Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Brave New World - Analysis

I thoroughly enjoyed this thoughtful, well-written novel by Huxley and I wanted to elaborate on how I think the themes in this book translate into our society today.

The structure of society
Even though America prides itself on being upwardly mobile for most of its citizens it is clear that the caste structure in BNW (alpha, beta, gamma, etc) exists here today. In BNW the caste structure is maintained by controlling genetics and development, and later through conditioning and social conformity. The latter two matter significantly since it requires the state actively manipulating individuals throughout their entire lives. In BNW conformity is induced by controlling media, promoting conformist activities for each caste and by giving caste members drugs (soma) to keep them complacent.

Controlling society
Today I think we are manipulated by state institutions, large corporations and the media. We are taught to conform to a consumerist society where we feel compelled to compare our possessions, lifestyles, careers and other choices to our neighbor's. We don't have "soma" but we have many other drugs to help keep us happy. It could be said that money, alcohol, computer games, reality television and sports are all used to keep us "happy" and easily malleable. The only people who can transcend the caste structure today are those who can resist these temptations and the compulsion to measure self-worth using society's tangible criteria of success.

A society of equals?
Near the end of the book, the "World Controller" Mustafa Mond reveals that there was once an experiment to create a society full of alphas. It was a disaster since not all alphas could be doctors and lawyers, but some had to be factory workers and laborers. The alphas performing menial tasks detested those working in the high profile jobs. The experimental society collapsed into chaos. Mustafa says that society is like an iceberg, where 8/9ths of society must be at the bottom and only 1/9th on top.

I recognize that not everyone can be doctors, lawyers or "world controllers". However, I cannot imagine society would collapse in a world full of equals, assuming everyone is rewarded proportionately to their job. Also, I believe there is more than just genetics in determining what career is most suitable to us and our success. Things such as passion, ambition and work ethic should count for as much as our chromosmes. Likewise, fairness in compensation and rewarding effort with opportunities to move through the social hierarchy would create the best society, in my mind.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Aldous Huxley: Brave New World

Although many people read "Brave New World" in high school, I never experienced it until now. This is my new favorite book.

Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) was an English writer and philosopher whose most well-known work was "Brave New World", which imagines a dystopian view of the future. The title comes from Miranda's speech in Shakespeare's The Tempest.
"O wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world! That has such people in't!"
Although Brave New World was written in 1931, Huxley's book predicted future events with great clarity. In BNW the state exerts near total control over people's lives (think Hitler or Stalin) and we have in vitro fertilization, birth control, helicopters, televisions and drugs which help regulate our moods.

All babies are from in vitro fertilization and there are no "mothers" or "fathers". Everyone belongs to everyone else. You can have sex with anyone, but no one can have a child. Promiscuity is encouraged, but no one is allowed to have a relationship, since this creates a bond which is not shared with everyone else. The developing embryos are manipulated in vitro so that they produce babies who fall into different castes such as alpha, beta, delta, gamma and epsilons (think of A, B, C, D and F students). The alphas are the highest caste, the most intelligent and physically perfect. Progressing downward, the epsilons are practically imbeciles, capable only of the lowest, most menial tasks.

To ensure harmony, the euphoric drug "soma" is freely available and it is especially useful in controlling the epsilons in their mindless work and near meaningless existence. In substitution for God, Henry Ford (yes, Model T Henry Ford) is worshipped as a god. The year is 632 AF (after Ford) and the deity's words of consumption and social engineering are considered sacred text. All Christian crosses have their tops sawed off so as to resemble "T" as in "Model T Ford".

Consuming material goods is very important, as this keeps everyone in society working. If people are not working, they cannot be happy. Therefore the state controls exactly how much needs to be consumed to keep everyone busy. The state also manipulates its citizens with "hypnopedic" messages to "condition" them into being happy in their jobs and desiring the correct things in the correct proportions.

The book centers around three characters who reject this "perfect" society. Bernard Marx is an "alpha plus" who detests the complacency induced by "soma" and expresses his desire to feel emotions (rather than have them dampened or clouded by drugs). Helmholtz Watson is another alpha plus who wants to understand poetry (which is banned) and he recognizes the manipulation that is occurring in this "civilization". John is a "savage" born in a free-world reservation, who is brought to this civilization by Bernard. John detests this new society which he finds god-less, materialistic and ignorant. He says that everyone gets things too cheaply and easily, no one knows what hard work is, or has a chance to feel their emotions. Everyone is able to indulge in infantile desires and a steady supply of soma keeps all the people happy and easily controlled.

This book makes me wonder about our own role in society and the influence of the state in keeping us in our "castes". Just like in BNW, I think we are subtly manipulated by the media and controlling substances to maintain our place in society.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Elie Wiesel: Night

Elie Wiesel (1928-) is a Jewish holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate who was born and raised in Romania. During WW2 his family was deported to several different concentration camps, with Wiesel spending time at both Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

After the war, Wiesel wrote about his experiences as a young boy in the concentration camps and his coping with "survivor guilt"after the war. His most famous book was Night, which is a fictional account of a young Jewish boy who survives the holocaust. Part of a trilogy, the other two books being Dawn and Day, Night is considered one of the most significant pieces of holocaust literature (the other two being The Diary of Anne Frank and If This Is a Man).
In Night, Wiesel writes a roman a clef (new word for me!) about a boy named "Elie" which is similar to his own experiences in the Nazi death camps. He is a devout young Jew who cries when he thinks about the destruction of the "Temple" in Jerusalem (think 68 AD - 2000 years ago). His mother and sisters are sent to different concentration camps, but Elie remains with his father. Elie sees horrific things, such as babies being thrown into fiery ditches, prisoners killing each other over scraps of bread, and watching people murdered daily. It is not only the butchery of the Nazi's that disturbs him, but also the savagery and cruelty of his fellow prisoners.
Elie declares that "God is dead" if he allows such barbaric and inhumane acts to occur. It is unfathomable that God could allow such things to happen if he knew of them. It reminds me of reading The Book of Job, where Job tries to comprehend how God could let such horrible things happen to him. This Old Testament story would have been very familiar to a devote Jew.
In the end Elie survives, but his father does not.
Dawn and Day continue Elie's story, but they feel very distinct from Night. However, Weisel continues with Elie's survivor guilt which over-shadows all his character's thoughts and actions. To a reader, it feels like too much reading about Elie thinking-about-death all of the time.
In Dawn, Elie has moved to Palestine and is part of the Resistance against the British (circa 1947). The Resistance hopes to establish a free, Jewish state (Israel) and have resorted to terrorist tactics to achieve this. They ambush British convoys, kidnap and kill British soldiers and engage in other terrorist activity. Elie must kill a British officer and this causes him great consternation, since his knows what death is like. The most memorable line is when Elie is thinking about the concentration camps and his new role as executioner and he says, "Don't judge me, judge God".
Day is another reflection on the holocaust, this time Elie has been hit by a car in New York City. The doctor and nurses struggle to keep him alive but are puzzled by Elie's acceptance of death. In particular, the doctor who fights hard to save lives cannot understand why a young man would be so unafraid of death.
I enjoyed reading "Night" which I considered insightful, personal and a well-written narrative. I found "Dawn" and "Day" interesting, but they are a very different experience. I also found the dialogue in Dawn and Day to be really bad - real people would never talk like that!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Reading Plan: GBWW in the next nine years

For the most part, the books I write about are from the "Great Books of the Western World" (GBWW) collection, following their 10 year reading plan. If I read other books that I consider "classics" I also write about them, since GBWW does not cover all the great works of literature available. This is also considering that the collection was released 50 years ago.

