Author: Richard Carroll

Richard III, Reading Shakespeare, and Another Way to Fail at Kingship

William Shakespeare’s renown in the English-speaking world knows no bounds. He gets his own section in most libraries and bookstores, he’s assigned in every English curriculum, and in any major city there’s almost always a production of one of his plays going on at any time. Take a poll asking for the greatest poet, dramatist, or even general writer in English, and the Bard will win almost every time. In fact, he’s so famous that we don’t even need to call him by his name; just say “the Bard,” and people know who you’re talking about, like how St. Thomas Aquinas just calls Aristotle “the Philosopher.”

However, there’s also a phenomenon with Shakespeare similar to an observation C. S. Lewis once made about Scripture – if you tried to judge the amount of Bible-reading in England by the number of Bibles sold, you’d be far off the mark. A lot of people never approach Shakespeare’s work outside of class assignments, and find him difficult for several reasons. A common one is his diction; coworker of mine once said, only half-jokingly, that he’d be more interested in Shakespeare if Shakespeare wrote in English. Of course, not only did he write in English, he wrote in Modern English, albeit early Modern English.

A good illustration of the difficulties people run into is the famous opening soliloquy in Richard III, which I just watched recently:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barded steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.

As soon as people see this, I suspect many of them feel like they need to dissect it like a frog in biology class, as they were always required to do in school. “What’s the metre here? Any assonance or alliteration? There is a pun on ‘son’ and ‘sun’, I should mention that. Who is the ‘son of York,’ anyway? There’s also a lot of contrast between images in each lines…” and so on. Are you really supposed to get all of this?…

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Medieval Monsters

I recently received the book Medieval Monsters, an art book collecting illustrations from various medieval manuscripts, by Damien Kempf and Maria L. Gilbert, as a gift, and it’s one of those books whose main flaw is that it’s not big enough. That is, I wish it were bigger both in the sense of having more content and just being physically larger. At just 6″ x 7.5″, this is the smallest art book I own. More typical  would be something like The First World War in Colour, which is 8.5″ x 11.5″. To be fair, most of these illustrations don’t have a lot of detail and so may not merit as much space as some other genres of art, but a larger size would also allow for more content. On a positive note, the paper and print quality is nice, so what is here looks good.

One other small complaint, at just under a hundred pages there’s not really space here for a full treatment of the art. Anyone looking for a full discussion of medieval art and manuscripts will need to look elsewhere. However, Kempf and Gilbert do accomplish just what they set out to do, and there’s just enough text to give some context to the pictures and to relate some always-interesting myths and anecdotes. Discussing a picture of St. Dominic, for example, the authors say:

The Spanish saint was known for h is intense devotion to Christ: he would spend sleepless nights praying and reading. According to a medieval legend, Dominic’s mother, when pregnant, dreamed of a dog carrying a torch in its mouth that would teach and enlighten the world. Dominic and the members of the monastic order he founded, the Dominicans, were called the ‘dogs of the Lord’ (Domini canes), and their mission was to fight against the evil temptations of the world.


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Plato’s Dialogues: Euthyphro

So, we’ve made it to one of Plato’s most famous dialogues, Euthyphro. Socrates is on his way to court, having been charged with corrupting the youth of Athens, when he meets a young man, Euthyphro, who is there to charge his father with murder. The primary question here is how to define piety, but with a theme throughout the dialogue of intellectual humility, even more so than in the other works so far.

Now, Euthyphro’s case is a difficult one. One of his father’s servants had killed a man, so his father had bound him and, while deciding what to do with him, the servant died. He certainly caused his servant’s death, though not intentionally, and few would find much sympathy for the murderous servant. There’s also, of course, the question of whether one should charge one’s father with a crime at all. Socrates doesn’t seem to think so, at least in most cases, and he says to Euthyphro in astonishment, “And the man your father killed, was he a relative of yours? Of course he was? You never would prosecute your father would you, for the death of anybody who was not related to you?”

It may be helpful to compare another philosopher’s opinion on a similar subject; the situation reminds me of an exchange in The Analects, in Book XIII:

The duke of Sheh informed Confucius, saying, ‘Among us here there are those who may be styled upright in their conduct. If their father have stolen a sheep, they will bear witness to the fact.’

