Sunday, September 28, 2008

If anyone takes the time to read my blog, sorry for not posting

If there are any of you out there who read my blog, I apologize for the lack of posts this past month. I've been hella busy with school; 3 languages, a philosophy seminar, and two undergrad associations are alot to keep on top of.

More posts, though, will shortly be forthcoming.

PS- if you actually do read and like (or hate) my blog, post a comment here. I'm just curious to see how many people read it.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Hoffner and Melchert's Hittite Grammar

A Grammar of the Hittite Language, 1: Reference Grammar

A Grammar of the Hittite Language, 1: Reference Grammar
Part I: Reference Grammar
Languages of the Ancient Near East - LANE 1/1
by Harry A. Hoffner Jr. and H. Craig Melchert
Eisenbrauns, 2008
Pp. xxii + 468; CD-ROM, English
Cloth, 7 x 9 inches
ISBN: 1575061198
List Price: $59.50
Your Price: $53.55

Above is the info for Hoffner and Melchert's new Hittite Grammar. My friend showed it to me today and it seems like the best resource out there for learning Hittite. There is a tutorial included in the CD which would be excellent for learning the language; it is also available separately. The only other ones I've seen are one called Beginning Hittite which, judging from the peer reviews and my experience with it, is the worst thing out there, and Johannes Friedrich's Hethitisches Elementarbuch which is only useful if you read German. Hoffner and Melchert's will no doubt be the standard English language grammar for a while. If you're crazy enough to learn Hittite, this is the best thing out there right now.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Homeric Hymn 20: To Hephestus

Here's my hackneyed translation of the Homeric Hymn 20: To Hephaestus. The Greek text can be viewed here, at the Perseus site. If you don't have a Greek font, like SPIonic installed, I think you can still view the text in just plain Unicode.

Of Hephaestus, famously skilled, sweetly sing Muse,
who, with grey-eyed Athena, taught men to use
their shining art upon the Earth, men who used
to dwell in hill caves, like animals reduced.
But now, the shining skill having been learned through
Hephaestus, famous for his art, years renew
easily for men, at ease in their dwellings.
But, be gracious, Hephaestus; give us earnings
and most excellent virtue.

The translation is not completely literal; I translated some things as adverbs when they weren't, and in the 4th last line I translate sense, not words.

I think the last 2 lines are the most interesting. The poet has said that Hephaestus, along with Athena, gave men the "shining art". This, presumably, was a rather gracious measure, from men's point of view, on the part of Hephaestus. However, there is apparently a concern that Hephaestus will not continue to be gracious; there is some concern about a change of heart. Thus, the poet asks him to "be gracious"; the will of the gods was a rather shifty and thus the poet asks for graciousness. All that Hephaestus did does not necessarily entail his continuing to be well disposed towards the human race. These last two lines bring out a nice contrast between the graciousness of Hephaestus and Athena in giving men the "shining skill", and the ever-lurking possibility that his attitude could shift at any time. The poet can appreciate all men have, but is also aware of the transitory nature of all men have. Incidentally, this is a common theme in archaic lyric poetry; it's rather pessimistic stuff.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Origins of the Etruscans

The Etruscans, from the time of the Romans to our own, have remained a rather enigmatic people. No one really knew, or knows, where exactly they came from. Hesiod, in the Theogony, says that the Etruscans were descended from the children of Odysseus and Circe:

"Circe, the daughter of Hyperion's child, the Sungod, loved Odysseus, famous for his endurance, and bore Agrius and Latinus, the strong man with no stain. This pair rules over all the famous Tyrrenians in their faraway retreat deep in the sacred islands" (Thg. 12, 101ff)

The 'sacred islands' are probably the Lipari islands, which are just north of the toe of the boot of Italy. Herodotus relates that the Etruscans were of Lydian descent, and both Virgil and Horace refer to the Etruscans as Lydian. The Lydians were a group of Greeks in Asia Minor and neighbors of the Ionian Greeks. For Herodotus this correlation fits well into the one of the thematic facets of his Histories: barbarian 'truphe', luxurious living. Both the Lydians and the Etruscans had a reputation among the Greeks for decadant living and morals, which is also attributed to the Persians and ties into the theme of hubris that runs through the Histories.

Dionysus of Halicarnassus also had a go at trying to place the origins of the Etruscans. Writing in 7 B.C., he claimed that the Etruscans were simply the 'natives' of Italy. In his work the Roman Antiquities, Dionysus attempts to show that the Romans were originally Greeks who migrated over to Italy by comparing Greek and Roman customs, institutions and rituals. If it is the case that the Romans were originally Greeks, then the Etruscans, according to Dionysus, must have been the "barbarians". Interestingly, though, he does analyze Herodotus' claim that the Etruscans were Lydians and more or less arrives at the same conclusion that most scholars now hold, namely that the Lydians and Etruscans are completely unrelated. He notes that the Tyrrhenians and the Lydians do not use the same language, do not worship the same gods, don't make use of similar laws or institutions. In short the Etruscans must be "a very ancient nation, and...agrees with no other either in its language or in its manner of living".

Lydian, being a dialect of Greek, is an Indo European language. Etruscan, however, is not. Thus, Herodotus' migratory theory does not work. Moreover, archaeological work in Lydia has failed to unearth anything that remotely resembles Etruscan pottery or the like. Over in Italy, archaeology has shown a clear continuity between the 7th century Etruscans and the prehistoric populations that preceded them in every major Etruscan center.

So, Dionysus' theory seems the most plausible, except that it still does not tell us where the Etruscans came from. It's possible we may never know; perhaps they were part of a prehistoric migration from somewhere that, due to its age, would bear no traces in the archaeological record. Nonetheless, it is interesting that the Etruscans were a pocket (and a rather powerful pocket at that) of non Indo European speakers in an area where every other tribe spoke an IE based language. This adds to the mystery, I think. Here we have a bunch of non IE speakers who settled in the middle of Italy on some of the best land there is in Italy. One can perhaps understand how the Basques in Spain, due to their being surrounded by high mountains and thus cut off from the rest of the world, could have developed a language unrelated to those surrounding them. But, this was not the case with the Etruscans. They were literally surrounded by people completely unrelated to them, with no natural barriers to isolate them. A rather curious state of affairs.

All we can really say is that linguistically the Etruscans influenced others, and were perhaps influenced by the Italian tribes around them. Latin picked up some Etruscan vocabulary and the Etruscans picked up their script from the Phoenicians. None of this can answer the real question, though: who were the Etruscans and from where did they come?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

More on Spoken Latin

A short while ago I wrote a little post on the benefits of spoken Latin. Today, as I was wandering through the library stacks, I came across a little book which was published in 1669 entitled A New Way of Teaching Children the Latin Tongue by Use Alone. Originally published in French under the title Examen de la Maniere d'Enseigner le Latin aux Enfans, it was translated into English or, as the title page says, "Englished out of French". I flipped it open and, lo and behold, he was arguing that spoken Latin was the best method of learning the language. The standard "grammar/translation" method, the author argues, is not the right way to go. He cites the example of a small child whom he met and who, at the age of about four, "knowing no other Language, but Latin, [used] the same as other Infants do their Mother-tong". The author apparently talked to him twice and found that "it hath ev'n the dexterity to vary the expressions, when it is oblig'd to say often the same thing. It commits no fault in the Inflexions, and is not only exact in what it speaks, but with a strange quickness taketh up and corrects those, that speak not right" Imagine having your Latin corrected by a four year old!

The author's point is basically that, this kid has a greater command of the language than those who learned Latin the standard way, and, since he [the kid] learned Latin through mere use and conversation alone, that this appears to be the best method. For, we learned our mother-tongue without being drilled on declensions and conjugations, moods and voices. Why not employ the same approach with second languages? Montaigne's first language was, apparently, Latin: he was only spoken to and could only respond in Latin when he was a child. Moreover, this in no way impaired him from learning French: he is considered one of the finest writers in the French language. Though, to be fair, we have to take Montaigne at his word in this; he relates this in one of his essays.

