Saturday, December 27, 2014

Reflections on Year Three

For the readings of year one, I thought that the theme was 'challenge', as in the writers of the Great Books constantly challenged the way things were done.  Year two didn't have as clean a theme, I guess, though maybe it had a series of themes.  Year three?  It had quite a bit to do with power.  How power is granted, how it is seized and what the proper forms of government are.
  • Prometheus is about a god that gave power from the 'gods' and gave it to people.
  • Herodotus wrote about the Persians attempt to seize Greece.
  • Thucydides wrote about the problems of balance of power and subsequent war in Greece.
  • Plato wrote about legitimate forms of government.
  • So did Aristotle.
  • Tacitus wrote about the power struggles of 1st century Rome.  And it wasn't pretty.
  • Aquinas wrote about the law and whether it is good or not.
  • Shakespeare's Macbeth is a story about maniacal will to power.
  • Milton's Paradise Lost is, in part, a story of how Satan refused to be ruled.
  • Mill argued that representative government is the best form of all.
This is one of the themes of western thought, that through thought we can find a better way to organize and rule ourselves. 

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Quick Thoughts on Year Three

These are some of my thumbnail thoughts on the past year's reading.  I'll have something more in depth with a shot at 'theme' next week.

1. Didn't know that Prometheus was a god. Didn't realize that he gave mankind more than fire. Per Aeschylus, was responsible for great strides of technological advancement.
2. Herodotus always enjoyable. Learned a lot about the 300 at Thermopalaye. Not hard to tell why they become such a legend.
3. Peloponessian War was a mess, mostly self inflicted wounds to Greek society/culture. Landmark book was crucial in understanding the war.
4. Interesting musings on who should hold power and why. Typical Plato in lack of clear answers but excellent questions.
5. Well thought out categories for logic. Included my favorite chart of the series. Maybe all time favorite.
6. Great read in connection with (4). Different forms of government with arguments on weaknesses and strengths of all.
7. Fun math puzzles. Enormous amount of intelligence went into they begining of geometry.
8. Roman upper society was crazy about power. Who had power meant literal life or death for followers. Repetive to a suprising amount. Very primitive justice system.
9. Great amount of admiration for Aquinas system. Easy to see his influence on how people thought about law.
10. Too much courtly love for my taste. Tragic story of love on the part of Troilus. Not sure as much about Cressida.
11. Awful, awful, Lady Macbeth. Almost crazy the lengths of awful nn to seize the throne. Also, why are witches so tricksy?
12. Hugely influential. Suprised that Satan is so sympathetic. The serpent got a raw deal.
13. Interesting thoughts on language. Very interesting that Locke makes room for muddled people, not just elite clear thinkers.
14. What's the German word for 'incomprehensible'?
15. Mill is so good. Most interesting was argument that rep. govt. is best but all countries nn what fits them best.
16. Basic groundwork for chemistry. Dull for laypeople.
17. Intriguing discussions on mercy and punishment.  Interesting church/state talks.
18. How much do repressed memories change your outlook?  How good is the science behind hysteria?

Readings for January

A busy month of Greek theater up ahead.

January
Euripides:

Monday, December 15, 2014

Origin and Development of Psychology - Freud

The 'Origin and Development of Psychology' is a series of five lectures from Sigmund Freud.  The entirety of the lectures is small and I'd encourage anyone to read them (link to them here).  His speaking is very interesting and accessible.
I wasn't sure what to expect from Freud.  My studies in formal psychology is very limited but I have the impression that Freud's thinking is now regularly classified as pseudo science.  From this, I thought that he was most likely a charlatan but that wasn't correct.  Now I think that he was well meaning but his results are most charitably thought of as an early step on the road to understanding.

In the first lecture, Freud speaks of another Viennese physician named Joseph Breuer.  Breuer found a young woman who was suffering from hysterics.  Under hypnosis he was able to find the root causes of her distress.  For example, she went through a summer almost completely unable to drink water.  Even if she was thirsty, the thought of drinking repulsed her.  He found a buried memory of her seeing an unsavory dog drinking out of a glass.  Once this memory came out, she was able to drink again.
From this, and other experiences, Freud worked on a theory that psychological conditions are caused by stresses in early life.  These stresses often become buried, or 'repressed', and work to poison the mind of normal healthy actions.  Frankly, I'm not sure what modern science has to say about this.  On the face of it, and in situations like the dog and the water, this makes sense.  The question is just how much does it explain?  Is every kink in the human psyche the result of some childhood episode?  How would you test such a thing?
When we think of scientific efforts to test theories, we look for things like control groups.  If every childhood has some trauma, then there would be no control group.  And of course, every childhood does.  It's part of the human condition that everyone, at some point, runs into some problem.  And yet if those problems echo forward to create neurosis, then most everyone should have the most common ones. 

Which isn't to say that I mean to kick Freud around.  The questions of why we do what we do are fundamental.  If a scientific approach can help us tackle them, the world will be a better place for it.  Freud deserves some credit for those early steps, even if they aren't certainly in the right direction.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Classic Links

The Non-Fiction books that everyone should read (graphic) link

Plato and Aristotle and modern politics link

Of Course Shakespeare was Catholic link

Democracy and Art link

What College Students could Learn from the Bacchae link 

Philosophers and Candyland (Existintial Comics) link

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Readings for Year Four

I think it's time to get prepared for the next year of Great Books.  As I did last year, I'll include links to online versions when I can find them.  I'll use Project Gutenberg when I can, otherwise I'll go with what looks best on a cursory basis. 

January
Euripides:
February
Plato: Republic (books 6-8) link
Plato: Theaetetus link

March
Aristotle: Physics (book 4, chapters 1-5, 10-14) link
Aristotle: Metaphysics (book 1, chapter 1-2, book 4, book 6 chapter 1, book 11 chapter 1-4) link

April
St Augustine: Confessions (books 9-13) link
St Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologica (part 1, QQ 16-17 and 84-88) link

May
Montaigne: Apology for Raimond de Sebonde link

June
Galileo: Two New Sciences (third day through Scholium of Theorem II) link
Bacon: Novum Organum (Preface, Book 1) link

July
Descartes: Discourse on the Method link
Newton: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (prefaces, definitions, axioms, general scholium) link

August
Locke: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (book 2) link

September
Hume: An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding link
Kant: A Critique of Pure Reason (prefaces, introduction, transcendental aesthetic) link

October
Melville: Moby Dick link

November
Dostoevsky: The Brothers Karamazov (part 3 and 4) link

December
James: Principles of Psychology (chapters 15 and 20) link

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Author Timeline

BC
Aeschylus  525-456
Herodotus  484-425
Thucydides  460-395
Plato  428-348
Aristotle  384-322
Euclid  Unknown (300 BC?)
AD
Tacitus  56-117
St Thomas Aquinas  1225-1274
Chaucer  1343-1400
Shakespeare  1564-1616
Milton  1608-1674
Locke  1632-1704
Kant  1724-1804
Mill  1806-1873
Lavoisier  1743-1794
Dostoevsky  1821-1881
Freud  1856-1939

Note that Freud is the last, most recent author in the Great Books.  IIRC, he is the only writer to have lived in the 20th century.  In related news, his  status as a 'great' author is probably the most disputed.  Still worth reading though. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Books Read in November

For various reasons, November is the busiest month of the year for me.  Its got elections, all family holidays and some big birthdays.  For some time I was doing NaNoWriMo (where people write 50,000 word novels in the month of November) but I didn't even try this year.  In fact, the only time saving for me was discovering that I can read my Kindle while I walk on a treadmill at the gym. 
  • I'm continuing to read 'Brothers Karamazov'.  The second half of it is due for next November.  
  • In October, I read 'Will in the World' by Stephen Greenblatt.  The book is a biographical look at Shakespeare.  It attempts to reconcile what little is known of his life with things that appear in his plays.  It's interesting but not convincing.  In fact, for nearly every theory, Greenblatt points out counter evidence.  A good read for general info and interesting, but I wouldn't take it to the bank.
  • Friends of mine convinced me to give the Game of Thrones books a read.  I'm part way through the third book now.  The story is something of a retelling of the War of the Roses set in a lightly fantasy world.  The writing follows several characters and virtually no one is safe.  It's compelling and very readable.  The series has five books so far with (at least) a sixth one due at some point in the future.  After the third one, I plan on setting it aside for a while.
On one more book related note, right now Amazon is selling one of my all time favorite, stuck on an island books, Umberto Eco's 'The Name of the Rose' for only $2.99.  The book is a murder mystery set in a medieval Italian monastery.  The mystery is tied up in some distant arguments about theology and an enormous library shaped like a labyrinth.  Great stuff!

