Sunday, 13 August 2017

Shadow of the Moon by M.M. Kaye

"Winter!  Who ever heard of such a name?"

Set during the great Indian Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, Shadow of the Moon follows the life of Winter, Condesa de Ballesteros who is the daughter of a Spanish nobleman and an English mother.  Leaving India for England an orphan at the age of six, she is raised by her great-grandfather the Earl of Ware, but a match is made for her at the tender age of eleven to a man twenty years her senior, and at seventeen she prepares to leave for India escorted by Captain Alex Randall, the subordinate of her betrothed, Conway Barton, the Commissioner of the Lunjore district.  From the beginning, Winter is attracted to Randall’s self-confident demeanour and somewhat brash independence, yet while she appreciates his care of her, she is also affronted at times by his behaviour and the two develop a mutual attraction that is complicated by circumstance and convention.  Although Winter remembers her fiancé as a rather jovial pleasant figure who offers safety and security, Randall is convinced that once she sees the debauched, womanizing lout, nothing in the world would convince her to marry him. 

Yet what becomes more of a concern is the rumblings in India of disquiet and unrest, as the British East India company's presence has long been resented.  A company originally formed for trade and at one point accounting for half of the world's trade, the British East India Company had expropriated not only the goods of the country of India, but its territories as well.  At the time of this story, there is discontentment among the Indian people due to heavy-handed British social reforms, unfair taxes, and the treatment of some of the nobility of the country.  In this case, the fuse that lit the mutiny was Indian sepoy officers being given cartridges smeared with pig and cow fat which they have to bite off, a practice that would be an anathema to both Hindus and Muslims due to their religious beliefs.  In spite of rumours murmured in secret meetings and bazaars of a mutiny so great not one Englishman will be left alive, the British commanders continue to trust their Indian armies, and stubbornly refuse to heed the signs of disaffection and suspicion.  While Randall attempts to convince his British contemporaries of the dangers, there are still parties and gaieties galore among the English ex-patriots and one wonders at their willful blindness.

The ruins of the Residency at Lucknow and the
gunfire it received
source Wikipedia
This historical aspect of this novel was fascinating.  Kaye communicated the various personages and political posturing in a highly realistic manner, from the blind stubbornness of the British commanders, to the insightful planning of Sir Henry Lawrence; from the rebel attacks in Delhi, to the flight of the British characters in their attempts to escape the carnage, the reader is treated to a highly developed and suspenseful plot that keeps him riveted to the pages.  Kaye also weaves a descriptive masterpiece of the settings of India and one can feel the heat radiating from the land, hear the chatter of the people in the bazaars, sense the tension between races and the suppressed passion between Winter and Alex Randall.  

The Sepoy revolt at Meerut
from Illustrated London News, 1857
source Wikipedia
Sadly, the romance in the novel was the most disappointing part.  Randall appeared rather self-absorbed for the greater part of the book, his job and political responsibilities often overshadowing any love or caring or attention that he could have shown Winter, and the uncomfortableness of her situation (a married woman) combined with Randall's independent and sometimes abrasive character quelled any feelings of satisfaction that might have been generated by their love story.  Winter also had a penchant for overreacting with an exaggerated response that would cause her to make unwise decisions which would either damage her position, or needlessly complicate her life. While it perhaps added to the plot, it was often annoying and not necessarily believable. Randall himself displayed a character that was not particularly warm or generous towards women; I could understand Winter's attraction to him, but I also thought their future life would be fraught with discontent and unrest, very much like the India they inhabited.

Here is an article written by M.M. Kaye on her writing of Shadow of the Moon, which I found interesting and illuminating.  In spite of a few reservations about the romance aspect, the rest of the novel was highly enjoyable and I thank Cirtnecce for her read-along.  If you want to read more about the book and the Indian Sepoy mutiny, please see her post on the Company Raj and her post on The Landscape of the Mutiny.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

The Republic ~ Part I (Book I)

The Republic
Jean-Leon Gerome
source Wikiart

Book I:


The dialogue begins around the year of 410 B.C. at the port of the Piraeus, a town five miles from Athens.  As we read of the overthrow of the Athenian democracy in 404 B.C. in Thucydides’, History of the Peloponnesian War, Socrates begins to ask the questions about the benefits of democracy and builds his Republic on those ideas.  He begins by questioning the benefits and results of Justice.