Languages were made not only to be read, but also to be spoken. I see no reason why Latin should be any different: using a language makes learning it a heck of a lot easier. Anyone who can find this little book should read it; rather humorously he treats some objections to his views, one of which is that "mothers shall not understand their own children"; the author thinks that one's first language should be Latin and their "vulgar" tongue learned later. To be fair, this is a bit extreme, perhaps. However, he does see the immense benefit of speaking the language, which is something I can definitely appreciate.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

A Short Bit on Tacitus and a Translation of Some Tacitus

Tacitus is probably the hardest Latin author you will ever read. His style is rather abbreviated and rather obscure, as will probably come through in the translation further on in the post. Most interesting, however, is Tacitus' views on the Roman Empire and how he presented them in his works. He was fervently opposed to Roman Imperialism, which is all fine and good (depending on which Emporer you lived under and how well you masked it). However, Tacitus wrote a biography of Agricola, who was a relative by marriage of Tacitus, and most famously took over Britian in the name of Roman Imperialism. How, then, does one be critical of Roman expansion whilst writing a complementary biography (because Agricola was a family member--and a famous one at that) of someone who played a role in Roman expansion? Simple: put your views in speeches of the enemy. Here is presented an excerpt from one such speech; one can only handle so much Tacitus at once.

Quotiens causas belli et necessitatem nostram intueor, magnus mihi animus est hodiernum diem consensumque vestrum initium libertatis toti Britanniae fore: nam et universi co[i]stis et servitutis expertes, et nullae ultra terrae ac ne mare quidem securum inminente nobis classe Romana. Ita proelium atque arma, quae fortibus honesta, eadem etiam ignavis tutissima sunt. Priores pugnae, quibus adversus Romanos varia fortuna certatum est, spem ac subsidium in nostris manibus habebant, quia nobilissimi totius Britanniae eoque in ipsis penetralibus siti nec ulla servientium litora aspicientes, oculos quoque a contactu dominationis inviolatos habebamus. Nos terrarum ac libertatis extremos recessus ipse ac sinus famae in hunc diem defendit: nunc terminus Britanniae patet, atque omne ignotum pro magnifico est; sed nulla iam ultra gens, nihil nisi fluctus ac saxa, et infestiores Romani, quorum superbiam frustra per obsequium ac modestiam effugias. Raptores orbis, postquam cuncta vastantibus defuere terrae, mare scrutantur: si locuples hostis est, avari, si pauper, ambitiosi, quos non Oriens, non Occidens satiaverit: soli omnium opes atque inopiam pari adfectu concupiscunt. Auferre trucidare rapere falsis nominibus imperium, atque ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant. (Tacitus, Life of Agricola, ch. 30)

How often do I contemplate the reason and our neccesity of war, I think that today, this very day, and your gathering together, will be the beginning of liberty for all of Britian: for you all came together, inexperienced in slavery, and no land beyond and not even the sea is secure, the Roman fleet being near. Thus, a battle and weapons, which are honorable to the brave, in the same way are safest for cowards. Prior battles, in which it was contested with varying success against the Romans, held hope and troops in our hands because we, positioned far inland, not gazing at the shore of servitude, had eyes unviolated from the contact of domination. The remote position itself and the land of rumor defends us of this land and of liberty to this day: now the limit of Britian lies open and every unknown thing is for the sake of a splendid thing; but, there are no tribes beyond, nothing except seas and rocks and the rather hostile Romans, whose arrogance you would flee in error through compliance and respect. Robbers of the earth, they are, when all of the earth falls short, being in emptiness, they search through the sea: if the enemy is rich, they are greedy, if they are poor, ambitious, neither East nor West have satisfied them: they alone out of all people covet wealth and poverty with the same disposition. Stealing, destroying, plundering are for the false name of an empire: and when they make desolation, they call it peace.

I've translated some parts of the passage rather literally to get across how obscure Tacitus can be sometimes. Remember that this is more or less Tacitus speaking though the mouth of a general of a coalition of Celtic/Scottish tribes who are fighting the Romans. In the first line, where I translated "I think that..." in the Latin is actually, "there is great mind to me...". He seems to personify the "prior battles", stating that they "held hope, etc"; this is extremely confusing at first glance at the Latin. The verb "to be" (esse) is often omitted. The passage "every unknown thing is for the sake of a splendid thing" is rather hazy in meaning. I think what Tacitus is trying to say is that the Romans greatly desired the "unknown", which, upon discovery, was for the sake of "glory" or the Empire, or what have you. Just a bit further on, the clause that starts "whose arrogance..."; I believe he is saying that fighting is the only option and that submission to the Romans is the wrong way to go.

One can also see the anti-Roman stance in this excerpt. Romans are called "robbers of the earth" and are portrayed as greedy, malicious conquorers. There are more "implicit" critiques of Romans in Tacitus' writings; I'll perhaps present them in another post and comment more fully.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Syria, Trade, & Near Eastern Influences on Greece

Ancient Syria is an interesting place for me, primarily due to its cosmopolitan nature. Ugarit, for example, due to its being a major trade center, was host to a great number of different peoples, including native Syrians, Hittites, probably Egyptians, and perhaps merchants from Mesopotamia further west. All the major trade routes seemed, at one time or another, to convene in Syria. A merchant travelling west from Babylonia would start by going up the Euphrates to Emar, then over land to Aleppo, then south to Canaan; the journey south would be through Syria. Merchants going north would begin from Northern Syria, probably Ugarit, and then travel through the Amanus and Taursus mountains to the Anatolian plateau; Hittite merchants would make the journey in reverse. For Egyptians, the safest route would be by sea up the coast, making stops at Byblos, Tyre, and then most likely Ugarit, in northern Syria. Merchants from Crete would sail in a counter-clockwise direction (winds and currents generally favoured this direction); first they would stop in Egypt and then go up the coast following the route of the Egyptian traders.

There was, in a way, a circular trade route around the Aegean, with branches coming from the west, in Mesopotamia, and from the north, in the Hittite kingdom. M.L. West, in his book The East Face of Helicon, states that in the Neolithic Age, there were already established trade networks in the Near East though he argues that Greece had little influence and was influenced little during this period. I am inclined to agree. Around the 17th century BC, however, we begin to see objects of oriental manufacture on the Greek mainland. The Shaft Graves of Circle A at Mycenae sported Mesopotamian glass beads, tusks from Syria, an Egyptian jug and vase, and a gold pin from Anatolia. This obviously suggests the presence of a circular trade network around the Aegean Sea; it is most likely from this network that the so called “Near Eastern influences” of Greece came about. From the 15th century BC onwards, Mycenaean pottery was arriving in substantial quantities in Cyprus, Syria, and Palestine. West points out, quite correctly, that it was not necessarily the Greeks that carried it that far, however, it does attest to a wide ranging trade network that went both directions because of its circular nature.

The “Near Eastern influences”, however, did not directly follow the “circular” pattern; they more or less moved westward, not around. First, there was no where else for them to go; about 3/4 of the circle was comprised of places from which the influences would come. First, we see them on the island of Cyprus, then in Minoan Crete, and then finally on the mainland. The trade moved in a circle, but the influences moved linearly across the Aegean towards Greece. Influences are, for the most part, seen first in Minoan or Mycenaean civilization, which is obviously due to the fact they antedated significant settlements on the mainland. Take some aspects of religion, for example. In both Minoan and Mycenaean art many scenes of cultic worship are depicted taking place in the countryside, sometimes by a large tree; trees and groves were considered sacred. Here is a cult scene from Mycenae:

Note the tree on the left. There are parallels to this in the Near East. In the Old Testament it seems that Judaism had to combat tree worship. It was common in Near Eastern religions to hold trees, rocks, etc as divine, as idols to be worshipped; it is this that the Israelites had to contend with, for worship of idols in any form was deemed not appropriate. In the Old Testament itself, though, David received an omen from the rustling of the trees:

And let it be, when thou [David] hearest the sound of a going in the tops of the mulberry trees, that then thou shalt bestir thyself: for then shall the Lord go out before thee, to smite the host of the Philistines. (2 Sam. 5.24)

In a way, the trees become sacred insofar as they bear the sign of the divine.

