On Knowing Everything

Aristotle has been described as the last person to know everything there was to be known. To belittle this achievement by supposing that in his day there wasn’t really that much to know is to underestimate the breadth of Aristotle’s knowledge. His writings embraced physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, politics, government, ethics, biology and zoology.

Nowadays, the very idea of knowing everything seems beyond our comprehension. One need only point to Wikipedia to demonstrate how such encyclopedic knowledge far exceeds the capacity of any one individual. We may know a lot about our chosen field, but we should have no illusions: our ignorance vastly exceeds our knowledge.

But isn’t there some way to get a sense of the “big picture”? After all, everyone now carries a mental image of the earth as seen from outer space, a perspective unavailable to-even unimaginable for-people a hundred years ago. Surely there must be some way to achieve a comparable picture of western culture.

Happily, we have a tool not available to Aristotle. Statistics tells us that a carefully selected sample allows us to make valid generalizations about a population. Even if we can’t know all the individual trees, we can get a pretty fair idea of the forest by examining particular specimens.

So how do we choose the specimens for a large-scale perspective of western culture? The matrix-the grid pattern familiar from spreadsheets-offers a powerful tool. Imagine a grid with time on one axis and six categories of culture-Art, Literature, Music, Philosophy & Theology, Science & Mathematics, History & Social Sciences-on the other.

The century offers a convenient, if arbitrary, unit of measurement for time. But when we start trying to fill in the grid, it quickly becomes apparent that the century becomes impractical before around 1000 A.D. For the sake of convenience, we might want to consider Ancient Greece as a single unit, Ancient Rome as another unit, and the Middle Ages (say, the 5th through 10th centuries) as a third unit, before proceeding with one-hundred-year intervals.

Having established an empty grid, the next step is to fill as many of the boxes as we can with separate artists, composers, and authors, corresponding to the individual trees in our forest of western culture. These choices can become highly personal, but we need not claim that our choice is the best possible candidate for that box, only that it be a defensible nominee.

I offer my own grid not to insist on my choices but simply to illustrate the process. (Unfortunately, this site cannot reproduce a matrix, but by viewing the contents of each row you can get an idea of what it might look like.)

Ancient Greece: Parthenon; Homer; Sophocles; Plato; Aristotle; Pythagoras; Euclid; Herodotus

Ancient Rome: Colosseum; Virgil; Paul of Tarsus; Ptolemy; Caesar

5th-10th centuries: Book of Kells; Beowulf; Plainsong; St. Augustine; Gregory of Tours

11th century: Bayeux Tapestry; Song of Roland; Rise of polyphony; St. Anselm

12th century: St. Sernin de Toulouse; Chr├ętien …

East Carolina University Pirates Nickname Explained

The East Carolina University pirates have both a nickname and a name that confuses many folks that are not familiar with the Greenville, North Carolina school. The confusion with regards to the name arises from the fact that while there are two very well-known Carolinas in the United States (North Carolina and South Carolina) a geographer could scour an atlas all day and never find an East Carolina. The truth of the matter is that the institution of higher education today commonly known as East Carolina University (ECU for short) began as the East Carolina Teachers Training School back in 1907 with a mission statement to serve the eastern portion of North Carolina. A quick glance at a map of North Carolina reveals that Greenville is located in the eastern half of the state (although some might argue that it is as centrally located as it is eastern).

With a grasp on the geographical basis behind the name origin many curious onlookers question the relevance of the nickname the Pirates because most landlubbers have no recollection of Greenville, North Carolina being a safe haven for pirates the last time anyone checked. The truth of the matter is that pirates have been associated with North Carolina for centuries. Those not familiar with this fact are encouraged to brush up on their pirate knowledge. As it turns out one of the most notorious pirates to ever sail the seven seas hailed from North Carolina. Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard the pirate, was an English pirate that ran amuck up and down the Carolina coast from 1712 until he died battling for his life in 1718. Among the spots the famed pirate frequented were the coastal communities of Beaufort, Ocracoke, and Bath. In fact, many other pirates used the shallow waters around the North Carolina coast to avoid capture by authorities looking to put an end to illicit pirating activities.

In an effort to pay homage to the rich history of the area (however violent and illegal it might have been) East Carolina University has not only proudly called themselves the Pirates since 1983 but the school has even gone so far as to designate a specific fictional pirate by the name of PeeDee the Pirate as its official mascot. In the true spirit of historical accuracy the cartoonish mascot with an oversized head that roams the sidelines at football games has a full black beard that resembles the most famous area pirate (Blackbeard) that inspired the character’s creation. The name PeeDee is a local reference to the river by the same name (Pee Dee River) that runs through South Carolina and North Carolina. The river is actually named after the Native American Pee Dee tribe that once called the area home. To bring the story full circle historical evidence suggests that pirates often setup camp along the Pee Dee River during the eighteenth century when the vicinity was flush with pirates.

Despite an area now free of dangerous pirates East Carolina …