What I Demand of Life by Frank Swinnerton

My Deal-Me-In Challenge has been going the way of my other challenges this year, but I thought with a few months left in the year, I might try to resurrect it and at least finish well.  We’ll see …. In any case, I drew the queen of Spades, which gave me an essay entitled, What I Demand of Life by Frank Swinnerton.

At the age of 40, Swinnerton is evaluating his life: what he has experienced and musing on the years to come.  While men can be failures in a number of ways, few fail from aiming too high, yet many aim amiss or do not aim at all and are like parasites on others.  These men should be pitied.  Swinnerton then lists things he does not want:

  1. money
  2. fame
  3. a life of gaiety
  4. possessions
  5. innumerable acquaintances
  6. contentment
  7. people to sing “for he’s a jolly good fellow”

Wealth has no value and breeds insincere friends.  Fame lacks privacy, brings judgement and breeds pomposity and tyrants.  Poverty gave Swinnerton a good spirit and he was able to land a job with a publish company, J.M Dent and Co., a job which honed his insights into human character.  He realized his dreams about living in a cottage, writing “goodish” novels and marrying for love.  He has good friends, the best, in fact, a good nature and because he is not labelled among the popular authors, is able to write what he wants.

Now we get to the title.  What does Swinnerton demand of life?

  1. health
  2. privacy
  3. moderate security
  4. affections of those dear to him
  5. some leisure
Swinnerton is advocating a life of modest means.

“That is the whole point.  No man can be satisfied with his attainment, although he may be satisfied with his circumstances …… I have been returning thanks to good fortune.  I have been betraying perhaps, a readiness to be pleased with small results.”

 

Swinnerton does not have lofty ambitions but only wishes to live the remainder of his life in enjoyment, immune from hardship.

“I do not demand to be happy, because I expect — on a basis of experience — to be happy.  Is not happiness the most satisfactory of all possessions? …. when I come to die I shall be able — in spirit at least — to repeat the memorable last words of William Hazlitt ….. ‘Well, I’ve had a happy life.’  Which of us — uncertain travellers as we are upon uncharted ways — can ask to say more?  Not I.”

 

While I found Swinnerton’s modest desires and thoughtful life philosophy interesting, I cannot say his expectations were particularly realistic.  Could he really be happy simply on expectation?  Could he avoid hardship because he had already experienced it and was therefore immune to it?  Could his moderate philosophy really bring happiness?

I supposed the fewer expectations we have, the less chance of being disappointed. There is something to be said for appreciating our lives as they are.  However, I’m not certain if I am in complete agreement with Swinnerton’s approach to life.  What about you?  Is it better to accept mediocrity and be happy or to strive for higher ideals and perhaps encounter more dissatisfaction and strife but also maybe experience more intense joy and satisfaction?

Deal Me In Challenge 2018 #2 ~ Queen of Spades

 

Excellent People by Anton Chekhov

“Once upon a time there lived in Moscow a man called Vladimir Semyonitch Liadovsky.”

