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review 2017-03-30 00:40
Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea (Hinges of History #4)
Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter - Thomas Cahill

The foundations of what we call Western culture today seemingly sprung from one place, Greece, yet that is not the entire truth.  Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, the fourth volume of Thomas Cahill’s Hinges of History, examines and explains the structure of Greek society and ideas as well as the reasons why it has permeated so much of what we know of Western culture.  But Cahill’s answer to why the Greeks matter is two-fold.


Over the course of 264 pages of text, Cahill looks at all the features of Greek culture that made them so different from other ancient cultures.  Through the study of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Cahill examined the Greek’s view of war and honor in their grand war epic then how the same man expressed how the Greek’s expressed their feelings.  The contradiction of the Homeric works is part of a larger theme that Cahill explores in Greek poetry beyond Homer, politicians and playwrights, philosophers, and artists.  Throughout each chapter, Cahill examines what the Greeks did differently than anyone else as well as relate examples that many will know.  Yet Cahill reveals that as time went on the Greeks own culture started to swallow itself until stabilized by the Romans who were without the Greek imagination and then merged with newly developing Christian religion that used Greek words to explain its beliefs to a wider world; this synthesis of the Greco-Roman world and Judeo-Christian tradition is what created Western thought and society that we know today.


Cahill’s analysis and themes are for the general reader very through-provoking, but even for someone not well versed in overall Greek scholarship there seems to be something missing in this book.  Just in comparing previous and upcoming volumes of Cahill’s own series, this book seems really short for one covering one of the two big parts of Western Civilization.  Aside from the two chapters focused around the Homeric epics, all the other chapters seemed to be less than they could be not only in examples but also in giving connections in relevance for the reader today.


For the Western society in general, the Greeks are remembered for their myths, magnificent ruins, and democracy.  Thomas Cahill’s Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea does reveal that ancient Greece was more than that and why a culture millennia old matters to us today.  While not perfect, this book is at least a good read for the general reader which may be what Cahill is aiming for but for those more well read it feels lacking once finished.

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review 2017-03-26 12:11
A Story of a Man and his Barrel
Diogenes: An Anecdotal Biography of the World's Greatest Cynic - George Pavlu

When I was up at my parent's house I saw this book sitting in my Dad's workshop, so being somewhat intrigued I borrowed it. The thing is that I like the concept of the cynic, and I also liked the concept of Diogenes, who in some way is a homeless beggar, but he is also a philosopher. However, after reading a few pages of this book I also came to realise that despite him being a homeless beggar, he is also an exhibitionist. In a way he argues against the conventions of society, and the imprisoning nature of wealth and luxury, but he also lives and behaves as if he is an animal, which a part of me feels undermines that part of us by which we call ourselves human.


The thing with Diogenes is that, as I mentioned, he was a homeless beggar, but not by circumstance but rather by choice. Here is a painting of him sitting in his barrel:





The interesting thing is the idea of him being a cynic. In my mind we have the optimist, who sees the glass half full, the pessimist who sees it as being half empty, and the cynic, who basically makes the statement that no matter how much water you drink you are only going to be thirsty again so you might as well just throw the water back into the river and simply remain thirsty. Okay, maybe that is a bit of an extreme, but in some ways taking the mind of a cynic is actually quite beneficial as it enables us to see through the fabrication that is society.



The interesting thing is that despite the fact that he was poor, and lived in a barrel, he was still a famous philosopher. I suspect that it had something to do not so much with the fact he was poor – there were lots of poor people in Athens – but rather that he was an exhibitionist. Also, he had some pretty harsh things to say about society, but despite the fact that he did say some pretty harsh things he still ended up building up a bit of a following. However, like a lot of people who build up a following, while what he says may sound good in principle, when it comes to putting things into practice then people will suddenly turn around and go back to doing what they were always doing.



In a sense there seems to be some similarities between Christ and Diogenes, in that both of them not only walked out of a comfortable life to become itinerant preachers, but they also have a lot to say about wealth, greed, and conforming with society. However Diogenes, unlike Christ, had a much more naturalistic approach. In a sense Diogenes saw us as little more than sophisticated animals, and the fact that despite our perceived civilisation we still basically behaved like animals, we might as well cast off our trappings of civilisation and simply become animals.



This book contains a series of anecdotes, that is sayings that have come down to us about Diogenes. The thing is that while Diogenes did actually write some stuff, we don't have anything remaining, so all we have are these anecdotes, sayings that are attributed to Diogenes, but not necessarily having any real truth about them. In fact all that we seem to have is a story about this guy that lived in a barrel in Athens, that eschewed wealth and comfort, and simply went around challenging people and their lifestyles. For instance it is said that he walked into a rich man's house, and because you couldn't spit on any surface in the house, he chose instead to spit into the face of the rich man.



