Month: December 2016

2016, 2017 and all that

2016, 2017 and all that

Hi everyone, wishing you all a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year !

I can’t begin to guess where I might be or what I might be doing this time next year – 2016 has brought a lot of both expected and unexpected changes, not the least of which was leaving my job after 24 years.

As far as reading goes, I will close 2016 with 100 classics under my belt (74 of these read in 2016), and 2 successful spin challenges from the Classics Club, but still plowing through the Ancient Greeks, which I had hoped to be finished now, and The Old Testament. Both of these should be truly finished by the end of 2017. I would like to think I will also be finished the Ancient Roman literature, but only time will tell.

In addition to the above, I also hope to complete the Popsugar Reading Challenge for 2017

and also read the Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series and L. Frank Baum’s Oz series for some light relief as joint reads.  That’s a big call with over 120 books in total across four goals, so looking forward to making a start first thing Sunday morning!

Again, best wishes to you and your families, and keep on reading!

100. The Republic by Plato (c.380-360 BC)

100. The Republic by Plato (c.380-360 BC)

Plot : A Socratic dialogue which starts by attempting to define justice and whether it is better to be a just man or unjust, it uses the search for a definition of justice on the scale of a whole community or State to build an outline of a model society and government.

My edition is the Penguin Black Classic translated by Desmond Lee with a new introduction by Melissa Lane, published 2007 (ISBN 9780140455113). It confused at first as it is broken into 11 parts which do not correspond with the 10 ‘books’ traditionally cited, although these divisions are  recorded in small print in the margins

My thoughts : This is a very hard book to read with my liberal 21st century sensibilities, and many of my comments below are very subjective. It may be that The Republic can be read on a different level, and others may get more satisfaction from it than I did. Many ideas on the surface are repugnant or carry the odor of some of the worst social experiments of the 20th century.

After a preliminary discussion of the meaning and value of justice (which are as unsatisfactory as many of the earlier Socratic dialogues), we come to describing the basics of communal society – essentially people as individuals are not self-sufficient and will manage best by undertaking one occupation most suited to them (farmer, builder, merchant, sailor, … ) and relying on others to tend to the other occupations, and by means of exchange, meet their remaining needs. This eventually becomes the definition of “justice” : doing one’s own job and not interfering with another, essentially minding one’s own business, which also acts to protect revolution in the society Plato develops below.

A discussion on the education of ‘the Guardian’ – a sort of watchdog of the community to allow them to be gentle to their own community yet fearless when defending the society – is then used as a way of encouraging censorship over poetry and plays to prevent stories of the Gods showing any strife between themselves or any form of maliciousness or deception to mankind, or even any excessive laughter or lamentation, from being told to children  – a very different depiction of Socrates then we have seen before and not in keeping (at least in my mind) with the humble lover of knowledge. This censorship then quickly extends into the styles of literature appropriate to be taught, then to the types of music listened to and the musical instruments played, then to the arts and crafts in general, and even to dividing true love from sexual pleasure, creating a picture of a very unpleasant totalitarian society – it is easy to see where the accusations that The Republic sowed some of the seeds for Nazism and Communism arose.

By Book IV, these ‘Guardians’, having been tested since childhood to have proven themselves the individuals most concerned with the well being of the state, have evolved into ‘Rulers’ and ‘Auxiliaries’, and a caste system is being formed that segregates the society, justified by an artificially created ‘legend’ (read ‘colossal lie’) based on ‘divine selection’. Shades of Orwell’s 1984 in 4th century BC!  Yet the pretence of equality is defended by a dubious promise of (i) promotion and demotion between the classes for children recognised of being of the right temperment, and (ii) the Guardians, fed and housed by the State, are forbidden from owning private property or gold or silver, as they should have the well being of the community as their sole desire. ‘Minding one’s own business’ and not seeking to take a role not ‘natural’ to an individual acts to maintain this stratification and is labelled ‘justice’ to further cement its ‘rightness’.

The status of women in this new society is almost equal to men, with Socrates recognising that women can and should be allowed to perform any occupation that men do, including Guardians, but perhaps not as well. But marriage and the family unit is banned from Guardians, and the Rulers must encourage the most worthy men to mate only with the most worthy women, and their babies to be taken away and raised by nurses. Any babies born with any infirmity are quietly disposed of. This whole eugenic mess is balanced precariously on more lies.

