Tag Archives: history

Review of “Tragedy and Myth” – Alan H. Sommerstein

pages 163-180 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

This well-organized essay in the Blackwell Companion to Tragedy is divided into six sections: “Myth, History, and Poetry,” “How to Make a New Myth,” “Innovation within Existing Myths,” “Mythical Innovation and Audience Expectation,” “Etiology,” and “Secondary Mythical Allusions.”  The essay explores the long relationship the dramatic art form of tragedy shared with myth. Here is a summary of its main points.

Myth, History, and Poetry

Athenian tragedy–with a few exceptions–dramatized myth. Myth to the ancients, however, overlapped with actual history. As well, myth itself was fluid, malleable, and alive. As a result, although Athenian tragedy is based on myth, many different reconstructions and interpretations were available to the tragedians. To draw on myth is an advantage, not a disadvantage. Myth is far from a straitjacket.

How to Make a New Myth

There are interstitial spaces between the received events of myth in which the poet-tragedian may create new stories. Myth has a start point and end point that is set; the space in between is free. Take the myth of the Seven against Thebes. In the start point of the myth, Polyneices attacks his hometown of Thebes. In the end point of the myth, Polyneices kills and is killed by his brother. Creon, whose son is dead, rules Thebes as regent. Antigone, Polyneices’ sister is also dead. In the space between the start point and end points Sophocles’ creates his play Antigone: Antigone’s defiance of Creon, her love interest with Creon’s son, and the suicide of Antigone and Haemon are all Sophoclean innovations, a “new myth” that fills up the interstitial spaces between the canonical beginning and end points. These interstitial spaces are fertile grounds for the poetic imagination.

Another way to rewrite myth is by using the deus ex machina device: here, the plot can turn whichever way, even in defiance of myth, and the god appears at the last second to set the record straight. Euripides was especially fond of the deus ex machina device.

Innovation within Existing Myths

Sommerstein lays down a law that dictates how far poets could go in reshaping myths: “In a telling of any given story, any element may be altered, so long as the alteration does not impact severely on other stories which are not, on that occasion, being told.” Thus, in retellings of the myth of the Danaids, Hypermestra must always marry Lynceus because they give birth to descendants who will produce Perseus, Heracles, and many other heroes. Beyond this, however, much innovation is possible and Sommerstein provides many examples.

Mythical Innovation and Audience Expectation

This is the longest section and the most far-reaching. In it, Sommerstein talks about how ancient audiences must have understood and watched tragedies differently than modern audiences. In Euripides’ tragedy Medea, ancient audiences will have known that Jason is playing with fire in crossing Medea, a powerful magic-user. They will have known that their children die, though not by Medea’s hand–their death by their mother’s hand was, according to Sommerstein, Euripides’ innovation. Ancient audiences would have been expecting Medea to harm Jason–or his new girlfriend. Modern audiences, on the other hand, know, most of the time, that Medea is the play in which the mother kills her children: the fame of the play precedes the play. This is a powerful, and little known distinction between ancient and modern viewings of the play: we know what happens; ancients, even though better-versed in myth, did not.

Myth, far from being a straitjacket, gave ancient playwrights a valuable tool that is underappreciated today: the ability to mislead and misdirect audience expectations. When they bring about the unanticipated outcome, the ancient audience is shocked, and amused.


In this short section, Sommerstein talks about how Athenian poet-dramatists dramatized the creation of real-world rites, customs, and institutions through myth. Euripides was quite fond of drama as etiology: in Suppliants, for example, Euripides “explains” the real-world friendship between Athens and Argos through the action. Aeschylus, too, in the Oresteia, dramatizes the creation of homicide court at the Areopagus.

