Saturday, December 21, 2013

"Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals"

I think Kant is my favourite modern (i.e. Enlightenment) writer so far. His writing style is pretty technical, but I love his ideas. I've been trying to slow down my reading lately and really grasp what I'm reading - at least as much as I can. There isn't any hurry, and it is far more rewarding to dig deeper into these books. Once again, using SparkNotes as a commentary really helped me to understand what I was reading.

I agreed with much of what Kant wrote. I'm a strong believer in a morality that is both innate and universal. I also agree with Kant that actions have the most moral value when they are done against our inclination and in the line of duty (because otherwise we might be doing the right thing because we happen to like it not because it is the right thing). I find the idea of a priori truths very interesting.

I thought it was interesting that Kant was skeptical that true moral actions (done for their own sake, not with ulterior motives) are even possible, but nevertheless asserted that the ideal was very real. Even if good actions have never been performed, the concept of good actions is not therefore meaningless. Kant's ideas of morality sit a lot better with me than Hobbes' ideas.

Towards the end Kant brings up the infamous free will vs. predestination debate and has some very interesting things to say about it. Our concept of morality (what we ought to do) implies free will, yet we live in a world of cause and effect. Kant suggests that this apparent contradiction is an inevitable result of being divided, as rational beings, between the world of sensory experience and rationality. 

Great read. It was definitely challenging at times, but the extra time it took to understand it was worth it.

I was thinking of doing a video summary of  this book to see how well I could articulate Kant's ideas using my notes. It could be fun. I may or may not post it on my blog, depending on how it turns out.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

"A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality"

Part I

To understand the origin of inequality among Man, Rousseau says, you must first understand Man - which is difficult to do. In Part One of the "Discourse", Rousseau seeks what Man was in his "natural state" rather than what he is after he's been influenced by society, a state which need not be historical but merely hypothetical. Interestingly, Rousseau also tries to imagine Man without reason, as he thinks that reason is a divine gift rather than an attribute of nature; an idea I agree with.

Once stripped of rationality and society, Man is driven by a desire for self-preservation and pity for others. Unlike Hobbes, who pictured humanity as being entirely self-centred, Rousseau left room in human nature for genuine compassion. In general Rousseau goes relatively easy on human nature, attributing much of our ills to society. I found Rousseau's picture of the Man in his "natural state" very interesting and like Marx's vision of utopia, I was alternately drawn and repelled by it. Part of me likes the idea of a simpler life in the forest, with no politics, no inequality, no mundane tasks like a nine-to-five job or income tax. However, another part of me, and the louder of the two, is horrified at the idea of a life without reason or language (one can't exist without the other). There would be no philosophy, no stories, no complex ideas or conversations. I spend so much time in my head, I would probably be unrecognizable without the gifts of reason or language... not to mention an impractical fellow like myself would probably die pretty quickly in the "state of nature". Then again, if I didn't have reason, maybe I wouldn't daydream or drift off into abstract thought so much and I wouldn't be so impractical. Hmm. No, even with all the ills inherent in it, I would still take the life humans now lead to life in the "state of nature".

Part II

In the second section, Rousseau takes his picture of Man in his natural state and outlines the how inequality originated. According to Rousseau, the first man to say, "This is mine" about a piece of land was the founder of civil society. When people started living together in man-made huts on this land, the concept of the family was created, which is interesting because Marx wanted to abolish not only private property, but the traditional understanding of the family as well. In these communities, which eventually became nations, the people began to compare themselves with each other, noticing the natural inequalities (strength, beauty, wisdom etc.) among themselves and creating feelings of jealousy and desires of public attention or esteem which hitherto hadn't been a concern for Man. The next stage of inequality came with the agricultural (and metallurgical) revolutions, because of the division of land and labour and the ownership of goods. Conflicts broke out over what belonged to who and soon chaos reigned. To bring order out of chaos, the people created states and laws. Under these states the inequalities among men were institutionalized into classes or castes.

Rousseau said that the type of government established depended on the state of the people at the time of the formation. If one person possessed more power, virtue, riches and/or influence, a monarchy would form. If a group of people had more power than the others, an aristocracy. If the formation of the government happened closer to when the group of people were in their natural state and had less time to develop the inequalities of other societies, a democracy would form.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Those Who Mind DO Matter!

Ever hear the phrase, "Be who you are and say what you feel. Those who mind don't matter, and those who matter don't mind"? This is a quote from Bernard M. Baruch.  Now, let me say that I know next to nothing about Baruch and I might be doing him a disservice by taking his quote out of context. At any rate it isn't Baruch who I'm addressing, it is the popular usage of the quote as a means of saying, "Get off my back!" This quote is usually trotted out when someone is accused of doing something immoral, below their dignity as a human being etc. Someone quoted this quote to me today and even though I had heard that quote numerous times before, this time something about it rubbed me the wrong way. It set off a train of thought that led me to C. S. Lewis's The Problem of Pain

In Chapter 3 of The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis writes:

I might, indeed, have learned, even from the poets, that Love is something more stern and splendid than mere kindness: that even love between the sexes is, as in Dante, 'a lord of terrible aspect'. There is kindness in Love: but Love and kindness are not coterminous, and when kindness (in the sense given above) is separated from the other elements of Love, it involves a certain fundamental indifference to its object, and even something like contempt of it. Kindness consents very readily to the removal of its object - we have all met people whose kindness to animals is constantly leading them to kill animals lest they should suffer. Kindness, merely as such, cares not whether its object becomes good or bad, provided only that it escapes suffering. As Scripture points out, it is bastards who are spoiled: the legitimate sons, who are to carry on the family tradition are punished. It is for people whom we care nothing about that we demand happiness on any terms: with our friends, our lovers, our children, we are exacting and would rather see them suffer much than be happy in contemptible and estranging modes. (Emphasis mine)

On this blog, I mainly talk about people who are long dead, so just to switch things up, I'll use a contemporary example: Rob Ford, the notorious current mayor of Toronto. 

Anyone who says they love Rob Ford, yet don't care how he spends his spare time *coughdrugsprostitutesbingedrinkingcough* so long as he's happy, doesn't love him. Someone who really loved him would not be satisfied with his recent behaviour and would show him their disapproval and tough love. Those who mind your behaviour and circumstances are often those who love you the most and it's those who don't mind that don't matter.

Books Read in November 2013

Beowulf (unknown author) translated by Seamus Heaney

I'm going to be having a knight book marathon, going from early medieval stories to modern fantasy, simply because knights are one of my favourite things on the planet and I thought it would be fun. I decided to read Beowulf as an introduction. Even though Beowulf isn't technically a "knight story" as it predates the concept of knighthood and chivalry, the setting of Beowulf lays the groundwork for what comes later. I've also been meaning to read Beowulf for quite some time.

It is easy to see that Beowulf heavily influenced J. R. R. Tolkien, because many times it felt like I was reading a story set in Middle Earth rather than Scandinavia, with its barrows of gold, fire-breathing dragons, and heroic warriors. I got a geeky delight out of that. The world in Beowulf is a world of blood-feuds, and violence, yet the characters display honourable qualities such as gentleness, fair-play, and of course, courage that would later come to be associated with chivalry. Beowulf was also written at a time when Christianity was replacing the native paganism of Northern Europe and I found the fusion of cultures interesting, because it would grow into my favourite culture of all: Medieval Europe.

Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker by George Lucas

This book was adapted from Lucas's original screenplay for Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope). The story is almost identical, with a few deleted scenes, but the dialogue is usually altered slightly. Reading this book was very interesting, because after watching Star Wars so many times, I stop thinking about the plot while I'm watching it, because I think I know it so well. Reading the book made me think about aspects of the story (why the Tantive IV was at Tatooine at the beginning of the movie) and especially the dialogue (e.g. what is the "main reactor" and why was it shut down?) I hadn't before. I was thinking of reading all of the novelizations for the movies since I found this one a surprisingly interesting read, but if I do it won't be immediately. It was also nice to be reading Star Wars again since I was a big fan of the Expanded Universe novels back in the day. My EU fandom has since tanked for various reasons, but it was nice to relive those days in a sense.

*SPOILER warning*

The Song of Roland (unknown author)

This was the first book in my aforementioned chivalric book marathon. The Song of Roland is a poem about the last stand of a Frankish knight named Roland. After a council, Charlemagne, King of the Franks, decides to leave his campaign to take back Spain from the Saracens, even though one Saracen stronghold remains unconquered: Saragossa. An envoy from the Franks, and Roland's stepfather, Ganelon makes a deal with the Saracen king, Marsil, to attack the rearguard of Charlemagne's army as it is leaving, because Roland will be among the rearguard. Ganelon wants Roland dead because of a personal vendetta and Marsil wants Roland dead because Roland is an advocate of martial aggression and may yet persuade Charlemagne to take Saragossa. When the Saracen army attacks the rearguard, Roland refuses the advice of his sensible friend Olivier to signal Charlemagne's army for help in defeating the Saracens, because Roland feels it would be beneath his dignity. After Saracen reinforcements arrive, Roland realizes his mistake and finally blows his horn, but help will arrive too late. I was a bit conflicted about Roland's character. One part of me thought his decision was excessive and foolish, but another part (the part in me that has a soft spot for "forlorn hopes, death-or-glory charges, and last stands") was more sympathetic to Roland than many, especially modern, people would be, and I viewed his death as a tragedy rather than saying, "Well, you asked for it". I really enjoyed the characters of Roland and Olivier because of their contrasting characters. The version I read was a rhyming verse translation by John O'Hagan and I thought it was quite good. The story ends with Saragossa being taken by Charlemagne's army after Charlemagne learns of Marsil's treachery and Ganelon being executed. Like Beowulf, The Song of Roland ends with the hero's death and the forbodings of coming wars.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

"Gulliver's Travels"

It took me quite a while to get through Gulliver's Travels. It might be that I'm not the biggest fan of comedy/satire books, but for whatever reason, the pages weren't turning and I was somewhat relieved when I reached the last page. I don't want to be too hard on it though, because parts of the book I really enjoyed and I think most of my troubles with it were due to my general dislike for comedy/satire books than any actual flaws. I did enjoy it a lot more than Gargantua and Pantagruel, because I felt it was a much more intelligent form of comedy than the incessant scatological humour of Rabelais (granted, this is based on my memory of Rabelais... I'm actually interested in re-visiting him further down the reading list).

Gulliver makes four visits during his travels. The island of Lilliput, of course, is the island of little people and it is on this island that the iconic scene of Gulliver being tied down occurs. The island of Brobdingnag is an island of giants. These two islands played with perception in some neat ways. For example, Gulliver was considered a near god by the Lilliputians and as a sideshow by the Brobdingnagians, showing that size truly matters not. The floating island of Laputa was filled with tyrannical über-intellectuals. Gulliver also visited the islands that were subject to Laputa. Finally, Gulliver visited the island of the Houyhnhnms, a race of horses Paradisal in virtue. Also on the island lives a race of brutish "humans" called Yahoos. Gulliver loves the Houyhnhnms, but loathes the Yahoos and by this point in his journey, Gulliver has developed a severe misanthropy, not just for the Yahoos but for the human race in general.

I could say much more about these islands, but like usual, when I get stuck on a certain book, I get anxious to move on.

As a side note, this is my first time using SparkNotes with one of the Great Books. I was hesitant to use SparkNotes simply because my favourite high school teacher, someone I really respect, always made fun of it. However, now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure the reason he made fun of it was because students were reading SparkNotes summaries rather than the books themselves. At any rate, I found SparkNotes really helpful and it helped me to pick up on some things that I normally wouldn't have, gave background information etc. I'll be using it for future Great Books for sure.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Book Read in October 2013

Only one book this month. Part of the reason is that the book I did read was north of 500 pages, but I've also been reading less for the past little while for various reasons (It's also been a while since I did a post on the Great Books - I'm still making my way through Gulliver's Travels). Anyhow...

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (re-read) *SPOILER warning*

I re-read this book in time for the movie adaptation (releasing Nov. 8). Zusak's real strength is the way he writes characters. The characters in The Book Thief are so well done, with all the details, quirks etc. that real people have. Because of Zusak's wonderful attention to detail and characterization The Book Thief has the hard-to-duplicate feeling of reality. I love the characters in this story to death. And speaking of which... this is a book that deals with death and I don't think a story can powerfully portray death without first powerfully portraying life. Zusak captures life and the duality of human nature in a very unique and real way and that makes the ending that much harder to take. As it should be. I didn't find the other major idea of this story, dealing with the power of words, to be nearly as powerful or interesting, but that could be simply because it pales in comparison to Zusak's masterful portrayal of life, death, and humanity. The Book Thief is heart-warming and haunting.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

"Treatise on the Arithmetical Triangle"

I don't have much to add to what I've already said in my blog entry about Nicomachus' Introduction to Arithmetic. In this short treatise, mathematics once again proves to be almost uncannily elegant and logical and I can easily see it affecting Pascal's religious beliefs. And, as in the last third of the Introduction to Arithmetic, I found much of the "Treatise" hard to understand, because math is decidedly not my strong suit.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Books Read in September 2013

Ingo by Helen Dunmore (re-read)

The thing that struck me about Ingo the first time I read it, more than plot, characters etc., was the setting. The setting in Air (the name of the human world, as opposed to Ingo, the mermaid world) is a sleepy seaside town in Cornwall, England. The way Cornwall was described affected me so much, that I've seriously contemplated moving to Cornwall once I leave my childhood home. I found the lonely, seaside atmosphere very appealing. The other setting is Ingo. Oddly enough I didn't find Ingo as aesthetically pleasing or interesting as Cornwall, but nonetheless the idea of swimming through the sea with no need of oxygen is also a really compelling aesthetic idea to me. One thing I forgot about the plot was the ominous nature of Ingo. For much of the book you're not sure what to make of Ingo and I think most readers will think it is a dangerous place that Sapphire should be avoiding before it completely sucks her in. It's been too long since I've read these books, but I'm guessing this ominous nature of Ingo is downplayed in future books or I'm sure I would have remembered it more clearly. 

Saint Thomas Aquinas by G. K. Chesterton

Although this book was relatively small, it took me quite a while to finish. Overall, I enjoyed this book, but something about it felt off. I felt like Chesterton was rambling a bit in places and sometimes I even forgot that this book was about Thomas Aquinas. I was expecting more of a straight-up biography and that is probably part of the reason this book felt off. Chesterton reminded me of my favourite author C. S. Lewis. He seemed to hold the same general philosophy, but I found Chesterton come off as more opinionated or pretentious and less genial or readable than Lewis. I think I was also, for whatever reason, expecting this book to be lighter reading, and while Chesterton only skims Aquinas's philosophy, I would say this is primarily a philosophical book.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013


The Pensees were a very interesting read, because they had a good mix of things I agree with and things that disagree with and/or question. The Pensees are a collection of writings by Blaise Pascal concerning the apologetic defence of Christianity. Pascal was planning to write a book titled Apology for the Christian Religion, but never got around to it. The Pensees were his "notes". The Pensees cover a wide range of theological topics, so I'll just write my thoughts on whatever caught my attention.

