Monthly Archives: July 2015

The Philosophy of History

History and Tragedy

How is history different than tragedy? Or, is the historical perspective of looking at the world different than the tragic perspective? Do historians such as Herodotus, Livy, Thucydides, Tacitus, Polybius, and Machiavelli conceive the deep structure of the world differently than say Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides?

There are the obvious differences. Tragedy takes its stories from myth. History takes its stories from great battles where eyewitness or documentary accounts exist. History covers many lifetimes spread over a long duration. Tragedy covers the events of a single day. History professes to be an impartial account. Tragedy professes to be highly biased to create the most emotional effect. History is obligated to explain the past. Tragedy is under no obligation to explain itself: ‘the rest is silence’ says Iago.

The Ludic Theory of Tragedy

What I’ve been working on while writing the book Paying Melpomene’s Price is to develop a ludic theory of tragedy. ‘Ludic’ as in ‘related to a game’. Tragedy is a game. A game of death. A high stakes game where gamblers play at the no limits tables. They make wagers for the sorts of things money can’t buy: honour, vengeance, a crown, and so on. They don’t ante up with money, but with flesh and blood. When they lose, it’s possible to see how highly intangible things are valued. But what makes them lose? The unexpected. When Great Birnam Wood to Dunsinane Hill comes: that is the unexpected. To me, there is something mischievous in the soul of tragedy that makes it so that forecasting, projections, and strategy come to naught. It’s like the best laid plans of mice and men. That the unexpected always throws down the best laid plans is a fundamental constant in the world of tragedy. This is the one characteristic that really defines tragedy.

History is About the Expected, Not the Unexpected

A Visual Representation of History

A Visual Representation of History

The very act of writing history involves taking thousands of possibly related (but possibly unrelated) events and fashioning a narrative out of it. By creating a narrative where there previously was not a narrative, order is ascribed to events: e.g. because happened followed. Or, to take an example from Townbee, Sinic civilization started on the Yellow River and not the Yangtse because the harder conditions on the Yellow River stimulated the ‘challenge and response’ inclination in that race. He ascribes how Hellenic civilization flourished on the craggy rock of Athens instead of the fertile fields of Boeotia to the same ‘challenge and response’ initiative. Of course, if the challenge is too severe as was the case when Irish settlers came to the Appalachians, instead of ‘rising to the challenge’, they would instead devolve to a lower level of culture. By hypothesizing that there is a ‘challenge and response’ initiative and finding a host of examples to support it, Townbee makes a narrative out of the birth of civilizations. A colonist of the future, having read Townbee, could expect good results from a piece of undiscovered land that was fertile, but not overly so. All this goes to say that history makes things predictable. Or so it argues.

There are different ways in which history makes things predictable. Taken together, these different ways constitutes the philosophy of history or the belief that there are patterns in the seemingly random flow of events. On a day to day level, events are like Brownian motion: random collisions with heat but no design. But in the months, years, and decades, a hidden design emerges.

There can be moral patterns. ‘And if thou wilt walk before me’, says the Lord, ‘then I will establish the throne of thy kingdom upon Israel for ever’. With this, the pattern is set in and 2 Kings: the legacy of kings is that they either ‘do evil ‘ or ‘do right’ in the sight of the Lord. There are ramifications for both. Those who ‘do evil’ risk cutting off the people from the Holy Land; those who ‘do right’ preserve the kingdom. The Roman historian Livy also shapes moral patterns into history. For him, thrift and plain living go hand in hand with noble deeds while avarice and luxury lead to sensual excess. Noble deed grow Roman power. Sensual excess brings down the state. Though Livy writes history, he provides so many instances where this is true that the reader could not be blamed for thinking that the pattern extends into the future, if not for all time.

There can be cultural patterns. Herodotus writes of an ancient enmity between East and West. They stole Io; we abducted Europa. We stole Medea; they abducted Helen. It kicks up a notch when we burn Troy to avenge Helen’s abduction. Next the East strikes back under Xerxes in the Persian Wars. Could the Gulf War in the 20th century be part of the same retributive chain going back to Io and Europa? If you’re into history and inclined to see patterns in events, you may be inclined to answer in the affirmative.