Returning home from a religious festival with Glaucon (one of the brothers of Plato), Socrates becomes involved in a conversation with Cephalus, an old man.  Cephalus is certain Justice consists of being honest in your dealings with others and fulfilling your obligations, a very traditional Greek worldview.  When Socrates challenges this definition, the son of Cephalus, Polemarchus (who, in history, was executed by the Thirty Tyrants) expands on his father's ideas, yet Socrates challenges his conception that Justice is treating your friends well and harming your enemies.  Man is libel to be mistaken in his assessment of both, and doesn’t harming someone make him less of a person?  Therefore, if you make someone less than they are, how can one be said to be just in his treatment of them?  


The Madonna of Justice (1620-25)
Bernardo Strozzi
source Wikiart
Thrasymachus, a well-known Sophist*, bursts into the conversation, insisting on a different defintion of Justice: the actions of those in power, as they dispense them on their subjects.  Thrasymachus is embodying the view of a relativist where there is no objective definition; Justice is only whatever the stronger imposes on the weaker.  Socrates counters, asking if a ruler always makes decisions in his own best interest, which Thrasymachus admits not.  Socrates then gives an example of physician or ship’s captain; is their interest in themselves or their patients or sailors?  The latter, of course, so “no skill or authority provides for its own benefit,” but for the benefit of the weaker, which contradicts the assertion of Thrasymachus.  I rather think Thrasymachus’ views would be a recipe for chaos.

Now the larger question is tackled by Socrates …. Is a life of Justice preferable to a life of injustice?  Socrates refutes Thrasymachus’ view, concluding that the virtue of a soul is Justice and injustice its defect.  Thus, “the soul robbed of its peculiar virtue, … cannot possibly do its work well ….. and living well involves well-being and happiness,” and therefore, “only the just man is happy.”  However, Socrates has not yet given a fixed definition of Justice.


* in ancient Greece, Sophists were paid teachers who were experts in using philosophy and rhetoric to promote excellence and virtue, yet are often portrayed as using fallacious reasoning and obscuring moral principles



Friday, 4 August 2017

History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides

"Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, beginning at the moment that it broke out, and believing that it would be a great war, and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it."

Ah, the lovely Landmark editions!  Where would I be without them?  I would have no idea the location of Thrace or Thessaly or Corinth, etc. and therefore have less of a concept of the complicated dynamics that influenced various states in their struggles to fit into the puzzle of Hellenistic supremacy!

Thucydides account of the war between Sparta and Athens falls just after the events recounted in Herodotus' The Histories.  Athens, high on her victory over the very powerful Xerxes, king of Persia, during the Persian Wars, is feeling rather self-important and she appears to be rushing around with her forces, conquering states here and subduing enemies there.  And while Athens becomes more powerful, the Lacedaemonians of Sparta are left to conduct their somewhat mundane and traditional existence.  But Athens' power begins to worry them and while they were allies during the Persian Wars, this brotherhood appears to be heading towards a separation that could prove bloody as well as costly.

Index of Posts:


Book I / Book II / Book III / Book IV / Book V / Book VI / Book VIIBook VIII

Thucydides, indeed, gives a fascinating account of a mega-war between two superior powers that were at the height of their military powers, a war that would not only engulf their nations, but many of the city-states surrounding them and would even spread to Italy with the disastrous Sicilian expedition launched by Athens.  At first, the reader perhaps can sympathize that Athens might want to expand her influence or that Sparta might want to assert herself for balance, but soon the war grows like a cancer wherever it touches, prompting Thucydides to make an insightful observation:

"Think, too of the great part that is played by the unpredictable in war: think of it now, before you are actually committed to war.  The longer a war lasts, the more things tend to depend on accidents.  Neither you nor we can see into them: we have to abide their outcome in the dark.  And when peole are entering upon a war they do things the wrong way round.  Action comes first, and it is only when they have already suffered that they begin to think."

