Tuesday, December 31, 2013

What I Wish I'd Read Earlier - Year Two

This is almost a continuation of yesterday's post.  I'm going to write about what pieces of the list I wish I had read earlier in life.  Note: this isn't necessarily my favorite ones or the ones I would most recommend.  In fact, some of the best stuff, I actually had read earlier so it won't be on this list.  It might be best to think of this as a shorter list I wish I'd given my teenage self.

  • Herodotus - I've read some of 'The History' but not all of it and not as completely as I did this time.  Some great stuff in there.
  • Aristotle - The one I mean here is 'Poetics'.  This is essential reading for writers and dramatists and I didn't know about it at all.
  • Marcus Aurelius - I wish I'd done some work on his 'Meditations' when I was younger.  I wonder what my teenage self would have thought of some bracing Stoic philosophy?
  • Milton - The 'Areopagitica' should be required reading for high schoolers.  
  • Pascal - There are a number of Pensees that would have done me some good at an earlier age.  
  • Swift - And I feel almost foolish for not reading 'Gulliver's Travels' before now.  This will be on the list of books that I try to get my kids to read when they're teenagers.
  • Mill - I feel about Mill's 'On Liberty' the same way I do about 'Arepagitica'.  We need to arm the young against those who would try and wall off speech and thought.
I went back and forth about including the early Greek plays here.  Yes, they should be read, and probably early, but they weren't quite as WOW as the other things on this list.  

Monday, December 30, 2013

What I Wish I'd Read Earlier - Year One

Frankly, I wish I'd had this idea last year, but so be it.  I'm going to write about what pieces of the list I wish I had read earlier in life.  Note: this isn't necessarily my favorite ones or the ones I would most recommend.  In fact, some of the best stuff, I actually had read earlier so it won't be on this list.  It might be best to think of this as a shorter list I wish I'd given my teenage self.

  • Aristophanes - 'Clouds' is simply wonderful!
  • Plutarch - 'The Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans' is a book that I wish I'd dipped in and out of much earlier in life.  It's history and biography set in contrast with two time periods and is all very interesting.
  • Montaigne - The list suggested seven different essays but there are many more worth reading.  
  • Locke & Rousseau - I wish I'd tackled much more of the 17th and 18th century thought that brought back democracy.
  • The Federalist - Someday I'd like to work my way through the entire Federalist and the body of opposing arguments.
  • Marx/Engles - The 'Manifesto of the Communist Party' is easy enough reading.  I wish I'd taken a few days earlier in life and simply made my way through it.
The rest was certainly worthwhile, and I have a grave feeling that I'm short-changing Plato and Aristotle.  

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Thomas Hardy - Poetry

For the full list of posts and an explanation of the poetry series, please click on the 'Poetry' link at the bottom of this post.

This time I recognize the name of the poet, but I only know him as a novelist.  The following poem, 'Convergence of the Twain' is about the Titanic.

In a solitude of the sea
Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her; stilly couches she.

Steel chambers, late the pyres
Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to thythmic tidal lyres.

Over the mirrors meant
To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls - grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.

Jewels in joy designed
To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.

Dim moon-eyed fishes near
Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: "What does this vaingloriousness down here?"

Well: while was fashioning
This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything

Prepared a sinister mate
For her - so gaily great -
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.

And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.

Alien they seemed to be:
Nor mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,

Or sign that they were bent
By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,

Till the Spinner of the Years
Said "Now!" And each one hears
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

This really is an interesting poem.  The ship, Titanic, and the iceberg that mortally wounded her did indeed have a date with destiny.  No one knew it, but even as the ship was being built, the iceberg broke off of the glacier and started its long journey down to the shipping lanes.  And then, as the poem says, "Now!" and they met.
I know there is a long history of connecting the sinking of the Titanic to hubris but I'm not that comfortable with that connection.  After all, we now build much bigger ships and take on much bigger projects.  Most of them succeed and some do so spectacularly.  If there is a moral here that we shouldn't let our reach exceed our grasp, well, I don't buy it.
I will admit that there is some striking poetry in the contrast of the luxurious ship at the bottom of the ocean with sea worms 'grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent'.  But that contrast is one that is almost always true of death and riches.
Overall a pretty good poem.  It's interesting and striking.  I don't agree with what I think is (at least part of) the message but that's ok.  Art isn't good or bad depending on whether we agree with it or not.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Reflections on Year Two

I don't know that the second year had as simple a 'theme' as the first year, but that's ok.  What it did have was some pretty large blocks of related writings.

  • The first block was of Greek literature.  This started out with the 'Iliad' and moved on to five different Greek plays.  I'm putting Herodotus here too.  His 'The History' is sometimes fact and sometimes fiction but is clearly literature.  Aristotle's 'Poetics' belongs here too, even though it came up later in the list.  Among these pieces are the foundations of western story-telling, history and theater.  
  • The next block had to do with philosophies of life.  In here is Lucretius, Marcus Aurelius and Pascal.  Each of them give a fairly full 'code' to live by.  Marcus Aurelius and Pascal are even closely related in how their writings are grouped.  
  • Next I would put the Enlightenment writings on the relationship between citizen and state.  Here we get Hobbes' 'Leviathan', Milton's 'Aeropagitca', Rousseau's 'Discourse on Inequality' and Milton's 'On Liberty'.  You could put together a pretty good study course on this era of writing alone.  I'd throw Swift in here too, since 'Gulliver's Travels' is about comparing different forms of government and peoples.   
This doesn't cover all of the things that were read, nor do I mean that the other things weren't worthwhile but these were the things that seemed to more naturally group together.  

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Lewis Carrroll - Poetry

Hey, I know this one!  The next poem is 'The Jabberwocky' by Lewis Carroll.  Earlier this year, in an attempt to interest my two oldest kids (6 and 3) in poetry, I had them listen to this poem.  They didn't take right to it, but months later, they still remember it.

'Twwas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the boroboves
And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beare the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Lon time the manxome foe he sought-
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

"And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!
He chortled in his joy.

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
And mimsly were the borogobes,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

What a fun poem!  Carroll very freely made up his own words (my spellchecker has no fewer than 42 words that it doesn't like here) but it all makes sense.  The scene of the 'tulgey' wood is very clear in my head.  The only other author I can think of who could simply create such large numbers of words and still be perfectly understood is Shakespeare.
Are there phrases that have stuck in the culture?  Sure, plenty of them.  The first two words, 'Twas brillig' is completely recognizable.  For months now, I've been calling one of my sons 'my beamish boy' when he does well.  And I think D&D straight up ran with the idea of the vorpal blade.  And somewhat related, but I think that Frumious Bandersnatch would be a wonderful name for a cat.
I love this poem and it fully deserves its recognition and honor.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Readings for January

Two pieces:

Aeschylus: Prometheus Bound link
Herodotus: The History (book VII-IX) link

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Fair Play to Fly Your Freak Flag - Mill

Mill doesn't just argue for free speech, he also argues for fairly broad freedom of actions.  He writes about how each person becomes more valuable to themselves and others when they can lead life in the way they best think they can.
To give any fair-play to the nature of each, it is essential that different persons should be allowed to lead different lives. In proportion as this latitude has been exercised any age, has that age been noteworthy to posterity.  Even despotism does not produce its worst effects, so long as Individuality exists under it; and whatever crushes individuality is despotism, by whatever name it may be called, and whether it professes to be enforcing the will of God or the injunctions of men.  
As I have been reading Mill, I've been thinking about current society in the Western world and wondering what Mill would have thought of it.  On this point I think he would have been well pleased.  Our society very loudly supports alternate lifestyles.  There are some exceptions to this, including some strange ones where traditional lifestyle choices come under attack.  (The one that jumps to mind is the one where parents are threatened with legal consequences for spanking their children.)  But in the main, we have a 'live and let live' society.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Shut Up, they Explained

Mill writes a great deal about free speech and the importance of allowing the widest possible leeway in what can be said.
If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.
This made me think of various ways that our modern society has of shaming people into not talking.  One way that seems to be common in social or political arguments is to simply disqualify people if they aren't from the proper background.  I'm speaking of the argument that your sex, color or social status somehow decides whether or not what you're saying is valid.
If we take a step back, then of course those things make no difference.  The above statement from Mill would be just as true, or just as false, coming from a man or a woman.  It would not change depending on the race of the speaker or whether or not their parents were rich or poor.  It would only hinge on the inherent value of the proposition.
Which isn't to say that we can't take the background of the speaker into account.  Statements on poverty, for example, should be given more weight from people that have experienced it.  Same goes for statements on discrimination and culture and so on.  But at no point should we simply shut someone up because they don't check the right boxes on the scorecard.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Emily Dickinson - Poetry

Emily Dickinson is another poet that I know by name but I don't really know her work.  This piece is titled 'Because I Could Not Stop for Death'.

