Friday, February 28, 2014

Books Read in February

I started this last month.  This is simply a list of the non Great Books books that I read during the month.

  • A War Like No Other, Victor Davis Hanson - I already mentioned this.  I'll just say again that this was extremely helpful in understanding the Peloponnesian war.  Highly recommended.
  • Lest Darkness Fall, L. Sprague de Camp - This was a reread for me.  An archeologist from the 30's gets transported back to 5th century Rome.  He uses his knowledge of history to try and prevent the dark ages.  Wonderfully entertaining.  My favorite alt-history book.
  • The Tiger's Wife, Tea Obreht - A more recent book and a new one for me.  This was highly reviewed when it came out a couple of years back and I've been looking forward to it.  The story takes place in the Balkans and concerns the efforts of a young doctor to uncover part of her Grandfather's history from the stories he told her.  It was readable, but fell short of the expectations presented from the reviews.
Again, I dipped into a bunch of other things.  One of the more enjoyable was 'The Olympics 50 Craziest Stories'.  I'm a fan of the Olympics (yes, despite some of the awful things that surround them) so it went well with late nights of watching speed skating and skeleton. 
I've got one more book on Greece on my list and then, after this months works, I'm ready to say goodbye to Hellenic culture until next January.  Not that the last few months haven't been enjoyable, of course, but between Herodotus and Thucydides, I'm ready for a change from Greek history. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A War Like No Other - Victor Davis Hanson

I've mentioned that I found the 'Landmark Thucydides' to be a good translation of the the Peloponnesian war.  The other book that helped lead me through it is 'A War Like No Other' by Victor Davis Hanson.  Hanson is a professor of Greek history in California and an expert in the field.  In this book he breaks down the conflict by subject, one per chapter.  The chapters/subjects:

  • Fear
  • Fire
  • Disease
  • Terror
  • Armor
  • Walls
  • Horses
  • Ships
And so on.  He also does a good job of relating the war to modern ears.  For instance, he talks about how both the pro and anti Iraq war sides cited Thucydides in their arguments during the run up to the war.  A very worthwhile read.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

A.E. Houseman - Poetry

The name Houseman is faintly familiar to me but I couldn't say that I know anything about this poet.  Or this poem, which is titled 'When I was One-and-Twenty'.

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
"Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free."
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard him say again,
"The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
'Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue."
And I am two-and-twenty
And oh, 'tis true, 'tis true.

A very nice poem.  How well I remember those two or three relationships where I gave my heart too freely and it ended up smashed.  Part of me wishes that I'd read this back when I was younger, but I don't know if it would have helped.  'But I was one-and-twenty/No use to talk to me.'  How true, how very true.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Readings for March

It's a big month coming up:

Plato: Statesmen link
Aristotle: On Interpretation (Chapters 1-10) link
Aristotle: Politics (book III-V) link
Euclid: Elements (book I) link

I won't kid you, this isn't an easy month.  But its doable!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Go to War?

A while ago I was asked if this reading list has led me to any big pops of understanding.  I answered that I'd begun to see just how important the idea of challenging the status quo has been.  Another idea occurred to me though.  Quite a bit of what we've read so far has dealt with the terrible costs of war.  Think of what we've gotten from the Greeks:
  • Aristophanes - Lysistrata talks about how hard war is on the women at home.  
  • Homer - The Iliad shows that the Trojan war was pretty much a disaster for all involved.
  • Aeschylus - A continuation of the tragedies of the Trojan war.  Agamemnon's family was simply shredded in the aftermath.
  • Herodotus - The parts of the History we read mainly dwells on the follies of various Persian leaders.  Spoilers: they didn't do well.
  • Thucydides - The Peloponnesian war was terrible for pretty much every part of Greece.
The only balance I can think of comes from Plutarch where both Alexander and Caesar benefited from war.  And then were killed.  But their deaths were from disease and politics so they seem to be in a little different category.
Some of this is simply timing.  Quite a bit of the classic Greek works were written during the Peloponnesian war.  It understandably dominated the thinking of the time.  But all the same, these are foundational works of Western thought.  You could very easily read some of the greats and come away anti-war. 
At the very least, this reading has put some caution into my thoughts on the subject.  Not that I was rabidly pro-war before.  (In fact, the rabid pro-war person is more of a caricature than an actual representation.)  But my ideas of the costs and benefits have changed.  My threshold for supporting war is much higher than it was before.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Oscar Wilde - Poetry

I only know Oscar Wilde for his plays, especially 'The Importance of Being Earnest'.  This poem is titled 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol'.  This is the prison that Wilde was sent to after his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas became public.  The entire poem is too long to write out.  The book only has the first portion.  The whole thing is here and I recommend it.  I'm going to give you the very first part.

