‘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.

 

‘Leisure: The Basis of Culture’ By Josef Pieper


Pieper begins the book as almost a marxian (though also anti-communist and anti-totalitarian) tract and ends as an apologist for Christian philosophy (though not, necessarily, for Christianity the religion).

Part of this is that he writes as a German in the years immediately following World War II. Neither Stalin nor Hitler nor the devastation of war can be ignored. Leisure, he notes, seems a luxury in such times, when so much rebuilding is necessary. And, though he doesn’t explicitly say it (though I think it implied in the book), when so much recompense is necessary.

He rejects the idea of intellectual ‘work’ in favor of less loaded words. How is ‘work’ loaded? It is for him because he wants something that does not demand an outcome, as in the product of work. He wants something that reflects contemplation and wonder (and revelation? It naturally follows, though he eschews such gnostic language).

The obvious comparison is between ‘pure’ scientific research and ‘practical’ scientific research (which, as Pieper would no doubt be quick to point out, had he made the comparison, is founded upon the results of pure scientific research).

Ultimately, though, the title is really misleading. He is not advocating, in the end, for leisure, but for philosophizing as a vital part of life.

He most frequently cites Plato and Aquinas (which made me wish I knew more than broad strokes about his philosophy), but it is Heidegger who most clearly haunts him. He mentions him, but tries to avoid mentioning him (not unsurprising, considering the time when he was writing). Like Heidegger, he seeks a way of being in the world and this leisure, which is really philosophical contemplation and study, is his solution. But while Heidegger’s is nearly theological, Pieper’s is, in the final analysis, explicitly theological. Sort of. He doesn’t argue that Christianity is necessary for man, only existentially profitable, arguing, as it were, but not proselytizing.

‘Confucius: A Throneless King’ By Meher McArthur


This brief book is an interesting, but ultimately disappointing ‘biography’ of Confucius. I say ‘biography’ because, as the author admits, it is almost impossible to put together an accurate bio of the man, because so much of what is known is not able to be disentangled from myth. While he admits the problem, it’s not clear from the book itself how he went about it. How much can we trust the incidents described? I certainly don’t know. And the ending is downright confusing, because it’s a series of short narratives about the spread and influence of Confucianism outside of China (Vietnam, Korea, etc). Interesting, but felt like filler because… wasn’t this a bio of the man? And if you were going to do more, why not actually talk more about the philosophy cum religion called Confucianism? There’s a little, but honestly, if I hadn’t read Fung’s A Short History of Chinese Philosophy (also disappointing), I wouldn’t really have known what he was talking about when he says things like ‘Neo-Confucianism.’ Perhaps my main takeaway from this book is that it’s past time for me to read the Analects.

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.

When Does Intent Cease To Matter?


Most philosophy of ethics views intentionality as key. Was the mental intention good or bad?

I have been thinking about this in the context of recent presidents. Trump almost certainly did not mean to give Israeli intelligence to Hezbollah (though it’s questionable how much of a pass he gets for his apparent intention being ‘show off to Russian officials in order to bolster self-esteem and impress Vladimir Putin’).

But I actually am thinking more about this in the context of George ‘Dubya’ Bush. One can feel almost nostalgic for Dubya while in the thrall of dangerous insecure man-child. At worst, one thinks, he was merely a well-meaning idiot. And didn’t he direct a lot of money towards fighting the spread HIV internationally?

It’s easy to forget all the terrible, ethical lapses of his presidency; of a war driven by Freudian conflicts vis-a-vis, his father.

But even if we accept the premise that he was well-meaning, at what point does intention not matter? Even if he did not intend so many deaths, so many maimings, so much destruction, so much lost, at what point does the water of consequences burst the dam of intention? When is ‘I meant well’ (truly stated) not enough to stave off sin?

Simone De Beauvoir’s Office


Or a replication/re-creation thereof.

And a brilliant idea by the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

The Second Sex is brilliant and I have read The Mandarins at least three times, but when I first read about this exhibition, I didn’t put two and two together and realize that it was right here in Washington, DC. It was just coincidence that we happened to visit the museum that day.

As you can see, I got a kick getting my picture taken while sitting at a re-creation of her desk.

While much of the stuff were merely examples of things from her study and not actual originals, there were two handwritten pages from The Second Sex, which is pretty awesome.

A friend is a security guard there and she took me to see a marble statue and when I looked at the name, it was by Sarah Bernhardt, the famous actress of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century stage – who was, apparently, a skillful sculptor in her spare time.


The museum is a beautiful building inside, to boot.

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).