John Milton himself wrote “Let me not be useless, whatever remains for me in this life.” While his major work, Paradise Lost, has often been misunderstood over the centuries, no one who has even a passing acquaintance with this and his other writings would regard his life as useless. But the question remains: what is the value of Milton?


To answer this, Professor John Leonard of the University of Western Ontario (London) has penned this concise book. He has the distinction of having written the longest book ever on the subject of Paradise Lost (in 2 volumes, with a third in the formative stages). At 161 pages, this book is the exact opposite, and is geared to modern readers who may not be aware of Milton's entire panoply of work. While PL consumes 2 chapters, others focus on its sequel (Paradise Regained), Samson Agonistes, his political prose, and minor poems.


I will offer a delicious nibble of each chapter. In Paradise Lost, Leonard prefaces an “epic simile” by saying “Paradise Lost contains many grand vistas, but few are as exciting as the sight that now greets Satan's eyes.” The sight is nothing less than “a magnificent spectacle of interstellar space as Milton imagines it actually is.” The passage begins as Satan


Looks down with wonder at the sudden view

Of all this world at once. As when a scout

Through dark and desert ways with peril gone

All night; at last by break of cheerful dawn

Obtains the brow of some high-climbing hill,

Which to his eye discovers unaware

The goodly prospect of some foreign land

First seen, or some renowned metropolis

With glittering spires and pinnacles adorned,

Which now the rising sun gilds with his beams.


“The simile,” writes Leonard, “is so beautiful, it is easy to miss the implications of 'scout'. Satan is likened to a military scout. The comparison is apt, for he is reconnoitering ahead of Hell's army. Wordsworth seems to have missed the ominous implications.” If even Wordsworth did not grasp the full meaning, it is no wonder the vast majority of Milton's readers also fall short. I have given the full quote above as it also leads Leonard to a discussion of man's belief that the cosmos was blue, like the daytime sky, rather than black, as we now know it is: the blackness of space.


“For modern readers, the most surprising feature of the 'metropolis' simile is the comparison of deep space to a sunlit landscape.” In 2016 Dr. Leonard asked me to investigate when humans first realised the sky is really black. He has been asking this question of astronomers for many years without an answer. Earlier this year I discovered the answer, and it will be the subject of a paper I am now writing.


Leonard specifically addresses the question of value in his chapter dealing with political prose. “Many modern readers value Milton because they see him as a pioneering champion of liberty.” Of course most of those readers are radicals who would be willing to sow untold chaos in pursuit of their goals. The political legacy of Milton is surely where his value is questioned most.


Another aspect of value is examined in the chapter on the minor poems, and it must surely be applied to Milton's other poetic works. “If dead poets are to have value, we should allow them to have values that differ from our own. That said, their language also differs from ours, and even slight changes in language can create significant misperceptions of values and value.”


The perils of such misperceptions are obvious in Leonard's discussion of Samson Agonistes, which has been subjected to a major 'revisionist' interpretation in recent years. These revisionists say that Samson caused the deaths of the Philistines in the temple as if he acted alone, “without God's help.” A study of the revisionist camp has led him to a sweeping conclusion. “I have dwelt on Samson's final moments to give a sense of the revisionists' desperation, their need to clutch at any straw. My own view is that they lose every interpretive battle.” But he offers no solace to the traditional view of the play either. Rather, he hews to a third approach, the quite unfashionable one proposed by the English literary critic William Empson (1906-1984) that appears to make God wicked. “How could a poet holding Milton's beliefs make God wicked?” asks Leonard. Empson claims Milton is too honest a poet to conceal the truth.


So what is the value of this debate for today? Leonard puts it baldly: “Samson is terrible. He worships a God of Terror and whole armies have fled before him, terrified. Since 2001, both traditionalists and revisionists have been so anxious to distance Milton from terrorism that they have forgotten that tragedy needs terror.”


As an insightful look at the value of Milton, this book amply lives up its title. Anyone who is frightened by the complexities and length of Milton's works would do well to read this slim book first. It will surely inspire many to delve into that long-ago world of the 1600s that is still so relevant today.



