All posts by ataylor89

I'll probably use this blog to post my Latin translations, and anything interesting I come across about the Latin language.

Point of view changes everything

Περισκοπεῖν ἄστρων δρόμους ὥσπερ συμπεριθέοντα καὶ τὰς τῶν στοιχείων εἰς ἄλληλα μεταβολὰς συνεχῶς ἐννοεῖν: ἀποκαθαίρουσι γὰρ αἱ τούτων φαντασίαι τὸν ῥύπον τοῦ χαμαὶ βίου.

“Observe the movement of the stars as if you were running their courses with them, and let your mind constantly dwell on the changes of the elements into each other. Such imaginings wash away the filth of life on the ground.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, tr. Martin Hammond — 7.47

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“Adam’s Curse” (W.B. Yeats)

We sat together at one summer’s end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.’
And thereupon
That beautiful mild woman for whose sake
There’s many a one shall find out all heartache
On finding that her voice is sweet and low
Replied, ‘To be born woman is to know—
Although they do not talk of it at school—
That we must labour to be beautiful.’
I said, ‘It’s certain there is no fine thing
Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.
There have been lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
Precedents out of beautiful old books;
Yet now it seems an idle trade enough.’

We sat grown quiet at the name of love;
We saw the last embers of daylight die,
And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell
About the stars and broke in days and years.

I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.

I find this to be a beautiful poem. The change of imagery is brilliant, and the title says it all. The subject of the poem is the narrator’s love for the unidentified woman, perhaps his wife or his lover. He calls her his close friend, but I think that is meant to conceal her identity; for if the poem is to be true to its title, we must realize that Eve was not Adam’s wife or girlfriend or lover, per se, but rather the Hebrew words used to describe her give her many roles, not just one: ʻêzer (“helper”), neged (“counterpart”), and ᾿išāh (“woman”, “wife”). What’s more, Adam did not have to labor for Eve. God did the labor for him, taking from him a bone from his bones and creating woman out of that. Adam named her “woman” (᾿išāh) because she came from him. Thus the connotations of wife, lover, and girlfriend are all absent. Rather, the words describe a counterpart, made by God, from the flesh of Adam, destined to be his companion. For these reasons I find the diction of Yeats to be most appropriate, describing her as his “close friend”. It evokes the “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh” remark that Adam made upon seeing her.

Yet we know what happened to Adam and Eve, and we see that happen again in this poem, between the narrator and his “close friend”, as the imagery changes from “summer’s end” to the “last embers of daylight” to a “blue-green sky” to a moon resembling a sea-shell worn by time. The theme of labor recurs, again and again: the idea of courtesy, a poetry stitched by the two of them, being harder than the work of scrubbing pavement or breaking stones. And if it is hard, then why bother? This is what the narrator seems to ask his close friend. If it is harder than manual labor, and if it earns less respect — so little as to be deemed an idler — why embark? The unidentified woman reminds him that every woman knows that good things require labor. She puts this nicely, saying that this lesson is learned from working to be beautiful. It is worth pointing out that all the weariness and frustration is expressed by the narrator, and not his companion. The female companion has only one line: that every woman knows this, a lesson she takes for granted.

I wonder why this lesson has been learned so much more easily by the woman. She has imbibed it like water, breathed it in like air. I think this facility in understanding the sacrifice needed for relationships says a lot about the woman of Yeats’ imagination as well as the women of Yeats’ time. Regarding the latter, the poem was written in 1904, at least a decade before women’s suffrage arrived in the West, and incidentally, it was written on the same year that the International Woman Suffrage Alliance was formed. This disparity between the sexes, while by no means central to the poem, is at least relevant to the conversation that we read. It is the man asking questions about love. It is the woman who feels fine with being pessimistic. But there are also biological as well as Biblical explanations. The biological explanation being the onus of birth. The textual reason cited being the labor required for beauty. The biblical reason being a bit more subtle. Eve’s transgression was perhaps greater than Adam’s, although this is debatable. Perhaps she is more accepting of the curse because she feels that she deserves it. This last explanation, the biblical one, by no means applies to every woman, only, perhaps, the woman of this poem, who is already likened to Eve. Regardless of the explanation, I find that the acceptance and resignation at the reality of love is appropriate both to the women of Yeats’ time and to the woman of the poem.

