151. The Dhammapada (Third Century BC)

151. The Dhammapada (Third Century BC)

The Dhammapada may be defined as the Buddhist Path to Perfection, or Nirvana, as depicted by a collection of 423 short homilies.  Although most are straightforward, I am sure at least some carry more meaning the longer they are thought over, or are not as easy to live by as they first sound. Perhaps the best example of what I am trying to say is the story related by the editor in the Introduction.

“It is said that once a man of arms undertook a long journey to see a holy follower of Buddha, and asked if the message of Buddha could be taught to him.

The answer was ‘Do not what is evil. Do what is good. Keep your mind pure. This is the teaching of Buddha.’

‘Is this all?’ asked the man of arms. ‘Every child of five knows this!’

‘It may be so, but few men of eighty can practice it’,  he was told.               page 21-22

There is naturally a similarity with the teachings of Christ in how Buddha asks us to deal with others to encourage a safe and harmonious society. However more strongly presented are the themes of self-improvement, including watchfulness, self-control, moderation, truth and harmony.

Key tenets include:

  • Hate can only be overcome by love.
  • Since our thoughts build our future, thoughts free of the feelings of hurt and defeat will be free of hate.
  • Freedom from desires provides joy. Transient pleasures, passions and cravings lead to sorrows, for to want but not obtain these pleasures causes sorrow.
  • Think not of the faults of others, but of your own failings
  • Life is dear to all creatures therefore man should not kill or cause to kill.

Rather than providing further inadequate summary here after my brief first exposure to this religion, I have copied out a greater number of quotes below than is my usual practice  –  not necessarily representative of the whole but those which resonated with me as I read.  The Penguin copy I read (ISBN 0140443847) was only about ninety pages, and a third of that was the introduction by Juan Mascaro, in which he makes many links to Christianity and other spiritual literatures.

Favourite lines/passages:

The mind is fickle and flighty, it flies after fancies wherever it likes; it is difficult indeed to restrain. But it is a great good to control the mind; a mind self-controlled is a source of great joy.

As the bee takes the essence of a flower and flies away without destroying its beauty and perfume, so let the sage wander in this life.

Better than a thousand useless words is one single word that gives peace.

Neither in the sky, nor deep in the ocean, nor in a mountain-cave, nor anywhere, can a man be free from the evil he has done.

How can there be laughter, how can there be pleasure, when the whole world is burning? When you are in deep darkness, will you not ask for a lamp?

It is easy to do what is wrong, to do what is bad for oneself; but very difficult to do what is right, to do what is good for oneself.

Health is the greatest possession. Contentment is the greatest treasure. Confidence is the greatest friend. Nirvana is the greatest joy.

Speak the truth, yield not to anger, give what you can to him that asks : these three steps lead you to the gods.  

In days gone by this mind of mine used to stray wherever selfish desire or lust or pleasure would lead it.  Today this mind does not stray and is under the harmony of control,  even as a wild elephant is controlled by its trainer.

Personal rating:  As a pleasurable experience to read : 6/10.

 Next : From Buddhism to Hinduism. The Manusmriti (Laws of Manu)

 

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150. The Rise of the Roman Empire by Polybius (c. 146 BC)

150. The Rise of the Roman Empire by Polybius (c. 146 BC)

Contents: Greek historian Polybius records the rise of the Roman superpower from one hill besieged by Gauls in 390 BC to an empire spanning the known world, concentrating on the First and Second Punic Wars between Carthage and Rome, but also describing contemporaneous events in Macedonia, Egypt, and Syria, providing a ‘world history’, notably for the years from 264 to 201 BC.

Originally in 39 books, Polybius starts in earnest with the events leading to the First Punic War. Having conquered the Italian peninsula, the Romans came into conflict with the Carthaginians (also known as the Punics) from north Africa (modern Tunisia) over adjoining Sicily. The Carthaginians were the greatest sea power of their time, and their land forces also had the added advantage of war elephants trained to advance and crush enemy infantry. Yet the Romans quickly developed a navy, the ability to navigate across seas rather than hug the coast, and a revolutionary grappling tool known as ‘the Raven’, which dropped onto opposing ships and allowed the Romans to pull enemy ships close and board them.  Despite several disastrous naval losses by both storms and superior Carthaginian strategy, the Romans eventually became the victors and took control of Sicily.

