Gentle Elitism

The Curse of the Polymath

Photo of the Vitruvian Man

Photo of the Vitruvian Man

Most of the time, the Classically Educated Manifesto is a document which we are all proud of.  But, on occasion, we stop and look around the world and realize that modern human society is not really designed to cater to polymaths.

Generalists as a species have been out of favor even in places where they should thrive, such as multinational corporations, for twenty years or so.  But this is just a deepening of a trend that has been around for a century or more.

The case of companies can be quickly studied.  The reason generalists are useful for corporations is that, from a certain size onwards, companies need managers.  A manager’s job is twofold: to get results for their particular area of responsibility through the work of others, and to coordinate activity with other managers with a view toward optimizing shareholder value.

So, for instance, the company’s best programmer really can’t be promoted to management unless a) he has a grasp of human resources management, and b) an understanding of what the rest of the company is doing, from finance to marketing to production.  This is why people with MBAs tended to get those promotions.

Over the last few years, however, many companies have been ignoring this hard-learned truth and simply promoting the best-performing functional experts, people who really, really  know how their department works, causing much laughter among experienced managers who then get to watch the train wreck while munching popcorn.

There are many explanations for this phenomenon, starting with a sense that MBAs are elitist, and elitism goes against the inclusive culture of many new companies, especially in the tech arena, and continuing with the fact that a lot of HR people have gotten extremely conservative and only hire / promote technical experts within their fields in order to cover their own asses – they seem to have forgotten the immutable truth that a good manager can manage anything, even complex technical departments.  And it ends with the fact that companies aren’t getting any smarter.

While this is all very interesting, it doesn’t seem to cover the root problem, which is that as the world becomes more complex, obsession is beginning to trump… well, everything else.

Lewis Carroll portrait of Beatrice Hatch

Lewis Carroll portrait of Beatrice Hatch

So, you have people who live, breathe and dream computers, all day, every day.  Or any number of individuals who take their company work home with them and think about it to the exclusion of all else.

Even those people aim at balance tend to have one all-consuming hobby, whether it be rock climbing or model trains.  They then get together with people who have the same hobby.

So a person who works as an engineer at an airplane factory, and reads renaissance literature during his lunch break, practices amateur theater two nights a week and plays softball with friends over the weekend before his painting class and then gets together with friends from none of these activities is about as common as hen’s teeth.

It wasn’t always like this.  As recently as the Victorian and Edwardian ages, amateurs were making important contributions to both the arts and sciences (and probably even moreso to that ultimate mixture of the two: the soft “sciences”).

Lewis Carroll was a mathematician and a social critic who is best remembered for his children’s books (although a close reading of Alice will show that “children’s” is a bit of a misnomer).  He was an example of the gentleman polymath of his time.

And perhaps therein lies the problem.  The twentieth century was a century of democracy, and elitist concepts such as that of the gentleman with the leisure time to be an expert in various fields fell into disfavor – and distrust.  Even today, deep knowledge on too many subjects can get one branded as elitist extremely quickly. (If someone brands you as elitist, please let us know immediately, and we’ll offer you a place on our writing staff – unpaid, but proud to join a whole raft of elitists).

The loss of polymath pride since the turn of the 20th is a tragedy, perhaps, but even those Victorians and Edwardians were but a pale shadow of the true colossi of polymathy: the men of the renaissance.  Why, even today, the term “renaissance man” is used to refer to anyone who masters various disciplines.

Choosing one giant from among them would be an arduous task were it not for the unsurpassed genius of Leonardo, of course, but he was simply the giant among giants.  From Michelangelo to Galileo, they reveled in a society that celebrated breadth of genius far more than depth of expertise in a single subject.  They were even allowed to build huge buildings… although they were actually painters and astronomers (clearly, there were fewer lawyers back then, or the lawyers were also polymaths who got it).

That is what we have lost.  Today, the admiration that was once reserved for giants of the intellect is reserved for actors who often can’t count to ten and for surgeons who likely wouldn’t understand references to Humbert H. Humbert.  Guitar players for whom impressionism is a side effect of cocaine.  Geniuses in their fields, all, but limited in scope.

And it won’t change.  The 21st century will see a deepening of democracy globally, and one of the central tenets of democracy  is that equality is a right.  Most peoples of the world have chosen to interpret that as “no one is better than anyone else”, and if achievements show the contrary, then the person flaunting those achievements must be brought down a peg.

So polymathy, especially in “elitist” intellectual pursuits, will only get less popular as time passes and the world panders to the easily-bruised egos of the masses.  Polymaths will increasingly become dinosaur-like rebels flying in the face of social convention, the crazy old uncle no one ever talks about.

But that’s fine.  It’s more fun to offend than to conform.

Anything that requires  an exertion of sheer bloody-mindedness must, necessarily, be a good thing.

So onward the polymaths.