I decided to map out my reading schedule for the next 10 years. It is a bit strange to be thinking I will still be reading these books ten years from now (when I am 45). More realistically I wonder if I will still be picking up these books in 6 months. In any case, it was good to map out my future reading since I think I have been reading too deeply.

The GBWW provides complete, unabridged versions of all their readings. However, they only ask the reader to read a small part (say 20 to 60 pages at a time). Since I don't want to miss anything, I have been reading the entire volumes, afraid that I won't be returning to these works. Looking ahead, I now see that in some cases this is true, while in others it is not.

For example, I read all of Aristotle's "Nicomachean Ethics", but I now see that I will get to read most of it, bit by bit, over the next 10 years. I am not sure if I like this fragmented reading schedule provided by GBWW; surely reading it all at one time would be easier. However, returning to a particular piece may help strengthen my comprehension and improve familiarity.

In future readings I will try to only read the assignments so that I follow the plan and increase my speed. If I know I will not be returning to a particular work, I will then finish the remainder.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

St. Augustine: The Confessions

Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) was one of the most important church fathers in the development of Christianity. He grew up in Algeria, near Carthage which was then part of the Roman Empire. At this point in history, the Roman Empire was in steady decline and Rome was sacked in 410 by the Visigoths. While Rome fell, Christianity was ascending and Augustine's writings, teachings and rhetoric provided a foundation for its development.

His two well-known books are the "The Confessions" and "The City of God". The former is an autobiography describing Augustine's sins before the Lord saved him, and the latter depicts Augustine's vision of a heavenly "New Jerusalem" which he contrasts with the base needs of earthly pleasures and politics.

Reading the "Confessions" is unique in that we have Augustine basically listing all his sins, transgressions, and lack of faith. Augustine was a follower of Manichaeism, a pagan religion which promulgated the idea of a cosmic struggle between equally powerful good (light) and evil (darkness). Augustine was also a follower of Plato, which led him to consider an ideal good, one without evil (which led Augustine to consider Christianity).

Augustine details his inability to control his passions, his many affairs, children out of wedlock, theft, drinking parties and his love of plays. He watches his friends turn toward Christianity, and Augustine's mother, Monica, desperately wants Augustine to find salvation through this new religion. Augustine travels from Carthage to Rome, then to Milan to meet the bishop Ambrose who will later be recognized as one of the four doctors of the church (which includes Augustine)

Augustine keeps slipping deeper into debauchery and iniquity even as he moves closer to God. He finds himself wanting to accept Jesus but he cannot divorce himself from his earthly pleasures. At one point he cries out to God (quite wryly) , "Give me chastity and continence, only not yet!" Who hasn't wanted to make this bargain?

Finally Augustine collapses in a sobbing heap at the age of 32 and accepts Jesus as his savior.

It seems that Augustine's confessions were probably designed as a selective autobiography to be a tool and a guide. Augustine does quote from the bible very frequently, especially from Psalms. However, it is intriguing to think that this is a man sharing his private conversation with God. Also of interest is Augustine's idea that everything is good, since it is made by God. There is no "evil", only degrees of goodness. Plays, drinking and sex are good, but not as good as obeying God, showing temperance and being faithful. Augustine's concept of degrees of goodness is interesting and provocative.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Old Testament - The Book of Job

Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do we see persons who we know are evil doing well, being happy and successful? Is God not really in charge of what happens? Is he ignorant of evil or not truly omnipotent? What is divine justice?

The Book of Job is called one of the "wisdom literature" of the Old Testament, the others being Psalms and Proverbs. From my reading, it appears to be quite poetic and rich in metaphors. This book is thought to have been written in the 5th century BC in the post-Exilic period.

To give a synopsis, this is the story of a man named Job who has his faith tested in the severest sense. Job is very successful, has a large, happy family and is pious and thankful toward God. Satan says to God that Job is only pious because he is prosperous and well treated. God decides to wager (?) Satan that this is not true and he allows Satan to do terrible things to Job. Satan steals all of Job's livestock, destroys his livelihood, kills all his children and then gives Job a horrible, disfiguring disease. Job's wife tells him to curse God and die.

About then, three of Job's friends show up and they have a long dialogue with Job about why God would do this to someone who is good and pious. What is communicated to us is one of the fundamental beliefs in the Judeo-Christian-Muslim faith. God tests us with adversity, he allows bad things to happen to good people AND good things to happen to bad people. However, the good people shall be rewarded in the end.

Job has a difficult time understanding why God would do this to him, one of his faithful servants.

Eventually God reveals himself and tells Job that he cannot possibly understand God's reasons. God says that Job cannot comprehend the breadth of the Earth, send forth lightning, provide food for all beasts or know the heavens above. How then can Job understand the great plans of God?

In the end, God rewards Job for his patience and faith by granting him ten more children, more livestock and a much longer life. However, I do wonder if this is suitable recompense for all his suffering, including the death of his first ten children. In addition, why would God need to make a wager with Satan. What does that prove? God already knows that Job is faithful and steadfast and he will never be able to convince Satan of that. Of course the theologians would say that I cannot possibly understand what God's plan convenient.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Plutarch: Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar

Plutarch compares the lives of two great men from antiquity, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar.

Alexander (356–323 BC) was a Macedonian who is best known for his generalship and the spreading of Greek culture far to the east. In defeating the Persian king Darius III, Alexander created one of the largest land empires ever to have existed. As a brilliant tactician, Alexander's military achievements are often the standard to which all other military leaders are compared.

Plutarch describes Alexander as having a strong personality, huge ambitions and being highly energetic. He seemed to be continually pushing himself, which may explain how Alexander did so much in his short life, dying from sickness at the age of 32 in Persia. His greatest faults may have been his overdeveloped ego, a sense of megalomania and a penchant for alcohol.

Julius Caesar (100-42 BC) was a man of many talents who transformed Rome from a republic into an empire. Plutarch describes in detail how Caesar could be both a superb military commander and a shrewd politician.

