Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Story of the Thief - Herodotus

Deep in book two of Herodotus' writings, there is the story of an Egyptian thief that is wonderful.  I'd never heard it before so I want to share it here.  (This is my paraphrase, the actual account can be read in section 121 of book two.)

There was a very wealthy king who needed a treasure room built.  A builder was found and the king stored all of his riches there.  When the builder was close to death, he told his two sons that there was a secret entrance that they could use to steal from the king.  The sons began to steal from the king on a nightly basis. 
The king soon realized that he was losing his treasure but he couldn't figure out how it was happening.  The seals on the room were unbroken.  Finally the king set up traps in the vault, to catch the thieves.  The brothers entered and one was quickly caught. 
The one that was caught quickly figured out that their family would be destroyed if he was found there so he had his brother cut off his head(!) so that the crime couldn't be traced back to them.  According to Herodotus "to the other it seemed that he spoke well, and he was persuaded and did so; and fitting the stone into its place he departed home bearing with him the head of his brother". 
The next day the kind found the headless body in the vault.  He couldn't identify it so he had it hung up outside the vault so that he could seize anyone who came to grieve over it.  The mother of the two brothers was very upset and she told the remaining brother that he must get the body back or she would tell the king everything that had happened. 
So the brother got some asses and skins of wine.  When he approached the guards and the body of his brother, he caused the skins to start to spill wine.  The guards rushed out to get some of the wine.  The brother became friends with them and gave them more and more wine.  Eventually the guards were drunk and he was able to take his brothers body.
The king was livid and schemed to find a way to find the thief.  He finally decided that his own daughter would offer herself up to any man that wanted her, but only on the condition that the man first tell the daughter 'the most cunning and most unholy deed they had done'.  If the thief came, she would hold on to him until guards could take him.
The thief couldn't resist getting the better of the king so he found a freshly dead body and cut off one arm.  This he held in his sleeve.  He went to the daughter and admitted everything.  She grabbed for him and only got the dead arm while the thief ran away. 
The king thought back on everything that had happened and decided that he would pardon the thief and give him a great reward if he'd come to the king.  The thief did so and the king had him marry his daughter. 

Isn't that an amazing story?  I can see the bare bones of a movie in it right away.  Somewhat amazingly, at no time does Herodotus give the thief a name.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Egyptian Science - Herodotus

The second book of Herodotus deals with Egypt.  Of particular interest to me, were a couple of sections dealing with science.  One of the early Egyptian kings (Pharaoh?), Psammetichos, wanted to find out if the Egyptians were the first people or not.  He decided to do this through linguistics.
Taking two new-born children belonging to persons of the common sort he gave them to a shepherd  to bring up at the place where his flocks were, with a manner of bringing up such as I shall say, charging him namely that no man should utter any word in their presence, and that they should be placed by themselves in a room where none might come . . . 
They would be fed and otherwise cared for but no one would talk to them.  Psammetichos wanted to hear what the first words would be from the children.  After a couple of years, the children started saying 'bekos'.  When this was reported to the king, some effort was made to find out if that was a word in any language.  It was discovered that 'bekos' meant 'bread' to the Phrygians and they were declared the earliest people. 
Obviously there are some ethical issues with taking children away and doing experiments with them, but set that aside.  The king tried to create a sterile experiment so that he could find a true result.  And when that result came out in favor a different people, he still allowed that result to be known. 
Herodotus also mentions Egyptian astronomy.  They were the first people to calculate the year, having twelve months of 30 days with five extra days.  Herodotus says this was better than the Hellenic manner where extra months were needed to make it all come out right.  (Bonus question: why are months standardized at 30 days?) 
Herodotus also questioned the source of the Nile.  He knew that rivers usually (always?) start with melted snow.  He disregarded this option for the Nile since it flowed from the desert where there was no snow.  Of course we now know that it simply flows through the Sahara and starts quite a bit south of there.  The source wasn't found for more than two millennia later so I don't mean that as any kind of criticism.  It's hard not to be impressed with how he grappled with the problem and tried to solve it. 

Sunday, March 24, 2013

April Readings

Back to the big boys of philosophy!