Pascal begins by describing man's miserable state without God. While I may object here or there, I ultimately agree with Pascal on this topic. You can call me pessimistic if you wish, but without God, I can only see humanity's lot in the universe as random, meaningless, and wretched. A cruel joke, if only the universe could be cruel or could possess intent. Pascal said that men fill their lives with distractions to avert their attention from their misery and that human society is based on mutual deception (if people knew what they really were they would have nothing to do with each other). Ouch. I can't really argue though.

Pascal insists that the immortality of the soul makes "an entire difference to morality" or in other words that the hope of future reward and the fear of future punishment in the hereafter makes this "entire difference". I agree that there is a difference made, but I have to point out that I think morality should be pursued for its own sake rather than for reward. I remember as a kid being baffled at the obedience of Old Testament figures like Moses and David. I thought that, if these people were unaware of hope in a future life through Christ, why would they obey God? I am now ashamed of this type of thinking, because it reveals my attitude of "do this so I will get this" rather than "do this simply because it is the right thing to do". I think pagan philosophers like Plato and Aristotle understood this, I would say to their credit, even if Pascal seems to be accusing them of foolishness (though that could be a misunderstanding on my part). I sometimes wonder if Christian parents should hold off on teaching their children about hope in the next life for a while and focus on teaching their children to love God and to love what is good, virtuous etc. first. I expect the secret would be impossible to hide, but it's a thought I had.

Pascal's Wager goes something like this. Because we cannot prove or disprove the existence of God, a wager must be made. If we choose to believe Christianity and we are wrong, we lose nothing, but if we are right, we gain everything. However, if we choose to not believe in Christianity and we're right, we gain nothing, but if we're wrong, we lose everything. Hence, Pascal says, the most prudent course is to choose Christianity over scepticism. Interestingly, Pascal seems to make short work of the other religions, not considering them as sophisticated as Christianity. Some readers may be annoyed by this. Even for someone like me who also believes Christianity is the most sophisticated and therefore true religion, I thought he dismissed the other religions a little easily.

Pascal wrote some excellent thoughts about the duality between greatness and wretchedness in Man. I agree wholeheartedly that any philosophy that leaves out either Man's wretchedness (like modern self help gurus) or Man's greatness (like evolutionary psychology) is misguided. The evidence for both seems self evident and it's one of the most intriguing things about humanity.

Finally, Pascal wrote some interesting things about the typology in the Bible. I've heard this kind of thing before, but it always fascinates me. It reminds me of Plato's Theory of the Forms, the lower coming from the higher. For example figures like Moses, David, Joseph etc. are "types" or foreshadowing of Jesus Christ. The hope of the life to come is "typified" in Old Testament imagery.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

"Areopagitica": Freedom of the Press

When I first glanced at the second reading list, I was excited to see Milton's name because of my love for Paradise Lost. Little did I know that Areopagitica is not a poem, but a political speech about the freedom of press. I'll admit I was a little disappointed when I learned this, but after reading Areopagitica I found myself very much in sympathy with Milton's views on censorship and I was also pleased to see that, while nowhere near as beautiful as his poetry, Milton's nonfiction prose wasn't without its eloquence.

Milton's speech was written against the Licensing Order of 1643, an order that would demand government approval of published works.

Milton's speech can be divided into four parts. In the first part Milton states that, although ancient Greek and Roman authors were persecuted for their works, it was only after their works had been "examined, refuted, and condemned" (not behind closed doors, but publicly), not before. During the Catholic Inquisition on the other hand, works were condemned before they were produced and distributed.

In the second part, Milton explains the importance of reading widely, even reading books considered heretical. Milton draws on the Biblical examples of Moses learning the wisdom of the Egyptians, Daniel's education in Babylonian thought, and Paul's familiarity with Greek religion and literature (including tragedies, the plays that Augustine condemned!). Milton believes that by reading viewpoints we disagree with we can know better why we disagree with them (and I would add whether we really do disagree with them) and he has faith in human reason, conscience, and free will to discern right from wrong. A good person will make good use of nearly any book and a bad person will make bad use of almost any book. This is the part of the speech where I wanted to leap up and yell, "Yes!". This idea of liberal education is an area where I often feel at odds with many of my fellow Christians.

In the third part, Milton discusses the futility of the order. The Bible itself is full of blasphemy, immoral acts, people doubting God etc. It has long struck me as amusing that some Christians react with such horror to things like violence and overt sexuality in media, while their own holy book has plenty of it. Milton also says that the censorship of books will not stop ideas from growing mentally and spreading verbally.

In the fourth part, Milton talks about the bad effect the order will have on society. Good intentioned authors will be censored by a volatile and arbitrary court (e.g. "Who watches the Watchmen?"). Also, without being exposed to foreign or novel ideas, the intellect of the nation will grow lazy and stagnant.

Areopagitica was one of the few Great Books that I agreed with 100%. Long live books and liberal education!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Books Read in August 2013

Spoilers ahead!

From now on I'm going to record the books I read each month (not including the Great Books - I'll deal with them in separate posts). I'll give my brief thoughts on each book... not really a review; just whatever's going through my mind. Here are the books I read in August.

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

A Christmas Carol and A Tale of Two Cities are some of my favourite stories ever, so I had high hopes going into Oliver Twist, but I finished it feeling underwhelmed. Sure I appreciated Dickens' uncompromising portrayal of society's underbelly and Dickens' writing was wonderful as usual, full of humour and feeling, but the story itself felt less momentous compared to the other two. I thought the title character was a boring character and, while my favourite character Nancy made up for Oliver's flatness, I didn't find myself caring as much as I thought I should. It's a good book, but I'd say it's over-rated. Read A Tale of Two Cities instead. It has everything Oliver Twist has and much more.

From Barbarism to Chivalry (A Portrait of Europe 300-1300) by Mary R. Price

This was a fantastic history of Europe from the year 300 to 1300. The medieval period has fascinated me since I was a child and I think this might be the best, most concise history I have read of the period, granted it doesn't cover the 15th and 16th centuries. Everything is covered from Charlemagne to knights to monastic orders to medieval art and scholarship and on. Price does a very good job at helping the reader to understand medieval attitudes and ways of life. By the time I was done, despite the book's relatively short length, I felt like I had read and learned a lot.

Reflections on the Psalms by C. S. Lewis (re-read)

In my opinion this is Lewis's most under-rated book. Lewis gives a variety of thoughts and reflections on the Psalter. Lewis informs the reader that he writes as a non-professional which in a sense is true as he is no theologian or Hebrew scholar, but his background in philosophy and literature gives him a really unique voice. This book helped to influence the way I interpreted the Bible, moving away from a belief in inerrancy while still accepting the Bible as God's Word.

The Darkest Road by Guy Gavriel Kay

The final book in "The Fionavar Tapestry". Despite obvious similarities to Tolkiens Lord of the Rings I thought Kay's trilogy stood on its own two feet better than a lot of other modern fantasy. I also noticed influence from Joseph Campbell and Plato. Also, despite the surplus of "chosen one" characters and plot threads in Kay's trilogy, I thought The Darkest Road wrapped things with surprising neatness. I still think the first book The Summer Tree is the strongest in the trilogy, but the final book comes in a close second.