How right he was!  One goes into a war with laudable intentions, but soon enough greed and power and hegemony begins to infect the general purpose and beyond anyone's control the conflict becomes a nine-headed hydra.

After reading Herodotus, Thucydides' narrative at first felt dry and sparse.  It definitely took determination and some plodding through a literary desert to keep going, but the reward was unexpected and quite amazing.  The fact that Thucydides did not colour the actions of others with his own palate (or at least, very little) allowed these actions and decisions to stand out in stark contrast and emphasized the selfless bravery, the strategic plotting, the blind stubbornness of leaders, the diplomatic brilliance, the plain stupidity of many and the various other exploits of all those involved in this lengthy and tragic war.

One wants to catalogue the evils of war, but Thucydides made me realize that war is much more complex that just an event; in fact, it seemed like the war was simply a side-issue that was a symptom of a much larger problem.  The problem of people ....... their greed and small-mindedness and selfish ambition.  It's a scenario that's played over and over throughout history and the actions of these people are always catastrophic at the most and injurious at the least, no matter if the venue is war, or political strife, or family matters, or any other large or small issue that our human faults and failing play into. Next I'm reading The Republic by Plato, a man whose life was coloured by this lengthy war.  It will be interesting to read the conclusions he draws.




Tuesday, 1 August 2017

July/August ~ Life Goes By At The Speed of Light


Once Upon A Time (c. 1850)
Carl Spitzweg
source Wikiart

I cannot believe where the time has gone.  It's passed by so quickly that my mind is spinning.  Which is not good.  Lately I've been thinking about balance in life, and how we find it.  Is it only people who live in large cities who have this problem, as events and opportunities are much more accessible?  Or do we all do it to ourselves and are "nuts," as my scorekeeping liaison is fond of calling me?  I have a feeling there are many answers to this question, all of them complex and none of them clear.

June ...... what can I say about June?  Honestly, so many things blur together which, I believe, comes from ...... yes, being entirely too busy. Most of it was spent getting ready for the big international women's softball tournament held yearly in my area.  Usually I help scorekeep but this year was the year they made me head scorekeeper so I had almost 40 volunteers working under me.  Help!  It was certainly trial-by-fire and for 11 days, 14-15 hours per day, I was kept moving, going from diamond to diamond, fixing scoreboards, sound systems, talking to volunteers, altering schedules continuously, grabbing volunteers on the fly for either scorekeeping, announcing or scoreboards, etc. etc.  It went very well and the support and help I received from my volunteers was truly exceptional and very much appreciated.  The tournament was a wonderful experience, but even so, I must admit I was relieved when it was over, as the long days were beginning to wear on me.  Japan beat Australia in the final, which was no surprise as softball is huge in Japan and their teams are nearly always impossible to beat.  After that tournament, I went on to be head scorekeeper for a Provincials tournament which was very enjoyable (and much smaller) but I was pretty much exhausted at the end of it all.  It was nice to fly off for vacation a couple of days later and I won’t be back for at least another week.  Needless to say, I’m sleeping lots, enjoying getting more reading time than I have had recently, doing lots of kayaking, and relaxing in nature.   A couple of days ago, I came outside on the deck to find that Finn (my dog) had caught a mouse; the mouse was traumatized and Finn was looking sufficiently traumatized as well, as he was most likely trying to play with it and didn’t quite realize the consequences.  We put it in a berry box, gave it food (blueberries) and water, and it appeared to be getting better, but sadly something came along last night and ate it, so our nursing was all for naught.  Poor mouse.  Such is the circle of life, I suppose.

