‘Marius The Epicurean’ By Walter Pater


This is an old fashioned kind of book. Very much a certain kind of nineteenth and early twentieth century kind of book (this book was written in the early 1880s). A wordy philosophical novel.

It’s not a novel that illustrates or explicates a certain philosophy. You won’t learn much about Epicureanism (and really, Marius is never actually, so far as I can tell, a followed of Epicurus). But you will, if you’re willing, be able to drift back into a Rome of late antiquity (the Stoic philosopher-king Marcos Aurelius is emperor), but really, you’re in a European, upper class milieu of intellectuals.

The plot, insofar as there is one, is Marius, a devout young man, goes to school nearby (which schooling consists of learning history and philosophy) and then to Rome, where he is first deeply impressed by Stoicism, but slowly is impressed by a Christian family and possibly becomes a Christian at the end.

Marius the Epicurean is also an exercise in envy for the reader. What must it be like to have financial independence without much responsibility and to spend one’s time thinking about the meaning of life and what is good in life (which is not intended to be a Conan joke, but an acknowledgement of the primary question of Roman philosophy) and to read the best that minds have to offer and study at the foot of great thinkers. Again, all while not really having to worry about housing, food, healthcare, etc.

Finally, it is a slow read. Or should be. In truth, I finished the final third too quickly. My better half had noted how long I had been reading this book and I think that I felt a little sheepish about my slow pace and rushed a bit so that I could complete it while she was out of town.

 

The Cornerstone Of The Confederacy


“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” – Alexander H. Stephens, Vice President, the Confederate States of America

Ancestors


I’m bouncing between two books: one is Meher McCarthur’s Confucius: Throneless King and the other Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean.

I’m barely into either of them, but so far both are focused on their figures’ obsession with honoring their ancestors and their mothers.

Both are also works by men writing about figures centuries distant from them, but that’s not really my point.

Nor is my point that the discursive novel of a nineteenth century essayist is very much like a non-fiction book by a contemporary academic.

Actually, I’m not entirely sure what my point is.

Reading


I’m always reading several books at a time. Sometimes, too many. They pile up beside the bed in the dozens (to the consternation of my better half).

But I like to vary my reading based on moods (though lately, they have all been linked by classical Greece and Rome). I have a copy of some works of Cicero nearby and I finished On Duties but can’t seem to get into On Friendship nor On Old Age, but they’re all in the same tome and I feel like I should just finish the physical book.

I just finished reading though Stone’s The Trial of Socrates (not in the least because it vocalizes some of my nagging complaints about the Socrates of the Platonic dialogues, namely, that he’s a bit of a flat track bully; it’s also got some wonderful sounding close reading of the original Greek texts; I saw wonderful sounding because I don’t read Ancient Greek and have, really, no idea if his translations and interpretations of individual words is better or worse than others). If I have one criticism, it’s that he closes weakly, by going into a discussion of the etymology of terms for ‘freedom of speech.’ Not that it’s not interesting, but like the ending of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, it brings the (for lack of a better term) ‘narrative’ momentum to a crashing halt.

I finished the second volume of the sci-fi/space opera quartet, The Hyperion Cantos (the names of this one is The Fall of Hyperion). It’s not nearly so pretentious as the word ‘cantos’ implies. I’d compare it to some of Samuel Delaney’s wild space operas, but less formally complex and also less lyrical (even though the reconstructed personality of John Keats is a major character in The Fall of Hyperion). Shouldn’t keep you away from these books, if you like good sci fi. It’s a well thought out, well realized universe with some excellent literary flourishes.

Sally Wen Mao’s Mad Honey Symposium lies beside my bed and the title would have drawn me in, even if the poetry weren’t excellent (which it is).

When The World Spoke French


9781590173756This book is a collection of miniature biographies, focused on (mostly, though confusingly, not exclusively) non-French figures of the eighteenth century who were deeply influenced by eighteenth century French culture, most especially, the intellectual milieu of the French Enlightenment. The biographies themselves, naturally, focus on these figures’ intersections with French Enlightenment culture.

The book is deeply interesting and provides some lovely insight into well known figures (Frederick the Great of Prussia, Catherine the Great of Russia) and less well known persons (Abbe Galliani).

I did get very irritated around the half way point as the author started dropping the name Grimm. I assumed that it wasn’t one of the famed Brothers Grimm, but it would have been really cool to at least include a first name. At around the three quarter mark, we finally get a bio of Friedrich Melchior Grimm, editor of a famed journal of the Enlightenment, but only after I’ve been made to feel ignorant for not knowing ‘Grimm’ since birth. Similarly, a reference to the Enlightenment loving crowned heads included a list, among whom was Stanislaw. Stanislaw who, you ask? Well, the very last bio is of Stanislaw Augustus II of Poland.

But I shouldn’t gripe. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s a lovely, winding journey through drawing rooms and salons, highlighted by excerpts from letters, of a wonderfully fecund time in European intellectual history.

Offices


The finish to Cicero’s Offices (or On Duties or De Oficiis) was both apropos and unsettling. The book is a missive to his son and most of it is ethical philosophy as light reading. Not to denigrate it! Part of the reason it is light reading, is that Cicero is known as an excellent Latin stylist and while my translation is little old fashioned, it keeps the clearness. But also because Cicero is not Kant and this is not a technical treatise. Yes, he talks about stoicism and he mentions his own school (the sceptics or Academicians) and notes that his son has chosen to study under a peripatetic (which is to say, an Aristotlean) philosopher. But this is a practical guidebook.

Or, at least, that’s how it begins… and actually, that’s how most of it goes.

But his bitterness over his fall (precipitated by his opposition to Julius Caesar’s power grabs; Cicero was not a democratic soul, but believed deeply in the Roman Republic and its institutions) takes over and it’s hard not to read the last twenty pages or so as a pointed attack on the people and institutions he sees as having failed the Republic and contributed to its decline and downfall.

Which might seem appropriate for the times, right? Like most Americans, I voted against Trump, and have, even before he has taken office, been found right in my opposition as he rather publicly dismantles our democratic norms (en route to dismantling our democratic institutions?). But Lord knows that I need a break. I didn’t pick up a two thousand year old book for insight into the current predicament affecting my country. I wanted a bit o’ ancient wisdom and a good read.