Friday, April 23, 2021

"Self Reliance" by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
Epigrams are short, pointed, memorable statements and form the heart of Emerson's rhetorical style.  Here is a sampling of Emerson's epigrammatic assertions in our selection on Monday night, "Self-Reliance," possibly his most famous essay (page citations are from Great Conversations 1):

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men--that is genius.
(page 169).

We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents. (page 170)

Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. (page 170)

Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. (page 171)

It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after your own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude. (page 172)

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by statesmen and philosophers and divines. (page 174)

To be great is to be misunderstood. (page 174)

I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching. (page 180)

Discontent is the want of self-reliance: it is infirmity of will. (page 180)

For every Stoic was a Stoic; but in Christendom where is the Christian? (page 186)

Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. (page 187)

With thanks to Bartlett's Familiar Quotations 15th edition.

Friday, March 19, 2021

"Pensées" of Pascal

When Blaise Pascal died at the age of 39 in 1662, he left behind fragments of an work intended to be entitled "Apology for the  Christian Religion."  Two copies of these fragments were transcribed, and different arrangements of them have come down to us as his Pensées (or "Thoughts"). The Pensées were first published in France in 1670, and were classified under headings.  The selection we take up this Monday night in Great Conversations 1, according the the introduction, was developed to include the most well-known passages among the hundreds of paragraphs Pascal wrote.  A caveat to the reader: not all of them are related to the overarching design of an apology (or "defense") of Christianity.

I offer here a "concordance" of these 18 passages and the classifications Pascal gave to them, in order to help us see how they fit into Pascal's overriding themes.

136: "Diversion"

44: "Order"

978 (Self-love): A separately sourced fragment

512: Difference between the mathematical and intuitive mind (a translator's title)

198, 199, 200: Transition from knowledge of man to knowledge of God (according to a note by our translator, A.J. Krailsheimer, these three Pensées form a "dossier on Man"

429, 430: "Against Indifference" (a translator's title)

678: Human nature. Style. Jesuits, etc. (a translator's title)

12: "Order"

427, 428: Also "Against indifference"

148: "The Sovereign Good"

110 "Greatness"

423, 424, 418 "The Wager" (translator's title)

Thursday, February 18, 2021

"Of Friendship," by Michel de Montaigne


Wine label given to me by
onetime group member Alice Link,
who just turned 100!

At the outset of his Essay “On Friendship,” Montaigne states his intention to imitate the method of a painter in his employ.  The painter starts with “the best spot, the middle of each wall” and there paints a beautiful picture “labored over with all his skill.”  He fills in the empty spaces around it with “grotesques.”  Montaigne compares his Essays to these paintings.  He says his Essays are also “monstrous bodies,” without any “definite shape, having no order, sequence, or proportion other than accidental.”

He doubts his own ability to create a “rich polished picture.” He states his admiration for a work of his deceased friend, Étienne de la Boétie, entitled La Servitude Volontaire, which espouses liberty over tyrants. Montaigne laments that despite having been bequeathed La Boétie’s library and papers, he has not been able to publish more than one small volume of his friend’s work.

Nevertheless, Montaigne is grateful that La Servitude Volontaire is what brought them together as friends, and their friendship was so “entire and so perfect that certainly you will hardly read of the like, and among men of today you see no trace of it in practice.”

Montaigne’s admiration for his friend launches him into his discussion of different types of friendship.  He talks about familial friendships, e.g., of a father for a son, between brothers, affection of men and women, (including marriage), and “licentious Greek love,” (a code term for homosexual love). In each case Montaigne argues these kinds of love fall short.  He returns to his description of a “more equitable and equable kind of friendship” as embodied in his relationship with La Boétie.

In his closing paragraph, Montaigne defends his friend’s reputation and his patriotism.  He states that he has decided to refrain from reprinting La Servitude Volontaire, and instead will substitute his sonnets (which in fact, didn’t make it into the last edition of Montaigne’s book, published in 1588).

