Friday, September 8, 2023

Lucian's satires - Frankly he's a blamed nuisance

The great 2nd century satirist Lucian was a great shock to me at one point, twenty-five years ago when I got serious about classical literature.  I had never heard of him, partly because of the odd historical artifact where what he writes is called “Menippean satire” even though nothing by the Cynic satirist Menippus has survived.  Menippus himself largely survives as a character in Lucian’s stories.  Confusing.

Thomas More’s Utopia, Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, Jonathan Swift’s Tale of a Tub and my childhood favorite Gulliver’s Travels are all direct, conscious descendants of Lucian.  Most of fantasy and science fiction literature is at least distantly Lucianic.  When I read Arisosto’s Orlando Furioso and watched a character fly to the moon, I knew where I was in literary history.

Not that I recommend reading Lucian to learn about literary history.  The outrageous, inventive “A True Story”; the sharp “Dialogues of the Dead”; the various angry attacks on philosophers Lucian thinks are con artists, as in “The Death of Peregrinus” – these all stand on their own.  He’s still pretty funny.

Lucian was not himself a Cynic, but I thought he would be instructive because his heroes are so often Cynics.  Menippus, across a number of pieces, travels to heaven and hell, reacting as a Cynic might.  Menippus often features in the “Dialogues of the Dead” as the voice of uncommon sense, although sometimes Diogenes fills the role, as here where the dead Diogenes is sending messages back to the living, to Menippus, for example:

DIOGENES: Tell him that Diogenes says, “Menippus, if you’ve had enough of poking fun at things up there, come on down here; there’s much more to laugh at…  Especially when you see how the millionaires and the pashas and the dictators have been cut down to size and look just like everyone else – you can only tell them apart by their whimpering and the way they’re so spineless and miserable at the memory of all they left behind.” (194)

As for the rest of the philosophers:

DIOGENES: You can tell them I said they could go to the devil. (195)

The Cynics enjoy Hades because they had nothing to lose in the first place but can still wander around mocking everyone’s pretenses.

CROESUS: We keep remembering what we left behind, Midas here his gold and Sardanapalus his life of luxury and I my treasure, and we moan and groan.  Whenever we do, he [Menippus] laughs at us and sneers and calls us slaves and scum.  And sometimes he interrupts our moaning with songs.  Frankly he’s a blamed nuisance.  (212)

Wealth and pleasure are not just of no value in Lucian’s dialogues, but are actually (future) punishments. 

I haven’t touched on “Philosophies for Sale” or the fierce assaults on phony philosophers.  I will just say that it has been useful to have read some of these people.  As with any satirist, Lucian is funnier when I know what the heck he is talking about.

The Selected Satires of Lucian translated by Lionel Casson was my go-to Lucian (and the source of the page numbers), not that there is anything wrong with Paul Turner’s Satirical Sketches.  I also poked around in the old Loeb volumes, in particular reading the rest of the journeys of Menippus and finishing up the “Dialogues of the Dead,” all well worth reading.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

"Socrates gone mad" - my hero Diogenes the Cynic

He lived in a jar, owned a staff and a cloak and nothing else, and was a sarcastic pain in the ass.  He took the example of Socrates to its limit.  Plato is the one who called him “Socrates gone mad,” but in a sense he is just the logical result of thinking through how Socrates lived.  It is the integrity of Diogenes the Dog, the Cynic, that is hard to distinguish from madness.

I am Athens’ one free man. (#13)

He often seems like a  proto-hippie.  The quotations are all from Guy Davenport’s Seven Greeks, which I find the most fun place to read about, or read, Diogenes, his surviving works in thirteen pages with no sources or doubts.  Some are likely jokes or misattributions from later Cynics.  There were never many Cynics, but it was clear enough who they were, ethical descendants of the legendary Diogenes.

In the rich man’s house there is no place to spit but in his face. (#56)

The curious thing is that Athens, perhaps feeling guilty about Socrates, seemed to like Diogenes.  In general, Roman Cynics would insult the emperor once too often (e.g., once) and be exiled to Greece, where they were adopted by one or another city.  I suppose they were thought of as holy fools, allowed to say and do things that other people could not.

I pissed on the man who called me a dog.  Why was he so surprised? (#73)

I love the performance art of Diogenes.  He would beg money from statues, since the result was the same as if he begged from people.  He wandered the marketplace in the daytime with a lamp, “looking for an honest man,” or more literally “a human being,” a hopeless task. He refuted the Platonic Academy’s definition of man as a “featherless biped” with his famous plucked chicken, a kind of deconstructionist joke.  I mean, he wasn’t the one who introduced the idea of feathers, which is what any comedian would latch onto.  People seemed to find Diogenes funny.

I am a citizen of the world. (#7)

Or perhaps a “cosmopolitan” is a citizen of the cosmos.  In context the concept is negative, a rejection of the narrow citizenship of Athens, but over time it has become something positive, if empty.  I worked for a while at a liberal arts college that actively encouraged students to think of themselves as citizens of the world.  It amused me that this was an idea that went back to crazy Diogenes.

I greatly enjoyed William Desmond’s Cynics (2008), a guide to the movement for college students, bizarrely well written for such a book.  The nine hundred years of Cynicism affords lots of good stories.  Eventually Christian asceticism, the hermits, stylites, and monks, replaced Cynicism for good.  Asceticism is a natural, if rare, human impulse, and a healthy society finds a role for its ascetics.  Mockery, prayer, something.

Diogenes and his followers did benefit from Mediterranean privilege.  I am thinking of the scene in Walden where semi-Cynic Henry David Thoreau spends a day desperately trying to recover the axe he dropped in the pond.  If all he had in Massachusetts were a jar and a cloak, he would freeze to death.  The New England Cynic has to own a lot more stuff.

Tomorrow I’ll turn to the great satirist Lucian.




Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Books I Read in August 2023

As I suspected my energy for writing in August was diverted to more important things.  Plenty of energy to read, though.

With a respite in September, I should soon be able to write a bit on the Greek philosophers I have been reading.  The Cynics, Epicureans, and Stoics work well as a cluster.  Then later a bit on Plutarch and the little philosophy project is a wrap.



Meditations (c. 180), Marcus Aurelius    

Philosophy in the Hellenistic & Roman Worlds (2015), Peter Adamson



A Universal History of Infamy (1935) &

The Aleph (1949), Jorge Luis Borges

Invitation to a Beheading (1936), Vladimir Nabokov

The Man Who Loved Children (1940), Christina Stead – all right I see why some readers can’t stomach this book, with its intensely annoying title character (and the mother is not much better).  I loved it, but I don’t blame anyone who gets a little ways in and says “No.”

The Wide Net and Other Stories (1943), Eudora Welty

The Leaning Tower and Other Stories (1944), Katherine Anne Porter

If on a winter's night a traveler (1979), Italo Calvino – I may have mentioned an upcoming trip to Italy.  Well, that ain’t happening.    But I’ve had a great time pawing through Italian literature this summer, whether revisiting a masterpiece like this one or:

1934 (1982), Alberto Moravia – laughing through a piece of nonsense like this one, which may be a good-bad book, most enjoyable as it becomes increasingly crazy.  How are Moravia’s other books?  I picked this one because of the time period in the title.



