Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Books Read in April

This past month was a busy one in the books.  Besides Tacitus and Thomas Aquinas, I've dug into some other stuff as well.

  • Childhood's End, Arthur C Clarke - I think I last read this about twenty years ago.  It's the story of a superior alien race coming to Earth and helping humanity transform into a 'next step'.  I don't think Clarke has a good feel for what people would really do in such a situation.  He seems to think that in a post-scarcity world, trade would disappear and people would become artists and scientists.  It's not convincing in Star Trek and it isn't convincing here.
  • The Upside of Down, Megan McArdle - This is a fairly new non-fiction book and I heartily recommend it.  McArdle writes about how our society deals with failure in various situations (education, business, law) and what lessons we can take from it.  She argues for more forgiveness, not less.  Very good book.
  • Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell - The highlight of my reading month.  Mitchell has written six short stories and then nested them together.  The stories all take place in a different time era and each has a different tone.  All six of them are very good.  Simply a great book.
  • Dragonsong, Anne McCaffery - This is a science fiction book about a young girl with musical talent who is having a hard time finding her place in her world.  I absolutely loved this book when I was in my teens and it turns out I still do.  I was inspired to reread this after some discussions about how much we want to read about protagonists who are like ourselves.
As I said, a busy month.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Robert Service - Poetry

Another poem that I haven't heard of.  Another poet unknown to me.  This poem is by Robert Service and it's called 'The Cremation of Sam McGee'.  It's too long to give the entire thing but the full thing can be found here.  I recommend that you read the whole deal.

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold'
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was the night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee,
where the cotton blooms and blows,
Why he left his home in the South to roam
'round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold but the land of gold
seemed to hold him in a spell;
Though he'd often say in his homely way
that he'd sooner live in Hell.

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way
over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka's fold
it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we'd close, then the lashes froze
till sometimes we couldn't see,
It wasn't much fun, but the only one
to whimper was Sam McGee.

And that very night, as we lay packed tight
in our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and stars o'erhead
were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and said "Cap," says he,
"I'll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I'm asking that you
won't refuse my last request."

That's as much as I'll share.  But do go over and read the whole deal.  It's a pretty good yarn and I'm going to try and share it with the kids.  See if they enjoy it.
This isn't a beautiful poem.  Not the kind that sings.  But the rhymes are comfortable and the story is wonderful.  I never seem to hear tall tales anymore.  Have they gone extinct and out of fashion?  A sad thing if they have.  

Friday, April 25, 2014

Groundhog Day and Aristotle

Here's an interesting article, from Charles Murray, that suggests that 20-somethings might be better off skipping Aristotle's 'Ethics' and watching and rewatching the movie 'Groundhog Day'.  (I'm going to assume that everyone reading this has seen the movie, but if you haven't, you probably should.)  Murray says that 'Groundhog Day' represents an argument against hedonism and that interpretation has a lot going for it.  Anyway, I very much like the idea of picking out modern movies to highlight various philosophical approaches.  Movies represent a clear picture of 'culture', maybe the clearest out there today.  Certainly they speak to the widest audience.
I'm not arguing against reading Aristotle, but some framework to use as comparison is pretty useful.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Law and Order: Rome

One striking thing about Tacitus is the Roman approach to justice.  There are constant stories of crime and how justice was pursued.  The usual case goes something like this:
  • Someone is accused of a crime.  Sometimes they actually did something wrong.  In fact, lots of times.  But other times, they were simply inconvenient for someone else.
  • The servants of the accused are seized and tortured.  At some point, they spill the beans on the crime and the accused is found guilty.
  • The guilty party (or 'guilty' party) commits suicide before any kind of sentence can be carried out.  This is usually poison or stabbing.  Sometimes the guilty party is urged to do this by some handy centurions, sometimes they've brought their own weapons.
And that's it.  If they did a Law and Order series in Rome, every episode would follow these lines.  Well, the story-telling would become monotonous, so they'd have to change it up somehow.  In truth, it got a bit monotonous in Tacitus.  In joking with my wife, I suggested that a wealthy Roman could have gotten away with murder if they were simply smart enough to keep the servants out of the loop.  That would be one of the twists that they'd end up using to keep the series afloat.
In practice, the Roman system of justice was probably terrifying.  If you got ahead and gained some prominence, you were in great danger.  And not just you, but your spouse and children.  Occasionally, the grand-kids would be spared and allowed some small portion of inheritance.  But the danger and uncertainty were a daily fact of life.
Kind of a rough place and time.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Reading for May

Just one piece and it's on the small side.  After the long readings of the past few months, it will be nice to have a short one.

St Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologica (part One of the Second Part Questions 90-97) link

This may win the award for the most confusing and hard to find section.  If you're looking in the actual Great Books, it's in Volume 20, pages 205-239.  The title is 'Treatise on Law' and it goes from Question XC through Question XCVII (or 90-97, if the Roman numerals give you fits). 

Friday, April 18, 2014

Tacitus and Christ

One interesting point in Tacitus' 'Annals', is that he is one of the earliest non-Christian authors to mention Jesus Christ.  This is just after Rome burns down and Nero is casting about for someone to blame:
Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular.
According to this Wikipedia page there is some pushback (because of course) but it seems pretty clear that this matches up with the story from the Gospel.  An official named Pontius Pilate condemned Christ to crucifixion, 'the extreme penalty'.  The pushback suggests that this note was added later by monks but the tone of the passage makes that hard to believe.  It's also said that Tacitus could simply be repeating the beliefs of the Christians but he had access to official records and used them throughout his writings.  There is no more reason to doubt him here then there is to doubt most of his writing.

Nero (about whom I'll write more) was a real piece of work.  The above passage wasn't kidding when it said that he inflicted exquisite tortures on Christians.  Tacitus describes some of their deaths:
Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man's cruelty, that they were being destroyed.
I've never heard of people being burnt to serve as torches.  That's pretty awful.  I'm surprised that Nero doesn't get more notoriety in Christian circles.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Annals - Tacitus

Tacitus is an interesting historian.  He apparently decided that he would simply record things on a year by year basis.  Most years divide into two large elements, what wars are happening on the frontiers and what the political situation was back in Rome.  At the end of each year, he goes through the notable deaths.  Well, the deaths that occurred outside of the wars or (more frequently) the politics.
It was easier for me to follow the wars in Gaul, Germany and against the Parthians than it was to follow the news of Rome.  A few years back I spent considerable time playing a game called Total War Rome.  The game is mostly simulations of battles between Roman forces and various others of the period.  Suffice it to say, the Roman soldiers completely outclassed the various tribes of northern Europe.
There was more drama in Rome but from this viewpoint it was much harder to follow.  The Annals start off with the reign of Tiberius in 14 AD.  He followed up Julius and Augustus Caesar, two of the most famous men in history.  There was considerable trouble in Rome figuring out which faction would provide the next emperor and it caused near constant conflict.  This means lots of 'so and so killed so and so' and it was hard to figure out without some kind of family tree.
At first this confusion bothered me, but I relaxed and simply let some of it wash over me.  After a while, the names took on some meaning and I could follow along.  Well, follow to some extent.  Just as you'd get to know someone, they'd be knocked off.  It was an unbelievably nasty era of politics.
Coming off a few months of reading Greek history, the difference was striking.  I don't recall any assassination in Herodotus or Thucydides.  There, the conflict was between empires and city states.  Here, the biggest conflicts were internal.  It's a testament to the other structures of Rome that the constant fighting at the capitol didn't destabilize the empire.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Paul Lawrence Dunbar - Poetry

Another new poet (to me) and a poem that I've never read before.  The blurb in the books says that Dunbar was the descendant of slaves.  This poem was written in 1896, to give you some context for the racial atmosphere that he was working against.

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes-
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be overwise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured soul arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask.

