29 January, 2009

Greek Art and the Pursuit of the Ideal

In both artistic and philosophical endeavors, as well as their daily activities, the ancient Greeks displayed a preoccupation with rational living and the pursuit of ideals. These spirits of rationalism and idealism ingrained in the culture found a natural corollary in Greek humanism, and surviving examples of Greek architecture and sculpture highlight the cultural search to reflect these ideals in a manner accessible to the senses.

The Parthenon, an example of Greek architecture at its pinnacle, shows us how the Athenians of the fifth century BC sought through their temples to bring order to the chaos of space. Their careful attention to symmetry and proportion, which went so far as to cause them to make extensive, yet infinitesimal visual compensations (for example, knowing that perfectly straight columns, when built very large, would appear bowed to the human eye, they designed these columns to bow slightly outward naturally so that to observers they would appear straight) points to their faith in mathematical reason to effect the concretization of their ideal.

In the realm of sculpture we have the Doryphorus. This statue of a young spear-bearer is the work of the sculptor Polykleitos, who is also known to have authored a treatise on aesthetics called his “Kanon.” Breaking down the human body into segments, he gave proportional measurements for each one, which when put together would, he believed, exemplify the ideal human form. As is the case with the Parthenon, the Doryphorus and Polykleitos' other sculptures are based on very definite mathematical proportions which seek to display the subjects in their most ordered forms. Again, this is a concrete instance of human reason seeking the ideal.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Greek attitude towards art is the humanism it displays. To posit the reality of ideals is one thing, an exercise common to many cultures; to say that such ideals can be discerned through the efforts of human reason is another. Such a belief requires them to rank human ability to recognize the aesthetic ideal when presented with it very high. Greek art, as seen in the Parthenon and the Doryphorus, reveals that the Greeks not only believed in a theoretical perfection of things encountered in day-to-day life, but that they firmly believe that this ideal can be reached towards and ultimately recognized by the workings of human reason.

The Parthenon

Doryphorus of Polykleitos

27 January, 2009

26 January, 2009

Let the classes begin!

I'm not sure, having just completed the first day of class, how regularly I'll be able to keep up this blog. I should at least be able to write once a week, but as for more than that, I'm not sure.

The reading assignments are rather heavy, UD-style, but I'm not particularly concerned about the academic side of things by itself. Rather, I'm rather worried that all the mandatory meetings in which people regal us with hours of marvelously boring information that any one of us to keep our ears open over the past few days would know by heart already. I write satirically, as I know there is an unfortunately high rate of people who don't listen at most universities. But such hours of fidgeting make the ability to bilocate particularly appealing.

With that bit of complaining out of the way, I must say without reservation that the three classes we began today promise to be a blast. We have nearly 15 books for English, some of which (collections of Greek plays, for instance) we will not be reading in their entirety. Nonetheless, our English program for the Rome semester should cover quite a lot of material indeed, ranging from Greek to Shakespearean drama and focusing on the genres of tragedy and comedy as lenses through which we can approach a literary study of reality. The Philosophy of Man class is also exciting, partly because it will probably address one of the subjects that has been on my mind recently, namely, the relationship of Plato's and Aristotle's epistemologies. An Art and Architecture course is also required for this semester, and one of the fun things about this class is that a great many of the meetings will be held on site in Rome or in various locations around Italy.

I'm really psyched about getting a deeper understanding of a coherent view of the nature of reality and the meaning of life from this semester. I mean, come on. . .the meaning of life! What could jolly well be cooler?

23 January, 2009

Exploring Albano

Albano is a town nearby our campus. It's supposed to be about a 30 minute walk, but tonight, as some friends and I went out to explore it a bit, we didn't want to walk. For one thing, the streets - even the famous Via Appia (Via Appia Nuova, that is, a relative newcomer dating back only to 1784) were extraordinarily narrow, and I can assure you that every legend about the marvelous rashness of Italian drivers has been edited and bowdlerized out of respect for the feelings of these fine people. At several points, I saw three cars side by side in a two-lane road. Taking the bus into town, as you may imagine, was interesting in such a setting, but all in all it went off without a hassle and it was certainly more disconcerting for the unexperienced American, adapted to a cautious style of vehicle operation, to find the cars whizzing less than two inches from the sidewalk.

The houses were very tall and squished together and there were random ruins of castles around various corners of the cobblestone streets. We explored the city for a time, and once we began to worry that staying longer might make it impossible for us to both eat and catch the last bus back, we decisively chose one of the last open restaurants that was within our budget. (The restaurants tend to stay open late, but in such a small town there were only a few inexpensive restaurants to choose from, since the pizza shops and bakeries close earlier.)

Our waitress didn't speak English at all, really. You could tell that she genuinely didn't because she had a very difficult time understanding our requests for extra plates (we intended to split up meals). She was very friendly however, and after a few attempts to communicate through a mixture of Italian, English, and Spanish, we all understood each other, and we turned to our meal with a feeling of exaggerated triumph at the successful response to our first study-abroad challenge.

