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The Great Books Of The Western World



  • Schopenhauer is engaging.

    I'm at a point where he is talking about the origins of knightly honour, and how it informs our honour today. He suggests is tied up in a belief that when someone - no matter how much of a wretch - speaks ill of us or impugns our honour there is a stain there that we have to erase by getting them to recant, or by violence. Schopenhauer says this type of honour came out of the medieval period and he goes through how some modern language (the idea of 'putting up' with things) derives from this sense of knightly honour and chivalry. He notes that there was no such sense of honour in the ancient world... Using various examples referring to Seneca and others who clearly believed that honour was something held internally, that could not be taken by the actions of another - particularly by someone who gives someone a beating or is rude to them... Whereas in knightly honour it's very much a big thing to lose honour if someone has got one over on you this way.

  • Finished Schopenhauer's THE WISDOM OF LIFE and begun his MAXIMS AND COUNCILS.

    He begins by advocating for Aristotle's advice that happiness is about avoiding life's greatest evils rather than chasing happiness itself.


    Still working on THE DECLINE AND FALL. Interesting comments relating to Diocletian's separation of different pay and conditions for borderers (Fighting legions on the empire's frontiers) and those in cushier numbers in the interior of the empire... The palatines.

    Gibbon quotes an ancient warning that the palatines' cups became heavier than their swords, and they loved downy pillows.

    Meanwhile the borderers became disgruntled. Gibbon notes that there was an incorrect expectation that by diminishing, demoralising and reducing the borderers they would become more pliant and obedient. He uses the example of mistreating a dog... Do we expect it to behave better as a result?

  • Schopenhaeur has a real complex about the non-recognition of people he considers the intellectual elite ... Including himself in that, of course. There's a lot of talk about being resented even by royalty, who recognise their mental superior.

    His theory of friendship is that much of the fondness we extend to others is towards those who we are mentally more capable than (Not clear if this is a question of not being threatened by them in his view, or of some affection similar to our regard for hapless small children). Schophenhaeur suggests that as a consequence, the true intellectual is perpetually in a state of solitude, because others are not friendly towards him due to his greater intelligence.

    To be honest much of what he wrote in his book on HAPPINESS and in the MAXIMS is essentially repackaged stoicism, with a dash of distinctly modern neuroticism and existential angst.

  • Still chipping away with the DECLINE AND FALL.

    Started SENSE AND SENSIBILITY by Austen.

    Happy Christmas all.

  • And so we come to the end of another year.

    In the DECLINE AND FALL Julian has triumphed over Constantius, the son of Constantine.

    Both men's downfalls were .. so mundanely of the period ... Constantius took ill and died after a very short illness returning from campaigning in Persia - on his way to challenge the upstart Caesar Julian.

    And Julian, ironically, dies some months later, also fighting the Persians. He appears to have suffered a spear wound that eventually killed him (Infection?).

    There's a lot to be said for the medicine of our modern world.

    I have heard from American academic and writer David Grossman that if you adjust for medical advancements the death rate and violent crime rate contemporarily is actually extremely high. We pride ourselves on falling murder and manslaughter rates, but we consider that actually violent crime has become a lot more survivable due to medical intervention. Now, I also happen to believe we are probably living in safer and more prosperous times than the ancient world, but nonetheless it's an interesting point.

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  • I have heard from American academic and writer David Grossman that if you adjust for medical advancements the death rate and violent crime rate contemporarily is actually extremely high. We pride ourselves on falling murder and manslaughter rates, but we consider that actually violent crime has become a lot more survivable due to medical intervention. Now, I also happen to believe we are probably living in safer and more prosperous times than the ancient world, but nonetheless it's an interesting point.

    On the other hand, along with advances in medicine have come advances (if you can call them that) in killing people. Automatic machine guns make it possible for one person to kill dozens before being stopped which isn’t so easy with a dagger or bow and arrow!

  • echo beach wrote: »
    On the other hand, along with advances in medicine have come advances (if you can call them that) in killing people. Automatic machine guns make it possible for one person to kill dozens before being stopped which isn’t so easy with a dagger or bow and arrow!

    Absolutely, that’s true.