© Cleo @ Classical Carousel

Oh, before I forget, I did manage to raise some butterflies, something I’d been planning to do for years and never managed to buy the kit in time.  They were Painted Ladies and all hatched easily except for one.  It was liberating to watch them fly away clothed in their bright painted colours.  I do wonder though, while they're supposed to be native to this area, I never see any.  The occasional Monarch, yes, Painted Ladies, no .....

© Cleo @ Classical Carousel



Source
Some rather distressing news in our province is the unprecedented number of forest fires burning throughout British Columbia.   Today, as I sit outside on the deck, there is an air quality advisory in effect and I'm hoping for winds to breeze the smoginess away.  To date, there have been a total of over 200 fires with 325,000 hectares (803,000 acres) have been scorched and many people's houses have burned to the ground; a friend's cottage at Loon Lake was destroyed by the flames. Firefighters from the U.S. and Mexico have travelled to help out but sadly the hot temperatures continue and there doesn't seem to be much reprieve.  Very tragic and we can only hope for a change of weather soon.

source

From fires to reading ... did I already mention reading?  Of course, I did!  I would have had very little to report for my July post, but since I didn’t do one and we’re already in August, I have news!  I’m almost finished reading Shadow of the Moon for Cirtnecce’s read-along, a book about the great India mutiny of 1857.  As with all M.M. Kaye’s books, it’s well-written and delivers a comprehensive history of the time, drawing the reader right into the story.  I finished History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides and enjoyed it much more than I expected.  It gets better as it goes along and offers an insightful look into politics, power and war.  I’m also reading Augustine’s City of God (sooooo different from his Confessions) and Plato’s Republic.  I can’t say I’m enjoying the former yet, but the latter is certainly fascinating, not only for Plato’s ideas but for the way in which he delivers them; one often can’t quite tell whether Socrates is being serious, or playful, or ironic.  Otherwise, I need to pick up Dead Souls again by Gogol and finish it off and continue with O’s The Pickwick Papers Read-Along.

And so what does August bring?  Other than the end of my vacation, I have a drive to Saskatchewan planned.  While I’ve seen places in Alberta (Lake Louise, Banff, etc.), I’ve never been further east in Canada by car so it should be interesting.  And yes, (broken record starting….) the food blog is still coming along, yet technically not launched.  I just became too busy over the summer and could not give it the attention it needed.  My partner is being patient (although perhaps it would help if he’d be a little more prodding!  Oooo, but is that nagging?  That wouldn’t be good! ;-) ).  I’m going to try to get something happening on it in August but it might not be until September, if I’m honest.  I’m still thinking about it though …. collecting recipes, ideas, etc. so in a way, I haven’t completely abandoned it.

© Cleo @ Classical Carousel

And books?  I already have so much I’m reading but I do plan to add a couple of others to the mix.  Plutarch’s Lives is ready to go, and I want to start Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.  I’ve also been eyeing The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake which looks very interesting.  If anyone has read it, can you give me a positive recommendation?

So .....  as July has slipped almost silently into August, I hope you all are having a wonderful summer!

© Cleo @ Classical Carousel


Saturday, 29 July 2017

The Republic ~ Introduction

"Socrates: I walked down to the Piraeus yesterday with Glaucon the son of Ariston to make my prayers to the goddess."

Well, I've finished History of the Peloponnesian War (except for my final post), yet I'm afraid I'm going to continue on the same track with The Republic and put a number of my readers to sleep.  But I am enjoying this history project ..... as we've meandered through Herodotus, then Thucydides, and now Plato, you do see changes and developments within the Greek culture and worldview that can't be ignored.  And since our civilization, to a certain extent, grew out of it, I believe it's valuable to learn something about that development.  I anticipate that Plato will be more interesting, but possibly more frustrating.  It doesn't seem like it was only the ancients who wanted to strangle Socrates .....

Introduction

Plato was born is the year 428/7 BC and his childhood and early youth were overshadowed with the Peloponnesian War, giving rise to a fundamental questioning of the best way to live.  As Thucydides observed in his history that "in peace and prosperity both states and individuals are actuated by higher motives, because they do not fall under the dominion of imperious necessities; but war, which takes away the comfortable provision of daily life, is a hard master, and tends to assimilate men's characters to their conditions," and thus Plato saw political life as a type of war for power, money or prestige.

