Archive for the 'Books' Category

Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun, I

June 30, 2022

The Shadow of the Torturer
The Book of the New Sun, Book I
Gene Wolfe
(Orb, 1994) [1981]
210 p.

Many societies, a significant fraction perhaps, have found it convenient to have torture available as a punitive or coercive measure, and to that end have maintained a certain number of people trained in the art, or the science, of causing pain. This, it turns out, is as true in the future as in the present or the past. The Book of the New Sun, set in the deep future, begins with the story of the apprenticeship of Severian, a young man being trained in the guild of torturers, whose expertise seems beyond doubt but whose commitment to his role, he finds, begins to falter.

What is most impressive about this first volume in the tetralogy, for me, is the sense of deep history that it develops for its story. Tolkien did this too, in The Lord of the Rings; we have a sense, developed partly by a web of allusions to matters never fully explained, of ages upon ages of past time, mostly forgotten but still woven into the fabric of the present moment.  Wolfe’s story differs from Tolkien’s insofar as his story is set in the future rather than the past, so that his story’s “deep past” includes, somewhere, our own time, and we see, here and there, how the world we know has been projected and refracted into the future. For example, there is not a great deal of science in this book — the future society Wolfe depicts looks, in many ways, far more primitive than our own — but relativity theory survives as a kind of lore, imperfectly understood but carrying a kernel of truth.

Part of the enjoyment of the book is trying to figure out just how far in the future it is set. As the book proceeds, and the circle of light by which we see this world expands, it becomes clearer that it is very deep in the future indeed. We get a passing reference to things that happened in “anteglacial days”, from which we infer that a future ice age has come and gone, but even this does not capture the scale, for the sun, we learn, is cooling, which places us many millions of years in the future. These sorts of details gave me a vertiginous feeling as I was reading, similar to what I have felt afloat on the ocean: sustained by a depth swarming with mysteries.

A distinctive characteristic of Wolfe’s future world is that it is permeated at all levels by religion. Much of society appears to be organized into guilds, which reminded me of the medieval guilds, and Severian’s guild of torturers is officially the Order of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence, a fine religiously-tinted name that confirms the impression. A character at one point speaks of “figures who wait beyond the void of death… blazing with glories dark or bright, wrapped in authority older than the universe”, which sounds to me like angelic powers, and we get passing references to “the theocenter” and other such phrases. In fact, much of the religion in the book seems derived from Christianity, although if there is anything like actual Christianity in this society I haven’t seen it yet. But I did see allusions to Gabriel (“His sword blazed in one hand, his great two-headed ax swung in the other, and across his back, suspended on the rainbow, hung the very battle horn of Heaven”), to the paschal candle, to “the Theoanthropos”, to a passage from the Book of Exodus, and to Christian devotions like the Angelus. In every case the impression was like that given by the reference to relativity theory: a sense that these things are shards left over from something that has been shattered, lost from its original context and adrift on currents of language and culture.

A strength of the novel, apart from its impressive world-building, is the way in which, by the technique of oblique allusion already described, it hints at the direction in which the story of our hero, Severian, is going. The tale begins with Severian wrapped in obscurity, a mere apprentice in a guild the existence of which is, we learn, actually doubted by some, and he himself having had almost no contact with the world outside his guild. But here and there we get hints that his trajectory aims at the very apex of this very hierarchical society. Not much upward mobility occurs in this novel, but I’m looking forward to seeing how this aspect of the story develops in subsequent volumes.

On the other hand, this first volume has problems of both structure and execution that caused it to falter as it proceeded. The first half of the book is devoted to carefully developing the character of Severian and describing, gradually, the strange world in which he lives. A lot of effort is invested in the relationships he has and the place where he is. But in the second half he goes on the road, and the story devolves, in my judgement, into a series of episodes bearing no particular narrative relationship to one another. The thread of the story grows dangerously thin through this series of encounters. They are not only episodes, but brief episodes, so that I hardly had adjusted to some new situation or character before it was gone. It might be that these episodes and characters will return later in the story, and that could revise my judgement.

I also feel, thus far, that there is a basic problem with the character of Severian. He is the hero of the tale, but he is also, objectively, a monstrous figure: a man who is expert in causing pain and death, and who does so without any particular qualms of conscience. To read the things he does, and to know that he does them in a spirit of conscientious diligence, as a craftsman might shape pottery, is an alienating experience. I am open to this moral numbness being an intentional and necessary part of the story Wolfe wants to tell, but it is affecting my investment in Severian and his fortunes.

A book called The Shadow of the Torturer is one that, absent some reason to adjust my priors, I am unlikely to pick up, but I am, on balance, happy to have embarked on this series. Praise has been lavished on it — each volume won some sort of science fiction or fantasy award when it was published, and that’s fair enough. Wolfe, on the other hand, has been called “the Melville of science fiction”, which, well, I guess could be true too, but in that case the phrase “of science fiction” appears, at this point, to be doing a lot of work.

Newstok: How to Think Like Shakespeare

June 20, 2022

How to Think Like Shakespeare
Lessons from a Renaissance Education
Scott Newstok
(Princeton, 2020)

208 p.

The first thing I’ll say is that in my case this book did not deliver on its title. I read it, then tried to write some dramatic verse, and it turned out badly. But authors, I believe, often cannot title their books, so let’s not be dismissive. What we have in How to Think Like Shakespeare is a feisty, multifaceted critique of contemporary education in which Newstok uses pre-modern education as a foil, and an effective one. In education, he writes,

We now act as if work precludes play; imitation stifles creativity; tradition stifles autonomy; constraint limits innovation; discipline somehow contradicts freedom; engagement with what is past and foreign occludes what is present and native.

Shakespeare’s era delighted in exposing these purported dilemmas as false: play emerges through work; creativity through imitation; autonomy through tradition; innovation through constraints; freedom through discipline.

He dives into each of these contradictions of prevailing assumptions to discover what we might learn. The argument is not so much about what to teach, but how. “Education must be about thinking — not training a set of specific skills.”  Along the way, we get critiques of standardized testing, of technology (which, quoting Thoreau, he calls “improved means to an unimproved end”), of attempts to deny the canon (which, citing Wendell Berry, he says undermines one of the central purposes of education, which is to become “the heir of a cultural birthright”), of non-judgmentalism, and of aversion to tradition. And we are introduced to practices designed to teach craft, appropriation, and attention (which, he reminds us, Simone Weil called “the natural prayer that we make to inward truth”).  It is a cri de coeur from a man who, echoing Orwell, believes that “we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty.”

The book is a broadside, therefore, against modern education and the institutions that sustain it. Its ideas might be startling, unless you’re already steeped in, for instance, David Hicks, Michel de Montaigne, Charlotte Mason, Ryan Topping, Roger Scruton, Dorothy Sayers, and Stratford Caldecott. In that case, the most startling thing about the book is who published it. Perhaps things are not quite so bad as they might be.

For me, the book has been most valuable for its lengthy “further reading” section, which, under the banner “Kinsmen of the Shelf” includes recommendations of a great many books and essays that I hope to investigate. Kinsmen of the Shelf. A good phrase. (It’s from Dickinson.)

So let’s see: Shakespeare, Thoreau, Weil, Orwell, Berry, Dickinson. Good company.

A final note about style. Newstok writes in a punchy, compressed style, and, in a delightful way, integrates phrases from Shakespeare (and others) into his own prose, much as the Church Fathers wrote hardly a sentence without echoing Scripture. It makes for stimulating reading.

Gibbon: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, IV

June 7, 2022

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Volume 4
Edward Gibbon
(Modern Library, 1993)  [1788]
lxviii + 598 p.

The structure of Gibbon’s great history is troubled by a threat of anti-climax. The third volume ended with the sack of Rome and the extinction of the Western empire, and in the minds of many readers that’s the end of the story, as it was, I believe, the end of the story as Gibbon originally intended to tell it. But of course in the east there remained an imperial power centered on Constantinople that, despite its Greek language and its very different feel, understood itself as the continuation of the Roman empire, called itself the Roman empire, and, in truth, was firmly rooted in the Roman empire, and its history was to continue for another thousand years. The final three volumes of Gibbon’s book, therefore, are devoted to tracing the contours of that millennium-long extension of the Roman inheritance, as well as to describing the powers that arose to replace the empire in the west, and to showing how, eventually, those two spheres, the eastern and the western, came into contact and mutual influence again.

This fourth volume covers — excluding a few tendrils that reach forward or backward in slender lines — a period of approximately a century and a half, beginning in the 470s and ending early in the seventh century.

