Classics Review: The Republic by Plato

As I gather my philosophy notes, I am re-publishing this review, written in August of 2104. The Republic is the granddaddy of the political philosophy tradition.

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republic platoBefore I get into the details of The Republic by Plato I need to stop and marvel at a couple of things. First, it is stunning to think that this work has been kicking around in the minds of the humans for thousands of years. Plato wrote it around 380 BC so it would have been classic literature for Paul of Tarsus. I am pretty sure I detected foreshadowings of the words Paul wrote in his New Testament letters. Perhaps someone has done a comparative analysis between Plato and Paul.

I am also amazed that it has taken me until middle age to finally get around to reading it. As I was finishing up the book, I saw my 18-year-old son in the kitchen and urged him to read the book as soon as possible. I’m sure that between his organic food activism and rock group photography he can fit in a little Plato. As with many classics, this is better read when one is young. Still, as with all classics, better late than never.

The translation I read was by Benjamin Jowett and published by Coyote Canyon Press. I would love to read it in the original Greek but unfortunately my ancient Greek studies are in the rudimentary stage – one more reason I really need to have an eternal life. But I found the translation to be clear, cogent, and pleasant to read. C.S. Lewis says, “The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism.” (From his essay “On the Reading of Old Books”.) How true. I am the simplest of students and I found this dialogue to be perfectly comprehensible.

In this dialogue Plato, in the persona of the philosopher Socrates, conducts an inquiry into the nature of justice, asking questions about whether justice or injustice makes a person happier and why, and the nature and development of the ideal state, defined as the kind of state that would facilitate the happiness of the greatest number of its citizens.This is some high-quality reasoning with step-by-step arguments that are easy to follow. However, I do not like some of Plato’s conclusions – for example the idea that children should be raised and educated by the state rather than by their individual parents. Although I am not Plato’s equal in intelligence, I do have the advantage of looking back on 2394 more years of civilization, religious and political upheavals, and social experimentation than Plato had the opportunity to observe.*

The things that man was able to work out with only the power of his highly educated power of reason are astounding! You can easily recognize the foundations of various schools of thinking and theory throughout the ages. I will summarize just a few of the compelling ideas discussed in The Republic:

– The soul is an entity separate from the body. As disease is to the body, evil is to the soul. However, while disease eventually kills the body, evil, while it affects the character of the soul, does not kill it. This is because the soul is eternal. You can chop up the body but the soul will not be affected in the least because the soul is a different thing.

– Not all minds/souls are equal. A few are capable of apprehending pure truth while most are only capable of attaining the middle or grey level – the level at which all variations, derivative expressions of the ideal truth exist. Plato calls those persons bestowed with the character and mind to know pure truth philosophers.

– There are different levels of relationship a human mind might have to the truth. there is practical knowledge (it is true because it works), there is understanding (the ability to reason enough to see why an idea might be true), and then there is pure knowledge (the ability to encounter truth directly). This could be the basis of our ideas about occupational training vs. classical education, although our modern universities currently mix these concepts to the point of absurdity.

– Although Plato refers to the “gods” he reasons that there must be a God behind the gods, an origin of all things including the diverse nature gods. He also reasons that the Homeric stories of the gods scheming, forming factions, and warring with each other are mythological because a real God must be both unchangeable and good. Monotheism was already long-established among the Hebrews (Exodus is thought to have been written in the 6th century BC) but Plato reached this conclusion by reasoning while the Hebrews reached it by revelation.

– The arts including theater, painting, and especially poetry, are corrosive to young minds and do not contribute to the wellbeing of the State. The reason is that not only is art not truth, it is a copy of a copy. The things it portrays, whether beds or bodies, are only copies of their ideal form which exists in heaven or perhaps in the mind of God. And if that isn’t bad enough, the arts tend to cater to the changing sensual tastes of the masses and not to reason. This is one of Plato’s conclusions that doesn’t sit well with me. Toward the end of the dialogue, however, he partially relents and allows poetry back into the State, but with conditions. She must present a poem defending her value.

– Plato describes the good and bad characteristics of five types of states: aristocracy, timocracy (only property owners can participate in government), oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. He does not include socialism in his types but interestingly, his conception of democracy seems very like our modern concept of socialism – equality for all – and his democracy leads to tyranny very like Friedrich Hayek (The Road to Serfdom) says our socialism leads to totalitarianism. I think Plato’s analysis of the types of government is quite brilliant. Since all of these forms carry within themselves the seeds of their own destruction, Plato’s ideal state would emphasize the need to identify and raise pure and wise leaders from early childhood and instill safeguard to ensure that its leaders come only from this class.

– The ideal leader is pure in character and has that rare ability to see pure truth. He is a true philosopher and not one of those false imitative pretending Sophists. Nor is he the popular wise guru whose wisdom consists in his observations in what works – what actions or methods are most likely to result in wealth and happiness for his particular class. This type may know what works but he neither knows nor cares why it works. He has observed the variables but has not seen the truth behind the variables, and is therefore subject to the winds of change and not worthy to lead the ideal Republic.

I found that the dialogue style presentation of this material made these and all the other ideas enjoyable to read and absorb. The tone is one of pleasant, friendly conversation with the implied freedom to agree or disagree, a tone that in our current politically hyper-charged climate of colliding ideologies I found to be delightfully refreshing. If you, like me, are an “idea” person you will find the The Republic to be a mental feast. And the best thing is, there are plenty of other dialogues by Plato that I can now look forward to feasting on.

