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:

President Snow:

White Witch:

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.


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.