Because I could not stop for Death-
He kindly stopped for me-
The Carriage held but just Ourselves-
And Immortality.

We slowly drove- He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility-

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess- In the Ring-
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain-
We passed the Setting Sun-

Or rather- He passed Us-
The Dews drew quivering and chill-
For only Gossamer; my Gown-
My Tippet- only Tulle-

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground-
The Roof was scarcely visible-
The Cornice- in the Ground-

Since then- 'tis Centuries- and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity.

The first two lines are very striking.  I like the thought of just being too busy for death (excuse me Death) but it not mattering because Death will take the appointment anyway.  The idea that Immortality would travel with Death is interesting.  Then, slowly, they all go on a ride that last for centuries.  I'll be honest and tell you that I don't really understand the third, fourth and fifth stanzas.
The language doesn't really do much for me.  There is the clever turn of phrase at the very beginning but that's about it.  I'm not sure why every noun is capitalized though that may simply be a style thing.  Not my favorite.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Readings for Year Three

Another year, another set of great things to read!  You may remember that when I started this, I linked to e-versions of the works but link rot attacked that list pretty quickly.  Now I'm linking to online versions.  The e-reader versions are easily available and fairly cheap so you can still go that route.

Aeschylus: Prometheus Bound link
Herodotus: The History (book VII-IX) link

Thucydides: The History of the Peloponnesian War (book I-II, V) link

Plato: Statesmen link
Aristotle: On Interpretation (Chapters 1-10) link
Aristotle: Politics (book III-V) link
Euclid: Elements (book I) link

Tacitus: The Annals link

St Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologica (part I-II QQ 90-97) link

Chaucer: Troilus and Cressida link

Shakespeare: Macbeth link

Milton: Paradise Lost link

Locke: An Essay on Human Understanding (Book III, Ch 1-3, 9-11) link
Kant: Science of Right link

Mill: Representative Government (Ch 1-6) link
Lavoisier: Elements of Chemistry (Part I) link

Dostoevsky: The Brothers Karamazov (Part I-II) link

Freud: The Origin and Development of Psycho-Analysis link

There are a couple of things that I want to mention with this list.  The first is that the size of each month varies pretty widely for year three.  I did the best I could in portioning.  If you're planning on reading along this year, you may want to work ahead at times.  The meatiest part of the year is going to be September and October.  All four pieces will require some effort.
The other thing is that there are some wonderful bits of history and literature here.  We're getting more Herodotus and some Thucydides.  Tacitius is basically history.  We've got Shakespeare, Chaucer and Dostoevsky coming up.  Some absolutely wonderful reads.
Hope you come along!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

On Liberty - Mill

Quick review: JS Mill warmed the very depths of my libertarian heart.  I high-lighted and high-lighted and only stopped because I was afraid that I would have trouble finding the best stuff again while writing.  I would happily assign the first section of 'On Liberty' to high schoolers everywhere.  

Mill sets out to write on 'the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual'.  He suggests that the struggle for liberty has been an ongoing one, noting the Greeks and Romans.  He defines liberty this way:
The aim, therefore of patriots, was to set limits to the power which the ruler should be suffered to exercise over the community; and this limitation was what they meant by liberty.
They did this by recognizing 'certain immunities, called political liberties or rights' and forbidding rulers to infringe on them.  If a ruler did so, 'specific resistance, or general rebellion, was held to be justifiable'.  They also established constitutional checks, requiring such things as votes from representatives as a condition for certain actions.
Having laid down some history, Mill moves on:
The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is sole protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, it to prevent harm to others.
For, Mill says, "Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign".  I don't know if, or to what extent, Mill was controversial in his own day.  Today his sentiments are, or should be, familiar to just about everyone.  The belief that power should be so contained is at least known, though sadly not always followed.  

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Matthew Arnold - Poetry

I don't know that I've heard of Matthew Arnold before nor this poem, 'Dover Beach'.  The book describes him as a 'major English poet and social critic' and coincidentally, he was a contemporary of John Stuart Mill. 

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; - on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay,
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon blanch'd land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie befure us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

So we start with a sound.  The sound of the ocean roaring and tumbling and for the author, that brings to mind Sophocles.  For Sophocles it meant the 'turbid ebb and flow/of human misery'.  For Arnold, it also brings to mind the 'Sea of Faith' which he says once surrounded the earth but is now 'retreating'.  He cautions that this new world, without the Sea of Faith, looks beautiful but 'hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light'.
My guess is that I'd need to dig deeply into Arnold's beliefs before I really understood what he is trying to say.  I don't know if he means that the industrial world is ruining the beauty of the more agrarian one.  Or if the rise of reason is ruining the connection with religion.  Or maybe utilitarian thought is debasing better romantic thought and the inherent worth of each person.  I just honestly don't know. 
The end is striking.  I think the key phrase is 'as on a darkling plain'.  I'm sure I've heard that before.  The idea of ignorant armies, struggling and clashing in the night is a great metaphor too.  I've felt that exact way when hearing political arguments that seem to miss the point. 
Do I like this poem?  I'm not sure.  The language doesn't sing for me and there is nothing especially clever in it's form.  The sentiment is ambiguous at best, thought I doubt that was true when it was written.  Not my favorite, I guess, but that's with a huge caveat as to what it might be.  So, please pardon me, I'll just be here on my own darkling plain, confused and ignorant.

Biography of Mill

John Stuart Mill was born in 1806 in London.  His father, James Mill, was a prominent philosopher, historian and economist.  JS was raised explicitly to be a philosopher, so that he could carry on the work of his father after he died.  This meant that he was separated from other children.  Also, per Wikipedia:
At the age of three he was taught Greek. By the age of eight he had read Aesop's Fables, Xenophon's Anabasis, and the whole of Herodotus, and was acquainted with Lucian, Diogenes Laƫrtius, Isocrates and six dialogues of Plato. He had also read a great deal of history in English and had been taught arithmetic, physics and astronomy.

At the age of eight he began studying Latin, the works of Euclid, and algebra, and was appointed schoolmaster to the younger children of the family. His main reading was still history, but he went through all the commonly taught Latin and Greek authors and by the age of ten could read Plato and Demosthenes with ease. His father also thought that it was important for Mill to study and compose poetry. One of Mill's earliest poetry compositions was a continuation of the Iliad. In his spare time, he also enjoyed reading about natural sciences and popular novels, such as Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe.
He continued his studies and at fourteen he spent a year in France.  He met other intellectuals and became pen pals with Auguste Comte, the creator of sociology.  When he was twenty he suffered a nervous breakdown, which he blamed on his rigorous studies.  He recovered in time, in part through the poetry of Wordsworth.
Mill refused to go to either Oxford or Cambridge because he wouldn't subscirbe to the 39 Articles of the Church of England.  Instead he attended lectures at University College in London. 
When Mill was 45, he married a long term friend of his, Harriet Taylor.  In part from association with her, he became an advocate of women's rights.  He credited her with help as he was writing 'On Liberty'.  He published it shortly after her death, seven years after they married. 
Later in life, Mill served in Parliament and was the first person there to call for the right of women to vote.  He was in favor of unions and farm co-ops.  He was the godfather to Bertrand Russell(!). 
Mill died in 1873 while living in Avignon.  His last words were "You know that I have done my work." 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Author Timeline

And now we have our only 19th century only author for this year. 

