08/21/14

Great books: the academic view


Great BooksIn the mid-1990s, journalist David Denby took on a personal challenge to return to Columbia University for a year to take two courses, both focused on reading the “great books” of the Western canon. The results and his observations – along with an entertaining bit of biography about his journey – is told in Great Books (Simon & Schuster, 1996).

I was interested in Denby’s narrative primarily because, in looking through the table of contents, I noticed he commented on Machiavelli and Montaigne – two of my favourite writers. That made me want to read what he says about them, and about others, so of course I purchased the book.

But of course, the book is about a lot more than those two: it covers a wide range of Western writing from Homer to Virginia Woolf. The actual reading list covers almost four full pages at the beginning of the book. It is not a collection of great English writing – the original languages include ancient Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, German, Spanish and one sample of Russian (an essay by Lenin). All, of course, in an English translation.

Surprisingly, there are no works by or excerpts from the great Russian novelists like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. No Latin American, Chinese or African writers, either. But there is a significant difference between a list compiled for reading during a single academic year and a comprehensive list of great books meant to convey the breadth of culture, learning and civilization.

Also, the list is specifically a Western canon, not a world canon.

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08/17/14

Inanity and vanity


Michel de Montaigne wrote in his usual self-deprecating but sardonic way:

If other men would consider themselves at the rate I do, they would, as I do, discover themselves to be full of inanity and foppery; to rid myself of it, I cannot, without making myself away. We are all steeped in it, as well one as another; but they who are not aware on’t, have somewhat the better bargain; and yet I know not whether they have or no.
Book 3, IX: Of Vanity

That chapter is one of his longer pieces in The Essays, and like most others in the collection, is not simply focused on the subject of the title, but meanders through several thoughts and observations that may not all seem related. In this case, he ponders on his estate, his old age, his government service, on writing (his own and that of others), his talents, his father, memory, friendship, travel, and more.

The quote above is from the 1877 edition, translated by Charles Cotton and edited by William Hazlitt. Donald Frame, in his 1957 translation, renders it as this, somewhat more clearly:

If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are all steeped in it, one as much as another, but those whoa re aware of it are a little better of — though I don’t know.
Quoted in Bakewell: How to live; A Life of Montaigne.

I do not have the Screech translation yet, to compare this quotation with his rendition, but the book is on order from Amazon and should arrive next week. According to the New York Review of Books, it is more modern than Frame: “Despite Frame’s declared intention to be non-archaic, there are still traces of fustian in his style…” We’ll see if that’s true, when I get my hands on it.

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08/16/14

The First Dark Age


End of the Bronze AgeThe causes of the first “Dark Age” have long been the topic of debate among historians and archeologists. Many ideas and theories have been put forward; none have found universal agreement. It’s commonly referred to in scholarly circles as “The Catastrophe.

Earthquakes, drought, migrations (or the more popular single-people migration theory), volcanoes, barbarian raiders, climate change and systemic collapse have all been blamed for the sudden collapse of civilizations in the eastern Mediterranean over a short period of time.

While any one of these may account for particular cities, or even a small geographical region, it is difficult to apply those theories collectively to the collapse over such a wide area. There is simply no evidence to connect the incidents of collapse.

Nor do they explain why the empire of Egypt and Assyria, both on the periphery of the larger area affected, seem to have escaped relatively intact from the collapse – although Egypt’s might and influence came out of the period severely diminished.

Whatever the cause, over a period spanning roughly 50 years of the late 13th and early 12th centuries BCE, many civilizations in the Aegean basin and southeast Asia underwent a violent collapse. Dozens of cities and settlements were destroyed or abandoned. Archeologists have uncovered evidence of fire and destruction in many of the remains of the great ancient centres. There are signs of “instant cities” – settlements that sprang up suddenly in previously unsettled areas, suggesting they developed from a mass of escapees bonding together for safety after fleeing a disaster.

It would be centuries before most of this area rose again to similar prominence. It was a Dark Age for the eastern Mediterranean.

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08/15/14

Happiness & Fulfillment


There are ten methods for meditating on the world, begins one scroll in the 1,300-year-old collection of Tang-dynasty sutras from Xian, China, that can lead us to happiness and fulfillment.

I realize that sounds like the opening of a New Age piffle book, but the sutras were actually discovered in a cave near a Buddhist monastery, in the far western region of China, in 1900. The scrolls were looted and sold to collectors and academia, and until 1998 were pretty much lost. Now the public can read a few selections from them in the book, The Lost Sutras of Jesus, by Ray Riegert and Thomas Moore.

The majority of the scrolls were Buddhist texts from the seventh century CE. Only eight of them were Christian – the efforts of early Christian (Persian) monks who arrived in Xian along the Silk Road, bringing their faith into contact with both Buddhism and Taoism. Those sutras, their legacy, are an intriguing blend of Christian and Buddhist views.

It’s also reminiscent of the Epicurean views I’ve been reading about in classical works.

The story of the scroll is a fascinating history and I would dearly love to read much more of these works, but there are few printed sources I have been able to find.

The cross-pollination of ideas between Buddhism and Christianity has not been very well explored, and I would like to learn more. I have read there were Buddhists in Alexandria in the first century CE, whose ideas and writings may have influenced the Gnostics. Did their faith also influence early “orthodox” Christians?

