Saturday, June 30, 2012

Plutarch's Lives part 2: Alcibiades and Coriolanus

Socrates finds Alcibiades. Being a wise man, he knew where to look.

We seem to have turned a corner fairly quickly and my initial reactions may only apply to the initial material.  The two sections that I have just completed were a rip-roaring good read.  We also seem to have entered the portion in which the parallel lives is fleshed out a bit more fully by the author, even so far as to include a sum up in which he states what specific parallels he is intending to illustrate with these lives.  The two lives are interesting, explained to the reader with clarity, and I did not come away feeling that the comparison was in any way forced.

The thrust of the comparison, as I understood it, is as follows: Alcibiades and Coriolanus were successful in battle on more or less an equal level.  They both had equal reasons to be loved by their societies on that level.  In politics and personal lives, Alcibiades was dissolute and luxurious.  He was unscrupulous and false.  He caused a great deal of trouble and discord.  He was, however, charismatic and, therefore, got away with it.  Coriolanus', as the author puts it, "pride and self-will, the consort, as Plato calls it, of solitude, made him insufferable."

I found that I could relate to both and thus benefited from their cautionary tales.  Alcibiades, with his bravado, his chameleon nature to circumstance, his flamboyance and tendency towards hedonism, all remind me of the younger version of myself.   Coriolanus' insouciance towards public opinion (while aligning himself with extraordinarily unpopular opinion), or, it would seem, any form of compassion left him... well, dead eventually, but strongly and widely disliked.

While I am not like Coriolanus in his anti-social behavior, this speaks to the introvert's dilemma.  I certainly have a great deal of compassion, but I find that I am one of those who needs a greater amount of time alone for every amount of time I spend with people, in order to "recharge" as it were.  I am also disinclined to be in or near a crowd (defined as more than 3 people) and tend to be too heavy in lighter social situations.  While Plutarch doesn't go so far as to lay out a system like Dale Carnegie, his underlying suggestion seems to be "make a little effort here, people."  I felt like this is a lesson in particular that could use a bit of reviving in this age where everyone behaves as both a monarch and an island, answerable to none.

Likewise, the lesson of Alcibiades seems to be that one ought to exhibit a modicum of restraint in regards to self-indulgence.  One ought to have a consistent character rather than flattering and manipulating to get one's way.  This, too, I feel is an important lesson for today.  At first, I thought I would be writing about striking a balance in one's life and behavior in regards to the two extremes presented in these two lives, however, upon reflection, I am finding that Plutarch is simply showing two sides of the same coin.  Both are men whose self-interest precluded compassion. 

I would add that Plutarch succeeds in communicating the tone of these lives in the reaction he seeks to elicit from the reader.  I found myself charmed by Alcibiades in spite of the dastardly actions he is frequently described as undertaking, and found myself strongly disliking Coriolanus.  As it said at the end of Barry Lyndon "They are all equal now."

It seems to be smooth sailing from here on.  I have two great orators next and then two of the most famous leaders of antiquity. 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Paul Mathers on Reality Television

People send me topics on which to speak.  Once a week, I pull a topic out of a hat and speak on it.  This week's topic: Reality Television.

For more on my point of view, download and listen to this speech:

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Plutarch's Lives- Part 1

The waggish part of my brain wonders if St. Augustine wasn't included in this series for the sole purpose of making future difficult reads seem more palatable.

Before I started reading Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, I pulled a small mass-market paperback copy from my personal library.  I try to get my own copies of the books in this series because not underlining or writing in the margins is, to me, a bit like trying to read in a straightjacket.  However, when I perused the table of contents of the actual Harvard Classics edition in the Chico Library, I distinctly remembered Demosthenes being a figure covered in the book (it stuck in my brain because of the joke commonly attributed to Alexander Woollcott "Demosthenes can do is bend and hold the legs together.")  It turned out that my yellowed and foxing Dell Laurel edition was an abridgment.  Hastened I to the used bookstore where I found this Modern Library edition:

You will note the "Volume 1" on the cover.  I instantly noted that the volume was about twice as long as the Harvard Classics version and knew in my heart that our good captain Dr. Eliot has made his own abridgment (from the Dryden for those who care.)  Back I went to the Chico Library.

