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How to learn a bit more about everything

They say you never stop learning. But between car pools and soccer practice, it's hard to find time to brush up on American history or revisit Emily Dickinson's poetry. “The Intellectual Devotional” contains 365 distinct passages on seven subjects — history, literature, visual arts, science, music, philosophy and religion — one for each day of the week, designed to inspire and invigorate. Authors Noah Oppenheim and David Kidder visited “Today” to discuss the book. Here's an excerpt:

MONDAY-HISTORYSparta vs. Athens: The Battle for the Ancient WorldSparta, a small city in the rugged mountains of southern Greece, fielded the most feared military in the ancient world. Spartan soldiers, hardened by grueling training that began at birth, never lost a battle in the bloody conflicts that raged almost constantly between the small city-states of ancient Greece. To build this remarkable army, elders in Sparta tested every newborn for weakness and deformities. Babies deemed unlikely to become strong soldiers were tossed into a gorge. For those that passed the test, training was cruel and relentless. The Greek historian and essayist Plutarch wrote that for many of the Spartan soldiers marching to battle was a relief: “For the Spartans, actual war was a holiday compared to their tough training.”


The rivalry between militaristic Sparta and its neighbor Athens dominated the history of ancient Greece. Athens, the birthplace of democracy, was a far less rigid society. Unlike Sparta, where there was little time for culture, Athens was home to some of the most extraordinary accomplishments of philosophy, art, and science in human history. The playwrights Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Euripides, and Sophocles, as well as philosophers Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates were born in Athens during the city’s golden age in the fifth century BC.

While Athens and Sparta temporarily joined forces to defeat two attempted Persian invasions, they spent much of the classical period competing for the leadership of the Hellenic world. When the cities fought, as they did repeatedly between about 550 and 350 BC, it was a clash of civilizations in the fullest sense. While Sparta’s famed soldiers held the advantage on land, Athens made up the difference with its sea power. The rivalry came to an abrupt end when Philip of Macedonia invaded from the north. The Greek city-states were swallowed up into the empire that Philip and his son, Alexander the Great, extended over much of Greece and Asia.

Additional Facts1. Sparta was the capital of the Greek region of Laconia. The word laconic in modern English is derived from the taciturn attitude of hardened Spartan soldiers.

2. To prove their toughness, Spartan boys competed to see how much whipping they could endure.

3. Many of the buildings on the Acropolis in Athens, including the famous Parthenon, were constructed during the city’s golden age in the fifth century BC.

TUESDAY-LITERATUREDon QuixoteMiguel de Cervantes Don Quixote (Part I, 1605; Part II, 1615) is arguably the most prominent cultural landmark of the Spanish-speaking world. It is celebrated as the preeminent work of Spanish literature and widely considered the first modern novel in any language.

The title character is a fifty-year-old man from the region of La Mancha in central Spain. Influenced by books about chivalry, he announces one day to his bemused family that he has changed his name to Don Quixote and that he is going out into the world on his noble steed—really his skin-and-bones barn horse, Rocinante—to do great deeds and right all wrongs. He enlists a “squire,” an illiterate peasant named Sancho Panza, who thinks Don Quixote is crazy but plays along, half-believing his new master’s promise that he will give Sancho an island to govern.

The pair sets off on a long string of misadventures. Don Quixote continually misinterprets the world around him, mistaking innkeepers for knights, prostitutes for maidens, monks for enchanters, and windmills for giants. Often, his exploits harm their intended beneficiaries more than they help. He dedicates all his deeds to a “princess,” Lady Dulcinea del Toboso—really a peasant girl who is completely indifferent to the actions being performed in her name.

Don Quixote both parodies and pays homage to the chivalric romance—a genre that was a staple of secular literature during the Middle Ages. These epic poems told loosely connected tales of heroic knights, typically featuring themes of courtly love. Some were based on true events, but others were purely legend. In Don Quixote, Cervantes tackled the same subject matter, but with a more cohesive narrative, unprecedented psychological depth, and ironic self-awareness. He also added surprisingly postmodern twists: After another writer published a fake sequel to the first part of Don Quixote in 1614, Cervantes decided to write the fake sequel into the real second part of the novel. He makes Don Quixote and Sancho aware of this false account, enabling them to comment on it with derision.

Though we take such characteristics for granted in today’s literature—and indeed take the novel form itself for granted—they were enormous innovations at the time. The character of Don Quixote himself is a great achievement, a figure whom different eras and groups have variously interpreted as a buffoon, a tragic hero, and a courageous figure refusing to conform. His embodiment of so many qualities is precisely what has made Cervantes’ protagonist one of the most timeless characters in fiction.

Additional Fact1. Of all the books published throughout history, Don Quixote is second only to the Bible in terms of total number of copies printed.

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WEDNESDAY-VISUAL ARTSLeonardo da VinciLeonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) is universally recognized as one of history’s great creative geniuses. Excelling in a variety of disciplines—painting, sculpture, architecture, music, engineering, and the physical sciences—he is often deemed the quintessential Renaissance man.