It launches, rather unpromisingly, with a chapter devoted to religious matters such as the rise of monasticism, the conversion of the northern Europeans, and the demise of Arianism. Gibbon is not at his best on this ground, and this chapter, especially, does little more than underline his lack of sympathy for monasticism. We learn that the monks were “a swarm of fanatics, incapable of fear, or reason, or humanity” who were in thrall to a “savage enthusiasm which represents man as a criminal, and God as a tyrant”. These men he sees simply as “unhappy exiles from social life” who were “impelled by the dark and implacable genius of superstition”. He just doesn’t get it, and that’s a limitation that we, his patient readers, have to put up with.

But this is followed by a brilliant chapter — the 38th, if anyone is counting — in which he pauses to sum up and take stock of the big picture at the end of the fifth century, writing

I have now accomplished the laborious narrative of the decline and fall of the Roman empire, from the fortunate age of Trajan and the Antonines, to its total extinction in the West, about five centuries after the Christian era. At that unhappy period, the Saxons fiercely struggled with the natives for the possession of Britain: Gaul and Spain were divided between the powerful monarchies of the Franks and Visigoths, and the dependent kingdoms of the Suevi and Burgundians: Africa was exposed to the cruel persecution of the Vandals, and the savage insults of the Moors: Rome and Italy, as far as the banks of the Danube, were afflicted by an army of Barbarian mercenaries, whose lawless tyranny was succeeded by the reign of Theodoric the Ostrogoth. All the subjects of the empire, who, by the use of the Latin language, more particularly deserved the name and privileges of Romans, were oppressed by the disgrace and calamities of foreign conquest; and the victorious nations of Germany established a new system of manners and government in the western countries of Europe.

From this vantage point he pauses to summarize the main argument of the book thus far, highlighting for us a few of the factors that, in his mind, were principally responsible for the decline and fall of the empire. He puts the matter in this way:

The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long. The victorious legions, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first oppressed the freedom of the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple. The emperors, anxious for their personal safety and the public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy; the vigor of the military government was relaxed, and finally dissolved, by the partial institutions of Constantine; and the Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of Barbarians.

Rome was too big to sustain itself, weakened by prosperity (and the softness of character that accompanied it), compromised by a too-powerful and insufficiently disciplined military, and subjected to too many outside pressures on its integrity. He also highlights the divided loyalties arising from the “double reign”, east and west, that troubled the empire after Constantine’s founding of Constantinople, with its potential for internal tension and multiplication of internal bureaucracies.

**

Before I began reading this book, the one thing I’d have thought that I could tell you was that Gibbon lay the blame for Rome’s decline at the feet of the Christians. He does do so, as we’ll see in a moment, but his claim is not so bald nor so simple. We’ve just seen that he cites quite a number of contributing reasons for Rome’s fall. When he does get around to criticizing Christianity, he says:

The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity: the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister: a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers’ pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes, who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity. Faith, zeal, curiosity, and the more earthly passions of malice and ambition, kindled the flame of theological discord; the church, and even the state, were distracted by religious factions, whose conflicts were sometimes bloody, and always implacable; the attention of the emperors was diverted from camps to synods; the Roman world was oppressed by a new species of tyranny; and the persecuted sects became the secret enemies of their country.

In other words, Christianity softened the Roman virtues and fostered division within Roman society. Yet, not stopping there, he goes on to recognize that Christianity also brought important benefits, both by attempting to unite society under one faith, and by moderating the conflict between Rome and the barbarians, who themselves often adopted the faith:

If the decline of the Roman empire was hastened by the conversion of Constantine, his victorious religion broke the violence of the fall, and mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors.

So I would judge that when it comes to the overall, broad-strokes role of Christianity in the decline of the Roman empire, Gibbon is at least making an effort to be even-handed.

**

The weight of the narrative, from this point forward, falls in the east. Insofar as the Western powers come into it, it is mostly a tale of woe. We see the Ostrogoths, led by Theodoric, establishing themselves as the principal power in Italy for about 50 years before yielding again to the Eastern empire, which was itself subsequently overrun by the Lombards come down from the north. The Lombards founded a long-lasting kingdom that persisted for several hundred years. I was intrigued to learn that it was during the period of Lombard rule (from, say, about 565 until the reign of Charlemagne in the late 8th century) that the Latin language began to break apart into regional dialects. The Lombards, it seemed, spoke a native tongue less inflected than Latin, and gradually produced a less inflected form of Latin that better suited them. Presumably it was this evolved (or devolved, according to taste) form of Latin from which the relatively uninflected Romance languages emerged.

The Lombard kingdom was ruled from Pavia, in northern Italy, and Rome, during this period, suffered from neglect. Gibbon dilates on the fate of the city at the end of the sixth century in a passage so lovely and characteristic of his strengths as a writer that I cannot resist quoting it at length. Rome, he writes, had at this time reached “the lowest period of her depression.”

By the removal of the seat of empire, and the successive loss of the provinces, the sources of public and private opulence were exhausted: the lofty tree, under whose shade the nations of the earth had reposed, was deprived of its leaves and branches, and the sapless trunk was left to wither on the ground. The ministers of command, and the messengers of victory, no longer met on the Appian or Flaminian way; and the hostile approach of the Lombards was often felt, and continually feared. The inhabitants of a potent and peaceful capital, who visit without an anxious thought the garden of the adjacent country, will faintly picture in their fancy the distress of the Romans: they shut or opened their gates with a trembling hand, beheld from the walls the flames of their houses, and heard the lamentations of their brethren, who were coupled together like dogs, and dragged away into distant slavery beyond the sea and the mountains. Such incessant alarms must annihilate the pleasures and interrupt the labors of a rural life; and the Campagna of Rome was speedily reduced to the state of a dreary wilderness, in which the land is barren, the waters are impure, and the air is infectious. Curiosity and ambition no longer attracted the nations to the capital of the world: but, if chance or necessity directed the steps of a wandering stranger, he contemplated with horror the vacancy and solitude of the city, and might be tempted to ask, Where is the senate, and where are the people? … The edifices of Rome were exposed to the same ruin and decay: the mouldering fabrics were easily overthrown by inundations, tempests, and earthquakes: and the monks, who had occupied the most advantageous stations, exulted in their base triumph over the ruins of antiquity.

About all that was left to interest the world about Rome was the papacy, and if it was true that the last years of the sixth century were the nadir for Rome, Gibbon largely credits the pontificate of Pope St Gregory the Great (590-604) for beginning the long, slow process of turning things around.

(Before passing on from the Lombards, I cannot resist a personal aside about Pavia, their capital. Today it is a relatively small city reachable by train from Milan in under an hour. I have been there myself. In one of its churches, San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro (which Dante mentions in the Paradiso), are interred two of the great men of our tradition: St. Augustine and Boethius. I went there on a personal pilgrimage to honour Augustine, whose tomb, I was grateful to discover, is stunningly beautiful; pictures can hardly do it justice. Sadly I didn’t learn about Boethius’ tomb until years later, so I was not able to pay my respects to him. Nonetheless, visiting Pavia remains one of the best and most rewarding things I’ve ever done.)

*

Meanwhile, in Constantinople, the sixth century is dominated by the life of Justinian, an emperor who, perhaps nearly as much as Constantine himself, left a legacy that shaped politics and culture for centuries afterwards. My judgement, prior to reading Gibbon, was that Justinian’s reign was primarily a beneficial one, though marred by serious faults (such as, to cite a case hard to ignore, the execution of Boethius). Gibbon is inclined to see things the other way around; for him, Jusitinian is a rather nasty character: superstitious, violent, and lacking nobility. He was, we learn, “neither beloved in his life, nor regretted at his death”. The obvious bright light in his reign, which for Gibbon survives as practically the only bright light, was his decision to reform the legal framework of the empire. The Justinian Code survives to this day in the legal regimes of numerous European nations. (Gibbon pauses at this point to devote an entire chapter of his book to a history of Roman jurisprudence. It’s a brilliant performance, I am told, though I am here skipping lightly over it.)

Justinian is overshadowed for Gibbon by his most eminent general, Belisarius, and we are treated to a fine encomium on the man’s merits:

Amidst the perils of war, he was daring without rashness, prudent without fear, slow or rapid according to the exigencies of the moment; that in the deepest distress he was animated by real or apparent hope, but that he was modest and humble in the most prosperous fortune. By these virtues, he equalled or excelled the ancient masters of the military art. Victory, by sea and land, attended his arms. He subdued Africa, Italy, and the adjacent islands; led away captives the successors of Genseric and Theodoric; filled Constantinople with the spoils of their palaces; and in the space of six years recovered half the provinces of the Western empire. In his fame and merit, in wealth and power, he remained without a rival.