The main issue with this book, at least so far in my reading, is that Plutarch does not write biography in the manner to which we have grown accustomed.  This presents the reader with the challenge of modifying one's expectations.  It also called for frequent visits to other sources to fill in information that the author presumes upon the reader. For several of the subjects I came to the text with some knowledge of their lives (Pericles, Coriolanus, Cicero, Caesar, Antony), which seems to aid comprehension of the author's intent when, say, discussing a conflict between two specific individuals without explaining who these two individuals are.  Perhaps an example might illuminate what I'm on about.  Here is a line from the opening paragraph of the book, in the section about Themistocles, specifically referring to his mother:
"Yet Phanias writes that the mother of Themistocles was not of Thrace, but of Caria, and that her name was not Abrotonon, but Euterpe; and Neanthes adds farther that she was of Halicarnassus in Caria."
Who were Phanias and Neanthes?  What is the significance of the different names attributed to his mother?  What would it suggest if one was from Thrace or Caria or Halicarnassus?  Is this like saying "the musician claims to have grown up on the streets of Compton, but records show that he was president of the chess club at the Palos Verdes Preparatory School"?  We don't know!  At least not specifically from the text.

This would be an exercise in frustration were it not for the fact that Plutarch's purpose is not that of a historian or a biographer.  His purpose is that of a moralist and he is employing (or, for the cynical, exploiting) the lives of the noble ancients for the purpose of illustrating traits that the author feels one ought to either emulate or eschew.   

My first section comprises Themistocles, Pericles, and Aristides.  There is a great deal of battle in these lives which, to me, is only slightly more interesting than sports writing.  I have spent most of my time of reading this book trying to discern what lessons I might glean and, to be perfectly frank, disregarding the rest.  Of the three, the latter was my favorite, likely because one of the chief lessons was nobility in poverty.  Themistocles is sort of a cautionary tale.  He is lauded after great success in battle, but later ostracized over unpopular political decisions, and then re-lauded after his death. 

While I appreciated the section on Aristides, the section on Pericles was the section I found most gripping so far.  Pericles is a great man, ruling in the Golden Age of Athens.  Socrates makes a few appearances.  There is political maneuvering against Cimon.  There are mystical visions.  There is, of course, one of the most famous wars in history, The Peloponnesian.  There is even the suggestion of a love story/scandal with the fascinating character of Aspasia (I am amazed that no one has written a play or novel about that woman!)  There is even more coloring of character than in the other sections so far (for example, apparently the man had a very large head.)

With eight more sections to go, I am out of the least familiar territory historically speaking.  But I do have a bit of that feeling I have about an hour and a half into Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg when I am enjoying it tremendously to be sure, but I also know that it is miles to go before I sleep.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Evolutionary Coda

I catalog, dispense, and reorder medications for a living at one of the nicer assisted living facilities in my area.  Across the street from my work is a bike path which, in fact, I use every day coming to and from work.  It is also where I take my lunches in all but the most inclement of weather.  There are park benches where I like to sit and read.  The trail itself is scenic, next to a creek.  It's a lovely area.

I was sitting there on my lunch break the other day when a man, a complete stranger to me, approached on a bicycle.  He was around retirement age and the repair and accessories of his bicycle as well as his dress suggested a man of modest means and likely a more solitary existence, but not an unpleasant sort of person.

As for me, my moment before the encounter was spent realizing that I had 10 more minutes of my lunch break and only 3 more pages left before I completed the chapter I was reading.  I was inclined towards finishing the chapter before I had to return from my break.

The man said, "How's the reading?"

I said, "Great as always."

He said, "What are you reading?"

I said, "Mr. Charles Darwin."

He screeched to a halt.  I think he actually said, "Uh oh."  I knew exactly what was going through his head and what was about to happen.  The man, in his head, thought that this was the moment where he meets the secular humanist on the road and evangelizes him, or at least does intellectual battle with him.  What went on in my head was, "Great.  Now I'm going to have to listen to this guy and not get to finish my chapter."

It was a source of great amazement to me how reading Darwin in public inspires more strangers to feel compelled to talk to you about religion than does reading the Bible in public.

I felt a little cheap after I thought, "This guy is looking for a great story to tell his church group.  He wants to tell the story of the atheist he met on the path and either he stood his ground for the truth of the Gospel or, even better, he preached at the atheist until the atheist got down on his knees a-weeping and repenting."  Immediately followed by the humbling thought, "Wait a minute, Paul.  Aren't you already planning to use this story on your blog?"

I did not say much.  I mainly didn't say much because he didn't ask much.  He lectured and I silently prayed, "God help him if he ever meets the person he currently thinks he is meeting.  He'll be eaten alive."  He began to speak in such a way that I could not break out of the conversation without compromising my standing as a gentleman.  I felt a little like I did when Mormons came to my door the other day.  I felt a little cheated because I would love to have an intelligent conversation about ideas, but that was not on the table here.  What was on the table was for some guy I don't know to tell me what he thinks and then leave, feeling good about himself and feeling no requirement to give me another thought so long as he lives.

How did this come to be?

I also felt a little bad that he was not about to obtain the narrative from his encounter with me that he was expecting.  He started out with the unsolicited advice that I should balance reading Darwin with also reading the New Testament.  I said, "I fully anticipate that I shall" although, in all honesty, I am currently studying through the book of Ruth and, frankly, am not doing so to "balance" anything. 