Upon Pericles's death at the beginning of the war, there ended the reign of a philosopher king, a man whom grew in wisdom through his conversations with the pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaxagoras, and therefore was able to employ both political intelligence and enlightened prudence to his governing of the state.  With his demise, a great chasm began to appear between politics and philosophy.  "To Plato, this drifting apart of the men of thought and the men of action was a disastrous calamity, indeed the root of the social evils of his time."  (Cornford p. xxiv)  Instead of two separate avenues, each should be united in the other to allow man his full expression.

Plato (1560)
Paolo Veronese
source Wikiart

By mid-life Plato opened his Academy, basing his conversational instruction on his mentor, Socrates, whom he'd studied under since his early twenties.  Plato sought an answer to the problem that if knowledge was a means to power, and power to wealth, then society was doomed to a materialistic cycle that left men blind to not only the consequences of their actions, but led them to mistake the path to true happiness: "which every soul pursues as the end of all her actions, dimly divining its existence, but perplexed and unable to grasp its nature with the same clearness and assurance as in dealing with other things, and so missing whatever value those other things might have." (5a95 E, p. 216).  With his astute insight, Plato presents a problem that is ubiquitous, a universal dilemma.

The translator, Conford, suggests that in reading Plato, ask yourself why you agree or disagree with Plato's utopian design, and in response, suggest an alternative.  In this way, through time, you can experience an abstract participation in Plato's Academy and perhaps determine, as Socrates implied, that it's just as important to discover what you don't know, as what you do.

Arcadian Ruins (c. 1720)
Giovanni Paolo Panini
source ArtUK



Thursday, 27 July 2017

The History of the Peloponnesian War - Book VIII


Isle of Chios
Frederic Leighton
source ArtUK


History of the Peloponnesian War


Book VIII:  While Athens is paralyzed in disbelief about the catastrophic Sicilian expedition, Sparta takes advantage of their weakness and begins to foment strife among Athenian allies.  They instigate revolts in Chios and Miletus, as well as other areas that pay tribute to Athens.  The Athenians fight back with some success.  Various battles and political strategems abound, with Alcibiades coming to the forefront, inciting unrest and disagreement wherever he goes, a result of his selfish manipulations.  Finally the Peloponnesians suspect him of subterfuge as he is now tight with the Persian, Tissapherne, and the Athenians mistrust him as well.  It is unclear as to whether Alcibiades' urging is the main catalyst, but suddenly Athenian groups break from their beloved democracy and revolt against it, sending envoys back to Athens to overthrow the democracy and establish oligarchies along the way.  Their actions are so ill-planned that the areas they convert are so intoxicated with their new freedom that they begin self-government and the intended plan of the reform set to them by the Athenian envoys is completely ignored.  Sparta and Persia form an alliance and Alcibiades is up to his usual no-good, playing off Sparta and Athens against each other with the help of Tissapherne, the corrupt Persian governor.  

In Athens, mistrust and subterfuge is rampant as no one knows who to trust and any opponent of oligarchies is murdered.  A “party” named the Four Hundred overthrows the democracy in Athens and takes control, and another oligarchic party in Samos plans the same, but they are thwarted by a number of pro-democratic Athenians who vow to have nothing to do with the oligarchs in Athens, intending to restore democracy by fighting on their own.
 
Eretria, Euboea, Greece
Edward Lear
source Wikiart
Alcibiades begins to pander to the Athenians again and Sparta is concerned about desertion if they do not win a decisive battle.  Meanwhile, back in Athens there is discontent and people are now jockeying for position if the oligarchy falls.  The oligarchs send an envoy to Sparta asking for peace and indeed, these cowardly oligarchs would have rather lost their liberty and their country than see a return to democracy.  Murders and unrest abound and people are so panicked that some call for rule under the Five Thousand even though there is no proof that that body even exists.  A Spartan fleet reaches Eretria in Euboea and the Euboeans revolt from Athens which promotes panic in the city but the Spartans are too obtuse to sense this opportunity, or so our learned author claims.  Athens quickly disposes of the oligarchs, installs the Five Thousand, enacts new reforms and recalls Alcibiades.  A victory for the Athenian fleet at the Hellespont restores their confidence.

