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.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

The sophists and their rehabilitation - they clearly cause the ruin and corruption of their followers

I have been pursuing the sophists, the great antagonists of Socrates and Plato.  Minimized for centuries in the history of philosophy as, following Plato (but not Socrates), hucksters, they, or some of them, are now taken seriously as an intermediate step between the cosmological pre-Socratics and the purely ethical Socrates.

The rise of the sophists looks almost necessary to me.  After a century of bold new ways of thinking about the biggest subjects, it was inevitable that someone would begin to set aside the contents of the arguments and begin to work on how the arguments functioned.  Meaning logic, the movement through an argument, and rhetoric, the devices, often not so logical, used to persuade.

Aware of Wittgenstein, it seems normal to me for a period of innovations in ideas to be followed by a period of investigation of the language of the ideas.  What was less inevitable is that the rise of Greek democracy, especially in Athens, created a substantial, wealthy audience in the market for rhetorical and argumentative tools useful for suing your neighbor and convincing your fellow citizens to expel or execute your enemies.

Thus the horror of Plato and the bad reputation of the sophists.  What began as a search for Truth turns into a bag of tricks, sold for money.

The rehabilitation of the sophists was recent.  I read one of the central books, G. B. Kerferd’s The Sophistic Movement (1981), “still, I think, the finest book on the subject” according to Prof. Hobbs.  It is not even 180 pages and a highly readable, clear and non-technical, mostly, although the chapter titled “The nomos-physis controversy” was awfully rough going.

Since almost no writing by the sophists has survived, the great mass of evidence about them comes from Plato’s dialogues.  Kerferd’s book is a triumph of close reading, almost a deconstructionist exercise, as he searches for the real sophists behind Plato’s massive unreliability.  He does not, in the end, claim that any of them, even Protagoras or Gorgias, were great philosophers, just that some of them made genuine contributions to philosophy, small steps in the decades before Plato and Aristotle swept the field.

Reading around in the dialogues, and under the influence of Kerferd, Plato seems quite fair to a few of the sophists (Protagoras, Gorgias) while others are monsters, like the pair in Euthydemus who recruit students by simultaneously arguing that everyone knows everything already and that nobody knows anything or ever will.  The idea, the way this recruits pupils, is that these sophists will teach you how to argue anything no matter how outrageous or even stupid.  You’ll be invincible, as long as you do not so enrage your opponent that he murders you on the spot.

It is curious that the most brutal anti-sophist prejudice I have come across so far is delivered in Meno not by Socrates but by a character named Amynta:

May no one of my household or friends, whether citizen or stranger, be mad enough to go to these people and be harmed by them, for they clearly cause the ruin and corruption of their followers.  (91c, tr. G. M. A. Grube)

Amynta was one of the lead accusers – murders – of Socrates.  You did not have to be trained by the sophists, it turns out, to be dangerous.  I am learning to see some of Plato’s ironies.

Sunday, February 5, 2023

The endlessly adaptable plays of Plautus - I’ll make it into a comedy with some tragedy mixed in

The plays of Plautus are the foundation of Western comedy.  That they are based on the plays of Menander and the other Greek New Comedy writers was irrelevant, since all of those texts were soon lost.  Plautus (and his successor Terence) carried the stage traditions, the character types, and the jokes into the future.

I read five Plautus plays over the last five weeks.  A play a week seemed like a natural pace.  Amphitryon, Miles Gloriosus (The Braggart Soldier), Pseudolus, Rudens (The Rope), and The Menaechmus Twins, all from the late 3rd and early 2nd century BCE.  Plautus’s plays are also the beginning of Roman literature, the oldest surviving complete works.  The great age of Roman literature (Catullus, Virgil, Lucretius, etc.) is 150 years in the future.  Always curious what is saved and what is not.

How Plautus loves twins.  Separate them at birth and the confusions of their later meeting is all the comedy he needs.  And the play ends when the twins finally meet on stage.  Young Shakespeare turned The Menaechmus Twins into The Comedy of Errors, but added a second set of twins, likely borrowed from Amphitryon, to double the fun.  I have wondered if he was deliberately trying to outdo Plautus.

Revisiting these plays, and having read a lot more plays since I last read Plautus, Amphitryon looks like the star of the bunch.  Jupiter “seduces” Alcmena by appearing as her husband, a general who should be at the front but has returned home for one night just for the sex.  Mercury, disguised as the general’s servant, guards the door.  When the general and his servant return home early, sour comedy ensues as the gods openly torment the humans for laughs.  It all works out, since Jupiter impregnates Alcmena with Hercules, and anyway these are gods so what can you do?

Jean Giraudoux titled his 1928 version Amphitryon 38, putting the question in the title: why another Amphitryon, among the most adapted plays in history.  I’ve read versions by Molière and Heinrich von Kleist.  These versions both at least suggest that part of the comedy of Amphitryon, the abuse of power by the ruler, is not all that funny.  Even Plautus’s Mercury, in a prologue, first calls the play a tragedy, and when the audience groans “turn[s] it from a tragedy to a comedy without altering a line” (3, tr. Lionel Casson):

I’ll make it into a comedy with some tragedy mixed in.  After all, with kings and gods appearing in it, I don’t think it would be right to make it pure comedy.  (3)

But even the more typical comedies, with their young couple in love and loyal slave tricking the grumpy father who is keeping them apart, the purest of comedies, have their sour moments, particularly the way women are treated as property.  And these are the stories where love triumphs over money, fantasies that hint at some of the miseries of ordinary Roman life.

