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.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Biography of Locke

John Locke was born in 1632, the son of a Puritan lawyer.  He grew up in a rural town near Bristol, England.  At the age of 15 he started school in London.  Reportedly he was more interested in the works of modern writers like Descartes than the more classical writers.  In time he studied medicine and 'natural philosophy' (what we think of as science, especially biology).  He became a member of the Royal Society, a group of the foremost scientific English thinkers of the day.
In 1666 he met Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper (Earl of Shrewsbury) and soon became his personal physician.  Locke helped treat his liver condition and probably saved his life.  During this time period Locke also served on various boards of trade, where no doubt he was given front row lessons in economics.  He also became exposed to more and more of the politics of the day and at the prompting of Shrewsbury, began writing his thoughts.  Locke fled to the Netherlands in 1683, in fear that we tied into a plot to assassinate King Charles II.  He stayed there for five years, returning when William of Orange took over the English throne.
Quoting from Wikipedia:

Events that happened during Locke's lifetime include the English Restoration, the Great Plague of London and the Great Fire of London. He did not quite see the Act of Union of 1707, though the thrones of England and Scotland were held in personal union throughout his lifetime. Constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy were in their infancy during Locke's time.
17th century England was a time of great changes.  There were serious questions about the legitimacy of monarchy and the rights of normal men.  Locke tackled those questions and became an enormous influence on the next generation.  If you're interested in that time period, I highly recommend Neal Stephenson's 'Baroque Cycle', especially the first book 'Quicksilver'.  A great deal of this novel takes place within the Royal Society.

Monday, September 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, September 2, 2012

On Hamelet (Part 2)

These are more quotes from the book, 'The Friendly Shakespeare'.  Part one is here

  • Hamlet is loathsome and repugnant. The fact that he is eloquent has nothing to do with him being obnoxious. He's an aging playboy. The only time he gets animated is when he bosses around the players, telling them how to do their own business. Imagine telling actors to insert some extra lines! - Charles Marowitz
  • An Anglo-Saxon bore that talked too much. - Henry Miller
  • A rich kid from Denmark. - Diane Sawyer
  • A half dozen characters rolled into one. - George Bernard Shaw
  • What Hamlet is before he is anything . . . is an authentic tragic hero who is himself a man of genius. And once Shakespeare had written him he never wrote [about] a man of any genius at all again . . . Once he'd written [Hamlet] and discovered that there was no actor who could play him . . . he turned to something else. - Orson Welles
I've never played Hamlet and now I'm too old to do so.  That's one of the strange things about the character, it's a young role but it's doubtful that anyone young enough to play it has enough life experience to really pull it off.  This issue is usually ducked by finding young looking guys in their thirties and forties. 
The last quote from Orson Welles makes me think.  There must have been a first actor to tackle the role.  He would have made choices on how to portray the tortured soul.  (Or, more probably, since William Shakespeare was present, he would have been directed in a certain way.)  That means that the first audiences to see 'Hamlet' would have been given a more direct answer to all of the lingering questions.  I wonder what they thought of it. 
Ok, one more quote and then I'll close the book on 'Hamlet'  This is on the 'to be or not to be' monolouge.
  • By now that speech has been translated into every major language on earth and some minor ones, and it's remarkable how the first line always seems to come out the same. "Sein, oder nicht sein?" runs the German version, "das ist die Frage." Which perhaps lacks the fresh charm of the English subtitle in a recent Hindi film version: "Shall I live, or do myself in? I do not know." - Clive James

Saturday, September 1, 2012

September Reading

Locke: 'Concerning Civil Gov't', second essay Kindle/Nook/Google
Rousseau: The Social Contract books 1 and 2 Kindle/Nook/Google

I'm most of the way through Locke and finding it very interesting.  We could have spent a couple of good weeks on him in high school.  It would have been time well spent.