    I suspect in pre 20th and 21st century history there was greater overall rates of violent crime and harm to civilians in wartime. And that was with hand held tools and simple missile weapons only...

    If you zoom in on violent crime rates contemporaries and somehow could adjust for medical advancements I bet there are higher than we commonly think, however.

    I’m still just amazed that even the most unhealthy of us now are almost guaranteed to live through childhood and to a ripe old age. Medicine and sanitation I guess.

  • A fair chunk of the way through SENSE AND SENSIBILITY.

    Austen has a great assessment of Lucy Steele, Eleanor's rival.

    "Lucy was naturally clever; her remarks were often just and amusing; and as a companion for half an hour Elinor frequently found her agreeable; but her powers had received no aid from education: she was ignorant and illiterate; and her deficiency of all mental improvement, her want of information in the most common particulars, could not be concealed from Miss Dashwood, in spite of her constant endeavour to appear to advantage."

    I like this because sometimes it seems like in the age of social media were are awash with Lucy Steeles of both genders... People who offer their opinions endlessly, and who never let their clear ignorance on a topic act as any barrier at all to offering it.

    At a certain point I feel like as a society we were so busy making sure people understood we all believe every person has an inherent value and dignity that we forgot to caveat that by adding that it is ok not to offer your opinion on an issue you are ignorant of. Being ignorant on anything is no relation to your natural intelligence or mental acuity, it's about your education and knowledge of a given subject... It's possible to be intelligent and opinionated... But extremely ignorant. I feel like there's a lot of that going around.

  • Gibbon is at a point in THE DECLINE AND FALL where the Huns have pushed various Goth tribes up against the Danube, causing some of them to gain permission from Caesar (Valens) to cross and become allies / subjects of Rome. Others follow illegally.

    I've heard right wing thinkers point to this as a fatal error made by Valens. They argue it is a classic example of inviting in an external enemy and who then rampages within your borders, because they disregard an agreement to behave according to a pre-agreed set of norms / agreements. A parallel with the challenges posed by modern mass migration is drawn.

    Reading Gibbon, however, what strikes me is that his Goths don't actually turn on the Empire until after they have been brought in. He paints a picture of Gothic tribes being forced to give up their children, sell their children as slaves even, and to buy dog-meat at extravagant prices, to be denied access to markets used by other Roman citizens and so on. He clearly argues that the Goths are turned against the Romans by some Roman governors' avarice and ill-will. Even after the point where the Goths begin attacking Roman cities he talks about the possibility for peace to have been made, but this possibility was thrown aside.

    It's much more nuanced than I had expected. Gibbon does say it was a strategic calamity to end up with the Goths as enemies within the Roman borders, but it seems to me that he's pretty clear that they were made enemies through a set of ill-conceived policies and local mismanagement.

  • A fair chunk of the way through SENSE AND SENSIBILITY.

    I like this because sometimes it seems like in the age of social media were are awash with Lucy Steeles of both genders... People who offer their opinions endlessly, and who never let their clear ignorance on a topic act as any barrier at all to offering it.

    Austen’s great genius is in her characters, who are so well described that although they are from a different era and social class we can easily relate to them. That is why her work is universal and stands up to re-reading.

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  • I was reading a reading list proposed by Teddy Roosevelt the other day, and even he is a colossal fan of Jane Austen... Says it all really.

  • Nearing the end of the DECLINE AND FALL.

    Stilicho is a Roman general I must admit I've never previously heard of. And yet, he is the undoubted hero of the Empire in its military twlight, staving off the fall of Rome to the Barbarians and beating the pants out of Alaric with everything against him.

    When Stilicho delivers the Empire, and saves an ungrateful Emperor and people, there is a victory march through the city with a newly erected celebratory archway. Gibbon remarks that within 7 years, despite Stilicho's efforts, the Goths would be marching through that archway, the city having fallen, and the fine inscription on the archway would be meaningless to a horde who were illiterate.

    I'm also nearing the close of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. I will admit Austen has me guessing how she is going to make the Dashwood girls happy. I guess I'm expecting Elinor to realise that Colonel Brandon loves her and she him, but I can't say who Marianne is going to end up with... Robert Harris?!

