Posted in book review, Miscellany

Philosopher, Poet, and Doctor

Edgar Allan Poe’s tribute of “To the glory that was Greece” sprang from my mind when I received this month’s subscription to a British history magazine BBC History Revealed. It came in the magnificent package of ancient Greece Special, ranging from the Archaic to Hellenistic periods, from slaves to Socrates, and from Auspices to trepanation. I feel dutiful that writing about my thoughts from the reading serves a purpose of writing to achieve experiential value to gain refreshing knowledge about the famously glorious ancient Greece and creative value to record my thoughts about following impressive findings.

Surprising Opponent of Democracy
Socrates was the one who called upon Philosophy from celestial paradise into the world, took her to the villas and huts of mortals, and persuaded her to stay among them. He was indubitably the father of philosophy as Herodotus was of western narrative history. His submission to drinking fatal poison as execution for corrupting the Athenian youth by saying “Bad law is still law” is immortalized in works of art from painting to engraves, poems and plays. Woe betides anyone who would disbelieve that the most democratic thinker opposed democracy in his time. Yet don’t let sorrow turn into disappointment in betrayal because democracy in Socrates’s time was different from our modern concept and practice of republican democracy. Athenian democracy directly involved people of all classes in politics without representations for constituents. Any Athenian citizen- excluding women, slaves, and foreigners- could voice out and execute their wills however uncouth and unreasonable. This form of mob-style demagoguery without desires being reined by the judgment is what Socrates criticized, not freedom of human spirits. Naturally, having seen his venerable teacher killed by the will of demagogues, Plato was an even stronger opponent of Athenian democracy that ceased to reign in the early 4th century BC following the Greeks’ unsuccessful revolt against Macedonia rule.

Nothing is better than the simple.
Anyte of Tegea was a very popular poet of circa 3rd century BC. Anyte is considered one of the first poets to focus on the simplicity of beauty found in nature and life, which is different from most ancient Greek poetry eulogizing the mighty achievements of heroes and the majestic powers of gods. Her eloquently crafted poetry with comprehensively accessible use of simple language gorgeously manifests richly delicate emotional sensitivity that collapses the millenniums between her writing and our reading them. Although her popularity earned her the sobriquet of “Female Homer,” a comparison to nineteen-century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is deemed more apposite and understandable for both poets sublimated the ordinary to the sublime with the feeling of beauty and love for nature and life.

A hole into the skull
Trepanation was a medical technique that Hippocrates, the father of medicines and doctors, codified in circa 5th century BC. He believed that there were four humors in the human body: Blood – Air, Yellow bile – Fire, Black bile – Earth, and Phlegm – Water. The idea of humourism consisted of thus: if one of them was redundant or deficient, ailments of spiritual and physical kinds arose. Therefore, drilling a hole into the skull of the affected suffering from depression, headache, fractures, or other symptoms of a mystical condition, would relieve the patient of malady. The Inca civilization was indeed famous for successful cases of trepanation, more favorably effectuated than those of 19th century American Civil War experience. However, it was Hippocrates who contextualized the procedural and impacts of the prehistoric operation. Trepanation is still performed today in the name of craniotomy.

The mists of the past seem strangely distant due to our conditioned sense of evolutionary scale in the continuum of prehistoric and modern times. However, history shows us in today’s world that the people who lived before us millenniums ago had emotions and concerns similar to ours and that human cultural progress is a collective enterprise without fully recognizing it within the circumferences of time and space. Just as Herodotus was gobsmacked by the sight of great pyramids built centuries before him, our descendants will be awe-struck to see the ancient ruins of the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building and the tires of the New York City or of Los Angeles. Time and culture are ephemeral, but cultural heritage and artifacts in the treasure of works of art and humanities passed down to posterity are eternal as long as the human race exists.

Posted in book review

Hercules the first superhero – book review

Hercules – The first superhero: by Philip Matyszak

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


The ancient Greek superhero Hercules always has a status of a modern-day Mount Hollywood celebrity with Paparazzi-conscious showmanship. He also reminds me of an advantaged individual who could get away with wrongdoings. Hercules was an impulsive egoist and an irascible aristocrat for what was worth the ancient Greek superhero, a paragon of masculine heroism with a view to celebrity. This uncommon biography about the superhero whose name still rings red herrings after millennium flows of time evolves around the legendary performance of the Twelve Labors, anchoring them to the historical events of a man with a colossal ego.

With a wealth of knowledge on ancient Greek history and extensive research on the subject, Matyszak puts in the capacity of Hercules’s counsel per se in the tribunal between humanity and divinity, who searches for truth based upon factual findings. Matyszak’s defense for his now divine client Hercules is erudite and comprehensive, with exhibits drawn from classical Greek and Roman historians and writers whose wits and reasons were anything but those of Hercules. In addition, the author’s trademark storytelling narrative makes the story of the ancient Greek killer all the more vivid and engaging that each chapter holds the attention of the reader in the phantasmagorical display of images as depicted in Grecian urns or vases.

