The Valley of the Fallen

The Valley of the Fallen

In light of Francisco Franco’s recent exhumation, I am updating and republishing this post, which I originally published in February of 2017.


Any tourist to Berlin will soon be reminded of its ugly past. Monuments to the Nazi movement, to the Holocaust, to the Berlin Wall, and to the Stasi secret police are everywhere. This abundance of tragic memorials might be shocking at first, even depressing; but the very fact that they exist is an encouraging sign. The conflict, persecution, oppression, and violent terror that killed so many and ripped Germany apart—it is not hidden away, but openly discussed, commemorated, taught to children, so that it is not forgotten and never repeated.

A tourist in Madrid, by comparison, can be forgiven for never guessing that there was ever a Spanish Civil War at all. The most notable monument to that bloody conflict hangs in the Reina Sofia: Picasso’s Guernica. But there are no museums, no educational centers, no memorials. Why? Perhaps it is all too recent; after all, Franco died in 1975, and he had supporters right until the end. And yet the Berlin Wall fell even more recently, in 1989, and Berlin is full of references to its famous barrier. So mere historical proximity is not the answer

This question is taken up in Giles Tremlett’s excellent book, Ghosts of Spain. Spaniards, he says, are still so divided on the issue of Franco that it is impossible to present the Spanish Civil War in any kind of neutral way. Any mention of the war is bound to upset one side or the other, threatening to reopen old wounds, to aggravate societal tensions that once ripped the country in half.

The only solution that seems to satisfy nearly everyone is—silence. For a long time, both sides abided by a pact of forgetting, pacto de olvido, pushing the war into the half-forgotten background, letting it collect dust in the basement. As we will see later, this is becoming less and less true recently, but is still very much the norm.

With the political situation in my own country becoming more alarming by the day, I cannot afford to be a part of this pact of forgetting. I do not think it is wise to forget, nor to remain silent, especially now. We cannot indulge in historical ignorance. Averting our eyes away from painful events only makes it more likely that they will reoccur. With this in mind, I traveled to the most imposing monument to Facist Spain, El Valle de los Caídos, to hear distant echoes of Spain’s silent past.


El Valle de los Caídos, or the Valley of the Fallen, is situated about an hour’s drive outside the city of Madrid, in a valley called Cuelgamuros in the Guadarrama mountains. It is a Catholic basilica tunnelled into a rocky outcropping, its main altar deep underground. The basilica is situated in a natural preserve that covers over 13 square kilometers, in a picturesque area among pine forests and granite boulders.

The Valley is not exactly easy to get to using public transportation. The best option, I think, is to take either the 664 or the 661 to El Escorial. From there, you can take a special bus that leaves every day at 3:15 pm, and drops you off right in front of the monument. This bus returns at 5:30 to El Escorial (two hours is more than enough time to visit), and from there you can return to Madrid.

The Valley took nineteen years to complete; construction lasted from 1940 to 1959, and cost over one billion pesetas. (I do not know how much that would be in euros.) The two principal architects were Pedro Muguruza Otaño and Diego Méndez, who consciously built the monument in a Neo-Herrerian style—a revival of the architectural style of Juan de Herrera, the architect of El Escorial. But according to the official guide book

… in large part, the Valley is a personal creation of Francisco Franco, since it was his idea to have the monument crowning the rock where the sepulchral crypt would open that contains the remains of the fallen; his is the Program of the Abbey and the Center of Social Studies, after overruling the original idea that there would be a military barracks; his the choice of the site; his the decisions about thousands of little details throughout the construction and, finally, his the choice of the various projects of the Cross and the architects.

(My translation from the Spanish edition.)

The Valley took so long and cost so much money to build because of the massive engineering challenge of building it. The mountain had to be hollowed out, and careful calculations had to be made regarding the vertical and lateral stability of the rock. The rock that was excavated to make the basilica is the same rock that paves the large terrace out front.

Aside from the feat of engineering, the Valley is impressive simply for its size. If part of its interior had not intentionally been left unconsecrated—to avoid competition with the mother church—it would be a bigger Basilica than St. Peter’s in Rome. Even more striking is the cross atop the monument, which is the largest cross in the world; it stretches to 150 meters (500 feet) in height, and is visible from a distance of 32 kilometers (20 miles). A funicular—which wasn’t working when I was there—takes visitors up to the base of the cross. Inside the cross is an elevator and a stairway, which lead up to a hatch in the top. But tourists are not allowed here.

The Valley is officially meant to commemorate the fallen combatants of both sides in the Spanish Civil War. On the opposite side of the mountain from the basilica is a Benedictine Abbey, where the monks hold a perpetual mass to the dead. (I’m not sure if this abbey can be visited.) Interred somewhere within the complex—I think in chambers connected to the side chapels—are the fallen soldiers. There are 33,872 combatants buried there, all unmarked, making the Valley of the Fallen the biggest mass grave in Spain.


When I walked off the bus, I was surprised to see snow on the ground. This was the first time I had seen snow from up close in Spain. The atmosphere was dense with fog, a mist that seemed to suffocate all sound, leaving the surroundings in an eerie silence. There were about twenty of us on the bus, mostly younger people, mostly Spanish.

We followed the signs towards the monument, walking down a simple road, passing a café, towards a large hill that loomed overhead; its top was totally shrouded in the mist. The scene gave me a sense of foreboding—the jagged rocks jutting from the hillside, the pine trees laden with snow, the opaque air, the absence of sound.

I walked on, and suddenly a form emerged through the fog: a concrete arch, about thirty feet high. This was the front of the monument. Soon the path opened up into a large empty space, a flat terrace covered with snow. I walked into the middle of this terrace, my feet crunching in the snow, leaving a lonely trail of footprints. From there I could see the monument’s façade. A semicircular row of arches curved around me in a massive embrace. In the middle was the door, and above that a pietá, or lamentation, showing the Virgin Mary bent down over the dead Christ’s body.

There was something cold and sterile about those concrete arches, lifelessly repeating in perfect order like a row of tombstones in a military cemetery. They impressed at first, but had nothing behind them: doorways leading nowhere, meaning nothing. The dreary grey of concrete was only drearier in the fog. I moved towards the door and looked up at the statue. The Virgin looked so absolutely alone out here in the wilderness, up on the mountain amid the rocks and snow: petrified grief, forever mourning.

I passed through the door, decorated with bas reliefs of the Life of Christ, and went inside. This was the basilica, built in the mountain’s belly. A long tunnel stretched out before me, dimly lit. I could hear the soft mechanical hum of ventilation. Footsteps and conversation softly echoed in the cavernous space. A sign on the wall told me to be silent, for I was entering a “sacred place.”

Through another doorway, and I was standing in another tunnel, this one much larger. In the hallway, yellow bulbs glowed like torches; their light was reflected on the polished surface of the floor, making every surface shimmer with a pallid glimmer. I was deep in the earth now, buried under a mountain of rock, far from the sun’s rays and the cool breeze.

Along the walls, tapestries were hung. I looked and saw scenes of chaos: warriors on horseback attacking crowds, multi-headed hydras trampling people underfoot, angels with swords held aloft, fire and smoke and rays of light, battles and beatific visions, and always God, enshrined with light, watching from above. This was the apocalypse, depicted in eight sequential images along the hallway: the Antichrist, the four horsemen, the beast, and the final judgment. In small nooks, underneath giant bas reliefs, altars hung from the walls, telling the story of the Virgin Mary: the annunciation, the visitation, the adoration of the Magi.

Photo by Sebastien Dubiel; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

My phone was in my hand and I was busy taking pictures, when a woman dressed in black walked by and yelled “No fotos, caballero.” I continued on, pausing here and there to examine a tapestry and an altar, but feeling somehow distracted, maybe even drained. There was something oppressive about the space. Like the façade outside, this hallway seemed sterile, lifeless, inhuman. The perfect symmetry of the decoration—the tapestries and altars arranged in exactly regular intervals, opposite one other, repeating and repeating—and the mathematical precision of every line and angle: there was no warmth in it, no life, only calculation and design.

I ascended a staircase, and found myself among rows of pews. Overhead, on platforms along the walls, were four statues of shrouded figures. Before me was the main altar. Christ hung from a crucifix made from tree trunks, staring up at the ceiling in merciful agony. Now I stared at the ceiling, too, as I stepped into the center of the basilica.

Over me was an enormous dome, golden and flooded with light. It was magnificent. Christ sat enthroned in the center, by far the largest figure, while dozens of believers ascended up towards him in a mountain of men and women. I walked around the circular space, agape at the sight, slowly making my way to where I began. Then I walked around again, this time pausing to investigate the small chapels on either side. They were dedicated to “the fallen.” In one chapel, a man was kneeling in prayer.