Homer 7th or 8th Cent(?)
Aeschylus 525-456
Sophocles 497-405
Herodotus 484-425
Plato 428-347
Aristotle 384-322
Lucretius 99-55(?)
Nicomachus 60-120(?)
Marcus Aurelius 121-180
Hobbes 1588-1679
Milton 1608-1674
Pascal 1623-1662
Swift 1667-1745
Rousseau 1712-1778
Kant 1724-1804
Mill 1806-1873

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Reading for December

Just one.  I wish that I'd read this twenty some years ago. 

Mill: On Liberty link

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Duty - Kant

I'll just say up front that I didn't particularly care for 'Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals'.  Kant writes in a very technical manner, and that's ok.  You have to pay attention and it helped me to take notes so that I could refer back to his definitions.  You have to take it slow and be brave.
What turned me off was the enormous wrong turn that Kant takes almost right out of the gate.
For in order that an action should be morally good, it is not enough that it conform to the moral law, but it must also be done for the sake of the law, otherwise that conformity is only very contingent and uncertain; since a principle which is not moral, although it may now and then produce actions conformable to the law, will also often produce actions which contradict it.
Got that?  We can't trust moral principles unless they're codified in the law.  Something in the act of writing down and creating the law makes it certain.  He doubles down on this later.
Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good, without qualification, except a good will.
Ok.  I can quibble with this, but I'm certainly not opposed to a good will.
A good will is good not because of what it performs or effects, not by its aptness for the attainment of some proposed end, but simply by virtue of the volition; that is, it is good in itself, and considered by itself to be esteemed much higher than all that can be brought about by it in favor of any inclination, nay even of the sum total of all inclinations.
So if you set out to do good, you're doing good, regardless of performance or effects?  This is the opposite of the saying that 'the road to hell is paved with good intentions', right?  I don't think I'm reading that wrong.  A bit later on he discusses those 'who without any other motive of vanity or self-interest, they find a pleasure in spreading joy around them and can take delight in the satisfaction of others so far as it is their own work'.  We may praise and encourage these people but not esteem them.
For the maxim lacks moral import, namely, that such actions be done from duty, not from inclination.
If they had to help others by law, it would be moral.  But doing so for the pleasure that it brings, while praiseworthy, is not moral.
That seems utterly wrong to me.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Stoic for a Week

I came across this in my twitter feed:

Which is a pretty great response.  The article itself is interesting.
The British are famous for their stoicism, but this week a team of philosophers and psychotherapists are testing whether living by the true principles of the ancient Greek philosophy can really help us improve our lives.
Today marks the first day of Stoic Week, where participants are asked to live by the principles of the two millennia old philosophy so academics can explore the potential benefits. 
They're focusing largely on the idea of control, with daily stops to monitor whether or not they are stressed by things out of their control.  They're also keeping a diary of 'passions' to see if they can control them as well.  I'm curious about the results but not so curious that I'll try and do it myself.  But I'm glad to see people get in touch with a hardcore 'substance' philosophy such as stoicism.

(Btw, if you want to follow me on Twitter, my handle is '@pdefor'.  I don't tweet very often and when I do it's usually sports or politics.  Or I'm retweeting something clever.  Maybe I should tweet link to this blog some though...  Hmmm.)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Baudelaire - Poetry

(This series is a read through of a book of poetry that has attempted to gather the 100 best poems of all time.  For the full series, click the 'poetry' link at the bottom.)

Next up is a poem by Charles Baudelaire titled 'Invitation to the Voyage'.  I don't know the poet and I don't think I've heard of this poem previously.

How sweet, my own,
Could we live alone
Over beyond the sea!
To love and to die
In the land that's akin to thee!
Where the suns which rise
In the watery skies
Weave soft spells over my sight,
As thy false eyes do
When they flicker through
Their tears with a dim, strange light.

There all is beauty and symmetry,
Pleasure and calm and luxury.

Years that have gone
Have polished and shone
The things that would fill our room;
The flowers are most rare
Which scent the air
In the richly ceiling'd gloom,
And the mirrors profound,
And the walls around
With Orient splendor hung,
To the soul would speak
Of things she doth seek
In her gentle native tongue.

There all is beauty and symmetry,
Pleasure and calm and luxury.

The canals are deep
Where the strange ships sleep
Far from the lands of their birth;
To quench the fire
Of they least desire
They have come from the ends of the earth.
The sunsets drown
Peaceful town
And meadow, and stagnant stream
In bistre and gold
And the world enfold
In a warm and luminous dream.

There all is beauty and symmetry,
Pleasure and calm and luxury.

The words are gorgeous though I don't know that I understand the poem.  On its face, it is simply, as the title says, an invitation to a voyage.  The destination is exotic and beautiful.  Or rather beautiful and symmetric, with pleasures both calm and luxurious.  The word symmetric gives me pause, though the rest sounds very nice.  But that may just be my own hang ups about finding beauty and luxury in more natural places.
Is the poem about a specific place?  Or just some general exotic location?  I'd like to know more about the deep canals and the ships that bring goods to satisfy every desire.  And I'd like to see the golden sunsets that enfold such a beautiful place.
I like it.

Readings for December

Just one and it's a goodie.

Mill: On Liberty link

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Discourse on Inequality - Rousseau

Rousseau wrote 'A Discourse Upon the Origin of Inequality' in response to the Academy of Dijon who had asked for essays on the question of 'what is the origin of inequality and is it authorized by natural law?'.  Rousseau quite sensibly split the question into of inequality into two different forms, that of physical inequality and that of moral or political inequality.
Rousseau starts with his idea of pre-society man.  He envisions a happy savage, roaming about the forests, satisfied with the world he finds himself in.  This man goes his own way, occasionally happening upon a savage woman and making new savages.  Our man lives at the range of the moment, without any future cares.  Rousseau goes so far as to say that 'the man who meditates is a depraved animal'.
Frankly, his thoughts on primitive man are so wrong that it's hard to take him seriously.  We have every reason to believe that man has been a 'social animal' for all of his history.  That men and women have always lived in clans and tribes, whenever possible.  The lone hermit is an extreme outlier in human history.
Which isn't to say that he doesn't have some interesting thoughts.  Here he speaks of 'pity':
It is therefore certain that pity is a natural sentiment, which, by moderating in every individual the activity of self-love, contributes to the mutual preservation of the whole species. It is this pity which hurries us without reflection to the assistance of those we see in distress; it is this pity which, in a state of nature, stands for laws, for manners, for viture, with this advantage, that no one is tempted to disobey her sweet and gentle voice: . . . 
The urge to help those in distress does run deep.  Rousseau sees it in conflict with self love and suggests that pity wins out.  This idea of helping others then, becomes the basis for custom and law.  Rousseau goes on to say that pity keeps a strong man from stealing from children or the old.  He will work to provide for himself first before depriving them of their hard fought gains.
Rousseau sets this in opposition with Hobbes idea that all men are at conflict with each other.  Of the two, I think that Hobbes gets the better of the argument but Rousseau does make me pause.  There are some pretty powerful customs protecting children and the elderly though.  It takes some very powerful motivation like starvation before someone will take from them. 
I wonder what Rousseau would think, if he had a few more centuries of accumulated knowledge behind him?

Monday, November 18, 2013

Julia Ward Howe - Poetry

Next up is Julia Ward Howe's 'Battle Hymn of the Republic'.  This poem/song was adopted by the Union in the US Civil war and is regarded as part of the canon of patriotic songs here.

1. Mine eyes have seen the glory
of the coming of the Lord;
he is trampling out the vintage
where the grapes of wrath are stored;
he hath loosed the fateful lightning
of his terrible swift sword;
his truth is marching on.

Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.

2. I have seen him in the watchfires
of a hundred circling camps,
they have builded him an altar
in the evening dews and damps;
I can read his righteous sentence
by the dim and flaring lamps;
his day is marching on.

3. He has sounded forth the trumpet
that shall never call retreat;
he is sifting out the hearts of men
before his judgment seat;
O be swift, my soul, to answer him;
be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.

4. In the beauty of the lilies
Christ was born across the sea,
with a glory in his bosom
that transfigures you and me;
as he died to make men holy,
let us die to make men free,
while God is marching on.