I'll post the reading list for year four in a couple of weeks. 

Reading for December

Just one and it's a brief one.

December

Freud: The Origin and Development of Psycho-Analysis link

Sunday, November 23, 2014

First Lines (part 2) - Poetry

Way, way back when, I looked at the notable lines from the first third or so of the poems that I'd read.  My theory was that one of the ways to tell a quality poem is that a line from it had entered the public consciousness to the point where a quotation would be well understood.  This is, of course, subjective to my own experience but that's the only one I have to work with.  I said I'd go back and do more but I don't think I ever did.  Let me fix that now.

Ode to Joy by von Schiller - nothing jumps out at me here.
Lay of the Last Minstrel by Walter Scott - nothing here.
Kubla Khan by Coleridge - The opening: 'In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure dome decree...'
Visit from St Nicholas by Clark - virtually the entire thing though the end 'Happy Christmas to all/And to all a good night!' is probably the best remembered.
Abou Ben Adhem by Hunt - no, but it should be.
She Walks in Beauty by Byron - The opening 'She walks in beauty like the night' is fairly well known.
Ozymandis by Shelly - The most remembered is 'Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair' though the whole thing is fairly well known I think.
Thanatopsis by Bryant - nothing in this one.
Ode on a Grecian Urn by Keats - 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty' is well known.
Concord Hymn by Emerson - Quite fitting to the subject at hand, the phrase 'shot heard round the world' is universally known.
How Do I Love Thee? by Barrett Browning - I'm guessing even young school children have heard 'How do I love thee?/Let me count the ways'.
Paul Revere's Ride by Longfellow - Here we have 'One if by land, two if by sea'.
Barbara Frietchie by Whittier - Fine poem, but no phrases that stand out to me.
El Desdichado by Nerval - Nothing that I recognize but I wouldn't be surprised if phrases here are quoted in his native France.
The Raven by Poe - "Quoth the Raven, 'Nevermore!'".  Yep, that's stood the test of time.
Ulysses by Tennyson - The line that stays for me is 'for my purpose holds/To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths/Of all the western stars until I die.'  This is undoubtedly due to my Heinlein influence though.  What a great poem!
Old Ironsides by Holmes - No, nothing that stand out.
The Owl and the Pussycat by Lear - I think the whole thing is fairly well known but the closing 'They danced by the light of the moon.' is probably the best known.

Of those twenty, thirteen added some line that would be fairly well known.  Again, there may be some translation issues here.  Or just ignorance on my part.
I don't mean to slight the other poems at all.  Some of them are very good, but without that one strong poetic turn of phrase.  There's no shame in this, certainly.  Poems are built for many reasons.  Those that tell a strong story or have a special moral to them aren't bad simply because they didn't have some small portion that took off.



Friday, November 21, 2014

Classic Links

I know that posting has been rather sparse of late and I'm sorry.  One way I've thought of making up for that is to post links to things related to the Great Books.  This may become a regular feature.

A High School replaces 'Hamlet' with a non-fiction podcast 'Serial' link

Treating Homer like a philosopher.  link

On reading older books link

Off color jokes from ancient playwrights link 

Infographic of deaths in the Iliad link

Greek Hold'em link


Let me know in the comments if you'd like more of this.



Readings for December

Just one and it's a small one.

December
Freud: The Origin and Development of Psycho-Analysis link

I've already started this and it's very readable.   

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Brothers Karamazov - Dostoevsky

(This covers only the first two parts of the book or roughly the first 2/5s.)

'The Brothers Karamazov' is the story of a wealthy, crazy, Russian family.  Well, they're not all crazy, though the father most certainly is.  The father, Fyodor Karamazov, is wealthy and something of a fool.  In fact, even when he knows better, he can't help but say something foolish.  This has alienated him from his sons and many of the townspeople.  The rest of the townspeople basically put up with him because he's wealthy.
The sons are all his but they come from two different mothers, with the eldest being a half brother to the others.  The eldest is named Dimitri and he is somewhat like his father in that they both act on impulse, rather than reason.  Dimitri was a soldier and has already squandered his inheritance.  He's also bound up in a web of romances that cause him no end of trouble.
The middle son, Ivan, doesn't get much space in the first half of the novel.  He is an intellectual and has written a treatise on the relationship between the church and the state that has many people talking.  I say that he doesn't get much space, but the conversation that he has with his little brother is the highpoint of the first half.
The youngest is named Alexi and he is the spiritual one of the bunch.  Alexi is a novice at a local monastery and (most likely) the hero of the novel.  His brothers look to him for help.  He is well respected by the town and has been given a special place by the Elder of the monastery.

This is a very talky novel and excellent because of it.  Dostoevsky uses the differing personalities and conflicts to simply talk about the various issues of the time.  When Ivan talks about how the state should be like and unlike the church, he's talking about something that was important then, as the idea of a secular government was coming into focus. 
One of the most important topics discussed is that of mercy.  When Dostoevsky was younger, he had been sentenced to execution by firing squad.  The sentence was commuted at the last minute and this (obviously!) had a strong impression on him.  He argues for mercy and against harsh penalties.
When Ivan speaks about the state, he argues that it is unduly harsh, both in capital punishment and also in using prison.  This cuts a person off from society and only embitters them.  The criminal is bound to become worse, not better.
"...all these sentences to exile with hard labor, and formerly with flogging also, reform no one, and what's more, deter hardly a single criminal, and the number of crimes does not diminish but is continually on the increase." ... "If anything does preserve society, even in our time, and does regenerate and transform the criminal, it is only the law of Christ speaking in his conscience. It is only by recognizing his wrong-doing as a son of a Christian society - that is - of the Church - that he recognizes his sin against society - that is, against the Church. So that it is only against the Church and not against the State, that the criminal of today can recognize that he has sinned."
I imagine that this passage gave people pause in 1880.  It did for me today, in 2014. 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Constitutional Reader

I love, love, love this chart from Hillsdale College regarding the events and writing that went into the Constitution.  Only after reading a number of works from the 1600s and 1700s was I really aware of the foundational writings that went into the philosophy behind the American revolution.  This timeline does an excellent job of highlighting that.

Author Timeline

BC
Aeschylus  525-456
Herodotus  484-425
Thucydides  460-395
Plato  428-348
Aristotle  384-322
Euclid  Unknown (300 BC?)
AD
Tacitus  56-117
St Thomas Aquinas  1225-1274
Chaucer  1343-1400
Shakespeare  1564-1616
Milton  1608-1674
Locke  1632-1704
Kant  1724-1804
Mill  1806-1873
Lavoisier  1743-1794
Dostoevsky  1821-1881
Freud  1856-1939

Monday, November 3, 2014

Stop Making Fun of Philosophy!

