Tuesday, 30 August 2016

A Tempest in a Skull

What a week! I feel like I've been through the wringer with the readings, but I can't help feeling more informed and erudite week upon week as this project continues, and since those are rare feelings for me it's no real surprise that I'm keen to hold on to them for as long as I can. Let's hope we can keep this Conversation going for a little while come the end of Blaugust tomorrow.

This Week:

Elements by Euclid
Book VI

I have to admit to having given up on Euclid in disgust this week, and not having managed to get back to him in time for this weeks reading. As penance, I guess we'll do double the Euclid reading next week (as well as trying to catch up on the poster), so it's going to be a pretty mathsy one. I feel like me from next week is going to really resent me, but the other option is missing out on my Blaugust post for today and given that I've made the 30th of August that's not really an option at all.

Of Anger by Francis Bacon

This is pretty much exactly what I expected from Bacon on the topic. He sounds every bit the 16th century Christian philosopher. You're going to get angry, but take the time to look at the reasons afterwards. It's okay to get angry, but try not to let it cause problems. Attempt to resolve issues, but wait until the appropriate time not in the heat of the moment. All perfectly solid advice, if a little boring. 

What I really appreciate about Bacon is that he doesn't do philosophy in the abstract, he's all about actual application. It makes him feel genuine and relatable in contrast, as he points out himself some philosophers with absurd expectations (like the Stoics) just seem soulless.

I also like the way he uses some of the language from the Antitheses of the sermon on the mount that gives a real contextual underpinning to his words for those familiar with the gospels. Bacon speaks my language (if a little antiquated), and I'm sad that I lack the underpinning for so many of these other authors, but I guess that's what this Great Conversation project is all about.

We finish up our Bacon round, as has become our habit, with an exercise in futility with my attempts to translate his quotations from the Latin despite having no Latin. The phrase this week is '...animasque in vulnere ponunt' which apparently has to do with bees. From the context, I'm thinking animasque relates to 'anima' (soul) rather than just 'animal', so this is something like 'their soul is in their vulnerabilities'? Stop reading now and have a guess, the answer is in the next paragraph.

That could have been worse, it actually means 'they put their soul into the wound', referring to the way that bees die when they sting, which is a fantastically poetical way of thinking about how anger wounds the angry more than those at whom anger is directed. Nice one, Francis.

Theseus by Plutarch

It seems a little strange to start the Parallel Lives with this one, which is obviously not one of the first written, as Plutarch seems quite apologetic for having to rely on myth and hearsay instead of more reliably documented history. Having no idea what Plutarch writes like it's hard to know if this is par for the course or if this is an atypical entry in the Lives, but I suspect that it's the latter and that he's struggling to find fact in myths and probably isn't at his best in this one. It seems that the Greek historians did like to weave little mixtures of fact and fanciful together, so if Plutarch seeks to disassemble them then he's got a big job ahead of him.

It's strange for me meeting Theseus as if he might have been a real person after years of thinking of him as a mythical figure. Plutarch insists that the Minotaur was a real person who was simply called 'Taurus' who Theseus defeated in combat, an interesting idea that isn't mentioned on the Wikipedia page for Minotaur, and since he references a number of others whose work we no longer have it's hard to prove or disprove this theory. He proceeds to tear down a bunch of other myths about Theseus, but since these have continued to the present day either Plutarch wasn't very popular or people just prefer to believe in three-headed dogs and Minotaurs, which is a point of view that I can understand.

As an interesting aside that rather tickled my fancy, we also come across the character of Akademos, after whom the Athenian academy was indirectly named, who seems quite the conniving little bugger, and sets in motion the events leading to the revolt of Athens against their king. I wonder how many modern dictators who attempt to suppress the works of thinkers and academics realise the analogy that they're attempting to avoid the fate of Theseus.

Confessions of Augustine of Hippo
Books IV-VI

"Wow, the great literature of the Western World as defined by 1950's America sure has an oppressively Christian worldview, doesn't it?" Is probably the sort of thing that I'd be thinking after this weeks reading if I didn't hold with the whole Christian worldview thing, but as I do I can't find a whole lot to object to here as we move out of the Augusteens and into the Augustwenties. #punachieved

In fact, I can't help but draw some parallels between young Augustine's life choices and those of many many of my friends and contemporaries around me. Put off by some of the trappings of Catholicism, he flails around for another worldview, but ends up disatisfied with both the teachings of the Greek philosphers and of the major sect in Roman Africa at the time, the Manicheans as he realises that their teachings are irreconcilable with his knowledge of the nature of the world and doesn't know what to turn to next, and having been hurt before refuses to turn back to Christianity even when its core beliefs most closely match his own. I find it ironic that the very same friends that I would say this exemplifies would probably point at my and say the exact same thing, but that's just part of the fun, I guess.

