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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.

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?

Thursday 22 January 2015

Galen and the Crazy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 19 January 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Brecht vs. Aristotle (Aristotle, Part II)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 19 July 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 3 June 2013

Don't Eat the Plato

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 13 November 2012

Athens vs. Sparta

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 27 October 2012

Èrodotus' Ìstories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 24 September 2012

Aristophanes Brings the Lulz

Rounding out the volume of Greek drama is Aristophanes: The Complete Plays. Now, the translation of Aristophanes one gets is extremely important. His plays have a lot of swearing and sometimes massive strap-ons. For the bulk of the 20th century, this stuff was considered too racy as is. Unfortunately, this means that virtually every translation available cuts out all these good bits. Paul Roche's translation, linked above, keeps it all intact as much as possible.

Roche's translation does suffer from two problems, however. First, Aristophanes makes extensive use of dialects to show class and place of origin. Roche tries to emulate this with British regional and class dialects or accents. I thought this was a decent half-measure for a virtually intractable problem. Judging from reviews, a lot of people disagree with me here. So if you genuinely don't like Roche's solution or you are some sort of data-driven plebeian whose tastes are enslaved to Amazon reviews, look elsewhere. Except then you'll be stuck with translations which have "docked the cock", so to speak. The other issue is that Paul Roche is almost a counterfeit native English speaker. He grew up in India and spent a lot of his life outside of English-speaking countries and of English-speaking countries he did spend time in he was more often in the United States than Britain. His idiom is therefore peculiar at times as his English seems to be disproportionately influenced by written English rather than spoken English. In more formal prose, I probably wouldn't have even noticed. But Aristophanes' language is meant to be that of everyday life. Roche tries to emulate that but, knowing little about how English speakers sound in everyday life, things don't always turn out as one might expect. His use of Cockney, for example, is more the Cockney of Dickens than 20th century London. And one of the footnotes comically refers to the "King's English". The fellow must have been out of the loop for a while.

But really, this is all just nitpicking. His translations are awesome. His footnotes are extensive without being tedious or patronizing. And they're actual footnotes, not endnotes. With the tragedies, endnotes were acceptable because you really didn't need to know much that wasn't in the Homeric literature and other plays. The comedies, on the other hand, heavily emphasize current events and culture, including making reference to other plays that survive only in fragments or not at all. Having read the tragedies and the Homeric stuff is still enough for a lot of the jokes. And the giant floppy cocks, of course, are eternal wit. That leaves about a third of the jokes that don't really work without explanation.

To speed things up, I just read all eleven of Aristophanes' surviving plays in one go. For the sake of brevity, I'll lump his similar play together. First up are the anti-war plays: Acharnians, Knights, Peace, and Wasps. Aristophanes spent the bulk of his youth and productive years living with the consequences of constant warfare, mostly between his native Athens and Sparta, with the occasional Persian bungling. The war lasted for nearly three decades, off and on. At various points this war cost Athens its men, its economy, its ships, its allies, its democracy, and much more. In Aristophanes' view, war with Sparta was ultimately pointless. Sparta was a land power while Athens was a naval power. Athens had a little empire from the black sea to Sicily which made them one of the foremost hubs of Mediterranean trade. This wealth gave them a city that Sparta's war- and slave-driven economy couldn't rival. But instead of simply enjoying what they had, Athens pursued a land war with a superior land power in that land power's own backyard when, at least in Aristophanes' view, they could have just stayed out of inland Greek politics and been no worse for it. And at several stages the Spartans--the fucking SPARTANS--tried to make peace. When a government wants war more than Sparta, something is seriously wrong. Aristophanes spends most of these plays mocking those who perpetuated the war. The main focus is one fellow: Cleon. He was apparently a rat bastard of a politician who succeeded in being present at one major military success, though he only ordered another Athenian commander to actually get the job done. He then milked that one success for all it was worth. I find it fascinating that taking credit for ordering someone else to do something was considered grounds for ridicule on the public stage. These days, we accept political leaders taking credit for the success of our generals without even thinking about the logic of it. We just take "Mission Accomplished" and "I got Osama bin Laden" at face value. He also takes time to poke fun at the arms dealers. He aptly points out that though the arms dealers are doing brisk business, the war was making it impossible to acquire luxury goods and even many staple goods from the rest of Greece. When Aristophanes was a child, Athens was a city of relative opulence and luxury. As the war dragged on, even the middle class had problems getting enough food. You could allegedly tell a servant from his master because the servant was better dressed. The implication is that there wasn't actually enough to go around but servants had strict customary rights for compensation that were established in a time of opulence. The custom did not change with the economy.