The Good Stuff – A Classically Educated List

Recycling Bins

Looking back over the past few months, it’s clear that Classically Educated has, perhaps, been slightly less than complimentary regarding the general state of modern affairs. While we still feel that humanity in general is moving in the wrong direction, away from individuality and more towards a groupthink distopia where ensuring that assorted rage-spewing morons and other sub-optimal intelligences feel like worthwhile members of society despite all evidence to the contrary is paramount, we also want to take the time to recognize that not everything is wrong in the world.

So, as a public service, we offer a list of things that are good about the world.

1) Left and right, except in the US, are no longer separated by religious differences. Many atheists now believe in a free-market economy as opposed to being Marxists – which makes sense since the kind of personality that will question the teachings of religion would probably also question a system that has failed every time it’s been tried. Likewise, many deeply religious people are now adopting socialist views. This is especially evident in Latin America, where sectors of the Catholic church have actually sided with the populists in the region (although this isn’t by any means pervasive).

We believe this is actually a good development, because, as definition of left and right get more flexible, people can pick and choose what they believe in all aspects of life instead of being forced to side with a view they disagree with just because that is the group they mostly belong to. Perhaps the US will catch up soon – we’ll believe it when we see an atheist Republican candidate, though.

mars_crosshairs-717225

2) Humanity is taking serious aim at Mars (the link is just one recent example of the many Mars missions in planning stages). We’ve spoken before about just how critical it is for mankind to regain its focus on expansion and exploration, and regain its thrust.

For decades, misguided hand-wringers have been saying that the resources used to explore space would be better invested on Earth. They were wrong – humanity’s history has shown that humans need to explore, to expand and to grow… or that they will wither and decay (see Empire, Roman). Fortunately both private companies and major governments have seen the light, with innumerable Mars missions in the works.

3) Most airplanes that take off neither crash nor disappear mysteriously. That’s not necessarily good for anyone in Bermuda making a living off of credulous kooks, but it’s good for the rest of us.

The Bermuda Triangle

4) People are taking global warming seriously. Now, as a rule, Classically Educated tends to think that the world is not going to hell in a handbasket. We look around to see a world with growing peace and prosperity (a well-researched corroboration can be bought here). Basically, if you were born today, you have less chances of dying violently or of any disease than you did at any previous time in human history. We believe that everything will be fine in the future.

However, we also understand scientific data, and we don’t see any reason for intelligent people to deny the clear evidence of climate change. For this reason, even if governments are trying to avoid the economic consequences of truly going green, many private citizens and especially major cities are taking the baton and running with it. Oslo actually has to import trash to run some of their power plants, which is extreme, but a sign of the times. Even less enlightened cities have begun to implement recycling initiatives.

5) There are elections in Venezuela this year. Who knows… maybe they can finally throw off the yoke of populism. If they do, South America will finally have thrown off all dictatorial governments, another continent to be 100% democratic.

6) Printed books seem to be making a comeback.

Now this one is a bit weird. We generally embrace technology as a great thing, and love how it changes lives and society for the better. But in this case, it seems that both studies and consumer preference are telling publishers that people a) connect better emotionally with paper books than ebooks and b) learn more from paper textbooks than ebooks. I’ll add my own two cents and say that I prefer to read books with photos rather than see them on a screen, especially large-format books – but that is just an opinion without studies behind it.

So the fact that print book sales have been better than precious years during the second half of 2014 is a great sign – plus, books are utterly beautiful.

7) It has been said by futurologists that the first human to live for a thousand years has already been born. I certainly hope so, but even if it’s not quite true, medical advances over the past few years have meant that it’s increasingly difficult to die of anything but cancer. Yes, it still happens, but less and less. And gene therapy should make it even better.

8) Despite access to nearly unlimited amounts of data online, on their phones, most people are still dumb as sand, which makes life so much more entertaining for the rest of us.

9) The year 1984 wasn’t remotely like the novel.

Anyway, this is an incomplete list, and we’d love to see your additions to this list below. We’ve missed or omitted many – but all optimism is welcome, and discussion is positively encouraged.

Ignorance as a Point of View

Astrology Cartoon

I was talking to an acquaintance recently, and was amazed and more than a little dismayed when she said “Astrology is a science, just like math.”  When I expressed my utter disbelief that anyone with even a smattering of education could possibly utter such a statement in the 21st century, she dismissed me as closed-minded and, safe in the knowledge that a majority of society would back her on that point, spoke about other things.

Never has, in my opinion, the modern iteration of ignorance been so eloquently expressed.

So, in order to learn about the people who share these modern times with us, let’s dissect the incident:

Astrology is a science

Well, one thing that astrology is NOT is a science.  To summarize centuries of development, science is a process by which hypothesis are tested via empirical data and then the theory is modified to fit the data.  As anyone objective can easily see, astrology works precisely opposite.  The results are given first (Scorpios kick babies, prefer to drink white wines and are only compatible with Gemini) and then the data is peered at through distorting lenses to make it seem like it fits.  It is much more akin to a religion than a science.  Wikipedia calls it a pseudoscience, because it attempts to clothe non-scientific methods within a scientific framework, but I think Wikipedia is being both generous and politically correct (can’t get funding if potential donors are offended).

