Sunday, January 31, 2021

Cicero's Republic

The Republic and The Laws
The Republic and 
The Laws 

". . . law in the proper sense is right reason in harmony with nature. It is spread through the whole human community, unchanging and eternal, calling people to their duty by its commands and deterring tham from wrong-doing by its prohibitions." (p 68)

Cicero wrote his dialogue, The Republic, just before the civil war that ended the Roman Republic. In it he discusses the history of Rome and its constitution. The Republic of Cicero is in one sense modeled after Plato's Republic, but it is different as well. Cicero presents a more realistic view of the state based on the Roman Republic that was in its last stages during Cicero's lifetime. He assimilates the philosophy of Plato, but also Aristotle's Politics and others.

In it he discusses the nature of different political organizations including Monarchy, Aristocracy, and Democracy, among others. His discussion of the best states and his comparison of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy is thoughtful --- highlighting the differences and weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each; he concludes that the best regime may be one that is a blend of all three. 

In the sequel essay entitled The Laws he promulgates a doctrine of Natural Law, which he then applies to all mankind. His code of law is developed for a reformed Roman Republic that, unfortunately, he never lived to see -- and after his death was preempted by the imposition of the Empire under the leadership of Augustus Caesar.

The following remarks give some indication of the best of his thinking: "The aim of a ship's captain is a successful voyage; a doctor's, health; a general's, victory. So the aim of our ideal statesman is the citizen's happy life---that is, a life secure in wealth, rich in resources, abundant in renown, and honorable in its moral character. That is the task which I wish him to accomplish---the greatest and best that any man can have."

The Virtue of Friendship

How to Be a Friend: An Ancient Guide to True Friendship
How to Be a Friend: 
An Ancient Guide to 
True Friendship 
"It seems to me that friendship arises from nature itself rather than from any need, along with an inclination of the soul joined with a sense of love rather than a calculation of how useful the relationship might be." (p 55)

Cicero's dialogue on friendship demonstrates his approach to philosophy, drawing on the work of the Greeks that preceded him, especially Plato and Aristotle. While set in the Rome of his day, he harkens back to those thinkers who defined such concepts as virtue and the Good. A notable example being Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.

Cicero states that "the very essence of friendship" is "a common set of beliefs, aspirations, and opinions." (p 31). He further states that friendship is only possible between those who "act and live so that their lives give proof of faithfulness, integrity, fairness, and generosity; and who are free from any low passion, greed, or violence; and are of great strength of character," (p 37). Most important for true friendship, however, is virtue and "virtue, too, loves itself," (p 165); in conclusion he states, "I say it is virtue that creates and preserves friendships. Virtue is the source of compatibility, stability, and permanence." (p 169)

Cicero's stance would seem to be one that in most respects is consistent with some modern views as it prominently does not depend on "service above self", but is consistent with integrity and treating others with respect while acting virtuously. This translation by Philip Freeman is felicitous in making Cicero's beautiful Latin prose read as fluently in contemporary English. The result is a demonstration that we can still learn from the classical thinkers of Rome and Greece.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Dangerous Journey

The River
The River 

“There was something satisfying in a cessation of paddling on smooth water. It was like watching a flock of ducks all stop beating at once and sail over a bank of trees on extended wings.”  ― Peter Heller, The River

My introduction
to Peter Heller was a dystopian thriller called The Dog Stars. That was reason enough for me to turn to his recent (2019) adventure novel, The River. In it he introduces two young men, Jack and Wynn are best friends taking some time off from there terms at Dartmouth, sharing a love of books and the outdoors. Jack is compact and pragmatic. Wynn is a big guy with a big heart, always eager to see the good in everyone. They’ve taken countless canoeing and outdoor trips together, so a canoe journey down the Maskwa River in northern Canada seems just like heaven.

Despite their strong wilderness skills, their adventure is put to the test when they discover a massive wildfire threatens to overtake them. Even worse, while paddling through the fog, they overhear a heated argument between a husband and wife camped on the riverside, only to find a man paddling alone the next day. What starts off as a fun-filled retreat into nature becomes a race against time that pits them against the very river they meant to savor.