Wow, Chekhov was in fine form with this short story!  A narrator relates a story of a literary man trained at law, Vladimir Semyonitch Liadovsky, and his sister, Vera Semyonovna, a listless woman who has been disappointed in life.  At the start of the story, Vladimir has compassion and love for his sister, who had her new husband die, survived a suicide attempt, and now is living with him, quietly revering his talents.
And although there is a peaceful harmony at the beginning of the story, we sense a restlessness within Vera, and a somewhat egotistical, intolerant manner within Vladimir who displays a rather self-satisfied demeanour with regard to his talents and an intellectual judgement over his those who cannot share is views.
However, one day their quiet and predictable life is shaken when Vera poses an unsettling and unexpected question, “What is the meaning of non-resistance to evil?” Suddenly a new idea is brought upon Vladimir by someone close to him, someone whom he is used to seeing as a subordinate and one who praises him, no matter what the situation.  It is a liberal question that presses against his conservatism, a progressive question that goes against tradition, an elephant in the room, so to speak.  At first he cannot quite comprehend but Vera persists, “Where would we all be if human life were ordered on the basis on non-resistance to evil?”  Vladimir attempts to slough off the idea, by approaching it lightly in his next article but his sister is not satisfied, “Why would a gardener sow for the benefit of thieves and beggars, as one did in the story she just read?  Did he behave sensibly?” Vladimir is further distressed as he senses for the first time, the admiration he is used to receiving from her is uncomfortably absent.  He expounds that to write in such a way is to allow the thought that thieves deserve to exist. What garbage!
Moscow in Winter (1872)
Ivan Aivazovsky
source Wikiart
Their interactions increasingly degrade, as the question and Vera’s change in manner begin to tear apart the equanimity and peace of their previous existence.  Vera wants to explore ideas, to search for answers; Vladimir simply wants to remain grasping his ideas, the ideas he has survived on during his life.  They talk and they discuss.  They do not understand each other.
The ending I will leave uncommented on if others want to read this tale, but needless to say, it is not happy. Again, I’m so impressed with this story.  Chekhov explores tradition versus progress through this interaction of genders and siblings.  Who should better understand each other than people of the same blood, people who have lived together in close community and have a certain respect and love for one another?  However, they not only cannot agree, they cannot even understand one another.  But yet, one has to ask themselves what their relationship was built on, as it was only in harmony when the sister admired the brother and only gave compliments?  Was it their lack of a truthful and deep relationship that undermined their ability to comprehend one another, or was it really a clear picture of the struggles of Russian society between the old tradition and the new ideas of the time.  And we must not forget the title, Excellent People.  Both the brother and sister are good people but each have different ideas.  If we focus on “ideas” or “philosophies” and forget that we are dealing with people do we become less human and less able to understand each other?  And while life would have been more harmonious if the sister remained in her apathetic devotion to her brother, and the brother remained happy in his narrow-minded pursuits, would it have been better?  Their lives would have been more comfortable and untroubled, yet not as real.  Ask yourself, is it better to remain peaceful and happy in a life of past tradition and apathy, or is it more “human” to strive for goals and struggle for something better for self and society, but remain miserable within this quest?  And a question from Mudpuddle’s comment below:  I wish I knew if Chekhov meant the title to be serious, in that we can all have good intentions and different points of view and yet still experience unsatisfying and disharmonious outcomes, or sarcastic in that both the brother and sister where not able to communicate their views and come to a resolution, their inner lives became more turbulent from examining them, and nothing really changed, so then they were really “excellent” only in the way they viewed themselves?  Great questions with no easy answers!
I definitely have to read this again at a later date after it settles and percolates a little.  I encourage anyone who has a spare ten minutes to read it and if you decide to come back and leave your thoughts, I’d love it.  While it’s only a 7-8 page short story, it would have made a great read-along.  Who would have thought!
Deal Me In Challenge 2018 #1 ~ Two of Clubs

The Pickwick Papers or The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club by Charles Dickens

“The first ray of light which illumines the gloom, and converts into a dazzling brillancy that obscurity in which the earlier history of the public career of the immortal Pickwick would appear to be involved, is derived from the perusal of the following entry in the Transactions of the Pickwick Club, which the editor of these papers feels the highest pleasure in laying before his readers, as a proof of the careful attention, indefatigable assiduity, and nice discrimination, with which his search among the multifarious documents confided to him has been conducted.”

It’s hardly believable but O’s 2 year read-along of the Pickwick Papers has finally come to a close and I have her to thank for finally being able to finish this 800-page marvel.  We read it in installments mirroring its original release which was an enlightening experience in itself. Looking back, I enjoyed reading only 2 to 3 chapters at a time, but the space between them, for me, was too long.  It’s not that I necessarily forgot what had happened, but I found that when I picked it up again, I was somewhat disengaged with the characters.  It was almost like starting a book over and over again and never really getting traction.  If I was to do it over, I’d read a chapter per week instead of three at once and that way hopefully remain more present in the story.

Mr. Pickwick slides on the ice
source Wikimedia Commons

And the book itself ….. ?  I quite enjoyed Mr. Pickwick and his marvellous, and at times unbelievable, adventures.  At the beginning of the book, Mr. Pickwick, founder and president of the Pickwick Club, decides that he and fellow members, Nathaniel Winkle, Augustus Snodgrass, and Tracy Tupman, will leave London and travel the countryside to discover the wonderful qualities of life, each reporting to the others what they find. Their adventures lead them to saving ladies in distress, getting embroiled in circumstances they only want to avoid, courting offers of marriage, unwanted offers of marriage, interaction with criminals, jail and even love itself. Dickens imbues this novel with his own brand of humour by having an old confirmed bachelor find himself in all sorts of uncomfortable circumstances.  From finding himself unexpectedly sleeping in a lady’s bed, to being sued for breach of promise of marriage, poor Pickwick finds his dignified sensibilities tried by unexpected challenges yet he always manages to respond in a measured and honourable manner that increased our respect for this lovable character.