Funny Fortune Cookie

So when discussing this, the defenders of astrology will say that testing is unnecessary because there are millennia of tradition behind it, and there’s no need to verify further. Er…  Yeah, that would also have worked when Columbus was yammering about the Earth not being flat.

So… why do people insist that it’s a science? Well, despite the growing trendiness of aggressive ignorance disguised as “a democratic right to different points of view”, there is still a feeling in society that science and logic are much more intellectually respectable than spiritualism.  So people lie to themselves (and attempt unsuccessfully to lie to intelligent observers) in order to feel respected as opposed to the alternative: feeling like ignorant cretins when faced with the raised eyebrow of a respected member of the peer group.  It’s better to dismiss logical arguments as “the limitations of people who think they’re educated” than to just admit that astrology is more of a fun, brain-dead way to spend time – like watching Dancing with the Stars – than anything approaching a science.

Screen Shot 2015-01-06 at 11.14.07 AM

Just like math

The discussion of whether mathematics is or isn’t a science probably would have gone over her head, but this article on the topic is simply awesome, especially the bit about Cicadas, so I just had to link it here.

Ok, so that’s the breakdown of her phrase, but the more disturbing bit is her sense of security that society would back her up.  In this case, I tend to agree with her.  That is a bit worrying, and it led me to asking myself why society seems to prefer to support certain ignorant theories and marginalize people who try to debunk them as elitists*

I think the answer is twofold.  In the first place, I’d like to offer the hypothesis that there’s a large correlation between the kind of people who think that astrology is a science and the the kind of people who watch a LOT of TV.  As is pretty evident to even casual viewers, TV content is not designed to stimulate the intellect, but rather to pander to more basic needs: low entertainment, fear-mongering and (particularly relevant in this case) the reinforcement of beliefs.  Now, to meet these needs, even the documentary channels have needed to adapt, as we’ve discussed before.  And if it’s on the Discovery Channel, then it must be true, right**?

The second half of the answer has more to do with how society has evolved in the decades since the second world war.  After the war, society has become obsessed with safety in all forms, be it physical or psychological.  The many have, in their wisdom, decided that freedom is less important that safety (see: mandatory helmet laws, myriad).  Even feelings are to be preserved…  if someone hurts your feelings, they are in the wrong, and therefore “safe places” need to be created where they can’t do so.

As educated, intelligent people are a minority, their opinions are normally dismissed as elitist, which immediately equates them with such immoral bastards as the filthy rich*.  So, to protect themselves from feelings of inferiority, the mob has made astrology a socially accepted topic – and mocking astrology the province of evil, “limited” people who can’t see beyond what their senses tell me.  So, once again, we decide what is scientifically correct by democracy***.

Is it just me, or should an educated society work in precisely the opposite way?

*Please note that here at Classically Educated, we consider the word “elite” to be a compliment, definitely not an insult.  If you are reading this, and feel that being elite is bad, you probably landed on this site by mistake!  We also oppose the discrimination against rich people – in fact, we oppose discrimination against any minority… fortunately, dumb people are not a minority, so you’re good there.

**This footnote isn’t actually linked to anything in particular, but I just had to mention traditional remedies.  All I have to say about that is that most ancient societies had life spans of about thirty years.  I am certain you are intelligent enough to draw your own conclusions about traditional medicine from that fact, and I don’t have to give you any further subtle hints.

***Can we vote to repeal the law of gravity?  Hover cars sound way cool.

Et in Arcadia Ego

John Reinhard Weguelin: A Pastoral (1905)

Whenever anyone asks me if I’d live in a certain place, I generally pause for a second and try to understand the type of city on offer before responding.  Over the years, I have found that my honest answers tend to gravitate towards two extremes: places like New York and places like Ysbyty Ifan*.

Essentially, this seems to mean that I enjoy living in huge megacities or in tiny villages or rural towns with not much in between.  The megacities, require little explanation.  You’ll have decent museums, opera, retail and basically everything else civilized life requires (even bidets in many cases) at a world-class level.  Normally, these cities are the repository of national treasures or at least the best stuff in each country.  The art museums in New York or Paris are much better than the ones in Chicago or Lyon (and yes, I am aware of the Art Institute).  Likewise the rest of the cultural, gastronomic and retail experience – not to mention the fact that most companies you’d want to work for have offices in the bigger cities.  And the megacities are immensely cosmopolitan, while medium-sized towns only think they’re sophisticated.

So, medium-sized cities are out, then, but why this preference for the smaller places?  How come I’d happily spend my days staring at a stream in some village whose location in the English countryside only makes sense as a medieval watering hole for horses, or alongside lake Como, or in a French agricultural town?

