Sunday, February 26, 2017

Socrates by Paul Johnson

Socrates: A Man for Our TimesSocrates: A Man for Our Times by Paul  Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A concise overview of Socrates based on what little information we have. While Johnson may employ some guesswork as to what part of Plato's Republic is Socrates or Plato coloring Socrates with his own ideals, he is no more guilty than most historians on this point.

I notice that some reviewers have been harsh almost to the point of vitriol on Johnson "infusing his Christian ideals" on poor Socrates. Every single historian has a slant or bias and to think otherwise is naive. It's the reader's responsibility to read with discernment as well as many other sources.

While this book is not the most in depth or exhaustive biography, Johnson does have a good suggested reading list that points the reader to good sources.

This book serves as a good introduction to the philosopher's life.

I have read several of Johnson's biographies and I find them to be short, highly readable, and always respectful of his subject, which is not always true with other biographers.  His research is meticulous and his conclusions well-supported.

I had always had a hard time separating Plato and Socrates and now I know why.  Plato recorded much of what we know about Socrates in his Dialogues.  Johnson insists that at the beginning Plato faithfully records Socrates words and ideals but later starts to record them through the lens of his personal biases.  Johnson delineates the two for us but also tells the reader that ultimately they have to decide for himself which is pure Socrates and which is a hybrid of Plato and Socrates.

Based on what little we know because Socrates wrote nothing down, Socrates grew up neither poor nor rich. He  fought in the Peloponnisian War.  He never sought riches and apparently refused to receive wages for his teaching, unlike other contemporary philosophers who profited well by becoming household teachers or teachers for hire.  

He had a wife and children, but it is not explained how he took care of them since he never worked but taught for free.

His philosophy was founded on the belief that morals are absolute and he is primarily known for his teaching on ethics.  His method of teaching was to deconstruct everything his pupils said. He taught them through debate.

He met every statement with a "Why do you think that?" "How can you substantiate your position?" and often gave the opposing view in order to cause the other person to come up with counterarguments.

Socrates believed in absolute good and consequently did not believe in the Greek gods because they were obviously not good, but rather tyrannical, childish, selfish and capricious.  This did not make him popular with many Greek citizens.

But he did believe in the supernatural and even a "God" although perhaps not aware of or acknowledging the God of the Bible.This book gave me a better appreciation of St. Paul's experience when he tried to engage the Athenians in discussing the "Unknown God". It also increases my understanding when in Acts 17:16-21:

 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.  And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?  For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.”  Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new. (ESV)

A famous situation is when an Oracle declares there is none wiser than Socrates.  Socrates protests, claiming to know nothing but upon discovering that most people think they know a lot he concludes that he is the wisest because, unlike others, he is aware of how little he knows. 

In fact a Socrates paradox is "I know that I know nothing."

He was an ardent Athenian and refused to live anywhere else, even when he was condemned to die by suicide.  He refused to escape even though he apparently could.  The reason for his trial and death was because of political infighting and Socrates' criticism of what he considered Athenians' immoral practice of city politics. 

Now I have Plato's Dialogues on my list and I hope to read them soon. 

I also have a biography of Darwin by Johnson that should prove interesting.

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Monday, February 20, 2017

The Little Book of Plagiarism by Richard A. Posner

Another beautiful rainy day.  I'm listening to Fountain, a piano solo by Maurice Ravel.  Simply perfect for posting a new book review.  Hopefully you will enjoy reading thoughtful commentary on an interesting book while listening to wistful, reflective music.  A gray sky would make it all perfect.  (You in the north may disagree but cool weather is so delightfully refreshing here in Texas.)

The Little Book of PlagiarismThe Little Book of Plagiarism by Richard A. Posner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is brief, interesting and quickly read. Posner is a judge in the United States Second Court of Appeals and a lecturer at the University of Chicago law school. In this book he defines plagiarism, explains the difference between it and copyright infringement and when it is actually a crime.