For all that depressing talk, the anti-war plays are quite funny. In Acharnians, a merchant negotiates his own separate peace with Sparta and is able to do business with all of Greece openly in his front yard as his property effectively became its own sovereign state. His business booms and the arms dealers are enraged. The point being that Athens' economy would be booming since it was a natural center of trade and only the war was hindering things. Knights is about an equestrian order that enlists a sausage dealer to confront the aforementioned Cleon for control of Athens. The rationale was that an unqualified low-born sausage dealer would be a better leader than an unqualified low-born warmongering tanner. The sausage-dealer is called "Sausageman". He fights people using a string of sausage. I really wish I could see this staged. In Peace, some enterprising fellows decide to fly a dung beetle to Mount Olympus to rescue Peace, whom Ares (War) had buried with the consent of Zeus, consent given due to Zeus' frustration with Greece's apparent boundless stupidity. Excavating Peace is no easy task but the men are able to enlist more than enough support from average people, the point being that the common people never actually want war unless they are manipulated by politicians. Wasps is not overtly anti-war. It instead looks at the effect the corrupt warmongers had on the domestic courts. Basically, while the war raged on, the courts became a farce. The rule of law was undermined. Basic rights were no longer respected. It is all depressingly familiar. There's a funny bit involving a trial of house pets and some stolen cheese.

Aristophanes also writes a number of plays about women. In two of these feminine plays, Lysistrata and A Parliament of Women, Aristophanes implies that men had let their state deteriorate so greatly that they no longer deserved to be in charge anymore and so women should usurp power. Parliament basically has the women declare a pseudo-communist state and pokes fun at the natural results of that. In Athens' state of war-induced poverty, the ideas of redistribution of wealth and communal property gained some fans. Because obviously capitalism had failed. Their poverty was most definitely not the result of three decades of being warmongering assholes. Once again, this is depressingly familiar. As we'll see later, Plato kind of went full-retard with this in his Republic. Women at Thesmophoria Festival is mostly Aristophanes giving voice to complaints about Euripides portrayal of women as seducers, adulterers, general whores, and murderers. There's not much to do with the war, courts, or economy in this last one.

Aristophanes gets more philosophical than political sometimes. In Clouds, he basically parodies the Sophists and insists that they are all vile atheists who give bad reasoning the semblance of good and are otherwise ruining the youth of the day. He lumps Socrates in with these guys though Socrates was not a Sophist. Frogs was written after the deaths of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles. In it, Dionysus gets sick of the sad state of theater, dresses up as Hercules, and charges into hell determined to bring one of the great playwrights back. Hilarity ensues. Sophocles had only just died so he doesn't really factor much into the play. But Aeschylus and Euripides have a prolonged and amusing duel to prove which one is better. There's also a mostly silent chorus of mimes dressed as frogs in the background the whole time. Plutus is an imagining of the world without the threat of poverty. Basically, no-one has any reason to produce anything of value. Sure, if we all had our basic needs met, some of us would try to create things and better ourselves for their own sake. Many would not. And most of us would probably still do something but not nearly as much as we would if it weren't for the threat of poverty. In short, Aristophanes is saying that wealth makes us soft and weak while poverty spurs us on to do great things. It certainly made me take undergrad way more seriously than most of my peers.

