Wednesday, December 26, 2012

"The Iliad": Marching On

I started reading The Iliad once before I started reading through the Great Books. I believe I made it to Book 13 before taking the book back to the library and pursuing other reads. It wasn't that I didn't like it, but The Iliad is a long book and I had been reading a prose copy.

When I realized that the next book on my reading list was The Iliad, I made sure to get a verse translation (I read Robert Fagle's translation) and it made a world of difference. The long battle scenes that became overwhelmingly tedious in prose, transformed when put into verse. They were still long and I had drive myself to keep reading, but it was a good drive - like the weary soldiers marching on in the poem. Eventually the song of The Iliad got into my blood and it was easy to lose myself among the spears and shields.

I remember being surprised by the portrayal of the gods when I first read The Iliad. Keep in mind I've been well fed on Christian theology my entire life and, back then, I knew much less about Greek mythology than I do now. With my background, I had always viewed the divine as inherently good, just, and omnipotent. Homer writes the gods much like he writes his human characters: they have flaws, they quarrel with each other, they can have power struggles (Zeus isn't as secure on the Olympian throne as he likes to think), and they have limits to their knowledge. The major difference between gods and men in Homer's writing is power. The gods have incredible power and influence (though not infinite power, like the capital G God), whereas men are relative weaklings and even the great Hector and Achilles are powerless against the will of the gods. The inescapibility of fate is one of the major themes of The Iliad.


However, The Iliad is most known for its portrayal of the Trojan War. Homer doesn't seem to be making a comment on warfare, so much as simply describing it. The glories of war and the tragedy and waste of war seemed to be given equal footing. The introduction of the copy I was reading had a very fitting quote by Civil War general Robert E. Lee: "It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it." Before we get too drunk on the glory of war in the heroic age, Homer gives us a healthy dose of reality. Every soldier that is killed is given at least a brief background, so that every casualty feels like the death of an individual rather than the death of a Star Wars stormtrooper. Another interesting thing to note is that, although The Iliad is a Greek poem, their ancestors, the Achaeans are not portrayed as the "good guys" and the Trojans are not portrayed as the "bad guys". There is heroism and cowardice on both sides and although the gods are heavily involved behind the scenes, the Trojan War is not a "holy war". As I said before, the battle scenes are very long, but with the verse translation, I can't say I was ever bored.


Another point of interest for me was the contrast between Homer's heroes and the later heroes of chivalric romance, because I've had a life-long interest in knights - especially the chivalric ideal. In the essay "The Necessity of Chivalry", C. S. Lewis says that there are generally two types of men: a) the brave, but brutal at war and at home and b) the gentle and cultured, but cowardly. The first man has bravery and the second man has gentleness, but they are plagued by brutality and cowardice respectively. The world is "divided between wolves who do not understand, and sheep who cannot defend". Ideally, the knight is a fusion of bravery and gentleness; not a work of nature, but a work of art.

In The Iliad this division between human nature can be seen in the soldiers who can fight, but don't seem to have appreciation of the finer things in life and characters like Paris who has gentleness, but is hopeless in battle. The Greek and Trojan soldiers have no mercy in battle and treat women as objects, while the knights of medieval romances are merciful in battle and treat women with reverence. Hector seemed to be the exception, as he was depicted as a great war leader and a loving husband and father. Hector was my favourite character and Achilles' treatment of his corpse made me cringe.

Overall, The Iliad has been the most enjoyable book on the reading list for quite a while and it feels good to be back to the classical world.



Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Review: The Midsummer Station

Months ago when I heard that Owl City's new album, The Midsummer Station, was going to be characterized by "collaboration", a red flag went up immediately. Adam Young, Owl City's sole member and self-described "extreme introvert", has before now written his musical magic mostly by himself in his basement studio Sky Harbor and that seems to be the way he likes it. I also knew that Owl City's previous album All Things Bright and Beautiful had underperformed when compared with the surprise chart-topper Ocean Eyes, so I suspected these "collaborations" were studio shenanigans. When I saw the list of of people Adam young would be collaborating with, I knew I was right. Young has collaborated in the past, but always with fellow artists (e.g. Matt Thiessen on "Fireflies", Lights on "The Yacht Club"). The collaborations on The Midsummer Station mostly consisted of writers and producers who specialize in radio hits.

Now that I actually own The Midsummer Station and have listened to it multiple times, here is my track-by-track review: 

Dreams and Disasters: The Midsummer Station starts on a reasonably good note. I like the overall sound of "Dreams and Disasters", even if it gets a bit repetitive by the song's end.

Shooting Star: This one is an unintentional heart-breaker. Earlier in the year, Owl City released a preview EP (i.e. The Shooting Star EP) with four songs from The Midsummer Station and this is the last song I had listened to on it. The first three songs ("Gold", "Take It All Away", and "Dementia") sounded nothing like Owl City and I realized I was right about the studio shenanigans and was feeling depressed. When I played "Shooting Star" my expectations were low, but when I heard the soft synth intro, my heart stopped. It sounded like Owl City! The first verse was good, keeping the soft sound and having Owl City's trademark dreamy lyrics... and then the chorus happened. The booming beat kicked in, the self-esteem boosting lyrics began and from there "Shooting Star" turns into a Katy Perry song. The intro still breaks my heart; it's like listening to a bird stuck in a cage.

Gold: This is the only song I flat-out don't like on the album. The overly-simplistic chorus doesn't sound pleasant to my ears at all. I'm generally not a fan of booming beat songs (for lack of a better term) and this is no exception.

Dementia: Pop punk is one of my favourite genres , so naturally I like this song. Adam Young worked with Mark Hoppus from Blink 182 on this one. It still sounds nothing like Owl City, but at least its a genre that I like.

I'm Coming After You: This one has a "Deer In the Headlights"/Relient K-ish vibe and I like it for the most part. The siren sound effects on the chorus are kind of... embarrassing though. It should have either been an actual siren, or no siren at all (maybe a better option).

Speed of Love: A decent song, but not very memorable.

Good Time: I'll admit it. I quite like this song. It's really catchy and fun. It adds some pep to my step, but it doesn't give me the fulfilling sense of happiness that classic Owl City does.

Embers: Like most songs on The Midsummer Station, I have mixed feelings on "Embers". Overall, I like the verses (Adam Young pulls off hyperbole very well), but the chorus comes off as trite to me. It's trying too hard to be a self-help song and doesn't sound natural. I swear this song was written by the "It Gets Better" campaign.

Silhouette: Good old "Silhouette", the only song that Adam Young wrote by himself. This is understandably the the most personal song on The Midsummer Station and one of its treasures.

