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Sunday 17 November 2019

Wizardly Virgil's Foundational Fan Fiction and Farming Facts

Next up is the three major works of the Roman poet Virgil, being the Eclogues, the Georgics, and the Aeneid.

The Eclogues have not aged well. It is essentially an overtly political idyllic poem. The issues addressed and alluded to are so particular to Virgil's time and place that I, personally, did not get much out of it. I would recommend skipping it.

Like Lucretius' De rerum natura, Virgil's Georgics is a sort of textbook in poem form. But rather than addressing the nature of the universe, it more narrowly addresses the field of agriculture. This leaves me continuing to wonder how much of the essentials of civilization could be grabbed into small poetical works for preservation. While we make use of mnemonics in schools today, I don't think that we are really using them to their full potential. Imagine if, instead of a crib sheet, you could have an unforgettable poem in your head for every exam?

There is some surprisingly "modern" farming advice in the Georgics. For example, crop rotation is discussed. If you just read Wikipedia on the subject, it skips from a mention in Leviticus to reign of Charlemagne with nothing in between. This is the sort of lapse in knowledge that you get when no-one reads the canon anymore. Centuries of knowledge just slip away as everything becomes a summary of a summary. History becomes a game of Chinese telephone

The Aeneid is definitely Virgil's greatest work, in all respects, i.e. fame, length, and worth. If you'll stretch your memory back to the very beginning of this blog with the works of Homer, you'll remember a certain war in which the Greeks destroyed a little ol' place called Troy. Virgil not only decided to write a sequel, he decided to write it about the Trojan survivors to legitimize the Roman Empire.

The first half of the Aeneid much resembles the Odyssey. Aeneas, plagued by the machinations of a bitter Juno, must lead his band of survivors from Troy to find a new homeland. They even run into the cyclops island from the Odyssey and meet one of Odysseus' men who was left behind. This wandering culminates in a near marriage between Aeneas and Queen Dido of Carthage as part of Juno's plot to prevent Rome's fated glorious future. Much ink has been spilled adapting the tragic aspects of that love story.

The second half more closely mirrors the Iliad. The Trojans arrive in Italy but find themselves at war with half the peninsula due to Juno's continued meddling. This half is seldom read. The standard edition given to young Latin students only covers the first half of the book. The second half is criticized as being "just" about battles. But the same could be easily said about the Iliad. And I find the language of the second half superior. The taunts thrown back and forth are exceptional. Also like the Iliad, there is a scene in which Aeneas receives a shield forged by Vulcan that depicts scenes from the future up until Virgil's own time.

The Aeneid speaks to a universal need for some sense of origin that we find both in countries and individuals. Every family has some story about how they are connected to some famous so-and-so, how their grandfather fought in such and such war, or how their family arrived by boat fleeing war. Even the mighty Roman Empire had to tell itself that it was descended from the demi-god Aeneas. There's comfort in continuity with the past.

Monday 25 March 2019

Platonic Poltinus

Next up on the list is a brutal seven-volume slog through Plotinus' six (Enneads). Plotinus was a 3rd-century AD Greek-speaking Neoplatonist philosopher. He also marks the end of the pre-Christian philosophers in the Great Books list. In many ways, his school of philosophy and his place in time allow him to serve as a sort of bridge between ancient and medieval philosophy or between pagan philosophy and Christian theology.

Like most of the other schools of philosophy from the waning days of the Roman Empire covered in the Greek Books list, Plotinus' brand of Platonism had become arguably monotheist. Plotinus' philosophies revolves around the idea of the One, the original driving force and source of all levels and aspects of reality. A.H. Armstrong, the translator of the edition I linked above, does not believe that the One qualifies as a god because the One is not external to our universe, but rather an integral part of it. I, however, am unsure about such a fine distinction.

And somewhat analogously to the Stoics, Plotinus advocates rejection of the base material world for a life of the mind. Armstrong translates this higher world as the realm of Intellect. Readers of Plato will be more familiar with the concept under a different name in English: the World of Forms.

To put these two things another, more familiar, way: reject the flesh and turn your eyes toward God. These disparate schools were definitely sharing in a common zeitgeist. And it further reinforces my view of a strong intellectual continuity between the pre-Christian antiquity and the Christian medieval period.

