‘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.

‘Hyperion’ By Dan Simmons


I swear that I didn’t know it was part of a series. I knew he wrote other books about the planet Hyperion, but I really thought this was a self-contained story. Feeling a little betrayed.

But it’s an excellent and intelligent space opera. Keats comes up a lot and he plays with Chaucer’s pilgrims (though much grimmer and with less sex and comedy).

The world is well realized (though it’s actually a vast universe) and the layers and multiplying plots are exciting rather than frustrating, overdone, or contrived. Really, if it didn’t require me to read a second book, I’d call it an unmitigated success.

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?).

The Tale Of Genji


So technically, I haven’t finished the entire volume, merely the first of the five books that make up the Tale.

I don’t know when I first learned about Genji. Certainly, it’s been decades since I deciding I needed to read it. But I’m alittle disappointed. Is that odd? Not to say I’m not loving it, but it’s paling in comparison to other ‘great’ books (in both size and cultural cachet) I’ve read over the last few years.

Partly it’s that Genji himself is such a shallow cipher. While the narrator of Remembrance of Things Past is often the least interesting person in the room, he’s always, nonetheless, a figure of psychological interest, whereas Genji lacks most introspection. Or maybe I’m just jealous at how easily he seduces women?

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.