Interesting article here about the modern value of philosophy
We should all examine our lives and the fundamental nature of living. But few of us do. American culture is famously pragmatic. We are only interested in what works, what doesn't, and what will put a dollar in my pocket. We make jokes about philosophy majors. ("Lotta lucrative career prospects there, amirite?") We don't see the value in going around asking questions like "What is Beauty?" and "What is Justice?" and "Why is there something rather than nothing?" But there is tremendous value in asking these questions, even if that value is not quantifiable in U.S. currency.
 And:
And at the level of our society, there is a dramatic pragmatic stake in philosophy. We live in enormously complex, technologically advanced societies where we have the power to do a great deal of harm and a great deal of good. Our societies are built on complex institutions (such as "democracy," "the free market," and "science"), which are in turn premised on ways of looking at the world and on ideas about the world and humanity — in other words, on philosophy.
But we have become like people in a Star Trek episode whose planet is ruled by a benevolent artificial intelligence, and who live such charmed lives as a result that, over generations, they have forgotten how the computer works, so that when it breaks down, they are completely powerless to repair it, and have to call the Enterprise for help. Our entire civilization is built on technology called "philosophy" that, in many ways, we are losing a basic understanding of.
 Well, I agree of course.  If I disagreed, I wouldn't be nearly three years into the Great Books.  I never would have started a ten year reading list.  But let's turn that around.  I've spent the past three years reading the Great Books.  What has it gotten me?
  • The most obvious thing that has happened is that my grasp of history is much, much stronger.  I've been a history buff for as long as I can remember.  (This is true of almost all strategy gamers.)  The Great Books have given me much better perspective on the ancient Greeks and Romans.  I now have a more comprehensive feel for the Renaissance.  I know much more about the political writings that led to our modern governments.  And I'll be adding seven more years of learning!
  • I've come to appreciate a more high level approach to important questions.  'What is justice?', asked Socrates.  Now I ask that too.  I look for the basic, over-arching questions and work from there.  Aristotle has given me a much greater appreciation for finding the right categories to make comparisons from.
  • Several writers, most notably Montaigne and Marcus Aurelius, have made me think about my general approach to life.  (And now that I've put them both in the same sentence, I can't help but think how wonderful an Odd Couple type TV show would be with the two of them forced to live together!)  I am using a somewhat more distanced approach when I think about how I live.  A more 'examined life', if you will.
I'm not any closer to answering the big questions that folks like Kant wrestled with and I probably never will be.  That's ok.  I'm still a better and more informed person.  Who wouldn't want that?

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Disappearing Spoon

Back when I was writing about Lavoisier, I mentioned that a casual reader may get more out of a history of the period rather than Lavoisier's actual writings.  Well, I found one that I can recommend.  It's called 'The Disappearing Spoon', by Sam Kean [Amazon link]. 
The book is a walk through the periodic tables.  Most (if not every) element gets a story and some of them are wildly entertaining.  Take for instance, the lengths that Neils Bohr went, to hide some golden Nobel prizes from the Nazis:
On the day the Nazis came to Copenhagen, a Hungarian chemist named Georgy de Hevesy (he would one day win a Nobel of his own) was working in Bohr's lab. He wrote later, "I suggested that we should bury the medal(s)," but Bohr thought no, the Germans would dig up the grounds, the garden, search everywhere in the building. Too dangerous.
So Hevesy's thoughts turned to chemistry. Maybe he could make the medals disappear. He took the first one, he says, and "I decided to dissolve it. While the invading forces marched in the streets of Copenhagen, I was busy dissolving Laue's and also James Franck's medals."
They put the dissolved remainder into some beakers and stashed them away.  The Nazis ransacked the labs but ignored the beakers.  Pretty clever, eh?  The best part though, after the war, they precipitated the gold out and had the medals recast.  That's wonderful!

As I'm going through the Great Books, I'm recognizing where my strengths and weaknesses are with different types of books.  The science and math readings (and the Kant!) are not going to be my friends.  After reading 'The Disappearing Spoon', I have a much better grasp on chemistry and the people who have done so much of the work over the past few centuries.
Highly recommended.   

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sylvia Plath - Poetry

This is the final poem in the book.  (As a reminder, I'm reading the plays from this book here.)  I'll do at least one summary post (I promise!) in which I'll talk about what I've learned.
This last poem is from Sylvia Plath, a name that I've often heard.  I've never read her work before though.  This poem is called 'Daddy'.  (It's lengthy, but I'll add the whole thing.)

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breath or Achoo.

Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time-
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal

And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters of beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
Ach, du.

In the German tongue, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
But the name of the town is common.

My Polack friend
Says there are a dozen or two.
So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw.

It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene.

An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gypsy ancesstress and my weird luck
And my Tarot pack and my Tarot pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.

I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You-

Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Facist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
And less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.

But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a mode of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look

And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I'm finally through.
The black telephone's off at the root,
The voiced just can't worm through.

If I've killed one man, I've killed two-
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.

There's a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through.

Wow.  What a vicious poem!  From the blurb in the book, Plath's father died when she was eight.  He was a professor.  I'm not sure that the Nazi comparisons are fair, but it's hard to believe that they would be.  So...a metaphor?  Anger with her father for dying when she was so young?  That makes sense, though the anger seems to be out of proportion.  (Which I can say, safe in the knowledge that I'm 40 and both my parents are still alive...)
Ok, so move past that.  Does the poetry of the poem sing to you?  I confess, it doesn't for me.  It could be that the imagery is so horrible that it buries the art.  I'm open to some learnin' here but I'll be honest.  I didn't care for this poem.


Monday, October 20, 2014

Reading for November

One piece

November
Dostoevsky: The Brothers Karamazov (Part I-II) link

This is basically the first half of the book.  The second half comes up next year.  I'm reading the whole thing in one shot this year.  In fact, I'm about half way through part three and I can tell you that this is excellent.  Highly recommended! 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Anne Sexton - Poetry

Another new poet for me.  The blurb says that she was a friend of Sylvia Plath, whom I have heard of.  The poem has a less than cheerful title, 'Wanting to Die'.

Since you ask, most days I cannot remember.
I walk in my clothing, unmarked by that voyage.
Then the almost unnameable lust returns.

Even then I have nothing against life.
I know well the grass blades you mention,
the furniture you have placed under the sun.

But suicides have a special language.
Like carpenters they want to know which tools.
The never ask why build.

Twice I have so simply declared myself,
have possessed the enemy, eaten the enemy,
have taken on his craft, his magic.

In this way, heavy and thoughtful,
warmer than oil or water,
I have rested, drooling at the mouth-hole.

I did not think of my body at needle point.
Even the cornea and the leftover urine were gone.
Suicides have already betrayed the body.

Still-born, they don't always die,
but dazzled, they can't forget a drug so sweet
that even children would look on and smile.

To thrust all that life under your tongue!-
that , all by itself, becomes a passion.
Death's a sad Bone; bruised, you'd say,

and yet she waits for me, year after year,
to so delicately undo an old wound,
to empty my breath from its bad prison.

Balanced there, suicides sometimes meet,
raging at the fruit, a pumped-up moon,
leaving the bread they mistook for a kiss,

leaving the page of the book carelessly open,
something unsaid, the phone off the hook
and the love, whatever it was, an infection.

A couple of months ago, when Robin Williams committed suicide, I got into one of those internet arguments, you know the type.  The other person works with death and has had to comfort the families of suicide.  She was (justly) angry with those who have suicided and was upset with people that were putting Robin Williams on a pedestal.
I could understand the anger, but thought that this was a bad way to prevent future suicides.  I don't know if anyone would stop from killing themselves because they thought people would be angry afterward.  In fact, that thought of future reaction might be a goad for them to go on.  The approach that made the most sense to me was the one where people talked about depression being an outside force ('not really you') and how it could be combated.
This poem seems to line up with that.  'and yet she [Death] waits for me, year after year/to do delicately undo an old wound/to empty my breath from its bad prison'.  If you tried to tell this person that you'll be pissed at them, they'd simply think that you were afraid to leave your prison cell.  They wouldn't understand you and that misunderstanding would go both ways.

I would love to hear Socrates discuss this poem.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Elements of Chemistry - Lavoisier

I skipped writing a bio for Lavoisier.  You can read one here, if you're interested.  Of note, he is considered by many to be the 'father of chemistry'.  After reading part one of 'Elements of Chemistry', it's not hard to see why.