Finally, there's Birds. In this play, Aristophanes posits what would happen if birds ruled the world. Hilarity ensues. It's largely apolitical. Basically, Aristophanes got complacent during a brief period of peace, mistakenly believing that peace was the new state of things.

All in all, Aristophanes' comedies have aged better than anything else I've read. Once you know the political figures being mocked, it is non-stop lulz. At the same time, there is biting social commentary in there that applies just as much to us today as it did to Aristophanes' audience. Like I believe I said about one of the tragedies, if you read only some of this stuff, the comedies of Aristophanes should be at the top of your list. But without all the tragedies and the Homeric stuff, you'll be missing half the fun. That was kind of Adler's point in choosing these books. They are all in a long running conversation with one another.

Thursday 6 September 2012

The End of Tragedy

After many long weeks, I've finally made it to the last volume of Euripides. Though this is not actually the end the corresponding volume of the Great Books series. I still have the comedies to go. But this still feels like an important milestone. Also, there are far fewer comedies, about 11. I may or may not review them all in one go. I guess you'll find out soon enough. Anyway, this volume contains Alcestis, Medea, Helen, and Cyclops.

Alcestis is about the death of a woman who is voluntarily dying before her appointed time in place of her husband, thanks to a deal brokered by Apollo, a friend of the husband. Everything was going according to plan until another long-time household friend, Hercules, dropped by. The husband tried to be a nice host and shield Hercules from the bad news. When he learned the truth, he hatched a plan to sneak up on Death personified and beat the crap out of him. He succeeds and death leaves Alcestis alone. The payoff here is entirely in the idea of Hercules beating up Death. So, yeah, I've pretty much spoiled the one good bit. Sorry, folks.

Medea is the one play where Jason, as in Jason and the Argonauts, makes an appearance. Apparently he fell on hard times, abandoned his wife and kids, and married some princess, allegedly in a scheme to better provide for said wife and kids. His old wife, Medea, is the same girl who betrayed her father and homeland to help Jason get the Golden Fleece. She really has nowhere to go and no recourse for this injustice. But she's a crafty sort and good with poisons. So she kills nearly every except Jason, including her own children. So I guess the lesson here is twofold: even heroes, or especially heroes, can be womanizing douches and one should never be that level of womanizing douche if one wants to avoid mass poisonings. In any case, like the anti-Odysseus stuff I've run into in other plays, it really bums me out to see the great classical heroes fall so low. I think that was part of Euripides' evil plan from the start, the bastard.

Helen is another one of those wacky Trojan War retcons. Apparently, the Helen that ran off to Troy is a fake made by Aphrodite who was actually incapable of forcing Helen to love Paris, owing to Helen's extreme virtue. Virtuous and chaste Helen, that really is something new. Hermes hid the real Helen in Egypt, under the protection of the Egyptian king. Her husband and the fake Helen get shipwrecked in Egypt on the way back from the war. Well, her husband, Menelaus, meets the real her. The fake Helen poofs into nothingness. And this would be fine and dandy except the old Egyptian king is actually dead and the new one wants to marry Helen at any cost. So, Menelaus is stranded there, in rags, with only his sword and handful of battered men, and facing off against the king of Egypt. He refuses to accept defeat because to lose to anyone other than the Trojans would dishonor the Trojans and the Trojans were such a worthy enemy that Menelaus finds that idea utterly repulsive and counter the natural order of the world. So a wacky plan is hatched and they manage to get away with a stolen ship. The shipwrecked husband who can't get home and the faithful wife are a trope that's supposed to belong to Odysseus and his wife Penelope. But I guess with the new age of the evil Odysseus that trope was up for grabs again. On the Menelaus side, it works well enough. Helen seems like a pretty weird choice as a Penelope replacement, thus the need for the crazy Hermes theft and the clone Helen. Was there really no better couple to take on this idea?

