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Saturday 21 January 2017


Completing the set of early-modern satires is Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. This book has seen a ton of editions and you can't go wrong with most of them. I mostly chose this edition because it comes in hardcover and it has original illustrations by Jon Corbino. It is a solid and comfortable size. The Corbino illustrations are interesting at times. My only complaint would be that the Corbino illustrations rarely show up very close to the related scene. Pick it up if you want a nice hardcover with some weird art as a bonus or just stick with the Dover edition otherwise. Either option is amazingly cheap.

The story of Gulliver's Travels is one of those stories that is "well-known", largely through numerous adaptations, e.g. movies and cartoons. But like many popular stories known primarily through adaptations, many details and themes have gone missing over the years. In that way, it reminded me a lot of H.G. Wells' Time Machine. For example, many adaptations focus on Lilliput and Brobdingnag, the land of tiny people and the land of giants, respectively. Gulliver's time in those lands makes up only half the book. This still leaves the land where they have floating islands powered by lodestone and adamant and the land of noble, intelligent horse people. It was also a bit racier than the child-friendly adaptations. For example, I do not remember ever seeing a version as kid where Gulliver whips his dick out to extinguish a fire, as he does in the book. They also leave out the complications of clothing and defecation in differently-scaled lands. This process has, over the years, shifted the story from a feeling of science fiction foreshadowing works such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Lost World to a kind of fantastic fairy tale. Literary adaptation is simultaneously both a creative and a destructive force.

While I say the book had the feeling of science fiction, it is primarily intended to be a satire. These things are not mutually exclusive. Swift is broadly attempting to criticize the politics and culture of his own age. In particular, there is something noted in various ways in each of the lands that remains true even in our own modern American society: we really do not put much thought in to selecting leaders. For example, we really do not seem to care all that much if our leaders are even remotely virtuous. One need only look at the products of our presidential elections. In your everyday life, what would you entrust to a former coke-head, a serial adulterer, or even a self-proclaimed pussy-grabber? If you have any sense, the answer is, "Not much." And yet these things are not stumbling blocks to the most important job in the country. After the fact, we are often astounded by the lies and crimes of our leaders. How do we not see that immoral people will continuing being immoral once we elect them? How do we still not see it when they engage in the predictable bad behavior and we are offered a chance to reelect them? It is a madness born out of a society that can not even say "virtue" as anything other than a sexual euphemism. This was as much as problem in Swift's day as it is in our own. It seems to have weighed heavily upon him. And his gift to posterity is to share this burden with us. It is strange how hard it can sometimes be to be grateful for a useful and necessary thing.

The ending of the book provides a sort of warning for those who gaze too long into the abyss of humanity's flaws. Gulliver spends so much time away from flawed humanity that, when he finally returns home for the last time, he can not even see his own family as anything other than a bunch of ugly and disgusting beasts. Strangely, I have not fallen into this trap because, when push comes to shove, I am nearly as resigned as I am cynical. While I see humanity as very flawed, I do not really expect anything else. I hope for more from myself but I do not really have any inclination to hold people in my everyday life to any real standard. I just accept their faults as normal. Christianity also has its own way of framing and resolving this conflict: While we are all born with original, we are also still made in the image of God and we each have a shot at redemption. If you find yourself going down Gulliver's path, grab one of these sorts of logical lifelines as soon as possible. Otherwise, only misery can follow.

On other reading fronts, Aquinas' Summa is still on-going. I took a bit of a break for a while and so progress stopped for a while. I am now trying to get back in to it with a little over half of it to go. I have the nugget of at least one more post on that kicking around in my brain. On the French front, I have picked up the complete works of Pascal but it is an incredible amount of text without the crutch of a dual-language edition. I am also reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Incerto. It isn't usual Great Books material but I may write something about it anyway.

Sunday 16 October 2016

NEETs in Enlightenment France

Next up on the French side of things is Denis Diderot's Le Neveau de Rameau or Rameau's Nephew. This edition is available in paperback, hardcover, and on-line. The hardcover edition well-bound and printed on heavy paper. I can not really speak for the paperback edition. The on-line edition includes much of the music mentioned within Le Neveau. The printed text notes when these musical selections are available. The edition contains an astounding amount number of endnotes, completely with images of many of people and places mentioned. Between the dialogue itself and the endnotes, this edition serves as a kind of Who's Who of the French Enlightenment. A ton of work and love clearly went in to this edition. Unfortunately, the translation and original French are printed in separate sections, forcing the reader to flip back and forth to do any comparison. The same is true of the endnotes. I really fish publishers would stick to footnotes and side-by-side translations. This edition could be perfect with those simple layout changes. That said, it is the only dual-language edition in existence as far as I know and beggars can not be choosers.

This is an 18th-century fictitious dialogue between an unnamed narrator MOI, or me, and LUI, or him. LUI does most of the talking. He is a cynical man who is down on his luck despite coming from the well-to-do family of the composer Jean-Philippe Rameau. MOI's attempts to defuse his bitter cynicism is feeble. The topics they discuss are numerous so I will have to keep my focus narrow.

One of the topics raised is the notion that those whom history deems "great" men are often failures in other parts of their lives. In other words, the idea is that great men are not good men. For example, it is argued that though Jean-Philippe Rameau was a great composer, he was a dick to his family. Several other examples are given. The explanation for this supposed pattern is that a talented genius must sacrifice other parts of his or her life in pursuit of his or her craft. But I think the reasoning here is flawed. Few people are well-rounded and equally good at all aspects of life. Why should this be any different for the gifted? Being a good composer is a very different skill set than being a good uncle or father (though we only have the scoundrel LUI's word on Rameau's value as a family man). Being great at certain crafts, like musical composition, suggests a high degree of general intelligence but it does not guarantee it. And high general intelligence does not necessarily high morals. I personally believe that very high intelligence helps in developing good morals but I have seen slightly-above-average intelligence allow many people to justify their mercenary pragmatism. But, on the whole, I think we are dealing with a difference of degree, not of kind, and not a particularly large difference at that. In other words, great men and average men conduct themselves much the same in many areas of their lives. I think this notion of the bad great man is an illusion of the availability heuristic. LUI knows one bad great man and can name a few others. But elsewhere he praises many other great men. It is easier to keep a mental catalog of the exceptional assholes than the everyday man. And LUI repeats the same mistake with other groups of people. He knows many bad clergymen, therefore all clergy are bad. He knows many bad fellow Parisians, therefore all of Paris is rotten to the core. None of these things implies bad character. LUI's imagination and memory are simply insufficient to properly judge these things.

After LUI is done condemning the geniuses, he later laments that society is too dumb to recognize true genius, himself being one of the true genius. Yet he is very long on the things he could do, if only society would recognize and support him, and short on the things he has done. Likewise, virtually every other unrecognized genius cited, like Voltaire, is famous to this very day. In short, LUI is just a bitter underachiever at best.

Next up on the list will be Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travel. It is not in French but it is the final work that I need to read in the Swift-Voltaire-Diderot volume. Plus, I am really trying to accelerate my reading of the Summa so that I am not spending the next year finishing it. Stay tuned, buckaroos.

Wednesday 5 October 2016

The Possibility of the Pre-Photonic Rulebreaker

Next up is the first part of St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologiae. This edition is fantastic. Physically, the volumes are as beautiful as they are sturdy. The English translation is solid. There are not really really any footnotes but Aquinas designed the Summa to be able to serve as a first introduction to scholastic theology and philosophy. Some familiarity with Aristotle and Plato helps a lot but not absolutely necessary. That said, Aquinas' language is sometimes quite complicated in a way that English just doesn't handle very well. Even with my so-so Latin, I find it much easier to follow the flow of logic in the Latin original than in the faithful English translation.

One of the first things a reader of the Summa notices is that unusual system of argumentation. While many ancient and medieval forms of argumentation remain familiar to modern readers, the so-called summa style is mostly dead. The style has the following form: First a question is asked, usually conceptually linked to the previous question, if there is one. Then arguments against the author's view are given, usually representing varying schools of thought and methods of argumentation. Then the author's response to the question is given. Finally, each earlier argument that had opposed the author's view is given its own individual refutation. Both the author's own view and the imagined critics cite a broad range of respected sources. Nearly all the works are cited equally by both sides. Normally I would expect this style of argumentation to be an endless string of strawmen. But Aquinas, for the most part, has the humility to represent the opposing views fairly and with citations as worthy those he gives his own arguments. That said, given that he argues against such heavyweights as Aristotle, Augustine, Boethius, and countless others, it is unlikely that serious strawmanning these figures would have endeared him to the Church or the rest of the scholastic community. But you can't go wrong with humility seasoned by pragmatism. It is, however, a lot of work. And the sheer amount of work involved is likely the biggest factor in this style's unpopularity.

The first part of the Summa contains what are known as Aquinas' five arguments for the existence of God. This popular description is somewhat misleading and yet it is the thing the Summa is most known for. It seems only right that I address it. While it is an argument for God's existence, it is also clearly stated to be a definition, e.g. "this is what we call God". The arguments are largely Aristotelian. First, there is classic unmoved mover argument. This is based on the Aristotelian observation that nothing moves unless moved by something else. And if one logically follows the chain back, it seems necessary that there must be some strange thing that does not have this same constraint. Otherwise, how would anything in our present universe be moving at all? The second argument is about "efficient cause". This is logically much the same as the unmoved mover argument except that the chain of movement is replaced with the chain of cause and effect. The third argument is also similar, instead being about a chain of existence, i.e. you can't create something from nothing therefore there must be an original and necessary thing. The fourth argument is about gradation. In other words, we live in a universe of greater or lesser and better or worse. It is assumed that these things are intrinsic properties of the universe and not merely the product of the human mind. And it is then supposed that in such a system there must be a greatest and best being. The final argument is that our universe has a level of complexity but also order and seeming purpose that would suggest that it was deliberately designed in some way.

The first three arguments are perhaps the most persuasive, even if they are all basically a single argument. We have no real answer for the ultimate origin of the universe. Sure, we have the Big Bang. And where'd that matter come from? Maybe it all came from photons. Where did all those photons come from? With better tools, we have peeled back the onion a lot more than Aristotle ever could but we still seem to have a logical dead end. Logic would seem to suggest that somehow either the rules changed, there was a thing that could violate the rules, or there is something entirely external to the system of our universe as we know it. These do not necessarily imply the popular contemporary notion of what God is, but they are what Aquinas means when he says God. He is not some bearded sky wizard. He is either the physics changer, the physics breaker, or the simulation programmer.

