Archive for November, 2022

Conan Doyle: A Study in Scarlet

November 28, 2022

A Study in Scarlet
Arthur Conan Doyle
(Dover, 2003) [1887]
92 p.

Somehow I made it well into middle-age without reading any Sherlock Holmes stories. How, and why, this happened is a mystery worthy of Holmes himself, but in any case I have now begun to remedy the fault, beginning at the beginning.

A Study in Scarlet was the first Holmes story. It is a full-length novel, rather than a short story, and it tells how Holmes and Watson met and came to be associated, and it introduces us to Holmes’ distinctive methods of detection. As such, it makes a splendid starting point.

The structure of the novel is ingenious. There are murders, of course, up front, and an investigation, and, in time, the apprehension of the culprit, but this apprehension comes not at the end but in the middle. In the second half of the book, Conan Doyle reverses course and gives us the backstory of the murderer and his victims. I found this structure dramatically effective, for although we know (having read the front half) whowilldunit, we don’t know why, and the dramatic interest of the backstory is that it shows us circumstances aligning to give rise to the murderer’s motive. Normally I find the part of the mystery novel that comes after the murderer is identified tedious, but not so here.

This second half of the novel is set in the United States, in Utah, in the early settlements of the Latter Day Saints, and as I was reading I was wondering whether Mormon children today are especially fond of this literary portrait of their forefathers? How nice to have that period of their history captured in a classic of detection! But no. Having read a little further, I think it likely that few Mormon children are encouraged to read A Study in Scarlet.

Conan Doyle wrote another Holmes novel, The Sign of Four, before he switched over to the short story format, so, unless I am murdered in the meantime, that’s where my Holmes reading will take me next.

Homer: Odyssey

November 21, 2022

Translated from the Greek by Robert Fitzgerald
(FS&G, 1998) [c.800 BC]
515 p.

…godlike in counsel,
he that in twenty years had borne such blows
in his deep heart, breaking through ranks in war
and waves on the bitter sea.
(Bk 13)


Theories about the authorship of the Homeric poems abound: they were the work of a solitary genius, or they were created by countless bards in a generation-spanning oral tradition, or they were adapted from an oral tradition by a solitary genius, and so on. But if you were to tell me that the (however construed) author of the Odyssey had nothing whatever to do with the author of the Iliad, I would believe you. From the first page of this poem, the world of the Iliad — the world of hard war, of bruised honour, of brandished spears and bristling helmets, of bellicosity and belligerence — all of that is gone, vanished like a dream, and we find ourselves in a domestic sphere, where slaves are wiping down tables, a fire crackles in the hearth, and a boy sits, daydreaming, when a mysterious stranger arrives at the door. The scale is intimate, and good manners are paramount. We are breathing new air.

Of course, all is not well. The home is troubled by ruffians who circle the lady of the house like wolves, and a great sorrow, a quiet, aching pain, sits stubbornly in the hearts of Penelope and her son, Telemachos, for Odysseus, the lord of the house, is absent, and may be dead. Nobody knows.

In my imagination the Odyssey survived, since I first read it many years ago, as the tale of one man, a sleek, stripped down story (especially compared to the enormous ensemble cast of the Iliad) that flew like an arrow from Troy to Ithaca, with the lion’s share of the story devoted to accounts of the numerous hardships he endured along the way. This, I am surprised to find, was actually quite wrong. The tale, as told, isn’t like a flying arrow at all, but instead like a tangled web of yarn, told us in a non-linear fashion that starts in the middle, and folds back on itself through flashbacks. Even the famous adventures of Odysseus — the cyclopes, the sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, the bag of wind, the sacred cows, the cannibals, and so on — are confined to just four (of 24) books.

The poem is really a family drama, with Penelope and Telemachos getting a significant share of the page-time. Indeed, although we hear briefly about Odysseus at the poem’s opening, and in particular about his longing to return home —

But such desire is in him
merely to see the hearthsmoke leading upward
from his own island, that he longs to die.

— we do not actually see him until Book 5, at which time the poet strikes the same note, stressing for us his desperate desire to return to Ithaca. He has been seven years on Calypso’s island, having no means of escape, and he sits on the shore, looking out:

in his stone seat to seaward — tear on tear
brimming his eyes.