The new surprise for me when reading Plotinus was finally understanding how Platonism ended up tied to magical practices as time went on. My realization came from reading Plotinus' refutation against the astrologers. Much akin to the Stoics and their concept of logos, Plotinus viewed the One as a sort of organizing principle behind the whole universe, through which all things were connected in some way. Now, if we assume that all things are connected, then it is possible that any one thing can have some degree of influence on any other thing in the universe, even if the influence is unintelligible to the senses. Astrologers believe that stars and planets influence things to a large degree in exactly this way. And the sympathetic magic of later esoteric schools is meant to work in a similar manner. Christian prayer could be viewed as working through a similar mechanism, though I am not aware of any real theological argument along those lines.

Plotinus takes the view that although such influences are possible, they are too slight to be worth thinking about. He makes an essentially empirical argument that the degree of influence claimed by the astrologers simply does not correspond to observable outcomes. But it is notable that Plotinus feels that he has to make this argument at all. It tells us that this was a significant view in Plotinus' time. It is also possible that Plotinus was unconsciously motivated by the narcissism of small differences. In other words, he could feel this idea creeping into the greater Platonist community and becoming a threat to his own beliefs.

Unfortunately, after reading the Stoics, I feel compelled now to ask myself one question when reading any new philosophy: How does this help me live a better life? While Plotinus has helped me understand the continuity between late antiquity and the medieval period, I do not think any of his writing has provided me with any tools for actual personal growth. It is not sufficient for me anymore to read something like, "reject the world of the senses and seek the word of the Intellect." Even if I were to accept this as a valid and worthy goal, Plotinus does not spend any ink on discussing how this is actually achieved. The Stoics, in contrast, want nothing more than to show you exactly how to achieve your full human potential through a lived and practiced, rather than purely theoretical, philosophy.

Tuesday 9 October 2018

The Freed Man

Next up is Epictetus' Discourses and the Handbook. Epictetus is yet another Stoic author. Unlike our previous two Stoic authors, Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, Epictetus was neither wealthy nor powerful. Rather, he was a freed slave he strove to live simply. His explanation of Stoic principles is the most rigorous and best-organized of the three authors. His "handbook" is actually a concise compilation of Stoic ideas created by one of his students. It is so concise that I could easily imagine it as a pamphlet. Maybe as the modern Stoicism movement continues growing it will become one. However, his rigor does come at a cost. His writings feel like lectures. This is probably because they originally were lectures. They lack the intimacy of Seneca's Letters or Marcus Aurelius' Meditations. For this reason, many modern proponents of Stoicism recommend leaving him for last. I think I would have been happier had I started with Epictetus but I can see how leaving him for last may be beneficial for most people.

Epictetus brings clarity to a number of issues for me. For example, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius speak of the Stoic observance of duty. But one's duty is never clearly defined. Epictetus offers some crucial guidance here. He argues that one's duties are defined by one's social relationships. In other words, your duties are primarily to your family and friends. You have a duty to be a good son or a good father and a duty to be a good friend. And then less immediately one has a relationship to one's community, city, and country. This clarity also presents a challenge for me. I am semi-estranged from my own family and I have a hard time feeling a patriotic duty to a country that has allowed itself to be consistently mismanaged my entire life. In short, Epictetus brought me one step forward on the matter of duty only to present me with a new problem to solve.

Epictetus also clearly avoids the fallacy of believing that perception determines reality, which Marcus Aurelius seems to argue for. Instead, the Handbook says, "It is not the things themselves that disturb men, but their judgments about these things." In other words, perception determines one's emotional state. This says nothing about objective reality. The change is only within ourselves. I am much more comfortable with Epicetus' framing of the issue than that of the other two authors.

Epictetus also makes the point that allowing one's judgment of another person's actions to affect one's emotional state gives that person power. And such an action is irrational in a way. Why should we reward those who cause us harm with further power over us? He cites an example of a man who is easily upset by his slave's incompetence. If the slave can shatter his owner's emotional composure effortlessly, who is really in control?

There is plenty more to Epictetus but much of it is just a more direct explanation of things covered by Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. For example, the need to accept fate, the need concentrate on living one's philosophy rather than merely thinking about it, or the need to detach one's happiness from external things. But his brevity and clarity mean that he is the author I will most likely reread when I feel the need for reinforcement.

Thursday 26 July 2018

The ABCs of Stoicism

While it's not technically on the GBWW list, Seneca's Letters fits right in with Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus. Seneca is a hard man to describe. He was a first century moral philosopher, a playwright, and a billionaire (by Roman standards). He had dealings, good and bad, with multiple Roman emperors. He wrote his Letters late in his life to a young man named Lucilius in order to help Lucilius develop as a practitioner of Stoicism.