What I found interesting about Plutarch's biography was how much of it reminded me of Shakespeare's play "Julius Caesar". I realize old Will did not have many sources to use for his plays, but I was surprised to see lines being lifted right out of Plutarch's work, although Caesar does not say Et tu, Brute? when Brutus stabs him.

In comparing these men from antiquity we can see they were both excellent military commanders who defeated armies several times the size of their own forces. Caesar fought battles in distant Britain, while Alexander travelled all the way to the gates of India. Both men also played a significant role in government, founding cities and designing civil works projects. Caesar and Alexander had great ambitions and repeatedly pushed themselves and their men to their physical limits. In battle they were courageous, implacable warriors, but they were also magnanimous to their defeated enemies.

They did have significant differences, especially in their political lives. Alexander was a king who dealt with little dissent, while Caesar fought a civil war and became an emperor. Alexander died very young from illness while Caesar was assassinated at the age of 56. A young Caesar once lamented that Alexander had conquered a kingdom by his age, while he had done nothing notable. Alexander did not develop a strong enough political structure and his empire fractured after his death, while Caesar's Roman Empire continued to flourish after he was killed.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Plutarch: Lycurgus and Numa Pompilius

The founding laws and mores of a state can have long-lasting consequences for the success and development of that government as well as the people being governed. In this first section, Plutarch compares the famous lawgivers of ancient Sparta and Rome, and demonstrates how these individuals affected their countries.

Lycurgus (7th century BC) was a Greek lawgiver from Sparta, a city-state on the Peloponessian peninsula in the area known as Laconia. He is important as being one of the first lawgivers in the Western world and his image is found several times in the US Capitol.
The men of Sparta trained for war their entire lives, shunned luxury and were known for their brevity of speech. The word "spartan" means living without luxury and someone who is "laconic" expresses themselves with few words.

Lycurgus was a king of Sparta and he travelled around the Mediterranean looking for the best form of government. In the end he combined what he thought were the best parts from several governments, which resulted in the idea of Sparta that we know today. Spartans were each given an equal share of land, so that no one had more. Lycurgus also banned money to help reduce avarice, introduced the sharing of wives and the communal raising of children. He also set up a senate to help bring moderation to the government and encouraged the communal eating of meals between men to promote equality. It was sort of a happy little commune - except that their entire lives were focused on becoming perfect fighting machines.

So with everyone training to fight, who planted crops, raised animals and kept everything moving? The Spartans used helots (slaves) to do their their dirty work. The helots significantly outnumbered the Spartans, however, the Spartans were expert warriors. This meant that it was quite dangerous and unlikely for any helots to rise up, even as perilous as it was for the Spartans. Despite the unequal society, the laws of Lycurgus lasted far longer than most other city-states in Greece or anywhere else.

Numa Pompilius (753-673 BC) was the second king of Rome. Like Lycurgus, he lived a very "spartan" life, but he did not insist on the same conditions for Roman citizens. In contrast, he encouraged the accumulation of wealth. Numa found that Rome was in a state of constant war and he tried to encourage diplomacy and other means of acquiring land and power. In comparison, Lycurgus found his city of Sparta soft and weak and tried to mold them into warriors.
Plutarch finishes the comparison by stating that Rome only truly developed when it abandoned the teachings of Numa and became belligerent, aggressive and rapacious. However, when Sparta deserted the doctrines of Lycurgus they became weak and were subjugated by the rest of Greece.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Plutarch: an introduction

Plutarch (AD 46 – 120) was an ancient Greek historian and biographer, who became an Roman citizen during his lifetime.  The son of a wealthy land owner, Plutarch travelled widely - Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt and Italy. During the 10 years he spent in Rome he visited well-stocked libraries, taught philosophy in Milan and visited many ancient battlefields.

One of his most well-known works is "Parallel Lives" a series of biographies is also known as the "The Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans". Plutarch compares two lives, usually one Roman and one Greek, to examine similarities and differences between them. For example, he compares the great Roman conqueror Julius Caesar to Alexander the Great. 

Plutarch has been called the first biographer, and his writings are our source of primary knowledge for many famous people from antiquity. His writing are not only historical, but also reflect the humanity in each of his characters, which was later embraced by subsequent admirers such as Franklin, Beethoven, Montaigne, Emerson, Napoleon and Jefferson. 

 I will only be reading a few of the 23 comparisons he makes, but reading Plutarch is surprisingly easy. Although he tries to be objective and impartial (like a modern historian), I have read that he slightly emphasizes some facts in order to make a point.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Aristotle: Politics

"He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is self-sufficient, must either be a beast or a god." (Aristotle)

Aristotle's Politics is said to be a natural follow up to Nicomachean Ethics. In this book he outlines what it means for men to live in society, follow laws and accept a hierarchy of rulers and the ruled (or slaves and masters).

Continuing, Aristotle says that in all relationships there is a master and a slave. In marriage, the man is the master over his children and wife. In society, people must obey the ruler. One of the best forms of government is an aristocracy, where the naturally superior rule over the inferior. One of the worst may be democracy, where everyone has a voice in the rule, even though many should not. We would find that shocking today, although our country's forefathers were aware that the unwashed masses could be easily influenced by a persuasive demagogue. Also the common folk do not always make informed decisions - which is something that Aristotle predicted (and probably witnessed).

Aristotle rails against the creation of currency and interest on money, which he considers unnatural. When people barter, they only take what they need. Likewise, the bartering tools serve functions (shoes, food, animals) while coins are only money and are not good for anything else. In addition, currency can be accumulated and this encourages greed. Interestingly, Aristotle says that the best way to make money is to get a monopoly. He lists examples such as those who cornered the iron ore market or had control of all the olive presses for making oil. It is clear that Karl Marx would have approved of some of Aristotle's beliefs.

Why do we have government? Aristotle thought the development of the state was natural for man, since man is a political animal. Starting with bonds between a man and woman, to a group of families (a village) to the much larger city-state, just as men and women need each other for companionship and procreation, a state develops out of a need. This need is the "good life". Within a state man is the most perfect of animals, but separated from law and justice man is at his worst.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Nicomachean Ethics - Justice and Friendship

The last two topics in Nicomachean Ethics are regarding justice and friendship.
What does it mean to be just? How does a just person act? Aristotle explains that justice is the greatest virtue which also encompasses all other virtues. The opposite, injustice, is making gains from vices (cowardliness, self-indulgence, adultery). Justice is a mean between having too much and having too little - people should have what they deserve. If you are rewarded too well you are being unjust; if you are not rewarded enough then you are being unjustly treated. Unfortunately you cannot tell if a man is just by looking at them, you have to see them in action. Sometimes we can only see a person's true character when they have power or money as "rule will show the man" (Aristotle).

