Friday, January 29, 2016

Links to the Past

The Great Forgetting of the West's Cultural Heritage link

Suggestions for 'deep reading' the classics link

Why is Shakespeare still relevant?  link

Game lets you lead a mob against the Greek Gods link

Philosophy and the City (Existential Comics) link

Categories/Metaphysics - Aristotle

If there are no objections, I'm going to combine these two works from Aristotle.  All of my standard objections to Aristotle apply here, maybe more than usual.  I felt that much of it went over my head.  Aristotle is probably best worked through with other people.

'Categories' is Aristotle's opening to the study of logic.  The basic theme is that things can be put into different categories and better understood that way.  Categories can have sub-categories, as in cats > tabbies > female tabbies.  He recognizes several various ways that things can be categorized:
Of things said without any combination, each signifies either substance or quantity or qualification or a relative or where or when or being-in-a-position or having or doing or being-affected. To give a rough idea, examples of substance are man, horse; of quantity: four-foot, five-foot; of qualification: white, grammatical; of a relative: double, half, larger; of where: in the Lyceum, in the market-place; of when: yesterday, last-year; of being-in-a-position: is-lying, is-sitting; of having: has-shoes-on, has-armour-on; of doing: cutting, burning; of being-affected: being-cut, being-burned.

 Got all that?  Good.  I'm sure that this is ground that needed to be broken at some point, but it is so well lived at this point, that it didn't feel like anything new was being added to my life.

'Metaphysics' is an effort to understand the 'substance' of things.  I must admit that I understood little of this.  I talked with my dad and he said that one of the obstacles might be in the translation from ancient Greek to English.  Things like 'form' and 'substance' are virtually synonyms in English but they may have meant very different things back then.
This could be.  And it could also be that my mind has very little attention for discussions of 'the whichness of what'.  It's easier for me to work with problems of ethics and the like.  Your mileage may vary, but I found the Aristotle this month to be quite a struggle for very little reward.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Symposium - Plato

The narrative framing for this dialogue is really something else.  The story is told fourth or fifth hand; someone heard someone else telling about this and he heard it from someone.  This allows Plato to generously put words in people's mouths.  Who knows, it may bear some resemblance to an actual event?
In any case, 'Symposium' tells the story of a party.  The party goers partied too hard the night before and don't have a head for strong drink two nights in a row.  Instead, it is decided that they will each speak about 'love'.  They will take turns and go around the table and say something about it.
The speeches are interesting, though not world shaking.  They mostly range from 'love is the source of all good things' to 'some loves are more pure than others'.  My favorite is from Aristophanes (yes, that Aristophanes) where he suggests that in prehistory, all humans were joined together as a pair.  Each pair was split apart and 'love' is a strong desire to return to that earlier paired condition.  He also explains that some number of the pairs included men with men and women with women.
Socrates is the last to go (natch) and he explains that he was taught quite a bit about love by a woman who trained him in the arts of love.  He was primarily taught that love is a thing that, even when a man has it, he wants more of it.  In this, it is different than health or happiness in which people become content.  He also believes that love is a process in which the person perfects themselves as a person and (eventually) through pursuit of philosophy.
After Socrates ends, a latecomer, Alcibiades, enters.  He decides to also speak of love, though his is scorned love.  At an earlier time, he tried to let Socrates seduce him but Socrates didn't do so.  Alcibiades decided to pursue Socrates instead and ended up doing so by trying to become a better man.  This is where we get the term 'Platonic love'.

This work is rightfully praised as a look at what life must have been like in ancient Athens.  We learn a lot about how loving relationships worked, including older men with younger men.  The form here is much less conversational than the other Platonic dialogues I've read and more like an extended scene from a novel.  I enjoyed it quite a bit.

While reading this, I was constantly reminded of one of my favorite books, 'Time Enough For Love' by Robert Heinlein.  That book also features long stretches of people talking to each other about philosophical matters, including 'love'.  Heinlein has his main character, Lazarus Long, divide love into two categories, eros and agape.  He also gives an exact definition of agape love, 'the condition in which someone else's happiness is essential to your own happiness'.
I couldn't help but wonder if Heinlein had read 'Symposium' at some earlier time.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Upcoming Reads

When I am done with my Plato and Aristotle binge, I'm planning reading two pieces by Descartes:
  • Meditations on First Philosophy
  • Rules for the Direction of the Mind