Cyclops is actually a satyr play. No, I didn't misspell satire. The concept is actually related to weird, horny goatmen. This story is basically the classic story of Odysseus and the cyclops. Except everyone is drunk, there is limitless amount of wine fit for the gods, and there are a bunch of satyrs. Things play out like they're supposed to except the satyrs escape with Odysseus and there are way more sex jokes, including one where the satyrs basically ask Odysseus if the entire Greek army got a chance to rape Helen. Stay classy, Euripides. The idea was to provide something comic and lighthearted to take the edge off after a series of tragic plays. Normal comedies wouldn't actually work because they, as we'll soon find out, have a lot of bitter social criticism that just makes everyone kind of hate the world.

Weird, horny goatmen. Sorry, it seemed worth repeating.

Wednesday 5 September 2012

Euripides and Insanity

Next up is the fourth volume of Euripides, including: Herakles, Phoenician Women, and Bacchae. Yeah, only three in this volume so I would say it is the shortest volume of Euripides but the physical book is actually like an inch taller than the others. This made me notice that there are a lot of little discrepancies between the various volumes in the set. They look a little weird lined up on a shelf. What the hell, Oxford University Press? But if I just wanted something that looked pretty on the shelf, I probably would have bought the real Great Books series.

Herakles is a pretty strange play. Especially since I did not realize that the wife and kids in this play are separate from the wife and kids found in other Hercules plays until after I finished reading it. Which is a little awkward since the two other plays I'm thinking of involve the death of Hercules at the hands of his wife and the survival of his children after his death while this play is all about how Hera makes Hercules go crazy and murder his entire family. After he recovers his wits, he decides he wants to kill himself. But good old Theseus, freshly rescued from Hades, is there to talk him out of it. I guess he gets over it because all these dead people aren't really mentioned in those other two plays which are later chronologically. He also takes a third wife after he dies and becomes a god. Incidentally, once he dies, he is in both Hades and Olympus due to his half-mortal/half-divine nature. His ten labors are also commonly explained to have become twelve because two of the originals "didn't count". His sidekick is also quite variable. I'm skeptical that Hercules' story was ever as cohesive and monolithic as these playwrights portray. I suspect they, or their literary predecessors, just crunched a bunch of oral tales into a somewhat cohesive whole. In any case, Hercules' reaction at the end is very moving. And Madness herself basically calling Hera bitch for what she was doing is pretty awesome.

Phoenician Women is possibly my favorite play so far. It has elements from all of the Oedipus plays, Seven Against Thebes, Iphigenia at Aulis, nearly any play with slave women, and so many more. It's like an action-packed summary of half of Greek Tragedy. I really want to see this play staged someday. It takes place shortly after Oedipus gouges out his eyes but is still before he has left the city and continues until Antigone tries to bury her slain brothers. The Phoenician women of the title actually have very little relevance to the overall play. I would say this is a definite must read, with the caveat that it may not really have the same thrill for someone who hasn't read most of all the other tragedies. It is a pretty sweet payoff for all that work though.

Bacchae is one of Euripides' more famous plays. So I kind of went into this one with high expectations. In short, Bacchus shows up to Thebes, place of his birth, and tries to force them into worshiping as the god that he is, his father being Zeus. His scheme, successful in the end, mostly revolves around stealing all the women and getting them to dance drunkenly in the mountains. It's a little silly. It is probably a lot more entertaining staged, what with all the drunken dancing women. As a read, I didn't much enjoy it. But ultimately Euripides' track record is still pretty solid with me, so I don't really mind.

One more volume of Greek Tragedy to go, folks!

Friday 31 August 2012

Hippolytos, the most fucked up play ever. And some other plays, too.

Next up is yet another volume of Euripides. This volume's plays are: Hippolytos, Children of Herakles, Suppliant Women, and Ion.

