Cicero, Seneca and Confucius

As I wrote in my last post, I have been reading a lot of the classic philosophers of late, particularly the Stoics. And I’ve been going further afield.

My classical readings have included a lot of Seneca and Cicero of late (plus Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius), as well as interpretations of same. While Seneca was a confirmed Stoic, Cicero seems sympathetic if not entirely convinced, and may have had strong sympathies for the Epicureans as well. 

My reading also includes what I’ve found is the best single book explaining Confucius and his views: Confucius and Confucianism: The Essentials, by Lee Dian Rainey (Wiley, 2010). If you want to understand the most important philosopher and political commentator in China’s history, this is the place to start. This book has shown me some common threads between the Stoics and the Confucian philosophers, and highlighted shared themes in the Analects. I’m also reading a translation of The Analects by Annping Chin (Penguin, 2014), which is not only in clear, modern English, but is accompanied by very useful explanatory notes. Both books I highly recommend.

(N.B. I’ve been engaged in an email correspondence with Prof. Rainey about source material, translations, and other issues. She has been most gracious and patient in responding to my layperson’s comments and questions I’ll come back to her.)

I suppose I’m looking for a sort of universal field theory for philosophy to help me sort them out, establish the common ground, and then find my own balance within this eclectic melange. While I currently lean toward the Stoics, I like to look outside the confines of Western thought in my humble effort to develop a synthesis of ideals and views that makes personal sense both intellectually and emotionally.

Not an easy task, I admit, since despite some parallel concepts, East and West were (are) separated by great gulfs of spirituality, governance, language, and culture that affect the interpretation and understanding. Language in particular is challenging since everything I read is a translation and the meaning is highly dependent on the translator’s choice of words and phrases to convey the original ideas (you have probably read my earlier comments on translation as an art).*

Still, the journey is the thing, isn’t it? And, of course, the reading to get there is enjoyable, as reading to learn always is. I’ve found a lot of seriously relevant material, some of which also parallels what I’ve learned in my studies of, and on-again-off-again practice of, Buddhism. So there are connections here; I just need to sort them out.
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Travels with Epicurus

EpicurusI’m sure it’s not just me who feels this way, but these days I find increasing wisdom and solace in the words of the classical authors: Seneca, Cicero, Epicurus, Marcus Aurelius, Horace, Aristotle, Heraclitus, Epictetus, Diogenes, Plato. The writers of classical Greece and Rome mostly attract my attention right now, although I have also read many classical Chinese, Indian, Hebrew and Japanese philosophers and poets. Wisdom can be found everywhere.

It never ceases to amaze me how human emotions, perceptions and sensations have not changed over the millennia, almost in opposition to our rapidly and vastly changing technologies. Not merely in some rarefied philosophical sense, some intellectual perspective, but in everyday things: our passions, our politics, our tastes, our life and loves; the ancients knew and understood us, although Instagram and Snapchat may have baffled them.

Nor have we changed much if at all in our quest for answers to the “Big Questions” – the question of evil, of free will, how should we behave and be governed, of why anything exists, our search for meaning, for understanding, to grapple with suffering, longing and whatever future awaits us at death. Yes, some have found answers in religion and faith, but mostly these questions remain hanging. And there’e the always-dangling end-of-life question: what matters? All questions that can keep a person awake at night.

For some writers, some or even all of those questions are a philosophical dead end. A forum for word games and semantic exercises, but not solutions. Instead they focus on how we ought to live. Be here now, as Baba Ram Das famously wrote. Bring to your life a sense of belonging to the world, an earthly mindfulness to your daily life. Consider what happens today, not in the afterlife. This is what originally attracted me to Buddhism. But it also attracts me to several classical philosophers, more lately than in my past. And Epicurus is one of them.

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Channelling John Stuart Mill

In the opening few pages of his essay On Liberty, John Stuart Mill warned about the “tyranny of the prevailing opinion.” Anyone familiar with the mob mentality than can erupt on social media, its potential for divisiveness and the platform’s inherent weakness to be manipulated by outside forces (such as Russia) would consider Mill’s words as topical today. 

Mill was writing in this essay about, “…the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual” and how to contain the “tyranny of the majority.”*

He was passionate about individuality and the freedom of the individual, warning against state control (thought or otherwise)  by any means for any reason other than one, and would have, I suspect, been aghast at today’s social media as a tool for manipulating public opinion (in a way the late Neil Postman would have appreciated**):

…there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.

The current rise of right-wing conformity to nationalist, religious and racist ideologies masquerading as populism poses a similar threat to individual freedoms. Populist movements threaten western democracies by attacking the fundamental principles of an open, free, inclusive and democratic society and replacing them with conformity to restrictive, exclusive nationalist and racist views.

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Plutarch on listening, and The Block

Not listening[W]e observe that… the great majority of persons …practise speaking before they have acquired the habit of listening.” Plutarch wrote that in his essay De Auditu, or On Listening. Reading those words immediately made me think of that group we have on Collingwood Council who never listen to anyone but themselves and frequently speak without any apparent thought behind their comments: The Block.

And, no, I don’t expect any of them to heed his words of wisdom or advice on this or any other subject. First, that would require reading, and reading is antithetical to all of them because it might lead to learning and that could lead to facts, and facts are something they will have none of this term.