As You Like It - Shakespeare

'As You Like It' really hits the ground running.  We quickly find out that a younger brother (Orlando) is being cheated out of his inheritance by his older brother (Oliver).  Oliver asks a traveling wrestler to 'accidentally' kill his brother in a wrestling match. 
Meanwhile, two young cousins, Rosalind and Celia, are discussing their distressing situation.  Celia's father is the new Duke, having cast out Rosalind's father.  The old duke is living in exile and Rosalind is distinctly unwelcome.  They go to watch the wrestling match with the court clown, Touchstone.  They watch as Orlando beats the wrestler and, while meeting him, Rosalind and Orlando quickly fall in love together.
The current Duke sees them meet and orders Rosalind out of his kingdom.  She decides to join her father in exile.  Celia and Touchstone decide to go with her.  They also decide that there is a danger in traveling as maids so Rosalind will dress as a man and answer to the name Ganymede.  (Got all that?)
Little do they know that Orlando has also fled.  The Duke believes that Orlando has abducted his daughter and so summons Oliver to find him.  They all go, as everyone does apparently, to the forest of Arden, to meet the exiles there. 
Orlando is so full of love for Rosalind that he takes to writing poetry and nailing it to every tree.  Rosalind is also in love with Orlando but doesn't break disguise.  Instead, she decides to educate him in how to woo a lady.  She tells Orlando that she must pretend that she, as Ganymede, is Rosalind.  (As all this happens, another plot opens up where a shepherd tries to woo his lady, but she falls for Ganymede.)
In the end, all is resolved.  And I do mean all.  The lovers are all straightened out.  Oliver is rescued from a lion by Orlando and they are back to brotherly love.  The new Duke has had a revelation and allows the former Duke to return to his Dukedom.  Rosalind gives a short epilogue and the curtain closes.

What a delightful play this is!  This was a first time read for me and I greatly enjoyed it.  Rosalind has such obvious fun playing with Orlando.  Even though he is being tricked, he seems simply distracted and not at all bothered by it.
I simply love the idea of writing love letters and leaving them on trees here and there.  If I was much younger, I might try that exact trick.  (And no, I have no real talent for poetry.  But that doesn't seem to be much of an obstacle.)  But then, at heart, I'm a romantic.
Every resource that I've seen reminds me that when the play was written, all of the women's parts were played by young men.  So, for the majority of the play, we have a young man playing a young woman who is playing a young man.  Orlando is of course, unable to peer through the disguise but it's a comedy and it doesn't pay to look too hard.
The only real down point is a rather famous speech from Jaques where he talks about 'All the world's a stage/And all the men and women merely players'.  Jaques, one of the court of the exiled Duke, is a dour man in a comedy world, so he starts at a huge disadvantage.  But this speech immediately kills all of the momentum of the play.  And now I remember seeing this play done at a rather famous theater in Minneapolis some years past.  The same speech had the same effect there.  It quickly became a turd in the punch bowl.  So much so, that my brother, who isn't a regular theater goer, also commented on it after the play.  This is strange and there really must be a way to give that speech in a better way.

Anyway, I loved it.   

Monday, January 25, 2016

Unforseen Problem

So far 2016 has been very productive in terms of reading time, but I've had very little time and space to do any writing about what I've read.  Given my schedule of work and family, I'm not sure when that changes.  Things I have read but not written about include:

  • Civilization and its Discontents - Freud
  • Symposium - Plato
  • Categories - Aristotle
  • Metaphysics (Book VII) - Aristotle
  • Twelfth Night - Shakespeare
  • Julius Caesar - Shakespeare
And that's aside from things like setting out the short story list for 2016.  I'm not sure when this all gets straightened out.  But I'll try to solve it.  
Don't go away.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Comedy of Errors - Shakespeare

I had never read or seen 'The Comedy of Errors' before it popped on this list for me.  The story is simple, if twisty.  We begin with the story of a merchant from Syracuse who has been detained in Ephesus.  (Due to some issues between the cities, it is against the law for him to be there.  Unless he can pay a large fine, he will be executed.)  He tells his life story to the Duke:

1. He and his wife had twins.
2. Another pair of twins were born to a poor family at the same time.  He bought those twins to act as servants for his boys.
3. The entire family was in a series of shipwrecks that split them all up.
4. He was still with one son, but that boy left some years ago to see if he could find his mother and twin brother.

We quickly meet one of the merchant twins and his manservant.  They are mistaken for the other twin and brought home.  Much confusion occurs as servants are sent hither and yon.  The traveling merchant twin gains nothing but benefit after benefit, while the home twin gets the short end of every twist.  Each of the servants gets beaten repeatedly for their honest mistakes.
The confusion isn't untied until the very end.  The merchant from the beginning is reunited with first one and then the other son.  Everything is set to right with a strong hint that the traveling son will marry the sister of his twins wife.  (There is also another surprise that I won't write about.  I certainly didn't expect it.)

