Thursday, July 3, 2014

Books Read In June 2014

The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth

During the first couple chapters (or "books"), I was surprised at how readable this history was. However, after a while, as countless kings rose and fell, I began to get restless. Luckily things picked up once Arthur entered the scene for the last few chapters. This books is one of the earlier appearances of Arthur in literature and much of the romance of later Arthurian tales is absent. There's no Round Table, no knights in the traditional sense (although some familiar faces such as Gawain and Kay turn up), no Lady of the Lake etc. while some of it is present such as Merlin and Excalibur (here named Caliburn). This was an interesting if ultimately dry book, which I am glad to have read but am in no hurry to re-read. I learned some very interesting things about the English mythos pre-Arthur - for example I learned that the Britons were thought to be descended from Aeneas, survivor of Troy and founder of Rome - as well as the origins of Arthurian legend, though of course Arthur's roots go much further.

The Discarded Image by C. S. Lewis

The Discarded Image is a fascinating look at the beautiful and elegant - though scientifically inaccurate - worldview of the Middle Ages. Many would say that learning about a disproved theory of the universe is pointless, but I am very glad I read this book. Scientifically, there doesn't seem to be much point in having any more than a basic understanding of the medieval model of the universe, but this is a book written for those interested in medieval literature and this book provides a backdrop for said literature. However, the medieval model is a thing of such beauty and a product of a philosophy so different from our own, I would recommend this book to anyone simply as an exercise in stretching the mind. Lewis paints a vivid picture of the medieval model, discussing everything from the medieval views on the planets, to the four elements and humours, humanity, animals, and so on. Lewis is also keen on disproving misconceptions about medieval thought such as the idea that the medievals thought the universe was small and local when in fact they thought that the stars were unimaginably distant and the scandalous idea that the medievals thought the earth was flat when nearly every educated person knew that the earth was round. This was a fantastic book and is sure to get many re-reads from me.

The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell

This is the first book in the Warlord Chronicles, a retelling of the King Arthur set in the historical setting of the "real Arthur" - if he ever existed. Because of the Dark Age setting the knights are replaced by 5th century warriors, chivalry is replaced by a more rough warrior's honour, and motte-and-bailey fortresses rather than stone castles. Although my heart lies with the idealized version of Arthurian legend, I found this book very interesting and enjoyable. I liked the authenticity of the setting and I liked how cleverly Cornwell weaved myth into history. You can easily imagine how the Arthur story as we now have it grew out of these "real" events. The protagonist Derfel was easy to connect with and I found Cornwell's takes on Arthur, Guinevere, and Nimue fascinating. All three were very well fleshed out and felt like real people. However, I wasn't happy with Cornwell's portrayal of Lancelot. He is portrayed as a vain, arrogant, despicable coward who paints himself as a warrior. While I appreciate the cleverness of this portrayal (can't you just see how the legends of Lancelot would come about if this was how he really was) and I recognize that my dislike is subjective, it pained me because Lancelot is my favourite character and my hero. This was basically like seeing him slandered.

"Politics" [Books III-V]

This reading took longer than expected (I largely blame the World Cup), and because of this I'm anxious to move on so I'll keep my thoughts on Politics brief.

These three chapters had a lot going on. Because Aristotle's writing is so pithy, I felt like the information I was taking in was soon being pushed out by new information. I would have liked either a teacher or a reading group to help dig deeper into Aristotle's ideas. The result is I feel like I haven't learned as much from these chapters as I would have liked.

The main focus of these chapters is a comparison of the three major forms of government: monarchy (the rule of one), aristocracy (rule of few), and democracy (rule of the people).

Some things I found interesting:

  • Following the principle he laid down in Ethics that virtue is the mean between excess and deficiency, Aristotle said that it isn't good to be rich or poor, but to have moderate wealth. I very much agree with him. In my opinion, if you have too much or too little money, it will run your life.
  • Aristotle said that democracy is built on the assumption that, because citizens are equal in one area (i.e. freedom), they are equal in all areas. Oligarchy is built on the assumption that those unequal in one way (i.e. wealth) are unequal in all ways.
  • Towards the end Aristotle explained how power is preserved in a tyranny (i.e. a ruler who rules for his own self-interest rather than for the general good and not from laws). If a tyrant is to preserve his power, he must stop any one of his subjects rising above the others, he must not allow groups of his subjects to meet in secret, he must always keep his subjects in view and know what they are up to, and not allow his subjects to get to know each other well lest they form factions against him. I found this part particularly chilling because I recognize these features in dystopian societies in fiction and also totalitarian states in the real world.
  • Aristotle didn't seem to prefer one form of government over the other and even suggested that one government may work well in one situation and with one group of people but not with another.
Overall, I found this book a lot more practical than Plato's Statesman and I could easily see myself re-reading this book more in-depth in the future.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

New Blog!