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*I have recently read an article somewhere suggesting that perhaps Plato’s Socrates is simply being facetious: He is not prescribing a way to achieve a perfect city, but suggesting that if you are so foolish as to think you can create a perfect human society, here is how you need to go about it. I will look for that article so I can properly cite it.

Classics Review: The Prince by Machiavelli

As I embark on my latest philosophy excursion, I am gathering some of the pieces I have written in the past. I am casting my philosophy net wide; I will include any book that has bearing on how humans should live, what is true, and/or the meaning of life. I read The Prince about a year ago and posted the following review on my previous blog…..the prince

All my adult life I have been running across this term “Machiavellian” and somehow, through context and osmosis, I understood that the term refers to the idea that the ends justify the means. A week or so ago my reading path led me down a dark side path right into to clutches of Machiavelli and I realized I could no longer avoid reading the source of that shady reference: The Prince.

Here’s how it happened. I had finished this philosophical novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery and that got me interested in the essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox” by Isaiah Berlin. But when I looked at Isaiah Berlin’s collection of essays The Proper Study of Mankind I saw that one of his essays is about Machiavelli so I decided it would be better to read The Prince first. The time had come to find out what this Niccolò Machiavelli really said that has caused so much literary and political uproar these past five centuries. He wrote The Prince in 1513 and distributed some written copies but it wasn’t officially printed until 1532.

Was Machiavelli really a literal or literary devil, as some have called him, or has he been misrepresented? My rapid research indicates that he has had his supporters and apologists over the years, but few deny that he presents the human race in a cynical light. After reading The Prince I find that the book fully deserves its reputation, but I wondered if it were not some sort of satire, a sort of 16th version of The Onion. But I think not. It is too true to the facts. The book deals with the true state of human affairs – just on a level we usually do not usually acknowledge openly.

Although Machiavelli is often categorized as a philosopher, I suspect that is not the perspective he was going for. He is not trying to figure out the meaning of life or understand the nature of truth. Within the scope of his subject matter, he already knows the meaning life (acquiring and keeping power) and the book simply describes what a prince (or head of state) needs do if he wants to be successful and avoid losing his state. It is a straightforward operating manual that uses examples from current events (circa early 1500s) as well as from history, particularly that of the Roman Empire, but also draws from the Old Testament.

The Prince seems to me a very practical book that deals with the world as it is rather than with ideals or the way it should be. It’s just that in the arena of acquiring and keeping state power, the plain truth is often brutal. In many ways throughout the book, Machiavelli makes the point that “…it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.”

Whatever goes on behind the scenes, the prince must maintain a public image that complies with the current standards of morality and virtue, cultivating a reputation as an upstanding man of both courage and mercy: “A prince is highly esteemed who conveys this impression of himself and he who is highly esteemed is not easily conspired against; for, provided it is well known that he is an excellent man and revered by his people, he can only be attacked with difficulty.”

Nowhere in the book does Machiavelli suggest that any prince ought to be virtuous for the sake of true morality, God, or decency. Goodness, or at least the appearance of goodness, is a useful and necessary tool for maintaining one’s power. The only thing that is good in itself is power. Power is the goal and therefore a prince’s real virtue, wisdom, and strength lie wholly in his ability to do whatever it takes to sustain it.

However no prince can afford to have the people hate him. The hatred of the people will be his downfall because any enemy can come along and leverage the power of that hatred against him. And yet, as a wise prince, you don’t want the people to exactly love you either – you just want them to not hate you. Machiavelli tells you why this is so and how to obtain this balanced relationship with your subjects:

“…for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails. Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women.”

Of course behind the strong yet virtuous façade, the prince must be willing, able, and ready to do whatever is necessary to maintain his power. This includes killing his enemies, anyone who threatens to become an enemy, anyone who might give courage to an enemy, anyone who undermines him with the people, and most importantly, anyone liable to become more powerful than the prince himself.

There are many ways to control or destroy one’s enemies and just as many ways to secure the loyalty of one’s friends. A successful price is always on the lookout for potential threats, and even in peace, is always securing the foundations of his political and military strength. Affection and love are good as far as they go but a prudent prince will want to take out insurance policies on his friends by making sure they stand to lose something important, such as life or property, should he experience loss of power.

Some of the topics covered in this amazing little treatise include:

  • The various paths to becoming a prince and the risks and benefits of each: inheritance, conquering a principality by your own arms and ability, good fortune (you benefit from the arms of others), wickedness (you kill the prince and usurp the kingdom), civil means through the favor of the people or the nobles, or ecclesiastical appointment.
  • Managing your soldiers and the dangers of using mercenaries
  • The utmost importance of studying war.
  • The pros and cons of liberality (generosity) toward for friends and subjects and meanness (frugality).
  • The proper balance of cruelty and clemency.
  • To what extent do you keep promises and when deceit becomes necessary or prudent.
  • Why you should arm the people.
  • How to gain renown (using King Ferdinand of Spain as an example: the one married to Queen Isabella who gave Christopher Columbus the ships in 1492.
  • How to choose secretaries and assistants (how to know who to trust).
  • What to do about flatterers.
  • Why princes lose their states.
  • How to prep for bad fortune.

The Prince is an enlightening little book that is dense in ideas, advice, names of historical figures, and case histories. I found the ideas easy to follow but the names – lots of Italian names of now obscure people – and the complex military events were a bit overwhelming. One thing the book showed me is that the politics and constant power struggles of the Italian principalities at that time were complex and extremely brutal.