There can be constitutional patterns. Take Polybius’ theory of constitutions. When monarchy gets tired it gives way to oligarchy. In turn when oligarchy tires of itself it turns into democracy. Then when democracy becomes too much, a monarch has to seize power to right the ship of state. And then the cycle perpetuates itself. Again. And again.

The histories of Livy, Herodotus, Polybius, and others contain cyclical philosophies of history. There can also be linear views of history. Marx’ hypothesis that history leads up to the proletariat revolution is a linear philosophy of history. Fukuyama’s ‘The End of History’ is another linear view (though he lived for so long after writing ‘The End of History’ he had to add another addendum). In addition to secular views, one can also find religious linear philosophies of history, i.e. for Jews, history is a long march to the coming of the Messiah.

What to make of all that? First: history likes patterns. Second: because there are patterns, its easy for the mind to extend them into the future. Therefore, history believes that one can make projections into the future based on past performance. Projections have a high degree of success in history. Otherwise, what would be the point?

But tragedy on the other hand posits that patterns are illusory. The patterns just exist to get the high stakes gamblers (i.e. the hero of tragedy) to wager all-in. Once the hero wagers all-in, the unexpected happens which causes him to lose everything. In this way, by looking at how these two genres deal with expectation, it is possible to understand how differently they see the world. It is because they see the world differently that the genres of tragedy and history initially arose. History is for those who see patterns. Tragedy is for those who see the danger of patterns that could unexpectedly change at any second.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I have done my quota of Doing Melpomene’s Work today.

Lysistrata – Aristophanes

As part of the ‘final kick’–to borrow a term from long distance running since this has been a long distance project– been reading comedies, histories, and philosophies. Why?–the goal in the final chapter of Paying Melpomene’s Price is to define tragedy by setting its worldview in opposition to the other genres. On the weekend I read Four Plays by Aristophanes. The Clouds and The Bird are translated by Arrowsmith, Lysistrata by Parker, and The Frogs by Lattimore. The translations are quite liberal. For example, at some points extra lines are added so that a modern reader can ‘get’ the joke. This edition is more for modern readers interested in guffaws rather than historians researching the cultural milieu of Aristophanes. The comprehensive footnotes, however, justify the translator’s liberties and explain what was in the original text.

The other thing that was going on during the weekend was the referendum in Greece. You know, the one where the Greece votes on whether it should accept the terms of the ECB/IMF bailout. As I read Lysistrata, I couldn.t help thinking how a popular play it could be if it were to be restaged today. Well, maybe not in North America. But it could provide some comic relief in Greece and Europe.

Synopsis of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata

Actually, it might make more sense to begin with what’s been going on in Greece.

Events Leading up to the Greek Referendum

Tsipras, the leader of the Syriza party, became prime minister of Greece in January 2015. He campaigned on an anti-austerity platform. Austerity had been imposed on Greece by the European Commission, the IMF, and the ECB as part of two earlier bailout packages in 2010 and 2011. Loans of 240 million Euro were given to Greece at extraordinary low interest rates (2-3% when the best rates Greece could get in the open market ranged from 10-15% on average) in exchange for promises to get its finances in order. The getting its finances in order included cutting back pensions, laying off government workers, and raising taxes: in other words, austerity.

Tsipras and his finance minister, Varoufakis, have been saying that you cannot cut spending and hope to grow the economy. That.s true: it would be very hard to cut spending to produce more!

Facing off against Tsipras and Varoufakis are German chancellor Merkel and her finance minister Schauble. They’ve been saying that if going to be lending money, of course it comes with strings attached. That.s true: if tax dollars collected from Europeans are sent over to Greece so that Greece can pay its pensioners and its’s bills, the lender should be expected to see an excel spreadsheet every so many months showing how the structural reforms in the economy are improving things. Otherwise it would be just bailout after bailout. What.s the point?

To this, Tsipras and Varoufakis reply that they want to see things get better as well. Austerity is hard and who wants to be in perpetual austerity! They would like to get rid of debt by spending more. They like to cite Roosevelt’s New Deal in which government measure stimulated the economy into firing on all cylinders. Once the Greek economy is going, then they can slowly pay back their creditors.

