Saturday, January 31, 2015

Books Read in January

This past month involved lots of rereads for me.  Well, not 'lots'.  It also involved lots of quality over quantity.

  • 'Republic' by Plato - This was my treadmill book for most of the month.  Back in year one, we covered the first two books of the Republic.  That meant an abrupt end to the conversation as they sought the meaning of 'justice'.  I didn't like that and I wanted to know what lead to books 6 and 7 for January.  So I started at the beginning.  I'll write more about this.
  • 'Time Enough for Love' by Heinlein - My favorite book by my favorite writer.  It takes place more than 2000 years in the future.  One man has been alive since the early 20th century and now he wants to let himself die.  The 'powers that be' want to keep him around and see what he's learned in all that time.  This is a very talky book.  Large portions of it involve dialogues not that unlike those found in the Republic.  This was the first time that I'd reread it in some time and, as always, it was interesting to see where my agreements/disagreements had changed.
  • 'The Name of the Rose' by Eco - Another of my all time favorites.  The book takes place in a 14th century Italian monastery.  There is an unexplained murder.  There is an enormous library that is shaped into a labyrinth.  There is a political fight between the then two(!) popes.  And there is one of the most devastating scenes in all of fiction.  There is also discussion about various writers that I understand much better now that I've been reading the Great Books for the past few years.  An excellent read.
And then there were the short stories.  One a week, which meant five of them in January.  Quick, quick reviews.
  • 'On Account of a Hat' by Alecheim - fun!
  • 'The Red Bow' by Saunders - only ok
  • 'A Quiet Garden Spot' by Asch - somber
  • 'The Silence of the Falling Stars' by O'Driscoll - ok, atmospheric
  • 'The Aleph' by Borges - exquisite

Friday, January 30, 2015

Classic Links

Closer to being able to read scrolls from Herculaneum link

Thomas Aquinas, the last ancient philosopher?  link 

Students call for humanities class to cover more women and people of color link

A Philosopher Walks into a Coffee Shop link

The Philosophy Superbowl (Existential Comics) link

Monday, January 26, 2015

Trojan Women - Euripides

'The Trojan Women' is an interesting play in that it focuses on the effect of war on women.  Especially the women of the losing side.  In some ways this play is a direct contradiction to the idea that history is written by the victors.  The people of Athens couldn't have simply shrugged off the connection between their heroes, the Greeks, and the poor women dealing with the aftermath of the Trojan war.
The main focus is Hecuba, the queen of Troy.  Her precious son Hector has been killed in the war as has her king, Priam.  Now she awaits her fate.  In rapid succession:
  • A messenger arrives to tell her that she will now be a slave to Odysseus.
  • Her daughter Casandra is told that she will be a slave to Agamemnon. (Casandra is madly thrilled with this because she can foresee that this will tear apart him and his family.)
  • Her youngest daughter, Polyxena, is killed at the tomb of Achilles.
  • Probably worst of all, her youngest (infant?) son Astyanax will be thrown from a tower of Troy so that he won't grow up and seek revenge.
  • She is then confronted with the scheming Helen who was behind the war in the first place.
It's a bleak play, perhaps the most bleak that I've ever read.  The rolling doom has a sort of fascination, I suppose.  I imagine watching it back then would have been very uncomfortable.  Well, even now it seems an uncomfortable thing to watch. 
Which isn't to say that it's not well written.  I can easily imagine that the role of Hecuba would be one that a talented actress could really sink her teeth into.  It's similar to Lady Macbeth in the amount of passion it must take to perform well.  
But this really was a direct challenge to Athens at a time during the Peloponessian war when Athens was doing some awful things.  I remain surprised at the amount of anti-war material has made it into this reading list.  We've read that warriors are jerks (the Illiad), that war is uncertain folly (The Peloponessian War) and here that the innocent victims of war pay far too high a price.

Not an easy play, but very worth while.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Hippolytus - Euripides

(Sorry for the lateness.  Been dealing with sickness.)

