Re-read a classic to start off the new year. As with every classic, this too turned up in a new light. With echoes of Schopenhauer, Kant and even ComtRe-read a classic to start off the new year. As with every classic, this too turned up in a new light. With echoes of Schopenhauer, Kant and even Comte, this deep poem suddenly took new life in this reading. Now what is left is to search out which way the influence spread before flowering in this expression - east to west, the other way, or is it an early amalgamation of all philosophy like all truly great poems are....more
This tends to me among the top five books I recommend to anyone who cares to ask.
Questioning and undermining Rousseau's 'noble savage' was one of its This tends to me among the top five books I recommend to anyone who cares to ask.
Questioning and undermining Rousseau's 'noble savage' was one of its essential goals (as Alan mentions below), hence the positioning of a classic dystopia in an idyllic setting and the choice of 'boy-scout' perfect protagonists. It is as good a dystopic novel as they come. And essential because most dystopic novels were set in urban settings, giving the illusion that extreme control leads to dystopia. Golding shows that extreme freedom can too.
It is a great work because it speaks so truly of the human tendency away from organized civilization. To me, the one fault is the ending -- the time scale given to the thought experiment was too narrow, allowing only one swing of the societal pendulum....more
“The conversion of legend-writing into the science of history was not native to the Greek mind, it was a fifth-
Hubris in History: A Recurring Terror
“The conversion of legend-writing into the science of history was not native to the Greek mind, it was a fifth-century invention, and Herodotus was the man who invented it.”
~ R.G. Collingwood
The prime subject of The Histories is the twenty years (499-479 B.C.E) of war between Greece and Persia for domination of the Greek world, but he intersperses this main narrative with plenty of personal interest stories, “wonders” about firsts and bests, historical parallels and occasionally his own biased judgements, but always making it clear that he is interested only in presenting a viewpoint — he leaves the act of judgement to the reader. It would be true to assure that it was Herodotus who helped create the concept of the discipline of “history,” in part by stressing and criticizing his sources and accepted traditions. My job is to record what I have been told, make of it what you will that is the dominant warning note wherever H’s authorial voice intervenes in the narrative. That should be the disclaimer all history books should come with.
All the main themes of the book are evident in its beginning and ending, in keeping with the circular narratives that H prefers to adopt. All the intervening incidents act like reinforcements of the overall thrust inherent in the beginning and ending.
The Beginning: The Parallel Rise of Freedom & Empire
We begin with an insecure Hellenic world, just shaking off the shackles of tyranny and tasting real ambition for the first time. Meanwhile in the other end of the world, an existing empire is being shaped into a fearsome tyrannical force by the new Persian rulers. Soon the Persian empire starts to extend ominously outwards and gobbles up most of the known world. This infringes on a core idea of H — the concept of natural limits and over-extension. Persia is meant to fall. “The Small shall become the Big; and the Big shall become the Small.”
As long as empires are driven by ambition, history is doomed to repeat itself.
The gods set limits and do not allow human beings to go beyond them; Herodotus makes it clear that the Persians have to fail in their plan to conquer Greece, because they have overreached their natural boundaries. Xerxes announces his campaign by telling his advisers that he intends to conquer Greece so that ‘we will make Persian territory end only at the sky’ (7.8).
The Middle: The Clash of Civilizations
Then we are taken through the many over-extensions of the Persian empire under a succession of rulers (in Ionia, Scythia, etc), until they are poised to encroach upon the newly non-tyrannical Greek world. Here we enter the climactic middle of the narrative and is drenched in the details of the gory encounter. Many heroes, legends and dramatic material is born here and we emerge on the other side with a clear sense that it was Athens, without the yoke of tyranny, that was able to bring down the fearsome war machine of the Persian empire. David has won out against Goliath. This is achieved due to much luck and much pluck, but in the final analysis H seems to imply that the fault was with the hubris of the Persians.
It needs to be pointed out that: H is quite clear that as human beings Persians are on the whole no better and no worse than Greeks. Structurally, however, Xerxes’ great expedition to Greece stands as a monument to the dangerous blindness of massive empires and grandiose thinking—but it is also the backdrop against which H has been able to present to us the Greeks’ love of their homeland, their valor against incredible odds, and their deep desire to preserve their freedom.
So, even as this main narrative concludes, we are shown what is the inevitable result of Hubris that over-extends its own reaches. And of how tyranny in any form is not going to triumph over people who have tasted what freedom means.
The Ending: A Reenactment of The Beginning
Herodotus could have ended there. But he doesn’t. Instead he takes us to the Ending to rub in the message and to instill that message with its true significance — what is its bearing on the future? For, an investigation of History is meaningless unless it can educate us about the future. And it is the future that H ironically points to as he takes us through the concluding sections of his Histories.
For now it is the turn of the Greeks to over-extend. In the thrill of victory and in the thrall of a thirst for revenge, in the spirit of competition with its own neighbors, Athens and Sparta launch out on its own imperialistic enterprise to mainland Asia. This is to culminate in H’s own day with the Ionians looking upon Athens as the equivalent of a Tyrant.