He asked me if I knew why there was so much evil in the world.  I said, "Yes.  Because of sin."  And at that moment I had the distinct impression that he realized that he was not talking to "the enemy."  He talked for a while about his view of science and religion and about how he lives in a low income apartment complex for the elderly and about the CMA church that he attends.  I then got the sense that he didn't really have all that much interest in speaking to me as a fellow human being now that he felt to his satisfaction that I wasn't someone that he needed to correct and, just as he arrived, he left.

I had this moment as he started to ride away where I had a vision, a moment where my internal camera pulled away into the third person, and I saw this lonely old poor man on a bicycle, riding away from a neurotic middle-aged poor man in a path in a neighborhood where wealthier people dwell.  Two infinitesimal growths on the thin layer of scum covering a small rock hurtling through a dark void.  It's only by the grace of God that an asteroid doesn't slam into the Earth, or Mount Lassen erupts, or the poles shift, or the coming antibiotic resistant plague doesn't arrive to wipe us all out of our strutting and fretting existence.  While both of us owe our lives to the myriad shoulders of ancestors on which we stand, neither of us are exactly the sort of mover and shaker whose bold personality is going to insure top-feeding for us and our kin.

And I called out after him, probably out of his range of hearing, "You know, both can be true."

Charles Darwin's On The Origin of Species- Part 3

“The finger of God never leaves identical fingerprints.” -Stanislaus Lec

I had intended to break this book into four blog entry responses, but enthusiasm got the better of me and I finished the whole thing over the past few days.  So, this is the conclusion.

Darwin was wrong about one thing, although it was something that everyone was wrong about in his day and for a long time afterward.  He spent a great deal of this section writing about geology and he has no concept of tectonic plates or of Pangea, a relatively new scientific understanding.  (Fun fact: Did you know that one of the last things Albert Einstein ever wrote was the foreword to a book about the coming polar shifts?  The major hypothesis of how it was to happen in that book relied on a pre-tectonic plate understanding of the Earth's crust.)   Darwin then sets up and jumps through a lot of hoops in the latter half of the book to explain how different species came to be located in different places on the planet.  This leads to what I found to be some of the more entertaining portions of the entire text. 

Some of the sections that I found most interesting involved experiments that Darwin carried out to see how long diverse and sundry seeds could float in salt water and still germinate.  He observes how many and often seeds are found stuck to the feet of birds.  This suggests an extremely old Earth from the law of averages of how often seeds would stick to the feet of birds or float across the sea for us to find similar flora in different lands.  He talks about a time on the Beagle when a bird blew onto their deck, confused and very far from home as he knew it to be a landlocked bird from far far away.

It is also important to mention his repeated referral to the imperfection of our geological record (and that the geological record is intermittent).  He was correct.  The geological record was imperfect and, as it fleshed out over the following 150 years, turned out to support his theory far more than he likely would even have imagined.  At the end of the book (and I mean within the last 5 pages) he slips dangerously close to a polemic.  He has a great deal to say to the special creation crowd, but he also reserves some fire for geologists, essentially haranguing them to get their act together.

There is also a section on hybridism.  In one portion he talks about diversity strengthening species (as in diverse groups within the species procreating leading to stronger individuals).  I hear that this was a special point of concern for Darwin as he worried that having married his first cousin might have been related to the poor health and early deaths of some of their own children.

The section on extinction was a bit archaic as well.  At one point he writes "...the utter extinction of a group is generally, as we have seen, a slower process than its production."  In the margin I wrote "Yeah, not so much anymore!"  Which leads to a modern given that seems to have been entirely beyond the imagination of Mr. Darwin, that is to say the destructive capacity of humankind.  To read this biologist writing in a time before one could even think that humankind has it within their grasp to kill every living thing on the planet reminds me of looking into the face of my grandchild and wondering what it was like to be unaware that one day you will die.

Darwin never gets to the "Monkeys is peoples" part.  I am given to understand that one must needs read The Descent of Man for that little gem.  He does suggest that the embryonic state of a species recalls the parent form, but that's as close as we get to all of the fuss.  The Descent of Man is not included in the curriculum of  this current reading project, but given how much I've enjoyed reading Darwin I fully expect to read it one day.

We do get this, "Whenever it is fully admitted, as I believe it will some day be, that each species has proceeded from a single birthplace, and when in the course of time we know something definite about the means of distribution, we shall be enabled to speculate with security on the former extension of the land."  Rather, we grew to understand both more fully, but the "single birthplace" line has been a pebble in my shoe for the past few days.