Despite a truce that Carthaginian armies in Spain would not cross the River Ebro, Hannibal amassed an army and invaded Saguntum, a city allied with Rome but still on the Carthaginian side of Ebro. Hannibal’s hatred of Rome inherited from his father and the settlement terms of the First War urged him to continue onto Italy, with his famous crossing of the Alps with an army including 37 elephants. The crossing took its toll, both from ambushing tribesmen and the narrow and snow covered path, which combined to rob Hannibal of large numbers of soldiers and pack animals, and half his elephants. Once he reached northern Italy, he allied with some of the local Gauls and won several battles against the Romans. He stayed in the field in Italy for seventeen years skirmishing with the Roman forces, and at one point reached within 5 miles of the walls of Rome.

Carthage and Rome were vying for the whole world in this Second Punic War, and the brilliance of the young Roman general Scipio who took the fight to Spain and then Carthage itself eventually settled the toss.

My copy was the Penguin classic edition translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert (ISBN 9780140443622), which contains most of books I through IV, with sections of books V-XII, XIV, XV, XVIII, XVIX, XXXI, XXXVI and XXXIX. 😉

My thoughts:  Polybius seems even handed in his portrayals of both Roman and Carthaginian forces, and gives credit or blame wherever they are due, with high praise for both Hannibal and Scipio. However he is not as enamored with the other races, and is quite scathing in describing some of their treacherous acts.

Polybius wanted to show his readers how Rome became an empire, but he also offers a whole world view of history – showing how other wars at the same time in Greece, Illyria and Egypt provided opportunities or impacted on the strategies of the Romans.

He does interrupt his history at certain points to also discuss Roman government and military arrangements, which was useful background information, including pointing out a government model with an early version of the separation of powers : part monarchy (two consuls appointed on an annual basis), part oligarchy (a Senate controlling finances) and part democracy. But Polybius also spends my reading time attacking other historians, notably Timaeus. However, some of his own descriptions of the use and behavior of the elephants is a little suspect as well – the difficulties in getting them to cross a river (after all, elephants can swim) and their disastrous panic in the final battle (unlikely for trained war animals) just don’t ring true.

Favourite lines/passages:  One of the best stories (and quite unexpected) was the role Archimedes the famous mathematician played in saving his home city of Syracuse from simultaneous attack by both the Roman army and navy, designing catapults to fling stones and iron darts at the enemy, and grappling machines to lift and capsize warships from the safety of the city walls (pages 366-368). Formulas to work out the area and volume of geometric shapes, or even the accurate calculation of pi,  just don’t seem so impressive in comparison.

Diversions and digressions: The fascination of Hannibal’s use of elephants in his early and last campaign captures the imagination throughout the book. Where did he get them from : sub-Saharan Africa, in which case they would be the large and tempermental African elephant, or from Asia, perhaps trading with Persian merchants? How did the Carthaginians transport these elephants across the seas to Sicily to fight in the First Punic War if they  had such  difficulty getting them on rafts to cross the Rhone in the Second?

Personal rating:  5/10.

Kimmy’s rating:  Kimmy was not as keen on the elephants as I was, and as for the Romans killing dogs in the captured cities!! No stars awarded there.

Next : In my excitement to start reading the Latin classics, I overlooked some Asian works. So back a century or so to discover the Buddhist verses outlining the path to Nirvana, in The Dhammapada.

149. Adelphoe (The Brothers) by Terence (160 BC)

Plot:  Two brothers, Aeschinus and Ctesipho, are split to be raised separately, but remain good friends. Ctesipho is raised by his poor hardworking father Demea on their farm, while Aeschinus is fostered to his rich uncle Micio in the city. The two fathers have very different philosophies of fatherhood : Micio allows Aeschinus a free hand in all his adventures,  and pays the bills for his excesses to win his love; while Demea tries to force  sobriety and responsibility onto Ctesipho.

Then one night, Aeschinus breaks into a slave-owner’s house to abduct a girl, and bring her back to his house. Next door, another girl he seduced and has promised marriage is about to give birth to their child. Has Micio’s laxity raised a wild and uncontrollable boy, or is there more to Aeschinus’  actions than first appears?

The last play in the Penguin edition of Terence’s Comedies (014044324X)

My thoughts:  A more mature story than his earlier plays, but still lifted from an earlier Greek play, The Brothers is really more about the two older brothers Demea and Micio, and the manner with which they view their role as fathers.

