Friday, November 23, 2018

The "inevitable" Peloponnesian War

S. N. Jaffe has an article at the War on the Rocks site titled "The Risks and Rewards of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War" that should be helpful to anyone attempting to read or write about the war. Jaffe is the author of Thucydides on the Outbreak of War: Character and Contest, a study of the first book of the History. From the "Description" tab on the book at Oxford University Press:
The cause of great power war is a perennial issue for the student of politics. Some 2,400 years ago, in his monumental History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides wrote that it was the growth of Athenian power and the fear that this power inspired in Sparta which rendered the Peloponnesian War somehow necessary, inevitable, or compulsory.

In this new political psychological study of Thucydides' first book, S.N. Jaffe shows how the History's account of the outbreak of the war ultimately points toward the opposing characters of the Athenian and Spartan regimes, disclosing a Thucydidean preoccupation with the interplay between nature and convention. Jaffe explores how the character of the contest between Athens and Sparta, or how the outbreak of a particular war, can reveal Thucydides' account of the recurring human causes of war and peace. The political thought of Thucydides proves bound up with his distinctive understanding of the interrelationship of particular events and more universal themes.

The article at War on the Rocks provides an overview of the History and provides a nice summary of why it's wrong to accept Thucydides at face value when he states “the growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm (or fear) which this inspired in Sparta, made war inevitable … or necessary or compulsory.” The whole article is worth a read and I sincerely hope to read Jaffe's book for more on his interpretation. For now, here's part of the article's summary on that inevitability:

I maintain that Thucydides does not mean inevitability as efficient causation, or in any sense that suggests that the forces involved are fully external to the actors. Instead, I argue that the objective inevitability of a Peloponnesian War is in fact the product the subjective views of the actors themselves, rooted in the deeply opposing characters of Athens and Sparta, or in the ways that the cities differently privilege security, honor, and profit. To abridge a complicated story, what Thucydides means by necessity is perhaps best understood as the imperatives of the national interest, as the actor in question understands those interests, while these interests are themselves conditioned by overarching world views or disparate cultural outlooks.

To draw these threads together, a Peloponnesian war became “necessary” when the actors themselves came to see no alternative to it. This does not mean that they were correct to arrive at that decision, or that there were no alternatives to war. Instead, Thucydides illuminates the interactive chain of events by which the protagonists themselves became locked into path dependencies, firmly convinced of the reasonableness of their actions or policies, which, in fatal combination with one another, led to a mutually destructive war.

As Jaffe points out, there is "vigorous disagreement" on the study of Thucydides...what the author meant and how to apply his lessons. Whether or not you agree with Jaffe's remarks on Thucydides, his framing information should be of use to anyone wanting to read the History.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Upcoming posts / notes

My schedule has been overbooked for some time now, but the last few months I have made it a priority to focus on posting notes on books after I finish certain tasks. Unfortunately, most days I only get some of those tasks done, leaving no time to work on posts. In the next few weeks, though, I would really like to get a few posts out the door on some books I'd really like to share with you. In the (hypothetical) pipeline:

Passage through the Red Sea by Zofia Romanowicz
Originally published in Polish as Przejscie Przez Morze Czerwone
See the post at The Neglected Books Page for more information on this book, which included a review on an out-of-print book that described it as odd, repellent, and powerful. As the NBP editor noted, such descriptions are the call of one neglected book fanatic to another. Yes, I read it. And yes, it is odd. Repellent. And powerful. More on that soon.

The Disinherited by Benito Pérez Galdós
Originally published in Spanish as La desheredada
This is the novel where Galdós hit his stride. Starting with The Disinherited, Galdós published 22 novels in a decade, what are now called the Novelas españolas contemporáneas. It's clear in this book that Galdós was now on a higher plateau in writing, although he still had a little way to go to reach the level of Fortunata and Jacinta. Still, it's a pleasure to find writing of this quality.