But no one, outside of a university Classics department, would now perform a Plautus play as such.  They are perfect for adaptation, which is what 20th century playwrights have dome with them.  Pump up the female characters, update the jokes, add new songs, and you have The Boys from Syracuse and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.  You have Amphitryon 38, and then 39 and 40.

In February I will read several plays by Terence, more elegant (I am told) and sophisticated (he invents the double plot) than popular Plautus.  Please try one if he sounds interesting.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Sōseki's Kokoro and two Tanizaki genre exercises - I resolved that I must live my life as if I were already dead

It is the 16th year of Dolce Bellezza’s remarkable Japanese Literature Challenge – in the old days for some reason we “challenged” people to read – which reminded me, as it often has, that I have never read anything by Natsumi Sōseki, the earliest of the greatest 20th century Japanese novelists,  This year, finally, I read a Sōseki book, Kokoro (1914), written near the end of his short career.  Donald Keene, in his enormous literary history Dawn to the West: Fiction (, 340) calls it “the finest of Sōseki’s mature works,” so just what I wanted.

For half the novel, a purposeless college student, a classic feckless youth, describes his unusual friendship with a much older man who he calls Sensei, in part because he learns from their talk than from his teachers. 

Sōseki does not give a hint of what they talk about. The second half of the novel is Sensei’s long letter justifying his suicide.  He committed a sin when he was in college that led to a suicide and, for him, a lifetime of guilt.

There were even times when I longed for some stranger to come along and flog me as I deserved.  At some stage this feeling transformed into a conviction that it should be I who hurt myself.  And then the thought struck me that I should not just hurt myself but kill myself.  At all events, I resolved that I must live my life as if I were already dead. (Ch. 108, 229. Tr. Meredith McKinney)

This is the ethos of the entire letter, of this character’s entire life, really.  “[A] character study of an egotist” is what Di at The little white attic calls Sensei’s letter, which is grim and distancing, although psychologically completely believable.  Keene says that is why the novel is successful:

The success of the novel, however, owes less to such echoes of Sōseki’s personal life than to his novelistic skill.  The characters are believable and there are scenes of dramatic tension… (340)

Keene, I tell you, really knows how to undersell.

The Japanese Literature Challenge also reminded me that I have plenty of Junichiro Tanizaki to read, so I tried a pair of novellas packaged together, The Reed Cutter (1932) and Captain Shigemoto’s Mother (1949), both translated by Anthony H. Chambers.  The novellas have in common a use of old poem-stuffed Japanese literary forms.  The Reed Cutters begins as a poetic travelogue, like The Tale of Ise or Basho’s The Narrow Road to Oku, while Captain Shigemoto’s Mother, clearly a product of Tanizaki’s years translating The Tale of Genji into modern Japanese, belongs to the Heian era, wandering among historical figures before gelling into a single, pathetic story.

I enjoyed the literary frames a lot, but I suppose it does help to know that they are genre exercises.  Like Basho, the narrator of The Reed Cutter travels to various sites because other travels have written poems about them, and then he in turn adds his own poem to the history, or by the end of the novella, a ghost story.  Later travelers can visit the site and remember the story, or look for the ghost.

The Reed Cutter features another of Tanizaki’s favorite submissive-dominant sexual relationships, although in this case it is clear that the psychology is what really interests Tanizaki, not the sex, since here the three characters are all celibate.

Captain Shigemoto’s Mother has some similarly odd stuff, including a scene where a man steals the chamber pot of the woman he loves in order to cure himself of his love for her.  It doesn’t work.  The scene is like an audacious Japanese parody of Jonathan Swift’s 1732 poem “The Lady’s Dressing Room.”  The novella’s end, when the mother and son in the title are finally reunited, has its pathetic beauty (“like a child secure in his mother’s love, he wiped his tears again and again with her sleeve”, 180) but it is likely that chamber pot scene that will linger.

Monday, January 30, 2023

Heraclitus and Empedocles - Everything flows - eyes roamed alone

My rummage through the early Greek philosophers has been rewarding, but it is a strange exercise.  “Readers of this book will, I suspect, be frequently perplexed and sometimes annoyed” write Jonathan Barnes in Early Greek Philosophy, a collection with commentary of the most useful and interesting Presocratic fragments, which Barnes says he finds “objects of inexhaustible and intriguing delight” (p. xxxv).  Even more than in my ordinary reading, I am forced to assemble an author from scraps.

Part of the frustration is that so often there is so little to read.  As interesting a figure as Pythagoras, perhaps more a religious figure than a philosopher, left not a single line of writing, even in the works of his followers.  I construct Pythagoras from commentaries on Pythagoras written hundreds of years after his life.  The result, for me, is rather vaporish.

So I thought I would look today at two figures, Heraclitus and Empedocles, with strong personalities, not coincidentally because they both give me more to read.

Heraclitus was an aphorist by nature.  “Character is fate,” for example, although the compression of ideas here belongs as much to Novalis as to Heraclitus. 

Everything flows; nothing remains.

One cannot step twice into the same river, for the water into which you first stepped has flowed on.  (160 of Seven Greeks by Guy Davenport, who prefers “Herakleitos”)

I’m just picking out the most famous sayings, the “wise man” stuff, although these do seem unusually wise to me, the kind of simple but deep thing I associate with the idea of a sage.  It helps – the rewards of immersion – to know that Heraclitus is responding to Parmenides and Zeno and their idea that there is, really, no change at all, but just the illusion of change.  Heraclitus argues for the reverse. 