I find the argument from gradation pretty fascinating from a Platonist perspective. But it is hard to prove that it is not either a human construct or a simple happy byproduct of how the universe works. And while some things are said to be better than others, it is often situational. There is no magical perfect chair, for example. There could, however, be a perfect chair for a given person in a given situation. God would probably make a bad chair though.

The final argument kind of falls apart when one realizes that complexity and order are largely relative terms and we have no other universes for comparison. Maybe our universe, on some imaginary absolute scale, is a total chaotic shitshow. Or maybe our universe is, relatively speaking, ordered perfection. As for its seeming purpose, I think it would be pretty lame to have all this for no reason. But the universe probably does not care much about my feelings on the subject

Given all these things, I think I am firmly in the camp of believing that atheism is irrational because it denies the clearly possible. On the other hand, theism is unable to definitely prove its case. Agnosticism would seem to be the most rational path. However, theism can also be rational just by acknowledging its own optimism.

On some funnier notes, Aquinas will occasionally refute arguments that cite the Old Testament by simply saying that the ancient Hebrews were simply too primitive to fully grasp God's or Moses' true meaning. In a later part, he argues against the idea of astrology in part by saying that though "necromancers" believe that the movements of the planets and stars is important for the invocation of demons, it is not actually true. Instead, demons just like necromancers believe that it is true because demons are great fun-loving trolls like that.

I have also finished Rameau's Nephew and should be writing something short about that soon. And there will likely be at least one more Summa post before I finish reading it.

Friday 23 September 2016

How to Become a Mamamouchi

Next up in my French reading is Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. It is in the same Dover volume as Le Tartuffe and has the same translator. Therefore, my comments on the actual edition remain the same as in my last post. I would only note that because this play is largely in prose rather than verse, it is much easier to read. As a result, the shoddy English translation is far less essential.

Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme is not a play in the typical sense. Instead, it is classified as a comédie-ballet, a short-lived genre of the 17th and 18th centuries. A comédie-ballet is something like a hybrid of an opera and a play. Some elements are staged like a play and others like an opera. Molière wrote the play-like portions. Jean-Baptiste Lully did the music. And the dances were choreographed by Pierre Beauchamp. In the context of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, the main narrative is in the play-like portion. The operatic elements exist within the context of the story itself. That is to say, the music and dancing are logically called for by the story and are not merely secondary mode of story telling. For example, when title character, Monsieur Jourdain, wishes to entertain some dinner guests, he has music played and dances performed for them. During that sequence, the operative style takes over. It should be obvious that simply reading the play would be different from watching a live performance to an even greater degree than normal. Fortunately, a French group called Le Poème Harmonique performed and recorded this play in 2005 complete with music, dance, and 17th century staging practices (including costumes, gestures, and makeup). You can find the DVD on Amazon. It is quite the sensory experience.

As for the play itself, I found it much better than Le Tartuffe. In fact, it is hard to believe that these plays were written by the same man. While Le Tartuffe was full of rather base humor, the jokes in Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme are of a much more elevated nature. The first act in particular has some great exchanges between Monsieur Jourdain and the various tutors he has hired. The philosophy tutor in particular was great. I believe the difference in perceived quality may just be down to Molière writing for different audiences. Le Tartuffe seems written for a popular audience. Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, on the other hand, was first performed for King Louis XIV. The implicit joke of the whole play, that a mere merchant can not easily become a gentleman, would likely be a source of anxiety rather than levity for a popular audience. I will be keeping this idea in mind when I read more Molière down the road.

Next up will likely be Denis Diderot's Le Neveau de Rameau. However, I am getting close to the end of the first part of Aquinas' Summa. I still have not decided how many posts the Summa will receive.

Tuesday 6 September 2016

Le Faux Dévot

Next up in my French reading is Molière's Le Tartuffe. This is a no-frills Dover dual-language paper edition, much like my copy of Candide. However, the translation of Tartuffe is a lot less literal than Candide. In fact, some of the translation choices are simply bizarre. This is perplexing because literalness is supposedly part of the Dover dual-language edition philosophy. I do not recommend the translation as anything other than an aide for reading the French. The footnotes, though few, explained everything that I would otherwise have had to look up. For someone just starting out with the French language of today, Molière's French provides a significantly greater challenge than the language of Voltaire. I would not recommend it to another beginner like myself.

Molière himself was an early modern playwright of the mid-17th century, only a few decades after Shakespeare's time. Partly due to the temporal proximity, Molière is often referred to as the French Shakespeare. However, unlike Shakespeare, Molière only dabbled in the genre of comedy. And his comedies are quite different from Shakespeare's due to a much greater influence of the Italian commedia dell'arte on Molière's work. While Shakespeare borrowed elements from commedia once in a while, Molière strongly adheres to the style. His characters are largely the stock characters of commedia with little to distinguish themselves from other characters in other plays adhering to the same archetype. And, true to commedia, the action is largely driven by simplistic and petty emotions most at home in the most lizard-like part of the human brain. It is theatre designed for popular and common appeal. Even the metrical style of Molière relies heavily on rhyming couplets that would appeal even to a child. It seems to me that Molière's comedies have more in common with the old Greek satyr plays than Shakespeare.

The play Tartuffe itself did not appeal to me. Much of the earlier action is a family fighting. On stage, I'm sure all this bustling anger plus a little slapstick would probably elicit a chuckle or two. On paper, however, the characters just seem like jerks. The title character himself is a psychopathic conman out to swindle the head of the household by charming him with his false piety. He does not actually show up until the second half of the play. And until then, half the family thinks he is a living a saint and the other half suspects that he is a fraud. After reading Candide, I was already feeling burnt out on the perennial French trope of the holy hypocrite. Tartuffe did not help at all. In short, every single character in this play lacked depth and thus had little appeal to me.

The ending is perhaps the worst of part of the play. I am not reluctant to spoil because it is absolute garbage. Tartuffe manages to steal some papers incriminating the head of the household. He then uses these papers to get an audience with the king and permission to basically steal the family's house and put the head of the household in prison. When all this is revealed to the family, they are in utter despair. But then, out of nowhere, it is revealed the the king is such a great soul that he can immediately see through the lies of any conman and get at the truth of the matter. From these magical powers, he deduced that Tartuffe is a fraud and family is really a bunch of nice people. Thence Tartuffe is taken to prison just when he thought he won. This is such a blatant example of deus ex machina that it is literally used as one of Wikipedia's examples in the article on deus ex machina. This ending is bad and Molière should feel bad.

Next up on the list will be Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme or The Bourgeois Gentleman. Since it's more Molière and the bulk of its humor derives from outdated class expectations, I am not particularly excited. But maybe Molière will surprise me. And, if nothing else, it will further allow me to empathize with the plight of French secondary school students forced to read Molière.

Wednesday 17 August 2016

Satirizing the Problem of Evil

Skipping around a bit in the list to learn some French, I picked up a dual-language (facing translation) edition of Voltaire's Candide. This edition is a cheap paperback. There are probably better editions of the French and better translations of the English out there. However, side-by-side translations are great for learning a new language. Glancing at the other page when you do not understand something is much faster than looking up a word in a lexicon or dictionary. The translation is serviceable enough, though even with my nascent French I spotted what I would call definite mistakes in the translation. The binding is good for a paperback. The margins are wide, a useful feature when marking up difficult passages. There are footnotes throughout but they are insufficient unless the reader is familiar with obsolete Portuguese currency, Ottoman military ranks, and the Italian for, "It's a shame that I no longer have my balls." Unless you are interested in the dual-language format, I would suggest finding a different translation with better notes.

Voltaire's Candide is a satiric response to parts of the German philosopher Leibniz's Theodicy regarding the problem of evil. One of the eternal questions of philosophy and theology is, if God is good and omnipotent, why do bad things still happen to good people? There are a few ways to answer solve this problem. Leibniz's method was to argue that given man's free will, God's general plan, and the physical limitations of our created universe, we actually live in the best of all possible worlds. While bad things may happen constantly, we will discover at the end of the universe that, given the aforementioned constraints, everything turned out in the optimal way. This may not be optimal from an individual perspective, but it would be optimal in a grand, universal perspective. Until we get near the end of the universe and start tallying up all the utiles, this argument is hard to prove but still interesting to think about.

A lot has been made of Voltaire's "attack" on Leibniz. However, Voltaire was a historian, essayist, and philosopher. He was quite capable of writing a serious refutation of Leibniz. And given the comedic nature of Candide, I have a hard time believing that Voltaire saw his work as much more than playful engagement. He did reject Leibniz's premise, believing that there was simply too much suffering in the world for it to be the best possible world. He also disliked the possibility of Leibniz's idea encouraging a sort of lazy fatalism in people. If we live in the best of all possible world already, why make improvements? In defense of Leibniz on this latter point, I would argue what is the best possible world today is not necessarily the best possible world tomorrow. Since, in Leibniz's framework, free will is one of the limiting factors in the optimality of the world, we can have some influence on it. And I do not want to spoil anything, but the last few lines clearly demonstrate how Leibniz could still be right, despite Voltaire's objections. One of the gifts of intelligence is being able to entertain ideas that one may not actually believe. It is the mark of true genius to be able to do so while making a few good jokes.

To demonstrate the level of suffering in the world, Voltaire has our title character, Candide, bounce all around the world through unlikely circumstances, witnessing the evils of Voltaire's lifetime, such as the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Candide, and other characters, visit France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, North Africa, the Ottoman Empire, various parts of South America, and the fabled lost city of El Dorado. Despite all the unfortunate happenings of the book, or perhaps partly because of them, Candide manages to be one of the most genuinely funny books I have ever read. Some Great Books reading definitely helps with appreciating some of the jokes. Plato and Aristotle are particular prerequisites for getting the most out of Candide. Other jokes are perennial, such as Candide's remark that a critic is "someone who loathes the success of others, like a eunuch who hates those capable of enjoying sex." It would not have seemed exceptional before I read Candide, but I guess I am rather lucky to have the balls to be able to praise Voltaire's work.

