

 

The next three years, the emperor spent beyond the Danube limes fighting the rebellious tribes in their territory. It was there he met his end. Following another great victory over the barbarians, the emperor fell ill. In 180, Marcus Aurelius, the last of the “Five Good Emperors,” died at the Danubian legions’ military headquarters at Vindobona (modern Vienna). Deified and cremated, his ashes were sent to Rome and laid to rest in the Mausoleum of Hadrian. Commodus was now the emperor of Rome.

25 Jan. 2023
what was the harlem renaissance

 

The Harlem Renaissance was a great flowering of art, poetry, fiction and music that emerged out of the Harlem neighborhood of New York City during the ‘roaring twenties.’ During the Great Migration from 1910 to 1920, hundreds of thousands of African Americans moved from Southern to Northern America in search of work. A dense community of Black African Americans congregated in Harlem, where housing was in plentiful supply. This close-knit community of Black families became a strong and exciting cultural mecca for African Americas who finally discovered a new creative freedom like never before. From civil rights activist writers to jazz musicians, many of the 20th century’s most important voices emerged out of the Harlem Renaissance. We look through some of the ground-breaking historical movement’s key characteristics.

 

Poetry and Fiction Flourished

james weldon johnson black manhattan

 

Poetry was one of the earliest art forms to emerge during the Harlem Renaissance, and it was thanks to the pioneering leaders of the Black Pride movement, including African American activist W.E.B. Du Bois that several emergent poets were able to publish their work. Celebrated poetry volumes include Claude McKay’s collection Harlem Shadows, published in 1922, and Jean Toomer’s Cane, published in 1923. Meanwhile, fiction became an important means for African Americans to bring their voices into the public arena, and have their experiences heard. Jessie Redmon Fauset’s 1924 novel There Is Confusion explored how Black African Americans can find a new cultural identity in a white-dominated city. Other writers created stirring socio-political observations, such as James Weldon Johnson, whose Black Manhattan: Account of the Development of Harlem, 1930, traces the explosion of creativity among the Black community of Harlem.

 

Music Was a Vital Strand of the Harlem Renaissance

Harlem Renaissance culture arts
Jazz musician and orchestra conductor Duke Ellington playing piano with other jazz musicians, via Columbia Alumni Association

 

Music was undoubtedly a key characteristic of the Harlem Renaissance. The music style that emerged out of Harlem was jazz and blues, performed by outstanding musicians in Harlem’s underground nightclubs and speakeasies. Harlem residents came out in droves to enjoy the lively music scene, as did white audiences from further afield. Many of the musicians who emerged during this time are still household names today, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Bessie Smith and Alberta Hunter. These musicians went on to shape the next generation of American singers including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Janis Joplin. 

 

Nightclubs

dancers savoy ballroom harlem renaissance
Dancers in The Savoy Ballroom during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance.

 

The Savoy Ballroom opened in Harlem in 1927, and it quickly became a legendary dance hall where world-leading musicians and dancers would perform. Tap dancers including John Bubbles and Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson frequented The Savoy, and many jazz and blues instrumentalists gave daring, experimental performances long into the night.

 

cotton club harlem renaissance
The Cotton Club during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance in New York City.

 

Another popular nightclub of the Harlem Renaissance was The Cotton Club, where Ellington and Calloway were regular performers, and bootleg liquor was readily available. By the mid-1920s musical performances were a defining feature of the Harlem cultural scene. Some performers expanded into white world and made their name in Broadway, such as Josephine Baker.

 

Many Artists Found their Voices During the Harlem Renaissance

aaron douglas negro life painting
Aaron Douglas, Aspects of Negro Life from Slavery to the Reconstruction, 1934, via The Charnel House

 

While the field of visual arts was slower than other art forms to accept Black artists – museums, galleries and art schools were less welcoming – many leading artists nonetheless found exposure during this time. Leading artists include Aaron Douglas, known today as “the father of Black American art”, who brought traditional African techniques into his large scale paintings and murals, and the legendary sculptor Augusta Savage, who made deeply intimate sculpted portraits of the African Americans who had influenced and shaped her life.

 

Members of the Harlem Renaissance Became Civil Rights Activists

alain locke harlem renaissance activist
Alain Locke, a prominent activist during the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights movement

 

Civil rights were fundamental to the Harlem Renaissance, at a time when African Americans were finally beginning to shake off the shackles of their past. Many of the leading intellectual voices of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s went on to become leading figures during the Civil Rights movement of the 1940s, including W.E.B. Du Bois and Alain Locke.

25 Jan. 2023
orpheus duqueylar corot euridice painting

 

The cult of Orphism was a mystery sect that originated from ancient Greece and followed the practices and writings of the mythical poet Orpheus. Similar to the Eleusinian mysteries, only those initiated into the cult learned the full truth of the group’s practices and beliefs.

 

Scholars, both today and in the ancient past, could only ever speculate as to what truly occurred within. However, over the last century archaeologists and historians have uncovered scraps of information such as the Orphic tablets and the Derveni Papyrus, both of which have shed some light on the group’s unique mythology and practices.

 

Who Was Orpheus, the Legendary Founder of the Cult of Orphism?

orpheus attributed to paul duqueylar
Orpheus, by Hugues Jean François Paul Duqueylard,1771–1845, via Sotherby’s

 

The existence of the cult of Orpheus raises many questions, above all, who exactly its founder Orpheus was. According to legend, Orpheus was a renowned poet, musician, and prophet from Thrace who could charm and influence all living things, even stone itself, through his musical abilities. Like many figures of myth and legend, his origins differ slightly in different accounts. However, they all agree he was of Thracian origins and that he was born near Mount Olympus — possibly in the ancient town of Pimpleia. Orpheus’ mother was the Muse Calliope, while his father is thought by many, including the poet Pindar, to have been the mythological Thracian king Oeagrus or the god Apollo. Pindar called Orpheus the father of songs and ancient writers recognized him as the greatest musician and poet to have ever lived.

 

Orpheus and the Expedition of the Argonauts

charles de la fosse jason and argonauts 1672
Jason and the Argonauts Disembark at Colchis, by Charles de La Fosse, 1672 via Wikimedia Commons

 

Orpheus was a renowned musician and a hero remembered through myths and legends. He accompanied Jason and the Argonauts on their journey to retrieve the golden fleeces from the distant lands of Colchis. Orpheus was a musician, not a warrior. Although, without him, the Argonauts would never have found success on their perilous journey. The Argonauts encountered the Sirens of Sirenum Scopuli who would entice sailors to their doom through their beautifully enchanting songs. These were the same Sirens that Odysseus outwitted in the Odyssey.

 

When the Sirens began their alluring songs, Orpheus stepped forward, pulled out his lyre, and began to sing a louder and more beautiful song than the Sirens. Orpheus’s song drowned out the sirens, saving the Argonauts not with strength or cunning but with music. According to the ancient poet Phanocles, Orpheus became the lover of a young Argonaut called Calais son of Boreas, God of the North wind.

 

The Story of Orpheus and Eurydice: Orpheus in the Underworld

frederic leighton orpheus and eurydice 1864
Orpheus and Eurydice, by Frederic Leighton, 1864, via Leighton House Museum, London, England

 

Arguably the most famous myth about Orpheus is his descent into the Underworld to retrieve his dead wife Eurydice. Orpheus and Eurydice fell in love at first sight and they lived together happily for a short while. However, when Hymen the god of marriage came to bless their union, he foretold that their happiness was not destined to last. Eurydice travelled with some nymphs not long after the prophecy to a nearby forest. In one version of the tale, they encounter the shepherd, Aristaeus, who lusted after Eurydice and began to chase her. While another says that Eurydice and the nymphs began to dance together. Regardless of the version, the distraction led to Eurydice being bitten by a snake and dying instantly.

 

ary scheffer orpheus mourning death of eurydice 1814
Orpheus Mourning the Death of Eurydice, by Ary Scheffer, 1814, via the University of Waterloo

 

When Orpheus heard of his love’s demise, he sang a song of grief so moving that both the heavens and the earth learned of his loss. Orpheus decided to travel to the Underworld to find his love. Along his journey, he used his supernatural music to dissuade all obstacles, namely the three-headed dog Cerberus. Orpheus soon met with the lords of the Underworld Hades and Persephone. He played them a heart-breaking song that moved even Hades the god of death to tears. Hades agreed to allow Orpheus and Eurydice to return to the land of the living but under one condition: Eurydice would follow behind Orpheus and at no point was Orpheus allowed to look back at her until they reached their destination.

 

camille corot orpheus leading eurydice 1861
Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld, by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, 1861, via Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas, USA

 

Orpheus agreed, thanking the lords of the dead for their kindness. But Orpheus could not hear his love’s footsteps behind him and thought he had been tricked by the gods. No more than a few footsteps from the exit, Orpheus lost faith and turned to see if Eurydice was behind him. She was there and Orpheus watched as she was pulled back down to the Underworld as he had failed to follow Hades’ one condition. Orpheus returned to the land of the living consumed by guilt and grief.

 

Death of Orpheus

albrecht dürer the death of orpheus
The Death of Orpheus, by Albrecht Dürer,1494, via Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany

 

The final myth about Orpheus deals with his death, and there are different versions each ending the same. Orpheus meets his end at the hands of Maenads, female worshipers of god Dionysus, who tear him to pieces. The Maenads kill him after he rejects their advances. This is either because he has sworn off love after his failed attempt to save his wife Eurydice or because he rejected all women seeking the company of men only.

 

The playwright Aeschylus claims that Dionysus sent the Maenads to kill Orpheus because he disdained worship of the gods apart from Apollo. All versions end with the Maenads ripping off Orpheus’ head, which remained intact and still sang. His head eventually ended up in Lesbos and, through Zeus’s power, gained oracular abilities. The people of Lesbos built a shrine for him near Antissa, where pilgrims would travel to ask an oracle for prophecies.

 

gustave moreau head of orpheus
Thracian Girl Carrying the Head of Orpheus on His Lyre, by Gustave Moreau,1865, via the Orsay Museum, Paris, France

 

Orpheus is never mentioned by either Homer or Hesiod despite the consensus being that he existed several generations before Homer and the reported events of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Although ancient writers such as Strabo, Pindar, and Apollodorus claim he existed, Homer’s lack of any mention of him led thinkers such as Aristotle to deny his existence outright.

 

The Orphic Hymns which form the basis of the Orphic Theogony are attributed to Orpheus. However, the unlikelihood of the mythic Orpheus ever having existed in the first place calls his authorship into question. Although the mythical Orpheus never existed, his legend likely inspired other writers to establish the cult of Orpheus. Orpheus’s musical abilities, his descent into the Underworld, and his death at the hands of followers of Dionysus, strongly influenced the future cult’s unique beliefs and practices.

 

Orphic Myths

stories of marcus furius camillus francesco salviati
Stories of Marcus Furius Camillus allegory of Phanes, by Francesco Salviati, 1543-45, via Wikimedia Commons

 

The Orphic creation myth is very similar to Hesiod’s Theogony because it presents the creation as a genealogy of the gods. Both creation myths share strong similarities, but the Orphic myth also shares much in common with near eastern and Egyptian creation myths.

 

The Orphic Hymns claim that the first being was Chronos (Time) who spawned Aither (Ether), Chaos (Unorder), and Erebos (Darkness). Time then created a cosmic egg in Ether and from it hatched a supreme being called Phanes, who is also called Protogonos, Eros, Metis, and Dionysus. Phanes is described as a beautiful androgynous figure bathed in light with a lion’s head and golden wings. Phanes then asexually birthed Nyx (Night) and passed its scepter to her, making Nyx the second ruler of the universe. Nyx then proceeded to create the Titans familiar from Hesiod’s theogony such as Gaia (Earth) and Ouranos (Sky).

