Wednesday, May 4, 2016

On Christian Doctrine - St Augustine

'On Christian Doctrine' is primarily a guide on how to read the Bible.  St Augustine sets out various rules to help people understand.  More passionately, he provides several rules to fight back against the critics of the Bible.  Those seem to me to be the core of this work.
There are two main prongs that he works with.  The first is that the reader work hard to understand what is written as a metaphor.  This may mean digging deeper into translation.  It may mean letting quick understanding slide past at first.  It absolutely might mean relying on more learned scholars for interpretation.
The other rule is to read passages with the idea of the larger context in mind.  Try to make each part work together with the overall message given.  Don't take a verse on its own, if it seems to disagree with everything else.  And above all, be open to giving the reading the benefit of the doubt.
There are other discussions about things like how important eloquence is to preachers of the Bible.  Augustine thinks it is good, but not crucial.  He advises that uncertain speakers should lean as heavily as they can on the written word.  That strikes me as good advice.

I struggle a bit with the rule that Augustine has about giving the Bible the benefit of the doubt.  Lord knows, it's frustrating to deal with arguments from people who want to pluck one verse out of context and stake a whole argument on that.  I see this done rather constantly on social media and it's almost always done in bad faith.  Any large doctrine can be picked apart if you strain at gnats.
On the other hand, is it fair to argue that a contrary reader must give the writer all benefit of the doubt?  I don't know that it is.  It's akin to saying that you can only understand the Bible if you have full faith in it.  Essentially it demands that the reader swallow the camel whole.
I suppose a careful reader can try to swing back and forth between the two points, but that isn't a common skill.  Though, if it were, the world would undoubtedly be a better place.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Discourses - Epictetus

Epictetus is a Stoic philosopher, but that doesn't really convey him.  Epictetus is distilled into the 200 proof Stoicism.  He is hardcore.  His worldview is stark and uncompromising.  If someone robs you of a lamp, then you have only suffered the loss of a lamp; the robber has the worse result: the life of a thief.  It's bracing and chilling at the same time.
There is a lot that I like about the Stoics. There is a strong effort to treat life as it is, instead of what we wish it was.  When tragedy strikes, the Stoic urges us to immediately accept the new normal conditions.  This can be an enormously helpful skill in life.
The break down is in not questioning 'what should be'.  It's as if there is no pursuit of a just life, simply the acceptance that what is, is.  In the above example of the robber, there is no caution to the robber or observation on what the robber does to overall society.  Instead, there is an oblique warning that the life of a thief is bad.  Well, what if the thieves don't think it's so bad?  What if they think it's the best option available from a number of bad ones?  (The one exception from this, strangely, is adultery.  An adulterer wrecks the society around him and shouldn't be put up with.)

Reading Epictetus reminded me in some ways of reading Marcus Aurelius.  Not surprising, given their similar philosophies.  I remember feeling then that Aurelius would be improved by being read in more of a page-a-day manner.  Same here. 
From what I can tell, there is no such item, and that's a shame.  We have Zen and Buddhist page-a-day calendars, but nothing from the Stoics.  Seems like a huge missed opportunity.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Books Read in April

Another month, more reading done.  The biggie for April was a classic that was new to me.

  • Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte - New to me.  Jane Eyre is a young girl who is orphaned and raised in an unfriendly house.  She eventually finds a life as a governess and ends up wrapped in a relationship that is improper on many levels.  This was a very interesting book and I enjoyed it quite a bit.  Eyre lives very much by her principles no matter what the cost to the rest of her life.  It's both admirable and difficult.  I recommend it.
  • Double Star, Heinlein - A reread but it has been some years.  This book is set in a sci-fi future.  An actor is pressed into a job as a double for a high ranking official.  He learns a ton about politics, while sharing his insights into the stage.  There are difficulties and drama.  I love this book.
  • Four Ghosts in Hamlet, Fritz Leiber - More of a short story, I suppose but very good.  The story is about a traveling Shakespearean troupe and a somewhat mystical occurrence.  If you run across this in a short story collection, read it.
The rest was taken up with Epictetus, St Augustine, Chaucer and (of course) Shakespeare.  (And work.)  I'm now done with 21 of the Shakespearean plays. That leaves one more comedy, five tragedies, six histories and all five of the romances.  Right on track.
Now I just need to get back on track with writing them up!

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Shakespeare in the Great Books List

These are the works of Shakespeare that are on the ten year reading plan for the Great Books:

Julius Caesar
Antony and Cleopatra
King Lear

Richard II
Henry IV (part one)
Henry IV (part two)
Henry V

The Comedy of Errors
Taming of the Shrew
As You Like It
Twelfth Night

That's seven tragedies, four histories and four comedies.  This past weekend, Google had a doodle that celebrated Shakespeare with his eight best known plays.  Three of those plays didn't make the Great Books list.  Those plays are 'Romeo and Juliet', 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' and 'The Tempest'.  Should those three have been included here?
It depends on what the reasoning behind the list is.  If the idea is to be exposed to the greatest ideas in Western Thought, then you probably have to throw 'Romeo and Juliet' and 'The Tempest' in.  If the idea is to have the most enjoyable experience for lay-people, then you throw in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'.  If the idea is to have a well-rounded education in culture, then you need to include all three.
But if the idea is to avoid things that they've probably already encountered?  Then maybe you go with the Great Books list as designed.  The obvious flaw with this approach is that the popularity of many of Shakespeare's plays has changed for better or worse throughout history and no doubt will continue to do so.
In honesty, I'm not sure what the approach was.

