Category: impressions

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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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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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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Poems in Motion: Your Name and 5 Centimetres per Second

Those who care about spoilers should note that I’ll be discussing the endings and several plot points of both Your Name and 5 Centimetres per Second. I generally don’t care about spoilers, but will say that Your Name is more enjoyable if you don’t know whether it has a happy ending or not (and remember, Shinkai Makoto isn’t afraid of downers) or the twist partway through. If you just want a recommendation, both are worth watching, 5cm especially.

There’s been a ton of hype over Shinkai Makoto’s most recent film, Your Name, ever since its release last year. I saw it a few days ago, and though I don’t think it lives up to the hype I enjoyed it well enough and would even say it’s Shinkai’s best movie since 5 Centimetres per Second. Thinking about the movie, though, I couldn’t help comparing it to 5cm. On the surface, they don’t seem very comparable; 5cm is a very grounded movie, and rather minimalist in its plot and characterisation, whereas Your Name falls firmly into the speculative fiction genre, and though the plot isn’t complex compared to many SF stories, 5cm could be adequately summarised in a few sentences whereas this needs quite a bit more space to explain.…

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Olympic Level Poetry: Pindar’s Odes

After covering Sappho a couple weeks ago, I figured I’d move on to another of Greece’s most famous poets, Pindar. Fortunately, his work is much better preserved than the poetess of Lesbos, as we have several dozen of his poems. He made his name writing odes for the victors of the four Panhellenic games, the Olympian being the most famous of these, but also including the Isthmian, Nemean, and Pythian. To be specific, these odes were choral lyrics, which means that they were sung with musical accompaniment. Unfortunately, as far as I’m aware, we have little idea of what this music would’ve sounded like, so the words must stand on their own.

Even without the tune, though, my understanding is that the original Greek is still impressive. Pindar was widely respected in his own time, enough so that the victors of the games were willing to pay him for his work (including, as a side note, our old friend Hiero), and many poets since have admired him and even borrowed his style. Horace is the most famous example, but in English we also have Ben Jonson and Thomas Gray, among others. Edith Hamilton, in her book The Greek Way, also praises his odes highly, but notes that they’re extremely difficult to translate. Poet Abraham Cowley, another author of “Pindarics” in English, similarly noted that “If a man should undertake to translate Pindar word for word, it would be thought that one Mad man had translated another.” We’ll return to the issue of translation shortly.

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New at Thermidor: “Immortal Fragments: Sappho’s Poetry”

I have  a new post over at Thermidor Magazine, “Immortal Fragments: Sappho’s Poetry.” As the title indicates, it covers the lyric poet Sappho and how to get the most out of her mostly poorly-preserved poems.

If you’re interested in other Classical poets, I’ve previously written about Hesiod, also at Thermidor, and the Homeric Hymns. Related to these is yet another Thermidor article, on Aristotle’s Poetics.

On a side note, I’m not especially good with titles so over here I often just use the title of whatever I’m reviewing, but writing elsewhere I feel the need to come up with something better. I haven’t been very successful at that, but I do rather like “Immortal Fragments.” Maybe this is where I turn it around and no longer have to settle for mediocre titles.…

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