09/22/14

The Forgotten Gulag


The Ameerican Individualist reviewIn the introduction to Anne Applebaum’s Pulitzer-prize-winning book, Gulag: A History, she ponders why the “crimes of Stalin do not inspire the same visceral reaction to the crimes of Hitler.” Yet Stalin’s actions and policies killed millions more than the Nazis. Maybe it’s because the USSR wrapped itself in as much secrecy as it could muster for so long. Maybe it’s because the Soviet camps were so far removed from sight and never received the pictorial and media coverage the Nazi camps received.*

Maybe it’s because during the Cold War, the West was disinclined to care about the welfare of Soviet citizens. Or maybe Applebaum is projecting her own right-wing American bias on history. She grumbles about Western tourists buying Soviet regalia when Communism fell, and Western youths wearing hammer-and-sickle T-shirts without any sense of the horror that symbol meant for millions.

Blogger Bhavya Ketan represents this clouded view when he wrote a review of Applebaum’s book:

What was the Gulag? I never heard of it. Though the famous Indian anti-communist writer Sita Ram Goel, in his biography ‘How I became a Hindu’, defined the erstwhile Soviet Union as a slave empire, I couldn’t fully understand what he exactly meant. There are many people who still don’t know about the slavery that was practiced in Russia between 1920s and 1980s. And what is more shocking? This gross ignorance, about the human rights in the world’s largest country, exists not only in the developing nations but also in the developed states.

Even today, with so many new books on the Soviet union on the market, with Soviet-era archives open to historians and authors, there’s still a mist that occludes our understanding of the time. We only get occasional glimpses of life behind the Iron Curtain and most of that is focused on the major players – Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev and other leaders.

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09/21/14

Some Latin Quotes to Ponder


Pinterest (fake Latin quote)Here are some translations from Latin quotations I took from a few books of mine, notably The Anchor Book of Latin Quotations, compiled by Norbert Guterman (Anchor-Doubleday, New York, 1966 and reprinted 1990) and Cave Canem: A Miscellany of Latin Words & Phrases, by Lorna Robinson (Walker & Co., New York, 2008).

Some of these have resonance in today’s politics, even local politics. Others have resonance in events, issues and thoughts about the world. Some are simply words that have resonance to me and my own choices in life.

Terence:

People who are unsuccessful are all somehow inclined to be suspicious: they are prompt to take offence. Because of their poverty, they are always sure you are slighting them. Omnes quibus res sunt minus seondae, magis sunt nescio quo modo suspiciosi: ad contumeliam omnia accipunt magis: propter suam inpotentiam se semper credunt ludier.
From Adelphoe, 605.

Who do those words make you think of? The people who post angry messages on social media just to get a response? People perennially suspicious of the intent and motives of others? Bitter bloggers?

But as Appius Claudius Caecus wrote, “Quisque faber suae fortunae:” each is the architect of his own fortune. We can each choose to be positive, or we can choose to be negative, and from those choices our fortunes and futures spring. I choose the positive.

Accius:

One must always be on one’s guard: there are many snares for the good. Vigilandum est semper: multae insidiae sunt bonis.
From Atreus

Words that our incumbent members of council – and indeed all candidates for council – should heed. No matter how much good you think you do, someone will always find fault. They set snares for you, blame you for failing, even as you do good. Someone will always attempt to make your best efforts seem bad. Someone will always belittle and denigrate what you sincerely believed was in the best interests of all.

Rise above it. As Horace wrote in Carmina, “Aequam memento rebus in arduis servare mentem:” Remember when life’s path is steep to keep your mind even.

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09/20/14

The Unexamined Life


“The unexamined life,” Socrates declared in his trial, “is not worth living.” His student, Plato, wrote down those words in his account of Socrates’ trial and death, in the book, Apology.*

Socrates was speaking for himself and about the value of his life as a thinking person. He was on trial in 399 BCE for impiety – questioning the gods and introducing new gods – and corrupting youth. His real “crime” was his threat to established thought: he made his followers think, to question everything, to examine their beliefs and their knowledge and determine for themselves its validity. He taught them critical thinking and analysis – a dangerous new way to look at things. It shook the foundations of his society.**

And, of course, here is where Socrates’ approach conflicts with faith. Faith requires us to stop questioning and believe. Socrates exhorted his followers to question. His detractors stood on the firmament of faith. There was bound to be a clash.

