Saturday, May 17, 2014

"On Interpretation"

On Interpretation gave me flashbacks to high school. I remember learning about grammar, parts of speech etc. in high school felt like nothing but a waste of time to me. It made sense in elementary school, but in high school it felt like learning useless information, learning what now came intuitively to me. I could read and write just fine without having to think of the rules of grammar.

Reading On Interpretation made me realize that I no longer think that continuing to learn the rules of grammar (after it has become intuitive) is a complete waste of time, because it is helpful both for clarity of thought and for analysis purposes. And there's always knowledge for knowledge's sake, I suppose. I still find it a boring and often superfluous topic though.

I don't have much else to say for this one.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Are We All Created Equal... And What Does That Even Mean?

I wrote down a rant this afternoon and thought I'd post it (with a few minor alterations to make it more polite):

I doubt whether the question “Are we equal?” has any meaning. If the question means are people equal in the same way that two and two is equal to four, the answer is an obvious “No”. Every person is unique and anyone who denies this self-evident fact is delusional. So what does it mean? Are some people “better” than others? Again, one person will be stronger, smarter etc. than another person. People can become smarter, stronger etc. with practice and through will power, but genetics definitely play a role in determining the development of certain characteristics. Nature, nurture, and choice all play a role in our identity. I assume that by one person being better than another, we’re talking about the sum total of attributes. Many will say that one person is good at A while another person is good at B, therefore they’re both equal. I still don’t think this is true. Is A of equal importance than B? What’s to say A is better than B? And we’re not only comparing two qualities, but the sum total of a person’s attributes. Anyone who thinks they can successfully quantify the level of each of a person’s attributes is fooling themselves. It’s hardly an exact science and I see no way to successfully do it. Also, judging a person is folly, because we can’t see what is going on inside their heads or the raw psychological or emotional raw material they are working with. If the question of equality has any meaning, I very much doubt it’s a question we can answer. Don’t get me wrong, I am very much a believer in equal treatment under law for every individual, sex, race etc., but I also don’t believe that the idea that “All men are created equal” is any more than a legal fiction, an idea created by man. If you tell me that we can’t judge, generalize, or successfully determine whether one person is “better” (whatever that means) than another person I am with you, but if you tell me that everyone is exactly the same as everyone else, I cannot agree.

Friday, May 9, 2014

"Statesman": Who Watches the Watchmen?

A lot of interesting thoughts went through my head as I read Plato's Statesman. This dialogue mainly consists of an unnamed visitor and another Socrates (not Plato's teacher) attempting to define a statesman.

In the first part of the dialogue, the young Socrates and the visitor narrow down what a statesman is by dividing categories into two and then selecting which one applies to the statesman. Their conclusions at this point are that the statesman possesses a specialized theoretical knowledge related to statesmanship (as a doctor possesses a specialized knowledge in the art of medicine) and that a statesman is a herdsman of sorts over his people.

From there the dialogue takes an unexpected and fascinating turn. Plato outlines a view that seemed very mythological and I'm not sure how much of this was traditional Greek mythology and how much of it is the speculation of philosophers. Of all the parts of the dialogue this was the section I most wanted extra clarification on. This is how it went, as much as I understood it: In the previous age, the Age of Cronus aka the Golden Age, the world was under control of "the god" and humanity was taken care of by him as a divine herdsman. Everything necessary for humanity's survival was provided for by the god, without humanity needing to work for it. There was also no need for political institutions. Then the rotation of the world reversed (whatever that means), the world entered its present age, and was no longer taken care of by the god but was run by itself Epicurean-style. Because humanity now had to take care of itself, gifts were given to humanity to aid them (e.g. fire from Prometheus, crafts from Hephaestus). 

There are a lot of interesting implications and connections with other things here. I just wish I knew more about the origin of these ideas. I'll have to research it some time.

After this, the three major forms of government - monarchy (rule of one), aristocracy (rule of few), and democracy (rule of the people) - are defined and it is decided that the art of the statesman must reside in one person, or at most a few, because specialized knowledge, the attribute that defines the statesman, cannot be possessed by everyone. 

The nature of laws are then discussed. It is decided that written laws can never adequately express justice, because situations change and every situation is different. Rather laws serve as general rules, and the ideal statesman is able to operate outside of them if needed to implement justice, as a doctor will sometimes go outside of general practice guidelines depending on the patient. At about this time my spidey-sense started tingling. Surely, no man can be trusted with this level of authority?

