Monday, July 30, 2012

Of Cannibals - Montaigne

'Cannibals' is a very interesting essay as it is Montaigne's views on the New World and its inhabitants.  He has gotten his information from a man who lived in 'Anarctic France', a term I had never heard before.  According to Wikipedia, it is an area near Rio de Janeiro where the French tried to resettle some Protestants.  So the cannibals that Montaigne is writing about are various tribes of modern day Brazil. 
I don't know how accurate the stories are.  The misinformation that went to Europe in those days was famous.  But Montaigne is clearly impressed by the innate morality of the tribes.  He is especially taken with their bravery and tells stories of men who would rather suffer death than show fear.
The cannibalism that he speaks of is done after a battle.  The dead are eaten as a way of showing extreme revenge.  He says that this treatment is favorable to the various methods of torture then employed by the supposedly more civilized Europeans. 
Near the end of the essay Montaigne talks about a handful of the natives who were brought back to France.  He makes a prediction:
Three of these people, not foreseeing how dear their knowledge of the corruptions of this part of the world will one day cost their happiness and repose, and that the effect of this commerce will be their ruin...
This is more or less what has happened.  Many native tribes have struggled to find their footing in western ways, even now, hundreds of years later. 

Friday, July 27, 2012

Lycurgus and the Olympics

With the Olympics kicking off tonight, I thought it would be nice to note that one of our subjects had an important hand in the ancient games.  Well, maybe.  According to Plutarch, Lycurgus of Sparta 'contrived the ordinance for the cessation of arms during the solemnity of the Olympic games'.  In other words, he convinced the various city states that the time of the Olympic celebration should be one of peace.  There are also legends that the tradition of holding the Olympic games had stopped and Lycurgus was instrumental in restarting them.
I say maybe because Plutarch goes on to say:
Erastothenes and Apollodorus and other chronologers computing the time by the successions of the Spartan kings, pretend to demonstrate that he was much more ancient than the institution of the Olympic games.
So who really know?  By the way, one of the best things about Plutarch is that he gives voices to dissenting historians.  In any case, as you watch the games, maybe give a little thanks to the ancients that thought up the whole delightful idea in the first place.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Western Philosophy

Interesting chart here dividing western thought into various phases.  Click on the plus sign (+) to open up the trees.  A couple of things:
  • My impression has been that the Romans didn't add much to Greek thought.  That their main contribution was to spread Greek thought to a wider audience.  This chart seems to agree with that.
  • I'm still not sure where the dividing line between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment is.  In September we read from Locke and Rousseau, so I'll probably try to figure it out then.
  • There are three (fairly complicated) branches listed under Modernity.  The Great Books doesn't go deeply into 20th century thought so most of that will be uncovered here.  I've sometimes wondered how modern thought would be summed up to future societies.  From this chart, I'd say it would be kind of messy. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Poetry - 6

The next poem brings us the beginning of Virgil's 'Aeneid'.  The translation is by John Dryden.

Arms, and the man I sing, who, forc'd by fate,
And haughty Juno's unrelenting hate,
Expell'd and exil'd, left the Trojan shore.
Long labors, both by sea and land, he bore,
And in the doubtful war, before he won
The Latian realm, and built the destin'd town;
His banish'd gods restor'd to rites divine,
And settled sure succession in his line,
From whence the race of Alban fathers come,
And the long glories of majestic Rome.
O Muse! the causes and the crimes relate;
What goddess was provok'd, and whence her hate;
For what offense the Queen of Heav'n began
To persecute so brave, so just a man;
Involv'd his anxious life in endless cares,
Expos'd to wants, and hurried into wars!
Can heav'nly minds such high resentment show,
Or exercise their spite in human woe?

Much like with the snippet from the Illiad, you almost certainly can't do justice to a full epic poem by simply looking at the first dozen and a half lines.  This sample on its own doesn't do much for me. 
Having said that, I'm curious now to know just why the Queen of Heav'n was so harsh to poor Aeneas . . .