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson (re-read)

This is one of those stories that can make me weep like a little girl. I lost my best friend when I was eight years old, so this story holds a special if painfully poignant place in my heart. Paterson writes about childhood loss in the only way that it can be written: as a thing without explanation. These events are inexplicable, especially to children and Paterson never condescends, but tells it like it is. Although there is a hopeful ending implying new life and love, I'd be lying if I said there was a happy ending to this fairy tale. I usually try to avoid using emoticons on this blog, but... :'(

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

And this was another book I could relate to all too well. It seems many my age can relate to the troubled hero of The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield. Holden is trapped between childhood and adulthood and he wants nothing more than to preserve the innocence in others that he has lost. The plotline is pretty basic, just a depressed kid wandering around New York, but it was a book I couldn't put down and was on my mind for days afterward. As I kept thinking about this book and read other people's opinions on it, I kept discovering more and more layers. This is definitely a book that rewards re-readers, but I think I'll hold off this re-read for a few years to see how Holden's world looks when I'm older and how my own outlook has changed if/when I exit the full teenage angst mode I'm currently in.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

"Leviathan" [Part I]

It’s been too long since I posted. I wanted to go fairly in depth into Hobbes because he packs a lot into the first book of Leviathan, but now I just want to get this done, so I can move on to the other books. It’s also been a while since I finished Leviathan, so it isn’t that fresh in my memory.

 Basically the first book of Leviathan was a catalogue of the human being. Topics ranged from sense, imagination, passions, reason etc, all based on humanity. Hobbes seemed to be critical of Aristotle, or at least the schoolmen who believed Aristotle’s words like the gospel, but I can’t help but think Hobbes has a lot to thank Aristotle for. The categorical style of Hobbes’ writing I thought was very reminiscent of Aristotle’s writing, even if their ideas often differ.

 Reading Hobbes was a somewhat depressing experience for me. Hobbes seems to have a low view of humanity and especially humanity’s motivations. Hobbes believes that all human decisions and actions are done for selfish reasons. A good example of this being the acquisition of friends gives the recipient power, so power is thus the primary motivation for making friends. I had a lot of problems with this way of thinking and several times during the books I played the part of a heckler and I wrote critical observations in the margins of my notes. I could see Hobbes’ thinking as “proto-evolutionary psychology”.

 Another interesting thing is that, unlike Locke and I believe Rousseau, Hobbes believed that the natural state of man (e.g. man in “nature” – no civilization) is not a state of innocence or a golden age, but an existence that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, short”. Hobbes believed that humanity creates civilizations to escape this existence.

I’m really doing Hobbes a disservice by being this brief, but like I said earlier, at this point, I just want to keep things moving.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

"Meditations": How to Be a Stoic

In the Meditations, Marcus Aurelius takes a Stoic stance in his philosophy. Because I've already gone through the basics of Stoicism in the previous entry, I won't do so again. The Meditations is basically Marcus Aurelius' notebook, offering himself philosophical guidance and things to ponder, all from a Stoic perspective. Consequently, the primary audience for the Meditations is Marcus Aurelius himself, not the average reader. While most of the entries are general, some are specific to him - or at least someone placed in authority.

There's a character in one of my favourite books, Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis, named the Fox. The Fox is a Greek slave serving in the house of the King of Glome as a teacher of the king's daughters, Orual, Redival, and Psyche. Lewis wrote the Fox as a Stoic, so reading the Meditations was a bit like having the Fox teaching me and, because the Fox is one of my favourite book characters, I found this rather enjoyable. The only problem was that the Meditations was clearly not intended to be read the way I read it. Because I'm on a schedule, I read it in fairly large chunks at a time, but the Meditations were meant to be slowly pondered - or, well, meditated - on at leisure. This made the Meditations less enjoyable and beneficial as they could be.

The Meditations was one of the more practical books in the Great Books and there were many ideas that I took away from it. Specifically, I really liked the idea that nothing external can hurt you. External things can destroy your body, fine, but they don't have the power to make you miserable or wicked - only you have the power to do that. We always have the choice of how we're going to react to the situations we're placed in (and from a Stoic point of view, all situations are ordained by the logos). You will always have the power to have good intentions, good character, and do good actions and nothing can take that from you. The idea of accepting what happens to you as inevitable also really helped me. As I've alluded to in the past, I've recently gone through a turn of events that have really taken a toll on me, but reading Marcus Aurelius has been like therapy, moreso than Lucretius.

Some other ideas in the Mediataions were finding your place in the world and accepting it (also a very helpful thing for me right now), the world is a city, humanity is meant to be in harmony with each other, bad people cannot help doing bad things and shouldn't be hated for it, and the small role you have in the universe. Marcus Aurelius heavily stressed the smallness of an individual in light of the vastness of time and space (and you thought that was a modern idea). Once this idea of insignificance is accepted, you can go to live a virtuous life. Where Lucretius (and, by extension, Epicurus) thought of pleasure as the highest goal of human existence, Marcus Aurelius (and, by extension, Zeno) thought of virtue as the highest goal of human existence. Although virtue seems to have been included in Epicurus' definition of "pleasure", Marcus Aurelius thought that pleasure should be sacrificed if it is in conflict with virtue. 

For an outsider the writings of Marcus Aurelius create an odd mixture of comfort and depression. However, for a committed Stoic, I'm sure the depressing entries in Marcus Aurelius' writings would grow less and less depressing, and eventually the writings in their entirety would be a source of comfort.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Epicureanism vs. Stoicism

Before reading Meditations, I thought it would be worthwhile to post a comparison between Epicureanism (the philosophy Lucretius explains in On the Nature of Things) and Stoicism (the philosophy attributed to Marcus Aurelius). Epicureanism was founded by Epicurus and Stoicism was founded by Zeno of Citium.

The best place to start is how these two philosophies view the divine. Epicureanism doesn't deny the existence of gods, but states that they are totally separate and unconcerned with the world. Therefore, far from following a divine plan, the universe is the product of the random collision of atoms.

Stoicism, however, teaches that the universe is governed by the Logos. The Logos guides the universe rationally and seems to be akin to the monotheistic conception of God, although the Logos seems to be pantheistically linked to the world while God is transcendant in relation to the world. Other words for the Logos are Nature or Providence.

Epicureans imagine the universe as being both infinite and eternal and composed of minute particles called atoms that can be neither created nor destroyed. In the Stoic universe everything (rocks, trees, people etc.) has a pneuma i.e. a "vital spirit". The pneuma is what makes a person a person (or rock, tree etc.) rather than just a pile of flesh and bones. When something is destroyed the pneuma gets absorbed back into the Logos. As well, the universe is destroyed in fire periodically, everything in the universe gives up its pneuma, and the universe is reborn.

Both Stoicism and Epicureanism envision events as being part of an unbreakable chain of cause and effect. This would seemingly interfere with free will, but both philosophies have ways of accomodating free will. In Epicureanism a "swerve" is a chance movement of atoms unconnected to the chain of cause and effect. Stoicism accomodates free will by stating that, although free will exists, the choices made by free will were anticipated by the Logos.

Epicureans believe that delusion (especially religious delusion) must be overcome for a full a full enjoyment of life. Epicureans believe that pleasure is the highest end of human existence. Stoics believe in the inherent harmony and rationality of the universe. Stoics train themselves to calmly accept whatever Nature throws at them, because everything is orchastrated to a good and harmonious end. Hence the modern word "stoic": "One who is seemingly indifferent to or unaffected by joy, grief, pleasure, or pain".

