Category: non-fiction

Plato’s Dialogues: Protagoras

Crito’s attempt to save Socrates has failed, so now we’ll go back and begin working through Plato’s dialogues from earlier in his life. First up are some discussions with various sophists, beginning with Protagoras.

This dialogue begins with a somewhat odd framing device; a friend meets Socrates walking through the city, and learns that he’s just come from speaking with Protagoras, who has recently arrived in Athens to work as a teacher. So, the rest of the work is Socrates recounting the meeting, so there’s a double narration going on, and the frame is never closed. I’m sure there’s been discussion enough of why the dialogue is structured this way, but I could only guess.

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Plato’s Dialogues: Crito

To the sorrow of all of his friends and students, us included, Socrates has been condemned, and normally would have been executed shortly after the trial. However, a state galley had been sent on a sacred mission at about the same time and no executions could be carried out until it returned, so instead he sat in a jail cell for almost a month. Shortly before its return, Crito, one of Socrates’ students, came to visit his teacher to say that he expected the ship to return soon, but that he could easily help Socrates escape by placing a few bribes. Socrates, though, always true to form, doesn’t jump at this chance to save himself, but instead insisted on discussing whether this would truly be the right thing to do.…

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Hiero the Tyrant and Other Treatises by Xenophon

It may be hard to tell since I didn’t really review it, but I loved Anabasis enough that I was eager to read more from Xenophon right after finishing it. He’s one of the fortunate Classical authors to have had many of his works survive to the present day, so there’s plenty to choose from. His Socratic dialogues seemed like an obvious next step, but I’ve decided to put that on hold until I finish Plato’s. In the meantime, I noticed that Robin Waterfield, who did the excellent translations for AnabasisThe Histories, and The First Philosophers, has translated a collection of his shorter works, published by Penguin Books as Hiero the Tyrant and Other Treatises.

The first work, which gives its title to the collection, is a dialogue between Hiero, the ruler of Sicilian Syracuse  from 478-467 B.C., and an advisor, Simonides, on happiness and whether a tyrant is happier than common people. On the surface, it would seem that tyrants must be, since obviously all of their appetites can easily be fulfilled. If you’ve read much didactic literature, though, you can guess that it’s not so simple, and Hiero points out several areas where tyrants are, in fact, less happy than their citizens. For example, Hiero may be able to feast daily on delicacies that commoners only get at festivals and special occasions, but, he says, “If there’s no novelty for a person in having a sumptuous and varied diet, he doesn’t fancy anything he is offered; it is the person for whom something is a rare treat who eats his fill with delight when it is served up to him.” This is why tyrants like himself often request strongly flavoured food, even though, in his own words, “for an appetite to crave that kind of food it would have to be effete and debilitated, don’t you think? I mean, you know as well as I that people who enjoy their food have no need of such contrivances.” So, a tyrant may have access to all the material comforts he desires, but soon finds no joy in them and must go on a search for ever increasing novelty.…

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Doctrina Christiana

I don’t read as much theology as I perhaps should, but every Catholic should have some familiarity with the Church’s teachings, and work constantly to deepen our understanding of the Faith. I was fortunate to be better catechised than most in high school, but revisiting the basics once in a while doesn’t hurt, so I decided to pick up Doctrina Christiana, a catechism written by St. Robert Bellarmine, whose work is becoming a staple of my reading habits after the excellent De Laicis and the extraordinarily in-depth De Romano Pontifice.

Of course, Doctrina Christiana isn’t nearly as detailed as those two other works. Though this is intended for adults, as opposed to a shorter catechism he wrote for children, it’s still intended for those new to the Faith and so covers the basic doctrines, giving a brief explanation of what they are why they’re believed. So, among other things, he covers what doctrine is, the articles of the Apostles’ Creed, the meaning of the Our Father and Hail Mary, virtues, the capital sins, and the Ten Commandments. It’s set in the form of a dialogue between a student and teacher, though perhaps calling it a “dialogue” is a little misleading since that makes one expect something like Plato’s dialogues, when in practice it differs little from the question-and-answer format of, say, the Baltimore Catechism. That may be unavoidable, since it must remain as straightforward as possible, but it is a little less dry than Baltimore.…

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Xinzhong Yao’s Gentle Introduction to Confucianism

Though I’ve been interested in Confucianism for much of my life, I’ve only relatively recently begun seriously working through the Confucian canon, namely the Four Books and Five Classics. Now, working through the canon seems like a logical start to understanding the philosophy, much like working through Scripture to understand Christianity, but there is a drawback. That is, the canon by itself does not tell us how Confucianism was understood and put into practice within China. For me it’s still more-or-less an abstraction, and I fear reading my own ideas into the texts too much and ending up like a Confucian equivalent of SWPL “Buddhists,” who refashion that faith in their own image with no concept of what the religion actually involves.

So on an acquaintance’s recommendation, I picked up Xinzhong Yao’s An Introduction to Confucianism, which Yao wrote primarily as a textbook for a course he teaches on Confucianism. His approach to understanding religion is close to my own, as he says in the preface, “[T]he inquiry into religious phenomena should involve empathy to some degree, and […] an inquirer should be able to enter into the doctrine and practice of a religion almost as an ‘insider’, as well as to step outside as a critical observer.” He also directly addresses my concern with being overly focused on the canon, quoting W. E. Soothill:

A study of a religion which limits itself to the teachings of the early founders, and which ignores the present condition of its development, will give a very imperfect presentation of the religion as a whole. On the other hand, a study which is limited to its expression in practice, without doing justice to the ideals of the founders, equally fails to do justice to the religion as a whole, for the religious ideals of a people, while they may be written on the tablets of their hearts and conscience, often find very imperfect expression in their lives.

