What is the central idea of Japanese culture — its main theme, in a single word? It may sound strange, but to me the answer is freedom. Japanese society may be bound by innumerable social restrictions, but the absence of such rules can be just as limiting as their presence. Left without guidance, it only becomes harder to discover who you really are. Continue reading
After Huizinga’s Autumn of the Middle Ages, maybe it’s worth returning to The Lord of the Rings and spending a bit more time with it. Again, these books are not directly comparable…but perhaps, in the world of ideas, their paths briefly cross, and by way of Huizinga we may be able to look differently at Tolkien. Continue reading
“This is an effort to see the 14th and 15th centuries, not as a prelude to the Renaissance, but as the conclusion of the Middle Ages; an effort to see medieval culture in the last stage of its life, as a tree whose fruit is overripe — fully revealed, having reached the peak of its development. The overgrowth of a vital core by stiffened, cerebral forms; a rich culture drying up and hardening — that is the subject of these pages. When I wrote this book, it was as if I gazed into the depth of the evening sky; but it was blood-red, heavy, deserted, covered in ominous leaden holes and shining with a false, copper glint.”
preface to the first edition of Autumn (18)
(Conclusion. Continued from part 2.)
But now, we leave behind the silly troubles of our age, the clouds gathered over our nonexistent future, the self-parodic incompleteness and defectiveness of our lives. We follow Huizinga into the stern, majestic world of medieval Europe. Continue reading
(Continued from part 1.)
Huizinga was famous in European academic circles long before Homo Ludens. He became a chair professor, at the University of Groningen, at the age of 32; his inaugural lecture was titled, “The aesthetic component of historical perception,” which in retrospect sounds like a statement of intent for his entire body of work. From the 1910s onward, and especially after The Autumn of the Middle Ages, he went from one success to another, finally becoming rector of Leiden University (where Descartes had once studied) in 1933. Around that same time, his work began to take on a more polemical aspect, as a reaction to the rise of fascism. Continue reading
“Divinity, by its nature, is worthy of the most blessed care; but man, as we have said before, is a kind of invented plaything of the gods, and this has essentially become his best possible purpose. This is what we should follow: let every man and every woman spend their life playing the most beautiful games, even though this may contradict all of our existing customs… Everyone should live as long and as well as possible in this world. So, at long last, what is proper? Life should be lived as play.”
In a way, Homo Ludens is nothing more than a book-length reiteration of Plato’s offhand remark. But then, the latter is the most stirring and profound thought in the entirety of the “Laws.” The scientific and historical foundation for this philosophy only emerged centuries after it was first expressed. Continue reading
After spending as much time with Plato as we have, it is hard not to lose oneself in the world of ancient Greece. To develop a better understanding of that world, it helps to see a wide view of its entire history. The simplest way to do that is to read a good old-fashioned textbook, but hopefully one with a minimum of ideology — a straightforward factual account that clearly identifies the most important points, rather than a thinly-veiled tract on contemporary political issues retroactively inserted into ancient times.
Finding such a book is not an easy task, because many of the most world-famous treatments are actually just that, thinly-veiled political tracts. For example, Edward Gibbon’s grandly titled The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is basically a long, poorly-written pamphlet attacking Christianity from the viewpoint of 18th-century masonic “rationalism.” The actual Roman Empire has very little to do with the book’s real subject and purpose; he may as well have set it in an allegorical fantasy land with elves instead of Romans. And that’s not even the worst example — Theodor Mommsen’s History of Rome, one of the most acclaimed historical treatises of the 19th century, contains just as much virulent German nationalism as it does genuine Roman scholarship. Continue reading
Site of Plato’s Academy in the present day.
(Conclusion. Continued from part 3.)
In Book IV of the “Laws,” Plato’s Athenian asks, “Tell us, lawgiver…what kind of state, and in what condition, should we give to you, so that, having received it, you might organize it yourself in all respects?” He then answers his own question: “Give me a state with a tyrannical ruler. Let the tyrant be young, of sound memory, capable of learning, courageous and generous by nature; in addition, let the soul of this tyrant have those qualities that…accompany each part of virtue.” This odd aside is actually autobiographical, and Plato did his best to put it into practice. Continue reading
“In 1987, a young man, fresh from military service, entered a small monastery, located in the center of a city on the Baltic Sea… In this monastery, long services were held every day and the Lives of Saints were read aloud at mealtime — in other words, there was every attribute of monastic life except one: there was no spiritual mentor to attend to the education of the monks and novices. It was therefore necessary to look for guidance in the books of the Holy Fathers and the ascetics of the ancient Church.
The young man read the works of St. Isaac of Syria every day and took notes. He decided to write several quotes that had particularly impressed him on the wall of his cell, so that he might always have them before his eyes. Gradually he added other quotes. Within one year, every wall of the cell was completely covered in fragments from St. Isaac. His words were the daily bread without which the novice could not get through a single day.“
Metr. Hilarion, indirectly describing himself (273)
Today, February 10th (January 28th according to the Julian calendar), the Orthodox Church celebrates the memory of St. Isaac of Syria, a revered ascetic writer and philosopher from the 7th century. In all of this time, his writings have only grown in stature, serving as a spiritual manual for generations of priests, monks and laymen — an unlikely journey for the legendary Middle Eastern recluse, who valued his solitude so much that he fled to the desert after being offered a bishopric, and who certainly never imagined that world in distant 2020 where, improbably, there is still a grateful audience for him. Continue reading
This time, Plato’s gaze is directed outwardly,
expressing the firm resolve to refashion the world.
(Continued from part 2.)
Plato is a spiritual writer. Perhaps that, more than his philosophy, explains his lasting role in history. He had a profound influence on world religion, and in a certain sense could be called the father of religious thought. At the very least, one could call him the first religious thinker — the priests of Leviticus don’t quite fit that description. Continue reading
Mosaic believed to depict Plato’s Academy.
Found in the ruins of Pompeii.
(Continued from part 1.)
Plato never wrote out a full statement of his philosophy in any one place, and the literary aspect of his work makes it difficult to identify what that philosophy even was. In that respect, Losev did a great service just by concisely explaining it. I will therefore turn the floor over to him: Continue reading