Friday, April 20, 2012

The Truth in History


I'm discovering more and more how difficult it can be to discover the absolute truth in history. Here's a simple example from my reading today:

I was going through more of Herodotus and Lycurgus entered the story. He lived in the 700's B.C. and is said to be the Founder of Sparta. This doesn't mean Sparta didn't already exist, it just means that he came and equalized the land ownership and created a communal and militaristic lifestyle for the people. In other words, he is said to have instigated the type of society Sparta was known to have in ancient times.

But once I began to do just the smallest amount of research, the sources were arguing with each other. Some scholars say he never lived, some say he probably did but we don't know much about him, others say we should trust much of what the ancient sources say about him, like Herodotus.

Herodotus mentions that he founded the senate and the ephoralty (a group of magistrates who had power over the king) but the footnote in my book, by the translator says that he didn't found the senate. Then other sources say he didn't found the ephoralty. There's so much disagreement even on the basics about who he was and what he did!

My take on this is that with several sources mentioning him, there must have been such a man and he must have done some of what he is credited with. I don't know if we can ever know exactly what he did and didn't do but I think the best way to approach it is to see what the most ancient sources agree on and go with that.

This approach, of course, requires us to be in the original sources in order to better know the truth. I think that's the right way to come as close to the truth as possible in history.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Whitehead on education

Alfred North Whitehead
Here is a great quote by Whitehead from The Great Conversation:
"Whenever a book is written of real educational worth, you may be quite certain that some reviewer will say that it will be difficult to teach from it. Of course it will be difficult to teach from it. If it were easy, the book ought to be burned; for it cannot be educational. In education, as elsewhere, the broad primrose path leads to a nasty place."

This is like how Aristotle taught that true learning is accompanied by pain. Sorry folks, but that's how it is!


Monday, April 16, 2012

Charles Dickens' strengths and weaknesses

 Charles Dickens

I'm back from spring break and I'm going to switch gears a little. I was studying the life of Charles Dickens and I discovered that he had some very admirable character traits:
  1. He was incredibly hard working. He often worked to the point of exhaustion and beyond in writing his books and giving readings on them.
  2. He was a very generous man. He was known to always give to charities, did charitable work himself and when he separated from his family he provided abundantly for them.
  3. He was self-educating and gave his whole heart to his writing and his character development.
  4. He was a talented performer and people loved to hear his readings of his books.
  5. He loved his fans and paid much attention to them and sacrificed for them.
I found one major flaw, though, in Dickens character that greatly saddened me: he didn't put family first. He seemed to really be in love his wife when he married her and they had 10 children together but they were very different and over time their relationship worsened. Instead of becoming really invested in her and in the marriage, Dickens spent more and more of his time on his writing and his public engagements and commitments and less and less time on family and home.

They were only married 22 years before he finally left his wife and children. Separation was bad enough, but then he made the situation worse by trying to publicly justify his behavior. Because they had 10 children, this meant that there were many small children left at home. He saw little of them the rest of his life, excepting his two daughters that took his side in the separation and lived with him. He was disappointed in his many sons because "they struggled to find their place in the world."

In the meantime, he fell in love with a young woman (18 years old when he met her, compared to Dickens' 46 years) and over the last 12 years of his life spent much time with her. Divorce at that time wasn't an option so he tried to keep the relationship a secret but most people knew.

Learning these things about Dickens' personal life were quite disappointing to me especially because he created so many heroes in his books that actually had more solid characters than he did. I know he may have been frustrated with his marriage but he chose not to make his children his first priority. What's more fascinating about that is that he was always disappointed his own parents for not being there for him. He wouldn't put family first and failed in his most important work.

I'll always admire his writings and enjoy and learn from them but as for the man behind the work, I wonder how much more he could have been had he followed the examples of the men and women he wrote about.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Religion without God?