5. He is coming like the glory
of the morning on the wave,
he is wisdom to the mighty,
he is honor to the brave;
so the world shall be his footstool,
and the soul of wrong his slave.
Our God is marching on.

The first verse is very familiar.  I think we sang it in school at some point.  (Do they still do that?  Will have to ask.)  The first three stanzas are quite the mixture of God and war.  The Union army was saying that they had God on their side and his terrible righteousness was about to be set loose.  It's almost jarring to read this today.  Can you imagine any such song being used for our current wars?  Of course not!  We're completely shamed by the word 'crusade'.
After the first stanza, it's all new to me.  The change from the third to the fourth stanza is almost like stepping off of a top step that isn't there.  We go from the very martial God, who is issuing military commands to 'the beauty of the lilies' without much warning.  I very much like the 'as he died to make men holy/let us die to make men free', as it recognizes that slavery was very much at the heart of the war.
I'll be honest, this poem doesn't do much for me.  It may be because I'm far from the horrors of war and maybe I'm too soft, but it's too brash for my taste.  Give me the clever turn of phrase and the beautiful wording please.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

History of English Language

I don't remember if I've ever shared this here, but even if you've seen it before, take ten minutes (or twelve) and enjoy.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Gulliver and the Houyhnhnms

(Ok, this is very late.  Sorry about that.  The past two months have been so hectic that I've had trouble keeping on schedule.)

The fourth and final part of 'Gulliver's Travels' recounts his visit to the land of the Houyhnhnms, which from now on I will refer to as 'H.'.  This time he isn't shipwrecked but cast off the ship by some pirates.  He washes up on an unknown land and encounters some savage primate beasts.  He is rescued by some horses and we soon learn what the deal is with this voyage.
The land of the H. is one where the relationship between man and horse has been reversed.  The horses are sentient and in command.  The men are savage in the truest sense, in a way that we would regard as sub-human.  They are called Yahoos.
Gulliver is adopted by one of the H. and after some time he learns their language.  Swift tells us that the H. are noble and just.  In fact, they're so noble and just that Gulliver soon becomes ashamed that he is merely a man from a human civilization.  He's also horrified by the comparison to himself and the Yahoos. 
In time, Gulliver sadly tells the H. just how badly the horses back in Europe are treated.  When he tells them of the process of gelding them, it's enough to make you wince and fear for Gulliver's safety.  He is soon spirited out of the country though by his master/owner.  He returns to England and finds the presence of other people bothersome.  Instead, he prefers the company of his own horses.

This section is weaker than the first three.  The H. are put on a high pedestal that frankly sounds undeserved.  In fact, this section makes reflection on the previous voyages a little sad, especially that of Brobdingnag.  They too were nearly too good to be true.  Did they deserve that, or was that also a simple authorial trick?
Swift's contemporaries thought that the last section of Gulliver was proof that he was slipping mentally.  I don't care for that kind of explanation, because it allows the reader to simply dismiss arguments instead of meeting them head on.  But I think it's obvious that the fourth voyage isn't up to the standard of the first three. 
There are some interesting arguments to be made regarding the treatment of animals.  I don't know how much Swift had to do with popularizing such arguments but it wouldn't surprise me to find out that it was quite a bit.  We treat horses much differently than we do men, because, well, there are big differences.  We recognize men as sentient in a way that horses clearly aren't.  If we reverse those roles, then of course the men (Yahoos) would be treated differently.  And quite rightly.  

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Biography of Kant

Immanuel Kant was born in 1724 in Konigsberg, Prussia (now Kalningrad Russia).  He never traveled far from Konigsberg in his whole life.  In contrast to many of the Great Books authors, he had a very humble beginning.  His father was a harness-maker. 
By the age of 16, he had already shown quite a bit of skill as a student.  He went to the University of Konigsberg, where he spent most of his life.  There he was introduced to the works of Leibniz and Newton and the philosophies of the day. 
In 1754, Kant won the Berlin Academy Prize for figuring out that friction causes a slow down in the Earth's rotational speed.  This was mostly overlooked until the next century when Kelvin and others brought it to prominence.  Kant also fathered the belief that the solar system was born from a cloud of dust and gas. 
Kant is best known though, for his contributions to philosophy.  Kantianism has had a major effect on modern philosophical works.  (I'm not sure that I understand it, so I won't attempt to summarize.  You can read about it here.) 
His philosophical work was done late in his life.  He spent what is called 'the silent decade'.  In this time he didn't respond to questions about his earlier work.  Then he published 'The Critique of Pure Reason', of which we will read portions of in years Four, Five and Six. 
He died in 1802.  His last words were "It is good". 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Walt Whitman - Poetry

Walt Whitman is one of the biggest names in American poetry and I know next to nothing of his work.  This snippet is from 'Song of Myself', though I don't know if it's the first part or something in the middle.  I've heard of 'Leaves of Grass'.  Maybe this is from there.

A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bear the owner's name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglypic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves,
Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
it may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out of their mothers' laps,
And here you are the mothers' laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues,
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait
And ceas'd the moment life appeared.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

I'm not quite sure what to make of this.   The opening of the poem asks about the various ways to describe grass and lists some of them.  Then it says that it 'seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves' and the poem hits its stride. 
The grass then, is a connection to those buried under it.  We can't help thinking of them.  The young and old, women and children.  Whitman asks what has become of them.  They continue in some way, in the grass that is growing above them.  'The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,/And if ever there was it led forward life'.  It's all part of a cycle.
I recognize the very last line, 'And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier', because it is used in the movie 'Dead Again'.  We really don't know what lies beyond our lives.  We have beliefs, some of them quite strong but we don't know.  I don't know that the grass is much of an answer.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Author Timeline

Break on through, to the 18th century.

Homer 7th or 8th Cent(?)
Aeschylus 525-456
Sophocles 497-405
Herodotus 484-425
Plato 428-347
Aristotle 384-322
Lucretius 99-55(?)
Nicomachus 60-120(?)
Marcus Aurelius 121-180
Hobbes 1588-1679
Milton 1608-1674
Pascal 1623-1662
Swift 1667-1745
Rousseau 1712-1778
Kant 1724-1804
Mill 1806-1873

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Bronte - Poetry

The next poem in the book is from Emily Bronte.  I know her from 'Wuthering Heights', a book that I've picked up a few times and never gotten more than a couple of pages in.  This poem is called 'Often Rebuked, Yet Always back Returning'.

Often rebuked, yet always back returning
To those first feelings that were born with me,
And leaving busy chase of wealth and learning
For idle dreams of things which cannot be:

Today I will seek not the shadowy region;
Its unsustaining vastness waxes drear,
And visions rising, legion after legion,
Bring the unreal world too strangely near.

I'll walk but not in old heroic traces,
And not in paths of high morality,
And not among the half distinguished faces,
The clouded forms of long-past history.

I'll walk where my own nature would be leading-
It vexes me to choose another guide-
Where the gray flocks in ferny glens are feeding,
Where the wild wind blows on the mountainside.

What have those lonely mountains worth revealing?
More glory and more grief than I can tell:
The earth that wakes one human heart to feeling
Can center both the words of Heaven and Hell.

