Spooky Special: The Journey of the Prideful Atheist Through Hell in “The Brothers Karamazov”

The Grand Inquisitor by Ilya Glazunov. Illustration to Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov

I recall cozying up by the radiator with The Brothers Karamazov that nass Hamburg winter with much joy. Being the last book Dostoyevsky would ever write, I wasn’t surprised that it seemed an even greater reflection on death and morality than any of his other works. But surprise or not, to see him address what I consider to be among the first order of philosophical questions with such intent and specificity, I felt grateful that he was spared the worst of the gulag.

At the same time, some of the beautiful novel’s passages jumped out in the eerie style of deja vu. Oftentimes, the acclaimed writer’s perspectives on those themes played out through the brothers’ conversations just as they might in my own heart and head. I was closer to St. Petersburg than I had ever been and looking out at the dark Tor zur Welt (“gateway to the world” as Hamburg is known) to feel the philosopher’s gaze from Nevsky cemetery was a truly psychological experience. I felt as if I were listening to a ghost.

And, surprisingly, the novel stood out to me as parallel to horror in more tangible ways. While we tend to think of horror as fantastical or mythical, Dostoyevsky’s realism spares nineteenth century St. Petersburg no romance: it’s all serfdom, disfigurement, destitution, crime, and insanity. The novel is more than a horror show without the monster and spirits of an Edgar Allan Poe story (fantastic as those stories are). So I figured I might share the lesser explored with a quick passage: Alyosha’s anecdote of the atheist gone to hell. Not only does it come to us from a novel not typically classified as horror, but the passage evokes a more untapped fear, the existential.

In it, the youngest and most devout of the legitimate Karamazov brothers, Alyosha, shares an old monks’ tale with his atheist brother, Ivan. I find the legend more unsettling than other manifestations of hell. As Alyosha notes, the idea of hell as a spiritual pain is played out. Myths of physical pain are more interesting and sensible. And myths of physical pain other than the lakes of fire are perhaps even more likely to inspire existential dread.

“There is an anecdote precisely on our subject, or rather a legend, not an anecdote. You reproach me with unbelief, you see, you say, yet you don’t believe. But, my dear fellow, I am not the only one like that. We are all in a muddle over there now and all through your science. Once there used to be atoms, five senses, four elements, and then everything hung together somehow. There were atoms in the ancient world even, but since we’ve learned that you’ve discovered the chemical molecule and protoplasm and the devil knows what, we had to lower our crest. There’s a regular muddle, and, above all, superstition, scandal; there’s as much scandal among us as among you, you know; a little more in fact, and spying, indeed, for we have our secret police department where private information is received. Well, this wild legend belongs to our middle ages—not yours, but ours—and no one believes it even among us, except the old ladies of eighteen stone, not your old ladies I mean, but ours. We’ve everything you have, I am revealing one of our secrets out of friendship for you; though it’s forbidden. This legend is about Paradise. There was, they say, here on earth a thinker and philosopher. He rejected everything, ‘laws, conscience, faith,’ and, above all, the future life. He died; he expected to go straight to darkness and death and he found a future life before him. He was astounded and indignant. ‘This is against my principles!’ he said. And he was punished for that … that is, you must excuse me, I am just repeating what I heard myself, it’s only a legend…he was sentenced to walk a quadrillion kilometers in the dark (we’ve adopted the metric system, you know) and when he has finished that quadrillion, the gates of heaven would be opened to him and he’ll be forgiven—”

“And what tortures have you in the other world besides the quadrillion kilometers?” asked Ivan, with a strange eagerness.

“What tortures? Ah, don’t ask. In old days we had all sorts, but now they have taken chiefly to moral punishments—‘the stings of conscience’ and all that nonsense. We got that, too, from you, from the softening of your manners. And who’s the better for it? Only those who have got no conscience, for how can they be tortured by conscience when they have none? But decent people who have conscience and a sense of honor suffer for it. Reforms, when the ground has not been prepared for them, especially if they are institutions copied from abroad, do nothing but mischief! The ancient fire was better. Well, this man, who was condemned to the quadrillion kilometers, stood still, looked round and lay down across the road. ‘I won’t go, I refuse on principle!’ Take the soul of an enlightened Russian atheist and mix it with the soul of the prophet Jonah, who sulked for three days and nights in the belly of the whale, and you get the character of that thinker who lay across the road.”