You Will Hear Thunder (1912-66), Anna Akhmatova

Poems (1935) &

The Earth Compels (1938) &

Autumn Journal (1939) &

Plant and Phantom (1941) &

Springboard (1944) &

Holes in the Sky (1948), Louis MacNeice – I was going to read the superb Autumn Journal, and  then why not his other poems of the 1930s, and since I enjoyed those so much why not his poems of the 1940s.  This is not a great way to absorb a poet – my retention will likely be terrible – but I had a good time.  The dangers of a giant, unwieldy Complete Poems.

With Teeth in the Earth (1949-85), Malka Heifetz Tussman – many thanks to an anonymous commenter for recommending this charming Yiddish-American poet.



Journal, 1928-1932, André Gide

Le Képi (1943), Colette – four late, long short stories, all good, all in the English Collected Stories.  Always a pleasure to hang out with Colette.

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Books I Read in July 2023

How embarrassing that I did not write a thing this month, but I promise I had a good excuse.  Posts on Cynicism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism will appear this month, I swear, or at least hope.  My eventual excuse this month will be, I am afraid, even better.

Still, I read.



The Way Things Are (1st c. BCE), Lucretius

Selected Satires &

Dialogues of the Dead (2nd c.), Lucian



Little Novels of Sicily (1883), Giovanni Verga

Ulysses (1922), James Joyce – unlike thirty years ago, I just more or less read the novel like a novel, not that there was not plenty to look up.

The Death of the Heart (1938), Elizabeth Bowen

Ficciones (1944), Jorge Luis Borges

The Leopard (1958), Giuseppe di Lampedusa

Gee, these are good books.



A little Holocaust poetry unit on the syllabus.

Selected Poems (1921-71), Jacob Glatstein

Poems of Paul Celan (1947-76), Paul Celan

Art from the Ashes: A Holocaust Anthology (1995), just the poetry section

The Tradition (2019), Jericho Brown



The Periodic Table (1975), Primo Levi



La Pharisienne (1941), François Mauriac

Thomas l’obscur (1941/50), Maurice Blanchot, the short version, perhaps the most abstract novel I have ever read.

Paysages et Portraits (1958), Colette – posthumous, and Colette had some good stuff in the drawer.

No Portuguese study this month.  See above for the reason.  Perhaps it will resume in the fall.

Saturday, July 1, 2023

Books I Read in June 2023

If only I had the will to write something.  But I can read.


Fragments or Sayings or Tall Tales (4th C. BCE), Diogenes the Cynic, tr. Guy Davenport

Cynics (2008), William Desmond - for an entry in a series aimed at students, surprisingly well written.  It helps that the Cynics are entertaining.


Darkness at Noon (1941), Arthur Koestler

Between the Acts (1941), Virginia Woolf

Behind the Door (1964) &

The Heron (1968) &

The Smell of Hay (1972), Giorgio Bassani - the last half of the "Ferrara novel."  The Heron was my favorite, but all six books are worth reading.

Invisible Cities (1972), Italo Calvino


Trilogy (1944-6), H. D.

Collected Poems (1943-87), Primo Levi

Otherwise: First and Last Poems (1984), Eugenio Montale


The Art of Poetry (1958), Paul Valéry

Wonder Confronts Certainty: Russian Writers on the Timeless Questions and Why Their Answers Matter (2023), Gary Saul Morson - a major work.


“La jeune parque” (1917) &

Charmes (1922), Paul Valéry

Les armes miraculeuses (1946) &

Soleil cou-coupé (1948) &

Corps perdu (1950), Aimé Césaire

In Portuguese, I worked on grammar, although let’s not exaggerate how much.

Monday, June 26, 2023

The Nicomachean Ethics - moderate Aristotle - clarity within the limits of the subject matter


I will borrow the quotation from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics I found on p. 186 of Gary Paul Morson’s extraordinary new study of the ethics if Russian literature:

Our discussion will be adequate if it achieves clarity within the limits of the subject matter.  For precision cannot be expected in the treatment of all subjects alike, any more than it can be expected in all manufactured articles…  Therefore in a discussion of such subjects [the just, the good]… we must be satisfied to indicate the truth with a rough and general sketch…  For a well-schooled man is one who searches for that degree of precision in each kind of study which the nature of the subject at hand admits: it is obviously just as foolish to accept arguments of probability from a mathematician as to demand strict demonstrations from an orator.  (Bk I, Ch 3, tr. Martin Ostwald – Morson uses a different translation)

Aristotle will be surprised, and highly interested, in advances in mathematics that invalidate his last example, but aside from that what strikes me here is how Aristotle’s approach is so different than Socrates’s.  No pursuit of the perfect definition for Aristotle.  Close enough is good enough, even if the definition does not cover every weird edge case.  How much of philosophy is debate over weird edge cases?  Don’t waste your time, is Aristotle’s advice.  He has more interesting things to do than push fat people in front of trains.

I see one reason I have trouble writing this piece.  Aristotle is the philosopher of the moderate and the ordinary.  His ethical system is an extended argument for moderation in almost all things.  His arguments are too complex to label them common sense, but they are generally commonsensical.  He rarely says anything too strange or wildly imaginative.  He is not the philosopher to argue that nothing exists or to write a proto-novel about the pre-historic war between Athens and Atlantis.

In other words, I find Aristotle a little boring, in part because I am mostly sympathetic.

The material world exists.  It exists pretty much as you perceive it – close enough.  The epistemological  problems that bothered so many philosophers are nonsense.  Pleasure is real, so enjoy it, but don’t overdo it.  True happiness and true friendship are founded on virtue and contemplation, but other kinds of happiness and friendship are valuable, too.

Sounds good to me.

Someday I will read the hard stuff, Metaphysics and so on.  Not this time round.

The philosophers for “next month,” which is now, are the Cynics.  I have been enjoying a surprisingly well-written guide for students, Cynics (2008) by William Desmond, and enjoying even more the writing of Lucian, the great, unique 2nd Century satirist.  The fragments of my hero Diogenes the Cynic will fit in there somewhere.

Then we will turn to Epicureanism and its sublime poetic exposition The Nature of Things (or whatever title your translator chooses) by Lucretius.

Thursday, June 1, 2023

Books I Read in May 2023

I had a good time.


The Nicomachean Ethics (4th C. BCE), Aristotle - a post, however shallow, should appear soon.


Joseph in Egypt (1936), Thomas Mann

The Long Valley (1938) &

The Grapes of Wrath (1939), John Steinbeck - I last read this probably forty years ago.  The great turtle chapter is still great.  It's not Moby-Dick, but the mix of rhetorical modes is brilliant and sophisticated.  I have read five Steinbeck books recently and have been enjoying them a lot, kitsch, propaganda, and all.  

The World and All It Holds (2023), Aleksandar Hemon - look, a new novel.  Written at the usual Hemon level (high), but the subject is grindingly depressing.  Hemon shoves his poor protagonist into the world's worst places.  Be warned.


Selected Poetry (1940-73) &

Peasant's Wake for Fellini's Casanova and Other Poems (1986-8), Andrea Zanzotto

To Each His Own (1966), Leonardo Sciascia - this is the only book actually related to where I am going.  Another anti-Mafia anti-mystery.

