Category: non-fiction

The Everlasting Empire

Note: This is another repost from Thermidor Magazine, originally published on December 20, 2017. As usual, it is republished here with minimal editing.

When looking at an outline of Chinese history, one of the most striking things is the longevity of China’s imperial structure, lasting from the unification of China in 221 B.C. all the way to A.D. 1912. As far as I’m aware, the only Western state to even approach this record is the Roman Empire, beginning (to use one common starting date) in 27 B.C. and not fully collapsing until 1453. Now, China was obviously not a serene empire, as dynasties certainly did rise and fall, sometimes with anarchic periods in between these the collapse of one and rise of the next. Nonetheless, each succeeding dynasty adopted the basic structure and governing ideology of its predecessor. Not until the Twentieth Century was the imperial structure  fully destroyed and left behind. How was this possible?

That’s the question Yuri Pines seeks to answer in The Everlasting Empire: The Political Culture of Ancient China and its Imperial Legacy. To start, he argues that China could  easily have broken into many smaller states, as happened in Europe after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. He points out that during the Warring States period, which lasted 453-221 B.C., the various Chinese states were not only politically disunited but had shifted away from each other culturally, as well. At this stage China resembled post-Roman Europe, where political divisions solidified into permanent cultural division and eventually into nation states. One easy, and at one time common, answer to why this worked out differently in China is geographic, but Pines rejects this explanation. “The Chinese terrain,” he says, “crisscrossed by mountain ranges […] and huge rivers, was as conducive to the emergence of small independent polities as any other part of the world, with many regions […] easily defensible against outsiders’ attacks.”

Demographics also fail to provide a satisfactory answer to Chinese unity. Pines explains, “[N]ot only did ethnic minorities continuously occupy important pockets within so-called China proper, but also the core ‘Han’ population remained highly diverse in terms of spoken language, customs, modes of life, and even religious beliefs and pantheon.” He concludes that the answer, then, is largely ideological.

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A Confucian View of History: The Book of Documents

Note: This is another old Thermidor article, originally published on October 6, 2017. As with the other reposts I’ve only done some light editing.

When beginning a study of Confucianism, the most common starting-point is the Analects of Confucius, a reasonable choice since it’s the most easily available book of the Confucian canon as well as the book most that gives us the most material from Confucius himself. When reading it, though, one quickly realises that Confucius draws a great deal of his teaching from prior sources. “A transmitter and not a maker,” he describes himself in Book VII, Chapter I of that work, “believing in and loving the ancients.” Who, then, were the ancients whose teaching he transmitted?

The sage draws from a few sources; among the most prominent is the Book of Odes, which I’ve previously discussed, a collection of poems and folk songs that fits with the emphasis the Confucians place on literature and music. The Book of Changes and Spring and Autumn Annals, respectively covering divination and history, also come up often. Finally, there’s the Book of Historical Documents, another primarily historical work. Despite having the most generic title of any book besides Aristotle’s Topics, the Documents is invaluable because it collects imperial speeches, decrees, and charges to ministers, as well as counsels given by advisers to their sovereign, many of which do appear to be contemporaneous with the reigns they describe. Exactly how many are contemporaneous is uncertain, and the ancient editors themselves indicate that the first few were later compositions by beginning them with the formula “Inquiring into antiquity, we find that…” Traditionally, much as with the other classics previously mentioned, this editorial role has been attributed to Confucius himself, and though there’s little evidence for that besides this much later tradition, his endorsement of the collection has given it a prestigious place in Chinese scholarship ever since.

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Aristotle’s Poetics

Note: This is another post originally published at Thermidor Magazine, in this case on March 21, 2017. Again, I’m posting this with only minimal editing.

Much of the process of moving politically Rightward consists in correcting the inadequacies of ones education. This process is most obvious in things like history or human biodiversity, but is certainly present in the arts, as well. Though a handful of books from the Western canon are still commonly covered in school, like Beowulf or The Odyssey, most curricula, even at the university level, fall far short of a comprehensive treatment. I majored in literature in college, and even aside from the cultural problem of being one of the few students truly passionate about this stuff, my formal education covered very little written prior to about 1800 aside from Shakespeare, and almost nothing not originally in English.

How does one go about correcting this? The simplest is just to start reading. Beginning with the Classics is a solid option, and I’ve offered my own suggestions elsewhere, but almost anything is better than nothing, so, as long as one builds a habit of reading, most works above the level of young adult literature will do as a start. SWPLs are deservedly mocked for their obsession with the Harry Potter series, not because they started their reading “careers” there but because they stopped there. So even relatively light material will work as a starting point, as long as one progresses towards the Classics.