Photo by Merce; licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

In my third pass around the space, I noticed something on the ground. I approached and saw these words written on a concrete slab: Francisco Franco. So this was it; this was the dictator’s tomb. I paused for a long while and stared down at the grave. Here he was, the man who kept Spain under his boot for forty long years. And what was he now? A pile of dust underneath a concrete slab. But he was not forgotten. A bouquet of white and red flowers sat above his name, neatly arranged. The flowers looked fresh.

As I stood there, looking down at the grave, a strange feeling began to take hold of me. An icy hand gripped my insides and twisted; my knees felt weak; sweat ran down my back. Suddenly a sound snapped me out of the trance. “¡NO FOTOS!” yelled the woman in black at a tourist—her words echoing harshly in the cavernous space and breaking, for a moment, the suffocating silence.

I walked around the room once more, and then I fled—walking through the tunnel, through the door, and back into the open air. I went down the front stairs and into the courtyard. In a corner, someone had built a snowman. The poor fellow was already starting to melt.

I turned to look at the monument once again. The fog had receded somewhat, giving me a better view of the mountainside. Up above, breaking through the mist like a ship pushing through stormy waves, was the cross. It was just an outline, a faint silhouette in the semi-darkness, standing far up above everything in the surroundings.


The Valley of the Fallen is popular: it is the third-most visited monument under the direction of the Patrimonio Nacional, the governmental caretaker agency. But it is also intensely controversial. Indeed, how can it not be? Whatever Franco may have said or thought about its ostensible purpose—commemorating both sides of the war indifferently—the Valley is an obvious monument to Spanish Fascism: nationalistic, Roman Catholic, Falangist, megalomaniac.

Added to this is the uncomfortable fact that part of the labor that went into the Valley’s construction was done by Spanish prisoners of war of the defeated side. Granted, from what I can find, it seems that these prisoners constituted a rather small percentage of the workforce; what is more, the labor allowed prisoners to commute their sentences. Nevertheless, the thought that Republican soldiers contributed their sweat and toil to a monument celebrating their defeat, cannot help but inspire discomfort.

More controversial still are the burials. I mentioned above that nearly 34,000 people are buried in the Valley. But it is important to note that many of these burials were not performed with the consent of the families. To the contrary, Franco’s men dug up soldier’s graves in huge numbers, carting them off to the Valley to be a part of Franco’s grandiose gesture of reconciliation. To this day, families are trying to retrieve their loved ones from the massive vaults of the basilica, where they are interred without name or marking of any kind.

This is not to mention Franco’s tomb. Francisco Franco is the only person interred in the Valley who did not die in the Civil War. More problematically, Franco is buried as a hero: right in the center of the Basilica, still carefully adorned with flowers. There are many who think his remains should be removed,* and others who think they should at least be moved to the mausoleum on an equal footing with the rest of the deceased. The Right counters that this gesture would be pointless, purely symbolic, and would needlessly disturb the populace. So his remains remain.

[*His remains have, of course, been removed, as I discuss at the end of this post.]

I should also mention the only other marked grave in the basilica, that of José Antonio Primo de Rivera. Little known nowadays, Primo de Rivera was the leader of the proto-fascist Falangist party in the Spanish Republic. Due to his revolutionary activities as a politician, he was imprisoned before the Civil War, and was executed after the outbreak of the conflict. He is buried in the center of the Basilica, right across from Franco. Though his political career was marked with some contradictions, his death in prison allowed the Francoist forces to turn him into a martry for the cause. Thus his presence.

In his book, Ghosts of Spain, Tremlett describes a Falangist rally that he witnessed inside the Mausoleum. The flag and symbol of Franco’s party were proudly waved, and Franco’s daughter was even in attendance. These rallies were formally outlawed in 2007, as part of the Historical Memory Law. In 2009 and 2010, when Spain was in control of the socialist party, the monument was closed several times. This was ostensibly for safety reasons, though the Right saw it as a sign of suppression. When the socialists were voted out of power in 2011, masses resumed in the Basilica.

The most pressing question, it seems to me, is what should be done with the monument? At present, the Valley of the Fallen is presented as just another historic Catholic Basilica, like El Escorial, with informational plaques about its artwork and design. A visitor, totally innocent of Spanish history, can conceivably visit the monument and never guess that it was connected with a Fascist government. I think this is not an acceptable situation.

In 2011, an “expert commission” was formed under the socialist government to give advice on the future of the monument. They proposed setting up an interpretive center, to explain to visitors why it exists. They also suggested that remains of the soldiers be identified, and their names inscribed on the terrace outside, and that Franco’s remains should be removed completely. These seem like sensible and good suggestions to me, but the conservative government, upon their ascension to power, announced that they had no intention of following them.

I think this situation needs to change, and soon. As one of my students said, if you see the monument with “non-political eyes,” it is a beautiful and astonishing work. But there is no separating the Valley from its politics; and any attempt to do so is itself a political act—one that tacitly approves of what the monument stands for. History cannot be swept under the rug, especially now; it must be confronted, interpreted, understood, and taught. Reframing the Valley will be a challenge, but it is also an opportunity for Spain to come to grips with its past


Update, October 2019: The Remain’s of Francisco Franco have, at long last, been removed from the Valley. It was the fruit of a long legal struggle between the socialist government and Franco’s family, among other conservative forces. The relocation of Franco’s body was purposefully quiet, dignified, and private—all the better to prevent violent outbreaks.

For my part, I think that this is certainly a step in the right direction, though much work remains to be done. The remains of the dead must be identified and, if the family desires, removed from the basilica. Moreover, information should be available on the site, telling of the monument’s past and not just of its architecture. This will be no easy task, of course, and is certainly many years off. But the removal of Franco’s body gives me hope that Spain is now readier to confront its past.

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Ancient Cities: Athens

Ancient Cities: Athens

The plane landed late; and by the time the metro took us to the city, it was midnight. Though the Airbnb was not far from the metro stop, we were so tired that we elected to take a taxi. The driver grimaced when he saw the address.

“How much you pay to stay there?” he asked.

“Not much,” I said truthfully.

“You should pay nothing!”

He dropped us off in front of a long, dark alley.

“Stay on that side,” he told us, before driving off.

“I guess this is it,” I said, and we hesitatingly began to walk into the darkness.

Just as we approached the door, a noise startled us. Two homeless people were crouched right beside the door, talking. In truth I had no reason to think that they posed any kind of threat. But the taxi driver’s words had put me on edge. I fumbled with the lockbox on the door, reading the relevant digits from my phone and tugging. The thing popped open and revealed our keys.

We took the elevator to the top floor. There, I read in the instructions that I was to use the blue key for this one. My friend Becca tried to open it, but to no avail.

“Are you sure it’s this one?” she said.

“Yes, it says the blue key for the blue door.”

She tried again.

“It’s not working,” she said. “Want to try?”

I pocketed my phone and grabbed the key. But as soon as I turned it I felt a snap—the key had broken off in the lock. I was horrified. It was one o’clock in the morning and I had just jammed the lock of our apartment. There was nothing to do but to call the host, who I hoped lived close by. Luckily he picked up quickly.

“You what?” he said.

“The key broke off in the lock.”

He grumbled.

“How hard is it to open a door?” he said. 

“I’m sorry…”

“You know ten people are staying there?”

“Yes, I know it’s…”

“Just wait there.”

I assumed that he would have to call the locksmith, which on a Friday night at one in the morning could easily take hours and cost hundreds of euros. But, to my immense relief, within five minutes he appeared carrying a box of tools. The key shard was extracted and, with some more scolding, we were ushered inside. He then opened a lockbox inside the apartment and gave us a replacement key. The charge was five euros.

“Thank you!” I said, marvelling at the efficiency of the process. Guests must break keys in the door all the time, if he had it down to such a science.

Anyways, the ordeal was over: we had arrived in Athens. From the balcony of our Airbnb we could see it: the Parthenon, high up on its hill, gleamingly lit with floodlights. I looked at the ancient temple, relaxed, and felt that strange wondrous feeling of finally seeing something with your eyes which you have seen a thousand times in photographs.

I was finally here, in Athens, the honorary birthplace of Western culture. I was in the city of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides; of Thucydides and Pericles and Solon. For worshippers of history, no ground is more sacred. And yet my first experience in this city of philosophy and art was being frightened by a taxi driver and then criticized by a disgruntled landlord.


Our first stop was the National Archaeology Museum. As one might expect from an archaeology museum in one of the greatest of ancient cities, this one of the city’s cultural jewels. It is located right in the heart of Athens, in an impressive neoclassical building that evokes the grandiose history it hopes to document. When we went, the line was short and the price was entirely reasonable.

The collection begins with a set of artifacts which cannot be properly called ‘Greek.’ Some of these are Cycladic art, from the Cyclades, a collection of small, rocky islands off the Greek coast. The art is remarkable, both for its high quality and for its extreme contrast to what we normally think of as ‘Greek’ art. There is no hint of realism in these works. To the contrary, the sculptures of faces and bodies are heavily stylized, leaving a characteristically angular and abstract form which would fit in well in any modern art gallery. One of my favorite works from this section is the representation of a harp player, whose instrument seems to emanate from his leg.