The “river” aphorisms (“The river we stepped in is not the river in which we stand,” 169) are also linguistic arguments.  Do we agree about what “river” means, exactly?  Heraclitus prefigures Wittgenstein.  Are we arguing about something real, or just about what words means?

The principle of all things is fire.  The world operates by means of opposites.  Knowledge is of the greatest value, but “[k]nowledge is not intelligence” (6), since the other philosophers are all idiots.  Like I said, strong personality.

We’ll return to Seven Greeks when we get to Diogenes the Cynic.

Empedocles, like Pythagoras, was a mystic, in fact a god by his own testimony:

I, in your eyes a deathless god, no longer mortal,

go among all, honoured, just as I seem… (203, tr. Brad Inwood in The Poem of Empedocles, 1992)

now wandering the earth in many forms to expurgate some unspecified sins:

I too am now one of these, an exile from the gods and a wanderer,

trusting in mad strife. (209)

He died by leaping into the volcano on Mount Etna, perhaps to move on to his next stage of godhood, or more hilariously to convince people that he had vanished into heaven, a trick foiled when the volcano spit out one of his distinctive bronze boots.

Empedocles gets credit for claiming all things are a combination of four elements (fire, water, etc.), a long-lasting idea.  He combines it with two forces, Love and Strife, that constantly, cyclically cause all motion.  How is this so different than a world made of 118 elements moved by four fundamental forces?  Empedocles accepts the Parmenidean idea of existence as a motionless sphere, but only in the most extreme, perfect stage of Love, before Strife causes the cycle to start again.

More original than the cosmogony of Empedocles is his theory of evolution.  Creatures begin to emerge from the muck, but they are only partial:

As many heads without necks sprouted up

and arms wandered naked, bereft of shoulders,

and eyes roamed alone, impoverished of foreheads (235)

As these semi-creatures randomly bump into each other they are either repelled or combine to form more complex animals:

Many with two faces and two chests grew

oxlike with men’s faces, and again there came up

androids with ox-heads, mixed in one way from men

and in another way in female form, outfitted with shadowy limbs.  (237)

The poems of Empedocles is really a poem, full of metaphor and imagination.  In terms of pure imagination, I doubt any of the later philosophers are going to top “eyes roamed alone.”

Next month I am going to explore the Sophists and read some of Plato’s dialogues that focus on either the Sophists or the Presocratics.  A month from now, I hope to write about Theaetetus (Presocratics) and Euthydemus (Sophists).  Also likely along the way: Parmenides, Sophist, and Charmides.  These are mostly quite short.  Theaetetus is 120 pages.  The Sophistic Movement by G. B. Kerferd (1981) will be a good supplement.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Paradoxes and epistemology - early Greek philosophy as conceptual innovation - "Zeno argues fallaciously."

The conceptual innovation of Thales that we identify as the birth of philosophy quickly spun off other conceptual innovations.  A real conceptual innovation does not require a book or even an argument.  You say there are many gods?  But what if there were one? Or none?  Everything is made of, at the base, water.  Why not fire, or air?  The question about the basis of existence is more important than the zany answers.  Where did existence come from?  Does it change?  Can there be a thing that is not a thing, the “void”?  How does infinity work?  The questions explode.

Much effort is used to understand motion.  Does anything move at all?  The answer would seem obvious, yet Zeno of Elea shows that Achilles will never catch the tortoise, and that the arrow in the air is not actually moving at all.  I am happy to see that Aristotle finds Zeno as aggravating as I do. Here is Aristotle on the Arrow Paradox:

Zeno argues fallaciously.  For if, he says, everything is at rest when it is in a space equal to itself, and if what is travelling is always in such a space at any instant, then the travelling arrow is motionless.  This is false; for time is not composed of indivisible instants – nor is any other size.  (from Physics, tr. Jonathan Barnes in Early Greek Philosophy, 2nd ed., p. 104)

We are now used to the cinematic special effect that stops time and freezes the bullet in flight along with the jumping dog and the pouring water.  Maybe the hero will pluck the bullet out of the air.  Clearly the arrow is not moving in the frozen moment, nor in any other of the infinitely other frozen moments.  How, then, can we say it is in motion when at no point is it in motion?

I am with Aristotle here, but Zeno’s effect is to demand some deeper thinking about how motion and time work.  My experience is that I must relax into philosophy at least a bit.  Look for the useful question generated by the nonsense and worry less about, or even enjoy, the nonsense itself.

Zeno is defending the rational system of Parmenides, who argues, step by step, in the first half of a rather tedious poem, that existence consists of a single thing, a giant motionless sphere.  In the second half of the poem he describes a world with motion and things but says this is all “opinion,” a phony artifact of our unreliable senses.  Fine, go about acting like there are many things moving around, but really it’s all just that giant sphere of gray goo.  Parmenides has invented epistemology, starting with the radical position that our senses are simply wrong about everything.  The less radical, inescapable question, will never leave us: but how do we really know anything?  I had not known that the question was so old, almost as old as philosophy itself.

Next week I’ll write a bit about Heraclitus and Empedocles, who I singled out because my impression was that they are more enjoyable to read in their own right than most of the other early philosophers.  I have spent a couple of weeks testing this idea, and I think I was right.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Thales, the first philosopher - what is philosophy, anyways?

