Sep. 18, 2005


by Daniel Hoffman

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Poem: "Philosophy" by Daniel Hoffman, from Makes you Stop and Think © George Braziller Publishers. Reprinted with permission.


In sophomore year the great philosopher,
Then ninety, out of retirement came, to pass
His wisdom on to one more generation.
Reading his last lecture to our class,

That afternoon the mote-filled sunlight leaned
Attentively with purpose through the tall
Windows in amber buttresses that seemed
To gird the heavens so they wouldn't fall.

The blaze of his white mane, his hooded eyes,
The voice that plumbed us from reflection's skies
So far above temptation or reward—

The scene has never left my mind. I wrote
His lecture down, but, in an old trunk, my notes
Have crumbled, and I can't recall a word.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this date in 1793, President George Washington laid the cornerstone of the Capitol building in Washington. At the time, the House of Representatives and the Senate were meeting in the temporary capital of Philadelphia. Washington, D.C. had yet to be built. It was just a marsh along the Potomac River.

Sixteen architectural designs had been submitted. George Washington had rejected them all. Finally, he accepted a late submission from an architect named Dr. William Thornton from the West Indies, which was combined with a runner-up entry from a man named Stephen Hallet, for a building with a dome and two wings, one for the Senate and one for the House.

The president marched from the banks of the Potomac up the hill to the construction site wearing his Masonic apron. He had an umbrella for the sun, but he gave it to a woman in the crowd. He said, "I've been exposed to the sun before." He used a silver trowel to lay the cornerstone. There was a prayer and Masonic chanting and then a barbecue. They barbecued a 500-pound ox.

It was as smaller building then, the Capitol, and the public area under the dome served as a kind of flea market where there were vendors selling everything from machinery to silk. But the building expanded, the wings expanded, and then to bring the dome into proportion with the rest of the building, a larger cast iron dome was built, replacing the smaller copper one.

The completed version of the building, basically what we know as the Capitol today, was finished in the middle of the Civil War.

It's the birthday of Dr. Samuel Johnson, born in Lichfield, England (1709). Dr. Johnson said, "Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures." And he said, "When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

It's the birthday of the physicist Jean Bernard Léon Foucault, born in Paris (1819). He invented the gyroscope, took the first clear photograph of the sun, and originated the pendulum that demonstrated the rotation of the earth.

It's the birthday of the novelist William March, born in Mobile, Alabama (1893). He is best known for his first and last novels. His first, Company K, is regarded as one of the finest works of American war fiction, about his service in the first World War. And his last novel, The Bad Seed, is about an ordinary family into which a child serial killer is born.

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