Secondary Mythical Allusions

Secondary mythical allusions occur, says Sommerstein, when characters (or the chorus) in a drama refer to other myths that are not being dramatized. By comparing their own situations to other well-known myths, characters are able to shine a different light, as it were, on the action of the play they are in. Of Sommerstein’s many examples, one from Aeschylus’ Oresteia stands out. In the Oresteia, Orestes has killed his mother at Apollo’s behest. The Furies, ancient spirits who punish blood crimes, pursue him to the Areopagus, where Orestes is being tried. He is defended by Apollo and persecuted by the Furies. Apollo suggests to the Furies that, just as Zeus had pardoned Ixion, they should pardon Orestes. But his argument is lame: the audience would have known from the Ixion myth that Ixion was a very bad person and Zeus was, in fact, wrong to pardon him (because after his pardon Ixion tries to seduce Zeus’ wife Hera!). These secondary mythical allusions, writes Sommerstein, enrich the textual density of the play. While in the Oresteia, Orestes is innocent, the remark from Apollo would suggests otherwise. By connecting different myths through secondary allusions, dramatists challenged their audiences.


I enjoyed this well-organized and concise essay. Sommerstein’s arguments fit together perfectly: after reading a few sentences, I could see where he was going, and his examples were spot on. This was very welcome after finishing a rambling book yesterday that, even after reading many pages, I was never sure where the author was going, if anywhere. The straightforwardness of Sommerstein’s essay is a sign that he has been thinking about myth and tragedy for a long time. The lack of direction in that other book I finished yesterday, I think, is a sign that the author–who is a famous world-expert–and the editors were working under too tight a timeline.

The thing that I am most grateful to learn from Sommerstein’s essay is that modern audiences do not watch Greek tragedies in the same way that the ancients did. Modern audiences, in most cases, already know the endings. Ancient audiences, while they knew the myths, would not know how the dramatist would write or rewrite the myth: a great amount of freedom is possible. Sommerstein’s example of this was from Euripides’ Medea, where he argued that Medea’s killing of her children would have caught the ancient audience off-guard. I can see from his examples how Euripides has, indeed, crafted his play to make the audience think what happens is not going to happen until the last second. There is more of a gulf between the ancients and the moderns than what we like to believe. A musical analogy would be moderns listening to J.S. Bach. Bach wrote a contrapuntal style of music where different voices would play off each other. Listeners in Bach’s time would have followed the distinct voices or lines. Many listeners today hear the harmonies generated by the voices rather than the voices themselves. The experience is different than what the composer was trying to achieve. But still enjoyable. It is a difference we should be aware of.

This got me thinking: today’s famous plays will be understood very, very differently two hundred, five hundred, and two thousand years from now. Hard to believe, but, if Sommerstein’s arguments are correct, it will be inevitable that, as audiences, cultures, and education changes, so too the thrill we get out of watching theatre. One way, I think, that playwrights can ensure that their plays will be “correctly” understood, is to adhere to a theory or model of drama. A model serves as an anchor of interpretation. There are many options. Today one can be an Aristotelian, a Hegelian, a Nietzschean, or one can try Brecht’s epic theatre or Miller’s Tragedy of the Common Man. There too is my burgeoning theory of tragedy called risk theatre, where risk is become the dramatic fulcrum of the action.

Though Sommerstein’s comments are directed to myths and plays in ancient Athens, the myths did not stop with ancient Athens. The old Attic myths are still alive today. I curate an international theatre competition called the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, now in its fourth year. Last year’s winner, Madison Wetzell’s The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor, was a retelling of the Prometheus legend. I wrote a review of this fantastic play here. Even today, the myths are alive, changing, expanding, growing, being retold. Imagine that.

Author Blurb

Allan H. Sommerstein is Professor of Greek at the University of Nottingham. His publications include Aeschylean Tragedy (1996), Greek Drama and Dramatists (2002), and editions of the plays and fragments of Aeschylus (2008) and of Aristophanes’ eleven comedies (1980-2002). In a project funded by the Leverhulme Trust, he is preparing, with five collaborators, a two-volume study of The Oath in Archaic and Classical Greece.