"With out friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods" (Aristotle)
What is friendship? Do like attract like or do opposites attract? Aristotle quotes Heraclitus in saying that "it is what opposes that helps" but he also says that friends are alike in virtue. Aristotle describes three kinds of friendship, those based on utility, pleasure or goodness. Friends of the first two sorts are only filling a need between the two parties and these friendships do not last. You may want a friend for conversation, playing a game, sharing an experience or camaraderie- but as soon as you do not need this, the friendship will dissolve.

Friendships that last are those based on a love of character in the other person. True friends help each other in all conditions and genuinely care for each other, but do not require anything in return. Friends do not give each other every honor, only the honor they deserve based on their status, age and relation. Finally, to be a friend you must love yourself. If you seek what is best for you and are virtuous, then you will seek the best for your friend as well.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Nichomachean Ethics - Free will

Are we responsible for making bad decisions or doing evil? How do we know right from wrong? What tells us that we are following the "Doctrine of the Mean" between the extremes of too much or too little? Socrates said that no one knowingly commits evil, but Aristotle decided to elaborate on this.

[I borrowed this image from Freud regarding the Id, Ego and Superego. However, I think it is just an expansion onto Aristotle's own ideas]

Aristotle tells us that wisdom is the product of practical knowledge and intuition. We learn practical knowledge (phonesis) from our parents or the state. Without phonesis it is impossible to know how to pursue the correct ends. Intuition is something we develop by putting our moral compass into practice and using it everyday.

Aristotle elaborates that every action should be considered as either voluntary or involuntary and we should only recognize voluntary actions as truly virtuous or lacking virtue. Involuntary actions are done under duress, compulsion or ignorance and can not be considered representative of character. Can a person be called brave if he is forced to fight? Can a person be called a coward if he runs away from a sudden noise?

Voluntary action requires reason; the balance between appetite and seeking the higher good. No one knowingly does evil but we are responsible for our ignorance (i.e. not knowing the consequences of our actions). If we choose to remain ignorant then we are committing evil. These statements by Aristotle seem to predict the development of existentialism in which our free will is the primary agent controlling our life. Aristotle calls knowing what is right but not doing it akrasia or a lack of self-control. This is the worst vice since the person is beyond reason; he has abandoned reason and surrendered control to his lower, baser appetites. However, if you lack self-control because of temperament (emotion) that is better than if you are conscious about your [bad] choice.

Aristotle also adds that being virtuous requires practice and habit. Being good is not enough, you must practice being good. Aristotle states that the winner of the Olympics is not the strongest man, but the strongest man who competes.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Nicomachean Ethics - Doctorine of the Mean

Aristotle thought that the highest form of "good" was happiness. This should be the end goal of any endeavor. The only way to be happy is by living a virtuous life, which depends on maintaining a mean between oppossing feelings or behaivors which lie on the extremes.

For example, we should show Temperance by not giving in too easily to physical pleasure while still being able to enjoy physical sensations. Courage is to not be a coward but also not be brash; Shame is being modest but also not overly shy or shameless. Patience is being "angry with the right person and to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way".

The highest ends are ends in themselves, which is why happiness is more important than money or honor. Money and honor are only means to an end, and that end is happiness, to which we should all strive. Virtue comes through habit and education. We need to know the right way, but we only become good by acting good. Knowing how to swim is not the same as swimming, and does not make you a swimmer. Aristotle says that hitting the correct mean is difficult, but we can get close if we give up pleasure for its own sake. We must instead get pleasure by being virtuous, which will bring us true happiness in the end.

Aristotle: an Introduction

Socrates was the first of the great Greek philosophers, who then taught Plato, who in turn mentored Aristotle. Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) is recognized as one of the most important contributors to Western philosophy and thought; many of his ideas were accepted as dogma for 2000 years. He wrote on numerous subjects including: politics, logic, music, theater, physics, metaphysics, poetry, ethics, biology, zoology and was the teacher of Alexander the Great.

I am currently reading two of Aristotle's works including Nichomachean Ethics, which is his magnum opus on ethics. The name of the book comes from Nichomachus, Aristotle's son, and this text "is widely considered one of the most important historical philosophical works" (Wikipedia).

The second book I am reading is Politics, a book Aristotle wrote about the philosophy of human social structure. It was Aristotle, after all, who coined the phase, "man is a political animal".

Friday, August 7, 2009

Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was a poet, historian, naturalist and a philosopher involved in the transcendentalist movement. He is well-known for his opposition to civil government and also his love of the outdoors. When I was in high school I read parts of Walden ; or, Life in the Woods. This time I read a collection of essays which focused mainly on Thoreau's opposition to what he considered unjust laws.

Thoreau was strongly against the Mexican-American war and slavery. To express his view he refused to pay taxes to the government and was shortly incarcerated for this. In Civil Disobedience Thoreau details why and how he will oppose the government. He supports the saying "That government which is best governs least" but adds "That government which is best governs not at all". He says that people should do more than merely express their views, but should actively pursue change in the government..,"even voting for the right thing is doing nothing for it".

"Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine". Even if your opinion may be a minority and many disagree with you, you can still become a "majority of one" if you stay true to yourself it doing what is right.

Thoreau believes that becoming wealthy can limit our choices, influence and opportunities because we have become dependent on the system that has given us our wealth. A rich man is "sold to the institution which makes him rich...the more money, the less virtue...The opportunities of living are diminished in proportion as what are called the "means" are increased. The best thing a man can do for his culture is when he is rich is to endeavour to carry out those schemes which he entertained when he was poor".

In A Plea for Captain John Brown Thoreau comments on how people have said that John Brown "threw his life away" by his violent support of the abolitionist movement. Thoreau says that people throw away their lives everyday, yet keep living. At least John Brown got something in return. Thoreau expresses his deep disdain for slavery calling it inhumane and unholy.

Now - here is the great controversy in my mind. Thoreau asks "Is it not possible that an individual may be right and the government wrong? Are laws to be enforced simply because they were made? ..are judges to interpret the law according to the letter, and not the spirit?"

Thoreau's writings make one wonder when we can consider a law unjust. Can we choose to disobey laws we do not agree with? The other essays of Thoreau that I read included Slavery in Massachusetts, Walking, and Life Without Principle.

Thoreau's opposition to unjust laws is an interesting contrast to Socrates (in Crito) where the ancient philosopher feels he must obey all laws, even ones that sentence him to death.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Rudyard Kipling: The Jungle Book

Rudyard Kipling (1865 -1936) was a British author and poet who was born in India. During his life he won the Nobel Prize in Literature and is well known for his series of stories which take place in India, called "The Jungle Book". I am most familiar with this from the Disney movie, watching the human boy, Mowgli raised by wolves in the jungles of India with his friends
Baloo the bear and Bagheera the panther. It is a bit different in the book being more violent than Disney would obviously want. However, it is also more sophisticated and I think enjoyable.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sophocles: The Oedipus trilogy

Sophocles (496 BC-406 BC) was the second of the three greatest ancient Greek tragedians, the others being Aeschylus and Euripides. Of his 125 plays, only 7 survived. The story of Oedipus the King, or "Oedipus Rex" is part of a trilogy of tales whose most famous legacy is giving us the term "Oedipus complex", an unconsci0us desire for the parent of the opposite sex.