Mr. Pickwick’s first interview
with Sergeant Snubbin
source Wikimedia Commons

In Chapter XVI, Pickwick attempts to catch a swindler, Jingle, who is slipperier than an eel.  Jingle plans to run away with an heires and by hiding in the bushes outside the girls’ boarding school, Pickwick attempts to subvert the scheme and expose the criminal.  But through various misadventures and bumbles, he manages to find himself locked in a cupboard by the headmistress and the ladies of the establishment. Rescued by Sam Weller, his valet, and his friend, Mr. Wardle, Pickwick rains imprecations upon the head of the absent Jingle.

Even more amusing, was the incident of the mistaken beds.  Late at night at an inn, Pickwick returns downstairs to retrieve his watch and upon returning, enters the wrong room!  He is just settled into bed when a lady enters and begins her own toilette. Horrified, Pickwick reveals his presence and attempts to assure her of his mistake and innocence, but the woman is frightened senseless, and Pickwick makes a quick exit. Not wanting another repeat of the disturbing and undignified experience, Pickwick plans to sleep in the hall, but is once again rescued by Sam.  The novel has so many amusing anecdotes, that is has to be read to enjoy them all.  And I finally managed it!

Mr. Pickwick, picnics
source Wikimedia Commons

At the time of the writing of this first novel, Dickens was working as a roving journalist and a reporter of Parlimentary news.  After his successful Sketches by Boz, Dickens was called in to write copy for certain illustrated sporting plates created by illustrator Robert Seymour.  Dickens soon began to write the instalments before the plates were produced, therefore changing the illustrative focus of the project to storytelling and he never looked back.  We all know of his illustrious writing career following The Pickwick Papers and I still have to read quite a few Dickens’ novels yet, as I’ve only completed The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, A Tale of Two Cities, Dombey and Son, A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, and, a long time ago, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  So many great novels of his still to go.  Perhaps a project for 2018 ……???

 

 

The Great Ideas ~ How Different Are Humans?

The discussion continues from How To Think About Man, with the examination of the two questions, the nature of man and the origin of man.  In the last talk/essay, both opposing views were presented: before Darwin man was seen as having a special, distinct nature, but after Darwin he is see only differing in degree from other animals but is otherwise the same.

Adler wishes to approach this issue logically as it is important to see the issue clearly in order to access both arguments.  Luckman says that they have received letters criticizing Adler for taking the side of Darwin and Adler expresses his delight.  He implies his view is the exact opposite and is pleased with the error as it proves he is so far presenting the argument without any personal bias.  He does not plan to argue either for or against any one side, merely to present the issues logically and fairly.

Young Man (The impassioned singer)
Giovane uomo (Il cantore appassionato)
Giogorgione
source Wikiart

Differences in Kind and Differences in Degree

Adler begins with the definition of man.  There have been many definitions, but defining him as a “rational animal” is the most accurate, as it underlies all the other definitions. However it is not the definition but the interpretation of it that is the issue as it implies humans alone are rational.

Adler moves to the distinction between “kind” and “degree” which is important to understand to move ahead in the examination of the issues.  He gives an analogy of two lines of different lengths.  They have the same traits, only one is longer and one is shorter.  They differ in degree.  However, a circle and a square do not have common traits — one has angles and one does not — their differences are differences in kind.

Luckman says many scientists believe that the difference between kind and degree, is itself a difference of kind or degree; he gives the example of a many-many-sided polygon which eventually approaches and appears like a circle. Adler does not agree with this statement.  No matter how closely the polygon will appear like a circle, it will never be a circle; difference in degree is never difference in kind and vice versa.” When two things differ in degree, there always can be intermediates, such as an intermediate line between the two in his above example, but there is no intermediates between differences in kind.  They can have things in common, but there will always be a property or charcteristic that the other completely lacks.  The one with the additional property will be hierachically above the other.