Still, I thought I’d share some of Plutarch’s other words of wisdom with you, dear reader, so you can judge for yourself if, as it strikes me, it seems he was writing about them.*

Plutarch lived almost 2,000 years ago (c.50-c.120 CE), and was a prolific writer (you probably know him best for his historical “Lives”; biographies of famous Greeks and Romans). I came across this essay in a Penguin book I’ve been reading of late. They’re from his master work, Moralia, an eclectic collection of 78 essays.

…if anybody draws them to one side and tries to impart something useful, or to advise them of some duty, or to admonish them when in the wrong, or to mollify them when incensed, they have no patience with him; but, eager to get the better of him if they can, they fight against what he says, or else they beat a hasty retreat in search of other foolish talk, filling their ears like worthless and rotten vessels with anything rather than the things they need.

One only need consider the efforts by PowerStream to have their side of the story presented to council and help debunk the conspiracy theory being floated about the previous sale or the shared services agreement. None of The Block would hear them or our own staff, nor allow them to come to council and make public statements. 

Consider, too, The Block’s refusal to listen to anything the hospital representatives and their planner said about the redevelopment plan. Or to our municipal partners on the airport board who argued in favour of developing the site. There are so many examples of The Block refusing to listen to anyone who contradicted their rigid ideology or debunked their conspiracy theories that I can’t pretend to list them all here.

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Found in translation

Into EnglishLanguage translation fascinates me. It’s a mix of language skill, art, interpretation, science and, apparently, divination. Maybe even magic.

Going from one language into another is far from a simple step of swapping words in dictionary manner – Flaubert’s le mot juste. Any fool can do that. Hell, even Google can. A single word can be a fulcrum, and the decision to use one word instead of another can utterly change the meaning. I wrote about this in The Municipal Machiavelli. The translator’s choice of even a single word – in that case the choice between the English words ruin and destruction – can alter the reader’s emotions, understanding and appreciation of a work.*

Back in the 17th century, English poet, satirist and translator John Dryden divided translations into three forms:

…metaphrase, paraphrase, and imitation. Metaphrase is literal, word-for-word translation; paraphrase follows the sense of the author, rather than his precise words; imitation departs from the original at the pleasure of the translator, and really constructs a new poem on the basis of the old. Dryden rejects the two extremes of metaphrase and imitation, and chooses the middle way of paraphrase.(Full article here)

Dryden explained his approach in his introduction to his translation of Ovid’s Epistles (1680), the work that launched his late-life career as a translator. He evidently gave the process a lot of thought:

All Translation I suppose may be reduced to these three heads.
First, that of Metaphrase, or turning an Authour word by word, and Line by Line, from one Language into another. Thus, or near this manner, was Horace his Art of Poetry translated by Ben. Johnson. The second way is that of Paraphrase, or Translation with Latitude, where the Authour is kept in view by the Translator, so as never to be lost, but his words are not so strictly follow’d as his sense, and that too is admitted to be amplyfied, but not alter’d. Such is Mr. Waller’s Translation of Virgils Fourth Aeneid. The Third way is that of Imitation, where the Translator (if now he has not lost that Name) assumes the liberty not only to vary from the words and sence, but to forsake them both as he sees occasion: and taking only some general hints from the Original, to run division on the ground-work, as he pleases. Such is Mr. Cowley’s practice in turning two Odes of Pindar, and one of Horace into English.
Concerning the first of these Methods, our Master Horace has given us this Caution, Nec verbum verbo curabis reddere, fidus
Interpres — Nor word for word too faithfully translate.

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War for the Planet of the Apes considered

Pierre Boulle never imagined War for the Planet of the Apes, the latest film in the remade franchise. In fact, it would be fair to say the author of the original book never imagined any of the series, from the first in 1968 to the latest, released in 2017. They were far, far from what he had envisioned in the early 1960s. Warning: spoilers ahead.

Boulle’s 1963 novel, Monkey Planet, was basically a satire and a social commentary. And it wasn’t based in America: the astronauts came from France (and their last view on landing was of the Eiffel Tower not the Statue of Liberty… oops. Spoiler alert!). But it had a lot of contemporary themes common to both, including Cold War jitters.

The novel was scripted into an action movie in 1968, starring the hammy Charlton Heston, with Roddy McDowall (and others) in chimp makeup. Rod Serling of the Twilight Zone fame had a hand in the writing, but so did others, and it ended up a sort-of reflection of Boulle’s original. A fun-house mirror reflection.

While the lumbering Heston would (mercifully) only have a cameo role in the first sequel (Beneath, see below), McDowall starred in the remainder and set the tone for the series.

In the 1968 film, Heston plays a heroic American astronaut who fights to win freedom for the humans and stir up a revolution against ape dominance (ironic that the US was so hep on such concepts when they did them, but took umbrage when anyone else – such as Che Guevara – did it). (Heston went on to become a mouthpiece for the NRA.) The other films have no less histrionic plots.

Although Beneath ends with a “divine” bomb blowing up the planet (apes and mutant humans both), the series went on for three more films, the writers providing a “miraculous” escape for apes Cornelius, Zira and Dr. Milo via an astronaut’s space ship, arriving back in time to 1973. The former couple have a son they call Caesar, who becomes the lead revolutionary in the subsequent two movies, culminating in the final overthrow of humans in Battle for the Planet of the Apes.
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