These itinerant beggars are actually quite fascinating because we don't seem to actually have people like that these days. Okay, we might just do, with people who seem to drift from house to house, taking food and looking for a place to sleep, and then moving onto the next house and the next house, without actually paying their way. I remember a time when I was young that this Vietnam Vet appeared at our door looking for somebody who was no longer living there, stayed with us for a couple of days making all these promises, heading off with one of our friends, and then disappearing. My friends all referred to him as a conman, but he never took anything from us – he simply spent a couple of nights at our house and then moved onto the next one.



However I wander through the city and see all these homeless people sitting on the street with signs asking for money, yet none of them seems to stand on the corner sprouting philosophy. You do get people doing that, normally waving an issue of Red Flag (which is a communist newsletter) around, but they all look reasonably well groomed, and they are definitely not dressed like a beggar. Mind you, while we all talk about how Diogenes eschewed a wealthy lifestyle, and money and possessions, we still notice that he begs, and even asks for money off of his pupils. This makes me wonder if he actually has fully done away with money, or possessions. The fact that he owns clothes, and even owns a barrel, goes to show that he does have some possessions.


Anyway, I will finish off with another picture, and this time one of him speaking to Alexander the Great. It was said (as is the case with everything about Diogenes' life) that when Alexander asked who his king was, Diogenes says that he had no king because he was a citizen of the world, that is cosmopolitan. As such, Alexander realised that it was not enough to simply conquer Greece, but that he had to conquer the world, which is what he did. The other thing was that it was suggested that Alexander either takes everything, and thus becomes king, or takes nothing, and thus becomes Diogenes. In the end it would have been better that there were two Diogenes than two Alexanders, because to have two Alexanders would have not only been insufferable, but would have split the world asunder.



Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/1950948381
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review SPOILER ALERT! 2016-12-25 11:05
Secret Women's Business
The Thesmophoriazusae (Or The Women's Festival) - Aristophanes

I actually quite like Aristophanes, not because he is a brilliant playwright, though since eleven of his works have survived 2500 years I really do not think that I am in a position to comment on his ability. Obviously there is a reason, and probably a good reason, not only why his plays have managed to survive, but that his plays managed to survive a somewhat puritan Dark Ages where pretty much anything that wasn't Christian was discarded. Okay, that is probably a bit too general since the Catholic Church didn't really begin banning books until after the Catholic Reformation (and despite my respect for my former Church History Lecturer, I still somewhat disagree with his assessment of the Catholic Reformation).

Aristophanes' comedies stand out in two ways: first of all they give as an insight into the common people of Athens of the 4th century, and also gives us an understanding, and some very good examples, of the vernacular language. It is the difference between reading a book written in proper English and a book that relies heavily upon a region's slang (such as Australia: for instance, the word <i>sook</i> and <i>prima-donna</i> mean the same thing, but in Australia we use the former, where as the latter is probably a more polite and correct usage). The second thing about Aristophanes' plays is that they are incredibly imaginative, and in some cases quite fantastic. Moreso, the plays are actually pretty funny and remains so despite the 2500 year gap and the language complications. Okay, a lot of the humour (such as the puns) are lost, however the Barrett translation of his works is still very good (and he even manages to use a rhyme scheme in places, noting that English is probably the only language, at least what I know of, that uses rhyme as a poetical form).

The Thesmophoriazusae is one of those interesting, and imaginative, plays that also gives us a bit of an insight into Classical Athens. Remember that the tragedies are written in a stylised language, and people do not, and have not, transacted like that. People in Elizabethan England did not talk to each other using blank verse and Shakespearian language. While the vernacular was no doubt a lot different to what it is now, they still used it. The only time such high form language would have been used would have been in diplomacy, and even then I can't imagine Queen Elizabeth and the King of France speaking to each other (or even writing to each other) in blank verse.

The play is set around a festival known as the Thesmophoria, which was a woman's only festival that lasted three days at a place known as the Pynx. Having read this play I have now learnt that the Pynx was the location of the assembly (I always thought it was the Areopagous, but that was the high court). Type Pynx into Google Images to get an idea of what it looked like, and I have also managed to locate it on the Google Maps image of Athens. It is located to the west of the Acropolis just to the southwest of the intersection of Dimitriou Aiginitou and Apostolou Pavlou. From what I can remember of Athens, there is a promenade that runs along the south side of the Acropolis, and then another path to the west heads uphill, past the Areopogaus, and then curves around to the north of the Acropolis (with a gate that leads to the Agora). Anyway, you do not take that path, but actually continue along the promenade to the west, and it will then curve to the north, but you should be able to find it (and if you don't ask somebody, they do tend to be quite helpful in Greece). Okay, that is enough of me showing off how well I know Athens after spending only a week there, so now onto the play.