Another civilization which flourished before the ancient Greeks were the Mycenaeans, whose culture covered much of modern-day Greek, the Peloponesus, and the islands. The archaic culture takes its name from the greatest city of its era, Mycenae. One of the artistic masterpieces from this period is the so-called Mask of Agamemnon. This is a funerary mask made of pounded gold around 1500 BCE. The mask owes its name to its discoverer, Heinrich Schilemann, who believed it to belong to the legendary king of the Trojan War. Nowadays this link seems extremely unlikely, if not fanciful. The mask is beautiful, nonetheless. Its highly stylized features evoke an individual—noble, powerful, and tranquil in the repose of death. 

What I stumbled upon next astonished me: the Antikythera mechanism. This is one of the most remarkable artefacts in history, one which I had heard about several times from documentaries and television. But I had no idea it was here. The Antikythera mechanism is a highly sophisticated device used to compute the positions of celestial objects and to calculate eclipses. In essence it is an ancient computer. It was discovered in a shipwreck off the coast of Antikythera, in 1901, and was made some time around 100 BCE. Badly corroded by its centuries under the sea, and broken into several fragments, the pale green chunks of metal hardly do justice to the triumph that such an object represents. 

In technical sophistication it would be over a thousand years until Europeans created anything comparable. The mechanism contained over 30 gears whose turnings could model the irregular movements of the sun, moon, and planets. It would be wound with a little crank, and it was originally covered with inscriptions of the months and days (Egyptian names written in Greek script) and the intercalandary days used to correct the Egyptian 360-day year. The level of knowledge needed to create such a device is extraordinary. Merely developing the mathematics needed to accurately calculate the moon’s orbit, for example, took generations of work. And to be able to build such a delicate device that embodies these mathematical relationships in a usable form—that is true sophistication.

Near the fragments of the original device are several modern reconstructions of what it may have looked like. All of these agree that it was a medium-sized box with a metallic face that displayed several rotating rings. The device is not exactly beautiful to look at; but in what it means for our species—the ability to chart and predict the movement of celestial bodies with mathematical precision—it is an artifact more moving than even the finest sculpture.

The museum’s sculpture collection allows the visitor to see the evolution of Greek technique. The archaic period was characterized by a notable influence of Egyptian art upon the Greeks. One can see this clearly in the Knoisos Kouros, a large statue of a young man made around 500 BCE to mark a grave. The figure is stiff, with his arms straight at his sides; his hair is braided behind him; and his mouth wears that characteristic ‘archaic smile,’ a sort of otherworldly grin typical of this period. Nearby is a statue of a sphinx—with a smiling human head, an eagle’s wings, and a lion’s body. Clearly these early Greeks were admirers of their ancient counterparts in the Nile Valley.

Compare this statue with one made about 100 years later: the Poseidon of Cape Artemision. This is a bronze statue depicting a bearded god, his arm raised in a gesture of smiting, found in a shipwreck. (It is unclear whether it is Poseidon or Zeus, since the object in the god’s arm—a trident or a thunderbolt—has been lost.) Here the body is far from stiff, but poised to strike, its right foot lifting up in preparation. The face, too, is far more expressive. Gone is the archaic smile. The bearded god is magnificent, foreboding, and regal.

Found in that same shipwreck is the Jockey of Artemision, a bronze statue that was made even later, at around 150 BCE. Here realism has advanced considerably. We see a young boy riding a horse. The horse is frozen mid-stride, while the impossibly small boy is seated bareback. To my eyes the work has a decidedly morbid air: the horse looks sickly while the boy looks frightened. But it is a masterful work of art, with every muscle of the horse’s body modeled beautifully, and its face wonderfully lifelike. Again, we must marvel at the technical sophistication needed to create such a well-balanced, realistic sculpture out of bronze. 

The Golden Age of Greek art is, however, normally considered to lie between the stiffness of the archaic period and the realism of the Hellenistic period. During this properly classical age, idealized form met technical sophistication, creating those wonderful heroic figures who are both believable and yet beyond human. Among these we might class the Aphrodite of Knidos or the Capitoline Venus, iconic statues of the idealized female body, both of which can be found at the museum—or, at least, Roman-era copies. 

One of the museum’s great male nudes is the Antikythera Ephebe, a bronze statue found in the same shipwreck that yielded up the above-mentioned mechanism. As with the case of the Poseidon statue mentioned above, the identity of the young man is unclear, since we do not know what he held in his hand. Nevertheless it is an extraordinary representation of the perfect human form—very far-removed in conception and execution from the Egyptian-influenced statues created just two centuries before. 

The museum has many masterpieces; but one cannot do justice to its collection by focusing on these pieces alone. There are superb examples of ancient coins and pottery, and sculptures ranging from 1,000 BCE to the Roman era. The Greek vase-painting alone deserves and rewards close study. But, for me, the most moving galleries were those which contained ancient funerary markers. These are like tombstones, most often decorated with statues in high relief, that show us intimate and often touching representations of the departed. In one we see a father holding a baby, whose little hand is outstretched towards his deceased mother. It is wonderful art; but, more importantly, it is so wonderfully human.

This was our first morning. As visiting museums is tough work, we emerged tired and hungry. But the weather was lovely beyond belief. It was mid-March, and Madrid was still feeling the winter chill. Athens, meanwhile, was sunny and perfectly warm, and the sky had nary a cloud. We were also fortunate when it came to food. Greek food is justly famous; and Athens, of course, has no shortage of it. We ate lunch in a place called O Kostas, ordering two lamb gyros and fries with feta cheese. It was delicious. For dessert, we headed to a spot called Lukumades, which serves a type of pastry called, appropriately, Loukoumades. These are essentially like doughnut holes—fried balls of dough—but they are especially sumptuous, soft on the inside and slightly tough on the outside. Traditionally they are served with honey, which is what I ordered. It was a voluptuary experience.

After we ate, we headed to a tour that Becca had booked before we arrived. We wanted to see at least some of the country outside of Athens. A trip to Delphi or, better still, one of the Greek islands would have been ideal; but since we had limited time, we settled on a short trip to the Temple of Poseidon. The tour met at a hotel, where we boarded a large tour bus. I was rather impressed at the driver’s ability to maneuver the blimp-like vehicle through the narrow Athenian streets. Our guide gave us a running narration of the sites we were passing, through the bus’s PA system, as well as giving us some background as to the history and the mythology associated with the temple.

Apart from its major monuments, the city of Athens is itself not especially attractive—a clutter of unremarkably buildings—but the landscape surrounding the city partakes in all that fabled beauty of the Greek countryside. The bright blue Mediterranean, the gentle hills and small islands sparsely covered with green, and the little towns nestled among these elevations—the whole scene brought my thoughts back to the country’s ancient past. 

Many times I have heard it said that the particular geography of Greece was the key to its cultural development: that the hills and mountains made overland travel difficult, while the many islands and harbors made sea travel, and thus international trade, far more profitable. Thus, the Greeks became excellent sailors and developed independent city-states, whose merchants sailed far and wide, coming into contact with other cultures and bringing back ideas, arts, and technologies from afar. I have even heard it said that the particular clarity of the Meditteranean sun in Greece shaped their logical philosophy and their classical art. Theories such as these should always be handled with caution. Still, as I looked at this dramatic and yet harmonious landscape, I could not help but feel inspired myself.

Finally we reached the temple. It stands on a bluff overlooking the sea, a commanding position for the house of a god. The guide led us from the parking lot to the site, gave us a little speech, and then let us roam free. Built during the Golden Age of Athens, under Pericles (c. 440 BCE), the temple itself is now in a ruined state, with less than half of the original columns standing and nothing of the roof or internal structures to speak of. Even so, the temple has been a tourist destination for many years, as attested by the many graffiti carved into the rock, including the name of Lord Byron. The ruined temple is perhaps all the more charming to modern visitors because of its ruin. As it stands now, the columns open up towards the viewer, and the temple itself becomes a kind of lens or frame for the landscape around it.

Martin Heidegger, the philosopher who idolized the Greeks, was horrified by most of what he actually saw on his trip to Greece. This temple was one of the few sites that inspired him, which he recorded in his influential essays on aesthetics:

Standing there, the building rests on the rocky ground. This resting of the work draws up out of the rock the obscurity of that rock’s bulky yet spontaneous support. Standing there, the building holds its ground against the storm raging above it and so first makes the storm itself manifest in its violence. The luster and gleam of the stone, though itself apparently glowing only by the grace of the sun, first brings to radiance the light of the day, the breadth of the sky, the darkness of the night.

My response to the structure was, however, muted compared with my response to the landscape surrounding the temple. Nevertheless, it was special to see my first true Ancient Greek temple, in situ. It is a work of art that perfectly complements nature.

