Category Archives: Literature

Thoughts on “Crito” by Plato

This short dialog is included in The Last Days of Socrates which I originally read in college (and yes, I still have my old copy). It takes place while Socrates is in prison awaiting execution, and his friend Crito offers to help him escape and leave Athens. The two discuss whether it is right to do something that is wrong if something wrong is done to you, ultimately concluding that it is not justified, that the ideal of the social contract is more important than an individual’s self-interest. Essentially, Socrates would not break the law by escaping prison even though he was wrongly convicted, because upholding the ideal to which he agreed to live mattered more than his life.

Reading this in a time of social unrest as a result of individuals being frustrated with an unjust legal system raised a lot of questions for me, particularly: At what point does the social contract become invalid? If the laws themselves are just, but the people enforcing and applying those laws are unjust, is it right to respond unlawfully to foment social change which is clearly in the best interest of society? These are not easy questions to grapple with and I do not feel equipped to address them, but I felt I would put them out there for individuals to contemplate on their own.

There are a couple passages worth sharing and considering.

SOCRATES: I only wish that ordinary people had an unlimited capacity for doing harm; then they might have an unlimited power for doing good; which would be a splendid thing, if it were so. Actually they have neither. They cannot make a man wise or stupid; they simply act at random.

(Last Days of Socrates: p. 81)

There are some interesting things to think about here. First, it seems that Socrates is asserting that a person’s ability to do good is equal to that person’s ability to do wrong, and vice versa. This is important, especially in our current world of social media where people tend to view others as either good or bad, depending upon how that persons actions or ideologies correlate with the person making the judgment call. In our drive to squeeze everything down to a Tweet or a meme, we’ve lost the ability to recognize the complexity and range of scope that every individual possesses.

The other thing that struck me about the previous quote is Socrates’ claim that ordinary people “simply act at random.” At first glance, this seems rather insulting, but upon further reflection, one begins to see the truth in the statement. The problem with many people in the world is that they react to situations without taking the time to adequately think through the ramifications of their actions. A wise person would pause, consider the situation, and come to a logical conclusion. Conversely, a stupid person would pause, consider the situation, and come to an illogical conclusion. Too many people do neither. They react without consideration, essentially acting at random, as Socrates would claim.

Later in the dialog, Socrates debates whether it is best to listen to public opinion or to defer to a single authority.

SOCRATES: In that case, my dear fellow, what we ought to consider is not so much what people in general will say about us but how we stand with the expert in right and wrong, the one authority, who represents the actual truth. So in the first place your proposition is not correct when you say that we should consider popular opinion in questions of what is right and honorable and good, or the opposite.

(ibid: p. 86)

Socrates builds on this to establish that the law is the one authority that represents truth and that the public opinion that he should break the law by fleeing prison is the wrong course of action. But this again leads back to my quandary, which is, at what point does public opinion outweigh the law and previously agreed-upon social contract? It is a really difficult question, and one worthy of analysis via Socratic Method. But that is beyond the scope of this post, so I will leave you with the questions to ponder.

This dialog is very short (a mere 16 pages), but evokes a lot of questions relevant to our society today. I encourage you to give it a read. I suspect you can find a digital copy online for free.

Thanks for stopping by and for reading and thinking.

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Thoughts on “Pericles” by William Shakespeare

This was my first time reading this play, and I have mixed feelings about it. There are some things I liked, and a lot that just did not work for me. It is worth noting that in the Introduction to the text, G.B. Harrison points out that scholars believe that Shakespeare only wrote a small part of the play, and that the poor writing which dominates the text is from someone else.

Pericles is still retained in the canon of Shakespeare’s work, though there is little trace of his hand in any passage before Act III. With the third act the style changes and much of the remainder of the play may well b e Shakespeare’s writing, but if so it is Shakespeare far below his best. Most critics are agreed, however, that the prose scenes of the brothel (IV.ii and vi) are undoubtedly his. The earlier scenes of the play, especially I.iv and II.vi and v, are puerile melodrama and so badly written that they might almost be parodies of Elizabethan drama at its worst. The poor quality of these scenes may be partly due to the fact that the text of this play was a piracy.

