New history articles (July 2012 edition)

Posted in Academia, Blogs, Greek, Reading by Alex L. on November 19, 2012

Historical Proceedings header

Historical Reflections journal cover

“Virtually a Historian: Blogs and the Recent History of Dispossessed Academic Labor” by Claire Bond Potter in Historical Reflections (Summer 2012).

Like the recording and newspaper industries, humanities departments in universities have struggled to generate enough income for their practitioners in the Information Age. Many members of this “dispossessed academic labor” pool vent their frustrations with the system online on blogs. Potter sees these (often anonymous) online criticisms as one of the only honest records available of how unemployed and underemployed historians truly feel about the labor conditions in higher education.

As someone on the brink of entering the profession of history, I find myself somewhat repulsed by the stygian tone of the more vociferous academic blogs. Part of me blames these down-and-out historians for not being more creative in how they practice history: is trudging the academic career path that they profess to hate really the only option they see for themselves? Why not reach out to the public, which finds history intrinsically interesting and presents a larger market for writing than the academy?

But the more empathetic part of me understands that such a recommendation is glib and naive. It is not so wise to abandon the academy completely as to reform it. And that won’t come without an honest — and often unpleasant — voicing  of dissatisfaction with the current state of things. (more…)

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Things, categories, patterns

Posted in Greek, Reading, Stories by Alex L. on February 6, 2011

A close-up of "doors", a painting by my friend on doodlemoose.com (click to see more)I don’t remember the topic of the discussion. I don’t recall who attended class that day. I cannot see in my mind’s eye now where I was sitting in that cavernous room in the basement of the bare-concrete humanities building. I just remember the voice of my history professor saying, in passing, to everyone in the senior thesis seminar that at some point in his twenties he had been “scrutinizing his categories”.

These strange words have stuck with me ever since, and I do remember pausing in class that day and mulling over them in my mind. What he meant, I think, was that at some point during his young adulthood he had thought about how he had come to know what he knows. For some foolish reason, these words of his began to emit in my mind the heady aroma of prophecy, and soon enough my memory of them had come to mean, “I too will scrutinize my categories one day in the near future, will rethink how it is that I have come to ‘know’ what I ‘know'”.

Truth is, though, I like talking about epistemology (the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of knowledge) about as much as I like seeing zoomed-in photographs of my face. Beliefs, like human skin, begin to reveal bizarre characteristics when seen up close. The problem is not so much with the beliefs or thoughts themselves as with our ability to scrutinize them. Most people, myself included, are just bad at coming up with insights about the way we think. Here is how a typical conversation about epistemology sometimes goes:

Svetlana: How do we know what we know?

Larry: Well, the world exists as an external entity. The individual person exists as a separate entity that sees, hears, smells, feels and tastes things in the world with his senses and understands the world through his mind.

So we understand an external world through our senses and with our mind?


And our understanding of our world is always accurate? (more…)

On tricking ourselves

Posted in Greek, Reading, Stories by Alex L. on January 23, 2011

Pink elephantEven though I still read them once in a while, I am generally skeptical of self-help books. They are always incomplete, in my opinion, because they have to boil down scientific research (if they are even based on science) into easy-to-sell concepts and action steps. Getting Things Done is a good example. A recent classic in the “productivity” branch of self-help literature, GTD’s entire system is based on a ridiculous notion: to truly feel relaxed in the world, one must have all of one’s actionable  ideas “captured” into sorted lists. Can you really enjoy a casual walk with a friend, the argument goes, while not having a written account of all of your preferences and next-actions for all of your projects close at hand?

The answer is yes, in my opinion, yes you can enjoy your life without planning it every step of the way. The assumption the book makes becomes a personal-productivity tyrant: one can scarcely have an idea pass through one’s head without feeling an obsessive urge to write it down in one list or another.