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

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Croesus and the Oracles

Book one of Herodotus' history deals with the Persians.  My favorite bit has to do with king Croesus.  He meets Solon, a wandering Greek and asks him:
Athenian guest, much report of thee has come to us, both in regard to thy wisdom and thy wanderings, how that in thy search for wisdom thou has traversed many lands to see them; now therefore a desire has come upon me to ask thee whether thou hast seen any whom thou deemest to be of all men the most happy.
This was Croesus attempt to fish for a compliment.  The gods, of course, saw it as a big Smite Me sign on his back.  And smite him they did.  He launched an unwise war and was reduced to being a prisoner of the enemy.  At least he gets some wisdom out of the deal, as the opposing king Cyrus tells him:
For no one is so senseless as to choose of his own will war rather than peace, since in peace the sons bury their fathers, but in war the fathers bury their sons.
I've thought about that statement quite a bit now that we're near the tenth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq war.

Over the past few months I've gotten a kick out of the appearances of the Oracle of Delphi (and others).  The oracles have been guest stars in just about everything we've read so far this year.  Our lead man, Croesus, decides to test the various oracles of the Mediterranean region.  He sends his men out, telling them to carefully count the days as they go.  Then, at the appointed time, they ask the Oracle what Croesus is doing right then.  These answers were written down and sent back to him, so he could judge the quality of the visions.  Only the Oracle at Delphi got it right.
So he sent many gifts to Delphi and and asked them if he should go to war against the Persians.  They told him that 'if he should march against the Persians he should destroy a great empire'.  Modern readers would understand the danger in the ambiguity of such phrasing but Croesus went right past it.  The mighty empire, was of course, his own. 
There was an oracle story that I'd never heard before, too.  In the wars, a man took refuge from the Persians in a town called Kyme.  The town people asked the Oracle if they should give him up or not and they said that they should.  One of the townspeople, a man named Aristodicos, disagreed and he went to the Oracle asked again.  They gave him the same answer so he decided to tear things up.  He destroyed the nests of the sparrows that were sacred to the Oracle.  The Oracle was aghast and asked why he would force away those, the Oracle would protect.
And Aristodicos, it is said, not being at all at a loss for words replied to this: "Lord, doest thou thus come to the assistance of they suppliants, and yet biddest the men of Kyme deliver up theirs?" and the god answered him again thus: "Yea, I bid you to do so, that ye may perish the more quickly for your impiety; so that ye may not at any future time come to the Oracle to ask about deliver up of the suppliants."
That's pretty cold blooded. 
I've tried to think of any modern equivalent to the Oracles and I can't really think of any.  My wife says that the internet now fills that niche but I'm not convinced. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


Herodotus opens his writing with this mission statement:
This is the Showing forth of the Inquiry of Herodotus of Halicarnassos, to the end that neither the deeds of men may be fortotten by lapse of time, nor the works grat and marvellous, which have been produced by Hellenes and some by Barbarians, may lose their renown; and especially that the causes may be remembered for which these waged war with one another.
In other words, he is bound to record what has happend so that future peoples would know and not forget.  He will write about both the Greeks and the non-Greeks and he will give special focus to the causes of war.  In short, he will write history.
The great thing about his approach is that he recognizes that some of what he has been told is true, and some isn't.  He sifts through these categories and shares his judgment with the reader.  If there are differing versions of stories, he'll mention that.  In fact, Herodotus had actually traveled to several places and he uses first hand knowledge in his writings.
All of these things set the template for the writing of history.  Modern historians will listen to ancient stories as a starting point, but then they work to figure out what the truth is.  They'll study conflicting records and travel to locations to unearth evidence.  They'll also maintain a level of skepticism until they have proof.  All of this follows the discipline that Herodotus set down.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Pope - Poetry

The next  in the poetry series is a small one from Alexander Pope.  The title is: "Epigram: Engraved on the Collar of a Dog Which I Gave to His Royal Highness".  The poem, in its entirety:

I am his Highness' dog at Kew;
Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?