He lists some famous examples of modern plagiarists plus a history of plagiarists in the past. He discusses why plagiarism is a crime, why should it be a crime and why some plagiarists should be more severely punished than others. Also, he points to times in the past when plagiarism was not considered much of a crime, or a crime at all, and why.

He also cites a few famous authors who, because of famous and influential friends, did not suffer career losses, even though they were exposed as blatant and prolific plagiarists.

I felt his writing could have been clearer at times ("Should plagiarism be a crime or a tort? It should not be.") Excuse me, but that was an "either or" question and if "tort" means the same thing as "crime" than you should have inserted a comma after crime or in some way made it clear that you were using a synonym and not asking a question that demands a choice.

That is one of a number of obtuse expressions of which Posner is guilty.

Also, I disagree with his attitude that the only reason plagiarism is wrong is because it puts the plagiarist in commercial competition with the original author. How about stealing from the author is morally wrong? You deserve to be discredited and punished for that.

He includes quotes from some people who do not believe there is anything wrong with plagiarism because of their egalitarian philosophies:

"Notions of genius, of individual creativity, and of authorial celebrity, which inform the condemnation of plagiarism, make the leftist uncomfortable because they seem to celebrate inequality and 'possessive individualism' (that is, capitalism)."

He writes of another self-described "liberatory pedagogy" believes that students "should not be punished for 'patchwriting'.

Overall the book is worth reading, especially if you are an aspiring writer (like me:) )

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Sunday, February 12, 2017

Violets and Other Stories by Alice Dunbar-Nelson

I'm listening to Piano solo music by Manuel de Falla.  I'm not providing a link because I now realize how impermanent they can be.  But feel free to google in his name and "piano solos" and you'll find a link somewhere to listen to it.  

I thought for the week that holds Valentine's Day it would be appropriate to  review some poetry.

I read the following book on my Kindle:

Violets and Other TalesViolets and Other Tales by Alice Dunbar-Nelson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a book of poetry and short stories. It is not a hundred pages long. I liked the poetry better than the stories because the latter carried a tragical, Victorian-esque style.

What I did like was the vivid descriptions of New Orleans. It gives the reader a rich taste of the Creole and Anglo-French culture.

What I especially appreciate is that this book is not self-consciously ethnic or gender specific. I did not know the writer was black when I read these stories. I did not even know it was a woman who wrote them.

All I knew was that a brilliant writer wrote them.

Here is the poem of the title:

I had not thought of violets late,

The wild, shy kind that spring beneath your feet

In wistful April days, when lovers mate

And wander through the fields in raptures sweet.

The thought of violets meant florists' shops,

And bows and pins, and perfumed papers fine;

And garish lights, and mincing little fops

And cabarets and soaps, and deadening wines.

So far from sweet real things my thoughts had strayed,

I had forgot wide fields; and clear brown streams;

The perfect loveliness that God has made,—

Wild violets shy and Heaven-mounting dreams.

And now—unwittingly, you've made me dream

Of violets, and my soul's forgotten gleam.

Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar Nelson (July 19, 1875 - September 18, 1935) was an American poet, journalist and political activist. Among the first generation born free in the South after the Civil War, she was one of the prominent African Americans involved in the artistic flourishing of the Harlem Renaissance. Her first husband was the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar; she then married physician Henry A. Callis; and last married Robert J. Nelson, a poet and civil rights activist. From Poem Hunter.

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Thursday, February 2, 2017

An Area of Darkness by V.S. Naipaul 

An Area of DarknessAn Area of Darkness by V.S. Naipaul

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I do not recall how I came to own An Area of Darkness by V.S. Naipaul. It's not a genre I normally read, but I did own it, and having it I decided to give it a try. It was worth it.

At first I was put off by the lack of emotion in the narrator's voice. He spoke of his family, his upbringing on the island of Trinidad, his family's Indian heritage, all as though he were an alien who was making observations and taking notes to report back to his home planet ("species seem to believe in many gods.....caste system...certain cultural values differ from fellow inhabitants of the island...").

