Month: July 2017

123. The Athenian Constitution (probably not written by) Aristotle, (c.332-322 BC)

123. The Athenian Constitution (probably not written by) Aristotle, (c.332-322 BC)

Plot:  Presumed a work of one of Aristotle’s students rather than the busy man himself, The Athenian Constitution charts the history of the government of Athens from its foundation through tyrannies, oligarchies and democracies, flicking back and forth between these styles of government, including the leaderships of Cylon, Draco, Solon, Pisistratus and Cleisthenes. It ends with a description of the present day (c.322 BC) democracy’s laws and government, at a time prior to the Macedonians stamping their presence on Greece.

My edition is the Penguin Black Classic translated by P. J. Rhodes (ISBN 9780140444315), with half of its 196 pages devoted to explanatory notes, diagrams and maps, glossaries and indexes.

My thoughts:    Occasional points of interest did surface while reading this short work. The first individual of note, Solon, was brought in as mediator between the rich few and the poor masses, and enacted moderate laws which proved unpopular to both sides despite their fairness, such as cancelling debts which led to enslavement if not paid, freeing existing slaves, and allowing everyone access to appeal to the courts if they believed themselves wronged. He ended up banishing himself from Athens for ten years after realising his unpopularity, having failed to redistribute all property as the people expected, nor restoring the notables to the highest position, and refusing to side with either side and thereby ignoring the opportunity to set himself up as tyrant.

“I gave to the people as much esteem as is sufficient for them,

Not detracting from the honour or reaching out to take it, …..

I stood holding my mighty shield against both,

And did not allow either to win an unjust victory”                   Solon, page 51

He also had the rather unusual idea of outlawing anyone who tried to stay neutral in future strife between parties.

The next ruler Pisistratus emerged from the resulting dissatisfaction, and had three attempts as tyrant – the second stint began with a triumphal procession through the city, with a flower seller from Thrace masquerading as Athena beside him in his chariot, lending her ‘holy’ support to his bid. Surprisingly he was a moderate ruler, and enjoyed good relationships with rich and poor alike. We tend to think of the word tyrant as a cruel ruler, but this was not always the case in Ancient Greece.

The last standout section is the reign of terror of The Thirty, an oligarchy arising from the loss of the Peloponnesian War with Sparta, and their joint tyranny over Athens, executing 1,500 of their rich or powerful peers to guarantee their grasp on power, and inviting into Athens a garrison of 700 Spartan soldiers.  Eventually democracy is restored, and the author spends the last third of the book describing current conditions, including the separation of powers between the ruling Council, the administrators (treasury, leases and mines, and the armed forces) and the Jury-courts.

Diversions and digressions: Some more definitions for you

Telos : the goal at which a thing is aiming for, as its reason for existence e.g. the city-state is a work of nature which exists to provide mankind with a good life

Atthidographer : a writer on the history of Athens (I defy you to use that in a sentence with your loved ones over the dinner table tonight!)

Personal rating:  Same as Aristotle’s Politics, 4

The sanity in between:  Finally finished book 5 of Robert Jordan’s fantasy series the Wheel of Time, The Fires of Heaven. I think it’s becoming a love/hate relationship between me and this series, but I will be borrowing the rest from the local library as I have run out of personal copies.

Next : Should have been 124. Old Cantankerous by Menander and then 125. Characters by Theophrastus, but they have already been read and posted. I have “lost my bottle” with Aristotle, so any Greek classics lovers out there still enamoured with Ari and his ideas on Metaphysics or Logic had better go it alone, and I’ll meet you at the docks to board the Argo in Apollonius’ Argonautica to search for the Golden Fleece. For the rest of us, I’m afraid it’s back to the OT and the Books of Ezekiel and Daniel.

 

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122. The Politics by Aristotle (c. 335-323 BC)

122. The Politics by Aristotle (c. 335-323 BC)

Plot:  Aristotle searches for the ideal constitution for a city-state by examining those existing around his part of the world, including those proposed in theory as models, such as those found in Plato’s Republic and Laws.