This, then, is one of the leading emotional elements of the poem: homesickness. When a man is unable to go home, his heart is out of joint, and so too his family suffers, and his whole household. And what prevents him going home is not just outlandish danger, not just the wine-dark sea, not just the wrath of Poseidon, but also Odysseus’ own heart, frail against temptation. Again and again we see him beset by seductresses: the Sirens, Circe, Calypso, even, maybe, the youthful Nausikaa. Sometimes he resists successfully, sometimes he is overcome. But, always, too, his fundamental desire to see again his wife and child reasserts itself.

We know that he does eventually get home, with the help of Athena. (And I will note in passing that here, too, in the realm of the gods, the Odyssey is a much more intimate affair than was the Iliad. Athena is Odysseus’ special patroness, and Poseidon is, or becomes, his nemesis, but beyond that the gods play a limited role in the poem. The clamouring crowd of gods that so befuddled me before is silent now, and so much the better.) In the poem’s second half we see how Odysseus conducts himself upon returning home, adopting a disguise and plotting against the confounded suitors who befoul his house with their antics and their vices. And, of course, the plotting finally leads to a bloodbath in which Odysseus and Telemachos together avenge these wrongs. It is all superbly carried off. Homer winks our way when he has the suitors struggle to prepare the bow that will, we know, soon kill them. And when Odysseus, still in disguise, provokes general astonishment by stringing the bow himself, Homer gives us one of his most striking similies, comparing the bow to a lyre and Odysseus to the musician:

like a musician, like a harper, when
with quiet hand upon his instrument
he draws between his thumb and forefinger
a sweet new string upon a peg: so effortlessly
Odysseus in one motion strung the bow.
(Bk 21)

He begins to play upon it immediately, as the poem erupts in violence and cleansing wrath. Homer again uses a memorable image to convey the aftermath:

In blood and dust
he saw that crowd all fallen, many and many slain.
Think of a catch that fishermen haul in to a halfmoon bay
in a fine-meshed net from the white-caps of the sea:
how all are poured out on the sand, in throes for the salt sea,
twitching their cold lives away in Helios’ fiery air:
so lay the suitors heaped on one another.
(Bk 22)

Let me not be one to take joy in such carnage — and the poet, too, counsels us that “To glory over slain men is no piety.” (Bk 22) — but it would be fruitless to deny that I derived a certain satisfaction from this rough justice.

And justice it is. A central preoccupation of the poem is that there is a set of virtues proper to hosts and guests, and in such virtues the suitors are shamelessly derelict. Over and over the poem shows us contrasting examples of good hosts and bad, of good guests and bad.

Telemachos, in search of news about his father, comes to the houses of Menelaus and Nestor, and, before they know his identity, he is treated with all the honour and deference rightly due a guest. Calypso seems to be a good host, but then keeps Odysseus hostage for years. Circe seems to be a bad host, but then offers him essential aid. Odysseus finds a bad host in Polyphemus (who wants to eat him), and then himself becomes a bad guest (by injuring his host). Odysseus even protests against the cyclops’ incivility, linking it to a lack of respect for the gods:

‘We would entreat you, great Sir, have a care
for the gods’ courtesy; Zeus will avenge
the unoffending guest.’

But Polyphemus gives a belligerent reply:

‘You are a ninny,
or else you come from the other end of nowhere,
telling me, mind the gods! We Kyklopes
care not a whistle for your thundering Zeus
or all the gods in bliss; we have more force by far.’

It is a matter of more than just manners, therefore. And when Odysseus finally returns to Ithaca, he finds a gentle and generous host in the wonderful swineherd Eumaios, who, again, not knowing his identity, treats him right. When Odysseus, in disguise, encounters first Telemachos, and then Penelope, they are distinguished by their kindness to him, in sharpest contrast to the taunts and insults hurled by the doomed suitors. The treatment of strangers reveals character.


For all that the story is arranged like a puzzle, it is nonetheless, when we straighten it out, the story of a homecoming. This, I think, is part of what endears it to me so strongly, for I am inordinately fond of stories in which someone returns home, or is reunited with family after an absence. It is this quality that makes the Biblical story of Joseph so affecting for me, and it is this that brings a tear to my eye in the story of the Prodigal Son. So, too, here.

