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The Great Books Of The Western World

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    Registered Users Posts: 1,553 ✭✭✭ Black Sheep


    This thread will chronicle my attempt at reading a list of books proposed by the American author and philosopher Mortimer J. Adler as being the greatest books in the Western canon. Sometimes referred to as The Great Books of the Western World.

    (Adler had a kind of compressed version of his list published and sold as a sort of encyclopaedia-type set but I will be buying or borrowing the texts piecemeal.)

    1. Great Books programmes and reading lists

    The interest in identifying a core curriculum of books which were representative of the best of Western thought is an early 20th century American thing. I first became exposed to it via Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren's book 'How to read a book', written in 1940 (which proposes an extensive reading list of about 327 authors in an appendix).

    Adler falls into the category of Great Books enthusiasts who believed that a person could educate themselves in an autodidactic manner through a course of reading such works, although he was also an educator who advocated for home-schooling and was involved in other formal schooling initiatives.

    There were and are Universities - particularly in the US, with St John's College in CA probably being the best example - which offer liberal arts degrees solely based on a study of a Great Books curriculum.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_books

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_canon#Great_Books_Program

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mortimer_J._Adler

    2. Mortimer J. Adler's Great Books reading list


    Adler's reading list can be found summarised at the bottom of the Great Books page above, but is broken down more extensively and specifically in his writings.

    I like this list because most of the books on it are readily accessible either through imprints like Penguin Classics, which can be had for a song, or I can get them from the Trinity Library via my graduate alumni card (I hope). I also think, in comparing it with some other Great Books lists, that there is a significant overlap with others' choices in any case. Realistically a lot of the core texts in any list like this is going to include Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, I think it's towards the close of the list where perhaps more debate comes in with regard to who merits inclusion. Adler did quite a lot of interviews fighting his corner with regard to decisions he made on this score which are available online and which I believe hold a certain amount of water.

    (There are obviously many possible criticisms of the very concept of a Great Books canon from a Marxist, feminist point of view, but I - frankly - I'm just not interested in them. Marx's 'Das Kapital' and 'The Communist Manifesto' are on the list though)

    3. Starting point and outline of the reading plan

    This is a real project and based on reading and listening to others who have attempted it before it's evident that most never finish.

    Some have estimated that it is a 10 to 12 year task, but the figure of 12 years is usually arrived at my means of planning to read for 30 minutes per day with one day off per week. At first 30 minutes does not seem like a lot, and there will undoubtedly be days where it is possible to read for longer, but it is the consistency of grappling with what are, in many cases, very very 'difficult' books which usually scuppers peoples' efforts.

    Adler's 'How to read a book' offers significant advice on tackling difficult books. Some of these are technical tools to ensure continued attention when reading, and some is advice on skimming or 'pre reading'.

    I probably do read for 30 minutes per day (or more) as is, and I have a university background in a relevant field that should help me, as the texts of heavy with philosophy classics. Some of the list is familiar to me, either from reading the primary texts or otherwise, but a lot of it - the fiction, poetry and plays - are not.

    This isn't going to be easy but the main reason that I am trying it is that I believe that the purpose of reading is not just to entertain but also to improve. I have been convinced by the argument that even if this is difficult then if I can do it for one year then how likely is it that at the end of that year I will really regret spending the time and effort reading these classics that in the past every educated person would have been familiar with? Maybe I will, but I guess if I can last a year or close to it and that is genuinely how I feel then I will drop the whole thing (as many others before me have evidently done).

    As it stands I'm also reading a lot of duds and rubbish so I figure that a curated list of classics can't really be any worse than some of the drek I have inadvertently picked for myself.

    My Robert Fagles' translation of Homer's 'The Iliad' arrived yesterday, and I will be starting the project this week.

    I'm not sure how often this log will be updated, and I have been thinking of setting up a full on blog - but we'll see...

    Wish me luck - I'll clearly need it :rolleyes:


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  • World Of Books delivered another batch of books.

    Got the following queued up now. I will discuss which translation etc when I get to them but in the main they are Penguin Classics editions. The translators do vary depending on what era from.

    1.Homer
    2.The Old Testament
    3.Aeschylus
    4.Sophocles
    5.Herodotus
    6.Euripides
    7.Thucydides

    Honestly, most of the books that came were listed as 'good' condition and were under £3 price-wise. I would judge them as 'like new', personally.




  • After a bit of a slow start (Adler's HOW TO READ A BOOK took a little longer than I anticipated to polish off) I'm into THE ILIAD for the past few days.

    Book 1 has proven more engaging than I had hoped for. I guess I'm approaching reading all these classics with a degree of apprehension about whether or not I'm actually capable of enjoying them in the conventional sense of the word. I was / am a bit worried that my 'palate' has been ruined over the years.