He [Thales of Miletus] held that the original substance of all things is water, and that the world is animate and full of deities.  They say he discovered the seasons of the year, and divided the day into 365 days.  (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, p. 12, tr. Pamela Mensch)

My received history of philosophy begins with the beginning of that first sentence.  Thales deduces or imagines, sometime in the early 6th century BCE, that all things are made of water, really, when you think about it.  Heraclitus will argue: No, fire; Anaximenes says: No, air.   Anaximander, a student of Thales, picks as the basis of existence “the limitless” or “the indefinite,” an interesting swerve.  Maybe we are made of a mix of things, the four elements, say, or the more abstract microscopic atoms claimed by Democritus

Democritus in some sense got it right, sometimes uncannily right, but his system was as much an imaginative creation as anyone else’s.  Reading the early Greeks, I am witnessing not just the birth of philosophy but a step towards the invention of science, but without the scientific method, or any other method.  Water, fire, a mix: how can I tell which theory is correct?  Or, to ask the question that the scientific method can answer, how can I tell which are wrong?  The tools of philosophy do not have any better answers.

And how is any of this cosmogonizing different than what Hesiod does in Theogony?

Now sound out the holy stock

    of the everlasting immortals

who came into being out of Gaia

  and starry Ouranos

and gloomy Night, whom Pontos, the salt sea,

  brought to maturity (129, tr. Richmond Lattimore)

These stories can be enjoyed literally, but they are also blatantly allegories, attempts to answer the same questions Thales is working on.  Water and air and fire have proper names, that’s all.

The great conceptual innovation of Thales is linguistic, literary.  He removes the names, and removes the allegory.  Philosophy is what we call that.  “[H]e was the first, as some say, to reason about nature” (11) writes Diogenes Laertius, which is preposterous in a sense, but that “some” includes Aristotle who, two hundred years later, was the first writer to get serious about the history of philosophy, mostly in Metaphysics.  Thales is the first philosopher because Aristotle thinks he is.

Given how strong my sense was that “Water if the origin of all things” was the idea that was the origin of all ideas, it has been a genuine shock to discover that the idea of Thales is first found in Aristotle’s Metaphysics where it is likely misinterpreted as not.  The horrifying details are in The Presocratic Philosophers (Kirk, Raven & Schofield, 2nd ed., pp. 89-91).  We’ll never know the truth.

I have included a 17th century print, borrowed from Wikipedia and the Rijksmuseum, of Thales by Jacob de Gheyn III showing Thales doing his thing, somewhat anachronistically.  At some point people no longer wanted images from Thales, but not at that point.

Friday, January 6, 2023

Diogenes Laertius and the fun of the fragment

We have the complete Plato, from multiple manuscript sources.  We have lost every published book (widely copied scroll) of Aristotle’s, but a large mass of what are perhaps transcribed lecture notes survived, barely, in a single manuscript, so that is our Aristotle.  I don’t know the story of Xenophon’s manuscripts.  Every other Greek philosopher survives only in fragments.

“Fragments” suggests, to me, a scrap of disintegrating papyrus with a few words visible on it.  This piece of cloth once had an entire Sappho poem on it, but now we just have fragments of the poem.  Editors of the poems will use brackets to set off the gaps.

With the Greek philosophers, though, the “fragments” are quotations of now lost books found in the later books of others.  Sometimes they are quotations of quotations, centuries after the original, with a long chain of lost works in between.  Sometimes they are perhaps paraphrases.

As books disappear, the secondary source becomes the primary source.  Such is the case with Lives of the Eminent Philosophers (3rd century) by Diogenes Laertius, an eccentric but now invaluable compilation of biography, anecdotes, and quotations by and about dozens of Greek thinkers.  Laertius is now not just a source but the source for many philosophers.

If only it were a better book.  It does not compare to Plutarch’s Parallel Lives or Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Painters, both of which have entries of high literary merit.  Eminent Philosophers often feels more like a collection of notes, the material that could be shaped into a great book.

Diogenes has some weird little obsessions, the oddest of which is writing poems about how philosophers died:

The story goes that, being bald, he [Ariston] suffered a sunstrike and so died.  I have made fun of him in choliambs:

Why, Ariston, though old and bald,

Did you let the sun roast your brow?  (etc., p. 269)

The 2018 translation by Pamela Mensch of Eminent Philosophers is superb: notes (by James Miller), bibliography, illustrations, the works.  Not quite enough to recommend the book as such to anyone not, like me, engaged in a crazy Greek philosophy project.

I owe a debt to “The best books on The Presocratics recommended by Angela Hobbs,” one of many interesting entries in the Five Books series.  Hobbs is Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy – what a title – at the University of Sheffield.  She points to two standard books that present the fragments of the early Greek philosophers.

One is Early Greek Philosophy by Jonathan Barnes, a model of clarity, clearly well-tested on undergraduates.  Barnes works to distinguish the words of each philosopher from the interpretations.  Diogenes Laertius is inescapable.  The section on Thales, the first philosopher, is nine pages long, and half of that is straight from Diogenes.  It is the great source, what can you do.  I strongly recommend the Barnes book to anyone curious.

The alternative mentioned by Hobbs is more advanced.  The Presocratic Philosophers by G. S. Kirk, J. E. Raven, and M. Schofield spends more time interpreting the texts, which often means interpreting the sources.  What does Thales mean when he says such and such – no, what does Aristotle mean when he writes that Thales says such and such.  For some reason I am reading this book as well, and it is already leading to a new, exhausting, epistemological crisis.  Maybe I will write about Thales next week.

