Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Mens Sana in Corpore Sano

There is an obvious explanation for the fact that upstate New York towns like Marathon, Rome and Ithaca have mythic names. Immigrants from Italy and the Peloponnesus settled them. But it can be startling to drive along I-81 or I-90 and spot signs for Rome or Marathon. For a moment, one is totally taken aback. Marathon, the legendary city after which our most famous footrace is named, conjures the image of classical or neo-classical Palladian architecture, while the surrounding landscape of split-level houses, fast food joints and discount shopping behemoths like Sam’s Club belies such hallowed associations. Seeing the sign for Rome, one thinks of the Colosseum, of Rosssano Brazzi in Three Coins in the Fountain or of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, with its triage of post war aristocracy and culture. Ithaca of course is closest to the classical associations conjured by its name, being the home of Cornell University. Wandering the campus, the history of knowledge that it conjures is readily perceptible in the legends on the varying buildings. Cornell is of course one of the great seats of learning in the West, and the fact that its home is in Ithaca represents more of a geopolitical change than any disparity between it and the values the ancient Greeks held, in particular the precept mens sana in corpore sano, a saying that graces the Kongsbakken videregående skole in Tromsø, Norway.


  1. I hate to bring ugly facts to the table here. I really do! Although it would be nice to think that immigrants from Greece and Italy brought the names of classical cities with them to name new towns in central New York State, it simply isn't so.

    Just after the Revolutionary War, the United States Government had to make good on a promise it had rashly made prior to the war: as an incentive, Congress had promised, to every soldier it could convince to enlist, 100 acres after the end of the War. The Central New York Military Tract was set aside in fulfillment of that promise, using land from some 28 townships. Simeon De Witt, Surveyor General of New York State, surveyed the Tract; apparently, Robert Harpur, a clerk in De Witt's office, had an interest in classical Roman and Greek culture, and proposed the twenty-eight town names accordingly. (Source for this information: the Wikipedia article on the "Central New York Military Tract.")

  2. Peloni, can't we say that Robert Harpur was an imaginative immigrant and that his fascination with Roman and Greek culture represented the transmigration of souls to the extent that he became the vehicle for the collective unconscious of western culture. Trash what i just said, my wife says I just can't stand criticism of my driving so let me admit to a moving violation to the extent that you have pointed out a piece of historical truth--which I parenthetically find interesting enough to pursue. In fact we have to pursue this and other matters with our magician friend and our respective spice (pl of spouse)over dinner in a diner. The Good Stuff on 14th off Sixth is very condusive to conversations relations to truth. Nice to hear from you Peloni. Your name just came up in conversation and is never far from our thoughts.


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