Miscellaneous

Book Buying Fail!

At the end of last year, I set myself a book buying challenge. I can only buy ONE book after I have read 5 books I already own (that are not school-related). I was quite good for the past few months, but I have bought three books in the past couple weeks that are not school related.

I’m torn between being slightly angry with myself for buying more than one book and somewhat understanding about the decision I made.

I realized earlier today that I am more likely to buy books if I’ve spent more than fifteen minutes in a bookstore. I feel obligated to buy a book to explain my presence in the bookstore.

Is that an excuse? Kind of.

Now that I know why I made the decisions I made, I will limit my bookshop visits to under fifteen minutes. I love browsing, but I haven’t felt an urge to buy books in months.

I am going to continue with this challenge. I could make myself read six more books I own before buying one new book, but I won’t. I don’t need any more stress in my life (school guys!).

Anyway, here are the three books I bought:

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire
Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (The Wicked Years, #1)

Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
Kintu

Shahnameh: The Book of Kings by Ferdowsi (Trans. Dick Davis)
Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings

These are all books that I look forward to reading even though I also need to stick to my buying goals.

Philosophy

Thoughts on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

Image result for the nicomachean ethics oxford

I am currently doing a project that requires some background knowledge of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Instead of giving you a summary (because that would take too long), I thought I’d mention what stood out to me in the work.

The Nicomachean Ethics (c. 300 BCE) is roughly divided into four sections: Virtue, Justice, Pleasure, and Friendship. Aristotle’s greatest contribution to the West is arguably in the area of virtue ethics, although his Metaphysics and Politics were also influential. I decided to do my project on the Ethics because it’s a work that I have wanted to read ever since I finished The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I am fascinated by studies on habit formation. Graduate school should be about reading difficult things, so I often choose to do my term papers on texts that I have been putting off reading.

On to the book…

Moral Virtue
I love that Aristotle defines virtue as an action. It’s not an intention or a feeling. Virtuous people ACT virtuously. Although moral virtue has a natural component, it is mostly the result of habit. If you want to be courageous, you have to practice acting courageously by taking on projects that make you uncomfortable. According to Aristotle, true philosophers are not merely theoreticians. They walk the walk too.

Aristotle argues that all humans seek the good because it brings them happiness. We do everything for happiness, but not all actions can make us truly happy. Every virtue involves choice and is the mean of two extremes. The middle-path can be difficult to discern, but it leads to the greatest happiness.

There were a few things, however, that put me off to Aristotle’s teachings in this section. First, love is not listed as one of the moral virtues. Second, pride is described as the root of all virtue (!). And finally, men alone have the capacity to be virtuous. When Aristotle says “men”, he means men. Women are described as under-developed men (lovely, I know).

Justice
Unfortunately, the only notes I made in my book on this topic concern teachings that I dislike. Aristotle thinks that fathers cannot act unjustly toward their children because offspring are the equivalent of a “man’s chattel” until they can live on their own.

He also does some victim-blaming in the subsection on anger. An angry man is less guilty than the one who provoked his anger: “[F]or it is not the man who acts in anger but he who enraged him that starts the mischief”. Still, it is worth pointing out yet again that justice is not an inner disposition but an action. I’m sure Aristotle addresses political justice in more depth in The Politics.

Pleasure
This is arguably the most confusing section of the book. The end-notes of my Oxford World’s Classics edition describes the scholarly confusion surrounding Aristotle’s teaching on incontinence. I did, however, gather a few things from this section.

Only humans are capable of being continent because only humans have the capacity for universal judgement. Men become incontinent when sleep, anger, or alcohol impede their judgment. Incontinence, like vice, is an excess. I appreciated that Aristotle didn’t try to address a myriad of individual cases, but admitted that many situations require discernment.

Pleasure
Aristotle is not opposed to pleasure. In fact, he thinks it’s impossible for a person to be happy while experiencing torture (against the Stoics).

Those who say that the victim on the rack or the man who falls into great misfortunes is happy if he is good are, whether they mean to or not, talking nonsense.

I agree. I can certainly see people acting courageously in difficult situations, but they aren’t happy.

Pleasure is not evil in itself because “all things have by nature something divine in them”. Pleasure only leads to vice if it is taken to an extreme. Only if pleasure obstructs a person’s ability to reason or to behave temperately is it harmful.