A sacred stone or column was also a feature of Minoan and Mycenaean art. The god Hermes, incidentally, received his name from the Greek word for a cairn, ‘herma’. Again, if one looks in the Old Testament, a 'massebah' (stone pillar) was a feature of Canaanite sanctuaries. Also, Jacob sets up a stone pillar:

And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it (Gen. 28.18)

And Jacob set up a pillar in the place where he talked with him [God], even a pillar of stone: and he poured a drink offering thereon, and he poured oil thereon. (Gen. 35.14)

The term for a cult site in older Canaanite religion is ‘bamah’, which means “high place”. The word could perhaps be connected with the Greek ‘bomos’, meaning altar.

Not the temples themselves, but the principle of the temple came from the Near East, via Cyprus. An interesting linguistic connection is the Greek world leskhai, which refers to a public dining hall, at Delphi, for example. This can be compared with the Hebrew 'lishkah', which means basically the same thing, though, there is no known Semitic etymology for the word.

All these influences passed westward, most likely brought along with the trade goods and were slowly integrated into the 'Greek' society we think of today. Along with the influences from Syria and Mesopotamia, there were perhaps Hebraic ones, as outlined above. For more detail see M.L. West's The East Face of Helicon

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Utility of Hebrew

I've discovered that, if one wants to learn any ancient Near Eastern language, Hebrew is not only useful, but essential. First of all, it makes learning the languages easier; some grammatical points, as well as the phonetic equivalents for the scripts, can be related to Hebrew and thus make for easier comprehension. Secondly, most of the grammars for ancient NE languages presuppose knowledge of Hebrew for precisely the reason above. Often equivalents for constructions or cuneiform signs, etc will be given. Even examples will be given in Hebrew of certain constructions.

On that note, since I'm taking a course on Middle Egyptian next year, I've started looking at Hebrew. I at least want to have a handle on the script-- this will most likely make learning the "alphabetic" equivalents in Egyptian easier, leaving me only to worry about the Hieroglyphic (by which I mean the picture of water actually meaning "water") and phonemic (by which I mean a sign representing more than one letter; Consonant+Consonant, eg.) aspects. When I was learning Ugaritic, I found myself wishing I had knowledge of Hebrew; it would have made learning the cuneiform signs as well as verb structures easier. In short, not only is Hebrew a beautiful language, certainly worth learning in its own right, but it also makes learning other NE languages a heck of a lot easier.

Friday, August 1, 2008

A Recreation of Ciceronian Oratory

Here's a link to a recreation of sections from some of Cicero's speeches produced and put together by UCLA.

They're interesting to watch; I don't know enough about Ciceronian rhetoric to make a judgement regarding how historically accurate these modern attempts are, though, I wonder how "historically accurate" one can actually be when dealing with the spoken word. Rhetorical handbooks from the ancient world can only go so far, though, to be fair, they can take us a fair ways in terms of gesture, some aspects of delivery, and pacing. No doubt some nuances will be missed, however, these UCLA videos give, I would guess, a fairly accurate portrait of what Roman oratory was like.

Monday, July 28, 2008

On Spoken Latin

Here is a link to a video produced by the University of Kentucky. One of the profs there runs a summer seminar in which, for the first day, you are allowed to converse in whatever language you choose, and then, for the next 8 or so days, you can only converse in Latin.

I think this would be immensely beneficial; it's a shame more people don't actively engage in spoken Latin. Pretentious as it may sound, the best way to learn a language is to use it. Merely reading the language won't ingrain the grammatical points and vocabulary in your head as well as actually using the language and, if one attends a spoken Latin seminar, immersing oneself in the language completely. The classic grammar/translation method perhaps makes learning Latin easier, but it doesn't mean you learn it well. To be fair, many people are quite good at Latin who have used the grammar/translation method, however, I seriously doubt the are as good with the Latin language as the professors who run the spoken Latin seminars.

At the very least, people should be doing more prose composition, whether it be an original work or a paraphrase of some poem or prose selection they read in class. Both Romans and Greeks used paraphrase, as well as other exercises such as translating from Latin into Greek or Greek into Latin, to improve their writing and, most importantly, their oratorical skills. If it worked for Cicero, why can't it work for you? For myself, at least, prose comp has been beneficial in terms of my Latin grammar and vocabulary, painful as it is at first. It reinforces concepts: if you can generate constructions, surely you would be able to recognize them in Latin. Actively using a language is the only way to learn it well, thus, speaking and writing Latin would be great ways to improve one's skills.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Catullus 5 Translation

Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus
Rumoresque senum severiorum

Omnes unius aestimenus assis.

Soles occidere et redire possunt

Nobis, cum semel occidit brevis lux,

Nox est perpetua una dormienda.

Da mis basia mille, deinde centum,

Dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,

Deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum,

Dein, cum milia multa fecerimus

Conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus,

Aut ne quis malus invidere possit

Cum tantum sciat esse basiorum.

Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love.
Let us reckon all the rumors
of harsh old men as worth a single penny.
Suns are able to sink and to return
But, when our brief light sets,
We must live in perpetual night.
Give me 1000 kisses, then 100,
then another 1000, then 100 again,
Then another 1000, then 100.
Then, when we have made many thousands of kisses
We will jumble those kisses together, lest we know how many there are
or lest any person with bad intent cast an evil eye
when he knows just how many kisses we have shared.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Catullus 51 Translation

Ille mi par esse deo videntur,
ille, si fas est, superare divos,

qui sedens adversus identidem te
spectat et audit

dulce ridentem, misero quod omnis

eripit sensus mihi: nam simul te,

Lesbia, aspexi, nihil est super mi

[vocis in ore.]

Lingua sed torpet, tenuis sub artus

flamma demanat, sonitu suopte
tintinant aures, gemina teguntur

lumina nocte.

Otium, Catulle, tibi molestum est:

otio exsultas nimiumque gestis:
otium et reges prius et beatas

perdidit urbes.

This man seems to be an equal of the gods.
This man, if it is right, appears to surpass the gods:
He who, sitting opposite you,
gazes at you and listens to your
sweet laughter again and again. Those things
from my misery snatch my senses: indeed,
the instant I look at you, Lesbia,
nothing of my voice is left in my mouth.

My tongue is tied, a thin flame of love
flows down through my limbs,
my ears ring with their own sound and
my eyes are covered with the twin night.

Catullus, leisure for you is troublesome:
In leisure do you rejoice and delight too much:
Leisure has, in the past, ruined kings and beautiful cities.

Short Commentary [lines refer to the Latin text]:

Line 2: si fas est (if it is right); The sense here is really "if it is divinely sanctioned". That is, Catullus doesn't want to offend the gods in saying that he might even surpass them, thus he's being more polite about it.

Line 7: Lesbia; This is who Catullus addresses his love poetry and, after the relationship deteriorates, his hate poetry, to. The name is not a reference to her sexual orientation; instead, it is a poetic nod to Sappho, the Greek poet of the the 6th Century BC. She was from the island of Lesbos and addressed most of her love poetry to another woman (hence the word "lesbian"). Catullus makes use of Sappho's meters as well in some of his poetry. I think Catullus is trying to fit himself in with the lyric love poetry of the Greeks.

Line 8: [vocis in ore]; This line is missing in all the Catullus manuscripts. This is the "standard" reconstruction of what the line probably said

Lines 11-12: gemina teguntur/lumina nocte (my eyes are covered with the twin night); These lines, though incredibly good, are incredibly confusing in the Latin. I think the sense is that darkeness overwhelmes his two eyes.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Apology of Socrates Part II

Socrates now proceeds to cross examine his formal accuser, Meletus. He uses his classic method of examination, the elenchus, which is concerned with two points: the first with regard to Meletus’ lack of concern for the upbringing of young men, and the second with regard to his accusation that Socrates doesn’t believe in any gods.

Concerning the first point, Socrates makes two arguments against Meletus. The first is from analogy. He first makes Meletus admit that everyone in the city has a refining effect upon young men and it is only Socrates that has a perverse impact. This, however, seems counterintuitive to Socrates. The analogy of raising horses is used; it is not the case that the whole of mankind has an improving effect upon horses and only one person has a negative effect on them, for only a select few individuals are able to raise horses properly and the rest of the population presumably has a somewhat negative effect on them, not knowing how to raise them properly. Thus, from analogy, it would be strange if only one person had a negative effect on young men (i.e. Socrates) and the rest of the population had a good effect on them. According to Socrates, this proves that Meletus has little knowledge of the upbringing of the young, which is one of the issues Meletus raised against Socrates. In essence, Socrates is arguing that Meletus had no idea what he was talking about when he charged Socrates with corrupting the youth.