    So far so good. It's been both enjoyable and intelligible.

    Of late I've been reading and listening to a lot of leadership and strategy related podcasts and books and its hard not to look at the bust-up between Achilles and Agamemnon through that lens.

    Agamemnon and Achilles are, fundamentally, arguing over whether or not Agamemnon will give up Chryseis, the stolen daughter of a priest of Apollo, in order to ward off a plague that has befallen the army in punishment.

    Although Agamemnon says 'What I really want is to keep my people safe, not see them dying', literally in the same verse he shows his real motive is self-interested: 'But fetch me another prize, and straight off too, else I alone of the Arives go without my honour. That would be a disgrace. Look- my prize is snatched away!'.

    Achilles harangues Agamemnon in a back and forth. His criticisms all relate to the immorality of Agamemnon's leadership. His cowardice, but mainly his self interest trumping his concern for his soldiers.

    Achilles: 'Agamemnon, great field marshal... Most grasping man alive... [...] How can the generous Argives give you prizes now? I know of no troves of treasure, piled, lying idle, anywhere. Whatever we dragged from towns we plundered. All's been portioned out. But collect it, call it back, from the rank and file? That would be the disgrace.'

    Agamemnon's response reminds me of that boss that we've all had. Any mention of the morale or needs of the workforce go whooshing over their head, and it all comes back to them. This is serious projection on Agamemnon's part. 'Not so quickly, brave as you are, godlike Achilles- trying to cheat me. Oh no, you won't get past me, take me in that way. What do you want? To cling to your own prize.' (Agamemnon wants Achilles' slave girl in return for giving up Chryseis if he must)

    Later Achilles paints a picture of Agamemnon's faults in a more rounded way. 'Never once did you arm the troops and go into battle or risk an ambush packed with Achae's picked men- you lack the courage, you can see death coming. Safer by far, you find, to foray all through the camp, commandeering the prize of any man who speaks against you. King who devours his people!'.

    This is picture of a horrifying leader, who perverts the idea of Kingship. Because while I think we could get behind the idea that Achilles is wrong in thinking that a general should risk himself in harm's way with his foot soldiers, what is intolerable is the idea of Agamemnon as a REMF who is not just taking it easy in camp but who is actively plundering loot from his own men... And particularly from those who speak against him. Achilles mentions Agamemnon ruling 'husks'. I'm taking it that he is referring to a kind of malaise setting in whereby no one calls Agamemnon out for anything because they know that they'll just be the ones he picks clean because of that criticism. Most people can probably relate to this. There's a reason people don't call out bullies - for fear of becoming the target themselves.

    I guess jealousy is an underlying driver in Agamemnon's dislike of Achilles, as well as the knowledge that Achilles cannot be cowed by him. He acknowledges Achilles' expertise in war, but he simultaneously dismisses it as - in effect - none of Achiless' own doing. 'What if you are a great soldier? That's just a gift of god'. It reminds me of the way top athletes are often explained away as "just" being naturally talented. It's almost a put down, in that it plays down the role of hard work. And of course it must be frustrating for those top performers who actually have only modest genetic gifts and are mainly a product of their own commitment and hard graft.

    It seems to me that Achilles answers this accusation in a kind of non direct way later on, when he says 'If a man obeys the gods, they're quick to hear his prayers'. This seems kind of like a riff on the idea that the more a man prepares the luckier he gets. Though of course there's no doubt that Achilles does have a serious dose of divine mojo from his mother Thetis, and she's his trump card in this book, interceding on his behalf with Zeus himself when Achilles decides he's going to effectively wish doom on his own army in order that they have to call him back into action to save them all. So he's not exactly entirely moral paragon that he appears when he is deriding Agamemnon.

    The last comment I want to make is about old Nestor's advice to Achilles. He says 'Never hope to fight it out with your king, putting force against his force: No one can match the honors dealt a king, you know, a sceptered king to whom great Zeus gives glory. Strong as you are- a goddess was your mother- he has more power because he rules more men'.

    Putting aside the context, and the believe that Homer must have had around the notion of kingship and divinity, and the relationship between them, you could read this comment - in a contemporary way - as a warning to workplace dissidents that you can't beat the system. Or at least that you can't meet it head on with force and obstinacy. You've either got to take an oblique approach (Or flank it, as Jocko Willink would say) or "lead up" the chain of command to try to get a better outcome, play the game to get along.




  • Onto book 2 of THE ILIAD.

    Some divine skullduggery afoot as Zeus is persuaded by Thetis to effectively 'set up' the besieging force in order that they take enough casualties that Achilles is needed back in action. As I said previously, Achilles' collusion with Thetis in this regard seems somewhat at odds with his complaining about Agamemnon being a leader who acts against the best interests of his men.

