Category: non-fiction

St. Alphonsus de Liguori, How to Pray at All Times

Probably anyone who’s been Christian long enough to have listened to more than a few sermons has heard, time after time, that we should pray at all times. This is partly a generalisation of how every major Biblical figure seems to pray before and after doing just about anything of importance, as well as many specific instructions to pray frequently, but it’s stated most directly by St. Paul at 1 Thess. 5:17, “Never cease praying,” and by Christ Himself at Luke 21:36, “Keep watch, then, praying at all times, so that you may be found worthy to come safe through all that lies before you, and stand erect to meet the presence of the Son of Man.” When quoted directly, preachers typically qualify it as not literal, but nonetheless, how does one go about praying at all times?

This is the question that St. Alphonsus de Liguori answers in his short 1753 book, straightforwardly titled How to Pray at All Times. He begins by quoting Job 7:17, “What is man that You should magnify him: or why do You set Your heart upon him?” Though Scripture urges us to pray, nonetheless some Christians feel unworthy when approaching God in prayer, whether through consciousness of past sins or a sense of reverence. St. Alphonsus, though, says:

You should, indeed, devout reader, worship Him in all humility and prostrate yourself before Him; especially when you call to mind the ingratitude and sin of which, in the past, you may have been guilty. Yet this should not hinder you from treating Him with the most tender confidence and love. He is infinite majesty; but, at the same time, He is infinite love and goodness. In God you possess the most exalted and supreme Lord; but also a Friend who loves you with the greatest possible love. He is not offended – on the contrary, He is pleased – when you treat him with that confidence, freedom, and tenderness with which a child treats its mother. Hear how He invites us to go to Him and even promises to welcome us with His caresses: ‘You shall be carried at the breasts and upon the knees they shall caress you. As one whom the mother caresses, so will I comfort you’ (Isaiah 66:12).

What I like about St. Alphonus is that, in this passage and throughout the book, he constantly urges a familiarity with God, while still maintaining a sense of reverence; emphasises God’s compassion and mercy, while not ignoring the reality and gravity of sin.

He then moves on to when to pray, and the book’s title gives away the answer to this question. “Speak to God,” he writes, “as often as you can, for He does not grow weary of this nor disdain it, as do the lords of the earth.” In a few short sections, he then tells us to pray “in your trials,” “in your joys,” “after a fault,” “in your doubts,” and “for your neighbour,” illustrating each instance with words from Scripture. In the final chapter, he goes over some advice on the actual practice of praying constantly.

When I said this book was short, I meant it – at thirty pages for the main portion, it’s more of a treatise or long essay than a book. My edition, from Catholic Way Publishing, includes an appendix giving a routine by St. Alphonsus for regular prayer, as well as the Stations of the Cross with reflections and some common prayers, pushing the volume up to sixty-four pages. Despite its brevity, though, on a per-page basis it’s extraordinarily valuable.…

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Plato’s Dialogues: Phaedrus

Since I’m among the brave few who dislike the Symposium, I was a little disappointed at first that most of Phaedrus covers the same subject, love. However, it also covers a couple other things that I find much more interesting, and it’s also back to having just one interlocutor for Socrates. Rather than the more-or-less hostile exchanges that characterised the dialogues with the Sophists, though, this conversation is much more amiable, similar to some of the earlier dialogues like Lysis and Laches. Socrates’ discussion with Phaedrus isn’t a debate, but a conversation between two friends while out for a walk, albeit at a much higher level than any conversation I’ve ever had.

One interesting observation comes early on. Socrates happened to cross paths with Phaedrus while the latter was out taking a walk, and they happen to cross a river near the point where Boreas was said to have seized Orithyia. Phaedrus asks Socrates whether he believed the myth to be true, and he says this:

I should be quite in the fashion if I disbelieved it, as the men of science do. I might proceed to give a scientific account of how the maiden, while at play with Pharmacia, was blown by a gust of Boreas down from the rocks hard by, and having thus met her death was said to have been seized by Boreas, though it may have happened on the Areopagus, according to another version of the occurrence. For my part, Phaedrus, I regard such theories as no doubt attractive, but as the invention of clever, industrious people who are not exactly to be envied, for the simple reason that they must then go on and tell us the real truth about the appearance of centaurs and the Chimera, not to mention a whole host of such creatures, Gorgons and Pegasuses and countless other remarkable monsters of legend flocking in on them. If our skeptic, with his somewhat crude science, means to reduce every one of them to the standard of probability, he’ll need a deal of time for it. I myself have certainly no time for the business, and I’ll tell you why, my friend. I can’t as yet ‘know myself,’ as the inscription at Delphi enjoins, and so long as that ignorance remains it seems to me ridiculous to inquire into extraneous matters. Consequently I don’t bother about such things, but accept the current beliefs about them, and direct my inquiries, as I have just said, rather to myself, to discover whether I really am a more complex creature and more puffed up with pride than Typhon, or a simpler, gentler being whom heaven has blessed with a quiet, un-Typhonic nature.

Recall that Socrates will later be charged with corrupting the youth, and encouraging impiety. Yet, apparently there were “men of science,” which I take to be an ironic phrase roughly equivalent to calling the New Atheist twats “brights” or “fedoras,” who spent a good deal of time in trying to explain myths surrounding the gods rationally. Socrates, though, says that he accepts the common beliefs around these myths. That doesn’t mean he has no doubts, of course, but he focuses on other, more important matters first.…

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On Human Sacrifice in the Book of Judges

Recently, I’ve been working my way through Scripture, and one thing it’s reminded me of is how wild the Old Testament gets, particularly in the Book of Judges. It makes one fully appreciate why the sacred author says twice, including the very conclusion of the book, that “In those days there was no king in Israel: but every one did that which seemed right to himself.” The only times that Israel wasn’t a near anarchic, heathen-ridden mess was under the guidance of the judges.

Perhaps the most difficult incident, though, is Jephte’s sacrifice of his daughter, in the eleventh chapter. Now, whenever I come across a passage in Scripture that I don’t understand, I typically turn to commentaries. My edition of the Douay-Rheims Bible includes Bishop Richard Challoner’s notes, and I also use the iOS app Catena, which offers commentary by a number of saints and theologians. There’s something on almost every verse, and on important passages a few Church Fathers or other luminaries will weigh in, and you might end up with a few paragraphs worth of notes. This incident, though, prompted a free-for-all among the commentators. They do divide into a few camps, but it seems like every scholar to have ever picked up a Bible has felt the need to offer a word or two or two hundred on this.

Now, typically, I’d just share this sort of thing on Twitter. In this case, though, there’s just too much – I took a dozen screencaps on my phone and still couldn’t fit everything, and I didn’t want to leave anything out. It’s so interesting, though, and likely helpful for anyone troubled by the passage, that I couldn’t bear to just set it aside. So, I’m going to do something a bit different for this blog and offer it all here.

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Plato’s Dialogues: Symposium

Guys, I’m not gonna lie to you: if I hadn’t already committed to discussing every dialogue, I’d punt on the Symposium. I know, it’s probably Plato’s second-most famous dialogue, after the Republic, and love seems like as universally interesting as a topic can be, but it just didn’t grab me as every other work has so far. It is the first so far to have some storytelling to it; even the dramatic Apology is essentially just a record of one speech. I’m sure Plato chose the form carefully and with a purpose in mind, but I’m not really here for storytelling and much prefer philosophy written in the more straightforward style of, say, Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas. I think I’ve been receptive to the dialogues so far because, with only one or a few interlocutors, they feel almost like a single author developing an idea slowly, but with purpose. The Symposium, though, starting with someone asking for a second-hand account of the event in question, a series of loosely-connected speeches by multiple people, and an interruption by yet another group of people, making it oddly chaotic. Again, probably intentional, but not at all how I want to read this sort of material.

To get into the dialogue itself, though, one weird thing about Symposium is that it’s essentially all a double narration. Apollodorus is our primary narrator, and he’s been asked by a friend to talk about a discussion of love that had taken place some time earlier between a number of people at a party celebrating Agathon’s recent victory in a competition for a tragedy he’d written. Apollodorus wasn’t there himself, though, and furthermore this was a few years ago. Rather, he’d heard about it from Aristodemus, who had attended. We could hardly have a more unreliable account, then, and I could only guess why Plato decided to relate the dialogue this way.