Confucius said, ‘Among us, in our part of the country, those who are upright are different from this. The father conceals the misconduct of the son, and the son conceals the misconduct of the father. Uprightness is to be found in this.’

Translator James Legge notes, “[Confucius’] expression does not absolutely affirm that this is upright, but that in this there is a better principle than in the other conduct. Anybody but a Chinese will say that both the duke’s view of the subject and the sage’s were incomplete.”…

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Plato’s Dialogues: Meno

Plato’s dialogue Meno begins with the titular character asking Socrates whether virtue is something that can be taught. Socrates, of course, wants to begin by defining what exactly virtue is. Now, in LysisLaches, and Charmides, Socrates and friends couldn’t even figure out what a few particular virtues are, so it seems unlikely that we’ll find out what virtue as a whole is (spoiler: we don’t), but interestingly, unlike those three aporetic dialogues, Socrates does present a positive argument of his own and even offers a conclusion at the end.

So, in response to Socrates’ question, Meno attempts to define “virtue” as “desiring fine things and being able to acquire them.” This doesn’t stand up to Socrates’ scrutiny, though, in part because, when Socrates starts asking for more detail and examples, Meno isn’t able to define virtue as a whole without reference to individual parts of virtue, like justice, temperance, and so on.…

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A Brief Introduction to Mencius

When discussing Confucianism, the first book people think of is The Analects of Confucius, which is understandably the most famous Confucian work by a wide margin. This book is, Scripture aside, the most important book I’ve ever read in forming my own political and social ideas, and my opinion of Confucius is largely the same as his student Tsze-kung:

Were our Master in the position of the ruler of a State or the chief of a Family, we should find verified the description which has been given of a sage’s rule: he would plant the people, and forthwith they would be established; he would lead them on, and forthwith they would follow him; he would make them happy, and forthwith multitudes would resort to his dominions; he would stimulate them, and forthwith they would be harmonious. While he lived, he would be glorious. When he died, he would be bitterly lamented. How is it possible for him to be attained to?

Eventually, I’ll need to write an article on The Analects (aside from Lyall’s substandard translation). In any case, less known, at least in the West, are the rest of the “Four Books,” The Doctrine of the MeanThe Great Learning, and Mencius, which is awkwardly named after its author. I’ve just finished going through all four of these to gather material for my Twitter bot and it struck me that Mencius may be a better introduction to Confucianism than The Analects.

You see, one distinguishing feature of The Analects is that it’s composed mostly of individual sayings and very brief dialogues, often without context, and very few chapters are more than a paragraph or two. For example, Book VII Chapter VII, “The Master said, ‘From the man bringing his bundle of dried flesh [as tuition] for my teaching upwards, I have never refused instruction to anyone.'” Another, from Book VIII Chapter VIII, “The Master said, ‘It is by the Odes that the mind is aroused. It is by the Rules of Propriety that the character is established. It is from Music that the finish is received.'”…

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Tales of Mystery and Imagination

It’s October and Halloween is just around the corner, so now’s a perfect time to bring out Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Not the Alan Parsons Project album, though that’s good, too, but Calla Editions’ reprint of the classic collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories.

Now, among the authors typically assigned for high school English, Poe stands out a bit from other members of the literary canon because, though many other canonical authors wrote for popular audiences, Poe’s stories come across as essentially pulp. It revels in the macabre, often hinges on suspense, and he’s primarily known for horror, and that genre is known for getting snubbed by critics. Most of his stories, because they sometimes do rely on the unknown, don’t benefit from re-reading like most great works, and Poe himself was strongly opposed to didactic fiction, so there aren’t many lessons to take from him, besides things like “Don’t bury your sister unless you’re absolutely certain that she’s dead,” or “Never bet the devil your head.” So what’s he doing on lists of canonical authors?

Simply, because he’s the master of this type of fiction.

"For the love of God, Montresor!" "Yes," I said, "for the love of God!"
“For the love of God, Montresor!” “Yes,” I said, “for the love of God!”
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Getting Started with Plato (Lysis, Laches, and Charmides)

My trip through the Classics so far was, to a large extent, a preparation for the works of Plato. I’ll work my way through The Collected Dialogues, edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, a few dialogues at a time, and posting about them as I go.

