Contents: 20 ‘books’ of quotes by the Chinese philosopher Confucius and his disciples
My thoughts : In modern Western parlance, the name Confucius is a stereotype for wisdom, but few people would be able to say they know much of what he actually said or taught. Much of what is written here is via analogy to third parties and their actions and remains obscure, but certain threads are repeated throughout, often about the moral way to live, the value of learning, and direction in what it means to be benevolent, wise, courageous, reverent and truthful, for its own sake, rather than any reward of heaven or earthly gain.
None of the “sayings” I have seen attributed to Confucius appear in the Analects, and Confucius has probably become a convenient name to hang various anonymous snippets of triteness upon. Read the Analects if you want to seriously consider self-betterment – they are a good start.
“Every day I examine myself on three counts. In what I have undertaken on another’s behalf, have I failed to do my best? In my dealings with my friends, have I failed to be trustworthy in what I say? Have I passed on to others anything that I have not tried out myself?” Book I
“When you meet someone better than yourself, turn your thoughts to becoming their equal. When you meet someone not as good as you are, look within and examine your own self” Book IV
And his description of himself as “the sort of man who forgets to eat when he tries to solve a problem that has been driving him to distraction, who is so full of joy that he forgets his worries, and who does not notice the onset of old age” Book VII
Personal rating : at its heights I would rate the Analects at 5/10.
Next : The Old Testament of the Holy Bible. My copy since I was a boy and never read is the Authorised King James version, although I have been advised that there will be some words and phrases so removed from everyday understanding as to prove impossible to understand even in their context, so a copy of a more recent version kept nearby might be essential for reference.
Contents: Another small Chinese classic (just over 50 verses) supposedly written by a hermit contemporary of Confucius, the name Lao Tzu can refer to the book and/or the author.
My thoughts : It seems that the meaning behind much of the surviving religious and philosophical texts from ancient civilizations is remarkably or even deliberately vague and contradictory. The Tao, or the Virtuous Way excels in taking this to the furthest extreme by confessing to being ultimately indescribable, unnameable, inexpressible and dare I say it, inscrutable.
The Tao te ching appears to be descriptive of the proper way to live, behave and govern, as demonstrated by the Universe or Heaven. Meekness, stillness, humility and a lack of desire are recommended, as are the avoidance of action, arrogance and contention : in general, you will be more the less you are, seek contentment free of desire.
In the pursuit of learning, one knows more every day;
In the pursuit of the way, one does less every day.
One does less and less until one does nothing at all,
And when one does nothing at all there is nothing that is undone.
Deal with a thing while it is still nothing;
Keep a thing in order before disorder sets in;
A tree that can fill the span of a man’s arms grows from a downy tip;
A terrace nine storeys high rises from hodfuls of earth;
A journey of a thousand miles starts from beneath one’s feet.
Is not the way of heaven like the stretching of a bow?
The high it presses down, the low it lifts up;
The excessive it takes from, the deficient it gives to.
It is the way of heaven… The way of man is otherwise.
The last quoted above (from verse LXXVII) is beautiful and sad – the whole book was worth reading simply for this gem.
Personal rating : 6/10, but if the whole was as beautiful and serene as the verses I have quoted above, this would be a 10/10.
Next : while I’m still in the Orient, I will continue with the Analects of Confucius. After that, we’re going to be in the Mediterranean for a long, long time.
Contents: 13 brief chapters explaining the strategies of war in almost dot point simplicity, this small book was reportedly studied through history by generals such as Napoleon.
My thoughts : The advice given seems obvious and simple, yet its application on the field of battle and keeping the rudimentary principles clearly in mind without letting impatience or other emotions sway decisions has no doubt ensured this work its place. Much of the advice sounds like a yin/yang philosophy for employing and protecting armed forces.
My copy was published in the early 1980s, and edited by the novelist James Clavell of Shogun and Noble House fame (ISBN 0340276045). His footnotes linking the points made by Sun Tzu to famous generals and battles throughout history provide interesting asides and help illustrate the ideas put into action. There is also a faint whiff of Clavell applying the advice against “current adversaries”, presumably communist Russia given the timing of publication, including warning against the allurement of beautiful women!