Born in 1452 in Vinci, Italy, da Vinci was the illegitimate son of Ser Piero da Vinci. Throughout his life he referred to himself simply as Leonardo; da Vinci means “from Vinci.” He began his artistic career in Florence as an apprentice to the sculptor and painter Verrocchio, for whom he worked from 1470 to 1477.

Da Vinci left Florence in 1481 in order to work for Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. During his years in Milan, he worked on a variety of projects. He designed fortifications, made models of equestrian statues, and painted The Last Supper. Although he never completed any of the equestrian statues, he did make a full-scale model of one that was later smashed to bits when French troops used it for target practice.

Da Vinci returned to Florence in 1499, where he worked on a number of paintings, most notably the Mona Lisa. Between 1513 and 1516, he resided in Rome, lured there by the papal court. Next he moved to France, where he had been invited to live at the estate of the French king, Francis I, who had just recaptured Milan. He died at the Chateau of Cloux in 1519.

Although da Vinci is most famous for painting the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, he is also known for his voluminous sketchbooks in which he compiled drawings and annotations on a wide range of subjects, from the physics of flight to human anatomy. Among these is even an illustration of a fetus in the womb. Da Vinci must have sketched it from his imagination since dissections of women were forbidden at the time.

Due to his genius and fame, da Vinci has served as a continual inspiration for other artists. His contemporary, Raphael, purportedly used his likeness for the figure of Plato in the famous Vatican fresco, The School of Athens. In more recent times, he has appeared as a character in a wide range of fiction, from the television series Star Trek to the best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code.

Additional Facts1. In 1999, two full-scale recreations of da Vinci’s model for a huge equestrian statue were erected, one in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the other in Milan.

2. In January 2005, a series of sealed-off rooms were discovered in a monastery next to the church of the Santissima Annunziata in Florence. Some believe that these were the site of Leonardo’s secret workshop.

THURSDAY-SCIENCESleepIt seems strange that human beings evolved to spend about one-third of their lives lying unconscious, completely vulnerable to predators. But sleep is as crucial to our survival as food, water, and shelter. After one night without sleep, we become tired and cranky. After two nights, we suffer from memory loss and diminished concentration. After three nights, delirium sets in. Although a healthy human being can survive without eating for more than a month, humans die without sleep in less than two weeks.

So what is so important about sleep? Although no one is sure, it seems clear that sleep restores our muscles and organs, organizes our thoughts, and builds memories. According to electroencephalograph (EEG) studies that measure the activity of electrical waves in the brain, sleep occurs in stages. Normally when we are awake and not thinking of anything in particular, the brain generates alpha waves that oscillate at about ten cycles per second. When we concentrate deeply, we exhibit beta waves, which are twice as fast.

As we enter the first stage of sleep, the alpha waves become random, their rhythm coming and going. In this stage of light dozing, we can be easily awakened. As time passes, brain waves become longer and slower. After about forty minutes, we generate delta waves that oscillate less than 3.5 times per second. In this stage of deep sleep, the muscles of the body regenerate themselves, and it is very hard to wake up. Brain waves begin to quicken again, climbing back to alpha levels in another forty minutes or so. But instead of waking up, the body enters a stage called rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. The eyes twitch back and forth, as if they are looking at a moving object. It is during this stage of sleep that we dream. The average young adult experiences four or five periods of REM sleep per night.

Additional Facts1. Depriving a person of REM sleep will quickly lead to delirium.

2. Babies spend more than half the night in REM sleep.

3. Cows can sleep standing up, but they can only dream lying down.

4. Whales and dolphins have to swim and breathe as they sleep, so only one-half of their brains fall asleep at a time.

FRIDAY-MUSICBeethoven’s Symphony No. 9 “Choral”In 1792, Beethoven began studying with Haydn, and later with Antonio Salieri. Beethoven was a brash, arrogant student, famous in the region for his passionate keyboard improvisations. Many critics say that Beethoven finally became a mature composer when he learned to combine his zeal and love for music with the logic of classical forms.

Beethoven’s strict adherence to classical convention ended in 1810, when he entered a stage of deep despair and alienation brought on by the hardships of his physical health, his loss of hearing, and his loneliness. He performed on piano for the last time in 1814, and after 1819, all conversation with the great composer was conducted through written notes.

It was in this frame of mind, toward the very end of his life, that Beethoven wrote his Symphony No. 9 (1824). An admirable expression of his creative flame, it was written while the composer was completely deaf—a final expression of his love for music and his passionate artistry.

Lasting more than an hour, the four-movement symphony starts with a dramatic opening movement, loosely adhering to the classical formula. That leads into a light, but smoldering scherzo movement (a dance form.) The slow adagio section follows—a long, delicate, barely sane moment of quiet before the storm of the finale.

The final movement of the Choral Symphony is one of the greatest finales of all time and is almost universally recognizable. It is the first time a symphony made use of a full chorus alongside a full orchestra. When that chorus takes up the refrain of the Ode to Joy, an ecstatic hymn to life, the music builds slowly to the movement’s booming, euphoric climax.