In short, it is a quick read that both tackles serious metaphysical issues and provides some good laughs. I highly recommend to anyone with either a sense of humor or some metaphysical curiosity. Reading it should be a necessity for someone who possesses both.

Next up will likely be Moliere's Tartuffe and possibly his The Bourgeois Gentleman. My reading of Aquinas' Summa continues but, at the current pace, it will take another nine months to complete. I may review the three major parts separately, however.

Wednesday 3 August 2016

The Real Stuff

Squaring off the Greek math section is Nicomachus of Gerasa's Introduction to Arithmetic. Sadly, this work is long out of print. You can scrounge Amazon or Abe Books for a copy. There are some paperback versions floating around that are just the translation without any of the introductory material. They tend to be a lot cheaper. However, they were intended only for internal use at St. John's College and the publisher did not give permission for the resale of those books. I went for original hardcover version. The notes in this edition are truly exceptional. Most of Nicomachus' explanations and proofs are paired with alternate versions, often from other Greek authors, in the footnotes. So if Nicomachus loses you, the footnotes can often put you back on track. The notes also provided references to a number of other very interesting Greek mathematical works that I think I would like to check out the next time around.

Nicomachus starts off from a very defensive position. In essence, he tries to explain why anyone should care about arithmetic at all. His very philosophical about it. And the basis of his argument is that the study of "real things" is essential to understanding reality and the universe. From there, he argues that arithmetic is among the things that are truly real. While we moderns would say that a deer in front of us is more real than an abstract concept like "animal", Nicomachus disagrees. A deer can die. However, the idea of "animal" could potentially outlive the existence of animals. In other words, qualities, quantities, and forms exist uniformly throughout all of time, while mere objects and creatures exist for only a slice of time. Therefore, in the grand scheme of the universe, these more abstract things spend more time being real than the seemingly concrete things. And should not the thing that exists for the entire life of the universe be considered more real than the thing that exists for a relative blink of an eye? It is certainly an interesting way of looking at things.

Nicomachus, shortly thereafter, addresses an issue I raised in a previous post: numbers can fill completely different, e.g. counting versus measuring, without us giving much thought to that fact. Nicomachus expands on that. He explains that arithmetic is the study of numbers, particularly numbers of the countable kind, i.e. integers. While arithmetic enables other types of math, it is conceptually prior to them all. He argues that the children of arithmetic are those types of math which study objects, motion, and ratios. These three types of math Nicomachus says we call geometry, astronomy, and music. While this may seem like mere word play, I think there is something to it. We easily become constrained by notions of what math is. But the whole system sometimes needs radical modification to deal with news problems. The classic example is Newton's physics requiring the development of Calculus. On the other side of the coin, Descartes unified geometry and algebra and effectively destroyed the classical/medieval conception of geometry. Meanwhile, music and its study of ratios has managed to soldier along largely without numbers and without being regarded as properly math. And I think there are seriously conceptual revolutions to be made. I once again point to D'arcy Thompson's On Growth and Form. There you can see how poorly our math copes with measuring a three-dimensional object's change over time. The problem demands some sort of calculus of geometry.

Though Nicomachus probably did not see such a division, after his philosophical expositions comes his purely mathematical ones. He dedicates himself primarily to figuring out the properties of numbers. He starts with evens and odds. He then goes into concepts like "even-times even", which we would call powers of two. Likewise, he goes into all the variants of the even and oddness of a number's divisors. Prime numbers and the sieve of Eratosthenes are explained. The list of classifications of numbers is long and fascinating. I can not really capture its breadth here. Though I am tempted to write a program that can detect all of Nicomachus' proposed classifications. Going beyond the properties of single numbers, Nicomachus also covers the 10 classic proportions in detail, including a bit about their history. Apparently in Pythagoras' day only first three, arithmetic, geometric, and harmonic, had yet been discovered. I once again recommend Matila Ghyka's The Geometry of Art and Life for exploration of those proportions in, well, art and life.

The road forward gets trickier from here. Per a friend's advice, I will be tackling the Latin authors in reverse order from Thomas Aquinas. The reason is that his Latin is quite easy to read and it provides a good follow-up to the Vulgate, both conceptually and linguistically. Unfortunately, Aquina's Summa in Latin is eight volumes. It will take quite a while for me to finish. However, there is some good news. I have recently put effort into expanding my ability to read academic French to also read literary French. I have started with Voltaire's Candide and, at the current pace, should be able to write a review of that in a month or so. I will likely continue with other French authors in the Great Books set. Hopefully this will keep the posts flowing while I tackle the Summa.

Monday 25 July 2016

Only True Coneheads Need Apply

This technically is not next on the list, but I have now read Sir Thomas Heath's translation of Apollonius of Perga's work On Conic Sections. Cambridge University Press still has this book in print, though in paperback only. For a hardcover edition, you will need to go scrounging through the used book listings once again. Like Heath's other translations, it is as approachable as Greek math is going to get. And Heath has relied much more heavily here on modern notation than in his other translations. This is largely because Apollonius' proofs are extremely large even with modern notation. I imagine nothing but the original textual descriptions would be an extremely tough nut for the modern reader to crack.

Between the first and second edition of the Great Books of the Western World, Apollonius was one of the few authors dropped. Mortimer J. Adler is said to have regretted the removal of Apollonius. However, having read Apollonius, I can understand why it was removed. His Conics is an extremely focused book. Since the Great Books reader has already read a ton of geometry, the novelty of the Greek methodology will have already lost its appeal by this point in the list. If you are not really into cones and the various ways to slice them up, this book is really not for you. Since it is not officially on the list and I was bored out of my mind, I have to confess that I mostly skimmed after the first quarter of the book. So my recommendation is to just stick to the second edition reading list and skip Apollonius unless you are a truly devote mathematician. For everyone else, maybe consider putting it on your list for the second round of reading where you catch up on all those related books you discovered through reading the existing list.

Sunday 24 July 2016

Grecian Pi[e]

Next up on the list are The Works of Archimedes. This Dover edition is basically your only option these days. Sir Thomas Heath's translation is the only game in town and Dover's edition is the only edition still in print. If you are desperate for a better quality binding, Cambridge University Press put out Heath's original translation in hardcover in 1897. I opted to track down a copy of that. The downside is that Archimedes' The Method would not be rediscovered for nearly another decade after the CUP edition came out. They released a pamphlet supplement of The Method also by Heath. Unfortunately, I only discovered this after reading all of the 1897 edition. The supplement is quite rare now but I found exactly one copy in the hands of a Latvian book dealer. It was surprisingly cheap. Unfortunately, it will probably take several weeks to arrive so I may need make an addendum to this post if anything really interesting crops up in there. So, while I have not seen the Dove edition in person, it is probably the best of bet for any sane reader who does not want to spend a lot of time and cash with antiquarian book dealer listings.

Archimedes' work greatly resembles that of Euclid, from a modern perspective. So, a lot of what I said about the eye-opening experience of Euclid could also easily apply to Archimedes, if Archimedes is the reader's first introduction to Greek mathematics. However, I think Euclid would be easier on the first time reader. Euclid's Elements describes a system of geometry with enough detail that one can just start on the first page with no prior knowledge and make it all the way through to the end. Archimedes is not so forgiving. While Euclid's work can and did (even still does, in certain corners) serve as a textbook, most of Archimedes' works were simply problems that he wanted to tackle. His intended audience was fellow mathematicians, such as Dositheus of Pelusium, Conon of Samos, and other members of the illustrious Alexandrian crowd. Further, Archimedes' surviving works make reference and depend on other works that do not survive. Since we have a full-blown system of geometry and mathematics of our own to rely on, filling in the missing pieces is not too difficult. However, these things together mean that Euclid is going to provide a smoother first hit for a prospective student of Greek mathematics.

Archimedes has a lot of very Euclid-like proofs on spheres, cylinders, circles, conoids, and spheroids. But Archimedes is at his best when he tries to tackle specific and concrete problems. This is why, despite his great purely mathematical achievements, he is considered the father of engineering; while he was a great mathematician, he was the greatest engineer. I will give a few examples of my favorites.

Archimedes, like many mathematicians of the centuries, sought to figure out the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter, i.e. pi. There is an age-old philosophical question about whether or not there is a difference between a circle and a polygon with an infinite (or simply extremely high) number of sides. An ideal circle is certainly different has no sides. But maybe in the real universe of Planck measurements there is no difference. Ultimately, for Archimedes' purposes, and most purposes involving pi, the answer does not really matter. The length of the sides of a polygon are very easy to measure. And a polygon drawn hugging the inside or outside of a circle will more closely approximate the circle as the number of sides goes up. Therefore, a polygon with a high number of sides can give a good approximation of pi. And the more sides one adds, the closer one gets. Archimedes chooses to go up to 96 sides, one polygon hugging the outside and one hugging the inside of a circle. This gives a lower bound for pi at 3 10/71 and an upper bound at 3 1/7. If these two values are averaged, it gives pi accurate up to 3.141. Further sides could be used to produce infinitely more values. Christoph Grienberger, an Austrian mathematician, pushed Archimedes' approach all the way to 39 digits of accuracy. Interestingly, Wikipedia is very misleading on this topic. Archimedes stopped at his 96-sided polygon proof because it was more than sufficient and smashed the accuracy of all existing estimates. Extending it further was an obvious practice left up to the reader. He had solved pi.

Archimedes also has a fascinating work where he describes the process of calculating how many grains of sand it would take to fill up the universe. He does this in response to the notion that there is no number big enough to count the grains of sand on Earth. His numbers for the size of the Earth and the universe are wildly off. His estimation for the size of the Earth is off by an order of magnitude and he dismisses the approximations of his own day which were actually fairly accurate. Still, while his methodology is bogus, he comes up with the same basic idea of our modern scientific notation of large numbers to represent the number of grains of sand it would take to fill the universe. In a sense, he fumbles the theoretical but nails the practical here.

I was always fascinated by the mechanics of seesaws as a child, particularly the "trick" of moving along the seesaw to allow children of different sizes to still play with one another. He describes the math behind this process, along with a few methods for figuring out the center of gravity of common shapes, in his On the Equilibrium of Planes. The math here was surprisingly simple and a real personal joy for me.