Metropolis: Many reviewers are saying that "Silhouette" is the song that sounds the most like Owl City (some even say it's the only song on here that sounds like Owl City). It seems the obvious choice as it's the only song written exclusively by Adam Young, but honestly I think "Metropolis" is closest to the Owl City vibe that I've come to know and love. Yes, this song is co-written, but it's co-written with none other than Matt Thiessen from Relient K. Adam Young and Matt Thiessen have worked together in the past ("The Bird and the Worm", "Fireflies", "Tidal Wave", and "Plant Life"). Whenever they write together, Thiessen's handiwork is evident, but the song still remains undeniably Owl City-esque. "Metropolis" is no exception. Sound-wise, "Metropolis" has the sweeping synth and string melodies that Adam Young does so well and is noticeably absent from the rest of the album (the rest of the album typically settles for club beats) and combines it with a Euro-trance beat remniscient of "The Yacht Club". Lyrically, this song reminds me of early Owl City (e.g. "The Technicolor Phase", "Swimming in Miami"). "Metropolis" is my favourite song on the album by far and I suspect this would have been the overall feel of The Midsummer Station had the collaborations not happened.

Take It All Away: The Midsummer Station ends on an interesting note. "Take It All Away" sounds like a ninties boyband, but it's surprisingly endearing.

Overall, I'm surprised I liked The Midsummer Station as much as I do. After hearing The Shooting Star EP and seeing who Adam Young was "collaborating" with, I was expecting to hate this album. Now that I've heard it, I have to admit, for what it's trying to do, it does it well. The Midsummer Station is mostly a collection of fun pop songs that will get your foot tapping. However my ultimate disappointment with this album is not that it's so bad, but that Owl City's old stuff was so good. Owl City was like nothing I had ever heard before and "Fireflies" was a total break from every other radio phenomenon. Owl City evokes a precious innocence and beauty that is hard to find anywhere, much less on Top 40 radio. Only Adam Young could create the musical magic of Owl City, and I think that his incredible talent and imagination is going to waste on The Midsummer Station. Even though most of the songs are enjoyable, they're very forgettable and unoriginal. If I didn't know who Owl City was and I heard a song like "Gold" or "Speed of Love" on the radio I wouldn't take any notice. I might even change the channel. I'm hesitant to even call most of these songs "Owl City songs" (except for "Metropolis" and "Silhouette"), because other than Adam Young's voice there's little to no similarity between these songs and his older songs. Lyrically, this album tries too hard to be a self-esteem booster, which I don't think is necessary. I've heard a few stories of a pre-The Midsummer Station Owl City song saving someone from suicide and I believe it. Listening to Owl City can give the listener a new faith in anything from life to God to beauty. He never had to say that his listeners are "shooting stars" or "it gets better", because the focus wasn't on ourselves, it was on the beauty around us (I'm trying not to sound cheesy here, but it's hard to describe my love for Owl City's music without being cheesy); be it a beach, architecture, a hot air balloon, or the Northern Lights. Heck, a song like "The Yacht Club" doesn't exactly make the listener feel good about themselves and is actually pretty self-deprecating, but it never fails to put a smile on my face. But again, we aren't the point. Here's hoping Adam Young will be able to go back to his solo roots (with the occasional collaboration with a fellow artist), and the sounds of Owl City will be heard again. 





Tuesday, October 23, 2012

List One Completed

With the completion of The Communist Manifesto comes the end of the first reading list of the Great Books of the Western World. One down, nine to go. When I started I wasn't sure how long it would take for me to get through the list, although I was hoping for six months (which, if I was consistent would mean cutting the ten year plan into a five year plan). In reality it took me nine months (from the beginning of February to the end of October).

The list started off with a bang, and I read Plato's Apology and Crito, Aristophanes' The Clouds and Lysistrata, the selection from Plato's Republic, and the selections from Aristotle's Ethics and Politics in the first month. The reading selections were relatively short and I enjoyed nearly all of them, so you can forgive me for thinking I had the six month hope in the bag. March brought me back to earth as I slowly made my way through the selections in Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans and read the first half of the selection from St. Augustine's Confessions. I enjoyed these two books, but they were denser than the books from the previous month and I realized that this endeavour wouldn't be as easy as I naively thought it would be. In April I finished the Confessions selection, flew through Machiavelli's The Prince and met my nemesis: Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel. Gargantua and Pantagruel was the most challenging of the books selected to get through as I find it overly dry and unrewarding. Through May and June, I slowly made my way through various Montaigne essays. In July I read Hamlet (as you can see my progress was slowing down significantly). In August, the reading list turned towards the subject of politics (joy) and I read Locke's Second Treatise On Civil Government and the selection from The Social Contract. September brought a temporary reprieve from politics as I read the selection from Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but it was back to politics for the remainder of the month with various American State Papers. Finally in October, I read the selection from Smith's The Wealth of Nations and Marx's Communist Manifesto.

So how did it go? I thoroughly enjoyed myself from Plato's Apology pretty much straight through to The Prince (I find Aristotle a little dry and, while I enjoyed them, the Confessions and Plutarch's "Lives" took me a while to get through). I strongly disliked Rabelais, Montaigne was interesting for the most part but time-consuming, and I enjoyed Hamlet. The last few months, though, became somewhat of a chore. Politics (along with Economics) is not my favourite subject by any stretch and the last chunk of the reading list focused on little else (with the blessed exception of Gibbon).

List One seemed primarily concerned with government. In Apology and Crito, I saw Socrates contemplating whether or not to submit himself to his government's unjust sentence and why a life in government wasn't for him. The Republic showed Plato's ideal government. Obviously Aristotle's Politics is concerned with government. The selections from Plutarch's "Lives" showed four successful leaders and governors. Machiavelli explained a practical method for running a government. Gargantua and Pantagruel poked fun at established government (among other things). Some of Montaigne's essays touched on government. And the readings from Locke, Rousseau, the American State Papers, and Marx were primarily concerned with government. Gibbon's "Decline and Fall" gave a historical account of the fall of a particular government. A secondary theme seemed to be sexuality and the powerful effect it has on our lives. Lysistrata was about a sex strike (and how poorly it went), Montaigne's essay "Upon a Few Verses of Virgil" was about the influence of Venus, Augustine lamented sexual temptation, and teenage angst lead Ophelia to commit suicide in Hamlet. Gargantua and Pantagruel, of course, was filled to the brim with this theme.

Overall List Two looks more inviting to me than List One did. I'm especially looking forward to Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Plato, Lucretius, Pascal (the Pensees, not the Treatise on the Arithmetical Triangle), and Swift. Here's the list:

1. HOMER: The Iliad

2. AESCHYLUS: Agamemnon, Choephoroe, Eumenides

3. SOPHOCLES: Oedipus the King, Antigone

4. HERODOTUS: The History [Book I-II]

5. PLATO: Meno

6. ARISTOTLE: Poetics

7. ARISTOTLE: Ethics [Book II; Book III, Ch. 5-12; Book VI, Ch. 8-13]

8. NICOMACHUS: Introduction to Arithmetic

9. LUCRETIUS: On the Nature of Things [Book I-IV]

10. MARCUS AURELIUS: Meditations

11. HOBBES: Leviathan [Part I]

12. MILTON: Areopagitica

13. PASCAL: Pensées [Numbers 72, 82-83, 100, 128, 131, 139, 142-143, 171, 194-
195, 219, 229, 233-234, 242, 273, 277, 282, 289, 298, 303, 320, 323, 325, 330-331,
374, 385, 392, 395-397, 409, 412-413, 416, 418, 425, 430, 434-435, 463, 491, 525-
531, 538, 543, 547, 553, 556, 564, 571, 586, 598, 607-610, 613, 619-620, 631, 640,
644, 673, 675, 684, 692-693, 737, 760, 768, 792-793]

14. PASCAL: Treatise on the Arithmetical Triangle

15. SWIFT: Gulliver's Travels

16. ROUSSEAU: A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality

17. KANT: Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals

18. MILL: On Liberty

Monday, October 22, 2012

"The Communist Manifesto": Enslaved to the Machine or the State?

