A Tale of Two Parthenons

On the duality of civic symbols, on nuance in general, and on reviving transcendental gastronomy

Gracious readers,

This week, we’ll explore:

  1. The duality of things: civic symbols, politeness, and humanity

  2. “Life Hacks” from a forgotten Stoic Philosopher

  3. Introducing course offerings—what would you like to learn together?

  4. On reviving transcendental gastronomy (and Lexi’s recipe of the week)

  5. Final chance to enter to win a new book on Burke and manners!

1. On dualism in civic symbols, civility, and humanity

My recent visit to the “Other Parthenon”—the replica of the ancient Athenian Parthenon located in Nashville, Tennessee—has caused me to reflect on the duality of things.

First, civic symbols. Pericles built the original Parthenon in ancient Athens to embody and exemplify all that was great about Athenian society: democracy, freedom, enlightenment, and more. Though the chain of inheritance is long and complex, we who live in democratic countries today benefit from these traditions cultivated in Ancient Greece, and in Periclean Athens in particular.

Yet Pericles built the original Parthenon by redirecting funds from the Delian League to the project. In the wake of the Persian Wars (remember the movie 300?), Greeks established the Delian League as a mutual-aid fund and alliance among Greek city states, and Athens assumed a leadership role. That Athens took a leadership role wasn’t entirely undeserved. After all, the Athenians had defeated the Persians at the Battle of Salamis, effectively ending the Persian invasions once and for all, and felt like the rest of Greece “owed” them tribute for the victory.

But Pericles’ decision to re-direct funds originally meant for mutual defense to instead pay for such a lavish and exclusively Athenian project did not sit well with the rest of the Greek city-states. Indeed, his choice was a contributing factor to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta—a war that ended in Athens’ destruction.

The Parthenon was created to celebrate the greatness of Athens, and also contributed to Athens’ demise.

Duality.

We see a similar story with Nashville’s Other Parthenon.

The Other Parthenon was originally built in 1897 as part of a large centennial celebration of Tennessee’s statehood. It was Nashville’s means of re-inventing itself after the Civil War—shedding its perceived attachment to slavery and agriculture, and re-branding itself as a forward-thinking city that valued education.

Mary Ellen Pethel describes the significance of this identity shift in her book, Athens of the New South: College Life and the Making of Modern Nashville. In a time and place where education and higher learning was considered “northern” and “elitist”—America’s best universities were the Ivy League schools in the upper northeast—Nashville chose to embrace its moniker, the “Athens of the South,” and ground its new identity in education, using the Parthenon as a symbol. This new identity also led to Nashville becoming home to some of the best historically black college and universities in the nation, such as Fisk Univeristy.

There’s a darker facet to the Other Parthenon’s history, however. Nashville classicist Savannah Marquardt explains that Nashville’s Parthenon can be seen as a monument to the Confederacy, who fought against the United States in the American Civil War to defend slavery. Marquardt’s essay powerfully recounts her struggle of coming to terms with the the racist origins of her town’s civic symbol. The Other Parthenon was built in an American South governed by Jim Crow laws, and by people who saw themselves as “heirs” to the ancient Greeks—and who embraced Aristotle’s view that some people are slaves by nature. She struggled to reconcile her love of classical history—first inspired by the Other Parthenon—with the ugly cultural reality behind its creation.

The Other Parthenon embodies a Southern city’s commitment to education and renewal in a post-civil-war era, but it also exemplifies the efforts at self-justification by people seeking to show that they were more “genteel, civilized, and — most of all — educated” than their Northern and African American co-citizens.

Duality.

On this score the Parthenon is not unique. There is duality in every symbol because there is duality in every person. After all, people—infinitely complex, a mix of contradictory feelings, values, and impulses—are the ones who create such symbols.

We’re in an era that prizes black-and-white thinking. Everything is a war of good versus evil. We’re pressured into an either-or mentality when, in reality, much of life is both-and.

