Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Exposure to Sin - Milton

One of the interesting arguments that Milton brings forth in 'Areopagitica' is that in order to show true virtue, one must be able to sin.  If your virtue is enforced, is your only choice, then it doesn't mean as much.
I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.
On the face of it, this makes sense to me, but rarely has a society agreed with Milton here.  We shun indecency and vice.  We especially work hard to keep it away from those least likely to fall prey to its temptations.  But of course Milton was speaking of books.
And this is the benefit which may be had of books promiscuously read.
How can we know what we're arguing against if we never hear those arguments?  We run into this today in modern politics where it is increasingly easy to read only opinion that you already agree with.  If your mind isn't exposed to the ideas of the opposition, it will probably never be changed.  Like Milton, I can't praise that 'fugitive and cloistered virtue'. 

Note: I just discovered that the previous couple of entries didn't publish for some reason.  They are below in their proper time slots.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Ralph Waldo Emerson - Poetry

Next up in the poetry list is the 'Concord Hymn' from Ralph Waldo Emerson, a name I recognize but I must admit I know next to nothing of the poet.  This poem is about the Battle of Concord, the first battle in the Revolutionary War.  It was first recited on July 4th, 1837.

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set today a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

Spirit, that made those heroes dare
To die, or leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.

You know what catches my eye after reading through this?  There is no mention of why the battle was fought.  This poem could apply to almost any battle that is fondly remembered.  Only the first stanza gives hints as to what happened.
Which may not be that big of a deal.  This poem debuted some sixty years after the fight took place and Emerson may have reasonably thought that the details would be well known to anyone that came to visit Concord.  Maybe it's a very modern thing that we feel the need to explain and justify our battles to future visitors.
The poetry is fine, though it doesn't really sing for me.  The line 'shot heard round the world' is famous and justly so.  I don't know that anything else here is striking. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Life of a Book - Milton

One of my favorite passages in 'Areopagitica' is when Milton speaks of why we must be careful when 'confine' or 'imprison' books, as is the case when we censor them.
For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.
That's exactly right.  When an author pours his intellect into a book, it is a reflection of the author's intellect or soul.  When that author pours his very best, then it is of the purest soul.  He continues:
Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the earth; but a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.
That's a quote for the ages right there.

Nearly twenty years ago, I first read a book by Umberto Eco called 'The Name of the Rose' and it blew me away.  If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it.  [SPOILER ALERT]  The book is largely set around a medieval library and at that climax of the story it goes up in a conflagration.  After I read the book, I passed it on to my dad and he also loved it.  We talked about this scene and he talked about how it was like a punch to the gut.  All of the monks, all of the other characters in the book were long gone and worm food by the time the book was written.  The books however could have lived forever if they'd survived.  Unfortunately, they were lost, some of them certainly the only copies left.  The world was left much poorer because of it.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

On Poetry and Loving

A lovely piece about a pair of contemporary poets, wife and husband.  I liked this bit:
When someone died whom we loved, we went back to the poets of grief and outrage, as far back as Gilgamesh; often I read aloud Henry King’s “The Exequy,” written in the seventeenth century after the death of his young wife. Poetry gives the griever not release from grief but companionship in grief. Poetry embodies the complexities of feeling at their most intense and entangled, and therefore offers (over centuries, or over no time at all) the company of tears.

'Poetry gives the griever not release from grief, but companionship in grief'.  I kind of think that Aristotle would have agreed.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

September Readings

Just one author, though it counts as two pieces.

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

*I'd thought that the Pensees were like Proverbs, very short.  But in fact, they are more like essays of varying links.  I've just started them and they're well worth reading.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Keats - Poetry

The next poem on the list is one that I've certainly heard of but not one that I know.  It's Keat's 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'.

Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A Flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme;
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape        
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unweari├Ęd,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea-shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of its folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul, to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.

O Attic shape! fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'  

The poem is a bit on the flowery side, for me.  In some ways it seems like an exercise in finding flowery language moreso than expressing an idea.  But that may be unfair.  The entire poem is simply comentary on scenes found on a Grecian urn.  We have a piper who is playing but is obviously 'unheard'.  The music is only in the head of the patron.  There is a tree that will never lose it's leaves.  A bull on its way to be sacrified.  Each scene gets a story written about it.
And then we get to the heart of the poem.  "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - this is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."  Beauty is truth, truth beauty.
Is that true?  Are all true things beautiful?  Or all beautiful things true?  Are beautiful things sometimes beyond the importance of truth?  Are artistic statements true, because of their beauty, rather than out of some pedestrian fidelity to honesty?
Keats thought so.  I'm not so sure.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Aeropagitica - Milton

