Thursday, August 25, 2016

Discourse on Political Economy - Rousseau

Rousseau's 'Discourse on Political Economy' was published in 1755.  It's one of the body of important works that appeared in the 17th and 18th century as various thinkers in England and France were trying to figure out what good governance was.  This means that a) it was important and influential for the people who were trying to figure out what a post-monarchal government would look like and b) it has little impact today because we've already internalized many of its arguments.
It's not a long work; less than 20 pages in the actual Great Books volume.  The reading style is simple and accessible.  I'd recommend it as interesting, but its not vital in the way that some other works are. 
One interesting element of it, is that it is the earliest work I've read with some of the mainstream arguments that are found in todays political left.
It is therefore one of the most important functions of government to prevent extreme inequality of fortunes; not by taking away wealth from its possessors, but by depriving all men of means to accumulate it; not by building hospitals for the poor, but by securing the citizens from becoming poor.

This statement would be at home in many modern political campaigns.  Of course, the tricky part is remembering that Rousseau was writing at a period of time when literal classes of people existed, the wealthiest with special rights when it came to land and wealth.  The modern situation is somewhat different.  The overall idea that one of the prime functions of government is to keep the poor from poverty is alive and well though.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Don Quixote (Part 2) - Cervantes

The first part of 'Don Quixote' ends with the poor deluded knight being taken back to his village to recover from his adventures.  The second part starts with a visiting scholar talking to Quixote and Sancho Panza about the book that was published about them.  The two put their heads together and marvel that any author could possibly know about their adventures in such detail.  Quixote concludes that this was the work of a sorcerer and Sancho has no choice but to go along with him.
The two set out again but big changes have happened.  1) Everyone knows about them and 2) both of them are fully aware that they are creating a legend.  It is as if they have become conscious characters in a book.  This creates an enormous feeling of meta-fiction.  The reader is reading about a book that knows it is a book.
Again, they have crazy adventures but now another level has been added.  Don Quixote meets another knight who claims to have beaten the famous Don Quixote in battle.  (It turns out that this other knight has an ulterior motive for baiting him into a fight.)  He meets people who tell him about Don Quixote.  In the first book he was creating his own legend.  Now it is growing on its own and he must live up to it.
This book also brings about a blossoming of Sancho Panza.  He speaks in aphorisms.  In fact, he becomes famous for speaking in aphorisms.  At one point he is appointed governor of a town.  Sancho is unaware that the whole thing is a gag being put upon him, but he gamely tries his best. 
I laughed time and time again.  I marveled that Cervantes could keep coming up with new ideas to get his two heroes into trouble and back out again.  I loved it.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Links to the Past

