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Monday 3 June 2013

Don't Eat the Plato

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 5 January 2013

The Ever Widening Gyre of Liars and Outliars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 13 November 2012

Athens vs. Sparta

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 27 October 2012

Èrodotus' Ìstories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Tuesday 5 June 2012

Remaining Aeschylus

Next on my list was the rest of Aeschylus. The remaining plays being Persians, Seven Against Thebes, Suppliants, and Prometheus Bound.

Persians is a recounting of a Persian defeat at the hands of the Greeks from the perspective of the Persian count when they first hear the news. Interestingly, Aeschylus was actually present during the conflict and so it is generally assumed that his portrayal of events is at least somewhat accurate. It reads like some elaborate ancient theatrical equivalent of tea-bagging. The only thing that really caught my eye was a brief segment where it is explained that Persia and Greece are sister nations, born of the same parentage. Linguistic evidence certainly supports this, Persian and Greek both being Indo-European languages. I just find it somewhat surprising that they were still vaguely aware of their common ancestry and that they were willing to acknowledge such a kinship with a nation they were continually at war with.

Seven Against Thebes is the story of Oedipus' sons' fight for control of Thebes. They were unable to rule together peacefully on account of their cursed parentage. The bulk of the play is spent describing who will defend which of the seven gates against a corresponding number of enemy commanders in elaborate detail. The actual battle is mostly skipped over in the text. The story resumes after the battle, the defenders having won but the two brothers having killed one another. Because of the characters involved, I probably would have gotten more out of this if I had already read Antigone and the Oedipus plays first. Fortunately, those are all first up when I move on to Sophocles next. On a sad note for any Japanophiles who may read it, however, this play definitely undermines a lot of the claims regarding the stunning originality of Seven Samurai. But classic literature does that to pretty much everything.

Suppliants picks up the story of Io, the girl who was turned into a cow by Hera so that Zeus wouldn't sleep with her only to have Zeus turn himself into a bull simply to sleep with her anyway, several generations later. Io had wandered to Egypt in cow form where she was made human again. She had Zeus human-ish child. Several generations later, one of her descendants returns to Greece with his daughters in order to avoid forced marriages to Egyptian noblemen who happened to be their cousins. The people of Argos and their king choose to defend them when the Egyptians show up and they all presumably live happily ever after. The story is a pretty strong condemnation of involuntary marriage. It also serves as a kind of founding myth for Argos as well as an explanation of Greece's supposed kinship to Egypt.

Prometheus Bound opens with, well, the binding of Prometheus in "unbreakable" chains by order of Zeus. Though he helped Zeus in his glorious revolution against Cronus and the other Titans, Zeus became enraged when Prometheus gave mankind knowledge of fire and mastery over his own thoughts. The bulk of the story is told by means of Prometheus recounting his story to Io who just happened to wander by in cow form. Zeus is described as something of a power-mad tyrant and a fool who would not have won against the Titans without Prometheus' advice. Given how strongly this clashes with normal depictions of Zeus, even Aeschylus' own depictions in his other plays, I really wonder how well this played with its contemporary audience. On the surface it seems like blasphemy. But can a society that continually reworks the stories of its gods as popular entertainment really have a sense of blasphemy like us silly moderns? Probably not.

Thursday 10 May 2012

Classy Fliers


These are apparently showing up around Dublin. The original is on Imgur. I found it via Rockboom

Too bad copyright law prevents us from actually building a real universal library with up-to-date editions.

Thursday 3 May 2012

The Oresteia

Next up on the list was Aeschylus' Oresteia. In summary, it is a trilogy of plays recounting Agamemnon's death, his son Orestes seeking vengeance, and then Orestes seeking absolution by a court of law convened by the goddess Athena. I chose a translation from a new series from Oxford University Press. It is a verse translation. I'm usually more of a fan of literal prose translations but I found this edition surprisingly readable and sensical. And it definitely livens up the Chorus sections of the plays.

On the topic of the Chorus sections, they do certainly need livening up. Whenever possible, it is preferable to see a play rather than read it. This is true of all theater, not just ancient Greek theater. You simply lose too many elements reading the text alone. The Chorus, for example, would have originally involved singing and dancing. On the page, you lose that and are instead left with large, long-winded sections of the play that seem to convey very information per line and generally just bog the play down. Unfortunately, unless some serious revival of Greek theater happens, the text is the best most of us will ever get.