Now, though selecting one’s reading according to whim is good enough for many, some of us do prefer a more structured approach and appreciate some guidance. One often recommended resource is Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren’s How to Read a Book, which focuses on non-fiction but much of their advice is broadly applicable. They also include a handy list of recommended reading. Henry Dampier’s review from a couple years ago offers a solid overview. For something more specific to poetry, there’s Ezra Pound’s idiosyncratic but helpful ABC of Reading, which is especially valuable for anyone interested in Pound’s own work. Those who feel a little braver, though, and really want to get into the nuts-and-bolts of how fiction is put together, may want to take a look at Aristotle’s straightforwardly-titled Poetics.…

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Plato’s Dialogues: Menexenus

If you’re wondering how I managed to write up another post on Plato’s dialogues so quickly after the last one, the answer is that this is Menexenus, which is both very short (twelve pages in the Bollingen Series edition), and because it’s not quite like Plato’s other work. It begins with Socrates meeting an acquaintance, Menexenus, who is on his way back from the Agora. There is to be a public funeral soon, so a speaker must be chosen for the occasion. Menexenus mentions the short amount of time speakers have to prepare for these things, but Socrates points out that such speeches are often ready-made and easy for a decent orator to compose quickly. It’s also not difficult to win the audience’s approval, since this genre of speech typically involves praising the deceased and the city he came from. As Socrates puts it:

SOCRATES: The speakers praise [the deceased] for what he has done and for what he has not done—that is the beauty of them—and they steal away our souls with their embellished words; in every conceivable form they praise the city; and they praise those who died in war, and all our ancestors who went before us; and they praise ourselves also who are still alive, until I feel quite elevated by their laudations, and I stand listening to their words, Menexenus, and become enchanted by them, and all in a moment I imagine myself to have become a greater and nobler and finer man than I was before. […]

MENEXENUS: You are always making fun of the rhetoricians, Socrates; this time, however, I am inclined to think that the speaker who is chosen will not have much to say, for he has been called upon to speak at a moment’s notice, and he will be compelled almost to improvise.

SOCRATES: But why, my friend, should he not have plenty to say? Every rhetorician has speeches ready made; nor is there any difficulty in improvising that sort of stuff. Had the orator to praise Athenians among Peloponnesians, or Peloponnesians among Athenians, he must be a good rhetorician who could succeed and gain credit. But there is no difficulty in a man’s winning applause when he is contending for fame among the persons whom he is praising.…

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Plato’s Dialogues: Euthydemus

I’ve been ignoring our friend Socrates lately, offering the excuse that I’m just too busy. That’s no way to treat a friend, though, so I’ve made some time to catch up with him and Plato, this time with the dialogue Euthydemus. It may not be Plato’s most insightful dialogue, but I do think it’s his most entertaining. Translator Benjamin Jowett even says that it’s “apt to be regarded by us only as an elaborate jest.” If you’re a fan of rhetorical gymnastics and watching people get verbally dunked on, then this is the dialogue for you.

Euthydemus is another work with a framing device, this time beginning with our old friend Crito asking Socrates who he’d been speaking with earlier that day; there’d been such a crowd gathered around that Crito couldn’t even get close enough to hear the conversation. Socrates had, it seems, met with the Sophists Euthydemus and his older brother Dionysodorus. After hearing them brag of their own wisdom, he, not quite seriously, I’m sure, asks them to teach his young friends Cleinias and Ctesippus, who were there with him. As Euthydemus begins to question Cleinias, though, Dionysodorus whispers to Socrates, “Whichever he answers, I prophesy that he will be refuted, Socrates.”

Say it with me, everyone:

It’s a trap!

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Cardinal Newman on Education and Journalism

Other obligations prevent me from writing up a full post this week, but rather than skipping a post entirely (other than the already completed lain20th series) I thought I’d turn over the blog to Bl. John Henry Newman. Below are a few excerpts from the preface to his excellent book The Idea of a University, in which he discusses the general purpose of education and, in particular in this section, contrasts it with those who have merely the appearance of an education.

[T]hese Discourses are directed simply to the consideration of the aims and principles of Education. Suffice it, then, to say here, that I hold very strongly that the first step in intellectual training is to impress upon a boy’s mind the idea of science, method, order, principle, and system; of rule and exception, of richness and harmony. This is commonly and excellently done by making him begin with Grammar; nor can too great accuracy, or minuteness and subtlety of teaching be used towards him, as his faculties expand, with this simple purpose. Hence it is that critical scholarship is so important a discipline for him when he is leaving school for the University. A second science is the Mathematics: this should follow Grammar, still with the same object, viz., to give him a conception of development and arrangement from and around a common centre. Hence it is that Chronology and Geography are so necessary for him, when he reads History, which is otherwise little better than a storybook. Hence, too, Metrical Composition, when he reads Poetry; in order to stimulate his powers into action in every practicable way, and to prevent a merely passive reception of images and ideas which in that case are likely to pass out of the mind as soon as they have entered it. Let him once gain this habit of method, of starting from fixed points, of making his ground good as he goes, of distinguishing what he knows from what he does not know, and I conceive he will be gradually initiated into the largest and truest philosophical views, and will feel nothing but impatience and disgust at the random theories and imposing sophistries and dashing paradoxes, which carry away half-formed and superficial intellects.…

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Notes on Approaching the Confucian Canon

Let me begin with something of a disclaimer. Though I’ve read all but one of the Four Books and Five Classics, and even written about some of them, I don’t consider myself an expert on Confucianism by any means. So take this post with a grain of salt, and expect it to be revised in the future as I read and reflect on the subject more. I’m writing it simply because I am asked occasionally how to approach the Confucian canon, so I thought it would be helpful to have a single place to point these people to, where I lay out some basic advice based on my experience.