Love itself is represented in changing imagery. A summer’s evening, the last embers of daylight, the blue-green sky and then the hollow moon, washed up on shore, like a sea-shell. The metaphor is a sad one. The love between the narrator and his close friend has inevitably become hollow. If love were just a moment’s thought, the narrator seems to say, then it would be worth pursuing. But the image of a seashell being worn by time, hollowed by days and years shows that it is not a moment’s thought. And yet the narrator once thought it would be.

I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy

This poem seems to tell us that love is but a thought. Our notion of love, that it should be carried out in the “old high way” and bear resemblance to a summer’s day, to the light of day, and that it should be effortless, certainly not harder than scrubbing a kitchen pavement or breaking stones — that notion is but a thought. The reality is quite different. The reality is endless labor, labor to accommodate and sacrifice for each other, which can easily leave two lovers “weary-hearted”. The lesson of the Fall from Paradise is that work became hard, and Yeats is saying that love is no different. Just as Paradise is but a thought, so are any foolish notions about love. The final simile leaves no doubt about the narrator’s conclusion regarding love. They had grown as “weary-hearted” as “that hollow moon”, so surely, the lovers did not succeed in their brave labor.

As for my own opinion, I think this poem represents one take on love. There are other takes. Tolstoy, who ironically had “the unhappiest marriage in literary history”, gives a more optimistic take. He sees love as undergoing a transformation, starting out as romantic love and ending up as family happiness. The romantic love of two young lovers — passionate love — cannot last forever, yet it turns quite blissfully into the family happiness that many fortunate people have felt or witnessed, the warmth and comfort of a room full of parents and children, opening Christmas presents by the fireplace. Just as all matter goes from one form to another, a Stoic notion, so does love go from one form to another, never lost entirely. I am certainly more inclined to take this view than the one of Yeats’s poem, yet I admire the craftsmanship of his poem immensely.

Sacrifice

We often think of sacrifice as volitional. A husband might sacrifice a job so that he can move with his spouse to another city. A mother might sacrifice work so that she can raise her children and allow her spouse to work. A passenger might give up his or her seat to an elderly person on a bus or train. We sacrifice our money when we give to charity. We sacrifice our time when we volunteer. These are all volitional sacrifices.

But the noblest sacrifice is often the one that is not volitional. The victims of the Las Vegas shooting, who have sacrificed their lives, bodies, or livelihoods so that we may realize the danger of guns (and the absurdity, moreover, of having so many and such powerful weapons at hand). People die from cancer and diseases so that we may develop better medicines and better treatments. People get in traffic accidents, while following all the rules of the road, having committed no error except for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. These sacrifices are not volitional. But more than anything they help the human race improve, so that we can blossom into something divine.

If you have compassion in your heart — even if you don’t act very much on it, but still have it nonetheless, as is the case with myself — then it must strike you as sad and unsettling that these people’s sacrifices are not being honored, or at least, not honored enough. We should endeavor to love our neighbor as ourself, and that means, visiting the homes of people who have made the greatest sacrifices, asking how they feel, what we can do to make them feel better, and spreading information about unfairness as well as acting in the interest of greater fairness. This flaw of mine, and perhaps yours, and of surely many others, is why more advanced European health care systems guarantee the provision for people like the aforementioned, who make the greatest sacrifices but sadly go unrecognized. Our health care system just ignores them. The United States has no good samaritan in its backwards and medieval and sociopathic Wall Street callous and unscrupulous stingy health care debacle.

“Souls are dyed by thoughts”

Below is my conversation with Marcus Aurelius, book 5 entries 16-19.

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In case my pencil marks are unclear, I’ll reproduce them.

16 – “souls are dyed by thoughts”
17 – practical, realistic
18 – or perhaps, strength is folly and weakness is wisdom
19 – I agree. We each have a divine element.

These are all interesting entries, but I think the most interesting is #18. Marcus Aurelius gives an intimation of a very deep, mystical, counter-intuitive Christian thought. He writes,

Nothing happens to any creature beyond its own natural endurance. Another has the same experience as you: either through failure to recognize what has happened to him, or in a display of courage, he remains calm and untroubled. Strange, then, that ignorance and pretension should be stronger than wisdom.

My response to this (as recorded above) is “or perhaps, strength is folly and weakness is wisdom”. Few people understand the meaning of this. That’s what makes it mystical. But we see it appear in 2nd Corinthians, chapter 12:

I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Paul would rather boast of his weaknesses than his strengths… so that Christ’s power may rest upon him. What does this mean, exactly? How does it work in the real world?