The second argument isn’t laid out terribly well in the dialogue; one has to do a bit of work to bring it out. Socrates first establishes, through his elenchus method, a rather obvious point: that wicked people harm those with whom they are in close contact. Then, Socrates has Meletus state that he (Meletus) is charging Socrates with corrupting the youth intentionally. It is this point that the argument hinges on. It makes no sense, from Socrates’ point of view, to intentionally corrupt those around him for, by premise one, these people would then have a negative effect on him. Socrates states that, “am I so hopelessly ignorant as not even to realize that by spoiling the character of one of my companions I shall run the risk of getting some harm from him?” In other words, since Socrates isn’t stupid, he wouldn’t intentionally harm people because he could possibly incur some negative effects from them. Thus, if he did corrupt some youths, he must have done so unintentionally, in which case the proper course of action is not to bring him to court, but to “take him aside privately for instruction and reproof....”

Socrates now moves to the second point: the charge that he doesn’t believe in any gods. This argument, in my view, is rather dubious; I think the terms shift from the formal indictment that Socrates reads to the actual charge he argues against.

Meletus is made to say that Socrates “[disbelieves] in the gods altogether”. This can mean two things: (1) That Socrates doesn’t believe in any gods at all (i.e. he’s a complete atheist); and (2) That Socrates doesn’t believe in the gods sanctioned by the state (i.e. he believes in gods other than the ones in the Greek pantheon). If we go back to the “formal indictment” that Socrates read (see 24c), it states that he is charged with ‘believing in supernatural things of his own invention instead of the gods recognized by the state”. Thus, by Socrates’ own admission, he is charged with the second of the two meanings. However, Meletus then admits that Socrates is being charged with atheism, not just with believing in gods other than those sanctioned by the state (see 26b-26d). The charge, it seems, has switched from the second meaning to the first!

Thus, Socrates’ argument supposes that he is being charged under the first meaning, namely that he is a complete atheist, even though he read out that he was charged under the second meaning. Socrates once again argues from analogy. He begins by stating the fact that it is not the case that one can believe in musicians but not musical matters, or horses, but not believe in equine matters. By analogy, it doesn’t make sense to say that one can believe in supernatural matters but not in supernatural beings. Since Meletus then agrees that supernatural beings are either the gods or children of the gods, Socrates then must believe in the gods.

I think there is certainly something a bit shifty going on here: which meaning of the charge is Socrates being indicted under? One possibility is that there is actually something shifty going on that Plato hopes we don’t notice. A second is that the two meanings, in some sense, collapse into each other. It could be the case that atheism, for the Greeks, entails believing in gods other than those sanctioned by the state. I’m not sure how to call this; a rather pantheon-o-centric view, perhaps. This, however, could not be it, for two reasons. First, Socrates blatantly separates the two meanings in 26c, and Meletus chooses complete atheism as the one Socrates is charged under. Moreover, from a historical standpoint, the Greeks recognized other civilizations as being “religious” even though they didn’t believe in the gods of the Greek pantheon. A third possibility is that Socrates initially read out the charge wrong, and then, through questioning of Meletus, received further clarification as to the real nature of the charge. This is perhaps the most sympathetic reading. In my view, it is either the third or the first possibilities that make the most sense. I’m not entirely sure which is right.

I’ll skip over 28a to 30b rather arbitrarily. Basically Socrates is saying that he’s not afraid to die and that he is fully conscious of his ignorance, as opposed to others than claim to know things but it turns out, on the basis of Socrates’ questioning, that they really do not. Also, he puts his obligation to Apollo ahead of his supposed obligation to the city to stop philosophizing. I suppose he’s trying to buttress his claim that he’s not an atheist.

Starting in 30c, Socrates gives a rather egotistical argument: he should not be found guilty because he is a benefaction to the city; he states “if you put me to death, you will not easily find anyone to take my place”. He goes on to claim that it was God who “assigned” him to the city of Athens, which, like a horse “needs the stimulation of some stinging fly.” Socrates was sent by God to perform the function of the fly. Socrates, I think, is assuming a great deal here. First, I doubt horses like the “stimulation” of flies; getting a chunk of flesh taken out of you by a horse fly, while it certainly would be stimulating, would not be the most pleasant or the most beneficial experience to have. The only thing it would teach you is that flies should be avoided or done away with. Socrates could perhaps have found a better analogy.

“I am subject to a divine or supernatural experience....It began in my early childhood--a sort of voice which comes to me; and when it comes it always dissuades me from what I am proposing to do, and never urges me on. It is this that debars me from entering public life...” Was Socrates a schizophrenic? At any rate, this is his argument for never engaging in public affairs to any great degree. I wouldn’t want someone with a voice in their head telling them things having a hand in ruling the city either. His next point would have also made him unpopular with the judges; he states, “the true champion of justice...must necessarily confine himself to private life and leave politics alone”. In a rather democratic court, in which the judges are probably politicians, this would be an unpopular position. He goes on to make a better point with regard to the only office he ever held, the Council, in which he voted against a measure that was later found to be illegal. At the time of voting, it was presumably a popular one, as Socrates relates that there was much opposition to his vote. However, in the interest of justice, he voted against the illegal measure. Here he’s trying to show that he’s a good citizen and, consequently, would not and could not corrupt the youth: he’s a just man.

Skipping over 33a to 34b, and moving on to 34c, Socrates starts condemning the procedures of the Athenian courts. Remember at the beginning how Socrates stated that he wasn’t a good speaker? This is why. It’s generally not a good plan to rile against the court practices in which you are defending your right to live. He states that he shall forgo the usual practice of making a sob story to the judges, and does so on three grounds: it would be dishonorable, it would be inviting justice, and it would be impious. His basic position is that “it is [not] just for a man to appeal to the jury or to get himself acquitted by doing so; he ought to inform them of the facts and convince them by argument.” This, I think, is a fair point: the judges ought to stick to the facts when rendering a decision. Though, one could not say the same for Socrates: he has a habit of rambling and speaking of things that don’t directly relate to the matters at hand.

I'll deal with the "guilty" verdict in a third post.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Apology of Socrates, Part I

The Apology of Socrates (apologia Sokratous), from a “historical” standpoint, centers around the accusations brought against Socrates; it is his defense speech at his trial on charges of corrupting the youth. In this post I shall attempt to sketch out some of the relevant points of interpretation.

First, a brief note on the title. Socrates is not profusely apologizing the dialogue; the Greek word “apologia” has a slightly different sense. It means ‘defense’ or ‘a speech in defense of...’ This point should be obvious if one has read the dialogue.

Interestingly, this is the only Platonic dialogue that contains the name “Socrates” in its title. This, among other things, points to the central issue that the dialogue entertains: Who is Socrates? (John Sallis makes something of this point) Socrates has been called an atheist and a corrupter of the youth of Athens; it is his job to show that he is not. The dialogue centers on the being of Socrates—who he is, or, perhaps, who he should be. This issue is hinted at right at the beginning of the dialogue, when Socrates says “[he] nearly forgot who [he] was, they [his accusers] spoke so persuasively”. His identity has been questioned; he himself perhaps questioned his identity. Implicitly, he is drawing attention to himself and who he is. However, he points out “there was not a word of truth in what they said”. Socrates didn’t forget himself at all: he knows who he is and his accusers have attempted to cover it over in their speeches against him.

The word “truth” here is essential. The Greek word is aletheia, which, if one breaks down into its semantic and grammatical components, is a-letheia: unconcealment. Differing greatly from the commonplace concept of truth, which is correspondence; this is a more primordial concept which even underlies the everyday conception of it: something must be uncovered in order to be corresponded to something else. Heidegger makes a great deal out of this etymological deconstruction (see The Essence of Truth (the lecture course, not the essay) for a great discussion of this notion in relation to the Allegory of the Cave in the Republic, also see his lecture course Parmenides). There is no truth in the accuser’s speeches, that is, they covered up the identity of Socrates which Socrates now has to bring to light; he has to unconceal himself for all to see. This is, ultimately, the project of the Apology: Socrates unconvering himself for the jury in order to give a response to the question “Who is Socrates?”, a question that the prosecution has answered “falsely”. He goes on to say that, “you [the judges] shall hear from me the whole truth.” That is, he will attempt uncover himself completely from the untruth that has been hoisted upon him by his accusers.

I can’t say I know the ultimate significance of Socrates addressing the judges as “men of Athens” (o andres athenaioi) instead of the more standard “judges” (o andres dikastai). Perhaps because these men don’t know the entire picture he doesn’t think of them as proper “judges”—they don’t know the truth and cannot make a decent claim regarding his guilt or innocence. A classic Platonic point is that one is not a proper judge of things (or a proper philosopher for that matter) unless one knows the truth (Re. whatever is in question has been unconcealed). At this point in the dialogue nothing has been truly unconcealed for the judges and, consequently, they cannot claim the privileged position of judgment. I cannot say for sure.

Socrates, also at the beginning of his speech, states that “he doesn’t have great skill as a speaker--unless by a skillful speaker they mean one who speaks the truth...” There are two things going on here. First, it’s obviously a jab at his prosecutors, who he claimed right from the start to have spoken falsely about him; he goes on to say that he would agree with this point and would be an orator, and that he would be well out of their league when it came to speaking the truth. Second, it foreshadows some of the errors Socrates makes in his defense speech from the standpoint of classical rhetoric and, in some instances, common sense.

The first thing Socrates does after his introduction is introduce more charges against himself and proceed to defend himself against them. Why anyone in court would give the judges more crimes to brood over is rather strange, at least from a pragmatic point of view. However, Socrates was never much of a pragmatic man: he was always in search of the truth, and he has stated to the judges he will provide the whole truth. Providing the whole truth presumably entails doing away with the entire veil of lies that has settled over Socrates in his long life as a philosopher. This is why he treats charges that were never formally brought to bear upon him by the prosecution. “It is impossible for me [Socrates] to even know and tell you [the judges] their names...” , for there are too many of them; they are the invisible rumor-mongers. Socrates calls them his “dangerous accusers”, due to the fact they believe that anyone who inquires into the nature of things, that is, seeks a physical explanation for things, cannot believe in the gods. I think Socrates would call them dangerous due to their supposed ignorance: they don’t see (as Socrates does) that inquiry into “the heavens” or “things below the earth” does not necessarily entail atheism. For Socrates (Plato), ignorance is evil; knowledge, provided by truth (re. unconcealment) is everything. Inquiry, which provides such unconcealment, is thus in the service of truth and knowledge and, consequently, should not be stopped. The upshot of all this is that his critics fall into two camps: his immediate accusers, and “the earlier ones”, who propagated the rumors that probably played a large role in him being summoned to trial.

Socrates then begins to formally treat the charges brought upon him by the rumor-mongers. He states them as follows: (1) he inquires into things below the earth and in the sky; (2) he makes the weaker argument defeat the stronger (i.e. he’s just a sophist); (3) he teaches others to follow his example (that is, he convinces people that (1) and (2) are good things to do). His ultimate aim, as I have said above, is to provide an answer to the question “Who is Socrates”, and to end up with a totally unconcealed picture of himself for the judges. In order to do this, he must do away with all of the lies that concealed his true nature.

Socrates first denies that he is a professional teacher. By professional teachers he means sophists who would take young Greek men under their tutelage and charge a fee for teaching them rhetorical tricks and flourishes. Presumably Socrates is trying to do some work against charge (2); he doesn’t want to be lumped into the sophist camp right off the bat. Since sophists have a habit of charging for their teaching activities, and since Socrates works to establish that he doesn’t charge anything, it’s harder to put him in with the sophists.

He then states rhetorically, “Surely all this talk and gossip about you would never have arisen if you had confined yourself to ordinary activities, but only if your behaviour was abnormal...”. That is, one could object that the rumors about him would not arise for no reason at all: there must have been something that provoked them. He again reassures the judges that he will provide the “whole truth”; a common theme in the dialogue. A reason for his incessant questioning is now provided. Apparently his friend, Carephon, went to the oracle at Delphi and asked whether there was anyone wiser than Socrates. The answer of the oracle was no, there was not. Socrates then proceeded to test this claim by questioning people who apparently were thought to be wise and who were thought to know what they were talking about when they spoke of certain things. If you have read any other Socratic dialogues, where Socrates usually elenchuses the hell out of his interlocutors and gets them to admit they have no idea what they are saying, you can probably guess what Socrates will say next. He says that these so called “wise men” he talked to really had no idea what they were saying. His ultimate aim in doing this was to see if there was any hidden meaning in the god’s message; he says he “felt compelled to but the god’s business first” and that he “pursued [his] investigation at the god’s command...” Here he’s trying to do two things. First, he’s attempting to refute the claim that he’s an atheist by appealing to his “duty” to the gods and to his need to follow his command. Secondly, he’s providing an explanation for his “abnormal behaviour”; he went around questioning everybody because of the command of the god to pursue the meaning behind the oracular pronouncement.

The charge of corrupting the youth and inciting them to follow his ways comes last. In essence, he claims that those who charge him in this manner once again don’t really know what they’re talking about; if asked what Socrates teaches that has this negative effect, they say they don’t know and “fall back on the stock charges against any seeker after wisdom”. This, to me, seems a rather weak argument that sets up a rather nice red herring. The issue isn’t whether the accusers know what Socrates has taught, the issue is whether what he taught corrupted the youth--whether people know exactly what he teaches is a moot point which isn’t needed to establish corruption of the youth.

I’ll present the further defense of Socrates against the charges brought by his prosecution and the conclusion in another post.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Some Thoughts on Euripides

Euripides, I believe, is the most underrated and underappreciated tragedian out of the three great ancient playwrights. This partly stems from the biographical information that has been handed down through the tradition and partly from his record in the City Dionysia, the festival in which tragedies were performed. Justina Gregory places the biographical details into three categories: (1) the comedies of Aristophanes. Aristophanes tells us that Euripides’ mother was a herb seller and repeats the joke no less than five times in his plays (Acharnians, Knights, twice in Women at the Thesmophoria, and in the Frogs). (2) those from the tragedies of Euripides himself. Euripides’ wives have been reported to be unfaithful; this probably stems from his heroine Phaedra. The details were again brought to the fore through Aristophanes (cf. Frogs 1043-44). (3) anecdotes regarding the “lore” of the three tragedians. Euripides is said to have been born on the day of the Battle of Salamis, Sophocles danced in a boy’s chorus to celebrate the victory, and Aeschylus apparently fought in the battle itself. From this, the tradition has it that the “torch of tragedy” passed from Aeschylus to Sophocles, to Euripides.

Another note that has tarnished the reputation of Euripides is his record at the Dionysia. He only won first prize at the festival four times, though he competed twenty two or twenty three times. Compare this with Sophocles, who won eighteen times in roughly thirty attempts. This would seem to support the notion that Euripides was somehow at odds with his viewing public. However, I find this last point rather dubious. Attaining third prize did not always entail a lack of appreciation and retention by the public. The fact that Aristophanes could parody Euripides’ Telephys thirteen years after its production seems to require that the audience have some knowledge of the play in order to get the jokes. It makes no sense to parody a play that wasn’t popular in some regard and that the audience had no recollection of. P.T. Stevens has also made the case that the measure of the success of a play or playwright was not winning first prize at the festival, but being allowed to compete at the festival in the first place by the archon—the “financer” and backer of the festival. Moreover, when orators such as Demosthenes or Aeschines wanted a dramatic excerpt to illustrate a point, they most often drew on Sophoclean or Euripidean tragedy. I think these three points serve to delegitimize the claim that Euripides was not a successful playwright.

Nietzsche, to some extent, also played a role in propagating the downplaying of Euripides in favor of Aeschylus or Sophocles. This is evidenced not only in The Birth of Tragedy, but also in his lecture courses he delivered as a Classics Professor. He only taught one course on Euripides, which focused exclusively on the Bacchae. This, however, was an anomaly: Euripides was never made the subject of seminars or more extensive lecture courses; he chose instead to focus on the other two tragedians when the subject of tragedy was treated. His ultimate position was presented in the Birth of Tragedy, the first of his books. The argument, in my view, seems to hinge on the inclusion or exclusion of the chorus in tragedy. Tragedy, in its “proto” form, was a dithyramb that celebrated Dionysus and was characterized by singing and dancing. Slowly, actors were introduced, and the original function of the dithyrambic dancers was supplanted by the chorus. Nietzsche, while recognizing that “the tragic” was made up of both Apollonian and Dionysian elements, clearly favors the Dionysian: his rantings against Socrates and Euripides attest to this. In Euripides, the chorus doesn’t play as large a role in the play as it does in the other tragedians, especially Aeschylus. Thus, the Dionysian element that is so essential to the construction of tragedy is being done away with: there is no longer the “communal” experience that the total work of art (re. proper tragedy which involves singing, dancing, music, and acting) brings.

On the surface this seems to be a more or less convincing position. I would agree with Nietzsche’s distinction between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, though I would disagree with how these distinctions are cashed out by Nietzsche. There is, in my view, more to the Dionysian element than just the chorus. The action in the play can also have such an element. Take Euripides’ Bacchae, for example. This is one of the most savage and grotesque of the Greek tragedies; people are ripped to pieces by stark raving mad women, and the head of the unfortunate Theban king is brought on stage for all to see. The subject material, in fact, involved Dionysus himself: it is he who pushing the women of Thebes into the Bacchic frenzy that they are enraptured in throughout most of the play. While the chorus is not a large player in the play (which, is bad according to Nietzsche: no longer is there music, et al, which is central to the Dionysian element), the events in the play are wild, savage, and certainly un-Apollonian. The Apollonian element is the acting; events are being represented by the actors. The Dionysian, along with the chorus, is the events the actors portray: this leads to the tragic. The Dionysian element, I would agree, is somewhat lost by the minimizing of the chorus, though, since this is not all there is to it, the minimizing does not spell the complete death of tragedy or the tragic: it’s merely sick. Euripides didn’t kill tragedy, “metaphysically” or historically: tragic plays continued to be produced after his death, albeit in a decidedly Euripidean guise.

I hope I have given some credence to an underrated and under appreciated figure who only in the last 75 years or so has started to be celebrated once more.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Grunewald's Crucifixion

The German painter Matthias Grunewald's take on the crucifixion scene is interesting, given the time period in which he was painting (early 1500's or so). Here is the painting (which is, in fact part of a much larger work):

Now what, you may ask, is so different about this work when compared with others. First off, Grunwald does not idealize Christ: he's skinny, though muscular, he doesn't have that heavenly glow that pervades so many religious depictions, in short, he looks like someone who was arrested and abused by the Romans, dragged a cross for a couple of miles, then was nailed to it. It is one of the most human depictions of Christ I have ever seen. Here's a closeup of his face:

The color here is actually more accurate than the fuller sized reproduction above. His lips are blue (presumably from lack of oxygen), his face has a greenish tinge to it, and the blood is visible on his face. This, I believe, is a more powerful representation of Christ than some "idealized" counterparts. It explicitly draws attention to the suffering of Christ and reminds the viewer of what he went through for our sake. Idealizing the figure of Christ, which is a more 'orthodox' route to take, no doubt emphasizes the divine aspect of him. However, while this is important, it downplays what truly makes him a great figure that all people--religious or otherwise--can draw inspiration from, namely taking pain like a man (and preaching a moral code that can be appreciated by everyone who is sane). Here's a close up of Christ's body:

Note how it's not idealized in the least. One can see thorns in his chest and sides, blood from the deep gash in his right side, and dirt. In its horror, though, lies its power.

I, for one, am not religious. However, I can appreciate the power of this work and of the figure it represents precisely because of its more "human" elements. While he was divine, Christ was also a human being; he probably ate, slept, worked, sweated, and took shats like the rest of us. (I'm speaking not of the "historical" Jesus, who, since I'm not religious I don't believe could be divine, but of Jesus as presented in the Gospels) And, because of this, his suffering is made that much more powerful: if Christ were purely divine his suffering and subsequent crucifixion would have less of an impact because he would be wholly Other. On the other hand, if he were like us (maybe he got the runs once in a while from eating too many figs), at least in some respects, we can relate to him, to his cause, and to his pain.

Some may accuse me of trivializing this eminent and divine figure, particularly by saying he perhaps got the runs on occasion. I would disagree, for the reasons stated above; it is precisely this human element which makes Christ all that more powerful. He should not be revered because he's the son of God. He should be revered because he suffered like us and died like us in the name of goodness for mankind. Grunwald's work brings this element to the fore, which is why it is probably my favorite crucifixion scene ever painted.

For a comparison, here's a work by Signorelli, which was painted c. 1500:

The differences are clear. In this fresco, Christ is somewhat more divine and idealized: there are no thorns sticking out of his sides and no dirt on his body. His only article of clothing looks slightly more "regal" than in Grunewald's work and the general atmosphere of the Italian representation of the crucifixion is less brooding and dark on account of the brighter and more colorful pallate. In Signorelli's work, Christ is looking pretty good for having gone through all that he has. And, there is nothing inherently wrong with this. In my view, however, it lacks the power and force of Grunewald's: it portrays Christ the Divine and not Christ the sufferer.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Zizek and the Ecological Crisis

In the midst of slightly misrepresenting Heidegger, Zizek brings up an interesting point, which he then critiques. I shall offer a critique as well. This is from his book The Ticklish Subject; I'll quote the passage here in full:

"...the moment we reduce it [the ecological crisis] to disturbances provoked by our excessive technological exploitation of nature, we silently already surmise that the solution is to rely again on technological innovations: new 'green' technology, more efficient and global in its control of natural processes and human resources.... Every concrete ecological concern and project to change technology in order to improve the state of our natural surroundings is thus devalued as relying on the very source of the trouble" (The Ticklish Subject, pp.11-12)

Alberta, the province in which I live, is rife with oil and, consequently, carbon spewing, forest destroying oilsands development; the problem Zizek addresses here is quite pertinent to my place of residence. I think there is both an element of truth and falsity in this claim. Zizek is right that most of us think the solution to a greener world is through cleaner technology; this is the main line that governments, etc are pushing to combat 'climate change' (Incidentally, I like how the rhetoric has changed from 'global warming' to 'climate change'). Greenpeace et al, presumably push a harder line; in Alberta, for example, they are pushing to cease oilsands development altogether.

I would take issue with the notion that the project of moving towards greener technology is (or rather, should be) devalued merely because it makes use of the (prior) instruments of destruction. I think the Greenpeacers would perhaps engage in this sort of argument. Technology is neither good or bad, only our relation to it and use of it is good or bad. Zizek moves down a Heideggerian path (though, perhaps ultimately to critique it given this is part of the project of the book) in the critique of the devaluation of technology. What should be at issue, which the devaluers pass over, is not technology itself, but man's relation to it: this is the decisive space where technology becomes 'good' or 'bad'. The ontological relation underlies the ontic manifestation of technological endeavors; they are shaped based upon the ontological 'mould' they are cast in. Thus, it should be the underlying stratum that is critiqued: it is this that is decisive.

Moreover, the pragmatic implications are hard to overlook. It seems the alternative to a shift towards greener technology is being a Luddite. In this case the best way to overcome the problem is from within, the same way Heidegger or Nietzsche purported to overcome metaphysics. This is also perhaps a quasi Derridian move; there is no outside system, thus, we are always forced to work within it for there can be no other way. In order to escape it we must work within it, and, in doing so, we never escape it. Technology shall never be transcended by us; the ecological crisis shall never be overcome without technology.

I'll perhaps expand on my ramblings later.