This triology of dramas describes the downfall of Oedipus as he struggles to avoid his fate. His father, Laius the king of Thebes, receives a prophecy that his newborn son will eventually kill him. To prevent this, he has his son taken into the wilderness to die. Instead, he is rescued and is adopted by the king of Corinth as his son. When Oedipus learns that he is prophesized to kill his father, he leaves Corinth to avoid this fate. This sends him on a collision course with his real father whom he meets and kills. He then unknowlingly marries his mother, the queen of Thebes, and they have several children.

(You know you have problems when you have a triangle in your family tree!)

When a plague strikes Thebes, the only cure is to discover and banish the man who killed Laius. Oedipus then learns through the oracle that he killed Laius, who was his father, and married his mother. In anguish, he blinds himself and then seeks refuge at Colonus, near Athens (Oedipus at Colonus) Oedipus's children then fight amoungst themselves as to who will succeed him as ruler, which raises the death count even higher. The last drama, Antigone, chronicles Oedipus's daughter Antigone as she struggles to have her brother buried near Thebes, which eventually leads to her own death as well.

I think that the theme of this story is that it is difficult to avoid fate. However, this entire tragedy could clearly have been averted if Oedipus had been ignorant of his lineage. Certainly ignorance would have been blissful compared to the chain of tragic events that unfolded after Oedipus discovered the consequences of his actions.

It was very insightful to read on the earliest and greatest tragedies that we have a record of. I can see where Shakespeare derived some of his inspiration, including the clever phrases and descriptions than Sophocles uses.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Plato: Apology

“The unexamined life is not worth living. Know thyself”

Socrates is brought to trial for corrupting the youth of Athens and for promoting impiety. He must now deliver his defense speech, or apologia.

Socrates is known as someone who always asks questions and seeking the truth. He compares himself to a gadfly stirring the horse (Athens) into motion with his meddlesome questions. Socrates says that the Oracle called him the wisest of all men because he admits he does not know anything. Therefore, he knows what he does not know.

Socrates is found guilty by a vote of 280 to 221. When asked to choose a penalty, he suggests a fine, although he admits he will never stop philosophizing. The jury then sentences Socrates to death. Socrates suggests that they try to live a better life rather than kill off their critics. He then marches off to prison awaiting his date with the hemlock.

Plato: Crito

In this dialogue, Socrates is in his cell waiting execution. His friend Crito visits him and tries to convince him to flee, saying that he can bribe the guards and help him escape. Socrates says that he cannot flee, since he has always obeyed the laws of Athens and he would be a hypocrite if he fled now. He would lose all integrity and respect and his life would mean nothing.

Crito thinks that it is OK to break the law if he considers it unjust. Socrates has adopted a form of a “social contract” with the state of Athens and accepts their judgment. I am inclined to agree with Crito that I would rather rebel against an unjust law rather than sacrafice my life obeying a flawed state. I especially believe this given that democracies are unstable and capricious.

The Republic: Allegory of the Cave

The Allegory of the Cave

This has been called the most famous metaphor in Western philosophy. Socrates asks us to imagine men who have spent their entire lives imprisoned in a cave underground, seeing only shadows and believing these to be real. One of the men escapes and sees the “real” world, not of shadows but of real things. He then travels back into the cave to enlighten his fellow prisoners with his observations.

In Plato’s city-state, education will allow the philosopher-kings to see the real world. They then must return to the cave to help the great masses. This is their obligation to the state which has given them an education.

Another way to think of this is to ask someone what beauty, courage, justice, etc “is”. Do you imagine, believe, think or understand the real concept of the word? Are these just "shadows" to you or do you really understand their meaning (can you seperate the word from an image?)

No child left behind and information control

Socrates was sentenced to death for crimes including corrupting the youth and impiety. In the Republic, Socrates surprisingly proposes a very strict regimen of study for the children of his ideal city. The classics from Hesiod and Homer, whom he calls ancient texts, must be significantly edited to remove any improprieties about the "gods". Foreshadowing Christianity, Socrates says that no god would do anything that would harm people - gods only do good things. Because Zeus is pure virtue and without fault it is therefore impossible for him to do anything that is not good. This is a severe deviation from traditional Greek thought, especially editing texts which many Greek consider sacred. However, this editing does reflect much of the editing that would take place at the "Council of Nicaea" when Christians tried to determine who/what God was.

God is never the “author of evil” to anyone. God would also never assume a less perfect form (a beggar, a traveler, etc) since he could never lie or deceive.

Plato has a complete plan for finding and training his philosopher-kings from childhood to their 50's. This includes much schooling in mathematics, which he regards as a step away from empirical reasoning (using the senses) toward a pure form of investigation using math and logic. For example instead of thinking of 2 apples or 2 oranges, Plato wants you to think of an intangible number “2”, not associated to any particular object.

Plato's Ideal Government
"the state is the soul writ large"

Socrates explains the best and worst forms of government in this order: monarchy, oligarthy, democracy and tyranny. Finding democracy in third place is strange given the development of this form of government in Athens. Plato seems to think that democracy is a world of absolute freedom where everyone can do as they please. He thinks this will descend into anarchy as everyone pursues their own interests and will eventually lead to a strong leader emerging (a tyranny).

Socrates describes a most bizarre form a government which seems authoritarian and proto-communistic, with the goal of establishing harmony and diminishing discord. First, information control is critical, such as regulating what poetry, stories, music and education the youth receive. The guardians also do not get to own property, which is a great idea and sort of reminds me of a cross between the Doges of the Republic of Venice and samurais of medieval Japan (both property/salary-less).

The utopian vision become absurd when Socrates describes how babies will be taken from their mothers so no one knows whose child is whose. This will discourage people from treating other people's children differently, since any kid could be yours. I wonder if this makes it easier to find a baby-sitter? I would have to think this would really mess a kid up, especially if you do not look like any one else! Plato also wants people to share wives (which would keep you from coveting your neighbor's). Unfortunately sex is entirely for procreation and only done on certain times of the year (to ensure we all think those kids belong to us).

Lying should be reserved only for the rulers of states to control the masses, but lying to rulers is the worst crime. This seems to contradict the virtuous nature of the philosopher-kings.

Poetry and Television

When I see people in television shows I remind myself that this is not how real people act (or should act). I am becoming more aware of it since we hope to start a family and I am becoming more cognizant of the ridiculous behavior of many TV characters. Plato saw the same problem with plays and stories performed or read in his day. Socrates states that stories that depict characters acting in inappropriate or unmanly ways will be banned or edited. I guess he thought this would be easier than just having a heart-to-heart with "your" child. Children should be taught false stories first, then true ones.

