Monthly Archives: July 2012

Joshua Foer’s TEDtalk

Joshua Foer’s TEDtalk

This is an add on to my last post. I just discovered that Joshua Foer did a TED talk about this subject. Check it out and read my post with it.

Cicero, Socrates, and YOLO in Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer

                I just finished reading the New York Times Bestseller Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer. I picked this book up with no knowledge of the fact that it was rife with classical references. I should have known that it would have to be, but honestly in my time studying classics I had never even heard of the Ad Herennium. The book is about memory. Joshua travels through a grueling training regiment in order to compete in the USA Memory Championship; another thing I didn’t know existed. Throughout this journey the book explains the way memory works and how memory has changed from an internal process to an external process.

                When the ancients were telling stories and giving speeches they had no choice but to memorize large amounts of information. Books took a long time to compose and weren’t readily available to most of the population which was illiterate anyway. The Ad Herennium is a treatise on how to remember. There has been much debate about who wrote this mysterious work. Cicero was originally thought to be the author of this work because of his other extensive work on memorizing speeches, but this has since become commonly seen as untrue.

                The importance of the book is not in its author. Foer points out that the memory techniques in the ancient text are the same techniques used by professional mnemonists today. Yet in classrooms we avoid these techniques and choose rote memorization instead. I have read various reports and definitely heard many times (mostly from my grandparents) that each generation is getting dumber. This statistically does not seem to be the case, but I believe as far as critical thinking is concerned the difference between us and the ancients is stark. Foer makes a point that in order for connections to be made in the brain there has to be a memory of the two points being connected. This connection cannot occur when using external memory like books, internet, etc.  While he agrees that his party-trick memory skills are not really that convenient for remembering his friends’ phone numbers and keeping his to-do list, he makes it clear that there is a different way of thinking that comes with increasing the ability of one’s memory.

                This book is filled with great classical references from Cicero’s memory of speeches to Socrates’ disdain for the written word to the reason ancient epics were more epic,  and everyone should read it for that fact alone, but everyone should also read it because it shows a different way of approaching the world. In order for things to stick in our minds they must have meaning and therefore (since we are in the fad of YOLO) every second should be lived with meaning. If one fully experiences every aspect of every situation one will be a better thinker, mnemonist, and possibly the next USA champion. So to use an expression I loathe simply for the fact that it is an unnecessary acronym, YOLO, and another which is so commonly misused (post to come later), Carpe Diem. Experience everything to the fullest and remember it all at its ripest.

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Diana imagery in Grace Potter & The Nocturnals “Never Go Back”

This video provides a stark contrast between the civilized and the barbaric (interesting side note that the word barbarian comes from the Romans who claimed that anyone who couldn’t speak Latin just said bar bar bar bar). Roman writers especially historians and ethnographers, were obsessed with the contrast between their great civilized world and the barbaric tribes around them.  Authors including Caesar, Tacitus, Plutarch, Diodorus and many others wrote at length about the barbarianism of the Gauls and Germans. This video is designed to give a similar perspective.

The girl depicted represents what is pure. She is good and civilized, in her neo-classical home, playing classical music on her cello. Everything she does represents civilization and everything the barbarian children enter the home and do is anti-civilization. At one point a barbarian picks up a wine glass and looks at it in a funny manner then throws it. Tacitus might find this amusing as he described the terrible tribes of Germany drinking unmixed wine. Wine in the ancient days (Greek and Roman) was mixed with water sort of as an additive to water to purify the not so great stagnant drinking water (this is supported by a passage in Homer’s Odyssey but I cannot find the passage, if someone does please post it in the comments). The barbarians of the ancient days could not make music, music was poetry and they couldn’t speak Latin so that wouldn’t work. This is represented in the video by the anti-civilization act of throwing the cello over the balcony.

My favorite classical reference in this video is the girl herself, however.  The moment she pulled out the bow and arrow aiming it at the barbarians and then changing her civilized ways, was the moment I decided this needed to be posted. Whenever I see a woman archer especially one depicted as an innocent young girl I immediately think of the huntress Diana. Diana is virginal and protects children. She is the epitome of the chaste, civilized, innocent lifestyle. This video grabs me though as the image of the archer quickly turns to the means for her lack of civilization. She shoots the flaming arrow into the wall of the house lighting the house on fire and joining the ranks of the barbarian children. She sheds civilization.

Interestingly the song talks about never going back presumably to the man who was barbaric and wrong, but the girl in the video does. It seems to represent the ease with which we can return to dark things, but at the same time extols this lifestyle as a good way of living. The video ends as the girl runs off into the wilderness. This dichotomy is the perfect Diana comparison.

I see the girl in the video as a very Diana type figure. She has the class of a goddess, but the earthiness of the huntress. Diana held reign in the sky and earth. The girl in this music video holds reign over civilization to which she is accustomed, but when the opportunity presents itself she finds her place on earth among nature. More interesting yet is that Diana, according to Frazer’s Golden Bow, is probably one of the oldest deities coming from the Indo-European tradition which means she is present in both the civilized religion of the Romans and the barbaric religion of the rest of Europe.

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