The White King: Charles I, Traitor, Murderer, Martyr by Leanda de Lisle
See the publisher's page for the Author’s Note and the opening of the Preface. From the Author's Note:
This new portrait, informed by previously unseen royal correspondence, depicts a brave and principled king who inspired great loyalty but who was also a man of flesh and blood. Charles the Martyr and Charles the Murderer, lauded by friends and condemned by enemies, is largely forgotten, but in popular memory something just as extreme remains. Charles has been pinned to the pages of history as a failed king, executed at the hands of his own subjects, and now preserved like some exotic but desiccated insect. In may accounts it seems that Charles was doomed to fail almost from birth, his character immutable.

Lastly, a couple of books read last year on the American Revolutionary War. First is a work of fiction: Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts, which looks at the war from the perspective of a Loyalist. The second is Scars of Independence: America's Violent Birth by Holger Hoock. Hoock focuses on the violence carried out by both sides so a reader can better understand what really happened during those years.

Thursday, November 15, 2018


Last week I decided to take the long way back to Atlanta for my plane ride home. It turned out to be a meditative trip. Driving across the Florida panhandle, from the Alabama border to Tallahassee, allowed me to see some of the devastation from Hurricane Michael, which had hit the area a few weeks earlier. Entire groves of trees broken and twisted off at 15-20 feet above the ground, large signs strewn about like children's toys, hundred-year-old trees uprooted...demolition and spoliation I've seen before thanks to all the hurricanes and tornadoes while I was growing up in the south. Even so, each time is a reminder of the power of nature and a cause for marvel. Combine that with arriving home and having friends dealing with fires in northern and southern California and provides a check on thinking that Nature is always your friend.

The stop I wanted to highlight was my visit at the Andersonville National Historical Sight, near Andersonville, Georgia. Formerly known as Camp Sumter, a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp during the American Civil War, it operated for just over a year near the end of the war (1864-65). Approximately 45,000 Union soldiers were housed there during that period, with over 13,000 dying. The grounds have been left mostly undeveloped, with several memorials and recreations of one of the gates and corners of the compound, which I found...well, "refreshing" isn't quite the right word. But it did allow you to picture what this area would have looked like just over 150 years ago. National Park Services maps of the camp, cemetery, and surrounding area can be found here. From the park website:
Andersonville National Historic Site began as a stockade built about 18 months before the end of the U.S. Civil War to hold Union Army prisoners captured by Confederate soldiers. Located deep behind Confederate lines, the 26.5-acre Camp Sumter (named for the south Georgia county it occupied) was designed for a maximum of 10,000 prisoners. At its most crowded, it held more than 32,000 men, many of them wounded and starving, in horrific conditions with rampant disease, contaminated water, and only minimal shelter from the blazing sun and the chilling winter rain. In the prison's 14 months of existence, some 45,000 Union prisoners arrived here;of those, 12,920 died and were buried in a cemetery created just outside the prison walls.

In addition to the military prison area and the cemetery is the National Prisoner of War Museum memorial, another extremely moving exhibit. My visit there was too quick to give more than just an impression, but on my cursory walk-through I felt it well done and something necessary about an angle of war too often ignored. I'm sure it's difficult to please everyone with such an all-encompassing museum, but as I said I thought it well done. Hopefully it proves enlightening to those not growing up and hearing often about American POWs on the nightly news.

I wanted to highlight the sight since its location might be just enough out of the way of travelers). It's obviously not an uplifting place to visit, but one I think is important, which is why I'm publishing this post. I didn't take too many pictures, thinking I would rely on pictures posted online, but I didn't find that many I wanted to share. Here's one I took of the Providence Spring memorial, a shelter erected by Union veteran groups to commemorate a spring erupting from the ground, a godsend for parched prisoners. More on the spring and memorial with some additional pictures can be found here.

