Sunday, December 30, 2012


If there was any theme to this year's selections, I'd have to say that it was 'challenge'.  Most of the pieces involved an individual writer challenging his society.  Think about it.

  • Socrates was so willing to challenge those around him that he goaded them into killing him.
  • Aristophanes challenged the will to war with 'Lysistrata' and respected philosophers with 'Clouds'.
  • Plato (and to a lesser extent Aristotle) challenged how society was set up.
  • Jesus was a challenge to the Jewish hierarchy of his day.  Paul challenged the whole exclusion of gentiles.  
  • Augustine challenged the intellectuals of his day, as he made his way to Christianity.  
  • Rabelais challenged all kinds of mores and ideals with his writing.  
  • Both Locke and Rousseau challenged the monarchical set up that they lived under.
  • Gibbon challenged the dominant religion of his day.
  • The founders of the United States followed through on Locke's thoughts and challenged the relationship between the citizen and the state.
  • Smith challenged mercantilism, the major theory of economics in his day.
  • Marx challenged capitalism, and the structures of society. 
In fact, the author of year one that most embraced how things were done is probably Machiavelli.  And he was widely reviled for telling it like it was.
I haven't read all that widely outside of the western tradition.  A number of years ago I read through 'The Analects' of Confucius.  I was struck by how much he reinforced the state.  He didn't seek any kind of revolution, but mainly cautioned against corruption.  As wise as he was, he would not have fit into this years reading list.
Is that one of the unique qualities of western thought?  We admire those that stand up and critique society.  Even when we disagree with a rabble rouser, we admire their 'spirit' and principle.  Does this same quality exist in other schools of thought?  (I'll fully admit that I'm too ignorant to know the answer but I haven't come across it in my readings.)
Maybe that's the best lesson from Socrates.  Be true to yourself, to whatever end you must.  And if they can't take a joke, screw 'em!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Year One in Review

The first year is almost done so I thought I'd take a look back (maybe more than one look!) at what I've read. 
  • January started with Plato's 'Apology', which is Socrates completely unapologetic defense of his style of teaching.  He enjoyed pricking the pompous and powerful and talked himself into dying because of it.  For what it's worth, I still don't understand his motives.  
  • Then there were a couple of plays from Aristophanes.  'Lysistrata' showed us a group of women who decided to withhold sex until their men stopped the wars.  'Clouds', which was new to me, was about using philosophy and debate to manipulate yourself out of debt.  Very funny stuff!
  • February got us back to Plato, with the start of his 'Republic'.  Also some Aristotle from 'Ethics' and 'Politics'.  I remember snatches of this, but not much.  Both of them talked about creating ideal forms of government and understanding the forms that brought us government in the first place.
  • On to March and we spent some time with Plutarch and his comparative histories.  We read about four different (very different) types of rulers.  I was struck by how many thinkers in the series had read Plutarch while they were young.  Is there a version for kids out today?
  • April was heavy on the religion.  We did two books of the New Testament, 'Matthew' and 'Acts'.  It had been quite some time since I'd read either.  We also had part of St Augustine's 'Confessions'.  Very compelling and touching.
  • May was decidedly not religious.   This was Machiavelli's 'The Prince', a classic of power politics and manipulation.  Frankly, it wasn't what I expected.  I thought it had more to do with intrigue, but it was set more at the state level and less the personal.
  • Maybe the most mind blowing of the readings came in June, with Rabelais's 'Gargantua'.  Good lord.  A man of great humor, and knowledge.  And no recognition of modern boundaries of propriety.   I liked him.
  • July?  In July I was introduced to the decidedly readable Montaigne.  We did about ten of his essays, all very interesting.  The one that stuck with me the most is his writings on the understandings of the natives of the Americas.  I'll return to him, I'm sure.
  • To read or not to read?  August's question was simple.  I reread and enjoyed 'Hamlet' quite a bit.  I'd never actually studied it before.  Never realized just how open ended the whole story is.  I would love, love, love to know what the first performances were like!
  • September brought us to the Enlightenment, with readings from Locke and Rousseau.  They had varied ideas about how government should be set up, but both of them envisioned a post monarchical world.  Locke especially was like reading the first drafts for modern democracy.
  • October gave us Gibbon, who frankly was probably my least favorite of the year.  Some interesting stuff on early church formation but his overall ideas didn't convince me.  (The fault may have been mine though.  It's quite possible I didn't pay him enough attention.)
  • Just in time for the November elections, we got a full set of readings from the founding documents of the United States.  I'd read the 'Declaration of Independence' and the 'Constitution' before, but the 'Articles of Confederation' and the 'Federalist Papers' were new to me.  The Articles was much more bare bones than I had thought before.  And the Federalist was more accessible and interesting than I had previously thought.
  • And finally December.  Adam Smith's 'Wealth of Nations' was foundational and some of it is interesting, some long.  The counter balance here is Marx's 'Communist Manifesto'.  Frankly, the Manifesto made for more interesting reading.  I wasn't even a little bit convinced, but it was interesting.  
More to come...

Monday, December 24, 2012

Moore - Poetry

I'm skipping ahead in the poetry book, for seasonal reasons.  This poem is called 'A Visit from St Nicholas' but I've always known it by the first line; 'Twas the Night Before Christmas'.  I'm just going to put the first stanza up, though of course the whole thing is worth reading.

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro' the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar plums danc'd in their heads,

I read this to the kids the other night and a few things surprised me.  I know the first part of the poem well, but only parts of the second half.  This poem really has the imagery that I associate with Santa:

His eyes — how they twinkled! His dimples: how merry,
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook when he laugh'd, like a bowl full of jelly

That's it, isn't it?  Especially the 'bowl full of jelly' bit.  Anyway, I wish a Merry Christmas to each and every one of you that may be reading this!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Year Two Readings

Here is the list again:

Homer: The Iliad link

Aeschylus: Agamemnon, Choephoroe, Eumenides link, link, link
Sophocles: Oedipus the King, Antigone link

Herodotus: The History (Book 1 and 2) link

Plato: Meno link
Aristotle: Poetics link
Aristotle: Ethics (Book 2, Book 3 Ch. 5-12, Book 6 Ch. 8-13) link

Nicomachus: Introduction to Arithmetic link

Lucretius: On the Nature of Things (Book1-4) link

Marcus Aurelius: Meditations link

Hobbes: Leviathan (Part 1) link
Milton: Areopagitica link

Pascal: Pensees (72, 82-83, 100, 128, 131, 139, 142-143, 171, 194-195, 219, 229, 233-234, 242, 277, 282, 289, 298, 303, 320, 323, 325, 330-331, 374, 385, 392, 395-397, 409, 412-413, 416, 418, 425, 430, 434-435, 463, 491, 525-531, 538, 543, 547, 553, 556, 564, 571, 586, 598, 607-610, 613, 619-620, 631, 640, 644, 673, 675, 684, 692-693, 737, 760, 768, 792-793)* link
Pascal: Treatise on the Arithmetical Triangle link
*think of these as being like 'proverbs'

Swift: Gulliver's Travels link

Rousseau: A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality link
Kant: Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals link

Mill: On Liberty link

I'll write down some end of year one thoughts next week after the holidays. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Communist Platform

About two thirds of the way through the Manifesto, Marx and Engels lay out some points that would be 'generally applicable' of Communist goals.  It reads something like a party platform.  I think it's interesting to think about how the first four could have been applied against the monarchy/nobility a century earlier.
1. Abolition of property in land application of all rents of land to public purposes.
2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
3. Abolition of all right of inheritance.
4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.  
If you really needed to abolish a regime, like the monarchy, that was contrary to the free rights of man, these would be somewhat reasonable.  Of course, this was targeted at small business owners, factory owners and others of the bourgeois 
5. Centralization of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
6. Centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.
7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into the cultivation of waste lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.
Central planning.  Get all of the smart people to do things instead of those dunderheads who built the shops and factories.  That will cut out the waste and up production.  Except, it never really does.
8. Equal liability of all to labor. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries: gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equitable distribution of the population over the country.  
So, factory farms.  And the people would be distributed equally throughout the country.  Can you imagine the level of tyranny needed to tell the entire populace where they had to live?
10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children's factory labor in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, etc., etc.
This isn't very objectionable.  Public schools aren't perfect but I think that they're generally a positive.  And I don't miss the idea of children in factories.  And I don't object to vocational training.
But the rest is pretty seriously anti-freedom.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Manifesto of the Communist Party - Marx, Engels