“What did he lie on there?”

“Well, I suppose there was something to lie on. You are not laughing?”

“Bravo!” cried Ivan, still with the same strange eagerness. Now he was listening with an unexpected curiosity. “Well, is he lying there now?”

“That’s the point, that he isn’t. He lay there almost a thousand years and then he got up and went on.”

“What an ass!” cried Ivan, laughing nervously and still seeming to be pondering something intently. “Does it make any difference whether he lies there for ever or walks the quadrillion kilometers? It would take a billion years to walk it?”

“Much more than that. I haven’t got a pencil and paper or I could work it out. But he got there long ago, and that’s where the story begins.”

“What, he got there? But how did he get the billion years to do it?”

“Why, you keep thinking of our present earth! But our present earth may have been repeated a billion times. Why, it’s become extinct, been frozen; cracked, broken to bits, disintegrated into its elements, again ‘the water above the firmament,’ then again a comet, again a sun, again from the sun it becomes earth—and the same sequence may have been repeated endlessly and exactly the same to every detail, most unseemly and insufferably tedious—”

“Well, well, what happened when he arrived?”

“Why, the moment the gates of Paradise were open and he walked in, before he had been there two seconds, by his watch (though to my thinking his watch must have long dissolved into its elements on the way), he cried out that those two seconds were worth walking not a quadrillion kilometers but a quadrillion of quadrillions, raised to the quadrillionth power! In fact, he sang ‘hosannah’ and overdid it so, that some persons there of lofty ideas wouldn’t shake hands with him at first—he’d become too rapidly reactionary, they said. The Russian temperament. I repeat, it’s a legend. I give it for what it’s worth. So that’s the sort of ideas we have on such subjects even now.”

“I’ve caught you!” Ivan cried, with an almost childish delight, as though he had succeeded in remembering something at last. “That anecdote about the quadrillion years, I made up myself! I was seventeen then, I was at the high school. I made up that anecdote and told it to a schoolfellow called Korovkin, it was at Moscow…. The anecdote is so characteristic that I couldn’t have taken it from anywhere. I thought I’d forgotten it…but I’ve unconsciously recalled it—I recalled it myself—it was not you telling it! Thousands of things are unconsciously remembered like that even when people are being taken to execution…it’s come back to me in a dream. You are that dream! You are a dream, not a living creature!”

“From the vehemence with which you deny my existence,” laughed the gentleman, “I am convinced that you believe in me.”

“Not in the slightest! I haven’t a hundredth part of a grain of faith in you!”

“But you have the thousandth of a grain. Homeopathic doses perhaps are the strongest. Confess that you have faith even to the ten‐thousandth of a grain.”

“Not for one minute,” cried Ivan furiously. “But I should like to believe in you,” he added strangely.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brother’s Karamazov

Mirroring Livy: The Parley of Scipio and Hannibal

Mars – the Roman God of War

Setting the Stage

From the disastrous Battle of Cannae in 216 BC, few Romans escaped. Among them was Scipio Africanus, then only a Tribune. The two Roman Consuls who oversaw the battle foolishly took their places on the left and right flank, seeking glory in the cavalry battles and lending no eye to the heart of their army.

Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca, born in his father’s tent on campaign, deployed his army with a weak center to encourage the Romans to take ground. Lacking strategic supervision the Romans charged through Hannibal’s center, only to find themselves enveloped and eventually completely surrounded. What took place following the blunder was a mass execution of 20% of Rome’s male fighting population. For comparison, France and Germany both lost a smaller percentage over the entire course of the First World War.

As miraculous a loss it was, venerable Rome raised more armies to wage war. Chief among all Romans, the model of that Republic’s values, was Scipio. He not only wished to carry on fighting, but would raise his own army and head for Africa. Nearly 20 years later at the Battle of Zama, he earned his title “Africanus.”