Notwithstanding the attractiveness of the narrative and the narrator, there are reasons I disapprove of Hercules as a hero, an antithesis of the other half-god, half-man Jesus of Nazareth in millenniums later. The Labors resulted from his egotistical attempt to free himself from the guilt of killing his family in moments of passion. However, he was neither remorseful nor appropriately punished for killing his music teacher Linus whose head his recalcitrant prince pupil Hercules shattered with a lyre he was trying to teach him how to play the way it should. As a prince of Thebes, Hercules had no qualms of consciousness for killing his elderly music teacher whose social status was beneath him, and gods condoned it because he was a son of Zeus.

His peremptory sense of entitlement knows no boundary because of his arrogance and hubris. For example, during his Fourth labor of capturing Erymanthian Boar, Hercules killed almost the entire race of centaurs, driving them to near extinction. But Hercules himself was the cause of the killing spree because he intimidated Pholus, a wise, kindly centaur, to open a jar of undiluted wine, a gift from Dionysus to centaurs, who became intoxicated and attacked Hercules out of stupor. Yet, his killing of the drunken centaurs was not even a subject of guilt and was regarded as collateral damage because centaurs were known as lustful creatures. But didn’t Hercules also sleep around with women – and only the beautiful – wherever he went to, and sire children, one of whom became the founder of the Scythians?

To summarize, the story of Hercules boils down to a conclusion that Hercules was a representative figure of a human whose essence is both divine and mortal, always on a chariot race with two horses of desire and reason. Some revisionists claim Hercules was an ancient Greek psychopath who took pleasure in killing people, beasts, and demi-gods. To me, a psychopath loses either the shackle of the ego or the supervisor of the superego, running a mind chariot alone even it drives to a pit full of fire. Methinks, Hercules was a cossetted brat without disciplines that controlled his power of reason, which is apart from mental acuteness or ingenuity. Adler’s will to power embodies the figure of BC man-God hero without regard for compassion and charity. Hercules was anything but Samuel Johnson’s conception of a biographic figure who empathizes for the common characteristics of life in the principle of universal judgment and sentiments. I now know why Christianity has won favors from poor and ordinary people and become the subject of persecutions from emperors and kings because Jesus of Nazareth, begotten by God and born of Virgin Mary, is gentle yet strong, kind but firm, which seems simple but divine.



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‘Brief Lives’, by Paul Johnson – review

Brief LivesBrief Lives by Paul Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Biography is an ancient branch of literature that attests to the unchangeability of human nature against the flow of time. In its literary context, the Bible, composed of 66 books, is about the prophets, kings, sinners, let alone Christ and his disciples. Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad recite the ancient Greek heroes’ honors and foibles during the Trojan War and the aftermath. Plutarch’s Parallel Lives reveal the naked truth about the ancient Greek and Roman powers-that-be who seem to be no less different than their modern descendants in power. There are no other types of writing that are intuitively intriguing than an honest biography. A good biography gives the reader a sensation of reading a private diary that lays bare the subject person’s real persona. Out of this ancient tradition of biography comes Paul Johnson’s Brief Lives of the famous people he has met from all over the world told in episodic vignettes.

The book tells Johnson’s reminiscences of historically notable personalities he has met directly and indirectly throughout his long journalistic career. Ernest Hemingway was not a Pooterish famed writer but a down-to-earth bon vivant with a love of wine. John Paul II was a true vicar of Christ gifted to our mad secular world. Princess Diana had incredible intuition, which was of prime kind channeled into high and low people’s feelings. However, Pablo Picasso was the artist as rich as Croesus with the matching haughtiness. C.S. Lewis was an excellent lecturer whose populous lecture rooms were also an intellectual version of dating hippodrome. And Richard Nixon, regardless of his Watergate infamy, proved himself to be a diligent scholar of history with the admirable zeal of continuous learning. Johnson is a keen observer of people with a prism through which people’s true colors are reflected. It is refreshingly educating to learn about the other, overlooked sides of the infamous and the famous without a gloss of the uniformed panegyrics or accusations, and doing justice to the publicly ill-informed.

It is also interesting to compare the book with Plutarch’s Parallel Lives in terms of its episodic vignette form of writing, making both books more comfortable to read and stimulating to delve into. Johnson’s episodes are vivaciously sprightful and wittily feisty, grasping the reader’s attention from page to page with irresistible curiosity. Johnson and Plutarch use the ordinary language about the extraordinary to serve the purpose of writing biographies for the public with the knowledge about humankind that even the powerful and the beautiful are subject to anfractuous ridges that all humans have to climb in life.

I have read several books by Paul Johnson. All of them are packed full of his trademark wits, conservative but not chauvinistic perspectives on morality, and admirable erudition, thrown into a brilliant bonfire of words enjoyable by general readers. Brief Lives is no exception to the rule, showing that Johnson has ways with the words that make them vernacular in his choice of vocabulary he conjures and scholarly of the sentences he alloys. Samuel Johnson defined an excellent biography that should disclose the person’s human side to show that no one is utterly powerful and beautiful. The book Brief Lives echoes the same.




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