Friendship
This is, hands-down, my favorite section of the book. Aristotle defines a friend as a second self. For a man to be happy, he needs friends because humans are meant for community. Consequently, a healthy state functions as a kind of friendship between the leader and the people. In the 16th century, Montaigne will disagree that any kind of friendship can exist in a hierarchical relationship, but Aristotle things that equality does not necessarily mean that everyone should be treated in the same way. While I am more inclined to agree with Montaigne’s definition of equality, I appreciate the communal/political dimension Aristotle gives to the concept of friendship. He makes it clear that friendship requires justice. It is justice that creates equality in a hierarchical relationship.

Reciprocity is central to a good friendship. Bad friends only care about what they can get from another person. They are compared to tyrants who use others for their own benefit. The best friendship is between two virtuous men, but all true friendships are pleasurable and good.

Parting Thoughts
In the 16th century, Michel de Montaigne will develop Aristotle’s teachings on friendship in his essay “Of Friendship“.  This beautiful meditation is inspired by Montaigne’s life-long friendship to Etienne de La Boétie.

Aristotle is at his best when he makes general observations about human behavior. If you are interested in habit formation or virtue ethics, I recommend The Nicomachean Ethics. It is a good place to begin.

Classics Club Events

My Spin Pick

British Library
Source: British Library

So the Classics Club Spin number has been announced. 3

I will be reading Piers the Plowman by William Langland. Here is what Goodreads has to say about it:

Astonishing in its cultural and theological scope, William Langland’s iconoclastic masterpiece is at once a historical relic and a deeply spiritual vision, probing not only the social and religious aristocracy but also the day-to-day realities of a largely voiceless proletariat class.

This is a phenomenal opportunity to learn more about the predominantly illiterate medieval worker class and their struggles. I look forward to reading it.

Classics Club Events

Classics Spin #17 List

I am super excited to participate in Classics Spin #17 because I haven’t participated in years. Like everyone who joined the Classics Club Blog, I made a list of fifty classics. Unfortunately, I have ignored this challenge in the past three years, so I am nowhere near completion. Reading lists remind me of school, and I have enough reading lists to go through in graduate school. Because I predominantly read classics anyway, I don’t feel guilty about fudging the rules a bit to participate in the Classics Spins.

My list this time will include 20 classics that are on my physical and/or electronic TBRs. In January 2018, I implemented a challenge that has effectively slowed my book buying to a halt. And so far, I am quite pleased with the results. Borrowing has encouraged me to take more reading risks. I read more broadly and diversely than I did in the past.

Please note that some of the books on this list are relatively recent classics. Finally, the books are in chronological order by date of publication.

  1. Metamorphoses (c. 8 CE) – Ovid
  2. The Chronicles (c. 1370-1380) – Froissart (abridged by Penguin)
  3. Piers the Plowman (c. 1370-1390) – William Langland
  4. The History of King Richard III (c. 1513-1518) – Thomas More
  5. Notre-Dame de Paris [The Hunchback of Notre-Dame] (1829) – Victor Hugo
  6. North and South (1855) – Elizabeth Gaskell
  7. The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses (1888) – Robert Louis Stevenson
  8. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) – Oscar Wilde
  9. Life of St. Francis of Assisi (1893) – Paul Sabatier
  10. Cyrano de Bergerac (1897) – Edmond Rostand
  11. The Souls of Black Folk (1903) – W.E.B. Du Bois
  12. The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905) by Baroness Emma Orczy
  13. The Voyages of Dr. Doolittle (1922) – Hugh Lofting
  14. Sous le soleil de satan [Under Satan’s Sun] (1926) – Georges Bernanos
  15. The Seven Storey Mountain (1948) – Thomas Merton
  16. The Old Man and the Sea (1952) – Ernest Hemingway
  17. Another Country (1962) – James Baldwin
  18. A Single Man (1964) – Christopher Isherwood
  19. The Chocolate War (1974) – Robert Cormier
  20. Howl’s Moving Castle (1986) – Diana Wynne Jones
Miscellaneous

I’m Binge-Reading Again! | Grad School and Writing

adult, blur, booksThe binge-reading-only part of the semester is about to end in a few weeks. I just feel it in my bones. Soon, I will have to add binge-writing to an already full workload. This semester, I have three 20-page term papers due on the same day, plus a Master’s exam with an oral and a written component!