I'm not sure how well I understand this.  Let me see if I can write my way through it.  The title and first line says that though she is rebuked, she'll keep returning to the 'feelings that were born with me'.  Is she then saying that she is turning away from the 'busy chase of wealth and learning'?  I think so.  Instead she chooses 'idle dreams of things which cannot be'.
But the second stanza says that she 'will not seek the shadowy region' because it will 'Bring the unreal world too strangely near'.  The shadowy region doesn't seem to be that of wealth and learning.  Or if it is, I'm not catching the allusion.
I get the part about walking where her nature leads her.  That's especially important remembering that this was written in the early 19th century.  (And I'm just noticing sadly that our poor poet only lived thirty years.  Sad, and the world is poorer because of it.)  She chooses the mountain side, that reveals glory and grief.  That glory and grief are both like heaven and hell.
I'm not sure I understand it, but I like it.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Readings for November

Two things for November:

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

Those are some pretty meaty titles, don't you think?  A couple of months back I joked that the Kant piece looks like it was titled in such a way as to scare people away from it.  Remember though, the people that set up this list thought that the average person could understand all of it.   So take your time, make some diagrams (I have) and read it.  Think how good you'll feel after you're done.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Gulliver in Laputa

Gulliver's third voyage out has him shipwrecked again.  This time he washes up on an uninhabited island.  He is alone, but not for long.  Soon another island glides down from the sky.  He catches their attention and is brought aboard.  He learns that the flying island is named Laputa.
Gulliver soon finds that "the people of their island had their ears adapted to hear"the music of the spheres, which always played at certain periods...".  They live a mental life, with their heads both literally and figuratively in the clouds.  In fact, they get so lost in thought that they employ a system of servants to flap their mouths and ears when it is time to speak or listen. 
Laputa is the capitol of a group of islands.  Swift has an interesting explanation for how the island floats, an embedded giant magnet like rock.  Whoever rules the island, rules their neighbors, since the airborne position is an enormous threat.  Interestingly, the women of Laputa are desperate to get down to the ground.
Gulliver gets down to solid ground as he is allowed to visit the island Balinbarbi.  This is a land that has prosperity and strange mixes of desolation.  He soon finds out that forty years prior, a group of men went up to Laputa.  After five months they returned with ideas on improving everything.  Unfortunately:
The only inconvenience is, that none of these projects are yet brought to perfection; and in the mean time, the whole country lies miserably waste, the houses in ruins, and the people without food or clothes. By all which, instead of being discouraged, they are fifty times more violently bent upon prosecuting their schemes, driven equally on by hope and despair; . . . 
Some resisted:
that some few other persons of quality and gentry had done the same [stuck with the old ways], but were looked on with an eye of contempt and ill-will, as enemies to art, ignorant and ill common-wealth's men, preferring their own ease and sloth before the general improvement of their country."
What a perfect description of the people who think they can simply theorize better ways without practical experience.  Also a great description of the way they think of those who are skeptical.  Gulliver then travels to the academy where he finds out all of the wonderful research that is going.  I highly recommend this section (book three, chapters five and six) as it is simply hilarious. 
After some time, Gulliver goes to another island, Luggnagg.  The interesting thing there is the occasional birth of an immortal, named a Struldbrug.  Gulliver thinks this would be a wonder, but instead it's a curse.  The Stuldbrugs grow old and senile and frankly the whole deal sounds awful.
Eventually Gulliver gets to Japan where he can catch passage on a Dutch ship.  He has to do some fancy footwork to avoid 'stamping on a cross', a custom the Japanese have enforced on the Dutch to try and keep Christians out.  He succeeds and finally gets back home.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Browning - Poetry

The next poem in the book (the booking being 'The 100 Best Poems of All Time', edited by Leslie Pockell) is Robert Browning's 'Memorabilia'.  The little blurb before the poem says that it is in the form of 'ironic dramatic monologue'.  Here it is:

Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,
And did he stop and speak to you
And did you speak to him again?
How strange it seems and new!

But you were living before that,
And also you are living after;
And the memory I started at-
My starting moves your laughter.

I crossed a moor; with a name of its own
And a certain use in the world no doubt,
Yet a hand's-breadth of it shines alone
'Mid the blank miles round about:

For there I picked up on the heather
And there I put inside m;y breast
A molted feather, an eagle feather!
Well, I forget the rest.

Irony is a tough medium, especially in print.  If I'd read this cold, I would have baffled that anyone had remembered it.  But . . . if you put it in the mouth of some loud mouth, I can see it.  The strange, circular thoughts and the forgotten event at the end work well there.  In fact, I can see memorizing this, so that you can return fire when cornered by a boring relative at Thanksgiving.
Not my favorite, but good for what it does.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Gulliver in Brobdingnag

After having been home for a few months, our narrator Gulliver goes to sea again.  This time he washes up in a land of giants, the land of Brobdingnag.  The contrast from Lilliput is clear and we get to experience both sides of the giant situation.  Swift is terribly clever here as he thinks through what it must be like to actually live with creatures that are so much bigger than yourself.  For instance, he finds all of them ugly because he can see every skin blemish clearly. 
Gulliver becomes something of a sideshow exhibit.  He is taken around to all the other towns even though he finds the travel exhausting.  His fortune changes when he is sold to the king and queen.  They keep him in one spot and try to learn what he is.  At first the kings advisers doubt that he is sentient but he finally convinces them that he can think and act with will and judgment.
Not that opinions of him are all that positive.  After explaining the various political parties of England to him, the Prince says:
"how contemptible a thing was human grandeur, which could mimicked by such diminutive insects as I: and yet," says he, "I dare engage these creatures have their titles and distinctions of honor; they contrive little nests and burrows, that they call houses and cities; they make a figure in dress and equipage; they live, they fight, the dispute, they cheat, they betray!"
The idea of an elected parliament also gets questioned:
He laughed at my "odd kind of arithmetic," as he was pleased to call it, "in reckoning the numbers of our people, by a computation drawn from several sects among us, in religion and politics." He said, "he knew no reason why those, who entertain opinions prejudicial to the public, should be obliged to change or should not be obliged to conceal them. And as it was tyranny in any government to require the first, so it was weakness not to enforce the second: for a man may be allowed to keep poisons in his closet, but not to vend them about for cordials."  
I wonder how sympathetic Swift was to these views?  As Milton pointed out, there is a huge difference between speech and poison.  Swift himself dealt with tyranny and censorship so it's hard for me to think that these thoughts represented his own.
Eventually Gulliver is picked up by an eagle and carried out to sea.  There he is rescued by a ship and eventually returns home to England.  This won't be his last voyage!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Modern 'Poetry'

Interesting article here.  The idea is that modern memes are taking the place of poetry.  What kind of things?
Younger poets are find it stimulating: they are reclaiming this “found” poetry and uploading it to the self-publishing platform Lulu. They create print-on-demand books that, most likely, will never be printed, but will live as PDFs on Lulu—their de-facto publisher and distributor. These are big, ridiculous books, like Chris Alexander’s five-hundred-and-twenty-eight-page “McNugget,” which reprints every tweet ever posted that contains the word “McNugget”; Andy Sterling’s “Supergroup,” which appropriates over four hundred pages’ worth of Discogs listings of small-bit session players from long-forgotten nineteen-seventies LPs; and Angela Genusa’s “Tender Buttons,” which converts Gertrude Stein’s difficult modernist text of the same name into illegible computer code.
Doesn't that inspire you?
Quality is beside the point—this type of content is about vast quantity of language that surrounds us, and how difficult it is to render meaning from such excesses. In the past decade, writers have been culling the Internet for material, making books that are more focussed on collecting than on reading. These ways of writing—word processing, databasing, recycling, appropriating, intentionally plagiarizing, identity ciphering, and intensive programming, to name just a few—have traditionally been considered outside the scope of literary practice.
Seriously, this is some kind of combination of put on and public masturbation.  No wonder it's so easy to throw your hands in the air and dismiss art as unimportant.  

Monday, October 21, 2013

Readings for November

Two things for November:

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

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Edward Lear - Poetry

Next up on the list is 'The Owl and the Pussycat' by Edward Lear.  I've seen pictures depicting the owl and pussycat but I don't know that I've ever heard the poem. 

The Owl and the Pussycat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five pound note.
The Owl looked up the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
"O lovely Pussy! O pussy my love,
What a beautiful pussy you are,
You are,
You are!
What a beautiful pussy you are!

Pussy said to the Owl; "you elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long we have tarried;
But what shall we do for a ring?"
They said away, for a year and a day,
to the land where the Bong-tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy wig stood,
With a ring at the end of his nose,
His nose,
His nose,
A ring at the end of his nose.