This really sums up the play well. The early acts are cringe-worthy, where the writer resorted to using the same word at the end of couplet lines to create rhyme. It almost seems like the person who swiped Shakespeare’s sections and tried to fill in the blank acts really didn’t even care enough to try to create quality work.

The other thing that really bothered me about this play was the excessive use of a chorus as a narrator to drive the story. Every act begins with a chorus scene to advance the timeline and skip a bunch of events, and then some acts have other chorus scenes interspersed. The play covers a time span of what appears to be at least 16 years (possibly more). Aristotle must have rolled over in his grave when this was put forth.

I will say, though, that the last two acts were good, but not good enough to save the play as a whole. I liked the way that the play resolved itself, and the reunion of Pericles with his wife and daughter was touching.

During my reading, I took a few notes on some passages, but upon reviewing them, I don’t feel that they are worth expounding on. That said, to sum up, unless you are like me and just want to be able to say you read everything by Shakespeare, you can probably skip reading this one. Since time is limited and reading material vast, you’d be better off spending your time reading Hamlet again.

Thanks for stopping by, and have an amazing day.

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“Antony and Cleopatra” by William Shakespeare: A Critique on Women Leaders

It is believed that Antony and Cleopatra was written in 1607 or 1608, not long after the death of Queen Elizabeth I, who died March 24, 1603. In the play, Shakespeare paints a disparaging image of Cleopatra as the Queen of Egypt, implying that women are not suited to be rulers. It is possible that Shakespeare was reflecting on the reign of Elizabeth and criticizing her through the character of Cleopatra.

Early in the play, Caesar criticizes Antony, claiming he is womanly and therefore not a fit leader.

You may see, Lepidus, and henceforth know,
It is not Caesar’s natural vice to hate
Our great competitor: from Alexandria
This is the news: he fishes, drinks, and wastes
The lamps of night in revel; is not more man-like
Than Cleopatra; nor the queen of Ptolemy
More womanly than he; hardly gave audience, or
Vouchsafed to think he had partners: you shall find there
A man who is the abstract of all faults
That all men follow.

(Act I, scene iv)

When Antony is preparing to go to battle against Caesar, his friend Enobarbus speaks with Cleopatra, who plans on assisting with the war effort. Enobarbus makes it clear that he does not respect Cleopatra as a leader and views her as nothing more than a sexual plaything for Antony.

Cleopatra:

I will be even with thee, doubt it not.

 Enobarbus:

But why, why, why?

Cleopatra:

Thou hast forspoke my being in these wars,
And say’st it is not fit.

Enobarbus:

Well, is it, is it?

Cleopatra:

If not denounced against us, why should not we
Be there in person?

Enobarbus:

[Aside] Well, I could reply:
If we should serve with horse and mares together,
The horse were merely lost; the mares would bear
A soldier and his horse.

(Act III, scene vii)

In the same scene, Antony’s lieutenant Canidius tells one of the soldiers that they are “women’s men” after Antony places the naval forces under Cleopatra. The disdain that the military personnel feel at having to serve under a woman’s command is evident.

Soldier:

By Hercules, I think I am i’ the right.

Canidius:

Soldier, thou art: but his whole action grows
Not in the power on’t: so our leader’s led,
And we are women’s men.

(Act III, scene vii)

Finally, in the last scene, Cleopatra tells Caesar that the limitations of her gender are the causes of her frailty; in other words, the reason why she lacks the power to rule in the manner of Caesar, who represents male patriarchal leadership.

Sole sir o’ the world,
I cannot project mine own cause so well
To make it clear; but do confess I have
Been laden with like frailties which before
Have often shamed our sex.

 (Act V, scene ii)

Clearly, we have made vast strides toward gender equality since the days of Shakespeare, although we are not yet where we need to be. But I am grateful to be alive in a time where I have seen women leaders assuming their rightful place in the world. I look forward to the day when there are no longer male leaders or women leaders, but just leaders.

Thanks for stopping by.

