Review: Epictetus’s Discourses

Discourses and Selected Writings (Penguin Classics)
Epictetus (trans Robert Dobbin)

If Marcus’s Meditations are the most popular introduction to stoic philosophy, Epictetus discourses are perhaps the most substantive. Together, they are the two books of ancient stoic thought one really must read.
Born a slave, Epictetus eventually gained his freedom and taught philosophy in Rome until Domitian banished philosophers from the city. He wrote nothing (or nothing that survives). What we know of his work we know because his student, Arrian, wrote it down.

What Arrian wrote down is a much more careful philosophy than the self-help of Marcus’s Meditations. It is a practical philosophy of self-mastery. The work of the philosophy, such as it is, is in distinguishing between that which we can control (ourselves, our impulses) and that which we cannot (other’s actions).  Identifying which is which, then mastering that which we can control while disregarding that which we cannot is the essential lesson of Epictetus and a pivotal aspect of Stoicism.

Approachable,* yet rigorous, the Discourses can be read over and over (and probably were intended to be memorized). If you’re interested in the Stoics or, frankly, in an examined life, this is a must read. I’ll be annotating it after I am finished with the Mediations.

*Why is it that ancient philosophy is almost always more approachable than modern? Is Quine more complex than Plato? Perhaps, but also unlikely to have as much of an effect on your life.

Review: Beard’s Confronting the Classics

Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures, and Innovations
Mary Beard

This is a collection of Beard’s reviews and essays from a number of publications, including many from the New York Review of Books. Organized in rough chronological order from Greece to the present, it is a bit of a hodgepodge. But what a wonderful hodgepodge it is.

Beard is my favorite classicist (if I can be so bold as to name someone my favorite classicist). She is a delightful writer, brilliant, and unafraid to bring call it like she sees it (Circeo, perhaps not the hero you thought?). She’s also excellent at bringing progressive political ideas to the study of the ancient world without having it come off as hackneyed or forced. If you care about classics in the contemporary world, you should care about the works of Mary Beard. This isn’t a major work by Beard, but it is a great way to dip her thoughts many aspects of Greek and Roman life and thought while also discovery scores of other books that are worth your time. If, like me, you’re early in your journey into understanding classic thought and history, this is well worth your time.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Your Occasional Stoic – Friends, Teachers, Children

From Catulus: not to spurn a friend’s criticism, even if it may be unreasonable complaint, but to try to restore his usual feelings; to speak of one’s teachers with wholehearted gratitude, as is recorded of Domitius and Athenodotus; and a genuine love from children.

-Meditations, 1.13

My notes tell me* that the Catulus who Marcus is writing about here isn’t Gaius Valerius Catullus, the poet, or Gaius Lutatius Catulus, the statesman, or Quintus Lutatius Catulus the consul.  Rather it is Cinna Catulus, a Stoic whose lectures Marcus attended.

Domitius and Athennodotus?  Scholars are not sure.  Some believe Dominitius is Gnaeus Domitius Afer who taught the rhetorician Marcus Fabius Quintilian.  Athenodotus was one of the teacher’s Fronto, another rhetorician who appears repeatedly in the Meditations.  Not much else is known about these three and frankly it hardly matters.  Like many of the mediations, the lessons here are clear cut and simple:

  1. If your friend talks shit – get over;
  2. Be nice to your teachers; and
  3. Love kids.

It’s important to remember that as far as we know, Marcus didn’t write the mediations for publication, but rather as notes to himself, to inspire himself to behave better, as a man and as a leader.  Read with that in mind, the Mediations should seem less like boring moral prescriptions from you pedantic uncle and more like reminder to ourselves of how we should behave, and how we can strive to do better.

*In compiling these quotations I am relying on two editions of the meditations that Penguin Classics edition, translated by Martin Hammond and the Modern Library edition translated by Gregory Hays.  The Hammond edition has more extensive notes; the Hays edition is the translation I prefer.

The Books I Read in 2012

Attention conservation notice: this post is long and has nothing to do with working out. 

I have kept a list of every book I have read I have read since I was thirteen years old.  Yeah, obsessive record keeping didn’t start with my running log.  Below is a list of every book I read this year followed by my idiosyncratic one sentence review.  Books are either recommended, meaning I think I the average reader will like them, not recommended, or recommended for a specific sub-group of readers.

I read thirty three books this year.  A general trend in my reading over the last couple of years is that I am reading less, and more of what I am reading can only be described as mind-candy pop fiction.  Such is adulthood.  I want to go home and work through the Organon, but somehow or other I often end up reading another spy novel.

Anyway, here’s the round up of what I read this year*

Best Fiction Book:  The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. 