Pynx and Acropolis


The play is about Euripides and how he learns that the women of Athens are upset about his portrayal of them, so he decides to sneak into the Thesmophoria in an attempt to convince the women that he was not all that bad. However, his plan involved a young Athenian who had yet grown a beard (all Athenian men had beards, some quite long at that) to disguise himself as a woman and sneak into the festival. However, this young Athenian didn't want anything to do with it so he gets his brother-in-law, the foul mouthed Mnesilochus, to do it instead. Obviously getting Mnesilochus to act like a woman was never going to work, and sure enough he ends up getting found out and tied to a stake to be executed. However Euripides comes in and convinces them (through a fine sounding argument) to release him.



This play is clearly about women and their role in Athenian society. It is not incredibly deep, but it is clear that the women, despite their lower status in the society, did have some freedom, and also the right to religious celebration (as is clear with the Thesmophoria). These women though are compared to two women from antiquity, namely the model wife that is Penelope, and Euripides' presentation of Helen. Sections of the play actually recite Euripides' Helen, and while I will not go into details of that play here, I will simply mention that the purpose behind Helen was to redeem her in the eyes of the Athenians. Euripides borrowed from a legend that had the Helen of Troy as nothing more than a mischievous phantom, and that the real Helen had been kidnapped by the king of Egypt and that was were she spent the war. In Euripides' mind, Helen was innocent of the charges laid against her.



This is why I find the play rather strange because Euripides is being accused of being anti-women, but it is quite clear from his writings that he is not. Of the plays that I have read, particularly the ones involving women, they are the tragic figures. Consider Medea, Hecabe, Helen, and Iphangenia. They were all innocent of any crimes, yet suffered simply because they were women. In fact, with regards to Medea, it is Jason that is considered to be the antagonist by tossing Medea out of his bed for a younger, more influential, woman.


However, the charges that Euripides (and in a way Aristophanes) is that the women of then modern Athens, were nothing like those women in Euripides' plays. In fact they came nowhere close to them in virtue. Remember, at this time Athens was in the middle of a very long and drawn out war, which means that a lot of the young men were off fighting leaving only the women, the children, and the elderly at home in Athens. It is suggested here, and it is the bait that Euripides uses to free Mnesilochus from the Thesmophoria, namely that while the cat is away then the mice are at play. Of course, you don't want anybody telling the husbands what their women were up to when they returned, and in a way this is a reflection of the Orestia, despite that play being written prior to the Peloponesian War.


Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/348724269
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review 2016-12-04 06:50
The Greek Genesis
Theogony (Classical Library) - Hesiod,Richard S. Caldwell,Richard Caldwell

There seems to be a debate as to the usefulness of this little text and I would pretty much fall into the category of not much. The reason that I say that is because if this book was lost then we would lose very little of our understanding of Greek Mythology. Everything that is contained in this little book is also contained in more expanded works such as the Library of Greek Mythology and Ovid. While it is a primary source, it is still something that we could probably do without. Fortunately its small size means that it does not take up much space on my bookshelf, however I would probably not find myself ever actually needing to reference it. Okay, we could probably use it to talk about the accuracy of later works, but then again, this is Greek mythology, there is no consistency in it. In fact, there isn't even any consistency with the twelve tasks of Heracles.


Now, you would probably say that since this book is one of the earliest Greek texts then it gives us an idea of the development of Greek mythology, and yes, that is probably true to an extent, and from an anthropological view that is probably important, but I am not interested in that. On the other hand a lot of authors seem to look back at Hesiod with some sought of awe, and granted, it helps us understand the background from which they were writing, but remember most of Greek mythology back at this time was passed down by word of mouth and Hesiod is only one view of it.


I have written before, and will continue to write, about how my position with regards to the Greek gods is that they were humans that were deified, and Hesiod once again goes on to prove that point. This is a genealogical text much in the same way that sections of the Bible are genealogical texts, however by the time that Hesiod came around the Greek Gods had already been deified. There are some major differences between the two forms of genealogy though. As mentioned, the non-biblical genealogies tend to deal only with the gods, unless you are looking at a familial genealogy, where as the Biblical genealogies all deal with humans, and the Bible is very specific that the people mention in the genealogies are human. Secondly the biblical genealogies actually serve a purpose where as the non-biblical genealogies are simply a list of names.


