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November Recommended Readings
Joseph Addison, Roberto Calasso, and The Philosopher
I. Sachin Maini: Joseph Addison’s Cato
At Valley Forge in May 1778, George Washington Washington and the Continental Army were facing perhaps their most difficult trial in the Revolutionary War. Amidst bitter cold, hunger, rampant disease, and supply shortages — and no end in sight to a war against an adversary that seemed far more powerful — Washington arranged for a production of his favorite play, Joseph Addison’s 1713 masterpiece Cato.
This play was based on the life (and heroic death) of the Roman hero Cato the Younger, who held such a high place in Washington’s mind that he tried to be just like Cato. According to Washington’s biographer, James Thomas Flexner, he succeeded to a significant degree — “Washington was Cato turned Virginia country gentlemen.”
So when he found himself in need of a way of stiffening his troops’ morale against adversity, he could think of no better inspiration than the heroic stand of Cato in the Roman Civil War after his loss at the Battle of Thapsus as dramatized by Joseph Addison’s play. Washington saw Cato’s resistance and death at Utica as a noble last stand of a freedom-loving Roman Republic against the forces of tyranny.
Though Washington rarely quoted authors, he quoted memorable lines from Addison’s Cato, such as this one spoken by the character of Portius, one of Cato’s sons:
“'Tis not in mortals to command success,
But we'll do more, Sempronius—we'll deserve it.”
Patrick Henry’s famous dictum “Give me liberty or give me death!” is also thought to have been derived from Addison’s play, where Cato says:
“It is not now a time to talk of aught
But chains or conquest, liberty or death”
Though Addison’s Cato was immensely popular in the century it was published, it has since found obscurity. Yet it remains, in my mind, one of the best works of drama ever written. It is certainly my favorite play, for several reasons:
The story. The dramatization of Cato’s death and the closing Civil War, of the doomed tragic romance of Cato’s sons toward the beautiful Lucia, keeps me on the edge of my seat each time I read it. It perfectly balances the grand backdrop of history against the relatively smaller human concerns of historical figures portrayed as real people.
The characters are rich and full of noble sentiments and passion, the kind of characters — especially that of Cato himself — that makes you want to strive to be better.
The principles of equanimity in the face of certain doom, of sacrificing everything for virtue, liberty, and what is right; of never giving up and always holding true to core values, are beautifully portrayed in a way very few dramas manage to accomplish.
Beyond this, Addison’s Cato is also admirable in the way it manages to capture the mindset and spirit of the ancient Romans, though written by an 18th-century Englishmen — to revive their cultural stoicism and instincts for martial valour (one of Rome’s forgotten glories) and depict them in characters that feel very alive.
In other words, for anyone who enjoys good drama, good writing, and good ideas, I can’t recommend Addison’s Cato highly enough.
II. Caleb Ontiveros: Roberto Calasso's The Marriage of Cadmus And Harmony
But how did it all begin?
With his recent passing a few months ago, and posthumous volume, The Book of All Books arriving this month, Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage Of Cadmus And Harmony deserves mention.
It’s essentially a retelling of myths, by a broadly continental writer and publisher.
The hallucinogenic tour begins with the kidnapping of Europa, closing with Odysseus, and then truly finished by returning to Cadmus.
It’s not a useful introduction to Greek myth. See Edith Hamilton, Robert Graves, or even Stephen Fry’s new series for different flavors of that.
Instead, it’s an exercise of exploring the different branches of myth, more like unstructured variations on a theme than a structured study.
To me, it encapsulates what’s valuable about The Classical Futurist – idea generation. Speaking for myself, the project of The Classical Futurist is mainly an exercise in mining ideas from the rich history of antiquity.
The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony takes this approach to myth, spinning them around, and turning them inside out, and unthreading them.
Not everything is good. Calasso has a habit of asserting paradoxes in continental style. Some of his translations are too creative.
But often it’s brilliant. Offering new angles of familiar myths. Revealing threads of an idea that one wishes were completed. Digressions on sacrifice, desertion, heroism, initiation, and, of course, myth are littered throughout the text. Consider:
So one day Plato began to write the Republic. And he wrote the text in the form it is in so that anyone who wanted to understand it might be subjected to that initiatory process of “sufferings and pleasures … labors, fears, and convulsions.” The many who did not understand, and were not supposed to understand, imagined they were reading a treatise on the perfect State.
Straussian readings abound.
For centuries people have spoken of the Greek myths as of something to be rediscovered, reawoken. The truth is it is the myths that are still out there waiting to wake us and be seen by us, like a tree waiting to greet our newly opened eyes.
III. Étienne Fortier-Dubois: Books 8 and 9 of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics
Aristotle wrote about pretty much everything, and one part of that is friendship. Two of the ten books that make up his monumental work on ethics, the Nicomachean Ethics, are dedicated to the question of friends and partners. These are books 8 and 9, and they are very much worth a read — they’re short (no need to read the entire Nicomachean Ethics if that feels intimidating), easy to grasp, and filled with insight.
Aristotle is fond of categorizing things, and friendship is no exception. He identifies three types of friendship according to the underlying values: the useful, the pleasurable, and the virtuous.
Friends of utility are relationships two people build because they bring material benefits to each other. For instance, you and a colleague might have a good relationship that started because you provided help to each other at work. But as soon as you don’t work together anymore, the friendship falters.
Friends of pleasure are based on emotion. You build a relationship based on pleasure when you hang out with a friend because of some fun activity. But like friendships of utility, this is fleeting: as soon as two people don't grant each other pleasure anymore (for instance, because you grew up and your values have drifted away from your college friends'), then the friendship vanishes away.
And then, of course, there is the superior Aristotelian type of friendship: friends of virtue. This is “true” friendship, because it is based on being a good person and enjoying your friend’s status as a good person. It is permanent, because it is based on the fundamental qualities of the people involved.
Books 8 and 9 of the Nicomachean Ethics, in the length of a short paperback, discuss these three types and much more. There are analogues to romantic relationships: what can be said of the “friendship” between husband and wife? (Warning: some of Aristotle’s ideas in this domain are, well, quite dated.) There are analogues to politics: how do the various types of friendship compare to the six forms of government Aristotle wrote about? There are also analogues between romantic relationships and politics, and this is making me realize that I may have overdone my caveat about comparing Aristotle’s forms of government to companies and DAOs. Evidently Aristotle himself had no qualms about making analogies whenever he could.
In any case, I highly recommend reading these books if you are somewhat interested in friendship, which, as I argued in the past, you should be. Here are links to one version: book 8, book 9.