Friday, July 18, 2014

"Elements" [Book I]

I went through the first book of Euclid's Elements using a pen, ruler, protractor, compass etc. and followed his instructions in each proposal. It was fun at first, but became somewhat tedious around the middle of the book. What I found interesting about Elements is how many mathematical laws were proposed and problems solved without the use of complex calculations. I used a calculator a couple of times, but it wasn't necessary. The first book dealt mostly with triangles, angles, and parallelograms. 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Books Read In June 2014

The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth

During the first couple chapters (or "books"), I was surprised at how readable this history was. However, after a while, as countless kings rose and fell, I began to get restless. Luckily things picked up once Arthur entered the scene for the last few chapters. This books is one of the earlier appearances of Arthur in literature and much of the romance of later Arthurian tales is absent. There's no Round Table, no knights in the traditional sense (although some familiar faces such as Gawain and Kay turn up), no Lady of the Lake etc. while some of it is present such as Merlin and Excalibur (here named Caliburn). This was an interesting if ultimately dry book, which I am glad to have read but am in no hurry to re-read. I learned some very interesting things about the English mythos pre-Arthur - for example I learned that the Britons were thought to be descended from Aeneas, survivor of Troy and founder of Rome - as well as the origins of Arthurian legend, though of course Arthur's roots go much further.

The Discarded Image by C. S. Lewis

The Discarded Image is a fascinating look at the beautiful and elegant - though scientifically inaccurate - worldview of the Middle Ages. Many would say that learning about a disproved theory of the universe is pointless, but I am very glad I read this book. Scientifically, there doesn't seem to be much point in having any more than a basic understanding of the medieval model of the universe, but this is a book written for those interested in medieval literature and this book provides a backdrop for said literature. However, the medieval model is a thing of such beauty and a product of a philosophy so different from our own, I would recommend this book to anyone simply as an exercise in stretching the mind. Lewis paints a vivid picture of the medieval model, discussing everything from the medieval views on the planets, to the four elements and humours, humanity, animals, and so on. Lewis is also keen on disproving misconceptions about medieval thought such as the idea that the medievals thought the universe was small and local when in fact they thought that the stars were unimaginably distant and the scandalous idea that the medievals thought the earth was flat when nearly every educated person knew that the earth was round. This was a fantastic book and is sure to get many re-reads from me.

The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell

This is the first book in the Warlord Chronicles, a retelling of the King Arthur set in the historical setting of the "real Arthur" - if he ever existed. Because of the Dark Age setting the knights are replaced by 6th century warriors, chivalry is replaced by a more rough warrior's honour, and motte-and-bailey fortresses rather than stone castles. Although my heart lies with the idealized version of Arthurian legend, I found this book very interesting and enjoyable. I liked the authenticity of the setting and I liked how cleverly Cornwell weaved myth into history. You can easily imagine how the Arthur story as we now have it grew out of these "real" events. The protagonist Derfel was easy to connect with and I found Cornwell's takes on Arthur, Guinevere, and Nimue fascinating. All three were very well fleshed out and felt like real people. However, I wasn't happy with Cornwell's portrayal of Lancelot. He is portrayed as a vain, arrogant, despicable coward who paints himself as a warrior. While I appreciate the cleverness of this portrayal (can't you just see how the legends of Lancelot would come about if this was how he really was) and I recognize that my dislike is subjective, it pained me because Lancelot is my favourite character and my hero. This was basically like seeing him slandered.

"Politics" [Books III-V]

This reading took longer than expected (I largely blame the World Cup), and because of this I'm anxious to move on so I'll keep my thoughts on Politics brief.

These three chapters had a lot going on. Because Aristotle's writing is so pithy, I felt like the information I was taking in was soon being pushed out by new information. I would have liked either a teacher or a reading group to help dig deeper into Aristotle's ideas. The result is I feel like I haven't learned as much from these chapters as I would have liked.

The main focus of these chapters is a comparison of the three major forms of government: monarchy (the rule of one), aristocracy (rule of few), and democracy (rule of the people).

Some things I found interesting:

  • Following the principle he laid down in Ethics that virtue is the mean between excess and deficiency, Aristotle said that it isn't good to be rich or poor, but to have moderate wealth. I very much agree with him. In my opinion, if you have too much or too little money, it will run your life.
  • Aristotle said that democracy is built on the assumption that, because citizens are equal in one area (i.e. freedom), they are equal in all areas. Oligarchy is built on the assumption that those unequal in one way (i.e. wealth) are unequal in all ways.
  • Towards the end Aristotle explained how power is preserved in a tyranny (i.e. a ruler who rules for his own self-interest rather than for the general good and not from laws). If a tyrant is to preserve his power, he must stop any one of his subjects rising above the others, he must not allow groups of his subjects to meet in secret, he must always keep his subjects in view and know what they are up to, and not allow his subjects to get to know each other well lest they form factions against him. I found this part particularly chilling because I recognize these features in dystopian societies in fiction and also totalitarian states in the real world.
  • Aristotle didn't seem to prefer one form of government over the other and even suggested that one government may work well in one situation and with one group of people but not with another.
Overall, I found this book a lot more practical than Plato's Statesman and I could easily see myself re-reading this book more in-depth in the future.