Sunday, July 28, 2013

Shelley - Poetry

It's been a while since I mentioned this and (who knows?) there might be new readers stumbling across this.  The Poetry series is basically me reading the poems from a book called 'The 100 Best Poems of All Time', edited by Leslie Pockell.  The aim of the series is to try and improve my ignorance in matters poetical.  You can read more of the posts by clicking the 'Poetry' tag at the bottom.

The next poem is a familiar one.  It's 'Ozymandias' by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sand stretch far away.

A powerful poem, well deserving of its fame.  "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"  What a line! I'd never noticed, until I typed it just now, how much impact the next line has too.  Nothing beside remains. Whatever fame and power Ozymandias had is gone, scoured away by sand and time.
This falls well in line with Marcus Aurelius, too.
Within a very little while, thou wilt be either ashes, or a sceletum [skeleton]; and a name perchance; and perchance, not so much as a name. And what is that but an empty sound, and a rebounding echo?
Everything ends and is eroded by the world.  And no boast sounds more hollow than one that has totally been defeated by history.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Great Quotes - Marcus Aurelius

Not to belabor the idea that Marcus Aurelius gave great quotes, but I've run across another good example.  The article is about an author named Jessica Francis Kane, who clipped an inspirational quote back when, and it's helped her writing.  The quote:
Do not disturb yourself by picturing your life as a whole; do not assemble in your mind the many and varied troubles which have come to you in the past and will come again in the future, but ask yourself with regard to every present difficulty: 'What is there in this that is unbearable and beyond endurance?' You would be ashamed to confess it! And then remind yourself that it is not the future or what has passed that afflicts you, but always the present, and the power of this is much diminished if you take it in isolation and call your mind to task if it thinks that it cannot stand up to it when taken on its own.
 She focuses hard on the question in the middle: 'What is there in this that is unbearable and beyond endurance?'.  There are very few activities in life that really fit that category, especially in writing.  More often, we get pulled from a task because our mind wanders or because something else simply seems more appealing.  Here is what she says:
Sometimes I thought surviving on peanut butter and ramen noodles might be it. Other times I thought about how Marcus Aurelius's concerns and mine differed, but I was inspired by the idea that the spirit of them, separated by so many centuries, was similar. His words helped me get to the desk, and stay there, during all the years it took me to write my first good story. Writing is hard, but is it unbearable? Who would say that it is? Even asking the question, I'm reminded of the one exclamation in the passage: "You would be ashamed to confess it!" His words helped me navigate rejection, which is certainly no fun, but if you ask yourself if it's unbearable, you find yourself preparing the next self-addressed stamped envelope pretty quickly. 
 Yet another lesson I want to somehow give to my children.  And it wouldn't hurt if I fully learned it myself...

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Find Your Nature - Marcus Aurelius

Another theme that runs through 'Meditations' is that of one's own nature.
Why should any of these things that happen externally, so much distract thee? Give thyself leisure to learn some good thing, and cease roving and wandering to and fro. Thou must also take heed of another kind of wander, for they are idle in their actions, who toil and labor, in this life, and have no certain scope to which to direct all their motions, and desires.
I love the idea to 'give leisure to learn some good thing'.  One problem that I've had all of my life is that I'm torn between half a dozen good ideas and have trouble committing to any of them.  If I'd followed this advice, I would have settled on something early and driven towards it.  I can only imagine this would have made me happier.  (Yes, I still can follow this advice, and will!, but it looks different when one is nearly forty.)
These things thou must always have in mind: What is the nature of the universe, and what is mine - in particular: This unto that what relation it hath: what kind of part, of what kind of universe it is: And that there is nobdy that can hinder thee, but that thou mayest always both do and speak those things which are agreeable to that nature, whereof thou art a part.
What is your nature?  Once you find that, you can find how it relates to the nature of the universe and then you're all set.  But be careful out there:
Never esteem of anything as profitable, which shall ever constrain thee either to break thy faith, or to lose thy modesty; to hate any man, to suspect, to curse, to dessemble, to lust after anything, that requireth the secret of walls or veils.
Stay true to your nature!  Don't sacrifice your morals for a quick buck.  And don't do anything that you'd be ashamed to talk about in public.  And keep the proper attitude towards death:
Let death surprise rue when it will, and where it will, I maybe a happy man, nevertheless. For he is a happy man, who in his lifetime dealeth unto himself a happy lot and portion. A happy lot and portion is, good inclinations of the soul, good desires, good actions.
Oh, and one more related quote.  Seriously, a page a day calendar for Marcus Aurelius is a no brainer.  If I did needlepoint, I'd make a wall hanging of this next one for my kids.
The art of true living in this world is more like a wrestler's, than a dancer's practice. For in this they both agree, to teach a man whatsoever falls upon him, that he may be ready for it, and that nothing may cast him down.
Marcus Aurelius (and the stoics) had a certain and firm view of how to live.  It's not an easy path, but it's respectable.  Find your nature, keep things in perspective and be ready for the falls.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Lord Byron - Poetry