Archimedes also describes the mechanics of hydrostatics, i.e. how things float, sink, and/or displace liquid. In other words, Archimedes knows what floats your boat. Given that we have already established that he also knows what tilts your seesaw, I think you are in for a good time. The math to solve the famous problem of how much gold is really in a crown is all laid out here, though he does not actually recount the story. It is possible that he came up with the method and wrote it down before discovering that particular practical use. It is also possible that the story of Archimedes and the gold crown was merely an illustrative story that later came to be treated as history by Vitruvius.

Heath, in his introduction, argues that Archimedes was fairly close to giving us Calculus. And I think he is right. Archimedes' section on spirals describes them both in geometric terms, i.e. moving along a circle and a line at the same time, and in terms of a change in magnitude over time. He also tackles the problem of calculating the area of these spirals. Elsewhere, he deals with calculating the area under many rather complicated curves. Combined with his fascination with mechanics, who knows what could have been, if only more interest had been given to Archimedes, more of his works preserved, or the scholarly community in Alexandria not hobbled over the years?

Wednesday 13 July 2016

Angles that Euclid Would Know

Next up on the list, as promised, is Euclid's Elements of Geometry. This is a dated but still definitive translation of Euclid's foundational work on Geometry done by Sir Thomas Little Heath. This particular edition is a slimmed down version his translation with the notes removed so that it can fit in a single volume. This volume is used at St. John's College and at a few other places with Great Books programs since Heath's full three-volume edition is considered too cumbersome. The same published, Green Lion, also provides a further condensed pocket version that has only the propositions and diagrams but no proofs called The Bones. If you would prefer all of Heath's unabridged commentary on top the translation, there is also a three volume paperback edition from Dover. You can also find the three volume version online. However, Heath's commentary adds substantially to the work's size and provides unnecessary distraction for the first time reader. That said, now that I've read through The Elements, I am interested in seeing what Heath had to say.

Euclid's Elements provides a fascinating look into a world of math without numbers. It is like learning some strange and beautiful alien language. To figure out this alternate system of math, I found it very helpful to buy a compass and straight edge so that I could replicate Euclid's geometric constructions. Euclid does not calculate. Euclid draws and "measures". I put "measures" in quotes because, once again, there are no numbers. The scale is completely arbitrary. A 5" circle and a 5' circle are identical in Euclidean geometry. The only thing that changes is the basic unit of measurement. Some operations are easier in this system. Others are harder. Cutting a line exactly in half or doubling it is very simple with a compass and straight edge. It is not, however, very useful for anything involving non-flat planes. Still, it should give the diligent reader a completely different way of looking at many areas of math.

Euclid is credited with being the origin of mathematical proofs. While it is true that he uses rigorous proofs in every proposition, it is inaccurate to say that most modern proofs are quite on the same level as Euclid's. First, Euclid builds his whole geometry piece by piece. He starts with a few definitions and propositions and then builds from there. Most proofs depend on previous proofs. It's a self-contained system. Second, and more importantly, Euclid's focus on geometry means that he is not limited to just proving things mathematically or logically. No, Euclid is able to physically construct his objects on paper, in wax, or in the sand. In other words, much of what Euclid says can be tested empirically. Physical construction is a degree of proof beyond what symbols and numbers can provide.

There are many modern mathematicians who find it a remarkable coincidence that so much of the universe appears to be "mathematical". But when one reads Euclid, part of the earliest foundation of math, it is clear that these mathematicians have the arrow of causality backward. Mathematics is primarily descriptive. Its original purpose was to count, measure, calculate, and model very real things. And, historically, any math that did not mirror reality was not valid math. Reality was the arbiter of all things, no matter how much some new math may appear to be internally consistent. To say that the universe is mathematical is like saying that a beautiful landscape or portrait has the qualities of a painting. The model is not the thing, but we do not keep around defective models.

In a similar vein, there are those who claim that geometric forms and proportions show up in art, architecture, and nature as some sort of microscopic reflection of the universe's true nature. In the case of art and architecture, the fact that symmetry and ratio are pleasing to look at has been well-known and established since antiquity. While today these methods are become something of a lost art that people stumble upon intuitively, Ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance architects and artists exploited them knowingly and deliberately. As for nature, it's more a matter of things tending toward simplicity and equilibrium, in the long run. However, things tend to be much more chaotic and less clearly mathematical in the short term or on small scales. This wide-spread tendency may actually point to some fundamental truth about our universe. I have no way of knowing. However, for those interested in how natural things tend to shift between the ugly and chaotic to the beautiful and orderly depending on scale, I highly recommend D'arcy Thompson's On Growth and Form. Thompson was, incidentally, a friend and colleague of Heath's at Cambridge.

One other thing struck me while reading Euclid's discussions of ratio. We are so obsessed with numbers these days that it is easy to miss that numbers really have two functions: to count and to measure. These are related but not quite identical things. With regard to counting, the numbers correspond to the fact that objects in the real world are often discrete things, either existing or not existing. There is a natural and obvious connection. However, with measurement, our units are entirely arbitrary. Ratios can be obscured by simply choosing the wrong size for the unit when represented by numbers. For example, the ratio between one meter and three meters is immediately obvious. On the other hand, the ratio between 3.281 feet and 9.843 is not quite so immediate. In Euclid's realm of arbitrary units, there is no real distinction. 1s are simply not equal if the units discussed are different. But one apple is numerically equivalent to one orange. We have combined two different things into a single idea of "number". This is why we end up with the strange distinction between "natural numbers", "rational numbers", "real numbers", and "irrational numbers". Even computers have to make a distinction between "counting numbers" and "measuring numbers", i.e. integers and floats, for performance reasons. We are forcing numbers to do more than one job. Our system definitely works and I am no mathematician. However, I can not help but wonder if there is anything we have failed to see because of our blurry distinction between the uses of numbers.

Did I mention that Euclid can also help you form geometrically perfect pentagrams for all your demon binding needs?

Saturday 18 June 2016

Novum Testamentum

Way after than promised, I have finished reading the New Testament, also known as Bible II: The Adventures of God Junior. For details about the edition I chose, see my previous post: Antiquum Testamentum.

While it should come as no surprise to readers with a Christian background, the New Testament is radically different from the Old Testament. Rather than tales of the previously-mentioned endless warfare in the meat-grinder of civilization, the New Testament covers a time of relative peace in the Middle East, the so-called Pax Romana or Roman Peace. The God of the New Testament is less about crushing your enemies, adhering to a long list of rules, and wrecking false idols than he is about loving one's fellow man, forgiveness, and "faith".

I put faith in quotes because the Latin word for faith, fides, has a broader meaning than the typical modern English usage. When we say faith, we tend to mean belief, or even blind belief. But the sense of the Latin equivalent is more a reciprocal relationship of loyalty and honesty. Fides is the same word we see show up in variant forms in phrases like bona fide and semper fi. It is the faith of "good faith". And it's interesting to see this contrasted with what we tend to translate as "works". The Latin opus (plural opera) is fairly translated as work or works. When I consider what Paul says in the larger context of Jewish law, one of the things he seemed to be saying was that it is important to follow Jesus and God's teachings honestly rather than simply going through the motion. I can think of two good examples of what I believe is meant by works rather than faith. First, consider the issue of the disciples picking wheat on the Sabbath or Jesus healing the sick on the Sabbath. Technically this is against the rules since the Sabbath is a day of rest. However, as Jesus says, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath." What rest is there in hunger or illness? These things may violate the letter of the old law, but not the spirit of it since a starving or sick man can have no rest. To take another example, among modern Jews, there are certain people who believe in a long list of things that should not be done on the Sabbath. One of these things not to be done on the Sabbath is dialing a telephone. To overcome limitations like this, less faithful Jews have developed various devices and tricks. For example, I saw a video once of a man who had bought a fake hand on a stick that he would use to dial his phone. He argued that the hand dialed the phone, not him. Therefore he claimed that he had no broken any rule. That is not a faithful adherence to God's old law. Thus it is easy to see the point of the argument that works without faith mean nothing.

Non-Christians may find it odd that I make reference to the "old law". By that I mean the laws given in the Old Testament, the ones Jews adhere to in varying degrees to this day. These laws were superseded with Jesus' arrival. When asked about what laws people should adhere to, it is said in the gospels that Jesus only explicitly listed a few things: do not murder, do not steal, do not commit adultery, do not give false testimony, honor your mother and father, and love thy neighbor. Acts and the epistles of Paul further clarify that dietary restrictions and circumcision definitely do not apply to converts. This is important to keep in mind when common criticisms about the "hypocrisy" of Christians are thrown around. The majority of such criticisms depend on citations from Leviticus in the Old Testament. Aside from those things which also appear in the New Testament, nothing in Leviticus is prohibited to Christians. And many things in Leviticus are, arguably, not even prohibit to non-priestly Jews. Take for example homosexuality. In Leviticus, death is the punishment for homosexuality. In Romans, it is said to be a sin but it is in a list of sins so broad that all of us our guilty. Paul's point, a point commonly reiterated in the modern Catholic church but less so in Protestant churches, is that we are all sinners and our only potential redemption is through God's grace. In other words, homosexuals are just like the rest of us: forgiven through Jesus and damned without him. This difference between Romans and Leviticus is not a contradiction for Christians. The rules of Leviticus simply do not matter anymore. Thus there is no hypocrisy or contradiction here. Let he who is without reading comprehension go back to getting stoned.

On the topic of inconsistency and contradiction, there is some truth to the fact that the gospels do not all tell the same story of Jesus' life. However, having studied both medieval manuscript transmission, oral transmission, and history more generally, parallel accounts like this almost never have this level of consistency. The differences are primarily in the level of detail. For example, if I'm not mistaken, the story of Lazarus shows up in both Mark and John but only John goes into enough detail to actually give Lazarus' name. Faithfully recording the gospels must have been very serious business in the early church and that seems only natural given the obvious importance of God's son showing up, delivering the new law, raising the dead, healing the sick, and then coming back from the dead himself. Similarly, the idea that there is "no evidence" that Jesus ever existed is farcical unless one arbitrarily decides that the Bible somehow does not count. I think most people would be surprised how little evidence we have for people and events in antiquity. It is not that rare to know of something from a single manuscript copy of a single work. And yet we accept those things as historical fact. If you want to start saying that Jesus did not exist at all, you need to start questioning half of the things you think you know about the ancient world.