John Milton is better known (much, much better known) for his poetry, but 'Aeropagitica' is a thing of beauty.  At the time it was written, there was a Licensing Order in place in England in which an author needed permission from a state appointed official before publishing something.  He published this in direct violation of the act.
The arguments are still familiar today.  They should be as Milton lays down what we would think of in America as First Amendment freedoms.  The sad thing is that we'd even need to argue this anymore, but there is some part of humanity that fears free expression. 
He starts with three basic arguments: 1) 'the inventors of it be those whom ye will be loathe to own' (the censors will not be good people), 2) the order will do nothing to stop 'scandalous, seditious, and libellous books' and 3):
Last, that it will be primely to the discouragement of all learning, and the stop of truth, not only by disexercising, and blunting, our abilities in what we know already, but by hindering and cropping the discovery that might be yet further made both in religious and civil wisdom.
This is a huge point, still relevant.  If you restrict the scope in which people can argue, you will make it impossible to learn new things.  Later on he expands on this point by comparing Jesus, the savior, to Truth itself.  He says that it deceivers rent that truth apart into a thousand pieces and scattered them to the winds.  That search still continues, he says, but will be stopped if the search is censored. 
Milton also notes that the censorship will surely spread:
If we think to regulate printing, thereby to rectify manners, we must regulate all recreation and pastimes, all that is delightful to man.  No music must be heard, no song be set or sung, but what is grave and Doric. There must be licensing dancers, that no gesture, motion or deportment be taught our youth but what by their allowance shall be honest;...
Once we accept the logic of broad censorship, it grows and grows.  Our current society has settled this to some extent by simply labeling some writings (music, movies, etc.) so that people have an idea of what to expect.  Parents can (mostly) keep adult materials away from kids.  Violent materials are clearly labeled.  Religious writings are free, with some notable and important exceptions.  Political writings aren't as free as they should be, but in general, opposing viewpoints are allowed. 
I wish we had read this whole piece, or at least excerpts, back in high school.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Leviathan (Book One) - Hobbes

At first I didn't care much for 'Leviathan'.  The first half dozen or so chapters involve Hobbes spelling out his definitions.  He opens by describing how the senses work, of all things.  ("The cause of Sense, is the Externall Body, or Object, which presseth the organ proper to each Sense...".)  Stylistically, I want to change every semi-colon to a period and limit the capital letters but, after some time you get into the rhythm of the piece.  There is a plan to all of this.  Hobbes says:
When a mans Discourse beginneth not at Definitions, it betinneth either at some other contemplation of his own, and then it is still called Opinion;
He didn't want to fall into that trap and her avoided it at length.  I'll admit that my mind wandered at times while going through these chapters of definitions.  I was looking forward to the political thoughts and this was definitely not that.  Oh, there were gems mixed in there.  After speaking about how sometimes a name can embody a whole set of concepts he says:
For all these words, Hee That In His Actions Observeth The Lawes Of His Country, make but one Name, equivalent to this one word, Just.
Another that I liked:
If Livy says the Gods made once a Cow speak, and we believe it not; wee distrust not God therin, but Livy.
It really wasn't until about two thirds of the way through the first book that Hobbes had me hooked.  Ready?
Out of Civil States, There is Alwayes Warre of Every ONe Against Every One Hereby. It is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man. For Warre, consisteth not in Battell onely, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of Time, is to be considered in the nature of Warre; as it is in the nature of Weather. For as the nature of Foule weather, lyeth not in a ahowre or two of rain; but in an inclination thereto of many dayes together: So the nature of War, consisteth not in actuall fighting; but in the known dispostion thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is PEACE.
In other words, without some kind of strong central power that everyone fears (respects?), then every person must be distrustful and in possible conflict with every other person.  If the police force disappeared tomorrow, and all laws were struck down, there would be some short time in which cultural inertia would keep us just.  But that would disappear in time and we would have bloody anarchy.
I'll admit that when I first read through this, I was doubtful.  Blame it on my libertarian leanings, if you'd like.  But it makes perfect sense.  In our modern society we have created certain institutions that are trusted as common power.  I mentioned the police force.  They are (mostly) trusted to do the right thing.  If my neighbor decides that he wants my TV, the police will be on my side.  As will the justice system, the legislature, public opinion, etc.  These common Powers are known and trusted and as a result I can live in PEACE with my neighbors.  Without this, Hobbes notes, then "the life of man [is], solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short."