If Not Now, When? (1982), Primo Levi - an adventure novel about Russian Jewish partisans, with barely any Italy in it at all.

Eldorado (2006), Laurent Gaudé - no, this one is about Sicily, too, if distantly.  The state of Mediterranean immigration circa 2006.  I read it in French, since the Portland, Maine, public library has a copy in French.  Good library.


More Was Lost (1946), Eleanor Perényi - a memoir of love and bad timing.  A 19 year-old American marries into the Hungarian nobility in 1937.  Events ensue.  Bad, bad events.  Only in her mid-twenties when she wrote the book, her youthful voice is a pleasure amidst the crises and tragedies. 


Adonis (1657), Jean de La Fontaine

A Harpa do Crente (1838), Alexandre Herculano - the great Portuguese Romantic poet, his ostentatious tomb dwarfing the Modernist tomb of Fernando Pessoa in the Jerónimos monastery in Lisbon.

Le bleu du ciel (1935/1957), George Bataille

Le Mont Analogue (1944/1952), René Daumal - I have been catching up on mid-century French weirdos.  The current Wiki for the Bataille novel says it "deals with necrophilia."  The book is in the French decadent tradition, but boy does that give the wrong idea.  As metaphor, not wrong.

I still owe a post on Gide's anti-novel The Counterfeiters.  

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Plato's Republic - justice, fantasy and censorship - We'll ask Homer not to be angry

I had ambitions to write about Plato’s Republic with some thoroughness, but I guess I will just pursue one point.  Good enough.

I have been separating Socrates from Plato, an imaginative exercise based on circular criteria.  The more Socratic of the Socratic dialogues are shorter, feature proto-novelistic details about settings and characters, and end without resolving the question at issue.  The first book of Republic is one such proto-novel.  With the second book, though, the characters and details fall away, and Socrates, rather than interrogating the ideas of his listeners, directly presents his own ideas.  Perhaps the first book was written earlier, or perhaps Plato was signaling with self-parody that he was shifting to a new rhetorical mode.  The topic is classic: what is justice.  Here, he shows, is how I used to answer the question, and then here is the new way.

Socrates’s enemy in the first chapter asserts that justice is the pleasure of the strong and the suffering of the weak – what most of us would call injustice – with any other definitions simply the special pleading of the weak.  An ugly position, but a strong one, hard to refute without a number of arguable assumptions.

Plato – Socrates is speaking, but I now think of the speaker as ironic Plato – shifts the discussion to political justice and the ideal city-state, where specially trained philosopher-kings, selfless because they share property and even sexual partners, run a city based on a fictional racial caste system and eugenics.  It is not quite a version of “You know who should be in charge – we should be in charge!” but it is close, and the radical policies are of course, to anyone who remembers the twentieth century, appalling, the setup for mass murder and the destruction of human rights.

Socrates is, I find, an appealing if aggravating figure (and aggravation is part of his appeal), but in The Republic Plato becomes The Enemy, the intellectual ancestor of a lot of later ideological catastrophes.

His radical censorship, for example:

Then we must first of all, it seems, supervise the storytellers.  We’ll select their stories whenever they are fine or beautiful and reject them when they aren’t.  And we’ll persuade nurses and mothers to tell their children the ones we have selected, since they will chape their children’s souls with stories much more than they shape their bodies by handling them.  Many of the stories they tell now, however, must be thrown out.  (Book 2, 377c, tr. G. M. A. Grube)

Socrates / Plato particularly dislikes stories where gods act like humans or where there is some kind of icky sexual aspect.  He is a bit of a Puritan.  He wants to bowdlerize Homer.  Presumably Sophocles, too – “we’ll be angry with him, we’ll refuse him a chorus” (2, 383c), and Euripides and Aristophanes will likely be wiped out.  I wonder how much of Homer will be left.

We’ll ask Homer and the other poets not to be angry if we delete these passages and all similar ones (Book 3, 387b).

This is a bit of the Odyssey  in which the souls of the killed suitors are compared to bats.  The objection of Socrates is that it is too scary for a future philosopher-king!  “[S]hudders” will make them “softer.”  Hilarious.

I am aware of Leo Strauss’s argument that The Republic is satirical, a travesty, meant to be outrageous.  I don’t know.  I don’t dismiss the idea, but I have trouble following it while reading the actual text.

An irony is that late in life, as I order his works, Plato becomes a great storyteller, an early master of fantasy fiction.  The rich, bizarre Parable of the Cave in The Republic is the ancestor of endless science fiction stories, most famously, I suppose, The Matrix movies.  Plato ends the book with an elaborate afterlife fantasy.  The late dialogue Timaeus vividly describes the creation of the universe.  The unfinished Critias describes Atlantis and suggests that the bulk of it, if Plato had lived to finish it, would detail the long war between Atlantis and the Athens of 9,000 years ago.  How is this anything but a fantasy novel?  Two recent blockbuster movies have featured wars with Atlantis, and I believe a third is coming this summer.  To think that these goofy superhero movies are direct descendants of Plato.

Our next philosopher is the down-to-earth Aristotle.  We won’t find so much fantasy in the commonsensical Nicomachean Ethics, which I hope to write up in early June.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Thou hast devourd thy sonnes - some notes on Seneca's horror plays

My Seneca reading in March:

Medea, tr. Frederick Ahl

The Trojan Women, tr. E. F. Watling

Thyestes, tr. Jasper Heywood

Hercules Furens, tr. Heywood

The Madness of Hercules, tr. Dana Gioia

The plays themselves are all from the mid-1st century, perhaps written when Seneca was in political exile and had time to kill.  The Heywood translations are form the 16th century, pre-dating Shakespeare and so on, and are landmarks in the history of English theater and poetic translation.  The other translations are more recent; the Gioia is brand new.

It is Gioia’s fault that I have delayed this post for so long.  His new translation includes a 57 page essay on Seneca that is the best thing I have ever read on the playwright, even better than the great T. S. Eliot essay that precedes the 1927 edition of Seneca: His Tenne Tragedies, the 1581 anthology that so strongly influenced English theater.  Gioia is clear, efficient, and worst of all thorough.  He even has insightful things to say about Eliot’s essay.  The translation is also good.  He kinda discouraged me from writing anything.  Just read him.  You’ll have to buy a copy of the book, since it is from a little publisher, Wiseblood Books, that most libraries won’t know.  They also just published Marly Youmans’s strange, beautiful new poetic fantasy Seren of the Wildwood.  Buy them together!

So what is my simple thumbnail Seneca like?  Let’s see.

He adapted Greek plays, themselves all adaptations.  Mostly Euripides.  Seneca minimizes the characters and moves the chorus into a new role, providing thematically-related songs that connect the five acts.  He has five acts; that is also new.  Sometimes, The Trojan Women being a good example, structure and function of the play is not so different than the Greek original, nor so different than modern ideas of dramatic structure.  But sometimes Seneca is more radical.

