Against Fear of Death – Cicero

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Synopsis:

In the first book of his Tusculan Disputations Cicero examines the idea of death, the quality of the human soul, the pursuit of virtue as an end, as well as the mood of human nature. The essay is conveyed in dialogue form among a teacher and his pupil.

Excerpts:

“And yet a responsible farmer will plant trees, even though he’ll never see them bear a single olive. Won’t a great man plant laws, practices, a commonwealth?”

“But somehow there remains in our minds a vision, as it were, of generations to come: a vision that appears most readily and blazes forth most intensely in those with the greatest talent and the deepest soul.”

“We naturally believe that gods exist, but we discern their qualities through the exercise of reason. Just so, we share a universal feeling that souls live on, but we must use reason to determine where and in what condition.”

“The soul senses its own motion; when it does, it senses that it has been moved by its own power, not by anything else, and that it can never be deprived of itself. Which means it is eternal.”

“Although glory is not to be sought for its own sake, it follows virtue like a shadow.”

*All excerpts have been taken from Cicero: On Living and Dying Well, Penguin Classics.

The Life of Pyrrhus – Plutarch

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Synopsis and Commentary:

Plutarch wrote the life of Pyrrhus as part of his Parallel Lives in which he pairs a famous Greek and Roman with independent biographies of each. Pyrrhus is paired with Gaius Marius the famous Roman general that defeated Jugurtha as well as a major Germanic invasion of Italy and later helped to undermine the Roman Republic in his quest for power. Pyrrhus and Marius have very little in common, and conceivably were only paired to sustain the motif of the book.

Among the countless generals in the history of Western warfare perhaps none has won more battles in concert with ultimate defeat in wars than Pyrrhus of Epirus. Even though he failed in nearly all of his endeavors he was able to gain a lasting reputation for military genius which has endured and will endure in Western culture. His most towering opponent – republican Rome – possessed that crucial additive in warfare which Pyrrhus lacked: the resolve to never accept defeat. Such resolve was manifest in the belief that every war was a life-and-death struggle for republican Rome. Despite the ability of Pyrrhus to achieve awe-inspiring battlefield victories the war itself was more of a passing enthusiasm than a life-and-death struggle for him, and so he met failure after failure in the eventual aims of the wars he fought.

Pyrrhus remains an enigma in Western culture. His battlefield successes, his spectacular military genius, and his Alexander like charisma ought to have produced an unstoppable military juggernaut, but rather than climbing the heights that Alexander once did he met ultimate failure in war after war.

Excerpts:

“…Pyrrhus only by arms and in action, represented Alexander. Of his knowledge of military tactics and the art of a general, and his great ability that way, we have the best information from the commentaries he left behind him. Antigonus, also, we are told, being asked who was the greatest soldier, said, ‘Pyrrhus, if he lives to be old’…

“…Hannibal of all great commanders esteemed Pyrrhus for skill and conduct the first, Scipio the second, and himself the third, as is related in the life of Scipio.”

“The armies separated; and, it is said, Pyrrhus replied to one that gave him joy of his victory that one other such would utterly undo him. For he had lost a great part of the forces he brought with him, and almost all his particular friends and principal commanders; there were no others there to make recruits, and he found the confederates in Italy backward. On the other hand, as from a fountain continually flowing out of the city, the Roman camp was quickly and plentifully filled up with fresh men, not at all abating in courage for the loss they sustained, but even from their very anger gaining new force and resolution to go on with the war.”

“…What he got by great actions he lost again by vain hopes, and by new desires of what he had not, kept nothing of what he had. So that Antigonus used to compare him to a player with dice, who had excellent throws, but knew not how to use them.”

*All excerpts have been taken from Plutarch’s Lives – Vol. I, Modern Library.

The Trojan Women – Movie Review

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Synopsis and Review:

The eminent classicist Edith Hamilton provided the translation of the powerful Euripides play of the same name for this dynamic film from 1971, which stars Vanessa Redgrave as Andromache as well as Katharine Hepburn as Hecuba. The Trojan Women portrays the aftermath of the Trojan War, and the consequences of the Greek victory on the leading women of Troy.

Throughout the film as well as the play the mood is melancholy with moments of intense acrimony against Helen – played by Irene Papas. Although the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote his own more forceful version of The Trojan Women, this version – the original one by Euripides – has fewer of the graphic scenes Seneca depicts and relies more on the dramatic conditions these women find themselves in – i.e. a life of slavery awaiting them. Vanessa Redgrave is on another order of magnitude above the other performers in her portrayal of Andromache – the widow of Hector – and this is exquisitely revealed when Andromache learns that her young son is to be executed by being thrown off the walls of Troy.

For lovers of Classicism this film is a must watch, and for those that have not yet read the Seneca adaptation of the play it is absolutely recommended as well.

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On Friendship – Seneca

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Synopsis: 

In letter #3, Seneca discusses the merit and meaning of friendship. He drafts the framework by which a friendship ought to be commenced, perpetuated, or dissolved.

