Tag: Ancient philosophy

159. The Nature of the Gods (De Natura Deorum), by Cicero, c.44 BC

159. The Nature of the Gods (De Natura Deorum), by Cicero, c.44 BC

Plot:   Cicero describes the popular schools of thought regarding the existence and nature of the Gods, in the guise of a conversation between his friends Velleius the Epicurean, Balbus the Stoic, and Cotta the Skeptic priest.

I ‘read’ the Penguin edition translated by H C P McGregor (ISBN 0140442650)

My thoughts: Having read some of Cicero’s speeches and letters, the remaining area of his available writings to sample is his presentation of various philosophical treatises, summarised and recast with his own stresses on their importance, from Greek into Latin – and sometimes creating new words added to the Latin language to meet the need to describe new ideas. Cicero wrote extensively from his country home, to try and find solace after being forced again into exile after his famous attacks on Marc Antony, and suffering terrible grief with the death of his daughter Tullia.

Ancient philosophy leaves me either cold or confused, so it was a struggle to get anywhere with this, reading the first half in some detail, but only skimming through the second half. Epicurean thought as discovered in my previous read on Lucretius is essentially that the Gods do not have the slightest interest in mankind, and so there is no need to live in fear of their retribution or an eternity in Hell. On the other hand, Stoicism as described here is centred around the opposite view – that God/Gods have every part of our lives planned and our lives are therefore predestined to go where They direct. Interestingly the pantheon of Greek/Roman gods depicted in plays and epic poems are not given much credence, with the idea of a sentient Universe, stars and planets preferred by the Stoics, and unsubstantial wraithlike Gods without material bodies by the Epicureans.

The need for some Supreme Being to have organised and constructed everything, and to provide a base for morality and hence justice is strongly argued, against the random creation of atoms attracting each other. Some may think that this argument between forms of science and religion is a relatively recent divide but the Romans and Greeks were debating it 1,900 years before Charles Darwin wrote Origin of the Species.

The priest Cotta  argues against both Epicureanism and Stoicism, not to say there are no Gods, but that the logic and assumptions relied upon by these philosophies are faulty.

Personal rating:  For lovers of philosophy and religion. I can only give it a 3.

The reads in between:  An excellent later book by P. G. Wodehouse, Frozen Assets has the hero trying to prevent his best friend from getting nicked by the local constabulary and thereby nullifying his chances of inheriting millions, while simultaneously convincing the girl of his dreams to break off her engagement and marry him instead. Lots of trouser swapping ensues.

Next :  Although there are other works by Cicero still extant, I think I have had enough of him for now, and I am eager to move on and read of the events of the fall of the Republic through other eyes. So on to Caesar’s own personal recount of The Civil War.

 

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158. On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius, c. 50 BC

158. On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius, c. 50 BC

Plot:   Primitive atomic theory explained in poetry, or as Lucretius himself puts it: “the dulcet strains of poesy, coated with the sweet homey of the Muses .. to engage your mind while you gain insight into the nature of the universe and the pattern of its architecture” (page 54-55)

My edition is the Penguin Black Classic translated by Ronald Latham (ISBN 0140440186)

My thoughts: 

Lucretius’ work largely outlines the tenets of Epicurus – basically that we should seek a happy pleasant life without fearing death, which is the end of both body and soul, everything returning to atoms. His atomic theory is not quite in line with modern thinking; he has them whizzing around in perpetual motion in an unlimited universe. Some of his physics is also slightly awry: we see things because everything constantly emits a series of images in the nature of ‘films’ which enter our eyes and can bounce back from mirrors, pass through glass, etc.

As a physicist, Lucretius is a much better philosopher. Following Epicurean thought, he acknowledges the Gods but refuses to believe they influence our lives, as they were too busy living the good life. Mankind assigns them actions and powers in superstitious awe of what is really natural phenomena and ignorance of the causes of these.