  • Finished SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. I must say that I believe it to be vastly inferior to both EMMA and PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, although perhaps it is a better vehicle for exploring the morality and social dynamics of the time than either.

    I'm a chapter or two into WUTHERING HEIGHTS now. It's not on Adler's reading list, but this is one of those books that I cannot pass by and not go for. I have in mind a few others also that I want to add on ... Dumas' THE COUNT OF MONTECRISTO I should have done around the time of ROBINSON CRUSOE or even before. I also want to do TREASURE ISLAND.

  • I'm not sure what I expected from WUTHERING HEIGHTS but so far I'm very impressed. Somewhat unusually I seem to have never seen an adaptation so I actually don't know the story line, which is helping with the mystery / suspense.

  • I'm unaware of what contemporary critical readings of WUTHERING HEIGHTS focus on, but a few things jumping out at me:-

    The adoption of Heathcliffe, a homeless gypsy boy found on the streets, was never satisfactorily explained for me. Why did his adoptive father feel so favourable towards him over his own son? I could believe that he did it out of a sense of religious obligation, but his religious fervour came a little later in his life, not at that stage I think. And if it had been obligation, there would still not have necessarily been the keen preference for Heathcliffe over his biological offspring.

    Although Heathcliffe is painted as vindictive and clearly a dark character (even at this stage in the novel, I'm not sure whether he progresses further later), I think we'd characterise the abuse of all the children in the household as abusive by contemporary standards. By the standards of the day, however, I would think they probably weren't? Minimal corporal punishment and physical hardship. There seems to have been quite a lot of emotional abuse, of Cathy as well as Heathcliffe, but to be honest being forced to endure hours of scripture from old Joseph is hardly the worst fate considering what was occurring during the era.

  • I'm in the endgame for the Romans now, nearing the close of THE DECLINE AND FALL.

    Gibbon takes a long chapter, in advance of Alaric laying siege to Rome, to describe the decadence and ill manners of the noble occupants. Also, the sheer scale and sprawl of the city and its plebeian inhabitants. If no one has seen it, the old HBO show Rome depicts a much earlier era, but I did think of it when reading this, in terms of its display of the underbelly of the city and Roman tenement life.


    Amazing. It will go on the list of books on this course that I intend to revisit and maybe buy in nicer editions. My 20 year old Penguin paperback copy is ready for the scrapheap.

    The concluding segment is Mohamed's conquering of Constantinople. A remarkable account of the 'general assault' by means of which the city fell, including details of the sack which followed. Always grimly fascinating.

    I will never understand how the people of the past coped with the almost intolerable suffering and unfairness that were a routine part of life.

    A copy of Von Clausewitz's ON WAR is before me on my desk. I will crack it open tonight.

    WUTHERING HEIGHTS continues apace. I am at the part where Heathcliffe has returned (From where? The Sea? The Army?).

  • Dang, Cathy and Heathcliffe are both bad news... Toxic before toxic was a thing.

  • ON WAR

    "...war is always the shock of two hostile bodies in collision, not the action of a living power upon an inanimate mass"

    Just a throwaway line, but Clausewitz inserts early in his book this warning, that your opponent in any conflict is not a passive actor that you do your plans to with no pushback, they are active like you are.

    It's incredible in the martial arts world how prevalent this error is. You see endless demonstrations of martial arts students 'doing something' to an opponent who just stands there or behaves in a pre-programmed way. Introduce an element of competition and free play and it all just goes to ****. This is the reality of conflict.

    "As long as the enemy is not defeated, I have to apprehend that he may defeat me, then I shall be no longer my own master, but he will dictate the law to me as I did to him. "

    I love this. A chilling warning, and a recognition that both actors in war have the same self-interested purpose.

  • ON WAR continues. He is not the most readable, although not clear if it's his prose that's the issue or it's that all German philosophy (because that's what this is) is gobbledegook because of German's vocabulary. So many words that don't translate easily, except in long complex paragraphs. ON WAR features page after page of text without any paragraph breaks.

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  • I'm getting a bit peeved off with WUTHERING HEIGHTS. I think it's Cathy and her daughter, the gothic melodrama of it, it just irritates the hell out of me.