Right above the spring is a reconstruction of the North Gate (or rather one of the two North Gates), the entrance through which most of the prisoners would have passed through. I chose this picture to highlight the slope down to the creek that flowed through the camp. From the top of the hills on either side of the creek you have an encompassing view of the area.

The waist-high information sign on the right side gives you an idea of the scale of these imposing timbers. In the background to the left is the Ohio monument, one of several in the memorial area to the northwest of the prison site.

I loved the backroads I drove getting to the park and then heading to Atlanta. I know some of that was nostalgia, since I have lived in areas like these throughout the south. The overcast weather seemed to amplify the somberness I felt while there.

There are plenty of histories and webpages on Andersonville that are easily accessible, so I'll only link this one at

Monday, November 05, 2018

Aes Triplex by Robert Louis Stevenson

The changes wrought by death are in themselves so sharp and final, and so terrible and melancholy in their consequences, that the thing stands alone in man's experience, and has no parallel upon earth. It outdoes all other accidents because it is the last of them. Sometimes it leaps suddenly upon its victims, like a Thug; sometimes it lays a regular siege and creeps upon their citadel during a score of years. And when the business is done, there is sore havoc made in other people's lives, and a pin knocked out by which many subsidiary friendships hung together. There are empty chairs, solitary walks, and single beds at night. Again in taking away our friends, death does not take them away utterly, but leaves behind a mocking, tragical, and soon intolerable residue, which must be hurriedly concealed. Hence a whole chapter of sights and customs striking to the mind, from the pyramids of Egypt to the gibbets and dule trees of mediaeval Europe. The poorest persons have a bit of pageant going towards the tomb; memorial stones are set up over the least memorable; and, in order to preserve some show of respect for what remains of our old loves and friendships, we must accompany it with much grimly ludicrous ceremonial, and the hired undertaker parades before the door. All this, and much more of the same sort, accompanied by the eloquence of poets, has gone a great way to put humanity in error; nay, in many philosophies the error has been embodied and laid down with every circumstance of logic; although in real life the bustle and swiftness, in leaving people little time to think, have not left them time enough to go dangerously wrong in practice.

The title, if you're not familiar with it (and I certainly wasn't) is explained in the notes: The title, AEs Triplex, is taken from Horace, aes triplex circa pectus, "breast enclosed by triple brass," "aes" used by Horace as a "symbol of indomitable courage."—Lewis's Latin Dictionary.

After addressing the great divide and separation death causes and how reverential we talk about it, Stevenson looks at how little we allow it to influence our "conduct under healthy circumstances." He mentions South American citizens living on the side of volcanos ("fiery mountains") who act as if they are "delving gardens in the greenest corner of England," not impressed by the "mortal conditions" where they live. And then as he thinks about it, Stevenson claims this example "forms only a very pale figure for the state of ordinary mankind" if we consider the many possibilities of wholesale catastrophes that could happen.

As Stevenson contemplates how old people act (for the most part), he uses a beauty and ruthlessness in his imagery, in passages such as

For, after a certain distance, every step we take in life we find the ice growing thinner below our feet, and all around us and behind us we see our contemporaries going through. By the time a man gets well into the seventies, his continued existence is a mere miracle; and when he lays his old bones in bed for the night, there is an overwhelming probability that he will never see the day. Do the old men mind it, as a matter of fact? Why, no. They were never merrier; they have their grog at night, and tell the raciest stories; they hear of the death of people about their own age, or even younger, not as if it was a grisly warning, but with a simple childlike pleasure at having outlived someone else; and when a draught might puff them out like a fluttering candle, or a bit of a stumble shatter them like so much glass, their old hearts keep sound and unaffrighted, and they go on, bubbling with laughter, through years of man's age compared to which the valley at Balaclava[6] was as safe and peaceful as a village cricket-green on Sunday.