Nor does he believe in Hell, or any sort of continuance of life after death – these too are superstitions which blight Man’s short lifespan with fear and dread. All is reduced to atoms to be recombined elsewhere. “To none is life given in freehold, to all on lease” (page 125).

He would also have been a fervent UFO watcher too, as “it is in the highest degree unlikely that this earth and sky is the only one to have been created and that all those particles of matter outside are accomplishing nothing … our world has been made by nature through the spontaneous and casual collision and the multifarious, accidental, random and purposeless congregation and coalescence of atoms whose suddenly formed combinations could serve on each occasion as the starting-point of substantial fabrics – earth and sea and sky and the races of living creatures. On every ground therefore you must admit that there exist elsewhere other congeries of matter similar to this one which the ether clasps in ardent embrace … other earths and various tribes of men and breeds of beasts.”   (pages 91-92)

Lucretius doesn’t limit himself to philosophy and physics. After asserting that heaven and earth, sun, stars and moon are not products of divine inspiration but a result of natural forces, he also writes of the creation of species (all originally down to spontaneous generation from Mother Earth) and the development of human civilization from caveman to his current time, which he admits is still in development.

Perhaps his only downfall is his dismissal of love, warning his readers to beware of its traps.

Favourite lines/passages:

LOL moment as Lucretius demonstrates that mind and spirit are both composed of matter, for “when the nerve-racking impact of a spear gashes bones and sinews, even if it does not penetrate the seat of life, there ensues faintness and a tempting inclination earthwards …”  (page 101)

But finally we should all just relax and be content, as devotees of Epicurus like Lucretius

“The requirements of our bodily nature are few indeed, no more than is necessary to banish pain. To heap pleasure upon pleasure may heighten men’s enjoyment at times. But what matter if there are no golden images of youths about the house, holding flaming torches in their right hands to illumine banquets prolonged into the night? What matter if the hall does not sparkle with silver and gleam with gold, and no carved and gilded rafters ring to the music of the lute? Nature does not miss these luxuries when men recline in company on the soft grass by a running stream under the branches of a tall tree and refresh their bodies pleasurably at small expense. Better still if the weather smiles upon them and the season of the year stipples the green herbage with flowers.”  (page 60-61)

Personal rating:  As you can see from the size and number of quotes appended above, Lucretius quite tickled my fancy. Epicurean philosophy must suit me. 6.

The reads in between: 

Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz. Diner cook Odd can see the dead, but can he save his girl and his hometown? Enjoyable pageturner and first volume in a series.

Death at the President’s Lodging by Michael Innes. One of Martin Edward’s 100 classic crime stories – not so entertaining and a bit of a cheat as a whodunnit. First half is a hard slog as Innes’ Inspector Appleby is a very close-lipped, almost disinterested detective, sharing very little with the reader. The suspects are barely discernible from each other and the reveal is complicated and unlikely.

Asterix and the Big Fight by Goscinny and Uderzo. One of the best of Asterix’s adventures, largely due to the druid Getafix’s amnesia, crazy appearance, and childlike happiness as he brews explosive potions, doubled by the arrival of a second druid suffering the same affliction (ie getting flattened under a menhir thrown by Obelix!)

Next : More from Cicero.

151. The Dhammapada (Third Century BC)

151. The Dhammapada (Third Century BC)

The Dhammapada may be defined as the Buddhist Path to Perfection, or Nirvana, as depicted by a collection of 423 short homilies.  Although most are straightforward, I am sure at least some carry more meaning the longer they are thought over, or are not as easy to live by as they first sound. Perhaps the best example of what I am trying to say is the story related by the editor in the Introduction.

“It is said that once a man of arms undertook a long journey to see a holy follower of Buddha, and asked if the message of Buddha could be taught to him.

The answer was ‘Do not what is evil. Do what is good. Keep your mind pure. This is the teaching of Buddha.’

‘Is this all?’ asked the man of arms. ‘Every child of five knows this!’