I enjoyed 'The Comedy of Errors' but I'm not sure why it was picked for the Great Books list.  It isn't as sophisticated as many other of Shakespeare's comedies.  The intro to the edition I have tries to defend the play from being labeled as farce and, well, the defense isn't all that effective. 
It's funny.  There is a scene where the foreign servant finds a woman who insists that she is his wife.  He says she is round and compares her to a globe.  He then is tasked with comparing her various parts with regions of the world.  The results are bawdy and inventive.  But this sure ain't high culture.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Shakespeare for 2016

In my list of remaining works, there are 13 plays by Shakespeare, broken into four groups:
  • Comedy of Errors, Taming of the Shrew, As You Like It and Twelfth Night
  • Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus
  • Othello and King Lear
  • Richard II, Henry IV (both parts) and Henry V
I've decided that in this year, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, that I'll try and complete all of these works.  My normal approach to Shakespeare is to try to see the play (live or recorded) and then read through it.  The language barrier can be an obstacle, but seeing real live actors perform usually overcomes that.
I'm going to change that here.  Instead of waiting for a live performance or DVD, I'm going to look for YouTube or similar versions.  While watching the video, I'll have the text in front of me.  That way, if there is a large edit, I can pause and read through what was cut out.  I've tested this out on a couple of the comedies and it seems to work really well.
I hope to have all 13 of the suggested plays done in a few months.  If things go well, I may simply continue for the rest of the year and go through all of them.  I'll post standalone reviews of each, along with the link of the version that I watched.  I've set a (soft) goal of seeing all of Shakespeare's works in this year.  This may be the only realistic way of doing so.

In other Shakespeare news, I've started working through the book 'How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare' with my 8 year old daughter and it's going really well.  The book is set up in a number of passages that you work together to memorize.  For each passage, some background is provided so that you can pass that on to the child.  Things like what play and what is happening.  This way they have some grounding to go with the sheer fun of it all.
If you follow the link, you'll see that the author has provided printable 'worksheets' for each passage.  So far they do the trick.  She is excited to tackle each new passage and even sharing them at school.  I highly recommend the book and its approach.

Update: I meant to attach this list of screen adaptations.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Short Stories 2015

Waaaay back in November, I mentioned that I had finished up the short story project, 'Deal Me In'.  (If you don't remember, the idea is to select 52 short stories and then match each one up with a card from a normal deck.  Each week you read the story that matches the next card.)  Well, I didn't quite stay with the plan.  I had some free time in November, so I finished up early.  Unfortunately, I never wrote anything about what I'd read.
Here is the quick list:

Star CafeCaponegro3 clubsok
Secret Life of Walter MittyThurber8 diamondsvery good
Eternal LifeAleichemQ heartsgood
Good man is Hard to FindO'ConnorQ diamondsvery good
Short Happy Life of Francis McComberHemingway7 diamondsexcellent
The Man Who Slept Through the End ofNadir3 heartsdelightful
Harvey's Dream KingQ spadesvery good
King DragonSwanwickJ spadesexcellent
How much Land Does a Man Need?TolstoyJ diamondsexcellent
GooseberriesChekovQ clubsvery good
In a Far CountryLondon10 diamondsvery good

That's how it all finished up.  The idea behind this project was to expand the quality (and number) of short stories that I had read.  To do that, I choose 52 stories that I'd never read before.  13 of them were from a book of stories translated from Yiddish.  13 were from a recent Sci-Fi/Fantasy collection.  13 of them were from a book where established authors suggest short stories that have touched them.  And the last were recognized classic shorts.
I enjoyed the entire project, though there were some stories that I liked more than others.  (I believe some of the idea of the project is to review them as you read them.  Cleopatra does a very good job of this.  Frankly, that's unrealistic for me.)  In general, the classic short stories were consistently the best.  I guess that means that they've faced the test of time.  The Sci-Fi/Fantasy stuff was also very good, though that may be nothing more than a matter of taste.  I enjoyed the Yiddish stories but they were more interesting than great.  (I suspect that would have been true of any set of stories all translated from the same source.)
The worst of all, for me, was the selections from the suggested stories.  This could be a matter of taste as well, but I suspect that it is something different.  Those stories are are ones selected by writers and almost all of the introductions focused on construction above all.  As a reader, I'm far more likely to look at things like message and plot.  Sometimes a turn of phrase strikes me, but not as often, or at least not in the same places, as it did for the authors that inspired this collection.
Fair enough.

