Success, Freedom, and Castles in the Air

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

I’ve lived with this quote, the first sentence of a paragraph from Thoreau’s Walden, the past several months. It’s written on the inside cover of my pocket notebook. Yesterday, I read the passage again from the book. It goes on and ends with another familiar citation. Between, the text is more complicated and less quotable, though it is, in my experience so far, equally true.

“He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

View from a castle in the airView from the parapet of a castle-in-the-air, foundation under construction

Photo from the ruins of a Turkish fort atop a hill above Kounoupitsa, looking over Kissamos and the Gramvousa and Rodopou Peninsulas on either side of Kissamos Bay, Crete


Epimenides’ Paradox

Cretans, as a people, are kind and proud and fierce. I said so to a friend after one of many sojourns to the Isle of Myth.

“All Cretans are liars,” he said.

I said, “That’s a lie.”

“Of course it is; a Cretan said it!”


Epimenides is a legendary figure. He lived in the seventh and sixth centuries BC. He was a poet, philosopher, ascetic, wise man, prophet, and—according to his own countrymen—a god.

Diodorus Siculus, first-century-BC historian of ancient Greece, called Epimenides a theologian and a trustworthy authority on Cretan affairs (Epimenides Fragment 20). In the second century AD, Christian philosopher Clement of Alexandria wrote in The Stromata that Greeks of his time counted Epimenides among the seven (or nine) men most admired for their wisdom.

In the third century, Diogenes Laërtius treats Epimenides in The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. Most of what we know about his life comes from this biography.

Of his youth, Diogenes tells the following legend, which I summarize: While tending sheep one summer day, Epimenides sought shelter from the sun in a cave, where he took a nap. He woke up fifty-seven years later, untouched by age. When folk heard the story, they took him for a favorite of the gods.

His parentage is disputed among ancient historians, but all agree that Epimenides was born and lived in Knossos. Unlike Cretans of the day, he let his hair grow long, and tattoos covered his skin. He ate rarely, in small quantities, and only food provided by nymphs. He purified cities, built shrines and temples, and was given to prophesying.

Though age caught up with him fifty-seven days after his waking, Epimenides lived on to write poetry as well as prose, which Diogenes describes:

He wrote a poem of five thousand verses on the Generation and Theogony of the Curetes and Corybantes, and another poem of six thousand five hundred verses on the building of the Argo and the expedition of Jason to Colchis.

He also wrote a treatise in prose on the Sacrifices in Crete, and the Cretan Constitution, and on Minos and Rhadamanthus, occupying four thousand lines. (Lives, 51)

None of these writings, however, survived the intervening millennia. We know of Epimenides through biographers and fragments of his work in later texts.

One such text is St. Paul’s Letter to Titus, then bishop of Crete. The epistler calls on Titus to reprimand those who rebel against the faith.

They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain. One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This saying is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith. (Titus 1:11-13)

Clement, again in The Stromata, identifies Epimenides as the Cretan prophet of Paul’s letter:

… Epimenides the Cretan, whom Paul knew as a Greek prophet, whom he mentions in the Epistle to Titus, where he speaks thus: “One of themselves, a prophet of their own, said, The Cretans are always liars…” (Stromata 1.14)

Some 300 years after Epimenides, Greek poet Callimachus writes: “The Cretans ever feign.” In his Hymn to Zeus, it is the tomb of the father of gods and men—which the Cretans say is in their country, therefore blasphemy—that prompts the denigrating remark.

Callimachus doesn’t mention Epimenides. We will see below, however, that the scenario is borrowed from the Knossian prophet—or at least the two writers share a common source.

Though Epimenides’ work is lost, Paul’s Letter to Titus was collected into a large volume, which is both respected for its veracity and widely circulated. And so, what has become known as Epimenides’ Paradox[1] comes down to our times.

In the early twentieth century, biblical scholar and manuscript hunter J. Rendel Harris found evidence linking Paul’s quote with the scenario given by Callimachus. The discovery was made in successive steps. Here, I make short the process, which Harris documents in three articles over five years in a theological journal.[2]

Isho’dad of Merv was a theologian of the Nestorian Church, a branch of Eastern Christianity. In the ninth century, he wrote extensive commentary on the Old and New Testaments.