Epicureans deny that the soul is separate from the body and that the soul dies with the body. Stoics think that the soul (i.e. the pneuma) is indeed separate from the body and re-absorbs back into the Logos when the body dies. Neither philosophies hold to a conscious afterlife. It could be argued that the soul returning to the Logos is a kind of afterlife, but it seems to be more like Nirvana than Paradise.

Interestingly, both philosophies place emphasis on overcoming the fear of death, but for very different reasons. Epicureans train themselves not to fear death, because with death comes the cessation of existence and, therefore, the cessation of desires. The Stoics on the other hand accept death because it is the will of the Logos. Stoics have confidence in the rationality of the universe, as guided by the Logos, and therefore have confidence in the rationality of their own deaths.

I've found learning about and comparing Epicureanism and Stoicism very interesting. I have a lot of respect for both philosophies, but I have a couple issues with them (there are stumbling blocks in every philosophy). For Stoicism, the obvious objection is the apparent cruelty and randomness of the "rational universe". For Epicureanism, the problems of free will and reason come up. If everything is in an unbroken chian of cause and effect, this would seem to interfere with free will. Lucretius tries to accomodate free will by introducing the swerve, as described above. Without the swerve Epicureanism is so elegant and "clean", but I don't see how the swerve is any less "messy" than miracles. What causes swerves? A deeper level of cause and effect? But that would still interfere with free will. Also reason seems a bit threatened to me by Epicureanism. If everthing is determined by chance, as Lucretius and Epicurus believed, that also means that human reason is a product of chance. If that's the case than human reason is as arbitrary as the colour of our eyes and I don't see why I should trust a rationality that is a product of the random collision of atoms. Of the two, I find Stoicism the most satisfying i.e. the least problematic (I'm learning more and more that choosing a philosohy is choosing whichever is the least problematic).

Stoic definition:

Friday, May 31, 2013

"On the Nature of Things" [Books I-IV]: A Mortal Soul and An Immortal Universe

The first thing that struck me about On the Nature of Things was the fact that it is a scientific poem. Science and poetry are two things that I've long thought of as polar opposites, but it worked here surprisingly well. Lucretius' images of eternal, colliding atoms had an odd poetic beauty to it (though it is perhaps telling that the part that tugged my heartstrings the most was Lucretius' description of the "superstitious" belief in Satyrs and Nymphs causing echoes).

Lucretius' main ideas were that the universe is composed of body (and bodies are composed of atoms) and void. These atoms are eternal (can be neither created from nothing nor destroyed) and are in continuous motion, colliding with other atoms and creating larger structures (e.g. trees, rocks, birds, stars, humans). This world of colliding atoms is free from the interference of the gods. It was unclear to me whether or not Lucretius was what we would call an atheist, but the important point is that the gods, if they exist, are completely unrelated and unconcerned with the universe. Rather, the universe is locked in an eternal cause and effect chain. From these points it follows that the universe is eternal, without beginning or end (the universe didn't have a beginning because the gods, being disinterested in the universe, didn't create it and, if atoms are eternal, obviously they can't be created or destroyed). Lucretius also asserted that the universe infinite in space as well as in time.

Lucretius drew these ideas from an earlier Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Although the description of the Satyrs and Nymphs set my heart longing like none of the Epicurean lines could, my favourite lines were probably Lucretius' description of Epicurus, unafraid in the face of the "fame of gods" and "lightning stroke", lifting the curtain and discovering the nature of things. It was pretty epic.

Epicureanism is a really elegant philosophy, but I have a couple questions/objections. The first thing I wonder about is the idea that the universe had no beginning and no end. It seems that Epicureanism is dependent on this idea (because matter cannot be created or destroyed) and yet our current model of the Universe has a beginning (the Big Bang) and an end (the Big Crunch, the Big Freeze, the Big Rip etc.). I have said on numerous occasions that science isn't my forte, but I wonder how Epicurean/atheist scientists account for this. I remember reading that the Big Bang theory was initially scoffed at by atheist scientists (the term "Big Bang" was a term of ridicule) when Catholic priest/physics professor
Georges Lemaître came up with the idea. If anyone reading this knows anything about this topic, post in the comments. I'm curious.

The other objections are how a self-sustained interlocked universe doesn't interfere with reason and free-will.

In the third book Lucretius outlines why he thinks that the mind and soul are mortal like the body and why we shouldn't fear death. Lucretius reasoning for a mortal soul were very convincing. His best point, I thought, was that if the mind can get sick or injured like and/or with the body, how can it be immortal? It got me thinking about what I actually believe concerning the mortality/immortality of the soul. I believed in the immortality of the soul at a young age, because I didn't think what I called "I" or "Me" could die. I didn't have a logical reason for believing this, I just had a very strong conviction (however, it seems to be a common belief among children that they cannot die). As I identified myself with the Christian faith, my conviction grew. My question now is: does Christianity actually teach the immortality of the soul? Several branches (including Medieval Christianity) do, but what is truly orthodox? I've recently read a few books by New Testament scholar N. T. Wright and he has some really interesting things to say about eschatology. He argues that the idea of "dying and going to Heaven esp. in a bodiless existence" is not orthodox Christianity, but Gnosticism (a heresy in the early Church). Orthodox Christianity drew on the Jewish idea of bodily resurrection and Gnosticism drew on Greek philosophic ideas of abandoning the body and the world for bodiless existence in Heaven. The implications of this distinction are huge and I won't get further into it here, but the more I read the Bible the more I see just how right N. T. Wright is (Wright is right!).

I apologize for what might seem like a religious rabbit trail, but this is my blog and these are the thoughts bouncing around my brain right now. If we don't "shuffle off this mortal coil" and "go to Heaven when we die", but get resurrected with new bodies in a renewed earth, why shouldn't we, body and soul, die first? I've long suspected that what we call "hell" is closer to the Jewish Sheol  (which is very similar to the Greek Hades) of fading nonexistence than to the Medieval Hell of eternal suffering. Here's even more reason to do so.

Finally, Lucretius wrote that because the soul is mortal (and thus there is no afterlife) there is nothing to fear, as Hamlet did as he considered suicide, as far as punishment goes. Lucretius also said that we shouldn't be worried about never eating, drinking, or seeing our loved ones again, because when we are dead we will no longer desire those things. Honestly death doesn't give me fear so much as sadness. Okay, I won't long to see my loved ones after I've ceased to exist. There's nothing to fear, but isn't that sad? Every one of us is completely unique and if death is the end, the universe will never know another of our kind. All of our memories, experiences, relationships, dreams, hopes, fears, and desires will be "lost in time... like tears in rain" (high five if you get the reference). The world will never know that unique fire again. Honestly, the sadness of this idea totally overwhelms any fear I might have.

On the Nature of Things has been one of the most thought-provoking of the Great Books thus far and I'm really glad to have read it.

Note: I really want to get on to Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, but my school summatives/exam prep is keeping my mind busy, so I probably won't get around to reading it until late next month.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

"Introduction to Arithmetic": Math As Evidence of Natural Laws

 It's been longer than usual since I've posted on this blog. Part of the reason is that my library didn't have Introduction to Arithmetic and I had to read it as a PDF file. I much prefer reading an actual book than reading on a screen, so consequently I wasn't as motivated to keep reading as I normally am. That, and I recently went through an emotionally painful experience, and honestly learning about abstract arithmetic didn't always seem all that important to me.