As his journey progressed, for it was a journey on several levels, he became, if not more emotionally involved, at least interested.

And interesting. I have never traveled to India, although I did live in the Caribbean not far from Trinidad. My landlady and her family in Grenada were Indian and also from Trinidad. If I had not lived there I would not have known what a significant percentage of the population on the East Indian islands are descendants from India.

So I started reading the book with some understanding as to where the author was coming from. Naipual wrote this book in 1962-64 and I think some of his experience was different than the many Indians I interacted with on Grenada.

For one, he speaks of feeling something of a foreigner even though he grew up there. I lived on Grenada in the nineties and the Indians I met had absorbed the culture. They were Christians, regular church goers and interacted easily with other racial groups (mostly of African descent but also European). Naipaul's grandparents immigrated to Trinidad so he was closer in spirit to the home country. Or so he thought.

An Area of Darkness is Naipaul's record of his travels to India and his experiences there. He learned quickly that he was as foreign as any European. There were many cultural conflicts.

He quickly tired of the class system. He describes another Indian/European's frustration when he tried to get work done but was not getting his letters mailed quickly enough. He called in the clerk who took down his dictation to solve the problem.

"The secretary has many letters to write and she is backed up, so sorry."

"What do you mean? You take the dictation. Write out these letters for me so I can send them out. They are urgent."

"That is not my job. That is the secretary's job."

"It is now your job. Write out these letters and send them out."

Stubborn silence and noncompliance. Reporting his clerk to the job bureau accomplished nothing. So he called in his clerk again.

"I need to write another letter. Please scribe. "You're fired." Deliver that to the secretary and put it on the top of her pile as priority."

The clerk, realizing that if he gave such a letter to the secretary he would be humiliated, ran off and wrote out all the letters for the man. That is how things operated in India.

Another time he was in a train and had the bottom bunk. This is a coveted bunk because climbing up and down to the upper bunk was considered too much effort and beneath the dignity of the class of Indians who could afford to have a bunk while traveling on a train. The man assigned to the bunk above him was put out.

Naipaul who considered the lower bunk an inconvenience offered to change places with him. The man gladly agreed.

But the man remained seated on the upper bunk. By this time the train had already moved off and the porters had left the train, which meant the passengers would have to move their own belongings until the next stop when the porters would again be available. One of his class did not move his own things. That was the porter's job. Exasperated, Naipaul moved both his and the man's belongings.

Naipaul describes India as a country of form but not substance. What he means by this is that form is followed strictly to the letter but there is no substance to it. The untouchables come to a building. One flings dirty water out across the floor, another one swishes a dirty rag around and a third sweeps the water back into the bucket. The floor is as filthy as ever but no one notices because the form has been carried out to the letter.

Indians comment on the unhygienic practice of Westerners only using toilet paper while Indians also used water to clean themselves after using the bathroom. Meanwhile the city and countryside all over India is used as an open latrine. But nobody sees it; they only see what they believe is true. The form of their culture and religious practices.

Brahmin cows stagger around starving to death because they are holy. People starve to death or live off garbage because that is their Karma.

I could insert here my own observations as to how ideologues exist in every country. Worldwide people cling to beliefs and social systems even when they have been proven not to work but that is a discussion for another time, I suppose.

Naipaul calls Ghandi one of the greatest failures of India. He brought in ideas of an egalitarian society and human rights that were never put into practice. The Indians did what they always did. They made Ghandi into a Holy Man to be revered and enshrined while ignoring his teaching. Form is worshiped even though it is devoid of substance.

But the author does more than philosophize on the failings of Indian society. He carefully describes the people he comes into contact with and the places he visits. He goes on a pilgrimage, lives in a houseboat for a while, figures out how to get licenses for this and for that because apparently everything one does in India needs the permission of the government. He works and lives with Hindus and Muslims.

While Naipaul describes India and its people in rich colors, I think it would have helped if he had felt any kind of compassion or feeling of any kind because the book, while a vicarious traveler's treat, left me unmotivated to visit. I now long to read a book from a different perspective.

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