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 Finally, there’s the Book of Historical Documents, another primarily historical work.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.
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.…
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.…
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!…