I just finished reading The Oresteia, so perhaps it's premature to claim it as my favourite work in Greek and Roman literature; however, it is. The st...moreI just finished reading The Oresteia, so perhaps it's premature to claim it as my favourite work in Greek and Roman literature; however, it is. The style is as elegant as The Parthenon, and the moral drama is a gripping as a Fury that is sucking the blood out of your body. I wouldn't go as a far as sacrificing my child or killing my mother to go back in time and watch the debut of this play, but I would pay a lot of money.
Particularly interesting to me is the affect this had on Greek society. It reminds me of the biblical tale of the Jewish king Josiah (who happened to find a long-lost book of law that conveniently updated an already infallible, but out-of-date legal system for him). If someone decided to write a book to instantly propagate new ideas of governing and yet mesh the new system with the prevailing myths and prejudices of the times, that book would be The Oresteia. The formula is simple (framing the law as above man, and the changes as from the god/s, so no one can attack them as man-made or fallible), but the execution takes skill since it strikes most people as unnecessary for infallible things to change. The Oresteia is more compelling than the story of Josiah (or the Spartan king Lycurgus) because it gives voice to the old arguments subduing them in the process, and because the characters and plot have dimensions. You actually feel that Clytemnestra is making a good point every so often, and it isn't as if she and Aegistus are acting without meditation.
I could ramble on about how much insight on Greek religion gets unpacked, how many memorable lines jump off the page, the complex themes of family and honor, the treatment of women as secondary, the politicing of Athena to ensure her judgment is honored, etc. Simply put, there were a lot of ideas The Oresteia clarified for me, and a lot of ideas it sparked in me. I'll read it again sooner than later. (less)
This book has made me far too confident that the idea of man as a completely rational actor is on it's way out (albeit slowly), and that it will be re...moreThis book has made me far too confident that the idea of man as a completely rational actor is on it's way out (albeit slowly), and that it will be replaced with a more compassionate, more evidence-based philosophy. For some reason, I see a major struggle taking place in the meantime...(less)
I've no idea how much of this history is true, and how much of it is polemic, but it is quite a guilty pleasure seeing some of the most revered histor...moreI've no idea how much of this history is true, and how much of it is polemic, but it is quite a guilty pleasure seeing some of the most revered historical figures, Justinian and Theodora, brought down to size and dragged through the mud. Some of the charges are so perfectly scandalous to a 6th century mindset, particularly those relating to Theodora's early life, that I'm certain a great amount of the narrative is nothing more than inflammatory bluster. It's hard to tell how much. Certainly the empire would have fallen had it all been true... but then again the Persians and Saracens (Arabs, if you prefer modern language) overwhelmed Rome within a century. Perhaps Justinian helped get that ball rolling. Who knows? (Besides historians)
One thing I find apparent though. One, if not both, versions of Justinian's reign are propaganda. It's scary - in the eye-opening way - how easily a person's public image can be entirely a well-crafted illusion.(less)
A lot of the details appear to be more conjecture than fact. Outside of this rather large concern, the prose is lively and gives a definite feel of th...moreA lot of the details appear to be more conjecture than fact. Outside of this rather large concern, the prose is lively and gives a definite feel of the atmosphere and ideas of the time making for a rather interesting - albeit cautious - read. (less)
The brilliance of Berkeley's philosophy is that it gave David Hume something to improve on, and it opened up whole new areas to doubt and critical obs...moreThe brilliance of Berkeley's philosophy is that it gave David Hume something to improve on, and it opened up whole new areas to doubt and critical observation. These two contributions are staggeringly important to our advancement in my opinion (the fact that the prose is crisp and witty is simply an added bonus). Nonetheless, in the present day Berkeley's philosophy seems fairly bizarre. After all, only a seasoned obscurantist would claim that matter doesn't exist all things (perceptions) that do exist do so in the form of ideas in 2013. This isn't to say many don't try, but Berkeley didn't have cognitive science, cosmology, chemistry, set theory, Einstein's Theory of Relativity, electromagnetism, artificial intelligence, or David Hume to assist his endeavor.
For what was known at the time, Berkeley's ideas were unorthodox but prescient. The exaggerated claims of knowledge by natural philosophers at the time needed to be brought down. Berkeley assisted. The subjectivity of reality hadn't been fully realized. Berkeley helped us get there. Language matters, Berkeley noticed. Maybe most importantly, Berkeley partially cleared a path of doubt for Hume to later completely doubt.
Nonetheless, Berkeley's philosophy suits his own beliefs too well (infinitely as a useless/chimerical concept, consciousness being an immaterial soul, the existence of an ideal state, the architect of reality as the Catholic God) and doesn't offer the 'clear proof' of god he thinks it does. His clear proof is nullified when the reliability of the ideas inside the human mind are called into question by Hume not too long after.
Berkeley gets three stars (plus a half if it were available) because the work is an enjoyable and thought-provoking classic even if the ideas are dated, and although he helped move us forward, some of his ideas are quite obscurantist in nature meaning I can't fall head over heals for it despite my admiration for many of his thoughts. (less)
As a child I never liked it when an adult answered a question I asked with, "Because that's how it is" or some similar aversion. Thankfully, Darwin wa...moreAs a child I never liked it when an adult answered a question I asked with, "Because that's how it is" or some similar aversion. Thankfully, Darwin wasn't satisfied either.
Darwin's greatest achievement here isn't the incredible collection of evidence he amassed and organized, nor is it simply the idea of evolution by natural selection (although both are worthy of 5 star reviews and a place in every science textbook on their own). His greatest achievement is fundamentally changing how we view the world and our place in it to a magnitude equal to or surpassing Copernicus's revolution. The idea that slight changes over time are as powerful a tool to build from the bottom up what we once thought could only come by magic from the top down is truly, as Dan Dennett puts it, dangerous. It undermines the legitimacy of top-heavy power structures, it calls into question core assumptions we've made about the world, and most importantly it provides us with a method to change the world (hopefully for the better and hopefully not so gradually if it is for the better). (less)