And regarding the actual narrative, the first two plays of the trilogy, being Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers, do little to flesh out the story beyond what was summarized in passing in the The Odyssey. It is a simple retelling with little embellishment. Keep in mind, however, that The Odyssey had already been an established part of the Greek canon for approximately 600 years and it is unlikely that Oresteia was even the first to revisit the fate of Agamemnon and his household. And even today, adaptations of known stories are often balked at when they try to stay as true to the original as possible. This was likely true to at least some degree in Aeschylus' time.

The final play in the trilogy, The Eumenides is definitely the creative heart of the trilogy. It deals with the practical and ethical issues surrounding revenge, polytheism, and "zero tolerance" punishment. Agamemnon killed his daughter, his wife killed him, his son killed her, and then the Furies attempt to kill him. Seeking one's own justice simply encourages others to do the same, potentially creating an endless web of retributions, as happened in several cities in Renaissance Italy and the medieval Icelandic Commonwealth. Such a cycle could even grown into a civil war. The more powerful the parties involved, the more dangerous revenge is to the social order. Humanity's solution for this problem seems to typically be the creation of courts. And with the help of the goddess Athena, Orestes is able to receive a judgement and end the revenge cycle.

The trial reveals a practical problem of polytheism: the god Apollo advised Orestes to kill his own murder while the Furies outright condemn the slaying of any mother. Morality is not uniform across the pantheon. What pleases one god may displease another. And before you know it, the gods are divided and you are stuck fighting besieging Troy for a decade. On the other hand, acknowledging the fickleness of the gods as a whole does a lot to undermine any potential theocracy and the influence of augurs on political matters.

The Furies have something of a zero tolerance policy for matricide. If you kill your mother, revenge ghosts will hunt you down and kill you. This sounds fairly reasonable at first. Why kind of sick bastard kills his own mother? The complication lies in the fact that it does not matter how awful of a person the mother may have been. This effectively leaves children no recourse against evil mothers. The point Aesychlus makes, through his characterization of Athena, is that circumstances and motive matter in judging a crime.

Saturday 28 April 2012

The Odyssey

Next up on the list is the Odyssey. This was actually my first time around for this one. It has been a long time coming. This being my first time, I opted for the more traditional Fagles translation: The Odyssey Also, while Stephen Mitchell is planning an edition of the Odyssey, it doesn't have a release date yet. And the repetition of the Odyssey seems a lot milder than that of the Iliad, thus somewhat lessening the effect of Mitchell's approach. Anyway, in roughly the same rambling format of the Iliad entry, onward!

The Odyssey consist of about one third in which Telemachus tries to find out what happened to his father, Odysseus, who never made it back from the Trojan War despite having survived the war which ended about ten years before the opening of the Odyssey, one third in which Odysseus tries to get home, and one third in which Odysseus is back home and masquerading as a hobo in order to better murder all the guys hanging around his house trying to get into his wife's pants. This provides ample opportunity to discuss the relationship between a host and his guests or a lord and his suppliants. Sometimes the commentaries are quite overt, "The rights of suppliants are sacred." And it is also stated that Zeus is the zealous defender of said rights. Other times, the nature of the relationship is merely demonstrated as in the case of the suitors who hang around eating all of Odysseus' food while he's away. Their deaths at the hands of Odysseus suggest that greedy guests who overstay their welcome are likely to get a good stabbing. I had one professor, J- M-, who always insisted that, combined, the Iliad and Odyssey taught a Greek everything there was to know about life. Not being an ancient Greek, I can't really say whether or not these works succeeded; as a modern reader, it seems obvious that the author(s) at least made a damn good try of it. On the other hand, aren't wandering blind poets often guests of a sort? If so, the Odyssey provides some pretty strong hints that gifts and booze are expected.

Telemachus is quite interesting compared to certain other young Indo-European heroes. Other heroes, like Sigurd and Cuchulain are described as having exceptional features when they are children, such as flowing beards or super-human strength. Telemachus is a teenager by this point of the story, just barely reaching adulthood. But he is unable to deal with the suitors occupying his household. He's not a great hero who can hold back dozens of men all by himself. He cannot even pull back his father's bow. But this is seen as okay. Odysseus, Menelaus, Nestor--still alive but finally taking it easy after 120 or more years--and others acknowledge that Telemachus is well on the way to being the equal of his father. This may seem perfectly natural to the modern reader, but having read other Indo-European epics, I was kind of shocked by this realistic concept that even heroes need time to mature and grow into their full strength.