A lovely little poem, whose title is actually longer than its body!  I bet that doesn't happen very often!  As I said, it's lovely.  The tone is nice and light.  You can easily picture a dog thinking/saying that exact thing.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Herodotus and the English Patient

I'm sure that I first learned about Herodotus in high school, though I don't remember anything other than that he was 'the father of history'.  The next time I encountered him was in 1997, in the movie 'The English Patient'.  For those who haven't seen the movie, the title character was a desert explorer whose plane was shot down over the Sahara during World War II.  He is horribly burned and can't remember who he is.  He has no identification and the only belonging of his that survived the plane crash is a copy of Herodotus that he carried with him.  The movie is told in the present and also in flashback and here is the scene that got to me:

What an interesting story!  You have a king who plays a silly trick, without any thought to the consequences on his adviser and his queen.  The queen finds out the truth and gives the adviser, Gyges, a choice that will literally shake the kingdom.
Years later I actually picked up Herodotus to read and was surprised that this is the first story out of the gate.  It only seems proper then, to start writing about the Father of History from this standpoint.  He was, first and foremost, a teller of interesting stories.  In between the most interesting stuff he also works to provide the actual nuts and bolts of things like who ruled and for how long, but it is the stories that most captivate. 

So what do we learn here?  Candaules is the king.  He speaks at length of the beauty of his wife and finally orders Gyges to spy on her, so he too can affirm what the king is saying.  This one simple jest leads to the loss of his life and throne.  Lesson: don't treat your wife poorly.  That lesson is tempered a bit by the fact that Herodotus doesn't actually name the queen.  In later sections, he talks quite a bit about specific women, so the best guess is that he simply didn't know it.
It's easy to see how he captivated an audience.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Welcome Pope Francis

This is only loosely connected to reading the Great Books, but I wanted to comment on it anyway.  Today, for likely the only time during this reading list, we have a new Pope.  He has chosen the name Francis, to honor St Francis of Assisi.  We don't have any of the writings of St Francis on the reading list.  His actions spoke louder than his written words. 
  • The new pope is a Jesuit, the first one to become pope.  The Jesuits represent some of the finest learning and thinking in the Catholic church, and I'm astounded that this is the first time one has been elevated so far.  
  • I'm not Catholic by heritage or practice.  I'm an outsider but an interested outsider.  Having said that, I've been very tired of non-Catholics promoting very obviously non-Catholic people to the position of pope.  Fine, you don't like Catholic teaching, we got it.  The next time Planned Parenthood looks for a new president, I half hope that Catholics all over the world talk loud and long about how the new head should be opposed to abortion.  That would be equally productive.
  • Even from the outside, I find the whole process of choosing a new pope to be amazing.  The weight of centuries can clearly be seen in the ceremony of it all.  We do a good bit of pomp and circumstance when we inaugurate a new President but it pales in comparison.  
  • I wish Pope Francis all the luck and good fortune possible.  I don't agree with all Catholic teachings but the world is better for having high profile moral leaders. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Matsuo Basho - Poetry

This poem is a haiku from 17th century Japan.  The poet is Matsuo Basho.  The book says that it is 'often offered as the quintessential example of haiku'.

Old pond-
A frog leaps in-
Water's sound.

Haiku often leaves me cold and this one is no exception.  Too often, the modern haiku that I'm presented with are no more than a thought that has the proper number of syllables.  Basically, if you look hard enough, you can find a haiku in your grocery list.  Well, your mileage may vary, but my grocery list is seldom poetic.
There are exceptions, of course.  I ran across this one some years ago:

Plum blossoms bloom,
And pleasure women buy new scarves
In a brothel room

The first two lines paint a picture of a picturesque location with happy women.  The third line brings forth the reality that they are not happy and they don't control their own fates.  The first haiku there, offers no poetic twist.  It's a straightforward word picture.
Not my cup of tea.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Biography of Herodotus

