The Leadership Crisis

The Leadership CrisisIn his latest book, The Leadership Crisis, Gord Hume defines seven characteristics – the Seven Cs – of great political leadership*. See how many you can recognize as attributes within our own council:

  1. Competencies, including people, organizational, business and strategic.
  2. Character, and its traits, values and virtues; integrity.
  3. Commitment, including aspiration, engagement, perseverance and sacrifice.
  4. Charisma, that unquantifiable attribute that political leaders either have or don’t.
  5. Communication, through effective messaging that inspires, informs and influences.
  6. Context, an understanding of what’s going on around them.
  7. Culture, and how to develop, create, change and advance that culture

I think you can see for yourself that these traits are notable by their absence in most of our council. Just take any one of the seven – say, communications. How can a council that conducts so much of its business behind closed doors communicate well, if at all? And how does it communicate? Only through poorly-designed, improperly formatted ads in a newspaper no one reads and via a dull “newsletter” riddled with mistakes but no news.

Culture? There’s more culture in a cup of yogurt than in all of council. Competencies? How can a group that refuses to learn from its peers and hand over control of policy making to staff be competent?

One can, of course, learn and grow on the job, assuming one breaks out of the ideological shell that cocoons them. Which, in 18 months in office, still hasn’t happened. But, like winning the lottery or being struck by a meteorite, there’s still a chance for it to happen. A very slim chance, but we must be optimistic, despite the odds.

There are many books on leadership on the shelves these days. What makes Hume’s book different is the context of leadership within Canadian municipal politics.** You can read an excerpt of the book here. As Hume writes on his website:

Ego, ambition, fear, doubt, passion. Politicians may have a fervent belief in the rightness of their position or a visceral dislike for another person, party or platform, but these should always be tempered by the need to inspire collective action to move any agenda forward.

Hume’s books are among the most thought-provoking, engaging books I’ve ever read on municipal/local politics. It’s sad to note that perhaps only one or two (at most) on our own council will read this book. It is another important publication on municipal governance they will actively ignore. This council already stopped subscribing to the Municipal World magazine because they already know everything – despite most of them being new to the position – and doesn’t want their preconceived views polluted by advice from peers or experts. So exhorting them to read it will fall on mostly deaf ears (I have hope for two of the nine…).

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The Purple Thread

EpictetusRoman men wore togas for formal occasions. The basic toga – toga alba or toga pura – was a simple garment of plain white wool. It was undyed and unadorned. White was the colour required by Roman sumptuary law for citizens’ togas. This basic toga was also the garment draped on a boy when he went through his ceremony to manhood – called the toga virilis during that ceremony.

A dark brown or grey toga pulla or toga sordida was reserved for periods of mourning. A fancier, bleached toga was worn by candidates for political office – the toga candida. Candida means pure white and is the etymological source of our word, candidate. The pure white was symbolic of the candidate’s purity and honesty. I can hear you chuckle at that notion, especially after the last local municipal election.

In order to stand out in this sea of dull white, officials such as magistrates, aediles, consuls, senators and priests could wear the toga praetexta: a white toga with a purple border, usually 2-3 inches wide (5-7.5cm); the width reflected the wearer’s position. That purple band marked the wearers as important; made them visible in the teeming crowd of Roman citizens.

Over the years of the empire, the rules and types of togas changed, and what was once the defining garment of the Roman citizen – by law only Roman citizens were allowed to wear them – became a showpiece.

Likewise the Roman tunic – the garment for day-to-day wear – was usually undyed white, but for officials, it carried a stripe of purple to indicate their rank. The wider the stripe, the more important the wearer. Senators had the wide laticlavus, roughly two inches (5cm) wide; equestrians (equites) had two narrow red-purple angusticlavia on their shoulders.

Tunics might also be dyed, but dyes were expensive, so the average Roman didn’t use them. And only white tunics had the stripes, otherwise they might not be noticed.