Thyestes is the appalling story of King Atreus feeding his two nephews to their father, his brother King Thyestes, a classical horror story, one of the many curses underlying The Oresteia.  In Seneca’s version, in the first act the fury Maegera incites Tantalus, himself a monster, to curse his nephews, Thyestes and Atreus.  Tantalus and Magera are never seen again.  Most of the rest of the play is essentially a series of monologues.  This is static rather than dramatic.  Anti-dramatic. The main characters barely meet until the end, when Atreus displays for his brother the heads of his devoured children.

ATREUS: Thou hast devourd thy sonnes and fykd thy selfe with wicked meat.

THYESTES: Oh this is it that sham’de the Gods and day from hence did dryve

Turn’d back to east, alas I wretche what waylinges may I geve?  (p. 90)

Then there’s some gruesome stuff about severed heads and hands and rolling bowels.  Note the rhyming fourteen syllable lines, an innovation of Heywood’s that did not catch on.

However cruel Euripides was, Seneca is crueler.  Medea murders her two children onstage.  If you have ever wondered why Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus, this is the answer: he was imitating and perhaps even trying to outdo Seneca.

The entire English revenge tragedy tradition is founded in this way on Seneca, although my understanding is that Italian theater absorbed Seneca first and some of the English gore is actually borrowed from Italian theater, so Senecan but at second-hand.

Meanwhile, French theater dropped the murdered children and kept the anti-drama, keeping the motionless full-act monologues.  Please see Mary Sidney’s outstanding 1592 translation of Robert Garnier’s Marc-Antoine (1578) or The Hebrew Women (1583), with the warning that as drama they are tedious.  Soon enough Jean Racine will figure out how to fill the static structure with emotional and poetic intensity.  Hard to believe that the pure Phèdre and the sloppy, mad Titus Andronicus both derive from the same source.

I mentioned that Seneca’s Medea kills her children onstage, but that is false because there was no stage.  Seneca’s plays were not performed in that sense.  Yet the act of reading, for Seneca and his peers, meant reading aloud – meant having a slave or servant read aloud to him – and thus any reading was a kind of performance.  It is easy to imagine groups of friends gathering to hear talented servants read the plays.  Still, there would be no masks or dragon chariots hanging from cranes or severed heads or murdered children.  All of that would be in the text and the imagination.  The Italians, and Shakespeare, putting that onstage, were distorting Seneca.

Elizabethan plays are crammed with paraphrased quotations of Seneca.  I won’t go into that.  There are books, as they say, entire books, some of which are just catalogues of the quotations.  Reading for the sententiae is probably lost to most of us today.

Nevertheless I enjoyed my return to Seneca, to the extent that his horrors are enjoyable, and hope to read them again someday.  Maybe I will try Emily Wilson’s recent translation.  I will certainly reread Dana Gioia.

This concludes my little Roman play project.  Thanks to anyone who read along or commented.

Monday, May 1, 2023

Books finished in April 2023

 I continue the practice of posting a list as a substitute for real writing.

Coming soon: a long overdue loot at Seneca's plays, a glance at Gide's Counterfeiters, and some messing around with Plato's Republic.

If I did not write in April, I at least read:


The Republic




Critias, 4th C. BCE, Plato

Classical Philosophy, 2014, Peter Adamson


The Storm and Other Poems, 1956, Eugenio Montale

Sicilian Uncles, 1958, Leonardo Sciascia

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, 1962, Giorgio Bassani

Midnight in Sicily, 1996, Peter Robb - many thanks to those who recommended this book. The big surprise was the literary criticism, outstanding chapters on The Leopard and the place of Sciascia in Sicilian politics and culture.


Kristin Lavransdatter: The Cross, 1922, Sigrid Undset

Surfeit of Lampreys, 1940, Ngaio Marsh

A Streetcar Named Desire, 1947, Tennessee Williams



When I Sleep, Then I See Clearly: Selected Poems, 1917-85, J. V. Foix

As for Love: Poems and Translations, 1987, M. L. Rosenthal - contains some good Foix translations

Complete Poems, 1934-44, Keith Douglas - the curse of the war poet

Transport to Summer, 1947, Wallace Stevens

This Afterlife: Selected Poems, 2022, A. E. Stallings - a major work

Meet Me at the Lighthouse, 2023, Dana Gioia



La Légende des siècles (Première Série), 1859, Victor Hugo

A Nova Califórnia e Outros Contos, 1910-22, Lima Barreto - a second-rate Machado de Assis, which is not a bad thing to be. Perfect for the language learner.


Wednesday, April 26, 2023

What books am I reading this summer in the Greek philosophy readalong? Some details.

Now that we are almost done with Plato, the bulkiest figure in my little Greek philosophy readalong, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit, clarify, and puzzle over the texts that will take us to the end of the project, now that I have given the matter a little more thought.

Next month I will turn to Aristotle and The Nicomachean Ethics, a substantial and as I remember readable book.  I am not sure if I will read much more Aristotle.  On the Soul, which sounds like it is about religion but is really more about psychology, is tempting, and only a hundred pages.  I read Politics thirty years ago and remember it as admirably clear, but I won’t revisit it now.  I may look Metaphysics but doubt I will really read it.

But just reading Ethics may be enough.  It is a real book.

In June the topic is Cynicism.  The first text I have picked is some version of the sayings or quips of Diogenes the Cynic (4th C. BCE).  I strongly recommend the presentation, stripped of sources, in Guy Davenport’s 7 Greeks (1995), best read for the extraordinary translations of the poets Sappho and Archilochos but full of other treasures as well, including the thirteen pages of Diogenes.  You gotta meet this nut, if you haven’t already.

The same material is presented with more verbiage in Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, and I am sure it can be found in many other books.

I want to supplement Diogenes with Lucian (2nd C.) who was not a philosopher but a Greek satirist whose target was often philosophy.  I recommend Selected Satires of Lucian (1962), translated by Lionel Casson, specifically the sections: Zeus’s World, Pluto’s World, and Man’s World.  If you are in a hurry, skip to the “Dialogues of the Dead,” “Philosophies for Sale” and “The Death of Peregrinus.”

If you are not in a hurry, the rest of the book contains extraordinary things, especially “A True Story.”  So many later works are direct descendants of “A True Story.”  It is, for example, the beginning of science fiction.

Satirical Sketches, tr. Paul Turner, contains some of the relevant pieces but I think not enough.  Otherwise I Think you have to rummage through the eight Loeb volumes, which would likely be interesting.

Reading Lucian as part of a philosophy sequence is my one semi-original idea.

July is Epicurianism.  This one is easy and obvious: the great Latin cosmological poem On the Nature of Things (1st C. BCE) by Lucretius.  There are many translations under many titles (I’ll read Rolfe Humphries).  My understanding is that some original works of Epicurus have been rescued from the cinders of Herculaneum, but I do not know if they have been edited and translated.

August is Stoicism.  I will read the old warhorse, the Meditations (2nd C.) of Marcus Aurelius, and will look at the Discourses of Epictetus if I have time.  Even better, perhaps, would be to wander around in the writings of Seneca, for example the Penguin Classics Letters from a Stoic.

Cicero was not a Stoic – I am not sure what he was – but he often wrote about Stoicism and other philosophical ideas.  I would like to revisit The Nature of the Gods (2nd C. BCE) in which a Stoic, an Epicurean, and a Skeptic debate.

