Monday, March 2, 2009

This Week at the Library (2/3)

Books this Update:
  • What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Rahula
  • The Gifts of the Jews, Thomas Cahill
  • 10 Things Your Minister Wants to Tell You, Oliver Thomas
  • Imperium, Robert Harris
  • The Roman Mind, M.L. Clarke

This week's reading was an interesting selection: philosophy, religious and otherwise, dominated. I began with What the Buddha Taught in the interests of increasing my cultural literacy. Outside of a familiarity the foundational tenets of Buddhism (the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path) I know very little about it. The book has been very well-received, but I wasn't really able to build on what I know. Much of the book was an explanation of the Four Noble Truths, and although I generally understood what was being said, I never had an "A-HA!" moment where it all made sense. How the idea of no-self meshes with the idea of reincarnation is still beyond me, despite Rahula having committed a chapter to it. I think I am more interested in practice than in theory.

Next I continued in Thomas Cahill's Hinges of History series, reading The Gifts of the Jews. The book was not what I expected: rather than focusing on Judaism in the late classical era, Cahill examines the Hebrew mind using the Christian "Old Testament" as his source. While his information on Sumerian culture was informative, his view of the developing Jewish mind seems overly romantic and quite forced. I cannot make an informed comment on some of his interpretations in regard to religious worldviews of the Sumerians, but there are some about which I am informed and here I disagree with Cahill. He sees western civilization coming out of Jerusalem, while I see it coming out of Athens. I do not see how the idea of the individual can be more attributed to the Hebrews than the Athenians, based on my study of Greek philosophy and my knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures, which I have read since I was a child. While Cahill weaves a tight narrative as usual, here the threads of that narrative seem to be complete fabrications -- imposed upon the text rather than gleaned from it.

Having contemplated Buddhism and Judaism, I next moved to liberal Christianity with Oliver "Buzz" Thomas' 10 Things Your Minister Wants To Tell You. In the book Thomas addresses ten issues concerning Christianity today. The issues range from biblical literalism to homosexuality and the afterlife, but it is the first -- biblical literalism -- that I deem most important. Thomas is not a biblical literalist, which I see as perfectly reasonable. Despite knowing that the bible is a book written and translated by men with agendas, Thomas still sees it as a message from God, with some of it being lost in translation and warped by human culture. Having established that the bible must be interpreted, Thomas proceeds to interpret it according to 21st century standards. You may be able to see where that leads: the flames of Hell are quenched, women become people instead of things, homosexuality is regarded as natural, and suddenly it's perfectly okay to eat lobster and wear mixed threads. Thomas' religion is a progressive and ennobling religion, but -- unhappily for the world -- progressive and ennobling religion isn't what people want. As a result, Thomas comes off as preaching to the choir.

Taking a break from all of the philosophy, I read a historical thriller: Robert Harris' Imperium. Imperium is the first in a trilogy about the life of Cicero, one of Rome's finest statesmen and philosophers. Imperium is executive power, and in this first book we see Cicero's quest to achieve it. He begins as a young senator from a backwater province, ignored by his fellows. In the opening chapters he is still being schooled in philosophy, and he and his servant/slave Tiro begin a long working relationship. The book is written in the first person, from Tiro's perspective, and according to Harris Tiro really did write a book on Cicero's life. Tiro tells us the story of Cicero's slow and never certain rise to power in the changing political theatre that is Rome. This is excellent fiction.

Lastly, and accompanying Imperium, I read The Roman Mind by M.L. Clarke. Clarke is a professor of Latin -- or was. This book was published in 1956 when Clarke held that position, so unless he has extraordinarily longevity he is probably only with us in the past tense now. Clarke begins by opining that although the Romans are remembered for their administrative prowess, they were also thinkers. They came to philosophy and literature late, and when they did they built upon Greek culture, but the result was still distinctly Roman. They took the teachings of Epicures and Zeno and the legends of Homer and made them Greece. Most of what we know of Stoicism comes to us through the Romans, and that Stoicism is subsequently rather Roman, with an emphasis on duty and practical living than the theoretical ideas Zeno and Chyrsippus wrote on. Clarke's book takes us through decades of Roman philosophy, political thought, religion, and some literature, ending with the death of Marcus Aurelius, the "last philosopher". I thought the read very enjoyable and informative. It went well with my reading of Imperium.

Pick of the Week: Imperium, Robert Harris
Quotation of the Week: "The art of life is to deal with problems as they arise, rather than to destroy one's spirit by worrying about them far in advance." - Cicero, as quoted in Imperium.

Next Week:
  • Desire of the Everlasting Hills, Thomas Cahill
  • Evolution for Everyone, David Sloan Wilson
  • Lost on Planet China, J. Maarten Troost
  • Pompeii, Robert Harris


  1. Checked out 'The Roman Mind' on Amazon. Looks like its out of print. I'll see if my University library has a copy....

  2. Yup. My university has it - now to find time to *read* it!

  3. I think maybe I'll take a break from my dissertation over the Summer & read it then.


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