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.