‘On Interpretation’ By Aristotle


It was shorter than I had expected (the volume contains three book: Catergories, On Interpretation, and Prior Analytics). Which, you might say, that is good. But maybe it is actually not good (or not-good, which you might also translate as bad), because it means that Prior Analytics will be longer and I’m a little scared.

So this middle volume hinges on that ‘good,’ ‘not good,’ and ‘not-good’ thing mentioned earlier. And contradictories and contraries and how they do and do not match up (or if they do; in at least one instance, the conclusion to the book felt inconclusive on that subject). I remembered a good bit from college: some are, all are, none are, some are not, etc. I’d brush up, but that old college textbook on my shelf is possibly more intimidating.

Tao Te Ching


To be totally honest, by the time I reached the last half, for reasons unrelated to Lao Tze’s wisdom, I just wasn’t in the mood to digest his guidance. I was more in a mood to be moody.

But a couple of times, I was still pulled up short by the Tao. A line about attacking by surprise during warfare that could have come from (or was cribbed by Sun Tzu). Recommendations on rulership that read like the subtext to Machiavelli’s true goals. And certainly, ‘sage’ is on my list of ideal jobs.

Aristotle’s ‘Categories’


Now that I finally have this book and am reading it (the volume also contains On Interpretation and Prior Analytics) I am consumed with the fear of forgetting. Having finished Categories in a careful and deliberative fashion, I still feel that I will move on to the next and remember almost nothing of what preceded it.

I minored in philosophy at college and still read it for pleasure, but while logic was my favorite branch at college, it is a right pain to read later in life, no matter how useful (and make no mistake; studying logic in college was incredibly useful; if you are in college, I highly encourage you to take a couple of logic courses, because it will give you a new and valuable perspective on things).

Alas, but I may still hope to retain something and the peripatetic master has forced me to consider the meaning of the things I say (though I wonder how many of his categories were inspired by ancient Greek’s declining nouns?).

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.

I’m Back, I’m Not Back


I’ve been away, first thinking only about the election and then contemplating the aftermath.

It’s not a happy aftermath. My wife is an immigrant and a person of color. I have low income family members who depend on Obamacare. All reasons to fear for the well being of people I love.

So, in what do we take solace?

I’ve been reading Cicero’s De Officiis in a lovely little miniature hardback edition. I love those books, on a tactile level, like the original Modern Library editions from the teens, twenties and thirties. This isn’t one of those, but the same principle. Also, just reading a literate account of how to be decent person in society. While some is specific to the society of the late Republican/early Imperial Rome, most is not. And in a post-Trump world, it seems both relevant and terribly sad. But perhaps Cicero, who wrote this after being forced into a sort of exile for his support for the norms of the Republic would relate. Though I still don’t see this as the end of democracy in America. A touch of class, too, in Cicero. Not that kind of class (though he’s very classy), but socio-economic class. And jealousy. On my part. Cicero can retire to his villa, send his son to study abroad (he’s learning from a Greek philosopher in Athens), and spend his days writing awesome things like De Officiis.

I was in my study the other day. Actually, if I’m being honest, I was video chatting my way through a Dungeons & Dragons game (thankfully, we’re meeting in person next week; sometimes, technology is a hindrance to play, a statement that you should take several ways). While waiting for technology to right itself or else during lulls in the action, I found my eyes wandering around to all my books. Honestly, I’ve got some pretty awesome books.

Among them, James Lasdun’s The Horned Man, I book that I read many years and deeply enjoyed and I felt compelled to reread upon seeing it on my shelf. Like Cicero, maybe I’m looking for parallels. In this case, an unreliable narrator who quickly constructs a strange and inexplicable conspiracy. So how does this relate? Trump, the unreliable narrator spinning his improbable narratives? Me, trapped in a world created by people who see conspiracies in the quotidià of modern life? Or am I the narrator, feeling a strange noose tighten for reasons I can’t understand (bear to understand?)?

Wordworth’s The Prelude which is one of the highlights of western civilization, but which, thankfully, has nothing to with Trump. Or does it? I just called it one of the highlights of western civilization and doesn’t that relate to Trump making his closest presidential adviser a man tied to a racist, separatist, apartheidist, ethno-european nationalist movement? That doesn’t make Wordsworth particularly racist (though I’m sure he was, being a man of his erea), but am I merely taking a more highbrow kind of comfort in the same white mythologies as Trump’s supporters?

I picked up Kenneth Rexroth and Ikoko Atsumi’s translated text, Women Poets of Japan and found myself less enthralled than I remember. While waiting in line to vote, I was reading The Book Genji and the titular Prince Genji and the beau monde in which moved frequently communicated via poems, but a quick, returning glance at that once favored collection of Japanese poetry left me itchy for something else. If that something else was a white, male poet (Wordsworth), does it make my reaction more fraught?

 

 

‘The Theory Of Moral Sentiments’ By Adam Smith


9780143105923I read this book slowly, over the course of more than a year, which is too bad now, because, as I’m writing about it, I can’t remember as many details as I might like.

I remember a couple of things, like a section that seemed to suggest that, in the (hypothetical) absence of God, it is the state that matters, but that being the only significant talk of capital-G God in a work that generally, though never explicitly, developed an anthropological explanation for morality that required no divine edicts.

I remember thinking that his explanation for the natural sentiments that exist in the majority of people, combined with social norms, allow us to put ourselves in the place of others (it sounds like empathy, and it is, but also more than that) in order to develop socially enforced moral codes.

I also remember thinking that this was just a hop, skip, and a jump to John Rawls’ theory of justice (as described in his… A Theory of Justice).

It’s definitely a philosophical document, but also definitely a product of time and place. When you think of the philosophical writings of Edmund Burke and David Hume, you see this approach that I referred to as anthropological.

And then… he suddenly spent the last thirty of forty pages discussion of the history of language, I got a little confused. At some points, he seemed to be making a point about language, for example the use of and us and Romans to help people put themselves in the place of others and themselves within society. But mostly, I have no idea. It might have been cool near the beginning, but at the end, it was a total distraction and letdown. When a nice summing up would normally be called for, he went off onto a strange tangent. Oh well. Welcome to the world of belles lettres, I guess.