The Acropolis of Athens (1883)
Ivan Aivazovsky
source Wikiart
Finally Thucydides' narrative breaks off in the middle of the 21st year of the war in 411 B.C., and we learn no more directly from the author.  The war ended in 404 B.C., so we miss seven more years of fighting, political posturing, strife and discontent.  Among the war incidents not disclosed, we miss two partial Athenian victories at Cyzicus and Arginouse and her final defeat by the famous Spartan commander Lysander at Aegopotami, where he captured almost the entire Athenian fleet in the Hellespont.  After this embarrassment, Athens had but no choice than to sue for peace.  Sparta decided to allow Athens to remain as a city, but demanded her fleet, the demolition of the Walls protecting her, and freedom for all states that were once part of the Athenian empire.  From a powerful, vibrant democracy to a broken, isolated dependent, the loss of freedom must have been heavy indeed to this once great city.

This final chapter though was quite riveting and exposed the perils and weaknesses of human nature like no other has done so far. 

Sunday, 23 July 2017

The History of the Peloponnesian War - Book VII


A Dream of Ancient Athens
Sydney Herbert
source ArtUK


History of the Peloponnesian War


Athenian navy, Sicily
source Wikimedia Commons
Book VII:  Gylippus has great success in Syracuse, turning the tide of the war in favour of the Sicilians, capturing outposts and generally making a great nuisance of himself.  Nicias is ill with a kidney condition and writes to Athens to send more armaments, as Alcibiades has turned traitor, Lamachus is dead and he is the only general left.  They immediately send Eurymedon with ten ships which is hardly encouraging, and Demosthenes sets to gather more reinforcements to leave in the spring.  Meanwhile Gylippus prods the Syracusans to engage the Athenians in a sea battle and although they lose, he is able to capture three forts with loads of supplies and this feat is labeled “the first and foremost cause of the ruin of the Athenian army”.  Athenians ships fail to stop other Spartan ships from leaving Peloponnese and an Athenian supply vessel is destroyed, further damaging the Athenian cause, and with a Spartan invasion at Decclea, a second war front springs up for the beleaguered Athenians.  Thucydides relates complete disbelief that, in spite of all they had suffered and the emerging war on the home front, they still stubbornly clung to their Sicilian expedition. 


Destruction of the Athenian army
at Syracuse
source Wikimedia Commons
Demosthenes and Eurymedon arrive and Demosthenes pushes for immediate attack, feeling that Nicias missed his chance for victory with procrastination at the outset.  His attack fails and he counsels for immediate withdrawal as the troops with have more use at Athens.  Nicias disagrees with his counterpart.  NOW, in spite of never being in favour of the expedition, he wants to remain, citing information that the Syracusans are running out of money and his confidence in his fleet.  The two argue but when Gylippus returns, they all agree to leave, however an eclipse of the moon stays their departure and Nicias “who was somewhat over-addicted to divination and practices of that kind,” refuses to depart.  It is an unwise decision as Eurymedon is killed in battle and the Syracusans surround the whole Athenian fleet in the Great Harbour.  The Athenians with their whole fleet attempt to fight their way out, but are routed.  They retire and both Demosthenes and Nicias wish to try again the next day but the soldiers are demoralized and refuse to man the ships so they plan their escape route overland.  Exhausted, the army encounters opposition wherever they go and eventually are killed or captured, with very few escaping.  Both Demosthenes and Nicias surrender and are chopped to bits; Thucydides stresses that Nicias did not deserve this fate.  The losses for Athens are the most catastrophic imaginable.

Destruction of the Athenian army in Sicily
source Wikimedia Commons