When I glanced over List One of the Great Books, my eyes gravitated towards the final book, The Communist Manifesto, not so much out of excitement, but out of curiosity. Before, I begin I should say that politically I'm midway between the Left and the Right (moving slightly one way or the other depending on the day) and I'm typically not a fan of the far Right or Left. Communism, of course, is on the far Left of the spectrum.

Marx laments the bourgeoisi (middle class) treating the proletariat (lower class) as mere pieces in the machine of industry. According to Marx, Communism is primarily about the abolition of private property and the market, inevitably creating a classless society. Marx is convinced that Communism is not only possible, it is inevitable and the proletariat are destined to rise against their bourgeoise oppressors to create this Communist state, presumably worldwide. Marx says that history has always been a story of class oppression and Communism is the ending of said oppression.

I think the main point where Marx and I diverge is the amount of faith we have in humanity. Marx's faith in the human spirit seems unshakeable, whereas I take a more pessimistic view (I'm only pessimistic concerning humanity as a whole; I don't consider myself a pessimist overall). Even during the readings in List One, I was confronted with a few reasons to be wary of the majority. In Apology I saw the people execute Socrates, in the Gospel of Matthew I saw the people crucify Christ, and the people were spurred on to slaughter aristocratic men, women, and children partly because of The Social Contract. So, no, I don't have faith in humanity - not even the majority of humanity.

Communism, as Marx imagines it, sounds appealing in some ways (not in all ways), but I question whether it could ever be brought to reality. History has shown how Communism has worked in the real world and, while it could be argued that the time is not yet ripe for true Marxian Communism, I honestly doubt that day will ever come. Marx offers very little practical advice on how to actually run a Communist society and a controlling intelligentsia seems inevitable to me (e.g. "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others" like in Animal Farm).

Capitalism may not be perfect by any stretch, but I personally have no cause to complain. The freedoms I care about (e.g. freedom of expression, assembly, religion, and the priviledge of having a place to call my own and a family), I have, but I wouldn't have in a modern Communist state. The proletariat may be enslaved to the Capitalist machine, but I have trouble not seeing the citizens of a Communist country enslaved to the State, enslaved to the herd.

Ultimately, I prize individuality over equality and I'd rather face oppression than march to the beat of the same drum as every other citizen and I would rather live in a world divided with independent thought and beliefs than a peaceful world where everyone is the same. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

"The Wealth of Nations" [Ch. 1-9]

The Wealth of Nations was a challenge to get through. Although I only had to read the first nine chapters (about 78 pages), it took me about four weeks to finish. Economics is really not my strong suit and it took extra effort to comprehend Smith's words and, now that I'm done, I feel like nearly everything I read has already slipped from my memory.

Consequently, I don't have much to say on this one. I enjoyed the parts when Smith drew on historical examples to prove his points, because of my interest in history, but I found The Wealth of Nations very dry reading overall.

I also think I'm getting Enlightenment fatigue. The last few authors on the Great Books reading list (Locke, Rousseau, Thomas Jefferson, the Federalist authors, and Smith) have all been Enlightenment thinkers and I'm beginning to crave a change of scenery.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The American State Papers: The Birth of a Nation... Not Mine

I'm Canadian, but the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Founding Fathers are household names (although I hadn't heard of the Federalist Papers before now), so it was neat to finally read them. My first reaction was how short the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are, although in hindsight it makes sense.

Obviously, the Declaration of Independence was the declaration that America would no longer be a part of the British Empire. The Constitution was the basic governing structure proposed for the United States. There wasn't anything very surprising in these two documents.

The Federalist Papers got more interesting. The Federalist Papers were a series of short articles written by three men (Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay) defending the Constitution against naysayers. The articles that I read concerned the importance of the States being united States under one government rather than individual "city-states" like in ancient Greece, taxation, distribution of judicial, legislative, and executive powers, and the office of President of the United States. I found these papers interesting, because it showed how history might have taken a different turn had America rejected the Constitution (imagine the States not being united). Overall, I did find it dry reading though.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Update

I've decided to delete my blog entry about Book Two of Rabelai's Gargantua and Pantagruel. It didn't really add anything to my thoughts on the first book and it was pretty much an immature rant. I've made necessary edits to my original blog entry on Rabelais to include Books One and Two.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

"The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" [Ch. 15-16]: Divorcing Theology and History



In Chapter 15 of "The Decline" Gibbon describes what he considers the chief reasons for Christianity's success in the Roman Empire during the first few centuries AD and in Chapter 16 he outlines the relationship between the early Christians and the Roman Emperors from Nero to Constantine.

Gibbon attempts to provide an impartial account of the rise of Christianity contrasted with the biased traditional histories of the Church. For me reading Gibbon raised the question of the possibility (or impossibility) of being truly objective. For the most part I think Gibbon was successful as he debunked mistaken beliefs about the early Christians using primary sources rather than Church-sanctioned secondary sources. On the other hand, Gibbon had a habit of making value judgments on people and things. He was particularly harsh on the Jews. Wouldn't a truly objective writer withold his opinions even if he were writing about the Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan? He also referred to many religions (Christianity, paganism, Judaism) as "superstition" but wouldn't a truly impartial writer not dismiss any religion (or athiesm, deism etc.) as none can be proven or disproven based on empirical evidence?

 I say none of this to slam Gibbon. He proved to be a very capable historian and I found "The Decline" very informative and readable. History and religion/mythology are two of my favourite subects, so naturally I was interested in the topic Gibbon was writing about. Modern skepticism is in full force in "the Decline" as Gibbon removes God from view and focuses on what can be discovered on empirical evidence and brainpower alone. Perhaps the boldest statement Gibbon made in his book is that the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire has been exaggerated by the Church. Gibbon estimated just under 2,000 Christians were put to death by a lawful sentence. It's still a significant number, but far lower than the Church maintained in the past.