This book is actually better than the hype and considering the hype, that’s saying a lot.  My wife, who hates baseball, loved it.  I, who have little patience the young lions of American literary fiction, loved it.  I think you’ll probably like it as well.

Best Non Fiction Book: Lords of the Horizon: A History of the Ottoman Empire by Jason Goodwin. 

A really great overview of an empire which had a huge influence on modern society and about which I knew little.  Goodwin’s approach in covering the cultures, politics, and wars of the empire is clever and approachable.  I feel like I still have a lot to learn about the Ottomans, but this is a great place to start.

Book Which Was Much Better Than I Was Expecting:  Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga, by Benjamin Yorr

I picked this one up because it got a good write up in the Times and had the words Yoga and Obsession in the title.  I was expecting a someone annoying experiential journalism piece written by a snotty New Yorker ironically judging the yogis around him.  Instead, its an insightful look into yoga culture and a thoughtful critique of Bikram yoga.  I was disappointed this one wasn’t longer, which is high praise for any book.

What Was I Thinking When I Got This Book and Why Did I Read The Whole Thing?: The Four Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat Loss, Incredible Sex and Becoming Superhuman, by Timothy Ferris

Honestly, there must be something wrong with me.

 Every Book I Read I 2012

  1. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John LeCarre – Recommended
  2. Krapp’s Last Tape and Other Dramatic Pieces, Samuel Beckett – Recommended for enthusiast’s of high modern theater.
  3. Romeo and Juliet (Arden), William Shakespeare – Recommended
  4. Aristotle: A Very Short Introduction, Jonathan Barnes – Recommended for those wishing to brush up on their undergraduate philosophy degree.
  5. The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach – Highly Recommended
  6. The Moro Affair and the Mystery of Majorana, Leonardo Sciascia – Recommended for those interested in left-wing terrorist organizations in 1970s Italy.
  7. Richard II (Folger), William Shakespeare – Recommended for obsessives determined to read every work by the Bard in chronological order.
  8. Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction, A.C. Grayling – Recommended for those trying to determine whether Ludwig is worth the trouble.
  9. Arctic Rising, Tobias S. Buckell – Recommended for connoisseurs of global warming dystopia futures.
  10. A MidSummer Nights Dream (Folger), William Shakespeare – Recommended
  11. The Four Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat Loss, Incredible Sex and Becoming Superhuman, Timothy Ferris – Recommended for idiots (like me) who enjoy reading pop science about working out even when it was written by the world’s biggest frat boy.
  12. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr – Recommended
  13. The Honorable Schoolboy, John LeCarre – Recommended for readers of spy fiction.
  14. The Ex Pats, Chris Pavone – Recommended for readers of spy fiction who have read all the LeCarre and Steinhauer books listed here.
  15. Death at La Fenice, Donna Leon – Recommended for mystery fans dying to visit Venice even if everyone tells you that you will be disappointed.
  16. King John, William Shakespeare – Not recommended.  The only reason to read this is if you’re trying to read everything the Bard wrote.
  17. Drive, James Sallis – Recommended for fans of really well written crime fiction.
  18. Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times, Thomas R. Martin – Recommended for buddy amateur ancient historians.
  19. Istanbul Passage, Joseph Kanon – Recommended for cold war espionage fans and those about to travel to Turkey.
  20. The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare – Recommended if only because of its is the most troubling of Shakespeare’s plays – if you are going to talk about Shakespeare, then you need to talk about the Merchant of Venice and you really cannot talk about the Merchant unless you have read it.
  21. The Snake Stone, Jason Goodwin – Recommended for mystery fans traveling to Turkey.
  22. Lords of the Horizon: A History of the Ottoman Empire, Jason Goodwin – Recommended for those, like me, with limited knowledge of the Ottomans.
  23. The Black Monastery, Stav Sherez – Not recommended.
  24. The Bourne Identity, Robert Ludlum – Recommended for the thriller enthusiast, especially those on an inter-continental flight
  25. King Henry IV Part I (Arden), William Shakespeare – recommended.
  26. Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell – recommended.
  27. King Henry IV Part 2 (Folger), William Shakespeare – Recommended
  28. No Easy Day: The Autobiography of a Navy Seal, Mark Owen – Not recommended
  29. The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible, Matti Friedman – Recommended for amateur Hebraists and book nerds.
  30.  In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language, Joel M. Hoffman – Recommended for students of Hebrew.
  31. The Nearest Exit, Olen Steinhauer – Recommended
  32. Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga, Benjamin Yorr – Recommended
  33. An American Spy, Olen Steinhauer – Recommended

Next year I hope to finally finish my project to read all of Shakespeares works, once again cross the fifty books in a year threshold, and balance the serious with the frivolous a little better.

*Note that I am trying out the Amazon associates program with this post.