 

gherardi vasari mutilation of uranus by saturn
The Mutilation of Uranus by Saturn, by Giorgio Vasari & Cristofano Gherardi, 16th century, via fineartamerica.com

 

Events then unfolded similarly to in the Theogony, with Kronos castrating his father Ouranos and swallowing his and Rheas Olympian children to prevent any challenge to his rulership. As Hesiod recounts, Zeus is spirited away by Rhea but does not simply defeat the Titans. Zeus swallowed Phanes the original creator and thus became “the beginning, middle, and end of all.” With Phanes’ power and Nyx’s counsel, Zeus recreated the universe. The Derveni Papyrus comments that Zeus achieved this incredible feat with the help of Moria, an incarnation of fate that gave Zeus mastery over reason and time itself.

 

Dionysus/Zagreus

dionysus mosaic house of poseidon zeugma
Dionysus mosaic from the House of Poseidon, via acropolis.org

 

Zeus then proceeds to establish the Olympian pantheon in a similar manner to Hesiod’s Theogony. A significant difference is that Dionysus is born through the forceful union of Zeus and Persephone. Zeus bequeathed Phanes’ scepter and rulership of all things to his last son Dionysus, also referred to as Zagreus in the Orphic texts. This angers Zeus’s wife Hera who wishes for one of her children to receive Phanes’ sceptre.

 

giovanni bellini young bacchus
Young Bacchus, by Giovanni Bellini,1514, via National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, USA

 

Hera enlisted the help of the Titans in her plans to destroy Dionysus-Zagreus. The Titans lure the infant using a mirror and children’s toys, and then tear him to pieces and consume him. Athena manages to save Dionysus- Zagreus’s heart and informs Zeus who hurls lighting down incinerating the Titans.

 

From the ashes of the Titans and the consumed Dionysus- Zagreus, humankind is born. The soul of humanity contains an aspect of Dionysus- Zagreus, while their physical forms, created from the Titans, imprisons their souls. The original sin committed by the Titans results in the imprisonment of the soul, which must suffer a cycle of rebirth. Specifically, the soul must undergo ten reincarnations to purge itself of the Titan’s crimes.

 

platt lynes the second birth of dionysus 1939
The Second Birth of Dionysus, by George Platt Lynes, 1939, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, USA

 

Dionysus-Zagreus is also reincarnated and the Orphic texts present two familiar accounts of how this happened. Their heart is either implanted in Zeus’s thigh or given to Zeus who implants it in the womb of the mortal, Semele. Both cases result in the rebirth of Dionysus-Zagreus, who the Orphics worshipped.

 

Orphic Beliefs 

metempsychosis by yokoyama taikan 1923
Metempsychosis, by Yokoyama Taikan, 1923, via The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, Japan

 

Orphism differs significantly from other religious practices of the time. Mainly through their belief in Metempsychosis (reincarnation), the concept of original sin, and a strong leaning towards monotheism in their devotion to Dionysus-Zagreus. They believed that their founder, Orpheus, learned these truths during his journey to the Underworld, which itself is akin to a soul’s cycle of rebirth. Furthermore, their founder’s untimely demise is very similar to Dionysus- Zagreus’s death.

 

Metempsychosis, the transmigration of the soul, was not a belief contained only in Orphism. Followers of Pythagoras also believed in the concept, and philosophers such as Plato and Socrates gave it much consideration. What makes the Orphic version different is the belief in original sin and the suffering the soul undergoes every cycle of rebirth. The Orphics believed that all souls that have not undertaken the mystic rites of Orpheus will suffer in mud and painful servitude as they await their next reincarnation. Those who do take the Orphic rites and follow their practices would spend their days in the company of Orpheus and the gods while waiting for their rebirth. A soul that has lived through three cycles adhering to Orphic practices is released from the cycle of reincarnation.

 

orphic gold tablet thessaly the getty villa
Gold sheet with Orphic prayer found in an unknown site in Tessaglia contained in a bronze funeral urn, 4th century BCE, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Plato refers to Orphic priests who would pester the rich by knocking on their doors with their holy books asking if they wished to be cleansed of their sins. The use of holy scripture was considered a novelty by Plato and his contemporaries. Unfortunately, no such books have survived intact, yet we can presume that they contained the Orphic hymns and the various prohibitions and dogma that their followers needed to obey.

 

Orphic Practices

michele tedesco pythagorean school 1887
A Pythagorean School Invaded by the Sybarites, by Michele Tedesco,1887, via Artuk.org

 

Much of what is known about the cult’s practices has survived through references from ancient writers such as Plato, Euripides, and others. Many of these references are referred to mockingly and should not be taken at face value. However, the fact that numerous ancient sources referred to similar beliefs implies that there is some truth to their words.

 

The Orphics believed in Adikia or the avoidance of harming or bringing injustices to any living soul. They believed that murder and any acts of violence against another are great sins. This belief pertained to all creatures with a soul, and the Orphics were strict vegetarians as a result. They also avoided eating beans similar to followers of Pythagoras.

 

Orphics adhered to an ascetic lifestyle to avoid further contamination of their souls. There are also accounts that they took vows of celibacy, similar to some versions of their founder Orpheus after his failed attempt to save Eurydice.

 

Initiation into the Cult of Orpheus

orphic gold tablet petelia british museum london
Gold Orphic Tablet with Case in the British Museum, via gruppoarcheologicokr.it

 

It is unclear exactly what occurred during the Orphic initiation rites, but recent archaeological discoveries suggest that an important aspect of them was the revelation of important knowledge to prepare and guide followers in the afterlife. Archaeologists have uncovered bone tablets in Olbia, with inscriptions such as “Life. Death. Life. Truth. Dio(nysus). Orphics”. The meaning of the tablets is unknown but scholars believe they were intended to help Orphics remember what to do when they died.

 

mnemosyne dante gabriel rossetti
Mnemosyne, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti,1881, via Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, Delaware, USA

 

Gold-leaf tablets discovered in Orphic graves throughout Greece present instructions for how to navigate the afterlife. Within Metempsychosis, one’s soul would descend to the Underworld and drink or pass through the river Lethe (the river of forgetfulness) shedding all memories of its previous life in the process. The Orphic tablets instruct followers to avoid this river and instead drink from the pool of Mnemosyne (“Memory”). Keeping hold of their memories, the souls would then find their gods and recite formulaic phrases which would allow them into the company of their gods.

 

The cult of Orphism remains a mystery to this day. Historians still debate whether or not it should be considered a distinct religious sect, an alternative lifestyle, or a new school of philosophical thought. It is unclear what happened to the cult and how it fell out of popularity. However, new archaeological discoveries indicate that answers may be uncovered in the near future.

24 Jan. 2023
greatest medieval kings

 

Throughout the medieval era, many factors determined how successful a king was. For instance, if a ruler was successful in warfare, he was guaranteed to be remembered as a great medieval king. In addition, if a king was pious, or deeply religious, he was also considered a success; speaking out against a senior religious figure would have been almost on par with blasphemy. These five medieval kings below fit the criteria, and that is why they have made the shortlist of the greatest medieval kings of all time.

 

1. The Medieval King Who Took the Cross: Richard I of England (1189-99)

medieval king richard i
Effigy of Richard the Lionheart at Fontevraud Abbey, photograph by Adam Bishop, 17 October 2011, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Richard I of England, better known as Richard the Lionheart, was king of England for just ten years, from 1189-99. Yet he is still one of the most famous medieval kings of all time. Born on the 8th of September 1157, Richard was the eldest surviving son of Henry II of England and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. During his early childhood, Eleanor and Henry had become estranged from one another, and as a result, Richard spent the majority of his early years in France with his mother. Richard spoke French and became accustomed to French culture. In 1172, he was made Duke of Aquitaine and became acquainted with the French heir to the throne, Philip Augustus.

 

By 1180, Philip had been crowned as King Philip II of France, and just seven years later, the pair’s friendship would be put through a serious test: the onset of the Third Crusade. Richard was the first European noble to “take the cross” — a term given to those who had given their crusading vows to recover Jerusalem for Christendom and take it out of the Muslim Saladin’s hands.

 

However, Richard was unable to go out on crusade as soon as he wanted to. His father had died, and Richard was thus crowned as King Richard I of England — which delayed his crusading journey. He did not actually set out on crusade until July 1190 — ten months after his coronation as king of England. Both Richard and Philip set out on crusade together; two huge medieval kings going to fight for their countries was a sight admired by many in both England and France.

 

philippe and richard acre
Philip (center) and Richard (left) accepting the keys to Acre, from Grandes Chroniques de France, c. 1375-80, via Gallica Digital Library

 

Richard also made important alliances across Europe on his way to the Holy Land — something pivotal to the success of any medieval king. Arguably the most important was his marriage to Berengaria of Navarre in Cyprus, in May 1191. She was the daughter of King Sancho VI of Navarre.

 

Upon arriving on the coast of Acre, Richard took part in the famous Siege of Acre, recapturing the coastal city for the crusaders. However, he never managed to recapture Jerusalem. Yet this does not mean that this crusade was not a success. The Treaty of Jaffa (which Richard signed with Saladin on the 2nd of September 1192) ensured that Christians would be granted safe access to Jerusalem, and granted all territory between Jaffa and Tyre. They may not have captured Jerusalem, but they captured huge amounts of important territory.

 

Richard was later captured by Henry VI, the Holy Roman Emperor, on his way back from the Holy Land and imprisoned in Trifels Castle in Germany between December 1192 and February 1194. Fortunately, in his absence, Richard had promoted Hubert Walter (a royal advisor) to Archbishop of Canterbury, and he ran England smoothly, even quashing a rebellion from Richard’s younger brother, John. Walter also managed to raise 100,000 marks — enough to pay Richard’s ransom.

 

king john illustration
King John of England, via Britannica

 

Richard returned to England in March 1194 and forgave John for his rebellions. However, he did not stick around and was back on the Continent by June of the same year. Unfortunately for Richard, just five years later, he was shot by an arrow in France, the wound became gangrenous, and he died on the 6th of April 1199.

 

Richard’s legacy as a king is certainly one of a crusader, rather than an English king. He may have been king of England, but that was in name only; he only spent 6 months of his 10 year reign in England. Richard definitely deserves a place on this list as he achieved far more in warfare and territory terms than many of his predecessors who are also regarded as good kings did, such as William I (r. 1066-88) and Henry II (r. 1154-89). Moreover, Richard’s reign was a period of relative peace with Scotland, something many of his successors failed to achieve.

 

2. The Saintly Ruler: Louis IX of France (1226-70)

saint louis of france
Saint Louis, artist unknown, c. 13th century, accessed via The Morgan Library & Museum

 

Louis IX of France is the only king on this list who was canonized. He was canonized by Pope Boniface VIII in 1297, and was the only French monarch to become a saint. He is often regarded as the ideal Christian monarch.

 

Born on the 25th of April, 1214 near Paris, Louis was the son of King Louis VIII of France (also known as Louis the Lion) and his wife, Blanche of Castile (who was a daughter of King Alfonso VIII of Castile). Louis was only two years old when his grandfather, Philip II, died, and only 12 when his father died. He was crowned that same year, and it is thought that his deeply religious nature came from his mother, who, while ruling in his minority, was reported to have told him:



“I would rather see you dead at my feet than that you should ever commit a mortal sin.”

 

It is thought that Louis started ruling in his own right by about 1234, which was when he married Margaret of Provence. It was also at this time that Louis’ mother became jealous, and tried to keep the couple apart as much as possible. However, this was not very successful as the couple reportedly had a happy marriage, producing 11 children together.

 

death of king louis
The Death of Saint Louis, by Jean Fouquet, Grandes Chroniques de France, c. 1455-60, via timetoast.com

 

The main feature of Louis’ reign was that he was heavily involved in crusading, going on two separate crusades: the Seventh Crusade in 1248 and the Eighth Crusade in 1270. The former was a disaster for the crusading movement. Arriving in Egypt in early June 1249, the crusaders began their campaign with the capture of the port of Damietta. Unfortunately, the Ayyubid Sultanate knew the territory much better than the crusaders, and the seasonal rising of the Nile River and scorching hot summer temperatures made it impossible for the crusaders to advance. However, on 8 February 1250, Louis lost the Battle of Al Mansurah, where he was captured by the Egyptians.