He was executed by Justinian, who was allegedly jealous of his success and fame.

A pleasure of reading a long, involved history such as this is that it turns up admirable characters where I hadn’t known them to be. Belisarius is one, and the emperor Tiberius II, who came to the throne about a decade after Justinian’s death, is another. I had no notion of him at all, but Gibbon regards him highly, writing:

After recording the vice or folly of so many Roman princes, it is pleasing to repose, for a moment, on a character conspicuous by the qualities of humanity, justice, temperance, and fortitude; to contemplate a sovereign affable in his palace, pious in the church, impartial on the seat of judgment, and victorious, at least by his generals, in the Persian war. The most glorious trophy of his victory consisted in a multitude of captives, whom Tiberius entertained, redeemed, and dismissed to their native homes with the charitable spirit of a Christian hero. The merit or misfortunes of his own subjects had a dearer claim to his beneficence, and he measured his bounty not so much by their expectations as by his own dignity.

Here, it seems, was a man worthy of remembrance. But for every such, there were an armful of tyrants, squabblers, loafers, or worse. Just a few years after Tiberius’ death, for instance, the throne was seized by one Phocas, a violent careerist who is best remembered today for being drawn into an epochal conflict with the Persian empire. The war outlasted Phocas, but was continued through the long reign of Heraclius, and ended, in 628, in a state of depletion and exhaustion for both powers.

This whimper of an outcome was epochal because a new force was ready to sweep into the power vacuum created by the war, and the thunder of its hoofbeats could be heard, faintly at first, but not faintly for long:

An obscure town on the confines of Syria was pillaged by the Saracens, and they cut in pieces some troops who advanced to its relief; an ordinary and trifling occurrence, had it not been the prelude of a mighty revolution. These robbers were the apostles of Mahomet; their fanatic valor had emerged from the desert; and in the last eight years of his reign, Heraclius lost to the Arabs the same provinces which he had rescued from the Persians.

The tale of how the Islamic armies conquered the Persians, the Byzantines, the North Africans, and the Iberians in just one hundred years will be one of the principal narrative threads in the succeeding volume. I look forward to it.

***

[Gibbon’s Whiggish optimism defies his main theme]
Every age of the world has increased, and still increases, the real wealth, the happiness, the knowledge, and perhaps the virtue, of the human race.

[Limits of reform]
It is the first care of a reformer to prevent any future reformation.

Hazlitt: Economics in One Lesson

May 27, 2022

Economics in One Lesson
Henry Hazlitt
(Currency, 1988) [1946]
218 p.

Hazlitt’s approach to economics can be summarized in one key principle:

The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.

That’s it. That’s the one lesson. Elaborating the point, he argues that a great many specific fallacies of economic reasoning stem from either not considering the effects of economic policies in the long term, or not considering the effects on all groups, or both.

The bulk of the book is devoted to systematic examination of a variety of economic policies in the light of this basic principle, and to ferreting out the fallacies that proliferate when the principle is ignored. We get brief but punchy analyses of government stimulus spending and government price-fixing (whether in the form of tariffs, or rent controls, or minimum wages, or subsidies, or something else). He challenges the claims that, for instance, unions raise wages, or that thrift causes economic harm, or that full employment is an ideal, or that technological advances cause unemployment. These claims can be true in the short-term or if we confine our view to certain groups, but they look quite different if we take the longer, wider view. A fairly detailed outline of the arguments in the book can be found here.

The argumentation is generally clear — though, of course, being a notorious dullard in these matters I was unable to follow all of the reasoning. I could understand why government stimulus spending can appear to be a panacea without actually being so — because we see the bridge but we don’t see what would have been done with the capital and labour had the bridge not been built — and he was very good at describing the causes and the evils of inflation, and at tracing the many downstream, often hidden, consequences of price-fixing. But when he described the role of profits in our economy as being “to guide and channel the factors of production so as to apportion the relative output of thousands of different commodities in accordance with demand,” I didn’t know what he was talking about.

His considerations throughout are strictly economic: what happens to productivity, prices, supply, demand, etc. in response to certain policies. He knows that a people might have political or moral reasons to enact a certain policy that is economically disadvantageous, and he agrees that those considerations have their proper and legitimate place. His arguments are intended, however, to contradict the claims, oft made, that such policies are actually economically advantageous.

In the end, after numerous sallies against fallacies great and small, he comes around to the satisfying conclusion that when we follow the key principle stated above, the course of sound economic policy usually corresponds with common sense:

It would not occur to anyone unacquainted with the prevailing economic half-literacy that it is good to have windows broken and cities destroyed; that it is anything but waste to create needless public projects; that it is dangerous to let idle hordes of men return to work; that machines which increase the production of wealth and economize human effort are to be dreaded; that obstructions to free production and free consumption increase wealth; that a nation grows richer by forcing other nations to take its goods for less than they cost to produce; that saving is stupid or wicked and that squandering brings prosperity.

I find this satisfying because, although I could never claim to be well-instructed in the theory of economics, and although there may be challenges to the arguments Hazlitt presents that I have not noticed, I do have a decent intuitive grasp of what does and does not make for good economic policy in my own household’s affairs, and I’ve never been able to understand why things that would be patently foolish when applied on our small scale can be sensible when applied on the large. I am edified to hear Adam Smith endorse my intuitions:

What is prudence in the conduct of every private family can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom.

The book was originally published in 1946, and in 2021 my Prime Minister, as prices began rising after a year and a half of flooding the country with newly-minted cash, said he was “not interested” in monetary policy. The book is still relevant, and still a good read.

Middleton: Women Beware Women

May 18, 2022

Women Beware Women
Thomas Middleton
(Oxford, 2000) [c.1620]
55 p.

Lust is bold,
And will have vengeance speak ere’t be controlled.

Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women ranks, by reputation, as one of his finest tragedies for the English stage. It is a play in which lust, unruly and illicit, leads all to destruction. It’s a play with a high level of disturbing content, and not something you’d want to take your grandmother to.

It will be worthwhile to look in some detail at the plot, both for clarity’s sake, and because it will give us an opportunity to look at a few examples of the very fine verse. Essentially we have a double plot in which two young women, Isabella and Bianca, become enmeshed in illicit sexual affairs with older men, both through the corrupt dealings of an older woman, Livia.

**

Let’s begin with Isabella, who is Livia’s niece. She has attracted the wanton affections of her uncle (Livia’s brother), and Livia, for reasons not entirely clear, offers to help him seduce her:

LIVIA: You are not the first, brother, has attempted
Things more forbidden than this seems to be.

That “seems” tells us a lot about her. She convinces Isabella that her uncle isn’t actually her uncle, and that an affair with him would lead to certain advantages. Isabella, gullible, takes the bait.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to a newlywed couple, Leantio and Bianca. She has left a wealthy family to marry a humble man, for love, and their new life seems to be one of happiness and harmony. Departing on a business trip, however, Leantio asks that Bianca remain locked up at home while he is away, lest she inflame the desires of other men. This seems excessively controlling and neurotic, but, actually, turns out to be sensible and prudent — although insufficient!

She consents, but, following her husband’s departure, ventures to the window to see the Duke passing by, and, seen by him, is summoned to the castle where, maneuvered by Livia into being alone with the Duke, she is raped. The Duke offers her riches if she’ll consent to be his mistress.

This trauma brings about a dramatic change in Bianca’s character. Feeling herself despoiled by the Duke, she, in an act of apparent self-loathing, decides to throw all away and accept the Duke’s offer:

Yet since mine honour’s leprous, why should I
Preserve that fair that caused the leprosy?
Come, poison all at once.

Livia, the successful pander, seeing this transformation, but sensing a certain anguished reluctance behind it, tells us that

Her tender modesty is sea-sick a little,
Being not accustomed to the breaking billow
Of woman’s wavering faith, blown with temptations,
‘Tis but a qualm of honour; ’twill away;
A little bitter for the time, but lasts not,
Sin tastes at the first draught like wormwood-water,
But, drunk again, ’tis nectar ever after.

I’m not convinced this tells us much about what is actually the case in Bianca’s heart, but it does reveal that we are dealing, in Livia, with a seriously reprobate woman, if we had any doubts.

