BOOK REVIEW: Anecdotes of the Cynics by Various

Anecdotes of the CynicsAnecdotes of the Cynics by Robert F. Dobbin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of brief stories and sayings from famous Cynic philosophers – notably, Diogenes of Sinope, Crates of Thebes, Hipparchia, and Bion. It opens with the longest piece, a dialogue [allegedly] by Lucian the Cynic advocating the Cynic’s minimalist approach to life. [Cynics were ascetics who shunned customs and cultural conventions and thus often ran afoul of the conservative societal base / rubbed people the wrong way.] The dialogue uses Socratic method, but also contains prolonged exposition. [Not like the Platonic dialogues in which Socrates tends to ask brief questions and attempts to demand brief answers – granted not always successfully.] However, most of the pieces are just a paragraph or two brief excerpts.

Most of the entries report on what various Cynics said or did, though there are a few that are biased commentaries of non-Cynics about these “dog philosophers” – e.g. there is a Catholic tract denouncing the Cynics while talking up Paul. [It reads as though the early Christian church (which was teaching Jesus’s ideas, including: in part, the virtues of poverty, of simplicity, and of a lack of deference to the world of men) might have been concerned about being outcompeted.]

There’s not a tremendous amount that remains of direct Cynic teachings, and so a book like this is a way to get a taste of the highlights. Just as Buddha found that extreme forms of ascetism didn’t yield the optimal result, Cynicism lost ground to the upstart school Stoicism, which borrowed some Cynic ideas while jettisoning the most extreme aspects of the philosophy.

One can find these stories in old public domain sources such as Diogenes Laertius’ (no relation) “Lives of the Eminent Philosophers,” but this is a good way to get the condensed version without too much extraneous information.

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BOOK REVIEW: Ion by Plato

IonIon by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In this early Socratic dialogue, Socrates converses with a Homeric rhapsodist (i.e. performer of Homer’s stories) who shares the dialogue’s name, i.e. Ion. Socrates leads Ion to the conclusion that the rhapsodist is really a conduit of divine inspiration – as opposed to being an artist. To a large extent Socrates achieves this by showing (somewhat brutally) that there are experts infinitely more competent to comment on Homer’s epic poems that is Ion. For the most part, Ion accepts that expert artists would be more qualified to comment on the correctness of Homer’s words than is he – e.g. an expert on horsemanship would be more qualified to comment on the parts which reference horses. [The only point at which Ion offers a challenge is with respect to military general, where he believes himself equally competent to discuss military campaigns as would be a commander. (Though Socrates tries to disabuse him of this notion.)]

And despite this, no one would argue that Ion offers a special value that those various artists and experts cannot, a unique connection to Homer’s works. For Socrates that value lies in inspiration. The poet, too, Socrates argues isn’t so much a crafter of verse as one capable of receiving inspiration. The rhapsodist allows the intense emotional experience to transfer from the muse / poet intersect onward to the audience member. In less mystic terms, Socrates is trying to make sense of the artistic process and its largely unconscious process and its focus on the experience of emotional resonance, rather than on rational thought. One can see a bit of overlap with a later dialogue, Phaedrus, which discusses divine madness and its virtues.

This short and to-the-point Socratic dialogue is worth reading, even if does come down in needlessly otherworldly territory.

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BOOK REVIEW: Poetics by Aristotle

Poetics. EnglishPoetics. English by Aristotle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page “Poetics” is the surviving volume of Aristotle’s guide to literary criticism. This volume explores Tragedy. [The lost volume covered Comedy.] Considering the age of this book and that it came from the student of one who was not a fan of poetics at all (i.e. Plato,) it is surprisingly readable and much of the information presented has aged well. [That said, there are some ideas that will be controversial – including, for instance, a blatantly sexist comment or two. Also, it should be pointed out that there is disagreement about what Aristotle was trying to say on a number of points.]

This short book is organized to dissect tragedy along many lines, laying out the four kinds of tragedy (complex, pathetic, ethical, and simple,) the segments of a tragedy (prologue, episode, exode, choric song, parode, and stasimon,) etc. But the work is probably most famous for two ideas. First, there is the idea that stories provide catharsis. For his teacher, Plato, the stories conveyed via poetry were all risk and no reward. That is, there was a risk that young and impressionable minds would take away the wrong lessons, and there wasn’t much to counterbalance that risk. Aristotle believed there was in fact something, and it was catharsis, the purging of emotions through vicarious living.

Second, there is the idea that there are six crucial elements of a tragedy (i.e. plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, and song,) and that they are of importance in more or less that order. A good bit of the work is devoted to breaking down these elements. For example, with respect to plot, Aristotle writes at length about reversals and recognition (the moment a character discovers some key piece of information,) telling us a little about how these actions best work. With respect to character, Aristotle tells about the kind of character that generates the best story, and it’s the same advice one sees in writing books today that talk about flawed but good characters. Perfect characters are boring and bad characters get what they have coming in a tragedy.

I was surprised how relevant this book remains, considering that it’s perhaps the first extant book of literary theory. It’s definitely worth a read. At less than fifty pages (not including the ancillary material you’ll find with many editions) it’s a quick read, and while it’s a bit dry at times, it’s not brutal by any means. So, given its historic importance, give it a read.


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