I won't go into great depth here.  'Elements' is very much in the vein of Great Books of basic science and math texts.  The usefulness of reading these as a layperson is debatable.  I'm of the opinion that if you're really interested in the early days of chemistry, that you're better off reading a history of the period rather than Lavoisier's actual work. 
But I don't mean to turn people away from the work.  'Elements' is very readable.  It becomes repetitious with experiments, but at least they're easy to follow.

Having said that, there are some things to appreciate.  The book opens with Lavoisier explaining why molecular differences change with temperature and how that makes the difference between solids, liquids and gases.  He also explains the role that pressure plays in liquid states.  It seems obvious once I'd read it, but this was honestly new to me.
It really is amazing the things that Lavoisier did.  I was reminded again and again of Lucretius and the poetic atomic theories.  Lavoisier actually took various substances and tested and experimented to see what would happen with them.  This meant heating and boiling.  This meant testing quantities of trapped air.  It meant weighing things.  And so on and so on.
'Elements' was published so that Lavoisier could get his findings out to other chemists.  I'm sure they redid his experiments and compared results.  Chemistry was put on a solid footing. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Representative Government - Mill

[This covers the first six chapters only.]

Mill is always an interesting read and 'Considerations on Representative Government' is no exception.  This was published in 1861, before democracy became widely acclaimed.  One of the interesting things about 'Representative Government' is that it's not an argument for everyone to drop their current system and switch.  In fact, Mill says:
...forms of government are not a matter of choice. We must take them, in the main, as we find them. Governments can not be constructed by premeditated design. They "are not made but grow." Our business with them, as with the other facts of the universe, is to acquaint ourselves with their natural properties, and adapt ourselves with them.
And even if the 'organic' opportunity occurs, it may not last.
But there are also cases in which, though not averse to a form of government-possibly even desiring it-a people may be unwilling or unable to fulfill its conditions. They may be incapable of fulfilling such of them as are necessary to keep the government even in nominal existence. Thus a people may prefer a free government, but if, from indolence or carelessness, or cowardice, or want of public spirit, they are unequal to the exertions necessary for preserving it; if they will not fight for it when it is directly attacked; if they can be deluded by the artifices used to cheat them out of it; if by momentary discouragement, or temporary panic, or a fit of enthusiasm for an individual, they can be induced to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions - in all these cases they are more or less unfit for liberty...
While reading this, I couldn't help but think about the trouble that we've had encouraging democracy to bloom in Iraq.  And I wondered if Mill would think that we've failed on his last point and elevated the Presidency and trusted him "with powers which enable him to subvert [our] institutions". 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Allen Ginsberg - Poetry

From what I can recall, Allen Ginsberg was an important 'beat' poet.  Not that I really know what that is, but I've at least heard of him.  This poem is 'A Supermarket in California' and I don't think that I know it.  But of course I soon will!

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I
walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a
headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went
into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your
enumerations!
What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families
shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the
avocados, babies in the tomatoes! - and you, Garcia Lorca,
what were you doing in the watermelons?

I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber,
poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eye the
grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork
chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans
following you, and followed in my imagination by the store
detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary
fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy,
and never passing the cashier.

Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an
hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the
supermarket and feel absurd.)
Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees
add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we'll both be
lonely.

Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of lost past
blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher,
what America did you have when Charon quit poling his
ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood
watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?

My first thought is that there is probably ton of references in here that I'm not getting.  My experience with Whitman is very limited, especially to his biographical details.  I read that he's childless and eye[ing] the grocery boys.  Does this mean that he was maybe going to pick one of them up?  And who is the Angel that he was seeking?  I don't know and I suspect that this means I miss out on a lot here.
But put that aside.  The idea of the poem is certainly interesting.  If I was out late at a grocery store and I tried to have a conversation with a literary idol, how would that go?  I think I'd discuss ideas, but that's what attracts me.  This conversation is driven entirely by feelings.  Ginsberg and Whitman are lonely and wistful.  They search for something that isn't there and probably never was.
Ginsberg seems to suspect that in the final stanza.  He asks Whitman 'what America did you have' when he died and went to Hades.  A different one in many ways but still the same in others.  Does Ginsberg feel a betrayal at (his) modern America, especially in comparison to Whitmans?  Probably.
Hmmm.  It doesn't really speak to me but I respect it.  Maybe Ginsberg and I are just in different keys.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Author Timeline

BC
Aeschylus  525-456
Herodotus  484-425
Thucydides  460-395
Plato  428-348
Aristotle  384-322
Euclid  Unknown (300 BC?)
AD
Tacitus  56-117
St Thomas Aquinas  1225-1274
Chaucer  1343-1400
Shakespeare  1564-1616
Milton  1608-1674
Locke  1632-1704
Kant  1724-1804
Mill  1806-1873
Lavoisier  1743-1794
Dostoevsky  1821-1881
Freud  1856-1939

You may notice a rarity here.  Almost all of the reading list is in chronological order but not this month.  Mill lived entirely after Lavoisier.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Books Read in September

Let's see, what did I read last month?
  • Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie - My first Christie book, but I'm certain it won't be the last!  I've always liked stories that had a mystery element but have read very few pure mystery stories.  This particular story sets up an unusual 'closed room' mystery and a very unusual conclusion.  Highly recommended. 
  • The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell - I've read a few of Mitchell's books and enjoyed them quite a bit.  This one tells a single story through six discrete time periods.  Not as satisfying as 'Cloud Atlas' but still pretty good.
I've also been reading some short stories and brushing up on some Shakespeare history.  This month I also started Dostoyevsky's 'Brothers Karamazov' for November.  The reading plan splits it between this year and next.  I'd rather do the whole thing at once for continuity sake.  

Readings for October

Two pieces for September.

Mill: Representative Government (Ch1-6) link
Lavoisier: Elements of Chemistry (Part 1) link

The Mill is enjoyable (as expected).  I haven't started the Lavoisier yet.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Top Ten Reading Suggestions

I wanted to share this strong list of book recommendations from Hillsdale College.  No surprise, it's fairly heavy on works from the Great Books, with a couple of more modern entries.  I haven't read the modern ones, but I'm putting them on my to-do list right now.

Blog Updates

This is more of a 'state of the blog' type post than anything else.  If you're here just for the Great Books, you can skip it.

Last week there were hardly any new posts.  The posts on the Great Books themselves have become fewer and further in between.  I don't exactly like that, but I expect that it will continue.  This post is a way of coming clean on that instead of pretending that it isn't happening.
There are several reasons for it, and I'll share the biggest one here.  Some time ago I got an idea: what if, in the span of one year, a person could see all of Shakespeare's plays on stage?  It would take a lot of theaters to make that happen.  Minnesota boasts of 'most stages per capita' so this is one place where it could work.  So I wrote some letters to various theaters and pitched the idea.  Some people liked the idea and, long story short, I'm now working with some people to make a statewide celebration of Shakespeare.  This means time and, more importantly, mental energy.  And thus the blog suffers.
There may be some other life changes happening too, most notably a change in employment.  This (probably) won't change my pace of reading the Great Books, but it will change how much I blog about them.  It will also mean that for the time being, I'm putting the 100 best plays project on hiatus.  The poetry project wraps up in a few weeks, so I'll let that end on time.  I expect that I'll still log the other books I've read because I kind of like having a record and (more importantly!) I like to spread good books to other people.

Anyhoo, there may be fewer posts but the reasons behind that is good.  If the Shakespeare celebration happens like I picture, it will be an enormously good thing.  That's worth putting some other things on the back burner.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Dylan Thomas - Poetry

This next poem is from Dylan Thomas and it's titled 'Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night'.  This poem was written to his father as he was dying.  Sadly, Dylan Thomas didn't live very long.  Died before he was forty.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, to late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

In some ways this seems more like a classic poem than a modern one.  There is a rhyme scheme, though a very simple one.  I think that it's the repeated poetic phrases though.  'Do not go gentle into that good night/... Rage, rage against the dying of the light.'  Both phrases are magnificent.  The rest of the poem hardly matters.
I'm also struck by how dated this sentiment seems.  There is a popular thought in our society that when someone feels ready to die, we should cheer them on to the finish line.  Not so, says Thomas.  We should fight on.  We shouldn't meekly submit.  I'm quite curious about how this poem would be received by advocates of euthanasia. 
I quite like it myself.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Woody Guthrie - Poetry

I'm hit or miss with these 20th century poets, but this one is a hit.  The poet is Woody Guthrie and the poem is one I've known since I was a child.  First verse anyway.  It's 'This Land is Your Land'.