And how much did Christian beliefs influence Buddhism in this era? I simply don’t know, but there is a glimmer of light in these scrolls that suggests both faiths were malleable enough at that time to absorb something from the other. Too bad there was a “hardening of the faith arteries” that prevented more sharing.

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08/12/14

Montaigne and Machiavelli


Michel de Montaigne mentioned Machiavelli only twice in his Essays, both in Book Two. This tells us he was aware of the latter, but not whether he was intimately familiar with his works. Nor does it tell us which of Machiavelli’s writings he is referring to (by this date, all of Machiavelli’s major works were in print). Machiavelli himself had died in 1527, some 50 or more years before Montaigne penned this part of his essays (first published in 1580).

The first mention is in Chapter XXXIV: OBSERVATION ON THE MEANS TO CARRY ON A WAR ACCORDING TO JULIUS CAESAR (emphasis added):

‘Tis related of many great leaders that they have had certain books in particular esteem, as Alexander the Great, Homer; Scipio Africanus, Xenophon; Marcus Brutus, Polybius; Charles V., Philip’de Comines; and ’tis said that, in our times, Machiavelli is elsewhere still in repute; but the late Marshal Strozzi, who had taken Caesar for his man, doubtless made the best choice, seeing that it indeed ought to be the breviary of every soldier, as being the true and sovereign pattern of the military art. And, moreover, God knows with that grace and beauty he has embellished that rich matter, with so pure, delicate, and perfect expression, that, in my opinion, there are no writings in the world comparable to his, as to that business.

It is unclear to me where Montaigne is referring to that Machiavelli is “still in repute.” It depends on the book in question: the reputation of The Prince was vastly different from that of The Art of War.

The second mention comes in Chapter XVII: OF PRESUMPTION (emphasis added):

Machiavelli’s writings, for example, were solid enough for the subject, yet were they easy enough to be controverted; and they who have done so, have left as great a facility of controverting theirs; there was never wanting in that kind of argument replies and replies upon replies, and as infinite a contexture of debates as our wrangling lawyers have extended in favour of long suits:
“Caedimur et totidem plagis consumimus hostem;”

["We are slain, and with as many blows kill the enemy" (or),
"It is a fight wherein we exhaust each other by mutual wounds."
—Horace, Epist., ii. 2, 97.]

The work here may well be The Prince – the main object of controversy in Machiavelli’s writings and the subject of several counterpoint books within its first century. Montaigne rather sardonically comments that in reputing Machiavelli. those authors open themselves up to the same sort of argumentative treatment; and those subsequent attacks in turn to other challenges – ad nauseum.

A little later in that chapter, Montaigne wrote what strikes me as a comment that parallel’s Machiavelli’s own political words (emphasis added):

Our manners are infinitely corrupt, and wonderfully incline to the worse; of our laws and customs there are many that are barbarous and monstrous nevertheless, by reason of the difficulty of reformation, and the danger of stirring things, if I could put something under to stop the wheel, and keep it where it is, I would do it with all my heart:
“Numquam adeo foedis, adeoque pudendis
Utimur exemplis, ut non pejora supersint.”

["The examples we use are not so shameful and foul
but that worse remain behind."—Juvenal, viii. 183.]
The worst thing I find in our state is instability, and that our laws, no more than our clothes, cannot settle in any certain form. It is very easy to accuse a government of imperfection, for all mortal things are full of it: it is very easy to beget in a people a contempt of ancient observances; never any man undertook it but he did it; but to establish a better regimen in the stead of that which a man has overthrown, many who have attempted it have foundered. I very little consult my prudence in my conduct; I am willing to let it be guided by the public rule. Happy the people who do what they are commanded, better than they who command, without tormenting themselves as to the causes; who suffer themselves gently to roll after the celestial revolution! Obedience is never pure nor calm in him who reasons and disputes.

I’ll need to do some more reading about the similarities between the two in the near future.

08/10/14

Montaigne’s words on anger


“There is no passion that so shakes the clarity of our judgment as anger,” Montaigne wrote in Book II of his Essays (Chapter 31). “It is a passion that takes pleasure in itself and flatters itself.”

That strikes me a very Buddhist statement, a comment lifted from the Dhammapada, although Montaigne was a solid Catholic. It certainly has a similar wisdom.

I have seen that anger cloud the judgment of people in political debate, on many stages from national to local. It blinds people to the reality of the issues, and carries them on a wave of self-induced pleasure, as Montaigne saw.

When fuelled by anger, discussion degenerates into shouting matches where no one can win. They make of their anger a holy cause unto itself, closing themselves to any argument or fact that might challenge their self-righteousness. They no longer listen to compromise, or weigh alternatives. Anger outweighs all. Anger becomes ego becomes anger, a vicious feedback loop.

Montaigne also criticized those who bluster and bellow their self-righteous anger for the world’s attention:

“They go after their own shadow, and carry this tempest into a place where no one is punished or affected by it, except someone who has to put up with the racket of their own voice.”

One is reminded of Shakespeare’s line about “…full of sound and fury, signifying nothing…”

Anger displaces rational thought and ends any possibility of civil or civilized debate. It spews forth in puerile vituperation and accusation. We see it on social media every day.

Calm, rational thought, he wrote in that same essay, is the only way to engage one another.

“I observe in the writings of the ancients,” wrote Montaigne, “…that the man who thinks strikes home much more forcefully than the man who pretends.”

But it is difficult to crack that wall of angry self-justification.