Month: June 2017

121. Demosthenes’ Orations (c.350-330 BC)

121. Demosthenes’ Orations (c.350-330 BC)

A selection of Demosthenes’ public speeches, political in nature. My copy is the Everyman’s Library edition prepared by John Warrington, 1954.

My thoughts:   I hadn’t heard of Demosthenes before his name appeared on my list of Greek classics. Consistently labelled as the greatest orator in history, Demosthenes was a vocal opponent of the Macedonian threat to both Athens and Greek independence, repeatedly warning the Athenians of the risk Phillip of Macedon and his sympathisers posed. After a failed uprising in Athens once Macedonian rule had been established, Demosthenes fled and eventually took his own life to avoid capture.

His most famous speech On the Crown was a defence of his friend Ctesiphon, who had proposed an award – a golden crown – for Demosthenes’ own patriotic acts and statesmanship. Demosthenes’ nemesis Aeschines brought the case against Ctesiphon on fairly spurious charges to attack Demosthenes, who responds by demolishing the prosecution. Despite Athenian forces being defeated by the Macedonians, Demosthenes continued to hold to the view that it was better to strive against external aggression and ally with other Greek states than submit to oppression, and it seems the Athenian public agreed with him and continued to hold him in high regard.

“But never, never, can you have done wrong, O Athenians, in undertaking the battle for the freedom and safety of all! I swear it by you forefathers – those that met the peril at Marathon, those that took the field at Plataea, those in the sea-fight at Salamis … and many other brave men who repose in the public monuments, all of whom alike as being worthy of the same honour the country buried, Aeschines, not only the successful or victorious! Justly! For the duty of brave men has been done by all …”                   On the Crown, page 87

Interestingly Plutarch claimed that Demosthenes suffered from a speech impediment which he worked hard to eradicate. He would practice speeches with his mouth full of pebbles, and shout his words over the crashing of waves on the beach.  Obviously from his reputation, his successes in the courts and perceived threat to the Macedonian overlords, he was quite successful in his training.

Favourite lines/passages:

Demosthenes’ personal attacks on Aeschines are particularly fun

“This creature [Aeschines] is a reptile by nature, that from the beginning never did anything honest or liberal … what advantage has your eloquence been to your country? Now do you speak to us about the past? As if a physician should visit his patients and not order or prescribe anything to cure the disease, but on the death of any one, when the last ceremonies were performing, should follow him to the grave and expound how, if the poor fellow had done this and that he never would have died. Idiot! Do you speak now?”                                             On the Crown, page 95

and

“Ill betide thee, say I, and may the Gods, or at least the Athenians, confound thee for a vile citizen and a vile third-rate actor!”                                  On the Crown, page 102

Personal rating:  4

The sanity in between:  Anne of Green Gables

I recently watched Anne with an ‘e’ on Netflix, which is a beautifully filmed and excellently acted version of this children’s classic, but far darker than I remembered the book. So of course I needed to re-read it. I had read it some years ago when I ran out of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, but I enjoyed it even more this time around.  A simply wonderful book, with quite lovely descriptions and heart-warming characters which will be no news to its many admirers. In the space of ten minutes, I found these three delightful lines:

“…when a man is courting he always has to agree with the girl’s mother in religion and her father in politics”                                                                          Chapter 18

“It’s all very well to say resist temptation, but it’s ever so much easier to resist it if you can’t get the key”                                                                                  Chapter 18

“Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.”                                                                 Chapter 19

It will be a rare pleasure to re-read this book again when I get to the 1900s 😊

Next :  Back to Aristotle and a taste of Politics. 

120. The Old Testament. The Books of Jeremiah and Lamentations.

120. The Old Testament. The Books of Jeremiah and Lamentations.

Plot: God calls Jeremiah to be His prophet, and warns him that one of the nations from the north (Babylon or Egypt) will invade Jerusalem, and act as God’s agent to bring His judgment on the people of Israel and Judah, to punish his chosen people as they still do not act as He has decreed, paying only lip service to His words, and persisting in wrongdoing and the worship of other gods and false idols. Jeremiah repeatedly warns the King, the priests and false prophets, but his words are ignored, the written warnings burnt, and finally Jeremiah is imprisoned.  Jerusalem will be destroyed, and those who are not slain, or killed by famine or pestilence will be enslaved by the invaders. But later generations of those taken away will be restored to the Promised Land and a new Covenant made with them, and Babylon will fall in its turn. The Book of Jeremiah ends with the actual sack of Jerusalem, the death of King Zedekiah, and the enslavement of the peoples of Judah as prophesised.

Lamentations, originally believed to be authored by Jeremiah hence its placement, poetically expresses the grief and suffering from the destruction of Jerusalem. In particular, the first chapter which personifies the city as a woman whose lovers and children have been killed or taken captive, and the sufferings of the prophet (?) in the third chapter, are quite moving.

Reading from the Authorised King James Version (Collins, 1934)

My thoughts: The Book of Jeremiah seems more historically grounded than Isaiah, with dates based on the years of reign of the kings of Judah.

Again, God uses Babylon (as he did Egypt in Moses’ day) to punish the Israelites, then in turn wreaks havoc on these peoples who carried out his wishes, indeed the desolation prophesised for Babylon seems a hundredfold more violent than that which destroys Jerusalem and Judah.