More generally, most of the criticisms of Christianity that I personally had or had read that lead me to become an atheist as a teenager simply fall apart with a single honest reading of the Bible as a trained historian. It really comes down to a few simple questions, which correspond very nicely with the affirmations in the Nicene Creed. Do you believe there is a God who created the universe? Do you believe that he became man in the form of Jesus? Do you believe that Jesus was killed and came back from the dead? Do you agree with his teachings that we should probably not murder, steal, and so on? Most people can agree to the last question easily. A lot of people have no problem with the first question, though it is quite the sticky wicket. It is those middle two questions that I find the most difficult. Did the apostles and disciples really see what they think they saw? Was human incarnation really the best method God could come up with? If one accepts that we live in a created universe with some driving force behind it, these things certainly seem possible. Unfortunately, without witnessing them, I can not, thus far, come up with an ironclad argument for why these things would be so. Still, this is progress. When reading the Great Books, I am often left with more questions than I started with. I think the Bible is the first time where I have read something and eliminated more questions than I gained. And I have definitely vastly narrowed down the doubts I may have about the Christian faith.

In any case, next up should be Euclid, as I had originally planned. Stay tuned.

Sunday 5 June 2016

Antiquum Testamentum

The observant reader will note that I have not updated this blog in roughly a year and a half. He or she may also note that the next item on my reading list is Euclid's Elements. While I did start Euclid, I did not get very far before I started to worry that my Latin skills were getting too rusty. To remedy the situation, I decided to start reading the Vulgate, i.e. the standard Latin translation of the Bible. The Bible is big and Latin is hard. Thus the delay. The hypothetical observant reader will notice that the Bible is not included in the list of Great Books volumes. However, it is meant to be read along with the set. It was simply not included in the set for two reasons. First, when the set was originally published, most buyers would already own a copy of the Bible. Second, the Great Books are all in translation (unless originally in English) and people get very particular about their Bible translations. I have so far only completed the Old Testament but it seemed worth treating the two Testaments separately. The New Testament is much shorter and my Latin is much improved since I began this project. Therefore, the next blog post should not take long.

On the recommendation of a seminarian friend, who assured me that this is what all the cool priests use, I picked up this very fancy edition of the Vulgate: Douay-Rheims & Clementina Vulgata (English and Latin Edition) from Baronius Press. It is a beautiful gilt and leather-bound 8.5" by 11" volume. It is truly beautiful to behold. It includes both the Latin Vulgate and the Douay-Rheims English translation in an easy-to-read two column format. The same published also has nice editions of just the Douay-Rheims English translation and, though it may now be out of print, they at least once had a paperback Vulgate. That said, people are very particular about their Bible translations and most readers won't know Latin, even if they had the motivation to read this amount of it.

Having been raised by a fringe Protestant father, this was not my first encounter with the Old Testament. It is, however, my first time actually reading it straight through as an adult. Looking at it now as a historian of minor accomplishment has really changed my perspective. When I was younger, both Testaments were quite mysterious. We were a King James Version household so the language alone was strange. More than a few lines of the Bible have no clear meaning no matter how you translate them. Others are deliberately made vague in most modern translation. I also completely lacked any historical context for the events described within. I also lacked any real alternative mythologies or religions to compare it to. In short, I read it with completely new eyes.

For pure literary pleasure, the Old Testament tends to get worse the further in one reads. Genesis was the most aesthetically pleasing to me and the Five Books of Moses overshadow most of the rest of the Old Testament. The historical books are especially a drag in the style department but they sometimes make up for it with narrative content. Song of Songs was a real eye-opener. In most modern translations it is presented as some awkward poem about Jesus' love for the Church. If Song of Songs 1:1 doesn't involve something about "your tits are better than wine", you have some prude's censored translation. The original is quite erotic.

I really can not stress how much of a drag I found the historical books. It was an endless cycle of faithful Jews conquering other Semitic tribes until the Jews fell into decadence and faithlessness and were then in turn conquered by their neighbors. Rationally, I realize that the Middle East has historically been the meat grinder of civilizations and a history of any people from that region must necessarily involve cycles of conquest and defeat. But in the context of the Old Testament, defeat is always interpreted as a sign of God's displeasure. The Jews needed only to do a few simple things in order to avoid defeat. And this is a lesson that they failed to learn. By the time we reach the apocryphal 4 Esdras, God seems ready to give up on the Jews as his chosen people in favor of simply backing any and all who would follow his laws.

The apocryphal books were the most interesting because they were entirely new to me. Many books which Protestants consider apocryphal are considered canon by the Catholic Church. And Saint Jerome, creator of the Vulgate, also included a few apocryphal extras, like 4 Esdras, just because he was a particular fan of these books. Some books are simply extended in the Catholic versions. For example, the Catholic Daniel versions typically end with Daniel creating a bomb and then using it to blow up a Babylonian dragon god. We definitely did not memorize anything that awesome in Awana. 1 Machabees provides some nice historical glue between the rest of the Old Testament and mainstream Classical Antiquity and, in turn, the New Testament. It also suggests that the Jews basically invited the Romans in because they did not like the oppressive rule of one of the successor states to Alexander the Great's empire. 4 Esdras' opening of God's favor up to any all, combined with the abandonment of his particular favoritism toward the Jews, suggests that maybe Christ and his disciples were picking up on an existing theological trend rather than taking their religion in an entirely new direction.

It was over one thousand pages of Latin and it took me a year to read. It is also one of the major works of both Western and Middle-Eastern civilizations. I have forgotten and glossed over a great deal. That is true of basically anything I talk about on this blog but I think the religious aspect of it makes me feel especially guilty this time. I have reduced the entire world view of several groups spanning thousands of years to a few short, and often pithy, paragraphs. It is not ideal. But the perfect is the enemy of the good, or so they say, and I was long overdue for a post.

Thursday 22 January 2015

Galen and the Crazy

Next up is Galen: On the Natural Faculties (Loeb Classical Library). It's another Loeb but aside from the original Great Books volume, it's just about the only translation available. The remarks in my previous post about Hippocrates and the respective Loeb editions more or less apply equally to this volume of Galen. The only thing I would add is that this volume of Galen has a very extensive introduction and many useful footnotes, even compared to the Loeb norm. A.J. Brock is to be commended for his thorough work.

Galen was a Greek born in the 2nd century AD, well after the Roman conquest of Greece. His father was well-educated and reportedly virtuous architect. His mother, on the other hand, was said to be an irrational and angry woman who caused no end of grief for Galen's father. Learning by example and counter example, Galen sought to emulate his father as much as possible and to shy away from the behaviours of his mother. As a young man, he wandered the major hubs of learning in the Eastern Mediterranean. After returning home and working as a surgeon for gladiators, he eventually made his way to Rome. He did not like what he found.

Much like the days of Plato, the best wisdom of those that had gone before was often ignored in Rome in favour of novel theories peddled by the reigning sophists of the day. Galen pitted his knowledge of Hippocrates, supplemented by his own experiments, against these sophists with limited results in his own day. In one instance, he argued against a prevailing notion that the bladder was a useless organ. Galen attempted to argue that he had seen the bladder swell with urine in animals and further that Aristotle says that nature does nothing without reason. His opponent remained unconvinced. Galen resorted to literally slicing open some poor animal right in front of the man. He then tied something around the animal's penis to keep it from urinating. He patched the animal back up and then reopened it later to show that the bladder was now swollen. He then untied the animal's penis and urine immediately came forth. The animal's bladder deflated. Galen's opponent was still not convinced.

Supporting arguments with evidence from vivisections was a favored tactic of Galen's. Empiricism, however, is not a foolproof method against certain types of minds. Galen persisted in his arguments. He won great favor among some. He even became the personal physician of the great Emperor Marcus Aurelius, whom we will read a work of later. It is hard not to strongly believe in truths one has witnessed first hand and can reproduce on command, provided a dog can be found quickly. And yet some people will always remain immune to reason. It was a case of an unstoppable force meeting an unmovable object. The expected social catastrophe ensued and Galen was forced to flee for his life from the other medical practitioners in Rome. Marcus Aurelius would later beg him to come back but he refused.

So, the moral of the story is that while you can lead a sophist to a dog's piss-filled bladder, but you can't make him drink believe that it plays a role in dealing with urine. And adherence to the truth can be so enraging for the indoctrinated that not even the protection of one of the greatest Roman emperors can be counted on to preserve truth's advocate.

Ps. The title is actually a pun when translated to Swedish.

Monday 19 January 2015

I might not have a med-school degree...

Next up on the list is Hippocrates, Volume I: Ancient Medicine (Loeb Classical Library, No. 147). Well, that's just the first volume. The complete Hippocratic corpus comes in ten volumes. This is almost certainly more than is in the corresponding Great Books volume. Someone less crazy than myself may wish to pick up something cheaper and more compact like Hippocratic Writings (Penguin Classics).

That said, you can never really go wrong with Loeb editions. The translations are never worse than serviceable. And on top of the translation, each Loeb volume has the original text on the page opposite the translation. Each work comes with a brief introduction, usually spending more time on the manuscript tradition than the layman is likely to care for. They are hardcover editions with excellent binding and a compact size. I have also never seen a library copy of a Loeb edition that wasn't still in great shape. In the academic world, Loeb editions are often the standard version for the original text. And if you can read the original language at all, it is great boon. Sadly, I know only a few words of Greek and largely picked up the Loeb version because it's the only complete translation of the Hippocratic corpus available. But I will almost certainly stick to Loeb editions when I reach Latin texts since that's one dead language I can read.

Hippocrates was one of the earliest great medical practitioners that we know of. Works believed to have been written by him are abundant. Works falsely ascribed to him are likewise abundant. The confusion is partly due to the fact that an entire school of thought, the Hippocratic school, emerged from his teachings and writings. His writings fell out of use in the Latin West during the medieval period but were used widely in the Arab world during the same time period. His work is largely the reason for the superiority of so-called "Arab" medicine during the medieval period. He regained popularity in the Latin West during the Renaissance and managed to fade out of use only when he had finally been surpassed.