Marx believed that 'The History of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.'  That there were always people on top and people on the bottom.  He believed that his current epoch pitted the bourgeois against the proletariat and he wanted to help the proletariat win out and stop the cycles.  If an educated work force could get rid of their masters, they could run things in a more rational and compassionate manner.  
Some helpful definitions:
By bourgeoisie is meant the class of modern Capitalists, owners of the means of social production and employers of wage-labor. By proletariat, the class of modern wage-laborers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling the labor-power in order to live.  
Marx and Engels put out the Manifesto in 1848 to describe the movement they were creating.  They wanted to lay down some of the general principles and win over converts.  They would help the work force unite and rise up.  And what would their big blow against the establishment be?
The distinguishing feature of Communism is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property. But modern bourgeois private property is the final and most complete expression of the system of producing and appropriating products, that is based on class antagonisms, on the exploitation of the many by the few.
In this sense the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.
Once property is converted into a common property, it would lose it's 'class character' and presumably cease to be an obstacle to the well being of the proletariat.  They would also do away with such things as family and religion.  In fact, religious objections 'are not deserving of a serious examination'.  Once the program is in place and production has been put in the hands of the masses, 'public power will lose it's political character'.

I'd never read the Manifesto before and I found it very interesting.  The entire thing is short enough to be read in one sitting and most of it is open enough in meaning to be easily understood.  There are parts that almost read like a parody of Marxist students, though perhaps that's unfair to both Marx and the students themselves.
In the early 19th century, European thought on society was in flux.  Monarchy and feudalism had been entrenched for centuries.  They were now suddenly on the outs or at least greatly curtailed.  The industrial revolution had changed the relationship between rural and urban workforces, not always for the better.  Marx and his kin were honestly trying to figure out a better way.  They would recreate society.  In doing so, they would have to recreate man himself.
Well, why not?  Great changes had been made; great strides in democracy and the rights of man.  Why not more?
Of course, we know much more now, some 165 years later.  We know that human nature isn't quite so easy to shape.  We know that non-Revolutionary means can more reliably bring about great improvements in the standard of living.  And we're a bit more skeptical about the wisdom of central planners.
But it's hard for me to hold any of that against Marx.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Herrick - Poetry

For the full series of poems, click on the 'Poetry' tag at the bottom.  

Next poem up is a rather famous one by Robert Herrick, 'To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time'.  I first heard this in the movie 'Dead Poet's Society'.

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And the same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the Sun,
The higher he's a-getting
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he's to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times, still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time;
And while ye may, go marry:
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

A fairly straight forward poem, no?  You, the reader, are young and should go out and enjoy life to the fullest!  You will only be young once, and when that is gone, you will be young no longer.  Carpe that old diem!
The last stanza is interesting to me.  Don't be coy and cautious; go out and get married.  I don't think that is the commonly understood message of the poem.  The first part seems more 'go and sleep around now, because later on, no one will want you'.  I suppose attitudes have changed in the 400+ years since this was written.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Wealth of Nations - Smith

Adam Smith wrote 'An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations' because he wanted to tell the world how it was that some areas were wealthy and some were poor.  It was interesting to read The Wealth of Nations (well, Book One, through Chapter 9) in part because his ideas are considered close to settled science.  I don't know how revolutionary they were in his day but they must have caused some consternation.  He's clearly arguing against his contemporary practices, especially mercantilism.
Smith argued that the self interest of merchants was a positive market force.
He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and shew them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.
In other words, in every deal that is freely struck, both parties benefit.  If the price of a loaf of bread is the price that you will buy it at, you are, by definition, not being taken advantage of.  The couple of dollars is worth less to you, than the time, expertise and labor it would take to gather the ingredients and make it yourself.  This one concept needs to be taught much, much more than it is.
Smith also talked (at great lengths) on the benefits of division of labor.  He also writes (again at great length) at how attempts to put less precious metal in coins, simply leads to inflated prices.  Both of these concepts are important, but they're pretty well absorbed into financial discourse.
One point he made that I'd never heard before is that the size of a market, alone, can increase value throughout.  The more potential customers a product has, the easier it is for a seller to find a good price to sell at.  And the more sellers a customer has, the better the chance of finding a better price to buy at.  He suggests, for example, that the difficulty of travel is responsible for Africa's relative poverty.
A difficult read, and perhaps one that would work better in summaries.  But if Smith hadn't written 'A Wealth of Nations' would we know as much as we do today?

Monday, December 10, 2012

Biography of Marx

Karl Marx was born on May 5th, 1818 in what was then Prussia.  His family was well off, owning a number of vineyards.  His father worked as an attorney.  The family was Jewish although his father converted to Lutheranism so he could continue to practice law.  There is apparently no evidence that the Marx family was particularly religious and Karl Marx himself was an atheist.
Marx became engaged to Jenny von Westphalen, a baroness, in 1836.  The two tied the knot seven years later and had several children together.  The marriage crossed several social boundaries, since she was of the nobility and he of the middle class.
One of the early markers for Marx's ideas came about during a back and forth over the ideas of the philosopher Hegel.  Marx disagreed with his metaphysics but came to adopt his dialectical method, using it to critique society and government.  In 1843 Marx relocated to Paris to write for a radical newspaper.  He was exiled from France and moved to Brussels in 1845.  In 1849 he was forced to move to London.
He lived there with his wife and children in poverty for many years.
Throughout all of his life Marx studied and wrote about economics.  He (along with Engels) wrote the 'Communist Manifesto' in 1848.  His other best known work 'Capital' (or 'Das Kapital') was published in 1867.  His impact on the social sciences, 19th century economics and politics can hardly be overstated.
Marx died in 1883, a man without a country.  He was buried in London at a sparsely attended funeral.  His gravestone now reads 'Workers of All Lands Unite'.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Biography of Adam Smith

Adam Smith was born around the 5th of June, 1723.  His father was a lawyer and he died about two months after young Adam was born.  He was very close with his mother who encouraged him to study and read.  (At some point I'll go back and see how many of the Great Books authors came from well-to-do families.  The vast majority to this point.)  Apparently he was abducted by Gypsies (!) when he was four but was quickly rescued. 
He started university studies in Glasgow but was awarded a scholarship to go to one of the Oxford colleges.  Smith thought that the atmosphere in Glasgow was better for study.  In Book five of  'Wealth of Nations' he wrote, "In the University of Oxford, the greater part of the public professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching." 
In 1748, he was back in Glasgow and giving lectures.  There he met David Hume, and the two became very close.  In short time he became a full professor and a member of the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh.  Smith later saw this academic period as one of the most productive times of his life. 
In 1759, Smith published 'Theory of Moral Sentiments' and it made him an intellectual star.  He continued to teach and tutor.  His tutoring led him to travel throughout Europe and that meant Smith had an opportunity to rub shoulders with various intellectuals in Paris.  This included meeting Benjamin Franklin.  It was here that Smith met with some French economists, who greatly influenced his thinking.
Smith published 'An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations' in 1776.  It was an instant success.  Two years later he was given a post in Scotland.  He returned there and died in 1790.  On his deathbed, he had regrets that he hadn't accomplished more. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Author Timeline

BC Aristophanes 446 - 386
Plato 424? - 348?
Aristotle 384 - 322
Plutarch 46 - 120
Gospel of Matthew, Acts of the Apostles (around the end of the first century)
St. Augustine 354 - 430
Machiavelli 1469 - 1527
Rabelais 1494 - 1553
Montaigne 1533 - 1592
Shakespeare 1564 - 1616
Locke 1632 - 1704
Rousseau 1712 - 1778
Gibbon 1737 - 1794
Declaration of Independence - 1776
The Constitution of the US - 1787
Federalist Papers 1787 -1788
Smith 1723 - 1790
Marx/Engels 1818 - 1883/1820 - 1895

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Ben Johnson - Poetry

For the rest of this series, click on the Poetry tag at the bottom of the post.

Next up is a poem by Ben Johnson called 'Song to Celia II', (it apparently being the second song to Celia).

Drink to me only with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup,
And I'll not look for wine.

The thirst that from the soul doth rise
Doth ask a drink divine;
But might I of Jove's nectar sup,
I would not change for thine.