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love what I am doing. But because I am interested in becoming a scholar, I am also concerned about how what I am learning will help me long-term.

On the one hand, I understand why we are assigned so much reading. Professors expect students to have a basic knowledge of the course texts before class so that lecture-time can be spent analyzing themes or learning related theory. I am glad that my MA exam this April will require me to know the major works of the French canon because professors need to have a generalist knowledge of their field.

But reading is not always the best use of my time.

There are so many 16th century, 18th century, or 20th century texts that I should know, but no graduate student has the time to read everything that is considered “canon” for a given century or sub-field.

The problem, as I see it, is that reading is NOT scholarship. It is only the prerequisite of scholarship. No hiring committee cares how many books a candidate has read but how many major conference talks she has given, how many peer-reviewed articles she has published, and whether or not her dissertation is being turned into a book. I can read all of the books in the world, but if I can’t write or do good research, I am not a scholar.

In the American graduate education system, not enough time is spent writing and revising. We try to do all of the research for our term papers during the last month of the semester, all while trying to keep up with the weekly readings. I am currently binge-reading without a goal because I know that I will not be writing about most of the texts that I am assigned.

Published authors know that writing is rewriting, but graduate students only learn about the revision process in the last years of their program, when they suddenly have to learn how to write a 300-page dissertation.

Writing papers may be every graduate student’s least favorite activity (mine included), but it is also the most important activity. I wish graduate programs would encourage students to make writing a habit.

Social Justice, Voltaire

Voltaire’s Treatise on Tolerance (The Calas Affair)

Image result for the calas affair
François Dubois, The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (c. 1576)

On March 10, 1762 Jean Calas was tortured and executed for allegedly murdering his son Marc-Antoine. Although Jean was the only member of the family executed, his wife, servant, son Paul, and friend M. Gaubert Lavaysse were also implicated in the murder. The Calas affair came to Voltaire’s attention because it appeared to be a case of religious fanaticism.

Jean’s eldest son Louis had already converted to Catholicism years earlier, and the family employed a Catholic servant. Still, the court sided with the crowd and ruled that Jean murdered his Catholic son for heresy. If Jean was required by his Calvinist faith to murder his son (as the Catholic prosecutors claimed), why did he employ a Catholic servant? And why would the Catholic servant agree to murder a fellow Catholic?

In all appearances, Marc-Antoine committed suicide. The family members were eating dinner when their son suddenly left the room. His body was found hanging in the front room.

Even before the law stepped in, a crowd of Catholics carried the body away and buried in consecrated ground. They began venerating Marc-Antoine as a Catholic martyr. The judges in Toulouse could not agree on the case, but they condemned Jean to death anyway. Through a series of authentic and potentially fictional letters, The Calas Affair traces the events leading up to and following the death of Marc-Antoine.

But it’s the following Treatise on Tolerance that is arguably more important than the précis of the affair. Here, Voltaire makes a case for religious tolerance.

I was surprised by Voltaire’ knowledge of the Bible. He clearly followed contemporary Biblical scholarship. Although some people accuse Voltaire of antisemitism, I had the opposite impression. Voltaire condemns the violence of the Old Testament, but he also  argues that early Judaism was more tolerant than 18th century Christianity. Voltaire is only intolerant toward Atheists because he assumes that they are necessarily amoral. Voltaire may have be a Deist and highly critical of organized religion, but he was influenced by and admired many aspects of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In The Treatise on Tolerance, Voltaire targets particularly the Christian dogmatic tradition for promoting heresy hunting .

Voltaire rightly argues that the ancient Romans were by and large tolerant toward different religions. The periods of persecution were the exception to the rule. You would think that a persecuted religion such as Christianity would know what persecution feels like and avoid persecuting others. But Christians of all stripes have committed numerous atrocities over the centuries.