By way of Roman historian Livy, we already have a dramatization of their parley at Zama but I have decided the epic moment is worthy of a reboot. Like most reboots, I fully expect this to be the worse, but it won’t keep me from expressing my admiration for the two Homeric heroes of their age.

The Parley of Millenia

Scipio rubbed some of the warm North African sand between his hands. He wanted to feel it once before it turned into the familiar crimson sludge. As he mounted his horse, he reassured himself it would run red that day.

Across the flats in Hannibal’s camp, the aging man was struggling to understand why he had called a parley. Had he really lost so much of his youthful spirit that he would bend his knee like Priam as the senate asked him to? Would another battle really make or break his name?

But there was little time for thought. After a short ride, Scipio dismounted and the decades’ old mistake stood before Hannibal. At Cannae the green Roman would have only watched the Generals’ parley from among the foot soldiers, comfortable the Triarii would have his back. Today he stood upright with the dignity of a man who was all the talk of the known world.

They stared intently at each other for a few moments, undoubtedly noticing one another’s scars. One each across cheek, arm, calf. Were they to remove their breastplates, probably across the chest too, right above their noble hearts.

The advisors and guards gathered around and joined in the silence, taking in the uncanny experience: first meeting between the generals who could be father and son. If only for their eyes of ambition, loyalty, and boldness; if only for their scars, it was difficult for the onlookers to distinguish which general was theirs.

Hannibal, despite his profession, was never one for bad blood at a parley. In fact, Hannibal even admired Scipio and his daring so he decided to open amicably, “Before we speak of terms…would you tell of your escape from Cannae?”

Scipio was surprised to hear such a question from the general and, hoping to lightheartedly set the tone that he would not consider peace, obliged through cliche, “I had business to settle with Carthage, as you know.”

The Romans laughed but Hannibal, unsure whether Scipio was being braggart or humorous, tightened his gaze.

The Roman had not come to piss off an illustrious veteran before battle though. “No.” Scipio continued, “That campaign season, I had taken a liking to one of the consuls’ horses. I remember feeding him every night, at great risk mind you, when the consul went off to his tent. During the battle, my dear friend found me, a mortally wounded consul hanging over him. The old fool collapsed at my feet.”

Hannibal chuckled with the room at the unbelievable escape, finally getting an answer after all the years. In good spirit he asked, “And even then, you were general enough to know the day was lost without him? Why did they not let Tribune Scipio ride the horse that day?”

Flattered and surprised at the veteran’s manner, Scipio could not help but let out a short chuckle of his own before returning to the reality that this parley was only for blood. On the other hand, the advisors enjoyed the laughter and took up with hope that an agreement might be arranged.

But Hannibal, like Scipio, turned business-like and carried on, “It’s odd though, you’ll allow me, that my father thought he would have the honor of finishing business with Rome. And I recall the war cries of his army and my own childish inventions: I hoped Rome would be my war someday, Scipio.”

He stood meditatively as Hannibal closed, “But the difference between my father and I, between you and I, Scipio, is that I was only a boy then. Today, as the elder man, I call for us to put away our dreams and speak consequentially. As far as this parley goes, the Carthaginian senate thinks it the sensible option for both Rome and Carthage that we consider peace. What say you?”

Yet Scipio’s response fell on the room with the reality there would be no talk of peace from him. He spoke slowly and manneredly as if telling an old friend how he had let him down, “If only for the oddity that General Hannibal now speaks of consequences, the war on his side of the sea.”

Hannibal, gesturing up at what might have been his father’s campaign tent and then at Scipio, matched his pace, “Of course. But allow me to remind you of your side of the sea.”

All the tent took direction from Hannibal’s hands and listened attentively to what the old soldier had to say, “The senate cannot be swell with your private army, Scipio. They fear the man with the markings of a tyrant, your private army the grossest mark. Yet perhaps you ought to consider your place on this side of the sea as well. Today we have the numbers we didn’t have at Cannae. But believe me, every veteran from Cannae joins us today. It would be senseless to leave so much to fate.”