Overall I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would and I also found it easier to understand than I thought it would. Nicomachus is always careful to repeat statements and give examples.
The thing that struck me the most about the Introduction to Arithmetic was the elegance of mathematics. The way numbers fit together into patterns is really amazing… and none of it is man-made. The patterns are inherent! It’s darn good evidence for an ordered, lawful universe. It was interesting how Nicomachus sometimes took a “mystical” (for lack of a better word) approach to mathematics. It seems strange coming from what is basically from a math textbook, but given the inherent elegance of mathematics, it’s easy to see why he would.
I've disliked math from an early age (and have struggled with it due to my math block i.e. my inability to calculate in my head), but I remember having one teacher in Grade 11 who actually made math interesting for me. Like Nicomachus, he emphasized the patterns and elegance of math. Nicomachus brought me back to that interest.

Friday, April 5, 2013

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

Ever since Meno I've been taking point form summaries of the Great Books I've been reading and I've found it very beneficial. Writing ideas down helps me to comprehend them and it's handy to have the main ideas from these books easily available (rather than re-reading the entire thing).

The reading of Aristotle's Ethics consisted of Book 2 in its entirety, chapters 5-12 of Book 3, and chapters 8-13 of Book 6. I greatly enjoyed Book 2 and the selected chapters from Book 3 complimented it. However, the selected chapters from Book 6 came across as a little random to me and I didn't comprehend it as much as I did the other chapters.

In Book 2, Aristotle defines a virtue as the mean (i.e. the correct amount) of a quality between excess and defect. For example courage is the mean between cowardice and rashness and temperance is the mean between self-deprivation and over-indulgence. Aristotle also said that virtue is acquired through practice, and that a virtuous disposition cannot simply be willed to happen, it must be put into action. At first you might not like doing virtuous acts; do them anyway and what you imitate will become reality. Eventually, a truly virtuous person will take delight in doing virtuous acts. Ultimately, Aristotle says that a virtuous man "must have knowledge of virtue, must chose to do the acts for their own sake, and the action most proceed from a firm and unchangeable character."

In the selections from Books 3 and 6 Aristotle delves deeper into the virtues of courage and temperance and then talks about intellectual virtue (as opposed to moral virtue), but it was Book 2 that really struck me.

I found this book very practical and good for self-improvement (I'll take Aristotle over a modern self-help book any day!). I've recently been re-reading Mere Christianity and, this time around, I really notice the Aristotelian influence on it. This might seem silly, but one of the initial reasons I wanted to read the Great Books was to gain a better understanding of Lewis's writings. So far it's worked.

Ethics is probably my favourite book on the second list so far, over-taking Herodotus' Histories. I think I still like Herodotus' writing better, but I love Aristotle's ideas.

Monday, March 18, 2013

"Poetics": Tragedy and Epic Poetry 101

Poetics is Aristotle's classification of poetry. He classifies the different types of poetry and goes over various conventions of poetry and how it can be done well and how it can be done poorly.

"Poetry", as Aristotle defined it, referred both to what we would think of as poetry (i.e. written verse) and also plays, mainly tragedy and comedy. Poetics deals mainly with tragedy and epic poetry. Aristotle wrote a second book about the remaining forms of poetry (e.g. comedy), but it has been lost. Aristotle wrote that poetry is primarily a mode of imitation, which is different, I think, from modern views of poetry. We would probably say poetry, or art in general, is primarily self expression. We tend to shy away from calling art "bad" by saying things like "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" and "to each his own", but in ancient Greece, art either hit the mark (was a good imitation) or it didn't (was a bad imitation). Like a lot of Greek thought, I find these ideas refreshing and I would be inclined to agree with them. I would love to see an ancient Greek philosopher like Plato or Aristotle walk into a modern art gallery and debate with modern artists and critics. It would make my day.

Even though this book was aimed at tragedies and epic poetry, much of the guidelines Aristotle sets out could be readjusted to fit modern movies or novels. For example Aristotle's listing of the six components of a tragedy (Spectacle, Character, Plot, Diction, Melody, and Thought) seem like they could be applied, with some adjustment, into most forms of story-telling.

I prefer epic poetry to tragedies, but I have to admit, Aristotle gave really good reasons for the superiority of tragedies. He said that tragedies can be enjoyed being watched or being read, while epics can only be read and tragedies relative short length make them pithy while the length of epics can make them diluted and less unified. I think I still prefer epics to tragedies, but I can really see Aristotle's points. Interestingly though, of the epic poetry I've read, my favourites (e.g. Paradise Lost and the "Divine Comedy") were non-Greek; I think I enjoyed the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles more than The Iliad. It will be interesting to see what I think of The Odyssey when I get to it on the reading list.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

"Meno": The Nature of Arete

Meno opens with Meno asking Socrates whether or not "virtue" can be taught. The word "virtue" is translated from the Greek word arete. My history teacher taught me that arete means "excellence". Now, having read Meno and seeing arete being used many times in context, I think both definitions are a little lacking. For example when Meno attempts to define arete as ruling over others, our word "virtue" doesn't seem to fit; "excellence" seems a better fit. However, Socrates then replies that Meno should add ruling "justly and not unjustly", making "excellence" alone a poor fit. It seems that arete covers both the English words "virtue" and "excellence".

After being given the question, Socrates responds with another question: what is arete? Most of the following dialogue is concerned with defining this elusive word. Socrates makes Meno realize that he doesn't know what virtue is, not to mess with him, but to make him wise. Socrates firmly believes that it is better to know that you know nothing than to think that you know anything when you really don't.

Meno attempts to define arete by saying that it differs from person to person, depending on their role or nature. He says that men run cities and women run homes, and therefore different people have different virtues. Socrates defends universal morality by comparing the virtues to bees. Bees have different features, but they are all bees. Similarly, although men and women have different jobs to do (in ancient Greece), they are compelled to do those jobs with the same qualities (e.g. justice and moderation). Justice and moderation are virtues for all of humanity.

Socrates also said that no man desires evil for its own sake. Rather men desire evil things thinking they are good things or with good things as the ends. 

One quote I particularly liked: "We will be better men, braver and less idle, if we believe that one must search for the things one does not know, rather than if we believe that it is not possible to find what we do not know and that we must not look for it".  This quote really speaks to the post-modern idea that there is no objective truth and also agnosticism.

Interestingly Socrates argued that human rationality comes from our pre-birth existence, either as a past life or elsewhere. He tells an uneducated servant boy to figure out a math problem. The servant boy answers the math problem by answering questions asked by Socrates, not be being taught by him. This proves that rationality is inborn and not taught. Socrates goes on to say that "learning" is merely recollecting from past existence. Cool stuff.

It was only towards the end that Socrates' argument lost me. Socrates asserted that arete is caused by neither nature nor nurture, but is a gift from the gods, after refuting that arete is a kind of knowledge. Socrates said that arete isn't knowledge, because there are no teachers. He used the example of good men having bad sons. If arete could be taught certainly the good men's sons would have turned out good as well. I don't know if I completely agree though. If not for my parent's correcting I don't know if I would have the same morals I do today. I don't even know if I would have the same morals if I hadn't grown up watching and reading stories about heroes. Of course lessons can fall on deaf ears, so there seems to be a combination of nature and nature. And isn't everything, to an extent, a gift from the gods (God)?