“All warfare is based on deception. When able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near …”
“the skilled leader subdues the enemy’s troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field”
Personal rating : 6/10
Next : staying in the Middle Kingdom, next up is the Tao te Ching, by Lao Tzu, an underlying text of the Taoist religion.
Plot: A collection of 33 hymns, each praising a specific Greek god or demigod. Each hymn is sung to a god or goddess to praise them and request good fortune in return for the singer.
My thoughts : Not now believed to be penned by Homer, most are quite short and all were easy to read. My copy was a second edition translated by Apostolos Athanassakis (a nice genuine Greek name) and published by Johns Hopkins University Press (ISBN 0801879833). This translation was certainly more modern and approachable, and brought the gods to life with less of their overwhelming stature and more of their fun and humanity.
Favourite lines/passages: My own personal fondness for certain gods and goddesses influenced which hymns I favoured, particularly Pan, Artemis the huntress and Selene the moon goddess. But the best was hymn #3 to Hermes, as he steals Apollo’s cattle in the evening of the day he is first born, then pretends to be just an innocent babe when the angry god tracks him down (page 34)
“when Zeus and Maia’s son saw Apollon, the Far-Shooter, angered about his cattle,
He snuggled into his sweet-scented swaddling-clothes; ….
Into a small space he huddled head, hands and feet, like a freshly bathed babe courting sweet sleep,
But in truth still awake and holding the lyre under his arm,
The son of Zeus and Leto did not fail to recognise the beautiful mountain nymph and her dear son,
Though he was a tiny child steeped in crafty wiles, …..”
Personal rating : 7/10
Next : Studied by military men down through the ages, the sixth century BC Chinese classic The Art of War, by Sun Tzu is next.
Plot: Some similarities to the Ramayana, as five princes undergo exile in the forest before waging a war with their cousins, although in this case, to regain their kingdom.
Within the great expanse of text, there are many side stories, including the tale of the Ramayana read earlier, and a whole section discussing dharma (the correct way to live) of kings and warriors which has gained its own title – the Bhagavad Gita, and has had a deep impact on Hinduism.
My thoughts : The Mahabharata is the very definition of epic. The abridged version I read still ran to over 790 pages, but the original in Sanskrit can run to 32 volumes.
I felt that the Mahabharata was much more gritty and less fantastical than the Ramayana, despite the presence of gods, demons, supernatural weapons and superhuman stamina and abilities of the various heroes and their anatagonists. Much of the story centres on the battles of the war, with each encounter between heroes showering each other with thousands of arrows; and chariots, horses, elephants and drivers destroyed in their hundreds of thousands.
“his weapon…. was as unbearable as a flesh-eating ghoul” p. 523 – What??!!!
“ Bhrgu’s son Cyavana performs [religious] austerities for so long that he becomes an anthill” p. 189. This has to be the most bizarre and random opening line of a chapter in the whole of world literature!
And finally, not so much a favourite as a jaw-dropping image repeated several times descibes a battle so ferocious that …”with his torrents of sharp arrows the wearer of the diadem set a dreadful river flowing on that battlefield: its water was blood from the wounds of weapons on men’s bodies, its foam human fat ….. corpses of elephants and horses formed its banks, the entrails, marrow and flesh of men its mud. Ghosts and great throngs of demons lned its banks. Its waterweed was hair attached to human skulls, its billows severed pieces of armour … fragments of the bones of men, horses and elephants formed the gravel of that fearful destructive, hellish river ; crows, jackals, vultures and storks, and throngs of carrion beasts and hyenas were approaching its banks from every direction” p.377.
Diversions/digressions : When reading a 800 page epic with a huge cast and lots of repetition of circumstances and similes, everything else in life is a distraction
Personal rating : plenty of great ratings for the Mahabharata on http://www.goodreads.com, so I don’t feel too guilty giving this only 4/10. Just too long to enjoy (as The Prince said to Mozart in Amadeus), and I didn’t feel the ‘heroes’ demonstrated true dharma – quite the opposite : Arjuna burning the Khandeva forest and killing 1000s of animals, Yudhisthira lying to Drona in the midst of battle, telling him that his son was dead to demoralise and defeat him, the five Pandava heroes not acting to protect their shared wife from the humiliation and torment of the Kauravas. Or maybe I still don’t understand the true concept of dharma.
Next : The Homeric Hymns – not written by Homer, but are they hymns?