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Juneteenth 2020: Thoughts on “We Saw Beyond Our Seeming” by Maya Angelou

President Obama presenting Maya with the Presidential Medal of Freedom (Source: Wikipedia)

Juneteenth is also known as Freedom Day, and is “an American holiday celebrated annually on June 19. It commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union general Gordon Granger read federal orders in Galveston, Texas, that all previously enslaved people in Texas were free. Although the Emancipation Proclamation had formally freed them almost two and a half years earlier, and the American Civil War had largely ended with the defeat of the Confederate States in April, Texas was the most remote of the slave states, with a low presence of Union troops, so enforcement of the proclamation had been slow and inconsistent.” (Source: Wikipedia) To honor black artists and to show support for the continued struggle for human rights in this country, I feel it is appropriate to share my thoughts on this powerful poem by the late Maya Angelou.

We saw beyond our seeming
These days of bloodied screaming

Of children dying bloated
Out where the lilies floated

Of men all noosed and dangling
Within the temples strangling

Our guilt grey fungus growing
We knew and lied our knowing

Deafened and unwilling
We aided in the killing

And now our souls lie broken
Dry tablets without token.

As a white man in America, this poem hits me on a visceral level. It is not enough to sit back and silently feel sorry for our fellow humans who are being systematically assaulted, humiliated, oppressed, and killed because of the color of their skin. We have a responsibility to speak out against injustice and to show courage in the face of hatred. Doing nothing makes us all complicit in the subjugation of an entire group of people. And as Ms. Angelou succinctly states in the final couplet, when we turn away and ignore the suffering of others, we incur scars on our own souls.

I hope this poem inspired you as much as it inspires me, and that you will draw on its strength to take a stand against racism. For those of you who are interested, here is a short YouTube video of someone reciting this poem. Thanks for stopping by.

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Thoughts on “The Ideal” by Charles Baudelaire

Night by Michelangelo

Never those beauties in old prints vignetted,
Those shopworn products of an worthless age,
With slippered feet and fingers castanetted,
The thirst of hearts like my heart can assuage.

To Gavarni, the poet of chloroses,
I leave his troupe of beauties sick and wan;
I cannot find among those pale, pale roses
The red ideal mine eyes would gaze upon.

Lady Macbeth, a soul strong in crime,
Aeschylus’ dream born in a northern clime—
Ah, you could quench my dark heart’s deep desiring;

Or you, Michelangelo’s daughter, Night,
In a strange posture dreamily admiring
Your beauty fashioned for a giant’s delight!

(translation: F.P. Sturm)

This poem is Baudelaire’s critique of the artistic ideal of beauty. He asserts that beauty expressed through art is unrealistic, and the result is a “dark heart’s deep desiring” for something that does not exist.

In the second stanza, he contrasts “pale, pale roses” with the “red ideal mine eyes would gaze upon.” The roses here symbolize women, the red rose being an artistic representation of the idealized female form, and the pale rose being a real woman.

Baudelaire’s argument is still valid today. We still have an ideal of what beauty should be, and this ideal is something that no amount of plastic surgery can bestow upon a person. We all have flaws and imperfections, and I think what Baudelaire is asserting here is that it is our imperfections that convey our true beauty, those unique qualities that are specific to an individual.

As long as we lust after the ideal of beauty, we will always be disillusioned, unhappy, and burdened with the longing for something we will never attain.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 58” by Lao Tzu

Where the ruler is mum, mum,
The people are simple and happy.
Where the ruler is sharp, sharp,
The people are wily and discontented.

Bad fortune is what good fortune leans on,
Good fortune is what bad fortune hides in.
Who knows the ultimate end of this process?
Is there no norm of right?
Yet what is normal soon becomes abnormal,
And what is auspicious soon turns ominous.
Long indeed have the people been in a quandary.

Therefore, the Sage squares without cutting, carves without disfiguring, straightens without straining, enlightens without dazzling.

This passage seems especially timely given the current state of affairs in the US. As we grapple with public outrage and social disruption, the sharp responses we have seen have failed to calm the situation. As Lao Tzu points out, people are discontented.