Scipio was at peace with fate however. The gods wouldn’t have spared him if he were not fated to win the day. And as he planned to please Mars, he believed he would please the senate, “Destiny today will make the senate swell.”

“Well, I assure you plenty of other arrangements might make them swell. We have yet to even discuss terms of peace,” Hannibal added to no avail. Scipio stood in silence, his head down but still determined to win his as Hannibal had.

The Carthaginian looked down in thought and back up at Scipio, at the uncompromising and ambitious look of a man seeking glory and vengeance. As if accosted by Athena, in a moment Hannibal felt his old spirit and decided not to try for peace anymore. He hoped no one would let the senate on that he did not try so hard to convince Scipio. “So there is nothing for it then?” Hannibal asked.

Scipio held his reply for a few seconds to convey his respect and consideration, “Nothing for it but the gods.”

Sure now that he would wield his old sword but utterly accepting and unafraid, Hannibal inquired, “So be it. But assure me you won’t personally be routed again today?”

And now the Carthaginians had their laugh.

Scipio reflected a second on that day, the late afternoon lending the Carthaginians such long shadows that all his comrades perished in the dark, “Even noble Hector ran from the wrath of Achilles at first.”

The Carthaginian smiled in mischief, “If I am Achilles in your comparison, we should have a battle for the ages.”

All the young men now looked after Scipio, unsure whether the parley might have fair closure, even if they were to give battle later that day.

“A battle for the ages,” Scipio finally gave him with a nod.

Business seemingly closed, the men awaited dismissal but the two generals still stood looking at the other as if in admiration. Inquisitive old Hannibal had one more question to break the silence, “Before you are off, you must let us know if you still have that old horse?”

Scipio smiled at the thought, “My fateful horse? He lives the idyllic life of a retired Roman soldier. He’s probably out grazing the countryside now.”

And the old general let out a sigh, seeing the want of that life on Scipio’s face, thinking of all the years of war and the battle before him, “Believe me, I envy the old horse myself…”

So in only a few minutes the parley was bygone, perhaps one of the shortest in history. But the two old enemies channeling the character of Hector in only a few minutes, it remains the parley of Millenia.

Clash of Crane: “The Black Riders and Other Lines”

As I have previously mentioned, I have a complicated relationship with poetry. But I suppose if this is to be a page dedicated to art and especially literature, I cannot possibly neglect it. For that, I would like to take a look at two of Steven Crane’s poems from the The Black Riders and Other Lines which I find most interesting on their own but even more so when contrasted like the black and white of Crane’s portrait. First, we will take a look at the warming XVIII.

In heaven,
Some little blades of grass
Stood before God.
“What did you do?”
Then all save one of the little blades
Began eagerly to relate The merits of their lives.
This one stayed a small way behind, Ashamed.
Presently, God said,
“And what did you do?”
The little blade answered, “Oh my Lord,
Memory is bitter to me,
For, if I did good deeds,
I know not of them.”
Then God, in all His splendor,
Arose from His throne.
“Oh, best little blade of grass!” He said.

XVIII, The Black Riders and Other Lines by Stephen Crane

Right, I believe warming or optimistic are good adjectives to describe that poem. A God pleased with the most humble of his servants? What more could humanity wish for? But do not let Crane take you by surprise, for XXV seems anything but optimistic.

Behold, the grave of a wicked man,
And near it, a stern spirit.
There came a drooping maid with violets,
But the spirit grasped her arm.
“No flowers for him,” he said.
The maid wept:
“Ah, I loved him.”
But the spirit, grim and frowning:
“No flowers for him.”
Now, this is it-
If the spirit was just,
Why did the maid weep?

XXV, The Black Riders and Other Lines by Stephen Crane

Crane seems to have found some cold contradiction inside the world of XVIII: imagine someone close to you who best fits the will of God. Now, imagine yourself, sinner you are. If they love you, and you are not to be by their side, what heaven could possibly await them?

But perhaps we would be shortsighted to call the poem purely cynical. The question in lines 10-12 might not be rhetorical, right? Well, I find that possibility even darker and more daunting for the only logical answer to the narrator’s question, if you could call it logical, is faith. Still, I won’t pretend to be an authority. I have not spent hours peering into these poems, or the collection as a whole. I am much too afraid to as of yet so I would be interested to hear your thoughts.