An alternative to the alternative would be to read each thinker as an aphorist and not worry so much about the source.  This is the approach taken by Guy Davenport with Heraclitus (and with Diogenes the Cynic, a much later figure) in 7 Greeks.  Heraclitus in 124 aphorisms over thirteen pages.  Maybe that is the way to read the fragments, with the interpretation and sources in the background.  I am reading them every which way.

Anyway, try 7 Greeks for Heraclitus or the Jonathan Barnes book for everyone. 

Thursday, January 5, 2023

Please read Greek philosophy with me - Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, dog men, people jumping in volcanoes

Greek philosophy, readalong #2.

This idea got more interesting the more I thought about it, but had more organizational problems, plus the greater problem that I do not think of philosophy as a strength of mine.  My solution has been to convert the project into literature.

Is philosophy a branch of literature?  I treat it that way.  Philosophers, generally, do not.  As I progress this year perhaps this distinction will become clearer to me, or perhaps it will disappear.

I have organized nine months of reading – does that ever seem like plenty – along conventional historical lines like in many histories of philosophy and in the valuable Lives of the Eminent Philosophers (3rd century, probably) by Diogenes Laertius.  Each month I will work on a school or writer.  At the end of the month, I will write about a key text, giving the project a readalong-like quality, although anyone can read whatever seems interesting, obviously.  Ignore me except to the extent that I am useful.

Picking a text can be a challenge.  Among the dozens of Greek philosophers active from the 6th century BCE up to the Christian era we have intact, substantial texts for four of them: Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle, and Theophrastus, and his are mostly about botany.  Everyone else exists only in fragments, or not at all.  Of course some, like Socrates, did not write anything.  What is a philosopher, anyways?

Here is what I want to read:

January: The Presocratics. The texts: the fragments of Heraclitus and Empedocles.  We will at first embrace the fragment.

The birth of philosophy in western Anatolia and spread to Italy.  Science and mysticism; forbidden beans and jumping in volcanoes.  Heraclitus and Empedocles both lead the pack in the substantial number of fragments and are particularly important to later literature.  Democritus, the inventor of the atom, was tempting, as was Pythagoras, as I understand it not actually the inventor of the Pythagorean theorem.

Tomorrow I will post some advice on how to read these writers.

February: Presocratics and Sophists.  Texts: Euthydemus and Theaetetus, Socratic dialogues by Plato.  The former is about the Sophists; the latter about the Presocratics.

March: Socrates.  Texts: Plato’s pieces about the death of Socrates, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito and Phaedo. 

Xenophon fits here, with his own Socratic dialogues and his Recollections of Socrates.

April: Plato.  Text: The Republic.

I am spreading Plato over many months because I hope to read lots of his work along the way.  I think of him as a significant literary artist.  We’ll see how much I get read.  Most Platonic dialogues (not The Republic) are quite short.

May: Aristotle.  Text: The Nicomachean Ethics.  The obvious literary choice after Poetics

June: Cynicism.  Text: the fragments of my hero Diogenes and selected satires of Lucian.  A number of Greek philosophers are exemplars of turning a severe personality disorder into a coherent ethical system.

Lucian is one of those writers who opened up later writers for me.  He solved mysteries.  He is a satirist and fantasist, not a philosopher, if there is a difference.

July: Epicurianism.  Text: On the Nature of Things (1st C. BCE) by Lucretius.  This is an epic cosmological poem, a masterpiece of Latin poetry, and also the grand presentation of Epicurian ideas.

August: Stoicism.  Text: I don’t know.  The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is the obvious one.  On the Nature of the Gods by Cicero?  Something by Seneca?  All, again, Roman.  Stoicism and Epicurianism turned into major, long-lasting schools of thought, yet barely a scrap of writing by the founding philosophers has survived.

September: Plutarch.  Texts: some relevant essays, like “On the Daimon of Socrates.”  Plutarch is Greek, at least, not a philosopher but rather the inventor of the familiar essay.  He often wrote about philosophical subjects.  I thought it would be valuable, perhaps refreshing, to end with a more deliberately literary figure.

I hope to read a lot more than the texts I have indicated.  My plan is to write some kind of reading journal on Fridays, discussing whatever I have been reading.  Tomorrow, for example, I will write about reading Diogenes Laertius and Presocratic fragments.

Please feel free to suggest modifications and alternatives.  I don’t know who else is really interested in this, even at the level of reading one book.  I know that I sure am interested.

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Please read the Roman plays with me (although not all of them) - Plautus, Terence, Seneca

Roman plays, a sampling, readalong #1.

Fresh off the Greek plays, I want to revisit some of the surviving Roman plays to remind myself what they are like.  Twenty-six comedies and ten tragedies have survived.  I read about half of them long ago and plan to reread fewer than that.

My idea is that I will organize by writer.

Plautus.  Twenty comedies barley survived of the more than a hundred he wrote.  We were down to a single manuscript in the 8th century.  His plays often have little gaps in them, scenes that the mice ate.  The plays are hard to date, but Plautus died in 184 BCE, so late 3rd century to early 2nd. These are actually the earliest surviving complete Roman texts, so for us the beginning of Roman literature.

If you glance at modern translations of Plautus’s plays you will quickly see which are the most famous titles.  The Manaechmus Twins and Amphitryon lead directly to Shakespeare.  Shakespearists should read those two and immediately revisit The Comedy of Errors.  Molière also has an Amphitryon – there are so many versions of Amphitryon – and Plautus’s The Pot of Gold is the basis of Molière’s The Miser.  Miles Gloriosus / The Braggart Soldier is one fans of Falstaff should not miss.  Pseudolus stars the archetypal cunning slave, the center of an endless number of plays, eventually softened into the clever servant.