Overall, though, I thoroughly enjoyed getting back to Plato, my favourite Great Books author. I find his philosophy of eternal forms so refreshing in my relativistic culture. I think we can learn a lot from him.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

"The History" [Book II: Euterpe]: The Ancient Egyptians

Near the beginning of Book II of The History, Euterpe (named after the Muse of Music), Herodotus speculates about what lies south of Egypt and where the Nile's source is and what is the case of the rising and falling of the Nile. The speculation of uncharted territory filled me with a numinous awe that I don't think I've ever gotten from reading non-fiction before. I don't know if Herodotus intended it, but the thoughts of the mysterious unknown gave me the chills. The fact that we now know what lies south of Egypt, what the source(s) of the Nile is (Lake Victoria and Lake Tana), and what causes the flooding of the Nile (an increase in rain at the Niles sources), did nothing to dampen the mood.

Ancient Egypt is one of my favourite historical subjects, because it is so mysterious. Herodotus said that "there is no country that possesses so many wonders, nor any that has such a number of works which defy description" and my history teacher described Ancient Egypt as "intoxicating".

Interestingly, the Egyptians are familiar with the story of the Trojan War, but they told it differently. The Egyptians said that Paris, after he had taken Helen, made a stop in Egypt, and the Egyptians, realizing that Paris had taken another man's wife took Helen away from Paris. Paris went back to Troy without Helen and Menelaus retrieved her from the Egyptians. The Trojan War was still fought, but Helen was not at Troy during it. Herodotus thought that the Egyptian story was more historically credible than Homer's version, because he didn't think that Priam would risk his country by allowing Paris to keep Helen. Herodotus thought that Homer wrote The Iliad the way he did, because the Egyptian version is "less adapted for epic poetry."

Also interestingly, Herodotus refused to mention the name of Osiris. It reminded me of Voldemort.

After going over the animals, culture, and religious customs of Egypt, Herodotus repeated stories of various pharaohs that he he had learned from the priests of Egypt. Two of the most interesting were the stories of Mycerinus and Sethos:

File:Menkaura Bust Closeup.jpgMycerinus (the Latin name for Menkaure), pious son and grandson of two impious pharaohs (the famous pyramid builders Chephren and Cheops respectively), was told by an oracle that his life would draw to a close prematurely. Upset, Mycerinus asked we he should have a short life, while his wicked father and grandfather had long lives. The oracle replied that Mycerinus had to die precisely because of his goodness. "Egypt was fated to suffer affliction one hundred and fifty years - the two kings who preceded thee upoun the throne understood this - thou hast not understood it."

Sethos, formerly a priest, neglected the warrior class, and when Sennacherib, King of the Assyrians, invaded, the warriors refused to fight for Sethos. He pleaded to the gods for deliverance and, because he was pious and favoured of the gods, they sent mice to nibble at the bowstrings of the Assyrian soldiers during the night. Because of this, the Assyrians were driven from Egyptian territory and Egypt was saved from invasion. A statue of Sethos with a mouse in his hand was raised, with the inscription "Look on me, and learn to reverence the gods".

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Herodotus and I think he is now my second favourite of the Great Books authors, under Plato.

Old Map:


Tuesday, February 26, 2013

"The History" [Book I: Clio]: The Lydian Empire and Cyrus the Great

The first book of The History, "Clio" (named after the Muse of History) is mainly concerned with the rise and fall of the Lydian Empire and the rise of the Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great, with numerous rabbit trails on related subjects.

I really enjoyed Herodotus and I think he is my second favourite Great Books writer after Plato. History is one of my favourite subjects as it is and Herodotus' writing style only made it more enjoyable. Although I've greatly enjoyed the Great Books so far, I often feel the need to push myself forward in my reading, but that wasn't the case with Herodotus. I was never bored while reading "Clio" and everything Herodotus wrote about was relevant and interesting. I've also heard that Herodotus is quite historically accurate. I felt like Herodotus was more objective than Gibbon. Herodotus' love of and bias towards Greece was apparent, but Herodotus made no effort to hide it and didn't let it control his writing. Gibbon on the other hand almost seemed to be writing with an agenda (e.g. discrediting Judeo-Christian religion). I would describe Herodotus as skeptical, but not cynical, whereas I thought Gibbon was heading towards cynicism.

I found Herodotus' descriptions of different nations' customs very interesting, especially Persia. I've heard of the Persian practice of having a drunken debate followed by a sober debate before, but I still think it's brilliant. I don't think passion should be ignored, but I do think it should be controlled by reason.

I find the Ancient Persian religion endlessly fascinating. It seems to have connections with the Judeo-Christian tradition: they had no images of gods, they didn't believe the gods had the same nature as men (as the Greeks did), the Magi that visited Christ were thought to be the Persian priests described in Herodotus, and Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic religion that is thought by some to have influenced post-Exilic Judaism, was also founded in Persia. I believe that the divine light shines the brightest in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but I'm not against the idea of the divine light shining in other traditions albeit not as brightly or clearly. The Persians also worshipped the four elements (or personifications of them): water, earth, fire, and air. Unlike the Jews, but like the Christians, the Persians had no temples.

There were a couple of references to other books I've read in the Great Books series. Helen's abduction by Paris is described at the beginning of the book, Lycurgus, the law-giver of Sparta is mentioned, and the bones of Orestes son of Agamemnon are mentioned.

Unlike most modern historians, Herodotus seemed to have arranged his history into a narrative, with recurring themes and ideas. One of the main "themes" is the fickleness of fortune. Croesus, the King of Lydia, asks Solon, a Greek, who the happiest man on earth is. Croesus is expecting Solon to say that he, Croesus, is the happiest man, because of his wealth and power, but Solon names a few deceased Athenians as the happiest men on earth. Solon explains that a man shouldn't be called happy until he is dead, because his fortunes could change dramatically (this idea is similar to Aristotle's ideas in Book I of Ethics). Solon's words turn prophetic as Lydia is conquered by Cyrus and Croesus is on his way to execution. However, Cyrus spares Croesus because he is impressed by the wisdom he learned from Solon and Croesus becomes Cyrus's advisor. Solon's words once again become relevant when Cyrus the Great is killed by Tomyris, an enemy he underestimated, because of his overconfidence.

Monday, February 25, 2013

"Antigone": Rebel with a Cause

Of the past five plays I've read this month, Antigone was my favourite. It was the most thought-provoking and I thought it had the best characters.

Oedipus' sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, die on opposing sides in a struggle for the throne of Thebes. Creon, now King of Thebes, decrees that Eteocles will be honoured with a proper burial but that Polyneices will not be buried, but left to be carrion for animals. Creon will execute any who bury Polyneices. Antigone decides to bury her brother Polyneices, out of love and respect for her brother but also out of direct disobedience to her stepfather the king. Creon finds out that Antigone has buried Polyneices and Antigone does not deny that she has disobeyed the king by burying her brother out of reverence for the dead. Ismene, who earlier opted out of Antigones' plan out of fear of the king now wishes to be on trial with her sister. Antigone isn't keen on Ismene's support, because of her earlier cowardice. Antigone and Ismene are imprisoned. Creon's son and Antigone's lover, Haemon, the blind prophet from Oedipus the King, Tiresias, and finally the Chorus of Theban Elders try to defend Antigone. Eventually the Chorus persuades Creon to acquit Antigone of her "crimes"when it is discovered that Antigone has hanged herself and Haemon has stabbed himself at the sight of Antigone dead. Eurydice, Creon's wife and Haemon's mother, kills herself at the news. Creon is horrified, because he realizes that his decisions were the cause of Antigone's, Haemon's, and Eurydices' death.