‘It may be so, but few men of eighty can practice it’,  he was told.               page 21-22

There is naturally a similarity with the teachings of Christ in how Buddha asks us to deal with others to encourage a safe and harmonious society. However more strongly presented are the themes of self-improvement, including watchfulness, self-control, moderation, truth and harmony.

Key tenets include:

  • Hate can only be overcome by love.
  • Since our thoughts build our future, thoughts free of the feelings of hurt and defeat will be free of hate.
  • Freedom from desires provides joy. Transient pleasures, passions and cravings lead to sorrows, for to want but not obtain these pleasures causes sorrow.
  • Think not of the faults of others, but of your own failings
  • Life is dear to all creatures therefore man should not kill or cause to kill.

Rather than providing further inadequate summary here after my brief first exposure to this religion, I have copied out a greater number of quotes below than is my usual practice  –  not necessarily representative of the whole but those which resonated with me as I read.  The Penguin copy I read (ISBN 0140443847) was only about ninety pages, and a third of that was the introduction by Juan Mascaro, in which he makes many links to Christianity and other spiritual literatures.

Favourite lines/passages:

The mind is fickle and flighty, it flies after fancies wherever it likes; it is difficult indeed to restrain. But it is a great good to control the mind; a mind self-controlled is a source of great joy.

As the bee takes the essence of a flower and flies away without destroying its beauty and perfume, so let the sage wander in this life.

Better than a thousand useless words is one single word that gives peace.

Neither in the sky, nor deep in the ocean, nor in a mountain-cave, nor anywhere, can a man be free from the evil he has done.

How can there be laughter, how can there be pleasure, when the whole world is burning? When you are in deep darkness, will you not ask for a lamp?

It is easy to do what is wrong, to do what is bad for oneself; but very difficult to do what is right, to do what is good for oneself.

Health is the greatest possession. Contentment is the greatest treasure. Confidence is the greatest friend. Nirvana is the greatest joy.

Speak the truth, yield not to anger, give what you can to him that asks : these three steps lead you to the gods.  

In days gone by this mind of mine used to stray wherever selfish desire or lust or pleasure would lead it.  Today this mind does not stray and is under the harmony of control,  even as a wild elephant is controlled by its trainer.

Personal rating:  As a pleasurable experience to read : 6/10.

 Next : From Buddhism to Hinduism. The Manusmriti (Laws of Manu)

 

127. The Mencius by Mencius (c.320 BC)

127. The Mencius by Mencius (c.320 BC)

Plot:  The philosophical writings of the Confucian follower Mencius, largely dealing with the need for rulers to act with benevolence.

My copy was the Penguin classic translated by D. C. Lau (ISBN 0140442286)

My thoughts:  Much like Confucius’ Analects, these writings are largely analogies based on the actions of rulers and men which time outside China has now forgotten. There is some interest in the time of these writings, as the Empire was going through the Warring States period, and Mencius seems to have been a wandering philosopher and wise man visiting the various courts.

I tried very hard to stay interested, but I’m afraid Chinese philosophy is not for me, any more than Greek. So what I can share with you?

Favourite lines/passages:

“From biased words, I can see wherein the speaker is blind; from immoderate words, wherein he is ensnared; from heretical words, wherein he has strayed from the right path; from evasive words, wherein he is at his wits’ end.”    Book II, part A.

“Mencius said to King Hsuan of Ch’i, ‘Suppose a subject of Your Majesty’s, having entrusted his wife and children to the care of a friend, were to go on a trip to Ch’u, only to find on his return, that his friend has allowed his wife and children to suffer cold and hunger, then what should he do about it?”

“Break with his friend”

“if the Marshall of the Guards was unable to keep his guards in order, then what should be done about it?”

“Remove him from office”

“If the whole Realm within the four borders was ill-governed, then what should be done about it?”

The King turned to his attendants and changed the subject.              Book I, Part B.

Personal rating: 3
The sanity in between:  Doctor Sleep, Stephen King’s sequel to his much better work, The Shining.  Entertaining but not brilliant.