We arrived back around dinnertime, ate, and then went to bed. Tomorrow was going to be a big day.


We awoke in our pitch-dark room early. It was time to visit the Acropolis. Breakfast was easy. The streets were full of vendors selling sesame bread rings—which taste like thin, crunchy bagels.

The walk to the base of the hill was short, and it was not long before we began to encounter ruins. First was Hadrian’s Library, built during the reign of that Roman Emperor to house some of the cultural treasures of Athens. (Educated Romans were acutely aware of the cultural debt they owed to Greece.) Little of this structure remains, just a few walls and free-standing columns in a grassy field. Nearby is the Roman agora (an agora is an open space used for assemblies). Athens’ original agora was apparently swallowed up by surrounding buildings, making a new one necessary during the Roman era. The most famous structure in this area is the Tower of the Winds, possibly the first weather station in history, equipped with a wind vane, multiple sundials, and a water clock.

Our path then took us past the iconic Theater of Dionysus. Built into the side of the hill, the theater will be familiar to anyone who has seen later Roman theaters, partially because the Romans refurbished it, and partially because this is the prototype of all theaters that came later—possibly history’s first theater. Semicircular rows of seats descend to the stage, which is framed by a grandiose stone backdrop. It was amazing to see the venue where, in all probability, the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes were performed. It may be difficult for us to appreciate this nowadays, when theater and all its offspring (television, movies) so dominate our entertainment and art. But at one point theater was an entirely new, cutting-edge artistic medium. The Greeks not only gave birth to this artform, but quickly produced masterpieces, still powerful after more than 2,000 years. 

The theater of Dionysus

The path took us on a gradual ascent up the hill of the Acropolis. Soon we came to the entrance to the site. Though there were lots of tourists mulling about, I was surprised that we did not have to wait on a long line to get inside. It was not at all like visiting the Colosseum in Rome: we paid and walked right inside. A little more walking, and we were standing before the ancient entrance to the Acropolis, the Propylaea. This consists of a marble colonnade, with wings on either side, which sits grandly atop the stairs leading up to the Acropolis. At the time this was a sacred space, and so the Propylaea served as a gate, and was used to control access to the city’s temples, barring the way of any undesirables. 

The Propylaea

We climbed the stairs, passed under the Propylaea—and there it was, the Parthenon. 

Seeing any iconic site evokes a peculiar feeling: a quick succession of awe, disappointment, boredom, excitement, curiosity, wonder, and awe again. First you think, “That’s it!” Then you think, “Well, I guess that’s it.” And then you start to really look at it, in a way you never could in photos or in videos. Now you can sense the building’s proportions, and see it in the proper situation—the strong Mediteranean sun bearing down, the bear rock of the hill underfoot, and the expansive view on every side.

The Parthenon was built at the height of Athenian power, at around 450 BCE. Athens had just emerged victorious from a war with Persia, the very war recorded by Herodotus in his Histories. During that conflict, the Persians had ransacked the city of Athens and had burned several sacred sites, including an older temple. Nevertheless, Athens emerged from the war stronger than ever before, the de facto leader of the Delian League—a loose federation of Greek city-states. Indeed, the league dues paid to Athens by the other members helped to fund the new temple, something that the other cities did not appreciate. The high-handed leadership of Athens eventually resulted in the Peloponnesian War, recorded by Thucydides, which ended with the defeat of Athens by Sparta and its allies, and the end of the Athenian Golden Age.

The author in front of the Parthenon. Photo by Becca Kantor.

The construction of the Parthenon, then, coincides exactly with Athens’ most glorious moment. On the surface the building is simplicity itself: rows of columns (69 in all, originally) holding up a roof. But the beauties are in the subtleties. First, the columns themselves swell slightly in the middle, in order to counteract the optical illusion that perfectly straight columns are narrower in the middle. The whole foundation itself is slightly bowed, or bent, which helped rain flow off the roof as well as made the building stronger—not to mention lessening the stiffness of the building’s profile.

Then there is the artwork. Very little of the original sculptures remain, much of it having been carted off to England by Thomas Bruce, the Earl of Elgin (more on that later). As extraordinary as much of this artwork is, it was not meant to be the main focus on the structure. In fact, it was placed so high above that it is unclear how it could have been properly seen. The Ancient Greek traveller, Pausanias, does not even mention the friezes that are now considered touchstones in the history of art. Instead, the main focus of the building was an enormous statue of Athena, holding the winged form of Nike (or vistory), now lost to time.

We do have a good idea of what this statue would have looked like, though, from several reproductions and representations, as well as from written descriptions. Ironically, as the classicist Mary Beard points out, we in the present would likely not have found this statue particularly beautiful. Certainly the full-scale reproduction in Nashville is not inspiring. The gargantuan figure was not meant to be a work of art, after all, but a cult image—indeed, the goddess herself made incarnate. And the temple was not a place of services or worship, such as a church or a mosque, but a place to house the offerings to this physical goddess.

Nowadays, we are not apt to see the ruined temple as the house of a goddess, or even as primarily a religious structure. Rather, we cannot help seeing the Parthenon as a kind of visual representation of the culture that gave us philosophy, art, and democracy. We see the ancient structure, and we think of Pericles, the great leader of Athens, and his ironic funeral oration:

If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences…if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes…

But the Parthenon has been affected by far more history than merely Classical Athens. The building served as a church for much longer than it ever was the home of Athena. The pagan temple was first consecrated under the Byzantines as a Greek Orthodox church; and then, during the crusades, the Parthenon fell under the control of several different Western European states, becoming a Roman Catholic church controlled by the French, the Italians, and the Catalans in turn. Finally the Ottoman Turks seized control, and the Parthenon became a mosque. In 1687, during a war with Venice, the Ottomans unwisely decided to use the Parthenon as a refuge for civilians, as well as a storage depot for gunpowder. A stray Venetian shell ignited the powder, killing dozens and seriously damaging the building’s structure.

Thus, what we see now is merely a shadow of what the building would have originally looked like. In fact, the Parthenon has already been partially reconstructed; at the beginning of the previous century, not even the building’s outline remained standing. Even so, what would have been the dark internal chamber is now nothing but empty space (where a large crane was parked when I visited). What stands, in other words, is only the outer rim of the building—as if a house had been gutted, leaving only its external walls. What is more, almost all of the sculpture has been destroyed or removed; and, importantly, the bright paint that would have originally decorated the Parthenon has long ago been washed away.

The building we celebrate, then, is very different from what the Athenians actually built. And as in the case of the Temple of Poseidon, I suspect that we cherish the Parthenon because the passing years have turned it into a noble ruin. Rather than a colorful exterior containing a dark internal chamber, we now find a skeleton made of pure white marble, filled with nothing but sunlight and air. What we see, in other words, is only the mathematically clean and elegant outline of the original structure—giving us a rather false idea of what life in Ancient Greek was actually like.

Still, it is beguiling to behold. The temple has a mesmerizing power, its irregularities so subtle as to be unnoticeable and yet intriguing. What could have been a stiff and rather lifeless building instead appears supple, graceful, and dynamic.

It is worth momentarily pulling your gaze from the Parthenon to examine some of the other temples on the Acropolis. The most notable of these is the Erechtheion, a somewhat smaller temple dedicated to both Poseidon and Athena. According to the founding myth of the city, those two gods had a contest in order to which one of them would become the city’s patron deity. Poseidon struck the ground with his trident, and caused a well to gush forth. Unfortunately, however, it the water was salty. Athena responded by causing an olive tree to grow. As olives are fundamental to the Mediterranean diet, the Greeks wisely chose Athena. This temple marks the spot where the contest supposedly took place, and was built around the two miraculous gifts—the marks of Poseidon’s trident and the sacred olive tree.

The Porch of the Maidens, in the Erechtheion

The profile of the Erechtheion is somewhat odd, since it was perforce built over uneven ground, to which the architects had to adapt. Its most famous feature is the Porch of the Maidens, a porch held up by the statues of six young women, called Caryatids. Now the statues in the porch are all replicas. One of them was carted off by the infamous Lord Elgin, and now stands in the British Museum. The other five have been moved to the Parthenon Museum (more later).

The Temple of Athena Nike

The last temple on the hill is the Temple of Athena Nike. It is a small temple situated near the entrance, which was decorated with friezes of the highest quality, some of which are now in the British Museum, and others which have remained in Athens. Besides these other structures, it is worth mentioning the view from the hill of the Acropolis. Athens spreads out in all directions, an endless sea of mostly white buildings hemmed in by distant green mountains. From here I could see the Temple of Hephaestus, a remarkably well-preserved temple that does not receive a fraction of the attention from tourists as do the ruined temples in the city—which supports my earlier point, that we are attracted to these buildings precisely because they are ruins. Near the temple is the Church of the Holy Apostles, a 10th century Orthodox Church.