Of course by “one”, I am referring to myself. That is not to say that I will credit the plethora of useful lists I keep for work-related tasks and the tickler file I employ in my office to none other than David Allen, the writer of Getting Things Done. I just realize that any self-help book is going to offer partial solutions to any problem, and one must have a healthy capacity for what Aristotle called “practical wisdom”, phronesis, to pick and choose what’s useful for one’s life.

So when I perused the Chicago Tribune’s weekly literary section – Printers Row – one day in early January, I read the article titled “Seven books to aid in your new year’s resolutions” with a large grain of salt. But one book did catch my eye, and with the glad-handed aid of Amazon’s cursed 1-click purchasing system, I ordered and downloaded Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard onto my e-reader device. (more…)

Mattie and Achilles

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Film, Greek by Alex L. on January 13, 2011

Mattie Ross from "True Grit"I hadn’t heard of the new movie “True Grit” until my friend Mike called me up to go to the theater a few days ago. Because I was vehemently uninterested in seeing “Tron”, the Coen brothers’ new movie seemed like a good alternative after glimpsing descriptions of shows playing in local theaters.

I saw “True Grit” that evening, and I can’t wait to watch it again while it’s playing on the big screen. The movie was fantastic. I hadn’t heard of the original “True Grit” with John Wayne, nor had I read the novel by Charles Portis on which both movies were based, but I think I appreciated the movie more for having known nothing about it beforehand. If you haven’t seen “True Grit” in theaters yet, I recommend you don’t read the rest of this article.

Stanley Fish of the New York Times has a high-quality article about the religious undertones that he perceives throughout the new “True Grit”. His point is that this movie avoids creating a two-dimensional picture of reality. This is what makes it different from (and perhaps better than) the John Wayne version. Protagonists suffer alongside antagonists, and all display traditional heroic qualities. Reward and punishment for any kind of virtue or immorality, respectively, is not meted out in the way everyone expects; if you have lived virtuously, it is no guarantee that something unspeakably horrible won’t befall you in this world.

And yet “True Grit” is different from the Coen brothers’ earlier Western-style film, “No Country for Old Men”. That film was thoroughly depressing. Evil, in the form of  the cattle-gun wielding character of Anton, stalks every good  person, eventually destroys them all, and leaves nothing redeeming in its wake. “True Grit” has brighter moments.


On asking the right questions

Posted in Greek, Stories by Alex L. on August 22, 2010

Close-up of Raphael's painting, "The School of Athens"Philosophy began, on the sunny shores of the city of Miletus, as science. The first philosophers attempted to describe the processes of natural phenomena, and this has largely been the legacy of philosophy in Europe and the Arab world. But before Aristotle cast his discerning eye at the heavens and earth, began sifting and winnowing all that sensory data into categories, and cemented this scientific tone to the practice of philosophy ever after, there existed different methods.

Plato is considered to be the father of philosophy. Though only a relative handful of later philosophers had adopted his literary style of philosophical writing (Friedrich Nietzsche was one of them, prompting a modern commentator to note that Plato and Nietzsche are the only philosophers that contemporary people read for fun) he remains famous for the character of Socrates in the Platonic dialogues and the focus that he had carved out for philosophy.

Philosophy, according to Socrates, was the pursuit of discovering how to live a better life. This knowledge resides in every living person, he posited, and the method of mining this hidden treasure was knowing how to ask the right questions. Philosophy, as Socrates famously described, was not about finding the answers, but about asking the right questions.

The reason I bring this up is because this phrase, repeated so often in our culture that it has become a platitude (no pun intended), seems off to me. Today, I was thinking about some problems in my life that have gone unresolved for several years. Applying my brain – as a human being, my greatest tool – to the task of solving those problems, I have failed daily and repeatedly, though I had struck at the issues from every possible angle, seemingly asking all of the right questions.