One thing is for sure though, I agree with Elbert Hubbard’s evaluation of The Black Riders and Other Lines, “The ‘Lines’ in The Black Riders seem to me wonderful: charged with meaning like a storage battery. But there is a fine defy in the flavour that warns the reader not to take too much or it may strike in. Who wants a meal of horseradish?” We could peer into these poems endlessly like somebody’s soul.

Reel Rookie: Art, Film, and “Barry Lyndon”

“The test of a work of art is, in the end our affection for it, not our ability to explain why it is good.”

Stanley Kubrick

Criticizing, comparing, and understanding the infinitely complicated children of a genius is not an easy task, let alone the children of two geniuses. And so here I am on a Saturday, two weeks after a careful reading of William M. Thackeray’s novel, The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq., unsure what to write. So here I am on a Saturday, after a dozen viewings of Kubrick’s film Barry Lyndon, one of my all-time favorites, unsure what to write. I am not qualified to tell you about the technical marvels of the film, nor am I an actor or photographer. And still, as a writer, it is not easy to tell you what the novel has in store. But Kubrick really throws me a bone with that quote, “Just do your best,” he seems to be saying. And so I will, even if it comes down to stating my simple affections.

I think it is best to start this week’s review where the film began, with the novel. A dusty old Oxford World Classic, one might see the iconic white stripe on the cover, remembering that some horribly boring poetic dialogue they read in high school belonged to the same banner. But it shouldn’t be judged as such for it’s actually terribly approachable and entertaining like much writing of the same time period.

And believe me, like anyone, I was once intimidated by the ridiculous language, silly costumes, hideous makeup, and stern rules of those centuries; I suppose, until I was forced to read of them. What I found then was that I had been missing out on a miracle: two hundred years later we’re hilariously similar. Thackeray’s characters use the term “I O U” and love gambling, drinking, drama, and sex just like the rest of us. Mozart was into flatulent humor. Perhaps the industrial centuries are where we should draw the line between the humanity of old and new because it’s just too easy to see this novel played out today. Many of my old assumptions turned out to be false too. There is hardly any language barrier and the costumes are no more ridiculous than what you would see on the red carpet.

So I have no choice after that rant I guess, at the risk of greatly underestimating a critically acclaimed novel, but to try and sum it up. While Thackeray, according to the back cover, viewed the “true art of fiction” as “[representing] a subject, however unpleasant, with accuracy and wit, and not [moralizing],” you’re very likely to read it as a Christian novel. Peasant Redmond Barry, the protagonist and narrator, is far removed from the Irish gentry but clings onto the idea of his high birth. Barry’s pride, ambition, greed, adultery, and boldness takes him through several intense pistol duals, the seven years war, and to the top of every European court. The same qualities also become his tragic downfall as he tries to obtain a title of nobility and struggles to gain the affections of his snobbish pain-in-the-ass stepson, Lord Bullingdon. So you see, it’s pretty likely to read as some sort of Christian admonition or a novel of the seven deadly sins, like Crime and Punishment.

But Thackeray really does leave you to judge the moral of the novel. Indeed, it cannot be ignored that the protagonist is far from a Christian and all events are retold through his justification and narration. What’s sure though, is that by the end I was affected by the humor and grief and was glad to have it in my library.

Now, I’m sure by this point you are ripe to know how my tirade ties into the movie. Well, I am reminded of something Seneca wrote to Lucilius,

What an indisputable mark it is of a great artist to have captured everything in a tiny compass

Seneca, Letter LIII to Lucilius

If the novel isn’t for you, the film surely is. Few people want to sit down and painstakingly read a novel they have no stake in (unless you’re a huge Kubrick and Barry Lyndon fan like me). As that fan, I will tell you that Kubrick makes the novel even more approachable and faithfully captures just about all of it in his compass. I mean every bit of dialogue is taken directly from the book and there seems to be hardly a piece of that novel missing. Yet, how much more the beautiful set pieces, camerawork, and acting represent than ten novels ever could. For all that, it feels like this movie is highly underrated and forgotten. Upon its release it won 4 Oscars, but today Kubrick is more well known as a skilled adapter for 2001, The Shining, and A Clockwork Orange. He ought to be remembered by this.