Luckman interjects, saying that it seems that Adler’s definition of difference in kind is accepted by evolutionists and he wants to know how Adler thinks they differ.  After all, apes are different from horses and therefore so must man be different.  He does not see the issue.  Adler says there is one, and he intends to make it clear.

Man and Ape
Stanley Pinker
source Wikiart

 

Differences in Kind Exclude Intermediate Forms

Adler claims Luckman made a misstatement and although the evolutionists do see some forms of life as lower and some higher, they believe they differ only in degree.  How does Adler know this?  Because evolutionists believe in the continuity of nature.  There would be “no underlying continuity in nature …. unless intermediate varieties were possible as between different species in the scale of thing or the greater things”.  These intermediate varieties must be possible, even if they are only missing links.  Those species which the biologist classifies as kinds are only apparent kinds, yet with the definition of man, they are real kinds.

Adler offers two conceptions:

  1. a conception of species with missing links between them, with intermediate varieties
  2. a conception of species without any missing links or without any intermediate varieties

The present biological understanding is that species are only apparent kinds, separated by the possibility of intermediate varieties and therefore can be a difference in degrees.

One more fact, modern science has hypothesized that if all possible forms of life or every species ever know existed on earth at the same time, there would be no species, just individual differences in degree.    The philosophical conception is species are real kinds with no intermediate varieties; modern biology sees the kinds with a possibility of intermediate varieties.

We get back to the question of how man differs from other animals: if in kind there is no intermediate varieties possible, but if in degree there are possibilities of intermediate varieties.

Adler emphasizes that so far he has only presented the facts without prejudice to one side or the other.    Next time, he is going to present the evidence and arguments from the evolutionist’s point of view, that man only differs in degree which sets the stage for natural evolution.  He will then produce arguments and evidence for the opposing side, that man differs essentially in kind which would make a natural evolutionary process impossible.

Phew!  This talk became hard to follow about halfway through but I do believe I get Adler’s point.  His next essay/talk is The Darwinian Theory of Man’s Origin.

 

The Republic ~ Book II

The Republic
Jean-Leon Gerome
source Wikiart

Book II:

 

Pleasure (1900)
Eugene de Blaas
source Wikiart

Glaucon protests that Socrates has not made a reasonable enough explanation of why Justice is preferable to injustice.  First, he says, there are three classes of good:

 

  1. Pleasures that are enjoyed for themselves
  2. Good that is valued because of its consequences
  3. Good that is desirable both for itself and what comes out of it.
Really it seems that Glaucon believes Justice would fit into the second category, a type of in-between good.  

Then he tells a story of a shepherd called Gyges and his magic ring that helped him to become king (see Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book I).  If one could act however one wanted without threat of punishment or recrimination, wouldn’t everyone act thus?  Why should Glaucon be just if he can get away with being unjust? (Essentially he is asking: What is Justice on the level of an individual?)  It’s only our fear of getting caught that holds us to the course of Justice, and Justice itself is a social construct.  The Social Contract theory implies that people don’t really want to be just but because chaos would result from such a “free-for-all” society and therefore we enter into a “social contract” where we give up free reign on our desires for a greater good; certain rules are imposed on an individual that aren’t part of their nature for a common good. 

King Candaules of Lydia (1858)
Jean-Leon Gerome
source Wikiart
Socrates proceeds in a round-about manner.  Instead of directly commenting on how Justice works in an individual, he instead begins to examine how the same Justice works broadly within a state and then will apply what he discovers to the soul of man.  And thus Plato starts to establish his Republic.  The Republic begins with the need for a community ……. the need we have for each other for the basic provisions in life: food, clothing, shelter.  In the Republic, everyone has a trade or purpose, a division of labour that works best to run the city efficiently.  Right now, the city’s basic needs are met with simplicities, and no luxuries such as furniture, artists, meat, courtesans, perfume, etc. To Socrates, this city is true and healthy.  It’s important to note that in English, we use the word “soul” but the Greek word is actually “psuche” [ψυχή] (the root word for psyche) which can be used in a variety of different ways, such as: mind, self, individual, etc.  (Soul = that part of the human being which is not the body).
The Soul Breaking the Bonds …
Pierre-Paul Prud’hon
source Wikiart