Likely many Cicero works would be of interest.  I hardly know him.  I feel a bit bad about not giving a month to Skepticism; apparently the key text would be Cicero’s Academica.  Maybe I will squeeze it in.

The project wraps up in September with the great essayist Plutarch (1st-2nd C.), who often wrote on philosophical subjects in his essays collected under the title Moralia.  I thought this was an original idea, bit of course Adamson has a chapter on Plutarch.  Unfortunately, no selection of the Moralia quite suits my purpose, although the Oxford World’s Classics Selected Essays and Dialogues is not too bad.  I believe I will have to explore the sixteen (!) volumes of the Loeb translation to find the most relevant pieces.  Well, I will revisit the issue then.

Please suggest other books as alternatives or supplements.  Original texts or secondary, anything you have read that is good.  Thanks!

Monday, April 24, 2023

it’s right about here that there would normally be a gap - Peter Adamson's Classical Philosophy, the beginning of the History of Philosophy without Any Gaps

Peter Adamson is an English philosopher with a long-running podcast, History of Philosophy without Any Gaps.  What can that mean, without any gaps?

We’ve finished Aristotle, and it’s right about here that there would normally be a gap.  In an undergraduate philosophy course you might reasonable expect to jump from Aristotle to, perhaps, Descartes, leaping over about 2,000 years of history in the process.  A more enlightened approach might include looking at Thomas Aquinas, in the thirteenth century – still omitting the better part of two millennia. (Classical Philosophy, p. 309)

So we have an experienced undergraduate lecturer frustrated that he rarely gets to teach about Empedocles and Diogenes and all of the other figures who are so much fun.  I am reminded of the beloved Barnard philosophy professor in Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Disturbances in the Field who spends too much time on the pre-Socratics because they are so enjoyable, and then has to blast through Plato and Aristotle before leaping to Descartes in the next semester.  There is only so much time in a semester, but not in a podcast series.  Adamson happily lingers among the pre-Socratics.

Then again, here is an episode on Fela Kuti and Wole Soyinka, which suggests a different kind of thoroughness.

I have no room in my life for podcasts.  Fortunately Adamson has also written books.  To some degree the books must be edited transcripts of the podcast, although some episodes have guests and the book chapters do not.  I have only read the first book, Classical Philosophy (2014) and look through Philosophy in the Hellenistic & Roman Worlds (2015), the first half of which will be very helpful this summer as I look at Stoicism and Cynicism and so on.  The second half is neo-Platonism, pagan and Christian; I deliberately stopped before neo-Platonism which feels to me like a move to a philosophy of a different kind.

Other published volumes are: Philosophy in the Islamic World, Medieval Philosophy, Classical Indian Philosophy, and Byzantine and Renaissance Philosophy.  There are some tempting books here.

I had heard of but did not really know about Adamson’s when I planned my little Greek philosophy project.  If I had, I may not have thought of it as a readalong, but just read some texts alongside Adamson’s short pieces.  Why read along with me when you can read along with Adamson?  Too much thinking like this leads to torpor, so never mind.

It is helpful, though, to read along with an expert.  “The pages that follow [the second half of Plato’s Sophist] are among the most difficult in Plato’s writings, and have been much debated” (171).  What a relief to read this, since I did not understand that part of the dialogue at all.  How nice to know.

Adamson encourages the reading of original texts, but is realistic.  I read the third of Classical Philosophy covering Aristotle hoping to get a better idea of the readability of his books.  What should I read besides Nicomachean Ethics?  On the Soul, a work on psychology, sounds possible.  Metaphysics, as Adamson describes it, is still daunting.  Politics is perfectly readable.  I don’t know.  Still, I have read and perhaps even thought about Aristotle’s texts.  Reading about philosophy is doing philosophy.

Classical Philosophy is written with energy and good humor, and is a perfect fit for my level, whatever that is.  Interested undergraduate?  Persistent autodidact?  I have been enjoying myself and am likely to continue on into the series once I am done with the Greeks.

If someone knows the podcast, please let me know what you think.


Wednesday, April 19, 2023

What has happened to me may well be a good thing - the death of Socrates

Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo, the extended version of the death of Socrates.  These texts, especially the last three, are a large part of the fame of Socrates, the reason he is an exemplar of the wise man to this day.  He asked annoying questions, he rejected material goods, but most importantly he died well, in the name of justice.  Almost no one, really, will read Plato’s or Xenophon’s writings in his name, but we have a sense, picked up from who knows where, of Socrates as a man.  He is a Western culture hero.

Euthyphro is a typical early dialogue, a friendly investigation of the definition of piety.  As usual,  no answer is satisfactory.  But in the frame of the dialogue, Socrates is on his way to defend himself in court, where he is accused of, among other things, impiety.  So there is a horrible irony this time.  The discussion is not just for the pleasure of philosophizing but is a matter of life and death for Socrates.

The non-apologetic Apology is some kind of masterpiece.  Who knows, it may well be close to Socrates’s actual defense, transcribed by Plato, who was in attendance.  Or maybe not.  Whether fiction or truth, Apology is the strongest presentation of Socrates as a personality, spikey and arrogant but then modest and generous.  Now that I am reading the more dogmatic The Republic, I miss this Socrates.

I suppose he should not have insulted the jury at that one point.  Much of the discussion in Xenophon’s Apology is about just this issue.  But Socrates appears to truly believe that his death does not matter much.

What has happened to me may well be a good thing, and those of us who believe death to be an evil are certainly mistaken.  (40b)

Crito and Phaedo both continue this strain.  Crito is the attempt by Socrates’s friends to convince him to flee Athens, which turns into a discussion of justice, while the more complex Phaedo attempts to demonstrate the immortality of the soul.  The latter involves a long discussion of the Forms.  My edition of these texts is the one I used in Western Civilization I over thirty years ago, and I see that I recorded which pages were actually assigned: all of Apology and Crito (fundamental Western works) and Phaedo except for the discussion of the Forms.

But we rejoined Phaedo for the magnificent last four pages:

Those who are deemed to have lived and extremely pious life are freed and released from the regions of the earth as from a prison; they make their way up to a pure dwelling place and live on the surface of the earth.  Those who have purified themselves sufficiently by philosophy live in the future altogether without a body; they make their way to even more beautiful dwelling places which it is hard to describe clearly, nor do we have time to do so.  Because of the things we have enunciated, Simmias, one must make every effort to share in virtue and wisdom in one’s life, for the reward is beautiful and the hope is great. (114c)

Then Socrates make his preparations, drinks the hemlock, and dies surrounded by his friends.

I do not expect much pathos from philosophy, but these are unusual texts.

Finally, I have caught up with my supposed readalong.  In April I shifted from Socrates as himself to Socrates as a mouthpiece for Plato, especially as seen in the aggravating masterpiece The Republic, which I hope to write about in a couple of weeks.

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Xenophon's Socrates

I’m still catching up with myself.  I wanted to spend March thinking about Socrates as a philosopher, independent from Plato’s use of him, to the extent that it is possible.  The Socrates of Aristophanes in The Clouds is not much help.  But luckily we have Xenophon, a close contemporary of Plato, and his Recollections of Socrates.