Tension between Philosophical Law and Hebrew Law

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Greek, Judaism by Alex L. on May 28, 2009

One of the greatest challenges for Judaism and Christianity has been to reconcile the law of Moses in the Hebrew Scriptures with the moral law described by Greek philosophers. Writers of every generation from the Hellenistic Age to our own have sought to understand their Jewish tradition in light of philosophical reason, because they had come to believe that both are true. This task has always been a difficult one, because, fundamentally, I think the Philosophical Law and the Hebrew Law work in different ways.

The philosophical law, is more familiar to modern people. Through reason, as described by Plato and Aristotle, man can deduce the best way to live his life. Living the best life is the highest happiness, therefore the promise of the philosophical law is human happiness. The philosophical law seeks universal application – how to order one’s actions, emotions, conversations, work, and beliefs by reason to achieve the best possible life for ourselves and others. The philosophical law has often been called the Moral Law. The Hebrew law, though, functions in a different way.

The Hebrew law, as described in the Hebrew Scriptures, is the law of an ancient community, the Jews. Its regulations are very contextual to that age – rules regarding livestock, slaves, barbaric punishment, and the like. Moreover, the law is delivered by God as a tyrant (in a classical sense of the word, as someone whose actions and decrees are a law to themselves and obey no higher standard). The Mosaic law is not subject to reason like the philosophical law. The promise of the Hebrew law is not happiness, but solely faithfulness to the one who designed it, God. The function of the Hebrew law, in the context of Christianity (this is the only context I can knowledgeably speak for), is to teach people how to be merciful. The Mosaic law is designed to trip us up – we are meant to never live up to it (unlike, again, the philosophical law, which is always practical). Proof of this is that Christ himself was cursed by the Mosaic law by doing a profane thing when he was hung on a tree (the cross). The purpose of the Mosaic law, then, is this: if everyone, even Jesus Christ, is guilty under this law, and if God has mercy on all people anyway, then every individual must forgive others their trespasses of the law as he himself is forgiven of his. The Hebrew law teaches us about repentance and mercy.

The difference between the philosophical (moral) law and the Hebrew law can be summarized as this: the best life according to the former is happiness by way of reason, while the best life according to the latter is godliness by way of obedience. But what if godly obedience does not seem reasonable? In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that “not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass away from the law” and that anyone who teaches others to disobey any commandment at all will be condemned. But, in our Christian communities, we have let many letters of the Mosaic law pass away as society has progressed. Reason, it seems, has trumped obedience to God.

I’m not by any means advocating a return to following the Mosaic law. Perhaps this conflict between the moral law and the Hebrew law is much adieu about nothing. Perhaps there is no problem with being both a philosopher and Christian, though the Bible itself makes bold claims about the standard of lawful obedience. In any case, understanding the purpose and function of the philosophical law as opposed to the Biblical law can clarify one’s goals and beliefs to help one lead a better life.

Plato’s “Clitophon”: frustration with Socrates

Posted in Greek by Alex L. on May 27, 2009

Clitophon is the shortest Platonic dialogue but one that is very intriguing. In the dialogue, Clitophon, a student of Socrates, accuses his teacher of never leading him to happiness by failing to offer any positive knowledge. The dialogue ends with Clitophon exclaiming, “For I will say this, Socrates, that while you’re worth the world to someone who hasn’t yet been converted to the pursuit of virtue, to someone who’s already been converted you rather get in the way of his attaining happiness by reaching the goal of virtue.” Indeed, this feeling of wanting more is a familiar one to any serious reader of Plato. In Laches, Socrates refutes all proposed definitions of courage without offering any himself (cf. my post on Laches). Socrates ends the dialogue by saying to his friends that they should seek knowledgeable teachers of that virtue and that he will meet with them on the following day. The dialogue ends there, but the reader is left yearning to join Socrates and his friends the day after, where presumably Socrates, the ‘knowledgeable teacher’ he had coyly hinted at, would spill the beans about courage.