 

His release was negotiated, and he spent the following four years in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. It was during this period that Louis used his wealth to help rebuild the crusader states which had been damaged by previous crusading ventures. In addition, he also conducted diplomatic missions with Islamic representatives. He returned to France in the spring of 1254. Throughout the late 1240s and 1250s, Louis was in contact with the Mongol Khans, including Güyük Khan, a grandson of the legendary Mongol leader, Genghis Khan.

 

On the 24th of March 1267, at a parliament held in Paris, Louis and his three sons took the cross to set out on the Eighth Crusade. The crusaders arrived at Carthage on the 17th of July 1270 but disease had already broken out in the camp. Louis himself died of dysentery on the 25th of August 1270.

 

Saint Louis certainly deserves a place on this list: he was the only French king to be canonized, and his pious nature did not stop him from going on a crusade. It is also important to note that success in warfare does not necessarily denote a successful medieval king — Louis was the epitome of a Christian medieval king.

 

3. Hero of the Scots: Robert I of Scotland (1306-29)

medieval king robert i statue
Bust of Robert the Bruce statue, via Spookyscotland.net

 

You may be forgiven for thinking you have not heard of Robert I of Scotland, but that is because he is much better known as Robert the Bruce. Robert’s claim to the throne came from the fact he was the fourth great-grandson of King David I of Scotland (r. 1124-53), and his claim came about during the period of Scottish history known as “the Great Cause” — when Margaret, the Maid of Norway, had died aged just 6 in 1290 and there was no direct heir to the Scottish throne.

 

Bruce had been heavily involved in the First War of Scottish Independence against England, which had been raging on since the English invasion of Scotland in 1296. Initially, the war had been fought with William Wallace (known as Braveheart) until his capture and eventual execution by King Edward I of England (who was known as the “Hammer of the Scots”).

 

After submitting to Edward I in 1302, Robert Bruce inherited his family’s claim to the throne upon his father’s death, but moved quickly and seized the throne for himself in 1306. He was shortly after defeated by Edward I’s forces at the Battle of Methven in 1306, and was forced to go into hiding. However, this did not last for long. Edward I died a year later and was succeeded by his militarily incompetent son, Edward II. Bruce re-emerged from hiding and soundly defeated English forces at the Battle of Loudoun Hill on the 10th of May 1307. This was just the beginning of Bruce’s victories against the English.

 

medieval king edward i
Portrait of Edward I of England in Westminster Abbey, c. 1272-1307, via Historic Royal Palaces

 

However, it was not until 1314 that Bruce really established himself as a true Scottish national hero, and one of the greatest medieval kings of all time. Facing a far numerically superior English force at Bannockburn on 24 June 1314 (Bruce’s force of approximately 6000 soldiers was up against Edward II’s army of 20,000), something had to go in his favor. The Scottish forces successfully forced the English army back into the Bannock stream, where many of them drowned in their heavy armor. The result was a disaster for Edward II, but a huge morale boost for Scottish forces and Bruce.

 

In 1320, the Declaration of Arbroath was submitted to Pope John XXII, which acknowledged Robert as King Robert I of Scotland, king of an independent kingdom. Two years later, Bruce raided England again and defeated English forces at the Battle of Byland Abbey. This was a turning point in Scottish warfare, as they had formally surpassed the English with their military techniques; they had ditched the traditional warhorse for more footsoldiers, resulting in a quicker and more efficient victory.

 

By 1324, Pope John XXII had acknowledged Robert as king of Scotland, and Scotland as an independent kingdom. Edward II died a broken man in 1327 after being deposed in favor of his son, Edward III. The new king recognized Robert’s independence, and concluded it in the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton in 1328, by renouncing all claims over Scotland.

 

Robert the Bruce died the following year, to be succeeded by his son, King David II. Not only is Robert I recognized as one of Scotland’s greatest medieval kings (or greatest king, in fact), but he is generally recognized as one of the greatest medieval kings of all time. To this day, he is still regarded as a Scottish national hero and has been portrayed in numerous books, films, and stage adaptations, most recently in the 2018 film, Outlaw King.

 

4. Military Mastermind: Edward III of England (1327-77)

medieval king edward iii portrait
Edward III, artist unknown, c. 16th century, via the National Portrait Gallery, London

 

Although only briefly part of Robert the Bruce’s reign, King Edward III really came into his own from the 1330s onwards. Born to Edward II and Isabella on the 13th of November 1312, Edward grew up under the protection of his mother and her lover, Roger Mortimer. Upon Edward II’s deposition, Isabella and Mortimer had seized power for themselves, and Mortimer clearly saw the teenage Edward as a threat to what he deemed his rightful seat. However, by 1330, Edward and a band of trusted companions snuck into Nottingham Castle via an underground tunnel on the night of the 19th of October, surprising Mortimer and having him arrested. He was then executed, and Isabella was sent to live in relative comfort but essentially under house arrest for the rest of her life. Edward III was finally ruling in his own right.

 

Like his father, Scotland greatly concerned him. However, with the young David II sitting on the throne after the death of Robert the Bruce in 1329, Edward had the upper hand. He defeated David’s forces at the Battle of Dupplin Moor (11 August 1332) and then at Halidon Hill (19 July 1333), thanks to the introduction of the longbow into English warfare. Before the majority of the Scottish army had even reached the English forces, they had been slaughtered thanks to the archers with longbows.

 

philippe and richard acre
The Battle of Sluys, from the Chroniques de Jean Froissart, 15th century, via the Medievalist.net

 

The longbow would also play an important role in the Hundred Years’ War against France, Edward having already calmed the Scottish threat from the north. One of the biggest battles of the Hundred Years’ War was a naval battle at Sluys, fought on the 24th of June 1340. Edward’s navy outmanoeuvred French forces, capturing all but 23 of the 213 French ships. In addition, all the admirals of King Philip VI (of France) had been either captured or killed.

 

By 1346 however, Edward had war on two fronts — yet he managed to come out victorious on both occasions. At Neville’s Cross near Durham, England, David II had sent a force down from Scotland, but they were defeated, and David was captured. He would remain in English custody for the next eleven years. Meanwhile, at Crécy in France, the longbows showed their superiority once more; the English were outnumbered by 8 to 1 yet still won the battle.

 

But it was not just French and Scottish aggression that Edward III had to deal with: his reign saw the arrival of the Black Death in 1347. Edward did not close English borders, as this would have meant closing down trade for England. Nevertheless, he did introduce some legislative measures: the unpopular Statue of Labourers (1351) which put peasant wages back to pre-plague levels (a catalyst for what was to become the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381).

 

battle of poitiers 1356
The Battle of Poitiers, from Chroniques de Jean Froissart, 15th century, via Berkhamstead Castle

 

By the time the biggest wave of the Black Death had been and gone by the early 1350s, Edward once again focussed his attention on France at the Battle of Poitiers (19 September 1356) one of the finest military victories in English history. He cemented his place as one of the greatest medieval kings although it was largely his son, the Black Prince, who won the battle.

 

During the battle, the French king, John II, was captured and sent to England and Edward began to slow down throughout the 1360s and 1370s. His son and his eldest grandson had both died by 1376, so Edward’s grandson Richard succeeded him as King Richard II of England when Edward himself died a year later, on the 21st of June 1377.

 

As well as witnessing numerous military victories against both Scotland and France during his reign, Edward III also saw England through the Black Death, established English as the primary language of England, and cemented England’s position as victorious in the first half of the Hundred Years’ War. To this day, Edward III’s reign is the fifth-longest of any English monarch, coming in at 50 years and 147 days.

 

5. The Medieval King Who Beat the French: Henry V of England (1413-22)

medieval king henry v
King Henry V, c. 16th – 17th century, via the National Portrait Gallery, London

 

Having a long reign is not necessarily a factor for getting a place on this list. Our final monarch, King Henry V of England, ruled for less than a decade, but achieved notable successes in his short tenure as a medieval king.

 

Henry was born on the 16th of September 1386 in Monmouth Castle, Wales, the eldest of six children between King Henry IV of England (r. 1399-1413) and his first wife, Mary de Bohun.

 

When the future Henry IV was exiled by his cousin King Richard II of England (r. 1377-99), the young Henry was taken into Richard’s care, and reportedly treated very well. He even joined Richard in Ireland, and it was while he was in Ireland that news had traveled that Henry’s father had usurped the throne, and been crowned as King Henry IV of England. Upon his coronation, the young Henry was recalled back to England. He was created Prince of Wales and Duke of Lancaster. He also served as High Sheriff of Cornwall at the turn of the fifteenth century.

 

Henry was involved in the military before he was crowned king, helping to supress Owain Glyndwr’s revolt. However, when his father died, Henry was immediately crowned King Henry V of England. Carrying on the Hundred Years’ War, which had been started by his great-grandfather, Edward III, Henry turned his attention to France. On the 12th of August 1415, he sailed to France, capturing Harfleur on the 22nd of September. Next, despite warnings from his council, he decided to march his army across France to Calais. However, his army was intercepted near the village of Agincourt, which ultimately led to one of the most famous battles in history: The Battle of Agincourt.

 

battle of agincourt
The Battle of Agincourt, by Enguerrand de Monstrelet, 15th century, via themedievalist.net

 

Despite the horrifically muddy conditions, and the exhaustion of the numerically inferior English forces, they decisively beat the French, in one of the greatest underdog stories of all time, in a victory which propelled Henry V’s legacy as one of the greatest medieval kings of all time. Agincourt is typically regarded as Henry’s greatest military victory, and in terms of English victories during the Hundred Years’ War, Agincourt ranks alongside Crécy and Poitiers.

 

Henry’s reign and victories were only short-lived, though. He had captured enough territory and had enough of a solid claim to crown himself King of France, though he never lived to see it through. Henry died (likely of dysentery) on the 31st of August 1422, aged just 35. He named his brother, John, Duke of Bedford, as regent of France in the name of his son, who would become the future King Henry VI of England, as he was only a few weeks old at the time.

 

Winning such significant victories in the Hundred Years’ War and solidifying English territory abroad cemented his position on this list. He was also romanticized in many of Shakespeare’s plays, and to this day is still seen as one of the greatest medieval kings of all time.

24 Jan. 2023
columbia easter bonnet
Columbia’s Easter Bonnet by Samuel D. Ehrhart, 1901, via American Yawp

 

The Mexican Revolution was perhaps the most consequential event in the country’s modern history. Although internal affairs and dynamics mainly drove the conflict, it was not exempt from external pressures and foreign intervention, namely, the United States’ intervention throughout much of the conflict. Their active participation in the conflict ranged from choosing which faction to recognize as legitimate to aiding in the planning and execution of a successful coup d’état. The United States’ intervention in the Mexican Revolution was just one case in the greater American intervention policy in the Americas.

 

The Monroe Doctrine & US Intervention in the Americas

monroe doctrine cartoon
Europeans observing American naval might, c. 1904, from the New York Herald, via History

 

At the start of the 19th century, the United States assumed a foreign policy position that would forever change the power dynamic in the Americas. The Monroe Doctrine, so-called after the US President who first articulated the policy, James Monroe, called for the opposition of European colonialism in the Western Hemisphere. He maintained that any breach of such policy would be considered a hostile act against the United States, thereby placing the Americans as the sole hegemonic power of the continent.

 

The Monroe Doctrine was massively consequential for American foreign policy in the Americas throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. By placing the entire continent under its sphere of influence, the United States became a major policing actor and a colonial power in its own right. The doctrine and other similar policies drove most of the American foreign affairs towards an active and aggressive state generally interested in enforcing and protecting US political and economic interests abroad.

 

The stated purpose of the US government regarding its intervention in the Mexican Revolution was first to warn Mexican authorities of potential “actions” from the US military on Mexico if American lives and property were threatened. It later evolved into a more active purpose, with the attempt to depose Mexican dictator Victoriano Huerta, as he was incapable of maintaining order and protecting US interests.