Well, consider power. Every day we read the news and a new man in power is toppled by sexual harassment or, even worse, rape allegations. Numerous women stand up to accuse them and the times we live in are starting to favor their cause. Why is it that power is so unprincipled? People are talking about this subject everywhere. In the news, on Facebook, in dinner conversations. Have the powerful all committed some kind of hideous and secret Faustian bargain, finally made public to us all?

This is an exaggeration. Some powerful people are in fact principled. But the sad fact is that far too many are not. There is no way of knowing the number. But judging by the general loss of culture, religion, and old-world values, I would guess that more powerful people than not are unprincipled, which is to say, the majority of them.

But in Corinthians we read about something entirely different. Paul tells us that it is better to boast of our weaknesses, to feel weak than to feel strong. What ramifications would such beliefs have on the person who holds them?

First, consider pride. When we are proud, we make the people around us feel bad about themselves, insecure, or even worse, envious. First we end up hurting the feelings of those who are insecure. Then we excite the envy of those who are proud themselves. What goes around comes around. Pride causes hurt in our environment, and then our environment causes hurt to the proud. Hence the proverb, “Pride cometh before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

Most people don’t mix science and religion. But the truly intelligent realize that religion is in fact the seed of science, and science is nowhere near as powerful as the ignorant masses think it is. Sure, it erects skyscrapers. It sends us to the moon. But it will never predict the inner shells of an atom. It will never predict a human being’s decisions. As much uncertainty as there is in the atom (see, quantum mechanics) so much the more there is in a human being’s mind and free will. The real purpose of science is to figure out, empirically, what the religions have told us all along. That in fact, pride does come before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. There’s a deep logic within scripture.

Now consider the alternative. Let’s say you are humble. Then you don’t make insecure people feel even more insecure. You don’t excite the envy of the proud. You neither cause harm nor receive harm. You live in harmony with your environment.

Truly smart people are not proud. Pride comes from insecurity. Geniuses like Bach and Shakespeare were not proud. They had nothing to prove. They delighted in their talents, thought neither too little nor too much of them, and enjoyed their creativity. Consider Bach’s letter to the Margrave presenting the Brandenburg concertos, often thought the apex of Baroque music if not the apex of Western music itself.

As I had the good fortune a few years ago to be heard by Your Royal Highness, at Your Highness’s commands, and as I noticed then that Your Highness took some pleasure in the little talents which Heaven has given me for Music, and as in taking Leave of Your Royal Highness, Your Highness deigned to honour me with the command to send Your Highness some pieces of my Composition: I have in accordance with Your Highness’s most gracious orders taken the liberty of rendering my most humble duty to Your Royal Highness with the present Concertos, which I have adapted to several instruments; begging Your Highness most humbly not to judge their imperfection with the rigor of that discriminating and sensitive taste, which everyone knows Him to have for musical works, but rather to take into benign Consideration the profound respect and the most humble obedience which I thus attempt to show Him.

There’s a piety and humility in this letter that we do not see in today’s pop stars. But the irony is that today’s pop stars are but mice compared to a mountain. Does this mean that humble people are actually smarter and more creative than the proud and self-publicized? Just think, how many writers do we read from centuries ago who lived proud, honored, powerful, and enviable lives? Most great writers did not! And the writers who write today who heap fame and fortune upon themselves, and flit in and out of mansions… well, chances are they won’t be read a hundred years from now.

If you are powerful, then you are constantly at odds with your environment. You cause harm and receive harm. As a result of this, you must constantly be a boxer. You must adopt the mindset that the best defense is a good offense, and punch back every time someone lashes out at you, so that they don’t do it again. You are literally entering into civil war with a city and nation called Pride. Better that they get hurt, and not you, so you use cunning and force to subdue those who might envy you. Does this sound like anyone we know? Uh, Trump! He’s just one example, but a very good one. He is constantly lashing out, going on the offensive with every senator, billionaire or John Doe who attacks him. Is it not weird that he spends time on Twitter lashing out at ordinary citizens, like the father of a son who got arrested in China? It is just simply wired in his brain, the belief that the best offense is a good defense, that everyone is out to get you and you have to knock them down so as to discourage others. And this is a natural and inevitable consequence of being proud.

I won’t spend any more time discussing the relative value of pride and humility. But returning to the subject of power, it becomes clear that one must be powerful without being proud. And that is hard to do. Because power gives you access to so many goods that, as Marcus Aurelius would say, “you don’t have room to shit”. Hence the need for principled power. We see examples of principled power, even though they are rare. I am tempted to think Barack Obama an example, although I do not know him. Perhaps also Nelson Mandela. Maybe Robert Mueller. He isn’t out there bragging about his broad mandate to investigate the White House. He’s out there just quietly doing his job.