The purpose of the biblical genealogy is to trace the line of people who in the end become the ancestors of Christ. These genealogies tend to reach their fulfillment in the Gospels, with both Matthew and Luke (and also, as some have argued, with John as well) containing genealogies. We do note that there are differences in the genealogies, and some have criticised the Bible for that, but I will simply say that the differences simply come out of methodology as opposed to inherent errors. My understanding is that in both maths and science one can reach the same proof even though two different methodologies were used.


Basically, whenever we see a genealogy in the Old Testament we are always looking at how it is directing us towards the saviour that was promised in Genesis 3. For those who are familiar with these genealogies you will note that they tend to only go down in one line, meaning that while a list of children may be given, the genealogy will end up focusing only one a handful of these children to narrow it down to a specific point. The exception is the table of nations in Genesis 10, the purpose of which is to outline the beginning of the nations as the readers would have known them to be at the time (namely during the Exodus). We do see a similarity between the table of nations and some Greek genealogies as it appears that a nation back then was defined by the father of the nation as opposed to a specific culture, language group, or location (and Apollodorus does give us that idea in the library of Greek Mythology).


There is a mention of the war of the Gods in Hesiod, and once again I have speculated on the origins of these wars. They can be twofold. The first is the idea that these wars developed out of different tribal groups moving into an already inhabited area bring their own culture and gods with them, winning a victory over the inhabitants, and installing their own culture (as defined by their gods). For instance, in early times we have a people group who worshipped Chronos as their chief God, but then they are invaded by a people who worshipped Zeus as their chief God and as the new group overran and conquered the old group, then Chronos was sidelined in favour of Zeus.


The second idea is the idea that I have proposed that these gods are little more than deified humans whose existence has been lost in the midst of times, so what we are actually seeing is some form of succession crisis. This would be particularly relevant if we are looking at an Antediluvian civilisation. In the era of short life spans and high morality, such succession crises would not be evident since when the old king died then the new king would still be old enough to assume the throne, but young enough not to have a number of children that would have to wait a long time for them to ascend the throne amongst a multitude of competeing claims. It differs today in that the Queen of England, the matriarch of the royal family, is still alive and well, and her grandchildren are now ready to marry and have kids. Pope John Paul II was the oldest living Pope in the history of the papacy, and it is likely that Pope Benedict will be around for a long time yet (unless he meets either with an unfortunate accident, or is removed for some reason or another - noting that this review was written prior to him stepping down).


When you have the antediluvian civilisation, where biblically (and elsewhere) you have people living for hundreds of years, even if you did not begin having children until the age of a hundred, by the time you die (even if it is five to six hundred years old) you still have at least four living generations below you, all of them struggling to get your position, and knowing that for them to get to that position they would have to wait a very long time. This is something that we see in this text, namely a fear in Chronos that his children would rise up and overthrow him, so he acts proactively and removes them before they have a chance of removing him. Much of it is allegorical though (and for the sake of space I will not go into detail here, for instance the gods all seem to have been born as adults, and also Chronos eats his children, but upon his defeat, all of them are released) so it can be difficult to understand what actually went on, though to take it literally can in itself be dangerous (and also somewhat ridiculous).


The final point I wish to make is the interesting note that Hesiod was a shephard tending sheep on Mount Helicon when he received this vision and wrote it down. This is something that seems to happen throughout the history of humanity in that many religious icons seem to have come from humble pasts and have made a tremendous impact upon human history. Many have suggested (and it is true to an extent) that history, up until the mid 18th century, was written by the upper class. However the reason for that is because it was only the upper class that had the time to write histories, as well as being the only ones who could read and write. However, this is not always the case, particularly with these early civilisations, because much of the history was passed down by word of mouth. This is why we can have shepherds actually becoming literary heroes because they did not need to read and write, they simply needed to be able to tell a story people could remember, and also convince them that they had a vision (or actually have had a vision) to make people sit up and listen.

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/440745452
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review 2016-10-18 13:33
Plato's Dystopia
The Laws - Plato

For some reason when people think of Plato and government we seem to automatically jump to the though 'gee, what a wonderful idea' as if a Platonic government would actually be a good thing. The question that I raise is what if it isn't? What if this form of government that Plato outlines actually isn't all that good, or moreso what if it doesn't work. In a way it is a bit like the western reaction to Buddhism. For some reason the young and hip seem to love Buddhism, believing that it is the one religion that you can do whatever you like, but as long as you treat other people okay then everything will be all right. However, when they delve into it (such as offering to volunteer at the Tiger Temple in Thailand) they pretty quickly discover that Buddhism is not all that it is cracked up to be – what no sex!?! No alcohol !?! Okay, I've known Buddhists that have breached both of those restrictions – at the same time – however they probably fall into the category of 'nominal'.