 

Henry Lane Wilson: The US Ambassador Who Helped Topple a Revolutionary Government

henry lane wilson
Wilson H.L. Honorable by Harris & Ewing, ca. 1905, via Library of Congress

 

American foreign policy in Mexico before the revolution was largely focused on maintaining good relations with the Diaz regime. For most of his rule, Diaz enjoyed a peaceful and successful partnership with the United States. Diaz had not been elected; rather, he seized power in 1876, ousting the previous president. The US government sided with Diaz because his administration welcomed more foreign investment and was generally fine with the US reaping major economic gains so long as Mexican political sovereignty was not challenged, and the US government aided Diaz in his aim for “order and progress.”

 

The Diaz regime was eventually challenged and toppled by Mexican revolutionaries during the Mexican Revolution. Led by businessman and hacendado Francisco I. Madero, the revolutionaries defeated Diaz in 1911, and Madero became the new president. The United States Ambassador to Mexico, Henry Lane Wilson, went on to conspire with Mexican general Victoriano Huerta and Diaz loyalists Bernardo Reyes and Felix Diaz, reaching an agreement known as “El Pacto de la Embajada,” or the Pact of the Embassy, where the Mexican side agreed to oust Madero. The motivations behind Wilson’s actions are largely uncertain, but it is plausible that he held some animosity against Madero for personal reasons.

 

President Madero was taken prisoner and later killed in 1913 after a ten-day-long successful coup attempt known as La Decena Tragica (Ten Tragic Days). A month later, in March 1913, Woodrow Wilson was elected President of the United States. When he discovered what the American ambassador had done, he found his actions appalling, and on July 17, after seeking independent information about the events, President Wilson dismissed Ambassador Wilson. The US President rejected the legitimacy of the Huerta regime and demanded his government held democratic elections. He also urged European nations not to recognize Huerta.

 

The United States Side With the Mexican Revolution, Against Victoriano Huerta

villa obregon pershing patton mexican revolution
Mexican Revolutionaries and General John Pershing by Unknown, 1914, via The Washington Post

 

The new government in Mexico was profoundly unpopular and Huerta was quickly challenged. The same year he seized power, a new coalition of revolutionaries formed to oppose him. The Constitutionalists, as they came to be known, were led by politician Venustiano Carranza, governor of the northern state of Coahuila, bordering the US. Huerta called for elections and first stood as a candidate, but, realizing his lack of support from potential allies, Huerta allowed his foreign minister to stand as a candidate instead. Wilson supported this arrangement and urged the revolutionaries to accept such comprise, but they refused.

 

The conflict that emerged was different from the one in the first stage of the Mexican Revolution. The country now found itself immersed in a civil war, mainly fought in the north of the country and in other more regional fronts like Morelos, with the Zapatistas, a more radical and demanding faction of revolutionaries. The US government provided arms to the northern revolutionaries but refused to sell any weapons to the Huerta regime after the arms embargo imposed on the Mexican government by Wilson in August 1913.

 

In 1914, while the revolution against Huerta was taking place, a few major figures of the revolution held a meeting and interview with the United States Army at the Customs Office in Ciudad Juarez. The interview culminated with a photograph in which revolutionary leaders Pancho Villa and Alvaro Obregon can be seen alongside US General John J. Pershing and future World War II general Lt. George S. Patton. Years later, Pershing would lead a military expedition into Mexico attempting to capture Villa after he led an attack into US territory.

 

The Tampico Affair & the US Invasion of Veracruz

us invasion of veracruz
US troops during the occupation of Veracruz by Bain News Service, from Library of Congress, via nhmdemexico.colmex.mx

 

On April 9, 1914, nine US sailors were detained by Mexican federal troops in the port of Tampico. The sailors were coming back from a purchase of fuel they had arranged with a German businessman inside Mexican territory. The US Admiral in charge of the sailors demanded that the Mexican troops freed them and performed a 21-gun salute honoring the US flag, but the Mexican troops refused. The incident was ultimately managed and resolved between US and Mexican diplomats. Wilson was, however, unsatisfied with the resolution and decided further action was necessary. Wilson was convinced to challenge Huerta and called for the taking of the port of Veracruz to eventually depose the Mexican president.

 

On the 21st of April, US troops intercepted an arms shipment directed to Huerta’s troops. The Americans had taken the port of Veracruz the previous evening. The SS Ypiranga, the German steamer transporting the arms for Huerta, was never captured and was eventually successful in delivering its cargo to a different port. The incident, however, began a seven-month-long conflict between the United States and Mexico.

 

The US occupation of Veracruz ended in November, after the ABC powers, so-called after its members — Argentina, Brazil, and Chile — helped settle the conflict at the Niagara Falls Peace Conference. The port was handed over to General Candido Aguilar from the Constitutionalists, who were winning the offensive against Huerta. It is estimated that thousands of Americans were forced to leave Mexico, lose all of their property, and return to the United States as refugees after growing anti-Americanism sentiments and riots began taking place in Mexico. Stations in charge of dealing with the refugees were set in New Orleans, Texas City, and San Diego.

 

The Hunt for Pancho Villa: The US Punitive Expedition in Mexico

us punitive expedition mexican revolution
US troops marching by US Department of Defense, ca. 1916-1917, via Gobierno de Mexico

 

After the defeat of Victoriano Huerta, the Constitutionalists assumed power and Venustiano Carranza, the leader of the faction, went on to become president. The other revolutionaries who had helped defeat Huerta, however, were unsatisfied with the new government, seeing that it was not as willing and effective in executing their demands. Carranza was recognized by the US as the head of state of Mexico, making clear who the Americans now supported and viewed as legitimate.

 

Pancho Villa, once favored by the United States, was defeated by the Constitutionalists. Villa felt betrayed and began attacking Americans and their property across the border. Things escalated when Villa went further into US territory and attacked the city of Columbus, New Mexico. The raid carried out by Villa and his followers was seen as an embarrassment for both the US and Mexican governments. Several US civilians and soldiers were killed and injured in the raid, but Villa’s forces suffered greater losses. The very next day of the assault, President Wilson commanded General John J. Pershing to pursue Villa into Mexico and capture him.

 

The Punitive Expedition lasted almost a year, from March 14, 1916 to February 7, 1917. Although the stated purpose for the expedition was the capture of Pancho Villa, and it came close to achieving said goal, the operation evolved into a very delicate conflict between the US forces and the Constitutionalists. For the first half of the conflict, the US troops engaged with the Mexican army intermittently. At one point, thousands of American troops were mobilized to the border in case war broke out. War was ultimately avoided, but Villa was never caught. The American troops remained stationed in the north of Mexico for another six months, until the beginning of 1917 when President Wilson recalled them.

 

The Zimmerman Telegram & the End of the Mexican Revolution

german zimmerman telegram mexican revolution
The Zimmerman telegram, 1917, via History

 

Around the same time as the end of the Punitive Expedition, the British had intercepted and shared with the US a telegram from the German Empire directed to Mexico. The Zimmerman Telegram, as it came to be known, was the last major event between the US and Mexico in the Mexican Revolution. The telegram was intended as a secret diplomatic communication to Mexico, in which the German Empire tried to convince Mexico to attack the United States and reclaim the lost territory of the Mexican-American War, promising support in such conflict.

 

The German Empire’s intentions were those of tying down the US military in a conflict with Mexico, fearing their eventual involvement in World War I. The telegram was never really taken as a significant threat to the United States, yet it angered the Americans regardless and was important in gathering support for the entrance of the US into the war.

 

After the Punitive Expedition and the Zimmerman Telegram, little happened between the US and Mexico. In 1917, Mexico drafted and approved a new constitution that gave the country more power to expropriate property on the basis of national interests and asserted the country’s right to subsoil resources. These posed a threat to American economic interests in the country, though Carranza’s administration never made extensive use of such actions and was thus no major threat to the Americans.

24 Jan. 2023
who jenny holzer text art installation artist oldest fears worst ones

 

Jenny Holzer is a world-renowned American conceptual and installation artist who has been making art since the late 1970s. Throughout her long and prolific career she has created a huge variety of text-based installation art for public spaces all around the world. These have ranged from city streets to mountainsides and even the surfaces of the ocean. Her short, punchy, and politically engaged statements – like “Protect me from what I want”, or “Private property created crime” – have appeared on billboards, LED signs, carved stone, paintings, t-shirts, light projections and more. They demonstrate just how versatile and varied text art can be. Many of her most powerful artworks have addressed instances of social injustice or inequality, questioning patriarchal and capitalist systems of power. Here is a breakdown of her legacy.

 

Jenny Holzer Trained in Painting and Printmaking

jenny holzer portrait
Portrait of Jenny Holzer, 2019, via Artnet.

 

While Jenny Holzer is best known today as a text artist, she originally trained as a painter and printmaker. Born in 1950 in Gallipolis, Ohio, Holzer earned a BFA in printmaking and painting from Ohio University in 1972. From there she studied an MFA in painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, in 1977. Later Holzer moved to New York, to train in the Independent Study Program at the Whitney Museum of American Art. 

 

Holzer Made Her First Socially Engaged Text Art in 1977

jenny holzer truisms text art
Jenny Holzer, Truisms, 1977-79.

 

Jenny Holzer made her first text-based art in 1977. This breakthrough work launched an ongoing fascination with the personal and political ramifications of language, and its power to undercut perceived truths about the systems of power that keep society under control. Holzer’s first series of text art was titled Truisms, and made from 1977-79. In the series Holzer produced a series of hand-typed, self-authored short statements. She then distributed them to the public via a series of printed items including stickers, t-shirts, flyers and posters. Statements such as “artificial desires are despoiling the earth,” “abstraction is a type of decadence”, and “boredom makes you do crazy things” were intended, as Holzer put it, to be an antidote to “the usual baloney (we) are fed.”

 

Inflammatory Essays

inflammatory essays new york public art
One of Jenny Holzer’s Inflammatory Essays, 1979-1982, via Public Delivery.

 

Holzer followed this series with a body of new work titled Inflammatory Essays. Made between 1979 and 1982, the series was made up of short essays written in a direct and interrogatory manner. She printed the essays onto posters and pasted them anonymously around New York City for viewers to engage with on an intimate level. At the time Jenny Holzer highlighted how important it was for the texts to remain detached and anonymous. She wrote, “The anonymity was critical. I wanted people to consider the ideas but not give more than a passing thought to who produced them.”

 

Jenny Holzer Has Made Art for Locations All Around the World

washington projection light art
“To the Forty-third President” from Blackbird and Wolf by Henri Cole, copyright © 2007 by the author. Used/reprinted with permission from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

 

Following the success of her early work, Jenny Holzer has gone on to become more ambitious in the scope of her art. She has created public art for many major cities around the world, ranging from Times Square in New York to Piccadilly Circus in London, focusing on high traffic areas where her art can speak to a wide audience. 

 

Holzer Has Produced Art in a Huge Range of Media

jenny holzer untitled truce to terror light art
Jenny Holzer, Untitled (from the Washington Series), 2007, via The Royal Academy, London.

 

Holzer has produced text art in a huge range of media throughout her career. While her early art was generally low-budget and lo-fi, she has since gone on to work with more ambitious materials. In the early 1980s, Holzer produced a series of engraved marble and granite benches and stone sarcophagi featuring her trademark direct, provocative statements. Later in the same decade Holzer began working with LED signage. For her retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York from 1989-90, Holzer designed a site specific LED sign that travelled round the parapet of the building’s rotunda, projecting statements from throughout her career. More recently, Holzer has projected lit up words onto the surface of water, building facades and even mountainsides.

24 Jan. 2023
ancient greeks discover atoms atomism

 

The word ‘atom’ has its roots in the Greek adjective “atomos”, which translates literally to “uncuttable”. Today the atomic theory is generally taught within a scientific context. During science class, children learn that atoms are the building blocks of all matter on earth: the smallest units of matter that, until fairly recently, were thought to be indivisible or “uncuttable”. The idea that the physical world is composed of microscopic atoms is thousands of years old. Although Atomism is not technically an official ‘school’ like movements such as Stoicism and Platonism, many influential ancient philosophers developed atomist views of the universe. Their natural philosophy which generally holds that everything exists and changes due to the interactions of tiny, indivisible atoms has come to be referred to as atomism.

