Making Brave Men

Leonidas Monument, Thermopylae

“Go, stranger, and to Lacedaemon tell
That here, obeying her behests, we fell.”
Spartan Monument at Thermopylae, as recorded by Herodotus in The Histories

Few stories in our history so capture the imagination.

One king with three hundred men, another king with three hundred thousand. Spartan King Leonidas, hand-picking those to go meet the advancing Mede and Persian hordes in Attica, made sure his men all had living sons—so no household would be left desolate. There was no illusion as to what might lie ahead.

Xerxes, on the other hand, could not see what was coming. Confident that the Spartans would retreat in the face of his countless army, he waited. And waited. His spies reported that the Spartans weren’t retreating; some were engaging in gymnastic exercises, others were grooming their hair. Confused, Xerxes sought someone who could explain these Spartans to him.

“Earnestly do I struggle at all times to speak truth to thee, sire,” began his adviser, “and now listen to it once more. These men have come to dispute the pass with us; and it is for this that they are now making ready. ‘Tis their custom, when they are about to hazard their lives, to adorn their heads with care.”

These Spartans were a different kind of men, as Xerxes and his men were about to find out. But they weren’t born that way. Spartan education was a concerted effort with a relentless focus: courage and honor. Aristotle, an Athenian, wrote these remarkable words of praise for a rival city: “But it is in the city of Sparta alone, or almost alone, that the legislator seems to have been careful about people’s upbringing and pursuits. In most cities such matters have been neglected, and each person lives as he wishes…”

One thing that can be said for Sparta: people did not simply live according to their own wishes. They lived according to a shared understanding of certain higher goods–an understanding in which they formed their youth. So they lived, and so they died.

There could have been no question in the minds of these citizen-soldiers: they would be remembered by the people of Lacedaemon (the region of which Sparta was capital). Both friends and strangers aplenty would tell, that obeying her behests they fell.

In that mountain pass remote from their homes, three hundred Spartans and their king died as they had lived, committed to the values and the common good of their homeland. And the world still stands in amazement.


Herodotus (484-425 BC) was an early Greek historian and came to be known as the ‘Father of History.’

Image is of the current monument at Thermopylae.

 

Posted in Wednesday Quotes | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Opposite of the Most Disgraceful Thing

Mounted Archer

“Their sons are carefully instructed from their fifth to their twentieth year, in three things alone—to ride, to draw the bow, and to speak the truth.”
“The most disgraceful thing in the world, they think, is to tell a lie.”
Herodotus, The Histories, (writing about customs of the Persians)

Though the ancient Greeks considered Persians to be ‘barbarians,’ they still found in them things worthy of emulation. And so might we.

It is remarkable, and heartening, to see again and again in history how human persons across all cultures have certain common insights into who we are, and who we should be.

We are to be truth-tellers. Eyes are for seeing, and lips for speaking the truth, for saying aloud the truth we have seen. To be able really to know the truth: this is an honor reserved for persons. Other animals can perceive things that are true. But they do not know that what they perceive is true, and thus they do not really know the truth, as such. One consequence is that even if an animal can communicate something that is true, it can never really lie.

But wonder of wonders: we humans can know that our thoughts have captured reality as it is. We can know the truth: the correspondence of mind and reality. And we can speak it. Or not.

It seems that even those committed to truth-telling sometimes spend too much energy wondering: can I ever legitimately say something I know is not true? The precise details of the morality of truth-telling do need to be properly worked out, and this will include that sometimes truths can be left unsaid. But these details can only be rightly understood, and practiced, in a context where the root approach is that of the Persians. To tell a lie is simply disgraceful: it undermines our relationships, and who we are.

Yet how often, even in little ways, are young and old alike tempted to speak what is not true. We need to habituate our children, and ourselves, to be truth-tellers.

This is at the core of human life and community. It is an excellence of a high order.


Herodotus (484-425 BC) was an early Greek historian and came to be known as the ‘Father of History.’

 

Posted in Wednesday Quotes | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Where Has All the Wonder Gone?

Juli with flowers

“It is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize.”
Aristotle, Metaphysics

Aristotle himself does not explicitly offer a definition of wonder. It is clear, however, that wonder has two essential elements: a seeing, and a feeling.

To wonder one must first of all see something. Something wonderful. There is no shortage of wonderful realities, but often we do not see them as they are. One need not fully comprehend the reality. Rather, wonder requires that we have insight into something great, and thus we realize how far beyond our comprehension that great thing is.

But even such insight is not yet wonder. To wonder is also an affair of the heart. We are moved by wonder. There is a combination of desire and fear: the kind of fear that is appropriate when we desire something seemingly far away. How can we reach this, how can we find the truth, and be true to it? We shudder, in wonder.