As in the story of Joseph, the reunion in the Odyssey happens in an asymmetric way: one party knows it is happening, and the other does not. Odysseus adopts, at Athena’s behest, the guise of an old, itinerant codger, and he encounters both Telemachos and Penelope without their being aware of his identity. This part of the tale calls for virtues of patience and self-control that are quite unlike those Odysseus needed during his tumultuous journey home. Upon arrival, Athena counsels him:

Patience, iron patience, you must show;
so give it out to neither man nor woman
that you are back from wandering. Be silent
under all injuries, even blows from men.
(Bk 13)

I was moved most, however, by the three occasions on which his self-control fails him. Unless I am mistaken, he weeps three times: on first revealing his true identity to his son, to his wife, and to his father. These last two occur in the poem’s denouement following the slaughter of the suitors.

Now from his breast into his eyes the ache
of longing mounted, and he wept at last,
his dear wife, clear and faithful, in his arms, longed for
as the sunwarmed earth is longed for by a swimmer
spent in rough water where his ship went down
under Poseidon’s blows, gale winds and tons of sea.
(Bk 23)

Pass the handkerchief.

I learned through background reading that the Greeks had a whole set of homecoming epics about the aftermath of the Trojan War, of which the Odyssey was just one. There was a poem about Agememnon’s return home and his murder by Clytemnestra (which would have made a great contrasting double-bill with this poem), another about Ajax’s drowning on his return journey, and yet another about the sojourn of Menealus and Helen in Egypt on their return home. All lost. Don’t put that handkerchief away just yet.


The bloody house cleaning finishes up in Book 22, and I’d like to reflect a moment on the two books which follow. The triumph of Odysseus over his challengers feels like the climax of the story in many ways, so what are the final two books doing?

I should first note that there is, I am told, a scholarly dispute about whether these last two books were part of the poem originally (whatever “originally” may mean in the context of an oral tradition). We need not let this detain us long, since these two books are part of the poem as we have received it, and we’re simply asking what purpose they serve, but I wanted to acknowledge the point.

These two books contain three main things: first, are the reunion scenes, or, maybe better, the revelation scenes, between Odysseus and Penelope, and then between Odysseus and his father, Laertes. I’ve already remarked on how moving I found these scenes, and they are, it seems to me, essential to the emotional arc of the poem. Without them, the homecoming would feel incomplete.

A second element, in Book 24, takes place in Hades. We see the shades of Achilles, Agamemnon, and Ajax, heroes of the Trojan War, conversing as they witness the souls of the slain suitors arriving in the underworld. At first I thought this a very odd addendum, but it does provide Homer an opportunity to sing in fulsome turn the praise of Penelope, the faithful wife. What better way than amid a parade of those unworthy suitors whom she rejected? And the praise comes from the mouth of Agamemnon, who, because of his own (let us say) marital woes has the best cause to admire a good wife:

‘O fortunate Odysseus, master mariner
and soldier, blessed son of old Laertes!
The girl you brought home made a valiant wife!
True to her husband’s honor and her own,
Penelope, Ikarios’ faithful daughter!
The very gods themselves will sing her story
for men on earth — mistress of her own heart, Penelope!’
(Bk 24)

So this, too, though it feels less essential, still fits, and puts an exclamation mark on one of the poem’s central themes.
The third and final piece feints at a return to the violence of the earlier books. The families of the slain suitors descend on Odysseus, Telemachos, and Laertes looking for revenge. But things don’t progress far before Athena interrupts, and, by her godlike power, declares peace. Though it highlights the importance of Athena to Odysseus’ affairs, a constant theme throughout, this nonetheless is, for me, the least satisfying thing about the final book. A dea ex machina is, almost by definition, artistically unsatisfying. That is how my expectations have been trained. It would be very interesting to understand whether and why it was more satisfying to an audience in ancient Greece.


When I read the Iliad, I kept myself alive in part by entertaining a rotating door of translators. No such problem here, so I stuck throughout with Robert Fitzgerald’s 1974 translation. It was a happy choice. I have previously read Fagles’ somewhat later version, but I didn’t bother to make side-by-side comparisons.


What an encouraging experience this has been! I was so dispirited after reading the Iliad. I was tormented at night by hard questions. Am I a person who hasn’t the wherewithal to appreciate Homer? What does that say about me? Should I abandon this Greek reading project in its infancy? Should I give up reading books altogether? Maybe watch television instead? Maybe lie down on the train tracks at night? Well! The Odyssey turned all that around. I loved it. I’m a Homer man after all.


