From Hesiod

Hesiod’s Works and Days is one of my favourite ancient Greek books. I like his collection of rules of life, which are somewhat similar to the wisdom of Proverbs, and his very beautiful description of seasons showing the mode of life of ancient Greeks.

«For the man who gives willingly, even though he gives a great thing, rejoices in his gift and is glad in heart; but whoever gives way to shamelessness and takes something himself, even though it be a small thing, it freezes his heart.»

«He who adds to what he has, will keep off bright-eyed hunger; for if you add only a little to a little and do this often, soon that little will become great.»

«But when the artichoke flowers, and the chirping grass-hopper sits in a tree and pours down his shrill song continually from under his wings in the season of wearisome heat, then goats are plumpest and wine sweetest; women are most wanton, but men are feeblest, because Sirius parches head and knees and the skin is dry through heat. But at that time let me have a shady rock and wine of Biblis, a clot of curds and milk of drained goats with the flesh of an heifer fed in the woods, that has never calved, and of firstling kids; then also let me drink bright wine, sitting in the shade, when my heart is satisfied with food, and so, turning my head to face the fresh Zephyr, from the everflowing spring which pours down unfouled thrice pour an offering of water, but make a fourth libation of wine.»

Hesiod, Works and Days


Longinus on great minds

The largest intellects are far from being the most exact. A mind always intent on correctness is apt to be dissipated in trifles; but in great affluence of thought, as in vast material wealth, there must needs be an occasional neglect of detail.

Longinus, On the Sublime


From Theocritus

…»There we lay
Half-buried in a couch of fragrant reed
And fresh-cut vineleaves, who so glad as we?
A wealth of elm and poplar shook o’erhead;
Hard by, a sacred spring flowed gurgling on
From the Nymphs’ grot, and in the sombre boughs
The sweet cicada chirped laboriously.
Hid in the thick thorn-bushes far away
The treefrog’s note was heard; the crested lark
Sang with the goldfinch; turtles made their moan,
And o’er the fountain hung the gilded bee.
All of rich summer smacked, of autumn all:
Pears at our feet, and apples at our side
Rolled in luxuriance; branches on the ground
Sprawled, overweighed with damsons; while we brushed
From the cask’s head the crust of four long years.»

Theocritus, Idyll VII


Longinus on the sublime

«In human life nothing is truly great which is despised by all elevated minds. For example, no man of sense can regard wealth, honour, glory, and power, or any of those things which are surrounded by a great external parade of pomp and circumstance, as the highest blessings, seeing that merely to despise such things is a blessing of no common order: certainly those who possess them are admired much less than those who, having the opportunity to acquire them, through greatness of soul neglect it.

Now let us apply this principle to the Sublime in poetry or in prose; let us ask in all cases, is it merely a specious sublimity? is this gorgeous exterior a mere false and clumsy pageant, which if laid open will be found to conceal nothing but emptiness? for if so, a noble mind will scorn instead of admiring it.»

Longinus, On the Sublime


My antique and medieval Western classics list

As promised in the previous post, here is my current list of antique and medieval Western classics. I know it could be richer, but for now I am satisfied with it. As soon as I finish, I consider either adding to it more interesting authors and books or moving ahead towards the Renaissance and the English-speaking authors.

The Ancient Near East

  • Gilgamesh
  • The Holy Bible

The Greeks

  • Homer: The Iliad; The Odyssey
  • Hesiod: The Works and Days; Theogony
  • Aeschylus: The Oresteia; Seven Against Thebes; Prometheus Bound
  • Sophocles: Oedipus the King; Electra; Ajax
  • Euripides: Alcestis; The Bacchae; Electra; Hippolytus
  • Aristophanes: The Birds; The Clouds; Lysistrata
  • Herodotus: The Histories
  • Plato: Dialogues
  • Aristotle: Poetics; Ethics
  • Longinus, On the Sublime
  • Theocritus, Idylls
  • Plutarch: Lives; Moralia
  • Plotinus: Enneads

