Category: non-fiction

The Spring and Autumn Annals and the Gongyang Commentary

The Spring and Autumn Annals is one of Confucianism’s Five Classics, and like the Book of Documents is a work of history, in this case chronicling the history of the state of Lu, Confucius’ home state, from 722-481 B.C. However, whereas the Documents is, as the title indicates, a collection of speeches, decrees, and the like, the Annals is a chronology. It should take just one excerpt to give one an idea of the book, so from the very beginning, the first year of Duke Yin’s reign (722 B.C.):

It was the year one, in the spring, during the King’s first month.
During the third month, the Duke met up with Yifu of the state of Zhu Lou and made a pact with him at Mie.
In the summer, during the fifth month, the Earl of Zheng subdued Duan at Yan.
In the autumn, during the seventh month, the Heavenly King dispatched Zai Xuan to come bearing funerary offerings for Duke Hui’s wife, Zhongzi.
During the ninth month, a pact was made with men from the state of Song at Su.
In the winter, during the twelfth month, the Earl of Zhai arrived.
Prince Yishi died.

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A Confucian Notebook

At a glance, Edward Herbert’s short book A Confucian Notebook looks promising. I’d never heard of it until I ran across it in a used bookstore, but it’s intended to serve as an introduction to Confucianism through a series of thirty-three “notes,” each of them two, sometimes three pages long. Each offers a few brief observations or explanations on a given theme, varying from the Confucian use of prehistorical figures, Confucius’ favourite disciple, Mencius and Yang Chu, Mo Ti’s doctrine of universal love, etc. Unfortunately, it only partially succeeds.

First, I’ll give credit where it’s due. I do know a little more about Confucianism now than when I started, and someone new to the philosophy will find several helpful pieces of information that will make some aspects of the canon easier to understand. One of the most interesting notes, for example, was on Mo Ti. Mencius speaks of him and his doctrine of universal love scornfully, but doesn’t go into much detail. Herbert gives a summary of Mo Ti’s doctrine, and adds this observation:

But the principle [of universal love] is recommended, not so much on account of its goodness and naturalness, as on the ground that the exercise of it “pays.” The practitioner of filial piety, who extends this duty to include other people’s parents, is promised a dividend int he form of reciprocal attention by the latter to his own parents. It is further intimated that the social obligations generally, if universalized, will operate in this way, yielding a return to the community in benefits of greater safety, more creature comforts. “Master Mo,” who was a utilitarian at heart, seems not to have minded debasing his lofty ethic by linking it with the prospect of gain; nor to have realized that the effect of so doing was to encourage the self-love which he condemned. It escaped him, too, that it was incompatible with the high purposes of Universal Love to suggest imposing it by means of rewards and penalties.

That’s all good, but the book does have some shortcomings. One is that the book isn’t systematic, but tends to meander from topic to topic. That is implied by the title, of course, but it feels more like a series of short blog posts written for people who are already familiar with Confucianism. The preface sells this book as an introduction, but an introduction needs to be more systematic, like Xinzhong Yao’s. Also, much of the discussion on terms doesn’t provide any more information than is already found in the introductions or annotations to most editions of the AnalectsMencius, etc. So, even if you are new, why read this? Why not just read the introduction in the book you already have by Arthur Waley, James Legge, or whoever?

Worsening matters further, much of the book is strangely off-topic, since just over 1/3 of the notes spend most of their time discussing Taoism, usually (though not always!) in relation to Confucianism. Herbert, for what reason I don’t know, seems to assume that the reader is already familiar with Taoism and tries to use it to illuminate Confucianism. Some of that material is fine, and a note or two on the topic would be reasonable. Most of it, though, should’ve been cut and possibly used in a separate A Taoist Notebook.

So, is A Confucian Notebook bad? No, not really, but even at a mere eighty-four pages, it’s not worth the effort to track down and read. What Herbert set out to do has been accomplished much more successfully elsewhere, whether by Yao or even by many of the translators of the Confucian canon.…

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Plato’s Dialogues: Phaedo

After working through the Republic, we return once more to the events around Socrates’ trial and execution with Phaedo, which covers the death of Socrates. Like the Symposium, this one is narrated second-hand, this time by Phaedo, who was present for Socrates’ last moments and is telling his friend Echecrates about it. Incidentally, we have another rare mention of Plato himself, when Phaedo says that most of Socrates’ circle of friends was present but that “I believe Plato was ill.” Plato had been present at his trial, which gave it more of an air of authenticity than most other dialogues, so it’s interesting that he removes that for this one. How much we should read into this, though, I’m not sure.