Death may be knocking at the door, like the Commander's statue; we have something else in hand, thank God, and let him knock. Passing bells are ringing all the world over. All the world over, and every hour, someone is parting company with all his aches and ecstasies. For us also the trap is laid. But we are so fond of life that we have no leisure to entertain the terror of death. It is a honeymoon with us all through, and none of the longest. Small blame to us if we give our whole hearts to this glowing bride of ours, to the appetites, to honour, to the hungry curiosity of the mind, to the pleasure of the eyes in nature, and the pride of our own nimble bodies.


Indeed, it is a memorable subject for consideration, with what unconcern and gaiety mankind pricks on along the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

Stevenson looks at some examples that literature uses to try and explain the human condition after he declares, "We confound ourselves with metaphysical phrases, which we import into daily talk with noble inappropriateness. We have no idea of what death is, apart from its circumstances and some of its consequences to others; and although we have some experience of living, there is not a man on earth who has flown so high into abstraction as to have any practical guess at the meaning of the Word life." Stevenson mocks philosophers if the best definition they can come up with is John Stuart Mill's "Permanent Possibility of Sensation." After all the word tricks that people play, "[O]ne fact remains true throughout—that we do not love life, in the sense that we are greatly preoccupied about its conservation; that we do not, properly speaking, love life at all, but living." OK, that seems like he's using a little word trick himself, but he uses that distinction to come to his point about the necessity of courage (back to the aes triplex). With courage, we can do more than just stay alive, but truly live:

To be deeply interested in the accidents of our existence, to enjoy keenly the mixed texture of human experience, rather leads a man to disregard precautions, and risk his neck against a straw. For surely the love of living is stronger in an Alpine climber roping over a peril, or a hunter riding merrily at a stiff fence, than in a creature who lives upon a diet and walks a measured distance in the interest of his constitution.

Just because we know we're mortal doesn't mean we should abandon intelligence, though. "As courage and intelligence are the two qualities best worth a good man's cultivation, so it is the first part of intelligence to recognise our precarious estate in life, and the first part of courage to be not at all abashed before the fact. A frank and somewhat headlong carriage, not looking too anxiously before, not dallying in maudlin regret over the past, stamps the man who is well armoured for this world."

Last month I decided to read some of Robert Louis Stevenson's essays (available at Project Gutenberg), skipping around to different ones depending on how much time I had to read that day. Little did I know that a couple of days after reading "Aes Triplex" my mother would pass away. She was 97 years old and lived a full life. Her health had been in serious decline the past year, so while it wasn't unexpected, her passing still fit many of the descriptions of Stevenson's opening paragraph. I can attest that she lived fully with a triple brass shield of courage.

Despite my liberal use of quotes from the essay, there is much more in this short piece. Do make the time (in the "hot-fit of life") to have a look at the essay. And if you like what you read, be sure to check out the others. There's a lot of enjoyable writing in these pieces.

Monday, October 15, 2018

One Man Romeo and Juliet by Shelby Bond

We had a busy weekend, but the highlight for me was seeing "One Man Romeo and Juliet" by Shelby Bond. He has performed it at many spots around the world, and hopefully you'll get a chance to see it live. There is a lot of audience participation, and despite the title the kids had a chance to play parts in it, too. Bond is nonstop and changes roles in the blink of an eye. Judging by the line after the show to meet (and tip) him, I wasn't the only one that enjoyed it. Here's a trailer for the show and some links to more of his work. I'm looking forward to seeing the show he does at the Dickens Fair later this year. Enjoy!

Shelby's home page, with links to other characters/projects

His YouTube videos

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

At the risk of excessive exultation

The other major find yesterday was a "new" used copy of La Regenta, retiring the pictured copy being held together by rubber bands. While I have many fond memories of piecing together the old copy (literally) while reading it, I'm hoping this one survives re-readings. Which I hope to do soon. First, though, I'll need to finish and post on Galdos' La desheredada / The Disinherited, a pivotal book in an impressive career.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Do you keep track of your books?

Yesterday I was in a used bookstore and they had several Library of America books in good shape, ranging from $8 to $12. I wanted to pick up several of them, but a few of the books were by authors that had multiple volumes in the series. A couple of them I knew I didn't have, but a couple of books I wasn't sure if I had them or not (due to forgetfulness and a family member "borrowing" and not returning one). I was wishing I had a list or database of some sort to check against, so I was wondering if anyone kept track of their books for just such a situation. It seems like overkill, but I'm not always going to be able to text my boys to send me pictures of the bookcase so I could see if I already had a certain book.

I thought I wouldn't need such a list for too many books or series, but after buying a used history book to replace one I thought I had culled (and had not), I'm wondering if I need to include more in such a database/list. So do any of you keep such a list for your books? And if so, how do you do it?

Thanks! Oh, by the way, here's the first picture my son sent me to make sure he had the right bookcase. I'll need to take better pictures of the bookcases on our landing and post them after I rearrange them to fit the latest acquisitions. They came about totally by accident, but I dearly love them.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018


There's no way to summarize California in just one picture, but this one covers a few aspects.

This picture was taken a couple of hours before sunset on August 5th at Manresa State Beach, a few miles south of Santa Cruz. There's a church holding baptisms in the ocean while surfers are enjoying waist-chest high sets and I just had to try to capture it. There would be many more surfers joining soon after the organized religious rituals were finished.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Choose your madness: King Lear or King Lear. Or King Lear.

Later this month (at least in some locations) you can choose the form of madness you wish to see:

  • On Thursday, September 27, 2018 in select theaters is King Lear with Ian McKellen. The blurb at National Theatre Live:
    Broadcast live from London’s West End, see Ian McKellen’s ‘extraordinarily moving portrayal’ (Independent) of King Lear in cinemas.

    Chichester Festival Theatre’s production received five-star reviews for its sell-out run, and transfers to the West End for a limited season. Jonathan Munby directs this contemporary retelling of Shakespeare’s tender, violent, moving and shocking play.
    Click on the above link or the one for Fathom Events to find a venue screening it on the 27th. It will be interesting to compare McKellen's performance now versus that of a decade ago with Trevor Nunn as director (which, coincidentally, is currently airing for free on Amazon Prime).

  • Available on September 28th to Amazon Prime viewers is King Lear with Anthony Hopkins in the title role and directed by Richard Eyre. There's nothing beyond a description of the play on Amazon's site about the film, but plenty to find online from people that have already watched it. For the cast, see

    It's raining Lear.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

On Shout! Factory TV: The Best of Fridays (TV series)

We've had Shout! Factory TV as a mainstay on our TV for a while but a current listing almost escaped my notice, so I wanted to pass it on to anyone else interested. Currently there are a few episodes from the Fridays TV series from their first season on ABC in 1980. I completely missed the entire series when it aired and had completely forgotten about it, so it was nice to see it available. I probably would have loved the skits at the time. Now...ummmm.

The main attractions for me were the musical acts. As you can see from the Musical Guests section on the show's Wikipedia page, there was a great range of acts performing over their three-season run. In the first season (spring and summer 1980), there was a nice mix of what would have been called pop, rock, punk, and new wave at the time. The two available at Shout that I really enjoyed are listed below. I've marked the approximate times in case you want to focus on just the musical performances.

Season 1, Episode 3: The Clash
Only a few months after the release of London Calling, The Clash performed four songs from that album on the show.
(~18 minutes) "London Calling," "Train in Vain"
(~34 minutes) "The Guns of Brixton," "Clampdown"

Season 1, Episode 10: Graham Parker and the Rumour
A couple of songs from The Up Escalator played to a welcoming crowd.
(~24 minutes) "Stupefaction"
(~32 minutes) "Empty Lives"

And for no other reason than to clear some space on my phone, here's a picture of Graham Parker and Brinsley Schwarz, taken almost exactly three years ago on their U.S. tour. Explore and enjoy!