Glaucon is perplexed.  What about the luxuries?  What Socrates has described only meets basic animal needs.  Socrates allows Glaucon his desires and adds in his wishes, but emphasizes that adding meat and sweets will cause inflammation and surely the physicians will be in more demand — he was obviously initially advocating vegetarianism for health.  Interesting ….   In any case, all these luxuries will increase competition, and therefore eventually war is inevitable.  Socrates will not say whether war is good or bad, he only examines the effect it will have on the Republic.  The city will therefore need an efficient soldier but they too must be specialists in their field. However, they must also exhibit a certain temperament, one that is combative and even aggressive, yet tempered by courage of spirit and controlled by rational behaviour.  Given their character and profession, they must be trained carefully to ensure they do not harm their own people.  How is that to be done?  Through education.  They must be trained to be hostile to their enemies and benevolent to their people, not indiscriminate with their behaviour.

Socrates now critiques the education of children.  In spite of the reverence given to the poets Hesiod and Homer, Socrates believes that the stories they have created will damaged the foundation of a good republic.  How can the gods be both good and bad?  Anything divine must be wholly good and it is impossible for it to be bad, therefore (Homer, in this case) is telling tales that are “impious, self-contradictory, and disastrous to our commonwealth.”  All such stories should be censored in a healthy city.  Also, death should never be depicted as something to be feared, so the Guardians of the city are not afraid to die in their defense of it; their defensive behaviour is part of the promoting of Justice and we do not want to impede them being just.

I had to admire Socrates in this section.  Even though he at first appears to advocate a simplistic city that he feels is the most healthy and functional, he bows to Glaucon’s wishes for luxuries, perhaps realizing that it would not be sensible to attempt to eradicate these human desires, and therefore, gives up his “perfect” city for one that is more realistic.  Plato is realizing the flaws in human nature and attempting to work within them.  Quite wise, I would say.

⇐ Book I                                                                                                       Book III ⇒


The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope

“Of course there was a Great House at Allington.”

Lily (Lilian), Bell (Isabella), and their mother, Mrs. Dale, live in a cottage on the estate of her brother-in-law, Squire Dale.  The squire, their benefactor, is a stern implacable man who feels a responsibility to the family, yet does not exhibit affection or understanding towards them or their plight.  In spite of the strained relations, the Dale women live a contented, happy life.  However, their cousin, Bernard, one day brings his friend, Adolphus Crosbie home to visit and an attachment grows between him and Lily.  Crosbie is a charming young man, without name or fortune, but with a charisma that captures Lily’s heart, despite his flaws of selfishness and worldliness.  Does Crosbie love Lily?  He certainly convinces himself that he does and as he proposes he anticipates a respectable dowry that he assumes will be bestowed upon Lily by Squire Dale.  But assumptions can go awry and when Crosbie learns that Lily will be the benefactress of nothing but goodwill, her charms begin to diminish in his materialistic eyes.  All attempts to convince himself that love will overcome practicalities fail and he is lured away by a daughter of an earl, Alexandrina deCourcy, of whom he once was an admirer.  Weak and irresolute, Crosbie soon finds himself engaged to the girl despite his own misgivings and the threat of censure that he is certain to receive from various aspects of society.

source Wikipedia

Johnny Eames, who is initially introduced to us as a hobbledyhoy, loves Lily with a quiet, unwavering devotion, however her attachment to Crosbie appears insurmountable in spite of his abominable treatment of her. Even Eames’ preferment by the honourable Lord de Guest does not seem to sway Lily’s heart in his favour.  Meanwhile, her sister, Bell, refuses the proposal of her cousin, Bernard, who is influenced by their uncle, Squire Dale.  The Squire’s desire for the union overrides both parties, and he nearly drives his family away, physically and emotionally.  Yet there is another suitor waiting in the wings, Dr. Crofts, and the pair display a long-standing bond that is quiet and endurable.  Love puts on many faces in this book, yet happiness can be elusive in spite of good intentions.

Lily Dale is a character that is both frustrating and pitiful.  Her devotion to a man of questionable character and weak will is truly appalling.  One can understand her love and finally her disappointment, but it is beyond conceivability that she could maintain such an unwavering allegiance to such a scoundrel.  There are few characters I could claim to fully dislike in classic fiction, but I would have to say, Lily Dale is one of them.

source Wikipedia

During the Barset Chronicles series, one gets accustomed to Trollope’s palate of numerous multi-faceted characters, that populate his pages with a kaleidescope of colourful behaviours and a weaving of personal happenings.  However, with this book, I was somewhat disappointed.  The story itself was  more simplified than the other books of the Chronicles, which is not a detriment in itself, but the major focus on the love story of Lily and its many pitfalls left one with a disquieted feeling.  Because there is little commitment, deep feeling, or love on one side, and an excess of it on the other, there is an inequality of sentiment produced that colours the whole book.  Blindness is a factor in many circumstances and, in spite of Trollope’s lighthearted treatment of some of the characters, there is perhaps a more damning conviction against society at large for its inability to see what is in front of its face, for its lack of motivation to change circumstances, and perhaps even for its helplessness at the hands of fate.