The jury found him guilty and sentenced Socrates to death. But more than two thousand years later, Socrates words remain with us, are still repeated and debated today, while the members of the jury and their arguments are long forgotten.

As Stanford University’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes about Socrates, of course there were political undercurrents to his trial:

Socrates pursued this task single-mindedly, questioning people about what matters most, e.g., courage, love, reverence, moderation, and the state of their souls generally. He did this regardless of whether his respondents wanted to be questioned or resisted him; and Athenian youths imitated Socrates’s questioning style, much to the annoyance of some of their elders. He had a reputation for irony, though what that means exactly is controversial; at a minimum, Socrates’s irony consisted in his saying that he knew nothing of importance and wanted to listen to others, yet keeping the upper hand in every discussion. One further aspect of Socrates’s much-touted strangeness should be mentioned: his dogged failure to align himself politically with oligarchs or democrats; rather, he had friends and enemies among both, and he supported and opposed actions of both.

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09/15/14

The Emperor’s Handbook


Marcus AureliusMarcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus was considered the last of the “Five Good Emperors” of the Roman Empire. He lived 121-180 CE and died while on campaign in Germany. Like many Roman thinkers of his day, he followed the popular Stoic philosophy and his writing became an important document in the late Stoic phase of classical antiquity.

While he ruled, Marcus Aurelius kept notes – written in Greek – about his thoughts and beliefs, as a guide for his own life and behaviour, applying his Stoic beliefs to his everyday life.

These thoughts were never intended for public reading or publication such as it was in that time (since the printing press would not come into use for roughly another 1,300 years, for works to circulate they needed to be hand-copied). He titled them simply “For Myself.” They have become known today as The Meditations.

A central theme to Meditations is to analyze your judgement of self and others and developing a cosmic perspective. As he said “You have the power to strip away many superfluous troubles located wholly in your judgement, and to possess a large room for yourself embracing in thought the whole cosmos, to consider everlasting time, to think of the rapid change in the parts of each thing, of how short it is from birth until dissolution, and how the void before birth and that after dissolution are equally infinite”. He advocates finding one’s place in the universe and sees that everything came from nature, and so everything shall return to it in due time. It seems at some points in his work that we are all part of a greater construct thus taking a collectivist approach rather than having an individualist perspective. Another strong theme is of maintaining focus and to be without distraction all the while maintaining strong ethical principles such as “Being a good man”.

After his death, his writings were saved – by whom, no one knows for sure – and shared. And copied over the centuries. Copies in Greek survived until the mid-16th century when it was first printed (1558). It was translated into English shortly after and had undergone numerous translations ever since.

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09/14/14

A Treasure Trove


AssholesA recent trip to Toronto to see family and friends – and celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary – also netted me a treasure trove of books, thanks to the proximity of a new/used BMV bookstore to our hotel. And, of course, Susan’s patience while I browsed the shelves. Several times.

I managed to find a dozen books (well, to be fair I found many more I wanted, but restrained myself to buying only a dozen). These included:

Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, by Tom Mueller (hardcover, Norton & Co., 2012). I actually started reading the paperback version of this book only last week and was immediately swept away by it. A rich story about politics, food, economics, travel, business, law, agriculture and culture, it deserves a post all on its own. I bought the second copy so I could share it with friends. This book has already changed the way I see not only olive oil, but the food industry in general – and it added a whole new dimension to my understanding of the economics of the Roman Empire. Of course, it helped to have my eyes (and taste buds) opened to authentic olive oil by the folks at the Collingwood Olive Oil Co.