The people who criticize me most, of course, are those that live in San Francisco, as they think everyone should like it as much as they do.  The fact that I don’t, and that I think it’s a bit too American and not global enough leads to anger, which turns to disbelieving rage when I then turn around and admit that I’d happily live in a village whose inhabitants might not even have heard of the concept of passports and other countries.

But life without amenities only works if you truly strip everything to the bare bones.  Medium sized cities have all of the frustrations of the large ones without the benefits.  I always thought that that was the reason behind the extreme nature of my preferences.

But upon further analysis, it becomes evident that humans have always been looking for that lost pastoral paradise, and it is a recurring theme in everything from religion to secular art.

The most obvious example, of course, is the Garden of Eden.  As a species, it’s pretty clear that humans have felt overwhelmed by the frantic pace of modern life and the loss of innocence ever since Mesopotamian times (the Eden myth has it roots in an earlier mesopotamian legend).  Though little recorded evidence has been left behind, it’s easy to imagine ancient Babylonians complaining about them newfangled sails: “If Marduk had intended Man to navigate without rowing, he wouldn’t have invented slaves, I tell you!”

Claude Lorraine: Pastoral Landscape

It never stopped.  In classical antiquity, the name of the pastoral Greek region of Arcadia was borrowed to represent a back-to-nature utopia, and it informed quite a bit of renaissance art.  William Shakespeare, of course, famously used a pastoral setting in his comedy As You Like It, which idealizes the throwing off of the chains of court life for a country setting – in fact, many of The Bard’s romantic scenes take place out in the boondocks somewhere.

After Shakespeare, the Pastoral movement in art and literature had its ups and downs in Western culture, but survived to the end of the 19th century – even unto that ultimate loss of European innocence, the Great War.

Cotswold Village

World War I effectively ended the tradition, but added even more of a sense of loss to modern elegies – it marked the end of nobility as a social structure, with all that that implied.  We’ve gone into this before when dealing with Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, but the search for simpler times in the twentieth century went far deeper than just a few Oxford laments or Finzi-Continis.  Hippies were essentially pastoralists trying to shoehorn their anxiety about modern complexity into 1960s cities (which explains their failure to gain much traction among “regular” people in the US who were involved in a clash of civilizations with a still-strong Soviet Union).

Postmodern pastoralism is, of course, dismissed by modern philosophers as a delusion for the privileged (or perhaps a privilege of the deluded).  It’s intimately tied to the image of German bankers taking their helicopter to their French chateau retreat – or English lords driving their Range Rovers away from Parliament and into the mile-long drive of their stately manor.

Unlike the philosophers, I find both of these options admirable**, but I would actually go one step further and remove the bank or Parliament altogether.  If you’re going to aim for a relaxed existence, why bother with the distractions (yes, I know it may be necessary to rob an armored car in order to gain the capital to allow this, but today, let’s forget both minutiae and morality).

Even more than the economics and decadence, I believe that postmodernism frowns upon this because having an appreciation for the Pastoral implies both the sophistication to understand what that ideal means and the willingness to throw off socialist ideals of urban life and egalitarianism.  Anyone who can both choose and afford to remove themselves from the urban tapestry of enlightened society is clearly a dangerous non-systemic element…

Most readers of this blog DO fall into that category anyway.  And while your budget may not stretch to that chateau, there’s nothing wrong with a thatched cottage in the Cotswolds or a nice stone house in Champagne when you tire of the hustle and bustle of Shanghai or Sao Paulo.

And if anyone looks at you askance, just tell them that a whole bunch of renaissance painters, plus Shakespeare agree with you.

*It’s in Wales, if you were wondering.

**If this offends you, you should really have read the Classically Educated Manifesto before reading the article…

Toilet Paper: An American Love Story

Well, we DID say it would be eclectic…  you can’t accuse us of not having warned you!–Ed.*

Upon visiting the US, a foreign visitor is immediately struck by how all things that can make life more comfortable or pleasant are immediately available, from glazed donuts to those pillows you need so that your head doesn’t flop around when trying to sleep on airplane seats.

It is quite clear that Americans enjoy being comfortable – decadently so, if possible.

The visitor will note this and nod in approval.  It is a good thing to have one’s creature comforts looked after.  In fact, it would be good to take it back to his own country.  He takes notes.  He understands why America is an important world power, and why immigrants, both legal and of the humid dorsal variety flock to it’s shores.  He understands all this while purchasing an electric griddle.

Sadly, as soon as he decides to go to the bathroom – possibly from eating all those glazed donuts – he realizes that it’s all a facade, and takes the first available flight back to civilization.

“Why?” one asks.

It’s quite simple.  The one basic creature comfort that isn’t readily available in the US is the bidet…  and as most readers of this blog will be aware, civilized life simply isn’t possible when that particular implement is lacking.

But why is is so rare on those shores?

Well, one theory is that, since it was invented by the French (originally used by French royalty in fact), it was rejected by the British, which, as we recall were influential in America in the early 1700s.  This would mark one of the few instances in which the British Empire was unable to adopt and improve upon a foreign custom, and seems a bit of a flimsy excuse.  After all, a culture that adopted tea as the national drink despite its not growing within a thousand miles of its shores seems not to be the best candidate for not-invented-here syndrome.