  • ON WAR, book 1 chapter 7... I think this is my favourite chapter, titled 'Friction'.

    So many great takeaways from this. He is articulating what not just soldiers but anyone who has faced real world adversity understands.

    Maybe it is "murphy's law" to a large extent, but it is more than just the random slings and arrows of fortune... In talking about war as 'movement in a resistant medium' he is describing what it is like to try to accomplish even simple physical tasks in a theatre where everything, including the enemy's counter-actions, seem to conspire to try to hold you back. He note that of course friction can be overcome ... But only through an "iron will" and being acclimatised to physical discomfort.
    Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult. These difficulties accumulate and produce a friction, which no man can imagine exactly who has not seen war. Suppose now a traveller, who, towards evening, expects to accomplish the two stages at the end of his day's journey, four or five leagues, with post horses, on the high road—it is nothing. He arrives now at the last station but one, finds no horses, or very bad ones; then a hilly country, bad roads; it is a dark night, and he is glad when, after a great deal of trouble, he reaches the next station, and finds there some miserable accommodation. So in war, through the influence of an infinity of petty circumstances, which cannot properly be described on paper, things disappoint us, and we fall short of the mark.
    A powerful iron will overcomes this friction, it crushes the obstacles, but certainly the machine along with them. We shall often meet with this result.
    Activity in war is movement in a resistant medium. Just as a man in water is unable to perform with ease and regularity the most natural and simplest movement, that of walking, so in war, with ordinary powers, one cannot keep even the line of mediocrity.


    Heathcliffe's offspring and Cathy's offspring are met.

    I am surprised by Heathcliffe's recognition that Earnshaw is more like him as a child than anyone else, and he describes him as "gold made to use as a paving stone" (i.e he admires him) and yet he still is determined to shape him into a ruined thing to spite Earnshaw's father.

  • I nearly referenced Von Clausewitz in a meeting today. Managed to restrain myself. Thank God.

  • Completed WUTHERING HEIGHTS at the weekend.

    It was a somewhat up-and-down experience for me. The middle part of the book lagged for me, I think at the point where I felt Cathy strayed into melodrama in terms of her behaviour before her death. I found the later part of the book to rally and - I must admit - I was thrilled with the 'happy ending' and reinstatement of Earnshaw.

    I know WUTHERING HEIGHTS has been described as a proto-vampire novel. The final part of the book really pushes this to the limit, it is practically supernatural in its intimations.

    I thought Heathcliffe, upon his return from making his fortune, was already depicted in a way that was quasi-vampiric. Dark, often lurking on the threshold, holding an odd power over those at Wuthering Heights.... But at the end of the book, just before his death, Bronte goes all out and Nellie describes Heathcliffe as almost resembling a ghoul when she encounters him in his room at night. What's going on here? I am taking it that Heathcliffe has been driven mad by his memory of Cathy, and that what happens is he has a psychotic break and, in seeking to join her, stops eating and goes out at night, exposing himself to the elements, and it is this that kills him?

  • THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO... Oh yeah, baby... Amazing so far, I am delighted.

  • One of the observations I would make about reading classic books is that it is quite true that there is a discernible discourse that goes on between them. When read chronologically, there is a clear relationship of ideas and back-and-forth.

    Sometimes, it is very subtle, only an aside. But if you're read what has gone before, you have a chance of grasping what is otherwise meaningless.

    In THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, during his imprisonment, Dantes goes through a rollercoaster of emotions when he realises that he has been betrayed and wrongly imprisoned by three men. Before, he was angry at God. Now, he comments that he must focus on his vengeance, because if he cannot blame men for what has befallen him then it's back to being angry at God, a blasphemy he wants to avoid. When Dantes' grim existance begins to show signs of improving... His co-conspirator... His receipt of an education from him... His eventual escape... The narrator comments that now Dantes conceded that the world was not so bad as he had feared, but not so good as Dr Pangloss suggested, either.

    The CANDIDE reference would have been as obvious and intelligible to a contemporary reader as a The Simpsons reference would be to us today, but I guess ... Just made me glad I read CANDIDE.

  • If I am honest I find Von Clausewitz a bit overly German and a bit pedantic at times.