Other books in the series:

Shadow of the Moon by M.M. Kaye

“Winter!  Who ever heard of such a name?”

Set during the great Indian Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, Shadow of the Moon follows the life of Winter, Condesa de Ballesteros who is the daughter of a Spanish nobleman and an English mother.  Leaving India for England an orphan at the age of six, she is raised by her great-grandfather the Earl of Ware, but a match is made for her at the tender age of eleven to a man twenty years her senior, and at seventeen she prepares to leave for India escorted by Captain Alex Randall, the subordinate of her betrothed, Conway Barton, the Commissioner of the Lunjore district.  From the beginning, Winter is attracted to Randall’s self-confident demeanour and somewhat brash independence, yet while she appreciates his care of her, she is also affronted at times by his behaviour and the two develop a mutual attraction that is complicated by circumstance and convention.  Although Winter remembers her fiancé as a rather jovial pleasant figure who offers safety and security, Randall is convinced that once she sees the debauched, womanizing lout, nothing in the world would convince her to marry him. 
Yet what becomes more of a concern is the rumblings in India of disquiet and unrest, as the British East India company’s presence has long been resented.  A company originally formed for trade and at one point accounting for half of the world’s trade, the British East India Company had expropriated not only the goods of the country of India, but its territories as well.  At the time of this story, there is discontentment among the Indian people due to heavy-handed British social reforms, unfair taxes, and the treatment of some of the nobility of the country.  In this case, the fuse that lit the mutiny was Indian sepoy officers being given cartridges smeared with pig and cow fat which they have to bite off, a practice that would be an anathema to both Hindus and Muslims due to their religious beliefs.  In spite of rumours murmured in secret meetings and bazaars of a mutiny so great not one Englishman will be left alive, the British commanders continue to trust their Indian armies, and stubbornly refuse to heed the signs of disaffection and suspicion.  While Randall attempts to convince his British contemporaries of the dangers, there are still parties and gaieties galore among the English ex-patriots and one wonders at their willful blindness.

The ruins of the Residency at Lucknow and the
gunfire it received
source Wikipedia

This historical aspect of this novel was fascinating.  Kaye communicated the various personages and political posturing in a highly realistic manner, from the blind stubbornness of the British commanders, to the insightful planning of Sir Henry Lawrence; from the rebel attacks in Delhi, to the flight of the British characters in their attempts to escape the carnage, the reader is treated to a highly developed and suspenseful plot that keeps him riveted to the pages.  Kaye also weaves a descriptive masterpiece of the settings of India and one can feel the heat radiating from the land, hear the chatter of the people in the bazaars, sense the tension between races and the suppressed passion between Winter and Alex Randall.  

The Sepoy revolt at Meerut
from Illustrated London News, 1857
source Wikipedia

Sadly, the romance in the novel was the most disappointing part.  Randall appeared rather self-absorbed for the greater part of the book, his job and political responsibilities often overshadowing any love or caring or attention that he could have shown Winter, and the uncomfortableness of her situation (a married woman) combined with Randall’s independent and sometimes abrasive character quelled any feelings of satisfaction that might have been generated by their love story.  Winter also had a penchant for overreacting with an exaggerated response that would cause her to make unwise decisions which would either damage her position, or needlessly complicate her life. While it perhaps added to the plot, it was often annoying and not necessarily believable. Randall himself displayed a character that was not particularly warm or generous towards women; I could understand Winter’s attraction to him, but I also thought their future life would be fraught with discontent and unrest, very much like the India they inhabited.

Here is an article written by M.M. Kaye on her writing of Shadow of the Moon, which I found interesting and illuminating.  In spite of a few reservations about the romance aspect, the rest of the novel was highly enjoyable and I thank Cirtnecce for her read-along.  If you want to read more about the book and the Indian Sepoy mutiny, please see her post on the Company Raj and her post on The Landscape of the Mutiny.