So overall, I quite enjoyed Gibbon and would like to read "the Decline" in its entirety one day.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

"The Social Contract" [I-II]: Public Enemies

The first book of the Social Contract was very similar in content to Locke's "Second Treatise". He stressed that no man has any natural authority over another man, that government should be run by the general will of the people, and that men gain protection and community by joining a "social contract" with each other. Rousseau also said that enemies of the general will are enemies of the government (e.g. the people decide that murder is wrong, an individual commits murder, that individual is now a public enemy and his status as a citizen is revoked). This inevitably got me thinking of John Dillinger and how, although Dillinger was breaching the general consensus that stealing is wrong, the charismatic and surprisingly principled ("I guess you could say that robbing banks is my only bad habit") Dillinger often had better standing with the public than the morally ambiguous head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover.

The second book is where Rousseau started to go off the beaten path. Some of the things I found interesting were his opinion on a lawgiver (a person who creates the law of a nation). Rousseau said that a lawgiver must be an objective thinker, must not be in power (lest he creates laws for his personal gain), and is helped by invoking divine inspiration (Rousseau tended to reflect the popular image of an Enlightenment thinker more than Locke did; a good example being his skepticism on Moses' "divinely inspired" law as being true or simply good politics), but this must be accompanied by wisdom or the people won't accept it. He also talked about the importance of having a good proportion between land and population in a country. He says that an excess of land and resources is an invitation to invasion. Canada has one of the largest supplies of fresh water and area of land per capita on earth. I thought (and think) that this is a neat feature of my country, but I can't deny what Rousseau is saying here. My History teacher once compared Canada to a modern day Ancient Egypt, because of the wealth of resources and the defensibility of both (Egypt is surrounded by desert and marsh, Canada is surrounded by ocean... and America). The civilization of Ancient Egypt lasted 3,000 years. Here's hoping Canada will follow in its footsteps.


I happened to read Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities simultaneously with the Social Contract. I was reading A Tale of Two Cities simply because I had heard that The Dark Knight Rises was partially inspired by it, but it worked very well as a companion to the Social Contract. In A Tale of Two Cities the reader sees Rousseau's vision coming to life (A Tale of Two Cities took place during the French Revolution, a conflict that Rousseau's writings helped to create), but it being a scene of Hell rather than of an ascendant utopia. Dickens shows that the general will can err (as Rousseau speculated), especially in times of emotional excitement, as it did when the general will of the people of France  agreed on the mass slaughter of aristocratic men, women, and children.

It's a bizarre fact about me that I dislike revolutionaries and preachiness about democracy and equality. A growing trend in the type of stories I enjoy has social revolutionaries as the villains (Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, Alma Coin and District 13 in Mockingjay, Amon in The Legend of Korra, the Defarges in A Tale of Two Cities, even Syndrome in The Incredibles to a certain degree). Personally, I often find them more interesting and culturally relevant (and, for me, easier to love to hate) than the classic evil tyrant. It's easy to tear down the evil tyrant, because no one in our culture will object. Making social revolutionaries the villain is more risky. Does this make me a public enemy? I hope not. I don't think we should bring back monarchies and I think that democracy is probably the best form of government out there (though, in my opinion, that still isn't saying much), but at the end of the day democracy is just a political system. Political systems that promote social equality won't give us happiness in the long run, won't cure the human condition, and the mindset these politcal systems produce can be used for ill (as C. S. Lewis brilliantly expressed in Screwtape Proposes a Toast and as can be seen in history) as well as for good.  

I frequently get annoyed at the preachiness of equality and tolerance in speeches and stories. Not because I think treating everyone with respect and tolerance is a bad thing (far from it!), but because I think emphasizing these virtues in our culture is preaching to the choir. Modern-day Canada may just be the most diverse and tolerant nation this planet has ever seen. So why don't we start talking about vices we actually face, like materialism, selfishness, hedonism etc.


Bane: http://www.themarysue.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Bane-TDKR2.jpg

Dillinger: http://filmdr.blogspot.ca/2009/07/charm-of-gangster-10-notes-on-public.html

Guillotine:  http://markamerica.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/french_revolution_guillotine.jpg

Saturday, August 11, 2012

"The Second Treatise On Civil Government": Political Idealism

The back cover of the copy of the "Second Treatise" that I read describes John Locke as an "early Enlightenment philosopher". While Locke wrote in many ways like the popular image of an Enlightenment thinker, he carried with him earlier medieval ideas. For example, while he rejected monarchy and the Divine Right to Rule he maintained the belief in a natural order for the world as well as a reverence for God and the Bible as authoritative. He encouraged citizens to revolt against their leaders if they were being treated unfairly and he believed in the Natural Law (the moral law that is written on the hearts of all humanity regardless of race or culture). In other words he walked a middle path between medieval "conservatism" and Enlightenment "liberalism". Politics is one of my weak points both in interest and comprehension, but Locke's lack of conservative/liberal extremity made him strike me as quite a sensible person. It also helped that Locke often drew on Biblical examples to prove his points. Add a little religion and the politics pill goes down easier for me.

Locke's treatises greatly influenced the founding fathers of America and it isn't hard to see why. Locke's writing is full of the "American dream" of democracy: everyone is born free and equal, citizen's right to revolt against a corrupt government, the government should do what is best for the people, citizens should have a voice in government etc.

When thing that struck me when I was reading Locke was how different his approach to government was to Machiavelli's. While Locke wrote about how government ought to be, Machiavelli wrote about how government actually is. Machiavelli is the political realist and Locke is the political idealist. Where Machiavelli says that a prince must be exempt from conventional morality if he is to be successful, Locke asserts that leaders owe subjection to the laws of God and Nature just like anyone else.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Update

A couple things:

  • I'm not really happy with the way the third entry in my C. S. Lewis's Impact series turned. I've deleted it and am going to give it some more thought and try to think of a better way to word it. I'm not sure when I'll get it done.
  • I'm experiencing computer problems, so I'm not sure how that's going to affect my blog. I'm going to try and update my blog whenever I finish one of the reading entries in the Great Books. I don't want to start a new book until I've finished writing about it on here, so I might be hitting a temporary roadblock in my reading plan.

"Hamlet": 16th Century Teenager

Reading Hamlet felt like a homecoming in a couple of ways. Firstly, Hamlet was the first classic I ever read (of my free will) and it brought me back to when I first got interested in the classics. There was (and is) so much to read and explore. I'm pleased to say that I understood Hamlet a lot better this time around, although there's still innumerable layers of it that I've yet to unravel. Part of this was simply because I read a version of Hamlet that had the original version side by side with a modern translation, so if I got stuck I could cross reference. Hopefully the other part is that I've become more experienced with literature, history, and old English since I last read Hamlet (I must have been around thirteen at the time).

Secondly, Hamlet is the first non-comedic work of literature on the reading list. I've enjoyed most of the books on the list so far, but literature is where my heart truly lies (I'm dying to get to epic poetry). Nothing against comedy, but it generally isn't my cup of tea. I prefer a more serious take in literature. This isn't to say I don't like humour and indeed Hamlet had a few comedic moments, but in general I prefer humour as a seasoning rather than as a main course.