"Dear pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?" Said the Piggy, "I will."
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on a hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

It's a cute poem but I can't say that it does much for me.  It's intended for children so I'm not really the target audience.  Maybe I should read it to my kids and see what they think.
I'm charmed, for some reason, by the idea of a cat and an owl hitting it off together.  Those are two of my favorite animals.  Each one is a sign of smarts, but in very different ways.  The owl is more of a stately wisdom while the cat is sly and tricksy.  I'm sure their kids would be something else.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Gulliver in Lilliput

The whole story of Gulliver's Travels is set up with a small framing device in which another man vouches for Gulliver's honesty.  Gulliver then defends himself and tells the reader that various errors have crept in pertaining to spelling and chronology.  This works well as a literary device to suggest to the reader that the work really isn't fiction and shouldn't be read as such. 

The first voyage is to Lilliput.  The ship is wrecked and our hero is washed up on a beach.  He wakes to find that hundreds of tiny men have tied him to the ground.  This is one of the most famous images in all of literature and I'm sure there is a thesis in explaining how such an odd event is somehow so universal. 
Gulliver tries to move and the Lilliputians attack him with arrows.  They're very small but they can still damage him so he gives in.  They develop friendly relations but they still keep him in custody.  They provide him with food and shelter, even though it creates difficulties for them.  He comes to friendly terms with the king and learns much about Lilliput.
Swift uses the 'stranger in a strange land' set up to create fictitious customs and laws in each land that he visits.  This is often set in contrast to the ways of England that he left behind.  In Lilliput:
  • They have a challenge system in their law.  If an accused person is found to be innocent then their accuser is put to death.  The wrongly accused is also given quadruple recompense for hardship and loss of time.
  • They treat fraud as a worse crime than theft 'for the allege, that care and vigilance, with a very common understanding, may preserve a man's goods from thieves, but honesty has no defence against superior cunning'.  
  • They have a reward system in which whenever someone can prove that they have strictly observed the laws for a period of 'seventy-three moons', they will enjoy special privileges and get a sum of money.  The Lilliputians were aghast that England only had laws that punished and none that rewarded.
  • People of great morals were given more respect than those with ability.
  • Only believers in 'Divine Providence' could hold public station because kings are given rights and privileges from Providence.  That belief must be in place or that authority cannot be respected.
There are other laws and customs regarding how children should be raised but they're too long to excerpt.

Gulliver gets into trouble when he tries to help out.  A fire starts in one wing of the palace and it soon grows out of control.  Gulliver, having drank quite a bit of wine, simply pees on the palace and puts the fire out.  Everything is saved, but in a very bad way.  This was seen as an allusion to some actions of the Tories when they were in power, having done good things in a bad way.  For myself, I was reminded most of Rabelais.
He then falls out of favor and flees, fearing for his life.  Gulliver goes to a neighboring kingdom and seeks asylum for a short period of time.  As luck would have it, he is able to find a boat from normal sized humans and he refits it and eventually finds his way back to England.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Novels in the Great Books

The reading for October is Swift's 'Gulliver's Travels'.  This got me thinking about the pure stories in the Great Books.  Outside of the science, history and pure philosophy, we have storytelling.  That breaks down neatly between theater (Aeschylus, Shakespeare), poetry (Homer, Milton) and what are probably best described as novels.  This is a list of the novels, including a breakdown on when we'll come across them in the reading list.

  • Gargantua and Pantagruel - Rabelais; (two parts) June of year one and June of year seven
  • Gulliver's Travels - Swift; October of year two
  • Brothers Karamazov - Dostoevsky; (two parts) November of year three and November of year four
  • Moby Dick - Melville; October of year four
  • Don Quixote - Cervantes; (two parts) July of year five and July of year 10
  • War and Peace - Tolstoy; (two parts) November of year five and December of year six
  • Tristam Shandy - Sterne; July of year eight
  • Tom Jones - Fielding; July of year nine

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Poetry - Holmes

The following poem is 'Old Ironsides' by Oliver Wendell Holmes.  He wrote it in 1830 when the US Navy planned to destroy their oldest frigate, the U.S.S. Constitution.  Holmes, then 21 years old, helped sway public opinion and saved the ship.  It can still be visited in Boston.

Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!
Long has it waved on high,
And many an eye has danced to see
That banner in the sky;
Beneath it rung the battle shout,
And burst the cannon's roar;
The meteor of the ocean air
Shall sweep the clouds no more.

Her deck, once red with heroes' blood,
Where knelt the vanquished foe,
When winds were hurrying o'er the flood,
And waves were white below,
No more shall feel the victor's tread,
Or know the conquered knee;
The harpies of the shore shall pluck
The eagle of the sea!

Oh, better that her shattered bulk
Should sink beneath the wave;
Her thunders shook the mighty deep,
And there should be her grave;
Nail to the mast her holy flag,
Set every threadbare sail,
And give her to the god of storms,
The lightning and the gale!

It's an effective poem, certainly.  The warship has a definite place in the world and Holmes articulates it well.  The ship brings joy to those who shear its goals and fear to those that oppose them.  Having served its intended purpose, it becomes a holy object and must be treated with reverence.  As he says, 'better that her shattered bulk/Should sink beneath the wave' than to be simply pried apart and junked.  (I'll admit that when I was young, I was shocked that old wars ships were scrapped and turned into things like razor blades.)
These points are moot, of course, to pacifists.  We don't live in an era that honors warships, or at least the people that judge poetry tend not to.  In other words, if Holmes had written this two centuries later, it would have faded into obscurity.
Is the poetry itself good?  Hmmmm.  I can't find a phrase that is often quoted.  I can't see any particularly clever turn of phrase.  It's not bad at all, but it doesn't really break through into genius either.  It was influential in its day and I'm glad that it worked to save the U.S.S. Constitution but it's not one that I'll probably return to in the future.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Biography of Swift

Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin in 1667.  His father died shortly before he was born and his mother chose to return to England, where she was from.  He was given over to his uncle to be cared for.  He attended school in Dublin and received a B.A. from Trinity College.  While working on his master's degree, he was forced back to England during the 'Glorious Revolution'.  His mother got him a position with Sir William Temple, a diplomat of some importance.
Swift bounced back and forth a bit from Temple's employ to Ireland.  In 1694 he became an ordained priest and was assigned to a parish in a small remote part of County Antrim, Ireland.  While there he apparently had some sort of romantic encounter with a woman named Jane Waring.  This didn't go well and in 1696 he returned to Temple.  While there he wrote his famous 'Battle of the Books'.
Temple died in 1699 and Swift was at odds for some time.  He pursued various positions, including a secretary spot with then King William.  Nothing worked and he ended up with a very small congregation some twenty miles outside of Dublin.  While there he traveled back to London from time to time and published an anonymous political pamplet.  In the following years he published some other work, 'The Tale of the Tub' and the 'Battle of the Books'.
Swift's skill as a writer began to get attention and he became friends with Alexander Pope and others.  He also became more politically active.  He became a promiment Tory.  Swift also made enemies.  Of note, he angered Queen Anne by publicly noting which women of her bedchamber she could trust and whom she could not(!).
When the Whigs came back into power, Swift moved again to Ireland.  He continued to write, and in 1729 published the wonderful 'Modest Proposal'.  While there he tangled with the Irish judiciary.  He was obviously not a man who feared a fight, or at least he didn't know how to stay out of one.
Around this time he wrote 'Gulliver's Travels'.  It was published anonymously, but Swift was well known as the author.  It sold and sold and sold and was quickly translated into French and German.  It was even pirated back into Ireland.
Some time in the 1730's, it appears that Swift became insane.  His friends were worried that he would hurt himself.  He was declared not to be of 'sound mind and body' and in 1741 he had a guardian appointed.  In 1742 he suffered a stroke, causing great swelling to his left eye.  He didn't speak for a year.  He finally died in 1745.  Years before he had composed an epitaph in Latin.  W.B. Yeats translated it like this:
Swift has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-besotted traveller; he
Served human liberty.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Poetry - Tennyson

The next poem is 'Ulysses' by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.  I've run across fragments of this poem in places, but have never read the whole thing before.  Unfortunately, the whole piece is too long to type out so I'll link to the complete poem, which I highly recommend.  Normally I'd excerpt the first part but it's the last that stuck with me so I'll do that.  The poem is told from Ulysses' standpoint and here he speaks about retiring from being king.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail'
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me-
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads - you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil.
Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
Tis not too late to see a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall all touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are-
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