Excerpts:

“Deliberate upon all questions with your friend, but first deliberate about him. After friendship there must be full trust, but before it, discretion.”

“Trusting everyone and trusting no one are both wrong, though I might say the one wrong is an excess of frankness and the other an excess of security.”

“The two attitudes should temper one another: the easygoing man should act, the active man take it easy. Consult Nature: she will tell you that she created both day and night.”

*All excerpts have been taken from The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters, W.W. Norton.

The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire – Edward Luttwak

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Synopsis: 

Military historian and strategist Edward Luttwak traverses late Roman history as well as Byzantine history in order to examine the overarching schema, notions, and prevailing strategic outlook that maintained the Byzantine Empire for nearly a thousand years following the demise of the Western Roman Empire. Surrounded on all sides by enemies, and not having the manpower dominance of republican Rome, the Byzantines were adept at remaining powerful by other means.

Excerpts:

“The Huns and all their successors inevitably used their tribute gold to buy necessities and baubles from the empire – special arrangements were negotiated for border markets – hence the gold exported to the Huns returned to circulate within the empire rather quickly, except for the minute fraction retained for jewelry.”

“Much of what they did was calculated to preserve and enhance the prestige of the imperial court even as it was being exploited to impress, overawe, recruit, even seduce. Unlike troops or gold, prestige is not consumed when it is used, and that was a very great virtue for the Byzantines, who were always looking for economical sources of power.”

“It might be said, therefore, that the loss of Syria and Egypt, unlike Latin speaking and Chalcedonian North Africa, was a mixed curse for the empire: it brought the blessing of religious harmony, and increased cultural unity.”

“It is by that same logic in dynamic action and reaction that the victories of an advancing army can bring defeat once they exceed the culminating point of success, indeed victory becomes defeat by the prosaic workings of overextension.”

“It starts with the simple, static contradiction of sivis pacem para bellum (if you want peace, prepare for war) and proceeds to dynamic contradictions: if you defend every foot of a perimeter, you are not defending the perimeter; if you win too completely, destroying the enemy, you make way for another; and so on.”

*All excerpts have been taken from The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, Edward Luttwak, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

On the Subjects of Philosophy – Seneca

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Synopsis:

In letter #89, Seneca considers the state of philosophy present in the culture of his era. He chronicles the foundations of the idea of philosophy itself, as well as the pursuit of virtue.

Excerpts:

“The sage’s mind does indeed comprehend the whole mass, which it scans no less quickly than our vision surveys the sky; but we who must still penetrate the fog and whose vision is deficient even for nearby objects are not capable of comprehending the whole and find explanation of individual parts easier.”

“Wisdom is the perfect good of the human mind; philosophy, love of wisdom, and progress towards it.”

“The subject and the object of the act of seeking cannot be identical.”

“Philosophy is the study of virtue, but virtue is its means, so that virtue cannot exist without study of itself nor the study without virtue itself.”

“Study not to increase your knowledge but to improve it.”

*All excerpts have been taken from The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters, W.W. Norton.

Against the Galileans – Julian the Apostate

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Synopsis:

The Roman emperor Julian attempted a pagan revival during his brief reign in the 4th century AD. Having been raised a Christian he embraced the organizational structure of Christianity while endeavoring to manifest a new universal Hellenistic paganism. In Against the Galileans Julian bids to refute some of the fundamental assumptions of Christian doctrine such as monotheism and the universality of Christ. The work was preserved during the Middle-Ages by Christian monks as a teaching mechanism for counter-refuting the claims made by Julian – and this was important because Julian was and still is considered an intellectual heavyweight.

Excerpts:

“For if there were to be no difference between the heavens and mankind and animals too, by Zeus, and all the way down to the very tribe of creeping things and the little fish that swim in the sea, then there would have had to be one and the same creator for them all. But if there is a great gulf fixed between immortals and mortals, and this cannot become greater by addition or less by subtraction, nor can it be mixed with what is mortal and subject to fate, it follows that one set of gods were the creative cause of mortals, and another of immortals.”

“Therefore, as I said, unless for every nation separately some presiding national god (and under him an angel, a demon, a hero, and a peculiar order of spirits which obey and work for the higher powers) established the differences in our laws and characters, you must demonstrate to me how these differences arose by some other agency.”

“The philosophers bid us imitate the gods so far as we can, and they teach us that this imitation consists in the contemplation of realities.”

“Our writers say that the creator is the common father and king of all things, but that the other functions have been assigned by him to national gods of the peoples and gods that protect the cities; every one of whom administers his own department in accordance with his own nature.”

“Therefore men’s works also are naturally perishable and mutable and subject to every kind of alteration. But since God is eternal, it follows that of such sort are his ordinances also. And since they are such, they are either the natures of things or are accordant with the nature of things. For how could nature be at variance with the ordinance of God? How could it fall out of harmony therewith?”

*All excerpts have been taken from Against the Galileans, Julian, Acheron Press.