The beginning of this period saw the triumph of the Greek mainland states over the might of the Persian Empire, first in the initial invasion of 490 and the battle of Marathon, and then in the second invasion of 480/79, with the battles of Thermopylae, Salamis, Plataea, and finally Mycaleb in Asia Mnor.
This unexpected victory against what seemed like the mightiest empire on Earth resonated in Greek consciousness through the fifth century and indeed beyond. The Greeks in general, and the Athenians in particular, because they had played the major part in the triumph of “Freedom”, saw these victories as a triumph of right over might, courage over fear, freedom over servitude, moderation over arrogance. It helped crystallize and reinforce Greeks’ attitudes to their own newfound way of life and values, intensified their supreme distrust of monarchy and tyranny, and shaped their attitude to the Persians. And after what they visualized as the great struggle for freedom, the people of Athens entered upon a spectacular era of energy and prosperity, one of the great flowering periods of Western civilization.
In more practical terms, Athens’ naval success in the Persian Wars and its enterprise immediately after led to the creation of the Athenian Empire, which started as an anti-Persian league and lasted for almost three-quarters of a century (479-404).
H seems to imply that Athens should learn from these investigations of the past, see what Tyranny can do, see the dangers of over-extension, understand the need for balance, respect certain international boundaries, and stay its own overreaching hand.
And indeed within fifty years of the Persian defeat the dream had faded, and before the end of the century Athens, over-extended abroad and overconfident at home, lay defeated at the mercy of her enemies, a Spartan garrison posted on the Acropolis and democracy in ruins. Much in the intervening years had been magnificent, it is true, but so it might have remained if the Athenians had heeded Herodotus. He had portrayed the Greek victory as a triumph over the barbarian latent in themselves, the hubris that united the invader and the native tyrant as targets of the gods. The Persian downfall, or at least the defeat of their imperialistic ambition, called not only for exultation but for compassion and lasting self-control.
As should be quite obvious, there is much to learn in this for modern times too, but with an added twist. For Hubris did not end its romp through history there. It took on new wings once history started being recorded. Now every new emperor was also competing with history. Alexander had to outdo Xerxes. Caesar had to outdo Alexander. Britain had to outdo Rome. Germany had to outdo Britain. USA had to outdo Britain, etc. A never-ending arms-race with imperial history and the accompanying Hubris that powers it.
So Herodotus, even as he recorded History so as to blunt its devastating force on the lives of men, also unwittingly added new impetus to its influence, by adding the new flavor of recorded glory to the existing receptacle of legendary glory. Hubris drank it up....more
The first half is written by Thoreau, the accomplished philosopher and soars much above my humble powers of comprehension; the second half is written The first half is written by Thoreau, the accomplished philosopher and soars much above my humble powers of comprehension; the second half is written by Thoreau, the amateur naturalist and swims much below my capacity for interest.
After reading about the influence the book had on Gandhi, I had attempted reading Walden many (roughly four) times before and each time had to give up before the tenth page due to the onrush of new ideas that enveloped me. I put away the book each time with lots of food for thought and always hoped to finish it one day.
Now after finally finishing the book, while I was elated and elevated by the book, I just wish that Thoreau had stuck to telling about the affairs of men and their degraded ways of living and about his alternate views. Maybe even a detailed account of his days and how it affected him would have been fine but when he decided to write whole chapters about how to do bean cultivation and how to measure the depth of a pond with rudimentary methods and theorizing about the reason for the unusual depth of walden and about the habits of wild hens, sadly, I lost interest. I trudged through the last chapters and managed to finish it out of a sense of obligation built up over years of awe about the book.
The concluding chapter, to an extent, rewarded me for my persistence and toil. In this final chapter, he comes back to the real purpose of the book: to drill home a simple idea - "I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws will be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings."
This I think was the core philosophy of the book - if you pursue the ideal direction/vision you have of how your life should be, and not how convention dictates it should be, then you will find success and satisfaction on a scale unimaginable through those conventional routes or to those conventional minds.
I will of course be re-reading the book at some point and thankfully I will know which parts to skip without any remorse....more
My first exposure to Gladwell. SO was more or les blown away by the ideas. Have grown more conservative in acceptance of his views as I have grown famMy first exposure to Gladwell. SO was more or les blown away by the ideas. Have grown more conservative in acceptance of his views as I have grown familiar with his topics through other books. But still an eminently quotable book....more
It was all there in Kipling, barring the epilogue of the Indian inheritance. A journey to India was not really necessary. No writ
Single Quote Review:
It was all there in Kipling, barring the epilogue of the Indian inheritance. A journey to India was not really necessary. No writer was more honest or accurate; no writer was more revealing of himself and his society. He has left us Anglo-India; to people these relics of the Raj we have only to read him.
We find a people conscious of their roles, conscious of their power and separateness, yet at the same time fearful of expressing their delight at their situation: they are all burdened by responsibilities.
The responsibilities are real; but the total effect is that of a people at play. They are all actors; they know what is expected of them; no one will give the game away.