Much as with choosing a translation of the Analects, which I’ve addressed previously, the main questions are how deep you want to go, and how much guidance you’d like. What I’ll do here is lay out which books you should read in the order I’d recommend reading them, with a few comments on each covering their main topic, availability, a link to my reviews where available, and whatever else may be relevant. Keep in mind that the reading order is a bit loose; for the Four Books I’m drawing from Chu Hsi’s recommendations given on this page.

If you just want the bottom line, I’d say if you just read one book it should be the Analects. If you want one more add Mencius, then the Doctrine of the Mean and Great Learning together. Add An Introduction to Confucianism if you want the big picture, and The Everlasting Empire if you’re addicted to context. For the Five Classics, add the Odes if you’re interested in poetry, the Documents and Spring and Autumn Annals for history. Finally, add the Changes and Rites if you want to be a completionist.

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Plato’s Dialogues: Ion

Over at Thermidor last month we talked about Homer, so it’s good timing that Plato is now giving us a chance to talk to Homer’s greatest interpreter, Ion. Who’s Ion? He’s a rhapsode and Socrates’ interlocutor in his shortest dialogue called, well, Ion. We know he’s the greatest because he says so himself, after telling Socrates about winning a contest in Epidaurus:

I judge that I, of all men, have the finest things to say on Homer, that neither Metrodorus of Lampsacus, nor Stesimbrotus of Thasos, nor Glaucon, nor anyone else who ever lived, had so many reflections, or such fine ones, to present on Homer as have I.

Well, he’s still more humble than our man Hippias, who claimed to be the best at everything, and Ion even admits that interpretation of Homer is the only thing he’s great at (with one exception, which we’ll get to shortly). Still, Ion is a likeable guy, and Socrates is amiable with him throughout the dialogue. It’s hard not to like his almost childlike enthusiasm for Homer; for instance, at one point Socrates wants to quote a few lines from the Iliad to illustrate a point, but Ion jumps in, “No, let me do it, for I know them.” He’s like a boy who just learned a new skill and wants to show it off.…

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The Pillow Book of Art Garfunkel

So, I suppose I’ll start with something of a confession: I love Boomer music.

Yeah, I know, as a Reactionary half their age, I’m supposed to despise Der Ewige Boomer, but I can’t help myself. Most of the music I listen to was recorded in the 1960s or ’70s, and though I try to make up for it by mixing in some music either much older than that or a bit newer, my favourites are what they are. I offer no excuses for my borderline-plebeian musical preferences.

That’s all just to explain why I’m interested in today’s subject in the first place. It came to my attention last year when a friend told me that Art Garfunkel would be at Southern Methodist University to talk about a new book of his, What is it All but Luminous, in the form of an interview with a columnist with the Dallas Morning News and a Q&A session afterwards (you can find an account of it here, if you’re interested). The interview had a few interesting points, while the questions from the audience varied wildly in quality, as one would expect. Each of the attendees also received a signed copy of the book, and though it’s not the most personally meaningful autograph I have (that would be ABe Yoshitoshi’s, for those wondering), it is the most famous by a wide margin.…

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The Art of Dying Well

Is it time for our annual visit with St. Robert Bellarmine already? Yes it is, and this time I’d like to talk about a short book of his called The Art of Dying Well.

Now, St. Robert is best known for his apologetical work, like De Laicis and De Romano Pontifice, and I’ve also covered his catechism, which serves a similar purpose for those already in the Church. He wrote The Art of Dying Well, though, near the end of his life, when he’d largely retired from public work, and it’s a much more immediately practical book than the others. In other words, where his other works are primarily concerned with what the reader should know, here he’s concerned with what the reader should do. It is, though, still noticeably his style, as he does explain why a man should do this or that, and every page is filled with quotations from Scripture and the saints.

He begins with the general precept “that he who lives well, will die well,” and continues:

[F]or since death is nothing more than the end of life, it is certain that all who live well to the end, die well; nor can he die ill, who hath never lived ill; as, on the other hand, he who hath never led a good life, cannot die a good death. The same thing is observable in many similar cases: for all that walk along the right path, are sure to arrive at the place of their destination; whilst, on the contrary, they who wander from it, will never arrive at their journey’s end.

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