It is that little purple band that stands out, that defines the wearer; not the rest of the garment.

Purple was the colour of position and royalty in the ancient world. The purple Tyrian dye came from murex snails found in the eastern Mediterranean and was very costly. Ten thousand snails were required to dye just one toga! Pure purple – the toga purpura – was generally reserved for the gods, but the emperor could wear the toga trabea: purple with a bit of white. Emperors were, after all, divine. The bit of white, I suppose, showed his human part. A little humility among all that divinity.

There was also the toga picta – an embroidered, purple toga (often with elaborate gold trim and embroidery) worn by emperors and by victorious generals in their triumph. There were other types, too – the toga trabea, toga palmata, and other, but let’s not digress.

The purpose of this post is not to discourse on the nature of Roman sartorial splendor. I merely set the stage for a comment in the next part: on the words of Epictetus, whom I have been reading of late.
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The Myth of Persecution

Myth of PersecutionI just finished reading The Myth of Persecution by theology professor Candida Moss (Harper One, New York, 2013). I picked it up because of my general interest in theology, but also my more specific interest in early church history. I didn’t realize when I started to read it that this book was at the centre of a huge kerfuffle in the Christian community over its message and its accuracy.

In short, Ms. Moss argues that while the early Christians in the first four centuries were often the victims of violence, and even some persecution, they were not the targets of systematic persecution by the Romans for the duration. In fact, the periods of legislated persecution were short and intermittent. She tries to distinguish between persecution and prosecution, and identifies situations where Christians were among the groups, but not singled out, targeted for oppression by various Roman emperors and their edicts.

Further, she argues that the majority of stories of martyrs from this time are fictional, not historic records, created to serve a political or social purpose. She deconstructs some of them, looking at historical records, literary records and internal logic.

And, she concludes, the modern cult of persecution – such as the faux ‘War on Christianity’ promoted by several right wing commentators recently – is based on both a flawed view of history and a dangerous perspective on world events that prevents dialogue and compromise between people. That perspective, Moss writes, is based on the defensive and dangerous notion of persecution and martyrdom. In a film review posted on The Daily Beast, Moss called modern Christian belief in its own persecution a “paranoid fantasy.”

With which I pretty much agree. While not by any means a scholar, what I have read over the years about the creation of the early church, the battles between sects and cults to frame orthodoxy, the arbitrary way the canon was cobbled together, the exclusion of the Gnostics, and the whole business of pseudepigrapha and fake documents supports her contention that the early stories of martyrs were part of this process.

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Stoic or Epicurean?

Let no one delay the study of philosophy while young nor weary of it when old. For no one is either too young or too old for the health of the soul. He who says either that the time for philosophy has not yet come or that it has passed is like someone who says that the time for happiness has not yet come or that it has passed. Epicurus: Letter to Menoeceus

I’ve been listening to the History of Rome podcasts of late and was pondering on some of the comments about the emperor Marcus Aurelius. He was, before listening, one of my top three choices for best ruler of the empire. What better role model than the philosopher-king? Now, I’m not so sure that he managed both the empire and his own position as well as I had assumed. But that’s neither here nor there. What caught my attention was the narrator’s comments on the philosophical life of his times.

Marcus Aurelius was, of course, the unwitting author of the now-famous, inspirational work Meditations, a collection of aphorisms based on his own Stoic view of life I’m sure most of you have read (and if not, scurry over to your local bookstore and get a copy now).

I say unwitting because, as Wikipedia reminds us, he wrote the book (or rather books, because there are 12 separate parts which are now labelled chapters) for his own edification and guidance, not as a manual for others.  It was never intended for publication. It is fortuitous that after his death, the work was copied and shared and eventually handed down to us, despite the emperor’s misgivings.

Aurelius’ work was, as far as I can recall, my first significant introduction to ancient philosophy (Greek, Roman and earlier). Since then, I’ve dabbled in others, but didn’t start reading them in any comprehensive way until recently. Which is a shame, really, since they have so much to offer. For years, I knew more about Eastern philosophy than Western. Now I’m trying to redress that situation.