This land is your land
This land is my land
From California to the New York island
From the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.

I've roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond desserts;
And all around me a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking, I saw a sign there,
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back,
This land was made for you and me.

As I mentioned up above, I only really knew the first verse.  The second and third verses are familiar to me, so maybe we sang them in school.  (I wonder if school kids still sing this?  I'll have to ask my daughter.)  The first half is a well loved song, maybe second only to 'America the Beautiful' in terms of well loved patriotic American songs.  The second half gets into some touchy politics and I'm sure isn't as well loved.  I'll just say that I'm more a fan of property rights than Woody Guthrie and leave it there.
Maybe it's just because I'm more familiar to this as a song, but I think it doesn't work as well as a straight poem.  Which isn't that much of an issue, since Woody Guthrie clearly meant it as a song.  Still, I don't know that I would include it in a list of greatest poems.
Editors prerogative, I guess.

Readings for October

Two pieces for September.

Mill: Representative Government (Ch1-6) link
Lavoisier: Elements of Chemistry (Part 1) link

Some solid reading there but nothing too bad.


Saturday, September 20, 2014

What is Science?

This is a very interesting article on the definition of science. 
A little history: The first proto-scientist was the Greek intellectual Aristotle, who wrote many manuals of his observations of the natural world and who also was the first person to propose a systematic epistemology, i.e., a philosophy of what science is and how people should go about it. Aristotle's definition of science became famous in its Latin translation as: rerum cognoscere causas, or, "knowledge of the ultimate causes of things." For this, you can often see in manuals Aristotle described as the Father of Science.
The problem with that is that it's absolutely not true. Aristotelian "science" was a major setback for all of human civilization. For Aristotle, science started with empirical investigation and then used theoretical speculation to decide what things are caused by.
What we now know as the "scientific revolution" was a repudiation of Aristotle: science, not as knowledge of the ultimate causes of things but as the production of reliable predictive rules through controlled experimentation.
This is somewhat hand in hand with the history of 'Le Cid' in which Corneille got grief for going outside of Aristotle's rules.
Galileo disproved Aristotle's "demonstration" that heavier objects should fall faster than light ones by creating a subtle controlled experiment (contrary to legend, he did not simply drop two objects from the Tower of Pisa). What was so important about this Galileo Moment was not that Galileo was right and Aristotle wrong; what was so important was how Galileo proved Aristotle wrong: through experiment.
This method of doing science was then formalized by one of the greatest thinkers in history, Francis Bacon. What distinguishes modern science from other forms of knowledge such as philosophy is that it explicitly forsakes abstract reasoning about the ultimate causes of things and instead tests empirical theories through controlled investigation. Science is not the pursuit of capital-T Truth. It's a form of engineering — of trial by error. Scientific knowledge is not "true" knowledge, since it is knowledge about only specific empirical propositions — which is always, at least in theory, subject to further disproof by further experiment. Many people are surprised to hear this, but the founder of modern science says it. Bacon, who had a career in politics and was an experienced manager, actually wrote that scientists would have to be misled into thinking science is a pursuit of the truth, so that they will be dedicated to their work, even though it is not.
Even though I've quoted at length, the full article is worth reading, especially for the comparison to modern approaches.  As far as the critique of Aristotle goes, Bertrand Russell said something similar about the launch of the Italian renaissance.  The rediscovery of old texts allowed readers to choose between Aristotle's insights and those of Plato (and others).  This opened up intellectual space for challenges to settled dictum.  New things were discovered, new avenues were explored and things absolutely blossomed. 

I do wonder how well we do this today.  I'd argue that once a scientific idea gets politicized, it is very hard to keep it in the scientific realm.  Each camp looks for signals of agreement rather than testing for evidence.  The only way that this can change is by a revolt amongst scientists and I don't see that happening any time soon.
I also wonder about the art world.  Makers of art have never had more freedom of theory to pursue their ends.  In fact, the idea that there is a limit to what may be described as art is wildly unpopular.  I don't know that this has led to a better overall universe of art.  In the museums of the year 3000, will there be more art from 1700's or the 1900's? 
I've got my suspicions but if I'm right, what does that say about the usefulness of rules?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Le Cid - Corneille (91)

Reading 'Le Cid' is somewhat like seeing a version of 'Romeo and Juliet' with a different focus.  Oh, the style is more straight poetry and the events are certainly different, but the overall focus of a conflict between love and family and honor is the same.  The major plot points in 'Le Cid' are:

  • We start with our heroine, Chimene, waiting for the arrival of her true love, Rodrigue, also known as le Cid, or 'the lord'.  He gained this nickname on the battlefield.  While waiting, her father and his father get into a fight.  Rodrigue's father is struck and he calls on his son to avenge him.  
  • Le Cid is stuck between honor and his love for Chimene.  He chooses the honorable avenue and challenges Chimene's father to a duel.  Le Cid is victorious and the father dies.  
  • Now Chimene is in a bind.  Does she side with her love or does she ask the king for help to avenge her father?  She also chooses honor and asks the king for Le Cid's death.
  • Chimene and Rodrigue meet.  They both love each other but they feel compelled to go forward.  Rodrigue offers to kill himself but Chimene won't let him.  She must still pursue honorable justice though and press on with the king.
  • The Moors attack the city.  Le Cid goes to defend the city and covers himself with glory. 
  • Chimene realizes that the king can't order him to be executed so she asks that he be tried by single combat and offers to marry anyone that can kill him.  (And you thought your love life was complicated!)  
  • The king can see that the two love each other.  He changes the conditions of the fight so that she must marry the victor.  
  • Chimene and Rodrigue meet again.  He tells her that he won't defend himself in this duel and she urges him to do so.  She wants him to win, but, for the sake of honor, he must go through with the fight.
  • Le Cid wins the fight but spares the other fighter, Don Sanche.  Don Sanche goes to Chimene and she believes that he has killed Rodrigue.  This is straightened out.
  • The lovers aren't sure that they should wed but the king gives them his blessing.  They acted as nobly as they could and they should be married.
  • Finis.
I mentioned 'Romeo and Juliet' up top, but what kept coming to my mind was 'West Side Story'.  Maria has lost her brother to Tony but she still loves him.  Can't stop loving him.  (In fairness, if she had more time to come to grips with what had happened, the story might have been different.)  Here we see a similar dynamic, but with a father instead of a brother.  And, in much the same way as Maria, Chimene has almost no time to absorb any of this.  (Did I mention that all of the above plot points happen over the course of a single day?)

I liked 'Le Cid' and it's worthy enough to be on a list like this on its own merit.  I think though, that it was given further historical weight because it brought about a large argument in France when it came out in 1637.  Enemies of Corneille argued that the play was improper for a number of reasons.  Corneille had based all of the action in one single day so that he could satisfy the dramatic rules laid down by Aristotle.  His critics argues that this day was overloaded.  (They have a point.)  They also said that it was highly improper for a daughter to happily wed the man who killed her father.  Corneille pointed out that his story was rooted in historical fact but they answered that 'There are monstrous truths that must be repressed for the good of society'.  
I don't remember reading that in Aristotle.  

Next up is #90, 'The Weavers' by Gerhart Hauptmann.  The play was published in 1897, so not quite 20th century but close to it.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Elizabeth Bishop - Poetry

Another new name to me, Elizabeth Bishop.  The poem is titled 'Visits to St. Elizabeth's' and is based on an actual visit the poet made to see Ezra Pound while he was in a mental hospital.

This is the house of Bedlam.