The Value of Milton (161 pages) is $27 paperback ($76 hardback) from Cambridge University Press.






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“It was a tour around the Universe!” That was the enthusiastic assessment of the Magnetar Concerto according to Dr. Raymond Laflamme, Director of the Institute for Quantum Computing.


This intersection of music and science was the hyperspatial surface upon which a concert was delivered to an audience at Kitchener's Conrad Centre on April 20, 2017.


It not only included Magnetar, by the Mexican composer Enrico Chapela (pictured above), but a world premiere of Does God Play Dice (Quantum Etude) by Edwin Outwater. Both composers were in attendance, with Outwater himself conducting the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra. It is rare for even one composer to be present at a symphony concert; having two can only be described as a rare delight!


The concert opened with a 12-minute composition by Mason Bates entitled The Rise of Exotic Computing. Outwater told the audience this piece depicts the progression of computers to the point where they reproduce themselves in an organic way. Those who are truly concerned about such a development will want to read my recent article in Sun News about the societal threat of robots. The link is Here:


Bate's creation begins with a deeply brooding and calculating mood. One can actually sense an awakening as it blossoms into something akin to a Chinese-inspired melody. The harp, which often gets overwhelmed in a concert, made a noticeable impact here.


In introducing Outwater's premiere performance, the audience was treated to a video of a conversation between him and Laflamme. I have already quoted from an interview he granted Sun News. In the video, he says “Both musicians and physicists want to understand the world. Musicians do it in a creative way.” To advance both science and music, he said, “You have to ask the right questions – you need to be able to push the boundary.”


The way we conceive of the world using quantum will break down someday. What is the music of tomorrow? A partial answer may be found in Quantum Etude. As the orchestral experience began, each instrument played its own tune – for example, one double violin was being plucked, while the others each played something different.


Wind instruments were positioned above the stage on either side of the concert hall, while a variety of strings were placed at the rear for a truly immersive experience. The string instruments eventually achieved coherence with a monotonous few notes; superimposed on them was a variety of sounds from the wind instruments. These concepts of coherence and superposition come directly from quantum physics. Randomness was also incorporated into the performance, as Outwater rolled a die, shown to the audience on the screen above. The resulting numbers instructed various instruments to play, thus ensuring this was not only a world premiere, but a unique event.


In an interview, Outwater said “I wanted it to sound jagged, like thinking hard.” He likened the creation to a mobile, the sort of kinetic sculpture made popular by Alexander Calder.


The 25-minute Magnetar Concerto was the longest event of the evening, with the energetic Johannes Moser from Germany playing an instrument most people have never seen: an electric cello. Chapela was also fully engaged in the performance, at an electronic keyboard near the conductor.


It was indeed, as Outwater cautioned, a rollercoaster ride. The frenetic pace set by the electric cello, emitting cosmic echoes, gave way to a plethora of musical images ranging from the Pink Panther to a sweet melody and hard rock.


In introducing the composition, Chapela said it was inspired by the explosions of magnetic stars in deep space, thus the name Magnetar. It certainly stepped out of classic acoustic sound, finding a new freedom.


I asked Chapela what he wanted the audience to understand from hearing this. “It's what I want the audience to feel, not what I want them to understand,” he said. “Wherever it takes them is what I want them to feel.”


This sentiment was echoed by Laflamme, who told me “Instead of just learning about a part of the Universe, they lived it!”


Kudos to Outwater and the K-W Symphony for offering the most innovative musical experiences in Canada with the Intersections series of concerts.







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In 1788, Hugh Blair wrote that “Vivacity, satire, and buffoonery, are the characteristics of Aristophanes.” His plays, said Blair, appear “to have been composed for the mob.”


While Mario Telò does not quote this in his book on Aristophanes, it certainly appears on a superficial reading that the plays were geared to the lower classes. However, the Athenian audience Telò posits as enjoying the plays of Aristophanes (what we now call the 'Old Comedy' period) was a lot more sophisticated than a mob. Telò, associate professor of classics at the Univ. of California, Los Angeles, specifically designates upper-class composure and healing energy "as the physical and psychological condition offered by [his play] Clouds to its audience."