Next : One last try with Chinese philosophy, the Inner Chapters of Chuang Tzu (sometimes written as Zhuangzi)  Nope, a few pages in and I know when I’m beaten. Its back to the Greeks and the Idylls of Theocritus.

 

117. The Art of Rhetoric by Aristotle (c.350 BC)

117. The Art of Rhetoric by Aristotle (c.350 BC)

Plot:  The science of persuasion, or more precisely, the identification of persuasive aspects (‘ammunition’), to prepare the orator for the ever-increasingly important role of speech making in Athenian public life.

My copy is the Penguin Black Classic The Art of Rhetoric, translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred (ISBN 0140445102)

My thoughts:  Just as with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, I found parts of Rhetoric completely over my head, while other parts (with the assistance of the editor’s introduction and notes), reasonably straightforward.

Aristotle presents a structured approach which at least gives the inexperienced modern reader a handle on his explanations. There are three ways to speak persuasively, (i) by logical argument, (ii) by appealing to the character of the audience (their age or fortunes), and (iii) by appealing to the emotional state of the listener. These three rely on an understanding of logic and psychology.

The first part outlines these approaches, then looks in more detail at the reasons and key points   for persuading by logical argument : (a) to establish justice (or injustice) of a subject, a forensic or judicial approach to either prosecute or defend, and deals with past events, (b) to present the admirability, virtue or nobility of the subject (or the opposite : to denigrate a subject), usually in the present, or (c) to promote the advisability or inadvisability of a subject, which is the deliberative or political approach, to exhort or deter future action. For each of these, various examples are listed where a speaker might adopt one or more to use in their rhetoric to persuade more strongly e.g. acts which might be considered more noble (because they are more memorable or more beneficial to others) or crimes more serious (more brutal, or repeated, or fill the jury with fear)

The advice to litigants is basically to take whatever tack is best suited to their argument, from the nature of the law itself ….

“if the written law is contrary to our position, we must use the general law, and the principles of greater equity and justice …. but if the written law should be favourable to our position, then we must say .. that seeking to be wiser than the laws is what is forbidden by the most reputable legal systems”                                                                                                 pages 130-131

to the strict legality of one’s own contract versus the higher call of justice against someone else’s contract, or the unreliabilty of evidence acquired by torture when it doesn’t meet your case’s needs, etc.   One can almost hear the ghost of Aristophanes mocking.

The next section describes the characteristics of human emotions which influence decisions, and thereby ways of turning an audience to or from feelings of anger or calm, fear or confidence, friendship or enmity, shame or pride, pity or indignation or jealousy, without regard to the specific subject matter. Naturally gifted orators probably do this by instinct, identifying what will sway a crowd.

The nature or composition of the audience is also discussed, albeit briefly, with youthful audiences hot-tempered and slaves to their desires, confident, optimistic, intense and naive; while old men are the opposite in all these.

The third part of Rhetoric deals with themes common to all speeches, including the style of speech (the way of speaking) and the composition or structure of a speech. Again my concentration lapsed and I took in little of the discussions.

Favourite lines/passages:

“… unbuttonedness, leisure, lack of worry, games, relaxation and sleep are among the pleasant things … ”                                                                                                                           page 115

“Winning is also pleasant .. for it produces the imagination of superiority…”    page 117

“… in misfortune men never want to be seen by their rivals – for our rivals are our admirers”   page 160

“men who will envy … are small-minded, for all things seem great to them”       page 169

Diversions/digressions: 

Some more new words :

Banausic : mundane, manual (particularly with regard to employment)

Knout : a heavy scourge-like multiple whip, usually made of a bunch of rawhide thongs attached to a long handle, sometimes with metal wire or hooks (Wikipedia definition)

Pancratiast: athlete who uses boxing, wrestling, choking and kicking moves to defeat their opponent, in a sporting event called a Pankration, sometimes held at the ancient Olympic Games

Veridical: truthful (you know, like everything in my blog! 😉  )

Personal rating: People who regularly make speeches or are required to speak persuasively would benefit from reading this work, or a careful repackaging with more familiar and modern examples; and taking from it what they find useful or interesting. I enjoyed some parts but found myself flagging in others, so for me it is a 4.