The corpus consists of a great deal of medical advice that is still valid. For example, many of his surgeries and methods for dealing with broken bones are still more or less the same as one would find in a modern hospital. His work with diseases, however, is much more limited. He had no understanding of germ theory, however. And he cannot really be faulted for that. Germ theory only became a dominant idea when we could literally see the damn things under a microscope. If Hippocrates could see bacteria, he may have modified some of his views. So, really, it was a failure in the field of optics, not the field of medicine. A similar argument can be made for the field of astronomy. It's all just theorizing until someone whips out the optics and starts measuring things.

Hippocrates had some understanding of the limits of his knowledge, however. This can be seen in his treatments. While much theorizing is done about wet versus drys, hot versus cold, and other such outmoded ways of thinking about the body, his actual treatments hint at his level of faith in this system of thinking. His treatments for diseases are usually all about keeping the patient comfortable and nourished. Nourishment is more important than it may first seem. Many diseases either dampen the appetite or outright make a person unable to digest normal food. These days we can just feed a person intravenously no matter the situation. He proposes various gruel-like foods for most situations. If things get worse, there are things like hydromel (honey diluted in water). Not all of them are bad ideas if you find yourself with the flu or food poisoning.

Hippocrates was also careful to record his cases. Even if he failed to save a patient, that knowledge could help others recognize the same illness and potentially save lives down the road. And even continued failure had the potential to teach something new. He would always have clear notes about what didn't work so that he could try something new. For this reason Hippocrates is often credited with being the first real empiricist. This is often in the context of contrasting him to Aristotle. I do not believe that that is entirely fair to Aristotle. Aristotle, especially in his biological text that no-one reads, relies heavily on observation. It is true that most of his works relies largely on reasoning from first principles but that is not his only method. Likewise, Hippocrates sometimes attempts to develop theories based on widely-held ideas of his own time. Therefore, I would argue that the difference is merely one of degree, not one of kind. Greek thought was not as monolithic as commonly portrayed. Who knows how much more varied the picture would look if the works of more authors had survived?

Next up is a single volume of Galen, a later medical practitioner and fan of Hippocrates. The next post should come much more quickly this time.

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Brecht vs. Aristotle (Aristotle, Part II)

Next up is the second half of Aristotle's complete works: The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, Vol. 2 (Bollingen Series LXXI-2). My previous entry describes my general thoughts on this particular edition. I will only add that the binding on my copy of volume two has started to come apart. It survived a cover-to-cover reading but it will likely need some minor repair in the near future.

Since I don't need to spend much time talking about the edition itself this time, it may be worth using this time/space to provide a few book care tips. On the topic of repair, I highly recommend that any serious reader pick up some acid free linen tape like this stuff: Lineco Self Adhesive Linen Hinging Tape 1.25 in. x 35 ft. white linen tape. I've managed to repair more than a few books with that stuff. It works pretty well and looks great. If you buy some linen tape other than what I linked above, be absolutely sure that it is acid free or it will start slowly eating away at your books. You can see the effect of acidity in older books first by the yellowing of the pages and then eventually stiffness and finally crumbling. This can also be a problem with storing papers or books in cardboard boxes. If you are going to store paper stuff in boxes, I also recommend picking up one of these: American Crafts Scrapbook Utility Pen, PH Tester Pen. The pens basically turn a part of the target paper or cardboard into a little litmus strip and you can use it to test whether or not the material is acidic. With cardboard boxes, there's really a race to the bottom and certain manufacturers, particularly those located in a certain East Asian country with a huge population, will falsely claim that their cardboard is acid free. Without this pen you wont find out until your books are already damaged.

Now, back to the matter at hand. This second volume has a lot more of Aristotle's truly essential works which I think everyone should read. I mean in particular: Politics, Rhetoric, and Poetics.

Politics outlines the different forms a government can take along with their various strengths and weaknesses. In this modern age, there is a common belief that democracy is the only truly legitimate form of government. Aristotle doesn't seem to think too highly of it because it has several predictable modes of failure. One in particular should seem rather familiar: the lower class, if it is abundant enough, will use its votes to start redistributing the property of the middle and upper class and it will continue to do so until either these classes revolt, flee, or are reduced to the point where there's nothing left to "redistribute". But as Aristotle shows, every form of government fails sooner or later when bad men inevitably end up in charge. The form of government does not prevent failure itself. The form only dictates the possible failure modes. Historically, the government of today is the one which addresses the failure mode of yesterday's government.

Rhetoric is a particularly interesting work in today's intellectual atmosphere. We don't really teach rhetoric as a subject anymore. We teach "writing" and we teach "critical thinking" or "logic". Our teaching on identifying bad logic in written arguments usually focuses on logical fallacies. Now, logical fallacies are a real problem that everyone should understand. But this approach alone has its limit. It focuses primarily on errors made on the production side, i.e. in the arguer's writing and thinking. Rhetoric is, in a way, the inverse of that. Rhetoric considers errors in thinking produced on the consumption side, i.e. in the listener or reader's own thoughts. Now, strictly speaking, rhetoric can involve the deliberate use of logical fallacies. However, that is not necessarily so and Aristotle tends to shy away from such tactics. But that doesn't leave the speaker without options for manipulation. To give one simple example, it's not really a failure of logic on the speaker's part to praise the virtues of the listener. It just has nothing to do with the argument at hand. And yet it still leaves the listener positively disposed toward everything which follows. The error is not the speaker's; the error is the listener's. This is the side we don't really teach anymore and that leaves our citizenry open to manipulation. We should fix it. The fact that education standards are created by those doing the manipulating means that we wont.

Poetics outlines a lot of what Aristotle thinks is essential to literature and what simply makes some works better than others. It is very focused on stage tragedies but a great deal of what he says is universal. And it's a lot more in-depth than the usual glib summary of "it's about how plays should have unity of place, time, and action". It's also a pretty short read in itself so I wont bore you with the details.

That said, there is one particular nugget in his Poetics which I think addresses a wide-spread modern misconception in the literary world. Among the things Aristotle says are essential to tragedy (by tragedy Aristotle means most plays which we today would not consider comedies), he lists "thought". And by "thought" he means, "proving or disproving some particular point, or enunciating some universal proposition." Now, the 20th-century German Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht has a related idea, and that is that "all art is political". This is similar to Aristotle's idea that a tragedy must fundamentally involve "proving or disproving".

What about Aristotle's other option, "enunciating some universal proposition"? One would think this would be one sticky wicket for Brecht and friends. However, according to Brecht, in the cases when a piece of art seems apolitical, it is because it is actually reinforcing the status quo. In other words, to Brecht, there are no universal propositions. This is a common theme in 20th-century thought: everything is relative, everything is a social construct, and perception determines reality.

Are there truly no universally human ideas? I, and Aristotle, would say that there certainly are. There are some ideas which aren't even limited to humans. For example, there is a notion that beauty is merely what society tells us it is. But there are certain elements, such as symmetry, which clearly influence the mating choices of not just humans but virtually every animal in existence. Likewise, all animals, including humans, have some drive toward self-preservation such that death, unless there are some other mitigating circumstances involved, is certainly a universal ill. The whole realm of science is based on the idea that there are things which exist and can be measured. Perception does not determine atomic weight. Perception does not create gravity. The Earth will orbit the sun even if a smart fellow such as Aristotle denies it. These things are certainly universally true and apolitical, not merely social constructs accepted because they are part of the status quo. The only way out of this argument is to insist what we take to be objectively real is merely "politics", i.e. an invention of the culture and time we live in. But insist all you like Brechtians; the universe wont care.

Saturday 19 July 2014

On the Generation of 2,500 Pages (Aristotle, Part I)

Long time no read/write. It has been over a year. This is even worse than my last lapse. I got distracted reading other books that aren't on the list. I even learned Calculus. Maybe I should start doing write-ups about more stuff not on the list (and not just when the author gives me a free copy).

In any case, next up is Complete Works of Aristotle, Vol. 1. Per the usual, I'll give a few words about this edition. This edition is more or less the standard all-in-one English translation of Aristotle. It's based on the older Oxford editions that were funded in the will of the famous Oxford classicist Benjamin Jowett. Nearly all of the original translations continue to be reused in this newer edition and not all of them have aged well. And while the series was originally printed in twelve volumes, it is now in two enormous and unwieldy volumes. I really would have preferred it if Aristotle's corpus were split into at least four volumes. There are virtually no footnotes and no endnotes. The footnotes that do exist are limited in scope, mostly about issues of textual criticism (not to be confused with literary criticism). These are a sort of problem that most translation readers do not care about in the slightest. In fact, without the actual Greek text available, these little notes are almost completely useless to interested parties. I suspect that this lack of notes may help sell the editor's other work the Cambridge Companion to Aristotle. Many terms are also rendered in Latin. Since I have studied Latin, this didn't cause any real issues for me. But it's rare these days to meet anyone outside of a medievalist who has studied Latin but not Greek. I strongly suspect that the overwhelming majority of would-be Aristotle readers know neither Latin nor Greek. As such, the overuse of Latin terms and phrases is a case of the translators not knowing their audience. So all in all, it's a crummy situation as far as editions go but it's allegedly the best we've got.

Since the negativity train is already rolling, I'll start my discussion of Aristotle's writings themselves with the bad. Aristotle writes about practically everything. This is both a good and a bad thing. The bad side of it is that there's a ton of it. As mentioned in the title of this post, there's about 2,500 pages in all. And while Aristotle is the effective, or merely academically alleged, father of many fields, not all of these fields will interest every reader. And even among fields which fit a reader's interests, some of his writings hold up better than others. For example, while I have some interest in formal logic, Aristotle's Prior and Posterior Analytics were a real pain for me. Complex logic without a formal system of notation makes for pretty bad reading. When it's originally in Greek and translated into English, it's absolute hell. His On the Generation of Animals is another bore for me as it's basically 100 pages about how animals have sex. For the general reader, I recommend just cherry-picking the most personally interesting works in the corpus. For the Great Books nerd, it's probably best to just go through every work since Aristotle's work forms the cornerstone of practically every subject in the so-called Great Conversation. Even today, nearly every humanities or natural science college course will either reference Aristotle or actually outright assign the relevant writings.