My copy is the Penguin Black Classic The Politics, translated by T. A. Sinclair, and revised by Trevor Saunders (ISBN 0140444211)

My thoughts:  Like his biological treatises, The Politics is a series of essays or lectures written in a conversational style. It starts with building up from basic units (individuals, families, households, village, to the city-state) the assertion that the city-state is the goal which will make men happy. Unfortunately, Aristotle cannot dispense with the need for slavery so it will make only some men happy. In Book 1, dealing with household management, he claims that some men are “slaves by nature”, their bodies suitable to do menial work by their inherent strength and their virtues underdeveloped or missing, and should be regarded as tools or property of the household manager, as it is “nature’s purpose to make the bodies of free men to differ from those of slaves” (page 69). Not so enlightened after all, despite actually raising the question of equality and justice, and then dismissing them with the above obfuscation. And his position on women and wives is not much better.

Likewise, the attitude towards the Earth and all other living things is similarly of its time but repugnant now (at least to me)

“If then nature makes nothing without some end in view … it must be that nature has made all of them for the sake of man  … even the art of war … must be used both against wild beasts and against such men as are by nature intended to be ruled over but refuse …”  page 79

He now moves on to his quest for the ideal constitution for a city-state, starting with Plato’s idealised Republic. Yet here he undermines his slavery argument by pointing out that free men should take turns ruling for a year and then be ruled by their peers after that. So by his own argument, they are all capable of being ruled (ie slaves).

And now we have the observation that agricultural classes (ie the ruled) have a lack of strong affection for their wives and children, unlike the upper classes!!

Moving on to a less personal (?) subject is the idea of communal ownership of property (including wives and children as Plato proposed in The Republic) which Aristotle is not wholly in favour of, with his observation that “it is more necessary to equalise appetites than possessions” (a neat summation why true communism is so difficult to achieve) and the difficulty of the need to fix the amount of allowable private possessions at a level not too high or too low.

These anomalies aside, Books 3 and 4 cover the art of government and choice of constitutions more appropriate to a study of politics, discussing the three basic models : monarchy, aristocracy and polity, in different flavours, and their respective ‘deviations’ (tyranny, oligarchy and democracy). Although Aristotle is obviously not a fan of democracy as it existed in Ancient Greece, he does admit that the masses (by which he only means free men, not the whole population) may be correct in their collective voice regardless of their individual baseness. He also points out that the best constitution will take into account the middle classes, who are usually the most numerous. This leads on to constitutional change, and the highbrow theories meet reality as his examples of factions (which are a leading cause of change to a different form – oligarchy to democracy or vice versa) involve jilted brides, rejected suitors and disappointed heirs forming groups amongst their supporters to revolt and eventually change the ways of government.

I must confess to starting to skim sections at this point, but this was due to my disinterest rather than any flaw with the text, and readers interested in political philosophy will no doubt be more fascinated than I was. I eventually succumbed to defeat by Book 5 and gave myself an early birthday present by shutting down and going off for a lavish Chinese takeaway. True monarchy in action!

Favourite lines/passages:

“For as man is the best of all animals when he has reached his full development, so he is worst of all when divorced from law and justice. …. Man without virtue is the most savage, the most unrighteous, and the worst in regard to sexual license and gluttony.”                       Book I, part ii, (page 61)

Personal rating: 4/10

The sanity in between: Destination Unknown. Agatha Christie lets Poirot and Miss Marple have a holiday and tries her hand at a spy thriller, creating a Hitchcockian story with a Bond-style villain. Quite enjoyable and very escapist.

Next : Staying with the theme and reading Aristotle’s Athenian Constitution

125. Characters by Theophrastus (371-287 BC)

125. Characters by Theophrastus (371-287 BC)

Plot:  A set of 30 brief character sketches (all bad) which may have been written as examples for characterizations in comic plays such as Old Cantankerous (#15 The Hostile Man, no doubt – see my post for 124. Dyskolos by Menander)

My copy is the older Penguin Classic (1967) translated by Philip Vellacott, also containing the surviving works of Menander.