It’s clear to anyone with eyes and ears that we have an epidemic in America, and even in Europe too, of unprincipled power. That’s what happens in democracy when there’s an abundance of wealth and opportunities but little support for principles. As the Western world moves further and further away from its roots, in Greek philosophy, the Abrahamic religions, all of the various mythologies which, when told and retold, taught us not to be hubristic, to do the right thing, reiterating that virtue is a reward in itself, well, it’s only a natural consequence that powerful people think Their way is the Right way because, as it turns out, they are not so complicated, they are simple, and they have no more rationale, no more justification or philosophy, than the fact that it Feels Good.

It’s when we are weak that we are strong, because it’s only then that we see clearly, and objectively, and are capable of discerning the real value of our actions. Without being able to discern the real value of our actions, it is impossible to say or do good. But there’s more to it than just that. As said before, it’s a mystical concept. Like one of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos. Every time you revisit it, you learn something new. It might also be the case that only when our natural selves are submissive, that our divine element can rule us. If we are one part natural, one part divine, then the pride and the “frenzy for renown” that Aurelius talks about are the desires of our natural selves, not of our divine counterpart. We must heed the divine within us. It is capable of the greatest good.

On parting, let’s return to the paradox presented by Aurelius. “Strange, then, that ignorance and pretension should be stronger than wisdom.” I think it is nicely answered by Paul, when he points out the paradox of strength and weakness. What seems strong is often not, and vice versa. One might say that strength is folly, and weakness wisdom. Does it sound to you like Bach thought himself especially strong? No. But his music was fated to be heard for more than three centuries after his death. The countenance of strength is weakness; the soul of weakness is strength. Because discernible strength is nothing more than mortal flesh; hidden strength is divine spirit. To be weak is to be strong.

 

Les Méditations

Je suis sur le quatrième livre des Méditations. Après, je veux finir un article du Monde qui décrit les relations entre le Liban, l’Iran, et l’Arabie Saoudite. Ensuite, je veux lire un article d’un journal allemand. J’ai aussi besoin de télécharger une application pour un journal allemand.

Aur. 1.17.3

τὸ ἄρχοντι καὶ πατρὶ ὑποταχθῆναι1, ὃς ἔμελλε πάντα τὸν τῦφον ἀφαιρήσειν2 μου καὶ εἰς ἔννοιαν3 ἄξειν τοῦ ὅτι δυνατόν ἐστιν ἐν αὐλῇ βιοῦντα μήτε δορυφορήσεων χρῄζειν μήτε ἐσθήτων σημειωδῶν μήτε λαμπάδων καὶ ἀνδριάντων τοιῶνδέ τινων καὶ τοῦ ὁμοίου κόμπου, ἀλλ̓ ἔξεστιν4 ἐγγυτάτω ἰδιώτου συστέλλειν ἑαυτὸν καὶ μὴ διὰ τοῦτο ταπεινότερον ἢ ῥᾳθυμότερον ἔχειν πρὸς τὰ ὑπὲρ τῶν κοινῶν ἡγεμονικῶς πραχθῆναι δέοντα.

That I came under a ruler and a father, who intended to take away all of my conceit, and brought me to realize that it is possible to live in a court having need of neither bodyguards, nor fancy clothes, nor candelabra, and such things as statues and those of similar vaunt, but that one can reduce oneself very close to the station of a private citizen and not, through this, be meaner or lazier with respect to the things that need to be done authoritatively for the sake of the common good.

1 ὑποταχθῆναι (aor. inf. pass.): from ὑποτάσσω: to place under
2 ἀφαιρήσειν (fut. inf. act.): from ἀφαιρέω: to take away from
3 ἔννοια: thought, cogitation, reflection
4 ἔξεστιν: it is allowed, it is possible

 

 

Gruesome Fates

Here’s a passage from Diskin Clay’s introduction to The Meditations which outlines the gruesome fates of more than a few noble Romans.

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Cato — committed suicide in 48 BC, “rather than yield to Caesar”.

Brutus — committed suicide in 42 BC, after the defeat of his army at Philippi.

Cicero — murdered by Mark Antony in 43 BC.

Seneca and Lucan — “both forced to commit suicide in 65 by Nero after he had discovered the conspiracy of Piso”.