Plato addresses this. The reason why democracy emerged and laws are treated as, well, law is because statesman have abused their power. Plato wasn't a fan of democracy, because it was the democratic process that led to his teacher Socrates' death. The end result of the dialogue is pretty impractical. The dialogue, it seems, is devoted to defining an ideal that, to my eyes at least, will never be realized by a mere mortal. It seems that the statesman Plato is describing would have to be more than human. In true Platonic fashion, rule by this ideal statesman is the ideal form of government, which all other forms of government are a copy or imitation of. I  think I agree with Plato, at least as far as this dialogue goes, that the rule of a wise and good statesman would be the best form of government, but unfortunately I don't think he currently walks among us. Ultimately, I side with democracy, but I do so with a heavy heart. I share none of the enthusiasm of someone like Rousseau, because I view democracy largely as a safety check. We can't trust any one person with power, so we must distribute it evenly. It doesn't exactly make me feel good about humanity. Lucky for me I don't place my hope in humanity, but the true Statesman.

This quote from the 51st Federalist Paper went through my mind frequently as I read the Statesman: "The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary."

Sunday, May 4, 2014

"The Peloponnesian War"

Herodotus and Thucydides approached history in a different way. Herodotus gathered all of the information he could get about Greece and various other countries that he visited. He often went down rabbit trails and included a variety of details about the subjects he investigated. Thucydides was a lot more focused. He wrote about the Peloponnesian War in a matter-of-fact way and seldom got sidetracked.

Herodotus often wrote about what had happened a long time ago, relying on records, witnesses, legends, and stories. Thucydides, on the other hand, was writing about current events, chronicling the war as it happened.

The end result is that Thucydides is probably a more reliable source, but I thought he was far less enjoyable to read.

The impression I got from history class was that Herodotus was the naive one and Thucydides was skeptical one, the true modern historian, but I think this is being very unfair to Herodotus. First of all Herodotus was skeptical. He included details from myths, legends etc. but always hesitantly and with a disclaimer. It's also unfair because of the time period each historian was dealing with; Thucydides' job would have been a lot easier. I think Herodotus did an admirable job with the resources available to him.

It was also interesting to compare the Persian Wars with the Peloponnesian War. As far as wars go, the Persian Wars were pretty straight forward. The Athenians encouraged their colony in Ionia to revolt against their Persian conquerors and after the revolt, the Persian king became angry and invaded Greece, hoping to conquer the free land of Greece. My sympathies lied almost completely with the Greeks. However, the Peloponnesian War, being a civil war rather than an invasion, was far more morally ambiguous. It reminded me a lot more of the wars and conflicts that have gone on in the world during my lifetime. I wanted to cheer on Athens because I'm biased, but the Athenians and their allies were hardly innocent in this war and neither were the Spartans and theirs.

I'm pretty relieved to be finished with Thucydides. I've been reading him off and on for ages now, because of the demands of school. 

Friday, May 2, 2014

Books Read in April 2014

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

Although I enjoyed this book, I thought it was by far the weakest of the Bradbury books I've read so far (the others being Fahrenheit 451, The Illustrated Man, and Dandelion Wine). Bradbury's writing is brilliant as usual and there were plenty of moments that I loved, but the book as a whole didn't come together for me as much as I would have liked. The imagery wasn't quite as haunting or evocative as the images in The Illustrated Man and it didn't stir my nostalgia like Dandelion Wine or become my bookworm battle-cry like Fahrenheit 451. Regardless, Bradbury's writing is always a pleasure to read, even if I felt a bit relieved when I was finished this one. This is just my opinion, but I think the ideas in Something Wicked This Way Comes could have been used better in a short story or two, because while the ideas were good, they weren't enough to interest me for the entire book. In fact, Bradbury combined a couple of short stories he had already written to make this this book. And by the way, I thought Will's father, Charles Halloway totally stole the show from the two protagonists, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade.

Kings, Bishops, Knights, and Pawns by Ralph Arnold

Kings, bishops, knights, and pawns: Life in feudal society: Ralph Arnold
This was a short book about medieval feudalism. It was written with appreciated sensitivity, as the author tried to put his readers into medieval people's shoes. Granted that feudalism was a system that was often abused and used as a means of injustice, during the Dark Ages it gave much needed stability and security in a chaotic world, following the fall of the Roman Empire. I think the most interesting part of this book for me was actually the section focusing on the lives of peasants. When reading about the Middle Ages, my main interest is in knights, followed by nobility and monks. I have nothing against peasants, I just thought reading about their daily lives would be relatively boring. I was wrong.