There's so many great quotes in here that it's hard to pick a good one, including some real corkers on the nature of true friendship, but let me leave you with this one that better fits the overall religious themes of the document. 'Wretched I was; and wretched is every soul bound by the friendship of perishable things; he is torn asunder when he loses them, and then he feels the wretchedness which he had ere yet he lost them. So it was with me; I wept most bitterly, and found my repose in bitterness. Thus was I wretched, and that wretched life I held dearer than my friend'.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
Book Seven Chapters I-IV

'To make the poem of the human conscience, were it only with reference to a single man, were it only in connection with the basest of men, would be to blend all epics into one superior and definitive epic.'  and 'One can no more prevent thought from recurring to an idea than one can the sea from returning to the shore: the sailor calls it the tide; the guilty man calls it remorse; God upheaves the soul as he does the ocean.' Do yourself a favour and go read chapter three right now, my friends. It really is full of Hugonic magic.

What can I say, except that reading chapters like this forgive all Hugo's fault in my eyes. What a poet the man was. This just confirms what I've always known. That Victor Hugo is my jam. The Christ analogues are like being hit on the head with a hammer, but somehow this is something that I'll willingly forgive in Hugo that I can't tolerate in Huxley.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Chapters 10-12

I'm really enjoying the juxtaposition of the cultures posed by the return of Bernard and his companions from the wilderness as represented by the flowing poetry of Shakespeare set against the humourless, merciless life in London. 

Altogether I found everything to too suddenly up and down to truly satisfy, but there's some nice ideas here that deserve greater exploration than I fear we're going to get. Lenina's struggles to understand how John works. Everyone's refusal to acknowledge that Linda is a product of their society. Bernard's inability to internalise any of the lessons that he'd learn in the face of sudden celebrity. Good stuff.

The Stats:

This week we smashed past 1200 pages of fictional works, thanks to big contributions from Hugo and Huxley. That's a big number given that Philosophy and Theology texts (the next biggest category) are sitting at 260, but not really surprising given that all the non-gbww texts we've added are works of fiction.

Pages last week: 120

Pages so far: 1726

Week XXVI:

As I'm sure you'll remember, we get the bulk of our reading each week from the seven-year plan produced by Dr. J to read the Great Books of the Western World. This week's suggestions include some of Tolstoy's Christian apologetics and more Usonian politics, but I'm feeling like we've got enough religion in our readings at the moment and I'm pretty sick of politics too, so we'll let them slide and continue with just our ongoing readings.

Elements by Euclid
#gbww #mathematics #greek
Book VII (23 pages)

We've already got a double dose of the Elements this week, so if this 'week' takes...well, longer than that, you'll all know why.

Romulus and  Romulus and Theseus Compared by Plutarch
#new #ggb #philosophy #english #reallyshort
(18 pages)

So after a mythical Greek we get a mythical Roman to stack him up against. I wonder if the possibility of a real man behind the myths will be as tantalising as those of Theseus were? After Plutarch's treatment of Romulus we'll compare Romulus and Thesus and maybe learn something, which is apparently the whole point of the Parallel Lives.

Confessions of Augustine of Hippo
#gbww #autobiography #latin
Books VII-IX (36 pages)

You have to wonder how much longer Augustine can go along thinking that the Catholics are probably right about things without becoming a Catholic himself, so hopefully that moment is coming in these chapters. I hope that when it does come we don't see some sudden magical transformation but we see Augistine the man continue and continue to struggle with his vices, because his awareness of and honesty about his shortcomings are my favourite parts of this work so far.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
#not_gbww #fiction #french
Book Seven Chapters V-VII (17 pages) 

Enough thinking! Enough vacillation! Time for action, Jean Valjean! Just a short little reading from Hugo this week to leave room for a big wodge of the Hux so that we can cut a little bit of fat off the top of our weekly reading, as the proscribed doses from the GBWW are coming in thick and fast at the moment.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
#new #not_gbww #fiction #english
Chapters 13-16 (33 pages)

Two weeks of Huxley to go until we can put this sucker to bed. Will Bernard ever learn anything? Will John get the girl? Will London society ever be the same? Find out in the thrilling penultimate episode of...Brave New World!

Blaugust writing prompts:
1) Blaugust. Was it good for you, too?
2) What's next after Blaugust?
If that's not enough for you, how about a quiz?

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