It is important to note the word "practitioner". Unlike many philosophies, Stoicism is a philosophy that is, first and foremost, meant to be lived. It can be thought of not just as philosophy in the conventional sense but also as a toolbox for better living. Revisiting my complaint about Marcus Aurelius and sour grapes, I now realize, thanks to Seneca, that his technique of reframing things in order to become indifferent to them is not really about the actual reasoning involved. The only important thing is achieving that sense of indifference. This may seem a little intellectually dishonest. However, Stoicism asks a lot of its practitioners. It asks them to become indifferent to pleasure, bad fortune, and even death itself. Faced with such a formidable task, it is understandable that a Stoic would gladly take up any tool available.

The importance of this indifference is clear to me now, even if it is difficult to put into practice. Seneca argues that the happy life is the virtuous life. But a lot of ancient philosophers make this same claim and from many different points of view. The key to understanding the Stoic argument is understanding that you can not be consistently happy if your happiness is tied to things you can not control. This is how indifference becomes important. In the strictest sense, there is very little we can control. We can influence many things in the world and make more desirable outcomes more probable. But this control is never absolute. As such, there is always room for disappointment. There is, however, one thing that we can always control: our own choices. So if a person can become indifferent to all the uncontrollable things and care only about his own choices, achievement of the happy life begins to seem possible. You would only be left with the problem of making sure that you are happy with all of your choices. And while we regret the outcomes of many virtuous choices, it is irrational to be unhappy with the choices themselves. Thus, if you only care about your choices and you always make good choices that you can be happy about, you will have a happy life. It is a state of mind as appealing as it is difficult to reach. But that is the promise of Stoicism in a nutshell.

Seneca has also taught me a few things about the nature of fame and personal achievement. Personally, I have never been too interested in fame. I value my quiet life too much. But fame can be powerful. It can even be necessary for achieving certain goals. What kind of emperor would Marcus Aurelius be if no-one knew his name? Thankfully, I have no such goals. Though perhaps someday I will. And, hopefully, on that day,I will be able to think of fame as a mere tool. I say this because Seneca has also made it clear to me that fame is dangerous. I do not mean physically dangerous, though it can be. Instead, it is dangerous spiritually. The core of the problem is that fame is a numbers game. It requires appealing to the maximum number of people possible. And you achieve this by appealing to the middle of humanity's bell curve. And the average human is imperfect in many ways. This average human is neither particularly bright nor particularly good. As such, this human is a terrible judge of character. To appeal to this type of human in the numbers required for true fame, you will likely need to make compromises and cultivate attributes that most appeal to literal mediocrity. In a way, Seneca argues that we should aspire to become something so great that remaining appealing to the crowd would be difficult or impossible. Because of fame's natural impediment to greatness, the majority of the best and most successful people are people you have never heard of. If you want to be the best, you can not waste your time or compromise yourself trying to be recognized as the best. And if you do become the best, even if the crowd doesn't know who you are, the people who matter will be unable to ignore you.

Seneca provides some lessons on friendship that I have taken to heart as well. It is a truism, said in many forms, that we are the company we keep. But like many truisms, they go by us unnoticed. Seneca may have finally made it stick in my case. If you care about being good, with respect to morality or even some professional skill, do not allow yourself to fall in with those who are average or worse. Seek out exceptional souls and mind wherever you can. Appreciate them, Allow them to help you grow. And be sure to return the favor.

Seneca has probably affected me more than anything I have ever read in recent years. And there is far more wisdom in these volumes I could ever discuss here. Seneca even addresses this very problem. How do you cite the good parts of a work that is almost nothing but good parts? The only reasonable course of action is to encourage people to read the whole work themselves. Some authors Seneca would quote to Lucilius. But for truly great authors, he would send the whole book. So I urge you: Please, if you care about your own well-being, strongly consider reading some Seneca and the other Stoic authors.

Thursday 19 April 2018

That Other Western Civilization

Backtracking a little after Meditations, I bit the bullet and read Lucretius' De Rerum Natura. This title is and can be translated a number of different ways, owing to the broadness of the Latin word res. The most literal translation would probably be "About the nature of things". However, in this context "things" encompasses the entire universe. It is a first-century BC Latin Epicurean poem, physics textbook, philosophical treatise, and personal letter all rolled into one. The linked translation is pretty standard for Loeb editions. In other words, there's Latin on the left and fairly literal English on the right with a moderate number of footnotes and a scholarly introduction. You may want to consider other options if you have no interest in the Latin on the left-hand side.

