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.

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

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

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 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