I have started a second blog, "Waiting for the King". The blog's focus will be the new Arthurian film series in development. I will report news and then give my thoughts on it. I might also review old Arthurian films and television shows. Click here to visit my new blog.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Books Read in May 2014

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz  (re-read) by L. Frank Baum

File:Wizard title page.jpgI re-read this book shortly after re-watching the 1939 movie adaptation. I had read it once before when I was younger, but I wanted to read it again to see how it differed from the movie. Even though there were some major differences, I was surprised at just how well I knew the story. I realized it was because of the countless hours playing the board game as a child. Even though none of the additional plot elements surprised me, there were some key differences I noticed. For one, the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion are not dumb, cold, and cowardly. In fact the Scarecrow is the smartest, the Tin Woodman is the most tenderhearted, and the Lion is the most brave. It isn't a story about them gaining these qualities, but discovering they had them all along. It could be argued that the same moral was in the movie, but the characters were portrayed inconsistently. In the book, all three characters embody the qualities they long for throughout the book In the movie the Tin Woodman is always tenderhearted, but the Lion is undoubtedly a coward, and while the Scarecrow doesn't seem especially smart, he doesn't seem especially stupid either. I thought the book made more sense. The book also never gives the impression that Oz was a dream. This was a bit of a relief, because while I liked the character doubles (the three hired hands for Dorothy's three companions and Miss Gulch for the Wicked Witch of the West; all absent from the book), I never liked the idea of Oz being a dream. None of this is to slam the movie by any means. It's one of the best movies of all time in my opinion.

Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull

Before now Ed Catmull has slipped below my radar. I knew he was one of the founding members and was instrumental in the technical development of computer animation, but because he isn't involved in the actual storytelling at Pixar Animation Studios, I undervalued his importance. After reading Creativity, Inc. - basically Catmull's how-to guide for running a successful creative company - I realized just how big an impact Catmull has had on Pixar's success. After Pixar had established themselves as an established studio, Catmull felt a sense of letdown, because he felt like the fight was over. However, he later found new purpose in preserving Pixar's unique creative environment - the true magic of Pixar. Even though I don't plan on running a creative company - or any other company for that matter - I still found relevance in Catmull's wisdom. Some of the big takeaways were that change is not only inevitable, but something to be embraced (a lesson I badly need to learn), the importance of honesty, and the importance of listening to others' opinions no matter their rank. They seem like simple lessons, but I can imagine how poorly they are implemented in the "working world". This book also gave me a renewed sense of confidence in Pixar's future. Even though Pixar seems to be in a mini rut, after reading Creativity, Inc., I am confident that they can get out of it.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

"On Interpretation"

On Interpretation gave me flashbacks to high school. I remember learning about grammar, parts of speech etc. in high school felt like nothing but a waste of time to me. It made sense in elementary school, but in high school it felt like learning useless information, learning what now came intuitively to me. I could read and write just fine without having to think of the rules of grammar.

Reading On Interpretation made me realize that I no longer think that continuing to learn the rules of grammar (after it has become intuitive) is a complete waste of time, because it is helpful both for clarity of thought and for analysis purposes. And there's always knowledge for knowledge's sake, I suppose. I still find it a boring and often superfluous topic though.

I don't have much else to say for this one.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Are We All Created Equal... And What Does That Even Mean?