Very powerful.  I'm reminded of the Ellison book, 'The Invisible Man', in which the protagonist is unseen by the white people around him.  Or only seen as a category, the black man, instead of as a real, individual person.
But that isn't quite on point.  The idea here is that the former slaves and their children must keep a mask on to hide what is really going on in their lives.  They don't want to share the misery that is their lot, doubtlessly to avoid even more misery.
In some ways, this is a broad, human condition.  I don't want to devalue the terrible conditions of Jim Crow and racism of the past, but virtually everyone can appreciate the thoughts of the last stanza.  We smile, even though our soul is crying.  We sing, even through the vile and exhausting times.  And we all wear that mask at times, not letting others see the pain.
A very powerful poem.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Biography of Tacitus

Not much is known about the early life of Tacitus.  Even his first name and father are disputed.  It is thought that he was from what is now southern France (Narbonensis).  His father may have been an official that served in the region of Belgium and Germany, but that isn't clear.  We do know that he was friends with Pliny the Younger.  The two exchanged letters but it isn't clear if Tacitus had the same circle of friends or not.
But we do know some things.  He started in politics in 81 or 82 and in time moved up the ladder of Roman offices.  He served in the provinces from roughly 89 to 93 and may have commanded a legion.  This was a rough period, politically but he made it through without losing his life or his wealth. 
In 100 he worked with Pliny the Younger to prosecute a proconsul of Africa.  The proconsul was accused of corruption and he was found guilty.  Young Pliny spoke very highly of his speaking skills. 
It's believed that he then took some time off to write the Annals and the Histories.  Around 112 or 113 he became governor of the province of Asia.  It's believed that he died somewhere between 117 and 130. 

Tacitus is generally regarded as the leading Roman historian.  He often worked with primary sources, including existing texts of speeches from various Emperors.  We're lucky to have the Annals at all.  Most of what we have comes from two single copies, one that covered the first six books and the second which covered books 11-16.  Even so, there are parts missing.  Hopefully, the rest will be discovered in some monastery someday. 
It's a shame to think of what immortality of writing has been robbed, not by the judgment of people but by the fault of poor materials. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Edwin Arlington Robinson - Poetry

(Sorry I missed posting this last night.  I traveled over the weekend and my brain is fuzzy.)

The next poem up in this book of poetic delights is one that I know by name, but I'm not familiar with the poem itself.  I have some recollection that Simon and Garfunkel sang about Richard Cory, but I'd have to look that up.  Anyway, here is the poem:

Whenever Richard Cory wend down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good morning," and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich - yes, richer than a king -
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Well.  That's a pretty strong clash there.  Richard Cory is a god among men.  Everyone would want to change places with him.  He's attractive, intelligent, rich.  The envy of all.  But he was unhappy enough about something to take his own life.  Ironic.
We never really do know what it's like in someone else's head, do we?  What we think would make us happy, can be someone else's hell.  Actually, I wonder how true that is.  Especially when it comes to position and wealth.  But the point is well taken.  And rich people certainly do suicide.  Some quickly with guns, some slowly with drugs.  Examples are too numerous to point out.
A fine, if disturbing, poem.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Roots of Freedom

Here is an excellent article on the traditions that we rely on for our freedoms. 
The English-speaking peoples didn’t invent democracy. The Athenians were casting pebbles into voting urns when the remote fathers of the English were grubbing about alongside their swine in the cold soil of northern Germany. Nor did they invent the concept of the law: the Egyptians, Sumerians and Babylonians had chambers full of legal scrolls even before Moses climbed down from the summit of Sinai. The Anglosphere miracle lies in something more specific and more transformative: the invention of constitutional freedom. Parliamentary government, in the common law tradition, is a guarantor of the rights of the individual, not a licence for the majority to override the minority. Power is divided, dispersed, delineated.

After spending the past few months reading Greek and Roman history, this is pretty clear.  Neither people had anything like the protections that we take for granted.  If a US citizen displeases the President, their life and liberty isn't at risk.  Well, for the sake of this observation, let's set aside the current question of the IRS targeting the President's opponents.  Or at least, let's say that if the worst is proved true and there was political power behind it, there would be outrage from both sides of the aisles.
This wasn't true in ancient Greece or Rome.  And to be honest, it wasn't always true in England either.  But it became more and more true there.  Over time they developed a theory of natural rights that were inviolate by those in power.  These were (partially) codified during the American revolution in the founding documents. 
We can look to Greece for the overall idea of democracy but for our freedoms, we need to look in a different spot.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Author Timeline

We now move to the AD.

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

Tuesday, April 1, 2014