So, perhaps it’s a technical thing.  Perhaps scraping with toilet paper is better than washing?

Er… read the above line again.  If you are unable to spot the problem, then you are quite blessed: from now on, you can save a fortune on water by never showering again in your life; all you have to do is to give yourself a good rub with toilet paper once a day, and you’re good to go.  Clearly, that isn’t it either.

So what could cause a culture that has warmly embraced everything from Ikea furniture to the idea that fish is better raw to shy away from something that could make everyone’s life better?

One guesses that it has to be sex.

Even today, upon viewing the Wikipedia entry for bidet, one is immediately struck by the article’s statement that the bidet’s primary function is to cleanse genitalia.

Hmm.  Now why would houses with perfectly good showers need an extra apparatus to cleanse genitalia?  I think we may have spotted a myth here. The truth is, bidets are mainly used for the same thing that the toilet roll beside a toilet is used for in the US: to sanitize after going to the bathroom.  The only difference is that water is better for the purpose, as well as being much more pleasant.

The wikipedia article, however, is just the continuation of a long-held myth: that the bidet exists exclusively for couples to clean up before / after sex, and is therefore somehow kinky or perverted.  It’s gotten so bad that people just don’t question it any more.

So, essentially, the most important industrialized country is doomed to scrapes and discomfort for no reason other than prudishness dating back to the 17th century.

Interesting world we live in, isn’t it?

*And we could have illustrated this article…  and now we wonder how far one has to go before WordPress just tosses us out?

Not Sparkly, Never Sparkly

o-cemetery-at-night-facebook

Baron H is back as a guest blogger today (if you missed his earlier installments, you can read them here and here).  As always, he has a particularly… long view of mortal affairs which is refreshing.  And yes, we do believe he is still the internet’s only undead blogger.

Salutations Classically Educated Readers!

I could blame Stephanie Meyer for the recent misunderstandings I’ve been seeing regarding the undead.  After all, you can only see so many movies which portray the undead as effortlessly glamorous before you start believing the PR.  And I’m told she’s sold a number of books as well.

But I’ve been here longer than any mortal, so I don’t actually blame Meyer. Stoker, and then early Hollywood were truly more instrumental in giving us this image.  I guess it’s too late to try to get the unwashed to understand this (contrary to popular belief, people have not been getting dumber in the past few years.  Almost every mortal on the planet has been an imbecile since I can remember, and that’s more than a few centuries), but I can at least make an appeal to the intelligent readers out there.  Both of you should probably be able to catch the gist.

Vampires are not glamorous by nature.  We are just, to take a horrid neologism and apply it, regular guys.  In order not to let the side down, it is imperative that we understand and follow the rules of etiquette.  We might not have any of the olfactory disadvantages of zombies, or the aural handicaps of banshees, but we do need to work – imagine if we let ourselves go.  We’d all look like Nosferatu!

Still, this aside was not the main thrust of this particular post (although I remind you that etiquette is always the most important thing – be you mortal or Aikanaka).  I wanted to talk about documentary channels.  

It used to be that the people who watched The History Channel, or Nat Geo, were a bit snobbish.  Intellectuals who were too good to share the same mind-numbing programming that everyone else seemed to enjoy.

Now it seems that the executives at these places have either realized that that market was too small or have succumbed to the temptation of going after the brain-dead hordes.  So you get reality TV, Celebrity Biographies and, worst of all, a whole slew of programs with names like Ancient Aliens and Paranormal Encounters.

This last one is worrying.

Now, as a member of the undead community, I am all for a bit of information and greater understanding.  But, when you put every kook and whacko who can shake off the effects of the drugs long enough to do an interview on the screen and let him ramble, you are creating a dangerous precedent, which gets even worse when you treat it as credible evidence.

This isn’t documentary filmmaking.  This is shameless pandering to the lowest common denominator disguised as documentary.  Documentaries shouldn’t be stealing their ratings from the audience for Big Brother.  And I certainly can’t condone the way these fictionistas portray ghosts!

But the true reason I gnash my teeth whenever these subhuman programs come up is that I am one of those who were among the original target.  I will gladly watch a documentary about napoleon for six hours, but give me an episode of Ancestral Aliens, and…  well, let’s just be thankful that vampires can’t throw up (Bet you didn’t know that – Ed.).

But one of the keys to good etiquette is that one must not fight emerging trends, but find a way to incorporate them.  So I’m thinking of starting a program to portray undead as they really are.  I can sell it to one of these channels.

And I can eat any executive who declines.

With no sparkliness whatsoever.

Salutations,

Baron H

 

The Ultimate Elegy?

Christ Church college Quad Oxford

Is there anything quite as poignant as a remembrance of more innocent times written in the midst of war – and a war with an uncertain outcome at the time of writing, at that?  Possibly, but it still hits very hard.