The Republic ~ Part I (Book I)

The Republic
Jean-Leon Gerome
source Wikiart

Book I:

The dialogue begins around the year of 410 B.C. at the port of the Piraeus, a town five miles from Athens.  As we read of the overthrow of the Athenian democracy in 404 B.C. in Thucydides’, History of the Peloponnesian War, Socrates begins to ask the questions about the benefits of democracy and builds his Republic on those ideas.  He begins by questioning the benefits and results of Justice.

Returning home from a religious festival with Glaucon (one of the brothers of Plato), Socrates becomes involved in a conversation with Cephalus, an old man.  Cephalus is certain Justice consists of being honest in your dealings with others and fulfilling your obligations, a very traditional Greek worldview.  When Socrates challenges this definition, the son of Cephalus, Polemarchus (who, in history, was executed by the Thirty Tyrants) expands on his father’s ideas, yet Socrates challenges his conception that Justice is treating your friends well and harming your enemies.  Man is libel to be mistaken in his assessment of both, and doesn’t harming someone make him less of a person?  Therefore, if you make someone less than they are, how can one be said to be just in his treatment of them?  

The Madonna of Justice (1620-25)
Bernardo Strozzi
source Wikiart

Thrasymachus, a well-known Sophist*, bursts into the conversation, insisting on a different defintion of Justice: the actions of those in power, as they dispense them on their subjects.  Thrasymachus is embodying the view of a relativist where there is no objective definition; Justice is only whatever the stronger imposes on the weaker.  Socrates counters, asking if a ruler always makes decisions in his own best interest, which Thrasymachus admits not.  Socrates then gives an example of physician or ship’s captain; is their interest in themselves or their patients or sailors?  The latter, of course, so “no skill or authority provides for its own benefit,” but for the benefit of the weaker, which contradicts the assertion of Thrasymachus.  I rather think Thrasymachus’ views would be a recipe for chaos.

Now the larger question is tackled by Socrates …. Is a life of Justice preferable to a life of injustice?  Socrates refutes Thrasymachus’ view, concluding that the virtue of a soul is Justice and injustice its defect.  Thus, “the soul robbed of its peculiar virtue, … cannot possibly do its work well ….. and living well involves well-being and happiness,”and therefore, “only the just man is happy.”  However, Socrates has not yet given a fixed definition of Justice.

* in ancient Greece, Sophists were paid teachers who were experts in using philosophy and rhetoric to promote excellence and virtue, yet are often portrayed as using fallacious reasoning and obscuring moral principles

⇐ Introduction                                                                                        Book II ⇒

History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides

“Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, beginning at the moment that it broke out, and believing that it would be a great war, and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it.”

Ah, the lovely Landmark editions!  Where would I be without them?  I would have no idea the location of Thrace or Thessaly or Corinth, etc. and therefore have less of a concept of the complicated dynamics that influenced various states in their struggles to fit into the puzzle of Hellenistic supremacy!

Thucydides account of the war between Sparta and Athens falls just after the events recounted in Herodotus’ The Histories.  Athens, high on her victory over the very powerful Xerxes, king of Persia, during the Persian Wars, is feeling rather self-important and she appears to be rushing around with her forces, conquering states here and subduing enemies there.  And while Athens becomes more powerful, the Lacedaemonians of Sparta are left to conduct their somewhat mundane and traditional existence.  But Athens’ power begins to worry them and while they were allies during the Persian Wars, this brotherhood appears to be heading towards a separation that could prove bloody as well as costly.

Index of Posts:

Book I / Book II / Book III / Book IV / Book V / Book VI / Book VIIBook VIII

Thucydides, indeed, gives a fascinating account of a mega-war between two superior powers that were at the height of their military powers, a war that would not only engulf their nations, but many of the city-states surrounding them and would even spread to Italy with the disastrous Sicilian expedition launched by Athens.  At first, the reader perhaps can sympathize that Athens might want to expand her influence or that Sparta might want to assert herself for balance, but soon the war grows like a cancer wherever it touches, prompting Thucydides to make an insightful observation:

“Think, too of the great part that is played by the unpredictable in war: think of it now, before you are actually committed to war.  The longer a war lasts, the more things tend to depend on accidents.  Neither you nor we can see into them: we have to abide their outcome in the dark.  And when peole are entering upon a war they do things the wrong way round.  Action comes first, and it is only when they have already suffered that they begin to think.”