Last semester my history teacher was talking about how Hamlet is a relatable character for modern teenagers (or teenagers in  any era, I imagine), so I looked out for that as I reread Hamlet. There is a lot of "teen issues" in this book. Hamlet, of course, is a teenager and he has to deal with youthful infatuation, his mother remarrying (it's true that most modern teens don't have to deal with their murderous uncle becoming their stepfather, but still), fashion, betraying friends, and suicide.

I can't think of much else to say, but I quite enjoyed this re-reading.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Essays of Montaigne Part 2


That It Is Folly to Measure Truth and Error by Our Own Capacity

In this essay Montaigne warns his readers to be be careful when judging the "impossible" and in turning our noses at the supernatural, because we are dealing with things so far beyond us. When I read this, the first thing I thought of was the major atheist thinkers of the day (Hawking, Dawkins etc.) and I wanted to wave this essay in front of their faces and say, "See! Montaigne gets it!"
And then I saw myself in it. Yes, I'm a Christian, but I'm also a born skeptic. I believe firmly that Jesus was the Son of God, was killed, and rose from the dead, but I dismiss things like modern-day speaking in tongues and faith healing as absurd. Of course, this essay hasn't single-handedly made me convince that these things are authentic, but it gave me a good shake by the neck that I probably needed.

On Cannibals

This was an interesting read. This wasn't so much a critique on cannibalism as it was on Native American culture. I have never heard that Native Americans were cannibals, so I question whether that "fact" is accurate. In any case, I have been taught by the Native Studies class I took in high school (among other places) that the Europeans considered the natives savage, backwards and in need of modern Western "correction", but here in the mouth of an actual 16th century European, I get something different. For sure Montaigne makes note of their simple culture with a lack of machinery, complex government, careers, complex mathematics, writing systems etc., but he does so in a very sympathetic light. He likens them to man in his golden age or men "straight from God". At any rate, he doesn't seem to think his culture is superior to the natives, because he compares their cannibalism and simple virtues with his own culture's lack of cannibalism but also its treachery, disloyalty, tyranny, and cruelty. Montaigne may well have been the exception to the rule (indeed, he seems to be writing to an audience that views the natives as barbarous), but it's interesting to see that not all 16th century Europeans were the ignorant globalists they're so often made out to be.

That the Relish of Good and Evil Depends in a Great Measure upon the Opinion We Have of Them

Judging by the title, I thought this would be about moral relativism, but it was more "One guy's curse is another guy's blessing". Honestly, this one didn't do much for me.

Upon Some Verses of Virgil

This was a reflection on sexuality and its power over us. I've never had sex (not till marriage, dear readers), but being a teenage male, I won't pretend that I'm ignorant of Venus's blessing/curse. It's better to read things like this now than when I'm old and gray and wishing I had read it sooner.

Overall, I quite enjoyed Montaigne and really appreciated his honesty, humility, and humour.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

C. S. Lewis's Impact Part 2: Literature

The year was 2005 when I read my first C. S. Lewis book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and I knew then that I was a goner. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe along with the rest of the Narnia Chronicles, came to me like a breath of fresh air. 


Around the time of this first reading, I was around twelve or thirteen years old, and I was in a time warp. I grew up loving stories of faraway lands and brave heroes, but I was nearly a teenager and soon I would have to expand my reading horizons beyond children's books. I tried to like young adult fiction, really I did, but my heart just wasn't in it. YA fiction can generally be divided into three categories - teen drama, teen issues, and the supernatural - and most of it was aimed at teenage girls. Teen drama (who's taking who to the 
prom?, OMG he cheated on you! etc.) didn't, and doesn't, interest me. Books on teen issues (drugs, gangs, slums etc.) felt like it was from a world I didn't inhabit and I felt disconnected to the characters. Even the supernatural books had none of the beauty, joy, or even mystery that I recalled from children's books. It was all vampires and werewolves, with nothing to balance the gloom. That or they were mass-produced fantasy series that I've never had much of a liking for. I remember feeling tugged between stories that I enjoyed and stories that were "fit" for my age group. Around this time, I began to mentally categorize books and movies into two categories - books that I enjoyed, and books that were "mature" or "smart". The Oscars didn't help - my favourite movies usually lost or were absent entirely. These "mature" stories were missing something, but I didn't know what it was.


When I read Narnia, I loved it first as one of those "enjoyable" stories, but I soon picked up on the deeper themes of the story. Yes, it was  a children's story, and it had all the things that make my heart swell, but it was also mature and thought-provoking. I read the Narnia books again and again, venturing deeper into its labyrinthine pages. Of, course, I eventually decided to read more books by C. S. Lewis, and I discovered a very interesting person. Here was a professor of English, who liked and respected children's stories and didn't look down on things like magic or talking animals. Thanks to C. S. Lewis, I no longer categorize stories as I used to. In fact, I suspect many of the children's stories I enjoyed from my childhood, and still enjoy, have more artistic merit than much of the books I read for English class. Certainly Narnia does.


Most interestingly, I learned from Lewis, along with Tolkien, that this condescending attitude towards "fairy stories" is actually quite recent. I discovered that in the past stories with fauns, chivalric knights, and dragons were actually taken seriously. "Fairy stories" have a better standing today than they did in Lewis's and Tolkien's day (largely thanks to them), but they are still often seen as inferior to "realistic" stories. 


Through Lewis, I discovered the classics.


I remember being at the library, looking at the Star Wars books (Star Wars was my main reading passion at that point), when I happened to glance over at the classics section. They almost felt like forbidden fruit. No one actually reads those dusty old things, do they? Am I allowed? But I saw no reason not to pick one up. I glanced at the spines and many of the titles I recognized from reading Lewis's non-fiction. The first classic I read was Hamlet and, while I enjoyed, it was Paradise Lost that introduced me to epic poetry and pushed me over the edge. It had the things I loved, but it was an adult book, a well-respected one at that. 


Over time, I began to see what the "mature" books had been lacking: what Tolkien called the Numinous and what Lewis called Joy. Beauty is a mysterious thing. It has no apparent function or use, but I feel like I would fight to preserve it. Beauty is its own reward. It upsets me to see beauty trampled upon (heck, to this day it genuinely upsets me to hear Santa Claus-pedophile jokes). This why I don't like seeing trees getting down. The tree won't feel any pain, and it's dropping leaves all over the sidewalk, but darn it all, it's beautiful. Try talking someone out of chopping a tree down and see what happens ("What use is the tree?"). Beauty doesn't just look or sound nice, it haunts you. It fills you with desire for a time or place you've never known (or have you?). It keeps you up at night. This type of thing is almost entirely cut out of contemporary fiction. I don't know why. It isn't because of all our "modern suffering", because our ancestors went through much more than us in the modern West do and they still expressed these things in genuine works of art. It really is a wonder to think that materialism (i.e. the belief that nature is all there is and that there is no supernatural, not the love of material things) has become popular in the cushiest society the world has ever known.


