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.