A shorter play than the others makes for more sudden entrances and exits by the players, giving it the feel of a more modern comedy. The conniving slave is not the centre of attention, and although Demea may seem miserly and authoritarian to many of the characters, his apparent Scrooge-like transformation towards the end contains a humorous and gentle sting for his easygoing brother Micio.

Favourite lines/passages:

Demea’s final speech hits the right note:

Demea: “I wanted to show you, Micio, that what our boys thought was your good nature and charm didn’t come from a way of living which was sincere or from anything right or good, but from your weakness, indulgence and extravagance. Now Aeschinus, if you and your brother dislike  my ways because I won’t humour you in all your wishes, right or wrong, I wash my hands of you – you can spend and squander and do whatever you like. On the other hand, being young, you are short-sighted, over-eager and heedless, and you may like a word of advice or reproof from me on occasion, as well as my support at the proper time, well I’m here at your service.” page 386.

But I also can’t begrudge Micio’s sheer love for his adopted son either

Micio : “My son, I have heard the whole story; I understand for I love you, so all you do touches my heart.”   page 371

Personal rating:  7/10

Also in that year: Judas Maccabeus, leader of the Jewish revolt, dies fighting the Seleucids.

The reads in between:  Hercule Poirot digs for the truth in the archaeological Murder in Mesopotamia. Christie often accompanied her husband on his digs so had some local colour to add to this murder mystery. I correctly suspected the secondary villain and guessed the murderer, but more by choosing the most unlikely suspect that true deduction.

Also read Brandon Sanderson’s The Final Empire (#1 in the Mistborn series) – deserves the high praise it gets on Goodreads  – sort of a cross between Lord of the Rings, Mission Impossible and Spiderman – that should peak your curiosity. Not only is it the first in a series but each of Sanderson’s series are loosely connected in a much bigger universe and he plans to have 30-40 books across the worlds, beside his work on finishing Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. A busy lad!

Next : How Rome became great : Polybius’ Histories, or, The Rise of the Roman Empire

 

There must be a word for it ….

There must be a word for it ….

My work week is split fairly evenly between a bookshop and a public library. At the former, I see new books arrive all the time and which books people are buying or waiting for, and which authors have new titles about to be published. At the latter I see what people borrow or request, and what is on the shelves from the last ten to fifteen years as I shelve the  returns. At least half the titles are fiction. I am surrounded day and night by literally thousands of books! And of course, it’s not just the books on the open shelves – I can browse the library stacks of low use titles, I can access the childrens’ and teen collections without feeling like an intruder, I can even score an occasional damaged book from the bookshop or an uncorrected proof copy of a new release. And unlike the university library I used to work in, I can imagine wanting to read a goodly percentage of the books about me now.

When I was young, reading was my consuming hobby, being neither sporty or adventurous. At university studying sciences, my reading for pleasure waned. While never completely stopped, it is only in the past few years that my reading has returned to those high levels of childhood.

Surrounded by books all day, I now feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of books I haven’t read. I will never get to read them all. This dismay is part of the reason for this enormous quest and blog.

“So many books, so little time”. Is there a word for this?

148. Phormio by Terence (161 BC)

148. Phormio by Terence (161 BC)

Plot:  Young Antipho marries Phanium while his father Demipho is abroad. She is penniless with no dowry, which enrages Demipho on his return. Meanwhile Antipho’s cousin Phaedria has fallen in love with Pamphila, a slave girl about to be sold off, but he has no money to rescue and marry her. His father, Chremes (Demipho’s brother) is also abroad on one of his frequent visits to his secret second wife and his daughter but they have disappeared. Phormio , a clever rascal and  friend to Antipho and Phaedria, promises to help them both.

My thoughts:  More enjoyable than the earlier plays, especially as there was no overt violence to women, but it didn’t quite have the sparkle of The Eunuch. The plot is twisty but doesn’t lose the audience (that is, me).

I mentioned in the last post that the stage setup remains quite basic and consistent, with just the two neighbouring houses. I should also mention that, while the courtesans and older women (wives, slaves and nurses) appear on stage, the beautiful young women (in this case, Phanium and Pamphila) never appear but are spoken to as if they are in the houses. I presume that if only male actors were allowed to perform on stage, they could not provide a sufficient illusion of feminine beauty necessary to make the desperation of the male characters believable and lift the comedy above farce.