Now I have known for a long time that the standards of this world and the way of higher, or eternal, truth are two entirely different things. That is part of the point of Christ’s crucifixion story. He became a threat to the powers of this world. But I am always fascinated to learn more about the ways of the world we live in and I found The Prince be quite educational. The equally educational TV series “House of Cards” would fit well as an appendix: a modern update of sorts. As would pretty much any edition of the daily political US and world news.
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NOTE: I read the edition of The Prince published by Dover Publications for Kindle and translated by W.K. Marriott.

 Thomas More’s Utopia: The Secrets to Their Happiness

I promised my readers juicy details about how Thomas More’s Utopia achieves it’s happy state of affairs, so here goes:


The island of Utopia

  • The country of Utopia was once part of the mainland but is now an island this is because the conquerer/founder of the country, Utopus, forced both the natives and the slaves to dig a channel to separate it from the mainland. Of course, the happiness of this place depends on homogeneity of belief and a universal understanding of its rules and expectations, so physical separation from contamination from the outside world is kind of necessary.
  • The island of Utopia has 54 cities all built on an identical plan as far as their individual geographies will allow. The townspeople people live in rows of houses each with a large garden. They love gardening and have friendly competitions for the best garden. Every few years the families switch houses.
  • Travel from city to city requires permission from the city official and a passport. But these are easily obtained. The home city even provides an ox-drawn wagon and a slave for the trip. Travelers find everyone friendly along the road and are always abundantly fed and comfortably lodged. However if you try to travel without a passport punishment is severe. You become a slave.
  • There are rules about the age men and women can marry and the number of children allowed per family. If parents exceed the number of children allowed, extra children are given to families who are in need of more children. However, families are generally quite large. Utopians subscribe to the “it takes a village” approach to raising children.
  • Private use of gold and silver is limited to making chamber pots and chains for the slaves. They also use these metals to make degrading decorations for the slaves such as special earrings symbolizing special dishonor or mock crowns for their heads. In this way the people are taught to hold these metals in contempt. Iron, however, is highly valued for its usefulness.
  • Each city is surrounded by countryside where small farms produce food and other agricultural products such as wool and linen. All Utopians are taught agriculture as part of their basic education. The people rotate to farm labor periodically so that no one class is stuck supporting the rest of the population. Those who find they truly love the agricultural life may ask permission for a longer or even permanent stay on the farm.
  • Utopia has no private property and no private money. Gold and silver for emergency community use, such as defense or recovery from a natural disaster, is stored in warehouses and is acquired by selling excess excess agricultural goods neighboring countries. The Utopians are very productive and therefore always have plenty of goods available for export.
  • Clothing is simple, comfortable, and always the natural color of the material used to create it. No need for dyes or decoration. Everyone dresses the same, even to the national and city leaders.
  • In fact all the worst jobs, the jobs considered degrading to the soul, are done by slaves. Undesirable work includes butchering animals, cleaning up messes, and refuge disposal.
  • Eight hours of each 24-hour day are devoted to sleep and the remainder of the time is for personal pleasure and self-improvement. The most universal free-time activity is reading. The people also like community activities. They have various games including a card game called Virtues and Vices; but if you really enjoy your work and want to do more of it, you are free to do so.
  • Each city is run by an official selected from a specialized class of people singled out for education in literature, philosophy, and scholarship. Reading books and philosophical discussion are highly valued among the entire population but only a select few are excused from regular utilitarian labor to devote themselves entirely to scholarship. Those young scholars who fail to live up to expectations are sent back to the regular labor force.
  • Diamonds, pearls, and gems are used as playthings of young children. In this way older children and adolescents learn to associate jewels with immaturity.
  • Being in the labor force is no great punishment. Every citizen, male and female, has a trade suited to his or her disposition and ability. Women generally work in textile-based trades while men work in trades such as carpentry and ironwork. The work day is six hours: three hours before the midday meal and three hours after.
  • Meals are communal and take place a large hall. The men sit together on one side of the room and women on the other. There is a room set up for taking care of small children and it also accommodates pregnant women who need to take a break. Old and young people are mixed together in the seating plan so that the young can learn from the old in a natural casual setting. Women decorate and set up tables and may do some lighter serving, but the hard messy labor of cooking and cleanup is done by slaves.
  • The Utopians have precise and disciplined methods for handling war and international relations. Since they are not interested in expanding their territory, increasing their wealth, or evangelizing their way of life, the need to go to war is exceedingly rare. However, should they need to defend themselves, they are prepared.
  • Utopians have a religion that includes an afterlife in which they believe virtue is rewarded and vice is punished. They believe the purpose of life is to attain happiness. Utopians think it mad to pursue virtue by renouncing pleasure as virtue and proper pleasure go hand-in-hand. Proper virtues are good and honest and do not degrade either oneself or anyone else. Drinking alcohol, gambling, and sex outside of marriage are not considered either pleasurable or virtuous. There are no taverns or gambling establishments and most certainly no brothels.
  • In fact committing adultery is a serious crime. Do it once and you may apply for forgiveness. Do it twice and you are sent into slavery. If your spouse still wants to be with you, she or he may accompany you. If the community decides you are sufficiently reformed there is a chance you may be restored to freedom.



Thomas More when he was Lord Chancellor to King Henry VIII. By Hans Holbein, the Younger, 1527

Does that sound like a place you’d like to live? If you are happy to live according to the rules and if you are not a slave, I suppose it sounds like a nice-enough life. Personally I would avoid Utopia like the plague. I can’t help wonder what happens to the first teenage girl who discovers you can color fabric with plants and wants to weave colored threads through her natural colored clothing. Or the boy who wants to sneak outside the city walls at night and explore the world all by himself. People being what we are, any Utopia has to efficiently eliminate the impure elements to keep things operating according to plan. This invariably means coercion, slavery, and death for the non-compliant.