In any case, one of the first things Phaedo mentions is that Socrates had spent his last few weeks on Earth writing poetry, specifically based on Aesop’s fables. He explains that he has, throughout his life, had recurring dreams where he’s told to “practice and cultivate the arts,” which he had always interpreted to mean philosophy. However, since the trial it had occurred to him that it may actually have been referring to poetry, so just in case he had misinterpreted his calling, he’s taken up writing some hymns and other verse. Socrates and his interlocutors don’t spend much time on this, but assuming this is true, one wonders how history would’ve been different if Socrates had pursued poetry instead of philosophy. He almost certainly wouldn’t have been as well-remembered now, since he was about as successful in philosophy as it’s possible to be, and he mentions that he struggled to write verse. Still, it’s an interesting side point to the dialogue.

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New at Thermidor: Sallust and the Value of Classical History

I have a new post over at Thermidor Magazine, “Sallust and the Value of Classical History.” I have to say I’m rather fond of Classical historians; Herodotus is among my favourites of the Greeks, Plutarch’s Parallel Lives has a lot of interesting stuff, and Livy, though a bit drier, is also rewarding reading. Sallust, I think, is the most approachable of these since all three of his works together are shorter than even Herodotus’s Histories, and not even close Plutarch and Livy.

In any case, the next post on this blog will be on Plato’s Phaedo, which will go up next Tuesday. After that, we’ll see the return of the Hundred Friends series.…

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Against James Burnham’s Interpretation of Dante

Back in 2015, I wrote a commentary on Dante Alighieri’s political treatise Monarchia, in which he argues in favour of a universal monarchy. Though Dante’s ideal has never been attainable, his basic arguments are interesting and applicable to monarchism in general, which is why I believe it’s worth reading and was worth writing about. My commentary is undoubtedly the longest and most involved thing I’ve ever written, and because of this I occasionally get questions about it on and Curious Cat. In particular, on CC I received this question a little while back asking about James Burnham’s interpretation of Monarchia, given in The Macchiavellians and reproduced at the blog Unqualified Reservations.

I was aware of Burnham’s essay while writing my commentary, but after some consideration decided not to bother even addressing it because, frankly, Burnham’s interpretation sucks. However, since Burnham and Unqualified Reservations are well-known in Right-wing circles, there are probably more people around this part of the world who’ve read Burnham’s essay than have read Monarchia, and so may have an inaccurate impression of Dante’s book. Several people in the UR comments do point out the essay’s flaws, but there’s more to say and not everyone reads comments. So, since I was directly asked about it and to offer a defense of Dante, I’ll go ahead and expand on my previous answer here. Note that I will assume that you’ve read the essay.

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Cardinal Newman’s Portrait of a Gentleman

When thinking of the ends and means of education, university education in particular, my first point of reference is Bl. John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University. The first half of the book consists of a series of lectures he gave at the opening of the Catholic University of Ireland in 1854, which had just been established. The rest were occasional lectures given over the next few years to various groups on related topics. His basic point through most of the book is that the primary end of a university is to teach universal knowledge, and to provide its students with intellectual training. In the introduction he introduces an analogy between intellectual vigour and physical strength:

Just as a commander wishes to have tall and well-formed and vigorous soldiers, not from any abstract devotion to the military standard of height or age, but for the purposes of war, and no one thinks it any thing but natural and praiseworthy in him to be contemplating, not abstract qualities, but his own living and breathing men; so, in like manner, when the Church founds a University, she is not cherishing talent, genius, or knowledge, for their own sake, but for the sake of her children, with a view to their spiritual welfare and their religious influence and usefulness, with the object of training them to fill their respective posts in life better, and of making them more intelligent, capable, active members of society.

He repeats the analogy in responding to the objections from John Locke, among others, that most aspects of a liberal education are of no utility. “[I]f a healthy body is a good in itself,” he says, “why is not a healthy intellect?” He also quotes one Mr. Copleston, who defends liberal education, as opposed to a narrow technical training, by saying, “There can be no doubt that every art is improved by confining the professor of it to that single study. But, although the art itself is advanced by this concentration of mind in its service, the individual who is confined to it goes back. The advantage of the community is nearly in an inverse ratio with his own.” As a later writer put it, “specialisation is for insects.”