Switching to the more positive side, a lot of things have jumped out at me reading Aristotle this time around (I've read several of his works but never the complete corpus before). Aristotle is often described in lectures and by later thinkers as this sort of intellectual monolithic giant. And it's certainly true that no-one else in his time managed to cover so many topics in such detail, at least no-one whose work survives. I do not want to diminish Aristotle's accomplishments at all. But the way we talk about him these days is misleading. Even in the texts themselves, Aristotle mentions several other Greek philosophers of his age, though often just to argue against them. Further, you wont find it in the nonexistent notes of this edition, but Aristotle spent roughly 20 years at Plato's academy before he went out into the big wide world. Allegedly he left in large part because he hated Plato's nephew who took over the academy (Plato had no children and the academy was technically a business). But that's 20 years of collaboration with fellow philosophers with similar training to his own. And less overtly, contrary to what you may hear in pithy summaries of Aristotle's work, Aristotle bases a lot of his conclusion on observations. He even simply documents many observations, particularly of animals, seemingly for their own sake. The breadth of these observations (including actual geographic breadth!) leads me to believe that Aristotle must have been collaborating with a wider scientific community. It would also explain the inconsistency of some of his observations. Sometimes an animal is described in exact and accurate detail. Other times, an animal may be described vaguely and inaccurately. This strongly suggests that the observations of Aristotle are actually the combined observations of many people.

These other philosophers that Aristotle mentions are sometimes clearly more correct. For example, it's commonly taught that Copernicus was the first to come up with the heliocentric model. Reading Aristotle, one discovers that this is simply not true. The Pythagoreans (yes, the disciples of the triangle guy) believed that Earth orbits around the Sun. They also accurately guessed that the sun is actually a great ball of fire. They were less accurate in their belief that the Earth's orbit is circular, however. They also suspected that there is a shadow Earth which is always on the opposite side of the sun and therefore invisible to us. But this last flaw derives from the limitations of Greek mechanics and Aristotle himself makes similar assumptions about counterbalancing weights elsewhere.

So, all in all, I guess the point here is that the typical brief glossing of Aristotle's place in the history of science is total nonsense. The work behind his writings was not his alone, nor just his and Plato's either. He did not work by reasoning alone. He made extensive use of observations. And many ideas which we insist didn't not come about until "modernity" were already there even in the time of the Greeks. And that's one of the major highlights of the Great Books curriculum as a whole. The pithy little narratives we push in textbooks today are often oversimplifications or outright falsehoods. And there's really no way to know for sure unless one reads the actual sources for one's self. At the end of the day, primary sources are what really matters; the rest is just bullshit of widely-varying utility.

Monday 3 June 2013

Don't Eat the Plato

After many months, I finally knocked out the next item in the list: Plato: Complete Works. First, as per the usual,  here a few words about this edition. It has a few things going for it. It's relatively cheap for the massive amount of content--roughly $50 for 1,800 pages or so from one of the pillars of Western thought. And as an added bonus, you wont get just the works of Plato, but also the works of people who have pretended to be Plato gotten away with it for at least a century or two. So, it's plenty of the prolific Plato and pieces from the petty posers. The translations themselves were quite readable. The footnotes aren't extensive but I feel like they hit the sweet spot on that front. I think I found about half of the footnotes useful or interesting so though they are few, they aren't a huge waste of useless information or obvious information like some of the stuff I've picked up in the past. And hey, they're actual footnotes, not the endnotes that cheap publishers seem to have a hardon for these days. The only criticism I really have about this edition is that it's a single volume. While it may sound handy to have it all in a single book, I found holding this thing up to read to be a serious pain in the ass. Reading it in bed before falling asleep just isn't possible. But I suppose its metaphorical weight is just as much an impediment to reading that way as its physical weight. I think I would have preferred it in a handier 2-6 volume set. That would certainly drive up costs, however. So all in all, good job John M. Cooper and Hackett Publishing.

My view of the text itself is not quite as universally positive. Don't get me wrong, a lot of Plato is pretty amazing, especially for the first time reader. His Republic is an absolute must. Laws is also really good but much it felt like a watering down of Republic. Symposium is also a must if you have any interest in the topic of love. Just kind of work around the fact that it's broadly praising relationships between adult men and teenage boys. The dialogues are where things get rough. They all work off of a system of questions and answers. That's where the dialogue bit comes in. It's a perfectly reasonable way of approaching problems. Unfortunately, there's a lot of repetition when you put them all in a big collection. By Plato's reckoning, all of life's great questions really begin with establishing that a shipwright is one who builds ships, a farmer is one who farms, and a doctor is one who treats the body. Plato also relies heavily on the so-called "method of division". This involves a process of trying to identify and categorize all things of a related type. Plato is quite bad at making these sorts of divisions and it often throws the remainder of the dialogue off the rails. A man can only take so much. For that reason, the bigger works went much quicker for me.

There are plenty of gems to be found in the dialogues if you're willing to put in the work. If you're in a hurry, you may want to pick and choose dialogues based on Cooper's summaries at the beginning. Covering them all here would not be practical. Of the smaller dialogues, I think Theaetetus was one of the stronger arguments and the most relevant today. Here Plato tackles the problem of whether reality is objective, subjective, or a mix. This is a topic somewhat dear to me and I even wrote a paper on it a million years ago for a derpy applied philosophy class as a teenager in community college. However, I hadn't actually read Theaetetus at the time. Given the similarities between my argument and Plato's, I now understand why the professor found it both worthy of an A and so damn amusing. Basically, if there is such a thing as objective reality, our job is done because everything is just like we perceive it. Now, we know that isn't, strictly speaking the case. Our senses fool us quite often under certain circumstances. But by and large, with the right methodology, we can usually produce consistent observations. Our prior technological progress kind of depends on that fact. Now, let us suppose that someone comes along, maybe from the local Zen center, and insists that perception determines reality and there's no such thing as an objective reality. This is usually followed by an explanation of how reality "really" works. Now, first off, if reality is really subjective, logically you can tell that guy to fuck off. His assessment of reality cannot be proven to be any more correct than whatever you already have in your head. And if perception does determine reality and you are perceiving a reality that behaves entirely like an objective one, then that "fact" really doesn't change anything at all. So, in short, objective reality either truly exists or you've derped your way into creating one well enough that the difference is purely academic. Even shorter, New Agers can suck Plato's dick.

Now, as I said, the really good stuff is really in Republic and Laws. Since I think Laws is largely a dilution of Republic to make it more palatable and practical for real-world implementation, let's just stick to the more philosophically pure Republic. The goal of Republic is to outline an ideal society that be productive, secure, and full of virtue. Now, this virtue bit is a little circular. Plato's arguments about the virtues usually end up arguing that certain virtues are what they are because it's what's good for the city. So, an ideal city is one full of virtue and virtue is what makes an ideal city. Now, it's important to understand that the Greek "arete" that gets translated as "virtue" basically means the qualities which make something fit for its purpose. So, for example, sharpness would be a "virtue" of a knife. Now, if Plato feels that virtue is whatever is good for the city, that implies that Plato thinks that man's purpose is to serve the State. I don't know about you, but I certainly have other priorities. But defining virtue gets a lot harder to advocate when it doesn't have a clear payoff. Why be good? Because it makes the State stronger and/or makes God happy. There's a clear payoff in most virtue systems because simply saying "It's the right thing to do, dickknob." isn't the most obviously logical of arguments. I don't have any better answers but I remain dissatisfied with Plato's conception of virtue.

Now, things get even creepier for the libertarian-minded when we get to Plato's actual planned implementation. He outlines a process for testing children from a young age to determine who is the most talented. These children would then be placed in a rigid caste system with virtually zero social mobility once the testing is done. Further, all forms of stories would be censored to ensure that they advocate Plato's system of virtues. Even the myths about the gods are up on the chopping block. Plato believed that control of literature, performance, and myth was the way to make virtuous society. I find it fascinating to see just how old this idea of making society "better" through extreme authoritarianism really is. You could say that any mythical group like the Illuminati is really just a bunch of Platonist extremists. And somehow I find that idea hilarious. I mean, if you just switch it from "there's a secret organization controlling everything" to "there are radical Platonists trying to control everything" it seems a lot more plausible. I mean, obfuscation of the real mechanisms of power is pretty central to Plato's plan. It's such an old idea, someone out there has to have at least attempted it. I've read that people did in Byzantium at least. The idea really just breaks down in the logistics of controlling that much stuff and in assuming that media and education dictate thought enough for reliable control. Or maybe I'm wrong about that part, radical Platonists really do control the world, and I'm going to get thrown into a black van and kidnapped tomorrow. trolololo

Saturday 5 January 2013

The Ever Widening Gyre of Liars and Outliars

So, two months ago, I mentioned that I was going to read something fairly new. Two months ago, I was already late in reading and reviewing the book. Work, holidays, blaah blaah mea culpa.

Anyway, the book is Bruce Schneier's Liars and Outliers. In the interest of full disclosure I should probably mention received a signed review copy, bizarrely enough. No, the glamorous litterati did not suddenly recognize my wit and genius. Instead, Schneier came up with an interesting idea to send a substantial number of copies to readers of his blog on the condition that they write reviews. I was one of those readers. This is my review. It's an interesting experiment. I have no idea how successful it has been or what the criteria for success really is in this case, but I'm really hoping that Schneier writes a blog post or something about it.

Now, as per the custom, I'll comment about the edition itself. It's in English and just came out. It's the only edition. That kind of kills my a lot of my usual critiquing. Physically it's pretty solid binding and good printing. My only gripe is that all of the footnotes have been pushed to the end. I know this is pretty much the standard these days, even from very traditional academic presses. I can't realistically fault this book for that. But I will continue to rail against this silly practice as long as I have the energy.