Search for the real Troy link

Make Athens Great Again link

Ancient Olympian Record broken link

What Enlightenment Philosophers Would Have Thought of Trump link

Athenian Park (Existential Comics) link

Thursday, August 18, 2016

All Done - Shakespeare


That's it.  I've read, and now written about all of Shakespeare's plays.  This little side project started right before New Year's Day and finished up the first week of July.  That's 38 plays in about 27 weeks (and serves as a testament to just how much time I'm on hold while working).
What did I learn?  There were some unexpected things.  After I'd read six or eight plays, the language made complete sense to me.  I could go from phrase to phrase without looking to see if there was an insult or praise or what.  You 'get' it.  Since Elizabethan English is something of a foreign language, this is a big deal.
Another thing was that I didn't realize just how much concern there was for adultery and cuckoldry.  These are themes that come up nearly constantly.  We still think about adultery now, but I can't remember the last modern story I read/watched that had any concern over the parentage of a child.  There is always a danger of over-reading, but I couldn't help but wonder if Elizabethans really, really worried about raising a cuckoo.
In a related note, we don't write love stories like they did back then either.  Shakespeare wrote about eternal love, or at least a willingness to die for your love, without a second thought.  Our more common story today, features a 'more fish in the sea' type perspective.  In fact, if you wrote a modern day Romeo and Juliet story, the lovers would probably be seen as creepy in their singlemindedness.  (I doubt that this is an improvement as a culture.)
I fell in love with some of the couples.  Yes, with Romeo and Juliet, because of the purity of their love.  But also with the delightful Rosalind and Orlando.  And I felt very deep sympathy for poor Desdemona, who might have gotten the rawest deal in the whole canon.
I also learned about responsibility.  The tragedies and history plays are simply steeped in the idea of being responsible.  King Lear dooms himself by setting aside a part of his responsibility.  Henry IV (both parts) are consumed with fears that the young prince Hal won't live up to his responsibility.  Fortunately, in Henry V, he becomes a full out hero.  Shakespeare wrote quite about being responsible with power and having that power be legitimate.  I'd rather see the entire line of tragedies judged by questions of power and responsibility than by questions of 'fatal flaws'.
There were shocking moments, like Titus Andronicus and his own hand.  Or Gloucester's poor eyes.  One of the most deeply touching moments was when Richard II was made to hand over his beloved and rightful crown.  Simply devastating.
One of the most unexpected things for me, is that I couldn't stop trying to figure out how I would stage each of the productions.  I've done work on the stage but I've always been to jealous to watch from the audience.  Reading this time, I couldn't help but think of how to perform each work.  Maybe I'll have the kids doing the plays for the neighborhood?
Speaking of which, another unexpected joy was being able to share Shakespeare with my children.  This mean some memorization for them, which was great.  But there was also a time in the spring when I would walk the older ones to the bus stop and tell them the plot of one of the plays.  I loved it, of course, but they began to look forward to it too.
I think a seed has been planted.

This project wasn't hard, it just took some time and a willingness to stick to it.  The lists (pictured above) also helped.  Like many parts of the Great Books project, I wish I'd done this years ago.  At least I can say that I've done it now.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Tragedies - Shakespeare

I have, after some time, finally finished writing about Shakespeare's tragedies.  Five of them were covered earlier in the year and I finished the other five later.  The full list (in rough chronological order of writing):


Titus Andronicus
Romeo and Juliet
Julius Caesar
Hamlet
Othello
King Lear
Macbeth
Timon of Athens
Antony and Cleopatra
Coriolanus


As a set, this is the weightiest of Shakespeare's works.  The Book 'Drama 100' which tries to rank the 100 best plays of all time has no fewer than four of these tragedies in the top seven.  These are the works that Shakespeare is best remembered for. 
I won't try and rank them (though Timon and Coriolanus would be at the bottom if I did).  Several of them were new to me.  I'd never read King Lear before and I think I need to go through it about three more times before I even begin to have my head around it. 
Of the other new ones, Antony and Cleopatra might be my favorite.  Cleopatra is just incredible.  She makes the stage sizzle.  It's enough to make you envious Antony and pity his helplessness.  This must be an incredible role to play.
The most surprising to me was probably Titus Andronicus.  This is one of Shakespeare's earliest plays and it doesn't have the gravitas of his latter, better works.  But it does have a heat to it.  The play works.  It's almost Shakespeare by way of Stephen King, but that's ok. 
I also admired the artistry of Othello.  Iago is a master conjurer of jealousy.  A top five villain (though behind Aaron from Titus).  I also had more respect for the role of Desdemona.  That's another wonderful part.


For some time, there was a theory that every subject of a tragedy must have a 'fatal flaw' that creates their own downfall.  This theory is a tough one to stick with if you ready a number of the plays in a short time.  The main subjects are certainly flawed, but some flaws are huge and others are minor. 
Take Othello, for instance.  He (perhaps) allowed jealousy to destroy him because he had a certain uneasiness with his place in society.  That wasn't his fault.  He was distrusted an maltreated simply because of his skin color.  The fault for that lies in the larger society. 
Not to mention that such a reading lets Iago off of the hook completely.  In fact, there are villains in almost all of the tragedies beside the title character.  We can't really go after Macbeth without talking about what a piece of work Lady Macbeth was.  Romeo and Juliet came to a tragic end, but the main fault lies with their parents and the overall war between their families.  Timon of Athens, does not deserve the same type of blame as Titus Andronicus. 
That entire theory is flawed, probably beyond repair.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Leviathan (Part 2) - Hobbes

(I wrote about the first part here.)