Now, one choice I had to make at the outset was what order to read these in. There is no one perfect method, it seems, but in a project like this I like to have some plan going in. When I asked about this on twitter I got a few very helpful suggestions (beginning here) from Megillus, who knows the dialogues well, and I also found this recommendation online. That one is fairly close to Megillus’s recommendation, so I slightly modified it and will proceed through them like so:

  • Getting started: Lysis/Laches/Charmides
  • Socrates’ trial: Meno + Euthyphro/Apology/Crito
  • The Sophists: Protagoras +Hippias major/Gorgias/Hippias minor
  • The soul: Symposium + Phaedrus/Republic/Phaedo
  • Logos: Cratylus + Ion/Euthydemus/Menexenus
  • Dialectic: Parmenides + Theaetetus/Sophist/Statesman
  • Kosmos: Philebus + Timaeus/Critias/Laws


You may notice that I cut out Alcibiades I, and I did that because it’s not included in my edition of The Collected Dialogues. I may look it up later; after all this I’ll be so close to being a Plato completist anyway that I may as well.

In any case, the first three, very short, works are all aporetic dialogues, that is, they each raise a question concerning some virtue that Socrates and his interlocutors try to define, but never come to a definite conclusion. At first glance that sounds rather pointless, but it does a few valuable things, namely introducing us to the style of Socratic dialogue, and forces us to begin thinking seriously about these virtues ourselves. This is why I don’t have a lot to say about LysisLaches, and Charmides, because I don’t think that the ideas raised are the point; rather, the point is the process, which isn’t something that can really be summarised adequately.

The style of these dialogues is taking some getting used to for me. When I read philosophy I generally prefer someone like Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas, who approach a question systematically, with all the directness and charm of a dictionary entry, and who offer a conclusion at the end of a discussion. I know a few people who much prefer Plato’s style, because it feels more natural, and philosophy does seem more entertaining when it includes a little storytelling and characterisation of the interlocutors. So I completely understand why many people like Plato’s work so much, but personally I much prefer a formal approach in works of non-fiction.

In any case, these are like the appetiser for the main course, and there’ll be more to follow, probably over the next several months.…

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Is There a Hierarchy Among the Arts?

tezuka_osamuLast weekend I wrote up a recommended reading list as a permanent page, and as I came to the end I briefly considered adding a section for comics, but decided against it because my goal was to direct people to higher art; pop culture already has enough promotion.

While thinking about some of the graphic novels I may have added, I noticed that most of them were works that I’d only really recommend to someone specifically interested in the medium. I took a look at the general fiction section and considered whether I’d encourage anyone to read them before even the relatively lighter works, like The Things They Carried or The Napoleon of Notting Hill, and the answer was no, I wouldn’t.

Why is this? It’s not as though I’m only working from a small sample size; I’ve read dozens of these works, including those that are commonly cited as the best of the medium, like WatchmenThe Dark Knight Returns, a few works by Tezuka Osamu, as well as some more niche titles like Onward Toward Our Noble Deaths or A Bride’s Story. Are comics just inherently an inferior medium? How would one even go about comparing different media?…

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Recommended Reading Page

Those of you who follow me on twitter have likely already seen me talk about it, but I’ve added a page for books that I particularly recommend.

In short, I thought the Post Highlights and Review Index page had a shortcoming in that it doesn’t indicate which books I’ve reviewed are ones that I’d actually recommend. For the recommended reading list I broadened the scope a bit, so it covers the books that I’d recommend more-or-less universally to any educated person who asks.

So next time you’re looking for something to read and would like some suggestions, check it out.…

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The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists

Salvator_Rosa_-_Démocrite_et_ProtagorasWhen one begins a study of Western philosophy, especially with a focus on the history of philosophy, Plato is the most common starting-point. That’s reasonable enough, since he was, as far as I know, the first major philosopher from whom we have a lot of material, and so influential that Alfred North Whitehead famously commented that the rest of Western philosophy is “footnotes to Plato.”

However, there were several philosophers who do predate Plato. The problem, though, is that we don’t have complete works from these men, just fragments and testimonia. Fortunately, The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists, translated and edited by Robin Waterfield, collects many of these fragments in an accessible way for a general audience. Waterfield also translated the edition of The Histories that I read and reviewed recently, and his translation is just as good here as it was for Herodotus (in style, of course, since I can’t vouch for accuracy), and his introduction and annotations are consistently helpful.…

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