Since then, I've become able to enjoy stories with less black-and-white and that are more "down to earth", though I still prefer "fairy stories". And to this day the only young adult books I enjoy is the "Hunger Games" trilogy.


So Lewis's hand in my literary maturation was subtle but crucial. He showed me that the sort of stories I enjoy aren't inferior to "realistic" (though lacking some pretty crucial elements of the human experience) stories and introduced me to one of my great loves, the classics - particularly epic poetry and chivalric romance. I don't think I would have ever decided to read through the Great Books of the Western World, as I'm doing right now, without C. S. Lewis.


In my next entry I will talk about how C. S. Lewis changed my perspective on religion.






Grafitti:
http://cache2.artprintimages.com/lrg/27/2704/71GND00Z.jpg


Forest:
http://www.lazypalace.com/img/nature/beautiful-forest/beautiful-forest03.jpg

Saturday, June 9, 2012

C. S. Lewis's Impact Part 1: Introduction

I've been meaning to write this entry for quite a while. If asked who the most influential person in my life is (not including the obvious: Mom, Dad, Jesus etc.), I would have to say mine is C. S. Lewis.

C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) was a British (he was born in Ireland, but lived the majority of his life in England) professor and author. His most famous work is the children's fairy tale series "The Chronicles of Narnia", and the Narnia books were the first books by him that I read. He wrote in a variety of other genres including science fiction, Christian apologetics, literary criticism, and poetry. Aside from the Narnia books his most famous works are Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters and the most prestigious, though much lesser known, is English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama for the "Oxford History of English Literature" series (Lewis used the apt acronym "OHEL", because of the full title's tedium). Writing books was his past-time and his professional career was a scholar. He taught as a fellow at Magdalen College at Oxford and was later appointed as the first Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature and Cambridge University after he convinced the school that his subject was one worth teaching.

The most important thing to say in this introduction is how similar the two of us are. Both of us have the personality type INTJ (standing for Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Judging) according to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. This is especially notable considering INTJs make up approximately 2% of the population. INTJs tend to be rational creatures, relying on their minds and reason over emotions and feelings. As can be expected, many INTJs go into the field of science, however Lewis and I, further narrowing down the 2%, are alternately cursed and blessed with a mathematical block. I do math painfully slow, often not comleting tests by the allotted time and cannot do any calculations but the very simple in my head without resorting to counting on my fingers or drawing ticks. I at least have the advantage of the calculator. Lewis wasn't so lucky. In fact, if he hadn't been a veteran of World War I, he wouldn't have been admitted into Oxford because of his math deficiencies. So with math and science out of the picture, we turned to the dusty subjects of a bygone (pre-Scientific) era - mainly literature - as our chief intellectual delight.

Our childhoods were somewhat similar. Both were happy times of relative innocence that we look back on with fondness and consider a "golden age" of sorts. We grew up out of the school system (he was taught by a tutor and I was homeschooled) with loving parents and, as far as we could see, happy homes. We grew up with a love for stories, especially ones involving knights and talking animals, that would turn us both into incurable romantics. Both of our childhood innocence was shattered at the age of eight. C. S. Lewis describes the experience in Surprised By Joy: "With my mother’s death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life. There was to be much fun, many pleasures, many stabs of Joy; but no more of the old security. It was sea and islands now; the great continent had sunk like Atlantis". I know how he felt.

So, in some ways, we resemble Jekyll and Hyde. On one hand we can be rationalistic and at times cold, but on the other hand we can be gentle and there are few things, if any, that excite us more than beauty that feels like it has visited us from beyond the end of the world (more on this later). Because our personality type is as rare as it is, and further divded from the majority of the 2% by our math deficiencies, there is little wonder that I felt like C. S. Lewis's books were made for me and have impacted me so deeply.

I'll further break down the impact of C. S. Lewis into two categories, faith and literature, in future blogs.


C. S. Lewis as a child: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_O19_Cgk7q-c/TF1W6DLZZYI/AAAAAAAAATc/ifUdVvi9wvI/s1600/CSL+%26+toy.jpg

C. S. Lewis writing: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-NX-VFRV7HKM/T5gUdppCdaI/AAAAAAAAAZ8/X6fnKfEn4uQ/s1600/lewis.jpg

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Unmoved Mover

I was sitting at my desk during study period and I didn't want to study or read, so I decided to write a rant about my frustration with modern views on religion. Keep in mind, I wrote it up in an hour and it wasn't thought out beforehand and is therefore fairly unstructured. I wrote whatever came to my mind. Here it is in its raw, unedited glory:
 One of the most frustrating aspects of modern religion vs. atheism debates is both sides' unwillingness to take each other seriously. As a Christian, I can only speak for one side of the debate. I'm getting rather tired of atheists resorting to snide, condescending remarks like "You believe in a magician in the sky" or (my favourite) "You believe in an outdated way of thinking when man was primitive. We've moved on from religion". The great theistic thinkers of of the past did not believe in a "magician in the sky". It's clear that the atheists I'm talking about haven't read the classic theistic thinkers and have no desire to. Instead they focus on the "fighting fundies", the holy rollers, and the doomsday prophets of the world. It isn't hard to make these people look absurd. Try C. S. Lewis, Thomas Aquinas, or Plato on for size and get back to the table with some intelligent arguments. Fundamentalism - the belief that the Bible is a literal historic/scientific document in its entirety, trumping anything that scientists or historians say and was brought about by the writers copying  God's whispers verbatim - seems to be a modern or noneducated (be careful to separate what the educated vs. the noneducated masses believed ) phenomenon. Indeed when the issue of anthropomorphism (e.g. God literally living in a castle in the sky) was brought to the early church, it was condemned. I blame this modern phenomenon on the fact that modern people (I don't pretend to be an exception) are clueless about mythology. In the modern mind the word "myth" is synonymous with the word "false". When we see something like the seven day creation, we either say it is true scientific fact or it is primitive rubbish. What else could it be? When I hear atheists talking about "magicians in the sky" it makes me sad because this is such a false conception how thinking monotheists view God. I've seen some people capitalize pagan gods as "Gods" to be politically correct and I think this is a good example of how we misunderstand divinity. When I use the lower case g for "gods", I'm not being a snarky Christian and doing it because they're "false gods". I have a deep respect for pagan mythology. Rather I do it because a god and God are two different things. Zeus isn't Yahweh in a different mask. If I didn't believe in any deity, I would still capitalize God and leave polytheistic gods with a lower case g. I don't capitalize a "god" but do capitalize "God" for the same reason I don't capitalize a "cloud", or a "human", or an "angel" but I do capitalize the characters from Little Bear as "Hen", "Owl", or "Duck". God and the gods are different ideas. Zeus is the king of the gods because he arbitrarily put himself there. He overthrew his father Cronus and took his place. He isn't the rightful ruler of Olympus (unless we assume that might makes right) and he certainly isn't a paragon of virtue (again I'm not being snarky - ask any ancient Greek poet). There isn't anything especially "supernatural" (i.e. outside of nature, metaphysical) about the gods. They're just really powerful. Their immortality is different from God's immortality. The gods live forever, but God is outside of nature, outside of time. He simply IS. Nothing can overthrow Him (Satan is a pathetic insurrectionist, not "God's rival"). Heck, we only use "Him" because it's closer to the mark than the alternatives Her or It. The question "Who created God?" is a nonsense question. He is eternal, the Uncreated, the Unmoved Mover. We use analogies like king, shepherd, father, husband etc. because it's the best we can do. How can you describe the indescribable? This isn't a "get out of jail free" card (though I can understand why it frustrates atheists). If you believe in the God I've been attempting to describe, it's a very small jump in logic to concede that that He won't fit into our categorization. Could a worm (or even a dog or a cat) conceptualize all the intricacies of human life? How much less can we put God in a box and say "this is what He is". We know about Him, but we don't know Him (certainly not the way he knows us or even the way we know each other). The question of God is one of the great questions of life. Please don't dumb it down.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Essays of Montaigne Part 1