But the thing is that other EU members have very recently gone through painful bouts of austerity. Italy, Ireland, and Portugal have gone through austerity in the last five years and now have come out ahead. Why should Greece get a better deal, say Merkel and Schauble. The EU is a rule based community. If Greece gets a better deal, then why couldn.t Italy, Ireland, and Portugal have gotten better deals? They made it, after all.

Then there is all the finger pointing. Varoufakis, a university professor, has taken to lecture his European colleagues on what he perceives to be economics. One look at Schauble and you can tell the grumpy bastard doesn.t need a Varoufakis lecture. Here.s a telling anecdote on how poisonous their relationship has become: as they emerged from another failed negotiation, one said, ‘Well, we agree to disagree’. When the other emerged, he retorted, ‘We don.t even agree to disagree’. Basically, you can see why their negotiations aren.t going anywhere!

In the meanwhile, people are suffering from the uncertainty all over the place. Money that could be invested into different ventures to make the world better (cleaner energy, cure for cancer, better sliced bread, etc.,) is fleeing into safe haven bonds. Credit controls are playing havoc with the ability to Greek consumers to get basic necessities.

Synopsis of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata

The comedy Lysistrata was produced in 411 BC. Later on in that year, the century old democracy in Athens (funny thing, one of the reasons why the Greek people think they deserve better bailout terms today is because they gave democracy to the world back in the ancient days…) would be overthrown in an oligarchic coup. Also, in 413 BC, the Sicilian Expedition went awry. Over two hundred ships lost in an ill-conceived venture. It was like the loss of the Spanish Armada for Phillip II of Spain years later. So Athens was going down in the Peloponnesian War with Sparta. It was not a good year. In fact, it was even worse back then in Greece than it is now. A few years after Lysistrata, Sparta conquered Athens. At least the creditors aren’t invading. At least not a military takeover!

The central character in the play, an Athenian woman by the name of Lysistrata, calls a meeting of women from all over Greece affected by the Peloponnesian War. She calls the meeting to organize a sex strike: unless the men can agree to a truce, no sex for anyone!

The predictable comic elements don’t deter from its ability to draw out laughter. The ribald women complain that they just want to get laid. The men walk around trying to conceal their swollen members (during the negotiations: ‘is that a concealed weapon you’re carrying under that toga?’). The women attempt to get past Lysistrata’s watchful eye, making up lame excuses if they’re caught: ‘I have to pop home to get my weaving…’. Sure you do. So do I!

But in the end, the sex strike works and they sign the peace accord to END THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR!


Do you know where I.m going with this, diligent readers? If the negotiations between the Troika and Syriza are in tatters, maybe what needs to happen is for the men and women of Europe (it would have to be men and women because some of the politicians today, unlike in ancient times, are women: Merkel, Lagarde, etc.,) go on a sex strike until their elected politicians are able to come to terms with one another!

Hmm, who would this effect most? That would be too prurient for me to report in my PG13 blog!

Ah, that.s what I love about the ancients! The stuff they write is too old to go out of style! I should have my own referendum. Yes or No: is Lysistrata is the best solution to the Greek debt crisis?

Until next time, I.m Edwin Wong and I.m Doing Melpomene’s Work by reading Thalia’s works.

Tragic Epochs

Flowerings of Tragedy

Tragedy is one of those arts which comes and goes. This post takes a look at tragic epochs of the past–that is to say, periods in which the art form of tragedy flourished–to see if they share some sort of common denominator. Some art forms have an unbroken lineage. Take sculpture or painting. One would be hard pressed to find a period in which these activities were not going on. The practise of other art forms such as history, philosophy, and comedy appear to be relatively continuous as well. Take philosophy, for example. From its beginnings in the 6th century BC, you had Thales and Heraclitus. The 5th century saw Socrates and Plato. The 4th Aristotle. The 3rd Zeno and Epicurus. Carneades in the 2nd. Lucretius and Cicero in the 1st. Seneca on the other side of the 1st. And so on. Tragedy is completely different. Tragic epochs seem to flower into a lush bloom and then die out just as fast.

