Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Hellenistic Age

The Hellenistic Age is the name of a book by Peter Green I just finished reading. It’s a history and cultural overview. It quickly marches through the history from 334 to 31 B.C. in 130 pages with the cultural themes pulled in at appropriate points as the history moves briskly along. It opens with Alexander’s conquests, the wars among his successors and the emergence of his three strongest successors. These three, Ptolemy in Egypt, Seleucus in Syria and Turkey and Antigonus in Greece founded kingdoms that lasted until Rome triumphed. In 31 B.C. Egypt, the final remaining kingdom, was defeated by the man who was to become Augustus Caesar. But a good piece of the book is taken up with the wars among these three kingdoms as well as revolts, dynastic squabbles, divorces, incestuous marriages, and assassinations. And many of the rulers chronicled were gluttons, drunks or given to excessive sexuality.
Intellectual life was to a great degree taken up with the study and preservation of the great works of the glorious Greek past such as Homer, Hesiod, Sophocles, Euripides, Herodotus, Thucydides, the Pre-Socratic’s, Plato, and so on. Scholars minutely listed and classified these older works. There were good writers during this time but none that are essential to the great conversation of the Western tradition.
The dominating philosophical systems of this period were Stoicism, cynicism and Epicureanism. They have been characterized as useful in assisting one in accepting and fitting into a world in which the individual has reduced control over his own life and no control over political systems . Loss of power was their dilemma and their answer was to focus on self and seek the most happiness possible under the circumstances.
For the past couple of years I have been drawn to the Hellenistic age and the last century of Habsburg rule. I sense that this is because I feel some affinity between these times and our present world. I see an unmoored emptiness in the present day: so many things, so few values. Tens of millions of Americans have a knee jerk hatred of America. Scientology makes sense to millions. Keith Olberman and Geraldo Rivera can make decent livings just being themselves: what kind of weird world is that?
That’s this week’s book report
Something unrelated that some might find as interesting as I did. In my reading about the Habsburgs I came across something I hadn’t known about Ludwig Wittgenstein. I had always thought of L. W. as a part of the 20th century tradition of English philosophy. But I came across a writer who saw him as a Kantian. He was motivated not to make Moore or Russell or whoever happy but rather to solve some of the puzzles Kant had left floating around the Continent.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Tom Wolfe Said He Heard a French Diplomat Say

"An intellectual is a person knowledgeable in one field who speaks out only in others."

Thursday, January 24, 2008

McLuhan Said

"Moral indignation is a technique used to endow the idiot with dignity."

Monday, January 21, 2008

Thomas Mann

I recently added a photo of Thomas Mann to the site because I enjoy his novels. Reading him while I was in my late teens helped prepare me to read Tolstoy and Joyce and many others. Reading Mann prepared me to study the Western tradition. And this was fortunate for me since schools in America have lost contact with the Western tradition and it is nearly impossible to receive a liberal education in present day America. I think the loss of liberal education from our colleges pretty much dooms America since it is what made us what we are, "but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted?"
It was rather by accident that I began reading Mann. When I was seventeen I ran across Clifton Fadiman's Lifetime Reading Plan in the local library. And his description of Mann's writing made me curious. He said that Mann's novels were stylistically like music. This motivated me to read Mann to see just what he meant. We had had a copy of The Magic Mountain on the bookshelf at home. It had been there my whole life and I'm sure it was a Book of the Month Club selection my father received when I was a small child. So I pulled it down and read it.
The Magic Mountain is long and slow moving which I enjoy in a novel. It is the story of someone as clueless about the Western tradition as I was. Hans Castorp, the main character, accidentally ends up in a TB sanatorium in Switzerland and is exposed to liberal education by some of his fellow patients. It was the perfect book for an educational orphan like me. It gave me some examples of what a real education is like and made me hungry for more.
I ended up reading all of Mann's major novels and began studying the Western tradition. I began studying the ancient Greeks and Romans and continued on from there. I also studied some Eastern thought. I read some of the classics of Taoism, Buddhism and Hinduism and some books explaining them. I prefer the Western tradition but feel that knowledge of the east is essential to a rounded education.
Early on I didn't understand or appreciate the musical nature of Mann's style. But as I read more of his novels and became a better, more careful reader I came to see it and enjoy it. Mann treated his characters like musical themes and performed variations on the theme throughout the work. Certain words, actions and ideas would be regularly associated with a certain character. Then a character and his influence on or association with another character might be hinted at by then showing an association between these words, actions and ideas and the second character without any outright mention of the first character. This added a deeper level of meaning to both characters. Also, as the work progressed, the growth and development or lack thereof of any character could be reflected in the development of the themes associated with that character (the words, actions, ideas, etc.).

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Judy Woodruff

Following the Iowa caucus I watched some coverage on PBS. It was a hoot. Judy Woodruff came on and looked like she had just experienced multiple, thunderous orgasms and breathlessly told us about Barrack Obama. Her words, "This is exhilarating for democracy," pant, pant. And at home I'm thinking, "My tax dollars at work." Judy W. is chasing unicorns and America is getting up early in the morning to go to work to pay for her strange little quest.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

War Memorial Desecration

I read recently read about a Viet Nam veteran war memorial being desecrated with graffiti. The writing appeared to be signed by the MS 13 gang. My first reaction was that it does not make sense for them to be so openly involved in politics. I thought such involvement might just make it more difficult for them to operate their business and so they might tend to be adverse to such publicity. I can only guess at what is going on here. I did a small amount of research. I've lived in southern California since 1966 and have seen a lot of graffiti. I presently live in an enclave that just does not have graffiti so I haven't seen as much in the last few years. But my first reaction to seeing the writing on the memorial was that it was unlike much of what I have seen. Most of what I have seen is much more stylized and difficult to read. But I am sure there are police officers with the LAPD and near New Haven that have some expertise in identifying and authenticating graffiti.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that my thought that businessmen would not enter into politics might not apply here. They might not think there is much of a down side to an appeal to racial war. These gangs have grown up and thrived in areas controled by Democrats. And the Democrat party is obsessed with race and exacerbates racial divisions in order to increase their power. MS 13 might have felt that the establishment that they have grown up with and thrived under would be happy to see racially inspired chaos encouraged. Also they have been endemic in sancturary cities. So the establishment they have known has no respect for law and discourages respect for law in others. These gang members might only be doing what they have been taught by example.
Though, it still remains a possibility that this act was carried out by someone other than MS 13.