Evelyn Waugh is possibly best remembered for his more mordant work, of course, but Brideshead Revisited has to be one of the best books about a lost era that one can read, heightened perhaps by the simple truth that the protagonist, and his contemporaries knew that they were living the end of what had been a glorious age.  

It is a fact that everyone living in the inter-war years in England had to know that the times they were a changin’.  But though they had hopes, none knew whether what was coming would be better or worse… and the horrors of just how bad “worse” could be were extremely fresh in their minds.  When this insecurity was combined with the uncertainty of Waugh himself at the time of writing – in the midst of the second world war – even this slim, seemingly superficial volume can hit like a hammer.

Arcadia

It’s tempting to compare this with other writers of idylls, particularly Wodehouse, but while with Wodehouse the reader wants to be there, with Waugh, the reader mourns the loss.  Wodehouse, for this reason, is much nicer to go back to; he reconstructs the utopia in the reader’s present, making it seem alive.  Waugh, on the other hand, makes it plain that Arcadia is gone… and it hurts, because Waugh’s world seems much more real.

But at time, especially in the beginning, this is a book that transports the reader powerfully to another era, another place, and that is its lasting beauty.  The charm certainly isn’t in the story itself although the progression is interesting and absorbing, but is let down by an ending is that is unsatisfying and with ultimately uninteresting religious symbolism.

But the imagery…  It’s impossible to read this book and not be immediately overwhelmed by the sense of loss for the more gentle times in England, where every day was a sunny spring in the countryside around Oxford, and where pain, suffering and responsibility existed only in the dark writings of Dickens.

Of course, it is a time that never truly existed – at least not for everyone – but that won’t keep you from pining for it.

Signs of the times – stamp edition

The World's Most Expensive Stamp - the 1 cent British Guiana Black on Magenta

Like many of the traditional hobbies, I’m certain that if you ask most westerners about stamp collecting, most will probably say it was something their parents or grandparents did.  They’d probably follow up with “There are more compelling new ways of spending time, including Facebook games… why would anyone spend a long winter afternoon sorting stamps?”  This is a genuine question

If you happen to ask one of the small percentage of people who actually take their noses out of Candy Crush long enough to know what’s going on around them, they might be aware that a stamp from British Guiana recently sold for around $10 million – but like most pastimes of the super-rich, this will also feel like something that doesn’t apply to them.  Telling them that, by weight, it’s the most expensive object known, probably won’t help.  The yellow stamp below probably wouldn’t be far behind if offered for sale.

Treskilling Banco Yellow

So what?  Isn’t it dying?

Well, that depends.  While it’s obvious that no one sends letters anymore, and most packages don’t have stamps applied to them, so stamp production isn’t what it was.  It’s also pretty clear that school-age children don’t see collecting bits of paper as much of a competitor to their iPads… so, yeah, it seems that the hobby (like a lot of others) is disappearing.

But that is only if you filter your perception of the world through Western eyes. Two countries in which stamp collecting has taken off in recent years are China and India.  It has happened in different ways and with different dynamics, but in both places, the hobby has become extremely widespread among the emerging middle classes.

Now, this just illustrates, once again, how most Westerners – whether they are from Canada, Belgium, South Africa or Paraguay – have a huge blind spot when it comes to just how many things, important things, are happening in Asia right now (note I don’t include Australians on that list – they know it very well).  

Most people sense that the future of the world is slowly moving East, but they can’t seem to grasp the concept in a “so how does this affect me?” way.

Well, one way it affects you is that if your grandfather had an old collection of stamps, I’d look at the asian ones carefully…  You never know.

But more importantly, it’s interesting to see how they are collecting in the East.  

Expensive Monkey Stamp

As mentioned, China and India have different philosophies.  The Chinese concentrate on their own heritage, so stamps from classic eras are of little interest due to the Colonial ties.  PLus, they are often non-traditional investors, so stamps often go into their portfolios.  The innocent-looking monkey stamp illustrated is not that old…  But is worth $1500 (full sheets can be worth $150K).

Indian stamp collectors, on the other hand, are a more varied lot… because many of them are children.  The reason for this is that the hobby is actively encouraged in schools.  I assume I don’t have to spell out for you how popular anything that Indian youth is interested will become when that generation grows up (if I do, you’re reading the wrong blog).  Indian’s are also understandably fond of the post-independence stamps, especially anything showing Gandhi (stamp below was record at over $200K)!

200K Gandhi stamp

So, we can confidently assert that the stamp collecting hobby is actually growing… So that should give you a nice fact that no one knows at your next party.  Even better, everyone will say “no way” and make you look good if you quote the above.

We know our readers don’t need this help… but we’re happy to offer it anyway – we don’t want you looking like Dilbert:

Philately will get you nowhere

Getting Deeply Classical

Aphrodite in the Trojan War

When one thinks about the Classics, Homer is usually among the first names that comes up.  Sadly, of course, if you say “Homer” to most people, they will immediately think of a yellow cartoon character with an affinity for Duff Beer – but that’s fine, the original probably wouldn’t do much for them anyway.