I sent thee late a rosy wreath,
No so much honoring thee,
As giving it a hope that there
It could not withered be.

But thou thereon didst only breathe,
And sent'st it back to me,
Since when it grows and smells, I swear,
Not of itself but thee.

There is quite a bit of romantic niceness here.  If I were advising someone to memorize some poetry for pick-up purposes, this would be a pretty good choice.  Especially in a drinking situation.  Is it great?  Eh.  Maybe if I'd read it back when I was younger and more romantic, but my old married soul sees it as artifice.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

December Reading

Two selections for December:

  • Adam Smith - The Wealth of Nations, Book One, through Chap. 9 link
  • Marx/Engles - Communist Manifesto link

Yes, we're deep into economics this month.  I haven't read either pieces, though I've read quite a bit about each one.  My early economic knowledge was informed by Ayn Rand's 'Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal'.  If I recall, she was broadly on board with Smith. 
Similarly, I've been anti-communist since I was very young.  I'm going to try very hard though, to read the Manifesto in the sense of the period in which it was written.  In other words, in terms of how things looked at that stage of the industrial revolution and fairly new democracies.  Maybe after I'll write about how various communist attempts have worked out.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Protecting the Minority

I was very interested to find in Federalist 51, an argument for how the democratic set up would protect minorities.  A few passages to sum it up:
... it is of great importance in the a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights if the minority will be insecure. There are but two methods of providing against this evil: the one by a creating a will in the community independent of the majority-that is, of society itself; the other, by comprehending in the society so many separate descriptions of citizens as ill render an unjust combination of a majority of the whole very improbable if not impracticable.
Whilst all authority in it will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests and class of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority. In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights.
In other words, society will have so many different divisions that each one will be afraid to gang up on a different one for fear that they would suffer a similar fate.  This is roughly the history of religious tolerance in England and the low countries.  There were many different flavors and sects of Protestantism and each one was afraid that if only one gained dominance, it would stamp out all the others.  James Madison (who wrote #51) believed that a similar thing would happen in the United States.
Well, it obviously didn't happen in regards to slavery.  Enough parts of society were able to agree on that particular violation, that it persisted until taken apart by war.  But, sadly, the Founders of that time didn't really think of black people as being in the same category as the whites.  So let's acknowledge that big elephant and move on.
As far as I can tell, almost every wave of immigration brought about new bouts of discrimination.  And each of those was overcome in time.  So much so that, things like full blown discrimination against Italians, say, seems kind of wild today.
Full blown protection of minorities came about with the 14th Amendment and the 'equal protection' clause.  It holds that 'no state shall . . . deny to any person with its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws'.  This has been applied almost exclusively to minorities, which in my lights is a mis-reading.  I think that each individual is a minority of one, and that the law should be read solely in that way.  But what can you do?
Outside of law, there exists a strong and positive attitude in modern western culture that embraces toleration and protections for minorities.  I think that Madison would be very pleased with that.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress - Other Methods

One of my favorite Heinlein novels is 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress'.  The book concerns a penal colony (circa 2176AD) on the moon and their attempt to revolt and set up their own government.  I highly recommend it.  There is a passage deep in the book (Chap 22, page 241 of my paperback), in which one of the deep thinkers of the book addresses a Constitutional Convention.  It's a long passage, and worthwhile.  I found it online here, which saved me the trouble of typing the whole bit. 

“Comrade Members, like fire and fusion, government is a dangerous servant and a terrible master. You now have freedom — if you can keep it. But do remember that you can lose this freedom more quickly to yourselves than to any other tyrant. Move slowly, be hesitant, puzzle out the consequences of every word. I would not be unhappy if this convention sat for ten years before reporting — but I would be frightened if you took less than a year.
“Distrust the obvious, suspect the traditional...for in the past mankind has not done well when saddling itself with governments. For example, I note in one draft report a proposal for setting up a commission to divide Luna into congressional districts and to reapportion them from time to time according to population.“This is the traditional way; therefore it should be suspect, considered guilty until proved innocent. Perhaps you feel that this is the only way. May I suggest others? Surely where a man lives is the least important thing about him. Constituencies might be formed by dividing people by occupation...or by age...or even alphabetically. Or they might not be divided, every member elected at large — and do not object that this would make it impossible for any man not widely known throughout Luna to be elected; that might be the best possible thing for Luna.“You might even consider installing the candidates who receive the least number of votes; unpopular men may be just the sort to save you from a new tyranny. Don’t reject the idea merely because it seems preposterous — think about it!
In past history popularly elected governments have been no better and sometimes far worse than overt tyrannies.“But if representative government turns out to be your intention there still may be ways to achieve it better than the territorial district.
For example you each represent about ten thousand human beings, perhaps seven thousand of voting age — and some of you were elected by slim majorities. Suppose instead of election a man were qualified for office by petition signed by four thousand citizens. He would then represent those four thousand affirmatively, with no disgruntled minority, for what would have been a minority in a territorial constituency would all be free to start other petitions or join in them. All would then be represented by men of their choice.
Or a man with eight thousand supporters might have two votes in this body. Difficulties, objections, practical points to be worked out — many of them! But you could work them out...and thereby avoid the chronic sickness of representative government, the disgruntled minority which feels — correctly! — that it has been disenfranchised.“But, whatever you do, do not let the past be a straightjacket!
“I note one proposal to make this Congress a two-house body. Excellent — the more impediments to legislation the better. But, instead of following tradition, I suggest one house of legislators, another whose single duty is to repeal laws. Let the legislators pass laws only with a two-thirds majority...while the repealers are able to cancel any law through a mere one-third minority. Preposterous? Think about it. If a bill is so poor that it cannot command two-thirds of your consents, is it not likely that it would make a poor law? And if a law is disliked by as many as one-third, is it not likely that you would be better off without it?“But in writing your constitution let me invite attention to the wonderful virtue of the negative! Accentuate the negative! Let your document be studded with things the government is forever forbidden to do. No conscript interference however slight with freedom of press, or speech, or travel, or assembly, or of religion, or of instruction, or communication, or involuntary taxation. Comrades, if you were to spend five years in a study of history while thinking of more and more things that your government should promise never to do and then let your constitution be nothing but those negatives, I would not fear the outcome.“What I fear most are affirmative actions of sober and well-intentioned men, granting to government powers to do something that appears to need doing. Please remember always that the Lunar Authority was created for the noblest of purposes by just such sober and well-intentioned men, all popularly elected. And with that thought I leave you to your labors. Thank you.”“Gospodin President! Question of information! You said ‘no involuntary taxation’ — Then how do you expect us to pay for things? Tanstaafl!” [There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch! — Ed.]“Goodness me, sir, that’s your problem.
I can think of several ways. Voluntary contributions just as churches support themselves…government-sponsored lotteries to which no one need subscribe…or perhaps you Congressmen should dig down into your own pouches and pay for whatever is needed; that would be one way to keep government down in size to its indispensable functions whatever they may be. If indeed there are any. I would be satisfied to have the Golden Rule be the only law; I see no need for any other, nor for any method of enforcing it. But if you really believe that your neighbors must have laws for their own good, why shouldn’t you pay for it? Comrades, I beg you — do not resort to compulsory taxation. There is no worse tyranny than to force a man to pay for what he does not want merely because you think it would be good for him.”

There is a lot to digest there, but I'd like to focus on the proposed methods of picking representatives.  The speaker, Professor Bernardo de la Paz, suggests that 'where a man lives is the least important thing about him'.  I first read this book more than twenty years ago and have thought about this passage many times since then.  I've come to agree with the good Professor on this point. 
It made sense in the 18th century to group people by area.  Communications were greatly limited by distance.  It was much harder for people to organize in order to advance their policy goals.  This isn't true today. 
I especially like the idea of electing members at large.  And also the idea of allowing a sufficiently popular representative to have more than one vote.  I currently live in a large city and have virtually no chance of electing a representative that reflects my values.  As Prof de la Paz points out, my minority viewpoint has no chance of being fairly represented here.  Millions of other people are in the same place.  These methods would also be harder to game and gerrymander.  Unfortunately, our modern parties have become expert at cheating the commonly recognized intentions of our democratic representations.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Federalist Papers

(This is after reading Federalist #'s 1-10, 15, 31, 47, 51 and 68-71.)