Where has all the wonder gone? Perhaps wherever the childlike-ness of children, and of adults, has gone.

This is an age of ‘adult’ stores and entertainment, which are ‘adult’ only in the sense that they mar that childish innocence that should always be protected, in both young and old. It is an age in which the frenetic activity of adults narrows not only their own vision, but pushes children in front of wonder-crushing screens and devices. It is an age in which the education of children corrals them into narrow passages fitting them to be numb partakers of an increasingly consumerist society.

For wonder to be re-discovered, it must be cultivated. Like a flower. In the soil of silence, the water of exposure to the natural world, the manure of self-restraint, the fresh air of handed-down insights, and the sunshine of quality time with loved ones.

We can all learn again to wonder.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great, has been considered by many to be the greatest ancient philosopher.

Image: a young lady, a few years ago, who still loves flowers.

Posted in Wednesday Quotes | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

The Bathroom: Remembering Differences

Don't Forget to Flush

“We imagine solid unlockable doors to the bathing room as a whole; perhaps swinging doors to establish the fluidity of the area; and then opaque glass doors or curtains on the shower stall; a simple door for the toilet stalls—this is the most private spot; and an open doorway to the alcove which contains the bath.”
Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language

In North Carolina for a conference, I was interested to see an account on the news of the controversial state law requiring that in government buildings people use the bathroom corresponding to the sex on their birth certificate. It gave me an occasion to reflect on bathrooms.

The law, of course, only applies to multiple-occupancy bathrooms, and as such it is a matter of the common sense insight that people will need privacy, in this space, from members of the other sex. Differences between the sexes matter.

In our homes, on the other hand, bathrooms are not uni-sex, and the same toilet stall will be used in succession by both men and women. This fact has some interesting consequences, and here too we do well to remember the natural differences between male and female.

I know a family in which there are several daughters and no sons. Painted in cheery letters on the underside of their toilet seat—only to be seen when it is lifted—are the words: “It’s good to have a man in the house.”

I remember clearly when I was young my father said to me: make sure when you’re leaving the bathroom you think of the next person who will come in. This was an admonition especially to check that the seat is clean. But it wasn’t until years later that I received a fuller picture.

Early in our marriage my wife requested that I be sure to put down the toilet seat when I was done. Indeed, otherwise I would have left the seat in whatever position it happened to be, which when up, would require that a lady have to put it down, or not noticing, risk falling in.

I’m happy to say that in this, in any case, I have succeeded in forming a good habit in accord with my wife’s wishes. Not so long ago she told me how grateful she is that she doesn’t find the seat up in the bathroom, except sometimes when we have guests.

The bathroom affords us regular occasions to sit and remember , in privacy, any number of things, and it is fitting in our busy world to take advantage of such times for reflection. Further, how we use and take care of the bathroom is one way of remembering, and being grateful for, the natural differences between man and woman; perhaps especially when some others are forgetting.

This is the eighth and final of a series taking a thoughtful tour through a house, room by room, based on the writings of Christopher Alexander.

Christopher Alexander (1936–) was born in Austria and is currently an emeritus professor of architecture at the University of California, where he taught for almost forty years. He has been widely influential through his theories of architecture, and is especially known for his 1977 book A Pattern Language.

Posted in Wednesday Quotes | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

The Living Room: A Place for Formality

The Suitor

“Unless the spaces in a building are arranged in a sequence which corresponds to their degrees of privateness, the visits made by strangers, friends, guests, clients, family, will always be a little awkward…
[speaking of the custom in Peru…] Formal friends, such as the priest, the daughter’s boyfriend, and friends from work may be invited in, but tend to be limited to a well-furnished and maintained part of the house, the sala. This room is sheltered from the clutter and more obvious informality of the rest of the house.” Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language

If formality has a place in our lives, it should likewise have a room in our home.

Yet we are told that formality distances us from actual life, that informality is always more authentic. Since people do not naturally interact with formality, why should we impose an unnatural ‘form’ on ourselves? And why should we have a place in our home designated for formal gatherings?

It is clear that some intimate interactions should be informal–in other words spontaneous, not according to pre-determined forms.

But I think we have misjudged formality. This is understandable. Forms of interacting can indeed become empty, and can exist apart from the right inner dispositions. Pharisee-ism is always a danger. We have taken a turn toward free-expression, and the importance of ‘being ourselves.’

Yet we can need help in ‘being ourselves,’ especially in situations of irreducible awkwardness or tension.

Formalities of interaction have an irreplaceable role, especially on certain occasions. They set a context that encourages good dispositions, and they set boundaries within which we can exercise creativity. When a suitor comes to introduce himself for the first time to the parents of a young lady, the meeting is usually, and rightfully, fraught with a certain pressure. Here formality, rooted in tradition, is freeing; it aids all involved to navigate a complicated reality.

Hospitality, a practice trans-culturally recognized as having profound human significance, often rightly demands a certain formality. As Alexander notes, to shelter a visitor from the informality of other places in our home is a way of showing respect. This is not a matter simply of hiding our clutter; our guests are worthy of an honor we show them precisely through how we maintain a special room, and receive them into it.

Hilaire Belloc, relating how in his region all men address one another as Mr. —-, notes: “for twin brothers rocked in one cradle give each other ceremonious observance here.”

Ceremonious observance. The very words ring with a beauty of something lost; but it is something that we can try to recover, at least in our own homes.

This is the seventh of a series taking a thoughtful tour through a house, room by room, based on the writings of Christopher Alexander.

Christopher Alexander (1936–) was born in Austria and is currently an emeritus professor of architecture at the University of California, where he taught for almost forty years. He has been widely influential through his theories of architecture, and is especially known for his 1977 book A Pattern Language.

Image: When a Suitor Meets Her Family, Carl Herpfer (1836-1897)

Posted in Wednesday Quotes | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

A Place to Watch the World Go By

Sharecroppers on porch, Missouri 1938

“For instance, in order for the pattern of events ‘watching the world go by’ to happen, it is essential that the porch should be a little raised above the level of the street; it is essential that the porch be deep enough, to let a group of people sit there comfortably; and it is essential, of course, that the front of the porch be open, pierced with openings, and that the roof is therefore supported on columns.”
Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building

They say that ‘time is money.’ This line encapsulates a view that has become common; it is in the air we breath. It seems to make perfect sense.

And it is pernicious.

Time is the context given to us in which to live life. It is, in a sense, all that we have. To see money as the fundamental lens through which to evaluate time is a serious mistake.

It would have us think, for instance, that ‘watching the world go by’ is a bad use of time, or in any case a lesser use to be tolerated. Alexander, on the other hand, suggests that such watching is a basic pattern of human life, and that we should have a space designed to accommodate it.

This ‘watching’ is normally done together with others, and as such is a way of being-together. To be a spectator of the hurly burly, or of the simple activities of living, can foster an understanding that we humans cannot be reduced to our work, or to our particular roles in this temporal drama. Somehow by this watching we stand outside, and are not engulfed by the day to day.

In his essay ‘The Hind Tit’ in I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, Andrew Lytle cites the account of a man named Olmstead who visited the rural south in the 1850’s. The northerner was amazed how some farm hands from whom he asked directions seemed perfectly willing to stand and shoot the breeze for some time. The visitor concluded that these country folk were lazy, and that they didn’t know how to value time.

Lytle begs to differ:
“This will be the most difficult task industrialism has undertaken, and on this rock its effort to urbanize the farm will probably split—to convince the farmer that it is time, not space, which has value. It will be difficult because the farmer knows that he cannot control time, whereas he can wrestle with space, or at least with that particular part which is his orbit. He can stop, set [i.e., sit], chaw, and talk, for, unable to subdue nature, it is no great matter whether he gets a little more or a little less that year from her limitless store. He has the choice of pleasant conversation, the excitement of hunting, fishing, hearing the hounds run, or of the possibility of accumulating greater spoils. Olmstead’s young ploughmen did well to stop and talk with the ‘quair strangy’; ask ‘whare he’s bin’; ‘whare he’s aimin’ to go’; and ‘air he bin to see his kin in Texas?’ for by so doing they exchanged an uncertain physical satisfaction for a certain mental pleasure.”

These ploughmen, in other words, implicitly recognize that while their lives are primarily taken up with labor, there is always time for simple human pleasures. While such pleasures have no monetary value, they are anything but a waste.

We might bemoan the fact that it took industrialism only a couple of generations to suppress this view of the old farmers. Now time is money, and by the way we act it seems there is never enough of either.

I’m inclined to think that the sharecroppers in the photo above knew the true value of time, and of money; and that they didn’t conflate the two. Ironically, they probably also lived as though they had enough, of both. In any case, on their porch they had a place to watch the world go by, and we can let our imagination run wild about the rich times they had there.

~ ~ ~

A final practical point from Alexander:
“Balconies and porches are often made small to save money; but when they are too small, they might just as well not be there. Whenever you build a balcony, a porch, a gallery, or a terrace always make it at least six feet deep.” A Pattern Language, pp. 782-84

This is the sixth of a series taking a thoughtful tour through a house, room by room, based on the writings of Christopher Alexander.

Christopher Alexander (1936–) was born in Austria and is currently an emeritus professor of architecture at the University of California, where he taught for almost forty years. He has been widely influential through his theories of architecture, and is especially known for his 1977 book A Pattern Language.

Image: photo by by Russell Lee, the great photo-journalist of the Farm Security Administration in the 1930’s. Featured here are sharecroppers in Missouri during the Depression.

Posted in Wednesday Quotes | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

The Marriage Bed: Can It Really Work?

When the Kye Come Hame

“The bed is the center of the couple’s life together: the place where they lie together, talk, make love, sleep, sleep late, take care of each other during illness …
The importance of the bed as an anchor point in a couple’s life is brought home in this passage from Homer… [Alexander relates the powerful story of the bed of Odysseus and Penelope, of which I have written here.]
…Quite honestly, we are not certain whether or not this pattern makes sense. On the one hand, it does: it is a beautiful idea; idyllic almost. Yet, face to face with cold hard fact and with the dissolution and struggles in the marriages around us, it seems hard to hope that it could ever be quite real. We have decided to leave it in, just because it is a beautiful idea. But we ask you to treat it like Oblomov’s dream, a picture more than reality, an impossible dream of perfect and idyllic circumstances, which may help perhaps, to make a little more sense of our muddled everyday reality—but only if we take it with a pinch of salt.”
Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language

This is the first time in my almost three years of posting Wednesday quotes that I have chosen a quote with which I disagree. I find these words of Alexander so provocative that I felt I had to share them in this series exploring his insights into the architecture of the home.

But while I reject Alexander’s conclusion, I find his suggestions regarding the marriage bed and bedroom to be very fitting (see below), in accord with his insight that the physical disposition of the spaces of our home should reflect and foster good patterns of living.

I do not know Alexander’s personal story in marriage, and I will not try to give an account of why he came to the conclusion he did (A Pattern Language is actually co-authored with several of his colleagues). I also will not share my personal story; such might be appropriate among the closest of friends.

But I will say this: any person married for many years, no matter how much he might disagree with Alexander’s conclusion, must have some appreciation for what he is saying here. Alexander sees the marriage bed as the primal artifact in which married life is instantiated, and thus in writing of the marriage bed he takes the opportunity to express his doubt about the practicality of permanent fidelity in the married relationship.

I do grant: in the marriage bed our hopes and dreams often collide with the reality of our human brokenness. And the injuries can be paralyzing, even fatal, for a marriage.

It can seem impossible at times to sort through the wreckage, the misunderstanding, the hurt. Spouses wonder: how have we come to this place, how can we fit these pieces back together?

But even, and perhaps especially, in this place, we might find some strong ledge to which to cling, some strong foundation, from which to build again. We come to believe that it can be done, that it must be done, that it has been done. And for and with my beloved, it will be done.

Forced to face our inadequacies, perhaps unlike in any other circumstance of life, we are drawn to turn to super-human assistance. Fortified by such assistance we find new strength.

And then slowly, perhaps in imperceptible increments, the bed itself can take on a new role, and a new character. It is not a sign of contradiction. It has grown into a monument–through the very travails it has known–of a reality that we have forged together. One that is permanent, and beyond even our dreams.

~ ~ ~

Some specific suggestions from Alexander on the spouses’ bedroom and the marriage bed:
“…there is part of the house, which we call the couple’s realm; that is, a world in which the intimacy of the man and woman, their joys and sorrows, can be shared and lived through. It is a place not only insulated from the children’s world, but also complete in itself, a domain…
The couple’s realm needs to be the kind of place that one might sit in and talk privately, perhaps with its own entrance to the outdoors, a balcony. It is a sitting room, a place for privacy, a place for projects; the bed is part of it…” pp. 649-50

“At the right moment in a couple’s life, it is important that they make for themselves a special bed—an intimate anchor point for their lives; slightly enclosed, with a low ceiling or canopy, with the room shaped to it; perhaps a tiny room built around the bed with many windows. Give the bed some shape of its own, perhaps as a four-poster with head board that can be hand carved or painted over the years.” p. 867

This is the fifth of a series taking a thoughtful tour through a house, room by room, based on the writings of Christopher Alexander.

Christopher Alexander (1936–) was born in Austria and is currently an emeritus professor of architecture at the University of California, where he taught for almost forty years. He has been widely influential through his theories of architecture, and is especially known for his 1977 book A Pattern Language.

Image: When the Kye Come Hame, (When the Cows Come Home), etching by C.O. Murray

Posted in Wednesday Quotes | Tagged , , | 6 Comments