The remainder of the book dwells on the idea of the “philosopher-king” who reluctantly rules the State, and is perhaps the most famous part of the work, and a description of four inferior models for society : the timocracy (based on the Greek idea of the Spartan state, where a military autocracy rules a serf population), the oligarchy (where the wealthy rule), the democracy and the tyranny. I must confess that I only skimmed these chapters, wearied by Plato’s idea of the utopia in the first half.

The Republic should perhaps deserve praise for Plato’s effort to imagine a perfect society even if its terms are repugnant to modern day readers. Prescribed reading for dystopian writers?

Favourite lines/passages:  I had to look for more light-hearted quotes and luckily there were a few.

“When a man no longer has to work for his living, he should practise excellence”  apparently quoted from Phocylides, a sixth century lyric poet                                                      (page 105)

In discussing the excellence of the medical profession, and in particular the sons of Asclepius,

Socrates : “The life of a man whose constitution was bad and undermined by loose living was, they thought, of no use to them or anyone else; it was not their business to use their skills on such cases or cure them, even if they were richer than Midas”

Glaucon : “Discerning men, these sons of Asclepius”                                                   (page 106)

“Sex is perhaps more effective than mathematics when it comes to persuading or driving the common man to do anything”                                                                                       (page 169)

Personal rating:  So many ideas I personally find repellent. 2.

Kimmy’s rating:  I explained to Kimmy that dogs are natural philosophers according to Socrates as they distinguish between the familiar and the unfamiliar based on knowledge and ignorance, and therefore must have a true love of knowledge.  She was more interested in a true love of dinner and the knowledge there was left over meat in the frying pan.

Next : Starting 2017 with Xenophon’s Cyropaedia

99. Agesilaus by Xenophon (c.365 BC)

99. Agesilaus by Xenophon (c.365 BC)

Plot:   Xenophon delivers a written eulogy on King Agesilaus II of Sparta.

My version is taken from Xenophon’s Minor works, translated by the Reverend J S Watson and published in 1888 by George Bell and Sons, London.

My thoughts:  Fulsome praise is heaped on the memory of Agesilaus, a warrior king whose word was iron-clad, his needs simple and his successes as general and king apparently limitless. Able to trace his  lineage back to Heracles (!), yet modest and ever helpful to his friends, but a clever strategist in the field who nevertheless kept treaties and respected enemies seeking protection in sanctuaries.

Xenophon was apparently banished from Athens for his support of this Spartan ruler, although one of Agesilaus’  virtues was his loyalty to the broader Greek cause even when fighting other Greek cities.

“But when the Corinthian exiles said that the city would be surrendered to them, and showed him the machines with which they all expected to take the walls, he refused to make an attack upon it, saying that it was proper to reduce the cities of Greece, not to slavery, but to their senses.”    (page 33)

Apparently Plutarch wrote of Agesilaus II as well in his Lives, so we will see him again.

Favourite lines/passages:    An affecting piece of war description ; a strongly written piece which depicts the horrors of the battlefield at day’s end:

“But when the fight was over, a spectator might have seen, where they engaged with one another, the ground crimsoned with blood, the dead bodies of friends and enemies lying close to one another, shields broken to pieces, spears snapped asunder, daggers without their sheaths, some on the ground, others sticking in bodies, and others still in the hands of the dead.”   (page 19)

Personal rating: The heaped praise becomes a little excessive although it would be nice to think at least some of it was deserved as ardently as Xenophon imagined.  4.
Next : One of the biggies : Plato’s Republic.

98. On Horsemanship ; On the duties of a Commander of Cavalry ; On Hunting with Dogs ; and On  Ways and Means of Improving the Revenues of Athens, all by Xenophon (c.369 BC)

98. On Horsemanship ; On the duties of a Commander of Cavalry ; On Hunting with Dogs ; and On Ways and Means of Improving the Revenues of Athens, all by Xenophon (c.369 BC)

This post covers four of Xenophon’s shorter treatises which display his experience and opinions on practical matters as a gentleman solider of 4th century BC Greece.

My version is taken from Xenophon’s Minor works, translated by the Reverend J S Watson and published in 1888 by George Bell and Sons, London.