Monday, July 23, 2012

'That It Is Folly To Measure Truth...' - Montaigne

This is a short little essay, the theme of which is that we should not rush to skepticism.  Or, to borrow from next month's piece, 'there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy'.  Montaigne begins by noting that the young and naive can be easily fooled because they lack experience.  But then he says that there are things that he discounted, that he has now found to be true. 
Montaigne recounts long lists of events from Plutarch and others, when news of events spread faster than was physically possible.  He also lists various miracles of the saints and the reader certainly can't doubt the veracity of the saints! 
I'm curious what brought this essay about.  It was written around 1571.  Was there a push beginning to treat stories of saints and Biblical happenings with skepticism?  If, today, you heard that someone was healed with the hip bone of Mother Theresa, you would want some proof before you'd actually believe it.  Did they want proof then, too? 
Montaigne goes on to caution the Catholics from:
dispensing so much with their belief. They fancy they appear moderate and wise, when they grant to their opponents some of the articles in question;
He goes on to say:
We are either to wholly and absolutely to submit ourselves to the authority of our ecclesiastical polity, or totally throw off all our obedience to it: tis not for us to determine what and how much obedience we owe to it.
Which makes at least some sense to me.  Montaigne concludes with a statement that I find somewhat hard to square with the rest of him.  "Glory and curiosity are the scourges of the soul; the last prompts us to thrust our noses into everything, the other forbids us to leave anything doubtful and undecided."  He seems marked with a thirst for knowledge and 'curiosity'.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Poetry - 5

The next poem is appropriately enough titled 'Song 5 to Lesbia' by the Roman poet Catullus.  This translation is by an early seventeenth century poet named Richard Crenshaw.

Come and let us live my Deare,
Let us love and never feare,
What the sourest Fathers say;
Brightest Sol that dyes to day
Lives againe as blith to morrow,
But if we darke sons of sorrow
Set; O then, how long a Night
Shuts the Eyes of our short light!
Then let amorous kisses dwell
On our lips, begin and tell
A Thousand, and a Hundred score
An Hundred, and a Thousand more,
Till another Thousand smother
That, and that wipe off another.
Thus at last when we have numbered
Many a Thousand, many a Hundred;
We'll confound the reckoning quite,
And lose our selves in wild delight:
While our joyes so multiply,
As shall mocke the envious eye.

You sometimes hear teen boys being told that poetry is the key to wooing a girl.  May I humbly submit that this would be one of those poems.  Basically it boils down to 'life is short; let's make out'.  I like it, I really do.  I especially like the part with hundreds and thousands of kisses.  Very good stuff.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Of the Education of Children - Montaigne

I wouldn't be surprised if this isn't considered one of Montaigne's most important essays.  I won't try to break it down, like I have the others.  Instead I want to share some of the parts that most made an impression on me. 
"I never seriously settled myself to the reading of any book of solid learning but Plutarch and Senaca; and there, like the Danaides, I eternally fill, and it as constantly runs out; something of which drops upon this paper, but little or nothing stays with me."  When I was in my teens and twentys I read and reread my favorite authors (especially Robert Heinlein) and it is quite fair to say that they shaped me.  I can see where the history of Plutarch especially would be a good guide to read again and again.  The history of important people is always instructive.
"For these are my own particular opinions and fancies, and I deliver them as only what I myself believe, and not for what is to be believed by others. I have no other end in this writing, but only to discover myself..."  The writings of Montaigne are very intimate and this is the reason why.  He was on an enormous voyage of self discovery and he shared the trip with whoever would read him.
" is no hard matter to get children; but after they are born, then begins the trouble, solicitude, and care rightly to train, principle, and bring them up."  Couldn't help but chuckle at this.  Yes, children are much easier before they're born.  And yes, the work of bringing them up takes great effort.
"A mere bookish learning is a poor, paltry learning; it may serve for ornament, but there is yet no foundation for any superstructure to be built upon it..."  A huge theme for Montaigne.  Learning is good but is only part of an education.  The moral part is more important.
"It is not enough to fortify his soul; you are also to make his sinews strong; for the soul will be oppressed if not assisted by the members..."  Another theme of Montaigne, that a strong body is also important to a full life.  When I was young I somehow convinced myself that because I was 'bookish' I should stay away from working with my hands.  This was one of the bigger mistakes in my life.
"...even in conversing with men I spoke of but now, I have observed this vice, that instead of gathering observations from others, we make it our whole business to lay ourselves open to them, are are more concerned how to expose and set out our own commodities, than how to increase our stock by acquiring new."  This is a vice that I suffer from too.  Instead of listening, really listening, I too often spend my time shaping my rebuttal.  Lord knows how much I've missed out on.
"In this conversing with men, I mean also, and principally, those who only live in the records of history; he shall, by reading those books, converse with the great and heroic souls of the best ages."  This is a lesson that I'm sure Montaigne gained from his readings of Plutarch and Seneca.  He worked very hard at really learning all that he could from the ancients. 
"The fear was not that I should do ill, but that I should do nothing; nobody prognosticated that I should be wicked, but only useless; they foresaw idleness, but no malice;"  What a sad fate, to grow up to be useless. 