He did not wear his scarlet coat,
For blood and wine are red,
And blood and wine were on his hands
When they found him with the dead,
The poor dead woman whom he loved,
And murdered in her bed.

He walked amongst the Trial Men
In a suit of shabby grey;
A cricket cap was on his head,
And his step seemed light and gay;
But I never saw a man who looked
So wistfully at the day.

I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky,
And at every drifting cloud that went
 With sails of silver by.

I walked, with other souls in pain,
Within another ring,
And was wondering if the man had done
 A great or little thing,
When a voice behind me whispered low,
"That fellow's got to swing."

Dear Christ! the very prison walls
Suddenly seemed to reel,
And the sky above my head became
Like a casque of scorching steel;
And, though I was a soul in pain,
My pain I could not feel.

I only knew what hunted thought
Quickened his step, and why
He looked upon the garish day
With such a wistful eye;
The man had killed the thing he loved
And so he had to die.

Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

Some kill their love when they are young,
And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
Some with the hands of Gold:
The kindest use a knife, because
The dead so soon grow cold.

Some love too little, some too long,
Some sell, and others buy;
Some do the deed with many tears,
And some without a sigh:
For each man kills the thing he loves,
Yet each man does not die.

He does not die a death of shame
On a day of dark disgrace,
Nor have a noose about his neck,
Nor a cloth upon his face,
Nor drop feet foremost through the floor
Into an empty place

"Yet each man kills the thing he loves,".  What a chilling thought.  And yet I know what he means.  I know exactly what he means to love something and then ruin it with lust or greed.  Or to kill it with indifference or skepticism. 
It's a beautiful and haunting poem. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Peloponnesian War - Thucydides

I said there were two things main things to look at in regards to Thucydides, and I wrote about his legacy in terms of how history should be written.  The other thing is the war itself.  On the dawn of the war, Thucydides judged that it would be a big deal and he wanted to future generations to know about it.  What he couldn't have known was just how unusual and complicated a war it would be.
The usual plan for war was for two city-states (or more) to basically declare themselves to be fighting each other.  They would then meet on a plain and face off in battle.  The winner would exact terms from the loser and that would be that.  Athens was a stronger city, but the Spartans (and her allies) were more feared on land.  The Athenians were masters of the sea.
Not so here.  Pericles, the leading politician of Athens, decided that the walls of the city and adjoining port, were strong enough that if the Spartans came, they would simply shepherd everyone inside and wait until the army went away.  Sure enough, the Spartans invaded and everyone who lived and worked in the countryside, sheltered within Athens.  The port remained open and the city was fed.
Fed, but not well.  An enormous plague occurred, one such as had never been encountered before.  It killed tens of thousands.  Modern day historians are still arguing over what kind of plague it was but no one really knows.  Anyway, the Athenians were sheltered from direct fighting but still dying in large numbers.
Meanwhile, the Athenians came up with some unusual tactics of fighting.  They sailed around and attacked various Spartan (and Spartan friendly) ports.  Once there, they encouraged the Spartan helots to rebel.
The Peloponnesian war went through hot and cold phases.  It stretched on for 30 years, firmly stamping itself on the lives of the Greeks.  In Athens, reputations could be lost forever if one didn't act well on the battle field.  Fortunes were lost and whole families were wiped out by sickness and war.  Eventually, Sparta won and Athens was humbled.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Peloponnesian War - Thucydides