The Republic: Theory of Forms

Plato's Theory of Forms

This is probably Plato’s most well known idea. Using the “allegory of the cave”, Plato suggests that all we see are shadows of images (animals, people, and objects). However, we do not see the real things as they are themselves. Plato hypothesizes that there is a true, ideal form for everything that is impossible to know. For example, an ideal horse which is the “idea” of a horse but not a horse that actually exists. Sweetness may exist in an apple, but nothing will ever be as sweet as the form (idea) of sweetness. Forms cannot be seen, but only visualized in the mind.

To think about this, it may take a mind like Schopenhauer who once said, "Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see." The sweetness that we visualize is unchanging, perfect, and will last forever. It is an abstract standard that can only be imagined.

The pleasure of a philosopher (seeking truth) is the only real pleasure. Everything else is only a temporary relief from pain.


Plato believed that cognitive ability could be divided into four tiers of ability. The lowest grade is imagination (he means imagining something is there when it is not). In today’s world this could be a person whose entire view of the world is from what they observe on television. They have no idea of how real people behave or how real events occur.

The next step up is belief (like the belief in an almighty-creator-of-heaven-and-earth?). These lowest two levels are in the "visible" realm, which can be easily deceived. (my television analogy may belong here as well).

The next two levels are in the higher "intellectual" realm: thought and understanding. Thought realizes on observations and making intelligent reasoning based on previous events. Understanding is a level up from this, when we are not thinking about particulars in that thing, but about a general idea of that thing, and this is not something can be actively observed with our senses.

The pleasure of a philosopher (seeking truth) is the only real pleasure. Everything else is only a temporary relief from pain.

The Republic: Justice

Right and Wrong versus “advantage”

The sophists, such as Thrasymachus in this dialogue, believed that right and wrong were subjective – there being no absolute right or wrong. All actions were either for your advantage or disadvantage (i.e. might makes right). He thinks that justice is an unnatural constraint on our desires. It is like Thomas Hobbes Leviathan - we have all had to make compromises to live within a state and have laws to protect us. It seems that it is better to be thought of a just, but really be unjust.

“Appearance tyrannizes over truth”

Socrates says that justice is not only being honest and following laws. For example, you would take a weapon away from an insane friend. It is suggested that Justice is do harm to friends and harm to enemies, but this is imperfect since we can make mistakes. Also our friends are not entirely virtuous and our enemies may not be pure malcontents.

Socrates then explains that injustice is contrary to wisdom and therefore cannot be a virtue. He says that a virtue like justice is its own reward and that we all want justice and it protects us from injustice. “Laws exist to provide reason for those who are not strong enough to rule their own soul.”

The Republic: an overview

The Republic is Plato’s most well-known dialogue, contains his most memorable metaphors and is his most articulate attempt at describing what “justice” is. Reading this was a long, slow journey (with my note taking), even though I had read it a few years ago. Much of this dialogue concerns Socrates conversing with others trying to understand what a just person is by comparing the individual to a city-state. “A city is the soul writ large”, Socrates says as he makes an analogy between different individuals within a city to qualities that exist within a person.

Socrates says there are basically three elements to a person or a city. At the lowest level are the great masses of people, the “producers” of goods and services, which in an individual would be the “appetites”. These give us desires and drive us to do things. They must be controlled by the “auxiliaries” or soldiers, who in an individual would be represented as courage or spirit. These auxiliaries, who also protect us from outside forces, must in turn be ruled over by “reason” in the individual, or in a city-state this would be the “guardians” or “philosopher-kings”.

Every class has its own desires: the mass of people (appetites) lust after all things and pleasure ,but especially desire money; the auxiliaries (courage) want honor and pride and can lead us to anger; the philosopher-kings (reason) strive for knowledge and wisdom and rule over all. When the balance is upset in a city, much as in an individual, disaster will result.

I think Plato’s tripartite soul sounds very familiar to Sigmund Freud’s Id, Ego and Super-ego. The Id is like Plato’s appetites, the Ego could be considered the auxillaries and the Super-ego is certainly the guardians. I am not a Freud expert, so this is only an observation.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Other "Great Books"

Reading Plato's lengthy dialogue "The Republic" is like pulling a parachute through water. I am taking notes as I read, which is probably the real reason my pace is suddenly languid. Rather than slog through Plato (which I am still doing) I decided to do some side reading.

About two months I added a collection of books to my library that I found at my wife's grandmother's house. Assembled in 1967, these books are from the makers of the GBWW and the reading selections are still considered classics, but they are directed toward children. Therefore I am still reading "western literature classics" and this is a needed break from Plato.

Recently I have finished:

A Christmas Tale by Charles Dickens - Although we are all familiar with this work I think few of us have read the original work. I would not call this a children's book unless your child has a graduate school vocabulary. It is quite well written and I am looking forward to reading more of Dickens in the future.

Stories from 1001 Arabian nights: Several short stories, includes "Ali Babba and the 40 thieves".

Greek and Roman Mythology: Lots of stories here - quite informative.

Fables by Leo Tolstoy - Probably the most accessible literature written by Tolstoy.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson: This is a great story! The wooden legged pirate Long John Silver, a loquacious parrot and buried treasure marked "X" on a map! The pirate, swashbuckler dialogue is fantastic - and it makes you want to drink a lot of rum.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


Socrates describes Euthydemus and Dionysodorus as two brothers who are "perfect in the use of their bodies" and "invincible in every sort of warfare". They are also sophists who take money and offer wisdom in the art of rhetoric and persuasion.

Euthydemus and Dionysodorus have come to Athens to "teach virtue" for those willing to pay and the Athenian noblemen have brought their sons to learn from them. Socrates wants to know how you can teach virtue. It soons becomes clear that the brothers do not want to teach wisdom, but only the skill of manipulating an argument with absurd, abstract reasoning. At times it can seem as though the brothers are employeeing similar tactics as Socrates. However, Socrates approaches the discussion from a point of ignorance, hoping to "learn" from the brothers while they attempt to make others feel foolish. They also claim that everyone already has wisdom, but that they can help it be revealed.

Euthydemus: Do you not know letters?

(Clinias) He assented.

E: All letters?

C: Yes.

E: But when a teacher dictates to you, does he not dictate letters?

This again was admitted by him.

E: Then if you know all letters, he dictates that which you know?