Overall, I found the Odyssey to be a much more "modern" work than I expected. By that I mean the story was far less repetitive and much more plot-driven than the Iliad. Further, its story is non-linear in that much of it is told in parallel, switching between Telemachus and Odysseus during overlapping time periods. Scholars often tout the Iliad's "revolutionary" method of beginning the story in media res. However, that assertion entirely ignores the fact that the Iliad is just a single story in the larger Epic Cycle, most of which is now lost to us outside of the Iliad and Odyssey. But who knows what counted as a truly revolutionary literary device then? Our knowledge of Greek oral literature before the Epic Cycle is very limited and we are almost entirely ignorant about its proto-Indo-European precursors. The peace-time setting of the story also helps prevents one of the Iliad's major problems: introducing characters simply so that they can be murdered. To extent the suitors present a similar problem but the named suitors are kept to two or three and they pop up frequently enough that they do have some definite character to them. It may not be a lot, but it is certainly more than Trojan-dude, son of Trojan-dude, who gets stabbed through the nipple at the end of the paragraph.

I guess that's about it. Surprisingly, I didn't find the Odyssey nearly as thought provoking as the Iliad. But damn if it wasn't way more fun, and the Iliad was pretty fun in itself.

Sunday 8 April 2012

The Iliad

This is my second time reading the Iliad, having read through it under the guidance of one Professor D- R-. during my undergrad years. Since this was my second time through, I picked a new, rather unorthodox edition "translated" by Stephen Mitchell (not the Old Norse guy at Harvard): The Iliad: (The Stephen Mitchell Translation) I put the word "translated" in quotes because Mitchell may not actually know Homeric Greek at all. In any case, this edition is based on some real scholarly work which has tried to excise the repetitive and superfluous parts which have crept into the story as a side effect of the story's original oral nature. Under normal circumstances, I would say that all that cruft is fairly essential to understanding Homer and epic poetry in general. Without it, you can't really have a good discussion about orality and Homer is the only author in the Great Books who straddles the worlds of oral and written transmission. This is partly because the Great Books entirely ignores medieval Scandinavian literature which occupies a similar space in the oral versus written spectrum as Homer. The reasoning behind this omission being that while the Western canon influenced Scandinavian literature, Scandinavian literature did not really influence the Western canon. But since I have personally spent many years obsessing about issues of orality, it was kind of refreshing to give the Iliad another look without wondering whether or not Achilles is "swift-footed" for narrative or metrical purposes in any given instance. This allow me to concentrate more on the larger, more enduring themes, or "ideas", as Adler would call them. But if this is your first time reading the Iliad, definitely go with a more traditional translation like the Fagles: The Iliad (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)

Being set in the middle of the Trojan War, war itself is obviously a major theme in the Iliad. It depicts a time when every soldier had a name and lineage known both by his compatriots and his enemies. Kings and commanders led their troops personally. Each loss was mourned and every corpse recovered whenever possible. But as much as the armies valued the corpses of their own, they equally reveled in the desecration and looting of the corpses of the enemy. One can easily see how either practice increases the necessity of the other. It was also a time of an emphasis on one-on-one combat. There's even a point where they try to decide the whole outcome of the war based on the results of a single duel, only to be thwarted by the intervention of the goddess Aphrodite. They also had a clear and simple objective: retrieve Helen. While this type of warfare may very well never have been an accurate depiction of Greek warfare at any stage of development, one cannot help but feel that, corpse desecration aside, this is how wars ought to be fought. Today, our ruling class takes no part in warfare. The ability to declare war and the responsibility to do the actual fighting are wholly divorced from one another. We box up our dead by the hundreds and thousands, giving a handful a tiny mention once in a while. The enemy dead are wholly anonymous in their staggering hundreds of thousands. We don't dedicate our entire army to a decade of conflict just to overcome the enemy's defenses. We casually fight multiple wars at a time, crushing the enemy in a matter of weeks, and then insanely linger for years because we had no clear reason or purpose for fighting the war in the first place, thus depriving us of the ability to determine whether or not we had achieved that purpose. War has become both easy and pointless. Afghanistan started out straightforward enough: revenge. But then we wholly lost of sight of the objective and only achieved it a decade later. And having lost sight of the objective, actually achieving it had little effect on our decision to stay or leave. Iraq was utterly pointless. One might argue that it was an attempt to tie up loose ends from the Gulf War. But why did we even fight that war? Some argue it was about oil and profiteering. Except virtually none of the oil resources ended up in American hands and what little did nowhere near compensated us for the cost of the war. Honestly, I'd prefer shameless pillaging and annexation to that weird clusterfuck of a war.