As Leantio returns home from his trip, he is given a speech on the joys of marriage which, in context, must come across to the audience as ironic and tragic, or perhaps darkly comic, depending on how the lines are delivered:

What a delicious breath marriage sends forth
the violet bed’s not sweeter. Honest wedlock
Is like a banqueting-house built in a garden
On which the spring’s chaste flowers take delight
To cast their modest odours; when base lust
With all her powders, paintings, and best pride
Is but a fair house built by a ditch side.
When I behold a glorious dangerous Strumpet,
Sparkling in Beauty and Destruction too,
Both at a twinkling , I do liken straight
Her beautifi’d body to a goodly Temple
That’s built on Vaults where Carkasses lie rotting,
And so by little and little I shrink back again,
And quench desire with a cool Meditation,
And I’m as well methinks.

That starts out quite beautifully, but there’s something wrong with it. He spends more time thinking about the strumpet than about his new wife, and seems to be struggling still to quench a wayward desire. In any case, even the modest odours of married love are about to take on unpleasant overtones (if, perchance, odours can have overtones). He finds her suddenly discontented with the humble status of his household:

Wives do not give away themselves to husbands
To the end to be quite cast away; they look
To be the better used and tendered, rather,
Higher respected, and maintained the richer.

She announces that she is leaving him to live with the Duke. Leantio’s ode to marriage comes back, but in full reverse:

O thou the ripe time of man’s misery, wedlock;
When all his thoughts, like overladen trees,
Crack with the fruits they bear, in cares, in jealousies,
O, that’s a fruit that ripes hastily
After ’tis knit to marriage. It begins,
As soon as the sun shines upon the bride,
A little to show colour. Blessed powers,
Whence comes this alteration? The distractions,
The fears and doubts it brings are numberless,
And yet the cause I know not. What a peace
Has he that never marries! If he knew
The benefit he enjoy’d, or had the fortune
To come and speak with me, he should know then
The infinite wealth he had, and discern rightly
The greatness of his treasure by my loss:
Nay, what a quietness has he ‘bove mine,
That wears his youth out in a strumpet’s arms,
And never spends more care upon a woman
Than at the time of lust; but walks away,
And if he find her dead at his return,
His pity is soon done, he breaks a sigh
In many parts, and gives her but a peace on’t!
But all the fears, shames, jealousies, costs and troubles,
And still renew’d cares of a marriage bed,
Live in the issue, when the wife is dead.

Pretty grim stuff.

Meanwhile, as Leantio is coming to terms with his wife’s departure, he himself catches the eye of Livia, who makes him an offer that parallels the Duke’s offer to Bianca: become my plaything in exchange for wealth and status. Leantio thinks briefly of his wife (“Why should my love last longer than her truth?”) before he, too, throws away fidelity and takes up the offer.

At this point, in the play, therefore, we have three illicit affairs underway, two adulterous and one incestuous. Although Leantio’s infidelity is, in most respects, parallel to Bianca’s, and is arguably worse for not having been initiated by sexual assault, when he next meets her he has withering words for her:

Why do I talk to thee of sense or virtue,
That art as dark as death? and as much madness
To set light before thee, as to lead blind folks
To see the monuments, which they may smell as soon
As they behold; marry, ofttimes their heads,
For want of light, may feel the hardness of ’em;
So shall thy blind pride my revenge and anger
That canst not see it now; and it may fall
At such an hour, when thou least seest of all:
So to an ignorance darker than thy womb,
I leave thy perjur’d soul: a plague will come!

In addition to being fine verse, this is a noteworthy speech because it signals a transition in the play from prevailing lust to prevailing violence. Indeed, shortly afterward Isabella discovers that she has been carrying on an affair with a man who is actually her uncle. Horrified, she too vows revenge:

If the least means but favour my revenge,
That I may practise the like cruel cunning
Upon her life, as she has on mine honour,
I’ll act it without pity.

And so the play launches into its last act, where sickly feints at romance give way to blood-letting, and lots of it.

It begins in a rather unexpected way: with the introduction of a new, righteous character. The predatory Duke, it turns out, has a brother who is a Cardinal, and this Cardinal (implausible as it may seem to us) is not a hypocrite or a pervert or a criminal, but, it appears, a genuinely good man who grieves over his brother’s sins and urgently calls him to repentance:

’tis a work
Of infinite mercy you can never merit
That yet you are not death-struck; no, not yet:
I dare not stay you long, for fear you should not
Have time enough allowed you to repent in.

And the Duke, much to my surprise, takes his brother’s reproof to heart. Maybe this is a point where the psychology of the play betrays itself as superficial, but he immediately resolves to bring the adulterous relationship to an end. The trouble is that, as in the case of David and Bathsheba, he proposes to stop the adultery but not the relationship; he resolves to kill her husband!

I have vowed
Never to know her as a strumpet more,
And I must save my oath. If fury fail not,
Her husband dies tonight.

Die he does, and the stage is set for a bloodbath at the marriage feast of the Duke and Bianca. I’ll spare the details, but in short order Isabella and her uncle and Livia and Bianca and the Duke — all the principal characters — are dead, and bodies litter the stage in true tragic fashion.

***

On first reading, it strikes me as a very good play, though these things are admittedly hard to judge merely from the page. The story develops surely and comprehensibly, the characters are distinctive, the villainy is clear but clothed in suavity, and, not least, the lucid verse is a pleasure to read. The principal weakness that I see is that the story relies on several abrupt changes of character, in Bianca first, and then in both Leantio and the Duke. Of these, Leantio’s is handled most ably and convincingly, but still seemed too tidy to me.

Rumour is that Middleton’s next project was to meddle with a play called Measure for Measure as it was being prepared for publication. An honour, surely, but in retrospect one that might have been better left alone.

Marcus Aurelius: Meditations

May 9, 2022

Meditations
Marcus Aurelius
Adapted by George Chrystal from the 1742 Foulis translation
(Walter J. Black, 1941) [c.180]
120 p.

Marcus Aurelius, he of the golden name and the laudable reputation, has for me always had something of an aura, as it were, about him. Even the terse title of his famous book promised something sturdy and placid, something on which to sit and rest myself. I am happy to have finally made the time for it.

It is rare to have a book, especially one of this kind, written by a man of such eminence. He was Roman emperor, the most powerful man in the world he knew, yet his book is not about conquest or war or even greatness in any worldly sense. It is a book about the interior life, for the most part: about virtue, and the good life, and preparing for death, and learning to be happy. He wrote it for himself.

It is an aphoristic book. Marcus Aurelius spent much of his time as emperor on the road, in the field of battle, and it seems he jotted down his thoughts when he had a fleeting opportunity to do so. The book it most reminded me of, at least structurally, was Pascal’s Pensées. Not the least of its merits is that it stands as a reproach to those of us who think we’re “too busy” to do something worthwhile.

Because of its fractured format, it’s a good book to dip into, and a difficult one to summarize. Today my aim is simply to pluck at a few dominant ideas that I noticed, and to preserve for my own benefit some passages that struck me as especially worthy.

***

Much of the book is occupied with the question of what constitutes good character. Let’s start with an extended sketch that he gives early in his meditations when he is recounting what he learned from various mentors and exemplars:

The counsels of Maximus taught me to command myself, to judge clearly, to be of good courage in sickness and other misfortunes, to be moderate, gentle, yet serious in disposition, and to accomplish my appointed task without repining. All men believed that he spoke as he thought; and whatever he did, they knew it was done with good intent. I never found him surprised or astonished at anything. He was never in a hurry, never shrank from his purpose, was never at a loss or dejected. He was no facile smiler, but neither was he passionate or suspicious. He was ready to do good, to forgive, and to speak the truth, and gave the impression of unperverted rectitude rather than of a reformed character. No man could ever think himself despised by Maximus, and no one ever ventured to think himself his superior. He had also a good gift of humour.