Hobbes wrote 'Leviathan' in the mid 1600's.  It's important to understand that England was in the midst of a long period of argument over how its government should operate.  The normal government in Europe at the time was that of a monarchy, but the English Civil War upset that.  Now there were questions about whether there should be a king and, if so, what kind of powers would that king have.  Hobbes tried to reason some of this out.  He defined a huge number of things, basically in an Aristotelian attempt to get his arms around the conceptual problems.  This means that his writing is somewhat dry for us moderns.  Much of what he talked about more than 300 years ago, is old hat for us now.  It's important, though, to recognize just what he was trying to do in an historical sense.
The second part of 'Leviathan' deals with attempts to define what a commonwealth is, what different types and what kind of powers it has.  He defines each and sets some idea of where the limits are.  Again, this makes sense to us now, but at the time it was fairly radical.
For instance, Hobbes talks about how each individual gives up some of their liberty in order to be part of the commonwealth.  The commonwealth, as a whole, must have some level of power and it can't stop to assure each individual as it exercises that power.  The easiest illustration of this is with police forces.  Individuals can't seek justice by punishing wrong-doers.  They give that power over to an objective police force.
There is much to disagree with him in specifics, but that really isn't the point of reading something like this.  The importance is in the exercise.  We take our current set up for granted, without thinking of the underlying philosophy involved.  Hobbes didn't, and he inspired others (like the Founding Fathers of the US) to work through the hard stuff.
Worth reading for style, if not for detail.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Hamlet - Shakespeare

I blogged about Hamlet, all the way back in Year One here


I've been stuck on how exactly to blog about 'Hamlet' since I don't know what else to say about it.  After reading it again, I'm still struck by how ambiguous the evidence is that Hamlet is asked to work with.  He's emotionally wrenched over the death of his father and the betrayal of his mother.  A figure appears to him (and him only!) and asks him to kill the king out of revenge.  We don't know if this is real or a figment of his imagination.  We don't know if Hamlet's actions are madness or him pretending to be mad.
We do (eventually) find out that Claudius, the new king, is indeed guilty of murder and I can't help but wonder if that helps the story or not.  We never find out if Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, is complicit or not.  We see little of what passes between Hamlet and Ophelia.  Their relationship comes to us through the twisted lens of Ophelia's father, Polonius.  To an extraordinary extent, 'Hamlet' asks us to fill in the gaps of what is happening.


A few years back, I ran across a story of someone who reads 'Hamlet' again and again.  I thought of that many times while rereading here.  There is just so much that is happening here, that it's tough to get your arms around it all.  The editor in my brain wanted to cut down the story to make it more manageable.  Perhaps, with so many rereadings, the rest would fit into some kind of place. 
This isn't the only play of Shakespeare's that I feel could use that approach.  I don't feel like I have a good handle on 'King Lear' for instance.  With both plays, I want to walk around and look at them from many different angles and see what pieces begin to fit together.  They both give me the inescapable feeling that I'm not seeing the whole.
There is a related feeling that makes me want to return to the other tragedies.  I can understand what happens in 'Othello' and in 'Romeo and Juliet'.  'Macbeth' isn't hard to understand from a high level, though, like the others, there are gems that require some digging.  For a bit, I wondered if we could somehow start Shakespeare from zero, would 'Hamlet' still rise to the heights that it has?  Then I remembered that as other cultures have discovered Shakespeare, 'Hamlet' has risen.  It has a power that is far bigger than that of the weight of tradition.