The Last Days of Ugarit

The last days of Ugarit are difficult to reconstruct in full. Michael Astour has written a brilliant article on the subject, and most of the information presented here is drawn from his paper. (Astour, M. New Evidence on the Last Days of Ugarit. American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 69 No. 3. 1965. pp. 253-258) Ugarit was destroyed by the Peoples of the Sea, as the Egyptian called them. They wreaked havoc all over the Mediterranean in roughly 1200 BCE; the Hittites, Mycenean Greeks, Ugaritians, and many more states were destroyed by the forces of the Sea Peoples. The Egyptians managed to weather the storm. There was no social, political, or economic decay that preceded the fall of Ugarit, so the invasion must have been swift and brutal. Ammurapi’s letter to the king of Alashia perhaps records the first stages of the invasion:

My father, behold, the enemy ships came (here); my cities (?) were burned, and they did evil things to my country. Does not my father know that all my troops and chariots (?) are in the Hittite country, and all my ships are in the land of Lycia?...Thus the country is abandoned to itself. May my father know it: the seven ships of the enemy that came here inflicted much damage upon us

On the basis of this letter, Astour supposes that the enemy forces are still in the Aegean, but, the intentions of the enemy seem to be well known: the fleet of Ammurapi has sailed west to Lycia to block their passage into the Mediterranean. The Syrian rulers also seem to have started to hastily hammer out mutual assistance treaties such as this:

…when they servant delivered (?) (thy) word to me. Whatever is thy desire Which thou lackest—I will Provide for my brother, And I too, whatever I l[a]ck—my brother Will load it there. And let my brother not Squander it.

Another letter written by Ammurapi attests to the increasing flood of enemy forces, and appeals to the Hittite king for assistance:

The enemy [advances] against us And there is no number […] Our number is pure (?) Whatever is available, look for it And send it to me.

However, it was of no avail. The armies of Ugarit and Hatti were forced to retreat all the way to the Syrian border from Anatolia, all of which was lost almost up to Amanus. A letter from Ewir-Sharruma to the mother of the Ugaritic king provides us with a poignant human element to the invasion:

(27) And behold, the enemies oppress me (28) But I shall not leave my wife (and) (29) My children…before the enemy.

One can imagine the terror the average citizen (and the royalty as well) must have felt in facing the incoming tide of the Sea Peoples; their swiftness of movement is astounding. At this point, the enemy has probably crossed the Amanus and is in Mukish—just north of Ugarit. Ammurapi, writing to his mother, seems to hope that the Hittites will send more reinforcements to check the torrent of the invaders:

“(16) And if the Hittites Mount, I will send a message To thee, and if They do not mount, I will certainly send A message…

Presumably he feels that the arrival of Hittite reinforcements will strengthen his precarious position; the Sea Peoples now being just north of the city. Ugarit, however, could not withstand the invasion and the city was destroyed c. 1190/1185 BCE. A letter to a certain Zrdn states,

Our food in the threshing floors Is sacked (or: burned). And also the vineyards are destroyed. Our city is destroyed And mayest thou know it.

On account of the invasion, the people of Ugarit were either killed or, if they managed to escape in time, fled inland or down the coast in an effort to escape the destruction. It is in this state that the once grand city of Ugarit was discovered nearly 3000 years later, in 1928, by a farmer and his plough.

Mayan Glyphs are Insane

That is all.

More on the insanity of Mayan glyphs later. Kudos to anyone who can read them; I don't even know where to start learning how on earth to do so.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

On the Decipherment of Ugaritic

Above is the sign list for the Ugaritic language. (Scanned from: Craigie, Peter C. Ugarit and the Old Testament. (Mich., Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company): 1983, pg. 47) How did scholars manage to decipher this unknown language?

The first person to make an attempt was Virolleaud, a French linguist who was given the tablets dug up at Ras Shamra. His method was as follows. He first noted that words were divided by a small vertical wedge (not on the sign list). This enabled him to recognize that the words were short; most were only three or four letters long. Thus, the language was unlike Greek. He then compared the inscription on an axe head and on a tablet, and found that they started with the same sign. Virolleaud deduced this must be a preposition, probably "to". The preposition "to" in Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic is a single letter "l". Thus, he ascribed the letter "l" to the sign above.

He then began to look for the word "king"; it was known at the time that Ugarit had a monarchy. The word in almost all of the Semitic languages is spelled "mlk". So, Virolleaud looked for a word with "l" in the middle and two signs on either side. He successfully found a series of signs that fit the bill, and thus identified two other Ugaritic signs. He also found a word with a sign that was the same as the "m" at the beginning (mlkm). The suffix -m in some Semitic languages indicates the plural, just like adding -s in English does.

Virolleaud also identified the name "Baal", one of the gods in Ugarit. Another scholar, Hans Bauer, made great strides in the decipherment. His method was primarily statistical; he knew the common prefixes in the Semitic languages and, after compiling the prefixes in Ugaritic, made probable guesses as to which ones were which.

The question of vowels arises. Ugaritic only designates three vowels; the rest are left unexpressed. This would provide no problem for a native speaker of the language. Take this famous English sentence, sans vowels:

n smll stp fr mn n gnt lp fr mnknd

If you read Neal Armstrong's famous words, you were right. We can get around vowels due to our being a native speaker; we can make judgements regarding the probable vowels because we know the words already. The same held true for native speakers of Ugaritic, and other ancient Near Eastern languages. Hebrew is probably the best example of this; vowels weren't designated at all in writing for quite a long time. In the case of Ugaritic we can only make tentative guesses on the basis of comparative work with other Semitic languages. Scholars will look at cognate words in which the vowels are known and then reconstruct them in Ugaritic from there. Obviously there is room for debate here; ultimately we will never really know.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Status of Herodotus as a Historian

The mainstream opinion regarding Herodotus is that he is the "father of historical writing", or something to that general effect. I should like to examine this claim and see whether or not he should be lumped in with "modern" historians, or whether he is in another realm of historiography.

What does it mean to engage in historical writing? Most would argue that it entails looking at, and critically examining past events. This is what modern historians do; they research, then analyze the facts they have gathered and then proceed to record them. The sources they use to gather facts are usually primary one's; they are "nearer to the events". Does Herodotus fit this characterization? To some extent, yes. He certainly does think critically about some of the information he gathers as well as critiquing the prevailing views on the basis of information that he finds. "The Greek account of Heracles' birth", for example, "is far from being the only thoughtless thing they say". On some level, Herodotus is on par with the critical aspect of modern historiography; he seems to analyze the different accounts he comes across and then selects the one he feels he has the most evidence behind it. Moreover, he begins his history with a mythical starting point: the abduction of a woman by some Eastern traders. Herodotus then rejects this mythical starting point and proceeds to examine the "historical" ground for the tensions between Greeks and barbarians. This being said, he differs in other respects from modern historians. First of all, his sources for the history of the Persian War were probably second, third, or even fourth hand accounts; he was writing more than 50 years after the battles took place. "Facts" can easily be embellished or shift through time; the accounts he received were most likely oral, not written. One can perhaps imagine a Nestor-like veteran from the Persian Wars reminiscing and not quite telling things as they are. Also, even though he rejects the "mythical" starting point, he still includes many folk elements in his Histories. Herodotus loves a good story. Third, his history is not a straight narrative; the entirety of Book 2 is a massive digression concerning Egypt. Later in the Histories he has sections on the Scythians, as well as other peoples that don't directly connect with the narrative of the Persian Wars.

My point is that, though Herodotus may have been the father of modern historiography, this does not entail that he wrote a "modern history". There is a tension between his critical faculty and his factual sources/folk narrative elements. Herodotus is somewhere in between the mythic historian and the modern historian; he is on the cusp between what we call modern historiography and mere "story". Herodotus is certainly a historian, but he's not a modern one. Perhaps this will be evident from the sense of the Greek word for history: historia. The word doesn't have the sense of our modern word "history"; it literally means "inquiry". Herodotus is merely inquiring; one gets the sense he was quite curious about the world around him, regardless of whether the discussions fit into his history of the conflict between Greeks and barbarians. Thus, even the way Herodotus presumably understood "a history" differs slightly from ours; the boundaries and expectations of historiography differed from our modern conception of it.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Translation of an Ugaritic Letter

Here's my translation of an Ugaritic letter. I first provide the Ugaritic in transliteration and then give the translation.