Tragic Epochs

The list starts with the big three in the 5th century BC: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Although tragedies continued after the 5th century, it’s not until the 1st century AD that they really come back with Seneca. Around the time of Seneca the emperor Augustus and the orator Maternus also worked on tragedies, though they do not survive. If that gap of almost 500 years seems long, the next of the tragic epochs doesn’t dawn until 16th century Elizabethan England. Here you had luminaries such as Kyd, Webster, Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Jonson. Again, probably a 50 or so year flowering. In the 17th century across the Channel France could boast Corneille and Racine, who provided a temporary home for the spirit of tragedy. The next of the tragic epochs is not until the late 18th century in Germany (who actually thought they were Greeks with Classicism in full swing): Goethe, Schiller, Holderlin, and others. From there, the torch goes north to the Scandinavian countries in the 19th century with Ibsen and Strindberg. And in the 20th, it’s been the American century with the likes of O’Neill and Miller.

That’s seven tragic epochs in the last 1500 or so years.

The End of Tragic Epochs

Goethe, in his conversations with Eckermann, once mused on the death of tragedy. It had occurred to him as well that tragedy flowers just as quickly as it dies. His thought was that the big three of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides had written so many that there was little left to say. Goethe was thinking more about 5th century Athens than the whole history of tragedy up to his day, though. I like this explanation. Although only thirty of so tragedies by the big three survive to this day, they had actually written hundred. At the City Dionysia each year, three dramatists would be expected to produce three plays each. Tragedy usually takes its stories from myth, so there’s only so many ways you can spin the stories. Think of Hollywood and how it ‘reboots’ movie franchises. Right now at the theatres playing Terminator Genisys. There’s only so many ways you can spin the story of a time travelling robot who says, ‘I’ll be back’. But yes, I probably will rent this when the library gets it…

Goethe’s explanation works for 5th century Athens. But what about Elizabethan or Jacobean England?–there they were not limited to myth. They could use history (e.g. Macbeth) or legend (e.g. King Lear) as well. To answer that, let’s go and see how tragic epochs begin.

The Birth of Tragic Epochs

Now to find a common theme in the tragic epochs. Empire perhaps? 5th century century saw the rise and fall of the Athenian Empire. Seneca was writing in imperial Rome. Elizabethan England saw the arms race with Spain end with the destruction of the Spanish Armada. France was busy colonizing the New World during the time French Classical drama was being written. Germany during the time of Schiller and Goethe, while not a military powerhouse (too fragmented and Napoleon too powerful riding around in his red cape), was a cultural powerhouse boasting the likes of Kant, Hegel, Beethoven and others. The thesis does not work very well for Ibsen and Strindberg though. But it does for Miller and O’Neill, who were writing in the ‘American Century’.

So far, the argument seems to suggest that tragedy is involved with the study of power. Kings and queens have traditionally been the subject of tragedy. Common people are more generally found in comedy. Another thing about this period is that people were generally doing well. This suggests that tragedy flourishes when people are flourishing: the ability to stomach tragedy is a sort of luxury. When tragedy is too close, it is not welcome: Phrynicus staged the tragedy The Fall of Miletus shortly after the Persians sacked the allied city in 494 BC. He was fined for reminding the Athenians of their sorrows. More recently, films which had or were perceived to contain elements too close for comfort after the 9/11 attacks were either delayed or modified. You can write a tragedy about the Black Plague, but not during the Black Plague.

Because tragedy is about choice and paying the price (hence the title of my book will be Paying Melpomene’s Price), tragedy can also be an exploration of the consequences of action during times of upheaval. Sophocles’ Antigone can be interpreted as an exploration of the rights of the state versus the rights of the individual and the price the protagonists pay to make their point. When Anouilh produced his Antigone in occupied France during WWII, his treatment of choice and the horrible consequences of paying the price for choosing were such that both the Nazis and the Free French enthusiastically applauded the performance: the Nazis for Creon and the Free French for Antigone.

