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Embarking on a mind-expanding project – exploring Penguin’s Great Ideas with Seneca! :D

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On the Shortness of Life by Seneca
Translated by C.D.N Costa

 

You might remember me having a grumble back in June about the dangers of reading challenges, and how I was currently fighting the urge to start a new project of reading my way through the Penguin Great Ideas little books. This all came up because the new batch out later this month contains some irresistible titles and I was hit by the mad desire to try and improve my mind (ha!) by reading the lot in sequence… Yes, all 120! Now bearing in mind my track record with the Penguin Modern Poets and the Penguin Moderns, that was probably a silly idea. However, during August I *did* manage to get back into the saddle with both of these projects (and I think ‘project’ is the best word to use here as this is going to take me some time…) So feeling emboldened, I have picked up the first book in the series and set forth on my journey – wish me luck….

It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested.

The Great Ideas sequence starts with Seneca’s “On the Shortness of Life”, and the quote on the front very aptly reads “Life is long if you know how to use it“. A Roman philosopher who lived from approx 4 BC to 64 AD, he was a proponent of Stoicism and as well as his philosophical works was also a dramatist, satirist and statesman. This book contains three works – the title essay, as well as Consolation to Helvia and On Tranquility of Mind. As I believe is common in works of the era (and forgive me if I’m wrong here!), these pieces are all addressed to a particular individual; and they’re drawn from the Penguin volume “Dialogues and Essays”.

… sometimes we are gripped by hatred of the human race.

So – onto the first entry in the book, the title piece. This was addressed to Seneca’s father-in-law Paulinus, and in it he addresses the very human habit of wasting our time… His argument is that if we live our lives wisely and with thought, any life is long enough. Instead of spending all our hours rushing around looking for fame or fortune or approval, or losing chunks of our lives in trivial pursuits, we should spend our time in the present moment, doing things with meaning and purpose. It’s a very timely and sensible philosophy, and I think if we did all pause, take stock and direct our lives sensibly we might be happier. It’s not always that simple, of course, but something to aim for maybe…

… it is easier to bear and simpler not to acquire than to lose, so you will notice that those people are more cheerful whom Fortune has never favoured than those who she has deserted.

The second piece is a letter addressed to Seneca’s mother Helvia. The philosopher had been exiled to Corsica for political reasons, as well as apparently losing his only son; so his letter attempts to console his mother for the death of a grandson as well as the exile of a son. Here, his stoic principles are clearly on view as he assures his mother that he is happy and not suffering, and therefore she should not grieve for him.

No one will bring back the years; no one will restore you to yourself. Life will follow the path it began to take, and will neither reverse nor check its course. It will cause no commotion to remind you of it swiftness, but glide on quietly.

The final essay is one of Seneca’s “Dialogues” and addressed to his friend Serenus who seems anything but serene… The latter is in fact anxious and worried, unsure of his path through life. Seneca advises taking the middle way, steering a course between a life of action and a life of contemplation. He comes up with all manner of sensible suggestions as to choice of friends, austere lifestyle and even ensuring that your collection of books is not just for show! Kind of like Roman therapy, then!

My first experience of both Seneca and Penguin Great Ideas was a really positive one! The Stoic Philosopher really does have some good ideas about how to negotiate the madness of the world, particularly in these turbulent times when so much is changing around us, and his works are full of eminently quotable aphorisms. The translation is excellent and very readable, and the book is a wonderful introduction to Seneca. The book comes with no extra or supporting material, apart from minimal notation within the text, which I assume will be the case with the rest of the GIs; and that’s fine, because I feel these works should be treated as a taster for the author in question. If a reader has been stimulated and their appetite whetted, they can go off and research the author, explore further and even buy a bigger book…

Hey! I think this project could be fun! 😀

“… he took up books as if they were people, and welcomed them into his family.” #montaigne @Sarah_Bakewell

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Back in June I was in that wonderful position of being able to choose exactly what I felt like to read next, with no book making particular demands on me and any number of volumes ready and willing to be picked up. In fact, I shared an image of the ones I felt most drawn to on Twitter, and the ambience was predominantly French! In the end, I plumped for “How to Live” by Sarah Bakewell; subtitled “A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer”, it had come highly recommended and as I had a selection of his essays also standing by, it seemed the perfect choice – which indeed it was!