I have heard three YouTube essayists call the film a collection of renaissance paintings. Let’s not forget that it is also an entire novel and, like those other adaptations, a testament to the flexibility of the movie as a medium. It is infinitely inspiring and all for less time and money than a paperback oxford world classic. If you want to see the full potential of film, I love this work of art and I hope you will too.

A Follow-Up to In Bruges: “On Raglan Road” by Patrick Kavanagh

“I will immortalize you in poetry, Hilda.”

Patrick Kavanagh

How could I review In Bruges without mention of the bewitching poem it features, “On Raglan Road” by Patrick Kavanagh?

I have somewhat of a love/hate relationship with poetry. In a sense, I find myself at opposition with the stringent rules and regulation that define so much of poetry. I think art should not be governed, but be governor. At the same time, perhaps I am just too lazy to learn and respect them. Undeniably though, the well structured “On Raglan Road” is one of the most beautiful tunes I’ve read and listened to and casts Ireland as an enchanted place of poetry. If you don’t like reading poetry, Luke Kelly’s cover from the film is most compelling and is embedded below.

Kavanagh and Kelly actually met at the Bailey Pub in Dublin. Kavanagh, with embarrassment, asked Kelly to cover his poem about a girl run away. Kelly did…and with much dignity.

On Raglan Road on an autumn day I saw her first and knew
That her dark hair would weave a snare that I might one day rue;
I saw the danger, yet I passed along the enchanted way,
And I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day.

On Grafton Street in November we tripped lightly along the ledge
Of the deep ravine where can be seen the worth of passion’s pledge,
The Queen of Hearts still making tarts and I not making hay
Oh I loved too much and by such by such is happiness thrown away.

I gave her gifts of the mind I gave her the secret sign that’s known
To the artists who have known the true gods of sound and stone
And word and tint without stint for I gave her poems to say.
With her own name there and her own dark hair like clouds over fields of May

On a quiet street where old ghosts meet I see her walking now
Away from me so hurriedly my reason must allow
That I had loved not as I should a creature made of clay
When the angel woos the clay he’d lose his wings at the dawn of day.

Patrick Kavanagh
An interview with Kelly followed by “On Raglan Road”

As far as its usage in the film, I think it is quite self-evident. Kavanagh talks of his unrequited love, a sacrifice. Ken makes his own poetic sacrifice for Ray.

Cicero on Scipio Africanus and Lonesomeness

“Publius Cornelius Scipio, the first of that family to be called Africanus, used to remark that he was never less idle than when he had nothing to do, and never less lonely than when he was by himself. We have this on the authority of Marcus Porcius Cato the Censor, who was almost his contemporary. It is a fine sentiment, as you would expect from so great and wise a man.”

Cicero, “On Duties”

In his treatise, “On Duties,” Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero bestows upon his readers this sentiment from the renowned general Scipio Africanus. Scipio believes that one ought never to feel lonesome or unproductive for, while one’s external world might be free of any responsibility or interlocutor, our conscience awaits conversation and wills that we better ourselves through reflection.

Henry David Thoreau shares a poem most evocative of this idea in Walden; or Life in the Woods. While I leave from this excerpt with a newfound dedication to aggressively rout boredom from my life, I feel touched by the miracle of connection in literature. Scipio’s simple sentiment survives Thoreau and, hopefully, this post.

The Battle of Zama which marked the defeat of Hannibal and Carthage…and for which Scipio is most famous for

Camus on the Losses Inherent in Wealth

“What I mean is this: that one can, with no romanticism, feel nostalgic for lost poverty. A certain number of years lived without money are enough to create a whole sensibility. In this particular case, the strange feeling which the son has for his mother constitutes his whole sensibility. The latent material memory which he has of childhood (a glue that has stuck to his soul) explains why this way of feeling shows itself in the most widely differing fields.