To fill in the gaps in my mostly autodidactic education, I have been reading a lot of ancient Western philosophy these past couple of years, mostly Plato, Aristotle and a smattering of later Romans. I just added a few titles to the reading list only this past month: Epictetus and Diogenes the Cynic, with Epicurus on the way. I suppose once I’ve finished with Rome, it’ll be time to turn to philosophy podcasts. I certainly need help interpreting what I’ve been reading.

What has always fascinated me is that many people in the days of the Roman empire followed and embraced philosophy actively, as deeply as many people follow religion today. True, it was mostly the upper class and elites who had both the education and the leisure time to study something so abstract. But philosophy wasn’t merely an academic pursuit: it had deep roots in their daily lives. It was practical.

Perhaps it’s in large part because Egyptian, Greek, then later Roman, pagan religions offered little in the way of moral guidance, and even less in answering those Great Questions that have haunted humankind since we first started to write. You know, the why-are-we-here, what’s-the-meaning-of-life, why-is-there-evil, what-happens-when-we-die sort of question. The questions that keep you awake at night, and wake you up at 3 a.m. to run around in your brain like little, frantic mice.

Or at least they keep me awake… maybe you already have them figured out.

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O tempora, o mores!

Nihil est incertius vulgo, nihil obscurius voluntate hominum, nihil fallacius ratione tota comitiorum.

Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote those words in the short book about a Roman court case, Pro Lucio Murena (For Lucius Murena). They mean, in English,

Nothing is more unpredictable than the mob, nothing more obscure than public opinion, nothing more deceptive than the whole political system.” *

Cicero, Delphi ClassicsIn 63 BCE, Cicero successfully defended Lucius Licinius Murena on the charge of bribery or in Latin, crimina ambitus as a means to garner votes. The wealthy Murena had won his election as consul and the charge was filed by the losing candidate, Servius Sulpicius (also a lawyer, who would be elected consul 11 years after this trial).

It’s a fascinating document that says much about Roman history, politics and law. And like everything Cicero wrote, it’s full of quotable bits.

I came to this from watching, of all things, some episodes of the TV series, Boston Legal. What I find intriguing about the show is the legal scenes; the courtroom arguments, the banter in front of the jury, the way the lawyers approach each issue, and how they make their defence. There are some tricky moral issues raised in those scenes that are deeper than the rest of the show, which is really a soap opera set in a lawyers’ office (albeit with some funny dialogue).

So, my head full of ideas, I turned to Cicero on my Kindle, and started reading online what others had to say about this particular piece.

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On the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death

King Lear“Is There Such a Thing as a ‘Bad’ Shakespeare Play?” asks a recent article on the Smithsonian website. It adds,

“Shakespeare, despite the efforts of notable dissenting critics and writers to forcibly eject him, has occupied the position of world’s greatest playwright since his star was re-affixed to the firmament in the late 18th century. No other playwright is as universally revered. No other playwright has had countless theses and courses and books and articles speculative novels and so many buckets and buckets of ink devoted to him. And while to works of other playwrights of the era are still performed today – Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson spring to mind – Shakespeare is far and away the most recognized.”

Yes, of course there can be. Bad isn’t an objective analysis: it’s a subjective association. What seems good to me might appear bad to you, and vice versa.

April 23, 1616. The day both William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra died. Two literary giants.*

Shakespeare was a working writer who matured into his art over the years. Some of his plots are thin, some of his dialogue clumsy and some of his poems cloying. He wasn’t perfect. When we talk of Shakespeare as the greatest author, we are commenting on his entire output, and its effect on literature, art and culture over four centuries, not specific lines or even plays.