Monday, August 12, 2013

Biography of John Milton

John Milton was born in 1608 in London.  His father was a composer of some note, successful enough that Milton was raised with a tutor.  At an early age he learned both Latin and Greek.  A contemporary of his said that "When he was young, he studied very hard and sat up very late, commonly till twelve or one o'clock at night".
He spent time at Cambridge, where he was apparently suspended for fighting a few times.  While there he also made contacts with various people, like Roger Williams a theologian.  While at Cambridge, Milton was already marked for his poetic skills.  After school he went to his father's house and studied hard on subjects of his own choosing for the next six years.  He kept a record of his studies, which is now in the British Library.
Milton toured Europe, mostly France and Italy.  While doing so, his poetic skills were given a larger audience and he met several of the leading intellectual lights of the continent.  He skipped a visit to Greece because he wanted to return to England before civil war erupted there.
During the civil war, Milton was outspoken against Catholicism and a vocal proponent of 'republicanism', the belief that the head of state should be elected, not inherited.  He also made an ill considered marriage and wrote about the advisability of divorce.  These writings were attacked and Milton wrote the subject of this month, 'Areopagitica'.
After the war was over, Milton worked for Cromwell's government as the 'Secretary for Foreign Tongues'.  His job was mainly to translate the correspondence into Latin but he also worked as a propagandist and censor.  He wrote several defenses of the regicide of Charles I.  By 1654, he was totally blind and had to dictate his work to assistants.
Cromwell died in 1658 and the Restoration (of the monarchy) period was a hard one for him.  He went into hiding, only emerging after a general pardon had been issued.  He was still arrested and briefly spent time in prison.  Some influential friends sprung him and he lived quietly in London, being forced to move out of the city during the plague of 1665.
In 1667, 'Paradise Lost' was published.  He'd been working on it since at least 1658.  It's widely regarded as one of the best poems ever written in English.  He followed it up with 'Paradise Regained' and other notable poems such as 'Samson Agonistes'.
He died of kidney failure in November of 1674.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Biography of Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes was born in April of 1588, the same year as the famous fight against the Spanish Armada.  He was born prematurely and he said that his mother 'gave birth to twins: myself and fear'.  His father was a vicar and his uncle was a merchant with no family of his own.  Hobbes started studying in Oxford in his middle teens.
While there he struck up a friendship with the son of William Cavendish, the Baron of Hardwick.  They went on the Grand Tour of Europe together.  There Hobbes was exposed to advanced ideas regarding science and philosophy, ideas which he thought were much better than the Scholastic philosophy taught at Oxford.
Hobbes studied ancient Greek and Latin authors in particular.  In 1628 he became the first to translate Thucydides 'History of the Peloponnesian War' into English.
He spent much of the 1630's in Paris, returning in 1637 to a country on the brink of civil war.  He wrote about politics and in 1640, he fled back to Paris out of fear over his writings.  In 1644, royalists also started taking refuge in Paris and for some time Hobbes became a teacher of mathematics to then Prince of Wales, future king Charles II.
In 1651 he published 'Leviathan' and it had a huge impact.  Some cheered him, some wanted him dead.  He was ousted from the company of the royalists and went back to England.
After the restoration of the monarchy, Charles II summoned him to court and gave him a pension.  His works remained controversial and he lived in fear of being killed as a heretic.  A bill was introduced in Parliament against atheism and profaneness.  Hobbes defended himself against charges of heresy but he was never able to publish on subjects of human conduct.  Instead, he wrote an autobiography and translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Hobbes died in 1679.  His last words were 'a great leap in the dark'.

He was one of the earliest and most influential English writers on social contract theory.  He's one of the pillars of modern western thought.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Bryant - Poetry

The next poem is another new one for me.  The poet is William Cullen Bryant and the poem is titled 'Thanatopsis', which means 'view of death'.  He wrote it in 1811, when he was seventeen.  The whole piece is too long, but I'll give you the first part to get a feel for it.  The whole thing is here.

To him who, in the love of Nature, holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A Various language: for his gayer hours
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile
And eloquence of beauty; and she glides
Into his darker musings, with a mild
And healing sympathy, that steals away
Their sharpness, ere he is aware. When thoughts
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight
Over they spirit, and sad images
Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,
And breathless darkness, and the narrow house
Make the shudder, and grow sick at heart,-
Go forth under the open sky, and list
To Nature's teachings, while from all around-
Earth and her waters, and the depths of air-
Comes a still voice:- Yet a few days, and thee
The all-beholding sun shall see no more
In all his course; nor yet in the cold ground,
Where thy pale form was laid, with many tears,
Nor in the embrace of ocean, shall exist
Thy image.

Bryant goes on to say (at length) that we shouldn't fear death in part because we'll be joining the great multitude of people who have already died.  The Earth is one great big beautiful tomb to all who have come before us.  So embrace your fate.
This one didn't do too much for me.  The language is pretty and the message is solid, it's just that, well, maybe the language is a bit too pretty.  Or maybe it's the fact that I desperately want to put some periods in there and end those sentences.  It seems that the message is actually smothered in flowers and I don't care for that, no matter how well it ties in with the message itself.

Author Timeline

We've now gone from ancient times to the Enlightenment.

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

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Readings for August

Two pieces:

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

Both of these pieces were written during the English civil war.  I happened to read some historical fiction set during the Restoration period, Neal Stephenson's 'Quicksilver' and that helped me understand what was going on.  Then I read part of Churchill's 'History of the English Speaking People', roughly the section that covers the 17the century, including all of the civil war.  That also helped me to understand what prompted these writings.