And now the big question arises: basking in the Odyssey‘s afterglow, is it time to pick up that long-languishing copy of Joyce’s Ulysses and read it? Has the time finally come?


Plato: Timaeus

November 14, 2022

(Penguin Classics, 1965) [c.375 BC]
121 p.

A friend who knows a good deal more about Plato than I do suggested that this dialogue could make a nice double-bill with Hesiod’s creation poems, and he was right.

The set-up, dramatically, is that Socrates and several young men have reconvened on the day after Socrates’ great speech on the city (viz. The Republic), but this time it is the turn of the young men to speak, and one of them, Timaeus, has prepared a speech about the origin and order of the universe and of human beings.

After a few preliminaries, involving, among other things, the story of how the Athenian reformer Solon went to Egypt and learned about the antiquity of the world, Timaeus plunges into his chosen theme. Although he does not forsake Hesiod’s mythology entirely (“Earth and Heaven gave birth to Ocean and Tethys,” we learn), most of the discussion is in a quite different key. Timaeus’ approach is rational and systematic, drawing partly on metaphysics but, to a degree that surprised me, partly on nuts-and-bolts physics. A significant chunk of the dialogue, for instance, is devoted to describing the Platonic polyhedra and explaining how their shapes give rise to the properties of fire, air, mud, and everything else.

More interesting, to me, were the forays into metaphysics, ethics, and other topics we more readily associate with Plato. Little of this gets argued or developed at length, and of course we have to keep in mind that we are not hearing Socrates but someone else, but still I thought it was interesting to see how and where familiar Platonic ideas popped up.

Timaeus makes an early distinction, for instance, between “that which always is” and “that which becomes but never is”, and argues that while the latter can be apprehended by the senses, only the former can be grasped by understanding. This distinction provides an opening for a brief discussion of Forms; Timaeus claims that if understanding is something different from opinion, then Forms must exist, for to understand simply means knowing them.

This epistemological point is given a moral spin. The physical world, though restive and not amenable to true understanding, nonetheless reflects or instantiates in some way the unchanging order of the Forms, which are intelligible. Using the metaphor of orbits, Timeaus develops the idea that our senses are given us so that we can apprehend the order of the universe and mirror that order within our own souls:

“The god invented sight and gave it to us so that we might observe the orbits of intelligence in the universe and apply them to the revolutions of our own understanding. For there is a kinship between them, even though our revolutions are disturbed, whereas the universal orbits are undisturbed. So once we have come to know them and to share in the ability to make correct calculations according to nature, we should stabilize the straying revolutions within ourselves by imitating the completely unstraying revolutions of the god.”

This is such a beautiful idea. It reminds us of the Pythagoreans, and, unless I’m mistaken, Plato repeats the general idea elsewhere, but the main point is the idea itself. The harmony of the world is an aid, through apprehension and understanding, to the harmony of the soul. Modern cosmology has lost the capacity to make any kind of meaningful connection between physics and ethics, so we are striking a vein of pre-modern gold here. We are tempted to shrug such connections off as simply mistaken, but it might be healthy to resist such temptation. As C.S. Lewis argued in his wonderful book The Discarded Image, we are perhaps too little aware of how our own philosophical, or pre-philosophical, commitments condition our cosmology. We can see the all-of-a-piece interdependence of cosmology, theology, anthropology, etc. when we look at other cultures, but think we are immune. And perhaps it is really true that we are the ones who, finally, see things as they are! But love is blind, and that includes self-love.

In any case, it is evident that Timaeus’ belief that there is connaturality between the order of the world outside us and the possibility of order within us points in certain metaphysical and theological directions. And Timaeus himself gestures in some of these directions. He believes that the world is “a work of craft”, and is, as such, intrinsically intelligible. Although at bottom the material world is the realm of Necessity, the cosmos came to be when Necessity was subjugated to “wise persuasion” by Intellect. The agent that created the world (the famous demi-urge) “wanted everything to be good and nothing to be bad so far as that was possible”. It is only because the world is good (or as good as possible) that its influence on us can be expected to be beneficial in the way that Timaeus expects.