There we have a winsome and compelling portrait of a good man; who would not wish to be spoken of in such a way? One of the character traits in this sketch is integrity: to be what one appears to be, to be candid and honest in one’s dealings with people, to say what one means. This is a matter that comes up frequently throughout the book, and is expressed in different ways. For instance, he tells us that we should

Never esteem aught of advantage which will oblige you to break your faith, or to desert your honour; to hate, to suspect, or to execrate any man; to play a part; or to set your mind on anything that needs to be hidden by wall or curtain. (III.7)

Or, again,

If you discharge your present duty with firm and zealous, yet kindly, observance of the laws of reason; if you regard no by-gains, but keep pure within you your immortal part, as if obliged to restore it at once to him who gave it; if you hold to this with no further desires or aversions, and be content with the natural discharge of your present task, and with the heroic sincerity of all you say or utter, you will live well. And herein no man can hinder you. (III.12)

It might be that certain jealous or envious people will cast aspersions at a man who lives thus candidly before the world, ascribing to him secret hidden motives that he does not have, but this, says Marcus, is nothing to be concerned about:

Though others may not believe that he lives thus in simplicity, modesty, and contentment, he neither takes this unbelief amiss from any one, nor quits the road which leads to the true end of life, at which he ought to arrive pure, calm, ready to take his departure, and accommodated without compulsion to his fate. (III.16)

This is appealing to me; here is something to aspire to. But I fear, on good grounds, that I would fail, as I have failed at lesser challenges. A charge open to Marcus, as it is open to anyone who sets up an ideal, is that it is unrealistic: people just aren’t that good. We are all hobbled by various weaknesses and corruptions. This side of things is muted in the book, but not absent. At one point, for instance, he offers counsel on how to resist the lure of avarice:

Dwell not on what you lack so much as on what you have already. Select the best of what you have, and consider how passionately you would have longed for it had it not been yours. Yet be watchful, lest by this joy in what you have you accustom yourself to value it too highly; so that, if it should fail, you would be distressed. (VII.27)

This is a kind of therapy for temptation and weakness of will. In another place he offers advice to those who, though trying to live in accordance with reason — a Stoic ideal — find that they have fallen into error:

Remember that to change your course, and to follow any man who can set you right is no compromise of your freedom. The act is your own, performed on your own impulse and judgment, and according to your own understanding. (VIII.16)

To be in error is a fault, but to discover an error is an opportunity to exercise both freedom and gratitude. But he goes beyond even such rosy therapies and glass-half-full ruminations once or twice:

This your suffering is well merited, for you would rather become good to-morrow than be good to-day. (VIII.22)

I would bet that St Augustine read Marcus Aurelius.

**

Marcus had to deal with difficult people — not just irritating people, but people scheming against him for something, and perhaps in the grip of a particular vice. We all have to do this from time to time, according to our state in life. Marcus has some counsel for such situations.

Say this to yourself in the morning: Today I shall have to do with meddlers, with the ungrateful, with the insolent, with the crafty, with the envious and the selfish. All these vices have beset them, because they know not what is good and what is evil. But I have considered the nature of the good, and found it beautiful: I have beheld the nature of the bad, and found it ugly. I also understand the nature of the evil-doer, and know that he is my brother, not because he shares with me the same blood or the same seed, but because he is a partaker of the same mind and of the same portion of immortality. I therefore cannot be hurt by any of these, since none of them can involve me in any baseness. I cannot be angry with my brother, or sever myself from him, for we are made by nature for mutual assistance, like the feet, the hands, the eyelids, the upper and lower rows of teeth. (II.1)

There are a few ideas here: evildoers don’t know what they are doing, not truly; evil committed against me cannot hurt me, not truly; my own good is consonant with, rather than opposed to, the good of others. Each is debatable, of course, but each is important to Marcus’ way of seeing things. As to the last point, for instance, he cites (or coins) a neat aphorism: “What profits not the swarm profits not the bee. (VI.54)”.

The notion that a good man cannot be harmed by others comes up again and again. At times it is expressed metaphysically:

Material things cannot touch the soul at all, nor have any access to it: neither can they bend or move it. The soul is bent or moved by itself alone, and remodels all things that present themselves from without in accordance with whatever judgment it adopts within. (V.19)

The mind can convert and change everything that impedes its activity into matter for its action; hindrance in its work becomes its real help, and every obstruction makes for its progress. (V.20)

At other times it is stated in moral terms:

Let any one say or do what he pleases, I must be a good man. It is just as gold, or emeralds, or purple might say continually: “Let men do or say what they please, I must be an emerald, and retain my lustre.” (VII.15)

Or, conversely,

The sinner sins against himself. The wrong-doer wrongs himself by making himself evil. (IX.4)

Socrates used to say something very much like this, and there is a kernel of hard truth in it. I may be made to suffer for my integrity, but so long as I’m willing to undergo that suffering, so long as I value my integrity more than I fear the suffering, I cannot be compelled to forsake it. This is a stern moralism, but attractive. Consistently, Marcus counsels us to aim, in freedom, at what is right according to justice, and accept the consequences.

In the present matter what is the soundest that can be done or said? For, whatever that may be, you are at liberty to do or say it. Make no excuses as if hindered. You will never cease from groaning until your disposition is such that what luxury is to men of pleasure, that to you is doing what is suitable to the constitution of man on every occasion that is thrown or falls in your way. You should regard as enjoyment everything which you are at liberty to do in accordance with your own proper nature; and this liberty you have everywhere. (X.33)

We are to look at what is intrinsically right, without regard to extrinsic factors like approbation, reward, or suffering. Keep your eye on the ball. He is especially keen to discount the importance of rewards for good deeds. No doubt he was surrounded by sycophants seeking an imperial back scratch for services rendered, but he would have none of it:

When you have done a kind action, another has benefited. Why do you, like the fools, require some third thing in addition—a reputation for benevolence or a return for it? (VII.73)

Instead, he sketches for us an ideal to contrast with the fool:

Some men, when they have done you a favour, are very ready to reckon up the obligation they have conferred. Others, again, are not so forward in their claims, but yet in their minds consider you their debtor, and well know the value of what they have done. A third sort seem to be unconscious of their service. They are like the vine, which produces its clusters and is satisfied when it has yielded its proper fruit. The horse when he has run his course, the hound when he has followed the track, the bee when it has made its honey, and the man when he has done good to others, make no noisy boast of it, but set out to do the same once more, as the vine in its season produces its new clusters again. “Should we, then, be among those who in a manner know not what they do?” Assuredly. (V.6)

This is a matter that I’ve often thought about. I’m a person who, on those rare occasions when I do some good for a friend, does not expect anything in return. The matter is forgotten. Likewise, when someone does me a good turn, I don’t feel any pressing obligation to return the favour. I am grateful; I say ‘thank you’; and then I move on. I don’t keep accounts, for better or for worse. This can be irritating to my wife, who is much more sensitive to the intricacies of obligation and debt. But I am in agreement with Marcus on this point; I do what I see as my duty, or as right, and why should I place another under a debt for doing so? And when I receive a good from someone, can I not receive it as a gift, or must it place me under some obligation to reciprocate? Well, it is simpler, at least, to be as the horse, the hound, and the bee.

Wrapped up in Marcus’ counsel that we should simply do the right thing is his belief that we should not particularly care about the outcome. We do our part, he says, and the rest is not up to us.

Try to persuade men to agree with you; but whether they agree or not, pursue the course you have marked out when the principles of justice point that way. Should one oppose you by force, act with resignation, and shew not that you are hurt, use the obstruction for the exercise of some other virtue, and remember that your purpose involved the reservation that you were not to aim at impossibilities. What, after all, was your aim? To make some good effort such as this. Well, then, you have succeeded, even though your first purpose be not accomplished. (VI.50)

We encroach here on the Stoic belief that we should strive for detachment from success, fame, and wealth. Instead, we should accept, in humility and simplicity, whatever happens, be it good or bad by conventional standards of judgment. Such things — merely external things that happen to us — are of no ultimate importance:

Now death and life, glory and reproach, pain and pleasure, riches and poverty—all these happen equally to the good and to the bad. But, as they are neither honourable nor shameful, they are therefore neither good nor evil. (II.11)

When under the sway of our passions, we grow attached to things that are transitory and bound to pass away. We want things to be this way, and not that way. But this is a recipe for unhappiness, for all things are transitory, and even if we attain what we want, it will not last. Instead, we ought to receive everything that happens with a kind of detached indifference:

The healthy eye ought to look on everything visible, and not to say, “I want green,” like an eye that is diseased. Sound hearing or sense of smell ought to be ready for all that can be heard or smelt; and the healthy stomach should be equally disposed for all sorts of food, as a mill for all that it was built to grind. So also the healthy mind should be ready for all things that happen. That mind which says, “Let my children be spared, and let men applaud my every action,” is as an eye which begs for green, or as teeth which require soft food. (X.35)

Again, this way of thinking has a certain appeal. For a Christian it must be a limited appeal, for Jesus taught us to ask for our daily bread, rather than to <i>not</i> ask for it. The Christian way is to love rather than to be indifferent. And Marcus’ belief that it is better not to desire particular goods does occasionally cross the line into something that feels perverse:

You will think little of a pleasing song, a dance, or a gymnastic display, if you analyse the melody into its separate notes, and ask yourself regarding each, “Does this impress me?” You will blush to own it; and so also if you analyse the dance into its single motions and postures, and if you similarly treat the gymnastic display. In general then, except as regards virtue and virtuous action, remember to recur to the constituent parts of things, and by dissecting to despise them; and transfer this practice to life as a whole. (XI.2)

This just seems like a therapy for how not to like things: by conceptualizing them in a way that makes them not likeable.