The food was "squisito" - which actually means "delicious" despite its looks. We ordered two pizzas (very thin crusted, one with cheese and tomatoes and one with zucchini) and two dishes of pasta - gnocchi with tomato sauce and fettuccine. It would have been a bit thin for the eight of us who went were it not for the fact that the "Mensa" (cafeteria) ladies had fed us an enormous lunch a few hours earlier.

A couple pictures of the restaurant (one with us in it, obviously):

First day in the city

Today is day two of orientation (and this fascinating exercise in practical education, successful or not, will continue until the weekend). The morning's attraction involved a hundred students sitting in a classroom, listening to various rules about drinking, etc. However, this afternoon, we had our first expedition into the city. It was stunning and overwhelming, though in a vague way due to the fact that we were split into hurried tour groups for a fast tour of some of the city's landmarks. Not exactly an activity calculated to instill grand sentiments of awe. Thus did our introduction to the city function as a advertisement for the rest of the semester – it gave us enough of a taste of the real thing to want to come back, but no time to enjoy it. The pleasure of Rome remains largely anticipatory.

St. Peter's in Vatican City, however, was amazing. We went to Mass there at 5:00, and then had time to wander around and look at things until 6:30. The church as a whole was stunning both in size and beauty; the famous statue of St. Peter with its toes worn down from years of reverent touches was magnificent, and the thought of just how many generations of Catholics have preceded us in this place sends a chill up one's spine.

But the best attraction by far was the Pieta. None of the widely circulated copies of the statue come close to giving one an idea of the actual thing. The marble is pure and smooth and appears almost soft, as though it were alive, but on a different plane than the observer. I can't really describe it beyond that, and I won't post a picture, as it couldn't do it justice.

However, I do have a couple of other pictures, and here they are:

Pantheon from the front

Pantheon from the back

The St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel in Santa Maria Supra Minerva

The tomb of St. Catherine of Siena in Santa Maria Supra Minerva

The Victor Emmanuel Monument, known for resembling an over-sized wedding cake.

I'll have to post more of the pictures separately, because I don't want this post to jam up the wireless here.

22 January, 2009


Well, the famous UD Rome semester has begun for me and half my fellow sophomores. We arrived on the lovely campus early yesterday morning and spent the day in a jet-lag induced fog, struggling through orientation events whenever we were not turning to each other in fits of excitement worth about ten energy drinks each and exclaiming that we were actually in Rome.

The campus here is gorgeous, though tiny. It consists of three buildings: a large dormitory with six-person suites; a building which houses two classrooms, the Capp Bar, the library, and the cafeteria; and a villa where the professors and their families live, the professors' offices are located, and where one can find the chapel. A vineyard fills most of the property on the side of campus without buildings, but there is a courtyard of sorts between the buildings and then a soccer field and lots of. . .grass.

Part of the courtyard as seen from our window

An example of how close other houses are to the Rome campus. . .and an example of how crowded Rome is in general, considering that our campus is considered rather secluded.

More window view: this is the professors' villa

Part of the view from our window

07 January, 2009

Freedom of Choice Act

I know, I know, since when do I post political stuff here? Or at least, political stuff that doesn't focus on the 1700s and general political theory. But the proposed "Freedom of Choice Act" that Mr. Obama has promised to implement is too much to just sit back and watch come to fruition.

Among other things, this rabidly pro-abortion proposition would:

* do away with state laws on parental involvement, on partial birth abortion, and on all other protections.
* compel taxpayer funding of abortions.
* force faith-based hospitals and healthcare facilities to perform abortions.

This isn't just a bill that will hurt the pro-life cause; it's one that will really present a great blow to the whole American idea of Constitutional freedoms (not to mention the now uncommon belief in certain innate freedoms, etc). I'm using a rather shallow distinction consciously in the above sentence, only because it's a fairly common one - I really think the pro-abortion cause itself strikes at the heart of the Constitution; that it's not just an issue of opinion for Americans to decide willy-nilly by majority rule, but I'm not going to address that here. For now I'm going to let the distinction stand and try to phrase the argument in the proponents' own terms to a degree. It just shows you how extreme people can be about this issue when they start undermining some of their own dearest arguments just so that they can get legislation they support pushed through.

Regardless of beliefs about abortion, it should be quite clear that such an act, proposing as it does to compel taxpayer funding of abortions, and to force faith-based hospitals and healthcare facilities to perform abortions (among other proposed measures) strikes at our Constitutional right to real free choice .

To compel taxpayer funding of abortions is to interfere with their innate freedom of conscience, which the clause protecting religious freedom in the First Amendment implicitly upholds. Forcing religious hospitals to offer abortions in opposition to their professed beliefs also erodes the value of this Amendment. What difference will it make in the long run if the act is not passed? The sole risk associated with it, from the point of view of those who support abortion, is that some women, when presented with alternatives to that procedure, could freely choose to keep her baby. And for those who object to abortion, rejection of this act will preserve their freedom to dissent.

We cannot presume to force American citizens to support, both financially and through their actions, a practice to which they have a stong moral and ethical objection. We cannot achieve freedom of choice by denying dissenters the right to disagree on the off chance that a woman may change her mind in response to their arguments. We cannot sacrifice the foundations of American liberty in favor of the dogma that abortion "rights" must be inviolable and their presuppositions about the nature of human life implicitly true.