 

Well-known thinkers like Epicurus and Lucretius linked their atomistic beliefs to other areas of philosophy such as ethics and morality. However, this article will focus on the development of atomism as a natural philosophy.

 

The Beginnings of Atomism: Leucippus and Democritus

Democritus Abderitans Francois Andre Vincent
Democritus Among the Abderitans by François-André Vincent, ca. 1784, via LACMA.

 

Leucippus was a 5th century BC philosopher from an unknown area of ancient Greece. Very little is known about his life. Thanks to his famous disciple Democritus, it is known that Leucippus is the earliest known atomist. Democritus documented his mentor’s ideas and helped to popularize the theory that the natural world is made up of two components: atoms and void.

 

Void is nothing, a vacuum, the absence or negation of matter. Atoms, according to Leucippus and Democritus, are eternal, indivisible bodies that interact with each other within the void. Similar to 21st century scientific notions of atoms, Leucippus and Democritus argue that atoms can move about, form clusters and combine to make matter. However, these clusters are not permanently fused together. If atoms are separated by a void, they must always bounce off one another when they collide.

 

The idea of indivisible and unchanging atoms endlessly bouncing off one another is key to understanding the atomist view of change. It naturally follows from this idea that the world around us is constantly in flux, always subject to change. Nothing is ever truly stable and permanent, even if it appears so at first glance. Trees lose their leaves, walls gradually erode, rivers flow and change the shape of riverbanks. These views of the world remained influential centuries later, particularly in the Renaissance among philosophers such as Giordano Bruno.

 

Atomism in Platonism and Aristotle’s Response

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Bust of Plato, via Encyclopedia Britannica.

 

Atomist theories weren’t restricted to pre-Socratic philosophers like Leucippus and Democritus. In fact, Plato arguably presents an atomist physical theory in the Timaeus. At least, that was how Aristotle interpreted it. The Timaeus is Plato’s most comprehensive elaboration of a natural philosophy, and in it he identifies the four basic forms of matter: earth, air, fire and water.

 

Plato theorizes that these solid forms of matter are composed of indivisible elements shaped like triangles (contrary to the popular conception of atoms as spheres). He believes triangles must be the correct form because they can join together to make very different kinds of shapes. This also explains how (as many Greeks at the time believed) earth can transform into fire etc. Much like modern-day scientific theories around atoms, Plato argues that the atoms themselves are indivisible, not the solid matter they join together to create.

 

Aristotle was not a huge fan of Plato’s atomism. Although it was Aristotle who first pointed out the similarities between Plato’s theories and those of Democritus and Leucippus, he criticized atomist natural philosophy. Aristotle argued that the four elements were not composed of atoms but were continuous forms of matter. He also denied that a ‘void’ between atoms could exist. In Aristotle’s philosophy, change was not explained by a rearrangement of atoms but by the transformation of matter from its potential to its actuality. Although nowadays the theories of Plato and Democritus seem closer to the truth, Aristotle’s account proved to be the more widely accepted account in the centuries that followed the Ancient Greek period.

 

Epicurus in the Early Hellenistic period

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Statue of Epicurus, via the BBC.

 

The history of atomism cannot be examined without mentioning Epicurus. Epicurus was an early Hellenistic philosopher who supposedly learned about atomist thought via one of Democritus’ followers. Despite this, he did make some adaptations to Democritean philosophy in order to fit his own school of thought.

 

In particular, Epicurus views the motion of atoms as tending to fall downwards through an infinite universe. Whereas Democritus believed that atoms moved towards the center of the cosmos, Epicurus believed in a general downwards trajectory which was occasionally interrupted by the atoms ‘swerving’ from their path and into one another.

 

Epicurus believed that this ‘swerve’ was responsible for the infinite collisions between atoms as they fall, ensuring that they bounce off one another to create various forms of matter. As well as these developments in the actual physical theory of atomism, Epicurus applied atomism to other aspects of philosophy, even touting atomist thought as key to living a tranquil life by linking it to his definitions of pleasure and pain.

 

Lucretius: The Most Famous Atomist? 

Lucretius drawing
Illustration of Lucretius, unknown author, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Just like Democritus and Leucippus, one of the main reasons we’re aware of Epicurean thought is thanks to his most famous disciple Lucretius. Lucretius’ highly influential De rerum natura (On the nature of things) survives almost wholly intact and is presented as a philosophical poem on the nature of the universe according to Epicurean thought.

 

It would be impossible to recount all of the relevant parts of the poem here, but the first few verses in particular help to illuminate how Lucretius interpreted Epicurus’ thought. The De rerum natura argues that nothing comes into being out of nothing and disappears into nothing. Like Democritus, universal life is split into void and body or matter. The nature that surrounds us is a composition of these two things.

 

In true atomistic form, the body is characterized by microscopic atoms. These tiny indivisible atoms exist with an infinite universe, since there are an infinite number of atoms extending into infinite space. Thanks to descriptions like these, which mirror on one level our scientific understanding of the universe, Lucretius and his De rerum natura remain hugely popular to this day.

 

Atomism in the Medieval and Renaissance Periods

giordano bruno statue rome
Statue of Giordano Bruno in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Despite the fact that the early Church fathers despised Lucretius (who said that there was no afterlife and no purpose to the world’s creation), his poem and the works of other ancient atomists continued to influence thinkers from many different cultures. As well as reaching the Islamic world, atomism experienced various surges of interest throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance.

 

Calcidius’ commentary of Plato’s Timaeus helped to generate scholarship on atomism in the 12th and 14th centuries. A lot of this scholarship involved trying to merge atomist views of the world with the more popular, Aristotelian natural philosophy, particularly his doctrine of the four elements (fire, air, earth and water). Thierry of Chartres, for example, used atomism to try and explain the motion of these elements by arguing that each one was composed of atoms that moved at different speeds.

 

Atomism in the Renaissance developed into a more anti-establishment philosophy compared with the Middle Ages. It was generally studied and praised by radical anti-Aristotelian thinkers such as Giordano Bruno, who weren’t satisfied with the Christian-Aristotelian view of the world being promoted in universities. Bruno incorporated atoms into his famous theory of an infinite universe filled with infinite planets and solar systems. These atoms were the smallest forms of matter and were infused with a divine substance which linked everything to everything else. Unfortunately, religious authorities considered these ideas to be deeply heretical and he was eventually burned at the stake.

 

Atomism in the Enlightenment and Beyond

Shell atomic model shell shells electrons energy
Image of an atom and its constituent parts

 

Despite the fate of the likes of Bruno, interest in atomism survived well into the 17th century and beyond. Unlike ancient atomism, the growing scientific movement of the Enlightenment was generally more interested in ‘mechanical atomism’. Rather than using atomism to explore the nature of the soul, celestial beings and so on, mechanical atomists preferred to apply their theories to the material world around them.

 

Like so many theories before them, mechanical atomism also believed that the world was composed entirely of atoms moving through the void. Atoms were still changeless and mechanical atomists still viewed them as the smallest element of matter. Isaac Newton’s work on forces were incorporated into explanations of the properties of these atoms, but philosophers and scientists struggled to prove their theories via empirical experiments.

 

Since then, atomism has continued to inspire various thinkers and scientists. It has appeared in research on thermodynamics and kinetic theory in the 19th century, as well as early 20th century theories on particle motion. Although there are obviously vast differences in context and theory between ancient philosophical atomism and modern-day atomic theory, it’s still amazing to think that people like Democritus were ‘proved right’ about their ideas to a certain degree!

23 Jan. 2023
mexican revolution 9 important people
Mexican Revolutionaries and General John Pershing, 1914, via The Washington Post, Washington DC

 

In 1910, after almost four decades of authoritarian rule, Mexico found itself in one of the bloodiest conflicts in the country’s history: the Mexican Revolution. The war that ensued engulfed the country in years of turmoil and would dramatically change all aspects of life. And though it was the people that fought and delivered whatever changes were achieved, there were also key figures who shaped the landscape of the revolution. From the early stages of the revolution to the post-revolutionary society that followed the conflict, many important military, political, and social leaders emerged to drive the many factions toward their goals. Some of the largest factions included the maderistas, villistas, zapatistas and constitucionalistas. Other major groups were also in play, such as loyalists to the previous regime and external actors like the United States government.

 

1. The First Leader of the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero

 

The Mexican Revolution officially began on the 20th of November, after an attempt for fair and democratic elections had failed just months earlier. The date of the uprising was set by the Plan de San Luis, a revolutionary manifesto published by Francisco I. Madero. Though many didn’t heed the call at first, eventually, most of the country rose against the dictatorial regime.

 

president francisco madero
President Francisco I. Madero, c. 1911-1913, via Gobierno de Mexico

 

Madero was a wealthy hacendando, a member of the landowning elite in Mexico. But he was also a staunch democrat who disagreed with Diaz’s regime policy of re-election and authoritative control of the government. He led the maderistas, a faction that believed in the toppling of Diaz, political reform, and broad social justice. Madero’s motto became a rallying call nationwide: sufragio efectivo, no reelección (effective suffrage, no re-election).

 

Unlike other more radical factions, the maderistas would only support moderate reforms since their main revolutionary aim was to return democracy to Mexico and not the dramatic transformation of the order of things. Such a stance would eventually lead to Madero’s fall when other revolutionaries rebelled against him when he failed to meet their demands as president. Left without real allies, he was betrayed by his own generals in a coup d’état known as la decena trágica.

 

Although Madero became the face of the Mexican Revolution at the start of the conflict, he was not the first to oppose the Diaz regime or call for significant changes in the country. Before him came the Flores Magon brothers and their collaborators, a group of anarchists and radical liberals who are attributed with setting the scene for the revolution.

 

The so-called magonistas believed in self-emancipation and self-governance, stating that power should be abolished, not exercised. Likewise, popular uprisings, protests, and demonstrations preceded the revolution, notably in the mines of Cananea and Rio Blanco. These showings of discontent were quickly put off, but their appearance proves the changing sentiments within most of the population. Madero’s stage of the revolution represents a symbolic starting point for the transformation of the country. The Mexican Revolution rallied behind him, but it would inevitably transcend him.

 

2. & 3. The Dictator & the Usurper: Porfirio Diaz & Victoriano Huerta

porfirio diaz presidente de mexico
President Porfirio Diaz, c. 1910, via Fototeca INAH, Mexico

 

Before Madero came Porfirio Diaz, the dictator that brought about or at least intensified most of the reasons for the eventual Mexican Revolution. The period known as el Porfiriato was an authoritarian and oppressive regime, albeit modernizing and economically successful too. Under Diaz, Mexico achieved industrialization after decades of failed or limited attempts, thrusting the country into a dramatic transformation. New nationwide railroads were built, major monuments were constructed, and the Mexican nation-state was consolidated.

 

Diaz was also known for his Pax Porfiriana, a decades-long period of peace, possible only with brute force and free use of the army. His rurales, one of the two armed government forces together with the federales, were famously used to suppress any kind of uprising from workers or peasants. The Diaz government also led an open ethnocide against the Yaqui people, as well as their deportation and enslavement in the haciendas of Yucatan.

 

Whatever progress came with the Diaz regime, it was at the expense of the popular classes, who were exploited and saw no major benefit to their own. The revolution began with the aim of toppling Diaz, but the underlying motivations of justice and fairness drove the conflict into something greater. On the 25th of May, 1911, Diaz resigned and soon left for exile to France.

 

4. The Usurper of the Mexican Revolution: Victoriano Huerta

victoriano huerta and his cabinet
Huerta & cabinet by Bain News Service, ca. 1910, via Library of Congress, Washington DC

 

After the overthrow of the Madero presidency, one of Diaz’s sympathizers came to power: Victoriano Huerta. Huerta had organized the coup alongside other Diaz loyalists and the United States ambassador, Henry Lane Wilson, in a conspiration later known as el Pacto de la Embajada. Huerta remained in power even after Diaz’s defeat and exile by changing sides once Madero’s victory became inevitable. An influential and commanding general, Madero needed Huerta as an ally within the army, as it was unknown whether the army’s loyalty remained with the previous government. Huerta seized power with the help of the Americans, but he was soon left without their support. He instead attempted to gain support from the British and French, siding with the economic interests of such countries in Mexico. His fall came after the rest of the revolutionaries rebelled against him and toppled him in 1915.

