Sunday, June 30, 2013

Poetry - Scott

For the rest of this series, click on the 'Poetry' link at the bottom.

The next poem from the book is 'The Lay of the Last Minstrel' by Walter Scott.  Scott is best known for novels like 'Ivanhoe' but apparently he made his name with this poem.  I believe this is just an excerpt:

Breathes there the man with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
"This is my own, my native land!"
Whose heart hath ne'er within him burn'd
As home his footsteps he hath turn'd
From wandering on a foreign strand?
If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
For him no Minstrel raptures swell'
High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim;
Despite those titles, power; and pelf,
The wretch, concentered all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonor'd, and unsung.

The poem was published in 1805 and the sentiment that Scott was writing against has become very popular. There are many, many people out there who are hopelessly embarrassed by their own 'native land'.  I don't know it this is due to broad changes in philosophy in the last 200 years or just a simple change in fashion.  This poem is blatantly patriotic and today would be condemned by some.
What do I think of the actual poetry?  I think I like it.  Especially that last line, 'Unwept, unhonor'd, and unsung'.  I don't know if I've heard that phrase before but it's a good one.  If I find time, I'll have to look at more of the poem and maybe finally get around to reading 'Ivanhoe'.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Intellectual Jokes

I meant to post more about Lucretius but the week got away from me.  (I spent a couple of days at a retreat here.)  In the meantime, you may enjoy some of the jokes from this thread.  Most relevant to the Great Books is probably this joke:
So this classics professor goes to a tailor to get his pants mended. The tailor asks: "Euripedes?" The professor replies "Yes. Eumenides?"
But my favorite is probably this one:
Werner Heisenberg, Kurt Gödel, and Noam Chomsky walk into a bar. Heisenberg turns to the other two and says, "Clearly this is a joke, but how can we figure out if it's funny or not?" Gödel replies, "We can't know that because we're inside the joke." Chomsky says, "Of course it's funny. You're just telling it wrong."
 (I'll talk more about 'The Nature of All Things', I promise.)

Update: Ok, this one seems particularly in tune with Lucretius:
A chemist, a mechanical engineer, and a civil engineer are contemplating the existence of God based on the design of the human body.
The Chemist remarks, "God has to be a chemist. Only a divine chemist would understand how molecule interact on a molecular level to have them so organized on a macro scale."
The mechanical engineer says, "God has to be a mechanical engineer. Only a mechanical engineer could understand the complexity of levers and mechanical fulcrums to create such a exquisite tool."
The civil engineer says, "You're both wrong. Only a civil engineer would place a recreational facility so close to a biological waste source."

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Rest of Year Two

I thought it might be handy to post the list for the rest of the year, in case anyone wants to work out of order.  It looks like each year of the reading list includes at least one long piece of literature, and you can see that 'Gulliver's Travels' is coming up in October.  I haven't read it before (shame on me!) but it looks like good beach reading.  The political stuff (Hobbes, Milton and Mill at least) all look very good.  And I'm very curious about Pascal and his many Pensees.
Should be exciting work!

Marcus Aurelius: Meditations link

Hobbes: Leviathan (Part 1) link
Milton: Areopagitica link

Pascal: Pensees (72, 82-83, 100, 128, 131, 139, 142-143, 171, 194-195, 219, 229, 233-234, 242, 277, 282, 289, 298, 303, 320, 323, 325, 330-331, 374, 385, 392, 395-397, 409, 412-413, 416, 418, 425, 430, 434-435, 463, 491, 525-531, 538, 543, 547, 553, 556, 564, 571, 586, 598, 607-610, 613, 619-620, 631, 640, 644, 673, 675, 684, 692-693, 737, 760, 768, 792-793)* link
Pascal: Treatise on the Arithmetical Triangle link
*think of these as being like 'proverbs'