Athens, with Mount Lycabettus in the distance

I could also see the famous Areopagus, a rocky outcropping said to be where the gods held Ares on trial (thus the name), and, according to Aeschylus, where the gods held Orestes on trial for the murder of his mother. The ancient Athenians used this hill for their own trials, and St. Paul was said to have made a speech to the Athenians in this spot. John Milton referenced this classical past in the title of his iconic defense of a free press, the Areopagitica. Looking in another direction I saw the ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, at one time the largest temple in Greece, but now only a collection of free-standing columns in a grassy field. Most striking of all was Mount Lycabettus, a hill whose rocky peak is taller even than the Acropolis.

I descended from the Acropolis feeling a mixture of triumph and deflation. The big moment was over: I had seen the Parthenon. Was I any the better for it? But we still had a great deal more to see, much of it found in the Acropolis Museum, located right down the hill from the Acropolis itself.

The Acropolis Museum is the second great museum in the city of Athens. Compared with the Archaeology Museum, this one is a much younger institution, having been opened in 2009 after many false starts. The museum, thus, projects a sleek, modern aspect to the visitor. Even the building itself is interesting and innovative. Designed by the Swiss, Parisian, New Yorker Bernard Tschumi, the entire structure is lifted above an ancient archaeological site, leaving the ruins below both visible to visitors and accessible to researchers. 

Unfortunately, photos were not allowed in most of the museum, so I must rely on my hazy memory. The first exhibit was housed in a large hall. Shards of broken pottery and other small archaeological remains were housed in glass cases along the walls, while free-standing statues and structures were scattered throughout the space. This is the gallery containing artifacts from the slopes of the Acropolis—consisting of a mishmash of domestic items and the remains of various small sanctuaries. The floor has several glass panels, allowing the visitor to look down at the ancient site below (called the “Makrygianni plot”). As the museum’s website explains, the upwards slope of this hall intentionally recalls the slope of the Acropolis hill itself: quite a nice touch.

After climbing some stairs, the visitor then finds herself in a sort of enormous warehouse, with concrete grey pillars holding up the high ceiling, and large windows letting in the bright Greek sun. The space is full of statues and fragments of buildings, many of them visibly archaic. These are the remains of the pre-Golden Age Acropolis, the temple complex which was largely destroyed by the invading Persians. Only broken fragments of the decorations remain, but they are beautifully suggestive. Particularly noteworthy are the pediments from the Hekatompedon, the so-called Ur-Parthenon that stood on the site of the current temple. We see a lion killing a calf, the curling body of a snake, and a man with three bodies (each of them wearing the above-mentioned archaic smile). For me, the statues of the animals are especially lovely. The Golden-Age Greeks seldom depicted animals in their visual art, preferring to focus instead on ideal human form.

Moving on through this floor, the visitor then comes to a special balcony, where she will find five familiar friends: the Caryatids who hold up the Porch of the Maidens in the Erechtheion. They are exhibited, appropriately, on a balcony within the museum. These are the originals—at least, those that have remained in Athens. Besides taking one back to England, Lord Elgin badly damaged another of the Caryatids in his attempt to remove the sculpture. The authories in the museum have done their best to piece her back together again, but the difference is stark. The mythological significance of these Caryatids is, as it happens, uncertain. According to the museum’s website, the most plausible theory is that they represent choephoroi (mourners, or “libation bearers”) of Cecrops I, the king of Athens who was supposedly buried there.

Photo by Marysas; licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5;
taken from Wikimedia commons

Nearby are the friezes taken from the Temple of Athena Nike. Among these is a justly famous sculpture of a goddess adjusting her sandal. For me, it is a wonderful piece. The way that the thin cloak drapes over the goddess’s body is masterful, both revealing the countours of her body and creating a fascinating geometrical pattern. Indeed, the lightness and daintiness of this image reminds me of nothing else so much as Degas’ many paintings of ballerinas.

So far, we have already had much to see: but the museum’s main raison d’être is still unmentioned. On the top floor is a space especially constructed to house the friezes and sculptures from the Parthenon. It is an enormous space, flooded with light, made to be the exact same dimensions of the original building, and even oriented the same way. In the original building, the friezes would have been far above the visitor, with most of their beautiful details impossible to see. Here, the friezes are dispalyed above the viewer, but close enough for pleasurable viewing. At either end are the remains of the pediments—fragmentary sculptures of gods and heroes.

In my opinion, it is a brilliant design, doing justice to the original setting of the works while allowing for added visibility. The Greek authorities had good reason for investing in such a cutting-edge design, you see. Remember that the vast majority of the original friezes are not in Greece at all, but in Athens, thanks to the aforementioned Lord Elgin. The Louvre has some other pieces, and a few other fragments are scattered here and there. As one might expect, Greece has been trying to get back these originals for decades, arguing that they were taken under improper settings. One of the main arguments against returning the works was that they are impossible to see in the original setting. But the construction of this gallery had made that argument a moot point. Now, Athens has arguably a better space for displaying the artwork than London or Paris. 

The British Museum and its counterparts have, unsurprisingly, been less than forthcoming in these demands to return the originals. For one, losing the Parthenon freize would mean losing one of the British Museum’s prized posessions. What is more, giving back the artwork would set a precedent that could potentially unravel the British Museum completely, considering how many of the British Museum’s prized works have been taken from other parts of the world, often under less than scrictly legal circumstances. Greece is just one of many countries demanding repatriation.

For my part, I would be deeply sad to see the British Museum come apart. But after seeing the frankly amazing gallery in Athens, I cannot help but think that this is where the Parthenon freize belongs—lit up by the Mediterranean sun, with the Parthenon itself visible through the wide windows. Seen here, amid so much other classical art, the work is just more meaningful than in foggy London.

So what is in the gallery, if the originals are in London and Paris? Well, mostly plaster casts. Certainly they lack the quality and luster of the original marble, but it is better than the proverbial nothing.

The sculptures and friezes of the Parthenon are virtually the definition of classical perfection for us moderns. In the pediments (under the slanted roof) we see the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus on one end, and the competition between Athena and Poseidon for the loyalty of the citizens on the other—though these are so badly damaged that only fragments of heads and bodies remain. Somewhat better preserved are the metopes. These are panels of friezes in high relief that went around the outside of the building. There were, originally, 92 of these; but time, deliberate destruction (by Christians who thought them graven images), and accidental tragedies (such as the powder explosion) have destroyed most of them beyond recognition. The best ones are mostly in the British Museum, while some of the most ruined panels are still in place on the building, all by invisible to the visitor.

The metopes were divided into four themes, one per side: the gigantomachy (the fight between the gods and the giants); the Amazonomachy (the fight between Greeks and Amazon warriors); the fall of Troy; and the fight between the Lapiths and the centaurs. The theme is clear: war. Each of the panels depicts two figures, embroiled in conflict. These four mythical wars encapsulate the worldview of Periclean Athens quite well: the supriority of the divine over earthly force, the superiority of men over women (and the Athenians were patriarchal even by ancient standards), the superiority of Greeks over non-Greeks (xenophobia is nothing new), and the superiority of humans over the beasts. It is easy to see these articles of faith as a response to the Persian invasion—an assertion of the superiority of Greece over everyone else.

As works of art, the panels of the fight between the Lapiths (legendary Greeks) and the centaurs are perhaps the finest from the Parthenon. Some of them must certainly be ranked among the finest sculptures in Western history. However, as Mary Beard points out in her guide, several of these panels are manifestly inferior—stiff, awkward, misproportioned. It seems that the Greeks hired mediocre workmen in order to get the building finished. After all, the entire building was finished in less than ten years. Compare that to the decades, and even centuries, it took to build the great cathedrals!

The metopes

The last major sculptural work is the frieze, which went around the naos in a continuous panel. Like most Greek temples, the Parthenon consisted of two major parts: the peristyle, which are the columns that wrap around the perimeter, and the naos, or inner chamber. The Parthenon as we know it today consists exclusively of the peristyle, which contained the pediments and the metopes. As a result, imagining how the frieze would have originally looked is somewhat more difficult for us.

The frieze, sculpted in rather low relief, depicts an enormous procession, with men, women, and children, animals of various sorts, and people on horseback, bearing all sorts of goods and objects. It is an amazing work of art, containing immense variety within a coherent narrative structure, in a style that has come to be synonymous with Classical Athens. Ironically, however, scholars are still unsure what this iconic work of art is supposed to represent. The work is virtually unique for being a representation of daily life—something otherwise absent in Greek artwork. Most would accept that it is some sort of religious procession, but which one is yet to be determined. The museum’s website asserts that it is the Panathenaia—the most important ritual in honor of Athena—but, according to Mary Beard, this is far from clear. So, as it happens, we do not know what one of the most influential works of Western art is about.

