Category: non-fiction

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.

Read More Plato’s Dialogues: Gorgias

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.…

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

Plato’s Dialogues: Greater Hippias

When we last saw Socrates, he was debating the Sophist Protagoras on whether virtue was something that could be taught, as well as giving his young friend some words of warning about trusting Sophists, or anyone, as teachers due to the peril of bad instruction for his soul. Today we move on to Greater Hippias, where Socrates comes across another Sophist, Hippias, who happens to be the world’s greatest teacher, as he is happy to tell you, based on the extraordinary amount of money he makes giving his lectures and in service to the State. He tells Socrates:

If you were told how much I have earned, you would be astounded. To take one case only – I went to Sicily once while Protagoras was there. He had a great reputation and was a far older man than I, and yet in a short time I made more than one hundred and fifty minas. Why, in one place alone, Inycus, a very small place, I took more than twenty minas. When I returned home with the money I gave it to my father, reducing him and his fellow citizens to a condition of stupefied amazement. And I feel pretty sure that I have made more money than any other two Sophists you like to mention, put together.

Hippias doesn’t exactly come across as a modest man, though he did apparently give his great earnings to his father, so give him some credit for filial piety. Interestingly, that he did this makes it seem that his goal as a Sophist isn’t to make a lot of cash, but rather for fame. He gives specific figures to add credibility to his story, but his emphasis is on how his success impresses others. Socrates “would be astounded,” he succeeded despite the competition with Protagoras, his father and countrymen were in “stupefied amazement,” he’s made more than any other two Sophists put together. As a later example, he asserts that a troublesome person who’s been giving Socrates a hard time in a certain debate must accept his definition of a certain term, “on pain of ridicule,” ridicule apparently being among the worst things Hippias can think of.…

Read More Plato’s Dialogues: Greater Hippias

New at Thermidor: The Book of Documents

I have another new post up at Thermidor Magazine, covering the Confucian classic, the Book of Documents, which includes a discussion of the Confucian approach to history, as well as a few comments on the Confucian-derived Neoreactionary slogan, “Become worthy. Accept power. Rule.”

Those wanting to read more about Confucianism may be interested in a few other articles I’ve written previously, covering the Book of Odes, Mencius, Leonard Lyall’s translation of the Analects of Confucius, and Xinzhong Yao’s Introduction to Confucianism.…

Read More New at Thermidor: The Book of Documents

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.

Read More Plato’s Dialogues: Protagoras

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.…

Read More Plato’s Dialogues: Crito

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.…

Read More Hiero the Tyrant and Other Treatises by Xenophon

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.…

Read More Doctrina Christiana

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.

Read More Xinzhong Yao’s Gentle Introduction to Confucianism

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.…

Read More The Most Reactionary Book Ever Written