It's a long essay but if you haven't read it yet, it is well worth the time.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Of Pedantry - Montainge

To begin with, when I started this essay I had never heard the word 'pedantry' before.  A pendant is someone who makes a big show of his or her learning.  Pendant is where we get the word 'pedantic'.  Researchers think that the word is descended from the Latin word for teacher.
In 'On Pedantry', Montaigne takes a look at why intelligence does not necessarily equal wisdom.  He starts by noting how pendants in plays are always shown to be fools.  This is still true in our day.  The character of the Clueless Nerd is a full blown cliche.  And yet, I've met plenty of people who are 'book-wise but not street-smart'.  Who hasn't?
Montaigne suggests that this happens when the wrong values are put in place:
In plain truth, the cares and expense our parents are at in our education, point at nothing, but to furnish our heads with knowledge; but not a word of judgment and virtue.
He says that our education must 'alter us for the better'.  Also, 'We are not to tie learning to the soul, but to work and incorporate them together'.  We must use our learning to make us better and more moral people. 
How do we do that?  Montaigne writes of a an old Persian method, where children were first taught religion, then taught physical skills like riding and hunting.  After that they were given to 'the hands of four, the wisest, the most just, the most temperate, the most valiant'.  These four would teach them religion, sincerity, uprightness, the ability to conquer hunger and desires, and 'to despise danger'.  In short, an education based on practical skills and moral bearings.
He also warns that too much study of the sciences can soften men and dull their edge.  He praises the Spartan way.  Montaigne notes that when Rome became very learned, it declined and was conquered. 

I can't imagine what would happen if a modern community decided to adopt the Persian method of raising children.  In fact, I don't think such a thing is remotely possible in a blended culture like ours.  Which religion would the children be raised in from the start?  Whose values would they be taught?  I'm not sure how much 'moral education' used to be a part of the public school system but I don't see how they can do much teaching now beyond some very broad civics, some simple manners and the like.  More deeply held values and beliefs are better taught from home (and supplementary places like churches, clubs, scout troops, etc). 
Which isn't to say that I don't agree that there is a difference between wisdom and intelligence.  I just don't agree with how Montaigne writes about bridging the gap.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Poetry - 4

The next offering stays with the King James Bible.  This time it is the Song of Songs:

1 The song of songs, which is Solomon's.
2 Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine.
3 Because of the savour of thy good ointments thy name is as ointment poured forth, therefore do the virgins love thee.
4 Draw me, we will run after thee: the king hath brought me into his chambers: we will be glad and rejoice in thee, we will remember thy love more than wine: the upright love thee.
5 I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon.
6 Look not upon me, because I am black, because the sun hath looked upon me: my mother's children were angry with me; they made me the keeper of the vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept.
7 Tell me, O thou whom my soul loveth, where thou feedest, where thou makest thy flock to rest at noon: for why should I be as one that turneth aside by the flocks of thy companions?
8 If thou know not, O thou fairest among women, go thy way forth by the footsteps of the flock, and feed thy kids beside the shepherds' tents.
9 I have compared thee, O my love, to a company of horses in Pharaoh's chariots.
10 Thy cheeks are comely with rows of jewels, thy neck with chains of gold.
11 We will make thee borders of gold with studs of silver.
12 While the king sitteth at his table, my spikenard sendeth forth the smell thereof.
13 A bundle of myrrh is my wellbeloved unto me; he shall lie all night betwixt my breasts.
14 My beloved is unto me as a cluster of camphire in the vineyards of Engedi.
15 Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thou hast doves' eyes.
16 Behold, thou art fair, my beloved, yea, pleasant: also our bed is green.
17 The beams of our house are cedar, and our rafters of fir.

