Category: non-fiction

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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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.…

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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.…

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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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