Aristophanes debuted his first play in 427 BCE and was active in debuting new works for 30 years. These plays were not seen in isolation, as most theatre-goers today perceive a performance. One does not attend a comedy play now with the expectation it recycles the action of a Shakespearean tragedy. Greek citizens of 2400 years ago were, by contrast, very attuned to all the nuances of tragedy and comedy and were very much engaged with interactions between them. They were, in fact, participants of the performance, even though they were not in the performance.


The play Clouds has three main characters: the philosopher Socrates (based on the real-life person), an old fool Strepsiades who dreads his wife, and his son Pheidippides who loves to gamble money on horses and stick his father with the losses. It was the audience reaction to the first staged version of Clouds that prompted Aristophanes to rewrite it. In the new version (the text of the original is lost), Aristophanes reproves the audience for their poor judgment in placing his original production third instead of first place at the Great Dionysia competition of 423 BCE. Cratinus won first place that year.


Offstage but very much on the mind of Aristophanes were his rivals Eupolis and Cratinus. Telò's book examines the interaction between all these elements, and in the process makes a major advance in our understanding of Old Comedy in general and Aristophanes in particular. He makes this clear at the outset of his book, which also looks closely at another play by Aristophanes, entitled Wasps. “The interconnected actions of Wasps and Clouds suggestively plot the relationship between Aristophanes, his audience, and his two major rivals by offering an ongoing commentary on the setback of 423 through a complex and coherent process of reimagining, reinvention, and restaging, which sets the terms of the critical evaluation and survival of Old Comedy.”


If you like complicated plots, this book is for you! Not only do we have the Greek theatrical stage where the audience sits, but a meta-theatre where Aristophanes is the stage director of contemporary Greek Comedy. Like the Phantom of the Opera, he was willing to upstage any rival to achieve his own ends. "In comically diagnosing the reasons for his defeat" in the earlier version of of Clouds, Telo says "Aristophanes does not just defensively establish what is good comedy and what is not but indeed what is comedy tout court, condemning his vanquisher to a permanent secondary position."


Aristophanes' tactics worked better than he could ever have imagined. By attaining undisputed status as the master of comedy with the restaging of Clouds, his plays were copied and recopied for centuries. Thus their texts have survived for us to enjoy today. The plays of his two rivals exist only in fragments, their works nearly lost to posterity.


Telò is one of the first to consider the sensory dimensions of performance (touch) and what he terms “the vibrant materiality of objects.” One thing he makes a particular study of is the cloak (hence the title of this book) and sandals of Strepsiades, which Socrates orders him to take off before he enters the 'Thinkery'. This is a place where Strepsiades enters as a student of Socrates in order to gain the knowledge needed to fend off his creditors (remember this is a comedy!). The old man equates parting with his clothes as presaging a tragic fate. “Alas, wretched me,” he wails, “I will soon be half-dead.”


It is here Telò sees a resonance with the famous tragedy Agamemnon by Aeschylus, where the great hero returns home, removes his sandals, and is killed by his wife. “As a frightening interior space figuratively inhabited by serpentine creatures, the house of Agamemnon thus resembles the Thinkery, which terrifies Strepsiades on the verge of his humiliating regression from father to student and child. This concatenation of symbols, centered around a prop (Strepsiades' sandals), generates an intense inter-theatrical echo, causing Agamemnon's tragic shoe-shedding to haunt the comic father's initiation.”


Telò uses this and other elements as a springboard to ask questions at the end of the book that need to be addressed by further scholarly study. Among these questions are “What kind of dramatic work do tactile exchanges - with bodies as well as props - perform? Does tragedy feel different from comedy - and are there tactile differences among tragedians, as there are among comedians?”


You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to understand this intriguing book, but if you enjoy hunting for clues and seeing where they lead, it will make the challenges posed by Telò a lot more fun. And as the master of Comedy, Aristophanes would probably approve of fun.


There is a typo on pg. 17: 'terms' should be 'term'


Aristophanes & the Cloak of Comedy (237 pages) is $55 from Univ. of Chicago Press.