I think I will stick to these: Pseudolus, The Braggart Soldier, The Pot of Gold, The Manaechmus Twins, and Amphitryon.  I will skip two I have read before, Rudens / The Rope and Casina. I am trying to restrain myself.  I have other things to do.  But it would likely be rewarding to read all twenty.

Terence.  Six comedies by Terence, written between 166 BCE and 160 BCE, the year the young playwright died – or at least disappeared – on the way to Greece where he was looking for Greek plays to pillage.  All of the Roman playwrights reworked Greek plays, the comedians looting Menander and his peers.  Menander typically took two New Comedy plays and combined the plots.  None of the Terence plays or the surviving Plautus plays match with the extant Menander, so we have no idea how original the Romans were.

Terence is sophisticated compared to the populist Plautus.  His Latin is apparently especially elegant, for all the good that does me.  I do not think Shakespeare directly adapted a Terence play, but he and his peers often quote or parody Terence.

It would be easy enough to reread all six plays, but I will try to stick with The Girl from Andros, his first play, written when he was nineteen, The Mother-in-Law, The Self-Tormentor and The Eunuch.  Chosen based on distant memory.

Seneca.  Perhaps not the Stoic philosopher, but I will assume that it is.  He wrote eight plays in the mid-1st century, none of them meant for any kind of performance.  I believe they are all imitations of Euripides.

Elizabethan and Jacobean theater are suffused with Seneca.  Most important, perhaps, are the gruesome Thyestes and the grisly Medea, along with Phaedra and Hercules Furens.

With the Romans we can read Elizabethan translations, a kind of fun unavailable with the Greeks.  The 1581 Seneca: His Ten Tragedies is the place to look.  I read Hercules Furens in this collection; it is astounding(-ly horrible).

Pseudo-Seneca and the Other Pseudo-Seneca.  Octavia is a unique specimen, a play about contemporary events starring Emperor Nero, Empress Octavia and, um, Nero’s advisor Seneca.  If Seneca did write this, he deserves a lot of postmodern credit, but I remember the play as having more historical than literary interest.

I do not know much about Hercules Oetaeus except that it is likely an imitation of Seneca – in fact in places something of a collage of other Seneca plays – and is twice as long as any of the other plays, longer than any Greek play, too.  I’m skipping it, I guess.


My idea is to read roughly a play a week but to write about them once a month.  So, Plautus in early February, Terence in early March, and Seneca in early April.

If you are interested in looking at any of these plays, please let me know if some other scheme would be more suitable.

I sometimes feel like I need to apologize for the Roman plays (thus emphasizing their influence, for example), pale silver imitations of their Greek betters.  But I read Amphitryon a couple of days ago and enjoyed it immensely.  No wonder it is rewritten so often.  It’s a great play.  It got me excited to read more Plautus, certainly, and more Romans.


Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music - enchantment is the precondition of all dramatic art

When I read Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music (1872) several years ago I was interested in it as a 19th century work, as a key text in the cult of Richard Wagner and an early example of the vogue for fantasizing that stuffy Prussian or Victorian propriety will be de-stuffed by a good dose of the Dionysian, whatever that might be, Tristan and Isolde or subversive satyrs.  Here is the comparable Max Beerbohm skewering the latter.

Nietzsche’s central conceit is that the satyrs saved the Greeks, too.  They had been going through a rational, scientific Apollonian phase, as seen in their architecture, sculpture, and the naïve and beautiful Homer, “the complete triumph of the Apollonian illusion” (3, 29) – Nietzsche’s Homer is not my Homer – until the new cult of Dionysus introduced a new element of passion and nature.  The satyr chorus in particular, its music, an early Greek innovation in the Dionysian ritual, is the “rescuing deed of Greek art” (7, 47), “a copy of a more truthful, more real, more complete image of existence than the man of culture who commonly considers himself the sole reality” (8, 47).

Other Greek festivals also have music, but, for example, “the virgins who approach the temple of Apollo bearing laurel branches… remain who they are” while the satyr chorus “is a chorus of people who have been transformed…  they have become the timeless servants of their gods” (8, 50), and the audience to some extent follows along, temporarily.

It is all downhill from there.  Every step away from the satyr chorus, the pure electric guitar feedback and the suffering of Dionysus, like a narrative, or characters representing ordinary people, moves the balance back towards the Apollonian, until the villain Euripides, or really his puppet-master, the arch-villain Socrates, ruins Greek tragedy.  “[U]p to the time of Euripides Dionysus remained the tragic hero, and that all the famous figures of the Greek stage, Prometheus, Oedipus, and so on, are only masks of that original hero Dionysus” (10, 59).  Euripides killed tragedy when he brought “the man of everyday life” onto the stage, no longer depicting “the great and bold traits” but only “the botched lines of nature” (11, 63), “highly realistic imitations of thoughts and emotions devoid of any trace of the ether of art” (12, 70).  This looks like the argument we – well, some people – have about the novel once in a while: too much realism, or not enough realism.

Plus the music composed by Euripides was bad: “you [he is addressing Euripides directly] never managed to produce anything but a masked imitation music” (10, 62).  Nietzsche of course has never heard a note of any Greek music.