Voltaire makes it clear that the Gospels do not promote violence and intolerance. In an eye-opening commentary on the Old Testament, Voltaire demonstrates that the Old Testament God is only concerned about the behavior of the Jewish people. God is not concerned about the behavior of Gentile religions. Finally, God’s punishments and rewards are immediate and temporal. Voltaire references Hebrew, questions the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, considers whether Judaism began as semi-polytheistic, and has a detailed knowledge of the early ecclesiastical councils – evidence that he kept up with contemporary religious scholarship.

Voltaire argues throughout his treatise that fanaticism is not only irrational but also a violation of true faith. It is hypocrisy at its finest. The Treatise on Tolerance is all the more convincing for its simplicity. Today, most people in the West take it for granted that executing perceived heretics is wrong, but religious bigotry is unfortunately alive and well. 18th century justifications for the persecution of French Protestants (Huguenots) sound eerily familiar.

If much of Voltaire’s argument seems obvious to most readers, that’s because we have progressed a lot in the past three hundred years. It certainly wasn’t obvious to many of his contemporaries. In 1572, anywhere between 10,000 and 70,000 Huguenots were massacred on St. Bartholomew’s Day. In the 1700s, when Voltaire wrote The Treatise on Tolerance, Catholics still celebrated the anniversary of the massacre!

The Treatise on Tolerance is a reminder of what prejudice is capable of. While some sections are humorous, it is not a satire. Voltaire cuts to the heart of the matter. This is definitely a work worth revisiting in our increasingly intolerant age.

 

Mystery, Peters, Ellis

Review of A Morbid Taste for Bones (Cadfael #1)

Image result for a morbid taste for bonesI finally read a Cadfael mystery.

A Morbid Taste for Bones is the first book in Ellis Peters’ Chronicles of Brother Cadfael series. The eponymous Benedictine monk has had quite a life. Before entering the abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Shrewsbury, Cadfael was Godfrey de Bouillon’s companion during the First Crusade. At the start of the novel, Cadfael is working in the abbey garden alongside two other brothers: Brother Columbanus (a raging mystic) and Brother John (who is tempted by the pleasures of the outside world).

But the peace of the monastery is suddenly broken when Prior Robert Pennant asks the brothers to find relics to bolster the abbey’s reputation. Each of the surrounding Benedictine monasteries house the relics of a miracle-working saint, but Saint Peter and Saint Paul has nothing to boast of. Ever ambitious, Prior Robert seeks far and wide for a saint to unearth and carry back to the English abbey. Finally, Brother Jerome receives visions confirming the intercession of a Saint Winifred. These alleged visions inspire the prior to lead a procession of monks to the saint’s burial site. Unfortunately, Brother Robert has underestimated the amount of effort it will take to convince the Welshmen of Gwytherin to relinquish the bones of their village saint to a group of English monks.

Upon his arrival, Brother Cadfael runs into a young woman named Sioned. For a Welsh woman, she is surprisingly competent in English. Soon, Cadfael learns about her secret love for an English ex-outlaw and the advances of a suitor to whom she is indifferent. Sioned’s father Rhisiart respects and even houses the ex-outlaw Engelard, but he objects to Engelard’s interest in his daughter. Further, he opposes Prior Robert’s quest.

Rhisiart may be the only obstacle between the Shrewsbury monks and the miracle-working saint on the one hand and Sioned and Engelard on the other, but who would want him dead?

While A Morbid Taste for Bones is a murder mystery, it is also written as a work of historical fiction. Ellis Peters describes the Welsh village of Gwytherin with an eye to historical accuracy. The mystery is only one plot line in the novel. We are also introduced to English monasticism and the English-Welsh conflict. In many mysteries, the setting and characters are secondary to the intrigue. But not in A Morbid Taste for Bones. The mystery element seems almost accidental to Prior Robert’s quest. Benedictine abbeys in the 11th century were concerned about their reputations; holy relics helped them compete with surrounding monasteries. Brother Cadfael may be religious but he is also practical. He draws from a lifetime’s worth of experiences to fulfill his monastic and social duties. He knows how to play the game.

I look forward to learning more about Brother Cadfael and his fellow monks in the rest of the series. Peters has managed to write a book that appeals to mystery buffs and medievalists alike.

Favorite Quote

“Meet every man as you find him, for we’re all made the same under habit, robe or rags. Some better made than others, and some better cared for, but on the same pattern, all.”