I can’t stop thinking about the last line of the second stanza: “Long indeed have the people been in a quandary.” It has been a painfully long time that we seem to have been dealing with the same set of social issues. I do not claim to know how to begin addressing the myriad problems facing our society, but I agree with Lao Tzu that our normal has become abnormal. All I can do is try to encourage change through personal example.

Thanks for stopping by. Stay safe and be a positive power in the world.

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Thoughts on “Balzac” by Aleister Crowley

Rodin’s Balzac

I’ve been slowly working my way through The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, which is quite a long book, so I’ve been interspersing it with other books and poems. So far, Crowley spends a lot of time emphasizing his brilliance as a poet, going so far as to view himself as superior to Yeats (a fine example of hubris, in my humble opinion). But he did include a sonnet which he said was inspired by Auguste Rodin’s sculpture of Honoré de Balzac, the French writer (see image above). I felt the poem was worth talking about. Here is the text for reference:

Giant, with iron secrecies ennighted,
Cloaked, Balzac stands and sees. Immense disdain,
Egyptian silence, mastery of pain,
Gargantuan laughter, shake or still the ignited
Statue of the Master, vivid. Far, affrighted,
The stunned air shudders on the skin. In vain
The Master of La Comédie Humaine
Shadows the deep-set eyes, genius lighted.

Epithalamia, birth songs, epitaphs,
Are written in the mystery of his lips.
Sad wisdom, scornful shame, grand agony
In the coffin folds of the cloak, scarred mountains, lie,
And pity hides i’ th’ heart. Grim knowledge grips
The essential manhood. Balzac stands, and laughs.

Crowley explains that he wrote the poem in support of Rodin, who was being harshly criticized regarding the sculpture.

The sculpture was not received well by the critics; Rodin took the negativity as a personal attack. Many disliked the grotesque stature of the figure while others criticized the work to be very similar to that of the Italian impressionist Medardo Rosso. As well, reports surfaced before the unveiling of the sculpture regarding anticipated dismay over the final outcome of the artwork. The Société des Gens de Lettres decided to disregard the commission to Rodin and not accept the sculpture.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Personally, I love when artists find inspiration from artistic works of different mediums. So here we have a poem, written about a sculpture, which was inspired by the works of a novelist. To me, this exemplifies how all artistic forms are connected, that they all seek to elevate the human consciousness to loftier planes.

As I look at Rodin’s sculpture and consider Crowley’s words, I get the sense that Crowley’s admiration of this work stems from the cloak of mystery that seems to enshroud Balzac. From what I gather about Crowley, he would likely have related to the feeling of being cloaked, particularly from the ritualistic occult perspective. And even artistically. As I read more of his writings, I get the sense that he was attempting to create this myth about himself, wrapping himself in a woven tale to give him a mystique as a prophet and occultist.

While I don’t think that Crowley is as great of a poet as he claims he was, it is interesting to read his poems nonetheless, because if nothing else, poems provide a window into the writer’s psyche.

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“Sonnet 38: How can my Muse want subject to invent” by William Shakespeare

How can my Muse want subject to invent,
While thou dost breathe, that pour’st into my verse
Thine own sweet argument, too excellent
For every vulgar paper to rehearse?
O, give thyself the thanks, if aught in me
Worthy perusal stand against thy sight;
For who’s so dumb that cannot write to thee,
When thou thyself dost give invention light?
Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth
Than those old nine which rhymers invocate;
And he that calls on thee, let him bring forth
Eternal numbers to outlive long date.
If my slight Muse do please these curious days,
The pain be mine, but thine shall be the praise.

This is another of the Fair Youth sonnets, expressing love toward a young man. It is pretty straight-forward. The speaker in the poem is identifying the fair youth as the source of his poetic inspiration, assigning him status among the traditional nine Greek muses to whom poets and artists have offered supplication.

There is really not much else to be said about this poem. Its beauty lies in its simplicity.

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Thoughts on “Half-Witch” by John Schoffstall

One of my best friends sent me this book as a gift, and since he is someone whose opinions on literature I highly value, I promptly added it to the reading list; but when I discovered that he was listed in the Acknowledgements for his assistance to the author, I moved it to the top of the proverbial pile.