Good or bad is simply a small judgment we pass on fragments, not the whole. As Hamlet says to Rosencrantz, “…there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison.” If by bad it means unpopular – what has popularity ever had to do with quality? Consider, for example, Justin Bieber…

The example of a ‘bad’ play that opens this article is King Lear – today seen as a great, dramatic tragedy. Equally, it’s a play of despair, bad endings, greed unpunished, madness, delusion, arrogance, cruelty and suffering. Great stuff, you will agree.

It wasn’t always viewed as such. It was written between 1603 and 06, when it was first performed. It is one of the few plays we have in multiple original publications: two quartos and the First Folio. As Wikipedia points out, having multiple sources is problematic because the differences between them are “significant.” Any version you read or watch is an edited collation of these three.

Coincidentally, I started rereading Lear last week, the first time I have opened that play in more than 25 years. It’s deliciously dark and troubling. Suitable for our times, I suppose.

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Demagogues and democracy

“I just wish, at some point in time, councillors would show a little more integrity or credibility on the floor of council… It’s like every time we try to do something, there’s criticism, no matter what we do. I’d like to see councillors do the right thing. And in my opinion, these people are not doing the right thing. They’re hypocrites. They’re not telling the truth.”

Mayors Gone BadNo, that’s not Mayor Cooper speaking about our current council that continues to blindly clear cut its way through the town’s institutions and services, masticate our already battered reputation into spittle-and-chips, and bludgeon staff morale into pulpy submission.

It’s from Mayor Sam Katz of Winnipeg. He is quoted on page 125 in Mayors Gone Bad, a new book by Philip Slayton.

Mayors Gone Bad is an entertaining, provocative look at a handful of mayors across Canada who have ridden into office on a wave of populism and charisma, but who have generally failed miserably to live up to their promise. Some have fallen prey to the temptations that make headlines. Thus their terms in office have often created more of a mess than ever before.

Collingwood might have a future contribution if Slayton ever writes a sequel titled, “Deputy Mayors Gone Bad.”

Katz shares the spotlight with Rob Ford of Toronto, Peter Kelly of Halifax, Larry O’Brien of Ottawa, Gerald Tremblay of Montreal, Susan Fennell of Brampton, Gilles Vaillancourt of Laval, Joe Fontana of London and a few others. All of whom have been star performers in the media circus, and many of whose tales are seriously cringeworthy.

Some are bad in the sense of corruption, bribery, conflict, scandal and criminal charges, or too-cozy relations with developers, but most are bad through ineptness, ignorance, arrogance, entitlement and inexperience. Banal rather than venal. Demagogues whose weaknesses became all too evident when they tried to control the machinery of government.

Some, like Katz, were well-meaning, idealistic and optimistic when they got elected, only to discover the ugly truth of Canadian municipal politics: mayors are not the power, not the movers and shakers, not the sole source of authority they imagined. They can lead, but not rule, as Slayton writes.

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Master Han Fei’s Wisdom

Han FeiLong before Niccolo Machiavelli wrote his now-famous work of political philosophy, The Prince, there was another man writing in a similar vein in China. And, like many other sages, his words have important lessons that can prove useful, even today, for our own municipal council.

Han Fei Tzu (aka Han Feizi) was a prince in the Han Kingdom in the third century BCE. He was a member of and spokesperson for the “legalistic” school that challenged many of the Confucian notions of government. In his short life he wrote 55 books – really short essays we would call chapters today.

This week, I pulled out my tattered copy of Burton Watson’s translation (Columbia University Press, 1964) for another read. I hadn’t read Master Han Fei for quite a while, and, as I often am when reading the classics, I was somewhat fascinated at the relevance today of these ancient words. Even though he was writing in a vastly different political climate, a different culture and a different technological era, like Machiavelli and Sun Tzu, his comments on politics and leadership still resonate in today’s world.