No doubt the editors of Great Conversations 1 also selected Montaigne's Essay "On Solitude" as a companion piece to "Of Friendship."  On Monday night we'll talk about whether the solitude of which Montaigne speaks can really be considered as parallel to his idea of friendship.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

"Prometheus Bound," by Aeschylus

 Sculpture of Prometheus by Paul Manship at the Rockefeller Center Skating Rink in Manhattan
 (photo by Troy David Johnson)

On Monday night we discuss the play "Prometheus Bound," by the Greek dramatist Aeschylus, about Zeus's punishment of the Titan Prometheus for giving humankind the useful arts. Classicist John  Hetherington writes in his book on Aeschylus (Aeschylus, Yale University Press, 1986) that we who have been brought up in Jewish or Christian traditions, in which truth is based on scripture, may find it difficult to comprehend ancient Greek religion, based as it is on "a bewildering multitude of traditional beliefs and local cult-practices".  We may tend to conflate Zeus, the first among the gods, with the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Aeschylus's view of  Zeus, however, was quite different, as we'll talk about tomorrow night.

As a "study aid," I offer this outline of the play.  As you can see, a considerable portion of the play is devoted to Io.  Io is the only human character in the play, though as punishment for Zeus's attraction to her, she is turned into a cow.  I think the common bond she and Prometheus share as victims of Zeus puts them at the center of the drama. 

Pages 63-66: Dialogue of Might (Kratos) and Hephaestus
Pages 67-73: Prometheus and Chorus
Pages 73-76: Oceanos and Chrous
Pages 76-77: Chorus
Pages 78-80: Chorus and Prometheus
Pages 80-81: Chorus
Pages 81-91: Io, Prometheus, and Chorus
Pages 92-96: Chorus and Prometheus
Pages 94-96: Prometheus and Hermes
Pages 97-99: Chorus, Prometheus, and Hermes

Friday, January 1, 2021

Great Books in the Pandemic Year of 2020

If I was in a separate room any considerable length of time, I was sure to be suspected of having a book, and was at once called to give an account of myself. All this however, was too late. The first step had been taken. Mistress, in teaching me the alphabet, had given me the inch, and no precaution could prevent me from taking the ell.

--Frederick Douglass, "The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave"

To recap our doings in this covid-19 pandemic year of 2020, I offer the following list of our readings:

In January we celebrated our fifteenth anniversary with "The Devil Baby of Hull House," by Jane Addams, in which she recounts the rumors that swirled around the immigrant communities of the south side of Chicago.

February our selection "The Man Who Could Perform Miracles" by H.G. Wells was a "thought experiment" of what would happen if a man had the power to make the world stop turning.

In March, alas, we had to cancel our meeting because of the covid-19 shutdown.  We took up the selection, Thomas Mann's eerie story of a family's sojourn at an Italian seaside resort, "Mario and the Magician" in May.

We held a special meeting in April in which we looked at Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron, a masterpiece of plague literature.  Fittingly, as a twenty-first-century response to a pandemic, it was our very first Zoom meeting.

April's regular selection was "Daughters of the Late Colonel," by Katherine Mansfield, on two sisters living in their father's shadow.

June's reading was the amazing play "R.U.R." by Karel Čapek, in which robots revolt against their human makers.

In July we looked at Mary McCarthy's memoir "My Confession" in which she recounts her involvement with the Communist Party in the 1930s.

August's selection was the impressionistic "Holy Week," by Deborah Eisenberg.

In September we took up "The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave," a book which strongly influenced the anti-slavery movement in the United States. In October  the selection was "The Epic of Gilgamesh," with our Head of Adult Services Thérèse Nielsen filling in for me.  Thank you Thérèse!

In 2021 we continue our reading and discussion of great literature and philosophy, a fulfilling and lifelong pursuit.

Monday, August 24, 2020

12 Questions on "Holy Week," by Deborah Eisenberg


1.    P. 475.  Why does Dennis wonder if it was poor judgement to have brought his girlfriend Sarah?

2.    p. 477.  Why does the sight of the “solitary grower in the field” prompt Dennis to reflect on his own life?  [Read last 2 graphs of Sunday]

3.    p. 482 Any significance of parrot screaming after Dot saying people have to be more careful re: talking about their political affiliations in this country than they do at home?