    What I kind of struggle with is the fact that when Agamemnon is sent a dream by Zeus telling him to attack Troy en masse (and suffer losses as a result) he does this odd - from my perspective - thing where he explains that as a matter of tradition he is first going to pretend to the army that they should go to their ships because they're going to lift the siege and go home. The troopers are - after nine years of grinding - naturally thrilled. Then Odysseus and the other kings have to go around telling them no, they can't go, and whatnot. Effectively, Agamemnon was just having a laugh, now you're all going to go over the top and attack the walls of Troy.

    Why? What's the purpose?

    I presume this is something that makes sense if you know more about the history of these passages, and maybe what the subtext is, but I'll have to come back to that at a later date, because I've decided that on the first read I am just going to blow through things like this, leaving them for later attention if necessary.

    The other thing that's striking me is that it's interesting that a point is made of how Odysseus is reasonable and more or less gentle with the officers and aristocrats but is brutal with the foot soldiers in terms of making them do what he wants.

    This culminates in Odysseus coming across Thersites, who we are told is a pointy-headed club-footed ugly soldier who is constantly insulting the Kings, and that he is hated by Achilles in particular. Thersites talks smack about Agamemnon and is duly beaten down by Odysseus. Literally, he gets hit with Odysseus's kingly sceptre, and Odysseus says something to the effect of Thersites not having the right to insult someone so far above his station. We're told the whole army is delighted.

    So there's this idea of the common man not arguing with what a king is, and Odysseus mentions that as something like a person having the sceptre and all the divine gifts needed for kingship. Not a concept (kingship) that we're too familiar with these days, and if we consider it just to mean something like "competent leader" then there's a lot lost in translation, because of course for a lot of human history this idea of kingship was more than just someone with the most money, or the most votes, it was tied up with the idea of divine right. Must admit I'm not too au fait, however, with whether this was the dominant idea in Homer's time or not. Something to come back to I guess.

    What I can understand is that maybe Thersites can also be taken as the kind of naysayer and grumbler that is present in every organisation. Sometimes there might well be a need for someone to 'speak truth to power' but equally we all know that guy or girl who just comes in to work and wants to talk **** about everything without providing a solution. Given time, a person like this can really ruin morale. In my experience if you're part of a disciplined organisation (police, military, first responders or similar) then you'll often find that when people like these are put back in their box then many of their colleagues are pretty delighted, which may explain the army's pleasure at Thersites' fate.




  • A few interesting aspects to Book 3 and Book 4.

    There are more dive offspring in the forces besieging Troy than I'd expected, as well as individuals carrying weapons formerly held by Gods.

    Ascalaphus is the son of Ares, and it's interesting to me that (for example) it's Achilles who is the paramount warrior and not - for the sake of argument - someone like Ascalaphus who has a similarly hardcore pedigree.

    Or someone like Tlepolemus, son of Herakles?

    By way of general comment I couldn't help but think of the recent movie 'Troy' with Brendan Gleeson playing Menelaus and Orlando Bloom playing Paris, when it came to the duel between the two men. This is the problem with seeing something like that and then trying to read the original material. It's hard not to visualise a slightly brutish Menelaus when reading the passages, seeing a huffing and puffing Brendan Gleeson in your mind's eye. Whereas in the text Menelaus is clearly a badass, and it seems like Helen has conflicted feelings, to say the least, about her 'former husband'. In fact, I hadn't expected the extent to which Helen clearly suffers over the decision she made to leave behind her child, her kin and whatnot, and go to Troy and Paris' bed. Following Aphrodite's intervention at the close of the duel to spirit Paris away to safety (!) it seemed like Aphrodite literally forces Helen to comply with her wishes and go back to Troy. Hadn't expected that.

    I liked the way Homer sketched out the 'ridge' that lies outside the city and is the natural bulwark where Trojan forces form up in defence of the city. Again though, couldn't help but visualise the movie's battle scenes.




  • Book 5.

    When I'm done with 'The Iliad' I want to look a little at the depiction of ancient warfare in the text through secondary sources, but not right now.

    I have been meaning for a while to look at books by Donald Kagan and Victor Davis Hanson on hoplite warfare. I've been interested since I read the very fictionalised (but compelling) imagining of the battle of Thermopylae by Stephen Pressfield in 'Gates of Fire'.

    'The Iliad' suggests or implies quite a lot of information about the way these guys were fighting. We know that the long spear was a primary weapon and Book 5 has some grisly death scenes. People being skewered through the temple, through the mouth, through the forehead, through the bladder, through the navel through the ribs and quite a lot squarely through the chest. There's one horrible death where a guy gets stabbed through the back of the neck and we're told the spear blade bisects his tongue in his mouth, and he falls dead to the ground, his teeth clenching down on the 'cold bronze'. Yikes.