How right he was!  One goes into a war with laudable intentions, but soon enough greed and power and hegemony begins to infect the general purpose and beyond anyone’s control the conflict becomes a nine-headed hydra.

After reading Herodotus, Thucydides’ narrative at first felt dry and sparse.  It definitely took determination and some plodding through a literary desert to keep going, but the reward was unexpected and quite amazing.  The fact that Thucydides did not colour the actions of others with his own palate (or at least, very little) allowed these actions and decisions to stand out in stark contrast and emphasized the selfless bravery, the strategic plotting, the blind stubbornness of leaders, the diplomatic brilliance, the plain stupidity of many and the various other exploits of all those involved in this lengthy and tragic war.

One wants to catalogue the evils of war, but Thucydides made me realize that war is much more complex that just an event; in fact, it seemed like the war was simply a side-issue that was a symptom of a much larger problem.  The problem of people ……. their greed and small-mindedness and selfish ambition.  It’s a scenario that’s played over and over throughout history and the actions of these people are always catastrophic at the most and injurious at the least, no matter if the venue is war, or political strife, or family matters, or any other large or small issue that our human faults and failing play into. Next I’m reading The Republic by Plato, a man whose life was coloured by this lengthy war.  It will be interesting to read the conclusions he draws.

 

 

 

The Republic ~ Introduction

“Socrates: I walked down to the Piraeus yesterday with Glaucon the son of Ariston to make my prayers to the goddess.”

Well, I’ve finished History of the Peloponnesian War (except for my final post), yet I’m afraid I’m going to continue on the same track with The Republic and put a number of my readers to sleep.  But I am enjoying this history project ….. as we’ve meandered through Herodotus, then Thucydides, and now Plato, you do see changes and developments within the Greek culture and worldview that can’t be ignored.  And since our civilization, to a certain extent, grew out of it, I believe it’s valuable to learn something about that development.  I anticipate that Plato will be more interesting, but possibly more frustrating.  It doesn’t seem like it was only the ancients who wanted to strangle Socrates …..

Introduction

Plato was born is the year 428/7 BC and his childhood and early youth were overshadowed with the Peloponnesian War, giving rise to a fundamental questioning of the best way to live.  As Thucydides observed in his history that “in peace and prosperity both states and individuals are actuated by higher motives, because they do not fall under the dominion of imperious necessities; but war, which takes away the comfortable provision of daily life, is a hard master, and tends to assimilate men’s characters to their conditions,” and thus Plato saw political life as a type of war for power, money or prestige.

Upon Pericles’s death at the beginning of the war, there ended the reign of a philosopher king, a man whom grew in wisdom through his conversations with the pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaxagoras, and therefore was able to employ both political intelligence and enlightened prudence to his governing of the state.  With his demise, a great chasm began to appear between politics and philosophy.  “To Plato, this drifting apart of the men of thought and the men of action was a disastrous calamity, indeed the root of the social evils of his time.”  (Cornford p. xxiv)  Instead of two separate avenues, each should be united in the other to allow man his full expression.

Plato (1560)
Paolo Veronese
source Wikiart

By mid-life Plato opened his Academy, basing his conversational instruction on his mentor, Socrates, whom he’d studied under since his early twenties.  Plato sought an answer to the problem that if knowledge was a means to power, and power to wealth, then society was doomed to a materialistic cycle that left men blind to not only the consequences of their actions, but led them to mistake the path to true happiness: “which every soul pursues as the end of all her actions, dimly divining its existence, but perplexed and unable to grasp its nature with the same clearness and assurance as in dealing with other things, and so missing whatever value those other things might have.” (5a95 E, p. 216).  With his astute insight, Plato presents a problem that is ubiquitous, a universal dilemma.

The translator, Conford, suggests that in reading Plato, ask yourself why you agree or disagree with Plato’s utopian design, and in response, suggest an alternative.  In this way, through time, you can experience an abstract participation in Plato’s Academy and perhaps determine, as Socrates implied, that it’s just as important to discover what you don’t know, as what you do.

Arcadian Ruins (c. 1720)
Giovanni Paolo Panini
source ArtUK

Book I ⇒