    But I've picked out what has stood out to me so far...
    The best strategy is always to be very strong, first generally, then at the decisive point.

    This detail regarding the decisive point, and being strong, is kind of characteristic of the conflicts of the period. VC was a believer in numbers - outright numerical superiority - as one of the largest guarantors of victory, and he talks about there being historical examples of smaller forces beating larger, but that they were the exception rather than the rule, and in any case the larger forces in modern times were rarely much larger by a significant multiplier.

    VC then has this notion that the decisive point, the target for attack that win win the battle or the war, is the point where you commit your resources.
    There is no more imperative and simpler law for strategy than to keep the forces concentrated.—No portion is to be separated from the main body unless called away by some urgent necessity.
    The question whether a simple attack, or one more carefully prepared i.e more artificial, will produce greater effects, may undoubtedly be decided in favour of the latter as long as the enemy is assumed to remain quite passive. But every carefully combined attack requires time for its preparation, and if a counter stroke by the enemy intervenes, our whole design may be upset. Now, if the enemy should decide upon some simple attack, which can be executed in a shorter time, then he gains the initiative, and destroys the effect of the great plan. Therefore, together with the expediency of a complicated attack we must consider all the dangers which we run during its preparation, and should only adopt it if there is no reason to fear that the enemy will disconcert our scheme. Whenever this is the case we must ourselves choose the simpler i.e quicker way. If we quit the weak impressions of abstract ideas and descend to the region of practical life, then it is evident that a bold, courageous, resolute enemy will not let us have time for wide-reaching skilful combinations, and it is just against such a one we should require skill the most. By this it appears to us that the advantage of simple and direct results over those that are complicated is conclusively shown.

    Our opinion is not on that account that the simple blow is the best, but that we must not lift the arm too far for the time given to strike, and that this condition will always lead more to direct conflict the more warlike our opponent is. Therefore, far from making it our aim to gain upon the enemy by complicated plans, we must rather seek to be ahead of him by greater simplicity in our designs.

  • Completed ON WAR.

    Onto Ralph Waldo Emerson. I have a collected essays edition from Penguin. I am going to read several of the more important essays... NATURE, THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR and a few of the other well-known pieces.

    So far I'm about halfway through NATURE.

    Emerson observes that every person is childlike when they walk in the forest. Is this true? Is there a distortion of our perceptions, do we behave differently immersed in nature? I think it's a generalisation but would seem to be at least some truth to it. Perhaps then they were less removed from nature but paradoxically more able to be comfortable in it, even though it was more familliar.

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  • Well, finished NATURE and now onto THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR, which was an address given by Emerson in a U.S university and is considered to be both an early transcendentalist work by him as well as a 'call to arms' for american thinkers.

    Emerson basically calls on the nascent country to establish intellectual and scholarly independence from the old world.

    There is one line that is quite striking where he says that young men in libraries are taken with Locke, Bacon and Cicero but they do not realise that the works they are reading are were written by people who were themselves once upon a time just young men in libraries.


    Something I was thinking on the other day, when I was mulling over the meaning of Transcendentalism, as I understand it...

    It's basically the idea that there is a divinity in mankind that is seperate to what is found in organised religion, and that men and mankind are capable of unlocking that divinity. Emerson seems to closely relate it to having a full appreciation of an engagment with NATURE. I'm not completely convinced that the key to unlocking the power of the universe lies in simply opening your heart and living in accordance with nature, but maybe that's a misreading on my part.

    At at any rate, what I started wondering was ... When exactly did we, in the West, lose that powerful sense of belief that appears to have existed prior?

    It's evident in Emerson. But it must have happened before. I feel like De Montaigne may or may not have believed. I feel like Pepys did. Locke, I don't know but I don't really think so. But go further back ... To the medieval people, and further back, and the sense of their belief is so palpably strong. But by the time we get to Emerson there is just no comparison.

    We're all of us in that post-Christian society now. I think from the Enlightenment through to just recently, however, we had an intellectual tradition of belief which was dead on its feet, bar a few examples here and there. I'm not even sure believers today are anything like the believers of the past. Maybe outside of the developed world. Maybe.