On Horsemanship:   

A guide to the purchase, care, exercise and training of a horse for the purposes of riding and manoeuvring in battle. I must admit a complete lack of personal knowledge regarding horses in general beyond a real concern never to walk behind one if I can possibly avoid doing so, but the guidelines given seem sensible to me. I will leave it to more knowledgeable readers to judge if anything is wrong here.

Of interest was the description of the correct way to mount a horse using a spear with a hook along the shaft (stirrups and saddles not being used by the Greeks), and the description of the armour most suitable for both rider and horse, and weapons best suited to use on horseback, which would be valuable first hand source material to scholars of ancient warfare.

On the duties of a Commander of Cavalry:

Also known as the Hipparchicus (a Hipparch being one of the two commanders in chief of the Athenian cavalry), this treatise details the duties of this officer, including the psychological motivations and personal actions most likely to win the respect and trust of the men, the political considerations to secure senate approval, and the planning and presentation of cavalry charges and spectacles at public exhibitions to excite and win the admiration of the public and the Gods. Also discussed is the correct order of marching and resting, scouting unfamiliar routes, and other arts of war, including the use of spies, and knowledge of the countryside of the enemy’s and your own land. Subterfuge in confusing and misleading the enemy is also encouraged, much in the vein of Sun Tzu’s writings, but with practical examples. I would imagine this treatise just as useful, if not more so, than the Anabasis, in Alexander the Great’s saddlebag.

On Hunting with Dogs:

It seems that Xenophon rated hunting as an essential sport worthy of the greatest heroes and the primary pastime for all young men, making them better prepared for military exercises. The greater part of the treatise is to do with the hunting of hares, chasing them into nets using dogs to track and drive them. After describing the necessary physical and behavioural characteristics of successful hunting dogs, we also read of the hare itself, and how the dogs will have different success at different times of the day and season. I did enjoy the image of the hares in springtime confounding the dogs

“the tracks … in spring they are perplexed, for the animals, which are indeed perpetually coupling, couple most at this season, and hence by straying about with one another hither and thither, they necessarily produce this inconvenience” (page 342)

The stakes are raised in the last third of the book as the hunt for larger animals proceeds to deer, boars, lions and leopards, and Sophists (although admittedly this last chapter is not believed to belong to the treatise or even be penned by Xenophon)

On Ways and Means of Improving the Revenues of Athens

This treatise suggests a variety of methods for greater economic independence for Athens so that cities subject to her power did not have to suffer the brunt of its financial demands and grow more resentful. Xenophon relies heavily on his belief of an inexhaustible supply of silver in their mines, and the use of public slaves which can be hired out to anyone for mining or construction work.

As an ex-soldier it is refreshing to see he advocates peace rather than war as an economic boon, and the encouragement of foreigners to take up residence in Athens (where they will be both welcomed and taxed accordingly)

Personal rating:  Despite my 21st century-sensibility detest for hunting, I found I enjoyed most of these works. Overall a 5.

Kimmy’s rating:  Kimmy was too relaxed after her bath to stay awake while I read.  The treatise on dogs did list 47 appropriate names for young pups to be trained for hunting, of which only two : Polys (meaning bright-eyed) and Thalion (meaning cheerful) seemed to suit her – I’ll try them out on her tomorrow and see if she likes them.

Next : Xenophon’s short biography of Agesilaus, King of Sparta. His friendship with this king, including fighting with his forces against Athens led to his exile from Athens.

97. Apology by Xenophon (c.370 BC)


Xenophon reports on what he has heard from Hermogenes regarding Socrates’ thoughts and words before, during and after his court appearance (Xenophon being away on the service of Cyrus as he describes in his work The Anabasis

My library copy of Xenophon’s minor works is missing the first page of the Apology (no sign of forced removal so perhaps it was a binding error back in 1888, a little late now to secure a refund). Instead, for the first time in this literary odyssey I have relied on an online copy from Project Gutenberg   (found via the Great Books site )

My thoughts:

Although covering ground already discussed by Plato (Phaedo / Crito   /  Apology ) and Xenophon himself (Memorabilia Socratis ), this version of Socrates’ defence dwells more heavily on his preference to die now painlessly before old age robs him of his faculties and senses, and with his belief in himself having the lived the best life.