These are my thoughts after reading various essays by Michel Eyquem de Montaigne:


Of Custom, and That We Should Not Easily Change a Law Received

Montaigne opens with some very interesting thoughts about custom such as how they can be good or bad, how habits in children continue into adulthood unless tampered with, and how odd customs of other societies can appear to us (and vice versa!). He used the example of a man who blew his nose with his hands who said that it didn't make sense to carry around a dirty handkerchief in your pocket when you could dispose of it then and there. His fellow Frenchmen reviled him for it, but Montaigne said that his logic couldn't be faulted. I've heard many customs separated from me by either time or distance. Some I dismiss as absurd or wrong, some I think are brilliant, and some, like the handkerchief example, though I can't fault the logic, I still find myself opposed to it. He makes a long list of bizarre customs of various places to show the variety of custom. The list, because of its sheer size gave me a flashback to Rabelais, only this time around the list is actually interesting and not just full of nonsense.

Montaigne's main point of this essay is that changes in custom should not be brought about lightly. Every culture is coloured by their own prejudices, and this can cloud their judgment when passing a new law or abolishing an old one. A passing phase can be mistaken for "progress". Changes in custom can also wreak havoc on society, causing dissension and civil wars. Montaigne also mentioned the inherent goodness of obeying your native government. Once again, I'm brought face to face with this issue. On one hand, I live in a culture of rebellion and have a fondness for characters like Luke Skywalker and Katniss Everdeen. It makes sense to me that if the government wrongs me, I act out against it. And yet... what if I think this only because of my modern North American prejudices? There's truth to the statement that I owe the government my life; it has allowed my parents to marry, my father to emigrate, and let me grow up in a safe environment. Just as significantly, two of my real life heroes (a rare thing in itself - most of my heroes are fictional), Jesus and Socrates, submitted themselves to the death penalty on a false charge. I honour them for it, but would I do the same even if I had the guts for it?

One thing that confused me was Montaigne's position on static moral law. Some times he seemed to affirm a natural law, and other times he seemed to dismiss it as being brought about by custom.

Of Pedantry

In this essay Montaigne railed against dumb "educated" people. People who spew the sayings of Plato or Aristotle to show of their "knowledge", but never have an original idea or think for themselves. It was entertaining and it, I'm not gonna lie, it made me think about myself and my quest to read the Great Books. He also mentioned the importance of learning virtue in addition to knowledge. A smart, bad man is not a good thing.

Of the Education of Children

After reading Of the Education of Children, I think me and Montaigne could have gotten along together fine. The idea of a mass school system like the modern west has is never brought up, and Montaigne assumes that education will be done by parents and tutors. I'm old school education-wise and I still think this is the best way to do it. I'm not sure when the modern school system originated, but I don't think it was an improvement.

Montaigne has many good ideas about how to educate children effectively. This essay continues Montaigne's dislike for pedantry and asserts that that a good education should inspire action and understanding rather than just the memorization and display of facts. He says that a tutor shouldn't merely spew information at his student, but dialogue with him and teach him to dialogue with those around him. Again, this type of attention is difficult for the mass-production style of the modern school system. Montaigne also says not to give children a book by someone like Aristotle and to accept everything he says simply because he's Aristotle™.  Rather he should be taught to question everything. After all what wisdom is there in quoting the masters when you can't formulate an opinion of your own? Interestingly, Montaigne also said that children shouldn't be guarded from pain (within reason, of course), because pain instructs, and hardens the body. I can't really argue with him there.

So overall, this essay was a very insightful view into the education of children. I'll be revisiting this essay when I, Lord willing, have children of my own, and I think the education system would be better if they listened to his advice.



Wednesday, April 25, 2012

"Gargantua and Pantagruel" [Books I-II]: Why, Why, Why...

*sigh* Here's a book to add to my Least Favourite list. In the last couple of years only Brighton Beach Memoirs, Ready Player One, and Darth Plagueis have made this list. I might do a future blog about why these others made it, but right now I'll stay on task. 

Right. Gargantua and Pantagruel. I've only read the first book so far (thank God I only have to read the first two before moving onto Montaigne), but I was thoroughly unimpressed by it. I feel extremely pretentious calling one of the authors of the Great Books immature, but... he is. Keep in mind, I'm not a huge fan of comedy, so I'm probably not the best judge of one, but I thought the books combined the unenjoyable  aspects of Plutarch and Aristophanes into one set of books that is truly a chore to get through. I enjoyed both Plutarch and Aristophanes and thought their places in the Great Books were earned, but I found Plutarch dry at some points and I wasn't a fan of Aristophanes' potty humour. Rabelais  is filled with both dryness and potty humour. Rabelais writes in the tradition of Plutarch with a "reverence" for the past, long lists of accomplishments, (Rabelais' lists were torturous!) and grandiose, but it's all done in a mocking manner. With Plutarch, sure, he could be dry at times, but he has a passion for historic figures so I could see past that. Aristophanes had some very interesting insights into his culture, so I could forgive the potty humour. Rabelais has all the annoyances without the rewards. I thought these books had very little depth. In the intro, Rabelais compares his books to a nondescript box containing precious jewels or Socrates (ugly in appearance, but profound in mind). The inside is supposedly richer than the outside makes it look, but I didn't see it. As far as I can see the inside is as rotten as the outside. If any Rabelais fan is reading this, please post in the comments why you think he deserved a spot in the Great Books, because I'm curious.

One part I at least found interesting was the inscription on the new church, Theleme. It told sinners to not set foot in the church and that only virtuous people should be allowed to come inside, showing how far the Church has perverted Jesus' teachings. Jesus taught the opposite! This has great tragic potential. Alas, moments like these were told in such a mocking way (often accompanied by human waste), that they opportunity was entirely missed.

I just don't get why this made the Great Books... especially when books like Ovid's Metamorphoses and Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur are noticeably absent. Surely they're of more with than this! I've also read plenty of "low-brow" books that have engaged my intellect far more.