Did I enjoy it?  Very much so.  Am I doing it again?  Yes.  In fact, I'm a few stories in already.  (I'll try to find some time over the weekend to put the list in front of you.)  If you enjoy short stories and have some anthologies laying around, I highly suggest you try this out for yourself.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

On the Soul - Aristotle

(As usual, with Aristotle, I feel like I would have understood this much more in a group.  Or with a qualified professor.  Or both.  So bear with me!)

This covers only part of this work.  The list 'assigned' the first three chapters of Book II and all of Book III. 

In Book II, Aristotle defines what he is talking about when he talks about a 'soul'. 
We have now given an answer to the question, What is soul? - an answer which applies to it in its full extent. It is substance in the sense which corresponds to the definitive formula of a thing's essence. That means that it is 'the essential whatness' of a body of the character just assigned.

I find this interesting in part because of how broadly it applies.  If, say, an organization were to lose its prime mission, we could say that it has lost its soul and we would be completely in line with what Aristotle is talking about.  Or if a musician loses that special something, we may say that he has lost the 'soul' of his music.
And this works when talking about souls, in the sense that Socrates was talking about them, too.  If every person has a unique 'it' that makes them who they are, then surely that is their soul.  When they die, that part is gone.  Or, on a lesser but more tragic note, if that 'it' gets taken away through accident or incident, then their soul also goes away.

In Book III, Aristotle gets into territory that is frankly harder for me to really understand.  He makes a distinction between thinking, perceiving and imagining.  These distinctions are based on whether or not each area can be false or not.  Perceiving cannot be false, while thinking can.  Therefore, thinking is different.  Meanwhile, imagining has to do with the ability to recall past things.
The soul "is analogous to the hand; for as the hand is a tool of tools, so the mind is the form of forms and sense the form of sensible things".  In other words, the soul is the tool that bridges the other distinct areas of thinking, perceiving and imagining. 
I think.  I'll confess, that I felt out of depth with most of Book III. 

I don't think either Aristotle or Socrates did much toward proving what a soul is, or what it does.  Most importantly, I don't think either one made much headway in proving what happens to it after death.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Links to the Past

Revenge of the Greats link

Stoicism for the Modern Day link

Map of locations in the Odyssey link

How Christianity Advanced Science link

The World's Largest 'Shakespeare 400' celebration link

Snakes and Ladders and the Nature of Virtue (Existential Comics) link

Monday, January 4, 2016

Phaedo - Plato

Socrates was sentenced to death by his fellow Athenians, for various reasons.  On the last day, before his death by poison, Socrates gathered together with friends and talked.  Some of this is covered in 'Crito', which I wrote about here.  I didn't realize that a different part of the discussion was wrote about in 'Phaedo'.  (As always with the works of Plato, we only have Socrates to go on here.  For all I know, there are twenty of these 'last day' dialogues, comprising weeks worth of actual discussion.)

Crito dealt with Socrates feelings toward the law that condemned him.  Phaedo deals with Socrates feelings about his upcoming death.  He isn't wracked with fear like many men would be.  Instead, he welcomes his upcoming death.  His friends don't understand so he tries to explain to them that his soul will finally be freed from his body.  Socrates' belief is that the soul is pure and the body is naturally corrupt.  Death moves the pure soul out of the mortal life that threatens to sully it.
He also believes in reincarnation.  He talks about evil men becoming wolves and lazy men becoming donkeys.  Some human souls will go back into other souls.  In fact, he is very clear that a soul is imprinted with knowledge from the start.  His theory of education is one of 'reawakening' that knowledge.  That knowledge must come from somewhere so therefore the soul must have some prior existence before going into a current body.
Socrates is challenged on this and he gives, to my mind, some very unsatisfactory answers.  He says that everything has a cycle and compares life and death to being awake and being asleep.  There are certainly superficial similarities but the idea that they are exactly comparable is wildly unproven.  I remain unconvinced.
Near the end, Socrates speaks of his understanding of the world, in terms of geography.  It is a ball in space, kept in place by the air around it.  Humans live in the depressions of the earth.  He compares the air around us to the ocean and the ground to the bottom of the sea.  He says that if we could reach up to the top, we could see above the 'surface' and into heaven.
He also speaks of Tartarus, the afterworld and what happens to the souls that are there.  They spend time in a vast sea of mud.  They can't come out until they are forgiven by the souls of those they wronged.  This is an interesting twist on the idea of Hell and eternal punishment.  It gives you incentive not to wrong people in life.  You also have a bias towards forgiveness, as you would want others to forgive you.
'Phaedo' closes with the Socrates drinking the poison.  He walks around until his limbs grow cold and then lays down and dies.  His friends will miss him dearly.  The world will read about him forever.