The story is that of an heroic old man who is choosing to pursue one last adventure, rather than to fade away into death.  Even after all of the voyages that he's undertaken, he will once more go out there and see what happens.  It might even be good.  Or at least the worst wouldn't be terrible as he might be reunited with Achilles whom he knew of old.
It's very much a poem of things that have come to an end.  Not in death, per se, but things are changing and will never be the same again.  Even in that change, that end, the speaker will keep going.  'To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.'  It's a boast, but a calm boast, given from someone who is old and wise.
What a beautiful poem.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Great Books for Children

Interesting blog post here, trying to figure out what books to expect your children to read. 
In particular, I want to put my kids through a Great Books tutorial, and put together a list of books that I want them to read between 12 and 16/18. So I’m trying to come up with my own list of Great Books to put them through. 
 I've thought similar things.  Well not necessarily on the schooling but on the books list. 
In particular, I want to put my kids through a Great Books tutorial, and put together a list of books that I want them to read between 12 and 16/18. So I’m trying to come up with my own list of Great Books to put them through.
I know the lists that are currently in existence, but I want our own list to be slightly different. I want the books to cover disciplines outside the traditional liberal arts (e.g. economics; business) and cover more temporary topics. I also want the list to include literature.
 His list is there, if you're curious.  I believe he's French, but I could be wrong about that.  As I mentioned, I've tossed around similar thoughts about what I want them to read.  They'll get some steady doses of Heinlein, especially 'Starship Troopers', which I think asks some very interesting questions of the state/citizen relationship.  They'll get some other science fiction as well, in part because questions of societal structure comes up there more often than in other books.
And after reading some Plutarch last year, I've been noodling how to get some of that in their diet.  As written, it may be so dense that it will turn them off.  There is a version that is 'edited for boys and girls' so that may be the ticket.
They'll get some Shakespeare and some Mark Twain.  They'll get some science education, especially in astronomy because that's an interest of mine as well.  They'll get some history with me and also with various games.  I'd like to plug 'History of the World', the boardgame.  It looks like it's out of print right now, darn it.
One area that I'm not comfortable with is economics.  I'd like some books for young teens that teach market theory.  I want supply and demand to be on the tip of their brains whenever people ask 'why' questions.  (Suggestions welcome!)

One thing that I've kept in mind is to be looking for opportunities to introduce philosophy to them.  That may mean looking for the right time to suggest Plato's 'Apology', or his philosophical question of the cave.  It means looking for the right time to have them read through Aristotle's 'Poetics'.  Montaigne and Pascal will have entry spots come along, and so on and so on.  I'm afraid that trying to preset these works will turn them into a task, instead of a more organic happening. 
Obviously, this is a work in progress.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Author Timeline

Still in the 17th century, but right at the end of it with Swift.

Homer 7th or 8th Cent(?)
Aeschylus 525-456
Sophocles 497-405
Herodotus 484-425
Plato 428-347
Aristotle 384-322
Lucretius 99-55(?)
Nicomachus 60-120(?)
Marcus Aurelius 121-180
Hobbes 1588-1679
Milton 1608-1674
Pascal 1623-1662
Swift 1667-1745
Rousseau 1712-1778
Kant 1724-1804
Mill 1806-1873

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Poe - Poetry

The latest poem is a familiar one, Edgar Allen Poe's 'The Raven'.  The small description before the poem says that it is 'macabre' ('disturbing and horrifying because of involvement with or depiction of death and injury').  'Macabre' is the perfect word for it.  The full length is too long for this post, but do read the full thing here.  Read it aloud if you can.

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary;
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door:
"Tis some visitor;" I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door;
Only this, and nothing more."

Ah, distinctly I remember, it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor:
Eagerly I wished the morrow; vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow, sorrow for the lost Lenore,
For the rare and radiant maiden who the angels name Lenore,
Nameless here forevermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me - filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,
"Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door,
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door.
This is it, and nothing more."

My God, that rhyme scheme is brilliant!  It's so utterly compelling, urging you forward every step even with the heavy feel of dread.  The word choice doesn't feel forced or unnatural.  It must be one of the finest poems in the English language.  Heck, it's so strong that it has an NFL team named after it!
Does the macabre feel to it add or subtract?  Most of the other top poems deal with things like love and beauty.  'The Raven' deals with loss and wild, uncontrolled nature.  This isn't something you'd learn to impress college girls at the bar, this is something that you'd bring out around the campfire to make people feel uneasy.  Not scared, mind you.  That isn't the aim.  Uneasy and uncertain.  Sad.
I've talked about how great poems have that one great line that becomes quoted and quoted until it's a part of the cultural fabric.  'Quoth the raven, "Nevermore"', certainly qualifies.  I've read some of Poe's short stories but this is the only poem of his that I know.  I wonder if the rest is as good?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Pascal's Wager

I wrote a bit on Pascal's famous wager here.  The gist of it is that the upside of beliving in God is so much better than the downside that it should be an easy choice to make.  The argument is brilliant.  Live a Christian life and you either go to heaven or find out that you were wrong and there is no afterlife.  Live a faithless life and either have no afterlife or go to hell.  Given those choices, who could do other than believe in God, right?
Well, not so fast.  There is one rather large flaw in Pascal's reasoning here.  Faith is not a volitional thing.  One can't simply flip a switch and believe anything.  Faith requires some deeper conviction.  On some deep level you must be convinced of the things that you truly believe in.
Pascal does answer this:
Endeavour then to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions. You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possesions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness.
This isn't bad advice but it's not as certain as Pascal says it is.  Otherwise we would never see long time church goers lose faith and fall away.  We would never see frauds in the church because over time their frauds would be converted by the proximity and totality of their actions.  Even worse, according to Pascal's own life story, he went back and forth from faith to doubt until he got what he felt was an unanswerable sign from God.
I'm sure that many would be converted if they had a visit from the divine in a dream.  It's easy to have faith in angels when you actually meet them.  It's much harder to simply say that if you try to believe in them, eventually you will.
In my middle teens I first read Heinlein's 'Time Enough for Love'.  The story is an attempt to pry loose 'nuggets of wisdom' from a man who has lived for nearly 3000 years.  In one of the 'notebook' sections he writes this:
There is no conclusive evidence of life after death. But there is no evidence of any sort against it. Soon enough you will know. So why fret about it?
Pascal would have hated that thought.  Heinlein is saying that we really don't know one way or the other what happens after you die.  Elsewhere he makes the point that competing religions make promises of an afterlife but they differ on the route to get there.  If we don't have any concrete knowledge, how can we even begin to know which way to bet?  Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof and Pascal is openly saying that the proof isn't the way, only faith is.
My logical mind agrees with the Heinlein approach but not completely.  We don't know, we can't know.  That doesn't mean that the question isn't important.  It certainly doesn't mean we shouldn't fret about it.
But it sure would be easier with a visit in a dream.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

De Nerval - Poetry

Another poem and poet that I've never heard of.  This one is by Gerard De Nerval and is entitled 'El Desdichado'.  I'm guessing that this is translated from Spanish.

I am the dark one, -the widower, -the unconsoled,
The prince of Aquitaine at his stricken tower:
My sole star is dead, - and my constellated lute
Bears the black sun of the Melancolia.

In the night of the tomb, you who consoled me,
Give me back Mount Posilipo and the Italian sea,
The flower which pleased so my desolate heart,
And the trellis where the grape vine unites with the rose.

Am I Amor or Phoebus? . . . Lusignan or Biron?
My forehead is still red from the kiss of the queen;
I have dreamed in the grotto where the mermaid swims . . .

And two times victorious I have crosst the Acheron:
Modulating turn by turn on the lyre of Orpheus
The sighs of the saint and the cries of the fay.