“Strange, do you call it, that to God it should seem better for me to die at once? Do you not know that up to this moment I will not concede to any man to have lived a better life than I have; since what can exceed the pleasure, which has been mine, of knowing that my whole life has been spent holily and justly? … I know that I cannot escape paying the penalty of old age, in increasing dimness of sight and dullness of hearing. I shall find myself slower to learn new lessons, and apter to forget the lessons I have learnt. And if to these be added the consciousness of failing powers, the sting of self-reproach, what prospect have I of any further joy in living? It may be, you know,” he added, “that God out of his great kindness is intervening in my behalf to suffer me to close my life in the ripeness of age, and by the gentlest of deaths …. but, sound of body, and soul still capable of friendly repose, fades tranquilly away.”

Socrates’ steadfastness in refusing to attempt to sway the court with anything other than the truth as he saw it, and his willingness to submit to death rather than be deemed less than he was is further enhanced by an almost Christ-like acceptance of the inevitability of his position

“And when he perceived those who followed by his side in tears, “What is this?” he asked. “Why do you weep now?  Do you not know that for many a long day, ever since I was born, sentence of death was passed upon me by nature? If so be I perish prematurely while the tide of life’s blessings flows free and fast, certainly I and my well-wishers should feel pained; but if it be that I am bringing my life to a close on the eve of troubles, for my part I think you ought all of you to take heart of grace and rejoice in my good fortune.”

Favourite lines/passages:

And this following makes me smile

“Now there was a certain Apollodorus, who … exclaimed very innocently, “But the hardest thing of all to bear, Socrates, is to see you put to death unjustly.”

Whereupon Socrates, it is said, gently stroked the young man’s head: “Would you have been better pleased, my dear one, to see me put to death for some just reason rather than unjustly?”

Personal rating:    Moves up to a 5 simply for that anecdote involving Apollodorus

Next :
 Staying with Xenophon but giving Socrates some time off over the holidays. Next will be an omnibus of Xenophon’s minor works in a more practical and military vein, with the four small treatises : On Horsemanship, On Hunting, On the duties of a Cavalry Commander (Hipparchikos), and Ways and Means of improving the revenue of Athens

96. Oeconomicus, or, A Treatise on the management of a farm and household, by Xenophon (c.370 BC)

96. Oeconomicus, or, A Treatise on the management of a farm and household, by Xenophon (c.370 BC)

Plot:  Socrates retells a discussion with Ischomachus about domestic management – the duties required of a husband and wife in managing their property, their slaves and servants, and the art of agriculture.

Although a Socratic dialogue in that Socrates appears and discusses questions with an expert, in this case Socrates recognises Ischomachus as an expert in his subject, treating his words with interest and respect, and genuinely listens and take note of his answers without looking for flaws in logic or to ridicule his opinions.

Some points of interest :

  • Goods are something serviceable to the owner, so livestock or any other possession which cannot properly be used by the owner, or causes him loss instead of gain, cannot be considered goods.
  • Friends, and even enemies, who can be used to advantage to realise profit, are goods. This makes a little more sense with the example that a general’s finances and reputation may be increased from a successful campaign against his enemies.
  • Household management is the domain of the wife, who if gained young (under 15 and unburdened by any chance of education) and trained well by her husband, will provide a good partner. (Although in fairness Ischomachus seems to treat his young wife as an equal partner in their marriage within the expectations that she manage everything about their household while he brings goods and profit from outside, and does not undervalue her importance or contributions to their shared prosperity)
  • The importance of placing one’s possessions in good order throughout the house so they may be found instantly when needed, in other words “a place for everything and everything in its place” (I must admit this has always been one of my failings as I always seem to spend a lot of time looking for things I used last week and have put done unthinkingly – usually screwdrivers for some reason!)
  • By asking Ischomachus many questions about agriculture, specifically the growing and harvesting of corn, and Ischomachus turning the questions back on Socrates to answer, and Socrates answering correctly each time from his observations but not actual experience, Socrates wonders if he might indeed know other arts which he has never practised. Xenophon does not introduce the concept of preknowledge which Plato put in his Socratic dialogues

My version this time is taken from Xenophon’s Minor works, translated by the Reverend J S Watson and published in 1888 by George Bell and Sons of Covent Garden in the city of London, England. A bit yellow around the edges, but so shall I be when I am approaching 130 years.