Swift: Gulliver's Travels link

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

Mill: On Liberty link

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Defending the Humanities

(via Instapundit)  Here is an interesting response to an attempt to get more money from Congress to spend on Humanities programs.  I don't know much about the specific academy, and I won't offer an opinion on what the proper spending levels should be.  But what's interesting is how the Humanities are defended and suggestions as to how they should be defended. 
From the linked article:
Many of the commissioners also appear in a 7-minute accompanying video, which begins with the actor (and commissioner) John Lithgow explaining that the humanities are the "beautiful flower" at the end of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math.)  With a piano softly playing Christian Sinding's Rustles of Spring in the background and a camera exploring the petals of a yellow gerbera, Lithgow continues, "Without the blossom, the stem is completely useless."  Cut to George Lucas, Rustling Spring pianissimo: "The sciences are the how and the humanities are the why." Cut to the Milky Way with Lucas's voiceover, segueing to architect Billie Tsien, "The measurable is what we know and the immeasurable is what the heart  searches for."
I like the poetry of the STEM part, but I can't imagine that convincing anyone.  It sounds like BS to me, and I'm already a fan of the Humanities.  From further on:
I don't really want to be obstructionist.  The humanities are important and, in principle, deserve a robust defense.  But I have to wonder how carefully thought-out The Heart of the Matter is.  If the goal was merely to perform some old songs from the songbook, or to twirl the lasso around in lasso tricks, I guess these bland formulations will do.  But it would have been nice to see an intellectually more serious effort.  The humanities haven't existed forever.  They are a division of human inquiry and teaching that grew out of a particular tradition.  Humanistic learning was, for many generations, deemed essential for the man who sought to enter public life, and it was also taken as the indispensable grounding for the worthy life of a free individual.  
The closing is rather good:
Is there a better way to promote the humanities?  I am inclined to think the humanities thrive when the humanists are self-evidently offering good and important work.  The humanities decline when they descend into triviality.  The answer to a nation skeptical of these disciplines is not more balloons, nor better metaphors, or even better-crafted reports.  It is better work. 
That seems right to me.  And let me throw out a suggestion for a direction of that work.  (One of many, to be sure!)  The ancient Greeks and Romans worked hard at figuring out the flaws of democracy.  They knew that the system wasn't perfect, that it had many pitfalls.  We face many of those same problems.  Wouldn't it helpful to know what they thought and tried before?  What solutions worked and which ones bombed terribly?  And yet, we don't seem to be getting that kind of guidance, do we?
Blossoms are fine, but we could use some stronger material.  Some strong wood and metal.  Frankly, we're not getting that.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Wordsworth - Poetry

The next entry in the poetry read through is from William Wordsworth, a wonderful name for a man who writes!  This sonnet is titled 'The World is Too Much with Us'.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosm to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. - Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

The message is clear enough.  We have become too worldly and lost touch with nature.  That's a bad bargain and we're missing out on some choice delights.  Wordsworth would like to renounce it all and live a more primitive life if it would let him be in touch with the old spirits.  I'm somewhat sympathetic to this idea, but while I'd like to vacation in the primitive, I wouldn't want to live there.
How about poetic beauty?  The rhyme scheme doesn't thrill me.  The A,B,B,A pattern makes rythym difficult.  There isn't a phrase that really gets me in this.  Hmmm.  I can respect the work that goes into a sonnet but this one doesn't sing for me.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Constitution Day

On this day, 225 years ago, the Constitution was ratified.  It's easily one of the most important documents in modern history.  Let's hope that it survives (at least) another 225 years.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Distant Gods - Lucretius

I thought that the most interesting part of Book Two of 'The Nature of All Things' was the argument Lucretius put forth that there is no reason to suspect that divine beings would really care about mankind.

A tale, however beautifully wrought,
That's wide of reason by a long remove:
For all the gods must of themselves enjoy
Immortal aeons and supreme repose,
Withdrawn from our affairs, detached, afar:
Immune from peril and immune from pain,
Themselves abounding in riches of their own,
Needing not us, they are not touched by wrath
They are not taken by service or by gift.
We're on our own, he says.  And if we're not, we may as well act like we are.  For why would god-like beings care about the petty problems of mere mortals?
There is a singular problem with discussing divine objects: we really don't have proof of the things that we do or do not believe.  Lucretius is saying that there is no reason to believe in gods ('wide of reason by a long remove').  But, he says, even if they are up there, we have no reason to think that such lofty beings would really care about us the way they do in stories.  He can't prove this of course, but there is logic in his arguement.  And every counter argument is also conjecture without proof.
Apparently there was some belief in the early period of the Catholic church that this Epicurean rejection of the divine was only an argument against the Greek (and Roman) gods.  Jesus explicity shows that he cares about the weakest of humans.  I suspect that Lucretius would cast a skeptical eye the Gospel as well.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Issa - Poetry

For the rest of this series, click on the 'poetry' link at the bottom.