 

Next to Diaz and Huerta, a few other establishment figures sought to return the order of things in Mexico to one that resembled the status quo before the revolution. For example, Manuel Mondragón, Aureliano Blanquet, and Gregorio Ruiz. Among them stood two others: Bernardo Reyes and Felix Diaz, two loyalists of the Porfiriato, the latter being Porfirio Diaz’s nephew. These men would become active counterrevolutionaries, stirring conflict and opposing every new government throughout most of the revolution.

 

5. The Robin Hood of the Mexican Revolution: Francisco Villa

pancho villa and emiliano zapata
Villa en la silla presidencial by Agustin Víctor Casasola, 1914, via El Universal

 

When Madero called for an uprising in 1910, a number of caudillos rose in their regions and joined the revolution. The caudillos were powerful men who held important influence in their respective regions, similar to warlords or strongmen. Two men gained an important following with their uprisings: Francisco Villa and Emiliano Zapata. Both became known for their advocacy for the popular classes.

 

Francisco Villa rose in the state of Chihuahua, in the north of the country. He was a charismatic bandit who believed in land reform. He originally sided with Madero, but he became disappointed with the president’s inability to deliver change and the demands made by the revolution. Nevertheless, Villa fought on the side of Madero when a fellow caudillo, Pascual Orozco, rebelled against him. Villa fought next to Huerta, but tensions between the two drove Huerta to try to execute Villa. Villa’s life was saved by Madero, but he was imprisoned for his actions. When Huerta overthrew Madero, Villa sided with the constitutionalists and fought against the usurper.

 

Villa’s volatility often led him to unnecessary conflict. Famously, after Villa’s attack on Columbus, the United States responded with a punitive expedition into Mexico, looking for Villa. Villa was never found, and the expedition was ultimately a failure. In the later stages of the revolution, Villa allied with Zapata against the constitutionalist government. They were both eventually defeated, but Villa was allowed to retire and was given an hacienda in the state of Chihuahua. He was assassinated in 1923, most likely by his political enemies, Alvaro Obregon and Plutarco Elias Calles.

 

6. “El Caudillo del Sur”: Emiliano Zapata

general emiliano zapata
Emiliano Zapata, 1911, via Gobierno de México

 

Emiliano Zapata is quite possibly one of the most recognizable and transcending figures of the revolution. His character continues to be a revolutionary invocation, even giving the name to a more recent uprising with the “Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional” in southern Mexico. Though born into a moderately well-off family from Morelos —nowhere near as privileged as Madero or other of the caudillos— Zapata’s humble upbringing and closeness to other disadvantaged people motivated him towards ideals of change and justice.

 

Zapata didn’t lead the uprising from Morelos at the start, but he quickly became its leader after gaining the trust of the people. He went on to receive many nicknames: the Southern Caudillo, the Attila of the South, among others. His figure was highly controversial as he was more on the radical side of the revolution, believing in more dramatic changes and policies, unlike more moderate figures like Madero or Carranza.

 

The Army of the South, commanded by Zapata, was neither crucial nor useless for the success of the revolution in the national stage, but his movement in state of Morelos and the surrounding regions became a clear example of a radical stronghold which was decided in defending their ideals and struggles even if it came to force and opposition to others who were once allies.

 

7. “El Primer Jefe”: Venustiano Carranza

venustiano carranza and alvaro obregon
Inauguración de la Escuela Constitucionalista Médico Militar en el Hospital Militar, 1916, via Fototeca INAH, Mexico

 

Once a loyal man to Diaz, Venustiano Carranza went on to disagree and later oppose in arms to the regime, when he lost Diaz’s favor and realized he was better off siding with Madero. And though his motivations for siding with the maderistas were certainly more complex, Carranza was a first a politician and a businessman, not a military man, hence his careful calculations.

 

The Huerta regime soon became a rallying call for all the revolutionaries, who left no time to mourn the death of Madero, but instead chose to rise in arms against the usurper. Carranza proclaimed the “Plan de Guadalupe,” which denounced Huerta’s authority and rose in open rebellion against his government with Carranza as the First Chief of the new army: the constitutionalists, named after their belief in the restoration of the democratic order of the Constitution of 1857. Most revolutionaries sided with the uprising and together defeated Huerta.

 

Carranza went on to become president, but he faced opposition first from the convencionistas, the combined factions of the Villistas and Zapatistas who fundamentally disagreed with Carranza’s ideas and rise to power. Then, he faced opposition from within his faction, eventually costing him his life.

 

8. “El Manco de Celaya”: Álvaro Obregon

president alvaro obregon
Alvaro Obregon, ca. 1920, via Zenda Libros, Mexico

 

Another leader of the constitutionalists was Alvaro Obregon, a politician from the northern state of Sonora. Obregon first became farmer but soon got his start in politics. When the revolution started, he sided with the maderistas and supported Madero all throughout his administration. When Huerta seized power, Obregon joined Carranza in a rebellion against the usurper.

 

The constitutionalists, together with the Villistas and Zapatistas, were able to defeat the new regime. Nevertheless, the common front that formed in opposition to Huerta soon broke apart, when the Villistas and Zapatistas rebelled against the new government formed by Carranza. Obregon then became the main military leader, after Carranza, in charge of dealing with the newborn faction war. Obregon’s military leadership proved effective, defeating the Villistas after a difficult series of clashes in the Battle of Celaya that would go on to cost Obregon his right arm, thus receiving the nickname, “the One-Armed Man of Celaya.”

 

With the Villistas defeated and the Zapatistas sent back to their stronghold in Morelos, the constitutionalists consolidated power for their own. But peace was short-lasting. After naming an unknown diplomat as his successor, Carranza angered Obregon who had ambitions of becoming president after him. Thus, the constitutionalists faced their own split, with Obregon and Calles opposing Carranza, who was eventually killed when fleeing to Veracruz from Mexico City. Obregon rose to the presidency and even chose to later run for re-election, which was seen with great judgement. Nevertheless, shortly after winning his second non-consecutive term in 1928, Obregon was assassinated by a Catholic fanatic who opposed the previous government under Calles.

 

9. “El Jefe Máximo”: Plutarco Elias Calles

president plutarco elias calles
President Calles oath of office, 1924, via Fototeca INAH, Mexico

 

There is no official date for the end of the Mexican Revolution, but the presidency of Plutarco Elias Calles can be seen as a symbolic one if nothing else. Calles was one of Obregon’s closest allies throughout the revolution. Though a military man like Obregon, Calles’ true skill came in the shape of his political savviness. Born into a privileged family with an existing proximity to power, Calles learned his way through politics from a very young age. When the revolution broke out, Calles sided with the maderistas and remained loyal to them despite the uprisings against Madero. Once Madero was overthrown, Calles went with the constitutionalists, with which he remained until he and Obregon betrayed Carranza.

 

In a speech delivered to Congress during his presidency, Calles proclaimed the end of the times of the caudillos and the beginning of the time of institutions. Ironically, Calles became a caudillo of his own, by consolidating power around him and centralizing the Mexican government’s authority in the executive. He is normally held responsible for the outbreak of the Cristero War, a religious rebellion where Catholics opposed the secular Calles’ government which was antagonistic to the Catholic Church.

 

Calles also founded the National Revolutionary Party (PNR in Spanish), which went on to become the sole governing party in Mexico for over 70 uninterrupted years. Although driven by his political ambitions, Calles never ran for a second term, respecting anti-re-election sentiments and legislation in the country. Instead, Calles became a puppeteer, ruling over the country through submissive and obeying presidents through a period known as “El Maximato,” named after his sobriquet, “El Jefe Máximo de la Revolución.” Calle’s power would ultimately fade when thought-to-be loyalist Lazaro Cardenas was elected as president and drove Calles into exile, fearing he would challenge his authority.

23 Jan. 2023
Machu Picchu, Peru
Machu Picchu, Peru

 

Machu Picchu closement needed to take place because of the mass anti-government protests. Protests arose as a result of the overthrow of the previous leader Pedro Castillo. Castillo tried to to abolish Congress, but did not succeed. This action led to his imprisonment. But, we can see the public was very fond of him, which the mass protests organized in his name can confirm.

Machu Picchu Closed Due to the Railway Damage

Machu Picchu, Peru
An anti-government protester challenges police surrounding the San Marcos University in Lima, Peru.

 

After Castillo’s imprisonment, Dina Boluarte took over the presidential position and swore od the 7th of December. Castillo will remain in prison for now, and is held accountable for charges of rebellion. This protest led to the death of many people. Also, the government needed to close the Machu Picchu site in order to keep the visitors safe.

 

What caused them to close this culturally significant site after the damage on train tracks. This led to the suspension of the rail services, leading to the Machu Picchu. It left 418 people trapped at the location, tourism minister Luis Fernando Helguero said at a news conference on Saturday. Over 300 people were foreign tourists.

 

Peru
Machu Picchu, Peru

 

Machu Picchu, the fortress of the Inca, dates from the 15th century and is considered one of the world’s “new seven wonders”. Unfortunately, it will stay closed until further notice, due to the protests leading through Lima. Many of them are going to the capital, asking for  the resignation of President Dina Boluarte.

 

The Missfortune of Being Stuck at the Machu Picchu Site

Machu Picchu, Peru
Machu Picchu, Peru

 

The government did not only close Machu Picchu, but they also closed Inka Trail. This is the a well-known multi-day trek. Also, did is not the first time that tourists were stuck on this important cultural site. The incident occurred last month with tourists trapped there for a few days. Tourists will still have tickets.

 

Peru’s culture ministry said that already purchased tickets will be in use again, and that is one month after the protests are over. They can also get a refund for the money spent. Some visitors decided to walk to the nearest village (Piscacucho). But, Helguero says “it involves a walk of six, seven hours or more and only a few people are able to do it.”

 

Stone work
Machu Picchu, Peru

 

When it comes to the protests, many died. The protestors are seeking for new elections and the stepping down of the new president. In the most recent riots in the nation’s capital, Lima police barricaded highways and sprayed tear gas at stone-throwing protesters. The EU denounced the extensive acts of violence and the police’s “disproportionate” use of force.

23 Jan. 2023
david sculptures renaissance florence brunelleschi cathedral city scape
David by Donatello, c. 1440; with Florence cityscape featuring Brunelleschi’s Duomo and the Palazzo Vecchio.

 

While Michelangelo’s sixteenth-century artwork is undoubtedly the most famous David sculpture, it certainly was not the first. It belongs to an artistic lineage of David sculptures in Renaissance Florence, with three significant versions produced in the century before. Each of these sculptures was notably used for political ends, a common function of art during the period. Their message was not stable, however. It changed depending on the patron, the iconography, and the physical location of the artworks. The fascinating history of Davids in Florence reached its zenith in Michelangelo’s monumental marble sculpture, known and loved today on a global scale.

 

What was the Meaning Behind the David Sculptures?

michelangelo david sculpture marble detail
David by Michelangelo, 1504, via Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, Florence

 

David was not the first biblical or mythological figure to have special significance to Florence. John the Baptist was the city’s patron saint and appeared on its coins. Saint Anne was seen as the city’s protector after the tyrant Walter of Brienne (1302 – 1356) was expelled from Florence on her feast day in 1343.

 

However, the figure that the David sculptures most functionally resembled was Hercules. The ancient Greco-roman figure appeared on the special seal of official documents in Florence from the fourteenth century. In 1405, a bronze relief of Hercules was installed on the doors of the Florence Cathedral. As a classical hero, he was depicted nude, with a strong build indicating his power. His mythological role as a defeater of tyrants was steeped with political meaning.

 

Florence saw itself as a strong state that held its own against neighboring threats. However, in the fifteenth century, the artistic focus of this political message shifted to the Old Testament figure of David. Over the years, he began to function as a primary symbol of Florence’s power. This meaning was not limited to iconography, however. It was also heavily dependent on the form and medium of each David sculpture. Most of all, it was dependent on their shifting locations.

