Friday, March 23, 2012

"Confessions" [Books I-IV]

St. Augustine's Confessions has been an interesting book so far. On the one hand, as a Christian, I find it very relevant to my life, but on the other hand St. Augustine seems to place little value on liberal education. Since, as you know, I'm embarking on a liberal education myself by reading the Great Books, I have to disagree with St. Augustine on that point. Below is a commentary on things that I found interesting in each chapter (or 'book').

Book I

No doubt God is indescribable. However, I thought St. Augustine did an admirable job in the opening book of the Confessions:
"Most highest, most good, most potent, most omnipotent; most merciful, yet most just; most hidden yet most present; most beautiful, yet most strong; stable, yet incomprehensible; unchanging, yet all-changing; never new, never old; all-renewing and bringing age upon the proud and they know it not; ever working, ever at rest; still gathering, yet nothing lacking; supporting, filling, and overspreading; creating, nourishing, and maturing; seeking, yet having all things. Thou lovest, without passion; art jealous, without anxiety; repentest, yet grievest not; art angry, yet serene; changest Thy works, Thy purpose unchanged; recievest again what Thou findest, yet didst never lose; never in need, yet rejoicing in gains; never covetous, yet exacting usury."
He is such a marvelous mystery.

One thing that jumped out at me was:
"For if I go down into hell, Thou art there."
I was always under the impression that Hell was the one place God was not - hence the suffering. Maybe I'm wrong in thinking this. I'll have to look into it.

Augustine's school woes immediately add a layer of humanity to the saint. Augustine describes his lack of interest in most of the subjects he was taught and the punishment he suffered for his lack of interest. He said, which I completely agree with, that education is really only successful if a genuine want to be educated is there. Interestingly, Augustine said that subjects like math and grammar he disliked and poetry he liked, but as an adult the roles switched. Here lies my greatest disagreement with Augustine. He says that math and grammar are useful, but poetry, though enjoyable, isn't very profitable. I could go on and on about this (and might one day), but for this post I will simply say that, speaking from experience, the math and science I have been instructed in (other than basic things like addition, subtraction etc.) have had much less bearing on my life than has the fiction I have read. Augustine doesn't like how the gods are portrayed in the Iliad - as immoral - and that it will lead to false beliefs about the divine nature. If Augustine means that children shouldn't read about the adulterous Zeus in the Iliad, I - along with Plato - agree with him. If he means the Iliad shouldn't be read by anyone, then I'll have to disagree with him.

Book II

Here Augustine laments how people who should be examples, tell you to abandon virtue for success. I definitely know what he means. Unlike Augustine, however, peer pressure has never been much of a temptation to me. I'm not saying this to my credit by the way. The fact that most (not all) of the vices that plague my age group hold almost no temptation for me, opens me up to the blackest vice of all - self-righteousness.

Interestingly, Augustine writes:
"To whom tell I this? not to Thee my God; but before Thee to mine own kind. even to that small portion as may light upon these writings of mine."
Little did he know that his book would become one of the Great Books of the Western World.

Book III

Augustine said that as a young man he had a soft spot for tragedies, but he considered this a bad thing. He said that tragedies have a self-pitying appeal. It reminded me a little of the band Evanescence. I like them, but I limit my listening because, like Augustine's view of tragedies, they often encourage self pity. 

I also found it interesting that Augustine showed his disgust at the gladiator games. Few things irritate me more than hearing "Well, they just didn't know better back then". Gah! Anyway, here's proof that they did.

Book IV

The end of this chapter was a delight to read. Augustine talked about how all joys are pointers to God and that He is the only thing that can truly satisfy us. I have a restless soul and, even though this idea is nothing new to me, I still really enjoyed it.

One thing concerned me a little though. Augustine said that he was the one among his peers to get through Aristotle without a tutor. Having just read the first books of Ethics and Politics, this has me worried that something major went clear over my head when reading Aristotle without me knowing it. If/when I re-read Aristotle's books, I'll probably do so with a commentary.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Quick Word On the Bible

The next item on my list is the New Testament, but I'll be skipping this one simply because I already read my Bible on a daily basis.

I have not yet read the whole thing, but I'm currently reading from cover to cover, two chapters a day. I'm currently on 1st Corinthians.