As a starting point then, perhaps this can be said of the tragic epochs. Tragedy requires a certain minimum standard of living to happen. Generally, things have to be going well (lots of exceptions such as Anouilh). Things have to be going so well that power can become concentrated somehow in such a way that the protagonist has to make a decision that involves some kind of sacrifice. It’s not the sort of decision that a serf can make, because a serf doesn’t have enough to sacrifice. The decision has to have some kind of contemporary significance. So, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House couldn’t be written in a patriarchy. It had to wait for a time of great social change. So here we have it: power, high standard of living, and societal sea change. These are the preconditions of tragic epochs. Agree or disagree?

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I am always Doing Melpomene’s Work, even under the sweltering noonday sun when I would rather be doing siesta.

Dead Man’s Hand Grand Finale!

Wow! Proud artist SB dropped off the Dead Man’s Hand watercolour last Sunday. It looks absolutely fantastic! Until this afternoon, it occupied the place of honour above the mantlepiece where been admiring it. Met up with photographer extraordinaire MR at Island Blue Print to choose out a frame earlier today, and the process will take about two weeks. So, although The Dead Man’s Hand is done, and it will be really done when it gets hung on the wall. Can.t wait!

But in the meanwhile, diligent readers can see the finished painting right here and right now! The professional photographs and scans that will be used on the book cover are forthcoming. These are photos I took with my mobile phone to post onto the blog. They were done on a little bit of an angle which gives the images more of a nervous look (I.m looking up the painting).

Dead Man’s Hand Photos

Dead Man's Hand

Dead Man’s Hand

LH as Server

LH as Server

SB remarked that there.s a neat effect with the server: her eyes follow you across the room no matter which angle looking at the painting from. With the other characters, the eyes lock in if standing in front of the painting. The painting is from the point of view of the gunman (who is himself not visible). It.s probably the smallest thing that creates the effect: a thin line in how the eye is drawn or just how the angles all converge together.



Here.s TS and GP.s husky, Lucy. Sleeping away just like in real life! Lucy is the best dog ever! They were all visiting a month ago. Every night, Lucy would do her rounds to make sure everyone is okay. So around 2 or 3 in the morning, you.d hear her get up, pitter patter up to everyone, give them a sniff and a lick in the face, and then go back to bed. I like that–a pet who earns her keep! TS is saying it.s a husky ‘pack’ thing to make sure the other members are okay b/c they work in some cold and harsh environments.



Here.s gambler #3. The red from the baseball cap adds a splash of colour to the painting. The protective gesture wasn.t in the original photographs but SB improvised a shot of Oz adjusting his cap to come up with the gesture. His back is also off the back of the chair to give that feeling of surprise.



Here.s gambler #2. SB was saying that some faces are difficult to draw and other faces are a delight to draw. Of all the faces in The Dead Man’s Hand, she found this one to be a pure delight: however she drew, it would look like the model. I wonder why that is? Mmmm, the cigar looks good too.

Gambler #1

Gambler #1

Gambler #1 wasn.t from the photo shoot. He.s a composite of various images from the internet. Originally Gambler #1 was cast as the ‘cool & relaxed’ guy. But this didn.t really work out when the painting was coming together. The chips dropping out of his hand implying motion is a touch I like.



Photographer MR handed the camera controls to artist SB so that he could partake in the photo. Him and C were the two models in the photo shoot with acting experience and it really showed. To pose in front of a camera without acting experience is actually really hard!–you have to stay still and it doesn.t quite feel natural. Kudos to SB for capturing a high level of detail in this face: it was more difficult because the customer is further back than the gamblers.



Here is one of the owner.s of Cenote.s posing as himself: the bartender!



And here I am as Wild Bill Hickok holding the dead man’s hand: a pair of black aces on eights! The large pile of poker chips in front of me is the consolation prize for what.s going to happen in the next couple of seconds: BANG!

Thank you to everyone who turned out to the shoot and Cenote Lounge (where the beer is cold and the Cenote dogs are hot) for hosting the event! Kudos to photographer MR who ran the photo shoot. And congratulations to artist SB for putting it all together!

Until next time, I.m Edwin Wong and I.m enjoying the fruits of Doing Melpomene’s Work.