 Oracle at Delphi

A few days ago, I posted about how the oracles worked in ancient Greece. It was this fascinating place where people came to receive answers from an old peasant woman in a trance. She spoke in words no one could understand and then the priests would "translate" her words and put them into hexameter. 

What's so interesting about not only the oracles but also the way these people lived is that, from what I can tell, they had a religion but no God. Solon mentioned God, capital G, in reference to how we obtain happiness and inferred that God has a will but there's not much more about God in Herodotus' history than that. Yet, there are a lot of things that the people do in these stories that we would consider religious. 

They often consult the oracles, asking what they should do in certain circumstances. This is much like prayer, going to a source "higher" than yourself, something supernatural, to try to get answers to your questions. One interesting story about the oracles is when Croesus wants to know whether or not he should go to war with Greece. He sends messengers to all the oracles to ask them what he is doing a certain day at a certain time, to see which oracle really speaks the truth. The Delphic oracle gets it right, so Croesus sends treasures upon treasures to the oracles and then asks the war question. A little bit like bribing to me. 

Another religious rite Herotodus talks about is "purification." Several times characters have to purify something. On one occasion, a murderer visits one of the kings so the king must purify him in order to have him enter his house. Another time, one of the kings purifies an island by digging up all the dead bodies around the temple and removing them to another part of the island.

And that's another part of their "religion"--a temple. The oracles tell them what to do but there is always a temple as well. The purpose of the temple isn't very clear in this book so far but there seem to be several and they are considered sacred. 

I just keep wondering: Where does God come into all of this? Why are they purifying things? Why are they building temples? Why are they patronizing the oracles? What is the purpose of all of this? Why do people have religious rites and ceremonies when it doesn't seem to have a higher purpose?

As for these ancient Greeks and Persians, I don't know the answers. I'll just keep looking.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Loving Tyranny

Pisistratus was the son of Hippocrates (Hippocratic oath that doctor's take) and wanted to rule the government. Herodotus tells us about his cycle of seizing the government and then losing it, over and over again. It seemed that being the 'tyrant' was the only thing Pisistratus wanted to do.

The first time he seized the government he did it by faking an attack on himself, asking the people for bodyguards and then using them to take over. The next time he dressed a woman in armor, put her in a carriage and told everyone she was the goddess Minerva (Athena) who was his patroness. The last time he waited 10 years in exile, gathering money from those who owed the state money and then, with his son, he returned and was "joined by...partisans from the capital and by numbers from the country districts, who loved tyranny better than freedom."

That last part me really struck and I stopped and thought about that: They loved tyranny better than freedom?! How can that be? Who loves tyranny better than freedom?

So, I did some research. Guess what I found out? It turns out that Pisistratus was a socialist of sorts. He didn't mess with the governmental structure or the laws but he gave the poorer classes a lot of handouts. He tried to help equalize the classes this way and keep the lower class appeased. That's why, when he returned, those from the "country districts" fled to his cause, because he had taken care of them.

What was the truth? That men loved comfort more than choice!! Sure sounds like modern America.

Monday, April 2, 2012

History or Textbook?

Favorite quote from The Great Conversation this morning: "...the great books...afford us the best examples of man's efforts to seek the truth, both about the nature of things and about human conduct." 

One of the first things I learned about The History of Herodotus when I began to research it was that it was the first recorded attempt at a true history. That's one of the things I've been looking for--how does he do this? How is this book an honest attempt at history rather than story or entertainment? 

I've found a few examples that I think explain this:
  1. Introduction says, "These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done..." He says he has researched and wants the truth or the facts to be put down and remembered correctly.
  2. The first sentence of the first paragraph says, "According to the Persians best informed in the history..." He is saying that he is not only attempting to give a history but he has consulted the "best informed" so that his information would be the most accurate.
  3. "Such is the account the Persians give of these matters." Again, he's referring to the authorities and the best information he can get.
  4. "Thus much I know from information given me by the Delphians; the remainder of the story the Milesians add." This shows that he is getting the information for himself, going directly to the sources themselves. This is the difference between a real history and a textbook: textbooks are 2-5 sources away from an original, a history is an account someone has written from the original sources themselves. 
  5. "This is known because..." Here again he is citing the sources and trying to prove that what he is telling is fact rather than story, though it is told in story form.

A great example of a history told in story form versus a textbook, told in story form or not, is David McCullogh's John Adams versus a typical high school American History textbook. Which would you rather read?! Both authors are going to select those facts they want to include but one is going to be a dramatic story and other dry facts. Besides which, I think it's easier to leave out key facts and events when you just select data to tell rather than telling the story of someone's life. If you leave out too much pertinent information, the story doesn't even hold together. Anyway, I'm obviously biased here in favor of the kind of history that Herodotus and David McCullough write for lots of reasons, the greatest being that I think one builds character and the other doesn't. What do you think?

Friday, March 30, 2012

True Happiness

 SOLON 638 BC – 558 BC

SOOO AWESOME! This Herodotus reading is getting really FUN! Here's why:

For the last several years I have been teaching people about the true definition of happiness as defined by the ancient philosophers, the American Founders and modern proponents of the liberal arts like Mortimer Adler. I've had my students read Adler's article "Education and the Pursuit of Happiness" so that they could begin to see the real meaning of happiness especially as stated in the Declaration of Independence.

Well, today Solon came into the story. I've studied him and his life so this really piqued my interest. It was after he had put the new laws in place in Athens and then left to travel the world. During his travels, he came to visit Croesus, the king of Lydia that I've been reading about. Croesus shows his hospitality to Solon and then he has his servants show him around the treasury to impress Solon with his riches. This is where it really gets good.

Once Solon has seen how wealthy Croesus is, Croesus calls Solon in and asks him, "...whom, of all the men that thou hast seen, thou deemest the most happy." Herodotus then explains that, "This he asked because he thought himself the happiest of mortals: but Solon answered him without flattery, according to his true sentiments. 'Tellus of Athens, sire,'" was Solon's reply.

Solon then proceeds to tell Croesus why Tellus was the happiest of all men. He explains that Tellus raised a good family of "sons both beautiful and good, and he lived to see children born to each of them." He also had financial means to make him comfortable and then he died a glorious death in battle, "he came to the assistance of his countrymen, routed the foe, and died upon the field most gallantly." This was a happy life!

Croesus then asks him who the second most happy person would be. Solon then tells the story of two brothers Cloebis and Bito whose "fortune was enough for their wants, and they were besides endowed with so much bodily strength that they had both gained prizes at the Games." Then Solon explains that there was to be a great festival and Cloebis and Bito's mother needed to be taken there in a car (a vehicle drawn by oxen). But the oxen didn't come in from the fields in time so these two sons put the yoke on their own necks and carried their mother on their own backs for the long trip to the temple. When they arrived everyone extolled them for what they had done and their mother prayed that God would give them the reward they deserved. That evening, after the festivities, they fell asleep in the temple and died (a glorious death to die at the height of their virtue, in the temple). They were considered the best of men and statues were erected to them.

Solon goes on to explain to the king the elements necessary to true happiness that the lives of these three happy people had exemplified.
  1. They each had money to meet their needs and be comfortable. Croesus had been angry that Solon didn't consider that his wealth should make him the happiest man on earth but Solon replies, "...assuredly he who possesses great store of riches is no nearer happiness than he who has what suffices for his daily needs." According to the true definition of happiness, money and material things have nothing to do with a happy life. Having more money and more things won't bring happiness.
  2. Each of these individuals put family first in their lives. Goodness was as important as beauty, or more so and they made sacrifices to have a successful family.
  3. All of them had virtue, meaning that they lived according to natural laws and their conscience. They each made sacrifices they didn't have to make for others and for their country.
John Adams said it this way, "All the sober inquirers after truth, ancient and modern, pagan and Christian, have declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity, consists in virtue. Confucius, Zoroaster, Socrates, Mahomet, not to mention authorities really sacred, have agreed in this." Amen!