There are two basic things to talk about when it comes to Thucydides great work 'The Peloponnesian War'.  The first to talk about is what his writing approach meant to his contemporaries and to posterity.  On the eve of the war, Thucydides had a feeling that this would be an important conflict and he wanted to make a good record.  What followed is sometimes called scientific history, but I think a better term would be 'journalistic history'.  That is, he tried to make a true record of what happened.  He stayed as close to the facts as he possibly could.  He also spoke with people from both sides of the war.  The result is fairly balanced.  Or at least, both Athens and Sparta spend time as heroes and villains.
You can read echoes of Thucydides in more modern efforts at history.  My all time favorite history book is Garrett Mattingly's 'The Armada'.  He details the attack of the Spanish Armada.  Mattingly talks about the political situation in each of the principal countries before the war.  He talks about the main players.  And he spends time discussing popular conceptions of what happened.  Sound familiar?  It's the same template that Thucydides created.
And the second thing?  I think that will have to wait for another post.

I do want to say that Thucydides isn't an easy read.  It helped me tremendously to read from the Landmark version.  I mentioned it here and I want to recommend it again.  It was especially helpful to have maps of the many places that are talked about.  It was also helpful to have so much information cross referenced.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Arthur Ribaud - Poetry

Next up is a poem by Arthur Rimbaud, called 'The Drunken Boat'.  I haven't heard of either one before.  The introduction says that he wrote 'evocative dreamlike poems'.  Let's find out.

I felt my guides no longer carried me-
as we sailed down the virgin Amazon,
the redskins nailed them to their painted stakes
naked, as targets for their archery.

I carried Flemish wheat or Swedish wood,
but had forgotten my unruly crew;
their conversation ended with their lives,
the river let me wander where I would.

Surf punished me, and threw my cargo out;
last winter I was breaking up on land.
I fled. These floating river villages
had never heard a more triumphant shout.

The green ooze spurting through my centerboard
was sweeter than sour apples to a boy-
it washed away the stains of puke and rotgut,
anchor and wheel were carried overboard.

The typhoon spun my silly needle round;
ten nights I scudded from the freighters' lights;
lighter than cork, I danced upon the surge
man calls the rolling coffin of his drowned.

Then heaven opened for the voyager.
I stared at archipelagos of stars.
Was it on those dead watches that I died-
a million golden birds, Oh future Vigor!

I cannot watch these purple suns go down
like actors on the Aeschylean stage.
I'm drunk on water. I cry out too much-
Oh that my keel might break, and I might drown!

Shrunken and black against a twilight sky,
our Europe has no water. Only a pond
the cows have left, and a boy wades to launch
his paper boat frail as a butterfly.

Bathed in our languors, Waves, I have no wings
to cut across the wakes of cotton ships,
or fly against the flags of merchant kings,
or swim beneath the guns of prison ships.

Wow.  That's an aggressive poem.  The speaker is feeling a euphoria because he survived an attack that killed the rest of his crew.  Well, maybe some euphoria and some survivor guilt. 
The original poem is in French and I don't know how well it really translates.  The last two paragraphs, for instance.  I don't get 'em.  Maybe this is a great poem but if so, I'm not able to see it.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Biography of Thucydides

We don't know a lot about Thucydides outside of what he, himself wrote.  We know that he fought for Athens and was exiled for some time.  We know that he spent at least part of that time in exile with people from the Spartan side of the war.  I've read that there is some comparison between what he did and the embedded reporters of the Iraq war.  We know that he caught the terrible plague that hit Athens early in the Peloponnesian war.  He came from a wealthy family but we don't know much beyond that.
He started what is sometimes called 'scientific history'.  This means that he worked very hard to understand historical events.  In contrast to Herodotus, facts came before story.
His record of the very complicated Peloponnesian war is excellent, though incomplete.  Historians aren't certain if he wrote it continuously through the war or sat down later and wrote in one shot.  He reports things that he saw and he obviously talked to various people throughout the whole conflict.
It's impossible to say how historical writing would have developed without Thucydides but it likely would have been poorer.  

Monday, February 3, 2014

Author Timeline

Aeschylus  525-456
Herodotus  484-425
Thucydides  460-395
Plato  428-348
Aristotle  384-322
Euclid  Unknown (300 BC?)
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

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Readings for February

Just one piece:

Thucydides: The History of the Peloponnesian War (book I-II, V) link

We don't come back to Thucydides until year nine when we get books seven and eight.