The dialogue in this play was excellent. The debates between Creon and Antigone and her defenders was the highlight of the play. The Iliad got me thinking about war as a necessary evil and now Antigone has gotten me thinking about disobedience as a necessary evil. Obedience seems to me to be a good thing in itself, if for no other reason than that it preserves order, but obeying a wrong or immoral order also seems very foolish to me. It wasn't Antigones' disobedience that makes her sympathetic; it is her obedience to a higher law (reverence for the dead) that makes her a martyr. Antigone seemed to view disobeying her king as the lesser of two evils.

Creon reminded me of Agamemnon a little, because of how he can't take any disobedient act against himself and seems characterized by pride. I did find Creon a lot more sympathetic though, especially because he saw the error of his ways by the end of the play.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

"Oedipus the King": Non-Linear Storytelling

Oedipus the King drops the reader (or viewer) into the middle of a story, giving background information as it is required. I liked this structure, because it reminded me of the non-linear structure of many of Christopher Nolan's films. In chronological order, this is the summary of the events of Oedipus the King and the events preceding it:

Laius, King of Thebes, receives an oracle that he will one day be killed by his son. Once Laius has a son, he orders the child to be taken to a mountain to die, however a shepherd rescues the young Oedipus, and brings him to King Polybus of Corinth. Polybus raises Oedipus and when Oedipus is older he hears a rumour that Polybus isn't his real father. Oedipus consults an oracle on this matter, but the oracle only tells him that he will one day kill his father and go to bed with his mother. Understandably, Oedipus flees his home, so that the oracles prophecy won't come to pass. While traveling Oedipus meets a man on the road, has a quarrel with him, and kills him. Later, Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx ala Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, thus freeing Thebes from the Sphinx. In reward the Thebans make Oedipus their king, as their former king has recently died, and marries the former king's widow, Jocasta.

That is the background information that is revealed over the course of the play. The play begins with Oedipus as the King of Thebes, having to deal with a plague in the land. Oedipus sends his brother-in-law Creon to inquire the cause of the plague at Delphi. Creon returns and tells Oedipus that the plague has been caused by an act of impiety in the land: the unsolved murder of King Laius. Oedipus commits himself to finding the murderer and consults a prophet, Tiresias. Tiresias reluctantly tells Oedipus that he, Oedipus, is the murderer of Laius. Oedipus refuses to believe Creon, but is startled when he learns that Laius was killed while on the road because he remembers killing an unknown man on a road. Oedipus tells his wife, Jocasta, about his suspicions. A messenger from Corinth arrives declaring that the king of Corinth, Polybus, has died and Oedipus is relieved because that means the prophecy didn't come true, as he wasn't the cause of his father's death. Oedipus then questions the messenger, who had witnessed the death of Laius, and he reveals that he brought Oedipus as an infant to Polybus, and Oedipus realizes that Polybus wasn't his real father. Oedipus harshly demands the messenger to give him more information and the messenger tells Oedipus that the baby, Oedipus as an infant, was Laius' son. Everything falls into place and Oedipus realizes the truth: he is the son of Laius and Jocasta, meaning that he has killed his father and gone to bed with his mother, fulfilling the old prophecy. In horror Jocasta kills herself and Oedipus curses himself and gouges his eyes out. Oedipus leaves his daughters, Antigone and Ismene, in the charge of Creon and tells them that no man will ever want to marry them because of who their unwittingly incestuous father and mother were.

I knew the basic story about Oedipus (i.e. I knew that he unknowingly killed his father and slept with his mother, and gouged out his eyes in shame) before I read Oedipus the King, but knowing the ending didn't take away from my enjoyment of the play. In fact, my foreknowledge made the plays events more ominous.

I'm sure I'll refer back to this play if/when I get to Freud's "Oedipal Complex" on the reading list.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Achilles vs. Agamemnon

When reading about Achilles and Agamemnon in The Iliad, and to a lesser extent, in Aeschylus' play in which Agamemnon is the title character, I noticed how well the characters contrast each other.

Both characters are consumed by pride. Both Achilles and Agamemnon can't take any other mortal giving them orders or exerting power over them. However, this common core of pride is where the similarities end.

Where Achilles actually is great, Agamemnon thinks he is great and actually isn't. You can say what you want about Achilles' brutality, the guy is impressive. He's excellent at what he does. Agamemnon, on the other hand, thinks he's a great king, but he's really a pitiful character.

Agamemnon is obsessed with achieving the glory he lacks. He even sacrifices his own daughter to enable his fleets to sail to Troy. Why does he want to capture Troy? Because he will forever be remembered as Agamemnon, the King Who Sacked Troy.  Achilles already has glory and has become disillusioned by it. When Achilles refuses to fight the Trojan's because of Agamemnon's insult to him, Achilles justifies his staying out of the fighting because he just doesn't see the point of it any more. The brave and the coward both come to the same fate, so why should he be the Glorious Achilles? It won't save him from death - and will probably hasten death's approach.

Achilles also seems to be alienated from much of humanity or at least humanity's decorum. As a killing machine, Achilles doesn't easily mesh into the nuances of society, whereas Agamemnon, the "lord of men", is surrounded by the regulations and decorum that comes from a royal upbringing.

So, although, Achilles and Agamemnon are both characterized by pride, they wind up being very different characters.

Friday, February 8, 2013

"Eumenides": The Furies Revenge (Or Lack Thereof)

Eumenides, the final play of the "Orestia", begins with the Furies, Greek deities that bring vengeance on the wicked and impious, pursuing Orestes, the young prince of Argos who recently murdered his mother in retaliation for her murder of her husband and Oreste's father, Agamemnon. Orestes tries to find refuge in a temple of Apollo, but the Furies do not relent. Apollo casts a sleeping spell on the Furies and sends Orestes to Athens under protection of Hermes. Clytemnestra's ghost appears and she urges the Furies to resume their pursuit of Orestes. The Furies do so and find Orestes in Athens in the Areopagus, the judicial centre of Athens. In the trial of Orestes, the Furies serve as the prosecuting attorneys for the dead Clytemnestra, Apollo serves as Orestes attorney, and Athena is the judge of the case. Eleven men of Athens vote over whether or not Orestes is innocent, and the result is a draw. Athena, the deciding vote, votes for Orestes acquital and Orestes is spared from judgement. The Furies are, characteristically, furious, but Athena, the goddess of wisdom, calms the Furies and persuades them away from persecuting Orestes.

And so the final play in the trilogy of tragedies ends with... a happy ending. I was really surprised by the ending. The final lines are: "Peace to thee and peace to thee / And peace for ever in Pallas' land! / Partnered with happy Destiny / All-seeing Zeus hath wrought to this end! / (Cry, cry aloud with jubilee!)". That's downright optimistic! I'm no expert in tragedies, but I thought one of the fundamental rules is that they have very sobering, tragic endings. I have to acknowledge that the ending only came after multiple bloody murders and great cost to Orestes character (i.e. the murder of his mother), but still.

Eumenides was by far my favourite play of the trilogy. I feel like the most happened in this play, it was the most dense. I found the court scene very interesting, and I liked Aeschlus' portrayal of Athena, my fvaourite character from Greek mythology. The impression I got from the words of the play (I would have loved to see a performance of it) was that Athena was a serene, fair, and wise judge. The ending seems to be a triumph of fairness over blind retribution and mercy over harshness.