I recommend reading Darwin.  As I've said before, it is a piece that one must deal with one way or another at some point or another in life.  You really ought to read what the man has to say for himself rather than taking it through the filter of others.  Then and only then do you get to come over the grown ups table when you talk about these ideas.  If you are a person of faith, let me, as a person of faith, assure you that there is no idea in this work that will shatter your faith.  In fact, I would say that if there is an idea out there that will shatter your faith, you have a much bigger problem than that idea existing.  It means that your faith is weak and shatter-able.

Although, even better, it is a fascinating book with so much to teach.  Darwin is tremendously generous with his knowledge of the natural world and his ideas are well worth engaging with.  As with so much of this series, I feel richer for the experience.  You read to engage with ideas for yourself.  If you don't want to engage with ideas, you are living incorrectly.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Live Forever!

When I was in Junior High, we went to see Ray Bradbury speak at Chapman University.  I employ no hyperbole in saying that this was one of the most important nights of my life.

At the time, I was just getting into my voracious reading habit.   The event was around the release of his HIGHLY underrated book Green Shadows, White Whale.  If you've never read it, you must.  It's about when he was in Ireland writing the screenplay for the John Huston film adaptation of Moby Dick.  It is a wonderful book and you should rush out and get it with all speed.

His speech was magical and, afterwards, I got to meet him.  I had one of those star-struck moments where you start babbling incoherently.  Bradbury was very gracious and encouraging, very kind.  He understood being the awkward little geeky kid.  As I learned, he spent much of his youth in Hollywood having similar experiences staking out in front of movie studios to get autographs.

He autographed our copy of Green Shadows, White Whale, my old mass-market paperback edition of The Machineries of Joy, and a copy of the photograph at the top of the page.  We asked him what the cat was named and he wrote "Tigger!" next to the cat.  I walked away mesmerized, as if I'd just met Twain or Hemingway, an American author of that caliber.  Not just a great American author, but The great American author of his time.  And, of course, I was correct.

I immediately read everything by him that I could get my hands on.  I think Bradbury would have liked that the news of his death took me back to that time in my life where it seems like I spent all of my time in expensive bookstores at South Coast Plaza and in libraries (I almost didn't say the libraries part because it still seems like that's where I spend all of my time), when I could be so consumed by an author that I would read their entire bibliography without pause, without hardly even looking up from the text.  Back in those days before the world became nothing more than germs trying to kill me and before I somehow got enmeshed in a religion that tries to heap shame on me for reading or listening to books or ideas that they don't specifically condone.  Back before life beat the enthusiasm out of me.  Today reminded me of a part of myself that is still in there deep down somewhere, like a dinosaur sleeping at the bottom of the ocean, waiting to be called back to the surface.

Ray Bradbury is a lot of why I am a pedestrian by nature.  His short story The Pedestrian made a compelling and visceral argument for me about the narcotic culture in which we live.  He has a lot to do with why I never watch the evening news willingly and when I am forced to for whatever reason it is all I can to do keep from throwing things at the screen.  Later he reinforced this by pointing out the truth that all of these yip-dog political pundits who are flooding our airwaves and shanghai-ing our political discourse are destined to be forgotten before their bodies are even cold.  Don't give the charlatans your press or your attention.  He wrote me a permission slip to be an optimist in spite of it all.  I wish I knew where I put that permission slip.  I seem to have mislaid it somewhere along the way.

He was also the only grown-up I knew who confirmed what I knew: that my classmates were brutes and beasts.

He also showed me that it was okay to love without abandon, to go mad with enthusiasm, to cry like a volcano when occasion called for it.  In his 1991 book of essays Yestermorrow, he inspired me through his reminiscences of his friendship with Renaissance scholar Bernard Berenson to stuff my eyes with great art in hopes that great art is what will come spilling back out of me.  He told me to write constantly and to write about what grabs me.  Also, no matter how old I get, I think I shall always be more than a little in love with the character of Clarisse McClellan from Fahrenheit 451.

On an individual level, I am sorry that he has died and I pray that his family can be comforted in this time of loss.  If I could, I would offer that he seems to have lived about as rich, full, beautiful, and happy a life as a man can.  His was a truly enviable life.  As a human being, the sorrow goes far deeper in that the world is truly poorer for the loss of Ray Bradbury.  He enriched humankind in more ways than I can reasonably list in a blog entry.

As for me, I only met the man that once.  I am given to understand that the man had thousands of encounters like that.  He was known for dazzling the enchanted kid at his book signings.  My interactions were with the ideas that he published.  I expect to read them to Ezekiel someday soon and I expect that, 500 years from now, Ezekiel's descendants will be reading Ray Bradbury to one another.  As for me, the death of Ray Bradbury makes me want to be a better man, in hopes of preserving what would have otherwise been completely lost.