This is the man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

This is the time
of the tragic man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

This is a wristwatch
telling the time
of the talkative man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

This is a sailor
wearing the watch
that tells the time
of the honored man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

This is the roadstead all of board
reached by the sailor
wearing the watch
that tells the time
of the old, brave man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

These are the years and the walls of the ward,
the winds and the clouds of the sea of board
sailed by the sailor
wearing the watch
that tells the time
of the cranky man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

This is a Jew in a newspaper hat
that dances weeping down the ward
over the creaking sea of board
beyond the sailor
winding his watch
that tells the time
of the cruel man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

This is a world of books gone flat.
This is a Jew in a newspaper hat
that dances weeping down the ward
over the creaking sea of board
of the batty sailor
that winds his watch
that tells the time
of the busy man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

This is a boy that pats the floor
to see if the world is there, is flat,
for the widowed Jew in the newspaper hat
that dances weeping down the ward
waltzing the length of a weaving board
by the silent sailor
that hears his watch
that ticks the time
of the tedious man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

These are the years and the walls and the door
that shut on a boy that pats the floor
to feel if the world is there and flat.
This is a Jew in a newspaper hat
that dances joyfully down the ward
into the parting seas of board
past the staring sailor
that shakes the watch
that tells the time
of the poet, the man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

This is the soldier home from the war.
These are the years and the walls and the door
that shut on a boy that pats the floor
to see if the world is round or flat.
This is a Jew in a newspaper hat
that dances carefully down the ward,
walking the plank of a coffin board
with the crazy sailor
that shows his watch
that tells the time
of the wretched man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

Hmmmm.  There is an interesting trick to this poem.  As you read it, did your reading speed up?  Each stanza is a bit longer and you naturally bump up the speed to keep up.  Very clever. 
The 'story' of the poem tells us how terrible things are in the mental hospital.  How surreal and unworthy for a great man, such as Ezra Pound.  It's not hard to believe this. 
But still, the poem doesn't do much for me.  It doesn't hit the emotional hot-spots that some of the other on this list have.  Maybe that's just me.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Essay Concerning Human Understanding - Locke

(This concerns various chapters of Book 3 only.)

In this piece by Locke, he considers how language came about.  In the first three chapters, he opens by suggesting that early man made sounds and that over time, those sounds gained shared meaning.  The concrete items would be first (rock, fire, animal, etc.).  More abstract terms would take time and would have a much greater amount of potential misunderstanding.  I don't know how this squares with our modern understanding of early languages but this makes sense to me.  I'd never considered the probable differences between concrete and abstract concepts, but that also makes sense.  'Fire' is 'fire' and there isn't much argument about it.  On the other hand, even common abstract terms like 'love' are very subjective and easily misunderstood. 
Chapters 9-11 deal more with the imperfection of words (and those that use them).  He speaks of such things as words with double meanings and poorly defined terms.  The most interesting part to me though was Locke's observation on how badly we talk about important things, like art, religion and politics.  This seems to include increasingly technical language.  He says:
What have been the effect of those multiplied curious distinctions, and acute niceties, but obscurity and uncertainty, leaving the words more unintelligible, and the reader more at a loss? How else comes it to pass that princes, speaking or writing to their servants, in their ordinary commands are easily understood; speaking to their people, in their laws, are not so?
 This section came back to me several times while I was trying to puzzle out Kant.  It also made me think of Mark Twain, of all people.  If you read various 19th century novels, you'll note an enormous stylistic difference between writers like Hawthorne and Dickens and Mark Twain.  The former have always given me problems while the more plain spoken, easy going Twain never has.
The other thing that I wondered was how much of an influence did Locke's thoughts have on eventual dictionaries?  Locke published this essay in 1690.  Samuel Johnson's landmark 'A Dictionary of the English Language' was published in 1755.  Could be.

I enjoyed this.  Locke had made a somewhat Aristotelian attempt to classify language, find common problems and propose solutions to them.  



Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Rover - Behn (92)

Before I talk about 'The Rover', let me speak a little about the author, Aphra Behn.  I'd never heard of her before, and perhaps you haven't either.  (Here is her Wikipedia page, if you want more depth.)  Aphra Behn was (probably) the first woman to earn her living by writing.  Or at least the first European one.  She published 'The Rover' in 1677, some sixty years after Shakespeare died.  Her drama is very bawdy and, from what I can tell, she is little produced nowadays.
Which is a damn shame because 'The Rover' is a fun, fun play.  It focuses on a household of women in Naples.  The women are of different status levels and experience in love.  They have certain romantic and commercial entanglements.  And in fact, the romance and the commerce are quite tangled together.  They meet a band of English cavaliers and, well, the tangling continues more and more.  It's a comedy, but the topics covered have a tinge of seriousness. 
The women are smart and sophisticated.  They understand that vows of true love come with a dear price.  When one of the women, Helena, is talking to one of the cavaliers before he goes to a duel, she asks:

And if you do not lose, what shall I get? A cradle full of noise and mischief and a pack of repentance for my back?
What a great line!  The dialogue is full of wonderful lines.  It's a shame that this isn't better known.  I could easily see a period piece movie done from this script.  It would do as well as a good Shakespearean adaptation.  Anyway, if you get a chance, do see it.

Next up: 'Le Cid' by Pierre Corneille, also from the 17th century.  I've been somewhat delayed from writing so I've already read ahead.  Expect this review to go up next week.  

Monday, September 8, 2014

Admitting Defeat - Kant

I'm throwing in the towel on Kant's 'Science of Right'.  I've worked and worked at the first quarter of it and it's just not making sense to me.  I've decided that life is too short and I'm moving on.  I'll read  a few summaries of the piece in the hopes that other people could write better than Kant could.  (This isn't a tough bet.)  I'll post on those and if anyone wants to correct my misunderstandings, then they are welcome to do so.

I don't feel good about this, but I'm sure it's the right move. 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

W.H. Auden - Poetry

This week's poem is by a poet that I have heard of, W.H. Auden and, as luck would have it, the poem is literally the only one of his that I know.  This is 'Funeral Blues'.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling the sky the message He is dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, My South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Wow.  Just wow.  What a powerful poem.  What a rendering of utter grief.  You read this and your heart simply aches for the speaker.
This if familiar to me from the movie 'Four Weddings and a Funeral'.  You may remember the scene:


Simply amazing.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Author Timeline

BC
Aeschylus  525-456
Herodotus  484-425
Thucydides  460-395
Plato  428-348
Aristotle  384-322
Euclid  Unknown (300 BC?)
AD
Tacitus  56-117
St Thomas Aquinas  1225-1274
Chaucer  1343-1400
Shakespeare  1564-1616
Milton  1608-1674
Locke  1632-1704
Kant  1724-1804
Mill  1806-1873
Lavoisier  1743-1794
Dostoevsky  1821-1881
Freud  1856-1939

Monday, September 1, 2014

Pablo Neruda - Poetry

Ok, this poet I know, though I haven't read any of his works before.  This is Pablo Neruda, one of the most famous poets of the 20th century.  The poem is titled, fittingly enough, 'Poetry'.

And it was at that age . . . Poetry arrived
in search of me. I don't know, I don't know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
I don't know how or when,
no, they were not voices, they were not
words, nor silence,
but from a street I was summoned,
from the branches of night,
abruptly from the others,
among violent fires
or returning alone,
there I was without a face
and it touched me.

I did now know what to say, my mouth
had no way
with names,
my eyes were blind,
and something started in my soul,
fever or forgotten wings,
and I made my own way,

deciphering
that fire,
and I wrote the first faint line,
faint, without substance, pure
nonsense,
pure wisdom
of someone who knows nothing,
and suddenly I saw
the heavens
unfastened
and open,
planets,
palpitating plantations,
shadow perforated,
riddled
with arrows, fire and flowers,
the winding night, the universe.

And I, infinitesimal being,
drunk with the great starry
void,
likeness, image of
mystery,
felt myself a pure part
of the abyss,
I wheeled with the stars,
my heart broke loose on the wind.