The frieze

After our busy morning on the Acropolis and several hours in the museum, we had ingested all of the art and architecture we would digest for one day. Our next stop was quite a bit different. Becca wanted to visit a famous sandal shop, which used to be owned and run by Stavros Melissinos, known as the poet sandalmaker. The shop is well-known; and it counts many celebrities as past customers, including John Lennon (after whom there is now a sandal named). Now, I must admit that I am not an expert sandal connosoire. I have been wearing Birkenstocks for most of my life, and they suit me just fine. But other people seem pretty pleased with the shop’s products.

We spent the rest of our time just wandering and eating. Virtually everything we tasted was excellent. Before long, it was time to brave the dark alley once more, and go to sleep in our little bunk-beds. The next morning we walked over to Syntagma square—the central plaza of Athens—and then took the metro back to the airport. It had been quite a journey. Surely, we had missed a great deal of what Athens has to offer. But what we had seen was enough to make Athens one of my favorite trips in Europe. I will return one day.

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Review: How to Listen to and Understand Great Music

Review: How to Listen to and Understand Great Music

How to Listen to and Understand Great Music by Robert Greenberg

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


As I wrote in my review of the standard music history textbook, writers of survey material find themselves in an uneviable position: threading the needle between technical description and subjective response. In other words, a textbook writer must somehow discuss the music objectively, but with an absolute minimum of specialized vocabulary. As a result, even the best writers are bound to fall a little short of perfection.

But Robert Greenberg resolves this dilemma by avoiding writing altogether. Indeed, the audiobook format is arguably a far better medium than paper for a survey course on music. Rather than resort to scores or diagrams, Greenberg can simply play a recording of the music; and if he needs to break it down, he can play sections on his piano. The result is more integrated and more satisfactory than the textbook approach. What is abstract on the page—motivic development, thematic contrast, timbrel coloring—can be clear as sunlight when heard.

If the format is ideally suited to the subject, the man is ideally suited to the occasion. Robert Greenberg is a wild ball of energy—joking, screaming, whispering, laughing, and blabbing—all while waving and jabbing his arms about. Seeing him lecture is a performance in itself, as he goes the whole forty-five minutes without a single misspoken word. While some might find him grating, and others merely hokey, his animating presence helps to make this most abstract of all art forms into something eminently approachable.

But Greenberg would be little more than a clown if he were not, as well, an extremely knowledgeable and passionate musician. His examples are all well-chosen to illustrate his chosen lessons, and his explanations are both insightful and easy to follow. The lectures work so well because he can immediately exemplify any point simply by playing the relevant bit of music, thus sharpening our ears. Of course, this being a survey course, he does not go into great detail in any one area, and there are many omissions. But considering the time constraints, I think it would be hard to improve upon these lectures.

After finishing the aforementioned music textbook, I wondered whether language might have something to do with music development. I am gratified to find that Greenberg, at least, thinks that it does. The dominance of German-language composers in these lectures is overwhelming. After German, the composers’ languages by frequency are Italian, French, Latin, Russian, and English. Personally, I found it striking that there was not a single Spanish composer even alluded to in the course. Certainly you could not do a survey of visual art or literature with the same omission.

I am not subscribing to some kind of linguistic determinism (though the idea that linguistic patterns influencing musical patterns is intriguing); I am only remarking on the strangeness that one culture, even one city—Vienna—could be so dominant, and another equally affluent culture so comparatively minor.

This is all rather beside the point. I am very glad to have listened to these lectures, and even a little sad to be done with them. Luckily for us, Greenberg is an extremely prolific teacher, and has seemingly endless courses on every area of Western concert music. Where does he find the time to conduct, compose, and play his own music?



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Review: The History of Ancient Egypt

Review: The History of Ancient Egypt
The History of Ancient Egypt

The History of Ancient Egypt by Bob Brier

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ancient Egypt, like dinosaur bones and outer space, is one of those things which seem to attract universal curiosity. It certainly did in my case. I remember visiting the Egyptian section in the Met, as a young boy, and marveling over the mummies and the massive sarcophagi, the mysterious hieroglyphs and monumental statues.

There is something curiously foreign, even inhuman, about Egyptian artifacts. For one, they are old beyond anything we are accustomed to think about. To cite one oft-repeated fact, there is more time between construction the Great Pyramid and the life of Julius Caesar, than between Julius Caesar and our own time. Even ancient history seems like yesterday by comparison. Aside from mere time, Egypt’s culture is strikingly unlike our own. God-kings who marry their sisters to keep the blood-line pure, mummified bodies interred in graves full of gold, jackal-headed gods and hieroglyphic script—it is alien indeed.

Yet it is beautiful. Egyptian art is undoubtedly one of the great art traditions in the world—as anyone knows who has examined the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin, the seated scribe in Paris, or the statue of Hatshepsut in New York. It is a unified and coherent aesthetic, permeating everything from the smallest objects to the greatest temples, and lasting for thousands of years with only minor change. Even if it is enchanting, however, the art of Egypt also evokes this sensation of distance. Every image is so stylized, every human form is so rigid and unrealistic, every aesthetic choice pre-determined by tradition, that it is difficult to get a sense of real people behind these objects.

This sense of distance, of foreignness, of mystery, is what makes Egypt so exciting to study. (It is also why people talk about ancient aliens.) And Bob Brier is an ideal guide. I have never loved anything or anyone as much as Brier loves Egypt. This enthusiasm is infectious, and makes his series of lectures a real pleasure. He describes how he climbed into the Bent Pyramid—an early, failed attempt to create a pyramid—and how he traveled to the turquoise mines used by Egyptians themselves. He narrates Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt and explains how the Rosetta Stone was translated. He even describes in detail how to make a mummy—and he should know, since he made one himself.

Apart from these entertaining asides, Brier takes the listener through the whole history of Ancient Egypt, from prehistory to the death of Cleopatra. It is a fascinating story, and Brier is a wonderful storyteller. A lifelong resident of the Bronx, his verbal mannerisms may remind one—pleasantly or unpleasantly—of the man in the White House; yet he knows how to dramatize the relevant details enough to make them effortlessly stick in the memory. His love of a good story does lead him astray, at times. For my part, his two lectures on the Biblical stories, Joseph and Exodus, were somewhat too credulous of their veracity. He is similarly generous when it comes to Herodotus. And his theory of Tutankhamun’s murder has now been disproven.

Aside from these mild criticisms, I should note that the series does show its age. Recorded in 1999, lots has happened in the world of Egyptology since then, notably the advances in DNA and medical technology which allow us to know more about the lives of Egyptians. For example, we now know far more about Tutankhamun’s many physical ailments, and we also know that he was not the son of Nefertiti.

Nevertheless, these lectures remain a wonderful introduction to the times. I cannot emphasize enough how enjoyable they are. They convert you into an Egypt fanatic. Now I want teach myself hieroglyphics and to go to Egypt myself. It must be incredible to see all of this in person. For now, however, I will have to be content with Brier’s virtual tour and whatever museums I can visit.



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Review: On the Soul (Aristotle)

Review: On the Soul (Aristotle)
De Anima (On the Soul)

De Anima by Aristotle

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As I have lately been making my way through Aristotle’s physical treatises, I have often observed that many of Aristotle’s errors stem from his tendency to see the physical world as analogous to a biological organism. So it is a pleasure to finally see Aristotle back on his home territory—living things. While Aristotle’s work in proto-physics and proto-chemistry is interesting mainly from a historical perspective, this work is interesting in its own right; in just a hundred pages, Aristotle manages to assemble a treatise on the fundamentals of life.

The first thing the modern student will notice is that Aristotle means something quite different by ‘soul’ than how we normally understand the word. The word ‘soul’ has come to mean an immaterial, specter-like wraith, the spiritual core of one’s personality—trapped, only temporarily, in a body; and this view has, over the years, caused problems for philosophers and theologians alike, for it remains to be explained how an immaterial spirit could move a material body, or how a material body could trap an immaterial spirit. Aristotle avoids these awkward questions. What he means is quite different.

Aristotle begins by observing that all forms of behavior, human or animal, require a body. Even supposedly ‘mental’ states, such as anger, love, and desire, all have concomitant physical manifestations: an angry man gets red in the face, a man in love stares at his beloved, and a man who desires alcohol tries to get it. From this, Aristotle quickly concludes that all the Pythagorean and Platonic talk of the transmigration of souls is silly; a soul needs a body, just as a body needs a soul. Furthermore, a specific soul doesn’t need just any body, but it needs its specific body. Soul and body are, in other words, codependent and inseparable. In Aristotle’s words, “each art must use its tools, each soul its body.”