Hippolytus is the bastard son of Theseus.  He has decided to honor the goddess Artemis and spurn Aphrodite and Aphrodite is not pleased.  (This is a theme with Greek gods and goddesses.)  In response, she has cursed Phaedra, the wife of Theseus so that she is in love with Hippolytus. 
Phaedra confess this love to her nurse in strict confidence but Hippolytus finds out.  He is sicked and scornful:
Great Zeus, why didst thou, to man's sorrow, put woman, evil counterfeit, to dwell where shines the sun? If thou wert minded that the human race should multiply, it was not from woman they should have drawn their stock, but in thy temples they should have paid gold or iron or ponderous bronze and bought a family, each man proportioned to his offering, and so in independence dwelt, from women free.
He has sworn not to tell but he leaves in anger.  After he is gone, Phaedra, in despair, commits suicide.  She leaves a note that blames Hippolytus, claiming that he has defiled her.  Theseus arrives home to find all of this.  In his anger, he makes a plea to Poseidon:
O father Poseidon, once didst thou promise to fulfill prayers of mine; answer one of these and slay my son, let him not escape this single day, if the prayers thou gavest me were indeed with issue fraught.
To sum up, Theseus has lost his wife and has no called on the gods to kill his son.  Hippolytus returns and Theseus accuses him of the crime.  Hippolytus hotly claims his innocence but Theseus will have none of it.  He orders his son out of the kingdom, to be forever exiled. 
While he is leaving, Poseidon sends a huge wave to kill him.  Attendants bring his broken body back to Theseus.  The truth comes out and they forgive each other before Hippolytus dies.

I'm not sure what to make of this story.  It's absolutely filled with injustice.  Both Paedra and Hippolytus are (essentially) killed by the gods.  I guess there is some lesson in that Hippo should have been more respectful of Aphrodite but the penalties here seem rather stiff. 
I know that Aristotle wrote in response to Euripides, arguing that theater should have clear morals.  I'm guessing that he wouldn't have cared for this at all.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Readings for February

Two things for February.

Plato: Republic (books 6-7) link
Plato: Theaetetus link

So, lots of Plato. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Classic Links

Why the world still loves Shakespeare link

15 Minute Per Day Reading Plan for the Harvard Classics link 

Who Said 'The Pen is Mightier Than the Sword'? Lots of people, in different ways link

If We Lost the Canon link

Map of Mythological Greece link

German Philosophers playing Monopoly (Existential Comics) link

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Madea - Euripides

Let's start with basic plot points.
  • Jason (of Argonaut fame) has been gifted the hand of a princess in marriage by the king of Corinth.  This is a problem, since he is already married to the sorceress Medea and they have two sons.
  • Medea is not at all happy about this.
  • Medea meets with the king of Athens who promises to give her shelter if she should ever need it.
  • Jason tells Medea that she should calmly accept what has happened since it will bring their family status.
  • Medea decides to kill the princess.  She gives her a poisoned cloak.  The king sees his daughter in agony and tries to save her.  He is also poisoned.  Both die horribly.
  • Medea kills her sons because she reasons that a) they'll be killed by the Corinthians in revenge and b) their deaths will cause Jason agony.
  • She kills the poor boys
  • Jason shows up again and she taunts him with their dead bodies.  She won't allow him to hold them again or to bury them.
  • Medea flees in a dragon drawn chariot.  She will live safely in Athens.
What a play!  There is so much awfulness that it's hard to look away.  Who is worse, Jason the jerk, who callously throws aside his family for glory and position?  Or Medea, who kills her own children as part of a revenge plot?  Ok, probably Medea. 
But she really is treated horribly.  Prior to the events of this play, she betrayed her own father and fled her homeland all so that she could help Jason, whom she had fallen in love with.  She gave up so much and now she is being treated awfully.  If she had simply accepted her fate, she'd be a more sympathetic figure but why should she accept it? 
I can't help but wonder (and not for the last time), what the Athenians made of Euripides.  He won awards for his works but he must have been shocking.  Think of this passage, spoken by Medea:
And yet they say we live secure at home, while they are at the wars, with their sorry reasoning, for I would gladly take my stand in battle array three times o'er, than once give birth.
Did they yell, or shun him?  Did they roll their eyes?  Or did he divide them and force them to rethink their positions?  Probably all three but that last is why we remember him today.  In the finest Western tradition, he questioned the status quo and shook things up.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Understanding Medea and Greek Theater