Maybe Thomas More knew this and that’s why this book is not a serious call to action. In the end Thomas More personally experienced the fatal consequences of non-compliance with the state.

Letting the dead speak for themselves: Poems of World War I

A couple of Memorial Days ago, on my previous blog,  I published a series of posts honoring World War I veterans through some of the many poets who emerged from that horror. I am republishing that series here. The first link is just some of my own reflections on World War I and the wars in general. Of more importance are the poems that follow. All are written by men who experienced that war and eventually lost their lives to it.

Page 1 of the main content from a limited edition book containing an illustrated poem, In Flanders Fields, 1921

Page 1 of the main content from a limited edition book containing an illustrated poem, In Flanders Fields, 1921

Remembering World War I and its Consequences

In Flanders Fields by John McCrae

I Have A Rendezvous with Death by Alan Seeger

Two Sonnets by Rupert Brooke: The Dead and The Soldier

Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen

A Quick Introduction to Utopia by Thomas More

imageUtopia by Thomas More starts out as a true account of a diplomatic mission to Flanders. At the time More was serving as a Councillor to King Henry VIII. During some free time in Antwerp, More befriends a prominent young printer named Peter Giles (a real historical person with his own Wikipedia page). But the story soon enters the realm of fiction when Peter introduces More to a wise old sea traveler with philosophical bent by the name of Raphael Hythloday. Hythloday translates as “peddler of nonsense.”

Raphael has traveled widely, accompanying Amerigo Vespucci on three voyages to the new world. It was during one of these explorations that Raphael observed and studied the laws, customs, and population of a perfect society in a place called UtopiaSays More, “We asked him many questions concerning all these things, to which he answered very willingly; we made no inquiries after monsters, than which nothing is more common; for everywhere one may hear of ravenous dogs and wolves, and cruel men-eaters, but it is not so easy to find states that are well and wisely governed.”

The book is not a sincere attempt to offer a serious model for European society to imitate. There is some controversy around More’s real purpose for writing the book, but it was certainly not to sow seeds of revolution. It seems to me mostly a veiled criticism of the corrupt political system of his time. More is not an early version on Karl Marx laying the foundation for a new society, even though his Utopia is basically a communist arrangement. There’s just no serious implied proposal that Europe ought to abolish money, monarchies, and power politics and be like Utopia. My sense is that Utopia is a sharp satire of More’s own society disguised as an anthropological study of a bizarre culture in a faraway land.

Another thing you should know about Thomas More’s Utopia, is that this perfect society as described by Raphael includes slavery. In 2016 Ameria, that fact is enough for many people to trash the whole book at the outset. But because my policy is not to impose my era’s morality on literature of the past, I gave the book a chance. It is fascinating to observe that, in 1516, a society which included slavery could be considered ideal without so much as the raising of an eyebrow. It is just taken for granted as the way things are done, like eating animals or cultivating the earth.

You’d think that in a book that is all about visualizing an alternative way to run a society, someone would question the whole notion of owning other people. But no one does. It seems like up until a certain point in history, perhaps the 18th century, slavery as well as various forms of semi-permanent low-paid servitude were simply accepted as a necessary part of human life, as if for civilization to exist at all it was assumed there had to be slaves.

The fictional location of Utopia is somewhere in South America, just far enough north of the equator for the climate to be pleasant. It was originally attached to the mainland, but its founder had a channel cut to make it an island. The Greek words for Utopia mean something like “no place.” Here is a neatly phrased explanation  from the British Library  website: “In 1516 Sir Thomas More wrote the first ‘Utopia’. He coined the word ‘utopia’ from the Greek ou-topos meaning ‘no place’ or ‘nowhere’. But this was a pun – the almost identical Greek word eu-topos means a good place. So at the very heart of the word is a vital question: can a perfect world ever be realised?”

Even though this book was written nearly a century before Shakespeare, I found the English surprisingly modern. This is because More originally wrote the book in Latin and I read a 1901 edition of a 17th-century translation by Gilbert Burnet.  I have not been able to find out the exact date of this translation, but since Burnet lived from 1643 to 1715 I am guessing he published it the latter part of that century. You can get free from the Gutenberg Project.

Coming soon: The juicy details of how the Utopians achieve the best possible human society for its citizens: peace, security, plentiful food, shelter, and clothing, maximum health, meaningful work, and wholesome entertainment.

Philosophy time, starting with a little Kierkegaard

After several months of lavishly gorging myself on Victorian fiction, I am in the process of changing my reading focus for a while to something entirely different: philosophy. I think it will be just as fun. I have dreams of writing my own philosophy one of these days, but first I need to study up. Some philosophers in the immediate pipeline include Thomas More, Immanuel Kant, Kierkegaard, David Hume, and a 20th century philosopher named Susanne Langer. I know I am all over the map but I have my own logic here. I will eventually add more to the philosophy list, including some classical thinkers. Suggestions are welcome. I am primarily interested in what the greatest thinkers have to say about the source and reason for human existence. Hope that’s not too narrow an area for anyone.

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Lily and BirdsI am currently reading a sweet little book called The Lily Of The Field And The Bird of the Air by Søren Keirkegaard (translated and with an introduction by Bruce H. Kirmmse). I’ve been longing to get to Kierkegaard for a long time and the other day checked at Barnes & Noble to see it they had a copy of Either/Or. Kierkegaard’s works, although published in the first half of the 19th century, are for some reason not in the public domain. They are not any less expensive on Kindle so I figured I might as well buy the real book at a real book store.