This still leaves the question unanswered, what is a soul? Aristotle answers that the soul is the form of the body. Alright, what does that mean? Keep this in mind: when Aristotle says ‘form’, he is not merely talking about the geometrical shape of the object, but means something far more general: the form, or essence, of something is that by which it is what it is. Here’s an example: the form of a bowl is that which makes a bowl a bowl, as opposed to something else like, say, a plate or a cup. In this particular case, the form would seem to be the mere shape of the object; isn’t the thing that makes a bowl a bowl its shape? But consider that there is no such thing as a disembodied bowl; for a bowl to be a bowl, it must have a certain shape, be within a certain size range, and be embodied in a suitable material. All of these qualifications, the shape, size, and material, Aristotle would include in the ‘form’ of an object.

So the soul of living things is the quality (or qualities) that differentiate them from nonliving things. Now, the main difference between animate and inanimate objects is that animate objects possess capacities; therefore, the more capacities a living thing has, the more souls we must posit. This sounds funny, but it’s just a way of speaking. Plants, for Aristotle, are the simplest forms of living beings; they only possess the ‘vegetative soul’, which is what makes them grow and develop. Animals possess additional souls, such as that which allows them to sense, to desire, to imagine, and—in the case of humans—to think. The ‘soul’, then, is a particular type of form; it is a form which gives its recipient a certain type of capability. Plants are only capable of growth; animals are capable of growing, of moving, and of many other things.

Aristotle sums up his view in a memorable phrase: “From all this it is obvious that the affections of soul are enmattered formulable essences.” These capacities cannot be ‘enmattered’ in just anything, but must be embodied in suitable materials; plants are not made of just anything, but their capacities for growth always manifest themselves in the same types of material. Aristotle sums up this point with another memorable phrase: “soul is an actuality or formulable essence of something that possesses the potentiality of being besouled.”

So an oak tree is made of material with the potentiality of being ‘besouled’, i.e., turned into a living, growing oak tree. Conversely, a life-sized statue of an oak tree made of bronze would still not be an oak tree, even if it shared several aspects of its form with a real oak tree. It isn’t made of the right material, and thus cannot possess the vegetative soul.

I have given a somewhat laborious summary of this because I think it is a very attractive way of looking at living things. It avoids all talk of ‘ghosts in the machine’, and concentrates on what is observable. (I should note, however, that Aristotle thought that ‘mind’, which is the faculty of reason, is immaterial and immortal. Nobody’s perfect.)

I also find Aristotle metaphysical views attractive. True to his doctrine of the golden mean, he places equal emphasis on matter and form. He occupies an interesting middle-ground between the idealism of Plato and the materialism of Democritus. In order for a particular thing to be what it is, it must both have a certain form—which is embodied in, but not reducible to, its matter—and be made of the ‘right’ types of matter. Unlike Plato’s ideals, which reside in a different sphere of reality, existing as perfect essences devoid of matter, Aristotle’s forms are inherent in their objects, and thus are neither immaterial nor simply the matter itself

The treatise ceases to be as interesting as it progresses, but there are a few gems along the way. He moves on to an investigation of the five senses, and, while discussing sight, has a few things to say about light. Aristotle defines light as the quality by which something transparent is transparent; in other words, light is the thing that can be seen through transparent things. I suppose that’s a respectable operational definition. Aristotle also considers the idea that light travels absurd; nothing could go that fast:

Empedocles (and with him all others who used the same forms of expression) was wrong in speaking of light as ‘traveling’ or being at a given moment between the earth and its envelope, its movement being unobservable by us; that view is contrary both to the clear evidence of argument and to the observed facts; if the distance traversed were short, the movement might have been unobservable, but where the distance is from extreme East to extreme West, the draught upon our powers of belief is too great.

Aristotle also has a few interesting things to say about sense:

By a ‘sense’ is meant what has the power of receiving into itself the sensible forms of things without the matter. This must be conceived of as taking place in the way in which a piece of wax takes on the impress of a signet-ring without the iron or gold; we say that what produces the impression is a signet of bronze or gold, but its particular metallic constitution makes no difference: in a similar way the sense is affected by what is colored or flavored or sounding, but it is indifferent what in each case the substance is; what alone matters is what quality is has, i.e. in what ratio its constituents are combined.

So we don’t take in the matter of a bowl through our eyes, but only its form. All of our senses, then, are adapted for observing different aspects of the forms of objects. Thus, Aristotle concludes, all knowledge consists of forms; when we learn about the world, we are mentally reproducing the form of the world in our minds. As he says: “It follows that the soul is analogous to the hand; for as the hand is a tool of tools [i.e. the tool by which we use tools], so the mind is the form of forms [i.e. the form by which we apprehend forms].” (Notice how deftly Aristotle wields his division of everything into matter and form; he uses it to define souls, to define senses, and then to define knowledge. It is characteristic of him to make so much headway with such seemingly simple divisions.)

For a long time, I was perplexed that Aristotle was so influential. I was originally repulsed by his way of thinking, put off by his manner of viewing the world. His works struck me as alternately pedantic, wrongheaded, or obvious. How could he have exerted such a tremendous influence over the Western mind? Now, after reading through much more Aristotle, this is no longer perplexing to me; in fact, I often find myself thinking along his lines, viewing the world through his eyes. It takes, I believe, a lot of exposure in order to really develop a sympathy for Aristotle’s thought; but with its emphasis on balance, on growth, on potentiality, it succeeds in being a very aesthetically compelling (if often incorrect) way of viewing things.

This piece represents, to me, Aristotle at his best. It is a grand synthesis of philosophy and biology, probably not matched until William James’s psychological work. Unlike many gentlemanly philosophers who shut themselves in their studies, trying to explain human behavior purely through introspection, Aristotle’s biologically rooted way of seeing things combines careful observation—of humans and nonhumans alike—with philosophical speculation. It is a shame that only the logic-chopping side of Aristotle was embraced by the medievals, and not his empirical outlook.

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Review: On the Heavens (Aristotle)

Review: On the Heavens (Aristotle)

On the Heavens by Aristotle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This is quite a charming little book. In it, one can find the description of an entire way of viewing the natural world. Aristotle moves on from the abstract investigations of the Physics to more concrete questions: Is the earth a sphere or flat? What are the fundamental constituents of matter? Why do some things fall, and some things rise? Is the earth the center of everything? Aristotle’s answers, I’m afraid, have not stood the test of time; such, it appears, is the risk of all science—obsolescence.

The reader is immediately presented with a beautiful piece of Aristotelian reasoning. First, the good philosopher reminds us that “the perfect is naturally prior to the imperfect, and the circle is a perfect thing.” Circular motion, therefore, is more perfect than simple up-and-down motion like we see on earth; and since we do not find bodies whose natural motion is circular on earth, and since nature always strives towards perfection, it follows that there must be bodies not on earth which naturally move in a circular fashion. Again, since none of the earth-bound elements—fire, water, air, and earth—exhibit natural (i.e. unforced) circular motion, it follows that the heavenly bodies must be composed of something different; and this different substance (let us call it aether), since is exhibits the most perfect motion, must be itself perfect.

In Aristotle’s words:

… we may infer with confidence that there is something beyond the bodies that are about us on this earth, different and separate from them; and that the superior glory of its nature is proportionate to its distance from this world of ours.

Everything below the moon must be born and pass away; but the heavenly bodies abide forever in their circular course. Q.E.D.

In his physical investigations, it seems that Aristotle was not especially prescient. For example, he argues against “the Italian philosophers known as the Pythagoreans… At the centre, they say, is fire, and the earth is one of the stars, creating night and day by its circular motion about the centre.” Not so, says Aristotle; the earth is the center. He also argues against Democritus’s atomic theory, which posits the existence of several different types of fundamental particles, which are intermingled with “void,” or empty spaces in between them.

To be fair, Aristotle does think that the earth is round; he even includes an estimation of the earth’s circumference at 400,000 stadia, which is, apparently, somewhere around 40,000 miles. (The current-day estimate is about 24,000 miles.) Aristotle also thinks that “heavy” objects tend toward the earth’s surface; but puzzlingly (for the modern reader), he doesn’t think this has anything to do with the pull of the earth, but instead thinks it has something to do with earth’s position in the center of all things. In his words: “If one were to remove the earth to where the moon now is, the various fragments of earth would each move not towards it but to the place in which it now is.”

Then Aristotle launches into his investigation of the elements. As aforesaid, Aristotle posits four sublunary elements: earth, water, fire, and air. Earth is the heaviest, followed by water, and then air; and fire is the lightest. Aristotle believes that these elements have “natural” motions; they tend toward their proper place. Earth tries to go downward, towards the center of the planet. Fire tries to go upward, towards the stars. Aristotle contrasts this “natural” motion with “unnatural” or “violent” motion, which is motion from an outside source. I can, of course, pick up a piece of earth, thereby thwarting its natural tendency towards its proper place on the ground.