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This important book on the origins of electromagnetism was first printed in 2005. The author, Friedrich Steinle of the Technical Univ. of Berlin, wrote in German. It is now available in English due to the expert translation of Alex Levine, professor of philosophy from the Univ. of South Florida.


What Steinle does is capture the excitement of the discovery of electromagnetism by Hans Oersted in 1820, and the subsequent rush to study it further by the greatest experimental scientists of the age: Andre-Marie Ampere and Michael Faraday. He does this by using archival documents never before studied including lab notes, diaries and letters.


Why was this research nearly two centuries ago important? The study by Faraday led to the first generators, transformers and electric motors. Einstein used the lessons learned from this study of magnetism and electricity to develop his theory of relativity. Modern life and science would not exist without the research studied in this book. While delving into the details as Steinle does may be primarily of interest only to physicists, it has far wider implications for the development of science.


Steinle begins with an excellent survey of electrical studies in the early nineteenth century, looking at such seminal figures as Volta (where we get the word 'voltage' from) in Italy, Humphrey Davy in England, Ritter in Germany and Oersted in Denmark. This was obviously a Europe-wide study as scientists struggled to figure out just what electricity and magnetism really were. Once Oersted discovered they were manifestations of the same phenomena, sparks literally flew all over Europe as researchers worked in their laboratories in the hopes of unlocking the mystery of what was really going on.


Here I will just summarise what led up to a critical day: September 3, 1821; and what happened immediately after it. The scientist was Faraday.


Up until then researchers had thought only in terms of attraction and repulsion, but his results “denied the fundamental character” of this notion. He thus “broke with traditional conceptions. It is important to highlight that these ideas were formed in the context not only of intense experimentation but also of successive attempts to find the most general graphical presentation of the experimental results.” This, says the author, “involved a highly versatile use of various visual perspectives.” What Faraday found was the circular nature of the electromagnetic force, but he did not arrive at it on this single miraculous day as previous scholars have said; rather it developed over a period of several weeks, as Steinle shows for the first time.


Now that Faraday had dethroned attraction and repulsion from their “status as primitive modes of action,” what did he do next? He realised, says Steinle, that this discovery would “bring him great recognition.” He immediately set to work to write a paper. Since his colleagues were all away from London at the time, he decided on submitting his report at once to secure his priority claim. “In this situation, urgency superseded caution, and Faraday resolved to publish his article regardless - a decision he would come to regret.”


Steinle does not concentrate solely on the scientific excitement, putting it in context with the following sentence. “Faraday must have worked day and night, which is all the more remarkable as Sarah, so soon after getting married, would probably have liked to occasionally find her Michael spending his evenings not only in the laboratory and at his desk.” It was another decade before Faraday discovered electromagnetic induction, the basis of nearly all future developments in science and technology. In his concluding chapter, Steinle examines the implications of exploratory experimentation. In conclusion, he says it is “essential to our historical understanding of science.”


Even though the book has 494 pages, the main text ends at page 338. The next 90 pages consist of two technical appendices relating to Ampere's research (a lot of it in French), and a set of notes running to nearly 40 more pages. The references are also very extensive: 30 pages of them.


Exploratory Experiments: Ampere, Faraday, and the Origins of Electrodynamics (494 pgs) is $65 from Univ. of Pittsburgh Press.

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This volume comprising 40 original essays is part of a larger effort by the publisher to provide single-volume compendiums on historical topics. Those published to date are historical volumes on the World, Europe, Britain and America.


History of Science is divided into four broad thematic areas. The first, Roles, covers such things a the natural historian, scientific illustrators, amateurs, and professional scientists. Places and Spaces look at where science is conducted: observatories, museums and botanical gardens, the lab, and universities. The third section, Communication, includes lectures, correspondence networks, and TV. Finally the tools of science are surveyed: microscopes, telescopes, calculating devices, and 3-D models. I have given here just a selection of chapters in each section.


There is naturally overlap between and within the thematic areas. For example, an 11-page survey of astronomical observatories across the world from earliest times is necessarily a very condensed treatment. It is, however, complemented by a 12-page survey of telescopes; and clocks used for astronomical purposes are covered in the chapter Timing Devices.