We’ve lost the will for nuanced thinking—the ability to hold two seemingly contradictory truths in our mind at once. We’ve therefore moved a little further away from truth.

Sharing this “Tale of Two Parthenons” with you is my attempt to be part of the solution to the reductive, either-or thinking that dominates our day.

What are some other solutions? Write to me directly and let me know your thoughts at ah@alexandraohudson.com.

Here at Civic Renaissance, we care about the zealous pursuit of truth, which requires preserving nuanced thinking in an era dominated by the black and white. If you share this concern, please consider joining the Civic Renaissance community as a patron of this movement.

Duality in politeness?

Related to duality, I’ve spent the morning writing my book on civility, forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press. I’ve been working on the chapter that explores the relationship between civility, virtue, and a free society.

As many of you know, in the past I’ve made a sharp distinction between civility and politeness. I still think there is an important difference—civility is a disposition of how we interact with others, while politeness is a technique, more focused on the form of an act over the substance. In the past, I’ve been critical of politeness. I made the sharp distinction between civility and politeness to account for the uses and abuses of these terms and to answer critics who claimed that civility / politeness / manners were nothing more than the powerful in society oppressing and silencing the less powerful.

My book will still offer an answer to that line of attack.

But in the name of walking the walk and moving away from black-and-white thinking, I’m re-evaluating the simplistic notion that politeness = bad, civility = good.

Mostly because there are circumstances in my life—such as my relationship among my friends or with my husband—where it is clear that the seemingly superficial norms of politeness really do matter. Without them, it’s hard for me to imagine having a strong relationship at all.

Maybe one possible answer is that, while civility is always good—because it’s a disposition of fundamentally respecting the humanity of others—there is a duality to politeness.

The “Rules of Politeness,” as I call them in my book, can be used to divide, oppress, silence and provide a cover for hypocrisy; but “The Rules” can also be small but important ways of nurturing relationships.

Maybe there is duality in politeness in a way that I haven’t been willing to admit or recognize before.

What do you think? Send me a note! ah@alexandraohudson.com

2. “Life Hacks” from a forgotten Stoic Philosopher

This week, I had fun unearthing life hacks from the “Miss Manners of the Greco Roman world” —a pre-Socratic philosopher named Isocrates. Advice about the good life is remarkably similar across time: Don’t gossip, don’t over-value money, and above all, be kind.

Why does life advice from 2400 years ago still resonate with us today? Because we face the same challenges to human friendship and community—our selfishness and short sightedness—today as people did then. The universality of the human experience is beautiful.

Other tips include: Be curious about everything and anything; spend your time on things that better your eternal soul; true freedom comes from self control. Read more here.

3. Course offerings

I’ve recently had people share with me their interest in remedying knowledge gaps that their college or profession education didn’t meet. DO you also feel this way? What would you like to learn together? I’m considering introducing a series of “mini courses” to better understand why you, as members of the Civic Renaissance community, might be interested in, that could then be build out later into a slightly longer course format.

Here are some ideas I’ve had:

  • Greek mythology in 10 minutes. This course might explore the foundations of Greek myth, why it matters, and how understanding it can improve our lives today.

  • Five classic books that will change your life. This course would explore five books across intellectual history that have changed my life, and that I think offer a lot of promise to change yours, too.

  • Five epic poems you absolutely must to know. What is epic poetry? Why does it matter? Which poems have shaped cultures and people for hundreds of years, and what do they have to say to us today?

  • Five historic books on civility you’ve never heard of but are essential to know. This would be a lot of fun for me, since this is the topic of my forthcoming book on civility from St. Martin’s Press.

Do these ideas for courses interest you? What other areas of literature, history or philosophy might you want to learn about? Write me a note at ah@alexandraohudson.com and tell me what you think!

4. Recipe of the week.

Our culinary lives are inextricably bound with our emotional and intellectual lives, and it’s important to be mindful about what we eat and how it has the potential to elevate our everyday—especially in a period of lockdown where our ability experience new things are limited.