I'd never read the Federalist Papers in any serious way before.  I'd pecked at a few and read quotes from them, but never really went after them.  And I don't know that they would have meant nearly as much to me if I hadn't read some of the pieces that went before them.  Not only, the other founding documents of the U.S., but also works from Locke and Rousseau. 
The Constitution is a very forthright attempt to build an Enlightenment era social contract.  The Federalist Papers are an extended argument for the various pieces and parts.  But they are also an argument for some specific policies that wouldn't translate well to other countries.  I'm thinking of the arguments regarding how the states would settle disputes over claimed territories. 
I had an idea some time ago that I would love to see come to fruition.  I have a book that collects the counter arguments to the Federalist Papers.  I would absolutely love to see a long concerted attempt to work through each of those speeches and papers and the Federalist papers themselves, in a chronological manner.  I told this to my wife and I could see her tense up at the thought that I would be starting another project.  No, I won't.  I don't have time to add that particular one right now. 
But I'll be done with the Great Books project in 2022.  That would give me time to set things up for something before the 250th anniversary...

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Donne - Poetry

For our seventeenth poem, we have some John Donne with a poem called 'Go and Catch a Falling Star'.

GO and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil's foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
And find
What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.

If thou be'st born to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
Till age snow white hairs on thee,
Thou, when thou return'st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee,
And swear,
No where
Lives a woman true and fair.

If thou find'st one, let me know,
Such a pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet do not, I would not go,
Though at next door we might meet,
Though she were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
Yet she
Will be
False, ere I come, to two, or three.

The first stanza and most of the second one seem to be instructions, maybe to someone very young, to go out and seek wonders.  But then we have the focus on 'a woman true and fair'.  Donne seems very certain that any such woman would lose truth and fairness before he met her.  Which is a wee bit dark.
And it casts a different light on the first parts.  Instead of saying 'go out and seek wonders', it is now saying 'you can search the whole wide world but never find an honest woman'.  And it's harder to think of that as going out to a young someone.
What an amazing little poem.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

December Reading

Two things for December

  • Adam Smith - The Wealth of Nations, Introduction and Book One link
  • Marx, Engles - Manifest of the Communist Party link

Monday, November 19, 2012

United States Constitution

Back when we were reading Hamlet, I raved about how much attention people pay to it.  Well, it since occurred to me that there are two pieces in this years reading that positively dwarf it, in terms of recent scholarship.  The first is the Bible, which has entire networks of colleges dedicated to studying it.  The other one, is the US Constitution and everything that has come from it.
I won't go through it in detail, as much of the Constitution is the nuts and bolts stuff for how the new government should work.  It should be remembered (and is too easily forgotten!) that the idea of a Republican democracy was radical in the age of monarchy.  Scholars had talked about it for some time, and they had focused on how it went awry back in Greece and Rome.  The Founders were well versed in this and worked hard to avoid the same pit-falls.
The Articles of Confederation were an early stab at non-Monarchical gov't but only in a proto form.  They resemble the Constitution in the same way that scaffolding resembles the building that it is put up around.  I wanted to do a series of posts comparing how the Constitutional Convention fleshed out the weakness in the Confederate model but I really doubt that I'll have time.  (November is a very busy month in my house!)  I will say that for anyone who is curious, it isn't hard to match up the articles and compare for yourself.
I do want to highlight the preamble of the Constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
This is the mission statement of the entire Constitutional endeavor.  The Founders hoped that this document would bring the states together into one nation.  They hoped that it would bring about a just and peaceful nation.  One that could defend itself ably and create conditions where men would thrive.  They also hoped that they would ensure the Pursuit of Happiness to themselves and all of their decedents forever.
I should, of course, mention that they were not bringing about a libertarian paradise.  The Constitution enshrined slavery and denied votes to women, to mention two large flaws.  You can argue that it carried the ball as far as it could really be carried in the 1780's and I think that's a reasonable view.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Shakespeare - Poetry

The sixteenth poem in the book is a sonnet from William Shakespeare.  Sonnet 18, for those keeping score at home.

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.
I like it.  I mean, that isn't surprising that I like it.  Shakespeare is one of the greatest poets in English history and I've already gushed about him in the past.  This is probably his most well known sonnet, but I prefer #130, the one that begins, 'My mistress eyes are nothing like the sun...'.
In this one, Shakespeare begins by finding a near perfect thing, a summer day, and comparing his love to it.  Or rather, he makes the comparison and immediately discards it.  His love is better than that and he goes on to list why that is.  The point that sticks with me is that no matter how good summer is, the year keeps going. Those warm golden days eventually turn to cold winter.
The last six lines are particularly interesting when you reflect that we really don't know to whom the poem is written.  Most scholars believe it is written towards a man, though there is some question as to whether Shakespeare is writing about his romantic attraction to the man or if he is writing for someone else.  In any case, the beauty and virtue of the subject most assuredly did not outlive the death.  The beauty of this sonnet far, far overshadowed him.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Why the Articles are still Useful

This is the post that gave me the idea of including the Articles of Confederation in the project.  This teacher was doing a course comparing ancient Rome with the US Constitution and he found that he had an extra day to fill.  He thought that the Articles would make a good bridge. 
Now I don’t know about you, but nobody in my classroom (including me) had ever read through the A. of C., and it turned out to be a damned interesting experience.  [You can try it here]  To begin with, it’s good to remind oneself from time to time that our first experiment with “republican government” was a colossal failure – a self-proclaimed “perpetual Union” (!) that lasted for less than a decade.
But beyond that bit of humility inducement, on the substance of it it’s pretty easy to identify –  in hindsight! – the many flaws of the government of the United States of America as they appeared in, say, 1787 or thereabouts.  You read through the A. of C. and you realize, as one of my students nicely put it, that it has “no provision for executive power,  legislative power, or judicial power.”  The trifecta of constitutional deficiencies.  It doesn’t really set up a “government” at all – it’s more like a “league” of sovereign States, in which those States promise each other certain things (mostly, to treat an attack on one as an attack on all and to contribute men and money to the common defense at the direction of the Congress).
He goes on to compare the difficulties faced by the United States in the 1780's to those faced by the EU today.  While rereading some of this, it seems like 'of course' that won't work or 'of course' that's the way you should do it.  But governing is hard and settling on the rules to govern with is extremely hard.  It certainly has not been perfected.  It's still useful to try and go back and work through the thought process that brought us the liberal democracies that we live in today. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Articles of Confederation

This isn't actually part of the reading list but I thought it made sense to add it in since this is the document that covers the period between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  Plus, I'd never really studied it before and this seemed like a good opportunity. 
The most striking thing about the Articles is just how spare a document it is.  It doesn't set up a government at all, it merely sets up a mutual defense and free trade area.  It also provides a way for the various states to settle disputes that happen between them.  (The process for selecting a court is kind of wonderful.  I'd love to see it adopted in some form and televised at regular intervals.)  And . . . that's about it.
The image that kept coming to my mind was that of NATO.  There are member nations that have pledged to come to each others defense.  They have generally good relations with each other but are of very different governance. 
I've seen insinuation that the Articles represent the kind of limited government that the small government types want.  Now that I've read through the actual documents, this is a wholly unfair comparison.  That's especially true since the small government people are very fond of the Constitution, which replaced the Articles.  I don't expect this tactic to go away, because a very small number of people have any feel for what the Articles actually entail.  Before this month, I certainly didn't. 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Declaration of Independence

On July 2nd 1776, the Continental congress voted to become independent of Great Britain.  They decided that they should give their reasons and drafted the Declaration of Independence to do so. 
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
This is pure Enlightenment, isn't it?  I especially like the idea that 'a decent respect for the opinions of mankind' means giving a full explanation.  That's a phrase that should make a comeback.  The second sentence is a biggie:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
 These are things that are 'self-evident' and require no more proof.  All men are created equal, so no more kings!  (Yes, there was a huge blind spot here in regards to slavery and women.  But this was still a step forward.)  All men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.  Non-religious types can easily read this sentence as saying that rights are not granted, but are inherent.  That is, we start off with these rights, regardless of what tyrants and despots may say and do.  Among those rights, are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  I love the 'among' there.  This is not a full list of rights, just a partial one. 
Let's take a moment to look at that partial list.  Sometimes governments are put into categories about what is allowed and what is compulsory.  The Declaration makes an enormous sphere of allowable actions to its citizens.  Their life is not cheap and must be safe-guarded by the state.  They have liberty to do what they will, without undo constraints.  And the part I love most, they have the right to pursue Happiness in whatever way they choose.  They aren't guaranteed to catch it but they can pursue it all they want.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
The state must have the consent of the people to whom it rules.  And when they lose that consent and become destructive, the people can change or even abolish the government.  Not that they would do this lightly, but they have the right to do so.  And once having done so, they will work hard to make sure that liberties are well protected in the future.
What follows is a full list of abuses that were committed against the colonists.  And then the signatories commit their lives, fortunes and sacred honor towards the revolution.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

US Founding Documents Timeline

Normally I'd do a bio sketch of the author but that doesn't quite work here.  Instead I thought I'd run through the time line of the documents and the era here so that it's easier to understand the full context.  I'll cover the actual history of each in separate blog posts.

  • The Revolutionary war begins on April 19th 1775, as fighting begins in Lexington, Massachusetts.
  • Declaration of Independence - Famously signed on the 4th of July 1776, the declaration explains the vote for independence that was taken on July 2nd.  And to make matters more confusing, the signers actually put their John Hancocks on it on August 2nd.  
  • In June of 1776, drafting begins on the Articles of Confederation.  In late 1777 they are sent to the various states to ratify.  This is completed in early 1781.
  • The Treaty of Paris is signed on September 3rd 1783, bringing an end to the war.  
  • On February 21 1787, a Constitutional convention was called.  On May 25th 1787, they began drafting the United States Constitution.  On September 17th of that year, they adopted the finished work and sent it off to the states to ratify.  It went into effect on March 4th 1789.  The Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791.  
  • The Federalist Papers were published between October of 1787 and August of 1788.  

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Day!

It's a nice coincidence that the November reading matches up so well with a general election here in the U.S.  After reading so much over the last few months about the relationship between the state and the citizen and getting into the mental process that designed our current system, it works out well to then exercise that citizenry power.  This cycle I'm much more mindful than I ever have been of just how long a history goes into this practice of democracy.  Today I'm thinking of the Greeks and their various styles of government.  And I'm thinking of the Romans and their evolution from Republic to Empire and oblivion.
I'm also mindful of the thinkers of the 17th and 18th century who could tell that a post-monarchy time was coming.  They thought long and hard about how that time should be.  Of all the people to whom we owe a debt, they may be one of the most forgotten.  Where would be without them?
Good luck to us all and may we all make fine choices.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Villon - Poetry

For more on my attempts to better understand poetry, click the 'Poetry' link at the bottom of this post.

Our next selection is from Francois Villon, sometimes called the father of French poetry.  The work is called 'The Ballad of Ladies Past' and was translated by Dante Gabriel Rosetti.

Tell me now in what hidden way is
Lady Flora the lovely Roman?
Where's Hipparchia, and where is Thais,
Neither of them the fairer woman?
Where is Echo, beheld of no man,
Only heard on river and mere,-
She whose beauty was more than human?...
But where are the snows of yester-year?

Where's Heloise, the learned nun,
For whose sake Abeillard, I ween,
Lost manhood and put priesthood on?
(From Love he won such dule and teen!)
And where, I pray you, is the Queen
Who willed that Buridan should steer
Sewed in a sack's mouth down the Seine?...
But where are the snows of yester-year?

White Queen Blanche, like a queen of lilies,
With a voice like any mermaiden-
Bertha Broadfoot, Beatrice, Alice,
And Ermengarde the lady of Maine,-
And that good Joan whom Englishmen
At Roen doomed and burned her there,-
Mother of God, where are they then?...
But where are the snows of yester-year?

That ending question has some punch, doesn't it?  The 'snows of yester-year' are gone, never to return.  The same is true of all these lovely (and formidable!) ladies.  Time has swallowed them up and nothing is left but memory and reputation.  The question is whether the author is lamenting their loss or telling people to move on.  I think either reading works.
Of the eleven ladies mentioned here, I recognize only four.  No doubt an educated Frenchmen of 15th century would do much better.  I'd be interested to see a modern version.  What ladies of legend would we remember today?

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Author Timeline

Author Timeline

Aristophanes 446 - 386
Plato 424? - 348?
Aristotle 384 - 322

Plutarch 46 - 120
Gospel of Matthew, Acts of the Apostles (around the end of the first century)
St. Augistine 354 - 430
Machiavelli 1469 - 1527
Rabelais 1494 - 1553
Montaigne 1533 - 1592
Shakespeare 1564 - 1616
Locke 1632 - 1704
Rousseau 1712 - 1778
Gibbon 1737 - 1794
Declaration of Independence - 1776
The Constitution of the US - 1787
Federalist Papers 1787 -1788
Smith 1723 - 1790
Marx/Engles 1818 - 1883/1820 - 1895

Thursday, November 1, 2012

November Reading

The calendar page turns again and we move on.  This month we're reading several of the founding documents of the United States.   The fact that we're having a general election here next week is simply good luck timing. 
I've added the Articles of Confederation to the reading.  I've heard of it but never read it before now.  I hope it will be useful to compare it with the Constitution that followed it. 

  • Articles of Confederation (link)
  • Declaration of Independence (link)
  • Constitution of the United States (link)
  • Federalist Papers #s 1-10, 15, 31, 47, 51, 68-71 (link)
  • Saturday, October 27, 2012

    Christianity and Empire

    Gibbon created something of a sensation in the 1770's, when he suggested that Christianity helped weaken and dissolve the Roman empire. 
    The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers' pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes, who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity. Faith, zeal, curiosity, and the more earthly passions of malice and ambition kindled the flame of theological discord; the church, and even the state, were distracted by religious factions; whose conflicts were sometimes bloody, and always implacable; the attention of emperors was diverted from camps to synods; the Roman world was oppressed by a new species of tyranny; and the persecuted sects became the secrets enemies of the country.
    Gibbon is claiming that the creation of the large Christian system 1) moved money away from more useful pursuits, 2) created factionalism and 3) distracted Romans (even emperors) from more pressing affairs of state.  We know a lot more about the Roman empire now in 2012 than Gibbon did in the 18th century and we can now say with confidence that he is wrong (or at least overstating) each of these problems.  At the very least, he is wrong to lay these at the feet of Christianity in some unique way.
    The amount of money that was given to the church was trivial as a whole.  And was probably comparable to what had been given in various celebrations and sacrifices in the pre-Christian era.  Some wealth was taken out of production as churches became more ornate, but again, this was little different than what was happening with wealthy estates.  If anything, the Christian practices of distributing alms to the poor, probably offset any loss.
    Factionalism was alive and well before the first Christian apostles appeared.  In fact, well before the time of Christ.  We know this was true at the very highest levels of the Senate and throughout the peoples.  It's more likely that Christianity had an overall unifying effect than otherwise.
    The third claim is a bit harder to judge.  Over time, the Romans certainly did lose focus on the qualities that had given them an empire.  Early Roman expansion was built on, among other things, a celebration of military qualities.  Was that weakened by Christian thought?  Well, it certainly didn't end Roman wars.  Constantine was the emperor that made Christianity an official Roman religion.  He fought and others fought after him.  But it has to be noted that the 'map' didn't really expand much after him.

    Overall, I'm sympathetic with the notion that philosophical ideas can build up and bring down empires.  I'm just not very convinced by the case that Gibbon brings forth.

    Tuesday, October 23, 2012

    Chaucer - Poetry

    I've read some Chaucer before but usually in translations.  This time we get a bit in Middle English, though it's not hard to decipher.  From (of course), 'The Canterbury Tales', which we'll tackle in year ten(!).

    When that Aprille, with hise shoures soote,
    The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
    And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
    Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
    When Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
    Insipired hath in every holt and heeth
    The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
    Hath in the Ram his halfe course yronne,
    And smale foweles maken melodye,
    That slepen al the nyght with open eyes-
    So priketh hem Nature in hir corages-
    Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
    And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
    To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
    And specially, from every shires ende
    Of Engelond, to Caunturbury they wende,
    The hooly blisful martir for to seke
    That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.

    I typed this out from the book, so apologies for any misspellings.  My spell-check is kind of freaked out by the whole ordeal.  It must not be set for Middle English.
    As before, when reading the beginning of longer poems, this snippet really doesn't do justice to the whole.  I wish that the editor (Leslie Pockell) had done a bit more sections within the longer poems, rather than just taking the first part.  As it is, there is nothing terribly remarkable about this passage.  I can't find a phrase in it that is well quoted.
    In this case, I know that Chaucer has good stuff.  This ain't it.

    Saturday, October 20, 2012

    November Reading

    I'm throwing an extra item into the readings for November, simply because it makes sense to me.  Follow along if you'd like, ignore if you'd rather.  The overall selection is a set of the founding documents for the United States.  I'm adding in the 'Articles of Confederation', the lesser known precursor to the US Constitution.  I'm hoping that this will provide a bigger picture on the evolution of the process.

    • Articles of Confederation (link)
    • Declaration of Independence (link)
    • Constitution of the United States (link)
    • Federalist Papers #s 1-10, 15, 31, 47, 51, 68-71 (link)

    Wednesday, October 17, 2012

    Gibbon Thoughts

    1. I meant to post a bunch this week but I'm under the weather.  2. I wonder if this post title will result in some strange hits to the blog.

    I found this month's reading to be frustrating.  Gibbon has an easy style and he is certainly readable.  The problem is that it's frustrating to only read a small section from the middle of a much larger narrative.  This wasn't an issue earlier in the year when we read Plutarch, since his chapters were all nicely self contained.  Not so here. 
    Not that I have an easy solution here.  Reading the entire 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire' is not a small task.  It certainly wouldn't work inside of the full reading plan where each month we move to something new.  And, sadly, we don't come back to Gibbon at all. 

    Monday, October 15, 2012

    Imperfect Union

    Next month we deal with a bunch of the founding documents of the United States.  A friend of mine here in Minneapolis, Eric Black, is doing a series on the Constitution called 'Imperfect Union'.  He's mostly dealing with parts of the Constitution that can be problematic today, like things that cause gridlock.  He's also looking at the way that the rest of the world holds elections.  You may find it a good way to limber up for next month!

    Sunday, October 14, 2012

    Petrarch - Poetry

    Click on the 'Poetry' tag for the whole series.

    The next entry in the book is from the Italian poet, Petrarch.  This translation is from the Elizabethan poet, Thomas Wyatt.  The title is 'Remembrance'.

    They flee from me, that sometime me did seek
    With naked foot, stalking in my chamber:
    I have seen them gentle, tame and meek,
    That now are wild, and do not remember
    That sometime they put themselves in danger
    To take bread at my hand; and now they range
    Busily seeking with a continual change.

    Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise
    Twenty times better; but once, in special,
    In thin array, after a pleasant guise,
    When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
    And she caught in her arms long and small,
    There with all sweetly did me kiss
    And softly said, "Dear heart, how like you this?"

    It was no dream; I lay broad waking:
    But all is turned, thorough my gentleness,
    Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
    And I have leave to go of her goodness,
    And she also to use newfangleness.
    But since that I so kindly am served,
    I would fain know what she hath deserved.

    I'm not sure with this one.  The first stanza sounds like the author is writing about deer.  The second one is clearly about a loved one and yes, I can understand the comparison between women and deer.  Both alike in gentleness and grace.  Both can be timid and hard for men to 'snare'.  In fact, that comparison vividly reminds me of my teenage years!
    The third stanza confuses me though.  The poet is not asleep, so it's actually happening.  But the poet is too gentle so it seems as if he is forsaking her?  Do I have that right?  And they are trading her goodness for his 'newfangleness'?  The last two lines make some sort of sense to me, he is saying that he is doing so well from the trade that he wonders how he can make it up to her.  Maybe.
    Of interesting note, the book that I've got 'The 100 Best Poems of All Time' is clear in attributing this poem to Petrarch.  The internet wants to say that the whole deal belongs to Thomas Wyatt.

    Wednesday, October 10, 2012

    Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire - Gibbon

    Gibbon opens chapter 15 by announcing that he'll be looking at the role Christianity played in the decline of Rome.
    The theologian may indulge the please task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption, which she contracted in a long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.  
    Nowadays, it is fairly common for academics to look for errors and corruption when dealing with religion.  Gibbon ran something more of a risk back in the 1770's.  He then moves on to provide five reasons why Christianity became so dominant throughout Europe and increasingly the rest of the world.  They are as follows:

    • 1. Early Christians kept the Jewish tradition of shutting out other gods, which made them less likely to be seduced away.  But they changed from the Jewish tradition and instead reached out to make converts of the Gentiles.
    • 2. They believed in an afterlife.  They also believed that the end of the world would happen soon and urged people to join them very quickly.
    • 3. The Christian churches produced miracles for the non-believers.  They often spoke of other miracles that were happening in other Christian churches.
    • 4. The Christians themselves lived up to their ideals and moral values.  They proved fairly incorruptible. 
    • 5. The church developed a hierarchy inside of the Roman world, that was not guided by the Roman world.     
    Gibbon speaks at length on each of these points.  I found the comparison between the early Christians and the Jews to be the most interesting.  Also interesting was the step by step development of the hierarchy of the early Catholic church.  (As a non-Catholic, I was fairly ignorant in how Christian history got from the book of Acts to the world of the Vatican.)
    He also writes of the early Christians as being pacifists who would not work to defend the empire (or serve it in administrative ways).  I'd never heard this particular criticism before.  It falls very strange on modern ears.

    Monday, October 8, 2012

    Biography of Gibbon

    Edward Gibbon was born in 1737 in London.  His brothers and sisters died in infancy and it seems that her mother was distant at best.  He was sickly while young and he took refuge in books, especially history books.
    When he was 15 he went to Oxford to spend time at Magdalen College.  Stories differ but it seems that there he became acquainted with deist and rationalist thought.  He objected to it and converted to Roman Catholicism.  His father sent him to Switzerland and shortly after threatened to disinherit him if he didn't go back to the Protestants. 
    Gibbon served a stint in the military during the Seven Year's War.  In 1763 he went on a Grand Tour of Europe.  While there he visited the 'great object of my pilgrimage', that of the city Rome.  He there had what he called his 'Capitoline vision', the idea of constructing an extensive history of Rome and the Roman empire. 
    In 1776, Gibbon released the first volume of 'The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'.  It became very popular.  He released the next five volumes over the next twelve years.  Wikipedia quotes him upon finishing:
    It was on the day, or rather the night, of the 27th of June, 1787, between the hours of eleven and twelve, that I wrote the last lines of the last page in a summer-house in my garden. ... I will not dissemble the first emotions of joy on the recovery of my freedom, and perhaps the establishment of my fame. But my pride was soon humbled, and a sober melancholy was spread over my mind by the idea that I had taken my everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion, and that, whatsoever might be the future date of my history, the life of the historian must be short and precarious.
     Gibbon was active in London's literary society.  He rubbed shoulders with such people as Adam Smith and Horace Walpole.  His health declined and he died in 1794 at the age of 56. 

    Thursday, October 4, 2012

    Author Timeline

    Aristophanes 446 - 386
    Plato 424? - 348?
    Aristotle 384 - 322

    Plutarch 46 - 120
    Gospel of Matthew, Acts of the Apostles (around the end of the first century)
    St. Augistine 354 - 430
    Machiavelli 1469 - 1527
    Rabelais 1494 - 1553
    Montaigne 1533 - 1592
    Shakespeare 1564 - 1616
    Locke 1632 - 1704
    Rousseau 1712 - 1778
    Gibbon 1737 - 1794
    Declaration of Independence - 1776
    The Constitution of the US - 1787
    Federalist Papers 1787 -1788
    Smith 1723 - 1790
    Marx/Engles 1818 - 1883/1820 - 1895

    Tuesday, October 2, 2012

    Year Two Readings

    This is the list for the second year of readings.  Thought it might be nice for people to be able to plan ahead.  I won't be linking to Amazon or B&N any more as it seems that link drift kills off any helpful aspect.  And it isn't too difficult to find the items through their websites.  Instead I'll simply link to the Project Gutenberg edition or similar.
    I'm curious which of these pieces people are looking forward to.  Or if any of my more well read fellow travelers have comments on the year ahead.

    Homer: The Iliad link

    Aeschylus: Agamemnon, Choephoroe, Eumenides link, link, link
    Sophocles: Oedipus the King, Antigone link

    Herodotus: The History (Book 1 and 2) link

    Plato: Meno link
    Aristotle: Poetics link
    Aristotle: Ethics (Book 2, Book 3 Ch. 5-12, Book 6 Ch. 8-13) link

    Nicomachus: Introduction to Arithmetic link

    Lucretius: On the Nature of Things (Book1-4) link

    Marcus Aurelius: Meditations link

    Hobbes: Leviathan (Part 1) link
    Milton: Areopagitica link

    Pascal: Pensees (72, 82-83, 100, 128, 131, 139, 142-143, 171, 194-195, 219, 229, 233-234, 242, 277, 282, 289, 298, 303, 320, 323, 325, 330-331, 374, 385, 392, 395-397, 409, 412-413, 416, 418, 425, 430, 434-435, 463, 491, 525-531, 538, 543, 547, 553, 556, 564, 571, 586, 598, 607-610, 613, 619-620, 631, 640, 644, 673, 675, 684, 692-693, 737, 760, 768, 792-793)* link
    Pascal: Treatise on the Arithmetical Triangle link
    *think of these as being like 'proverbs'

    Swift: Gulliver's Travels link

    Rousseau: A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality link
    Kant: Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals link

    Mill: On Liberty link

    Monday, October 1, 2012

    October Reading

    Gibbon: 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire' chapters 15 and 16 (link)

    I've read a few things on the decline phase of the Roman empire.  There is a pretty good book called 'The Fall of the Roman Empire' by Peter Heather that I enjoyed.  One of my all time favorite time travel books, 'Lest Darkness Fall', involves a modern man (well, 1939 modern) who is instantly transported to sixth century Rome.  He has to try and figure out how to use his knowledge of superior technology to help him.  Simply a great read.

    Saturday, September 29, 2012

    Poetry - Dante

    For previous entries, click on the 'Poetry' label at the bottom.

    The twelfth poem in the book is the first part of Dante's 'Inferno'.  The entire work comes up in year five of the Great Books list.  Here is the segment from the book:

    Midway upon the journey of our life
      I found myself within a forest dark,
      For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
    Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
      What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
      Which in the very thought renews the fear.
    So bitter is it, death is little more;
      But of the good to treat, which there I found,
      Speak will I of the other things I saw there.
    I cannot well repeat how there I entered,
      So full was I of slumber at the moment
      In which I had abandoned the true way.
    But after I had reached a mountain's foot,
      At that point where the valley terminated,
      Which had with consternation pierced my heart,
    Upward I looked, and I beheld its shoulders,
      Vested already with that planet's rays
      Which leadeth others right by every road.
    Then was the fear a little quieted
      That in my heart's lake had endured throughout
      The night, which I had passed so piteously.
    And even as he, who, with distressful breath,
      Forth issued from the sea upon the shore,
      Turns to the water perilous and gazes;
    So did my soul, that still was fleeing onward,
      Turn itself back to re-behold the pass
      Which never yet a living person left.
    After my weary body I had rested,
      The way resumed I on the desert slope,
      So that the firm foot ever was the lower.
    And lo! almost where the ascent began,
      A panther light and swift exceedingly,
      Which with a spotted skin was covered o'er!
    And never moved she from before my face,
      Nay, rather did impede so much my way,
      That many times I to return had turned.
    The time was the beginning of the morning,
      And up the sun was mounting with those stars
      That with him were, what time the Love Divine
    At first in motion set those beauteous things;
      So were to me occasion of good hope,
      The variegated skin of that wild beast,
    The hour of time, and the delicious season;
      But not so much, that did not give me fear
      A lion's aspect which appeared to me.
    He seemed as if against me he were coming
      With head uplifted, and with ravenous hunger,
      So that it seemed the air was afraid of him;
    And a she-wolf, that with all hungerings
      Seemed to be laden in her meagreness,
      And many folk has caused to live forlorn!
    She brought upon me so much heaviness,
      With the affright that from her aspect came,
      That I the hope relinquished of the height.
    And as he is who willingly acquires,
      And the time comes that causes him to lose,
      Who weeps in all his thoughts and is despondent,
    E'en such made me that beast withouten peace,
      Which, coming on against me by degrees
      Thrust me back thither where the sun is silent.
    While I was rushing downward to the lowland,
      Before mine eyes did one present himself,
      Who seemed from long-continued silence hoarse.
    When I beheld him in the desert vast,
      "Have pity on me," unto him I cried,
      "Whiche'er thou art, or shade or real man!"
    He answered me: "Not man; man once I was,
      And both my parents were of Lombardy,
      And Mantuans by country both of them.
    'Sub Julio' was I born, though it was late,
      And lived at Rome under the good Augustus,
      During the time of false and lying gods.
    A poet was I, and I sang that just
      Son of Anchises, who came forth from Troy,
      After that Ilion the superb was burned.
    But thou, why goest thou back to such annoyance?
      Why climb'st thou not the Mount Delectable,
      Which is the source and cause of every joy?"
    "Now, art thou that Virgilius and that fountain
      Which spreads abroad so wide a river of speech?"
      I made response to him with bashful forehead.
    "O, of the other poets honour and light,
      Avail me the long study and great love
      That have impelled me to explore thy volume!
    Thou art my master, and my author thou,
      Thou art alone the one from whom I took
      The beautiful style that has done honour to me.
    Hmmmm, again, epic poetry escapes me. The bit with the scary animals simply seems gaudy. The meeting with Virgil is promising, however. No, give me the smaller self contained verse.

    Wednesday, September 26, 2012

    Collective Rights

    Way back in February, I posted one of my favorite Heinlein passages, this one from 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress'.  Here it is again:
    "Dear lady, I must come to Manuel's defense. He has a correct evaluation even though he may not be able to state it. May I ask this? Under what circumstances is it moral for a group to do that which is not moral for a member of that group to do alone?"
    "Uh . . . that's a trick question."
    "It is the key question, my dear Wyoming. A radical question that strikes to the root of the whole dilemma of government. Anyone who answers honestly and abides by all consequences knows where he stands - and what he will die for."
     This is an easy one for Locke.  He says that a group of people have no more rights than each one would have individually.  The mere act of grouping themselves does not confer rights.  This makes sense to me but it's not easy to think of our modern governments along this line.
    • Would the state still have the right to tax?  No private citizen does.
    • Does this invalidate transfer payments (i.e. the welfare state)?  Again, as a private citizen, I can't force working people to give money to someone who isn't working.  
    • What about regulations?  I can't go into a factory and tell them owner that he needs to change things.  (Well, I can tell him but I certainly can't force him.)
    Again, I see the sense of what Locke is saying.  Which means that in regard to the Heinlein question, my answer is that there are very few things (if any) that groups can do morally that an individual can't.  On the other hand, I shudder at the real world consequences of suddenly changing the modern state.  The deceleration shock would be enormous!  Still, the ideal should be kept in sight as we move forward.

    Sunday, September 23, 2012

    Social Contract - Rousseau

    (This only covers books One and Two.)

    Rousseau starts out with a bang:
    MAN is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they.
    And he continues:
    As long as a people is compelled to obey, and obeys, it does well; as soon as it can shake off the yoke, and shakes it off, it does still better; for, regaining its liberty by the same right as took it away, either it is justified in resuming it, or there was no justification for those who took it away. But the social order is a sacred right which is the basis of all other rights. Nevertheless, this right does not come from nature, and must therefore be founded on conventions.
    Locke, obviously, would disagree.  Rousseau argues (and I agree with him) that mere force, on it's own, isn't enough to create rights.  He suggests that the best way to secure rights and liberty for everyone is through the Social Contract.  The clauses of this contract are perfect, and Rousseau says that the 'slightest modification would make them vain and ineffective'.  He reduces these clauses to one:
    ...the total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights, to the whole community; for, in the first place, as each gives himself absolutely, the conditions are the same for all; and, this being so, no one has any interest in making them burdensome to others.
    So everyone has the same burden and there is perfect equality of rights.  He continues:
    At once, in place of the individual personality of each contracting party, this act of association creates a moral and collective body, composed of as many members as the assembly contains votes, and receiving from this act its unity, its common identity, its life and its will.
    Which seems, today, like an incredible amount of wishful thinking.  Maybe it didn't so much in the 1760s.  A bit later he says:
    The passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces a very remarkable change in man, by substituting justice for instinct in his conduct, and giving his actions the morality they had formerly lacked.
    Again, Locke would disagree.  I'll admit that when I first read this, I found it to be preposterous and I still can't shake that.  Just how much civilizing does civilization do?  There is some civil effect on people, of course.  The compulsion to obey the law is so strong that for most people it is nearly a reflex.  But this reflex isn't trustworthy.
    Is it fair to point out that Rousseau had a huge influence on people that would, some twenty years later, start the Reign of Terror?  They undoubtedly thought their actions were moral.  They also thought they were bring about remarkable changes.  And what an awful time to live through!
    I don't know if it's fair to blame Rousseau for this or not.  But we should keep it in mind while we read him.