I've heard of Lord Byron before (I believe that people sometimes refer to his time as the 'Byronic age') but before tonight, I couldn't have tied him to a single poem.  My fault of course.  As I've mentioned, I'm ignorant, too ignorant on poetry.  This poem is simply called 'She Walks in Beauty'.

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellow'd to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impair'd the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o'er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear the dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o'er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!

That opening line is a killer.  Serious advice to anyone reading this that wants to do some wooing, memorize that first stanza and look for an opening.  I have a vague memory that this poem was used for just that purpose in 'Dead Poet's Society'.
The poem works both in terms of style and message.  It reminds me of Shakespeare's love sonnets and that's about as high a praise as can be given.  An excellent poem.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Readings for August

We've got two pieces for August:

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

I first heard of Milton's work here, and after rewatching it, I'm quite excited now to read it.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Death - Marcus Aurelius

One of the themes that Marcus Aurelius returned to again and again was death.  He cautioned people that death will continually wipe the slate clean:
In sum, remember this, that within a very little while, both thou and he shall both be dead, and after a  little while more, not so much as your names and memories shall be remaining. 
Don't worry too much, time will move on.  (Or as Heinlein said, "Time wounds all heels".)  Aurelius also said that you shouldn't worry too much about the prospect of death:
Not as though thou hadst thousands of years to live. Death hangs over thee: whilest yet thou livest, whilest though mayest, be good.
Which doesn't mean that you shouldn't prepare:
Thou art now ready to die, and yet hast thou not attained to that perfect simplicity: thou art yet subject to many troubles and perturbations; not yet free from all fear and suspicion of external accidents; nor yet either so meekly disposed towards all men, as thou shouldest; or so affected as one, whose only study and only wisdom is, to be just in all his actions.
Sometimes he's a little bit bleak:
Within a very little while, thou wilt be either ashes, or a sceletum [skeleton]; and a name perchance; and perchance, not so much as a name. And what is that but an empty sound, and a rebounding echo?
If I had a bunch of money that I didn't know what to do with, I'd put that last quote on a billboard in Hollywood.  At one point, while reading this, I though to myself that Stoicism seems like an old man's philosophy.  Clearly there was lots of thought of death, and how people should prepare for it.  It's easy to think of Marcus Aurelius sitting at a campfire while on campaign and contemplating death. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Meditations - Marcus Aurelius

'Meditations' is split into twelve books, each one again split into numbered sections.  The overall length is fairly short but it took some time for me to get through it.  After twenty or so of the sections, I found it hard to concentrate on more.  I was too busy chewing on what had already been written.  I could only do about half of a 'book' at a time.  If I read it again, I'd rather do so over a much longer period of time.  If anyone reading this is thinking of working the way through the list, I'd suggest tackling 'Meditations' bit by bit while reading through the earlier pieces of the second year.
Is it good?  In some ways it's fantastic.  It would be easy to take parts of Marcus Aurelius and form a pretty good motivational course.  He writes about how:
" endure labor; nor to need many things; when I have anything to do it myself rather than by others; not to meddle with many businesses; and not easily to admit of any slander."
Which all seems pretty useful.  He was, of course, one of the most prominent speakers of the Stoic philosophy.  (There's a pretty good post on the differences between the Stoics and the Epicureans here.)  It's not always a comfortable philosophy but cultures that have employed it have been wildly successful.  I'm thinking mostly of the Romans and the English empires.) 
The books themselves repeat several themes over and over.  I'll cover some of them in the next couple of weeks.  I didn't find all of these things convincing, but there is a ton of wisdom in 'Meditations'.  All in all, it's a wildly quotable book.  You could easily make a 'Meditations' page a day calendar, but I don't know if it would sell today.
More to come!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Hunt - Poetry

The next poem in the book is a new one for me.  It's titled 'Abou Ben Adhem' and it's written by Leigh Hunt, a poet whom I've never heard of.

Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold:-
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the presence in the room he said,
"What writest though?"- The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered, "the names of those who love the Lord."
"And is mine one?" said Abou. "Nay, not so,"
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerily still; and said, "I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men."

The angel wrote and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love God had blest,
And lo! Ben Adhem's name led all the rest.

An interesting story.  Ben Adhem (an Arabic name?), loves his fellow men more than the Lord and on account of this is 'blest'.  I'm trying to work out why the angel visited him the first night.  To encourage him to love the Lord?  Clearly Ben Adhem must be a good man, or at least good to his fellow man.  When the angel visits on the second night, the message is that being good to your fellow man was good enough to receive God's blessings.  This seems a bit heavy handed.
How about the poetry of the piece?  It's a simple rhyme scheme, but if you pay attention to the line, the meaning of the phrases goes all to pot.  There isn't a phrase that really stands out to me either.  I can see why a poem like this would get attention, but it's not among my favorites.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Importance of Lucretius

When I was scanning down the lists of authors and works for this reading project, I'm sure I went right over Lucretius.  The name sounds vaguely familiar but that's all.  Even when I've talked to people about what I'm reading, the name 'Lucretius' only brings back a blank stare.  (The same was true with Nichomachus!)  So how did he get into the great books?  Why should he still be read?
'The Nature of All Things' is very important for two related reasons.  Firstly, it set up the questions for the scientific revolutions of the Enlightenment age.  Lucretius firmly believed that everything was made up of atoms.  Things so small that they were beyond the proof of the tools of the day.  He had some idea of how they interacted with each other.  He dismissed other prominent theories.  Many, many scientists followed after him trying to prove or disprove his theories.  It's easy to sit here hundreds of years later and say, well of course he was on to something, but there was an actual conflict over atomic theory and who knows what the path would have been if his poem wasn't found.
Which leads to the second part.  The Humanists of the 14th and 15th century believed that they could recover the ancient glories of Rome if they understood how the Romans thought and what they believed.  They worked hard to find lost works, including the writings of Lucretius.  The Roman works led them to various Greek works and a repopularization of Aristotle and Plato.  The Humanities was born, and shortly after followed the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and our modern age.  We owe them much.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Coleridge - Poetry

The next poem in the book is Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan'.  The story goes that Coleridge was woken from an opium dream and immediately wrote this down.  The whole thing is a bit long for a blog post, but you can find it here.  If you haven't read it before, I'd encourage you to do so, the whole thing is excellent.  This is the first part:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river; ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

Who wouldn't want to visit that pleasure-dome?  Doesn't it sound lovely?  Ancient forests and blossoming incence trees.  Walls and towers and gardens with rillls of water.  Wish I could go there tomorrow.
The anecdote about the opium is intriguing.  Many people have noted the connection between drug use and creativity.  Even beside the heavy stuff, caffeine and nicotine both seem to boost creative types.  I don't know if that's enough to outweight the negatives, but it's food for thought.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Biography of Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius was born into a well to do, political family in southern Spain.  After his father died, he was adopted by his grandfather and, after many maneuverings (from others!) and marriages and such, he became Emperor of Rome.  Of all the Great Books authors, he easily gained the highest authority.  He was regarded as the last of the five 'good emperors' by none other than Machiavelli and Gibbon.  They ruled with 'wisdom and virtue'. 
He wrote 'Meditations' while on campaign between 170 and 180 AD.  While he was emperor, he fought significant wars in Parthia (Armenia and northern Iraq) and against the Germanic tribes.  He died in 180 near modern day Vienna.  He'd been emperor for 18 years. 
The next emperor was Commodus, his son.  Marcus Aurelius had been part of a line of emperors that had been placed in succession by adoption.  That ended with him and Rome was worse off for it.  (Commodus is the emperor portrayed in the movie Russel Crowe movie 'Gladiator', though take the history with a large grain of salt.)
'Meditations' marked Marcus Aurelius as one of the prime spokesmen for the Stoic philosophy.  He was introduced to it by a teacher of his, Diognetus, early in life.  He wore simple clothes and avoided the trappings of wealth. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Author Timeline

We're back in the AD.

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, July 2, 2013

Reading for July

Just one thing for July:

Marcus Aurelius: Meditations link

I'm about half way through right now.  'Meditations' is a long list of thoughts.  I'd suggest reading it a book per day (It's divided into 12 (XII) books.)