My thoughts: Perhaps better known as the Father of Botany, Theophrastus not only took over from Aristotle as the head of his school, but also wrote extensively on just as wide a range of subjects. Not so much survives, and as I am not a great fan of the botanical sciences, I have restricted myself to this small serve in the literary vein.

I must confess disappointment that these sketches were not more amusing. Each trait (e.g. the flatterer, the boor, the talker, the skinflint, the offensive, the tiresome, etc.) is described and then examples of typical behaviour are listed. Plenty of scope for humour here but none of them raised even a smile for me. Better off reading Dickens and seeing them fleshed out.

This style was repeated  later by authors such as Ben Jonson and George Eliot  -let’s hope they do better.

Favourite lines/passages:  None.

Personal rating: Meh. 3/10

Kimmy’s rating:  Slept through.

Next : Still have Politics (#122) andThe Athenian Constitution (#123), both by Aristotle to get back to, then another slog through the Old Testament and the Books of Ezekiel and Daniel (#126), After that it will be a voyage to China to meet up with Mencius, and then a relaxing sea cruise in search of the Golden Fleece. The end of the Greeks is in sight.

 

124. Dyskolos (aka Old Cantankerous) by Menander, c.317 BC

124. Dyskolos (aka Old Cantankerous) by Menander, c.317 BC

Plot:  A rich Athenian youth falls in love at first sight with the daughter of the most bad-tempered man ever born.

My copy is the older Penguin Classic (1967) translated by Philip Vellacott, also containing The Characters by Theophrastus (to be read soon)

My thoughts:  I needed to get back to my classics reading today, but Aristotle looked too weighty for my poor brain. What was needed was a light comedy, so I stretched down my list to 317 BC   and surfaced with Menander’s Dyskolos.

It is believed Menander wrote over 100 plays in his time, but this is the only one that survives intact, and it was only discovered in 1955. There are fragments of his other plays in the same volume, but I didn’t feel inclined to start any knowing they were incomplete, and other readers have felt disappointed with them anyway.

Menander is the sole example of what has been called New Comedy, as distinct from Aristophanes and his contemporaries’ Old Comedy. Menander’s plays are peopled with everyday characters : slaves, farmers, servants; instead of famous politicians, philosophers and poets, and so deals with everyday scenarios instead of political commentary. The role of the Chorus has also been reduced to musical interludes between Scenes, and do not add to the story directly.

The play has been given many names : Dyskolos, Old Cantankerous, The Bad-Tempered Man, The Misanthrope, The Grouch, etc. and there is no doubt this character steals the show in every scene. Cnemon is a grouchy old farmer who refuses to talk to anyone except his daughter Myrrhine and the old slave woman Simice. Everyone else is chased off his land with blows and curses. Unfortunately for Cnemon, his land adjoins a shrine to Pan and this draws revelers to his front door, including Sostratos who falls for Myrrhine.

Favourite lines/passages:  Every scene with Cnemon is fun, especially at the end when he is carried off to join the festivities. Unfortunately no particular dialogue stands out but it was a fun little play after the scholarly studies of Plato and Aristotle.

Diversions and digressions:  Menander was a student of Theophrastus (see above) who was a student of Aristotle, who was a student of Plato, who was a student of Socrates …. its a small world is Ancient Athens.

Personal rating: Happy to give this a 6. Recommended. 

Also around that year:  Alexander the Great had taken control of the known world, Athens being engulfed in his empire early on under his father Philip II’s rule in 338 BC. Alexander dies of a fever in Babylon in 323 BC, and his empire is squabbled over by his generals.

The sanity in between:  Quite a bit of other reading, including my monthly dose of P. G. Wodehouse, Laughing Gas (a body-swap story involving an English Lord and a Hollywood child star), The Road to Oz  (5th in Baum’s Oz series) and Killing Floor, a thriller by Lee Child.

Next : Back to Aristotle and his Politics.