Xenophon was not really a philosopher.  He wrote many books in a wide variety of genres, most famously Anabasis, his account of leading ten thousand Greek mercenaries to safety through hostile Persian territory, and since he wrote some of everything he wrote some philosophical works, since that was one of the modes of the time.  Since he did not have any original ideas, the lasting value of his philosophy is his loving, down to earth portrait of Socrates.

Just today I found a quite good piece by Cambridge professor Carol Atack about Xenophon’s “kinder Socrates.”  I am not sure that “kinder” is the right word.  Maybe.  Xenophon shows a practical Socrates who dispenses common sense ethical advice on a range of problems.  My brother is being a jerk to me; should I therefore be a jerk to him?  Socrates says no, be a good guy.  Much of his advice is not so far form the Golden Rule. 

He takes the position that leaders ought to have knowledge, which does not sound so controversial to me.  Young Glaucon is planning to get into politics:

“Shouldn’t we give advice when we no longer surmise something, but actually know it?”
“Perhaps,” said Glaucon, “that is better.” (3.6, tr. Anna S. Benjamin)

“Advice to Artists.”  “On Table Manners.”  “Socrates Advises Eutherus on Finding Suitable Employment.”  For example.

Xenophon does not contradict but extends my idea of who Socrates was.  It is easy to imagine him playing the advice columnist for most people while saving the aggressive Socratic takedowns for his enemies the Sophists and the complex investigations of fundamental concepts for dedicated students like Theaetetus.

I tried Xenophon’s Socratic dialogue.  Oeconomicus is about household management, a long-lasting genre of book that is rarely especially literary.  I do not understand the advantage if the dialogue in this case, except to lend Xenophon’s common sense ideas the authority of Socrates.

Symposium is more fun, although hardly as interesting as Plato’s.  It’s another drinking party where the guests talk about love (of men for boys), but this time there is no Aristophanes fantasy and no interruption by Alcibiades.  There are, though, flute girls.

After this, the other girl began to play the flute for the dancer and someone standing beside her passed twelve hoops over to her.  As she took them she danced and threw them spinning into the air, calculating how high she would have to throw them in order to catch them on the beat.  (138, tr. Robert C. Bartlett in The Shorter Socratic Writings, Cornell University Press)

I also read the nine-page Apology of Socrates to the Jury.  Where Plato’s Apology purports to be the actual speech Socrates gave in his own defense, Xenophon’s Apology is a dialogue in which Socrates and his friend discuss his defense.  It is a quite interesting piece n the way it reinforces but occasionally contradicts Plato’s account of the trial and death of Socrates.

Tomorrow I will move to Plato’s version.

Monday, April 10, 2023

there is no wisdom in me; and that is true enough - what is knowledge? - Theaetetus and Parmenides

The epistemological crisis of Greek philosophy has surprised me.  The early attempts to systematically understand, without the help of the revealed truth of religion, difficult concepts like existence and virtue led, almost immediately, to the question of whether anyone can understand the truth of anything.  Early philosophers picked radical positions: all perception is false, says Parmenides (skepticism); or maybe all perception is true, even if people perceive things differently, says Protagoras – “man is the measure of all things” (relativism).

Theaetetus is Plato’s Socratic dialogue that hits the problem directly.  The big question is “What is knowledge”?  Is it perception, or belief, or true belief?  Socrates, as usual, takes apart each suggestion, which perhaps leaves us closer to an answer in the end, and perhaps not.

“The common reproach against me is that I am always asking questions of other people but never express my own views about anything, because there is no wisdom in me; and that is true enough” (150c) says Socrates, curiously comparing himself to a midwife, barren himself but aiding in the birth of wisdom in others.  In this dialogue, his companions are a mathematics teacher, who does not quite see the point of the discussion, and a teenage math prodigy, Theaetetus, who throws himself into the discussion, taking it entirely seriously and, unlike so many of Socrates’s companions, offering useful ideas and arguments.  The real Theaetetus will become one of the great Greek mathematicians.  I have been impressed by the variety of characters, with a variety of attitudes, that Plato uses in his dialogues.  This time he seems to want to show the Socratic method as a pure, cooperative, search for truth, an ideal of philosophizing.

I singled out Theaetetus for the readalong because of its focus on the ideas of the pre-Socratic Parmenides and the sophist Protagoras.  I would now add Parmenides, in which a teenage Socrates attends a reading by Zeno and Parmenides, who are visiting Athens.  Who knows if this really happened.  Parmenides, we may remember, argued that the universe was a ball of motionless grey goo and that any perception to the contrary was error and illusion, while Zeno ingeniously and outrageously proved the non-existence of motion through his aggravating paradoxes.

Plato hates both the relativism of Protagoras and the meaninglessness of perception of Parmenides and spends his life developing the theory of the Forms to combat it.  He wants some fixed truth out there somewhere, so he invents a world of immaterial Platonic concepts that interact in complex ways to create what we perceive as reality.  Parmenides is an imagined debut of the Forms, with the prodigal young Socrates taking them straight to the enemy:

Pythodorus said that, while Socrates was saying all this, he himself kept from moment to moment expecting Parmenides and Zeno to get annoyed; but they both paid close attention to Socrates and often glanced at each other and smiled, as though they admired him. (130a)

What happens next is that Parmenides, using what we now call the Socratic method, thoroughly dismantles Socrates’s idea of Forms.  He tears Socrates apart.

For a simple example, keep in mind that Socrates is interested in the Form of Largeness, and the Form of Beauty, and the Form of Difference, and similar abstractions.  Parmenides asks:

“What about a form of human being, separate from us? Is there a form of huma n being, or fire, or water?” (130c)

Socrates is not sure.  How about “’[t]hings that might seem absurd, like hair and mud and dirt’” (130d).  No way, says Socrates.

“That’s because you are still young, Socrates,” said Parmenides, “and philosophy has not yet gripped you as, in my opinion, it will in the future, once you begin to consider none [?] of the cases beneath your notice” (130e)

All credit to Plato, writing such a convincing assault on his own ideas, or at least an early version of them.  Amazing.

Parmenides spends the second half of Parmenides demonstrating how he thinks Oneness and Difference and Largeness and so on interact to do I do not know what.  I did not understand this section at all.  Win some, lose some.

When I last approached Plato and Greek philosophy seriously, twenty-five years ago, I did not recognize the epistemological problem at all.  I doubt I knew what the word epistemology meant.  Who knows what I will find when I return to Plato twenty-five years from now.

If I were on schedule, I would mention that next month, in March, we will focus on the character of Socrates, especially as portrayed in the “death of Socrates” dialogues (Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo).  But it is now April.  Still, next up, the Socrates of Xenophon, and then his great death.


Monday, April 3, 2023

Books finished in March 2023

For some reason I have been putting a monthly account of completed books on Twitter, where it is a common practice, although mostly with photographs of book stacks.  I am not sure why I have not put the lists here as well.  I guess I am not sure any of this is interesting.

Soon, I hope, I will write long overdue posts on Seneca, Xenophon, and Plato.  But until then, there is this.


Greater Hippias




Phaedo, 4th C. BCE, Plato

Recollections of Socrates

Shorter Socratic Dialogues, 4th C. BCE, Xenophon




Thyestes (tr. Heywood, 16th C.)