If nothing else, Clitophon is a testament to the meekness of Plato as an author. The work is a harsh denunciation of Socrates – Plato’s protagonist in almost all of his works – and a sober admission of the limitations of Plato’s method of philosophy. It reminds us that Socrates’ gift, as he described in the Apology, is to reveal the ignorance of others, not put forth positive knowledge himself. What Socrates offers us is first and foremost humility, not knowledge (at least not the kind that describes the definite nature of the good). It is easy to see how Aristotle, a student in Plato’s Academy for almost two decades, could grow frustrated with Plato’s approach and react against it. In his works, Aristotle offers the reader something Plato never directly does: a positive formulation of happiness, the virtues, and the good (rather, goods, which demystifies the problem) to give us practical advice on how to lead a better life.

Plato still stands as a giant among philosophers the more so because of his humility. But, at the risk of misunderstanding his deep meaning, I think Plato voluntarily left much of the work of learning how to live a better life to the hands of more able thinkers. We should remember Socrates lest our own theories fail his examination for ignorance, but we must not grow skeptical of personal improvement altogether (the leaders of the Academy took such a turn after Plato’s death). For Socrates never liked the timid of mind nor for that matter those lacking in courage, though he could never quite tell them exactly what that is.

Stephen Colbert is greater than Achilles

Posted in American, Greek, Just for Fun, Television by Alex L. on May 21, 2009

Stephen Colbert portrait

A while ago, I was reading Stephen Colbert’s biography on Wikipedia and was impressed by why he decided to become an actor. The article states, “After two years [at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia], he transferred to Northwestern University’s School of Communication to study performance, emboldened by the realization that he loved performing even when no one was coming to shows.” What a way to live and work! Although Stephen Colbert’s career as a comedian and social commentator is presently monumental, it did not seem to be heading that way when he first started acting. But, choosing to pursue work whose excellent completion was its own reward (detached from other incentives such as money or praise), Colbert truly has lived the good life.

Thoreau, in Walden, writes, “The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of others?” Most people work not to perfect their chosen art but rather to fulfill other desires – for money, women or reputation. The classic example of living in this sort of way is the hero Achilles from the Iliad. His greatness is completely a function of the honor ascribed to him by others. He kills to acquire others’ wealth. He possesses women for the same reason. He amasses this plunder to build his reputation, exhibiting his power before others. He is not self-sufficient in his greatness; he requires others to perceive him as great. To be fair, many people labor for personal motives, such as supporting their family, even though they may not care for the work they do itself. That, too, is noble. But in so much as Stephen Colbert’s work is self-sufficient and done for the love of its own perfection, he is greater than Achilles.

Plato’s “Laches” – is courage choosing faith over fear?

Posted in Greek by Alex L. on April 3, 2009

Plato’s Laches is a dialogue about the nature of courage (literally translated, “manliness”). Socrates and his friends proceed in a manner typical of Plato’s dialogues: Socrates’ companions propose various definitions of courage, and a communal inquiry led by Socrates finds each one of the proposals inadequate. Courage is defined in turn as endurance (189d-192c), wise endurance (192c-194b), knowledge of the fearful and hopeful (194c-199c), and knowledge of good and evil (199c-199e).

While all of those definitions fail to describe the nature of courage, I think the best one was the third one, knowledge of the fearful and hopeful (or, at least, it sparked some thought in my mind). Socrates describes fear as the expectation of future evils. Hope or faith (there is a slight difference in the meaning of the two terms, but I will henceforth refer to “faith” since it more closely parallels Socrates’ definition of fear), then, is the expectation of future goods. Fear is the opposite of faith and faith is the opposite of fear, according to Socrates. Both describe a present relationship with future events, though from opposing perspectives. Socrates’ view differs from how we usually think about courage, cowardice, fear, and faith. “Courage in the face of death” is the usual way people talk about that virtue (as in, soldiers fighting enemies or patients battling cancer). “I have no faith in him” suggests that the opposite of faith is mistrust, not fear (no one would substitute “I fear him” for that expression). Socrates challenges us to examine these things further.