I wrote down a rant this afternoon and thought I'd post it (with a few minor alterations to make it more polite):

I doubt whether the question “Are we equal?” has any meaning. If the question means are people equal in the same way that two and two is equal to four, the answer is an obvious “No”. Every person is unique and anyone who denies this self-evident fact is delusional. So what does it mean? Are some people “better” than others? Again, one person will be stronger, smarter etc. than another person. People can become smarter, stronger etc. with practice and through will power, but genetics definitely play a role in determining the development of certain characteristics. Nature, nurture, and choice all play a role in our identity. I assume that by one person being better than another, we’re talking about the sum total of attributes. Many will say that one person is good at A while another person is good at B, therefore they’re both equal. I still don’t think this is true. Is A of equal importance than B? What’s to say A is better than B? And we’re not only comparing two qualities, but the sum total of a person’s attributes. Anyone who thinks they can successfully quantify the level of each of a person’s attributes is fooling themselves. It’s hardly an exact science and I see no way to successfully do it. Also, judging a person is folly, because we can’t see what is going on inside their heads or the raw psychological or emotional raw material they are working with. If the question of equality has any meaning, I very much doubt it’s a question we can answer. Don’t get me wrong, I am very much a believer in equal treatment under law for every individual, sex, race etc., but I also don’t believe that the idea that “All men are created equal” is any more than a legal fiction, an idea created by man. If you tell me that we can’t judge, generalize, or successfully determine whether one person is “better” (whatever that means) than another person I am with you, but if you tell me that everyone is exactly the same as everyone else, I cannot agree.

Friday, May 9, 2014

"Statesman": Who Watches the Watchmen?

A lot of interesting thoughts went through my head as I read Plato's Statesman. This dialogue mainly consists of an unnamed visitor and another Socrates (not Plato's teacher) attempting to define a statesman.

In the first part of the dialogue, the young Socrates and the visitor narrow down what a statesman is by dividing categories into two and then selecting which one applies to the statesman. Their conclusions at this point are that the statesman possesses a specialized theoretical knowledge related to statesmanship (as a doctor possesses a specialized knowledge in the art of medicine) and that a statesman is a herdsman of sorts over his people.

From there the dialogue takes an unexpected and fascinating turn. Plato outlines a view that seemed very mythological and I'm not sure how much of this was traditional Greek mythology and how much of it is the speculation of philosophers. Of all the parts of the dialogue this was the section I most wanted extra clarification on. This is how it went, as much as I understood it: In the previous age, the Age of Cronus aka the Golden Age, the world was under control of "the god" and humanity was taken care of by him as a divine herdsman. Everything necessary for humanity's survival was provided for by the god, without humanity needing to work for it. There was also no need for political institutions. Then the rotation of the world reversed (whatever that means), the world entered its present age, and was no longer taken care of by the god but was run by itself Epicurean-style. Because humanity now had to take care of itself, gifts were given to humanity to aid them (e.g. fire from Prometheus, crafts from Hephaestus). 

There are a lot of interesting implications and connections with other things here. I just wish I knew more about the origin of these ideas. I'll have to research it some time.

After this, the three major forms of government - monarchy (rule of one), aristocracy (rule of few), and democracy (rule of the people) - are defined and it is decided that the art of the statesman must reside in one person, or at most a few, because specialized knowledge, the attribute that defines the statesman, cannot be possessed by everyone. 

The nature of laws are then discussed. It is decided that written laws can never adequately express justice, because situations change and every situation is different. Rather laws serve as general rules, and the ideal statesman is able to operate outside of them if needed to implement justice, as a doctor will sometimes go outside of general practice guidelines depending on the patient. At about this time my spidey-sense started tingling. Surely, no man can be trusted with this level of authority?

Plato addresses this. The reason why democracy emerged and laws are treated as, well, law is because statesman have abused their power. Plato wasn't a fan of democracy, because it was the democratic process that led to his teacher Socrates' death. The end result of the dialogue is pretty impractical. The dialogue, it seems, is devoted to defining an ideal that, to my eyes at least, will never be realized by a mere mortal. It seems that the statesman Plato is describing would have to be more than human. In true Platonic fashion, rule by this ideal statesman is the ideal form of government, which all other forms of government are a copy or imitation of. I  think I agree with Plato, at least as far as this dialogue goes, that the rule of a wise and good statesman would be the best form of government, but unfortunately I don't think he currently walks among us. Ultimately, I side with democracy, but I do so with a heavy heart. I share none of the enthusiasm of someone like Rousseau, because I view democracy largely as a safety check. We can't trust any one person with power, so we must distribute it evenly. It doesn't exactly make me feel good about humanity. Lucky for me I don't place my hope in humanity, but the true Statesman.

This quote from the 51st Federalist Paper went through my mind frequently as I read the Statesman: "The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary."