Harvard Classics 7 & 8: Christianity and the Theatre

At this rate I should be finishing the Harvard Classics in around 2026. Oh well, on to the latest update.

Volume 7 is The Confessions of St. Augustine and The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, both of which I acquired in hard copy.

The Confessions is pretty much what you'd expect; it's the story of St. Augustine's life from his birth to shortly after his conversion from Manichaesm into Christianity, as well as a couple of of bonus chapters on the subject of Creation and Genesis.

I used a relatively old translation by E. B. Pusey, which was somewhat dry and tiring to read unfortunately, but it was still well worth reading. At some point I think I'll try to track down The City of God and read that as well.

The Imitation of Christ is essentially a series of notes on how to live for young monastics. Many parts of it are still applicable to non-monastics, but that was the intended audience of Brother Thomas, and it shows through on occasion.

I used the fairly modern translation by William C. Creasy, which I think may have been a mistake. He favoured a very simplified style of language, which suffered the failing of many "simply" translations of complex works: it's often rather ugly, and reading ugly prose is tiring in it's own way.

As well as that according to his introduction he deliberately set out to translate it in a manner compatible with modern post-Vatican II Catholic theology; he claimed in the Introduction that he only did so to the extent necessary to make up for the modern lack of understanding of the context to which Brother Thomas would have been writing, but I as a reader am left not knowing what he might have changed.

He gives this example in the introduction of how he changed the translation of one particular sentence. Early in the book Brother Thomas says "This is the highest wisdom: through contempt of the world to aspire to the kingdom of heaven." which apparently and "informed reader" would understand as (and Creasy translates as) "This is the highest wisdom: to see the world as it truly is, fallen and fleeting; to love the world not for its own sake, but for God's; and to direct all your effort toward achieving the kingdom of heaven."

This may be a reasonable opinion as to what an "informed reader" would get out of that passage, but it is just Creasy's opinion. Essentially we're viewing the work through the lens of Creasy's personal theology and understanding of medieval philosophy.

Moving on from the questions about the translation, I found Book 4: The Book of the Sacrament the most interesting. It showed a different, and far more serious attitude towards communion than I am used to from the more easy-going Protestantism I grew up with. And an attitude I find myself starting to move towards more and more.


Volume 8 is various ancient Greek plays. I modified the list a little based on what I had print copies of, but I ended up reading:

  • Seven against Thebes by Aeschylus; I forget which translation
  • Hecabe, Electra, and Heracles by Euripides and translated by Philip Vellacott, which I had in hard-copy
  • The Oedipus Trilogy by Sophocles and translated by F. Storr
  • The Acharnians, The Clouds, and Lysistrata by Aristophanes and translated by Alan H. Sommerstein, also in hard-copy

Seven against Thebes was the dullest of the plays, and covered some of the same events as the Oedipus Trilogy. It appears that I didn't even keep a copy of the ebook. It probably was not the best choice for a singly play of Aeschylus, but it's what I ended up with.

The tragedies of Euripides where a step up, but really there's not much to say about them. They where entertaining, and worth reading for the window into a different world, and different world-view they offer though.

The Oedipus Trilogy, AKA the Theban Plays, is actually three unrelated plays by the same playwright (Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone), which where not intended as a trilogy, but are often combined since they deal with the same characters, and the later two are very definitely dealing with the carry-on effects of the first. I'd say these where my favourite of the Greek theatre that I have read, and Antigone is probably my favourite of the three. If you're only going to read a little bit of Greek theatre go with these ones.

The Comedies of Aristophanes I didn't like as much as the tragedies, interestingly my favourite was The Clouds, which is the most tragic of the three.

The most interesting observation to come out of these was how much of what would be considered gross-out humour in modern times they had. Fart-jokes, poop-jokes, and sex-jokes all abound; Lysistrata has two groups of old folk (one of men and one of women) have a battle-of-the-sexes in song, in which their genitalia feature heavily, any stage directions in the plays are apparently guesses from modern scholars, but I'm pretty sure it's generally accepted that at least the old men strip off during the song, perhaps the old women as well.

My dislike of such humour quite probably contributed to my poor opinion of these plays, so people who like that sort of humour may find them more entertaining.

Date: 2016-01-11 00:21:36, 1 year and 226 days ago

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