Blandings, by P.G. Wodehouse (Arrow Books/Random House, 2012). Six of Wodehouse’s Blandings tales that were made into the recent BBC series. I discovered numerous other Wodehouse titles in paperback at the store, none of which I have read, and was torn: which to buy? All? Some? One? I settled on the one volume (in part because I plan to get the BBC series on DVD) but will return for more. Several more. I already have most of his Jeeves & Wooster writing, but not much of the rest (and yes, I have the BBC Jeeves & Wooster series on DVD, too).

The Dhammapada, translated by Gil Fronsdal (Shambala Library, 2008). A relatively new translation of the teachings of the Buddha, one that will be a companion to the other new translation I recently bought. I have several versions of this work and this might be the best and most accessible, but I must compare verses to see which offers me the strongest resonance. The Dhammapada is an essential book in my library; one of those irreplaceable books of wisdom. I had originally considered this title when I got the Wallis translation but decided on Wallis after reading some online reviews (you can read my comments about it here). I think I’ll post some verse comparisons in a future post.

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09/5/14

Coffee with Cicero


CiceroCan you imagine what it would be like today to be able to meet the Roman philosopher, Cicero, for coffee and spend an hour chatting? Or meeting up at a local pub and settling down to a beer or glass of wine? How great would that be to spend an hour with one of the world’s great thinkers?

What would you talk about? What wouldn’t you? Just imagine having the opportunity to share your thoughts on politics, religion, justice, philosophy, morals, friendship… the scope of what Cicero wrote about means you can talk about almost anything.

Okay, maybe not our gawking-at-celebrities culture, or the latest ad-riddled TV sitcom, or how well a vastly-overpaid sports star or team is doing this season (I would pay teachers, firefighters and police first, before any sports celebrity, but I don’t get that choice). To which he might respond, O tempora, o mores! (O, the times, O, the customs!) which he said in his First Speech Against Catilina. It sums up every older generation’s view of the upcoming generations’ lifestyles, I expect.

I’m sure Cicero spoke among his friends of the trivialities, too, just didn’t write much about them, at least in what of his works remain. But why waste that hour with such irrelevancies?

No, you’d have the chance to engage in stuff of consequence: big ideas, embrace the range of humanity and its behaviour, grab at issues that affect the tides of culture, the meaning of life, and the ebb and flow of politics. A real conversation, it would be, even perhaps a debate in which his famous rhetorical skills might come into play as he challenged you, parried your points and argued you into a corner.

(There’s a book in this: what would you talk about if you could have coffee with a dozen of the world’s great thinkers? I need to get back to writing for print…)

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09/3/14

Translating Montaigne


MontaigneWith two printed versions of Montaigne’s essays (translations by Donald Frame and M. A. Screech) and a couple of online editions available to me, I thought I might offer some examples of how individual translations have captured Montaigne’s writing and let you judge which you think is clearer and crisper for reading today.

I chose, somewhat at random, some lines from Book 1, Essay 50: Of Democritus and Heraclitus. It’s a reasonably short piece. I will give it in its entirety once, then offer selected sentences as marked in bold, below, from other translations for comparison. (You can read some commentary on this essay here).

First up: William Hazlitt’s 1877 updating of Charles Cotton’s 1685 translation (public domain, available on Gutenberg.org). Here is the entire essay:

The judgment is an utensil proper for all subjects, and will have an oar in everything: which is the reason, that in these Essays I take hold of all occasions where, though it happen to be a subject I do not very well understand, I try, however, sounding it at a distance, and finding it too deep for my stature, I keep me on the shore; and this knowledge that a man can proceed no further, is one effect of its virtue, yes, one of those of which it is most proud. One while in an idle and frivolous subject, I try to find out matter whereof to compose a body, and then to prop and support it; another while, I employ it in a noble subject, one that has been tossed and tumbled by a thousand hands, wherein a man can scarce possibly introduce anything of his own, the way being so beaten on every side that he must of necessity walk in the steps of another: in such a case, ’tis the work of the judgment to take the way that seems best, and of a thousand paths, to determine that this or that is the best. I leave the choice of my arguments to fortune, and take that she first presents to me; they are all alike to me, I never design to go through any of them; for I never see all of anything: neither do they who so largely promise to show it others. Of a hundred members and faces that everything has, I take one, onewhile to look it over only, another while to ripple up the skin, and sometimes to pinch it to the bones: I give a stab, not so wide but as deep as I can, and am for the most part tempted to take it in hand by some new light I discover in it. Did I know myself less, I might perhaps venture to handle something or other to the bottom, and to be deceived in my own inability; but sprinkling here one word and there another, patterns cut from several pieces and scattered without design and without engaging myself too far, I am not responsible for them, or obliged to keep close to my subject, without varying at my own liberty and pleasure, and giving up myself to doubt and uncertainty, and to my own governing method, ignorance.
All motion discovers us: the very same soul of Caesar, that made itself so conspicuous in marshalling and commanding the battle of Pharsalia, was also seen as solicitous and busy in the softer affairs of love and leisure. A man makes a judgment of a horse, not only by seeing him when he is showing off his paces, but by his very walk, nay, and by seeing him stand in the stable.
Amongst the functions of the soul, there are some of a lower and meaner form; he who does not see her in those inferior offices as well as in those of nobler note, never fully discovers her; and, peradventure, she is best shown where she moves her simpler pace. The winds of passions take most hold of her in her highest flights; and the rather by reason that she wholly applies herself to, and exercises her whole virtue upon, every particular subject, and never handles more than one thing at a time, and that not according to it, but according to herself. Things in respect to themselves have, peradventure, their weight, measures, and conditions; but when we once take them into us, the soul forms them as she pleases. Death is terrible to Cicero, coveted by Cato, indifferent to Socrates. Health, conscience, authority, knowledge, riches, beauty, and their contraries, all strip themselves at their entering into us, and receive a new robe, and of another fashion, from the soul; and of what colour, brown, bright, green, dark, and of what quality, sharp, sweet, deep, or superficial, as best pleases each of them, for they are not agreed upon any common standard of forms, rules, or proceedings; every one is a queen in her own dominions. Let us, therefore, no more excuse ourselves upon the external qualities of things; it belongs to us to give ourselves an account of them. Our good or ill has no other dependence but on ourselves. ‘Tis there that our offerings and our vows are due, and not to fortune she has no power over our manners; on the contrary, they draw and make her follow in their train, and cast her in their own mould. Why should not I judge of Alexander at table, ranting and drinking at the prodigious rate he sometimes used to do?
Or, if he played at chess? what string of his soul was not touched by this idle and childish game? I hate and avoid it, because it is not play enough, that it is too grave and serious a diversion, and I am ashamed to lay out as much thought and study upon it as would serve to much better uses. He did not more pump his brains about his glorious expedition into the Indies, nor than another in unravelling a passage upon which depends the safety of mankind. To what a degree does this ridiculous diversion molest the soul, when all her faculties are summoned together upon this trivial account! and how fair an opportunity she herein gives every one to know and to make a right judgment of himself? I do not more thoroughly sift myself in any other posture than this: what passion are we exempted from in it? Anger, spite, malice, impatience, and a vehement desire of getting the better in a concern wherein it were more excusable to be ambitious of being overcome; for to be eminent, to excel above the common rate in frivolous things, nowise befits a man of honour. What I say in this example may be said in all others. Every particle, every employment of man manifests him equally with any other.
Democritus and Heraclitus were two philosophers, of whom the first, finding human condition ridiculous and vain, never appeared abroad but with a jeering and laughing countenance; whereas Heraclitus commiserating that same condition of ours, appeared always with a sorrowful look, and tears in his eyes:

“Alter ridebat, quoties a limine moverat unum Protuleratque pedem; flebat contrarius alter.”
[“The one always, as often as he had stepped one pace from his threshold, laughed, the other always wept.”—Juvenal, Sat., x. 28.]
[Or, as Voltaire: “Life is a comedy to those who think; a tragedy to those who feel.” D.W.]

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