Hippolytos is one of the more fucked up things I've ever read. Basically, Aphrodite gets annoyed that Hippolytos is a merry virgin and favored by Artemis, the virgin huntress. So she decides to make his stepmother fall madly in love with him. Despite Aphrodite's trickery, the stepmother knows that this is all a really bad idea. But a nurse tells Hippolytos what is going on. And he flies into a rage, saying horrible things about women along the way. For example, "Damn you! I hate women. I'll never stop loathing them. Some say I'm insatiably hostile--but women are insatiably lewd. Either convert them to chaste decency--or allow me to stomp on them till I'm dead." The stepmother hangs herself. And a suicide note that she may or may not have actually written claims that Hippolytos raped her. His dad comes home and exiles him. There's a chariot crash. He's near death. Then Artemis shows up to set the record straight. But she can't help Hippolytos because Zeus has forbidden it, apparently. But she did pledge to go riddle one of Aphrodite's favorites full of arrows. I'm really just scratching the surface here. Read it yourself and prepare to be dumbfounded.

Sons of Herakles is pretty straightforward. Some big meany has taken over Herakles' kingdom and exiled his sons. They are in the protection of Herakles' nephew, Iolaos. They convince the Athenians to help them out. There's a battle. The Athenians win. Everyone lives happily ever after. Not very tragic. But Aristotle hadn't invented the definition of tragedy yet so that's okay.

Suppliant Women is basically the same story as Sons of Herakles but the sons are replaced by the mothers of the commanders who attacked Thebes in Seven Against Thebes. Creon wont release their bodies to be buried. The Athenians come to the rescue again and everyone lives happily ever after. These plays probably made their Athenian audience really feel good about themselves.

Finally, there's Ion. Ion is a priest of Apollo who doesn't know who his parents are. But he ends up reunited with his mother and some guy is tricked into thinking that he's the father despite the fact that Apollo is actually Ion's father. And none of this comes as any surprise whatsoever because Hermes explains everything in the first two pages. I'd strongly recommend giving this one a miss.

Just two more volumes of tragedy to go, awooh!

Wednesday 22 August 2012

Euripides, Trojan Sympathizer

Backtracking a little, due to the previously mentioned shipping inconsistency, I've now read the first volume of Euripides. It includes Andromache, Hecuba, Trojan Women, and Rhesos. I'm going to keep this post brief.

The first three plays all deal with women of Troy after the fall of Troy. Basically, after all the men are killed, the women are taken as loot. Sometimes they are even just piled on the loot carts alongside the inanimate loot. It makes the Greeks look pretty bad on the surface. But at the very least Euripides himself was certainly sympathetic to their plight. These wouldn't be effective tragedies if there weren't some sympathy there. The plays even show a great deal of sympathy for the Trojans generally, not just the captured women. For example, a nice bit from Trojan Women: "Now think about the Trojans. Consider how they have by far the greater glory: they died defending their homeland. And those the spear cut down were carried home by loved ones who by right prepared the corpses for burial and buried them in their ancestral earth's embrace. And those who fought and lived found comfort day by day at day's end with their wives and children, pleasures the Greeks no longer knew. And even Hector, you think his fate so terrible and cruel? Listen, the truth is, though he's dead and gone, he wouldn't be the Hector that he is to all the world now if the Greeks had stayed home. If they had not invaded, who would have known or seen how brave he was? And Paris too--whom would he have married? Not Zeus' daughter, but some nameless wife!" When's the last time our society ever did anything but spit on our defeated enemies?

The odd man out here is Rhesos. Rhesos is a Trojan ally from Thrace who got caught up battling some Scythians. Coming in at the end of the war, he could have easily turned the tide with his great army. Unfortunately, his first night there, Odysseus manages to sneak into the camp and kill him. His army goes home. Oh well.