The Trojan Women

The Madness of Hercules (tr. Gioia)

Hercules Furens (tr. Heywood, 16th C.), all 1st C., Seneca



The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940)

Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941)

The Ballad of the Sad Café (1943)

The Member of the Wedding (1946), Carson McCullers

Tell Me a Riddle (1961), Tillie Olsen

The Day of the Owl (1961), Leonardo Sciascia

Women of Messina (1964), Elio Vittorini

With luck I will visit Sicily this fall, so I have been reading more Sicilian and Italian books.  Tne Vittorini novel is by a Sicilian writer and has a Sicilian title but was not Sicilian at all.  Or perhaps just allegorically.  A dirty trick, but a good novel anyway. 



Deaths and Entrances (1946), Dylan Thomas

Piercing the Page: Selected Poems 1958-1989, Antonio Porta

Olives (2012), A. E. Stallings

Seren of the Wildwood (2023), Marly Youmans - another strange Youmans poetry fantasy, an event.



Les faux-monnayeurs (1925)

Journal des faux-monnayeurs (1927)

Journal 1925-1927, André Gide

A Marvelous World: Poems 1921-52, Benjamin Peret, the perfect Surrealist

O Roubo do Punhal Sagrado (2009), Amâncio Leão, a silly juvenile novel


Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Middle period Plato - He’s garbage, he cares about nothing but the truth.

Assembling yesterday’s post I saw that I was only missing one dialogue from Plato’s early period, so I knocked off Greater Hippias last night.  The early dialogues are generally short; the three in the “death of Socrates” group are only fifty pages total, for example.

Hippias is the highest paid of the Sophists, so he is treated as a braggart and a fool, unable to understand what Socrates is asking.  The quotation in the title of the post is Socrates describing himself in Greater Hippias (288d).

The debate is over the definition of “fineness” or “excellence,” not just what is excellent about a painting or horse or god but what the term means abstractly.  Socrates concludes that since no one can define the term, he can no longer say anything at all is fine or excellent.  What nonsense, but Hippias is not the punching bag for this fight.  As usual, Plato is groping towards his Theory of Forms, where all will become clear.

I have read four masterpieces from the middle period, or five counting The Republic from thirty years ago.  Socrates is more likely in these dialogues to be a mouthpiece for Plato, but Symposium, which many of us read last fall, is thought to be “middle.”  It is a creative period for Plato, when he greatly expands the form of the dialogue.

Euthydemus – I mentioned this one a few weeks ago as an anti-Sophist classic.  The title Sophist and his partner are like a comedy duo, astounding potential students with paradoxes and blatant logical fallacies, arguing simultaneously that everyone knows everything and that no one knows anything.

Socrates in the end backhandedly defends Euthydemus and his partner.  Either drop philosophy completely or learn what you can from everyone, even from these goofballs.

I would love to know more about how Plato’s dialogues were read, how they were used.  I assume, for example, that many of the logical fallacies, including those of Socrates, are in the text for pedagogical reason.  The attentive reader is supposed to spot fallacies and false premises and wild leaps in logic.  Or so I imagine.  Maybe not.

Meno – “Can you tell me, Socrates, can virtue be taught?” is how this begins (tr. G. M. A. Grube).  So now I know that the discussion will quickly move, inconclusively, to “What is virtue?”  Along the way Socrates describes his crackpot theory that we do not learn anything but are born with all knowledge.  What we call learning is really just bits of this inherent knowledge being knocked loose.  He proves his point by leading a boy through a geometrical proof, an extraordinary scene. 

Near the end of Meno a new character, Anytus, enters the dialogue, directing it back to the original question.  The Sophists, he argues, teach virtue.  Anytus was, or in the fiction of the scene will be, one of the lead accusers of Socrates.  He angrily leaves the dialogue with a warning:

I think, Socrates, that you easily speak ill of people.  I would advise you, if you will listen to me, to be careful.  Perhaps also in another city, and certainly here, it is easier to injure people than to benefit them.  I think you know that yourself.  (94e)

Sinister and chilling.  Meno is among the best of Plato, and I believe one of the most-taught.

Theaetetus – I think I will save this complex work – it is, for example, hard to spell right – for its own post.

I have tried just one dialogue from Plato’s “late” period, Sophist.  In the late dialogue Socrates is often barely present, as here where he only has a few lines.  “What is a Sophist?” is the question, with an explicit contrast to the statesman (the next dialogue is Statesman) and the philosopher.  Many definitions are proposed and dismantled in detail.  I found it quite tedious.  I have doubts that I will read all of the late dialogues.  Critias is fifteen pages long and features the story of Atlantis – I am not skipping that one.

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Many of Plato's early Socratic dialogues - It was quite lovely.

I’ve been enjoying Plato’s dialogues recently.  I’d read some of them before, at university or during my last Greek phase 25 years ago, and this time I hope to read almost all of them.

I will make some notes on them in a few posts.  Give them a tag if nothing else, and make some comments on what Plato was doing.

Given the care with which the manuscripts were preserved compared to the Greek plays or almost anything other Greek literature, it surprised me that almost nothing is known about the dates of composition of the dialogues.  They are plausibly divided into three groups – early, middle, and late – based on easily observable characteristics.

For this month’s look at Socrates as such, independent from Plato, I recommended reading Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito, the three short dialogues on the death of Socrates.  These are civilization-defining texts, great stuff.  My guess is that they are the first dialogues Plato wrote.  He wanted to defend his great teacher and hero.  Then he used the dialogue form to explore other major themes of Socrates’s life.  The early period dialogues always feature Socrates, are more likely to reflect his thought rather than that of Plato, and often end inconclusively.  Socrates does not know the answers but is wise because he knows he does not know.

The early dialogues also often feature scene-setting and character-building and even little plots that I associate with literature.

Gorgias – Gorgias is a Sophist who teaches rhetoric, but what is rhetoric?  As will be common in the dialogues, Socrates deftly shows that no one really knows.  The conversation takes a surprising turn, though, to the question of power and virtue, with Socrates arguing that true power is doing good and nothing else.  A new opponent, Callicles, emerges from the crowd; he is a hedonist and an immoralist, arguing that power and the good are whatever is good for him, with no exceptions.  Socrates, as far as I can tell, has no logical answer, retreating to religion (good people will go to heaven, bad to hell).

A frustration of later Plato, certainly visible in The Republic, is that no one seriously challenges Socrates.  He just marches forward, constructing his ideas.  Not in Gorgias, though.

Protagoras – another Sophist in the title, perhaps the most respected one.  Protagoras believes he is teaching virtue and gives a long defense of his practice.  Socrates believes virtue cannot be taught.  After a long discussion about the nature of virtue, Socrates concludes that virtue in fact can be taught while Protagoras thinks it cannot.  Perverse!  Surprising, at least.

This dialogue has some of Plato’s most elaborate scene-setting.  This excerpt describes some of the “chorus” of followers of Protagoras:

There were some locals also in this chorus, whose dance simply delighted me when I saw how beautifully they took care never to get in Protagoras’ way.  When he turned around with his flanking groups, the audience to the rear would split into two in a very orderly way and then circle around to either side and form up again behind him.  It was quite lovely.  (315b, tr. Stanley Lombardo and Karen Bell)

None of this is necessary for the philosophical part of the dialogue, as Plato eventually decides for himself.