Overall Gargantua and Pantagruel reads like a book written by an absurdly well-read middle schooler.



Tuesday, April 17, 2012

"The Tears of Isis"

This is a poem I wrote for school. We had to pick a current issue (I picked abortion) and write a poem about it.

The Tears of Isis

Isis weeps,
Mourning her lost children,
Stolen from her protective embrace
By the surgeon's knife.

Isis weeps
For every last one,
Each as unique as a star of the heavens.
The earth will never know another of its kind.

Isis weeps
For Man’s apathy at those
Trained in the art of saving life,
But repeating the art of Moloch.

Isis weeps
At the orator’s contradiction:
Defend the weak
Except for the weakest of all.


Saturday, April 14, 2012

"The Prince": Tyranny 101

The Prince is a book I've been wanting to read for quite some time, probably starting when I first heard Darth Caedus referred to as 'Machiavellian'. It was a word I would hear again and again, always to describe villains, and always very interesting villains. The phrase "the ends justify the means" is also often attributed to Machiavelli.


After finishing the book, I have to say, Machiavelli is second only to Plato in the enjoyability department of the Great Books so far. After slowly plodding through Plutarch and St. Augustine, I swept through Machiavelli in a couple of days. It's funny because St. Augustine was very relevant to my life because I'm a Christian, but Machiavelli wasn't nearly as relevant, because I've never been in a place of any significant authority - certainly not in charge of a country. So what kept the pages turning?


I'm still getting over the fact that a book like this exists. It's what I imagine President Snow or the White Witch reads in their spare time. It might be simply because it's so foreign that I find it so compelling. Although Machiavelli never directly says "the ends justify the means" it's an apt description of his philosophy. Before painting Machiavelli too black though, he only suggests this philosophy for Princes (i.e. autocratic rulers), not for everyone. Machiavelli thinks the aim of a Prince is a successful rule first, while a virtuous life takes the back burner. For example, Machiavelli thinks it is more important for a Prince to appear virtuous, and thus maintain public support, than to be virtuous in actuality. This is the opposite of what Plato or Jesus would teach: be virtuous, even if you're condemned by your fellows for it. Again, Machiavelli is only stressing his standards for Princes.


Probably the most startling thing about The Prince is Machiavelli's suggestion that Princes' often cannot afford to be virtuous and must be prepared to participate in vices. Basically, Princes' are 'above' conventional morality. This reminds me of The Magician's Nephew, one of the Narnia chronicles, and how Lewis portrays his villains, Uncle Andrew and Jadis (who will become the White Witch). Both reject Digory and Polly's objections to their cruelty by saying that those moral rules can't apply to great magicians and empresses. Both say that they have a "high and lonely destiny", and cannot be bothered with the rules of common people. Uncle Andrew and Jadis seem to be inspired from The Prince.


If The Prince is any indication, Machiavelli seems to have been a slimy character, ready to brush aside morality, to abide cruelty, and with no respect for women. However, there is one quality of Machiavelli that I appreciated: his honesty. Machiavelli rejected 'lofty ideals' offhand and wrote about how principalities must really be run. Machiavelli was many things, but he wasn't a liar. Of course, he would probably speak very differently if he was a Prince.


Darth Caedus:
http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Darth_Caedus


President Snow:
http://cdn.buzznet.com/assets/users16/pattygopez/default/stills-hunger-games-president-snow--large-msg-13298442789.jpg


White Witch:
http://www.proprofs.com/games/puzzle/sliding/t/narnia/?page=3

Thursday, April 12, 2012

"Confessions" [Books V-VIII]

Book V

In this book St. Augustine describes how he began to lower his guard against God. At this point Augustine considers himself a Manichaean and (I know little about Manichaeism, but it appears to rely on scientific inquiry and my dictionary describes it as a religion combining ideas from Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Gnosticism) he is excited to hear that Faustus, a renowned Manichaean bishop, will be speaking in Carthage where he is studying. However, when Faustus arrives, Augustine is dismayed to discover that he is a bit of a phony and not nearly as wise as he's made out to be. However, later Augustine comes across a Christian bishop, Ambrose, and though at the time he doesn't believe in what Ambrose is saying, he strikes Augustine as a thoughtful, reasonable man. This got me thinking about the people who have influenced my thinking (and I am not one to be easily influenced). The most obvious example in my case is C. S. Lewis. Without him, I'm not confident in saying that I would be a Christian today. Another example would be my grade 11 Biology teacher who made me open to the theory of evolution, a subject I had dismissed off-hand my entire life. What they had in common was their gentle logic that I often find lacking in their contemporaries, both scientists and religious writers. They presented Christianity and evolution (yes, I do believe in both) in a way that really spoke to me.

Book VI

I like how Augustine compared his belief in God to his belief in "innumerable things" that he had never seen. How do I know Julius Caesar ever walked this earth? How do I know there isn't a mere stretch of ocean where Australia appears on our maps? Short answer, I don't. I've never met Julius Caesar. I've never been to Australia. I believe in them, because I trust my sources.

I also liked how he described the Bible: easy to get a basic understanding of, but filled with layer upon layer of deeper meaning. For someone who isn't too keen on reading, the gist of the Bible can be picked up quickly, but for a bookworm like me the Bible is an exciting challenge. The Bible, along with great literature, can never be "solved". There will always be new things revealed and new ways of seeing things.

Book VII

In this book, Augustine is drawing nearer and nearer to God (or God is drawing nearer and nearer to him), as he works through his doubts and questions. Like in Dante, Virgil comes before Beatrice. A couple of the issues Augustine worked through was a refutation of astrology and the reconciliation of a good God and a world filled with evil. I don't have much else to say on this book, Augustine speaks for himself.

Book VIII

Midway through the book, Augustine finally becomes a Christian after quite the struggle. Augustine described himself in a state of slumber with "heavy lethargy in all his limbs" and found it consistently more comfortable to remain sleeping than to simply wake up. Augustine also describes the two "wills" at war in his mind and interestingly points out that it isn't always the "good mind" and the "bad mind". One of his examples is a man choosing between two murder methods. This was apparently key in his rejection of Manichaeism. The realization of his depravity (essential for Christian conversion) also played a key role in his conversion.

Augustine mentioned how Plato's teachings paved the way for a belief in God and His Word. I've heard this many times, but having only read Apology, Crito and the first three chapters of the Republic, I'm not sure I see the connection yet. The nearest I can think of is Socrates' death. He was innocent, but willingly accepted his wrongful punishment - which I can see as a foreshadowing of Christ. I'm sure there's more to it.

So overall, I enjoyed the first half of St. Augustine's Confessions although it was slow going at times like reading Plutarch. It was basically Augustine's testimony and I really appreciated the intellectual element of it. Emotionally charged testimonies tend to do little for me. I don't doubt the conversion was genuine, but as a searcher of truth, passion without reason does little to sway me.