In Plato’s dialogues we see a theology that is fairly rich and sophisticated. Comparing his ideas to, for instance, those of Cicero makes the latter appear awfully rudimentary. Plato — or, I guess, Timaeus — understands that if God is the ultimate source of everything, then he must be quite radically unlike anything else. Timaeus remarks at one point that time was created with the universe, which emphasizes just how bold and thorough his conception of the ultimateness of God is.

The dialogue also includes an argument for the uniqueness of God that is interesting. Timaeus says,

…that which contains all of the intelligible living things couldn’t ever be one of a pair, since that would require there to be yet another Living Thing, the one that contained those two, of which they then would be parts, and then it would be more correct to speak of our universe as made in the likeness, now not of those two, but of that other, the one that contains them.

It’s not quite as clearly put as it might be, but this general form of argument remains a mainstay of the classical theist tradition to this day, and I was pleased and, I admit, a little surprised to find it here.

The last thing I’ll mention in passing is a moral claim that Timaeus makes, also in passing, when he says that moral evil is a result of either sickness or ignorance:

No one is willfully evil. A man becomes evil, rather, as a result of one or another corrupt condition of his body and an uneducated upbringing.

I found its appearance here interesting because I think of it as a characteristically Socratic claim, made here not by Socrates (though by one of his acolytes, so perhaps not all that surprising). Whether the claim be true or not is, of course, a much vexed question that I’ll not delve into today.


Reading Timaeus has been a peculiar experience for me. In many ways I found it unlike the other Platonic dialogues I’ve read. Socrates has only a minor role. The subject matter is largely natural philosophy rather than ethics or metaphysics. Much of the content is an odd combination of highly technical and highly fanciful (and Timaeus himself seems aware of this, averring more than once that his account was only “likely” or “as good as another”, and not certain). A reader who maneuvers through the long sections on how the shapes of various polyhedra produce physical properties like softness, wetness, etc. without skimming is more stalwart than me. Yet, at the same time, it is seeded with a number of striking ideas that beckon us into deeper waters.

Many people probably know that for many centuries this was the only complete Platonic dialogue known in the West. It is a little disturbing to see what a one-sided, and wholly inadequate, picture it provides of Plato as an artist and a philosopher. As I was reading, I realized with some dismay that although I know the basic shape of Aristotle’s preservation from antiquity and reintroduction to Western thinkers in the 12th and 13th centuries, I do not know the parallel story for Plato. I don’t think St Thomas knew Plato well at all. Forced to guess, I’d hazard that it was the Fall of Constantinople in the 15th century, and the concomitant migration of scholars westward, that brought about the Platonic revival among Europeans. Everything has a silver lining.

Thompson: Calculus Made Easy

November 7, 2022

Calculus Made Easy
Being a Very-Simplest Introduction to Those Beautiful Methods of Reckoning which Are Generally Called by the Terrifying Names of the Differential Calculus and the Integral Calculus
Silvanus P. Thompson and Martin Gardner
(St. Martin’s Press, 1998) [1910]
336 p.

I’m happy to have finally caught up with this classic, which has been read and appreciated for a century. I picked it up not for my own enjoyment but because I was casting about for a good introduction to calculus for my daughter.

The book provides a good conceptual introduction to calculus, both differential and integral. (The florid subtitle is no lie.) The technical approach is to describe calculus simply using the concept of infinitesimals, rather than limits, which is different from the way I learned calculus, but it’s intuitive and I quite liked it. The geometric meanings of derivatives and integrals are stressed, and this also helps to make the ideas clear. The phrase “fundamental theorem of calculus” does not appear (except in Martin Gardner’s annotations), but he does cover the relevant ideas. Chain rule, product rule, and quotient rule are all derived. The book sticks to single variable calculus except for one brief chapter on partial derivatives. There is a chapter on simple differential equations, and toward the end he describes how to calculate areas, volumes, and arc lengths by integration.

The focus is on practical meaning and applications; the level of rigour is right for a beginner, but would not satisfy a mathematician. (Thompson was a physicist and engineer.) In addition to a conceptual introduction, the book gets into calculating the derivatives and integrals of some elementary functions (polynomials, exponentials and logarithms, trigonometric functions), and the problems, both worked and assigned, require a decent level of algebraic competence to complete.

For my grade 8 student, I’m assigning the mainly-conceptual chapters. With another year of algebra I think she’ll be ready to tackle at least some of the more technical bits.

It’s a very nice book with a well-deserved good reputation.