I linked to this video in a past 'links' post but I want to highlight it on its own.  The video is quite well done.  It talks about how Greek theater was physically set up and highlights a British school that still performs the plays in ancient Greek.  (Yes, I would love to go!  Maybe I should try to organize a field trip...)
Anyway, it's completely worth the half hour it will take to watch.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Biography of Euripides

We don't know many certain details about the life of Euripides.  This is common with ancient writers but it looks like the reason behind the uncertainty here is somewhat different.  So many things were said about Euripides by his fans and his critics that we can't tell what was true and what was slander. 
We know that he was younger than Aeschylus and Sophocles.  We also know that he moved Greek theater in a different direction than the other two.  We also know that he won five awards for having the best play of the year, the last one was won posthumously. 

The Wikipedia page about Euripides is quite interesting.  I especially enjoyed the section on how his plays survived
Around 200 AD, ten of the plays of Euripides began to be circulated in a select edition, possibly for use in schools, with some commentaries or scholia recorded in the margins. Similar editions had appeared for Aeschylus and Sophocles—the only plays of theirs that survive today: "The rise of Goths and Tartars throughout the Roman world from the gutter to the throne, the destruction of libraries by choleric and fanatical popes and emperors, were unfavourable to the progress but not entirely fatal to the preservation of literary studies."[77] Euripides however was more fortunate than the other tragedians in the survival of a second edition of his work, compiled in alphabetical order as if from a set of his collect works, but without scholia attached. This 'Alphabetical' edition was combined with the 'Select' edition by some unknown Byzantine scholar, bringing together all the nineteen plays that survive today. The 'Select' plays are found in many medieval manuscripts but only two manuscripts preserve the 'Alphabetical' plays—often denoted L and P, after the Laurentian Library at Florence, and the Bibliotheca Palatina in the Vatican, where they are stored. It is believed that P derived its Alphabet plays and some Select plays from copies of an ancestor of L, but the remainder is derived from elsewhere. P contains all the extant plays of Euripides, L is missing The Trojan Women and latter part of The Bacchae.
And that's why we have as much Euripides as we do.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Author Timeline

Boy, I'm late on this!

Euripides 480-406
Plato 428-348  
Aristotle 384-322

Augustine 354-430
Aquinas 1225-1274
Montaigne 1533-1592
Galileo 1564-1642
Bacon 1561-1626
Descartes 1596-1650
Newton 1642-1726
Locke 1632-1704
Hume 1711-1776
Kant 1724-1804
Melville 1819-1891
Dostoyevsky 1821-1881
James 1842-1910

Monday, January 5, 2015

Deal Me In with Short Stories

The delightful Cleo is doing a challenge this year and I'm going to hop on board too.  (She does about 50 challenges.  Where does she find the time?!?)  This one is involves short stories and you can find her post about the rules here.
The basic idea is simple.  You pick 52 short stories and then assign each of them a card from a regular deck.  Each week you pull out one card and read the corresponding story.  As I said, simple.  She is mixing it up a bit.  Instead of just short stories, she is mixing it up a bit with short stories, essays, poems and children's stories.  I'm going to stick with the short stories.
I've got six or eight collections of short stories (and maybe twice that number of short stories from particular authors).  I'm going to assign three suits to specific books and a fourth will be used as more miscellaneous.  All 52 short stories are new to me.  I probably won't blog them but I'll say something about them in my end of month readings.  They are:

Clubs (From 'You've Got to Read This' a collection where famous authors suggest titles that are meaningful to them.)