What can I say that hasn't already been said about it? Life-changing stuff. Not the best literature though.

Monday, March 19, 2012

"The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans"

Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans was the first of the readings that was a challenge to get through. By all means, it was well written and interesting, but it was dense. I never had to remind myself to read Plato, Aristophanes and Aristotle, but I frequently thought to myself, Well, I guess I'd better read Plutarch. As you may have noticed, it's been about a month since my last entry (I had hitherto been churning out entries within a few days of each other). While I enjoyed Plutarch (it helped that History is a subject I quite like), it reminded me that not all these authors will be as readable as dear old Plato.


File:Lycurgus.jpgFirst was Lycurgus, the Spartan lawgiver. Reading about Lycurgus was odd, because although he had some good ideas (the idea of reducing theft by making currency so heavy, you need an ox to move it is sheer brilliance), the overall feeling I got is that I would definitely not want to live under this guy's leadership. 

Lycurgus's laws focused primarily on three subjects: equality among Spartans, military might and austerity. Now, equality is all well and good, but Lycurgus's laws were too close to Communism for my tastes. Individuality didn't seem to concern Lycurgus. Food was given rather than earned, graves were unmarked and there didn't seem to be much to distinguish one Spartan citizen to another. Lycurgus was obsessed with warfare. So much so that, under his laws, the entire Spartan way of life revolved around it. Babies who were less than perfect were disposed of, young men and women walked around naked to harden their bodies (the women didn't fight, of course, but Lycurgus wanted them toughened up so they could produce little soldiers) and the mandatory state education was hell week 24/7. Of course, in the post-300 world, we all know Spartans were fighting machines. So, all in all, I'll certainly agree that Lycurgus was very efficient, but if I lived under him I'd flee the country. It would be difficult to resist with all his Spartan lapdogs.

Numa Pompilius 

Next up was Numa Pompilius, the Roman king. He was compared with Lycurgus, because they were both lawmakers, but they had significantly different goals and I would much prefer living under Numa. Where Lycurgus was concerned with military might and efficiency, Numa was more concerned with maintaining peace. Numa preferred gentleness over pride and mind over passion. Perhaps like all good leaders, Numa was reluctant to rule. He preferred to live a quiet live in contemplation and devotion to the gods, but when the people of Rome wanted him to rule, he felt it was his duty to do so. Religion was a dominant force in his new laws, many of which seem very strange to my modern mind (and I suspect even to ancient minds). The one gripe I'll have to bring up is Numa's new law that allowed parents to sell their children. That was certainly not a change for the better, but otherwise his kingdom seemed like the place to be. 

As a side note, I enjoyed reading about where the months of the year got their names from. I knew about March being dedicated to Mars but that was it, so it was an extra treat.


Alexander the Great was different from many of the great conquerors in that he was a learned man as well as a fighting man. Early on in Plutarch's account we see Alexander being taught by the philosopher Aristotle. Alexander is shown studying Aristotle's Ethics and Politics and it's a good example of how well these books are organized into the reading list. Alexander is shown quoting various literary works throughout. Indeed, Plutarch portrays Alexander as cultured to the point of being chivalrous as he seems to respect the honour of women and is merciful to his defeated foes. For me that's what sticks out to me and, apparently for Plutarch as well. Yes, it's amazing that Alexander conquered as much land as he did, but he was not a brute like so many other conquerors.


Caesar, on the other hand, was more typical of the conquering type. Plutarch asserts early on that, although Caesar showed academic potential, he chose power over wisdom. Though he was reported as giving defeated enemies quarter, he is portrayed as being more brutal than Alexander. A good example being his readiness to execute. I smiled when reading about the young rebellious Caesar, especially the John Dillinger-esque tale about being captured by pirates (though like many of Dillinger's escapades, the authenticity is called into question). Two other interesting facts I learned about Caesar: 1) he suffered from epileptic seizures and 2) he is the one who said "I came, I saw, I conquered". 

As a side note, it was neat to see so many names from The Hunger Games in the Lives. I had already figured out that most of the names were of classical origin, but the names I'm actually familiar with after reading Plutarch (including Plutarch himself!) has probably doubled.

So, overall, an interesting though strenuous look at great leaders from the Classical world. Personally, I favour Numa Pompilius over Lycurgus and Alexander over Caesar.