The Romans

  • Lucretius: The Way Things Are
  • Cicero: On the Gods
  • Horace: Odes
  • Catullus: Attis
  • Virgil: The Aeneid
  • Ovid: Metamorphoses; The Art of Love
  • Pliny the Elder: Naturalis Historia
  • Tacitus: Annals
  • Suetonius: The Twelve Caesars
  • Seneca the Younger: Tragedies
  • Apuleius: The Golden Ass
  • Marcus Aurelius: Meditations

The Arabs

  • The Koran
  • The Book of the Thousand and One Nights

The Europeans before Dante

  • Augustine: The City of God; The Confessions
  • Boethius: Consolation of Philosophy
  • The Poetic Edda
  • Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda
  • The Nibelungen Lied
  • Beowulf
  • Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica

The Western Canon: Defining Classics

What people and works could be called the West’s most important classics? The Western Canon is a relatively recent (1994) book by Harold Bloom in which the author tries to select the most influential authors and books of all time. Despites the fact that the very idea of such a canon is disputed, the 26 authors listed by Bloom are definitely worth reading. As for the entire book list (about 2400 items), I only wish I could read them all.

The earlier attempts to define canonical books were the Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World book series by Mortimer Adler, first published in 1952, and the Harvard Classics series by Charles Eliot, first published in 1909. Both of them were born out of renowned university curriculums which still remain for us another important sources of information on the subject. One of them is The Core Curriculum of Columbia College, developed in 1919, which later became the framework for many similar educational models. Finally, there are many classic book lists of various lengths, like a reading list for having an intelligent conversation compiled by Joseph Brodsky.

The ongoing controversy about the idea behind the Western canon is focused on what authors are worth including in it. Some people point out to the prevalence of so called Dead White Men in it. A deeper question is what schools of thought or approaches to education get priority there. But I am not going to speculate about this.

My opinion is that the older a book is, the higher priority it should be given, because old books influenced the newer ones. Therefore, I would first concentrate on antique and medieval classics in my self studies. Next, I would turn to the books originally written in English (they make the most of most lists anyway), because English is the new Latin 🙂 My third criterion for my book list is inner chemistry: some books, just like some people, look to us more attractive than the others. The fourth and final criterion is my personal interests laying at the intersection of literature, religion and philosophy.

My first step in this direction will be to compare as many book lists as I can and to make my antique and medieval classics shortlist which I will share in my next post (update: done).

By the way, there is an interesting discussion on Quora about the Eastern canon.

Related links

Here are some resources I found interesting:


Permaculture Vienna

Just visited a meetup on permaculture in Vienna. I was interested in permaculture since 2009 when I first saw Rob Hopkins’ TED presentation on resilience and discovered the idea of permaculture via his website, Transition Culture. So I seized the chance and went to Weltcafe, a place known for its organic food, to meet permaculture designers Fraser Bliss and Victoria Plank. Fraser and Victoria learned from Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, the legendary fathers of permaculture.

Permaculture is an art of building sustainable human settlements making whole with the nature. The main idea of permaculture, as far as I get it, is that the whole is always balanced — nature can produce everything it needs to support itself. Many of the needs of a natural system could be met from inside that system. A designer’s goal is to align oneself with the power of nature instead of fighting it. As the elements of a natural system can feed each other, we don’t need to produce some big input (time, money, resources…) to have a sustainable system — instead, we need to connect the loose ends.

Why permaculture is important?

  • It’s about health — we can grow organic food.
  • It’s about our environment — we can live without destruction and waste.
  • It’s about community — permaculture encourages sharing and helping each other.

If you are interested in permaculture and are around Vienna, join our group and keep updated!


Design that lasts

We usually believe «good design» to be the single peak, the only positive pole as opposed to «bad design». But what if there are several different poles of good design?

In fact, the meaning behind the expression «good design» is really ambiguous, even if we leave aside the question of design definitions. Is good design akin to good cleaning? I mean, is it something about just putting things to their proper places and getting rid of noise? Or maybe it means being an artist, not a mere technician? Doesn’t good design also mean creating something that lasts, something people will talk about?