This reminds me of an infomerical on late night television when the the demonstrator tells you that the power to make money (lose weight, do math in your head, etc) is inside you but his special book (video, 6 week program, etc) will help you become a better person. It is comical if you get it, but don't buy it.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Protagoras the Antagonist

If Socrates had an enemy it would be the sophists, and the greatest sophist was Protagoras. The sophists traveled throughout the Greek world teaching wisdom, or really rhetoric; the ability to make a weak argument look stronger and to trap people in their words. Protagoras was the most famous of these and is known for his quote, "Man is the measure of all things". This is a sort of moral relativism; if we feel something is good, just, etc., than it is, even if someone else feels differently based on their own perspective. For example, what is good for the undertaker is not good for the person who just died. The truth is somewhere in the middle.

Obviously some people (like the Catholic church) would disagree strongly with Protagoras. I recognize that what seems moral and acceptable in one culture or time is not acceptable in another place or time. I think that is part of being open-minded, well traveled and understanding.

This dialague concerns a discussion between Protagoras and Socrates to determine if virtue can be taught. Socrates says that "virtue" is knowledge and that "evil" is another name for ignorance. It is impossible to be "bad" if we know "good" (i.e. have knowledge). Socrates believes that no one willing commits an evil act (steal, lie, etc), unless they slip into a state of ignorance and become unaware of how their actions will adversely affect them.

I have my own theories on why people commit evil acts or harm themselves. It is a constant struggle for some people, including myself, to overcome their appetites. I do not think it is a lack of knowledge, but a lack of good judgement, which is an emotional response not a logical one. I will "harm" myself because it feels good at the time, just like a jury can be swayed by arguments that appeal to their emotion despite the evidence on the contrary.

Plato does parse words, which I think is good and bad. Of course we want to define what it is to be just, good, holy and virtuous, but he also makes arguments pivot on the definition of “being” compared to “becoming” and to “will” instead of to “wish” as he does in Protagoras. It does make me feel as though ancient Greek and English are not so different; but semantics are the same in any language, modern or ancient. Socrates is debating if “hard” is the same thing as “evil” from an ancient poet, Simonides. Likewise, the fact that a sentence ends in “truly” apparently can change the whole meaning of a phrase. I am impressed that language could be used like a tool, almost like math to calculate the meaning of a message (which I guess would be called “Logic”). However, sometimes words lack clear definitions (unlike numbers!). I believe this is where this where Plato gets into trouble.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Courage, Temperance and Friendship

I was reading a Hemingway novel a week, but reading Plato has turned my sprint into a crawl. The GBWW reading program requires that I only read Plato's Apology, Crito, The Republic this year. However, a few years ago I read these, so I decided to skip ahead and read a few of Plato's other dialogues. I finished reading three of these which discussed the topics of courage (Laches), temperance (Charmides) and friendship (Lysis).

In Laches, Socrates tries to determine what it means to have "courage" by speaking with two generals (strategos), Laches and Nicias. Who knows courage better than a soldier? Lachias calls courage "an endurance of the soul", which he eventually refines as a "wise" endurance of the soul. This is because the difference between a brave and foolish man is how much he knows. However these is no way to know if a man is courageous or an idiot if he fights against something he does not think he can overcome. Niceas tries to link courage to knowledge of the opposition. However, if knowledge makes us brave then just knowing things makes us courageous (which they agree is not true).

I have often wondered about the difference between being brave and being a moron. Recently I watched a History Channel special on WW2 fighter aces, one of whom said that "courage is instinct" when you are utterly terrified . It seems to me that "thought" is not part of the equation in this particular person's mind. I was happy to read that this issue perplexed Plato and his contemporaries and it was interesting to see it thoroughly vetted. Does standing against fear make us courageous? What is the difference between unthinking fearlessness and thoughtful retreat?

Charmides is the eponymous character of this dialogue who Socrates questions to discover the meaning of "temperance". The Greeks held this trait in high regard and linked it to the inscription at the Oracle of Delphi which read "Know Thyself". The conversation tries to define temperance as being "modest", "doing our own business", "self-knowledge" or a "knowledge of knowledge". As a "self knowing restraint" it appears that temperance means you know what your know (know yourself) and also know what you do not know. (Having known unknowns, or maybe unknown unknowns to quote Rumsfeld).

I thought it was interesting when Socrates says that by asking someone a question, we are really asking a question to ourselves. I had to think about that for a while. Another phrase that held my attention was when Socrates said that by "acting according to knowledge we shall act well and be happy". Does that mean I will only be happy when I act according to what I know? For example, I know studying for a test will give me a better grade and I will be why would I act contrary to my knowledge? Why would I drink more wine knowing that I will have a hangover the next day? I must not be acting according to my knowledge, I suppose.

Conversely, does that mean that my happiness is limited by my knowledge? I have often said that "ignorance is bliss". According to Plato I am only deceiving myself since I can only be happy with knowledge and making good decisions. Of course I have thought that WE alone are the cause of 90% of our own problems.

Lysis is a story about "friendship" and why we choose to be friends with other people. We have often said that opposites attract, but Socrates says it is "monstrous" to think that a good person would be friends with a bad (or unjust) person. Also, Socrates does not think that bad people can be friends with bad people (apparently bad people have no friends!). Therefore "likeness" or a common view of the world must be what draws people together. However, if people have everything they need why would they want to friends with someone who is just like them? Socrates suggests that we desire friends because they fill a need. Does this mean that if we did not have a "need" to fill, we would not need friends? It made me wonder if all my friendships were just ephemeral relationships that would pass into time as the needs which justified their existence dissipated.
"May not the truth be that, as we were saying, desire if the cause of friendship; for that which desires is dear to that which is desired at the time of desire?"

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Plato: an introduction

Reading Plato can be both light and easy, but also dense - kind of like getting hit with a wet sponge. Plato's "Dialogues" are conversations between Socrates and other people, where Socrates searches for "truth" and "wisdom" through a method of questions, inquiries, analogies and a lot of discourse. Plato was a student of Socrates, but Socrates never wrote anything down. Therefore, we only know Socrates's thoughts and words through Plato, and therefore some of Plato's own philosophy surely contributes to what Socrates says.

I have caught myself laughing out loud when I read Plato. Some of his dialogues, especially when Socrates is speaking to the Sophists whom he dispises, can be amusing. Socrates appeals to the persons ego, flattering them, while claiming he only wants to learn what great wisdom they have. They typically oblige him, often in a condensending manner.

When the Sophist has laid enough rope to hang themself, Socrates then uses their own logic against them by pulling the most outlandish example he can think of. The person Socrates is speaking with must agree to support his points since their whole arguement depends on it, but then they find themselves completely disarmed and their arguement undone.

Although reading these dialogues is easier than reading a text book, the material still requires that I pause and reflect on the meaning behind what is being spoken.

Hemingway: historical fiction

I thought I should add a few more things about Ernest Hemingway before I move on to other authors. Reading EH’s books I admire his adventurous life and his ability to present complex material in a simple narrative. However, what makes EH great to me is that his stories resonate in me long after I have put his books down. RecentlyI have come to appreciate EH in a way that I think he never imagined. His stories were written 60-80 years ago therefore, when you read his books, you are taking a step back in time.