– – –

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

The End of History and the Last Man – Fukuyama

1992, 2006 Free Press, 432 pages

Back Blurb

Ever since its first publication in 1992, The End of History and the Last Man has provoked controversy and debate. Francis Fukuyama’s prescient analysis of religious fundamentalism, politics, scientific progress, ethical codes, and war is an essential for a world fighting fundamentalist terrorists as it was for the end of the Cold War. Now updated with a new afterword, The End of History and the Last Man is a modern classic.

Author Blurb

Francis Fukuyama is a Bernard L. Schwarz professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins University and a member of the President’s Council for Bioethics. He has twice served on the Policy Planning Staff of the U.S. Department of State. In 1981-82 he was also a member of the U.S. delegation to the Egyptian-Israeli talks on Palestinian autonomy. His past boos include TrustThe Great DisruptionOur Posthuman Future, and State-Building.

This one has been sitting on the reading list for a long time. Funny, the Greater Victoria Public Library didn’t have it. But they were able to provide it through their wonderful interlibrary loan service. It ended up coming from Kaslo Public Library. ‘Kaslo?’ you say? Kaslo is a village in the West Kootenay region of British Columbia. Population according to the 2011 census stands at 1026. Ya, 1026. And they have Fukuyama’s The End of History. How do these buying decisions work at public libraries? Okay, The End of History is an academic book. Well sort of. But it’s pretty famous (or infamous) as well. One would think the GVPL, which serves 370,000 people, would have it?

Well, who’s the last man? In historicist approaches (approaches that look at social and cultural phenomena as determined by the laws of history rather than by human nature, chance, individuals, and religion), the last man is the last man standing after history reaches it teleological end goal. The last man stands opposite to the first man of some theories, such as Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’. The last man, according to Fukuyama, is the enfranchised citizen of a capitalist liberal democracy.

What a great formula! Take the current state of the political world and say that the laws of history have made is so. Other historicists didn’t have it so easy. For both Hegel and Marx, the end of history occurs in the future (for Hegel it is a polity where citizens enjoy recognition and for Marx history ends with the triumph of the proletariat and the end of class struggle). For Fukuyama, history has already ended (in 1992). Some people criticized his book because they thought he was saying history had literally ended. Wow. The thing that suspect about his book is that his thesis isn’t falsifiable. At least not today. We’ll have to wait a century or more to see whether he’s right. And what more, his thesis is based on inductive logic, which, in the long run, stands on very shaky ground. Fukuyama provides a thousand particular instances that back up his claim. But remember, inductive logic (where a law is derived from observing many particular instances) can be overthrown by a single contrary observation. Say someone sees a thousand swans. Or even a million swans. And says that: ‘There are no black swans’. Well, that’s inductive logic. Just by seeing one black swan, a thousand years of inductive logic can go out the window. By the way, this actually happened when they saw a black swan in Australia.

It’s risky to declare that history has ended. The centuries and millenia still to come stand against you. The strongest case against The End of History was, and continues to be, the rise of political Islam, which tends away from capitalist liberal democracies. I’ll withhold judgment on this book until the end of my life. I’m 42 today. If in another fifty years, the world completes the shift to liberal democracies, I’ll say Fukuyama is a genius. Time will tell. But even after I’m dead, things can go the other way too.

But for now, here’s a great quote from the book that’s too good not to pass up. Fukuyama quote Vaclav Havel. I’m going to have to learn some more about this guy, he seems fascinating, a political dissident and writer who became the first president of the Czech Republic. Here Havel tells the story of a greengrocer:

The manager of a fruit and vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: “Workers of the World, Unite!” Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment’s thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean? …

Obviously, the greengrocer is indifferent to the semantic content of the slogan on exhibit; he does not put the slogan in this window from any personal desire to acquaint the public with the ideal it expresses. This, of course, does not mean that his action has no motive or significance at all, or that the slogan communicates nothing to anyone. The slogan is really a sign, and as such it contains a subliminal but very definite message. Verbally, it might be expressed this way: “I, the greeengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.” This message, of course, has an addressee: it is directed above, to the greengrocer’s superior, and at the same time it is a shield that protect the greengrocer from potential informers. The slogan’s real meaning, therefore, is rooted firmly in the greengrocer’s existence. It reflects his vital interests. But what are those vital interests?

Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan, “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient,” he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even thought the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, “What’s wrong with the workers of the world uniting?” Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the facade of something high. And that something is ideology.

Wow, a lot of weight falls on the end of the quote. What a splendid writer!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m doing Clio’s work.

Brownian Motion, Tragedy, Comedy, and History

The Discovery of Brownian Motion

In 1829, the Scottish botanist Robert Brown observed microscopic grains of pollen suspended in water. Instead of moving in straight lines or staying still, they moved about in an erratic and entirely unpredictable manner. They followed, as it were, a ‘drunkard’s path’:

Brownian Motion

Brownian Motion

To Brown, the pollen grains seemed invested with the primordial rudiments of life which gave imbued them with the capacity to meander about like drunkards following a random walk. Cool! Too bad though: he was wrong. But like so many things, even though his hypothesis was incorrect, the search for the correct explanation changed the way we look at the world. The correct explanation for Brownian motion is that the grains of pollen were being bombarded by myriads of water molecules moving at random. The molecules were too small to be resolved by the microscopes. Their presence could only be inferred by observing Brownian motion.

So, Brownian motion is the name given to the random motion of particles in gases or liquids. The particles follow a ‘random walk’ or a ‘drunkard’s path’ because they are round and elastic, bouncing off one another in proportion to the temperature of the system. Or so the kinetic theory of gases would argue. If this seems self-evident, it sure wasn’t in 1829. Molecules: what are those? Didn’t matter contain phlogiston, an element with the property of fire which enables combustion? And so on. It wasn’t until 1905 that someone figured out the true cause behind the disturbingly random movements in Brownian motion. It took Einstein to figure it out.

Levels of Uncertainty and Order in Brownian Motion

Now, what is most interesting about Brownian motion is that here is a system that is completely random, unpredictable, and lacking certainty on one level but exhibits form, predictability, and order on another level.

On a micro level, the random walk of a gas particle in a container is, well, completely random. That is to say, there is no force in the universe which is capable of predicting whither it will go. God doesn’t know. Ask Laplace’s demon and he would tell you many other things, but the random walk is beyond his intelligence.

All this uncertainty: very frustrating! What can be done? Well, nothing can be done. The uncertainty resolves itself! How? On a macro level, a container of gas exhibits form, predictability, and order. Gas in a container-that is to say millions of billions of particles all randomly walking-is governed by such things as Boyle’s Law (pressure inversely proportional to volume) and the transfer of kinetic energy (temperature) of the container to the outside world is also well regulated.

How it happens that on a micro level things are completely random (individual particles of gas randomly walking) and on a macro level things are completely determinate (billions of particle of gas have well defined characteristics including temperature, energy, pressure, etc.,) is beyond me. At some point, however, chaos gives way to order. Keep this in mind for now.

Tragedy, Comedy, and History

Ever thought about how randomness, unpredictability, and the unexpected dominate comedy and tragedy. In comedy, the unlikely couple overcome cantankerous patriarchs, and social and economic barriers to become happily married. In tragedy, the unexpected also dominates: Birnam Wood comes to high Dunsinane hill every time. But now turn your attention to history. Patterns emerge. Some of the patterns are linear. Fukuyama thought that history aimed towards achieving democratic capitalist societies. Then history ends. Marx thought history strives towards the communist revolution. Patterns can be linear. Polybius believed in anacyclosis, the doctrine that constitutions move cyclically from monarchy to tyranny to aristocracy to oligarchy to democracy to ochlocracy and then back again to monarchy. The patterns in history are reflective of a reality that has form, order, and is predictable. If tragedy, comedy, and history all represent reality, is comedy and tragedy correct or is history correct? After all, the unexpected reigns in comedy and tragedy while the expected reigns in history.