Let’s compare a propaganda poster and a railroad ticket. The goal of the poster is to persuade by conveying a clearly defined meaning. The goal of the ticket is simply to document. While the poster asks for emotional involvement and response, the ticket doesn’t ask for anything. As emotions rule our decisions, emotional experience is crucial for persuasive design. As emotions distract when the decision is already made or simply is not needed, usability becomes more important for other kinds of design.

My point is that on one pole, like with the poster, the form becomes the content and the emotional experience matters the most, while on another pole, like with the ticket, the content becomes the form and what really matters is pure usability. Both poles still can be called good design. But the one where meaning matters can also be good in another sense, as something people will talk about — as a social object, if we borrow the term from Hugh McLeod.

If we now compare our propaganda poster with a dictionary instead of a railroad ticket, we see one more difference —obviously, it is the level of informational complexity. The more complex and structured the information, the less chances are left for emotional experience and the more is the need for usability. The design of complex information systems is rather engineering, and this is yet another pole of good design.

And finally, if we replace the dictionary with a novel full of complex ideas, we see one more dimension of good design: do not distract attention from the higher levels of perception and thinking. That’s why the design of a such a books is usually much drier than, say, the design of an annual report full of dry facts. And paradoxically, the design of an annual report has more chances of becoming a social object.

So, the four poles of good design are:

  • Social objects (persuasive with simple meaning, intense but simple emotions, minimum of information)
  • Usable objects (no need for persuasion, simple meaning, low emotions, low information)
  • Complex information systems (simple meaning, low emotions, high volumes of information)
  • Complex semantic systems (higher-level thinking, complex emotions and meaning)

Of course we can think of further combinations of parameters referring to yet another kinds of design. But the only one of them, namely social objects, can pretend to be a sort of art, a special kind of design that lasts. Its distinctive features can also be used as the criteria for making design more viral:

  1. Easy emotional involvement.
  2. Simple and unambiguous meaning.
  3. The lowest possible volume and the best possible organisation of information.

I am sure that those criteria may be helpful even in the cases when they can’t be fully met, i.e. with railroad tickets and dictionaries. By reducing complexity and adding emotional touch we still can get the results far above the ordinary. But don’t waste time creating ticket design that lasts, dictionary design that lasts, website design that lasts and so on. It won’t work anyway.


27 design definitions

Once upon a time I’ve found on the web a Word document where an unknown person compiled a brilliant selection of design definitions. I think it’s a good piece to keep, especially because the original file doesn’t anymore exist. So, here it is — enjoy.