I had half-forgotten how much of The Birth of Tragedy is about the death of tragedy, how much of it is about the destructive “audacious intelligence” (12, 70) of Euripides.  Nietzsche has many insights about Euripides, perhaps because he is forced to give his enemy so much of his attention.

I have much doubt about the truth of Nietzsche’s imagined history of tragedy, and more doubts about its use.  “We did tire later” (I’m quoting Beerbohm; please follow the link up above).  But the origins of the plays are so murky, and the resulting works of art so powerful and complex, that I am happy to have many histories, especially when written with such vigor.

I read Douglas Smith’s translation in the Oxford World’s Classics edition.  The title quotation is from 8, 50.

Saturday, December 10, 2022

On Great Writing by Longinus - But greatness appears suddenly; like a thunderbolt it carries all before it

I will deposit my notes on On Great Writing, which is either a 3rd century text by Longinus, one of the great scholars and rhetoricians of his time, or was written earlier and is by someone else.  Who knows.  I will call the author Longinus, and call the work On the Sublime, the title that accompanied the work’s 18th century entry into the canon of literary criticism.  It hits a number of 18th century preoccupations.

Great writing does not persuade; it takes the reader out of himself.  The startling and amazing is more powerful than the charming and persuasive, if it is indeed true that to be convinced is usually within our control whereas amazement is the result of an irresistible force beyond the control of any audience .  (1, p. 4), tr. G. M. A. Grube)

The move from the “charming and persuasive” to “the startling and amazing” is the Enlightenment moving to Romanticism.

A writer’s “inventive skill” and “the structure and arrangement of his subject matter… slowly emerge from the texture of the whole work”:

But greatness appears suddenly; like a thunderbolt it carries all before it and reveals the writer’s full power in a flash.  (1, 4)

This has something in common with Nabokov urging his students to read not with the head or heart but the spine, and perhaps also with Kafka saying that the only worthwhile art is that which feels like an axe splitting the skull.  Roughly speaking, Aristotle was writing in Poetics about he big overall effect of a work, while Longinus is interested in the best individual scenes or images or lines, but they are both critics asking how it all works.

For much of On the Sublime, Longinus identifies rhetorical devices that are part of passages he finds especially great.  I can see how the author is a professional rhetorician – maybe he can teach me how to make my writing great.  But then I notice how much space he gives to bad writing.  My use of the very same devices will likely produce bad writing.  There is still a lot of mystery here.  The best I can do is emulate Homer and Demosthenes, even asking what these writers would think of my words.  “For as we emulate them, these eminent personages are present in our minds and raise us to a higher level of imaginative power” (14, 23).

Longinus mostly looks back at earlier Greek literature, mostly Homer, the three tragedians, and the 4th century BCE Athenian orator Demosthenes – as usual, mostly Athenians.  It is as if a book about great writing written today took the bulk of its examples from Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, which is not implausible.  I am setting aside the surprising appearance by Moses (9, 17) and the part where Longinus inadvertently saves the first stanza of a great Sappho poem (10, 17).

 This bit is like a Twitter game:

… which should be preferred in poetry or in prose, great writing with occasional flaws or moderate talent which is entirely sound and faultless? (33, 44)

Really, would you rather be the flawed but great Sophocles or the flawless but merely good Ion of Chios?  Longinus thinks that “no sane man would count all the plays of Ion to be worth as much as the one play, Oedipus” (33, 45), so on Twitter it the vote would be fifty-fifty.  I am starting to elan towards Ion of Chios myself, out of pity.

Longinus ends by wondering why the writing today, in his day, stinks so much.  His answer is money.  Such a book written today would likely have the same ending.

I plan to read Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (1872) soon, which will finish off this project.  My memory is that Nietzsche’s book is about two-thirds what it says in the title and one-third how Richard Wagner will save us from the cultural decadence begun by the super-villain Socrates.  I’ll write something up before Christmas.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Readalongs I wish someone else would organize - Cuban literature, August Wilson plays, and many more

The glory days of book blogs were full of “challenges.”  I hosted several: Scottish literature, Italian, Austrian, Scandinavian, Portuguese, always limited to the 19th century and earlier to keep the scope manageable.  The idea was that I read a lot, while others were invited to join as they found useful.  I found every one of these “challenges” to be highly useful, intellectually, meaning I read a lot of interesting books and learned a lot about the literary tradition.  Plus every time I attracted new, thoughtful, knowledgeable readers to the blog, people who did not necessarily care so much about Victorian literature but were excited about one of these other traditions.  I have even met some of these people in so-called real life.

So I occasionally think of some kind of readalong that would be exciting to me and I would hope to others.  Who knows, maybe someone else will want to borrow one of them.  I would happily read along with any of them.

My most neurotic idea is to read the ten most important American books that I have not read.  Beloved easily tops the list academically; To Kill a Mockingbird popularly.  The Woman Warrior, Ceremony, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, like that.  In 2017 or so I looked up, in the MLA International Bibliography, the 20th century American works most cited in academic writing.  I had not heard of Borderlands/La Frontera, a pioneering work of Chicana literature, I am told.

This one is a bad idea because it is too much about me, about what I happen not to have read.  Who cares.  But I would sure feel well-read if I did it.  Temporarily well-read.  That feeling never lasts.

Better ideas: contemporary plays.  Or within the last fifty years.   Or just read 21st century plays. Say ten or a dozen plays, once every two weeks.  They would mostly be American, British, and Irish, just based on the availability of texts. 