 

1. Donatello’s Marble David, 1408-9

donatello david sculpture marble
David by Donatello, 1408-09, in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, via Financial Times

 

The Florentine sculptor Donatello (1386 – 1466) produced the first of the David sculptures in marble at the start of the fifteenth century. Its iconography marked a radical departure from the traditional imagery of David. He was typically depicted in art as Christ’s ancestor or as the author of the Psalms, indicated by a lyre.

 

Instead, Donatello produced a new artistic iteration of David. The new iconography of David built on the well-known image of Hercules as a defeater of tyrants. Donatello chose as his subject David’s unexpected victory against the Philistine giant Goliath, an episode from David’s youth. David’s underdog defeat of Goliath made him a perfect allegory for Florence, a smaller Republic that succeeded against the larger states surrounding it. Moreover, he was a sacred figure and ancestor of Christ. This meant he was a more powerful and relevant symbol for Christian Florence in comparison to Hercules. The inscription paired with the sculpture made the political meaning explicit: “To those who bravely fight for the fatherland, God will offer victory even against the most terrible foes” (Crum, 2006). The fatherland was clearly Florence. The terrible foes were nearby powers threatening Florence, such as Milan, Venice, and the Holy Roman Empire.

 

Initially intended for the Florence Cathedral, this first David was never actually installed there. Instead, in 1416, it was placed in the Sala dei Gigli. This was a meeting room for members of the Signoria (the Florentine government) on the upper floor of the Palazzo della Signoria. Also known as the Palazzo Vecchio, this was the center of executive power. The sculpture’s originally intended location on the Cathedral would have primarily evoked its religious significance. However, in the Sala dei Gigli, it became explicitly political.

 

donatello david sculpture marble detail
Detail of David by Donatello, 1408-09, in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence. Photograph by Roloff Beny, via National Gallery of Canada

 

Despite drawing on the Hercules tradition, David appears more beautiful than heroic. Depicted in his youth, he doesn’t have the muscular form traditionally seen in artworks of male heroes. Donatello doesn’t quite make use of classical contrapposto, but the form of David’s body nevertheless has an elegant curve. The tilt of his head, his elongated neck, and the careful fall of drapery in his clothes all give him a courtly air. In contrast to David’s youthful beauty, Goliath’s lifeless decapitated head rests at his feet. The strength of David does not come from brute force. Instead, it comes from the grace of God, who helped him defeat his powerful enemy. It is implied that all of God’s might is therefore also supporting the Florentine government.

 

2. Donatello’s Bronze David, 1440s

donatello david sculpture bronze
David by Donatello, c. 1440, in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, via The Art Newspaper

 

In the 1440s, Donatello once again tackled the subject of David. This time it was in the form of a bronze sculpture commissioned by the Medici family, whose political influence in Florence was increasing.

 

It is immediately apparent that Donatello approached his second David sculpture in a very different way from the first. While his previous artwork certainly presented David as beautiful, Donatello here took notions of ideal beauty to the realms of the erotic. He shaped David’s body to be especially lithe, to the point of almost feminizing him.

 

The bronze sculpture highlights David’s youth – highly questionable considering the implied eroticism of the work – by presenting him nude. In fact, this was the first free-standing nude sculpture produced in Europe since the classical period. David’s posture only adds to his feminization. With his left foot raised to step upon the decapitated head of Goliath, David’s hips are cocked to one side, giving the impression of feminine curves. Donatello goes even further in the details. The plume traveling from Goliath’s helmet up David’s bare leg functions almost like a hand that caresses the flesh (Randolph, 2002).

 

The sensuality of the sculpture is enhanced by its bronze medium. Bronze’s reflective quality accentuates the details and contours of the body, drawing the viewer’s eye towards the illusion of soft skin. This would be particularly evocative when seen in the early evening, with the flickering light of lanterns playing on the sculpture’s surface. It was also clearly made to be seen in the round, with each angle showing beautiful new details to fully engage the viewers.

 

donatello david sculpture bronze detail
David by Donatello, c. 1440, via Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence

 

The erotic elements are likely greater in Donatello’s bronze than in his marble because it is a private piece for the Palazzo Medici instead of a government commission. Its provenance is as interesting as its imagery, though; it did not stay a piece of private art. Arguably, it never was truly private. Its central position in the courtyard of the Palazzo Medici meant it was directly in the line of sight of the Palazzo entrance. Passersby on the busy Via Larga could see this provocative sculpture whenever the gates were open. Ownership of a monumental bronze sculpture – far more expensive than stone or even marble – made a huge statement on Medici wealth and power. Usually, these types of commissions were associated with public monuments or royal patrons.

 

Most importantly, the Medici appropriated the figure of David to become a symbol of their own power. By commissioning the very same artist, they explicitly linked their David to the marble situated in the Palazzo della Signoria. Instead of a civic symbol used by the government, David was now representative of the wealthy family’s political hold on Florence. The wreath underneath Goliath’s helmeted head only emphasizes this victorious theme.

 

However, in 1495, following the fall of Piero de’ Medici (1472 – 1503) and the political rise of the Dominican friar Savonarola (1452 – 1498), the Florentine Signoria confiscated the David sculpture. It was reinstalled in the Palazzo della Signoria, home of Donatello’s first David. Here, the political iconography of the statue changed completely. The Medici were now the tyrannous giants defeated by the righteous underdogs, the Florentine government. Perhaps the political significance of this move outweighed the potentially controversial placement of such a homoerotic sculpture in a governmental building?

 

3. Verrocchio’s Bronze David, 1470s

verrocchio david sculpture bronze
David by Andrea del Verrocchio, in Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, via Patrons

 

Created by Andrea del Verrocchio (1435 – 1488) in the mid-1470s, this bronze David also had ties to both the Medici and the Signoria. However, it was not forcibly removed from Medici ownership. Instead, it was sold by the Medici family to the Florentine government to be displayed within – you guessed it – the Palazzo della Signoria.

 

It was placed at the top of the staircase leading to all the main rooms of the Palazzo. This was a clever move on the part of the Medici. Despite being situated in a public government building, the bronze David sculpture would have undoubtedly been associated with Medici power. It paralleled its bronze predecessor in its subject, medium, and patronage.

 

Donatello’s bronze was, as previously mentioned, publicly visible from the Via Larga. This was one of the busiest streets in Florence. As such, the Donatello sculpture would have been well-known. Visitors to the Palazzo della Signoria who saw Verrocchio’s bronze David would have immediately thought of the only other monumental bronze David in the city, owned by the Medici. Its presence therefore also implicitly brought with it the presence of the Medici.

 

Verrocchio’s bronze David sculpture is a lot less ambiguous than Donatello’s, to say the least. Dressed in armor, unlike Donatello’s nude sculpture, this David’s pose is less provocative. The hip is still cocked, but only slightly, in keeping with classical contrapposto. While his armor is definitely form-fitting, it does not reveal nearly as much as the Donatello bronze. Instead of blatant eroticism, the focus appears to be simple ideal male beauty and harmonious proportions, as with Donatello’s marble David.

 

4. Michelangelo’s Marble David Sculpture, 1501-1504

michelangelo david sculpture marble
David by Michelangelo, 1504, via Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, Florence

 

Made almost a century after our first David sculpture, Michelangelo’s iconic David is likewise full of political and artistic meaning. Michelangelo completely departs from the iconography that the earlier David sculptures had established. His marble masterpiece lacks the inclusion of either a sword or a decapitated head. Instead, David simply holds a stone with one hand, ready to throw it at Goliath. This was an interesting choice, as the previous sculptures showed David after his triumphant victory. With less iconography to indicate David’s identity, Michelangelo’s sculpture is narratively ambiguous. This suggests that Michelangelo was primarily focused on depicting an ideal male nude. However, he went about this differently from either Donatello or Verrocchio.

 

Unlike his fifteenth-century predecessors, Michelangelo did not seem intent on creating a feminine male beauty. His David is depicted as a young man rather than an adolescent. His torso is broader, and while not exactly a Hercules, he does have some defined muscle mass. Visibly older and physically stronger, David as a powerful Old Testament king is foreshadowed. The nudity here is very different from that seen in Donatello’s bronze. It is inflected with a more masculine homoeroticism, in keeping with Michelangelo’s dedication to the classical male nude in his art.

 

The use of contrapposto, like in the two previous Davids, also evokes the Renaissance ideal of antique sculpture. Ideal beauty additionally affects the anatomical proportions of the artwork. They are unrealistic, with the hands and torso disproportionately large. Michelangelo did this intentionally to ensure that the colossus would seem more ideally proportioned when viewed from the ground level.

 

michelangelo david sculpture marble edizioni brogi
David by Michelangelo, 1504, in Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, Florence. Photograph by Edizioni Brogi, about 1857, via Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

Like Donatello’s first David sculpture, Michelangelo’s version was initially intended for Florence Cathedral and was instead placed in a government setting. In June 1504, it was installed at the ringhiera of the Palazzo della Signoria. This was a large platform outside the Palazzo where speakers and government officials made speeches to the Florentine public. As such, it was a politically charged and highly visible location for the David sculpture.

 

Positioned on a pedestal and measuring 17 feet tall, this colossal sculpture made a magnificent and imposing sight in the public space of Florence. At this point, the Medici had been in exile for only ten years. The political power of the Signoria was still precarious. The placement of Michelangelo’s David was therefore key in making a political statement. Facing the direction of Rome, where the Medici were spending their exile, the colossus acted as a symbol of triumph against them.

 

While each David sculpture was created in the same city within a hundred years of each other, depicting the same figure, they are each unique. Even the two by Donatello are starkly different. How the artists engage with the same subject in creative new ways makes this artistic lineage especially exciting. Furthermore, they brilliantly demonstrate the way the arts were used as a political tool in Florence. Their form, medium, iconography, location, and provenance tell a thrilling story about the Renaissance world. While the political tensions of the Renaissance are no longer relevant to us today, David continues to be a figure symbolic of Florence. Rather than politics, the David sculptures, especially Michelangelo’s gargantuan artwork, now act as icons of the city’s vibrant and exciting cultural history.

23 Jan. 2023
diane arbus most unusual photographs

 

American photographer Diane Arbus is without a doubt one of the most influential voices of the entire 20th century. Her striking, visually arresting, and sometimes deeply controversial photographs from the 1960s to the early 1970s documented people from all walks of life, particularly those on the fringes of society. The sitters for her socio-documentary style photographs range from drag artists and circus performers to nudists and individuals with developmental disabilities. And who can forget her infamous Identical Twins, 1967, that went on to influence Stanley Kubrick’s terrifying scene in The Shining, 1980?

 

Diane Arbus deliberately sought out adversity, and her images present us with the gritty truth of life, rather than the picture-perfect idealism of mass media and advertising. It is the truth-seeking nature of her photographs that has captivated audiences around the world, and sometimes provoked controversy and criticism. Here are just a handful of her most compelling images.

 

Child With a Toy Grenade in Central Park, 1962

diane arbus child with toy hand grenade
Diane Arbus, Child With a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, 1962, via The Metropolitan Museum, New York

 

Diane Arbus took many of her most iconic photographs during her many walks through Central Park, where she encountered a diverse stratum of people. In this particular photograph, Arbus has photographed a young boy who plays with a toy hand grenade. His strangely tense body language gives the boy an eerie quality hovering somewhere between the innocence of childhood play, and an undercurrent of violence and aggression. The simmering tension Diane Arbus captured in this image has made it an emblem of the 1960s, at a time when various strands of socio-political turmoil were beginning to emerge.

 

A Young Man in Curlers at Home on West 20th Street, 1966

young man curlers photograph
Diane Arbus, A Young Man in Curlers at Home on West 20th Street, 1966

 

Diane Arbus was fascinated by the complexities of gender and identity at a time when many queer individuals still lived on the fringes of society. She took numerous photographs of transvestites in intimate settings, often ‘backstage’ while getting ready. Here she has photographed a young man dressing up as a woman in his home, with long nails and curlers in his hair. Caught suspended in a moment of transformation, he becomes an ambiguous figure with both masculine and feminine traits. 