    There's some Pressfield-style 'shield bashing', with the Trojan and Achaen lines locking shields at one point and pressing on each other, 'welded boss' to 'welded boss'. This is how some classical warfare scholars have imagined the clash of phalanxes - as basically glorified pushing matches until one side broke.

    It's always struck me as odd that, if this were the case, the primary weapon would be a tremendously long spear useless at close quarters. If they were transitioning to short bronze swords then you'd think the worst time to do that would be after the window in which your spear had become useless and now you were shield to shield and ramming into the opposition.

    There are quite a few scenes in Book 5 where people are being chased down or attacked from behind. At first I thought this was odd, considering these guys are supposed to be engaging in line warfare, but I guess it makes more sense if we assume that the person being chased has lost the push of phalanxes and is a routed opponent skewered when he turns away.


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  • https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/classics/students/modules/warfare/essays/the_homeric_way_of_war_1.pdf

    The author wants to make the case that although 'The Iliad' seems to present evidence of phalanx warfare as occurred later in Greek history, in fact it was more likely to have been mass hand-to-hand fighting with formations present only before battle or in circumstances such as where troops were rallied together having been routed.

    I am not sure I actually agree with his logic (I'm not convinced by the arguments presented, in fact I think they could be entirely in keeping with what I know / have read about phalanx warfare so far).

    Haven't read it all but I will be interested to see what he has to say about what is to me the most baffling part of Homeric combat: People seem to fight at both long and close range at the same time. Again, that issue of having very very long spears and yet also being hemmed in cheek and jowl. Not to mention spears being thrown, even rocks (as occurs in one instance in Book 5).




  • "Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men.
    Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth,
    now the living timber bursts with the new buds
    and spring comes round again. And so with men:
    as one generation comes to life, another dies away."

    Glaucus, as he faces Diomedes, who has been on an absolute tear, mowing down Trojans galore, and has just asked him (Glaucus) if he is "another born to die".

    As they talk they realise there is a kind of guest-tie between Glaucus' family and Diomedes' family. They are, as Diomedes puts it, 'hosts' for one another in their respective countries because of their shared history. They agree not to fight each other, and exchange armour: Glaucus' gold for Diomedes' bronze.

    I was watching Netflix's adaptation of Richard K Morgan's 'Altered Carbon' SF novel this morning. For those unfamiliar, the novel was a genuinely good cyberpunk noir that had some of the fastest-paced and best action scenes in British SF at the time. Morgan was kind of in that trendy group of UK SF authors along with Iain M Banks, Alistair Reynolds ... Or may a tier or two below, with the likes of Neal Asher. Not quite as critically lauded as the likes of Banks.

    The Netflix adaptation of 'Altered Carbon' takes some considerable liberties but it's still quite good. Something that they changed is to flesh out the motivations of a historical character who was trying to bring down an interstellar human empire, raze it to the ground. The conceit of 'Altered Carbon' is that humanity has digitised consciousness and as a consequence there is a kind of immortality on offer for those who can afford it. The wealthy buy 'sleeves' into which they insert 'stacks' which contain their digitised consciousness.

    Anyway, this is a long-winded way of saying that in the Netflix TV series the rebel leader trying to bring down this human society argues that immortality through 'stacks' is the end of humanity as a species. That the end result will be that the worst humans, the most venal, the most aggressive, can now live forever and their rapaciousness is no longer capped by the human lifespan. So she argues that the most evil and most competent will, ultimately, beat out everyone else to "own everything".

    It's obviously a pretty blatant riff on the problem of inequality and the possibility that the superrich technogeniuses, but there might be something to it if that technology ever came about.

    I guess it would mean the end of the kind of seasonality that Glaucus is talking about, the natural rise and fall of humans through the generations.




  • Maybe halfway through The Iliad at this stage, still enjoying it and surprised at how accessible it is.

    Some fantastic little moments, such as when Phoenix, part of the embassy sent by the Achaens to try to convince Achilles to rejoin the fight as the Trojans are just one night away from crushing the invaders against their ships, talks to Achilles about what it was like to be a kind of 'manny' to him. He recollects Achilles sitting on his knee at feasts, presumably as a very young child, and sopping wine down Phoenix's shirt. Very human somehow.




  • After a bit of a rampage I finished The Iliad this evening, and returned to the beginning of the Penguin Classics edition to read Fagles' sixty page essay on his translation.

    I deliberately avoided reading his analysis because I didn't want my understanding to be shaped by his views.