Now, Cardinal Newman spends much of his time discussing the relationship between the Church and the University, and between secular and religious knowledge. Though they are related, they don’t necessarily lead to the same destination. “Liberal Education,” he writes, “makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman.” Eventually I’ll cover this in a full review, but for now I’d just like to share his explanation of what a gentleman is. Though I first read the full book at college, this specific passage was included in a high school textbook and has stayed with me ever since. Though a Liberal Education is ultimately inadequate, there certainly is some merit to being a gentleman. This is from Discourse VIII, “Knowledge Viewed in Relation to Religion.”

Hence it is that it is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain. This description is both refined and, as far as it goes, accurate. He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him; and he concurs with their movements rather than takes the initiative himself. His benefits may be considered as parallel to what are called comforts or conveniences in arrangements of a personal nature: like an easy chair or a good fire, which do their part in dispelling cold and fatigue, though nature provides both means of rest and animal heat without them. The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast;—all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make every one at their ease and at home. He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. He makes light of favours while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring. He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort, he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets every thing for the best. He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp sayings for arguments, or insinuates evil which he dare not say out. From a long-sighted prudence, he observes the maxim of the ancient sage, that we should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend. He has too much good sense to be affronted at insults, he is too well employed to remember injuries, and too indolent to bear malice. He is patient, forbearing, and resigned, on philosophical principles; he submits to pain, because it is inevitable, to bereavement, because it is irreparable, and to death, because it is his destiny. If he engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blundering discourtesy of better, perhaps, but less educated minds; who, like blunt weapons, tear and hack instead of cutting clean, who mistake the point in argument, waste their strength on trifles, misconceive their adversary, and leave the question more involved than they find it.…

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Plato’s Dialogues: Republic

My friends, the eternal snows appear already past, and the first clouds and mountains seem the last. In the list of Plato’s dialogues, the Republic is at the centre of it all, being the halfway point of the reading order I’m using, as well as Plato’s most famous work and, arguably, most important (going by reputation and my observations so far, of course). This also means that it is, arguably, the most important work by the most important philosopher in the history of Western civilisation, so, hey – no pressure on us amateurs trying these towering Alps. Let’s trust in what we’ve learned so far, though, and soldier on.

So, Republic is by far the longest and most wide-ranging dialogue so far, with only Protagoras even in the same ballpark; the rest weren’t even in the same league, and hardly even playing the same sport. Now, though Socrates and friends cover many different topics, it is worth keeping in mind that the central question is “What is justice?” Many people get caught up in debating the utopian society Socrates and the others imagine and discussing the various aspects of that, and though that can be interesting it’s worth remembering that it’s meant as an aid for identifying justice in the individual. Since defining justice in the individual is difficult, they decide that it may be easier if they work at a larger scale, and so begin building this city. One occasionally sees arguments over whether Plato really intended this city to be ideal or what, because there are a few seemingly crazy ideas connected to it, but everything about it, I feel safe saying, is meant as an allegory for some aspect of the soul.

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The Baltimore Catechism

Last year I wrote about Doctrina Christiana, St. Robert Bellarmine’s catechism for adults. Though excellent, it’s also rather short. Not that a catechism should go into great detail on every point, since it’s intended as a brief introduction to Christian doctrine, primarily stating what the Church’s main doctrines are and not a full explanation, but one can easily think of enough additional questions after reading it that many readers would benefit from something longer. Of course, one could look to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but this is long enough to be intimidating and, in some cases, doctrines aren’t spelled out as clearly as in Bellarmine’s catechism. I’d still highly recommend keeping a copy of the CCC on hand, but the ideal would be a catechism somewhere in between.

Fortunately, we do have such a book in the Baltimore Catechism. This was written by a committee of bishops following the third Plenary Council of Baltimore, and from its publication in 1885 it quickly became the standard textbook for religious education classes in the United States up until the late 1960s, when it was replaced by, well, nothing at all, really. Just youth ministers trying with little success to hold children’s attention while having no expectations whatever of their maturity or intelligence, thus encouraging the students to live down to those expectations.

In any case, though people often refer to “the” Baltimore Catechism, there are actually a few different versions of it, generally referred to by numbers. No. 1 is intended for children preparing for First Communion, No. 2 for older children preparing for Confirmation, and No. 3 for high schools. Later, in 1921, came An Explanation of the Baltimore Catechism, often referred to as No. 4, written by Fr. Thomas Kinkead. This contains the text of Baltimore No. 3, but adds further explanations to many of the questions and is intended for teachers, so that they can expand on Baltimore’s straightforward but minimalist questions and answers, and answer additional questions that students may have. The language is still simple and the explanations and examples clearly assume a young audience, but for those wanting an introduction to what the Church teaches, with brief explanations of why, Fr. Kinkead’s book is the best that I’m aware of.…

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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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