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.

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.

What happened to May?

Almost the end of the month and the classics reading has ground to a halt, run aground on the hidden reef of Aristotle’s Metaphysics which I cannot seem to pick up for any length of time before something more interesting like washing the dishes intrudes. I’m not ready to throw the tea towel in quite yet, but ….

I will also have to start reading new  popular releases as … <drum roll, please>  ………… I now have a second part-time job, but this one is in a BOOKSHOP!!!    The species may be on the endangered list but not quite extinct in the wild yet. Starting Monday.  I wonder how much staff discount I can get? 🙂