One curious thing about the text is that it takes place in a semi-mythical past, straddling between the worlds of pure fable and actual history, much in the way that it straddles oral and written culture. While the modern scholarly opinion is that the Trojan War happens, the Iliad has links to a more obscure past. Nestor is arguably the strongest of these links. By the time of the war, Nestor is well over a hundred years old. He survives from the time of the Argonauts and the War Against the Centaurs. Even in his old age, he is one of the mightiest Greek warriors, out-matched by only some of the other commanders. He often laments that his abilities are not what they once were and that men in general were not as great as the men of a generation or two before. It is plausible that a youthful Nestor, being from this mythological past age of greater men, would severely overshadow all others in the war. Without hobbling Nestor with old age, these two eras could not overlap with any plausible narrative consistency. Even the mighty half-god Achilles falls short of the renowned half-god of Nestor's generation, Hercules. I'm not really sure if there is any deeper significance to this but I definitely have a soft spot for stories of old heroes long past their prime. Though, perhaps Nestor simply serves as a reminder that the old were not always so and that the frailty of old age can mask a past of ability surpassing that of those that came after.

Perhaps the most overt theme of the Iliad is the danger of immodest anger. Achilles remains out of the fighting for most of the story because of his anger at Agamemnon. Further, he leverages his influence with his goddess mother to get Zeus to punish the Greeks, Achilles' own people, because of this anger. The Greeks are nearly utterly destroyed, overwhelmed so suddenly at one point that retreating on their ships was simply not feasible. Achilles only returns to the fighting because his cousin/bestfriend/secret gay lover takes pity on his fellow Greeks and enters the fight without Achilles, only to be killed by Hector. In the end, Achilles and Agamemnon are reconciled. Achilles acknowledges at length that his anger ultimately achieved nothing. Many Greeks died needlessly and the extent of his anger prevented him from accepting reparations from Agamemnon when they were offered. Anger in itself achieves nothing. Simply being angry wont fix the problem that originally inspired the anger. And holding on to that anger in defiance of any attempt to ameliorate the situation only harms the angered party.

It is hard to know what to make of the gods in the Iliad. Taken literally, the gods overtly intervene at nearly every stage of the conflict. They physically stand beside warriors and deflect spears. They pull wounded soldiers from the fighting. Zeus hurls lightning bolts at the Greeks. This can seem somewhat jarring to a modern audience. What is the point of man's choices and free will if the gods consistently dictate fate so blatantly? Achilles knows full well that he will die after killing Hector. Hector likewise knows when his end approaches. Fate seems fixed. Perhaps the literal interpretation is the wrong one? Rather than a god physically deflecting spears, perhaps a spear misses in the normal way and it must be attributed to a god out of a belief that the gods are responsible for all things? And the seeming immutability of Achilles' fate may merely be a symptom of the literary mode, prophecy being merely a crude form of foreshadowing, not a reflection of general Greek beliefs about fate.

On a minor note, this translation opted to describe the two Ajaxes as "Ajax the Tall" and simply "Ajax". It also tried very hard to keep the two Ajaxes from being confused. In some translations, the impression is that Ajax the Tall (usually Ajax the Greater) is the one doing all the great deeds while the other Ajax (usually Ajax the Lesser) is some kind of lame sidekick. In this translation, the impression is more that they are both total badasses and one of them just happens to be tall. This definitely improves the Ajax/Ajax dynamic, in my opinion.

A Brief Introduction

So, I've set out to read the long list of the most significant works in the Western canon as judged by the venerable Mortimer J. Adler. I have two major reasons for doing this: First, you cannot take part in the great discussions of the Western Civilization(tm) without familiarizing yourself with the background first. Second, most of this stuff, in my opinion, is just fun to read. I will not, however, be reading the editions in Adler's Great Books of the Western World series. This is primarily because the editions in that set were limited by the cost of reprinting rights which resulted in a generally inferior selection compared to what one might buy individually.

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