A couple of weeks ago I wondered if there are any haiku that are famous in Western culture.  I still don't know the answer to that, but this one by Kobyashi Issa is at least memorable.

Look, don't kill that fly!
It is making a prayer to you,
By rubbing its hands and feet.

Nice.  Everyone is familiar with the way that flies rub their front legs together and yes, that does approximate prayer.  A hyper prayer possibly, but the similarity is clear.  At the same time, the urge to kill a fly is probably universal, so the poem presents a tension.  Should I go on killing these annoying things?  Or do I believe that it is somehow honoring me and I should spare it?
This haiku deserves to be well known.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Beauty of 'De Rerum Natura' - Lucretius

While reading about 'The Nature of All Things', again and again we are told that the Humanists of the 15th century were struck by it's poetic beauty.  My Latin is not very good but I was curious if I could still detect that beauty.  Here are the first ten lines of the poem:
Aeneadum genetrix, hominum divomque voluptas,
alma Venus, caeli subter labentia signa
quae mare navigerum, quae terras frugiferentis
concelebras, per te quoniam genus omne animantum
concipitur visitque exortum lumina solis:               5
te, dea, te fugiunt venti, te nubila caeli
adventumque tuum, tibi suavis daedala tellus
summittit flores, tibi rident aequora ponti
placatumque nitet diffuso lumine caelum.
nam simul ac species patefactast verna diei et reserata viget genitabilis aura favoni, aeriae primum volucris te, diva, tuumque significant initum perculsae corda tua vi.

And here are how they come out in the translation I read:
Mother of Rome, delight of Gods and men,
Dear Venus that beneath the gliding stars
Makest to teem the many-voyaged main
And fruitful lands - for all of living things
Through thee are risen to visit the great sun-
Before thee, Goddess, and they coming on,
Flee stormy wind and massy could away,
For thee the daedal Earth bears scented flowers,
For thee waters of the unvexed deep
smile and the hollows of the serene sky
Glow with diffused radiance for thee!
I don't see it, but that is doubtlessly due to my own ignorance of Latin. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Atoms - Lucretius

Early on in Book One of 'The Nature of All Things', Lucretius says:
Nothing from nothing ever was yet born.
Fear hold dominion over mortality
Only because, seeing in land and sky
So much the cause whereof no wise they know,
Men think Divinities are working there.
 In other words, when we see things that we can't explain, we jump to a supernatural or divine explanation.  The sun and moon?  Gods.  Shooting stars and lightning?  Acts of the gods.  Droughts and floods?  Well, you get the idea.
Lucretius doesn't agree.
More clearly what we seek: those elements
From which alone all things created are,
And how accomplished by no tool of the Gods.
It's all natural.  There are explanations for everything without bothering any 'Divinities'.  He said that everything is made of 'seeds'.  We would call those seeds 'atoms'.  He says that everything is made of these really small atoms, but not just atoms.  He also says that different objects have different levels of void.  That is, the space between the atoms isn't uniform between every object.  In this, he is saying different objects have different densities.  He also says that there must be a minimum size because an infinitely small seed violates mathematical theory.
The theory of atoms is amazing for the time.  Especially since it took so long to actually demonstrate the existence of atoms.  You can see how later scientists would be driven to prove or disprove atomic theory.  And part of the work of later readers was difficult because atomic theory had gotten connected to Lucretius insistence that there was no divine hand at work.  Accept that everything is made of 'seeds' and you deny God.
How strange does that seem from our modern viewpoint?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Nature of Things (Books 1-4) - Lucretius