Favourite lines/passages:

A warning of the perils of excessive pleasure (pages 76-77)

“… There are also certain deceitful mistresses that sway them, pretending to be goddesses of pleasure, such as gaming and frivolous social gratifications, which, in process of time, make it evident even to the victims of their deceptions that they are but pains disguised in the garb of pleasures; and … prevent them from applying to useful occupations.

…. these also are slaves, and slaves of extremely troublesome mistresses, some being devoted to the luxuries of the table, some to licentiousness, some to intoxication, some to foolish and expensive objects of ambition, which exercise such cruel sway over those whom they get under their power, that as long as they see them in vigour and able to work, they compel them to bring whatever they gain to expend upon their desires, but when they find them unable to work through old age, they leave them to spend their declining years in misery, and endeavour to make slaves of others”

Personal rating: Nudges into a 4 (just)

Next : Xenophon’s Apology, yet another defence of Socrates.

95. The Symposium (The Dinner Party) by Xenophon (c.370 BC)

95. The Symposium (The Dinner Party) by Xenophon (c.370 BC)

Plot:   Socrates and his friends are invited to dine at Callias’ house where they all fall under the spell of love for the youth Autolycus. After dining and being entertained by musicians and dancers, their host asks each man to tell the party what he considers his greatest accomplishment to be. This is followed by Socrates expounding on the difference between Common and Celestial love, the former seeking selfish physical gratification, while the latter is a love of the personality and  both mutual and everlasting.

My version is Memoirs of Socrates, & The Symposium, translated by Hugh Tredennick and published in 1970 by Penguin  (0140442294)

My thoughts:  Firstly I should mention my discomfort of continually reading about Socrates and his colleagues’ lust for underage boys. It is a recurring subtext in the background of many of the Socratic dialogues which I have glossed over until now, but is now openly discussed in Socrates’ comparison of common and Celestial love, which leaves no doubt over the physical nature of using these boys ; it becomes a social aspect of life in Ancient Greece hard to ignore and condone from a 21st century viewpoint. While Socrates mentions in Xenophon’s Memorabilia that it is acceptable to be attracted to the beauty of young boys, at least he does stress that it is not noble to act on such emotions. 

Another uncomfortable factor is the position of women in this society. We rarely hear of wives, and the only woman to speak for herself in any of the Socratic dialogues so far was Theodote the courtesan in the previous read The Memorabilia (although she gives as good as she gets from Socrates). Women are seen as almost good as men but lacking judgment. Socrates even goes so far as to state jokingly that he married his wife Xanthippe precisely because she was so bad tempered that if he could learn to put up with her, he could get along with anyone. No one speaks of love for his wife or girlfriend, only their infatuation with boys.

Back to the main theme of the work, the host Callias asks each of his guests to tell the rest what he considers to be his greatest gift. Answers such as wealth, good looks, humour and recitation skills are put in the pale by the last two answers : father and son Lycon and Autolycus speak of their familial affection for each other, and Hermogenes closes the argument when he announces that he delights most in the goodness and influence of his friends, and the fact that having these qualities, they care for him.  This sounded quite touching until it is somewhat spoiled in the next chapter when it is revealed that these friends are the Gods and Hermogenes routinely worships and sacrifices to them to win their regard.

This is quite a light read compared to Plato’s dialogues, meant to be entertaining. Indeed at one point when it threatens to become a philosophical discussion, Socrates himself steers them away from serious discussion to keep the party going.

The discussion of common and Celestial love takes the penultimate chapter but does not surprise or challenge the reader and clearly takes the moral line of goodness and nobility, yet for all the fine sentiments expressed by Socrates here, the finale has the partygoers hurrying home to satisfy their individual carnal desires after their passions are inflamed by the last amorous dance performance.

Personal rating : In comparison to The Memorabilia and the novelty of a lighthearted party, I will have to give this a 5.

Kimmy’s rating:  Kimmy slept through this quick read, tired out by an unexpected afternoon walk, so no interest here today. We’ll see how she feels about Xenophon’s discussion of hunting dogs in a upcoming read.

 Also in that year:  By 370 BC, Sparta and Athens have come to some sort of peace, while Persia’s attack on Egypt, now in its last native dynasty, is repulsed. The Greek city state of Thebes forms the Arcadian league to balance the power of Sparta, and establishes the cities of Messene and Megalopolis.

Next : Soldiering on 😉 with Xenophon and his Oeconomicus.