As for actual content, well, it's pretty damn impressive. I can't say whether or not it's a "great book" with certainty. But I can say that I'm certain that it meets several important criteria already. First, does it really say anything new? It absolutely does. Security is an ancient field. But for all its age and perennial importance, it's a pretty fragmented field. In my job, I deal with simple technical measure. I deploy the patches and try to avoid weak implementations of stuff. Of course, I knew things like game theory and psychology and anthropology all said some stuff that was relevant to the general theory of it all but the content suitable for my purposes versus the effort was unappealing. Schneier not only pulls all of those disparate fields together but does so critically and forms a cohesive framework for thinking about the various levels of tools available to maintain security and trust as well as the reasons those tools fail. In particular, his treatment of game theory is exceptional. Some of you may know "that guy" who took that one class on game theory once upon a time and continually tries to shoehorn every situation into some game theory situation, only to decide that it's a different scenario three or four times before he figures out that no-one cares about his rigid taxonomy. Schneier definitely ain't that guy. One of the major things Schneier achieves in the book is to outline how limited game theory is. It's a useful tool and he uses it well, but it's clear that it's a system that needs to be learned and then grown out of. And that's really just the tip of the iceberg. The sheer breadth of the material that had to go into this book is fucking staggering.

Second, does what is say actually have any relevance to our lives? That's even more certain. Schneier's framework scales from you and your friends to nation states. It isn't a perfectly smooth transition, much needs explaining and there are some caveats, but I think he demonstrates that there's enough overlap that you can think about all of these levels in the same terms. I initially balked at some of his applications of the framework when it scaled to the level of corporations but by the end of that chapter Schneier had made his case and I no longer have any real objections. The relevance of the book is further enhanced by Schneier's specific examples about the American response to 9/11 and the resultant rise of the TSA. Basically, we have failed to understand that you cannot prevent all attacks all the time. You need to define an acceptable level of risk and scale to that. Absolute security is impossible and striving for it is has and will continue to come at a bewildering cost, both in terms of our civil liberties and just straight up cold hard cash.

Third, I believe this work will be pretty timeless. While many of his examples are contemporary, there are enough historical ones to demonstrate that these ideas would have been useful in the past, and by proxy, are likely to continue to be useful in the future. Further, only time will really tell, but I suspect this will be a milestone text in the evolution of security theory.

So, in summary, if you work in anything even remotely connected to security, this book is a must read. And if you're just an average citizen, you should seriously think about finding room for it on your reading list.

Update: Bruce Schneier has posted the follow-up blog post that I had hoped for. You can find it here.

Tuesday 13 November 2012

Athens vs. Sparta

Next up is Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. It is the history of the ~30 year war between Sparta and Athens told by a prominent Athenian citizen who spent half the war in exile with the Spartas due to his having commanded a failed expedition. Thus all lot of the history is a first-hand account with the remaining being almost entirely compromised of second-hand accounts.

The edition I've linked is another Landmark edition. This one has meatier footnotes and a nice big map at the end, though all the maps in this volume are in black and white. So two of my major criticisms of their Herodotus edition have been somewhat ameliorated. Sadly, the Thucydides predates the Herodotus edition so I guess this wasn't a general trend in the series. Maybe someday I'll try their Xenophon or Arrian and report my findings.

I'll start off with the bad part of Thucydides. His history is largely a military one, owing to the nature of the topic. If you aren't into military history, and I'm not, some of the long passages about circumvallation and hoplite formations can be exhausting. But a lot of other history-loving folks get a serious hard-on for that sort of thing. If you are one of those folks, I guess you're in for a treat. It just isn't for me, at least not to the extent it is present in Thucydides. And it is still valuable and useful information.

On the upside, even if you just skim those aspects, Thucydides is pretty brilliant in his commentaries. He also loads up on some brilliant Greek and Spartan speeches, the treaties, and the very occasional cultural tidbit. I'm tempted to bomb you folks with quotes. I shall abstain. Thucydides tries to maintain objectivity throughout. This is pretty hilarious when Cleon comes up. You may remember him as the corrupt politician mocked by Aristophanes. It's hard to describe but the weight is in what is not said. Despite being as diplomatic as possible, you get the sense that Thucydides hated this man more than any other figure in his history.

There are some valuable lessons to learn from the course of the war. First, the war largely started due to the fact that Spartan and Athenian influenced expanded so greatly that they started to have conflicts among their various allies and client states. Basically, they started to step on each other's toes. But neither was really interested in a direct confrontation. The overlapping spheres of influence simply made it inevitable. It is unnecessary entanglements and its consequences in action. Second, when Athens started losing, people started blaming anything and everything, even democracy itself. As such, democracy more or less died for the bulk of the war, replaced with unstable tyrannies and oligarchies. Defeat spurs on knee-jerk reactions. On the upside, it can also produce some serious rethinking in the long run. This war gave us Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Politics, which you'll hear about more in the future. Third, prolonged war weakened both Athens and Sparta permanently. The ruling Spartan class was all but spent by the end. Athens lost its empire. They were no longer capable of challenging Persian power on the Persian side of the pond, much to the woe of the Ionian Greeks over there. And before long, the inevitable happened: they got steamrolled by a foreign power. But they got lucky there. That invading power would be Alexander the Great and his semi-Hellenic Macedonians, which assured a strong Greek presence on that side of the Mediterranean until the fall of Byzantium some 1800 years later. Obviously they'd lose out to the Romans but Greek culture quickly became one of the pillars of the Empire and ultimately the Greek side outlasted the Roman side.

Next up on my list is supposed to be Plato. However, I'm going to take a detour to read a book that is less than a year old and even review it here. I'm hoping it has a touch of that slow-fermenting, crisis-spawned magic of Plato and Aristotle. I probably wont be doing this sort of thing often, maybe not at all ever again, but the guy gave me a free signed copy of the book and he's kind of a big deal in his area of expertise so you could say I'm obligated to do a review. I'll leave the particulars as a surprise.

Saturday 27 October 2012

Èrodotus' Ìstories

Next up on the list is Herodotus' The Histories. Here Herodotus provides a detailed account of the Persian Wars, the parties involved, and the events leading to the wars.

But first, a word about the edition I selected: This is part of a series of Greek histories in translation, each called The Landmark X. They provide a load of maps, copious footnotes, and marginal summaries. They are certainly quite showy. Unfortunately, the maps are the same regions over and over. For the most part, all of these maps could be replaced with one good foldout map. And the footnotes are likewise repetitive. The vast majority of the footnotes come after a place name. The footnote then just says to see a certain map. As a person who compulsively looks at footnotes, this is quite tedious for me. It kind of forces the reader to ignore the footnote markers in the text simply to avoid being overwhelmed by "see map". But if you do that, then you don't see the few real footnotes. The footnoting system is also non-standard. Rather than the marker telling you which footnote you want precisely, you get a letter which must be combined with the paragraph number. The book does not always have footnotes on the same page as the marker either. These factors make finding the footnote you want somewhat difficult rather than the stupidly simple process it usually is. I'm really baffled as to why they didn't just stick with a standard academic footnote style. They replaced it with something that is in every way inferior. The book also includes several academic essays in the back. Many of them are quite interesting. Unfortunately, a number of these are two or three page blurbs with virtually no citations. Frankly, I would have been ashamed of some of this stuff if it were my own writing from fucking undergrad. Seeing such half-assed efforts from real classics professors is outright appalling. All in all, this edition is full of showmanship with little substance. But at least the translation is readable.

Herodotus himself is often referred to as the "father of history" as his Histories is the first major Western attempt at writing a real history formed from contemporary accounts of events. His account of the war is considered to be generally accurate. He does, however, get a lot of shit for his descriptions of contemporary cultures and historical events past living memory. I don't think this is entirely a fair criticism. Herodotus traveled a great deal and made inquiries, usually through an interpreter. He seems to have made an honest effort to recount what people told him. And even he is skeptical of many of these accounts. Further, the apparent ridiculousness of his claims have actually reduced over the course of the past century. As our understanding of cultures contemporary to Herodotus has increased, he has started to make a lot more sense. He seems to have at least gotten the methodological basics of writing history down while lacking predecessors to serve as models. While it's easy to assume that things like source skepticism are obvious, many writers even today do a worse job than Herodotus. And if everyone you talk to says that giant ants mine gold in India and you can't make it there yourself to verify it, you can't just ignore what little evidence you have.

The story of the war itself is pretty depressing until the end. Without reading Herodotus, it is easy to only really learn about the Greek victories at Marathon, Thermopylae (sort of), and Plataea. In reality, virtually all Greek territory fell to the Persians except the Peloponnese. That's like 10-20% of Greece remaining. Athens itself was torched by the Persians. The only thing that really saved them in the end was that after Thermopylae the Greeks managed to avoid another major engagement for so long that the Persians simply had to send most of their army home due to a lack of supplies and the Persian emperor's insanity. And when it finally got to Plataea, aside from the Spartans and the Athenians, not many of the still free Greek cities were not willing to stand their ground for very long. Greek civilization as we remember it was at the brink of annihilation. I wont spoil the play by play, but it is both frightening and compelling to read about Western civilization in its infancy reduced to a tiny ember and then to see it turn things around at the last moment.

One minor detail kept cropping up that kind of surprised me: the Spartans have a serious hard-on for freedom and a hatred of tyrants. This is surprising coming from slave owners with two kings. But it is important to remember that not all kings are tyrants. And being a tyrant king is kind of hard when there is a second king around to kick your ass with his half of the army. As for the slavery bit, Spartans believed that they were simply different classes of people, some of whom were fit to be slaves while others were fit to be free. While oppressing a slave was just the natural order of things for them, oppressing a member of the free class was simply intolerable. It was so intolerable that the Spartans made a habit of invading neighboring cities that had succumb to tyrants, kicking the tyrants out, and then just going home. The Athenians had a similar policy but it doesn't seem such an exceptional idea coming from the birthplace of democracy. But it is interesting to note that while Athens fell into tyranny several times, I have yet to find any mention of similar periods in Sparta. A dual-monarchy may not have the potential to be as free as a democracy but it also seemed to lack the potential for tyranny as well. I wonder if history has any other examples of functional dual-monarchies? I don't believe I've ever come across any.

This post is really going off into tl;dr territory already and I feel like I haven't even scratched the surface yet. I have a feeling that I'll have this book stuck in my head for the rest of my life. I guess that's the point.

Ps. The title is a Greek orthography joke. If you didn't get it, don't worry; it probably isn't very funny anyway.

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