    Friday, September 21, 2012

    Poetry - 11

    For more on this series, click the 'poetry' tag.

    The poetry book leaves China and moves on to Persia, with a poem from Omar Khayyam.  This is Rubaiyat 51.

    The Moving Finger writes; and having writ,
    Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
    Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
    Nor all they Tears wash out a Word of it.
    Wow!  It's not hard to see why this poem is so memorable.  What a bleak and powerful message.  Time keeps on rolling and nothing we can do will roll it back. 
    I've heard the first line many times but never knew the rest of it.  I'll have to memorize this.  I'm sure my kids will find it comforting when they're teenagers!

    Thursday, September 20, 2012

    Monday, September 17, 2012

    Locke and the Progression of Rights

    Locke starts with the idea that all men have natural rights.  He thinks his way through the history of man from family and tribe to the (then) modern country.  Locke says that those rights are inherent and not a consequence of being in a society.  He also says:
    the laws of nature, do bind men absolutely, even as they are men, although they have never any settled fellowship, never any solemn agreement amongst themselves what to do, or not to do
    So those rights are there regardless of if the men have first sat down and hammered out the rules.  Which make sense.  If I travel to the farthest ends of the earth, I should still expect it to be a no-no to walk up to someone and punch him in the nose.  He also says that men remain in that state of inherent right unless they have kicked themselves out by declaring war on the rest of society.
    So what advantage does man have in combining into larger groups?  Security, of course.
    The great and chief end, therefore of men's uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property. To which in the state of nature there are many things wanting.
    First, There wants an established, settled, known law, received and allowed by common consent to be the standard of right and wrong, and the common measure to decide all controversies between them: for though the laws of nature be plain and intelligible to all rational creatures; yet men being biassed by their interest, as well as ignorant for want of study of it, are not apt to allow of it as a law binding to them in the application of it to their particular cases.
     But there are limits to that power.
    But though men, when they enter into society, give up the equality, liberty, and executive power they had in the state of nature, into the hands of the society, to be so far disposed of by the legislative, as the good of the society shall require; yet it being only with an intention in every one the better to preserve himself, his liberty and property; (for no rational creature can be supposed to change his condition with an intention to be worse)...
    ...whoever has the legislative or supreme power of any common-wealth, is bound to govern by established standing employ the force of the community at home, only in the execution of such laws, or abroad to prevent or redress foreign injuries and secure the community from inroads and invasion. And all this to be directed to no other end, but the peace, safety, and public good of the people. 
    So those rights given to the legislature in exchange for security must be fairly limited.

    Saturday, September 15, 2012

    Locke and Natural Rights

    I found Locke to be fascinating.  He starts out with the most basic unit, the individual, and their rights:
    To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.
    When we think of 'human rights', we now think of something a bit different.  We think of a much longer list.  For instance, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is 30 articles long.  (And incidentally, is much weaker in regard to possessions and property).  Locke continues:
    A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection, unless the lord and master of them all should, by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another, and confer on him, by an evident and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty.
    So all people are equal, allowing for natural differences.  The exception being if 'the lord and master of them all' elevates someone to the position of 'undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty'.  So we have free people doing what they want, on a level playing field, with a nod to the idea that their might be a king. 
    This is only the first two paragraphs. 
    Starting from this premise Locke talks about how men can protect those rights.  Basically if another man violates your rights, he has declared war on you and the rest of humanity.  Per Locke (caps his):
    That's pretty hardcore by modern standards.  I can only imagine what Locke would think of the gun control laws of modern England.  Or the debates we have about 'castle doctrine' and the like.  He clearly believes that the common citizen is allowed to fight back against any outlaw.  A few weeks ago I mentioned that I wish I'd read some of this back in high school.  Now I'm wondering what a group of teens would do with it.
    And this is just the surface.  Much more to follow...

    Monday, September 10, 2012

    Biography of Rousseau

    Jean Jacques Rousseau was born in, then city state, Geneva in 1712.  His mother died shortly after his birth and he was raised by his father, who was a watchmaker.  His father encouraged him to read and also helped him develop a love of music.  In his teens he was apprenticed to a notary and then to an engraver who apparently beat him.  He ran away and ended up in the neighboring region of Savoy.

    While in Savoy he was introduced to a woman named Fran├žoise-Louise de Warens, who, unbeknownst to Rousseau, was paid to convert Protestants to Catholicism.  She began to work on Rousseau.  Per Wikipedia:

    In converting to Catholicism, both De Warens and Rousseau were likely reacting to Calvinism's insistence on the total depravity of man. Leo Damrosch writes, "an eighteenth-century Genevan liturgy still required believers to declare ‘that we are miserable sinners, born in corruption, inclined to evil, incapable by ourselves of doing good'."[7] De Warens, a deist by inclination, was attracted to Catholicism's doctrine of forgiveness of sins.

    They eventually became lovers.  While with de Warens, Rousseau had access to her large library and was part of her circle of educated men.  He studied philosophy, music and mathematics. 

    When he was 27 he moved to France.  While there he tried to sell the French on a new kind of musical notation but it was rejected.  The Academy was apparently impressed by him.  He then spent time as a secretary to the French ambassador to Venice.  This exposed him to Italian opera and also created a distrust in political doings.

    Rousseau developed a relationship with a seamstress named Therese Levesseur.  They had a number of children.  Rousseau convinced her to give each one to a foundling hospital, perhaps in hopes that they would receive a better education there(!).  Later he was heavily criticized for this. 

    While in Paris, Rousseau became friends with the French philosopher Diderot and began to publish his thoughts.  He wrote about music and philosophy and in a couple of years became so prominent that the king offered him a lifetime pension.  Rousseau turned it down and gained some notoriety in doing so.

    In 1754 Rousseau returned to Geneva and converted back to Calvinism.  He wrote a number of novels and in 1762 he published 'Of the Social Contract'.  He also wrote a number of other works, some of which angered both Catholics and Protestants.  He had to run and in 1765 he ended up in Great Britain, a guest of David Hume. 

    Rousseau snuck back into France and married Levesseur.  He wrote 'The Confessions' but wasn't allowed to publish it.  In 1772 he was invited to help write a constitution for Poland.  He died in 1778.  Rousseau was highly influential on the French Revolution and in 1794 his remains were moved to the Parthenon in Paris

    Sunday, September 9, 2012

    Poetry - 10

    For the start of this series, go here.

    For the tenth poem, the authors stay with Chinese poets.  This one is by Po Chu-I and is titled 'Madly Singing in the Mountains'.

    There is no one among men that has not a special failing;
    And my failing consists in writing verses.
    I have broken away from the thousand ties of life:
    But this infirmity still remains behind.
    Each time that I look at a fine landscape;
    Each time that I meet a loved friend,
    I raise my voice and recite a stanza of poetry
    And am glad as though a god had crossed my path.
    Ever since the day I was banished to Hsun-yang
    Half my time I have lived among the hills.
    And often when I have finished a new poem,
    Alone I climb the road to the Eastern Rock.
    I lean my body on the banks of white stone:
    I pull down with my hands a green cassia branch.
    My mad singing startles the valleys and hills:
    The apes and birds all come to peep.
    Fearing to become a laughingstock to the world,
    I choose a place that is unfrequented by men.

    I find that sentiment of this poem to be quite nice.  I grew up in a place where it wasn't tough to get out and away from people but now I live in a big city.  I miss those places 'unfrequented by men'.  It's strange that he finds his poetry to be a failing.  I don't know enough about the time period to know if that is meant ironically or not.  Overall the language doesn't really sing to me.  Frankly, I didn't care for this as much as the last few.