Some chapter authors are very frank about their focus and what is given short shrift. In the Laboratories chapter, for example, Catherine Jackson says the development of academic laboratories after 1800 is covered, but not “places where industrial processes and military technologies were developed.” She is transparent in explaining this is “driven by a much lesser degree of clarity concerning the grand narrative of these developments.”


Other chapters also highlight the need for more research, and this is one strength of the book, as it tells the sort of reader interested in such surveys what still needs to be done. This is a history book that looks forward. In the Journals and Periodicals chapter, Aileen Fyfe tells us “the role of science in eighteenth-century print culture has yet to be extensively studied.”


The chapter on Museums and Botanical Gardens says at the outset that these institutions “have long been inextricably tied to the development of our modern, knowledge-based economy.” That is true, but Lukas Rieppel's survey pretty much ends in the mid-1800s. Museums of the 21st century are vastly different from those of 1850. He does say museums and gardens now “work hard to attract visitors from all walks of life,” but does not comment on the effectiveness of their new role. Many great cities have science museums now, but none are mentioned as being successful examples that should be emulated. The final paragraph of the chapter quotes a study from 1907.


The is certainly not a picture book- even the chapter on Scientific Illustrators contains only two figures, and there are no colour illustrations in any chapter. Being a history book it rightly includes a chapter on alchemy. It is noted that “alchemists' longstanding claims not merely to imitate, but also create and even improve on, natural materials would stimulate some of the most ambitious claims about the power of technology in seventeenth-century Europe.”


On the subject of television, which nearly everyone can relate to, I am pleased to see a lengthy paragraph on the Pilkington Committee report of 1962 on the state of British Broadcasting. It “called into question the perception that scientific programs were inherently educational.” David Kirby tell us “the report was critical of the fact that much of the BBC's science programming exploited the dramatic nature of the 'space race' rather than focusing on science's educational merits.” He then says one result of this report was the development, in 1963, of the TV series Dr. Who. Much as I love this show, which is still on the air 54 years later, I fail to see how a science fiction program enhanced science education on television. There are still no professorships in time travel. Kirby does not comment on the discordance between science and science fiction on TV.


The index is good but there is room for improvement as the various aspects of the book's world-reach do not extend to that index. The first instance of the name Jean Picard is indexed on pg. 533, but the second instance on pg. 536 is not. The reverse is true for Eustachio Divini: he is first mentioned on pg. 200, which is not indexed, but his entry on pages 533-534 is indexed. These are but two examples relating to people.


The book is edited by Bernard Lightman, a Professor of Humanities at York University in Canada. The 40 contributors come from Great Britain and Europe, the United States, Canada, Colombia and Mexico. Despite the lack of Arabic and Asian contributors, sources from all those areas are included where relevant, but the fact Russia only merits two page entries in the Index suggests Russian sources have not been fully integrated in what purports to be a world history. Scotland, which certainly contributed a lot to science, is entirely absent from the Index. But Scottish education is mentioned in the universities chapter, and the fact Scotland had 60 natural history societies founded in the nineteenth century is in the Academies and Societies chapter. On the positive side, each chapter has its own endnotes and references, typically 2-4 pages long.


Overall a valiant effort to condense in a single (large) book such an extremely diverse subject as the history of science.

In June 2017, Dr. Lightman and Carin Berkowitz are jointly authoring a book on the very topic I highlighted in this review: Science Museums in Transition. It is by Univ. of Pittsburgh Press.


A Companion to the History of Science (601 pages) is $215 from Wiley Blackwell.

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Popularly known in Greek mythology as the twin brothers Castor and Pollux, they have never been regarded as major deities and little attention has been paid to their story. This remarkable book by Henry John Walker fills a major gap in the literature by explaining who and what they are.