  1. Design is a manifestation of the capacity of the human spirit to transcend its limitations. (George Nelson)
  2. Designers who design like machines will be replaced by machines. It is not the digital but the intuitive, not the measurable but the poetic, not the mechanical but the sensual, which humanize design. (Katherine McCoy)
  3. Design plays a central, not merely ornamental, part in the creation of meaning. (Derick de Kerchhore)
  4. Design describes the processes of selecting shapes, sizes, materials and colours to establish the form of something that is to be made. The object can be a city or town, a building, a vehicle, a tool or any other object, a book, an advertisement or a stage set. Design is the activity which forms a major part of reality as we experience it. (Johnatan Pile)
  5. Design is not an art or a science, a socio-cultural phenomenon or a business tool. It is an innovative process which uses information and expertise from all these sectors. It uses creativity first to analyse and synthesise the interactions between them and, secondly to offer appropriate and innovative responses (forms) which, in application, should go beyond the sum of each sector’s vision and capacity and yet remain recognisable and pertinent to them all. (A.M. Boutin — Liz Davis)
  6. Design is the cardinal means by which human beings have long tried to modify their natural environment. Design, the act of putting constructs in an order, seems to be human destiny. (Richard Neutra)
  7. In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness. (Antoine De Saint Exupery)
  8. Design is a process of turning people’s ideas into forms. Transforming the invisible into the visible, design is also the operation of turning mental, social and spiritual entities into physical ones. Design is the process of the human creation of new realities. However, this assumes a thorough knowledge of the qualities and effects of the material world. Good design is the result of an excellent idea going into a good form, an excellent immaterial entity going into a good material one. Creating reality is always a synthetic activity, and the result must be beautiful. (Kenji Ekuan)
  9. Design is everybody’s business: we live in it, we eat in it, we pray and play in it. When I say that design is everybody’s business, I don’t mean that design is a do-it-yourself job. I mean that it affects everybody, at all times, in our lives. Unless we gain a better understanding of design, we shall witness our environment getting steadily worse, in spite of the constant improvement of our machines and tools. (P.J.Grillo)
  10. Good design keeps the user happy, the manufacturer in the black and the aesthete unoffended. (Raymond Loewy)
  11. The word ‘design’ can mean either a weightless, metaphysical conception or a physical pattern. The opposite of design is chaos. (Buckminster Fuller)
  12. The word design signifies so many different things: a process, a means of promoting sales, and a stage on the road to production. It enhances products, and sells them; it solves problems and conveys ideas; it is artistic and commercial, intellectual and physical. This many-sidedness &endash; or ambiguity and endash; is something we have to learn to live with, as a historically incontrovertible fact. (Frederique Huygen)
  13. Design requires a constant remodelling of our ideas as it must adapt its language to new possibilities offered by new structural materials. (P.J.Grillo)
  14. Industrial Design is a creative activity whose aim is to determine the formal qualities of objects produced by Industry. These formal qualities include the external features, but are principally those structural and functional relationships which convert a system to a coherent unity, both from the point of view of the producer and the user. Industrial Design extends to embrace all aspects of human environment which are conditioned by industrial production. (Thomas Maldonado)
  15. Design, in its broader sense, is creation of systems for living. (Yoshida Mitsukuni)
  16. Simplicity — a virtue so rare and essential in design, does not mean want or poverty. It does not mean the absence of any decor, or absolute nudity. It only means that the decor should belong intimately to the design proper, and that anything foreign to it should be taken away. Decor must be consistent and totally integrated with the whole design story. (P.J.Grillo)
  17. Design must be meaningful. And «meaningful» replaces the semantically loaded noise of such expressions as «beautiful», «ugly», «cool», «cute», «disgusting», «realistic», «obscure», «abstract», and «nice», labels convenient to a bankrupt mind when confronted by Picasso’s Guernica, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, Beethoven’s Eroica, Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. In all of these we respond to that which has meaning. (Victor Papanek)
  18. The design philosophy informing the concept of «The Humane Village» recognizes what individuals want in their daily lives; what they want to see and feel in their neighbourhoods, their homes and their workplaces; a sense of calm, permanence and timeless beauty, served but not dominated by the marvels of technology. Returning life to the pleasures of privacy and friendship in settings made to human scale. Building with foresight and restoring with care. Looking first to the needs and wishes of people. (Ben Park)
  19. Design is the process, that turns ideas into products that deligts their users. (Andrew Summers)
  20. Design is what you do, not what you’ve done. (Alan Fletcher)
  21. Design is giving shape to man’s dream. (Kenji Ekvan)
  22. Good design is the solution best adapted to necessity, but very superior to it. (André Breton)
  23. Most think of design in terms of putting lipstick on a gorilla. (Dieter Rams)
  24. A designer is an emerging synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist and evolutionary strategist . (Buckminster Fuller)
  25. Design is the anti-thesis of accident. (Vernon Barber)
  26. Good design is intelligence made visible. (Le Corbusier)

27th one is Webster’s. Just notice this line:

archaic : to indicate with a distinctive mark, sign, or name.

Arhaic? Or maybe futuristic? At least, this is in what direction I’d like to move.

P.S. Another great resource on design definitions is Quotes on Design by Chris Coyier.


When the child was a child

«When the child was a child…
it had, on every mountaintop,
the longing for a higher mountain yet,
and in every city,
the longing for an even greater city,
and that is still so,
It reached for cherries in topmost branches of trees
with an elation it still has today,
has a shyness in front of strangers,
and has that even now.
It awaited the first snow,
And waits that way even now.»

From a poem by Peter Handke (Wings of Desire)