Epicureanism is a curious thing. While other ancient schools of thought like Platonism, Aristotelianism, and even Stoicism still hold some currency in the present day, Epicureanism is largely forgotten in the mainstream. And when it is remembered, it is used as a synonym for hedonism. And the thing that makes this strange is that Epicureanism actually more closely aligns with the modern Western world view than these other philosophies in many ways. For example, Lucretius argues that either the gods do not exist or that they have no reason to care about the affairs of mortals and are therefore irrelevant. He also champions atomism, the idea that matter is made from atoms rather than the classical elements. He even concludes that other planets must exist. While he still argues largely through logic, much in the way that Aristotle and Plato did, he also pushes the Epicurean idea of the reliability of the senses. In other words, Epicureans rejected the Platonic notion of a shadow world and instead accepted the idea of an objective and observable universe. This belief in the senses, incidentally, is the root of the insistence that Epicureans are hedonists. The form of argumentation is very familiar but the conclusions are completely different. It is like looking in a mirror version of the Western tradition.

So given the strong parallels to modern thinking and the empirically-verified truth of that thinking, why did Epicureanism die off rather than catch on? I think Epicureanism had problems with both the medium and the message.

By "medium", I mean the style of argumentation. Argument by logic alone is fraught with peril. It only takes one faulty assumption or one fallacy to turn an entire, seemingly logical, worldview into a useless house of cards. And in worse instances, Plato accuses some "philosophers" of spinning logic with no regard for truth simply because it was an easy way to get students and their fees. To varying degrees, ancient philosophers were aware of the limitations of their epistemological approach. However, most were certain of the rigor of their own methodology. The end result is that logic alone lacked sufficient persuasive force. Even if the conclusions were true, it was too difficult to discern complex and true logic from complex and false logic. You can see similar problems in our modern statistical approaches. One mistake and "overwhelming" statistical evidence can become completely meaningless. Empiricism, in contrast, lends itself to physical demonstrations. And in a way that worried Plato but likely pleased the Epicureans, people believe what they can see. But lacking that, philosophies could come and go like fashions, regardless of how accurately they described the world. Truth alone was not sufficient and often not even required.

And by "message", I mean that some of the claims of Epicureanism are extremely inconvenient. For example, the essential atheism of Epicureanism made it impossible for many political figures to openly endorse it. Roman paganism was the de facto state religion and many government ceremonies and practices were essentially religious. Lucretius even warns his intended reader, the praetor Gaius Memmius, that pursuing the truth of Epicurean philosophy may not always be compatible with his official duties. Contrast this with Stoicism. Some argue that Stoicism tends toward monotheism. Others reject this. But in either case, it is compatible with the general idea of deism. And even if it were not, Stoics would argue that duty obliged Stoic politicians to perform the necessary state rituals with at least seeming earnestness. In other words, Emperor Marcus Aurelius could function both as a Stoic and as Emperor openly without any real philosophical conflict and without turning popular opinion against him. An Epicurean Emperor would have been in a much more difficult position. And this would have been true, to varying degrees, of anyone with any office in the Roman political system. In other words, Epicureanism was likely at a patronage and advocacy disadvantage. Religions and philosophies benefit immensely from the conversion of political figures. And Epicureanism could never realistically compete on that front.

In a similar vein, many people likely had issues with the Epicurean view that even though the soul exists, it is mortal. In other words, there is nothing after death. And this has never been a popular point of view. People take comfort in the notion of an immortal soul, whether it is Aristotle or the Pope preaching the idea. The survival instinct in humans, like all animals, is strong and the thought of utter annihilation makes our blood run cold. Fighting such instinctual preferences requires more evidence than Epicurean methods could muster.

In short, if you are going to push a new philosophy or religion, it helps to make it convenient and appealing. Impossible-to-prove promises that feel good can often win more converts than truth. Lucretius was somewhat aware of this fact that. It is the whole reason De Rerum Natura is a poem. He thought that a beautiful form would make uncomfortable truths easier to digest.

My next reading will probably take me back to the Stoics with the letters of Seneca, assuming Amazon ever ships me the third volume in the set.

Tuesday 10 April 2018

Our Empire, Ourselves

Well, for various reasons, I have been reading a lot of other stuff not on the list. I took a stab at Lucretius in Latin but it was a slog. I will attempt it with a better edition and better self-preparation. Aquinas is also still waiting for me to forget my boredom with him.