As for Plato we seem to have this idea that because he is this really famous, and apparently really smart, philosopher then any form of government that he comes up with has to be good, and has to work. Well, my argument is what if it turns out that this wonderful form of government sort of turns out to look a little like this:





The thing is that the more I think about Plato's political theories the more I realise that the freedoms that we enjoy under our modern democracies will be basically non-existent. For instance, you know how when you are in school you get to choose what you want to study at University, or even if you go to university – well, that won't happen in Plato's realm – your career path will be chosen right from the word go, and if you don't like it then tough, deal with it because the state that Plato envisages is a perfect, and efficient, state, which basically means that human free will sort of takes a back seat because free will is actually the thing that causes half the problems that we face today. Oh, and you know that idea that is known as the family - well we have none of that in Plato's realm because families are bad since they work to undermine the perfect nature of the society (or was that 1984: I don't know, but I recently saw it in London, and this book was so long and, well, dull that I may have got the two mixed up).


Another interesting thing about Plato's state is that it happens to be communist – it is against the law to have excess wealth, and if you have excess wealth well, at best it simply gets confiscated, at worse you are severely punished. Oh, and don't think that you can get around it by hiding it in another form of currency because he has that area covered as well. Oh, and let us talk about punishment because in Plato's mind nobody does wrong willingly – the only reason they do bad things is because they don't actually realise that they are doing bad things – even though we have free will this free will isn't actually free because we only do things out of ignorance, and if we weren't ignorant then we wouldn't do these things. However, Plato seems to acknowledge that people will do bad things even if they are told that they are bad. Well, it seems that in Plato's mind they have some sort of inherent defect so we might as well kill them. Yep, you heard me right, Plato is a big fan of the death penalty – if you are criminal then, well, there is no way that you are going to change so off with your head (or whatever way they decided that they will kill you).


Another rather interesting thing that I noticed in this particular edition was that the editor, and I assume translator, had a go at us moderns because we look down on slavery, and because we look down on slavery then we consider the ancient Greeks to be somewhat barbaric. Well, it is probably a good thing that we consider slavery to be barbaric because as far as I am concerned we really shouldn't be owning people and forcing people to do things against their will. However, those who look down on the Greeks because of slavery really don't understand the world in which we live – we have a form of slavery – it is called employment. Okay, we can leave our job whenever we like, but when we have a mortgage, and countless other debts, then the ability to walk away from our job really doesn't exist. While our employer may not be the slave master, the banks certainly are because if you don't pay back those debts they will let you know about it.


Which brings me to an interesting point about bankers – being a Christian I have heard how a number of people have given up a promising career in banking to become ministers of religion. Most of the time I just let it go over my head however I suddenly realised that banking is hardly what you would call an ethical profession. Okay, there isn't anything intrinsically wrong with banking, just as there is nothing intrinsically wrong with law, accounting, or even politics. However, I would hardly call the lot who brought about the global financial crisis paragons of virtue. Moreso, I have never heard anybody say that somebody has given up a promising career in plumbing to become a minister of religion (despite the fact that you can make some pretty decent money as a plumber) even though plumbing is actually a lot more honest than banking. Okay, there was one minister that I knew indicated that he didn't leave the legal profession for some holy and righteous reason, but rather because his conscience really couldn't handle the rubbish that he had to deal with. Actually, the more I think about it – bankers, fund managers, and lawyers as ministers of religions – I think I'd rather go with the plumber.


As for this book, well all I can say is don't bother – it really isn't all that great. In fact it is sort of half philosophy half idealistic legal text. In fact the translator writes it as if it were a piece of legislation, or at least the parts appeared to have been like that rather confusing stuff that politicians get paid ridiculous amounts of money to argue over. Sure, Plato may have some good ideas, however what I discovered was that these good ideas were few and far between and in reality were buried deep within what appears to be little more than a totalitarian state. Sure, Plato says that the military (otherwise known as the Guardians) and the rulers were to behave in a certain way but seriously, these are humans that we are talking about – as the saying goes power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. As for the Greeks being less sophisticated that we are – all I can say is that I don't think so – apparently our lust for technology and luxuries have pushed us past the point of no return – we have destroyed our environment and the global financial crises has resulted in a greater discrepancy between the haves and and the have nots that it feels as if we are returning to the middle ages, that is if we don't nuke ourselves over Syria first.



Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/1768167172
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