    Fundamentally, The Iliad is about Achilles' rage and the dire implications it has for both his enemies and his friends. He quarrels with his fellow kings (more specifically, he feuds with Agammemnon) to the point where ultimately he spends a majority of the bloodiest year of the war sulking in his lodge. When he finally emerges and goes back to battle, he famously kills Hector, who Fagles suggests represents civilisation and family.

    Hector's scenes in Troy, and with his wife and child, are such a contrast to Achilles' life (no family for him, and martial glory but not the same kind of genuine love Hector receives from his people).

    Achilles only survives killing Hector for a brief period, but nonetheless it's kind of depressing. Couldn't help but feel particularly sorry for Hector's son Astyanax. The dad in me.




  • First chapter of The Odyssey down. The change of translator is welcome, makes it feel like a change versus more Fagles.


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  • A little over halfway through The Odyssey.

    Hadn't quite realised it was a written as several 'story within a story' segments.

    The other thing I grapple with a little bit is understanding the Ancient Greeks' attitudes to being a guest versus being a raider.

    On the one hand Odysseus expects to be, and is, received as a guest and lavished with gifts and good treatment by many actors in the book. Guest right is obviously a massive thing, as it remains today in many cultures.

    On the other hand, when Odysseus is a guest at one point and is recounting his movements after the fall of Troy he casually mentions that he and his ships raided a particular coastal city and 'killed the menfolk' and 'divided up' the women. His men more or less rebel at leaving immediately, and what happens is they are caught on the beach by inland forces who arrive and avenge the coastal city.

    I guess I'd like to know where the line is... How does Odysseus square razing one city to the ground, and then turning up as a beggar / supplicant at the next. And if piracy like this is occurring, how does any community take in a stranger and treat him well, if he might just as well have raided them if he arrived in force?

    Feel like I'm missing something.




  • Finished off The Odyssey.

    It appears that the concept of guest right / hosting is referred to by the word 'xenia' and critics have broken down all the instances of xenia present in the story.

    What I didn't quite catch is that xenia is also the reason Odysseus is so absolutely merciless to the suitors and his unfaithful maids when he wins out upon his return home. The suitors haven't just tried to chop up his estate and steal his kingdom, they've specifically abused the notion of xenia, by moving in and eating him out of house and home and spurning Telemachus' request at the beginning of the story that they go to their own homes and eat their own food. The abuse of xenia in this way is tantamount to trying to exterminate Odysseus' household as, as is noted in one essay I read, in the ancient world a household only survives as long as it can put food on the table. Eat a household out of 'house and home', by sapping their wealth past a crucial point, and you're effectively killing them off. So Odysseus kills off the suitors and quislings amongst his household.

    Now onto The Old Testament.

    I slightly regret going with the King James bible (authorised version, 1611). I wanted the beauty of its English versus something like the Catholic Bible / MEV which is dull as dishwater but is immediately comprehensible. I will be dead honest and admit that I just don't understand some of the turns of phrase in the King James bible, at least in Genesis so far.

    It helps that I've listened to all the Jordan Peterson biblical lectures. I'm reading and hearing his voice in my head (that is to say, the voice of Kermit The Frog).




  • Picked up a CTS New Catholic bible, which was probably a bit of an odd choice, but I was a bit rushed. Probably should have opted for a Good News Bible.

    I don't think there's anything objectively wrong with the CTS New Catholic bible for my purposes, it's certainly more readily legible.

    I figure if I'm going to get through 1200 pages of the Old Testament I need to knuckle down more. I'm estimating 2-3 months realistically.

    Still on Genesis.




  • Finally finished Genesis, now into Exodus.

    It has made me realise how slowly Jordan Peterson is progressing with his biblical lecture series.

    Really glad I got a modern translation, this is much easier going. Still looking at a couple of months for this, I suspect.




  • Completed Exodus.

    By way of general comment:-

    Man, if you want to read something controversial in a public place, make it the bible. I have never read anything that has resulted in so many questions, comments and / or dirty looks from people.

    I suppose I'd consider myself a proponent of what CS Lewis termed 'mere Christianity' (I cannot say I believe all the things that are required to be a Catholic anymore), or perhaps on my moodier days even something like a Christian agnostic. I know that to some extent the West is really post-Christian at this point, and I believe mostly to its detriment, but I am nonetheless surprised at the reaction a lot of people have to seeing someone with a bible in public. It's an almost emotional reaction from some people, I find, like they're not happy about it and they don't know why.

    The general line of response I go with is to say, truthfully, that I'm reading it because -as with the other books on my list - it's a foundational text. Foundational for Western philosophy, politics, history, literature... For better or worse, whatever you think of it.

