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