The elements naturally sort themselves into order: we have earth on the bottom, then water floating on top, then the air sitting on the water, and fire above the air. (Where all that fire is, I can’t say.) There are some obvious difficulties with this theory. For example, how can boats float? and birds fly? This leads Aristotle to a very tentative definition of buoyancy, with which he ends the book:

… since there are two factors, the force responsible for the downward motion of the heavy body and the disruption-resisting force of the continuous surface, there must be some ratio between the two. For in proportion as the force applied by the heavy thing towards disruption and division exceeds that which resides in the continuum, the quicker will it force its way down; only if the force of the heavy thing is the weaker, will it ride upon the surface.

The more one reads Aristotle, the more one grasps just how much his worldview was based on biology. The key word of his entire philosophy is entelechy, which simply means the realization of potential. We can see this clearly in his definition of motion: “The fulfillment of what exists potentially, in so far as it exists potentially, is motion.” That’s a mouthful, but think of it this way: the act of building a house can be thought of as the expression of the potential of a house; the physical house in progress is the partially actualized house, but the building itself is the potential qua potential.

It is easy to see how Aristotle might get interested in the expression of potentialities from investigating living things. For what is an egg but a potential chicken? What is a child but a potential man? This idea of fully realizing one’s potential is at the basis of his ethics and his physics; just as fire realizes its potential for moving upwards, so do citizens realize their potential through moderation. Aristotle’s intellectual method is also heavily marked by one who spent time investigating life; for it is the dreary task of a naturalist to catalogue and to categorize, to investigate the whole by looking at the parts.

While this mindset served him admirably in many domains, it misled him in the investigation inanimate matter. To say that chickens grow from eggs as an expression of potential is reasonable; but to attribute the downward motion of rocks as an expression of their potential sounds odd. It is as if you asked somebody why cars move, and they responded “because it is the nature of the vehicle”—which would explain exactly nothing. But it is difficult not to be impressed by Aristotle; for even if he reached the wrong conclusions, at least he was asking the right questions.

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Review: Thomas Jefferson (Meacham)

Review: Thomas Jefferson (Meacham)
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I did not enjoy this book. But my opinion might not be entirely fair, since it is colored by having read biographies of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams—two of Jefferson’s political foes—right before this, by two authors (Chernow and McCullough) whom I vastly prefer. This meant that I brought some strong preconceptions to the experience.

Nevertheless, I came to this book with a great deal of hope. Jefferson had come off rather badly in the two above-mentioned biographies. I wanted to see the other side of the man, the side that so many have admired. In fact, I played the audiobook recording of this book on a family trip down to Virginia, on our way to visit Jefferson’s home, Monticello, thinking that Meacham’s biography would whet our thirst for Jefferson history.

The effect was the opposite. All of us came away with a strong distaste for Jefferson, as well as dissatisfaction for Meacham’s apologetic treatment of the man. But before getting into differing opinions of Jefferson—of which there are endless—I shall talk about the writing, of which there may be more agreement.

To do justice to Jefferson the man would require a great deal of psychological subtly. Jefferson was reserved, withdrawn, even sphinx-like, a man full of contradictions. In the hands of an acute writer, Jefferson would make for a fascinating character-study. Yet Meacham is almost wholly uninterested in psychology. Jefferson is painted more vividly in his cameos in the Hamilton and Adams biographies than he is here.

To my mind, Jefferson was a man whom one could never take at face value, yet Meacham is often content to do just that. To pick just one example, in the exchange between Jefferson and Abigail Adams on the scurrilous writings of James Callender, Meacham is content to repeat Jefferson’s bland and disingenuous excuses of his support for Callender’s vilifications of John Adam’s character (that he bailed Callender out of jail merely because they held similar political views). Such instances are repeated throughout the book, with Meacham accepting as honest what I often read as intentionally misleading or simply duplicitous.

In any case, even if Jefferson is put to one side, no other personage in this book comes alive, as do so many in the above-named biographies. John Adams—a raging personality of epic proportion—is hardly more exciting than the taciturn George Washington. I was particularly disappointed at the lack of attention paid to Jefferson’s close and important relationship with James Madison, who is absent far too often in these pages, and who leaves hardly any impression whatever.

Meacham also lacks interest in drama. Good biographies can pull you into the historical moment, and make you feel how contingent the outcome of important events was on the quirks of personality or even simple chance. Yet in this book everything is a fait accompli. Difficult and arduous accomplishments, moments of danger and discord, are all summarized and narrated with a kind of mellow assurance that these events were destined to come to pass. The result is a book that is emotionally flat.

I would have excused these faults if Meacham had dug deep into the historical background or the political issues. But these, too, are given only a superficial treatment. Not nearly enough context is given, for example, for the reader to understand exactly why the Declaration of Independence was such a revolutionary document at that time. The same can be said for the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty.

Instead, Meacham prefers to resort to strings of vague, Latinate adjectives and to draw grand-sounding conclusions. This is his habitual mode. The following passage, from the Prologue, gives a taste of this tone:

In pursuit of his ends, Jefferson sought, acquired, and wielded power, which is the bending of the world to one’s will, the remaking of reality in one’s own image. Our greatest leaders are neither dreamers nor dictators: They are, like Jefferson, those who articulate national aspirations yet master the mechanics of influence and know when to depart from dogma.

This tendency often leads him to substitute clichés for insight:

America has always been torn between the ideal and the real, between noble goals and inevitable compromise. So was Jefferson. In his head and in his heart, as in the nation itself, the perfect warred with the good, the intellectual with the visceral. In him as in America, that conflict was, and is, a war without end.

To me, this is neither good prose nor does it provide any valuable information. You could say all of the same things about virtually any nation or political leader. And in any case I do not think it is even true. Were all of Jefferson’s goals “noble”? Is compromise “inevitable”? Is the “war” between the “ideal and the real” actually similar to the conflict between “the intellectual” and “the visceral”? What does this even mean? This passage is hardly even valid as a platitude.

This leads me to what is my core criticism of the book: Jon Meacham’s understanding of Jefferson. Meacham’s central point is that Jefferson was a man of high ideals, but someone who was willing to compromise on his ideals in order to be an effective politician. This is the “Art of Power.” Thus, all of Jefferson’s pronouncements of principle are taken at face value, and all of his actions that do not align with his stated valued are excused as shrewd maneuvering.

Yet there is a difference between compromising on one’s vision and doing just the opposite. Consider Jefferson’s presidency. After having spent the last twelve years whipping up fears of overbearing central power, Jefferson signed the Louisiana Purchase and instituted a trade embargo—two huge expansions of federal power. Meacham would have us see these moves as capitulations to circumstances. But I think Jefferson’s tendency to flout the dictates of his own pen are too numerous to excuse. To pick another example, although he often styled himself above politicking and libel, Jefferson frequently employed others to write attacks on his enemies (as in the case of James Callender).

Here is another example. After stoking fear of a national army, and after his strong advocacy of the separation of the legislative and executive powers, once in office Jefferson himself asked a senator to introduce a bill approving military force—a direct contradiction of his stated principles on both counts. Characteristically, Jefferson also requested that the senator burn his note to him, so as not to appear to be meddling in the legislature. This is what Meacham has to say on the subject: “His adversaries might see such maneuvers as hypocritical and underhanded, but in Jefferson’s mind he was doing the right thing the right way. To seize power grandly would threaten the democratic ethos of the country—an ethos he thought essential.”

As an apology for Jefferson’s actions, this makes little sense to me. First, it hardly matters whether Jefferson thought he was doing the right thing in his mind. We all are, always. Second, to consider the mere ethos of democracy important while seizing power is certainly not democratic in any meaningful sense. This is typical of the whole book: where Meacham sees a flexible and enlightened politician, I see a person totally unwilling to live by the principles that he professes.

This is, of course, most flagrantly true in the case of slavery—an area in which Jefferson is inexcusable. To do Meacham credit, he does not attempt to justify Jefferson’s life of slaveholding. Nevertheless, I think he paid far too little attention to Jefferson’s domestic situation, which was totally dominated by slaves: as workers, servants, a sexual partner, and even his own children.

I see the issue of slavery as the most telling fact of Jefferson’s psychology, showcasing his ability to compartmentalize his thoughts. None of his actions were self-consistent. He wrote that slavery was evil and must end one day. But he did nothing to end it. At the same time, he thought that blacks could never co-exist with whites, all while having a life built upon the backs of slaves, living in constant contact with them. If he really believed that slaves were genetically inferior, as he wrote, how could he have had children with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves? Could he really believe that his own children with Hemings were naturally inferior? And if he did not, how could he totally relegate these children, his own blood, to a subservient or an invisible role in his life?

These questions leave me with a rather disturbing image. Meacham, however, sees Jefferson as a flawed hero—whose vision of artful politics has much to teach us. Jefferson did likely leave the world better than he found it. And, believe me, I find many aspects of Jefferson extremely admirable. In many ways I aspire to Jefferson’s wide interests and his intellectual greatness. But I think that any honest reckoning of the man will have to deal with these darker shades of his character. The vision of politics that Meacham offers, where high principles exist mostly as rhetoric or ethos, is not for me.

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