Harvard Classics Volume 2 - Dialogs, Sayings, and Meditations

A little while before NaNoWriMo started I decided to start reading through the Harvard Classics/Five-foot Bookshelf. I figure I'll give myself the basics of an old-school liberal arts education. Since Volume 1 is rather American focused I decided to skip it and go straight to Volume 2. I ended up slowing down a lot due to NaNoWriMo, but I got the last part of Volume 2 done on Monday.

Volume 2 of the Harvard Classics consists of The Apology, Crito, and Phaedo by Plato; The Golden Sayings by Epictetus; and The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

If you are going to read these I recommend reading them in the order listed above. The three Dialogs of Plato form a narration of Socrates' trial and execution, while Epictetus refers back to Socrates, and Marcus Aurelius refers back to both Socrates and Epictetus. All the works could probably be read alone, though the dialogs are short, so you might as well read all three, but that's the preferable ordering (and the order given by the Harvard Classics as well I believe).

Also the editions of the Dialogs I mentioned above all have a rather long winded summary/introduction by the translator, which explains what the arguments are in a slightly abbreviated (they are still nearly as long as the actual dialogs) and simplified form. I didn't end up reading this for Phaedo, but you might want to read them if you have trouble with the main works, and the first few paragraphs of them give a bit of background info which is worth reading regardless.

Crito by Plato is probably the most interesting of all the works, and the shortest. It's a discussion about how Socrates believes (or Plato wants to portray him as believing) that he is obligated to his country to obey it's laws even when he disagrees with them (in this case they are putting him to death, so you know he takes it seriously) due to the benefits he received from the state earlier in life, and due to the fact that he had by choice spent almost all his life, even more so than usual for his countrymen, in Athens, which meant that he had essentially agreed that the laws of the land where good. Therefore he was obligated to obey the laws whether he now agreed with them or not.

I disagree with with his conclusion, afterall as he said in the same dialog, '[W]hy ... should we care about the opinion of the many?', and Athens at this point was a form of democracy, which means it's laws are simply the opinions of the many. Sometimes the majority is right, sometimes wrong.

That's not to say that some of his other secondary reasons (that escape would put his friends and family at odds with the government; that he was an old man anyhow; that he would need to leave Athens, and had no interest in doing so) where not potentially valid reasons on their own, but the central reason does not convince me. Regardless I found this the most interesting work, since it got me thinking about the argument it presented.

If you where only going to read one of the works listed I would recommend this one, though the other two dialogs would be helpful as well, since as I mentioned above they form a narration of Socrates' death, and Phaedo has some interesting arguments about immortality as well.

Of the two Stoics (Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius are both important members of the Stoic school of philosophy), I preferred Epictetus. Marcus Aurelius was repetitive, both of himself and of Epictetus. I'm sure for someone who really wanted to study Stoic philosophy he would be quite interesting, but I found him somewhat boring and long winded, though with a few interesting bits and pieces.

I think I might have done better to read some of the Epicurean school of philosophy instead of Marcus Aurelius. Still it was interesting to compare and contrast two individuals on opposite ends of the social and wealth scale; Epictetus was a slave, and Marcus Aurelius was an Emperor, yet they both had essentially the same opinions about ambition, and being content with whatever happens.

One interesting thing I noted was that there was no arguments about "fairness" recorded from either. Now of course, I wouldn't expect Stoics to complain about the universe being unfair, and Stoics weren't the majority in the communities at the time. But what I noticed, particularly in Epictetus, who is often responding to other peoples arguments or requests for advice, was that they didn't seem to be arguing against the idea that the universe, or the gods, or fate is unfair to make some people poor and others rich. They where rather arguing against ambition and discontentment.

I can't imagine a modern Stoic doing much except arguing against the idea that the universe should be fair, and that it's bad that it isn't. Epictetus would say things like why would you obsess about being successful? don't you know that the rich have their own burdens, and the universe specifically designed you for your place in it?, but I would have expected to read things like why worry about whether it is fair for you or others to be poor? don't you know that the rich have their own burdens, and the universe specifically designs each person for their place in it? from a Stoic writing for modern audiences.

It may be nothing, perhaps I'm just noticing a difference in wording rather than an actual difference in thought, but it makes me wonder if perhaps our modern obsession with "Fairness", which we often assume is an innate feature of the human psyche, may rather be a cultural artifact. (perhaps related to Marxism?)

Anyhow, if you want to shorten this volume, my recommendation would be to skip The Meditations, which makes up about 50% of the whole volume, and doesn't add that much new to Epictetus.

Onwards to Volume 3: Bacon, Milton, and Browne, or the English philosophy of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Note: If you want to read through the Harvard Classics yourself, it's entirely Public Domain now, and Project Gutenberg has a "bookshelf" for it (though I'm using a lot of ebooks from eBooks@Adelaide instead), and MobileRead has each volume available as a single file download, which I'll probably use for a couple of volumes that aren't suited to being downloaded as individual ebooks.

Date: 2013-12-04 23:03:54, 10 years and 225 days ago

Leave reply

No html allowed in reply

Notify me of follow-up comments via email.