B & N didn’t have Either/Or but they had this one. The Lily Of The Field And The Bird of the Air is sort of a contemplative commentary on Matthew 6:24-34, a portion of the Sermon on the Mount. So far it’s about the wisdom that silence can lead to, a listening kind of silence that you can learn from birds and flowers. Most of my lessons of this sort come from dogs, but I’ll get to that shortly.

Kierkegaard says that we must first seek the kingdom of God and the way to seek it is through prayer, not babbling prayer but the kind of prayer in which you realize you are in the presence of God and fall silent at the realization because there is simply no other way to respond to the presence of God. For several years of my life I used to repeat that verse to myself all the time: “Seek first the kingdom of God” – and in my scattershot disorganized way I tried to do that. But like the disciple Thomas I did not know the way.

In response to the disciple’s question, Jesus said he is the Way, so I tried to follow him, but never did it very well. I needed to give more to the poor, I needed to have more love and less judgment in my heart, I needed to be less self-indulgent and give in less to desires for instant gratification. I fall short in so many ways it’s surprising I can get up off the floor and keep living every day. But I do keep living. Based solely on his promises, his mercy, and my own hope, I believe I can keep living today and will in fact live forever. I’m keenly aware that I probably do not deserve to live forever, but deserve it or not, I am pretty sure I will.

There is a lot of fun to be had in doing in doing the impossible and getting away with what you don’t deserve. I have a theory that existence itself is as near to impossible as it is possible to be and still happen. Existence is wrought in the point of friction between “is” and “is not”, yes and no. Existence defies the powerful suck of the abyss and chooses to be. All of us have all cleared that formidable hurdle. We have gotten a seat on the plane with the rarest tickets. We have won the ultimate lottery. And yet we question, some of us, why we exist at all and agonize all day over the meaning of it all and whether we have a purpose. Some people actually kill themselves over things like losing a job. A job. After all that stupendous luck in becoming an existing being.

cocoa closeup jan 3 2015

My dog Cocoa. Photo by Aaron Apple.

Look at a dog. No one really cares about the existence or non-existence of a single puppy unless: a) you have formed a personal emotional attachment to the mutt or b) the dog has enabled you to develop an interest in himself by becoming a celebrity. There is an ongoing saga in a city near where I live about the trials and tribulations of a certain labradoodle who is shaved to looked like a lion. The local newspaper has run several stories on his brushes with the law. People love reading about the dog, whose name is Charles the Monarch. He sells papers. But if you see a dog dead on the road you may feel a pang, be sorry for the dog’s suffering and and experience a split second of empathy for the grief and loss of the people who owned (regrettable word) the dog. In two minutes you will have forgotten all about it.

I love that most dogs in our culture are useless in a utilitarian sense. Some dogs are used for hunting or service to the disabled or police work, but the vast majority are “merely” pets. They number in enough millions to support PetSmart, Petco, Pet Mountain,, and numerous other retailers as well as multitudes of grooming and boarding services, veterinarians, and even a few periodicals. And yet they do nothing but live in your house and keep you company.

cocoa by fire jan 3 2015

Cocoa by the fire. Photo by Aaron Apple.

Obviously dogs fill some important human needs. They can be social agents: getting you outdoors and giving you something easy to talk to people about. They can be status enhancers for those to like to acquire status-enhancing breeds. They can be atmosphere fresheners and stress reducers. You have trouble at work? Someone is drunk again? Your teenager has issues? You have anxiety about where the world is headed? Well there is Cocoa or Fluffy or Max, lying placidly on the rug, utterly unconcerned. Or he is wagging his tale and licking your face, caring about nothing but his doggy comforts and your happiness. The atmosphere becomes balanced, the stress is reduced, perspective is restored. You can laugh again.

I seem to have gotten off point, thinking about a dog’s purpose from my human point of view and all. My point is that the dog himself does not care one iota whether he has a purpose or not. To the dog, his existence is his purpose and he has already fulfilled it. He is full to the jowls with a specific kind of doggy essence. Dogs are just one reason I have to doubt the “we are all one thing” kind of philosophies that say forms are illusions and we are all destined to be re-absorbed into the eternal oneness. I believe we must all come from one source, but I am not so sure that once a form is created it ever gets absorbed back into the oneness. Sure, the material body turns to dust, but what of the idea, the essence, that something that makes your dog so individually doggy? I am not convinced that any being once created can be absorbed back into the source, any more than a word spoken can ever be unspoken.

God must love forms; and that which is loved by God cannot be erased. Love is the engine of creation. If forms and ideas could go away as if they had never been, then it would mean love, the source of all things, could go away. Because I exist, am the result of the nearly impossible miracle, I must believe that love exists and that which created me will always exist. Besides God/the source created what we call time but does not live as part of of time. If once God exists at all God always exists in an eternal present. The negation of love would be the negation of thought and all that is. We who exist cannot conceive of such an occurrence without annihilation. If this doesn’t make sense bear with me. I am still working it all out.

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Classics review: The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope

imageWell it’s over. I tried to read as slowly as I could, but now I have turned the final page of Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire series and this one did not disappoint. I loved the character of Reverend Josiah Crawley, the highly-educated severe hard-working poverty-stricken perpetual curate of Hogglestock, first introduced in Doctor Thorne. So I was delighted to find that he is the central character in The Last Chronicle. The beleaguered Mr. Crawley, one of Trollope’s severely underpaid clergymen, is the poster child for a self-sacrificing carry-your-cross Christian (though he finds plenty of ways to complain about it).