I like it.  I love the idea of the spirit of poetry descending upon an unaware boy and changing him over.  (I don't know if that's really how it works.)  We've all had times like that when something simply clicks in us and the world opens up.  This captures that moment in perfect poetic quality.  The original is in Spanish but I think that this translation works well.
I'll keep an eye out for more Neruda.

Readings for September

Two of them.

September
Locke: An Essay on Human Understanding (Book III, Ch 1-3, 9-11) link
Kant: Science of Right link

The Locke is pretty easy to read through.  I started the Kant last night and, well, it's going to take some effort.  Good luck!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Books Read in August

This was a rough month, or at least a very full month.  We've done a spot of camping.  We've had people going back to school in waves.  I had a meeting that may launch a very big project (fingers crossed!).  To top all of that off, my Kindle broke down a bit and I lost all of my notes on the second half of 'Paradise Lost'.  I'm now trying to figure out if I can nurse it for a couple more months or if I need to replace it sooner. 
Which isn't to say that I didn't get some quality reading in:
  • A History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell - With more Kant coming up, I thought that I needed some more grounding before I tackled him.  To that end, I read the last third of Russell's history (basically from the Renaissance on).  I found this book fascinating, especially about the Renaissance.  I'm sure I'll write about that at some time.
  • Foucault's Pendulum, Umberto Eco - Set in Milan, this book is about a group of publishers that attract some mystical writers.  For a game, they mix up the mysticism (Templars, Illuminati, Rosicrucians, etc.) and make up a 'plan', basically a long theory that explains a partial message.  Some of the mystics get wind of this 'plan' and they mistakenly believe that it's true.  Trouble ensues.  This is sometimes mentioned as 'a thinking man's 'Davinci Code'.  It's probably not fair to Eco as his book is much, much deeper and less of a thriller.
  • Black Out/All Clear, Connie Willis - This is a two part novel about a group of time traveling historians that get stuck in World War II during the blitz.  The story is interesting and well told, but the most striking thing is the behavior of the Brits during the bombing campaign.  I can't imagine what that must be like.  This was a reread for me.
Everyone is now back at school and the routine is (hopefully!) settling down again.  

Monday, August 25, 2014

More Paradise - Milton

(Sorry for the very brief posts of the last couple of weeks.  The end of the summer has been abnormally busy and my mental energies have been sorely taxed.  The kids are all back in school so things should return to normal.)

I'd like to point readers to a far better review of 'Paradise Lost' than my own effort from last week.  You can read Cleo's full review here.  It sounds like I'm not alone in finding Satan to be a sympathetic character.  I'm just following in some 300 years of footsteps.  Well, it's nice to have company.  Cleo also points out 'A Preface to Paradise Lost' by C.S. Lewis (Amazon link), which sounds like a wonderful companion piece.  It's on my wish list now and I'll let you know if/when I get a chance to read it.

-

I'd also like to point out some artwork that was inspired by 'Paradise Lost'.  This is the from Gustave Dore and it's simply wonderful.
You can find more here.  Simply wonderful.


Sunday, August 24, 2014

Countee Cullen - Poetry

Another new poet for me, Countee Cullen.  I didn't know the poem either, 'Incident' is the name.

Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, "Nigger."

I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That's all that I remember.

This is another powerful poem from the Harlem Renaissance.  I can't help but feel a stab in the heart for that poor eight year old.  The idea of looking at another person and fixing a label on them is, of course, abhorrent.  I hope that someday we'll be past it.
Let me set aside the racism, though.  It's amazing how pieces of trauma focus our memories.  When I think back on my (relatively uneventful) childhood, the stories that quickly pop out in my head are those of either great pain (like a finger stuck in a door) or great humiliation.  The triumphs and good events are still there, but the memories are more muted and general.  The awful ones are sharper.  The still stick out.
I wonder why that is?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Readings for September

Two of them.

September
Locke: An Essay on Human Understanding (Book III, Ch 1-3, 9-11) link
Kant: Science of Right link

Some nice chewy reading.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Paradise Lost - Milton

'Paradise Lost' is Milton's epic poem regarding the Garden of Eden and man's fall from grace.  The poem also covers Satan in Tartarus (Hell) and accounts of the war he lost in heaven.  It truly is epic in all senses of the word.
I spoke with my Dad, who has taught 'Paradise Lost' on several occasions and he told me that it in its time, it was second only to the Bible in terms of popularity.  This isn't surprising.  Almost all of our modern conceptions of hell are drawn from Milton's imagery.  With Milton we get burning lakes.  With Dante, a few centuries earlier, hell was a series of frozen rings.  Now we think of Hell as a place of burning torments.
The most surprising element of the poem was how sympathetic it made Satan out to be.  I'm somewhat certain that wasn't the aim of Milton, but I'll be damned if that isn't the result.  Satan famously says that it is 'Better to reign in Hell, then to serve in Heav'n'.  I can't help but wonder if that didn't reflect some of the distrust in the Monarchy that was evident throughout England in the 17th century.  The idea of being subservient to someone else was being seriously questioned.  (This is probably just me projecting backwards, but it struck me.)
The interplay between Adam and Eve was also very interesting.  It deserves its own blog post, but I'll just mention that Milton mixes in a justification for eating the fruit that seems very close to the traditional wedding vows.  I don't know if Milton inspired the vows, or simply copied them.

Did I enjoy the poem?  Parts of it.  There were some long sections of descriptions of scenery or flora that I skimmed through.  There were sections on things like 'free will' that I'm sure were very important at the time but don't seem so very important now.  The arguments of the 1600s between Catholics and Protestants are interesting from an historical perspective but not very captivating on their own merits.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Langston Hughes - Poetry

I know of the name Langston Hughes though I can't say that I'm familiar with his work.  The blurb in the book says that he was 'One of the leading writers of the Harlem Renaissance...'.  This piece, appropriately enough, is titled 'Harlem'.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore-
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

An effective poem and we've found out the answer to that last line at different times.  I was totally ignorant of the Harlem Renaissance until I read 'Invisible Man' by Ralph Ellison some years back as part of a different reading list.  The book blew me away.  Growing up in a small town in the midwest in the 80's, I had very little connection to the kind of racism that was commonplace before I was born.  (And no, I'm not claiming that it all disappeared, but conditions today are wildly different than they were then.)  It's amazing just how appalling conditions were in the big cities of the Northeast.  I'm curious if the play 'Raisin in the Sun' was named from this poem and the internet suggest that it indeed was.
A very powerful poem.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Accidental Death of an Anarchist - Fo (96)

(Finally, right?  It took a while to track this down, but, oh, what a joy it was to read!)

The prologue to the play helpfully tells us about a bit of Italian history from 1969.  A bomb exploded at an Agricultural Bank in Milan, killing sixteen people.  The police questioned an anarchist and after some time he went out of a fourth story window.  The official story is that he jumped.  This story takes place not long after.
It opens on a man simply called The Fool, who is being questioned by an inspector.  The Fool a) has a long habit of impersonating people and b) has spent time in several mental institutions.  He is incredibly fast talking and before long the inspector chases him out.  The Fool sneaks back in and takes a phone call in which he learns that a judge is coming to speak to the officers about the death of the anarchist.  He seizes this chance to make mischief and decides to impersonate the judge.
The Fool then speaks to the Chief of police and some officers.  He convinces them that he will try and improve their rather thin story but he has to learn the true facts.  Bit by bit we learn what really happened.  After some time a young lady journalist comes in.  The Fool adopts a different disguise and continues to injure the situation for the police.  So on and so on until the explosive ending.

I loved this play.  It was like a cross between a dirty cop show and a Marx Brothers movie.  In fact, the Fool must have some Groucho, Chico and Harpo in his DNA.  This role would be an absolute joy to play.
The politics of the play ground it very much in the Italy of its time.  It involves police corruption and an attempt to scapegoat leftists, anarchists and communists for violent acts.  I know next to nothing about the history of that period but the play isn't shy with its accusations.
The script I was reading was translated in the 80's and had been updated for an American audience.  This meant sneers about the 'actor in the White House' that really felt tacked on to the story.  This is something of a quibble.  I hope that if the play is reproduced in some kind of classic story that they won't try to keep 'updating' it.  As I said, that's a quibble.  I really did love it.