In the meantime, I decided to tackle Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus' Meditations. Despite being written by a Roman Emperor, the Meditations are actually in Greek. The translation I have picked is likely not for everyone. Hutcheson and Moor's translation is considered an important part of the Scottish Enlightenment and overall efforts in the English-speaking world to harmonize pagan Stoicism with Christianity. Their footnotes are pretty useful. This new edition from Liberty Fund also has copious additional end-notes from the editors. It is probably not the most readable translation. The most commonly recommended translation in my circles is this one by Gregory Hays. While Hays' translation seems quite readable, I chose Hutcheson and Moor because the specialized Stoic vocabulary seems more consistently and faithfully translated. But 18th-century prose may be more of an impediment for other readers. Amazon's "Look Inside!" feature was invaluable here.

The first book of the Meditations stands out from the others. While the other books present, often repetitiously, various Stoic maxims and ideals, the first book is more of a statement of gratitude to the people in Antoninus' life for the virtues they taught him. After reading this book, I immediately began to wonder what my own version of this book would look like. And I realized that my life has not brought me in contact with many people whom I could reasonably use as models of virtue. This was a depressing thought. However, I have learned a lot by using people as negative role models.. Friends and relatives have shown me what not to do simply by making poor decisions and playing out the consequences before my eyes. This makes me wonder many people Antoninus describes were also negative role models for him. His tends to put an optimistic spin on everything and only concentrates on what he learned from each person, not usually how he learned it. It is entirely possible that some of these names belonged to terrible people, not virtuous ones. Charitably discussing negative role models is certainly the only way I could write a comparable chapter. But there is a lesson in that. The lives of the worst people you know can serve as cautionary tales. And while it is hard to appreciates such people, it is easy to appreciate the knowledge you gain from their failures. In a sense, these people have all taken a metaphorical bullet for me. I can be grateful for that. And no matter how limited this gratitude may be, it has diminished the bitterness that I held before. I can be grateful for that, too.

I have yet to resolve many of the other questions the Meditations left me with. For example, the Stoics believed that no man is truly evil, merely ignorant. The idea is that men only do bad things because they do not understand their own nature, the nature of the universe, Goodness, Justice, or some other fundamental idea. And it is the job of a true Stoic to try to correct such people, if possible. And if correction is not possible, a Stoic should simply accept that fact like all the other unchangeable things in the world. But if enough people started behaving in the Stoic fashion, the consequences for bad behavior would diminish. In other words, Stoicism in the face of evil men enables those same evil men. Of course, if everyone adopted Stoic virtues, this would not be a problem. But that seems like an impossible Utopian ideal to me. So Stoic acceptance would seem to be something of a selfish act. The Stoic seems to enable evil in exchange for his own inner calm. That said, Antoninus also discusses the importance of Justice. But he is fairly non-specific about what Justice looks like in application. Maybe the other Stoic authors can shed some light on this point. There has to be some dividing criteria between the man-made evil you accept and the man-made evil you actively retaliate against for the benefit of society as a whole.

The Stoics also adhere to an eternal bugbear of mine. As Shakespeare describe the concept, "There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so." I suspect that I have addressed this elsewhere in my posts. But this thinking fundamentally denies the existence of an objective reality. Furthermore, no amount of imagining a knife in the heart to be good will keep it from killing you. However, it is possible that Stoics did not accept this idea as literally true. Instead, it could simply be a mental trick to help acceptance and subjugation of the animal self to the rational self. Similarly, the Stoics talk about breaking things down into their basic components until they become unappealing. For example, to fight the desire for wine, a Stoic would think of it as merely grape juice gone bad. "Rotten grape juice" is not nearly as appealing as "wine", but they describe essentially the same thing. This is self-delusion. And to use another Shakespeare quote, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." In other words, "rotten grape juice" can still get you drunk or encourage conviviality. The Stoics essentially take Aesop's fox and his sour grapes as a role model. This is clearly irrational. But to be charitable and channel my inner Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the seemingly "irrational" can sometimes become rational if it is sufficiently useful. This line of thinking, in moderation, can be medicinal; in excess, it can be narcotic.

The list of ideas in the Meditations that I am still struggling with is fairly long. Unfortunately, I do not have the time to address them all here. However, another Stoic author is on the reading list, Epictetus with his Discourses. This will give me an opportunity to revisit some of the same ideas down the road.

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.

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