We don't know much about the life of Herodotus.  He was born in 484 BC in Halicarnassus, a town in modern day Turkey.  He is well known as the 'father of history', though apparently some of his contemporaries called him the 'father of lies'.  They thought that he was in the wrong for relying so much on stories from other people. 
He traveled extensively and talked with people everywhere he went.  Herodotus then recorded these stories, weighed the evidence, and gave them to his audience.  He often stressed the moments when he had conflicting tales, which gives tremendous credibility to what he speaks of.
Wikipedia gives this wonderful anecdote:
It was conventional in Herodotus's day for authors to 'publish' their works by reciting them at popular festivals. According to Lucian, Herodotus took his finished work straight from Asia Minor to the Olympic Games and read the entire Histories to the assembled spectators in one sitting, receiving rapturous applause at the end of it. According to a very different account by an ancient grammarian, Herodotus refused to begin reading his work at the festival of Olympia until some clouds offered him a bit of shade, by which time however the assembly had dispersed - thus the proverbial expression "Herodotus and his shade" to describe any man who misses his opportunity through delay. Herodotus's recitation at Olympia was a favourite theme among ancient writers and there is another interesting variation on the story to be found in the Suda, Photius and Tzetzes, in which a young Thucydides happened to be in the assembly with his father and burst into tears during the recital, whereupon Herodotus observed prophetically to the boy's father: "Thy son's soul yearns for knowledge."
I simply love the idea of going to the Olympics and reciting your works.  I hope some new writer makes this method succeed again.  

Monday, March 4, 2013

Author Timeline

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

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Marvell - Poetry

For the complete posts on Poetry, please click the tag at the bottom of the post.

Our next poem is by Andrew Marvell and was written in the seventeenth century.  Its title is 'To His Coy Mistress'.

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To Walk, and pass our long love's day;
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Should rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
To hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For; lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
They beauty shall no more be found,
Nor; in they marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv'd virginity,
And your quaint honor turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on they skin like monring glow,
And while they willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And no like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our  time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strengh and all
Our sweetness up ino one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Tus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

What a lovely poem!  I absolutely love this.  In the first stanza, our poet says, that if he but 'world enough and time' then he could be as patient as possible.  He explains that his patience would last for entire historical ages.  He'd even take a full two hundred years of concentration on each breast!
But, he says, we're mortal and we don't have that much time.  Would you rather make love with me or wait until you're deflowered by worms in your tomb?  That will be private but not as nice.  So quick, embrace life and lets get to it!
I wonder if Andrew Marvell had a lot of luck with this poem?  I hope so.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Antigone - Sophocles

Our final play for February's reading starts right after a great battle.  The sons of Oedipus, Eteocles and Polynices, found themselves on opposite sides for the battle of Thebes.  They killed each other.  Eteocles fought for Thebes and is given a heroes burial.  Polynices fought against and the king, Creon, has decreed that his body shall be eaten by dogs and birds.
Enter Antigone and Ismene.  They are the daughters of Oedipus, the sisters of the fallen men.  Antigone is outraged that her brother will be denied a decent burial.  She decides to defy the king and unsuccessfully tries to get Ismene to help her.
It is reported to Creon that someone has put some dust on the body of Polynices, basically a symbolicy burial.  Antigone is caught doing so and brought before him.  He asks her if she heard the decree and she answers that she did.  She will openly defy him because burying her brother is what the gods would have her do.  Creon is livid.
It's important to remember the relationships in play here.  Creon is Antigone's uncle.  He is the king while she is the daughter of the previous king.  She is also engaged to marry his son.  In otherwords, she is a source of power in the city and Creon doesn't take well to rivals.  Considering that he just had to fight for the city itself against one of her brothers, this may be a justified point of view.
He decides not to kill Antigone directly.  He will wall her up in a tomb with some small amount of food and water.  His son Haemon, pleads with him not to do this but he won't listen.  Both Antigone and Haemon threaten suicide but still Creon won't be moved.
Until the blind prophet Tiresias convinces him otherwise.  Then he rushes to open the tomb.  Unfortunately, Antigone has taken matters into her own hands and hung herself.  Haemon sees this and falls on his sword, killing himself.  In an echo of 'Oedipus the King', the queen also kills herself.  Creon is crushed.  He ignored the will of the gods to punish a domestic enemy.  They brought doom upon him.

I mentioned that we did a one act version of this in high school.  I played Haemon and my only real memory of the play is having Creon weep over my dead body.  (In my defense, I was more interested in girls than in Greek drama.)  It's a nice, emotional play.

March Reading

The reading for March is

Herodotus: The History (books 1 and 2) link

He's the father of history and his work is exceedingly readable.