Next up, we get back on schedule with #92, 'The Rover' by Aphra Behn.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Robin Williams RIP

As you may have heard, the comedian Robin Williams was found dead earlier today of an apparent suicide.  Though I haven't seen any of his new movies in a decade or so, the news hit me like a gut punch.  I'm not a big celebrity chaser and there aren't many movie stars that I have any real emotional involvement with.  When Philip Seymour Hoffman died a few months ago, I thought it was sad, but it didn't touch me.  This one did though.
Why am I posting about this on a blog (ostensibly) dedicated to read the Great Books?  Two reasons.  The first one is this:
That's the 'Carpe Diem' scene from 'Dead Poet's Society', of course.  One of the main themes of the reading that we've been doing so far is how we deal with death.  Our days are few and we need to make the most of them.  We should make our lives 'extraordinary'. 
I'll never be able to read 'To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time' without hearing this scene.  I'm certain that I'm not the only one for whom this is true. 

Second reason?  There are truths that we only allow jesters and comedians to tell us.  I think that's why the second half of Robin Williams career was so touching.  The first half was filled with zany, frenetic energy.  Starting with 'Dead Poet Society', Williams moved on to some serious fare.  He followed that with 'Awakenings', which didn't have a single comedic note. 
My favorite of his more serious work was 'The Fisher King', where Williams played a homeless man whose life was shattered by a shooting.  There are certainly funny moments but the dominant emotion is deep sympathy.  It seems that this was something of an echo of the depression that he faced in his real life.  That laughter had a price. 
RIP

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Federico Garcia Lorca - Poetry

Another new poem and poet for me.  Maybe I'll go back and count, but this seems more common with the newer poems in the book.  This poem is by Federico Garcia Lorca.  The title is 'Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias' and what I have is a translation from Spanish.

The bull does not know you, nor the fig tree,
nor horses, nor the ants on your floors.
The child does not know you, nor the evening,
because your death is forever.

The saddleback of rock does not know you,
nor the black satin where you tore apart.
Your silent recollection does not know you
because your death is forever.

Autumn will return bringing snails,
misted-over grapes, and clustered mountains,
but none will wish to gaze in your eyes
because your death is forever.

Because your death is forever;
Like everyone's who ever died on Earth,
like all dead bodies discarded
on rubbish heaps with mongrels' corpses.

No one knows you. No one. But I sing you -
sing your profile and your grace, for later on.
The signal ripeness of your mastery.
The way you sought death out, savored its taste.
The sadness just beneath your gay valor.

Not soon, if ever; will Andalusia see
so towering a man, so venturesome.
I sing his elegance with words that moan
and remember a sad breeze in the olive groves.

Well.  That's a heavy poem and a strong lament.  It would help us if we knew how Ignacio Sanchez Mejias was.  But let me look at the poem before I bring Google to bear.
Someone has died and, as we're repeatedly reminded, death is forever.  No one knows the person.  No thing knows the person.  The body has been discarded and will soon disappear like rubbish.  The only lament (or certainly the most important!) is the one given here by Senor Lorca.
Lorca honors the man.  He 'sought death out, savored its taste'.  He was sad but valorous.  He was towering and venturesome.  This lament has made the poet so sad that he can only moan and remember the past.  This is the lament of a lover, right?  A lover talking about his fallen love, that no one will love as much as he does.
A quick look at his Wikipedia page suggests that I'm right.  A Google search tells me that this is the fourth part of a longer poem.  The full work is here.  The rest of it is also passionate and very, very sad.
This is a very touching piece.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Biography of 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 6, 2014

Awake and Sing! - Odets (93)

'Awake and Sing!' is very much a play of the Great Depression.  The play is set in a New York home, over-crowded with people all looking for a break.  Life is bleak and unhappy for all.  The home belongs to the Bergers, an overworked mother, a dream stricken father, an ambitious son, a wise grandfather and a daughter, Hennie, who has accidentally gotten herself in a family way.  The son, Ralph, is something of the hero of the play.  He wants a chance to succeed but he can't figure out how to do it.  Other characters also board at the house, all of them interesting.  The characters are one of the strong points of the play.
All of them are unhappy and their unhappiness is made worse by the regular visits of a rich uncle who subtlety rubs his wealth in their faces.  He can't understand why they can't make it.  What's worse, they don't understand it either.  The grandfather, Jacob, wistfully hopes that the fine things happening in Russia will provide some clues on how to get society on track. 
The climax comes when Jacob sacrifices himself to get some insurance money into Ralph's hands.  If Ralph takes it, he can become self sufficient.  But it may cost him his family as there is plenty of resentment from his mother about this kind of nest egg.  She worked hard and sacrificed her life for her family and thinks it only just that a windfall should come to her as well.  In the end, Ralph decides that the only way he can make himself an honorable life is to let the money go and confidently make his own fortune in life.

It's an interesting play and I can easily see why people would go to see it.  It's thought provoking and well written.  It debuted in 1935 at a time when society really did seem broken and people were looking for answers.  I'd recommend it.
However, I can't just casually dismiss the Marxism of the piece, especially the fond words for the communists in Russia.  If I were to find a newspaper article or play from 1935 that praised the Nazis in Germany, I could understand that the writer didn't know what horrors were ahead.  Fair enough.  In retrospect though, we'd assess a very heavy penalty to that piece.  Same rules should apply here.  A couple of years before this play was being put on in America, the Soviets starved about 4 million people in Ukraine.  We should hardly be wistful about such an awful government.

Next up, we take a step back to 'Accidental Death of an Anarchist' by Daniel Fo.  The play is from 1970 and I know virtually nothing about it yet.  It's #96 on the list and this will finally fill that gap.

Monday, August 4, 2014

e.e. cummings - Poetry

I've heard of e.e. cummings before, even read some of his work, though I don't know any of his poems specifically.  He is famous for his avant-garde style, especially the lack of capitalization.  This work is called 'Buffalo Bill's'. 

Buffalo Bill's
defunct
     who used to
     ride a watersmooth-sillver
          stallion
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
               Jesus
he was a handsome man
          and what I want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mister Death

I've long been turned off by the avant-garde style and I just figured out why.  The entire style seems to be screaming 'pay attention to how weird I am!'.  It doesn't feel natural or organic.  It seems calculated and tiresome.  (Maybe I would have felt differently at the time these pieces were created though frankly I doubt it.)  The lower case letters and the run on words here are a perfect example.  They seem like more of a showcase of strangeness than as an aid to poetic understanding.
But let me put that aside and focus on the story.  Buffalo Bill was a showman and I take from this poem that during his act he would ride in all smoothly and proceed to kill some pigeons.  He was handsome and suave and at the same time cruel and monstrous.  No good and civilized person could enjoy such a performance.
But Mister Death could.  I don't know if Mister Death is attending the show or if those who enjoy such things are some kind of manifestation of death.  Either way, do they actually enjoy this blend of beauty and violence?  They must, right?  Even though they shouldn't. 
Incidentally, I agree with that point.  I'm the type of guy who rolls his eyes at the 'no animals were harmed in the making of this' style disclaimer, but I'm not happy watching animals be hurt or killed.  I don't find it entertaining in the least.  However, the style of this poem makes me want to mount a defense to the show-goers, though I'm not quite sure why. 
Perhaps, the packaging is so obviously artificial that it's hard for me to take the message seriously.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Author Timeline

BC
Aeschylus  525-456
Herodotus  484-425
Thucydides  460-395
Plato  428-348
Aristotle  384-322
Euclid  Unknown (300 BC?)
AD
Tacitus  56-117
St Thomas Aquinas  1225-1274
Chaucer  1343-1400
Shakespeare  1564-1616
Milton  1608-1674
Locke  1632-1704
Kant  1724-1804
Mill  1806-1873
Lavoisier  1743-1794
Dostoevsky  1821-1881
Freud  1856-1939