I have been testing this idea.  In the last year I read Women of Owu (2006) by Femi Osofisan (a Geeek adaptation), Cherokee Family Reunion (2012) by Larissa FastHorse (interracial family comedy) , The Ferryman (2017) by Jez Butterworth (family comedy mixed with The Troubles), and The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda (2019) by Ishmael Reed (a surprisingly gentle lecture).  Enough to see there is a lot to enjoy out there. 

Shakespeare is the center of the English tradition, yet contemporary plays seem increasingly distant from any literary discussion I see.  I do not know why that is.  The playwrights seem to be doing their jobs.

An obvious readalong would be to work through August Wilson’s ten play “Pittsburgh Cycle,” Fences and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and so on.  This one practically organizes itself.

My preference, though, is to work on a tradition, not an author, often one about which I know little. I thought about a year of reading Caribbean literature, meaning islands; the United States is a Caribbean country.  Wilson Harris, Derek Walcott, V. S. Naipaul, Dany Laferrière, Maryse Condé, for example.  Wouldn’t that be interesting.

Poking around, I soon saw that Cuban literature would make a great readalong on its own.  Something like this, one book per month for ten months:

First two novels by Alejo Carpentier, maybe The Kingdom of This World (1949) and The Chase (1956) on the basis that they are short.  I have a prejudice that readalong books should mostly be short.


Paradiso (1966) by José Lezama Lima

Hallucinations (1966) by Reinaldo Arenas, although his memoir Before Night Falls (1992) is the more obvious choice

Three Trapped Tigers (1967) and A View of Dawn in the Tropics (163) by Guillermo Cabrera Infante

Cobra (1972) and Maitreya (1978) by Severo Sarduy. Do these ever sound weird.

Everybody Leaves (2006) by Wendy Guerra, or Revolution Sunday (2016), or both.

Plus a poetry month to try Dulce María Loynaz or Nicolás Guillén.

Lots of strange, baroque books.  Sounds fun.  Since I drew up a plan, I might as well provide it.

I would like someone else to organize a readalong of postwar Italian literature, of Hungarian literature, of Sanskrit classics, of Arabic poetry, of contemporary American poetry, for that matter.  I suppose I could not join all of these, really.

The August Wilson plays, though, that is a sire thing.  You just have to decide on the order.  Easy.

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Planning next year's readalong opportunities - Greek philosophy and Roman plays

If only I had another idea as good as reading all the Greek plays in order.  But I do have ideas.

1. Roman plays.  Up to five Roman playwrights have survived: the comedians Plautus and Terence and the tragedian Seneca, along with two plays under his name that were likely written by others.  The Roman creative spirit is often deeply imitative of Greek literature, and is that ever the case here, with Seneca adapting Euripides and the comedians pilfering Menander and the other New Comedy playwrights.

Twenty plays by Plautus have survived, along with six by Terence (his complete works – he died young), eight by Seneca, and the two “Seneca” plays not by Seneca.  It is certainly possible that the famous Seneca, the Stoic philosopher, did not write any of them, but I will assume that he did.

I would not want to read through all of the Roman plays.  Twenty Plautus plays!  I had enough trouble writing two posts about his model Menander.  Some of that reading is best left to graduate students.  But if you are on the road to Shakespeare, some Roman comedy and especially some Seneca are essential.  Shakespeare never read the Greeks, but he read the Romans.

So next year I will revisit the Roman plays.  Say one writer per month; maybe three or four plays per author?  No obvious reason to read the exact same plays.  Shakespearists should try, at least, The Brothers Menaechmus (for The Comedy of Errors) and The Braggart Soldier (for Falstaff) by Plautus and a couple of the more famous Seneca plays – say Medea and Phaedra and Hercules Furens.  Euripideans will be fascinated, or horrified, by what Seneca does.  A fun idea not available with the Greeks: Seneca’s plays are available in Elizabethan translation.  I read one of them twenty years ago and hope to try a couple more.

Three writers, three months, a dozen plays at most.  Easy.  Please join in if you want to continue the history of theater.  In fact, please read them all and let me know what you find.  I’ll write all of this up again in early January.

2.  Greek philosophy.  I think I have figured out how this would work as a readalong.  Each month I, or we, will focus on a specific school or writer.  We will have one central, famous text, but of course there is endless reading available.  Something like this:

Presocratics – the aphorisms of Heraclitus, or the verse of Empedocles, or both

Sophists – Theaetetus by Plato

Socrates – the three “death of Socrates” texts, Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito, by Plato

Plato – The Republic

Aristotle – The Nicomachean Ethics

Epicureanism – The Nature of Things by Lucretius (I’m cheating, this is Roman)

Stoicism, Cynicism, etc.  – still thinking about these

I’ll use Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius as a gossipy, inaccurate guide to the subject.  The 2018 Oxford University Press edition of this 3rd century semi-classic is a wonder, newly translated, illustrated, and with a superb bibliography.

Philosophy, to me, is a branch of literature, a difficult for one for a number of reasons, one of which is that to most philosophers it something else, and perhaps I will learn to understand that idea as I read more, but until then. This will be a literary project.  There is so much Plato on that list because he was, in much of his writing, a great artist.

Again, I will write this up in more detail in January.

Please add any suggestions of your own, whether or not you are interested in reading along with this or that text.

I have a number of ideas for readalongs that are much better than these.  I will write about them tomorrow.,  Perhaps someone else will want them.

I still need to write up my notes on Longinus.  But this is easier to write.