Among Isho’dad’s commentary, Harris discovered a familiar refrain concerning Cretans: “Liars, evil beasts, idle bellies.” It is one of a four-line verse describing the same scenario given by Callimachus. And the verse is part of an excerpt summarizing the work of a fourth-century theologian, Theodore of Antioch, called “The Interpreter,” because Theodore’s works were considered heresy.

Furthermore, the excerpt gives the verse as dialog, part of a speech by Minos, mythical King of Crete.

In one article (The Expositor, Oct. 1912), Harris reproduces the text, of which the following is part:

The Cretans said about Zeus, as if it were true, that he was a prince, and was lacerated by a wild boar, and was buried; and behold! his grave is known amongst us; so Minos, the son of Zeus, made a panegyric [speech of elaborate praise] over his father, and in it he said:

The Cretans have fashioned a tomb for thee, O Holy and High!
Liars, evil beasts, idle bellies;
For thou diest not; for ever thou livest and standest;
For in thee we live and move and have our being.

So the blessed Paul took this sentence from Minos.

The final phrase, according to Harris, intends a work by Epimenides, possibly a short title for “Minos and Rhadamanthus,” mentioned by Diogenes.[3]

If we accept the character’s existence at all, Minos was a first generation Cretan. So, while we now better understand the context, the paradox remains.

Diogenes writes that Epimenides died at 299 years of age—“as the Cretans report.”

 


Twenty-first-century author Stephen Wendell is writing a novel set in mythological Crete.

 


[1] The paradox is sometimes called the “Fallacy of Mentiens,” especially in turn-of-the-twentieth-century textbooks on Logic, e.g. Fowler (1883), Gibson (1914), Bartlett (1922). Diogenes, in another entry of Lives, gives a long list of works by Chrysippus, a philosopher who wrote 200 years after Epimenides. A few of Chrysippus’s titles, grouped together, refer to “the Mentiens Argument.” Among this group, another title is “Reply to those who hold that Propositions may be at once False and True.” Perhaps Mentiens was an earlier writer otherwise fallen into history’s oubliette.

[2] I refer interested readers to Harris’s articles published in The Expositor available on the Biblical Studies website: “The Cretans Always Liars” (Oct. 1906):305-317, “A Further Note on the Cretans” (Apr. 1907):332-337, and “St. Paul and Epimenides” (Oct. 1912):348-353. For more about Harris’s quest for ancient texts, consider his biography by Alessandro Falcetta, The Daily Discoveries of a Bible Scholar and Manuscript Hunter: A Biography of James Rendel Harris (1852–1941).

[3] Isho’dad’s excerpt comes from his commentary on Acts of the Apostles. In the text above, “this sentence” refers to the last line of Minos’s dialog, which St. Paul quotes in his speech to the Areopagus (Acts 17:28). For more about references to Epimenides in Titus and Acts, see Paul Davidson’s informative article, “Lying Cretans and Unknown Gods: Allusions to Epimenides in the New Testament,” on Is That in the Bible?


Thank You

On this otherwise unremarkable day, I’d like to thank you, Dear Reader, for your support. Your feedback and encouragement since the posting of the first chapters of my great grandfather’s story have made the past year and a half exceptionally rewarding.

I would also like to ask those of you who have enjoyed A Very Muddy Place in paperback to leave a short review, please, on its Amazon page. A few heartfelt words with as many stars as you think it deserves help the book to find its audience.

Special thanks to those of you who have already done so. I love all three of you!

Thank You


AVMP Kindle Edition on Pre-Order

I am happy to announce the Kindle Edition of A Very Muddy Place: War Stories is available for pre-order. If you order now, you get 1/3rd off the regular price and the book will be delivered to your Kindle on its release date, scheduled for November 1.

 


 

A Very Muddy Place: War Stories

Available on Amazon

 

An intimate account of a soldier’s experience in World War I, A VERY MUDDY PLACE takes us on a journey from a young man’s rural American hometown onto one of the great battlefields of France. We follow Private B. F. Potts with the 137th US Infantry Regiment through the first days of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. We discover a personal story—touching, emotional, unforgettable.