A French-themed pile…

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (usually just referred to by the last part of his name) is himself a figure I’ve been skirting round for quite a while; a 16th century French nobleman contemporary with Shakespeare, he’s best known for popularising the essay as a literary form and espousing some wonderful views on humanity and the best way to live. His works are incredibly influential, affecting writers as wide-ranging as Shakespeare himself (possibly), Descartes, Pascal, Rousseau, Woolf, Zweig and even Asimov. According to Wikipedia, he wrote some of the most influential essays ever – which is some legacy!

Bakewell sets out to tell his life story, but in an intriguing way; she asks the question which Montaigne himself was posing – How to live? – and examines his story broadly chronologically in 21 chapters which look at his life in relation to the answers his essays provide. It’s a very clever concept, because it allows her to not only relate his life events but also explore his philosophies, the wider world in which he lived and what it really means to be a human being.

Essayer, in French, means simply to try. To essay something is to test or taste it, or give it a whirl. One seventeenth-century Montaignist defined it as firing a pistol to see if it shoots straight, or trying out a horse to see if it handles well. On the whole, Montaigne discovered that the pistol shot all over the place and the horse galloped out of control, but this did not bother him. He was delighted to see his work come out so unpredictably.

Montaigne lived slap-bang in the middle of the Renaissance, a period when Europe was going through a cultural, artistic, political and economic revival following the grimness of the Middle Ages. Humanity was starting to explore the world physically and intellectually, the arts and sciences were developing, and the question of how humans should live was considered really important. Montaigne’s essays were ground-breaking in their free-ranging quality; no tightly-controlled arguments, clear-cut answers for this man; instead, he allowed his throughts to roam freely, jumping from one idea to another almost at random, pulling in all kinds of concepts and analogies as he went. This format was revolutionary at the time, and popular; Montaigne’s essays were instant best-sellers, and still are.

What takes Bakewell’s book into a different realm, however, is the breadth of it. Yes, there is a roughly chronological look at Montaigne’s life, and that in itself is fascinating. But as well as this, she discusses at length the philosophies – Stoic, Epicurean, Sceptic – which informed his thinking; she reveals in depth the world in which Montaigne lived, its beliefs, its wars and its problems (plague!!); and she draws out of Montaigne’s writings lessons which can still be relevant and helpful to how we try to live today. All of these elements make for a compelling and fascinating read, and the book really opened my eyes to what that period of time was really like.

One thing which was a bit of a revelation was the state of conflict between the Catholic and Protestant religions; I don’t know if I’d quite appreciated quite how rabid, bloody and bitter the dissent between the two strands of Christianity actually was, but the behaviour of both sides as related by Bakewell was shocking. Whyever can’t human beings learn to accept that other people have different beliefs and let them get on with it; we don’t seem to have learned from the past (correction – we *definitely* haven’t). And it does seem that France has been in a constant state of conflict and revolt through most of its history, which I hadn’t quite taken on board before.

I was also taken by Montaigne’s general tolerance and humanity; and in particular his views on animals and the natural world and his hatred of cruelty in general. Bakewell quotes this from one essay, and it’s a timely and still relevant view:

There is a certain respect, and a general duty of humanity, that attaches us not only to animals, who have life and feeling, but even to trees and plants. We own justice to men, and mercy and kindness to other creatures that may be capable of receiving it. There is some relationship between them and us, and some mutual obligation.

As well as his essays, Bakewell relates how Montaigne kept a journal whilst on an extended journey, some written by his secretary and some by himself. It obviously gives a different view of the great man, and sounds entertaining in its own right – she says of it at one point:

It makes for a better read than any number of overblown Romantic travelogues, precisely because it remains so tied to detail. It has little beds under big beds, messy Swiss sauces, room-sized birdcages, circumcisions, sex changes and ostriches: what’s not to like?