Homer, as we know, it the name given to the person who compiled two of the great masterpieces of Classical Antiquity: The Iliad and The Odyssey.  There has been much speculation regarding whether he was a historical figure or not, but we won’t get into that, now, as there are much more interesting things to discuss, especially with regards to which version of Homer should be read by anyone with truly “Classically Educated” pretentions and also the question of if any other work has had such a direct-line, continuous descent to modern times.

The first point is extremely interesting.  Assuming one doesn’t read ancient Greek (and yes, we should all read ancient Greek or at least change the name of this blog, as it used to be one of the requirements), and that your language of preference is English, there are many options available to you.  The first is to go with a prose translation.  This is the quick, easy way of becoming immersed in the glorious tapestry that is the mythology of the Trojan war.  It is a much more accessible way to to get a clear grasp on events, and is the best option for casual readers.

And by casual readers, we mean wimps.

Greek Text Odyssey

A true Homeric enthusiast will insist on a verse translation, and there are many, many available – from great poets to men and women that no one has ever heard of.  Poetic translations are evaluated on a number of criteria, the most important of which is fidelity to the original – and the tradeoffs: is it more important to be faithful to the meter or the rhyme or the meaning?  Hard to do, I imagine – plus, you need to be able to read ancient Greek.  Here’s a decent primer, if you’re looking into one of these.  They are not for wimps…

But they’re not for the true, died-in-the-wool elitist, either.

Homer

For he who must have bragging rights, there is only one option.  Chapman’s Homer.  This 1000 page block of epic poetry in Elizabethan English is the true test of an advanced reader (OK, OK, we’ll get into Finnegan’s Wake at some other point) who is not content with reading The Odyssey and The Iliad, but needs to read it in the first English translation, the one that influenced many of the great writers in the English language.  The challenge here, especially in The Iliad, is to avoid being drawn into the language, rhythm and rhyme and losing track of what is actually going on.  The Odyssey is much easier to digest, for some reason – possibly because it has more action and less talking (despite the battlefield setting of The Iliad).

It is a long, difficult read, but it is worth it.  After reading it, you will not feel a need to read another translation (unless you are a scholar, of course), as you will have ultimate bragging rights among people who’ve read this (and what is academia other than knowing more than the guy sitting next to you?).

This one gets our vote.

But what to do next?  Homer’s odyssey didn’t end with Homer.  There are a few books that come after that are direct-line descendants of the ones he actually (or mythologically) wrote.  In chronological order, they are:

The Aenid.  This is the poem that made Virgil a household name (well, if your household is composed of literate individuals).  There are several editions available, and it’s a significant piece of Roman mythology.

The Divine Comedy.  Clearly, Dante’s household was a literate one, as he had not only heard of Virgil, but chose him as his muse.  Even the deeply classically educated among you won’t be able to decipher the sneaky attacks on Dante’s contemporaries and political enemies in this one, but just chuckle at the fact that they’re still being tormented centuries later.  Most people never get past Inferno, which is clearly the best bit, but to earn respect, you’d best go through the whole thing.  This edition is recommended because it is a) cheap, b) contains illustrations by Gustave Doré, c) looks great on a shelf and d) is translated by Longfellow.

Ulysses.  If you’ve read it, you will have nearly supreme street cred among people who hardly ever go out into a street.  The only ones who will be able to look down their noses at you are the ones who claim to have understood Finnegan’s Wake, and you really don’t need to worry about them as whatever drug they’re on that gave them that illusion will soon finish them off.

– No credit is given for knowing the name of Bart’s teacher.

homer-simpson

Tough guys and gals, of course, don’t even need this post.  They pick up the original Greek, in manuscript form, and end up looking like the picture above.  We salute you.

Anyway, that is our Homeric lesson for the day.  We’d love to hear your experiences and recommendations.  We’d also love for you to tell us that we’re elitist jerks (this is a very validating thing to us).  Comments are all welcome!

 

Also, we have a fan page.  No one your mother wants you to hang out with has liked it…  so you definitely should (plus, it will ensure that you get our updates on your feed).

 

Tough Love: A World Cup Primer for Americans

Brazuka

Here at Classically Educated, we’ve been kind of following the World Cup.  Being based all over the world, it’s a bit hard to ignore the world’s largest, most important sporting event.  The main problem we have, of course, is that the largest single block of readers we have is from he US, where, to put it extremely diplomatically, most people are extremely uninformed about the World Cup (despite having hosted one as recently as 1994).

I think most of the blame for this goes to American Media, whose 24 hour news cycle means that they have to have stories and story lines even when there is little to write about – and makes it look like the World Cup is about thirty-two equally important teams, like a preseason NFL analysis.  That is probably the most insane way of covering the World Cup that we’ve ever seen, but there you have it.