One of the books was called The Ten Faults, and here I reproduce the list of faults identified by Han Fei (as per Watson’s translation):

  • To practice petty loyalty and thereby betray a larger loyalty;
  • To fix your eye on a petty gain and thereby lose a larger one;
  • To behave in a base and willful manner and show no courtesy to the other feudal lords, thereby bringing about your own downfall;
  • To give no ear to government affairs, but long only for the sound of music, thereby plunging yourself into distress;
  • To be greedy, perverse and too fond of profit, thereby opening the way to the destruction of the state, and your own demise;
  • To become infatuated with women musicians and disregard state affairs, thereby inviting the disaster of national destruction;
  • To leave the palace for distant travels, despising the remonstrances of your ministers, which leads to grave peril for yourself;
  • To fail to heed your loyal ministers when you are at fault, insisting upon having your own way, which will in time destroy your good reputation and make you a laughing stock of others;
  • To take no account of internal strength but rely solely upon your allies abroad, which places the state in grave danger of dismemberment;
  • To ignore the demands of courtesy, though your state is small, and fail to learn from the remonstrances of our ministers, acts which lead to the downfall of your line.

Change a few words – ministers to councillors, music to sycophants, feudal lords to staff… and it’s almost scary how well these ideas and admonitions fit into today’s local political arena. So here is my analysis of how Han Fei’s words relate to Collingwood.

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CAOs: Mene mene, tekel upharsin

Leaders in the ShadowsThe title, as you well know, dear reader, comes from the writing on the wall in Daniel 5, translated as, “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.” Those words came to me as I read David Siegel’s recent book on Canadian municipal CAOs, Leaders in the Shadows.  It’s subtitled, “The Leadership Qualities of Municipal Chief Administrative Officers.” Interesting stuff for any municipal politician engaged in the recruitment of a CAO.*

Siegel suggests CAOs lead from the shadows because, in part, “…a CAO whose name is in the media frequently is probably in some kind of trouble.” I also suggest that such a CAO may also be so I-centric that he or she feels the need to subordinate the politicians and community to be in the forefront of attention; to be in the media simply for the egotistical delight of seeing his or her name in print. Such a CAO is not a good leader.

Siegel looks at general ideas of leadership within the complex and often byzantine context of Canadian municipal governance, and provides five case studies of successful CAOs from around the country. He examines their careers in depth, their personal attributes, and looks at their leadership skills in leading down (to staff), up (council) and out (community and peers).

That three-way balancing act is crucial to Siegel’s analysis. Good CAOs manage to engage all levels and all directions simultaneously. Staff and council, of course, have more direct interaction with the CAO, thus more opportunities to engage (therefore more opportunities to lead down and up).

I would put leading out under the microscope more because I believe it requires much more effort, more passion, more dedication and more professionalism to be involved in the community outside the office. To actively go out of the town hall doors and engage businesses, groups, to be involved in events, to walk the streets and speak to residents. That’s where a truly great leader would shine, in my estimation. Conversely, any CAO who doesn’t do at least minimal and regular external engagement is not, in my eyes, a leader, merely a manager.

A CAO who isolates himself or herself in the office and does not engage the community would, I believe, be more of a liability to the administration than an asset.

Siegel identifies a municipal CAO with good leadership skills as having “…the ability to move the municipality forward by interacting in a mutually influential way with and motivating council, external stakeholders and organizational subordinates.” This extends a more general definition from Joseph Rost’s book, Leadership for the Twenty-First Century. The key words here are interacting and motivating; not bossing, not ordering, not demanding.

He notes that good leaders “…minimize their personal ambition and emphasize ambition for their organization” (p256). His exemplars, he further notes, were not I-centric, but during interviews deflected discussions away from their own accomplishments to those of their subordinates and their organizations. I expect they were comfortable working in mutually-beneficial partnership situations (like we had with our own Collus/Powerstream partner until this term) and with staff as valued members of the organization, rather than attempting to destroy any relationship for ideological or personal reasons.