In “A Farewell to Arms” I was thinking about how Frederic Henry encouraged his wife to smoke and drink during pregnancy to keep their newborn small. No doubt doctors encouraged this as well, but it didn’t do any good since she died in childbirth anyway. It would be appalling to think of this today, but in 1918 I suppose this was the norm.

I was impressed that EH was able to write his detailed and well researched book about the Spanish Civil War “For Whom the Bell Tolls” while he was sequestered away in far off rural Idaho. Published in 1940, he predicted the coming devastation of WW2, Fascism vs. Communism and the future of war. Although WW2 had technically begun by the time the book was in print, I felt like EH could have been describing the events of 1945 in post-script.

I found it amusing how EH could not depict sexual scenes in his books, providing only suggestions of the deed done. This is not surprising given the values and reading tastes at the time compared to the graphic books of today. Likewise, I imagine this also explains why the dialogue where characters utter profanities was replaced with colorful language or merely “obscenity” this. This was particularly funny when characters engaged in heated arguments as in FWTBT where the dialogue is: obscenity you and the obscenity mother that brought you into this obscenity world. In contrast the “n-word” and other racial epithets are spoken without hesitation.

I thought that EH portrays an antiquated view of women as clingy, needy, vacuous arm candy. In both FWTBT, AFTA and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” the women appeared to me to be equating their own self-worth to their association and adoration of the protagonist. I do not fault him for this at all and he probably was expected to have characters like this in the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s.

I do wonder how much Hemingway also wrote about himself. Clearly his love of bullfighting came through in his character’s detailed descriptions in TSAR and FWTBT. When Hemingway was 62, at his home in Idaho, he crept carefully downstairs one morning as to not wake his wife. He then loaded both barrels of his 16 gauge shotgun, placed the gun to his head, and ended his writing career. Toward the end of FWTBT, the last book of EH I read, the main character Robert Jordan describes his grandfather’s suicide in an eerily similar way. Looking back it seems that Hemingway predicted his own death 20 years earlier, which is something that we only appreciate by compressing his life under the microscope of time.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Hemingway: my take

I read "For Whom the Bell Tolls" about 15 years ago. I could only remember that it was about the Spanish Civil War, the main character was in trouble at the end, and that "the earth moved". Reading it again, I do feel like I rediscovered a good book and I derived more out of it the second time through.

I imagine that Papa will be re-discovered by every generation that reads his books. I enjoyed the five works of his that I finished in the last 5 weeks. His writing is simple and easy to digest, but also thoughtful and philosophical, depending on how much you are willing to invest. If you read him and know his biography, you know that he wrote about his own life. I do admire him for that, since he was really putting himself out there, in the world, over 80 year ago. "A Farewell to Arms" is literally an autobiographical account of his time serving as an ambulance driver in Italy during WWI. "The Sun Also Rises" is based on people he knew when he lived in Paris following the war and "For Whom the Bell Tolls" recollects some of his experiences during the Spanish Civil War. To me, Hemmingway is adventurous and he writes about his experiences in a way that is simple and direct, but his writing still has deep meaning.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Reading: Comprehension and Time

It is not fair to say that I have never read any of the classics. However, my interest was often just in finishing the book for a class or for the benefit of being able to say I have "read" it. Now I have a more academic interest in reading and I earnestly hope to derive something of value from the experience. It would be ideal to be able to discuss these books with someone else reading them. In the absence of that, I do have other resources.

The GBWW collection comes with a comprehension guide which summarizes each literary work, provides questions and offers suggestions for further reading.

A second option is online resources. Besides Wikipedia, there are also Sparknotes and Cliff Notes.
Reading consumes time. To maintain my reading schedule, I have had to limit my other activities and I try to read at every available moment. I have curtailed my TV viewing, which is an easy sacrifice. However, I am also not reading my periodicals, which is something that I do not want to give up. I have a stack of twelve magazines that I need to read, which will surely be outdated by the time I finish them.

Monday, January 12, 2009

More details

As I mentioned in my last post, I plan to read books recommended by critics and readers. Here are four different web sites that I have collected lists from and compiled into an Excel spreadsheet.

Time Magazine

Random House publishers

The Guardian (London Newspaper)

Sybervision (an Audio book company - which may be a bit biased toward books they have in audio :)

These lists will be used to supplement the reading that I will be doing from the "Great Books of the Western World" The GBWW has yearly reading "assignments" for each year of its suggested 10 year program. Following the schedule, I will be starting old school reading Plato.

Here is the GBWW reading list for year one:

Plato: Apology, Crito, The Republic
Sophocles: Oedipus the King and Antigone
Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics, Politics
Plutarch: The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans
Old Testament: Book of Job
St. Augustine: The Confessions
Montaigne: The Essays
Shakespeare: Hamlet
Locke: Concerning Civil Government
Swift: Gulliver's Travels
Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
The Declaration of Independence
The Constitution of the United States
The Federalist
Marx-Engles: Manifesto of the Communist Party

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Plan

When you think of all the books that are available to read, some published recently, some written thousands of years ago, it is difficult to know where to begin in a lifelong reading program. So, how do you decide what books to read if you want to broaden your perspective and read the classics? There seems to be an infinite number of good books and more are published every day. So, what do you read?

For myself, I have decided to abstain from reading books that I have had a previous proclivity toward. This means avoiding popular fiction, non-fiction history books or any other book not on my "classics" list. Now that I have my not-to-read-list what do I read?

The plan will be to use two different methods to tackle the sheer number of great literary works available. I will limit myself to literature from Western society, initially. A program which holds promise for me is the Great Books of the Western World. This series of 54 books covers over 2000 years of literature, philosophy, poetry and other works from Western civilization. It is a good place to start and this series comes with a 10-year reading program with additional suggested reading.

My second plan is to use the opinions of others as to the greatest literary works. There are several lists provided by readers and critics that detail, for example, the "Greatest 100 novels" of all time. Of course following these lists is not comprehensive, but I think it is the best place to start. If I can maintain my goal of reading one book per week, I think over 10 years I will have at the minimum made a good beginning toward my goal.


This blog is to document my reading experiences over the next few years. This year I will be turning 35 and I have recently become aware that I am not particularly well read. By this I mean that I have not read widely or attempted to tackle many of the so called "classics" of Western literature. The only time I have been introduced to well-known literary works is as reluctant requirements of my high school education. With age and fresh maturity, I have begun to wonder if I am missing something by not reading these works. I do not know if reading the classics will enhance my life, widen my perspectives or make me see the world differently. But at the same time, I believe I have more to lose by not investing the time and thought into exploring these literary works. If anything, at least I will be able to say, "Yes, I have read that".