As you can see, Ugaritic does not designate vowels, with the exception of 'a, 'i, and 'u. On the basis of a comparison with other Near Eastern languages, as well as looking at loan-words, etc, scholars have managed to come up with a tentative reconstruction of the vowels.

Translation [I have added punctuation]:

(1)Message of 'Iwridarri
(2)to Pilsiya
(4)May [things] be well to you.
(5)From Targadassi
(6)and from Kalbiya
(7)I hear of the defeats
(8)[by which] they were defeated. Now
(9)if there is not [anything]
(10)we will be defeated so send
(11)to me. The hand
(12)of the gods [is] here [lit. of Death] like death
(13)[which is] very fierce.
(14)Since we await
(15)your reply,
(17)the word which you hear
(18)there, put it
(19)in a letter to me!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Rilke and T.S. Eliot

Whenever I read Rilke's first Elegy, I can't help but be reminded of T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland; some of the sentiments are the same. Both poets are concerned with the condition of modernity, though Rilke is more focused on the spiritual dimension (or lack thereof). Take these lines from Rilke:

It's said that the angels are often unconscious
of whether they're moving among the living
or the dead. (Tr. Graham Good)

What Rilke means by angels is NOT the Christian notion; they are more like impersonal spiritual entities who roam the universe. The angels don't know whether they move among the living or the dead: that is, there is no real difference between the living and the dead. The living are, in a way, dead. Rilke, I believe, would say spiritually dead; we've become spectators to the world and hide from authentic emotion and experience. Thus we are, in a way, "outside" of the world. This is evident from some lines in both the First and Second Elegies:

Angels are terrifying...


All we have left [in our interpreted world] is perhaps a certain tree on a slope
to look at day after day; or yesterday's streets,
or a steadfastly loyal old habit...

From the Second Elegy:

The days of Tobias are over...


But now, if the dreaded archangel took one step
in our direction from behind the stars,
our pounding hearts would kill us. (All tr. Graham Good)

Rilke seems to think we have lost touch with the spiritual world; spirits are terrifying and the days of the archangel Tobias are over. The fact that Tobias' days are over could be seen as a metaphor for spirituality generally; we would die if spirituality came too close (i.e. we can't handle it anymore). Moreover, all we have are old habits and routines; there is nothing new at all, only the same old drill day in and day out. One could argue there is something "inauthentic" about this; we don't seek anything new but remain stuck in our old habits.

Also, in connection with the inauthenticity theme, we have a habit of fleeing from "our Fate"; we do this through Love:

But they [lovers] only use each other to hide from their Fate.

Our fate is "the Night" which is made reference to a few lines before. The night is, death, solitude, etc; anything that individualizes us. Even the dead, for a time, need us and our comfort; Rilke tells us to be attentive to those who passed on early and who now live in a "strange world"; they want us to "correct the injustice that hinders their movement" (paraphrase).

Compare these lines of Rilke with some from The Wasteland:

He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying


A crowd flowed over London Bridge; so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.

Eliot seems to be trying to collapse the distinction between the living and the dead; this is perhaps most apparent in the second quote. The living are somehow not really alive; they are dead to the world in some way, which seems to be a condition of modernity. Eliot is constantly making references to a world without water; water is needed for life and renewal and thus a lack thereof would mean one cannot be 'renewed' or even fully alive.

The general sentiment of Rilke and Eliot seems to be the same; both would say that the people of modernity are not quite alive, not living authentically. Rilke's criticism seems to be more focused; he is concerned with the lack of spirituality in modernity, while Eliot seems to paint with broad strokes and never really focuses on the root of the problem he addresses in the Wasteland. They both attempt a diagnosis of the modern world and both come up with a rather negative one. One last note on Rilke: if you're familiar with Heidegger, you can perhaps see why he would like him. One condition of modernity, according to Rilke, is that we flee from authentic emotion and experience: death included.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Personal Names in Homer

Personal names in Homer are particularly interesting; etymologically they are quite close to the character of the figure they are ascribed to. Often names in Greek have both a short and a long form: Ekhlos and Ekhelawos, for example. The short form either has the suffix -os or -eus. On the basis of this observation, let us take a quick glance at some figures from the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Meneleus: This is obviously the short form of the name. The long form would thus be Menelawos. If we seperate these into their constituent parts Mene-lawos, two Pre-Greek words emerge. 'Mene' has the sense of 'standing fast' or 'abiding' and 'lawos' means 'the people. So, Meneleus is 'he who makes the people stand fast'.

Atreus: The 'a' at the beginning of the name is an alpha privative, which denotes negation. The root 'tres-' means 'panic striken flight'; in Sparta the word 'tresas' was a term for a deserter. Thus Atreus means, 'he who doesn't flee.'

Achilles (Gr. Akhileus): Same principle here; long form is Akhi-lawos. The word 'akhos' means 'pain', and 'lawos', people. Achilles is 'he who causes pain to the people'.

Odysseus: This one is a bit trickier. There is evidence for a Pre-Greek prefix 'o-' meaning 'on, onto, into'. Also, there is evidence for an ancient stem 'dukj-', meaning 'lead'. The original short form could be constructed as *odukjeus. In Linear B, the cluster 'kj' would be written as a 'z' series, thsu producing *oduzeu. The move into Attic/Ionic could be accounted for as follows: kj>ts>ss. (re. my post below where I discuss this shift.). Odysseus is 'he who leads (to home)'

For a more through discussion of this see Palmer's The Greek Language.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Some Thoughts on Cowper's Homer

Cowper's translation of the Iliad is certainly poetic. But it's not Homer. He attempts to render Homer's dactylic hexameters in Miltonian blank verse, which, I think, is a verse form completely unsuited to Homer. Above all, Homer is direct and simple in his diction; he straightforwardly flows from one idea to the next. Milton's verse is exactly the opposite. Let's take the opening lines of the Iliad and the opening lines of Paradise Lost as a comparison:

"Sing, goddess of the ruinous wrath of Achilles"
This is the first line of the Iliad. Already we know what the poem, generally, is going to be about. In Greek it is even more direct; the first words are "menin aieda, thea" which literally is "of wrath sing, goddess". Thus the first three words actually introduce the subject of the Iliad. This is what I mean when I talk about Homer's directness and simplicity in diction.

"Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing heavenly muse"
Compared to Homer, Milton is rather wordy; he tries to cram as much as he can into a line and, consequently, his verse moves rather slowly. Miltonian blank verse doesn't have the quickness or the directness of Homer's original Greek and thus fails to capture an essential element of Homer's poems. Cowper, in attempting to render the Iliad in Milton's blank verse, falls into this problem; it seems sluggish at times and, while it is very poetic, doesn't capture the spirit of the original. Take, for example, these lines where the horse of Achilles answers his reproaches for leaving Patroclus in battle. Cowper translates them thus:

"For not through sloth or tardiness on us
Aught chargeable, have Ilium's sons thine arms
Stript from Patroclus' shoulders; but a God
Matchless in battle, offspring of bright-haired
Latona, him contending in the van
Slew, for the glory of the chief of Troy"

The movement of the verse is entirely un-Homeric; it is too finely wrought and detailed to be Homer. The task of the translator, I believe, is to capture the spirit of the original: in this case, simplicity and directness. Cowper fails at this and, while it is a good translation, is not a great one.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Marlowe and the Persians

Marlowe is a fantastic writer but he apparently knows next to nothing about the Persian empire and Persians in general. In his play Tamburlaine, he has the Persians constantly invoke Jove, "And Jove may never let me longer live..." (Act 1 Scene 1). In one part he has the Persian Cosroe invoke both Jupiter and a Christian concept of Hell

"What means this devilish shepherd to aspire
With such a giantly presumption
To cast up hills against the face of Heaven,
And dare the force of angry Jupiter?...
So will I send this monstrous slave to hell
Where flames shall ever feed upon his soul." (Act 1 Scene 6)

The Persians of this time would certainly not invoke Jove, nor would they have any concept of a soul burning in Hell. This jab against Marlowe, to be sure, does nothing to detract from the literary merit of his work; I'm merely pointing out slight historical inconsistencies.