The five CAOs were chosen as role models in different categories and styles of management: the generalist, the task-oriented leader, the relationship-oriented leader, the partnership-building leader and what he calls the “I think I’m a better employee…” leader. In truth, all of the CAOs chosen show some degree of strength in every category. Conversely, I would expect there are those around who have none of these skills but have risen through the ranks by sheer ability to outlast everyone else. One can never lose sight of the Peter Principle in which “managers rise to the level of their incompetence.”

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Some of the Dharma

Some of the DharmaI first started reading Jack Kerouac in 1968, a battered paperback copy of On the Road, reprinted a decade after its original publication and kept in a pocket of a pack sack for easy reference as I hitchhiked around the country one summer.

The book enjoyed a small resurgence of interest as the early hippies imagined themselves as the spiritual descendants of the beats and enjoyed a similar flowering of art, music and literature.

For a brief while, many of the beat writers and musicians and their contemporaries basked in that renewed interest. I listened to Charlie Mingus, The Fugs, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk and others almost as much as I listened to The Beatles, the Jefferson Airplane and the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band. I remember reading Allen Ginsburg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, William S. Burroughs and others around that time.

And, of course, Kerouac. On the Road was just the most popular of his publications (although not his first novel: that was The Town and the City, published in 1950). I quickly read The Dharma Bums then Desolation Angels (still my favourite of his 11 novels) afterwards (somewhere in my library I still have at least those two).

Around the same time, I was discovering Buddhism. I started reading D. T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, Paul Reps and Dwight Goddard. The two influences – Buddhism and Kerouac – melded well for me then. They seemed a natural fit, and have continued to be factors in my own life.

Kerouac’s novels are still read, and likely every one of you has at least finished On the Road: it’s a seminal work of American fiction and not to be overlooked. It was released in an enlarged, annotated ebook edition with maps, images and more, by Penguin in 2011 (Kerouac is one of several Beat generation writers whose works have recently been of renewed interest to the reading public).

I haven’t read it myself in more than four decades, but it’s on my list to re-read this year (I know, I know: that list is already many titles long and it’s only March…).

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The Crafty Crow and the Doves

Fat CrowOnce upon a time, an old crow lived by the seaside. He had grown fat over the years because he was too lazy to work for his food. He preferred to sit than fly. He followed the other animals to get their leftovers, taking what wasn’t his, and annoying them by begging for some of their food. The other animals shunned him. They had chased him from many places, until he found himself on the coast. He was unwanted and unloved.

One day, a flight of doves appeared. They were young, inexperienced doves fresh from the forest, who didn’t know their way around the water’s edge. They looked confused and worried. The crow flew over to them.

“Are you lost?” he asked them. “Do you need some assistance?”

“Yes,” said the doves’ leader. “We are new here. We don’t know what’s good to eat. We don’t know where to nest so we are safe from the winds and the foxes.”

“I will show you,” said the crow. “I have lived here a long time. I know everything about the shoreline. Listen to me and you’ll be fed and safe. But beware. Don’t listen to other animals. They will try to trick you. Some will hurt you. Only I can keep you safe.”

“All right,” said the dove. “We trust you. You are a nice, old crow. Surely a crow wouldn’t harm doves because we are all birds. We will let you show us the way.”

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Aesop is Still Relevant

A MONKEY perched upon a lofty tree saw some Fishermen casting their nets into a river, and narrowly watched their proceedings. The Fishermen after a while gave up fishing, and on going home to dinner left their nets upon the bank. The Monkey, who is the most imitative of animals, descended from the treetop and endeavored to do as they had done. Having handled the net, he threw it into the river, but became tangled in the meshes and drowned. With his last breath he said to himself, “I am rightly served; for what business had I who had never handled a net to try and catch fish?’
This fable shows that by meddling in affairs one doesn’t understand, not only does one gain nothing, but one also does oneself harm.