I’ve just started a book called The Physiology of Taste, or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy, written in the late 1700s by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the mayor of a small French town who fled to America during the French Revolution and actually befriended Thomas Jefferson. He was certainly an interesting fellow. I’m just a few pages in but I already think I am going to enjoy this book. Here are the first few lines of the book, aphorism about the art of dining that capture the essence of the intellectual and aesthetic mindfulness that we try to foster here at Civic Renaissance:

I. The universe is nothing without the things that live in it, and everything that lives, eats.

II. Animals feed themselves; men eat; but only wise men know the art of eating.

III. The destiny of nations depends on how they nourish themselves.

IV. Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.

Yes, that famous saying, “you are what you eat,” originally came from this philosophical book about dining and food. Brillat knew the stakes for what we eat are high: the wellbeing of our hearts, minds, souls, and ultimately, even the future of a nation.

(Also, an update: the Nashville hot chicken section of last week’s post garnered more attention than I anticipated. I’m currently in the process of perfecting my own recipe, which I promise to share with you.)

With a reminder from Mr. Brillat of the importance of not just what we eat, but how, below is a recipe I enjoyed creating this week and that elevated our senses and dining experience. I hope this recipe might provide inspiration and encouragement for you to nourish your heart and mind—and that we might together revive a mindful approach approach to our culinary lives that cultivates the fullness of our humanity.

On that note, this week, I made Chilean sea bass with a garlic and spinach puree and roasted wild mushroom medley on top.

First of all, Chilean sea bass is gorgeous. Look at the intricate and brocade design!

Second, this was delicious and so easy to prepare.

  1. Mushrooms. We used a mix of oyster and shiitake. Add a generous few tablespoons of good butter (we favor Kerrygold grass-fed Irish) to a pan. Wait until butter is brown, and add sliced mushrooms. Keep on low heat, stirring occasionally, for 10-20 minutes.

  2. Puree. Melt a generous few tablespoons of good butter in a large pan. Add 4 cloves of garlic (minced, and yes, we love garlic) until they begin to brown. Then about 5 cups of spinach. Simmer until spinach is wilted. Puree, and set aside.

  3. Sea bass. Melt a few tablespoons of good butter in a pan on medium heat, and let melt until brown. When pan is hot and butter is brown, add sea bass, skin up. Sprinkle skin with Old Bay spice (I’m on the advisory board of the Classical Learning Test, an alternative to the SAT / ACT that sources material for their test from great books of the human tradition. A wonderful group. They are based in Maryland and sent me a “best of Maryland” care pack that included Old Bay. Life. Changed. We now use it for everything—so good!) Sear until brown and flip, about 4 minutes each side.

  4. Plating. Layer spinach, Sea Bass and mushrooms, in that order, according to your aesthetic preferences!

  5. Pairing. We did a blueberry mint mocktail with tonic water, which was gorgeous. But any white wine with some minerality would also be lovely!

    5. Final chance to a new book on Edmund Burke and manners!

    Ways to be entered:

    1. Become a subscriber if you’re not already!

    2. Forward this email to a friend (and let me know!).

    3. Share this issue of Civic Renaissance on social media (and tag me!).

    Winner will be announced next issue! Yes, you can be entered multiple times if you share via email or social media multiple times :)

This new book is about a few of my favorite things—Edmund Burke, political philosophy, manners, and commerce. It’s entitled Commerce and Manners in Edmund Burke's Political Economy and is written by Gregory Collins, just published by Oxford University Press. George Will called it “elegant,” and Harvard’s Harvey Mansfield called it a “thorough” contribution. I’m looking forward to diving in!

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Civic Renaissance is a newsletter and intellectual community dedicated to ennobling our public discourse with the wisdom of the past, curated by award-winning writer Alexandra Hudson, whose forthcoming book on civility will be published by St. Martin’s Press. Read more about Civic Renaissance here!