Come back now to the behavior of gases on a micro and macro level. On a micro level, Brownian motion is the term used to describe the unexpected ways particles move around at random. On a macro level, patterns emerge that are predictable (e.g. as pressure increases volume decreases). Tragedy and comedy look at the world from a micro level. They usually dramatize the actions of a day or less (the unity of time). History looks at the world from a macro level. It records actions taken place over decades and centuries. In this way, the short term randomness of a day yields to long term order and patterns. So comedy and tragedy versus history is like looking at Brownian motion: on a small scale, disorder. On a large scale, order. Neither are right or wrong. They are looking at the same reality from a different perspective.

It always astounds me how many parallels there are between science and art. It may have something to do with how we look at the world. Whether we are artists or scientists, we look at the world with the same set of eyes and the same intellectual apparatus. So perhaps the parallels between science and art rests on humanity and the all-too-human way of understanding things.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m Doing Melpomene’s Work by figuring out the secrets to tragic literary theory.

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.

Life of Castruccio Castracani – Machiavelli

Why History?

The final chapter of the soon to be released (soon as in glacially soon 2017) book Paying Melpomene’s Price: Miscalculated Risk in Tragedy will finish off with a bang. What sort of a bang? Well, sometimes the way to really define something is to define what it is not. In the last chapter will be a discussion of the differences between tragedy, philosophy, history, and comedy. This means I should start reading other genres! Well, it so happens that history is a close second favourite after tragedy. They are in fact quite related. You can get, for instance, tragic history like the Leonidas’ last stand. In a later blog I will disclose what my third and fourth favourite are. So there you have it, assiduous readers: this is the reason why I.m reading The Life of Castruccio Castracani of Lucca by Machiavelli. There will be more histories, philosophies, and comedies to follow.

Why Machiavelli?

I.ve read (and enjoyed) Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, Sallust, Caesar, and other ancient Greek and Roman historians. Thinking it.d be a good idea to branch out a bit for the purposes of Doing Melpomene’s Work, I went down to Russell Books to find something new. Boy do they have a big history section! It was overwhelming. The selection confounded me and I left without making a purchase. Stacks and stacks of WWII, WWI, early Canadian exploration, and so on. What is worse, the ones I looked at didn.t read like the ‘narrative’ type history that I was familiar with.

Later that afternoon, while meeting up with MT at Moka House (a well-heeled coffee shop for artists, students, on-duty police, and locals) on Cook street, who did I bump into but my (erstwhile) neighbour SG. SG happens to be a history professor at UVic, so he knows a thing or two about history. I asked him for some tips. He asked what I had read and then had three suggestions: Machiavelli, Ibn Khaldun, and Gibbon. Thanks for saving the day, SG!

Back to Russell Books

Next day, back to Russell Books. Believe it or not, they only had one copy of Machiavelli.s historical works there! It had the History of Florence (which was the recommendation) and also some other works, one of which among them is The Life of Castruccio Castracani of Lucca. Normally, complete works are better. But seeing that this was all they had, well, beggars can.t be choosers! It was a bargain at $4.50 (well actually not so much since the original price was $1.45). No image on amazon or googleimages, here.s a snapshot:

Cover Illustration Machiavelli (The Great Histories Series)

Cover Illustration Machiavelli (The Great Histories Series)

The sparse looking cover is a welcome sight. I could imagine the stone lion guarding the bridges at Florence. It might even date back to Machiavelli.s time but on second thought maybe it.d be more weathered. It.s a sort of noble image that captures what the imagination anticipates in a Machiavelli history: noble, monolithic, distant, from another era.

[edit] There is a note on the front cover illustration inside the book:

Sculpted in sandstone by Donatello circa 1418, The Sitting Lion, also known as The Marzocco, is a Florentine emblem. Designed for a papal residence, this statue now reside in the Mseo Nazionale in Florence.