Mr and Mrs Crawley. Illustration by George Thomas, original edition.

The threadbare Mr. Crawley absolutely refuses to accept financial aid from his many wealthier friends until his family is literally on the brink of starvation and even then accepts help only with much groaning and mental anguish. So when he is accused in stealing a cheque for 20 pounds his shame and suffering is intense even though he has no memory of committing the alleged crime. The drama that ensues brings all of the best characters into the narrative as well as a few entertaining new ones. Archdeacon Grantley is at his raging best, old Mr. Harding is at his mild saintliest, and Mrs. Proudie is bullying her husband the Bishop into the harshest persecution of the accused clergyman. Mark Robarts and Lady Lufton from Framley Parsonage play their “trying to be helpful” parts as well.

One of the Archdeacon’s sons, Major Henry Grantly, is now a handsome 30-year old widower with a three-year-old daughter. He has fallen in love with Grace Crawley, the shy but well-educated daughter of Mr. Crawley, and his father the Archdeacon is threatening to disinherit him if he marries her. It would not do to connect the socially rising Grantly family with a girl whose father may well be going to prison for thievery. Never mind that most people believe Mr. Crawley to be innocent.

Grace has become friends with Lily Dale, the stubborn heroine of The Small House at Allington, so in another storyline we get to find out what is going on with Lily and her suitors, the steadfast Johnny Eames and the now widowed Adolphus Crosbie. But Adolphus is not quite the Apollo he used to be and Johnny is wavering a bit in his steadfastness after five years of rejection.

Johnny’s friendship with an artist named Conway Dalrymple leads to another storyline involving a group of artsy and nouveau riche characters that serve as foils to the high and stuffy standards of the clerical crowd. Conway is carrying on a sort of just-for-fun mock romance with the flighty wife of an unsavory stockbroker named Dobbs Broughton. He is also painting an interesting young lady named Clara Van Siever, posing her as the Biblical Jael about to drive a tent nail through the head of the sleeping Sicera (from the Book of Judges). Clara is a no-nonsense kind of girl with a direct deadpan way of speaking. She is not one of your flowery sweet Victorian heroines, and is just one great example of Trollope’s uniquely wide range of female character types.

All of the storylines are darkly humorous and in the end deeply human. The story of Mr. Crawley’s devastating brush with the law gives Trollope plenty of opportunity to expose the hypocrisy, inequality, and cruelty of human society as well and the humaneness and courage of the people who live in it. It’s a fantastic story and the ending wraps up the series in a deeply satisfying way. Most of the characters get their poetic justice. The beauty of novels is that the author can make that happen.

I have loved all of the Chronicles of Barset, as well as all of the Palliser novels, but I believe The Last Chronicle of Barset is my favorite Trollope book so far. You can read it happily as a standalone novel, but knowing the previous five novels adds greatly to the pleasure.

Classics Review: The Small House at Allington

The Small House at Allington is the fifth novel in Anthony Trollope’s wonderful “Chronicles of Barsetshire” series. After reading the previous novels in the series plus all six of the Palliser novels, all in relatively short span of time, you’d think I’d be getting sick of Trollope by now. I actually tried to read this one critically, to find something in it I didn’t like. The plot is hackneyed enough: two sisters with opposite personalities, one of whom gets herself romantically involved with a cad, ala Sense and Sensibility. But hackneyed plot or not Trollope seems to be incapable of producing bad writing. I hung on every word.

In this novel, the two sisters are Lily and Bell Dale, ages 19 and year or so older. They live rent-free in a house provided by their stern Uncle Christopher Dale, along with their wise, self-sacrificing, saintly mother, Mrs. Dale, who reminds me of Marmee of Little Women, except that Mrs. Dale is widowed while Marmee’s husband is merely off fighting a war. The small house is actually part of the Allington estate. It is a charming house and is only small in relation to the rich uncle’s nearby mansion.

Relations between the mother and daughters and Uncle Christopher are a little strained because Mrs. Dale thinks her brother-in-law has never liked her and is only allowing them the house grudgingly on account of the girls, and Uncle Christopher can’t understand why Mrs. Dale never accepts his generous invitations to dinner. It drives me crazy, in these Victorian novels, how many tangled problems could be cleared up with ten minutes of clear communication; but then we wouldn’t get to enjoy 700 pages of sharp social commentary and hilarious story telling.

An even more serious problem is that in addition to these two lovely nieces, Uncle Christopher has a nephew and heir to the Dale property, and it is the most cherished desire of his heart that this nephew – Bernard Dale – should marry his cousin Bell. Bernard, who is not the deepest guy in the world, thinks Bell is pretty enough and wants to please the uncle who is giving him money and property, so he is up for the plan. But things can never be that easy and Bell, the quiet sensible sister, refuses to acquiesce.

Meanwhile Bernard introduces into the family circle a handsome friend named Adolphus Crosbie. Lily falls for Crosbie and after a whirlwind summer romance they become engaged to be married. Now in the Land of Trollope, at least among the gentry, once you get engaged, it is a really big deal to change one’s mind. Backing out of an engagement is pretty much the same as jilting your lover at the altar. When it is the man who breaks it off, the woman is so disgraced that her family and friends are not surprised if she takes to her bed and dies.

Trollope drops hints that the Crosbie/Lily romance is going to run into trouble. Crosbie is a guy who really likes the excitement and freedom of a bachelor. Also he is a bit of a social climber and has doubts about having enough income to support a family. The saintly mother does not like the man, but of course keeps her opinions to herself. Uncle Christopher does not object to the engagement, but is not thrilled enough about it to bestow any money on his niece for the purpose. Still, for Lily’s sake, you hope against hope things do not go awry. Lily, the outgoing energetic sister, is what we might call a drama queen, and sometimes she can get a bit annoying in the way drama queens do. Still I wanted things to work out for her.