Additional Facts 1. The text for the Ode to Joy, which contains the lines, “Joy, bright spark of divinity, Daughter of Elysium / Fire-inspired we tread Thy sanctuary . . .” comes from a 1785 poem by German poet Friedrich Schiller.

2. Legend has it that when Beethoven died, shortly after completing his ninth symphony, there was a rainstorm in Vienna. He was lying unconscious on his bed, and at the moment of a lightning strike, he suddenly sat up, shook his fist at the heavens, and fell back dead.

SATURDAY-PHILOSOPHYEpicureanismThe Epicureans were followers of a school of philosophy founded in the fourth century BC by Epicurus (341–271 BC). They lived communally and abstained from political activity.

The Epicureans believed all that exists are atoms and the void, or empty space. Consequently, the soul itself is composed of atoms; it is material and dies with the body. The Epicureans believed in gods, but they thought that the gods would be too occupied with their own pleasures to concern themselves with human affairs.

Like many philosophical schools in the Hellenistic world, the Epicureans focused on the question: What is the good life? Their answer: The good life was a life of happiness. Happiness was the presence of pleasure, and the absence of pain. However, their psychology of pleasures and pains was unique.

The Epicureans divided pleasures into static pleasures and kinetic pleasures. Enjoying a kinetic pleasure involves having a desire, satisfying the desire, and then experiencing the lack of that desire. For instance, the desire for food is a kinetic pleasure as one is hungry, eats, and then is sated. Enjoying a static pleasure, by contrast, does not diminish your desire. Engaging in philosophical discussion is an example of a static pleasure: The more you philosophize, the more you want to philosophize.

While recognizing that some kinetic pleasures are necessary and good, the Epicureans warned against those that created the desire for ever greater quantities and varieties of stimulation. For example, a habit of consuming delicious desserts makes it harder to take pleasure in simpler desserts, or to be satisfied with the absence of desserts altogether. The Epicureans therefore believed one should live mostly in an austere way, eating simple foods and enjoying only the occasional luxury.

Additional Facts 1. Contrary to what the Epicureans advocated, the word epicurean has come to mean “devoted to the pursuit of sensual pleasure, especially to the enjoyment of good food and comfort.”

2. The school Epicurus founded in Athens was known as the Garden.

3. The Roman philosopher Lucretius was an Epicurean. He wrote a long poem about Epicurean metaphysics and natural philosophy called “On Nature.”

SUNDAY-RELIGIONProtestant ReformationIn the early sixteenth century, after much of Europe had become displeased with the Roman Catholic Church, Martin Luther instigated the Protestant Reformation.

Martin Luther, a professor and preacher in Germany, studied religious texts at great length. His first disagreement with the Catholic Church concerned the church’s practice of indulgences for sins. Indulgence was the Catholic tradition of forgiving sin. At the time, such absolution was for sale. In exchange for money, the donor’s sentence in purgatory was reduced. Luther objected to the notion of buying salvation, arguing it was horribly detrimental to the faith.

In 1517, Luther nailed Ninety-Five Theses to the church door at Wittenburg, challenging the Catholic Church and the legitimacy of the pope, as well as the practice of indulgences. Luther believed that the church had lost sight of its original doctrines, namely those coming directly from the text of the Bible, and had created an unnecessary wedge between the clergy and churchgoers.

By posting the Ninety-Five Theses, Luther sparked a great debate that quickly spread to the rest of Germany, Switzerland, Austria, England, and Scotland. As discussion traveled, the writings of John Calvin, among others, further fueled the dissent among the European populace.

As the many reformers’ beliefs began to coincide over time, the Protestant religion took shape. At the heart of this reformist faith was the belief that the only religious authority was the Bible itself, and not the pope. This revolutionized the structure of the church and emphasized that individuals could relate more directly to God, without priests as intermediaries.

The Protestants eventually fractured into many sects, such as the Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anabaptists; and the Catholics launched a Counter-Reformation, becoming more conservative.

Additional Facts1. At age twenty-two, Martin Luther was returning to school during a lightning storm. After a lightning bolt struck near him, he exclaimed “Help, Saint Anne! I’ll become a monk!” He survived and kept his promise, leaving law school for a monastery.

2. The Protestant Reformation was further strengthened by King Henry VII of England’s split with the Roman Catholic Church in 1529. The king appointed himself head of England’s Church, enabling him to divorce his wife, Queen Catherine, which the pope would not allow.

3. Although no evidence of the original Ninety-Five Theses exists, many experts believe the legendary church-door posting is not very far-fetched: At the time, university’s church doors were used to post notices much as bulletin boards are used today.

Excerpted from “The Intellectual Devotional: Revive Your Mind, Complete Your Education, And Roam Confidently With the Cultured Class” by David Kidder and Noah Oppenheim. Copyright © 2006 by David Kidder and Noah Oppenheim. Excerpted by permission of . All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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