The last two definitions of courage in the dialogue fail because Socrates and his companions Laches and Nicias can not define what type of knowledge constitutes courage. But is not courage more than just knowledge? In a moment of conflict within the individual, isn’t there a sort of choice involved which determines whether his action turns out to be courageous or cowardly? Should we not say, then, that courage is choosing and acting in accordance with faith (that is, the expectation of future goods) over fear (the expectation of future evils)?

Immediately, an objection could be raised to this new definition. What is the difference between this new proposal and just saying that courage is knowledge of good and evil (the fourth definition of the dialogue, which Socrates disproved)? For Socrates, knowledge of good and evil always leads to virtuous action – only ignorance, not individual will, leads to evil. So then isn’t choosing to expect future goods over future evils the same as knowing what those goods and evils are? Well, yes, perhaps my attempt at philosophizing fails there. But maybe my proposal can still be salvaged if we look at courage through the lens of our imperfect world, just as Socrates does about love in the Symposium. Diotima, Socrates’ teacher in that dialogue, says that a lover is “in between being wise and being ignorant” (204b). She goes on to define love as “wanting to possess the good forever” (206a). Once one possesses the good, one is no longer a lover. Love is an imperfect state – the gods, being perfect, are not lovers. Perhaps courage is also a virtue only possible in an imperfect world. In moments of trial or uncertainty, when the fog descends over our understanding and the future seems uncertain, the lover desires the good nonetheless. The courageous man, undeterred, goes no small step further: he chooses to expect it.

Counsel against thirst for power

Posted in Greek, Medieval, Reading by Alex L. on March 12, 2009

In the Republic, Plato warns us that the pursuit of power and prestige leads to suffering, injustice, and perhaps even death. Living – as some of us are – in comfortable homes and safe neighborhoods, one easily forgets that Plato’s advice is very pertinent to real life. One need only to look at history at some of the most famous cases of worldly ambition to see that striving for power often meets the grizzliest of ends. One such example is that of Beyazit I, an early Ottoman sultan who was also called Yilderim (“Thunderbolt”) because of his notorious spurts of anger. He set out to do what no former Muslim ruler could up to that point – capture the jewel of the eastern Roman world: the city of Constantinople. He came fairly close. The Byzantine empire was fragmented and weak. Beyazit had just crushed at the battle of Nicopolis (1396) an alliance of western European armies sent to thwart the Ottoman advance. Constantinople was for the Thunderbolt’s taking. Beyazit himself was to fulfill a prophecy of Muhammad that a blessed Muslim ruler and army would capture the ancient capital, ensuring his place in history as a hero of Islam. But then, Beyazit’s prize was snatched from his hands and he himself would meet a bitter end. The armies of Tamerlane, one of history’s most famous conquerors, swept in from Central Asia and invaded the territory of the Ottomans. At the battle of Ankara on July 28, 1402, Beyazit’s armies were defeated and he was captured by Tamerlane. Here is how Stephen O’Shea describes Beyazit’s fate in Sea of Faith:

“The Thunderbolt was not as lucky – taken prisoner, he was carted around in a litter, which later legend made into a cage, as Timur sacked the cities of northwestern Turkey that the sultan’s ancestors, Osman and Orhan, had conquered. Apparently, during this campaign Beyazit’s lovely Serbian bride, Olivera [by whom “he was, by many accounts, deeply smitten” when he was getting to know her], was relieved of her clothes and forced to serve, stark naked, at the table of the great Mongol. Beyazit, dejected and humiliated, died the following year” (252, 245).

Hearing about Beyazit’s life, Plato’s advice rings truer. He would have us be like his Odysseus in the Myth of Er at the end of the Republic. For Odysseus – who is in Hades having to choose a new life for himself – “the recollection of former tolls had disenchanted him of ambition, and he went about for a considerable time in search of the life of a private man who had no cares; he had some difficulty in finding this, which was lying about and had been neglected by everybody else; and when he saw it, he said that he would have done the [same] had his lot been first instead of last, and that he was delighted to have it.”