His anger and threats to both the Israelites and the Babylonians recorded in these  chapters must have provided much fodder for the sermons of old-school hellfire preachers.

Favourite lines/passages:
“Gird up thy loins, and arise…” Jeremiah 1:17
“thou art near in their mouth, and far from their reins” Jeremiah 12:5
“…they shall be an execration, and an astonishment, and a curse and a reproach” Jeremiah 44:12
(I’ll try to remember that the next time another driver cuts in front of me. “YOU BLOODY ASTONISHMENT!!!” I’ll cry at them and wave my fist)

Personal rating: Too much repetition of the central theme. A modern publisher would edit it heavily, which would be a blessing or a curse depending on your religious viewpoint. A 3.

The sanity in between: The Last Kingdom, Bernard Cornwell’s first volume in the series, and a long standing resident of my TBR shelves. Perhaps not as great as his Sharpe books, but I am sucker for a good series and this will provide some painless history lessons amongst the battles and intrigues. Also my monthly hit of obscure Wodehouse – Big Money sees two impoverished young English gentlemen resolve their individual problems of true love and financial happiness with the usual Wodehousian complications. I was too busy chortling (that seems the most apt verb) to take down any quotes. Two very different but excellent reads.

Next : Some of the speeches of Demosthenes (384-322 BC)

119.   Poetics by Aristotle (c.350 BC)

119. Poetics by Aristotle (c.350 BC)

Plot:  Aristotle turns to literature and notes down his thoughts on the nature and principles of tragedy and epic.

My edition is part of the Penguin anthology Classical Literary Criticism translated by T. S. Dorsch (ISBN 0140441557) which also includes Longinus and Horace (but more of them later)

My thoughts: The next read on the blog was supposed to be Aristotle’s Metaphysics but I just couldn’t get past the first chapter, partly from the fact I was simultaneously making my way through a fantasy novel thick enough to choke a horse, and secondly my inherent dread of anything with the words ‘metaphysical’ or ‘postmodernist’ in the title. So instead I switched to his Poetics. I could also get my hands on a Penguin edition of this one (I had been severely missing their introductions and notes to help me wade through the mire)

Aristotle sees poetry, plays, dance and musical performances as imitations or representations of reality (what we would now call fiction), each using some combination of music, rhythm and/or language. Characters are represented as either good, bad or as we are ourselves, with comedy dealing with characters worse than ourselves (usually the ridiculous), and tragedy dealing with those better than us (the noble) – an interesting perspective, and with a fair degree of accuracy at first thought.

From chapter 6 onwards, Aristotle discusses tragedy (plays acted about serious subjects, evoking fear or pity) and epic poetry (narrated rather than acted) – he does mention intending to consider comedy later, but this seems to have been lost in the mists of time. He prioritises plot as the most essential element over characterisation (have to agree there!) and argues the need for wholeness of plot and relevance of actions to tell the story. He also opens the door to allow poetic license (otherwise the poet or playwright may as well write history!)

“Poetry is something more philosophical and more worthy of serious attention than history; for while poetry is concerned with universal truths, history treats of particular facts”              page 44

Aristotle also comments on the themes or turning points of tragedies : reversal, discovery, and calamity. The discovery or revelation of identity or knowledge can change the fate or behaviour of characters, leading to reversal of fortune, and disastrous results for the ‘hero’ of the story.

Favourite lines/passages:

“Learning is a very great pleasure, not for philosophers only, but for other people as well, however limited their capacity for it may be”                                                                   page 35

“It Is their characters that make men what they are, but it is by reason of their actions that they are happy or the reverse”                                                                               page 40

“Poetry is the product either of a man of great natural ability or of one not wholly sane”                  page 55

“A convincing impossibility is preferable to an unconvincing possibility”                   page 73

Diversions and digressions: 

  • Homer was believed by Aristotle to have written some sort of lampoon, a precursor to comedy, called Margites, which only now survives as fragments and was probably penned by someone else.
  • Old Comedy (e.g. the plays of Aristophanes) often used the names of real people, whereas New Comedy (Menander) used stock names which may have suggested real people but did not name them as such.

 Personal rating:  Short and easily understood, yet providing good basic ideas for consideration as I read further. I think this is probably a 6.

Kimmy’s rating:   I did read a few parts out loud to Kimmy but received only a baleful stare before she went back to sleep.

The sanity in between:  As alluded to above, I also read #5 of the Wheel of Time series, The Shadow Rising by Robert Jordan (a healthy 1,000 pages) along with P.G. Wodehouse’s first volume of short stories The Man Upstairs, and other stories. No one has the comic turn of phrase as good ol’ P.G., and I chuckled my way through these quite happily.

“Throughout the whole country nothing but the approaching match was discussed. Wherever civilization reigned, and in portions of Liverpool, one question alone was on every lip: Who would win? Octogenarians mumbled it. Infants lisped it. Tired City men, trampled under foot in the rush for their tram, asked it of the ambulance attendants who carried them to the hospital.”

The Goal-keeper and the Plutocrat, P.G. Wodehouse

You can see why Aristotle languished on the kitchen bench between the lolly jar and the potted succulent.

Next :  Back to the O.T. and the Book of Jeremiah.