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New at Thermidor: The Everlasting Empire

I have a new post over at Thermidor Magazine, a review of The Everlasting Empire:  The Political Culture of Ancient China and its Imperial Legacy, by Yuri Pines. It is, in part, a follow-up to a previous Thermidor post on the Book of Documents. Specifically, near the end of that post I suggested that it would be beneficial to examine how the Confucians acquired their status as the Chinese empire’s official orthodoxy, and this is the start of an attempt to do so.…

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In the Land of Invented Languages

For the most part, when I’m looking for something to read I stick to well-trodden paths. Usually, that means the Western canon of literature, though even among recent writers or non-fiction I tend to stick to authors with an established reputation, like Tim O’Brien or Christopher Clark. Occasionally, though, I do take the road less travelled by, and though I’ve never found anything life-changing this way, it has provided some of the books I’ve simply enjoyed the most, like Samuel Fussell’s Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder, Eric Talmadge’s Getting Wet: Adventures in the Japanese Bath, or W. H. Matthews’s Mazes & Labyrinths. Another just-finished work to add to this list is Arika Okrent’s In the Land of Invented Languages, so I thought I’d share it as a recommendation and offer a few brief thoughts about it.

When one thinks of invented languages – or perhaps more accurately, if one thinks of them at all – the first to come to mind are typically either J. R. R. Tolkien’s world-building that became the basis for The Lord of the Rings, Star Trek’s Klingon, or perhaps Esperanto. All three do receive attention here, including a full chapter each for the latter two, but Okrent covers a wide variety of languages, with special focus on five, adding John Wilkins’s philosophical language, Blissymbolics, and Loglan together with its daughter-language Lojban. Each of these represents an era in the history of invented languages, and acts as a prototype for general approaches and goals. For example, Wilkins’s effort and Loglan both attempted to encourage clear thinking by doing away with the ambiguity of language, Esperanto hoped to encourage world peace by providing a common language for all people, and Klingon was created to add realism to a work of fiction.…

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Plato’s Dialogues: Lesser Hippias

I’m sure that the mother of Lesser Hippias loves him just as much as Greater Hippias, which is good because no one else seems to like this dialogue. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, in their introduction to it, say “This dialogue can be ascribed to Plato only because it always has been, from Aristotle’s days on. It is inferior to all the others.” That opening sentence isn’t just them being gratuitously insulting, either, as there has been some doubt over whether Lesser Hippias is authentic or not. Benjamin Jowett, though he ultimately does accept it as genuine, places it among Plato’s doubtful works, alongside Menexenus and First Alcibiades. His full comments are worth reading, but he says that one mark against it is that it’s of lesser quality than Plato’s undoubtedly genuine work, which sometimes signals the work of either a counterfeiter or a lesser follower whose work was mistakenly ascribed to the master.

Now, this makes it sound as if the dialogue sucks so badly that people don’t even believe it’s Plato’s, but Jowett gives it some deserved credit, even if it is weaker than all the others so far. For one thing, we have the return of Hippias, the great and wonderful, who in the course of his conversation with Socrates unabashedly calls himself a great arithmetician, geometrician, and astronomer. Socrates also recounts Hippias’ boasting from the recent Olympic games:

[Y]ou [i.e., Hippias] said that upon one occasion, when you went to the Olympic games, all that you had on your person was made by yourself. You began with your ring, which was of your own workmanship, and you said that you could engrave rings; and you had another seal which was also of your own workmanship, and a strigil and an oil flask, which you had made yourself; you said also that you had made the shoes which you had on your feet, and the cloak and the short tunic; but what appeared to us all most extraordinary and a proof of singular art, was the girdle of your tunic, which, you said, was as fine as the most costly Persian fabric, and of your own weaving; moreover, you told us that you had brought with you poems, epic, tragic, and dithyrambic, as well as prose writings of the most various kinds; and you said that your skill was also pre-eminent in the arts which I was just now mentioning, and in the true principles of rhythm and harmony and of orthography; and if I remember rightly, there were a great many other accomplishments in which you excelled. I have forgotten to mention your art of memory, which you regard as your special glory, and I dare say that I have forgotten many other things[.]

Typically, arrogant men annoy those around them with their self-praise and posturing, but at some point boasting becomes so over-the-top that it turns comical and even endearing. Yes, Hippias like everyone else comes out looking rather shabby after their rhetorical grappling matches in these works, and though I don’t think Plato wrote these dialogues as character assassinations, it is worth keeping in mind that as characters these men were written specifically so Socrates could dunk on them. We can also sympathise with his frustration in dealing with Socrates. He’s apparently willing to talk to anyone who wishes to question him, even though he knows how this conversation in particular is likely to go. “Socrates,” he says at one point, “you are always weaving the meshes of an argument, selecting the most difficult point, and fastening upon details instead of grappling with the matter in hand as a whole.” We can look at the full body of Plato’s works see why Socrates approaches these discussions as he does, but no doubt, it would look different if we were the ones getting the dialectical swirlie.…

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Which Translation of The Analects Should I Read?