*

A final theme of Marcus’ meditations that I’ll touch on is a familiar one: the brevity of life. This is a common enough trope in the ancient world; we saw it when we were reading Seneca a few moons ago, and it is a perpetual favourite of moralists the world over. All the same, Marcus invests the familiar tune with his own distinctive voice. He emphasizes the moral urgency that human life acquires because of its limits:

Order not your life as though you had ten thousand years to live. Fate hangs over you. While you live, while yet you may, be good. (IV.17)

And he concludes his entire set of meditations with a memorable passage on the inevitability and unpredictability of death:

You have lived, O man, as a citizen of this great city; of what consequence to you whether for five years or for three? What comes by law is fair to all. Where then is the calamity, if you are sent out of the city, by no tyrant or unjust judge, but Nature herself who at first introduced you, just as the praetor who engaged the actor again dismisses him from the stage? “But,” say you, “I have not spoken my five acts, but only three.” True, but in life three acts make up the play. For he sets the end who was responsible for its composition at the first, and for its present dissolution. You are responsible for neither. Depart then graciously; for he who dismisses you is gracious. (XII.36)

All the world’s a stage.

***

The Meditations is unquestionably a great book; it doesn’t need me to praise it. Reading as a Christian, I see its wisdom as limited in various respects, but that it contains genuine wisdom I do not doubt. Stoicism probably never found a better spokesman than Marcus Aurelius. Perhaps the thing that struck me most, as I was reading, was just how immediately it spoke to me. I would go so far as to say that for no book from the ancient world, with the notable and important exception of Augustine’s Confessions, have I felt the centuries melt away as I did with this. Marcus speaks to me as a contemporary, and that is a remarkable achievement.

***

[Aphorism]
The best revenge is not to copy him that wronged you. (VI.6)

[Aphorism]
Men will go their ways nonetheless, though you burst in protest. (VIII.4)

[Human nature and reason]
In the reasoning being to act according to nature is to act according to reason. (VII.11)

[Philosophy]
Had you at one time both a step-mother and a mother, you would respect the former, yet you would be more constantly in your mother’s company. Your court and your philosophy are step-mother and mother to you. Return then frequently to your true mother, and recreate yourself with her. Her consolation can make the court seem bearable to you, and you to it. (VI.12)

[Love those around you]
Adapt yourself to the things which your destiny has given you: love those with whom it is your lot to live, and love them with sincere affection. (VI.39)

[Choose the best]
Frankly and freely choose the best, and keep to it. The best is what is for your advantage. If now you choose what is for your spiritual advantage, hold it fast; if what is for your bodily advantage, admit that it is so chosen, and keep your choice with all modesty. Only see that you make a sure discrimination. (III.6)

[Change and transitoriness]
Consider frequently how swiftly things that exist or are coming into existence are swept by and carried away. Their substance is as a river perpetually flowing; their actions are in continual change, and their causes subject to ten thousand alterations. Scarcely anything is stable, and the vast eternities of past and future in which all things are swallowed up are close upon us on both hands. Is he not then a fool who is puffed up with success in the things of this world, or is distracted, or worried, as if he were in a time of trouble likely to endure for long. (V.23)

[Good zeal]
For what should we be zealous? For this alone, that our souls be just, our actions unselfish, our speech ever sincere, and our disposition such as may cheerfully embrace whatever happens, seeing it to be inevitable, familiar, and sprung from the same source and origin as we ourselves. (IV.34)

[Metaphysical beauty]
Whatever is beautiful at all is beautiful in itself. Its beauty ends there, and praise has no part in it. Nothing is the better or the worse for being praised; and this holds also of what is beautiful in the common estimation: of material forms and works of art. Thus true beauty needs nothing beyond itself, any more than law, or truth, or kindness, or honour. For none of these gets a single grace from praise or one blot from censure. (IV.19)

[Simplicity]
Most things you say and do are not necessary. Have done with them, and you will be more at leisure and less perturbed. On every occasion, then, ask yourself the question, Is this thing not unnecessary? And put away not only unnecessary deeds but unnecessary thoughts, for by so doing you will avoid all superfluous actions. (IV.24)

[Talking himself out of bed in the morning]
In the morning, when you find yourself unwilling to rise, have this thought at hand: I arise to the proper business of man, and shall I repine at setting about that work for which I was born and brought into the world? Am I equipped for nothing but to lie among the bed-clothes and keep warm? “But,” you say, “it is more pleasant so.” Is pleasure, then, the object of your being, and not action, and the exercise of your powers? Do you not see the smallest plants, the little sparrows, the ants, the spiders, the bees, all doing their part, and working for order in the Universe, as far as in them lies? And will you refuse the part in this design which is laid on man? Will you not pursue the course which accords with your own nature? You say, “I must have rest.” Assuredly; but nature appoints a measure for rest, just as for eating and drinking. In rest you go beyond these limits, and beyond what is enough; but in action you do not fill the measure, and remain well within your powers. You do not love yourself; if you did, you would love your nature and its purpose. (V.1)

Briefly noted: Children’s books

May 2, 2022

Today, brief notes on a few read-aloud books that I’ve done with the kids.

*

Tuck Everlasting
Natalie Babbitt
(Scholastic, 1975)
139 p.

If you could choose to live forever, would you? This is the question hanging in the air behind this ambitious little children’s novel. We meet Winnie, a girl of ten who is lonely at home until she meets the Tuck family, who have discovered a spring of water that renders those who drink it immortal.

The natural inclination for a child — for my children, anyway — would be to take the water, and this is a basically healthy impulse, implicitly affirming the goodness of life and of the world. But there would be downsides too, in this vale of tears. The Tucks must keep moving, never able to form long-term friendships with anyone lest their agelessness become evident in time. They must evade authorities who might have a reason to know their history. Their personal development is arrested, and their lives risk losing focus, becoming merely interminable. Which would you choose?

We basically enjoyed the book — a read-aloud with an 8 yo and 10 yo — although there was a narrative thread of romantic undercurrents between Winnie and a 17-year old boy that made my hair stand on end. For crying out loud. The book closed on a strong note.

***

Half Magic
Edward Eager
(Scholastic, 2000) [1954]
192 p.

This is a sweet and funny tale about four siblings who discover a wish-granting charm — except that instead of granting wishes outright, it grants them by halves. A good premise. It makes for some rough going in the early stages of these wish-making adventures, but, once the idiosyncrasies of the charm are (mostly) mastered, the story becomes a delightful romp as they try to figure out what to do with this unlooked-for power, or what this power might be trying to do to them. If you were so inclined, the book could inspire good conversations about the value of reticence in the use of a new technology.

Because there is a simple mapping between the four children in the story and my own children, I changed the names of the characters as I read the book aloud, which occasioned much hilarity as the story proceeded.

***

The Story of Dr Dolittle
Hugh Lofting
(Dover, 2005) [1920]
96 p.

This is a pleasant little tale about a doctor turned veterinarian who has discovered the gift of conversing with animals. He first becomes impoverished because, of course, animals cannot pay him to treat their ailments, but then, responding to a plague striking the monkeys of Africa, he embarks on a great adventure to save them, making many animal friends along the way. He returns home, after a detour to find the missing father of a boy kidnapped by pirates (and the detour is about as arbitrary as it sounds), laden with gifts and with custody of a remarkable little creature — a pushmi-pullyu — that English people will pay to see. Dr Dolittle thereby grows wealthy, but never stops being pleasant.

The story of the book is rather silly, but this is part of its appeal. The main attraction is the writing, which maintains a humorous tone without stooping to punchlines, and which sounds good when read aloud. There is an episode during the African adventures which uses words now considered racial slurs, but this episode has been excised from this Dover edition.

A Greek reading list

April 26, 2022

It was four or five years ago that I launched my little Roman reading project, and, now that that project is winding down, or up, I am beginning to plan for a similar project focused on the Greeks. Again, the guiding idea is to read primary sources in history and literature, with perhaps a few modern supplements to help with context.

I’ve put together a list of things I’d like to include, and am posting it here with an invitation for comment. Anything I should add? Anything I should delete? Following my reading intentions, I’ve done my best to arrange it chronologically.

In a number of cases — Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, some Plato, some Aristotle, the playwrights — I’ve read these books before, but I expect it to be both instructive and enjoyable to re-visit them in this chronological sequence.