This doesn't do much for me.  I can see that the language is poetic, but it doesn't touch me.  Perhaps it is because the metaphors have simply drifted too far in the last 2500 years.  If I told my wife she is fair because she has 'doves' eyes', I don't think she'd feel all that complimented.  It could have been a real hit back in its day though. 
According to Wikipedia, there are a number of acceptable interpretations as to authorship and intended audience.  I don't doubt it.  The first half certainly describes an uneven relationship, like a subject to a king or perhaps a king to God.  That could change the interpretation of the fifth and sixth verse from something racial to a poetic reading of 'sinful'.  I don't remember it ever being taught in church.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Of Custom . . . -Montainge

Of Custom, and that we should not easily change a law received

Montaigne argues a few different things about custom.  Firstly, he suggests that custom is very strong.  He tells a story about a woman who carried a calf every day.  This continued as the calf grew up so eventually she could carry the full grown cow.  The sheer repetition of custom is part of its strength.
Secondly he says that we become so used to various customs that they become second nature to us.  Many of them are followed without any conscious thought.  Customs may look strange from the outside but they almost never do to the practitioners. 
Next he says that customs are imprinted on us at a very young age.  Montaigne says that parents should be careful about what customs and habits their children are being taught.  He speaks of a very strong personal sense of fair play and says that it has been with him since childhood at least.
Montaigne then follows with a very lengthy list of customs from other parts of the world.  All of these seem strange to his audience (and they're certainly not common to us).  All of these customs seem natural and right to the people who have them. 
Fifthly he argues that people accept custom while rarely if ever thinking through the reasons behind those customs.  He adds to this point by saying that even when custom is superseded by law, it remains strong. 
The next point he makes is that it is difficult and dangerous to try and change an established custom.  Customs (and laws) are interconnected and the whole structure resists changes to parts of it.  This is an outstanding point and one that is poorly understood even today.
Montaigne says that he, himself,  dislikes novelty. He goes on to speak of the danger of change:
They who give the first shock to a state, are almost naturally the first overwhelmed in its ruin; the fruits of public commotion are seldom enjoyed by him who was the first motor; he beats and disturbs the water for another's net. 
He urges extreme caution on those who would try to change customs:
. . . for whoesever shall take upon him to chose and alter . . . should look well about him, and make it his business to discern clearly the defect of what he would abolish, and the virtue of what he is about to introduce.
The idea that custom is a mere custom is fairly commonplace today.  Large sections of behavior are dismissed as merely being the things that people do.  Comparatively, very little thought is given to what happens when that behavior is changed. 
In some ways this reminds me of the debates surrounding gay marriage.  (Full disclosure, I'm a supporter.)  As little as thirty years ago, the idea of gay marriage was somewhat ridiculous, even to gay couples.  Now there are large pockets of opinion that hold that opposition must be due to bigotry.  How much work have supporters done to think about possible defects? 
Montaigne does a very thorough job of looking at how custom is created and how it should be regarded.  I'd highly recommend this essay.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


Overall, I really enjoyed reading Montaigne.  He has an easy style of reading and is undoubtably brilliant.  As I mentioned in his bio, he is the creator of the essay.  I take that to mean any short piece of writing is that is focused mainly on one subject.  I've also read that he was one of the first writers to write in such a personal way.  When you read Montaigne, you are invited into his obviously personal thoughts.  Into his own personal life.  I found time to wander off the list and read some of his other essays.  I found his essay 'On Sorrow' to be very insightful.
He does wander a bit though.  I found it tough to take notes while reading his essays becaue it was tough to always tell what his most prominent point was.  He would circle and circle and after a few pages I would have to look back to figure out the best illustration of what he was saying.  I don't mean this as a criticism; I merely mention it to warn modern eyes that he requires some spade work. 
On a personal note, I'd say that he probably shouldn't be read while you're also watching young kids.  The words go down easily enough but if your attention waivers, you miss out.  (This is my way of saying that this project will be easier this fall once the kids are back in school/preschool and my wife is back teaching!)
I'll break down some of the essays either alone or in groups over the next week or two. 