Also, I will note that although most of the dialogues are written as if they are plays, some, like Protagoras, are narrated by Socrates.

Charmides – what is sophrosune, or temperance, or moderation?  No one, as usual, knows.  More proto-novel comedy:

He did come, and his coming caused a lot of laughter, because every one of us who was already seated began pushing hard at his neighbor so as to make a place for him to sit down.  The upshot of it was that we made the man sitting at one end get up, and the man at the other was toppled off sideways. (155d, tr. Rosamond Kent Sprague)

Lesser Hippias – who is the greater liar, Achilles or Odysseus?

Laches – what is courage?

Lysis – what is friendship?  Discussed with a group of attractive, moony teenage boys.

Ion – is the poet knowledgeable or inspired?  Socrates argues for divinely inspired.  “As long as a human being has his intellect in possession he will always lack the power to make poetry or sing prophecy” (534c, tr. Paul Woodruff)  We will revisit this in The Republic.

More scraps of Plato tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

The elegant, intricate, sour comedies of Terence

The great Roman playwright Terence wrote six plays between 166 and 160 BCE, twenty years after the death of Plautus.  The story is that he wrote the first one at age nineteen, while enslaved, thus winning his freedom and entry into a world of aristocratic patrons.  Plautus was vulgar and popular, stuffing his plays with gags, while Terence was sophisticated and elegant, although both writers openly based their plays on those of Menander and other writers of Greek New Comedy.  Together, the vulgar and the elegant, they supplied the models for Renaissance comedy.

The other story about Terence is that, after six whole plays, he ran out of Menander and sailed off to Greece to search the archives.  He never returned.  There is an opportunity here for a picaresque novel in which Terence keeps moving east in search of the world’s funniest comedy.  I suppose the real story is that he died very young.

Terence ran out of Menander plays so quickly because 1) he was writing toward the end of the Roman comedy tradition which was based on adaptations of Greek comedy and 2) he would combine two Menander plays into one Terence play, apparently an innovation.  He invented the double plot.  Even when not using a double plot, as in the Mother-in-Law, he preferred an intricate, complex plot where much of the comic effect is simply watching it tangle and untangle.  I find them engaging but rarely funny.

An example, The Brothers, perhaps Terence’s last play, and a distant source for Molière’s The School for Husbdands.  One brother, Aeschinus, is in love with and has impregnated a poor woman.  This is hidden from both his father and adoptive father.  The other brother is in love with a lute-player, a slave.  Aeschinus abducts her for his brother, so that everyone thinks he is in love with the lute-player.  Two intertwined plots.  After many steps and much running around, Aeschinus marries the mother of his new baby and his brother gets the lute-player., and most importantly the fathers are all reconciled to the matches.

One might get a hint here that The Brothers treats women less as people than as commodities.  The relevant Menander plays have been lost, so there is no way to really know, but it seems to me that the more powerless place of women is genuinely Roman, an adaptation of the plays to Roman culture. 

Key female characters, like the title character of The Girl from Andros, do not even appear on stage.  Sexual assault is a regular means of bringing men and women together.  The happy endings generally leave a sour aftertaste.  Everything works out for the young men, and I suppose the women end up better than several horrible alternatives.

“The play depends on the natural purity of its spoken words” Terence writes in the prologue to The Self-Tormentor, and that is how antiquity took him, preserving multiple manuscripts of Terence in large part because of his pure, elegant Latin, and effect lost on me.  I do not find him very quotable, nor do I think any of his plays are as good as Plautus’s Amphitryon.

Now I will switch to Seneca, the great Roman tragedian, and his insane, bloody adaptations of Euripides.  The Elizabethan revenge tragedy tradition comes directly from Seneca, and he is worth reading just as a source.  If you want to try one, I suggest Medea or Thyestes.  It is well worth looking at the Elizabethan translations of Seneca, collected in Seneca His Ten Tragedies (1581), a book read by Shakespeare, Marlowe, and everyone else.  But modern translations are good, too.  I plan to read some of each.

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Disturbances in the Field by Lynne Sharon Schwartz - What I wanted now was the adventure of being happy in the ordinary way

Disturbances in the Field (1983) by Lynne Sharon Schwartz.  Rohan Maitzen recommended the novel to me because of its unusual use of the Pre-Socratic philosophers.  This is a domestic novel, a fine example of, borrowing from Trollope, the way we live now (or, to me, the way they lived then), smart, dense, and insightful.  And also full of a surprising amount of Heraclitus and Thales and Parmenides.

The “they” is mostly the narrator Lydia, the New York City pianist and mother of four, her family, and her close group of college friends (Barnard College, Class of ’61).  I do not remember reading a similar novel where the college experience is so thoughtfully integrated into the characters’ lives.  The friends bond while taking a year-long introduction to philosophy from a professor who overindulges in the Pre-Socratics, squeezing down Plato and Aristotle, because they are so much fun.  Just what I have found.

The way up and the way down are one and the same, Heraclitus said, endless and, above all, reversible.  (“The Middle of the Way,” 370)

That is from the next to last page of the novel.  Thales appears on the last page.

The first half of the novel is about, roughly speaking, ordinary life and the passage of time.  How do Lydia’s, and her friends’, choices, match up with their youthful ideals?  How do those ideals change?  What is a good life?  Philosophical but also novelistic questions.

Her liberal education served her well. (“Wedlock,” 125)

Schwartz argues, I think, that the liberal arts education of the characters makes their lives richer.  Not happier, oh no no, but deeper.  The good life is full of books:

The long wall in the living room, where we gather, is lined with bookshelves.  The center, most accessible, shelves hold her thick science books.  Below, books of philosophy, politics, sociology.  Above, novels (Nina is an insomniac; Epictetus does not always work) and poetry: Frost, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams – she enjoys the sanctification of the ordinary.  (“The Philosophy Study Group,” 142)

Although our narrator Lydia is more interested in the desanctification of the ordinary.  A musician, she perhaps reserves holiness for the Trout Quinter – this is also a terrific music novel, with a number of insightful passages about music performance.  But in her life, with her family:

What I wanted now was the adventure of being happy in the ordinary way.  (“The Philosophy Study Group,” 160-1)

Disturbances takes a terrible turn exactly halfway through, when the ordinariness of life is destroyed by a tragedy that becomes the subject of the rest of the book.  I wondered if now Schwartz would invoke the consolations of philosophy, but she is more hard-headed than that.  Philosophy does not console, nor does music, nor does anything, really.  This half of the novel is rough going, emotionally.  A chapter entitled “Bed,” two scenes in which Lydia and her husband work on their grief in their new king-sized bed, was especially brutal.  Disturbances in the Field and its narrator are the products of second wave feminism – Jill Clayburgh would have been perfect in a film of the novel – where sex is discussed without prurience or sentimentality but with an honesty that is, in this chapter, almost hard to read.

This land of ours, coarsened by blight, cannot endure.  It’s only a matter of time.  (241, “Bed”)

Rohan, thanks so much for the recommendation. I wonder what Schwartz’s other books are like.