***

Plutarch: Theseus
Plutarch: Lycurgus

Hesiod (c.750-c.650 BC)
Theogony
Works and Days

Homer (c.700 BC)
The Iliad
The Odyssey

Greek Lyric Poetry (7th-5th c. BC): an anthology

Plutarch: Solon (638-558)

Sappho (c.630-c.570 BC)
Poems

Aesop (c.620-564)
Fables

Plutarch: Aristides (530-468)

Aeschylus (c.525-c.455 BC)
Oresteia (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides)

Plutarch: Themistocles (c.524-459)

Pindar (c.522-c.443 BC)
Odes

Plutarch: Cimon (510-450)

Herodotus (c.484-c.425 BC)
The Histories

Sophocles (c.500-c.405 BC)
Oedipus the King
Oedipus at Colonus
Antigone
Electra
Ajax

Plutarch: Pericles (c.495-429)

Euripides (c.480-c.406 BC)
Medea (431)
Hippolytus (428)
Electra (420)
The Trojan Women (415)
The Bacchae (405)
Cyclops

Diodorus of Sicily
Library, Books 11-14 [events 480-401 BC]

Plutarch: Nicias (470-413)

Thucydides (c.460-c.400 BC)
The Peloponnesian War

Hippocrates (c.460-c.370)
On Ancient Medicine
On the Art

Plutarch: Alcibiades (450-404)
Plutarch: Lysander (d.395)

Aristophanes (c.446-c.386 BC)
The Clouds
Lysistrata

Plutarch: Pelopidas (d.364)
Plutarch: Agesilaus (444-360)

Xenophon (c.430-354 BC)
Hellenika [events 411-362 BC]
Anabasis [c.370] — events c.400
Education of Cyrus
Socratic dialogues

Isocrates (436-338 BC)
Philippus
Other?

Plato (c.425-c.350 BC)
Euthyphro/Apology/Crito/Phaedo
Parmenides
Timaeus
Republic
Sophist/Statesman
Symposium
Phaedrus
Philebus
First Alcibiades
Lesser Hippias/Greater Hippias
Euthydemus
Gorgias/Protagoras/Meno/Theaetetus

Plutarch: Timoleon (411-337)
Plutarch: Dion (408-354)
Plutarch: Phocion (402-318)

Demosthenes (384-322 BC)
Philippics 1

Plutarch: Demosthenes (384-322)

Aristotle (384-322 BC)
Logic
Metaphysics (gulp!)
Nicomachean Ethics
Poetics

Plutarch: Eumones (362-316)

Alexander the Great (356-323 BC)
Diodorus of Sicily — Library, Books 16-20 [events 382-300 BC]
Quintus Curtius Rufus — History of Alexander
Arrian — Anabasis
The Greek Alexander Romance

Plutarch: Alexander

Menander (c.340-c.290 BC)
Comedies

Plutarch: Demetrius (d.283)
Plutarch: Pyrhhus (319-272)

Euclid (fl.c.300 BC)
Elements

Theocritus (c.300-after 260 BC)
Idylls (+ other poems?)

Eratosthenes (c.276-195 BC)
Constellation myths

Apollonius of Rhodes (c.275 BC)
Argonautica

Plutarch: Agis (fl.245)
Plutarch: Cleomenes (d.219)
Plutarch: Philopoemon (253-183)

Longinus (1st c. AD)
On the Sublime

Epictetus (c.50-135 AD)
Discourses
Enchiridion

Longus
Daphnis and Chloe (c.150 AD)

**

Supplements:

Alexander the Great
Peter Green, Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 B.C.: a historical biography
Pressfield, The Virtues of War (novel)
Alexander the Great: historical texts in translation (ed. Heckel and Yardley)
Bosworth, Conquest and Empire: The Reign of Alexander the Great

Mythology
D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths
Tales of the Greek Heroes — Lancelyn Green
Mythology – Edith Hamilton
Greek Myths – Robert Graves

History
Bury: A History of Greece
Kitto: The Greeks
Guardino: The Death of Socrates

****

This is going to take a while, but I’m excited about it. Again, guidance or constructive comments welcome!

Gibbon: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, III

April 21, 2022

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Volume 3
Edward Gibbon
(Modern Library, 1993)  [1776]
xix + 556 p.

Goths, Huns, and Vandals are our unruly guests as we settle down once again with Gibbon, who in this volume concentrates on the period from the ascent of Theodosius to the imperial throne in 379 to the sack of Rome by the Vandals in 455. It’s a period of fracture and friction as the Roman imperium begins to buckle under the pressures placed upon it.

Early on, Gibbon provides us with a convenient summary of the situation that had developed from about the reign of Decius (c.250) until the reign of Theodosius, which is worth reproducing here:

During this period, the seat of government had been transported from Rome to a new city on the banks of the Thracian Bosphorus; and the abuse of military spirit had been suppressed by an artificial system of tame and ceremonious servitude. The throne of the persecuting Decius was filled by a succession of Christian and orthodox princes, who had extirpated the fabulous gods of antiquity: and the public devotion of the age was impatient to exalt the saints and martyrs of the Catholic church, on the altars of Diana and Hercules. The union of the Roman empire was dissolved; its genius was humbled in the dust; and armies of unknown Barbarians, issuing from the frozen regions of the North, had established their victorious reign over the fairest provinces of Europe and Africa.

We have a few themes here: the rise of Christianity, the weakening of Roman defences, and growing pressure around the periphery of the empire from a variety of ambitious tribes. All of these themes continue and are augmented during the period under consideration in this volume.

***

Let’s look briefly at the progress of Christianity. Theodosius, emperor in the east, used his power to effect the extinction of Arianism, which had threatened the orthodox faith in the preceding century. The decline of paganism continued, after its last, unsuccessful, hurrah during the reign of Julian. Gibbon looks dolefully on the waxing enthusiasm among Christians for honouring the saints, a “pernicious innovation” that “corrupted the pure and perfect simplicity of the Christian model”. This period also coincides with the lives of several of the most important Church Fathers: St Ambrose, St Augustine, St Athanasius (for whom Gibbon has a particular disdain), and St John Chrystostom. Of the latter, Gibbon relates a humorous account of the effect of his preaching on the ruling parties in Constantinople:

When he declaimed against the peculiar vices of the rich, poverty might obtain a transient consolation from his invectives; but the guilty were still sheltered by their numbers; and the reproach itself was dignified by some ideas of superiority and enjoyment. But as the pyramid rose towards the summit, it insensibly diminished to a point; and the magistrates, the ministers, the favorite eunuchs, the ladies of the court, the empress Eudoxia herself, had a much larger share of guilt to divide among a smaller proportion of criminals.

Of the churchmen whom Gibbon admires, the foremost is probably Pope St Leo the Great, whose courage played a role, at least, in averting the sack of Rome by the Huns in the middle of the fifth century, about which more below.

**

Governance of the empire continued to be divided between east and west. We open with Gratian ruling in the west, and Theodosius in the east. Theodosius Gibbon considers one of the ablest of the Roman emperors (“his virtues always seemed to expand with his fortunes”), though his reign was marred by acts of cruelty (see Massacre of Thessalonica).

After his death a power struggle arose between his two sons, Arcadius and Honorius, and “the subjects of Arcadius and Honorius were instructed, by their respective masters, to view each other in a foreign, and even hostile, light; to rejoice in their mutual calamities, and to embrace, as their faithful allies, the Barbarians, whom they excited to invade the territories of their countrymen.” The predictable result was an acceleration of the trends which weakened Rome. In particular, their disputes coincided with incursions by the Visigoths, under Alaric, into Greece (396) and then Italy (400). This was a back-and-forth affair, with skirmishes and battles here and there over the course of several years, and Gibbon writes with poignancy and a certain ironic wit of the occasion on which Honorius, celebrating a minor triumph over the Goths, had a triumphal arch built in Rome, “but in less than seven years, the Gothic conquerors of Rome might read, if they were able to read, the superb inscription of that monument, which attested the total defeat and destruction of their nation”.

The sack of Rome by Alaric’s army in 410, the first such since the Gaul’s had sacked the city about 800 years before, was one of the milestones in the slow decline of the empire, worth more symbolically, perhaps, than practically, since the city was no longer the seat of government. One might think that the event would have sent shock waves through the empire, but the emperor Honorius, at least, received the news with equanimity, as we learn from Procopius:

At that time they say that the Emperor Honorius in Ravenna received the message from one of the eunuchs, evidently a keeper of the poultry, that Roma had perished. And he cried out and said, “And yet it has just eaten from my hands!” For he had a very large cockerel, Roma by name; and the eunuch comprehending his words said that it was the city of Roma which had perished at the hands of Alaric, and the emperor with a sigh of relief answered quickly: “But I thought that my fowl Roma had perished.” So great, they say, was the folly with which this emperor was possessed.