So, let’s say you want to begin a study of Confucianism. One reasonable place to start is The Analects of Confucius, but once you decide to do that, you run into a problem – which translation do you use? The number of options can easily overwhelm a newcomer; collecting them somewhat casually, that is, just buying one as I come across it and not actively seeking them out, I own nine versions and have read eight. Which you choose does matter, too. Though the most common ones are all decent enough, each translator makes different stylistic choices which will affect how much you get from the book, both in terms of understanding and enjoyment.

So, I thought I’d offer some advice to those new to the Analects. The impetus is that I’ve just finished revising my Confucian Twitter bot, in which I consulted most of these translations. I should, though, offer a few caveats. First, Chinese is Greek to me; I can recognise some of the written characters that are shared with Japanese, but otherwise, I don’t speak the language and therefore I can only judge these translations on clarity and style, not accuracy. Second, I haven’t read every available translation, though I have read those that appear to be most popular. Missing are those by Edward Slingerland, W. E. Soothill (which I own but haven’t yet read), and Annping Chin; there are probably others, as well, but I may come back and update this post in the future when I do get around to them.

Now, what I’ll do here is begin with a few general observations and recommendations, then go through and offer specific comments on individual translators, along with samples of the same handful of passages. Specifically, I’ll use 1.1 (Book 1 Chapter 1), 1.2, 2.16, 7.8, 11.11, and 15.25 (note that different editions number the chapters slightly differently, so in some cases these will be a bit off).

If you just want a recommendation and don’t need the minutiae, I’ll say that Simon Leys is the most beginner-friendly, followed by D. C. Lau. Wing-Tsit Chan has the most well-rounded translation, but his version is part of a collection called A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, so he doesn’t include the entire work. It’s a large enough selection to give one a good idea of what the Analects are about, though, and if you’re interested in other works of Chinese philosophy then Chan provides an excellent starting-point.

Only one translation is outright bad, and that’s Leonard Lyall’s, which I’ve reviewed previously. I also would not recommend Ezra Pound’s as a first translation. Pound’s version is interesting and worth reading, but he’s very idiosyncratic, so save his for after you’ve read one or two others. Most of the rest will work well enough, though.

Finally, a note on Romanisation. Translations from the past twenty-five years or so will typically use Pinyin; before that it varies, but Wade-Giles or some variation thereof are most common. I prefer Wade-Giles partly for aesthetic reasons and partly because it’s more intuitive for native speakers of English, but it’s not a major issue, so don’t worry about this aspect too much. It only becomes an issue when cross-referencing names and places with other translations or other works about China, because it’s not always obvious how to “convert” between systems. There are charts for Wade-Giles and Pinyin, though readers of James Legge will be in a tough spot, but usually these things aren’t too hard to figure out once you’ve used them for a while. If you plan to dive into relatively recent works about China, you may want to favour a translation that uses Pinyin to make your life a little easier.…

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Plato’s Dialogues: Gorgias

We’ve spent a lot of time in the dialogues talking to and about Sophists, but Socrates has an awfully hard time figuring out exactly what a Sophist is and what they teach. In Protagoras, Socrates’ friend Hippocrates wants to take lessons from Protagoras, but when questioned can’t quite explain what he expects to learn, and Protagoras doesn’t really give a straight answer. In Greater Hippias, we’re able to gather from the greatest Sophist of them all (in his own estimation) that they are primarily concerned with public speaking. So, though Protagoras and Hippias do say that they teach a number of subjects, including moral instruction, their speciality is rhetoric.