Well first off, I understand almost none of the allusions here which makes me feel like I'm missing out on whatever power the poem has.  Breaking from my tradition, I'm going over to Wikipedia to see if I can find an article to explain the poem.  There is a page for the author here.  Nothing in depth on this poem, though I'm very interested to know that his last published work has the same name as my daughter.
So how about the poetry itself?  The first line is striking.  I can almost hear it narrated while a camera pans slowly over a misty, smoky mountainside.  This is a lover's lament, perhaps a widowers poem.  Yes, there is a tangling of love and death.  The last stanza is somewhat understood if you know that Acheron was one of the rivers of Hades and that Orpheus went down there to find his beloved. 
The subject has been down there twice.  Lost two lovers?  Perhaps.  I don't really get it, but it's memorable. 

Friday, September 20, 2013

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Wager (Pensee 233) - Pascal

I'll start by recommending that you read the whole of 233.  You can find it here (scroll down).  It's not long and it works as a stand alone.  The rest is worth reading too.

Pascal begins with a discussion on things that we know about but don't understand.  For an example, he uses the concept of infinity.  We know that there is an infinite amount of numbers but we can't understand how infinity can be neither odd nor even.  He compares this to our understanding of God.  We know about God, but we can't really understand Him.  How do we know?
But by faith we know His existence; in glory we shall know His nature. Now I have already shown that we may well know the existence of a thing without knowing its nature.
If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is.
God is beyond understanding but those who have faith have knowledge of his existence.  If this is the case, then we shouldn't blame Christians for not being able to explain their beliefs.  They'll openly admit that there are things they can't explain. 
So let's get to the main question: "God is, or He is not."  According to Pascal, there is no way to find out by reason.  At some point, you'll have to simply take a leap of faith.  And that is where the wager comes in.  You must bet one side or the other. 
Pascal then uses game theory to work out the best choice. 
  • If you don't believe in God and are right, then nothing happens after you die.
  • If you believe in God and are wrong, then nothing happens after you die.
  • If you don't believe in God and are wrong, then you miss out on eternal life.
  • If you believe in God and are right, then you win eternal life.  
According to this accounting, there is no downside to belief. 
Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you talk on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognize that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing.
This is one of the most powerful arguments for faith that I've ever read.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Trouble with Kant

We'll get to Kant in November, with 'Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals' (which sounds like a made up title to scare people away from reading), but I ran across a news report from Russia that is just too good to share.  Especially the last bit.
An argument in southern Russia over philosopher Immanuel Kant, the author of "Critique of Pure Reason," devolved into pure mayhem when one debater shot the other.
A police spokeswoman in Rostov-on Don, Viktoria Safarova, said two men in their 20s were discussing Kant as they stood in line to buy beer at a small store on Sunday. The discussion deteriorated into a fistfight and one participant pulled out a small nonlethal pistol and fired repeatedly.
The victim was hospitalized with injuries that were not life-threatening. Neither person was identified.
It was not clear which of Kant's ideas may have triggered the violence.
"It was not clear which of Kant's ideas may have triggered the violence."  I can only believe that the writer was giggling as that was typed.  More experienced readers of Kant are invited to speculate on which idea it was.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

John Greenleaf Whittier- Poetry

Next up in the poetry book is John Greenleaf Whittier, with a poem called 'Barbara Frietchie'.  I haven't heard of the poet or poem prior to this.  (Is there a reason that 19th century poets all have three names?)  The lead in to the poem says that this is based on an actual event during the American civil war.  The poem is long, but worth reading.

Up from the meadows rich with corn,
Clear in the cool September morn,
The clustered spires of Frederick stand
Green-walled by the hills of Maryland.
Round about them orchards sweep,
Apple and peach tree fruited deep,
Fair as the garden of the Lord
To the eyes of the famished rebel horde,
On that pleasant morn of the early fall
When Lee marched over the mountain-wall;
Over the mountains winding down,
Horse and foot, into Frederick town.
Forty flags with their silver stars,
Forty flags with their crimson bars,
Flapped in the morning wind: the sun
Of noon looked down, and saw not one.
Up rose old Barbara Frietchie then,
Bowed with her fourscore years and ten;
Bravest of all in Frederick town,
She took up the flag the men hauled down;
In her attic window the staff she set,
To show that one heart was loyal yet.
Up the street the Rebel tread,
Stonewall Jackson riding ahead.
Under his slouched hat left and right
He glanced; the old flag met his sight.
"Halt!"-the dust-brown ranks stood fast.
"Fire!"-out blazed the rifle-blast.
It shivered the window, pane and sash;
It rent the banner with seam and gash.
Quick, as it fell, from the broken staff
Dame Barbara snatched the silken scarf.
She leaned far out on the window-sill,
And shook it forth with a royal will.
"Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country's flag," she said.
A shade of sadness, a blush of shame,
Over the face of the leader came;
The nobler nature within him stirred
To life at that woman's deed and word;
"Who touches a hair of yon gray head
Dies like a dog! March on!" he said.
All day long through Frederick street
Sounded the tread of marching feet:
All day long that free flag tost
Over the heads of the Rebel host.
Ever its torn folds rose and fell
On the loyal winds that loved it well;
And through the hill-gaps sunset light
Shone over it with a warm good night.
Barbara Frietchie's work is o'er'
And the Rebel rides on his raids no more.
Honor to her! and let a tear
Fall, for her sake, on Stonewall's bier.
Over Barbara Frietchie's grave,
Flag of Freedom and Union, wave!
Peace and order and beauty draw
Round they symbol of light and law;
And ever the stars above look down
On thy stars below in Frederick town!

I'd never read this before but I'm quite taken with it.  The poetry is simple but effective.  I think I've heard 'Shoot if you must, this old gray head' before.  It's a very striking line.
The poem was written in 1864, while the Civil war was still raging.  It's wildly patriotic, especially compared to more modern sentiment.  Note: I don't think that's a bad thing.  It's hard not to respect the courage needed to stand up to soldiers who could shoot you dead without any trouble.  Obviously the soldiers had that same respect.
I wish I'd run across this poem right around Memorial Day.  I'll have to remember to revisit it again next May.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Questions of the Afterlife (Pensee 194) - Pascal

Let them at least learn what is the religion they attack, before attacking it.  If this religion boasted of having a clear view of God, and of possessing it open and unveiled, it would be attacking it to say that we see nothing in the world which shows it with this clearness. 
This is how Pascal opens #194, the heart of his 'wager'.  He says that opponents of religion haven't taken the time to understand what they're attacking.  He continues:
...that God has set up in the Church visible signs to make Himself known to those who should seek Him sincerely, and that He has nevertheless so disguised them that He will only be perceived by those who seek Him with all their heart; what advantages can they obtain, when, in the negligence with which they make profession of being in search of the truth, they cry out that nothing reveals it to them; and since that darkness in which they are, and with which they upbraid the Church, establishes only one of the things which she affirms, without touching the other, and, very far from destroying, proves her doctrine?
Pascal says that only by giving your full heart to God, can you perceive Him.  You have to have faith before you will be rewarded.  On the other hand, if you come to God, filled with doubt and seeking to disprove Him, you'll never find anything.  And this isn't something trivial.
The immortality of the soul is a matter which is of so great consequence to us, and which touches us so profoundly, that we must have lost all feeling to be indifferent as to knowing what it is.  
The big questions of the soul (and God and the afterlife), are of prime importance. 
Thus our first interest and our first duty is to enlighten ourselves on this subject, whereon depends all our conduct. Therefore among those who do not believe, I make a vast difference between those who strive with all their power to inform themselves, and those who live without troubling or thinking about it.
 And those who don't pay it much mind?
And if besides this he is easy and content, professes to be so, and indeed boasts of it; if it is this state itself which is the subject of his joy and vanity, I have no words to describe so silly a creature.
It's striking how angry Pascal is towards those who don't invest serious thought in finding out if they have a soul and if that soul will enjoy an afterlife.  He is not a tame philosopher.  He talks about the predicament we all find ourselves in as we try to figure out why we're here and what's going on.
As I know not whence I come, so I know not wither I go. I know only that, in leaving this world, I fall for ever either into annihilation or into the hands of an angry God, without knowing to which of these two states I shall be for ever assigned.
This is something of a teaser for his famous wager.  I'll come back to that.  Frankly, I felt personally chastised after reading this.  I haven't done enough thinking on this subject, or at least not enough in recent years.  But Pascal has my wheels turning a bit...