"They had paddled many rivers together in the two years they’d known each other and climbed a lot of peaks. Sometimes one had more appetite for danger, sometimes the other. There was a delicate but strong balance of risk versus caution in their team thinking, with the roles often fluid, and it’s what made them such good partners." (p 15)

One is provided with the appearance of a wildfire that seems unstoppable. Add a damsel in distress and her dangerous husband and you have the right mix for excitement. But that would be of little interest if there was nothing else to sustain your interest. Fortunately, Heller intersperses the adventure with flashbacks that provide context to the friendship of Jack and Wynn. Heller's narration shifts in intensity, one moment supremely focused on his characters, the next at a distance from them. Initially, the third person point-of-view focuses on Jack and Wynn's surroundings, the vast Canadian wilderness; pages of description occur before either character is named. Jack's interior life given the most space. The novel mirrors the river; just as it widens and narrows, languidly drifts or rushes through rapids, perspective and tone shift to further the story.

They're both supremely well-read college students, and they (Wynn especially) have a love for philosophy. The conflicts in the novel are ultimately human-driven, despite the wilderness survival backdrop, and the clashes that Jack and Wynn have about human nature are in direct conversation with the plot points. From the outset, Wynn wants to see the best in the lone man they find canoeing, but Jack is certain the man is a killer. Heller also uses religious language, suggesting that Jack and Wynn are on a pilgrimage of sorts—reinforcing the idea that this is a morality play about the concepts of good and evil.

While the opening section of the novel acts as a prelude, the story moves along more and more quickly as does both the river and the fire. Ultimately, The River offers both a literal and figurative journey; it is a thrilling and contemplative page-turner with sharp insight into the human condition.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Playing With Mystery

The School of Night

The School of Night 

“What is a holy mass, Tom, if not a play? A wedding? A coronation? do you wish to know why I am a playmaker? Because I know that, at every moment, we are in the midst of some play. Only in an arena that calls itself theater may we stand outside the real theater - our lives - and we see them in all their truth, Tom. By which, if course, I mean their tragedy.”  ― Louis Bayard, The School of Night

I enjoy historical novels especially when they involve mystery and intrigue. An Instance of the Fingerpost by Ian Pears comes to mind as a particular favorite. Bayard's novel is similar while adding a contemporary mystery with its counterpart set at the end of the Elizabethan era.

Henry Cavendish is a disgraced Elizabethan scholar, fooled by a forgery of a poem supposedly written by Walter Raleigh. As a result, Henry has chosen to turn to tutoring and odd jobs in Washington, D.C. As the story begins he has reconnected with Alonzo Wax, a college friend and a book collector. The eccentric Wax, perhaps the most interesting character in the novel, has purloined part of a letter that sheds light on the fabled "School of Night", a secret congregation of illustrious Elizabethan-era intellects like Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe and a brilliant but little-known scientist named Thomas Harriot. The school delved into theology, philosophy and science perhaps bordering on alchemy, in a manner thought traitorous and blasphemous. Wax apparently commits suicide, but he also reveals his discovery to Cavendish, and to Clarissa Dale, a woman Wax met at a lecture who claims psychic visions of Harriot, and to another antique book collector.

At Wax's memorial service, Henry is approached by the supposed owner of the letter, an English antiquities collector named Bernard Styles, and offered a handsome sum to find and return the letter. No sooner than he starts to inquire about this Wax's devoted assistant is murdered and Wax's collection is stolen. Henry and Clarissa uncover clues that lead them to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, near where Harriot studied Native Americans during the failed attempt to establish an English colony. There they find Wax in hiding, claiming the letter points to a treasure. Clues then lead the trio to Syon House in England, the ancestral seat of the Earl of Northumberland, where Harriot once lived.

Through all of the contemporary adventures there are flashbacks provided in interpolated chapters set in the historical Elizabethan era featuring Thomas Harriot and his love, Margaret Crookshanks. The combination of the ancient mystery, lost treasure, and suspenseful intrigue, make this an historical novel that I can recommend to all.