Preface III: Our Classical Heritage
Part I: Where We Are
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IN PREPERATION for Quæ Sumus, I wondered what might profit you most. Then too, knowing of the common interest in, well, the world around us, I looked about to find some topic on which to dilate. Here, just now, I am in Washington, D.C., our nation’s greatest city, the manifestation of our ideals, our principles, our institutions, and here I notice, as I am sure do you, that Washington, The District of Columbia, is classical. What is this thing, CLASSICAL; how does the Classive occur.
Where We Are
If we, you and me, were to perch atop the wall of these columns (to the right), in time we would stand somewhere in history’s middle: Looking forward 4,700 years to ourselves; looking back 4,700 years to the settled oceans, that period when geography, as we know it, found its current shape. There have, of course, been fluctuations: When Achilles fought Hector on the plains of Troy, sea-level (according to climatologists) was some nine or ten feet higher than now it is—this counts for much, especially touching on the Minoans, Cherokee-Aegean DNA markers, et cetera; and then, since most often we make our homes along shore’s edge, and since, in the preceding 18,000 years sea-levels rose some 320 feet, most archeology, most of what we built is, in fact, under water.
What We Are
Here, I would like to begin with Aristotle’s identification of Man:
a social animal that lives in a city, a political organization suitable to his nature, as do bees and other creatures live in societies suitable to their natures
You will notice that Aristotle did not say, “man is a social animal”. Apology, your well-intended teachers were mistaken. Then too, you might like to know that Aristotle did not title his book the “Politics”, the actual title of his book on “ethics” (likely lecture notes), is more accurately titled Those Things Concerning the City. (Neither did Platon [Plato] title his much-mistaken, The Political Regime, the “Republic”; Cicero titled his book, Res Publica … yet this is a digression better suited to some other place, some other time.) Right. Aristotle goes on in description of the citiless man to quote Homer, “clanless, lawless, hearthless”, and Aristotle concludes his identifying description of Man with the most telling phrase, “a man outside the city is either a beast or a god”.
Who We Are
In my opinion, the best and most succinct description of ourselves is, “We are flesh eating monkeys who can know Greek, and love God.” Here, without reciting exhaustive, molecular biologic detail: in species, we have 98% DNA in common with chimpanzees; 75% in common with mice; 60% in common with fruit-flies, et cetera, down the List of Being — which is to say, “we are composed as are other breathing creatures on this planet, and most other organic things non-breathing.” And yet, uniquely, we can know Greek; id est [that is], we are Greek in the composition of mind, in the organizing of reality, of all structures political and physical, philosophic and aesthetic, even unto language, which organizes thought. And then, we can love God, as most do.
Which City is Most Suitable
to Our Nature
We cannot be certain when Minos lived, yet we can be certain that he did live, and that Daedalus was his architect. This is not merely fantasy: in Book 18 of Iliad, Homer refers to Daedalus (da-da-lace), that man who created Ariadne’s dancing floor, the Labyrinth, the bull for Pasiphae’s amusement, et cetera; more telling, the recently discovered, Minoan, “Linear B” tablets identify a building, a temple, the Dia-dale-ionde, The Sanctuary of Daedalus. Here, we might recall those pot-bellied professors who before archeological discovery denied the existence of Troy, Knossos Palace, et cetera. And then, in perspective, we might consider that 3,300 years from now, our quaint republic might be the footnote of a legend, dissolved as was the dream of liberty into some future, political organization of all things encompassing. Washington, The District of Columbia, then, is likely to be a mispronounced place name spoken in some tongue to us strange.
I have no need of telling you that freedom, that liberty, is not common in the history of human society.
Truly, at this writing (some 75 years after the English Speaking Peoples won liberty for all of the world), only 87 (45%) of the 195 countries now constituted are at liberty (even in this we are Greek); 59 (30%) are partly free; and 49 (25% percent) have little or no freedom of thought, little or no freedom of action.
You will notice that the architecture of nations and of peoples who are at liberty is mostly Classical, or was, to the extent that they—people and governments—were touched by Greek, Roman, Christian, and Enlightened liberty. Is there something in classical architecture suited for persons who live in liberty; is there a form of architecture most friendly to people; is there a character of architecture, of civic art which acknowledges, which enriches the soul, which encourages fellowship with creatures of our type, which invites that oneness with God.
Why is Washington, D.C. Shaped as it Is
George Washington was, perhaps, the most ethically assiduous of all Americans (you will be familiar with his 110 “Rules of Civility”), he was our liberating general, President of the Constitutional Convention, first President of these United States. He was a man in the great-man tradition, a man without whom history would have been different. In fact, if Geo. Washington had not been, most of us might yet live under monarchy, many of us might yet be enslaved. He was rather more like a divine-human than most now are willing to admit. He was Greek, Roman, Christian, British, Enlightened, a specific thing whose person formed a nation, and he, alike us, became American.
“Columbia” is the Goddess of Liberty. Although I need not go on, I shall, because of many interesting details:
Columbia was first a metonymy of “Christopher Columbus”, which, over time, became the goddess.
Phyliss Wheatley, the African born woman (likely Muslim) enslaved by Africans, sold to British Americans, educated through the Christian Bible and Greco-Roman-European Classics, became a poet, and in 1776 composed a paean to General Washington in which she personified our goddess, Columbia.
“Celestial choir! enthron’d in realms of light, Columbia’s scenes of glorious toils I write.”
Later, in 1791, commissioners appointed by George Washington identified the land where our government would be seated, the “Territory of Columbia”.
In classical precedent, Washington, The District of Columbia, is formed of a hero, George Washington, and a Goddess, “Columbia”, in much the way as was Athens formed by the hero Theseus and the goddess Pallas Athena.
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* Our Classical Heritage, Part II, will touch-on the present, the future, the Progressive, the Classive.
** Our Classical Heritage, Part III, will consider The Founder’s intent, and, for context, will include a brief History of Ideas.
Cover Mosaic: Madaba Map; detail, Jerusalem; Church of Saint George , Madaba, Jordan, circa 560 Anno Domini
For particulars concerning the character of The District of Columbia’s style, “Our Classical Heritage”, you might reference, The Classical Architecture and Monuments of Washington, D.C.: A History and Guide.
This from the book’s description: Classical design formed our nation’s capital. The soaring Washington Monument, the columns of the Lincoln Memorial and the spectacular dome of the Capitol Building speak to the founders’ comprehensive vision of our federal city. Learn about the L’Enfant and McMillan plans for Washington, D.C., and how those designs are reflected in two hundred years of monuments, museums and representative government. View the statues of our Founding Fathers with the eye of a sculptor and gain insight into the criticism and controversies of modern additions to Washington’s monumental structure. Author Michael Curtis guides this tour of the heart of the District of Columbia.