The sanity in between:  Ozma of Oz (book 3 of the original The Wizard of Oz series of books by L. Frank Baum) as part of the Read-along hosted by Lone Star on a Lark (http://lonestaronalark.com/2017/04/oz-read-along-3/ )  – surprisingly enjoyable!

Next : My interest and endurance quota for Aristotle is dwindling, yet I am loathe to give up on another author yet, especially one of such influence. So my fallback is to resume my stop-start progress with the Protestant Old Testament , starting with the Book of Isaiah.

116. Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle (c.350 BC)

116. Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle (c.350 BC)

Plot:  A discussion of the virtues and vices in the character of man.

My copy is still from the 2 volumes of the works of Aristotle which form part of the series Great Books of the Western World, published by Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1952. I would prefer a more approachable and perhaps more true translation, but needs must.

My thoughts:

First things first, the term Nicomachean is not mentioned by Aristotle in the work itself, but seems to have been a dedication to either his father or son (both were named Nicomachus).

The lecture starts with the question “What is happiness?”    Aristotle admits that most men equate happiness with pleasure, some others with honour, wealth or a life of contemplation. But happiness is bigger and more final than any of these ; it is the ultimate good for which the others are simply a means to achieve. (Admittedly happiness also requires a degree of luck or prosperity along the way!)

Not content with this definition, Aristotle pushes further to suggest that happiness must be entwined with the function of man, and results in the view that happiness requires the “virtuous activity of the soul”.  I started to disagree here, as he points out that animals and small children cannot feel happiness as they are incapable of this virtuosity. Perhaps he would distinguish joy from happiness, but you cannot tell me a small boy playing with his dog are not both capable of feeling and demonstrating obvious happiness.

He classifies virtues as either intellectual (such as philosophical wisdom and practical wisdom) or moral (liberality, temperance, courage, etc.) Moral virtues are a result of the nature of the individual reinforced by habit, with the ideal being an intermediate point between extreme vices  of excess and defect

To someone at the extreme end of one of these states, an intermediate person may seem to be at the opposite extreme, (i.e. a miser would see a liberal person as much a spendthrift as a carefree squanderer). Sometimes one extreme is more acceptable than the other, or closer to the intermediate (e.g. a rash and confident person will be more admired than a coward, and deemed not so far removed from the courageous ideal)

Thankfully Aristotle recognises that the intermediate state (virtue) is an ideal for which we must strive but cannot always reach.

“Any one can get angry – that is easy – or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for every one, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble”    page 354.

But virtues (and vices) are voluntary choices : it is in the individual’s power to act (or not act) in their belief of what is good to achieve the end they desire. (Acts may also be involuntary for which no blame ensues e.g. things done under compulsion or through ignorance – although drunkeness, carelessness or ignorance of the law is not considered involuntary). This is a more realistic approach to the foundation of criminal law than Plato’s (Socrates’?) statement that no person knowingly does wrong, and approaches the basis of our modern criminal law – I wonder if legal philosophy in modern law courses includes the Nicomachean Ethics?

Aristotle then goes on to discuss moral virtues and vices individually. Much of this was straightforward and reminded me of an old snakes and ladders game I had as a child where shameful characteristics such as pride, profligacy and envy sent you down a snake, while the corresponding virtues led you up ladders.

I skimmed over the chapters on justice and intellectual virtues, and settled down to read about friendship. Aristotle classifies friendships in three types (excluding friendships of association such as fellow-travellers) : (i) friendships of utility, where one person gains an advantage from the relationship, and these only last as long as the usefulness continues, (ii) friendships of pleasure, where a person is amused by the company of another and (iii) ‘true’ friendship which is based on mutual love and goodwill between the friends, and is long lasting, takes time to develop and is proofed against slander of each party from outside. This discussion wanders around to comment on political constitutions and family relationships as well, but was easy to follow.