Ace - A Distant Episode by Bowles
King - Goodbye my Brother by Cheever
Queen - Gooseberries by Chekov
Jack - Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases  by Gustafson
Ten - Master and Man by Tolstoy
Nine - No Place for You, My Love by Welty
Eight - Penal Colony by Kafka
Seven - Spring in Fialta by Nabakov
Six - The Aleph by Borges
Five - The Flowers by Walker
Four - The Man to Send Rain Clouds by Silko
Three - The Star Cafe by Caponegro
Two - Wants by Paley

Hearts (From 'A Treasury of Yiddish Stories')

Ace - A Quiet Garden Spot by Asch
King - Competitors by Rosenfeld
Queen - Eternal Life by Aleichem
Jack - Father and the Boys by Weissenberg
Ten - Higher and Higher by Marcus
Nine - Kola Street by Asch
Eight - My First Love by Nadir
Seven - On Account of a Hat by Aleichem
Six - The Calf by Sforim
Five - The Girl by Schneour
Four - The Mad Talumdist by Peretz
Three - The Man Who Slept through the End of the World by Nadir
Two - To the New World by Metzker

 Spades (From a Fantasy and Horror anthology)

Ace - Almost Home by Bisson
King - Ancestor Money by Mchugh
Queen - Harvey's Dream by King
Jack - King Dragon by Swanwick
Ten - My Sly Stops for a Cup of Joe by Bull
Nine - Silence of the Falling Stars by O'Driscoll
Eight - Study in Emerald by Gaiman
Seven - The Fluted Girl by Bacigalupi
Six - The Red Bow by Saunders
Five - The Wife by Singh
Four - Why I Became a Plumber by Maitland
Three - With Acknowledgments to Sun Tzu by Hodge
Two - You Go Where it Takes You - Balingrud

Diamonds (miscellaneous)

Ace - Babylon Revisited by Fitzgerald
King - Black is my Favorite Color by Malamud
Queen - A Good Man is Hard to Find by O'Connor
Jack - How Much Land Does a Man Need by Tolstoy
Ten - In a Far Country by London
Nine - Lady with a Lapdog by Chekov
Eight - Secret Life of Walter Mitty by Thurber
Seven - Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber by Hemmingway
Six - Signs and Symbols by Nabakov
Five - Texts by Leguin
Four - The Dead by Joyce
Three - The Million Pound Note by Twain
Two - The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

Friday, January 2, 2015

Classic Links

What Descartes Means for Understanding Philosophy link

How studying history helps us study other things link

What Darwin really screwed up link 

Understanding Medea (BBC Video) link

The Power of Stoicism link

Philosophers Playing Risk (Existential Comics) link 

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Plans for Year Four

Long term readers of this blog probably noticed that the output dropped considerably over the past three months.  Sorry bout that.  I could make excuses for it (and some would be legitimate) but there is no point in that.  What I'm trying to say is that the output is going to go back up. 


My usual pattern is to start reading the pieces for a month on the 20th of the prior month.  My hope is to have it finished by the 10th of the month in which it falls.  So, for this month I started reading Euripides back before Christmas.  I finished the first two plays and I'm half way through the third one. 
The monthly set up will be something like:
  • 1st of the month is the work (or works) with a link.
  • 3rd of the month is the timeline for the authors of the year.  (I find the context helpful.)
  • The 6th is for the author bio.  I like finding out about the lives, especially the early lives, of each author.  If I've already done their bio previously, I'll probably just link to the previous one.
  • I'll start writing about the work around the 10th and write at least two posts before the end of the month.  At least two but hopefully more.  (This month will have at least four.)
  • On the 20th, I'll list the work for the next month with a link.
  • The last day or two of the month I'll write about the other, non Great Books related things that I've read that month.
  • In addition, I'll keep doing the 'links' posts.  I'm thinking every other Friday, though maybe every Friday if I can make that work.  And I need a better name than 'classic links'.  Suggestions are welcome.
  • I may get back to the 100 plays bit.  I'd like to.  We'll see how busy the other parts of my life are.  If so, it will be one play a month and I'll figure out what works best in scheduling that.
If this all works out, that will be three or four posts per week and a much busier, more regular blog than the past three months have been.

Hope you enjoy it!

Readings for January