And in fairness, I don't know what approach I would take.  Shakespeare is given quite a bit of territory in the reading plan.  The fifteen plays are divided into six pieces (with Hamlet and Macbeth each being given their own place and not sharing with any other plays).  If I was picking fifteen plays, I don't think that these are the fifteen I would have ended up with.
I would probably have bumped Coriolanus for the Tempest.  And I definitely would have bumped Comedy of Errors for Midsummer Night's Dream.  And while I'm at it, I'd get rid of Taming of the Shrew in favor of Much Ado About Nothing.  And I'd find a way to include Romeo and Juliet.
Although that might all be my biases showing...  I'm certainly not sorry to have read the plays that I would have thrown out here.  And while fifteen plays is a lot, I could make the argument to up that number to twenty.  At some point, there is a limit to what you can really include.
For better or worse, these are the plays that were selected.  I can think of worse things than to have read them.  

Monday, April 25, 2016


Next up is selections from Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales'.  The suggested readings are:

Knight's Tale
Miller's Prologue and Tale
Reeve's Prologue and Tale
Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale
Friar's Prologue and Tale
Summoner's Prologue and Tale
Pardoner's Prologue and Tale

I think that I read a bit of the Canterbury Tales back in high school, but if so I don't remember any of it.  This will all be new to me.  I'll be reading a translation.  (Feel free to use the comments to tell me why I shouldn't.  I'd rather enjoy the story rather than puzzle out the meanings.)

I meant to have a post up this weekend that would have gathered the various Shakespeare things I read for the Great Books program, but that didn't happen.  Look for it later.  After that, I'm only one play behind in actually writing about what I've read.  (For the first time in 2016, I took last week off from reading a new one.) 
I also need to write about Epictetus and St Augustine.  Expect those later in the week or in the next few weeks.  Short review, I found them both worthwhile but with caveats on each.

More to come!

Friday, April 22, 2016

Links to the Past

Science Shows How Moby Dick could have Sunk a Ship link

Shakespeare still Teaching us About Good and Evil link

Is it fair for Shakespeare to overshadow Cervantes? link

Flow Chart to Help Determine Which Shakespeare to See link

Reactions to the women in Shakespeare, from Actresses link

Ancient Greek Office (Existential Comics) link

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Othello - Shakespeare

The legend goes that one night the famous actor Richard Burbage was talking with William Shakespeare and he said something like, "Bill, I'm the best actor there is.  You cannot write a part that I cannot must naturally play."  So Shakespeare went out and wrote 'Othello'. 

The plot is simple enough.  Othello is a Moorish (i.e. black) general in the service of Venice.  He has chosen for his lieutenant a man named Cassio.  This (along with other reasons) has greatly upset the man who thought he should be the lieutenant, a man named Iago.  Iago is also friends with a man named Roderigo, who also has reason to hate Othello; he wants the woman that loves Othello, Desdemona.  Iago promises Roderigo that if he helps, Othello will be undone.
Othello marries Desdemona in secret and, after some conflict, her father consents to the marriage.  However, war is declared and all of the principles are off to Cyprus to fight the Turks.  Iago looks for a way to cause havoc and he soon finds it in a friendship sprung up between Cassio and Desdemona. 
This is the truly brilliant part of the play.  Iago slowly seduces Othello to the prospect that Cassio is fooling around with Desdemona behind his back.  He quietly puts a piece of information out there, then loudly declares that there must be no truth in it.  Othello is quickly convinced that something is happening.  He then sees all events as confirmation of his fears.
In the end, Othello calmly goes to Desdemona while she is asleep on their wedding sheets.  He asks her if she has prayed before dying.  She is shocked and afraid but she can't stop him.  He kills her.  The murder is immediately found out.  Iago's role is discovered shortly thereafter.  Othello knows that he has become a monster and he commits suicide.

I don't really know how color divisions were in England at the time Shakespeare wrote this.  Othello is clearly despised in part because of his color, but this is all from Iago and Roderigo.  Otherwise Othello is treated well by soldiers and nobility.  Likewise, I don't know how the marriage between a white woman and a black man played in front of audiences then, or even how the portrayal of a black man on the stage went.
I can say that Othello, as a character, is completely sympathetic.  His love for Desdemona is very clear and so is hers for him.  When Shylock is punished in 'Merchant of Venice', there is little doubt that the punishment is deserved in large part because he is Jewish.  There is not quite the same sense that Othello is deservingly betrayed by Iago because he isn't white.
You can add 'Othello' to the (growing) list of plays that I wish we had the original audience reaction to.

Iago is almost perfectly evil.  He has motivations, but his revenge seems to go beyond them.  He was passed over for promotion, true.  And he thinks that Othello may have been in his marriage bed.  But he doesn't know and it's hard to credit these for his entire plot.  Iago is too controlled and controlling.  I mentioned above that he seduces Othello into believing that Desdemona was unfaithful.  He also seduces Roderigo into being his accomplice and henchman.  And when Roderigo no longer is useful, he calmly dispatches him.  Perfectly evil.  (What a tasty role!)

When I'm done with the tragedies, I may compile a list of the tragic heroines and rank them according to sympathy.  I suspect Desdemona will be at the top of that list.