Favourite lines/passages:

“Those who are called by such names as ‘miserly’, ‘close’, ‘stingy’, all fall short in giving  … to this class belong the cheeseparer and every one of the sort”                              page 368

“For his friend is another self”                                                                                                 page 419

Diversions/digressions:  After Aristotle left Athens, his School was taken over by one of his students Theophrastus, who also wrote on many topics. Although better known for his contributions to botany, one of his surviving works Characters is a series of brief character sketches of different moral types, and may be a sort of descendant of this work. I’ll get to it once Aristotle is done.

Personal rating: Difficult to stick at – some parts were obvious and easy to follow, while others become convoluted and required more concentration than I admittedly gave them. Settle for a 4.

The sanity in between:  Desperation by Stephen King. Had been taking up space on my shelves. Similar ground covered as his classic The Stand  (which was much better and deserves a re-read itself) but this still kept me intrigued to the end.

Next : More Aristotle. Perhaps The Art of Rhetoric.

 

110. De Anima (On the Soul) by Aristotle (c.350 BC)

110. De Anima (On the Soul) by Aristotle (c.350 BC)

My copy is the Penguin classic edition translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred (ISBN 0140444718)

My thoughts:
Aristotle, student of Plato, was Renaissance Man 1800 years before the Renaissance, with writings on biology, physics, philosophy, ethics, literature and politics. While scholars cannot agree in what order his surviving works were written, it seems like De Anima was the beginning of a series of lectures on the biological sciences so I thought this would be an easy introduction for me. Wrong.

The first thing to note is that the word ‘soul’ in the English title is not analogous to the religious meaning we currently associate with it, but translated from the Greek psyche as some sort of life force, which endows the body with the abilities of movement and perception. While reading On the Soul, it is very hard to keep reminding oneself that it is life force we are really discussing.

Aristotle starts by reviewing the works on the subject by earlier authors, most of whom concentrate on the material composition of the soul on the atomic level. As I discovered earlier in Plato’s Timaeus, the Ancient Greek view of the universe included a belief in solids being composed of atom-sized particles, with different sorts and shapes for fire, water, earth and air. Dust motes in the air were taken to be visible atoms. This was also taken further to suggest that some objects were made from a combination of different sorts of atoms, in fixed proportions. Genius stuff!!

Other suggestions on the nature of the soul include that it is the ratio of the mixtures of various elements of the body, and different parts of the body (muscle, bone, etc.) have different ratios and therefore different souls (life forces) throughout the body; or that the soul is the intellect which is set on a circular course like the heavenly bodies (which Aristotle dismisses as it would mean that we would think the same thoughts repeatedly – circular thinking, indeed!) An even more outlandish theory was that the soul is a number, and I won’t even try to explain that!

Suffice to say that Aristotle is not having any of this. His theory introduces consideration of the type of body the soul is attached to; so he proposes three levels of soul, one for plants which provides only a nutritive drive (to seek sustenance and reproduce), a higher level for animals which also allows both perception (desire, pleasure, pain) and movement, and the highest level for man allows belief and imagination.

The last two thirds of the work dwell on the five senses  – how they work, and their importance. Much of this seemed almost within my grasp but slid away – all the more frustrating than Plato as this was based around the biological sciences which I should have a grasp on. Does not bode well for the coming weeks.

Favourite lines/passages:

“[Reproduction] is the most natural of the functions of such living creatures … namely to make another thing like themselves, an animal an animal, a plant a plant, so that in the way that they can they may partake in the eternal and the divine”         II, 4 (page 165)

Personal rating:  3.

Kimmy’s rating:  A wet rainy day for the last day of summer, so Kimmy wisely stayed wrapped in her blanket and conserved her life force.

 Next :  Aristotle will dominate the posts for the next couple of months, but the end of the Greek era is in distant sight. Next will be his Parva Naturalia.