'The Nature of Things' (in Latin 'De Rerum Natura'), is a lengthy poem written in the first century BC.  It was intended to introduce Epicureanism to a Roman audience.  It was evidently quite popular as many things were written about it.  Unfortunately it disappeared and was thought to be lost until an intact copy of it was found in 1417.
The poem is largely scientific in nature, much more so than I was expecting.  It's divided into six books, the first four of which comprise the reading for June.  Each book is somewhat focused on a larger theme.  (The copy found in the Great Books itself is a prose translation.  I read a poetic translation by William Ellery Leonard.  I found it quite readable, though there may be better translations available.)
The science is very interesting, especially for its time.  Lucretius declares that everything is made up of atoms.  Everything is made up of infintesimal particles and the void between them.  From this he describes how the body works and argues that the soul is mortal and dies with each man.  The scientific insight is fairly amazing for the time and you can see how it guided scientists when they finally had microscopes capable of seeing the small stuff.  The spiritual stuff is well reasoned but runs into trouble because it's impossible to prove.  (This is still a problem.)
I'll take some time and go through each of the books and also talk about the book 'The Swerve' by Stephen Greenblatt, which describes the refinding of the poem.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Von Schiller - Poetry

Our next poem is 'Ode to Joy' by Friedrich von Schiller.

O friends, no more these sounds!
Let us sing more cheerful songs,
More full of joy!

Joy, bright spark of divinity,
Daughter of Elysium,
Fire-inspired we tread
Thy sanctuary
Thy magic power re-united
All that custom has divided
All men become brothers
Under the sway of thy gentle wings.

Whoever has created
An abiding friendship,
Or has won
A true and loving wife,
All who can call at least one soul theirs,
Join in our song of praise;
But any who cannot must creep tearfully
Away from our circle.

All creates drink of joy
At nature's breast.
Just and unjust
Alike taste of her gift;
She gave us kisses and the fruit of the vine,
A tried friend to the end.
Even the worm can feel contentment,
And the cherub stands before God!

Gladly, like the heavenly bodies
Which He set on the courses
Through the splendor of the firmament;
Thus, brothers, you should run your race,
As a hero going to conquest.

You millions, I embrace you.
This kiss is for all the world!
Brothers, above the starry canopy
There must dwell a loving Father.
Do you fall in worship, you millions?
World, do you know your Creator?
Seek Him in the heavens;
Above the stars must He dwell.

Maybe it sounds better in the original German.  Oh, don't get me wrong, there is a lot to like here.  The sentiment is certainly appreciated.  It just doesn't seem very . . . poetic to me.  So let me talk about the sentiment.  The main theme is that you should be happy because you are blessed.  You (almost certainly) have some common, wonderful blessings and you should acknowledge that instead of being down and mopey.  In fact, if you're mopey, then go away and don't bring the rest of us down!
A good message, if rather plainly told.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Biography of Lucretius

We don't know much about Lucretius.  He was a Roman poet who lived in the first half of the 1st century BC.  All that we know comes from a few references from other writers.  The most direct is from St Jerome, written some 400 years later: 
"Titus Lucretius the poet is born. Later he was driven mad by a love potion, and when, during the intervals of his insanity, he had written a number of books, which were later emended by Cicero, he killed himself by his own hand in the 44th year of his life."
Most modern scholars doubt the 'love potion' and 'insanity' portions of this very brief biography as St Jerome opposed the philosophy of Lucretius.  Lucretius was an Epicurean, a philosophy that early Christians portrayed as a love of pleasure. 
Lucretius is known for one work, De rerum natura, known in English as 'On the Nature of Things'.  It was popular in its day and it introduced Epicureanism to a large Roman audience.  The piece disappeared for at least a thousand years until it was rediscovered in a German monastery in the early 1400's.  It was circulated by the Humanist movement and became one of the building blocks of the budding study of the Humanities.  

Monday, June 3, 2013

Author Timeline

And back into the BC...

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, June 1, 2013

June Reading

Only one piece.  It's pretty good.

Lucretius: On the Nature of Things (Book1-4) link