For most of us that would be good enough, but of course, we’re hanging out with Socrates, and there’s no way “rhetoric” is an adequate answer here. What, exactly, is rhetoric? In Gorgias, we’re going to try to get at the truth of this, with not one, not two, but three interlocutors. First, we have the Sophist Gorgias (his friends called him “Gorgeous”), who I rather like. He may be a capital-S “Sophist,” but he’s not a small-s sophist. He’s quicker than Hippias in catching on to what Socrates wants to know from him, is more agreeable than Protagoras, and for the most part keeps his answers straightforward. Unfortunately, he has a couple of his groupies with him. One is Polus, who, when Socrates first asks what sort of art Gorgias would say he practices, gives a non-answer for him, blathering for a minute about how there are many arts and that Gorgias practices the greatest of them, without actually saying what that art is. Polus isn’t too grating, though, and is willing to concede defeat at some point. He’s a prince of a guy compared to the last interlocutor, Callicles, who, well, is a bit of a jerk, never conceding a point and getting pissy when it becomes clear that he’s totally outgunned by Socrates.

To the work itself, though. We begin with some of the runaround typical to Socratic dialogues. What is rhetoric? The art of using words, in particular to persuade others. Don’t other arts, like mathematics and medicine, also use words? Yes, but they use them only incidentally, and persuade people primarily through facts. In the parlance of a later age, we might say that words are accidental and not essential to mathematics and medicine, or only incidental to them.

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Brief Thoughts on Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why

I just finished listening to the audiobook version Harold Bloom’s 2001 book, How to Read and Why. I often enjoy books about books, and since I’m occasionally asked for advice on how to jump into literature and Bloom seems to be a well-respected writer, I thought it’d be worth giving a shot. Overall, it’s good and I’d recommend it, but with some conditions and, for most people, not before a couple other works in the genre.

The main part of the book goes through various representative works in poetry, short stories, novels, and plays, with Bloom outlining some of the main structural and thematic points, and discussing the value of the work and author in question. Most of this is fairly standard literary criticism, but Bloom is clearly very well read, thoughtful, and engaging. The selection is, overall, rather conservative, which is fine. It’s hard to go wrong with Austen, Hemingway, Wordsworth, and Faulkner, for instance. His selection is weighted toward English literature and Shakespeare is the oldest author included; this excludes a great deal of foundational Western literature, but since How to Read and Why is targeted to beginners, it is reasonable to focus on well-known, easily available works, and avoid the potentially sticky issue of translation. I haven’t read many of the works included, but the only one I’d object to is Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, the only “affirmative action” selection, despite Bloom’s praise for the book.

One thing I especially appreciate about Bloom is his dismissal of academic fads, the idea that authors must be political activists, and the like. He writes in the Introduction:

Ultimately we read – as Bacon, Johnson, and Emerson agree – in order to strengthen the self, and to learn its authentic interests. We experience such augmentations as pleasure, which may be why aesthetic values have alwasy been deprecated by social moralists, from Plato through our current campus Puritans. The pleasures of reading are selfish rather than social. You cannot directly improve anyone else’s life by reading better or more deeply. I remain skeptical of the traditional social hope that care for others may be stimulated by the growth of individual imagination, and I am wary of any arguments whatsoever that connect the pleasures of solitary reading to the public good.

Accordingly, Bloom takes each author on the author’s own terms, avoiding reading modern fashions into the texts, and focuses on what each author offers to the reader as an individual.

That’s all well and good, and Bloom so far sounds broadly Conservative. However, one quickly gets the impression that he’s simply a Liberal who’s been left behind as the rest of the Left moves forward faster than he has. For example, he has the silly habit of using “she” as a gender-neutral pronoun, and when discussing romantic relationships between characters feels it necessary to specify “heterosexual.” Also, though I don’t think he’s a Freudian, he still talks about sexuality in a way that makes me suspect that the discredited psychologist is lurking around somewhere.

Also, he offers a number of opinions that I’m reluctant to criticise at any length, not having read his full arguments, but that are, frankly, rather dubious. One of the more famous examples is his assertion that William Shakespeare “invented the human,” as we now think of humans. He discusses this in depth in another book, Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human, but I find it hard to believe that this work would reward the time I put into it (though I am open to recommendations).

Finally, the audiobook is narrated by John McDonough, who does well and navigates the proper pronunciation of international authors’ names admirably (at least, as far as I can judge such things).

So, is How to Read and Why worth picking up? There are certainly benefits to it, especially for those looking to get started with a serious study of literature but want something less dry and systematic than Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren’s How to Read a Book, or less idiosyncratic and specific to poetry than Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading. I prefer these latter two, and Adler and van Doren will still be my go-to recommendation, but Bloom will do just fine for a more casual starting-point.…

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