As mentioned in earlier posts, Terence borrowed content from Greek plays, which was almost standard practice for Latin playwrights at this time, and subsequently both this play and Terence’s next (The Brothers) were used by Moliere as the basis of two of his plays. As Terence said in his prologue to The Eunuch: “Nothing is ever said which has not been said before”

Personal rating:  6/10

Also about this time: Public libraries appear in Rome. Yay!

Next : The final play by Terence, Adelphoe (The Brothers)

 

147. Eunuchus (The Eunuch) by Terence (161 BC)

147. Eunuchus (The Eunuch) by Terence (161 BC)

Plot:  Chaerea has fallen in love at first sight with the young maiden Pamphila, and disguises himself as a eunuch so he can gain access to her bedroom where he ‘seduces’ her. His older brother Phaedria is in love with the courtesan Thais, but has a rival in the soldier Thraso. The latter has made a present of Pamphila to Thais (who is trying to restore her to her family), but only if Thais will make Thraso her number one suitor.

My thoughts: Paradoxically I enjoyed this play far more than Terence’s other plays, in spite of the fact that at the centre of this ‘comedy’ there is still a young woman sexually assaulted.

The storyline was better structured, and the intentions of all the characters were easy to follow. It also featured the whole host of stock characters – the bragging soldier, his toady companion milking him for meals, the artful courtesan, the obsessed young men and the dottery old father, with much more opportunity for actual comedy – the young man dressing as a eunuch, the braggart and his sycophantic ‘yes-man’.  I can almost be persuaded that everyone has a happy ending, even the young girl, reunited with her family and offered marriage by her love-struck assailant.

I guess I just have to take on board this treatment of women, particularly slaves, was an everyday occurrence, rating only a small amount of sympathy from a Roman audience, and justified due to  the uncontrollable desires of young men ‘boys will be boys’ mentality.

The stage presentation is remarkably static in all the Roman plays so far. Two houses side by side, with the city centre off to the audience’s right, and the countryside off to the left. Terence also uses the same range of characters mentioned above, and even recycles the names of characters across his plays (although they do not represent the same people from play to play)

Personal rating:  A surprising and somewhat guilty 7/10. If you read one Terence play, this is probably the one.

Next :  Staying with Terence, his fifth play, Phormio.

 

146. Heauton Timorumenos (The Self-Tormentor) by Terence (163 BC)

Plot:  Menedemus is working himself relentlessly night and day in his fields as private atonement for driving his only son Clinia away rather than condone his son’s love interest, the young maid Antiphila.  His neighbour Chremes tries to cheer him up, unaware that his own son Clitipho is infatuated with the courtesan Bacchis, who now arrives along with Antiphila at Chremes’ house,   where Clinia is hiding. The family slave Syrus tries to swindle the money Clitipho needs to keep Bacchis satisfied, and convinces Clinia to pretend he loves Bacchis. Meanwhile Chremes persuades Menedemus to hide the regret and affection he feels overwhelmingly for Clinia when he does return.

All clear so far…? No??

My thoughts:  A difficult play to follow – I kept losing track of what Memedemus and Chremes were supposed to believe, who was supposed to be in love with who, and where Syrus was going to get the money from. I read the middle third of the play twice and it only just helped.

Halfway through, It is revealed that Antiphila is actually the daughter of Chremes, who he had ordered to be abandoned to die in the wilderness as a baby years ago because she was a girl. His anger with his wife for not obeying him, and thereby risking the ignominy of having his daughter become a slave or a courtesan rather than starve to death as an infant, sours the whole story and took any hint of comedy away completely for  me.  Terence seems to gloss over the atrocities and sorrows inflicted on the women in his stories, using them simply as so much background to his plot entanglements.

 

Personal rating: 3/10

Also around this time:   From 167 to 160 BC, Maccabean Jews were rebelling against the Seleucid Empire and Greek influence. Their victory at the Battle of Beth Zur in 164 BC led to the recapture of Jerusalem.

My reads in between:

  • Tales of St. Austins, a very early Wodehouse in his School stories era, with short stories featuring the students and teachers of said school, mostly revolving around the next rugby or cricket match, and not getting caught outside school bounds. For Wodehouse addicts only.
  • Playing with Fire, the second in the Skulduggery Pleasant series. Not as good as the first but only because the joy of meeting the characters has already been had. Still a great read.

Next :  The Eunuch by Terence