Sunday 12 August 2012

Euripides Retcons the Orestia

So, my new UPS driver has decided that he only likes delivering one package at a time. So if I have, say, three packages coming in a day, things get a little complicated. UPS always flags these delays as "external factors". But it's totally just the UPS driver not searching for my packages in the truck properly. I work from my home office pretty much all the time so I can usually just harass him into grabbing my other packages when he arrives now that I know what is going on.

What does any of that have to do with the great books of Western civilization? Well, long story short, my next few books arrived out of order. Rather than waiting around to get the first volume of Euripides, I just started on the second volume.

This volume starts with Euripides own version of Electra. In general, the story is basically the same as ever. Electra is unhappy with being a women and wants to get all stabby until Orestes shows up. Then Orestes saves the day. The only major difference in this version is that Electra has been married off by Aigisthos, her mother's lover and co-conspirator in Agamemnon's father. He married her to a farmer. His reasoning was that it would keep her from finding some noble lover who could help her get revenge. The poor farmer, fearing that Orestes would kill him when he gets back, never touches Electra in any remotely sexual fashion. When Orestes shows up, he thinks that the farmer's behavior bespeaks a hidden nobility that sometimes crops up among those of baser birth. It's good news for us filthy peasants that that is even possible. But Orestes still marries Electra off to his best friend. Oh well.

Then there's Iphigenia in Tauris. So, if you'll recall, the alleged reason Agamemnon's wife killed him in the first place was because he had sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia because some prophet told him the gods demanded it if they were to get the winds needed to make it to Troy. As it turns out, she was actually swapped at the last second by the goddess Artemis for either an animal or the god Pan in animal form. She was then sent off to be a priestess in some barbarian land. Through a wacky series of bizarre demands from the gods, Orestes ends up unintentionally stumbling upon his long lost sister and rescues her. All that trouble and the girl had been safe the whole time. The end.

Euripides Orestes fills in the gaps between the murder of Clytemnestra by Orestes and his eventual exile during which he is chased relentlessly by the Furies. During these few days, Orestes is mostly catatonic from grief. But he recovers shortly after the opening of the play. Now, other plays tell us seemingly conflictingly that Orestes is either exiled or chased off by Furies after the murder of his mother. As it turns out, both are true. And the reason for his exile isn't just that he killed his mother. No, there's more. Shortly after Orestes' recovery, Agamemnon's brother Menelaos and his wife Helen show up to morn the death of Clytemnestra who is Helen's sister and thus Menelaos' sister-in-law twice over. Orestes begs for Menealos' help in dealing with the people's anger over the murder of Clyemenestra. He says there's no suppressing a whole city of angry people. So Orestes is forced to flee. But before he does, he gets some revenge for Menealos' refusal. He kills Helen, just sort of on his way out the door. It's pretty intense and sudden. I like it.

Finally there's Iphigenia at Aulis. This play is pretty amazing. The dialogue is intense. The plot has a rapid succession of interesting developments. The story is basically that of Iphigenia's "sacrifice" as a child to please the gods. It opens with Agamemnon having second thoughts about the whole plan. Before the start of the play, he had written a letter to Clytemnestra. The letter states that Iphigenia is to be married to Achilles and that she should be sent to Agamemnon's army immediately. He has composed a second letter which tells her to ignore the first. He sends his slave off with the letter. Menealos intercepts the slave and flips out on Agamemnon. After much arguing, Menelaos eventually sees that killing a child just to get Helen back in pretty monstrous. But the two of them come to the conclusion that if they don't do it, Odysseus will use their inaction as a means to seize control of the army. This is a pretty impressive change in character for a fellow who had to be tricked into joining the campaign. As with Sophocles' Odysseus, I can't say I much hold with this notion of Odysseus as some kind of Machiavellian monster. It just does not fit with the Homeric stuff at all. The Greeks are just grasping for their Loki. So they decide to go through with it. Then Iphigenia shows up, along with Clytemnestra, which Agamemnon stupidly did not expect. Before long, Achilles bumps into Clytemnestra and she begins fawning over her son-in-law to be. Except Achilles has no idea what the hell is going on. When they figure it out, Achilles is angered that his name has been used in treachery and that someone wants to kill an innocent girl. So he vows to defend the girl with his life. But soon the camp learns of the plan and the gods' wishes. They openly revolt against Achilles, even his own Myrmidons. The situation is defuse when Iphigenia decides that she wants to be sacrificed. Through a very heart-wrenching speech, she explains that if she lets herself be sacrificed, she can basically take credit for the destruction of Troy. Everyone is persuaded, even Achilles. Achilles goes as far to insist that he never wants to marry any woman who isn't just like Iphigenia. The sacrifice goes forward. Iphigenia is swapped for what appears to be a deer. And everyone sees this. Even Clytemnestra knows the truth. This play kind of undermines the whole "I killed my husband because he killed our daughter" bit, leaving her as just basically evil. Oops.