Back Blurb and ‘About the Author’

Since readers of the blog are becoming experts at analyzing back blurbs, here.s the one from this volume:

Machiavelli–whose name has become synonymous with the cynical, scheming, and immoral–was in truth an idealist with a cold, clear eye on reality. A passionate, courageous patriot, he would have spent his entire career in the active service of a free Florence. But upheavals of war ousted him after fourteen years. Yet his assertion that politics has inherent rules not necessarily related to morality, and his blunt aphorisms–so easily distorted out of context–account for his undeserved notoriety.

For Machiavelli, the historian played a significant pedagogic role. In Th Description of the Affairs of France and the Discourse on the Government of Florence, he viewed history with an eye to contemporary problems. The Life of Castruccio, a romanticized biography, illustrates his ideal of strength.

The major portion of this book is devoted to selections from The History of Florence. Here Machiavelli applied the criteria of success and failure developed in his earlier studies to evaluate his city’s past

Machiavelli was edited by Myron P. Gilmore, Professor of History at Harvard University.

Some thoughts. Wow, if you are a tenured professor at Harvard with an initialed middle name, you don.t need much of an ‘About the Author’ or in this case ‘About the Editor’! Just that you have three initials and work at Harvard suffices. Hmm, maybe I could be Edwin C. Wong. Or, not to be outdone, maybe I could use my Chinese middle name for even greater effect: Edwin C.L. Wong!

The back blurb in this volume gets the attention by dispelling conventions. It also has the advantage of being written from the point of view of someone who appreciates Machiavelli and wishes to recuperate his cold-blooded reputation. Whether Machiavelli was calculatingly cold-blooded I.ll leave it up to you. But to argue for his redemption (‘passionate, courageous patriot…’) is stronger than arguing that he was a prick because the argument for redemption is filled with sympathy and not bile. It.s the same with Homeric scholarship. There there are unitarians–who argue Homer was one person–and analysts–who argue that Homer is not one person but a long tradition epic poets. The analysts are probably correct, but I always liked the unitarians because they were loyal to the genius of one man: they loved the Iliad and Odyssey as artists. The analysts I always thought of as being clinical and dry, without love and fellow-feeling.


Now to the good part. History has one fantastic feature: aphorisms by famous folks. Even if apocryphal, they.re fun. So here.s a reward for diligent readers! Enjoy! These are selections, there.s more in the Life of Castruccio:

When a friend was reproving him for having bought a partridge for a ducat, Castruccio said: ‘You would not have spent more than a soldo on it’. When his friend agreed, he replied: ‘A ducat is worth much less to me’.

That one illustrates the difference between price and value. Castruccio believes in value, not price.

When Castruccio said to a man who was a professional philosopher: ‘You are like dogs who are always hanging around those who can feed them best’; the other replied: ‘We are more like doctors who go to those who need them most’.

Like I was intimating at the beginning of this post, there is some kind of ancient enmity between philosophy, history, tragedy, and comedy.

Castruccio was going to sea from Pisa to Leghorn and was overtaken by a dangerous storm that frightened him badly. One of the men who were with Castruccio accused him of cowardice and said he was not afraid of anything. Castruccio replied that he was not surprised, for each person set the right value on his own soul.

A similar reckoning between the value of a ducat and a soldo in the first aphorism.

On being asked how Caesar died, Castruccio said: ‘Would to God I might die like him’.

I have to remember to use this one. It is awesome. It hits the nail on the head by twisting hackneyed thought on its head: his death was proof that he was Caesar. A lesser tyrant would have lived.

And one more for the road:

When someone asked him a favour, and used a lot of superfluous words, Castruccio said to him: ‘When you want anything else of me send another man’. When a similar person had bored him with a long speech and had ended by saying: ‘Perhaps I have tired you by talking too much’; ‘Not at all’, Castruccio said, ‘because I did not her a word you said’.

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