Aesop's FablesNo, I’m not writing fables for council now, although you’d think it was tailor made for the current group at the table. Most of them, anyway. It comes from a website dedicated to fables (, but the moral at the end comes from a recently-acquired Aesop: The Complete Fables, translated by Olivia and Robert Temple (Penguin Books, 1998). In the book, it’s fable number 304.*

The site offers many more, but I don’t know how many are actually Aesop’s originally, or later additions. Collaters and editors, especially during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, were apparently somewhat liberal when building their collections and included much extraneous material. Which isn’t necessarily bad, because it also preserved material which might have otherwise been lost.**

The introduction to that book taught me that most of what I thought I knew about Aesop and his famous fables was wrong. And that many of the stories what I had thought were his weren’t – they were plagiarized from other authors or other traditions. And even those that were Aesop’s had often been rewritten and bowdlerized for Victorian sensibilities. Yet one can recognize the iconic fables within the originals.

What surprised me most is that the originals are bawdier, and often more violent (there’s a lot of death) and sometimes misogynistic. Despite what happened to them in later years, they weren’t meant for children.

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De Officiis: Cicero on Political Obligations

Cicero: On Obligations

No phase of life, whether public or private, whether in business or in the home, whether one is working on what concerns oneself alone or dealing with another, can be without its moral duty; on the discharge of such duties depends all that is morally right, and on their neglect all that is morally wrong in life.

Cicero wrote that in 44 BCE in his last work in his last year of life: De Officiis, or in English: On Obligations. The translation from Book 1.4 above comes from the Perseus Project (the 1913 Miller/Loeb translation). In the 2000 edition (Oxford University Press, reprinted 2008, and recently added to my library), translator P.G. Walsh renders that piece thus:

There is no aspect of life public or private, civic or domestic, which can be without its obligation, whether in our individual concerns or in our relations with our neighbour. Honourable behaviour lies entirely in the performance of such obligations, and likewise base conduct lies in neglecting them.

The main theme of Marcus Tullius Cicero’s book is stated here, at the beginning: we are all bound by obligations to one another, and if we are honourable people, then we must act on, and never forget, those obligations. Of course, he has a lot more to say, but that’s the gist of it.

The 62-year-old Cicero watched as Rome was taken over by the followers of the recently assassinated Julius Caesar (whom he criticized). He watched how the republic was subverted to the rule of the autocrats and tyrants (whom he also openly criticized). The result of his speaking out was his being named an enemy of the state. Marc Anthony ordered Cicero’s execution and had his severed head and hands displayed in the forum. Such is the way tyrants deal with dissent.

Cicero’s world and life have parallels in today’s politics: his words still have meaning and relevamce today. One need only look at today’s Republican candidates’ struggle for supremacy, or locally to see what has happened to our own council, to understand those parallels.*

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Reading Pablo Neruda

Pablo NerudaOne hardly expects poets to generate spirited debate in the media these days*, but they did, not that long ago, well within my own lifetime. Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) was one of those who sparked great, passionate emotions in people, for both his writing and his leftist politics. And in his own country, Chile, he was the equivalent of a rock star for many years.

Even his 1971 Nobel Prize for Literature was controversial: the award noted Neruda was a “contentious author” about whom the debate still raged. His death, shortly after the coup by the right-wing general, Augusto Pinochet, was long blamed on doctors under order by the former dictator, although a 2013 exhumation and autopsy failed to substantiate that claim (Neruda was suffering from prostate cancer at the time of his death).

My own experience of the prolific Neruda was, until quite recently, framed around a smattering of translations in anthologies. It broadened when I bought a comprehensive collection – more than 600 poems over 1,000 pages – that captures a fair cross section of the roughly 3,500 poems he published over his lifetime.

(To be honest, my appreciation of non-English poets comes mainly from such anthologies and translations; this is my first major collection of a non-English poet…).