The sack of the city was a short-lived affair — just 3 days — and Alaric withdrew into Campania. He died the following year, and his brother Athaulf, who succeeded him, ceased the offensive against Rome, having apparently conceived an admiration for its laws and government, saying, “It is now my sincere wish that the gratitude of future ages should acknowledge the merit of a stranger, who employed the sword of the Goths, not to subvert, but to restore and maintain, the prosperity of the Roman empire.” We have reports that within a few years Rome’s prosperity and security seemed to have been restored.

At about the same time, Gaul was invaded by a number of tribes in a series of migrations:

They entered, without opposition, the defenceless provinces of Gaul. This memorable passage of the Suevi, the Vandals, the Alani, and the Burgundians, who never afterwards retreated, may be considered as the fall of the Roman empire in the countries beyond the Alps.

In an attempt to shore up the western empire, Honorius attempted to introduce a form of regional self-government, but it failed due to disinterest on the part of the Romans: “The emperor Honorius expresses his surprise, that he must compel the reluctant provinces to accept a privilege which they should ardently have solicited.” This failure perhaps tells us more about the ultimate reasons for the decline of the western empire than any series of battles could do.

**

In the first half of the 5th century a new threat appeared on the horizon: the Huns, led by Attila. They careened through the Byzantine territories, dealing out defeats to the startled Greeks. Crossing the Rhine, they swept into Gaul, where they were met by a coalition of Romans and Visigoths led by Flavius Aetius, the western empire’s leading general. In 451, at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, Attila’s forces were bested and retreated.

The victory was not decisive, however, for the next year the Huns made an incursion into Italy — scattering, in the process, those living on the north border of the Adriatic onto a series of islands just off-shore that would, in time, become the city of Venice. Attila threatened the city of Rome, and again it was Aetius who came to the rescue: he arranged a diplomatic contingent, including among its members Pope Leo the Great, to meet with Attila; after the meeting Attila withdrew his forces, for reasons that are disputed.

For his services to the empire against the Huns, Aetius earned the adulation of the Roman people, and the envious ire of the western emperor, Valentinian III, who, in an act that shocked observers, had Aetius assassinated. One of Valentinian’s courtiers is reported to have described the act as being that of “a man who cuts off his right hand with his left”. But the fame of Aetius outlived that of the emperor nonetheless; under the Italianate version of his name, Ezio, he has been given the opera treatment by luminaries such as Handel and Gluck, and that can’t be said for everyone.

**

In 455 Rome suffered a further indignity at the hands of the Vandals, who had taken control of the territories around Carthage. Led by their king Genseric, they assaulted and sacked Rome. Pope St Leo the Great again met the oncoming forces as emissary, and although he wasn’t able to convince them to withdraw, he did exact a promise from Genseric that the inhabitants of Rome would not be harmed. The gates were thrown open, and for two weeks the Vandals looted the city.

Gibbon gives us a moving portrait of Rome in the aftermath of the Vandal’s sacking, putting the travails of the city into perspective. It is worth quoting at length:

The spectator who casts a mournful view over the ruins of ancient Rome, is tempted to accuse the memory of the Goths and Vandals, for the mischief which they had neither leisure, nor power, nor perhaps inclination, to perpetrate. The tempest of war might strike some lofty turrets to the ground; but the destruction which undermined the foundations of those massy fabrics was prosecuted, slowly and silently, during a period of ten centuries; and the motives of interest, that afterwards operated without shame or control, were severely checked by the taste and spirit of the emperor Majorian. The decay of the city had gradually impaired the value of the public works. The circus and theatres might still excite, but they seldom gratified, the desires of the people: the temples, which had escaped the zeal of the Christians, were no longer inhabited, either by gods or men; the diminished crowds of the Romans were lost in the immense space of their baths and porticos; and the stately libraries and halls of justice became useless to an indolent generation, whose repose was seldom disturbed, either by study or business. The monuments of consular, or Imperial, greatness were no longer revered, as the immortal glory of the capital: they were only esteemed as an inexhaustible mine of materials, cheaper, and more convenient than the distant quarry. Specious petitions were continually addressed to the easy magistrates of Rome, which stated the want of stones or bricks, for some necessary service: the fairest forms of architecture were rudely defaced, for the sake of some paltry, or pretended, repairs; and the degenerate Romans, who converted the spoil to their own emolument, demolished, with sacrilegious hands, the labors of their ancestors.

The emperor Majorian, mentioned in this passage, who reigned briefly from 457-461, is, for Gibbon, one of the most splendid figures of the age, a “man of great and heroic character, such as sometimes arise, in a degenerate age, to vindicate the honour of the human species”. He was an able general and won several significant victories in Gaul and Iberia, and was able to arrest for a time, though not reverse, the political dissolutions that eroded the cohesion of the empire. Gibbon relates a marvellous anecdote about him:

Anxious to explore, with his own eyes, the state of the Vandals, he ventured, after disguising the color of his hair, to visit Carthage, in the character of his own ambassador: and Genseric was afterwards mortified by the discovery, that he had entertained and dismissed the emperor of the Romans.

Adding that “Such an anecdote may be rejected as an improbable fiction; but it is a fiction which would not have been imagined, unless in the life of a hero.” Somebody, it seems to me, ought to have written an opera or two about him as well.

***

But the glory of Majorian was a last hurrah. This volume peters out with a litany of short-lived emperors who together constitute a portrait of ignominy, violence, and desperation. Presiding over them, providing these twilight years with a certain kind of unity, looms the knife-wielding shadow of Ricimer, whom Gibbon credits with having assassinated at least three, and possibly four, emperors. Let us have a few more operas!

**

The end of this volume marks the approximate mid-point of Gibbon’s great history, and effectively concludes his account of the decline and fall of the western empire. When we think of the empire having “completed” its decline, it was not the case, of course, that it was reduced to dust and ashes. Life continued, and a contemporary might have been surprised to be told that the empire’s decline was complete. Gibbon resists the temptation to draw a bright line at any particular year as marking “the end”.

In the three remaining volumes the focus will be primarily on the eastern empire, though we will also see how the decline of the western empire allowed room for new political forces to emerge, and how those forces eventually began to again affect the political fortunes of the eastern empire. I’m looking forward to it.

[Aphorism]
“The disregard of custom and decency always betrays a weak and ill-regulated mind.”

Newby: A Small Place in Italy

April 7, 2022

A Small Place in Italy
Eric Newby
(HarperCollins, 1994)
215 p.

My visits to Italy have all been urban affairs, but I have sometimes thought it would be instructive, and of course enjoyable, to spend some time in the countryside, and were this fond dream ever to be realized, I think, since a man can dream, that I would look first to some lovely Tuscan villa perched on a hillside.

Eric Newby’s memoir casts a harsh but humorous light on this idyll of mine. His house, in the Apennines near the northern border of Tuscany (the nearest large-ish city appears to have been Lucca), was, in the beginning, the opposite of everything you’d expect from a lovely Italian villa: it was leaking, filthy, broken, infested with scarafaggi, and scarcely livable:

“I felt that one of us would only have to emit one really hefty sneeze to bring the whole lot, beams, floorboards, joists, roof tiles and all, down about our ears.”

But he wanted the house because it was located in an area which he had first come to know during World War II when, as an escaped POW, he had found refuge in the homes of the people living there. Looking back on those months as a sheltered fugitive, he was grateful, and intrigued by what he had seen:

“I found myself in a little world inhabited by mountain people whose way of life was of another century. A world in which there were few roads, scarcely any machinery of a labour-saving kind, one in which everything connected with working the land was accomplished with the aid of mules, cows, and bullocks.”

Several decades after the war, when he was travel editor for the Observer in London, he and his wife decided to buy a house, called I Castagni, in this area, and they lived there each summer for 25 years, from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s.

It was still a rustic region in the 1970s; people rarely travelled more than a village or two away, there was no television, families milked the family cow, and carried on with customs of long standing. Part of the pleasure of the book, apart from the entertaining accounts of how they slowly resurrected I Castagni and rendered it safe for human habitation, is in his affectionate portrayals of these disappearing ways of life, and his portraits, both for good and for ill, of the people who lived them.

Over the course of the book, we witness the annual olive harvest, urgent mushroom hunts after a heavy rain, the charm and colour of the local markets, the religious festivals, the funerals, and, in a long central chapter which serves in some ways as the heart of the book, the grape harvest and wine-making.

I imagine that a travel editor for a major newspaper would have opportunities to travel hither and yon, so it is telling that he made I Castagni his second home, returning again and again, presumably in search of something that he couldn’t find elsewhere. The book is obviously a work of love, and well worth reading.