I may have to track it down, because his travels themselves are entertaining too (he used them as a way to dodge political duties…); and the section of Rome oddly took me back to Bowen’s thoughts on the history of the city and its constantly changing architecture.

Portrait of Montaigne (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

As you might have realised, I loved this book; as well as being a fascinating biography, it takes in so much history and philosophy that there’s a danger of going off exploring down any number of wormholes. Bakewell’s coverage of the legacy of Montaigne is also revealing; so many later philosophers and writers worked themselves up into a right lather over his wonderfully laisser-faire attitude and refusal to stick to any kind of fixed opinion. He was a real rambler – so obviously a kindred soul…

“How to Live” turned out to be a real winner; thoroughly enjoyable, very stimulating, beautifully written and extremely erudite, it was also often very funny. Bakewell’s wonderful book has made me very keen to pick up my little selection of Montaigne’s essays soon; and fortunately I also have her “At the Existentialist Cafe” lurking, which promises equally marvellous delights… ;D

“Wild nature is a hiding place” #johnberger #confabulations

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Confabulations by John Berger

For some reason (bookish obsessiveness, I suppose…) I seem to go through phases of amassing piles of books I want to read by a particular author. Dawkins is a case in point… there is a heap of at least five of his books lurking! And when I featured his pile of works, I mentioned also that I had a number of John Berger’s works also trying to catch my attention.

I’ve read a number of Berger’s books, from fiction to his musings on art, and he’s always such a bracing and interesting writer. For no reason I can discern, I was moved to pick up “Confabulations” recently; if I recall correctly, I picked it up in the LRB Bookshop on a visit to London and it turned out to be a very thought-provoking read.

“Confabulations” was published in 2016, and it collects together Berger’s thoughts and musings, as well as illustrations by the author himself and other artists. The title word is explained online as: “…a memory error defined as the production of fabricated, distorted, or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world, without the conscious intention to deceive.” However, I’ve always thought of it as a term for having a bit of a discussion or a verbal consultation about things and I think that’s more what Berger intends here. As he explains in the first piece, as he writes he allows his words to react with each other, change their meanings, go off and have a chat and then come back to him with a kind of acceptance of what he’s trying to say. It’s an entertaining conceit, and it allows him to mingle all sorts of ideas, blending art, reminiscence, philosophy, politics and commentary on the state of the world, letting the words and concepts bounce off each other.

Songs are like rivers. Each follows its own course – yet all are flowing to reach the sea from which everything came. The waters that flow out of a river’s mouth are on their way to an immense elsewhere. And something similar happens with what comes out of the mouth of a song.

So Berger ranges far and wide; discussing song and storytelling; reminiscing about friends and loved ones; and cutting through the hype to recognise the terrible state of our modern world.

The media offer trivial immediate distraction to fill the silence which, left empty, might otherwise prompt people to ask each other questions concerning the unjust world they are living in. Our leaders and media commentators speak of what we are living through in a gobbledygook, which is not the voice of a turkey but that of High Finance.

Berger always brings a stringent political sensibility to his writing and thinking, and I found myself agreeing with many of his judgements on politics, politicans and capitalism. Yet he always comes back to the arts – drawing and painting and song and stories – as if they are the real essence of life. Whilst drawing flowers, he meditates: “in the totalitarian global-order of financial speculative capitalism under which we are living, the media ceaselessly bombard us with information, yet this information is mostly a planned diversion, distracting our attention from what is true, essential and urgent.” The feeling is that what is important is *living* and creating and retaining that sense of individuality in an ever-more depersonalised world.

“Confabulations” is a slim book (143 pages), beautifully produced by Penguin with nice paper and many illustrations within the text, including some lovely colour ones of Berger’s art. It’s one of those volumes which definitely punches above its weight, raising all manner of thoughts which linger in the mind and leave you thinking for days afterwards. John Berger was a fascinating artist, intellectual, writer and commentator; and “Confabulations” was a great joy to read. Which makes me very happy that I have more of his work lurking on Mount TBR! ;D

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