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The Most Reactionary Book Ever Written

Mencius Moldbug once wrote that the Right is fundamentally oriented towards order. That’s not a rigorous definition, obviously, but it does have more than a grain of truth to it. The modern, Liberal mind may instinctively leap from “order” to an image of a totalitarian, regimented society, but order essentially means, simply, each aspect of a society working as it ought.  In book XII, chapter 11 of the Analects Confucius is asked about government, and he says, “Let the prince be a prince, the minister a minister, the father a father, and the son a son.”  Interestingly, though not the goal, increased order also leads to increased liberty, but you can find more about Reaction and liberty from Moldbug or a more recent article by Doug Smythe.

Now, I, and I assume most readers, aren’t really in a position right now to bring order to the whole country, but we do have control over a few square feet around us, and that’s a good enough place to start. “You can’t give what you don’t have,” as the cliché goes, so even an emperor can’t bring order to a nation when he himself is disordered. Think of how Confucius or Mencius constantly urge princes to virtue, or the disasters that befall Israel and Judah because of their impious kings. Reaction isn’t about self-improvement; the common advice “Read old books, lift weights, go to church, marry and have children” isn’t the goal, but it is the starting-point.…

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Plato’s Dialogues: Socrates’ Defense

When we last left Socrates, he had just finished an unproductive discussion with Euthyphro, and was on his way to court to face charges of corrupting the youth of Athens. Socrates’ Defense, also commonly called the Apology, is not a dialogue, aside from a few lines, but a speech given by Socrates in answer to his accusers’ charges against him. This is the first time so far that Socrates speaks mostly of himself, and my understanding is that it’s the only time he does so at much length.

One interesting tidbit is that this is the first work so far to mention Plato by name. This makes the speech feel authentic, since the author explicitly puts himself at the scene, though of course, that doesn’t mean this is an accurate depiction of the trial.

In any case, Socrates begins by apologising for not being a great orator like his opponents. We should take this with a grain of salt since this claim is actually good rhetoric, disarming the audience from looking for slick oratory. He says that resentful men, like his accusers, have unjustly given him a bad name because of his past arguments with them, and their slander has prejudiced those who haven’t yet met him. As evidence of his good intentions, a bit later, Socrates cites his own poverty, and points out that he has always taught openly and free of charge. Clearly, then, he was not trying to stir up trouble or personally benefit from his vocation.…

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New at Thermidor: The Poetics

I have a new post over at Thermidor Magazine, a review of the Poetics, by Aristotle. It’s not really necessary to explain his explanation on what the different literary genres are and how they work, so I also discuss why it’s worthwhile to spend time thinking seriously about literature. In a way it’s a follow-up to last year’s “Why Do You Not Study the Odes?

If that sounds interesting, you may also want to take look at my recommended reading page, or “Is There a Hierarchy Among the Arts?” which also features Aristotle prominently.

This is the second article I’ve written at Thermidor, the first being “Chesterton and The Man Who Was Thursday.”…

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From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought

Like any bibliophile, I have stack of books that I plan on reading eventually, so it’s fairly common for a book to hang out on the shelf for months, even years before I get around to it. As soon as I heard about From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought, though, I knew I had to make it priority. So, after only, well, a year or so, I got right to it. After all, it features many saints and Fathers of the Church, as well as other luminaries like Origen, William of Ockham, and John of Paris. Unfortunately, it suffers the same weakness as almost all anthologies, and the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Obviously, editors Oliver O’Donovan and Joan Lockwood O’Donovan could only include excerpts from the works of the various authors, aside from a small handful of especially short pieces. So, one only gets a general idea of each writer’s positions. It’s like going to the movies, but instead of a single full-length feature film you sit through a succession of trailers for two hours.

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The Everlasting Man

Honestly, in a way, it feels superfluous to review G. K. Chesterton’s non-fiction. It seems that most everyone who might be interested in his work has already read something, and as I’ve said elsewhere, he’s nothing if not consistent. If you’ve read one of Chesterton’s books, you already know exactly what to expect from the others, and if you’ve read my review of either Heretics or Orthodoxy, you already know what I think of them.

That’s not really a major criticism. I remember someone on a forum I used to frequent criticising AC/DC for making the same album thirteen times, and the first reply was, “Yeah, but it was a damn good album.” That said, unless you absolutely love Chesterton’s style, as many people do, he can start to get tedious – and I’ve read a lot of his work at this point without even really intending to. He’s so ubiquitous in the Conservative milieu I grew up in and am still around, especially among Catholics, that it just seems natural to return to his books regularly. I’ve read at least nine of them, six of those non-fiction. At this point, he’s the author I’ve read the most of, and he’s not even in my top ten favourite authors.

He is, though, probably the best author who wrote primarily for a popular audience. Though not particularly rigorous, he is a clear thinker, often perceptive, well-read, and always entertaining.…

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