Solon concludes, " single human being is complete in every respect--something is always lacking. He who unites the greatest number of advantages, and retaining them to the day of his death, then dies peaceably, that man alone, sire, is in my judgment, entitled to bear the name of happy."


Thursday, March 29, 2012

Can we handle democracy?

Ok, Robert Hutchins is awesome! I've been reading one chapter of The Great Conversation every morning before I read Herodotus and he said some incredible things that I want to quote here:

     "It would seem that this education [liberal education or study of the best books in history] is the best for everybody, if it is the best for the best, provided everybody can get it. The question, then, is: Can everybody get it? This is the most important question in education. Perhaps it is the most important question in the world...
     If leisure and political power are the reason for liberal education [and he showed earlier that they are], then everybody in America now has this reason, and everybody where democracy and industrialization penetrate will ultimately have it. If leisure and political power require this education, everybody in America now requires it, and everybody where democracy and industrialization penetrate will ultimately require it. If the people are not capable of acquiring this education, they should be deprived of political power and probably of leisure. Their uneducated political power is dangerous, and their uneducated leisure is degrading and will be dangerous. If the people are incapable of achieving the education that responsible democratic citizenship demands, then democracy is doomed, Aristotle rightly condemned the mass of mankind to natural slavery, and the sooner we set about reversing the trend toward democracy the better it will be for the world."

I wholeheartedly agree with Hutchins. I have spent a lot of time over the last few years speaking to and teaching Tea Party Groups and I have been amazed at the overall ignorance of governmental and economic principles. I knew that I didn't get it in school but I guess I had assumed that the truth about government and education was still in place not too long ago. NOT TRUE! There isn't a generation currently living in America that received the education necessary to perpetuate liberty; which explains why we are losing it.

By the way, every influential thinker agrees with Hutchins on this: democracy and republicanism require the widest spread of education-not schooling- to perpetuate that form of government and we aren't getting it!


Tuesday, March 27, 2012

All About Women

This is a fascinating book!! I'm only 3 pages in and I've had to re-read certain sections several times to begin to understand what is going on. I've been looking at maps of the Persian Empire to get a better picture of where this is all happening. Here's a map:

Look in the upper left-hand corner of the green area and you will see Lydia. This is the area where the story begins and Sardis is right next to it, that's the capitol of Lydia.

Herodotus begins his history by explaining that first, the Phoenicians kidnapped some Greek women, including a Princess; then the Greeks kidnapped the Phoenician Princess; then about 20 years later, Alexander, son of Priam kidnapped the Greek princess, Helen. This last kidnapping was what angered the Greeks and caused them to gather troops, invade Asia and destroy the kingdom of Priam, beginning the Trojan War.

Then Herodotus says, "I shall proceed at once to point out the person who first within my own knowledge inflicted injury on the Greeks..." He explains that this man is Croesus and he is "the first of the barbarians who had dealings with the Greeks...He conquered the Aeolians, Ionians, and Dorians of  Asia, and made a treaty with the Lacedaemonians. Up to that time all Greeks had been free." I guess this means that he's going to show how Greeks came into Persian rule since this book is the history of 4 Persian kings and the Persian Empire. FASCINATING!

Herodotus then relates another story about a woman: the story of Canaules and how he lost his kingdom. This story reminds me of an event in Don Quixote where the same kind of thing happened. Anyway, this Canaules, king of Sardis- the city on the map above- loved his wife and thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world. So he tells his servant that he should see her naked and then he will know how perfect she is. Problem is, it was a deep disgrace in this culture to have anyone-man or woman-besides your spouse see you naked. Well, Gyges, the servant knows this is wrong, he calls it "wicked" but Canaules gives another argument and Gyges, "unable to escape," goes along with it. As he leaves the couples' bedroom, he is seen by the wife. Surprise, surprise. And she is angry and decides to get revenge on her husband.