Overall, I find Euripides a much better read than Sophocles and worlds better than Aeschylus. Euripides has really toned down the chorus such that his plays resemble modern plays a great deal and thus are much more accessible in written form. It's worth giving Euripides a shot even if you've read other Greek tragedies and couldn't stand them.

And to end, here's a classic Euripides joke that some of you may never have encountered: Euripides goes to the tailor looking to buy a new toga. He tries on one that is far too small and rips it in the process. The tailor says, "Euripides, you-buya-dees."

Sunday 5 August 2012

Sophocles Gets Homeric

Sophocles' remaining plays all have some connection to Homer's stuff. Unfortunately, they are all horribly depressing and I don't really have a lot worth saying about them. But I did enjoy them quite a lot.

First up is Aias/Ajax. In it, Ajax flips out and goes on a murdering spree because Achilles armor was given to Odysseus rather than him. But Athena, cunt that she is, tricks him with illusions. He ends up killing some cows and kidnapping the herdsmen. But he's totally convinced that he offed Odysseus. We he figures out what happened, he can't live with the shame anymore and kills himself. It is such an awful way for Ajax to die. It's like Sophocles just wants to up the utter pointlessness of the Trojan war.

Then there's Women of Trachis. Which, despite the name, is about Herakles/Hercules. Hercules took some women as loot during one of his crazy adventures. His wife became jealous of one of the slave women. She then uses what she thinks is a centaur-blood love potion on Hercules' robe. Turns out, the centaur really just told Hercules' future wife that it was a love potion because he was bitter that Hercules had just mortally wounded him with an arrow. So, when Hercules puts on the robes, it fucking melts him. Centaur blood is apparently demi-god-dissolving acid. That's some nasty shit. And a pretty awful way for Hercules to die. On the bright side, we "know" from other "sources" that he just pops up on Mount Olympus and has since spent the rest of his immortality having a jolly good time. That's something, I suppose.

Sophocles does his version of the downfall of Agamemnon in Electra. Basically, he retells the time of Orestes' exile from Electra's perspective and suggests that if Orestes had not shown up when he did, Electra was about to shank a bitch. The story deals heavily with the misery of helpless women. While her household falls into depravity, she is unable to actually do anything about it because she is a woman (her words, not mine). She has to stand by and do nothing. Orestes, in contrast, is off elsewhere and only briefly witnesses Electra's miserable world. He doesn't even have to endure that brief taste of her misery for long. Unlike Electra, he can just move straight to the good revenge bits. I find it kind of surprising that this misery of women due to being non-actors is such a rare trope. I guess male authors just don't think about it that much. Other than Sophocles, the only good examples I can think of are Tolkien's Eowyn and Ophelia of Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Finally there is Philoctetes. In Homer's stuff, there is mention of a guy whom the Greeks had to leave on an island because the snake bite he received was so disgusting. Turns out, the guy had a really cool bow and Odysseus decides to go back with the son of Achilles, Neoptolemos, to try to steal it. This seems to be an early example of Odysseus' transition from wise hero to trickster villain. The Romans knew him mostly as a total bastard. Medieval Europe continued that interpretation. Dante has him in Hell in a section reserved for false counselors. This character assassination is in many ways worse than the previous Homeric hero suicide and acid melting.