This novel is is bursting with engaging characters that seem as real as your next door neighbor. There is Johnny Eames, the sweet neighbor boy who has been secretly in love with Lily Dale most of his life. Trollope characterizes him as a “hobbledehoy” – a young man who is beyond boyhood but has not yet grown into his full manhood. Johnny is kind of an awkward loser but lovable and the story of how he improves his fortunes and grows in confidence is one of the things I enjoyed most about the novel. I have read that Johnny Eames is really Trollope himself as youth. There is Lord deGuest and his sister Lady Julia, a pair of wealthy gentry in the neighboring village of Guestwick. Lord deGuest is sort of the earthy medieval king type, a down-to-earth lover of the outdoors and a plain speaker, and yet majestic when he needs to be. He and his honest outspoken old sister Lady Julia take a liking to young Johnny, especially when Johnny saves the Earl’s life when a favorite bull goes wild.

And then there is the De Courcy family who first appeared in Doctor Thorne. They are awful superficial snobbish people in that novel, but in The Small House we get to know them more intimately. We could almost wish we didn’t. In the previous novel they were kind of funny, providing foils to the deep the sincerity of the main characters. In this novel we get to know see them behind the facade of high-class glamour and the sight is not pretty. They are struggling financially to keep up appearances and their domestic life is fraying at the seams. Earl De Courcy is ailing, angry, and abusive to his wife, the daughters are unhappy and bored, the oldest son does not speak to his father, and the youngest son is (of course) a dissipated spendthrift. There is no real love in the home. As this family moves from caricatures to real people, we begin to sense the true sadness of it all.

Also we get to catch up with Griselda Grantly, now Lady Dumbello, the stunningly vapid girl who played a large part in Framley Parsonage and appeared as a child in Barchester Towers. Connected with Lady Dumbello, Plantagenet Palliser makes his first appearance as the 25-year-old heir to the Duke of Omnium. I had not realized how much continuity there was between the two series.

I love the entire pair of series and dreading coming to the end of the my next and final book: The Last Chronicle of Barset. Oh well. There are still other Trollope novels and an autobiography yet to read, and I have not even tapped into the BBC productions and other films based on these novels. It’s hard to imagine a better written series offering a community of characters more real and alive. I may try reading Game of Thrones just for comparison, but I have a feeling it will just make me wish all the more that Anthony Trollope was still alive cranking out novels two per year.

Classics Review: Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope


Framley Parsonage is the eleventh Anthony Trollope novel I have read, ten of them just in the last couple years, so I think I am getting the hang of his style. The man could sure crank out some novels! I never get tired of them. They are character-heavy and as addictive as “Downton Abbey” (but make no mistake, waaay better than “Downton Abbey”). Sure, British Victorian culture might be weird and alien to a 20th to 21st century American, but lately my own culture has become so weird and alien that the Victorians are beginning to look sane and rational.

In Framley Parsonage we are introduced to Mark Robarts, the good-looking eldest son of a financially successful physician. Doctors have an interesting position in Trollope novels. They are generally a respectable bunch and can become wealthy, but their status among the aristocracy is lowly, I suppose because they work for their living. Young Mark gets to go to school at Harrow and Cambridge where he becomes friends with Lord Lufton, and eventually receives the patronage of his friend’s mother Lady Lufton and an excellent living (900 pounds per year) as a parson in the village of Framley.

Mark Robarts is one of Trollope’s tribe of charming, likable (at least Trollope likes him), but flawed young men. Trollope does not like all of his flawed young men (Ferdinand Lopez in The Prime Minister comes to mind). The ones he does not like come to a bad end; the ones he does like are rescued from their difficulties and learn their lesson. Such is the power of the omniscient author.

At the strong suggestion of Lady Lufton, Mark marries a sweet girl named Fanny and by age 26 is established in his career, happily married, and already has a couple of kids. And he is bored. He wants more and suffers from the flawed thinking that, although he has had the best of fortune, he is destined for more. His buddy Lord Lufton (Ludawig) has already gotten into all kinds of debt trouble and cost his mother all kinds of money, mostly through his association with a dissipated Member of Parliament named Mr. Sowerby. Soon enough Mark also falls into the snare of Mr. Sowerby, stupidly signs his name to a paper, getting himself deep into financial trouble.

Trollope likes Lord Lufton, so he becomes the supporting hero of the novel. Since our hero Mark is already married, Lord Lufton must provide the romantic interest. There are two ladies in his life: Griselda Grantly, the beautiful blonde daughter of Archdeacon and Mrs. Grantly (who we have met in The Warden and Barchester Towers) and Mark’s feisty younger sister, Lucy Robarts. Lady Lufton is doing everything in her power to fix her precious son up with the Grantly girl, but (of course) Ludawig goes for Lucy.

It is a delight to see how the main characters from Trollope’s other novels weave themselves into the plots as we read through the Chronicles of Barcetshire. We get to enjoy some absolutely delicious backbiting and vicious rivalry between Grantly’s and Bishop and Mrs. Proudy. These two clerical families have not yet recovered from the bad blood created in Barchester Towers and now both have daughters in marriage market. Also in Framley Parsonage, Plantagenet Palliser makes his first appearance. I did not realize how much continuity there is between the Chronicles of Barcetshire novels and the later Palliser series.