She calls Gyges in the next day and tells him that she knows what happened and he can either kill her husband and marry her or be killed right then. He begs the queen to not make him do it. But, unfortunately "seeing that he had no retreat or escape...he made the choice of life for himself." Surprise, surprise again. He kills the king while he sleeps in his bed, marries the queen and becomes the first barbarian king.

Here's the great part for him and the queen: the Delphic oracle confirms his possession of the throne but warns that in the fifth generation there would be vengeance. I guess we will see if that prophecy is fulfilled.

There are a couple of things that really interested me in this story:

Everything is fated. It's a lot like Iliad and Odyssey in this way. Individuals don't have freedom of choice or they get off the hook really easily. There aren't gods making them do things but there are several passages that show that such and such just had to be: "who was fated to end ill," unable to escape," "against my will," "seeing that he had no retreat or escape." This is especially true of Gyges. He makes several choices that he indicates are directly against his conscience but in the end he gets to be king and it's all settled with the people by the Oracle and everything turns out peachy for him.

I was curious about the oracle. I have heard a lot about it but didn't understand how it really worked. I did some research and found out that people at this time went to the oracle with all kinds of personal and political problems and the oracle was always trusted, if not always obeyed. It was totally legitimate for people to resolve international concerns through the oracle.  

So who was the oracle? The oracle is an older woman who had led a blameless life and is chosen from among the local peasants-so she's totally ignorant and probably easily manipulated (just my thoughts). There is a place at Delphi, the most popular oracle, where it is said that Apollo killed Python and threw him down a hole. From that hole is said to have been emitted some kind of gas (because Python was thrown in there) and when someone wanted an answer from the oracle, this woman the Pythia or sibyl or priestess would sit on a stool over this hole and "rave." No one could understand her except the priests who would "translate" what she said and put it in "elegant hexameter." These verses the priests wrote would tell the person what Apollo wanted them to know- answering their questions and prophesying the future. That is how Gyges got to be the king. Hmmmm...

Map of the Delphic oracle and a picture of the area:

Monday, March 26, 2012

What I'm looking for

"These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, 
in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what 
men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the 
Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory; 
and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feud."

I went back today and put the notes from this blog into my book. I'm a big fan of having as much information as possible inside my book for future easy reference. This reminded me of what I had researched and how to begin today. I discovered that this book takes place from 557-479 B.C. Book 1 is the story of the Persian King Cyrus and takes place from 557-530 B.C. Herodotus lived 484-425 B.C. so he is giving the history leading up to his day and then he is writing about current events of his day. In that sense he is a first hand witness to what he writes and to me that makes it more believable.

I also learned that this history is a "ring composition." Other ring compositions are Beowulf, Homer, Aeneid, Paradise Lost and the Hebrew scriptures. Ring compositions are written versions of stories that were first composed orally. I know that Herodotus gave public readings of his history so maybe he did compose it orally first. He also lived at a time when he was surrounded by oral compositions and was an expert at Homer. Maybe that's why this work has the same style and feeling to it. I think, though, that it is much less dynamic and action-packed than Homer and is certainly more factual.

In a ring composition "a narrator touches on a number of topics until a significant topic is reached, then continues on in the narrative by retracing in reverse order the topics which were mentioned on the way to the significant point." There you go, clear as mud! Anyway, I'll try to make sense of it as I read Herodotus and see if I can find the "ring" in it.

I will also be looking for "how [the Persians] habits of thinking about the world finally brought about their downfall in Greece." This quote from Wikipedia really resonated with me and helped me develop a why for reading this book so I created a system today for tracking 'ways of thinking' that I think Herodotus is setting out to show the tie between their thinking and their downfall.

2 MAIN THEMES I'm looking for as I begin: 
  1. Elements of the ring composition- marked in my book with an RC next to it
  2. Persians habits of thinking- marked in my book with a TH next to it

Friday, March 23, 2012

Why read Herodotus?