In 1918, twenty-three-year-old Bennie Potts was drafted into the US Army to fight in the World War. He served with the American Expeditionary Force in France. At home after the war, he married and raised a family, and the war for his children and grandchildren became the anecdotes he told them.

A century later, a great grandson brings together his ancestor’s war stories and the historical record to follow Private Benjamin Franklin Potts from Tennessee to the Great War in France and back home again.

 

A Very Muddy Place
WAR STORIES

Available on Amazon

 


75mm Second Hand

A steel chamber holds a brass shell. Inside it, a pin ignites propellant. The confined explosion shoots a projectile and a gout of flame from the 75mm (3 inches) bore. The gun jumps, the earth shudders, a shock wave shatters the air and accompanies a roar that bursts between the ears. Spent, the brass shell slides to the ground with a hallow shing! Another round replaces it and, as soon, ignites. Powder fumes permeate the air. Explosions count seconds across unending darkness…

It was the night of September 25, 1918. To prepare the terrain for the next morning’s attack, the artillery barrage began at 11:30 p.m. “The infantry moved forward through the woods in approximately the formation they were to employ the following day. The men lay down among the big guns and tried to sleep” (Kenamore, From Vauquois Hill to Exermont, 88, emphasis mine).

The video, footage taken by the US Army Signal Corps, shows “The famous ‘75’s’ in action at Le Cotes de Forimont, September 27, 1918.”

Les Côtes de Foriment are a ridge two kilometers (1.24 miles) south of Vauquois. From the 35th Division field orders, we know the division’s 60th Field Artillery Brigade, with their 75mm guns, took position there by September 25.

In the video, notice the gun fires every four seconds. An artillery battery consists of four guns.

…Explosions counts seconds across unending darkness.

In this infernal night lies our young private, waiting, suspended in time, between sleep and prayer.

—Excerpts from A Very Muddy Place: War Stories

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Private Potts’s Interactive Itinerary

The 18th of September [1918] was a Wednesday. It was the day Benjamin Franklin Potts turned twenty-four years old. Any letters from home wishing him a happy birthday would have found him around Foucaucourt-sur-Thabas, six miles west of Les Charmentois, sixteen miles south of the Butte of Vauquois.

—from A Very Muddy Place: War Stories

Foucaucourt is a tiny village in the Argonne region of France. It lounges on the south bank of the Thabas, a shaded stream.

It’s more difficult to find on a map than it is to pronounce. I can help you with both. In my American accent, I say fook-oh-cor sur ta-ba, and you can find it on the interactive map below.

Also on the map, I marked other places on Private Potts’s itinerary in North America and Europe, as well as those of his brothers.

And on this Wednesday, September 18, I am happy to announce I am hard at work on the electronic version of the book. A Very Muddy Place: War Stories will be available for Kindle in the autumn.

Happy Birthday, Bennie.

 

Interactive Itinerary on Google MapsImagery ©2019 Google, DigitalGlobe, Map data ©2019 Google

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AVMP in the Library at The Friends of Vauquois

I had a message from Alain Jeannesson, president of Les Amis de Vauquois et de sa région, to whom I sent a copy of A Very Muddy Place. Mr. Jeannesson informs me that the book takes its place in the association’s library and is to be accompanied by a summary in French.

Association of the Friends of Vauquois and its Region. “Mound of Vauquois.” http://butte-vauquois.fr/en/.
The website of the Association of the Friends of Vauquois and its Region has photos and information on visiting the site. The guided tour of the underground galleries, where the mine war took place, is enlightening, educational, and horrific.

—from the bibliography of A Very Muddy Place: War Stories

 


 

A Very Muddy Place: War Stories

Available on Amazon

 

An intimate account of a soldier’s experience in World War I, A VERY MUDDY PLACE takes us on a journey from a young man’s rural American hometown onto one of the great battlefields of France. We follow Private B. F. Potts with the 137th US Infantry Regiment through the first days of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. We discover a personal story—touching, emotional, unforgettable.

In 1918, twenty-three-year-old Bennie Potts was drafted into the US Army to fight in the World War. He served with the American Expeditionary Force in France. At home after the war, he married and raised a family, and the war for his children and grandchildren became the anecdotes he told them.