    Jordan Peterson's point, and I think it holds water, is that there must be something about the bible (or the tissue of stories that make it up, if you like) that is of value, or else we wouldn't have preserved them this long, and with such enduring impact.

    Even if they really were reprehensible in whatever way you want to frame them, the question would still have to be asked, why did these stories / this text have the effect on history that they / it did.

    Now some comments specific to Exodus:-

    What I found interesting is that when God tells Moses to go and ask Pharaoh to set his people free, he also tells him that he will 'harden Pharaoh's heart' and this is repeated several times. There's almost a robbing of Pharaoh's agency going on in the sense that before Moses even begins God tells him that he (God) is going to make Pharaoh answer a particular way. It's not something I have heard before, and there is a note made in my CTS translation, perhaps because it's an odd little thing, that states that historically, in some interpretations, there is no difference between what God makes happen and what he permits to happen. I think this would need to be teased out more but from the point of view of discussion human free will versus a deterministic model here there's a lot to be said. We've obviously moved at a certain point more towards a viewpoint where (if you are a believer) God is usually conceived of to permit human evil to occur. But to frame this as one and the same as God 'making' it happen is a rather different idea, but not one which is necessarily easily dismissed depending on how it is laid out, I suppose. There's a long history of discussion about whether God causes, permits or authors events (particularly sins).

    Secondarily there's a lot of details in here that I just hadn't heard before. It seems that up until about the third curse sent by God on the Egyptians, there is no belief on their part that Moses is really passing on God's demands, because the Egyptian magicians can replicate God's punishments. So there is a reference to the Magicians turning the river blood red and foul, the same as God's action. Then, there comes a point where they can't replicate something (Flies? I forget) and they tell Pharaoh that 'God's finger' is in this.

    General comments:-

    - Never realised that the significance of the food instructions for Passover are that they are all related to the way nomads or travellers would eat or prepare their food ... Cooking directly on the fire, eating prepared for travel (staff in hand etc) and the unleavened bread. Obvious in hindsight.

    - Aaron's explanation to Moses in relation to the golden calf is actually kind of hilariously bad. Reminded me of my three year old's arguments. Things just happen, things just appear, he is never to blame.

    - Striking how towards the end of Exodus when the tabernacle is built and there is a meeting place and protocol the Israelites really are 'with' God in a tangible sense. Pillars of smoke, rules for meeting him at the tent, and it's all very literally presented, as if he's a travelling companion who lives in the sky and flies down to the tent periodically to meet the bigwigs and lead the way.

    Leviticus now. Yes, very legalistic.

    Food instructions and notions of uncleanliness are surprisingly interesting though.




  • Slogging through Numbers. I feel like I am wandering in the desert alongside Israel ;P




  • Moving through somewhat more smoothly now. I'm on the second book of Numbers. If I can get through a book a day I'm estimating that I'll be done in a little over a month, which is better than I anticipated. I've knuckled down more.

    There are a couple of things in my mind as I proceed through the Old Testament:-

    1) It's important to me that I get some grasp of it in order that when the time comes to read the New Testament I can understand the significance of Jesus in the context of the Old Testament and the story of Israel. I think the NT references or reflects what was promised in the OT so extensively that to read Jesus' teachings outside of that context is to miss an awful lot of what is going on. So far I feel like I'm going OK with this, relatively speaking.

    2) The Deuternomic story (Could be butchering that word) is a bloodthirsty one. This stage of the OT paints a picture of a pretty expansionist Israel and God has a covenant with them whose continued solidity depends on the degree of their faithfulness to him and his commandments. You could argue that he never lets them down, they only let him down, but either way there is some moral implications to be unpacked here. Medieval philosophers like Aquinas got very good at explaining the apparent difficulties with the OT God away, putting it down to our inability to understand his motives and intentions from 'our side of the divine'. However, there's no doubt that - on the face of it - he's a pretty bloodthirsty God and he isn't stepping in to prevent his chosen leaders for Israel fighting wars of extermination against their enemies. Moses, maybe most notably, reprimands his army for taking enemy women and children prisoner after killing all the men. The women can pervert the men of Israel and lead them away from God, he says. So all the women who have known a man are killed. There are evangelical philosophers like William Lane Craig who have tried to tackle the apparent moral difficulty here, but I'm not sure they have succeeded in convincing me (not going to reproduce his argument here as I don't know that I would do it justice).

    3) Remarkable how fallible and morally mixed many of the prophets and judges of Israel were. These are very imperfect people, as were their predecessors in the OT. Bandits becoming Kings, sometimes falling into the worship of other Gods... Hardly pictures of perfection. It's odd that later on we came to the idea of Saints as 'perfect' beings, when the early biblical patriarchs were anything but.