As a public service, here are some things that Americans should probably keep in mind about the World Cup:

1.  It is the world’s most important sporting event – the 2010 final was watched by 700 million viewers, and 2014 should have significantly more coverage.  The Olympics, of course, are second.  The Super Bowl is around a fifth of that audience, and is less important viewer-wise than the Cricket World finals (an event which I will admit having missed every time).  Other American sporting events don’t make the top five, and it’s nice to see the Monaco Grand Prix up there above the World Series and the NBA finals – here at CE, we approve of anything that has to do with Monaco.

Jurgen Klinsmann

2.  Jürgen Klinsmann is correct: the US is not there to win the Cup.  There’s been a big flap in the American media about Klinsmann having said that the US has no chance of winning.  Some people speculated that the comment was a motivational tool.  Others say that he was completely wrong to say something like that, and that it’s unacceptable that he did so.  Both camps are composed of clueless idiots.

What really rankles about the US media’s treatment of this isn’t that they seem to think that they know better than a man who has been there and done it as a player and a coach, and who knows the state of world soccer (football?) better than almost everyone else on the planet, a man who has true credentials to be the coach of any team on the planet, not just the junior-varsity US squad (that thing in his hand in the photo, BTW, is the most important sports trophy on the planet, the World Cup).  It doesn’t even bug us that the media is ignoring the fact that US players know they have the same chance of winning the Cup as the Jamaican Boblsed team did of winning the Olympic gold in 1988.  We are talking major miracle here (more parting the Red Sea than walking on water-level, if you would like it in religious terms).

What really irritates is that the media is ignoring what every real soccer fan knows as an absolute truth: there are maybe five or six teams with an actual shot at winning.  The US is not one of them – and even with a huge influx of Mexicans and other Latin Americans over the past few years, the US is not all that close to being one of them (Mexico is another team that is not one of them).  Any knowledgeable (or even casual fan) would say that the list is entirely composed of the past World Champions (and no, you can’t count Uruguay out just yet) (I, personally, would count England out -Ed.), plus Holland.  Period.  Saying anything else shows a level of cluelessness that should lead to the revocation of press passes.

3.  The World Cup is in no way comparable to the Women’s World Cup.  If you get your news exclusively through US media, it would seem that both events are equally important.  Sportscenter gives the same coverage to both, websites allot the same number of words.  This is completely inexplicable to anyone familiar with the actual importance of the two events.  We do not mean any disrespect to the great female athletes who compete for their country, but (using an American Sports anthology so our US readers will understand) this is like comparing the World Series to a random Saturday T-ball game for first graders.

4.  It’s not so much that the Women’s World Cup is minor (it is, but that’s not the point) but that US coverage of both events make it difficult to understand just how mind-bogglingly huge the real World Cup is (note that it’s not necessary to say which sport we’re talking about – the words “World Cup” suffice).

Let us illustrate – and this is not an exaggeration, as anyone who has lived through it can attest.

Let us imagine six o’clock on a Monday in Sao Paulo or Buenos Aires, or Rome.  This is rush hour in those places.  The streets are clogged with millions of cars and buses.  Sao Paulo’s Metro area is composed of 23 million people.  They are all on the street at 6 PM on a random Monday.

Except…  This Monday the Brazilian (or the Italian or Argentine) national team is playing a World Cup game.  So the city looks like downtown Pripyat.  It’s a post apocalyptic ghost town with empty streets occupied only by pieces of paper blown by the wind.  A visitor from another planet would wonder what horrible tragedy had wiped out what was clearly a thriving, active population just hours before without destroying the infrastructure.  They’d probably think neutron bombs.

Deserted World Cup Streets

That is until the local team inevitably scores a goal (teams in these countries always do).  Then, there’s a roar like a hundred express trains of people shouting the word “Gol”!  Men, women, children, all screaming, celebrating with a sound like thunder – if thunder had the execrable tinge of vuvuzelas.  It is pandemonium for thirty seconds – and then the ghost town is back.  You can cross some of the world’s busiest avenues with no risk of getting hit by a car.

London, Amsterdam, Montevideo, Madrid, Berlin, Mexico City, Bogotá – even Paris to a lesser extent – are paralyzed for these games.  So are all the other cities in those countries.  Companies stop work and the employees gather in meeting rooms to watch the game.  There is nothing else going on.  The odds of getting a pizza delivered are just about zero.

So, I hope this has cleared up some of the confusion around the world cup, and I hope those US-based journalists now have an inkling of just how babe-in-the-woods their text looks to anyone with a clue.  Perhaps they are actually knowledgeable and are dumbing it down / playing a part for their audiences.  If so, our advice is to stop it.  You’re not doing anyone any favors.

 

That is all.  Americans should now have a clearer idea of what’s what.  Let the hate mail roll in – that’s what comments sections are for!

 

And if you already hate us, what better place to leave insults than on our Facebook Page?  If you click like, you’ll even get updates, so you can never fail to tell us that we are idiots!