4.    p.484. Why does the owner of La Marquesa “smile with hatred” when he says he doesn’t know what the poor are eating now that the price of beans has doubled.

5.    p.485.  Why does Sarah ask Dennis, “Don’t you like me … why did you have to trot out my credentials for the McGees”?  What are the credentials?  Dennis then says, “I’d only been trying to provide her with an excuse not to see them.”  Can anyone explain this?

6.    p. 486.  Does Sarah give respectability to Dennis?

7.    p. 488. “What does the expression “persecuting loveliness” mean?

8.    p.488 Why would it be “morally reprehensible not to enjoy possibly the most lavish Easter celebration in the whole of the New World?"

9.    p.492. Why does Dot say, “they’re not interested in the Resurrection at all, really. Today and tomorrow are the big days.  The Crucifixion is the part of it they all relate to.”

10.p.496. Read 5 paragraphs after “Next to me Sarah picked up a wobbly child who was steadying himself against her knees.” (Including crucifixion pronouncement).

11.p.497 and following pages (Maundy Saturday).  Any comments on the exchange between Curtis Finley and Clifford McGee (p.498)? The De Léons dinner party and the story of their son Rubén who had been involved in left-wing student politics (p505)

12.Take a look at last 3 paragraphs on p.507.  Does it give a satisfactory summation of the story?


Sunday, July 26, 2020

15 Questions on "My Confession," by Mary McCarthy

Mary McCarthy (1912-1989)
Why is it that McCarthy says that "Speaking for myself, I cannot remember a single broad altruistic emotion visiting me  -- the kind of emotion the simpler comrades, with their shining eyes and exalted faces seemed to have in copious secretion" during the period she and her first husband took part in left-wing life.  What, then was their motivation?
Why does McCarthy say "I see no reason to disavow my actions, which were perfectly all right, but my motives give me a little embarrassment, and just because I cannot disavow them: that fevered, contentious, trivial show off in the May Day parade is still recognizably me." (455)+

Why was "to be a Communist to possess a source of privilege?" (456)

What do you make of the hierarchy she proposes from most to least esteemed: (1) underground worker, (2) theoreticians and oracles, (3) activists (who worked on the waterfront). Last: rank and file, who made speeches, distributed leaflets, attended party and faction meetings, joining front organizations, marched in parades and demos, and that a low opinion was held of "fellow travelers"  (457)

Why would being critical of the party be a compelling reason for joining it? (458)

What is significant about the story of Ansel, who learns to drive and takes a car to California to work as an organizer for the Party?

How did McCarthy unwittingly co-sponsor a letter calling for Trotsky to have the right of asylum and his day in court? (462)

What ensued when McCarthy demanded that her name be taken off the letter? What makes this a key turning point in McCarthy's "confession."  How did it "change her life"? (465)

McCarthy says (p.467) of the majority of those who became anti-Communists during the year 1936-7 that "our anti-Communism came to us neither as the fruit of a special wisdom nor as a humiliating awakening from a prolonged deception, but as a natural event, the product of chance and propinquity. One thing followed another, and the will had little to say about it."  Have your political leanings ever followed a similar path?

Do you agree that Marxism is something you have to take up young, like ballet dancing? (467)

"I joined the anti-Communist movement without meaning to and only found out afterward, through others, the meaning or "name" assigned to what I had done.  This occurred in the late fall of 1936."  What is that "name"?  (page 450)

Why does McCarthy call a "surprise witness," Trotsky, to her side at the end of the piece? (464)

What is the role of chance in life, both in Trotsky's and McCarthy's (469)?

McCarthy ends with this quote from Trotsky, "One can foresee the consequences of a revolution or a war, but it is impossible to foresee the consequences of an autumn shooting-trip for wild ducks", and then she writes, "This shrug before the unforeseen implies an acceptance of consequences that is a far cry from penance and prophecy."  Does this statement give philosophical reassurance to the reader?

Is this a great book?