  • The book of Job was interesting. Rather more sophisticated in its analysis of belief, blame, natural evil, faith and what underpins it than I expected.

    Onto the psalms now. I have a negative association here, I just think of the droning sheep-like repetition of them at mass.




  • Well, the Old Testament is done.

    I have to say, that in addition to the Book of Job, I also found a couple of the other later wisdom-based books interesting but by and large some of the prophets books were hard going.

    I don't have the time or inclination to do a breakdown of how I feel about the OT other than to say that it was apparent to me that each book should be considered and understood on a case by case basis. They're all quite different, sometimes shockingly so, I would say. Some of these books show evidence of the author (or authors) having understood Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, others are kind of love poetry, others are densely written aphorisms etc. They're all in there for a reason, though.

    I was due to start on Aeschylus next but by chance I was caught way from home and all I could get my hands on in a local bookshop was Aristophanes' The Frogs, which is a very slim little Penguin Classics book.

    Almost finished it (it's a lean 100 pages), and have to say it's really quite easy reading and the comedy still works. It's 'stupid' comedy, practically Airplane! ("Don't call me shirley", that kind of thing).

    It's just a relief not to be reading something that's 1200-1700 pages long (depending on what translation I was using).




  • Onto Aeschylus tonight. Found Aristophanes incredibly readable, would recommend :)

    Aeschylus appears denser.


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  • Finished Agamemnon last night and now onto The Libation Bearers.

    For those unfamiliar with Agamemnon, the titular figure returns from Troy to be - essentially - murdered by his wife Clytemnaestra.

    I gathered from the text that their daughter, Iphigenia, was sacrificed by the army before they embarked for Troy - at Agamemnon's command - in order that they pacify the winds and were able to sail safely. Clytemnaestra references this as the reason for her murder of Agamemnon and calls it 'justice'.

    Frankly, my reading of her is more sympathetic than what is levelled at her by the chorus and its leader in the play, who seem to paint her more as having a lust for power.

    Hard to know to what extent a contemporary filter colours what I think. I'm reminded that period audiences interpreted The Merchant of Venice rather differently than we do today.




  • Two thirds of the way through Antigone (Sophocles).

    I broke one of my rules and read one of the introductory essays before tackling the primary text. It was an essay by Fagles about Greece and the theatre.

    In general terms, before talking about the emergence of tragedy / theatre as high art, he wrote about the topography of Greece and the development of culture around 500BC.

    Really fascinating, to actually fully grasp how much we owe to these Greeks... Democracy, sculpture, architecture, theatre... And all of it developed on a country that made subsistence farming hard and whose lack of rivers hampered the development of centralised government. It's all so improbable when you see it written down. But the more I read about the Greeks the more I appreciate the significance of their culture for our own.

    Antigone, at least as I'm reading it so far, is interesting to me in that Creon (the tyrant) could be just about any tyrant throughout history, in terms of his attitudes and proclivities. I find it fascinating that even back then, in what must have been hard, brutal times, the Greeks had as keen a sense as we do for the plight of people under a tyrant, and they fully realised that the effect of a tyranny was to crowd out the dissenting voices, to render them afraid to speak what everyone knew to be the truth.




  • Finished Oedipus Rex last night.

    Vastly preferred it to Antigone, although they're quite different in terms of how they work on an audience I think.

    Oedipus Rex appealed to me mainly in that - even though I knew the spoiler - the reveal was so uncannily well handled. Damn, Sophocles knew how to bring it all together. The beauty of it was the manner in which Oedipus is the hero in his own detective story. It's his own persistence and intelligence that reveals to him his tragic backstory. That makes the whole thing doubly messed up (trebly messed up, maybe?).

    Not sure I really buy into the Freudian idea that the reason the play (or indeed the story it was based on) has been so enduring is because we all secretly have that maternal fixation that we deny or are embarrassed by. All young kids love their mothers, I'm just not convinced there's a sexual or presexual component in those first two years where they're stuck to her.

    But it must be the equivalent of rubbernecking, this story that illustrates for us this unfortunate guy who accidentally breaks two of the biggest taboos human societies have.




  • Finished with Sophocles. Interesting about face in Oedipus At Colonus. Oedipus defends himself as blameless, saying that he never willingly did the things that condemn him, his family and his city as cursed, puts them at the feet of the Gods. Seems like a long way from clawing your own eyes out etc.

    Now onto Herodotus. Delighted, frankly, it's so heavily referenced everywhere that I am pleased to finally read it.




  • Herodotus' Histories still ongoing.

    Proving a bit slow mainly due to the sun and general business... It's not Herodotus' fault. In fact, this is turning out to be very, very engaging reading.