 

Identical Twins, 1967

diane arbus identical twins
Diane Arbus, Identical Twins, 1967

 

Arbus’s Identical Twins, 1967 is one of the most famous and compelling images of all time. It documents two seven-year-old twins standing side by side in matching outfits at a Christmas party for twins and triplets. While the two girls at first appear remarkably alike, it is their differences that give the image an unsettling and uncanny edge, as if looking into a mirror and seeing a reflection that is ever-so-slightly off kilter. Diane Arbus asks us, in this image, to look for what she calls the “differences in identicalness,” a reminder that we are all individuals with our own human quirks, rather than identikit models. 

 

A Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents in the Bronx, 1970

jewish giant in his home
Diane Arbus, A Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents in the Bronx, 1970, via Christie’s

 

Another of Arbus’s most compelling photographs documents the famous circus entertainer and actor Eddie Carmel, known as the ‘Jewish Giant’, looking over his seemingly diminutive parents in their family home. Arbus’s photograph documents the gulf that has formed between Eddie and his parents as a result of their physical differences. She also highlights various points of conflict between the parents and their child; the parents wear formal clothing and stand stiff and upright, while Eddie wears a crumpled, untucked shirt and hunches over. Diane Arbus noted that Eddie had recently begun working at a carnival, a job his parents disapproved of, and this tension between parents and child is evident in the image, while also a universal theme that many can relate to. 

 

Tattooed Man at a Carnival, 1970

tottooed man diane arbus carnival
Diane Arbus, Tattooed Man at a Carnival, 1970, via Christie’s

 

Arbus visited a carnival in 1970 on a photography assignment and she was fascinated by the eccentric characters she encountered there. The ‘Tattooed Man’ seen here is, on the one hand, an archetype of a fearsome warrior, covered head to toe in tattoos, with tense muscles and body hair. Yet Arbus photographed him with a powerful flash in order to capture every fine detail. This bright light also caught the man’s piercing, soulful eyes, lending him a complex quality and asking us to question our preformed ideas about who people are underneath the surface.

23 Jan. 2023
rubens hercules berthelemy gordian knot alexander painting

 

In Greek mythology, Heracles is one of the few mortals to be raised to godhood by Zeus, the king of the gods. The ancient Greeks widely considered Heracles to be the greatest of all heroes. According to ancient sources, Alexander the Great saw in Heracles an ideal he sought to emulate. The Macedonian ruler’s never-ending drive for conquest can in part be attributed to his fascination with the figure of Heracles.

 

The Origins of Heracles

statue infant hercules wrestling snakes
Infant Hercules wrestling the snake, by unknown Italian artist after Ercole Ferrata, 18th century, via Sotheby’s

 

Heracles was born from an affair Zeus had with the mortal woman Alcmene. The Goddess Hera, wife of Zeus, considered Heracles a living testimony of her husband’s transgressions. She, therefore, sent two giant snakes into Heracles’s bedchamber when he was still a child. Heracles, spotting the reptiles slithering into the room, was not afraid. He grabbed a snake in each hand and strangled them to death.

 

Heracles’s potential did not go unnoticed. During his youth, mentors, including Eurytus, the king of the city of Oechalia, and Abderus, the son of the god Hermes, trained him in the arts of war.

 

peter paul rubens painting hercules omphale
Hercules and Omphale, by Peter Paul Rubens, 1600, via Sotheby’s

 

Years later, as a young man, Heracles played an instrumental role in defending his home city of Thebes. For the hero’s bravery, the local king rewarded Heracles by giving him permission to marry his daughter Megara. Heracles married the princess and they had children. For a few years, the hero lived quietly with his family.

 

Heracles’ peaceful period did not last long. Hera had not forgotten about him. She used her powers to induce a fit of madness in Heracles, causing him to kill his wife and children.

 

Overcome with sorrow and regret for slaughtering his family, Heracles set out for the oracle of Delphi. The oracle told the hero that he could atone for his sins by serving Eurystheus, the king of Tyrins, for ten years.

 

The Twelve Labors of Heracles

cornelis haarlem painting hercules achelous
Hercules and Achelous, by Cornelis van Haarlem, 1562-1638, via Christies

 

At Tyrins, Eurystheus told Heracles that he would assign him ten tasks, one for each year the hero was to be in his service.

 

For the next decade, Heracles slayed monsters, caught beasts, and performed miraculous feats. During his trials, Heracles received help from powerful beings, such as the goddess Athena and the sun god Helios.

 

Upon returning from his tenth task, Eurystheus accused Heracles of cheating and assigned him two more challenges.

 

The first of the final two trials saw Heracles freeing the titan Prometheus, whom Zeus had chained to a rock as punishment for introducing fire to mankind. The last one involved entering the underworld and bringing the hellhound Cerberus in front of Eurystheus. These tasks, too, were completed successfully by Heracles.

 

The Death and Deification of Heracles

sebastiano ricci hercules deianira nessus death
Hercules and Deianira, with the dying centaur Nessus, by Sebastiano Ricci, 1702, via Sotheby’s

 

After completing the twelve labors, adventures continued to present themselves to Heracles. One day, the mischievous centaur Nessus attacked Heracles’s wife, Deianeira (he had remarried), and Heracles shot Nessus with a poisoned arrow.

 

Before Nessus died, he convinced Deianeira to present Heracles with a shirt drenched in his blood. The centaur claimed that the blood had magical properties that would rekindle her relationship with Heracles. In reality, his blood had become affected by the poison of the arrow Heracles had shot him with. As soon as the hero put on the shirt, the poison began to tear through his flesh.

 

Heracles realized his fate and used his last strength to build a funeral pyre for himself. Zeus, witnessing his son’s passing, decided to reward Heracles for his exceptional life by making him a god, giving him a place at Olympus.

 

Importance of Heracles in Alexander’s Macedon

herakles farnese statue
Heracles Farnese, 3rd century CE, at the Naples National Archaeological Museum, via Wikimedia Commons

 

During Alexander the Great’s time, Heracles was worshipped throughout the kingdom of Macedonia as the god of bravery, military might, and physical excellence. He was also the guardian deity of the youth and hunters.

 

As a member of the Argead dynasty, Alexander traced his lineage back to Heracles’s alleged great-great-grandson Temenus, whose son Karanos was the mythical founder of the kingdom of Macedonia.

 

tertradrachm alexander great heracles coin
Tetradrachm of Alexander III as Heracles, via Art Institute Chicago

 

When Alexander became king in 336 BCE, his responsibilities included leading religious ceremonies dedicated to Heracles. Coins and sculptures of Alexander’s reign commonly depict the king wearing lionskin, in emulation of Heracles, while the hero’s symbols – the club and the arrow – also appear in the period’s coinage.

 

Reportedly, Alexander had an illegitimate son named Heracles, who was killed at the age of 18 in the context of succession disputes known as the Diadochi Wars.

 

Alexander’s Conquests

antonio joli painting alexander tomb achilles
A capriccio view of a classical portico with Alexander the Great before the tomb of Achilles, by Antonio Joli, 1700-1777, via Sotheby’s

 

“Alexander was also partly urged by a desire of emulating Perseus and Heracles, from both of whom he traced his descent.”
Arrian, Anabasis of Alexander, 3.3

 

During his conquests, Alexander did not stop the practice of holding religious ceremonies in Heracles’ name.

 

In 335 BCE, Alexander sacrificed to the god after destroying a rebel stronghold near the Danube River. A year later, when the Macedonian king’s army crossed the Hellespont to invade the Persian Empire, he made sure to seek Heracles’s favor by once again sacrificing animals in his name.

 

At the battle of Issus in 335 BCE, his second large battle against the Persian Empire, Alexander told his men that:

 

 “They would one day traverse the bounds of set by Heracles and Dionysus to subdue not only the Persians but all the races of the earth.”
Curtius, Historiae Alexandri Magni, chapter 3.10.5.

 

According to the ancient Greek historian Arrian, some of Alexander’s flatterers publicly compared him to Heracles, which bred resentment among other followers. Also, a companion named Anaxarchus suggested that the Macedonians should worship Alexander instead of Heracles, as only the former originated from Macedon. This prompted another companion named Callisthenes to remind Anaxarchus that even Heracles was not worshipped while he was still alive.

 

Heracles and the Siege of Tyre

tom lovell siege tyre painting
The Siege of Tyre, by Tom Lovell, 1909-1997, via Christies

 

The city of Tyre was located on a small island off the coast of current-day Lebanon. It possessed formidable walls and could only be reached by ship. Taking the city would require the most difficult siege operation of Alexander’s life.

 

First, Alexander ordered a bridge to be constructed to connect the mainland to Tyre. Tyrian attacks hindered the construction process, so the Macedonians used siege towers and their navy to protect the workers. The Macedonians continued building, and after many months of labor, the bridge was completed.

 

Shortly before he ordered the assault that would finally take Tyre, Alexander had a dream of Heracles welcoming him into the city. This experience prompted Alexander to order his men to leave untouched all Tyrians who sought refuge in the temple of Melqart, whom the Greeks associated with Heracles. Interestingly, before the siege of Tyre, Alexander had asked the Tyrians to allow him to offer sacrifices to Melqart, claiming that he would spare them and their city. It was only after the Tyrians had refused Alexander’s request that the siege began.

 

The day the walls fell, the Macedonian troops flooded the city. A slaughter ensued that saw almost the entire population of the city put to the spear. Alexander’s orders, however, were followed, and the citizens who had fled into the temple were spared.

 

Having taken possession of the city, Alexander offered sacrifices to Heracles and held a ceremonial parade in the god’s name. He also dedicated the siege ram that first breached the Tyrian walls to Heracles.

 

Outdoing Heracles on the Aornus Rock

giambattista tiepolo painting alexander bucephalus
Alexander and Bucephalus, by Giambattista Tiepolo, 1757-1760, via Petitpalais, Paris

 

Four years after the siege of Tyre, Alexander had conquered the Persian Empire and was campaigning on the Indian subcontinent.

 

In the mountain ranges of modern-day Pakistan, tribesmen thwarted Alexander’s advance. Unwilling to face the Macedonian army head-on, they sought refuge on a 1500-meter-high mountain, locally known as the “Āvárana Rock”.

 

An adventure of Heracles involved the hero laying siege to a mountain known as the Aornus Rock. The story went that an earthquake forced the hero to retreat. Locals told the Macedonians a similar story of a god, possibly Krishna, failing to capture the rock.

 

Alexander was not discouraged by the stories of gods failing to capture the mountain, but rather became determined to outdo Heracles.

 

“Alexander was seized with a vehement desire to capture this mountain also, especially on account of the legend which was current about Heracles.”
Arrian, Anabasis of Alexander, 4.30

 

A local with knowledge of the area, showed the Macedonians the best path to take up the steep mountain. Nonetheless, it took Alexander’s troops days to climb the rocky terrain to the top. To traverse a large chasm, they had to construct a bridge while the tribesmen pelted them with missiles and rocks from above.

 

After the bridge was finally in place, the Macedonians attacked the camp on the summit. Unwilling to face the charge, the tribesmen routed, allowing Alexander to take possession of the mountain.

 

Alexander the Great and Heracles: A New Ideal

jean simon berthelemy alexander cuts the gordian knot
Alexander Cuts the Gordian Knot, by Jean-Simon Berthélemy, 1767, via Wikimedia Commons

 

The stories of Alexander and Heracles share many similarities. In their youth, both were mentored by the most remarkable of individuals. Aristotle was Alexander’s teacher, while Heracles had many teachers, most famously the wise centaur Chiron. Heracles completed twelve challenging tasks and then continued adventuring. Alexander conquered most of the known world and then ventured beyond its edges into India.

 

Heracles was rewarded for his deeds by becoming a god, whereas Alexander presented himself as a god to the peoples he conquered.

 

Before and during Alexander’s time, Heracles had been a revered symbol of the Macedonian Kingdom. By ending the Persian Empire and spreading Hellenism throughout Asia, Alexander became a hero around whom the Hellenistic world would revolve. As he had looked up to Heracles, rulers would look up to Alexander for centuries to come.

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