In short, Sophocles is a fucking dick.

Friday 20 July 2012

Sophocles' Theban Plays

Shimmying down the list brought me to Sophocles. I started off with his Theban plays, being Antigone, Oedipus the King (or Rex), and Oedipus at Colonus.

Antigone picks up roughly where Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes left off. The sons of Oedipus have killed each other. [K|C]reon, Oedipus' brother-in-law/uncle ends up king. Antigone wants to bury both of hers brother properly but Kreon forbids such a burial for Polyneikes, the brother who attacked Thebes. Antigone does it anyway. Kreon has her killed. But, wacky twist, Kreon's son was in love with her and kills himself because he can't live without her. To top things off, Kreon's wife offs herself as well when she discovers that her husband's tyranny has caused so much death. It was counter-productive to say the least. Basically, the gods really like funeral rights. Kreon got in the way of what the gods want, so bad things had to happen to him. That's textbook Greek tragedy. On the bright side, at least the girl who is her father's sister didn't end up marrying her double-cousin.

Oedipus of Oedipus the King is probably the most famous character of Greek tragedy. Unfortunately, thanks to Freud, people have some pretty funny ideas about Oedipus' appetites. Oedipus doesn't actually want to kill his father and sleep with his mother. This just sort of happens because Apollo said so. This is unfortunate because Oedipus is generally a pretty awesome king who, before becoming king, saved Thebes from that damned Sphinx in a play that is sadly now lost. Rather, Freud argues that the continual retelling of Oedipus-related stories by the Greeks was a symptom of a Greek preoccupation with murdering one's father and fucking one's mother, a preoccupation that Oedipus himself did not share. He killed his father in self defense. The two did not recognize each other since Oedipus was abandoned as an infant. And he was abandoned because his parents heard Apollo's prophecy about what Oedipus would eventually do. Prophecy's a bitch like that, I guess. In fact, Oedipus is so appalled by what he has done that he gouges out his own eyes when he finds out. And he tries to have himself executed since he had vowed to bring the killer of the previous king, his father, to justice. His demand for execution is refused and he is later exiled. Now, I can't really fathom Freud's idea that some people are preoccupied with fucking their mothers. The father thing, however, makes sense at a lot of points in history. Generally, a prince can't become a king until his father is dead. And poor ancient Roman guys weren't even real adults until their fathers died. They had no role in politics and couldn't marry. I can easily see how being a 40-year-old unmarried "adolescent" could induce murderous rage.

Oedipus' exile is told in Oedipus at Colonus. The blind king is escorted by his daughter, that classy dame Antigone. In opposition to Oedipus insane sons, Antigone is the epitome of virtue. The plot of the play revolves around a whacky new prophecy: keeping Oedipus and eventually Oedipus' corpse would mean prosperity for Thebes. Now, when the Thebans change their minds about exiling Oedipus, he has already made it to Colonus, the Athenian equivalent of a suburb. And because the Thebans wouldn't execute him like he wanted and instead exiled him, Oedipus really doesn't give two fucks about what happens to them. As such, he refuses to go back. So Kreon kidnaps Antigone and Oedipus' other, less awesome, daughter. The king of Athens puts a stop to this nonsense. As repayment, Oedipus blesses Athens by immediately deciding to die near Athens but where no-one can ever find his corpse. Thus, Athens got all the prosperity and good luck and such that the gods told Thebes they could have. So if anyone asks why ancient Athens was great, don't say philosophy or democracy or math or any of that stuff. No, it's because they once helped out a blind dude. I'm not saying you shouldn't be nice to the blind; I'm just saying that there were likely other factors at play.

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