The Journey by Kathryn Lasky (re-read)

I found a bunch of Ga'Hoole books at a thrift store and because of this I finally got around to re-reading the second book, The Journey. I'm really enjoying my re-read of this series and I'm already on to the third book. The Journey is a slower book, the first third being about Soren, Gylfie, Twilight, and Digger's journey to the Great Ga'Hoole Tree and the final third being about life in the Tree. The villains of the last book, the owls of St. Aggies, aren't a threat to the characters anymore, and the Pure Ones, the major villains of the series, are only hinted at ominously in this book. In many ways it's a book of setup, getting to know the owls at the Tree, learning how things work at the Tree etc. but the way Lasky writes about the Great Ga'Hoole Tree is so enjoyable that I don't mind.

I've decided to focus on my favourite character Otulissa as I re-read the series and do a mini character study of her. The Journey is the first book Otulissa is in. Otulissa is a Spotted Owl from the Forest Kingdom of Ambala. She apparently fell out of her nest as an owlet, her parents never returned, and she was then rescued by a Ga'Hoole search-and-rescue patrol and brought to the Tree. Otulissa is very proud of her ancient and distinguished lineage and, truthfully, is a snob - often judgmental of those she consider unrefined. She is prim and proper, a teacher's pet, and doesn't know when to shut up. She is also a lover of knowledge and books. Otulissa is convinced that she will be tapped into the navigation chaw, the chaw she considers most prestigious and the chaw her idol and fellow Spotted Owl, Strix Struma, teaches, but is horrified when she's tapped for the decidedly non-prestigious colliering and weather-interpretation double chaw (at Ga'Hoole a "chaw" is an owl's area of specialty, kind of like a career, and owlets are "tapped" or selected for a particular chaw). You may be wondering why such a character would be my favourite. First of all, Otulissa's book smarts immediately make me sympathetic to her and, for whatever weird reason, I have an affinity for snobby characters, so her pretentiousness wasn't as off-putting for me as it would be to most people. I often felt sorry for the snobby characters as a kid, as they're so often the "bad guy" in family movies and usually get tar-and-feathered or some equivalent at the end and all the "good guys" laugh at them. Towards the end of the book I really do feel sorry for Otulissa on a couple of occasions, the most notably when Otulissa clumsily tries to comfort Soren by giveing him bookish information about the condition Soren's delirious sister might be in. Soren snaps at her that she's giving him useless information to which Otulissa, in tears, responds, "Oh dear. None of this is coming out right. I was just trying to be helpful." Otulissa could have so easily been just a foil for Soren and co., but Lasky developed her into a layered and complex character and I respect her for that. Most importantly, this is only the beginning. Otulissa probably goes through the most growth of any character in this series, and does become a rather awesome character later on. I dare anyone not to fall in love with her character if they keep reading.

The Rescue by Kathryn Lasky

Otulissa undergoes significant character development in this book, although a lot of it happens "offscreen". The first sign of the change comes when two of the owlets rescued from the last book are stating their belief that Glaux, the firstborn owl was a Tyto and that all Tytos (Barn Owls, Masked Owls, Sooty Owls etc.) are descended from him. The owlets are speaking as they have been taught by the Pure Ones, the Nazi-like villains of the series, but Otulissa is upset by what the owlets are saying. She firmly tells the owlets that all owls are descended from Glaux, not just Tytos. The main characters are surprised at Otulissa using the phrase "all of us", since she herself seems to believe that Spotted Owls, especially certain ancient families of Spotted Owls, are the best. It could be argued that Otulissa is simply refuting a mistaken belief, which in itself is very characteristic of Otulissa regardless of what the belief is about, but I think it becomes obvious later on that this moment is starting to show a real change in Otulissa. Later on, when the major characters Soren, Gylfie, Twilight, Digger, and Egalntine decide to form the Chaw of Chaws (sort of an updated version of the Band established in the first book to potentially include more owls than just the four) and search for Ezylryb, the missing scholar and weather interpretation ryb, Otulissa, who had apparently been eavesdropping, tells them she wants to join as well. She tells the others that she hates everything she has been hearing about the Pure Ones, and their belief that Tytos are the supreme species of owl. It's a good thing Otulissa joined the Chaw of Chaws on their mission because her  knowledge of metals and higher magnetics was instrumental in finding Ezylryb and destroying the Devil's Triangle created by the Pure Ones. So what caused Otulissa to change? Like I said, it wasn't made explicit, but I think it's safe to say that her time spent at the Great Ga'Hoole Tree softened her ideas of the importance of lineage. It's obvious that Otulissa learned these ideas before coming to the Tree, probably from the culture she was raised in as an owlet, because one of the key virtues of the Tree is humility and most of the Guardians are not pretentious in the least. After spending so much time among such noble owls of a variety of species, many of Otulissa's assumptions must have been shattered. I also think Otulissa being picked for the colliering/weather interpretation chaws was no accident. Being picked for a less prestigious chaw would teach Otulissa the value of certain things that are often less respected and give her a much needed lesson in humility.