A century later, a great grandson brings together his ancestor’s war stories and the historical record to follow Private Benjamin Franklin Potts from Tennessee to the Great War in France and back home again.

 

A Very Muddy Place
WAR STORIES

Available on Amazon

 


Another Stretch of Road

Slanting afternoon light showed me a field of rocks. Erosion on the crystalline limestone that covers the peninsula makes formations of standing stones, legions of trolls caught in sunshine marching across the landscape. But these rocks looked different. Curious, I stopped the car to have a look.

Crystalline limestone, yes, but these were hewn into rough rectangular shapes, laid in a mosaic pattern, and bordered by straight rows of same. Nineteen hundred years of wind and winter rain set them in jagged profile. Two paces (about three meters) from edge row to edge row confirms another stretch, this one 150 meters long, of the Roman road on Rodopou.

Tell me when I’ve had enough. I love it out here!

150 meters of the Roman road on Rodopou


Five Map Sheets from La carte de l’état-major

I love maps—especially pretty ones and especially old ones. These are both.

The 273 rectangular sheets that constitute La carte de l’état-major cover all of France at 1:40,000 scale. Elevation (in meters) is marked on hilltops and mountain peaks. Steepness is indicated by hatch marks, lines like rays from a peak. The closer together these lines, the steeper the slope. This elevation hatching and the Garamond typeface make the maps distinctive.

In use from the mid-nineteenth to well into the twentieth century, these maps were used by the French army during the war to generate larger scale maps of the western front.

—from A Very Muddy Place: War Stories

If you love maps too, you can follow Private Potts from the Haye Forest (see Chapter 8, “In Reserve at Saint-Mihiel”) to Auzéville (12, “A Potts Family Day of Thanks”) on map sheets Commercy SE and Bar-le-Duc NE, then to the Hesse Forest and Vauquois to Exermont (Part Two, “The Argonne Battle”) on Verdun SE and Verdun NE, and back to Sampigny (29, “Cruel Days”) on Commercy SO. On this last, General Pershing inspected the troops (30, “Godspeed”) just north of Commercy on the field between the villages Vignot and Boncourt.

VERDUN NE Verdun NE
Exermont (top left)
 
VERDUN SE Verdun SE
Vauquois (middle left)
 
BAR-LE-DUC NE Bar-le-Duc NE
Auzéville (top left-of-center)
 
Commercy SO
Commercy (bottom center)
Commercy SE
Forêt de Haie (bottom right)
  COMMERCY SO COMMERCY SE

Five map sheets from La carte de l’état-major arranged in geographic order

Explore elsewhere in the country on the French government’s Géoportail.

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The Strange Case of Monsieur Bertin

I subscribe to writers’ newsletters to see how they do it, to incorporate aspects I like into my own. One of my favorites is Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Pendergast File. It’s informative, concise, and infrequent. Each issue also contains an extra something for the reader.

In June, current subscribers receive a short story that delves into the past of one of Preston and Child’s most loved characters: A. X. L. Pendergast, FBI Special Agent and main character of the Pendergast novels. “The Strange Case of Monsieur Bertin,” which Douglas Preston describes as “not so ‘short’ at all,” goes out to The Pendergast File subscribers in June.

If you enjoy a good thriller and haven’t yet encountered Agent Pendergast, this is an opportunity to meet him. And if you like him, as I do, a growing series of page-turning novels is in your future.

To get the story, subscribe to The Pendergast File before June 1.

Relic - Preston and ChildCover of Relic, the first novel in which Pendergast appears.

 


Homecoming

There were parades in that glorious spring of 1919. In New York and Washington, D.C., in small towns and state capitals, ranks of soldiers, formed in companies and led by the army band, marched down Main Streets across the United States. In Topeka, the officers and men of the 137th Infantry “All-Kansas” Regiment stepped with heads high, through cheering crowds, flags waving.

But Private Potts was not among his comrades of Company M. After disembarking the Manchuria at Hoboken, April 23, the Thirty-Fifth Division entrained to Camp Upton, New York. In the last week of April, all replacement soldiers, of which B. F. Potts was one, were detached from the division.

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