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Biography of Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne was born in 1533 to a wealthy family.  He had a very unusual childhood as his father had created an elaborate plan to mold him.  For his first few years he lived with a peasant family so he could learn what it was to live like the poor.  Then he moved back to the family chateau and he was taught Latin.  In fact, he was assigned a German doctor who was fluent in Latin but spoke no French at all.  The rest of the family and the servants were also instructed to only speak Latin to him.  Montaigne was given constant intellectual and spiritual instruction.  Every morning he was woken by a musician with various instruments.
He was sent away for the finest education available and rose to great heights.  Before he was thirty he became a courtier of King Charles IX (a different king than helped Rabelais).  He was there until his close friend, Etienne de la Boetie died. 
Montaigne was forced into marriage and had six daughters, only one of which lived past childhood.  At his father's urging, he worked on translating Latin works and moved back to the family chateau.  After his father's death, he became lord of the house. 
At the age of 38 (my age!) he withdrew from family and social life.  He isolated himself in his tower, a library which contained more than 1000 books.  He created this inscription for himself:
'In the year of Christ 1571, at the age of thirty-eight, on the last day of February, his birthday, Michael de Montaigne, long weary of the servitude of the court and of public employments, while still entire, retired to the bosom of the learned virgins, where in calm and freedom from all cares he will spend what little remains of his life, now more than half run out. If the fates permit, he will complete this abode, this sweet ancestral retreat; and he has consecrated it to his freedom, tranquility, and leisure.'
 It was there that he started writing his 'Essais', the very first collection of essays.  The word is French for 'Attempts' and the essay certainly represents a step forward in the struggle for men to educate each other. 
Montaigne eventually went back out into the world and helped various kings during the French 'wars of religion'.  He fell ill in 1592 and died of something like tonsillitis.  Before he died he was struck mute, which bothered him greatly.  Near the end he called for a mass to be celebrated and died while it was going on. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Rabelais for teens?

Way back when I mentioned that the only thing I really knew about Rabelais is that he was one of the authors that Marion (the librarian) had urged on the teens of River City, Iowa in 'the Music Man'.  I wondered how good a fit that would be and whether the town mothers should have been upset.  Now that I've read some of his work, I can finally give that an answer.
I'd be very surprised if anyone urged a teen to read Rabelais in this day and age.  There are some certainly, for whom it would be good but far more for whom it would probably be a mistake.  I can't imagine a school teacher assinging a reading of 'Pantagruel' without risking being fired. 
But that may not be the full story.  It's not all that hard to imagine an edited translation of Rabelais that would keep all of the joy and humanism while skipping the obscene and nasty stuff.  If Marion was urging a bowlderdized version to those teens, that would almost certainly be fine.
My kids?  My oldest right now is four so it's hard to really understand what her teen reading habits will be.  I do know this, when I was a teen I read things that would have raised my parents eyebrows.  I'm guessing that's not all that unusual.  If one of my kids, at fifteen or so, wants to give Rabelais a spin, I'd smile and hand it to them.  I'd tell them that some of it is unbelievable and that they could talk to me after if they wanted.  And then I'd smile some more.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Independence Day

Two hundred and 36 years ago today (just about), the Declaration of Independence was signed.  In many ways, that document and the thinking behind it, represented the culmination of centuries of Western thought.  The signers were all men of classical education, seeking to reestablish a form of government that had been practiced back in the ancient days of Greece and Rome.  One in which the people had a great say in the policies of government.  But also, drawing on their experiences mostly in Great Britain, where they would have certain rights that were beyond the reach of any king or ruler. 
The Declaration of Independence and it's follow up works, the Constitution and some of the Federalist Papers, come up on the list in November.  I'm wishing that they had fallen in July but it didn't quite work that way.  September brings about Locke and Rousseau, October has sections of Gibbon's 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire', all of which deal with questions of government.  I'm sure that order will make the most sense. 
Still, take a minute today and appreciate the mental effort that the Founders took to create the best state that they could.  They pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor and for some, they paid the ultimate price.  We owe them much.

Tuesday, July 3, 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

Sunday, July 1, 2012

July Reading

And now we move to some more straight forward philosophy.

Montaigne: 'Essays' (Of Custom; Of Pedantry; Of the Education of Children; That it is Folly to Measure Truth and Error by Our Own Capacity; Of Cannibals; That the Relish of Good and Evil Depends in a Great Measure upon the Opinion We Have of Them; Upon some Verses of Virgil) Kindle/Nook/Google

The only thing that I really know about Montaigne is that I was once told that baseball fans would tend to appreciate him.  Well, I'm a pretty big baseball fan.  I'll see how that plays out.