Whoever notices this in himself feels gratitude and, consequently, a guilty conscience. If he has moved into a different class, the comparison also gives him the feeling that he has lost great wealth. For rich people, the sky is just an extra, a gift of nature. The poor, on the other hand, can see it as it really is: an infinite grace.”

Albert Camus, Notebooks 1935-1942

Wealth and poverty seem to be the heart of American politics. Indeed, the American dream itself asks us to leave one in pursuit of the other. But in recent times championing that dream has become controversial because maybe, for some people, that dream is impossible.

Thus, it becomes necessary to make sense of the situation. I can think of no better authority on wealth and poverty than Camus who grew up in a fatherless and most destitute home. What he offers us is this:

Maybe, we should not let wealth occupy every fiber of our existence. Maybe it is not as significant as we make it out to be. In fact, maybe it is only significant in the sensibility one will lose in being rich. Hard times make a person whole.

I would be interested to hear your thoughts. Thanks.

Socrates on his Sentence

“The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our separate ways – I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows.”

Socrates in Plato’s “Apology”

For this post, I offer Socrates’ final utterance and perhaps the most stoic depiction of death. Do you believe it has only been drawn up so admirably by Plato?

Personally, I would not doubt that Socrates acted so stoically. For additional commentary on “Apology” I direct you to this video where I first found this work and was inspired to read it.

To read “Apology,” I recommend using the following link where you may read it for free: http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html

The text itself is only approximately 32 pages in any regularly sized book.

Camus on the Novel as the Best Vessel for Philosophy

“People can only think in images. If you want to be a philosopher, write novels.”

Albert Camus, Notebooks I (1935-1942)
Image result for greek war ship pottery

Albert Camus wrote these words in one of his personal journals and how fortunate we are that they were published posthumously.

Unbelievably, there was once a time when I pondered what the relevance of philosophy was to literature. Naturally, it followed soon enough that I learned the purpose of the novel: to not only philosophize, but to demonstrate it (there could be another conversation here but for the sake of brevity). In its demonstration, one might immediately assume that Camus is correct, that the novel is the best vessel for philosophy.

Yet, years later, I can envision many angles to the conversation. For instance, we might consider the straightforwardness of a purely philosophical text. There is something to be admired in the author who puts it bluntly and quickly. For an engineer, such a text might be far superior to the longwinded and ambiguous novel. Still, beauty and demonstration might be worth the energy.

Furthermore, looking back on this note from 2021, I am ripe to say that the film or television series may be the best place for philosophy. I have seen Kubrick pack more than a novel into an image and writers such as Nic Pizzolatto consider television the most accessible and engaging place to philosophize. Indeed, you are sure to meet disappointment hoping your novel or blog will inspire a generation today.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

Another thanks to the Albert Camus Facebook which, as I understand Camus more, becomes all the more brilliant. It is well moderated with wonderful excerpts and images and I highly recommend it to anyone.


Seneca on Slavery

“I propose to value [slaves] according to their character, not their jobs. Each man has a character of his own choosing; it is chance or fate that decides his choice of job.

‘He’s a slave.’ But he may have the spirit of a free man. ‘He’s a slave.’ But is that really to count against him? Show me a man who isn’t a slave; one is a slave to sex, another to money, another to ambition; all are slaves to hope or fear. I could show you a man who has been a consul who is a slave to his ‘little old woman,’ a millionaire who is the slave of a little girl in domestic service…And there’s no state of slavery more disgraceful than one which is self-imposed.”

Letter XLVII to Lucilius

Seneca was an early and avid opponent of slavery in Ancient Rome or, at the very least, a proponent of the fair treatment of slaves. Here, in a testament to the humanity of ancient authors, he appeals to the question of free will and fortune in order to expose the injustice of the cruel treatment of slaves. What is truly miraculous is that one might argue the Romans treated their slaves far better than the slave owning states since that empire fell. Yet, Seneca’s humanism shines through in defense.

But we shouldn’t neglect his commentary on self-imposed slavery. You might reflect on whether or not you have committed yourself to a state of slavery. Do you endlessly pursue money or the affections of others? Is that the state you wish to consign yourself to?