The book is a fantasy story about two girls, Lizbet and Strix, who are on a quest to retrieve a magical book. Their travels take them to some unusual places and the adventures strengthen their bonds of friendship.

After overcoming some dangerous challenges, the two girls have an interesting exchange regarding storytelling.

“We are travelers from over the Montagnes du Monde,” Strix yelled. “We have wonderful tales to tell, of thrilling adventures in our strange, foreign land!”

“We do?” Lizbet said.

“You almost had your soul blown out of you, remember? We fought off a murderer?”

“Those weren’t thrilling,” Lizbet complained. “They were terrifying and horrible.”

“’Thrilling’ is when awful things happen to someone else,” Strix said. “’Horrible’ is when they happen to you.”

(p. 127)

The perspective of the audience is integral in the sharing of stories. The storyteller can try to elicit certain responses from the audience, but ultimately how a story is received depends upon the listener. An individual’s experiences, likes and dislikes, personality traits, and so forth, all contribute to how that person will respond to a particular story, which is why some genres appeal to some people while others do not.

In order to complete the quest, Lizbet had to allow herself to become infused with negative characteristics, which were later removed.

“Are you sure you got every last bit?” Lizbet shrugged her shoulders and stretched her chest. It creaked, and armor plates rang against each other. “I think I can still feel something I don’t like. Something biting and restless, that wants to fight for no reason.”

“I got it all,” Strix said. “But while it’s in you, it changes you. That can’t be helped. Everything you do molds you, and squeezes you into its shape. Your heart always has the imprint of everything you’ve done, everything you’ve been.” Her voice was pained.

(pp. 310 – 311)

This is true. We are the sum of all our experiences, whether they are good, bad, or indifferent. Every action we take, no matter how trivial it seems, has a direct and lasting impact on who we become. Nothing happens within a vacuum. It would serve us well to internalize this truth.

That’s about all I have to share regarding this book. It was a fun read and I am glad that this book made it my way. Thanks for stopping by, and have a great day.

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All’s Well That Ends Well: Shakespeare’s Expression of Machiavellian Ideology

This is a very strange play and does not fit into the structure of a typical Shakespearean comedy. Shakespeare’s comedies end in marriage (conversely, tragedies end in death), but this play, even though considered a comedy, does not end in marriage. In fact, the marriage happens at the beginning, and ends with the consummation of the marriage through trickery. On a very high level, Bertram is ordered by the King to marry Helena, which he does, but then decides to leave her and go off to war so as not to have to “officially” become her husband. Helena later tricks Bertram into having sex with her by pretending to be another woman that Bertram was wooing. Helena gets pregnant and Bertram finally has to acknowledge her as his wife.

Viewed from the post-MeToo perspective, this play does anything but end well. Bertram is a weasel, a liar, and a womanizer, and Helena would have been better off without him. I suppose you could present the play as satire, but I don’t think that is how Shakespeare intended it. Ultimately, marriage and the consummation of the marriage is the goal, even if this is accomplished via deception.

At the heart of this play is Machiavellian philosophy as expressed through The Prince.

Yet, I pray you:
But with the word the time will bring on summer,
When briers shall have leaves as well as thorns,
And be as sweet as sharp. We must away;
Our wagon is prepared, and time revives us:
All’s well that ends well; still the fine’s the crown;
Whate’er the course, the end is the renown.

(Act IV, scene iv)

Machiavelli wrote The Prince in 1513, and All’s Well That Ends Well was written sometime between 1598 and 1608, so Shakespeare would have known about Machiavelli’s famous quote: “The ends justify the means.” Shakespeare is paraphrasing Machiavelli in this quote, “the fine” meaning the finish or the crowning achievement. Additionally, the last line of the quote reemphasizes that whatever the course of events, it is the end result that matters most.

Overall, I did not hate this play, nor did I love it. It has some interesting aspects, particularly surrounding the character Parolles (hint – his name is a play on the French word “paroles” meaning “words”). But the play has problems, and personally, I could not find myself relating to any of the characters. They all seemed deeply flawed in their own ways. But maybe that is another message to be gained from this play, that we all have our issues and problems, and ultimately, it’s what we do in the end that matters.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep on reading cool stuff.

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