* * * * * * *

For readers who have not yet had the pleasure of delving into these two series of six novels each, I will provide a list in chronological order. I cannot get enough of them. I’m so sad that after this one I have only two to go. But except for a recent production of The Way We Live Now I have not even begun to tap into the films and TV based on Trollope’s novels, so I know I have many delights in my future.

The Chronicles of Barcetshire

The Warden (1855)
Barchester Towers (1857)
Doctor Thorne (1858)
Framley Parsonage (1861)
The Small House at Allington (1864)
The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867)

The Palliser Novels

Can You Forgive Her?(1864)
Phineas Finn (1869)
The Eustace Diamonds (1873)
Phineas Redux (1874)
The Prime Minister (1876)
The Duke’s Children (1879)

Classics review: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

imageI vaguely remember reading My Ántonia back in high school AP English but in the decades between then and now, which included getting a degree in English + 21 hours of graduate studies, I did not read anything else by Willa Cather. Until reading O Pioneers!  last week. How could such a thing happen?  Isn’t that like living in Washington DC and never visiting the Smithsonian? I guess it’s just mathematics: so many books + so little time + busy life = not getting around to Willa Cather (and too many other great authors to count).

Oh well. I will focus on the wonders of the books I have read and not on the mountains of books I have not. A climber of Mount Literature faces a task far more daunting than a climber of Mount Everest – but certainly a far more pleasant one. What climber of Everest gets to wrap of in a warm blanket drinking hot coffee while climbing?

But if we are to get around to talking about  O Pioneers! we must leave all mountains behind and descend onto the stark plains of Nebraska.  This novel, the first in Cather’s Great Plains trilogy, is about the hardy people who set out to farm the American plains in the 19th century  – that is, the first settlers of European ancestry. Native Americans do not appear in O Pioneers! but I understand they play a role in the next in the series, The Song of the Lark.

My first reaction to this book was a feeling of cleansing, as if I were showering off all the layers of technology and infrastructure that have accumulated since the late 1890s: highways, strip malls, cell phones, televisions, Wal-marts, income tax forms, junk food, top forty songs, Hollywood, and super models. It felt so refreshing to transport my mind to a place where none of these things exist, a place where people’s minds are free of most of what occupies our minds in this era. If the mind is stripped of all this 21st century clutter, what can be left to fill it up? In the Nebraska of this novel it turns out there is more than enough to occupy the minds of the characters: things such as eating, weather, harvests, family conflicts, hopes and dreams, and the rarest human necessities, love and friendship.

Willa Cather was born in Virginia and moved to Nebraska when she was nine years old where Her father tried farming for 18 months, and then moved his family to the town of Red Cloud and opened a real estate business.  The vast flatness and stark beauty of the land as well the character of the people, mostly recent European immigrants, made a huge impression on young Willa.

The story is told in a plain-spoken third person narration, suitable to the strong simple characters and the hard realities of their lives. The story focuses on the Bergsons,  a family of Swedish-American settlers.The main character, Alexandra Bergson, is able to succeed where many people fail due to a combination of intelligence, perseverence, and quality of strength that is hard to describe, but which Cather captures beautifully. I liked that through her difficulties Alexandra never becomes hard or unkind, but remains a cheerful kind person, always seeking the best for everyone but strong enough to avoid letting people take advantage of her.

Alexandra’s extraordinary character contrasts with that of her brothers Lou and Oscar, both of whom have their good points and good intentions, but who simply do not possess the necessary traits to succeed in the challenging new land, at least without the good sense and business acumen of their sister. When story begins, Alexandra is about 20 and has come to town to pick up some supplies. She has brought along her five-year-old brother Emil and runs into her best friend Carl Linstrum, a skinny teenager who lives on a neighboring farm. We also a meet charming little girl in the general store named Marie, a Bohemian child dressed in “Kate Greenway” style. Marie later plays a major role in the plot.

Carl accompanies them part of the way home and Alexandra tells him how worried she is about the future. Her father is dying. Later that night her father tells her brother Lou and Oscar, 19 and 17, that Alexandra is to be in charge if the business-end of the farm and is no longer to work in fields.

I loved the way the novel deals with the core basics of life – working the land, erecting houses on the bare land, and the basic needs even among the strongest for love and friendship. How many families do we know in which one person plays the part of the “strong one” or the anchor so that everyone else can be weak, neurotic, adventurous, and foolish. Alexandra is the poster child for that strong family member; for the next 20 years she puts her needs on hold for the sake of family and farm in loyalty to her beloved father. But she has her limits and life eventually brings her to edge of her emotional endurance.

When she faces the worst does she fall apart, triumph, or a little of both? This is not a saccharine story. There is both great joy and crushing heartbreak, just like real life. There are elements of naturalism and elements of the Victorian omniscient narrator, but Willa Cather’s voice is her own. The Great Plains trilogy was very popular but later Cather faced a lot of unkind criticism for not get on board with the modernist movement of the 1920s and ’30s. I’m glad she didn’t. My writing/life lesson from this novel is stick faithfully to your own voice and style, even if it does not happen to be trendy.


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You've reached the Creative Space of Antiguan and Barbudan writer Joanne C. Hillhouse. Author of six books of fiction; and numerous short fiction, poems, and articles. Welcome. For info on my writing, services, and more, scroll down. If you need to contact me directly, email I update this space regularly; book reviews to news of my own books, #theWritingLife, and my CREATIVE SPACE column. Sharing with links and credits is fine but unauthorized use and/or duplication of site content without permission and credit is strictly prohibited. For my other blog, go to

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