Daniel Chouinard, writing in January Magazine, said,

No living poet is as famous today as Pablo Neruda was in his lifetime. He was a world figure, as famous as Robert Frost or T.S. Eliot, but with the added cachet in some circles of being a politically active man of the left. His poetry exerted an enormous influence throughout Latin America, and he remains beloved in his native Chile… In his willingness to experiment and change styles repeatedly, and in the way in which these changes released a flood of new work, Neruda resembled no one so much as Picasso. Contrary to what he believed, the more personal he wrote, the more people he reached.

Mark Strand, writing in The New Yorker, recognizes the problem with foreign-language writers published in English, but explains how editor Ilan Stavans deals with it:

Stavans has been careful to include almost all of Neruda’s major translators, and readers will encounter translation styles that range from the wooden and amusical to the fluid and finely tuned. Fortunately, Neruda’s best work has attracted his most gifted translators. Without them, his best might appear to be a good deal less. Examples of clear success are W. S. Merwin’s translation of “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair,” Jack Schmitt’s translations of “Canto General” and “Art of Birds,” Margaret Sayers Peden’s translation of the three books of “Elemental Odes,” and Alastair Reid’s masterly translations of “Extravagaria” and “Isla Negra.” These works alone would easily be enough to provide many hours of happy reading.

Stavans himself wrote in the New York Times:

Neruda left thousands of poems, a handful of which are of such inspired beauty as to justify the very existence of the Spanish language. Adolescents routinely give his “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair” to their sweethearts. His ideological verses have been read aloud, often from memory, in one revolution after another, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the embers of the Arab Spring. Some of Neruda’s poems — “I Ask for Silence,” “Walking Around,” “Ode to the Artichoke” — have been rendered into English repeatedly, each version another effort to make him current and vital to a new generation.

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Decoding Alice in Wonderland

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland DecodedIt is tempting to suggest author David Day’s lush new book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Decoded is the final word on the mysteries and secrets behind Lewis Carroll’s iconic children’s fantasy, but alas, it would be an over-reach. Surely others will follow, perhaps even Day himself will extend his research to a sequel.

Aside from the difficulties of probing the motives of a man dead more than 125 years, there comes the question of interpretation, which is more like opinion than it is fact. Looking back 150 years at possible explanations for a reference or a character sometimes involves guesswork.

But even from its original publication, people knew there was more to Alice than a simple children’s tale replete with frivolous nonsense. As Day explains, Carroll himself acknowledged some of the references and metaphors. But there remain others for be dug out of the text like opals from the Australian bedrock. Day is a superb, if sometimes eccentric, prospector.

In an interview in the National Post, it notes,

Day also argues that the book was meant to give a classical education to someone like Alice, who, as a girl, wouldn’t be able to attend Oxford. Every character in Wonderland then becomes an allusion to a scholar or to a figure in Greek mythology; a reference to mathematical concept or to a famous work of art; or, quite frequently, a combination of all of the above.

It is fun, in a conspiracy-theory sort of way, to entertain hidden references to ancient gods, myths and mysteries, but as Sigmund Freud allegedly said, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Those of you old enough to remember the Von Daniken Chariots of the Gods books know how quickly such egregious assumptions can be discredited and ridiculed.

Still, Day’s effort is not to be dismissed: his arguments and theories are well explained and generally compelling. It is, to date, the most comprehensive and wide-ranging peek behind the Alice curtain, and certainly most elegantly published version (the full-colour hardcover is gorgeous). It took the author almost two decades to research and write.

And it’s a good social biography of Carroll and his milieu, although it helps if you know something about the Victorian era, the British Empire, the impact of Darwin, and the social and political attitudes of the day.

But don’t lose track of the prime reason Carroll wrote the book: to entertain, delight and (possibly) educate children. Let’s not rub off all the innocence and the magic by too much analysis. As The Telegraph noted of the original book:

Future generations may see other hidden meanings. In a tale this rich, it seems highly likely they will. But for children the story itself, with its universal theme of an innocent youngster attempting to make sense of a strange adult world, is enough.

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