    The spine of the book is the story of conflict between the Greeks and the Persians, but Herodotus famously diverts his narrative on a constant basis, going off on tangents about everything from geography, natural history, mythology to his personal theories about things like Homer's Iliad.

    What's interesting to me is that there anecdotes and fables in there which are presented as fact, or at least appear to be, which a modern reader cannot take seriously. And yet in the next breath Herodotus is giving us a very naturalistic account of the behaviour of a particular river animal, or theorising about the importance of the Egyptians in establishing Greek religion, and the oracles etc. He comes across, at times, as a buffoon and yet at others as immensely intelligent.

    I was particularly interested in his theory about Paris, Helen and Troy.

    Herodotus says that there are references to Paris' 'travels' on the far oceans, and to Egypt, in the Iliad. He then goes on to tell a story which suggests that after stealing Helen and Menelaus' treasure that Paris and his ships ended up detained in the kingdom of a king called Proteus. He argues that Helen never made it back to Troy, because Proteus held her and Menelaus' treasure on the basis that he was unhappy that Paris had violated the rules of guesting. So Herodotus goes on to speculate that when the Greeks arrived at Troy and laid siege, Helen was not inside and they did not believe the Trojans when they were told so, and that if she had been inside then he believes she would have been handed over to the Greeks! Makes a compelling case. This must be one of the oldest 'conspiracy theories' of the ancient world!




  • I haven't been very diligent in updating this, I'm afraid.

    I'm on book three of Herodotus, almost on book four.

    If it seems like I'm dragging my feet a little I can only say that it's not Herodotus' fault. I'd actually rate The Histories very highly, it's one of the most engaging books I've read this year.

    Unfortunately just been run off my feet with a mixture of other commitments.




  • The Histories are finally ... history.... and I've moved onto Euripides.

    Yesterday, finished Medea, his oldest extant tragedy (?).

    Quite an interesting play when viewed through a contemporary lens, as - in my view - it could be about a phenomenon known to us here in Ireland... Family annihilation.

    Medea, wife to Jason and mother of his two children, is enraged when he puts her aside and marries the daughter of King Creon. Medea acts against her 'enemies', even when the situation shifts under her feet, and sticks to a plan which involves the deaths of all concerned bar she and Jason. Medea's insistence on her revenge is principally because she cannot bear the idea of her enemies laughing at her. The scene where she kills her children is grim in the extreme, as a father of two myself.

    I thought about whether Medea would work better or worse, these days, if we flipped the gender and imagined Medea as a man facing the departure of his wife for a new partner. For the most part that might make more sense, in a contemporary staging. Medea's reasoning and approach are more typical of masculine cases of family annihilation than female cases, I would guess. Matricides occur, but the dynamic in Medea doesn't seem to me to resemble many of those cases. I'm far from an expert on the subject though!

    The introductory notes inform me that Medea was a play about Greek fear of barbarism. Medea symbolises, as an Asiatic outsider to Greek society, the barbarism and rule of the emotions which they believes Greek culture was a bulwark against. I read the play a little more sympathetic than that. Interesting to wonder how much is projection on my part, versus what a Greek audience would have taken from it.

    Next up Hecabe.




  • Hecabe and Heracles completed and with that I'm on to Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War.

    Euripedes' Heracles struck me as in keeping with his general interest in the theme of human suffering, but to be honest I've just had enough of parents killing their children - and vice versa - in Greek plays.

    Thucydides will, I hope be interesting. A few years ago I audited online lectures produced by Robert Kagan (Yale Online), and he talked extensively about Thucydides.




  • About six years ago I started watching Yale Open lectures online... Their site was a very slow, streaming set-up. Some of the various undergraduate lectures they had videoed and put up had been ported to YouTube but they were kind of scrambled in terms of order and were a bit of a pain to watch. I made it through most of Donald Kagan's Introduction to Ancient Greek History and - in a way - it was the precursor phase to my discovering podcasts. I enjoyed the lectures enough that I wanted to continue, but at the time the site was such a pain that I couldn't be bothered. It was about then that my wife finally introduced me to the podcast app on my iPhone and things got ... better.

    Anyway, fast forward to this month and as I plow through Thucydides I am again listening to Donald Kagan's lectures. This time they've been put up on iTunes. Highly, highly recommend. His comments in a current lecture, on the nature of Greek colonies (or 'home away', as they called them, rather than 'colony'), is particularly useful in understanding how Corcyra and Potidae, both colonies, were involved in the outbreak of the Pelponnesian War.


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  • Have been dragged into a rake of new reading for work, which is taking up a lot of my time.

    However, still working away with Thucydides, approximately 1/3 of the way through and enjoying it. It's remarkable how different the various city states were in character and behaviour. I love some of the descriptions of Athenian character versus Spartan character.


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