I have some experience with the Iliad and the Odyssey so I decided to begin my reading with the second book in the Great Books set, The History of Herodotus. The first questions I asked myself were, "Who is he? And why should I bother reading this book?" I really had no answers and was not looking forward to it at all until I began my preliminary research this morning.

I always tell my students to study the author and learn about a book before they read it. This doesn't have to take long- I have only been researching Herodotus for about half an hour. I tell them to read about the who the author was, what they did and what they believed and then to research how the book came into being, what it is about and what it contains. The purpose of acquainting yourself with a book is to find a WHY for reading that book. Going into a book with a purpose makes all the difference! It helps you want to read it and makes the reading more fun.

I discovered a lot this morning that peaked my interest in Herodotus and his history. Here's what I found out about Herodotus:
  1. Herodotus had a fabulous self-education. He knew Homer thoroughly and 'had an intimate acquaintance with the whole range of Greek literature.' Travel and discussion were also critical parts of his education. He went everywhere and met many important people. He was always questioning and trying to learn.
  2. He lived in a time of great political turmoil and many of his moves were politically motivated. Tyrants suppressed the people and he had personal experience with their wrath when a close relative was executed by Lygdamis. 
  3. He gave public readings of his history in Athens and the people loved it. Plutarch said he was even awarded a large sum of money for his writings.
Interesting facts about this book:
  1. The title 'histories' comes from the Greek word that means 'inquiry' or 'research.' This is the origin of our modern word for history. We actually get this word from Herodotus and it means inquiries or researches!
  2. Wikipedia says,  "He has been called the "Father of History", and was the first historian known to collect his materials systematically, test their accuracy to a certain extent and arrange them in a well-constructed and vivid narrative."
  3. They were later separated into 9 books and named for the 9 muses.
  4. Herodotus "traces the way the Persians developed a custom of conquest and shows how their habits of thinking about the world finally brought about their downfall in Greece."
It was this last point, the downfall of the Persians, along with his self-education, that peaked my interest in this work. I have studied government a lot and I believe that there are cycles of history and America is losing its freedom. Knowing that this book is about the downfall of another nation makes me want to see what Herodotus can teach me about how people and nations lose their freedom. MY WHY!!

Herodotus created maps based on his travels and included them in his history. Here's one of them:

Thursday, March 22, 2012

I have set myself the task of rising early and reading through the Great Books of the Western World each morning. I won’t read every volume, I may not even finish every book I begin, but I will spend time every day talking to and thinking with the greatest writers who ever lived. 

I have spent time this morning reading the Preface to the Great Conversation. Here Robert Hutchins explains how the set was conceived, how it came into being and why and how it was organized. It was a gargantuan task

I feel such genuine, deep gratitude to the men who made this set a reality. I can’t thank them enough for the years of study, thought and work that were necessary to create it. It gives me the opportunity to find, in one place, many of the most important writings of all time. Now all I have to do is the make the time to sit down and think.

Two of my favorite quotes by Mortimer Adler about liberal arts education are:
“Liberal education frees our minds by disciplining them.”
“All books will become light in proportion as you find light in them.”

Hutchins put the matter of “my study of truth” in the Great Books clearly in the Preface I read this morning when he said of this set:
“Here are the great errors as well as the great truths. The reader has to determine which are the errors and which the truths.”

My new task: I will discipline my mind by using the study skills I teach to read and understand the greatest books ever written—to the best of my ability. And I will search for the light and truth they contain and learn to discern between truth and error.

So I will start tomorrow with The History of Herodotus (maybe I shouldn’t, but I’m skipping the Iliad and the Odyssey). 

Join me!

Here's a funny video of Mortimer Adler- he helped compile the Great Books set and wrote the Syntopicon. This is what he said about reading the Great Books (he was almost 90 years old here, by the way):