Walker often terms them the Dioskouri, twin horse gods. The Spartan explanation of their existence is the one most widely accepted from ancient Greek times. The Spartans claimed they lived normal human lives, and were then worshipped as gods 40 years after their deaths. Walker, a senior lecturer in Classical and Medieval Studies at Bates College in Maine, says by this explanation “the Spartans are merely expressing a metaphysical gap in terms of a time gap. They are trying to build a bridge between the life of two heroes and the worship of two gods. The essence of the Dioskouri, however, lies in those 40 years, in that gap between mortality and divinity.”


A portion of this book is the result of an exploration of that gap.


It takes an unexpected turn, however, as Walker leads us not only to ancient Greece, but ancient India as well. Specifically, he traces the legend of the brothers, known as Asvins, to the Vedic period 25 centuries ago. Here we see the difference between the Asvins and the other gods: they “were not allowed to join the other soma-drinking gods.” In Greek terms this is akin to ambrosia, the nectar of the gods.


“This is a very significant aspect of the Asvins in Vedic thought,” says Walker, “and will lead to a wide range of speculations in the later interpretations of Vedic ritual.” The author spends close to 95 pages detailing this; since the text is only 196 pages followed by more than 70 pages of notes, bibliography and index, it is in fact the major portion of his research.


In Vedic myth the Asvins are criticised “by the other gods for associating too much with humans...They are especially famous for helping those who have been trapped by enemies, for providing people with emergency food-supplies, and for solving marital problems.” Thus their reputation is entirely good, unlike many other gods who have a vengeful streak.


It appears that the Vedic myths derive from even more ancient sources. The Asvins need to learn the secret of soma from a god known as Dadhyanc. He is not allowed to let the secret pass his lips, so the Asvins oblige by removing his head so that Dadhyanc can replace it with a horse head which tells the secret. “The Asvins bring Dadhyanc back to life by putting his human head back on his shoulders.”


Sounds like a crazy tale, doesn't it? Martin relates “Archeologists have found the body of a decapitated man with the head of a horse in a north Asian tomb dating from 2100-1700 BC.” While we have only found once such tomb, it seems likely that this mythic ritual was actually performed some 40 centuries ago!


In ancient Greece, the Dioskouroi have their most famous role as the rescuers of Helen, held captive in Troy (the Trojan War, mentioned on pg. 172, strangely does not appear in the Index). Why were they involved? Because they are the elder brothers of Helen.


The brothers also are bit players in the greatest voyage of all, the journey of Jason on the ship Argo to search for the Golden Fleece. The author says the brothers are depicted on horseback in front of the Argo on the Treasury building at Delphi. He mentions other depictions of them, but sadly the book contains no illustrations. The front cover, however, shows them from the Capitoline Hill in Rome.


While the description of the Vedic tales is complex and by its very nature confusing, overall this is an engaging book that illiminates a myth that has spanned a wide range of human existence. Castor and Pollux finally have a book of their own.


The Twin Horse Gods (271 pages) is $110 from I.B. Tauris




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This lucid and fascinating book looks at two main strands of thought related to Aristotle. One derives from the ancient Greek commentaries on Aristotle, the other on medieval commentaries. Among these, one of the most influential was that of the Muslim Averroes (1126-1198).


The people studying these various commentaries were figures such as Pietro Pomponazzi in the 1500s. His influence was so great author Craig Martin entitles one his chapters “Italian Aristotelianism After Pomponazzi.” Martin is associate professor of history at Oakland University.


“Averroes,” writes Martin, “believed his goal was to interpret Aristotle, who had exceeded all others in his understanding of nature.”


Agostino Nifo who (around the year 1500) positioned himself as an interpreter of Aristotle, likened Averroes to the 4th century philosopher Themistes, who Averroes followed very closely. Since Averroes commented and expanded on Aristotle, “Nifo thereby reasoned that commenting on a book written by a Muslim was warranted because of his literal expositions of Aristotle's words.”



Pomponazzi lectured on the soul before the eighth session of the Fifth Lateran Council on Dec. 19, 1513 (Martin does not give this date). Throughout the first decade of that century, questions he posed (which were not printed until the 20th century) show he was not convinced by Averroes' arguments about the soul. Pomponazzi contended that both Averroes and Aristotle were wrong, thus highlighting the "incompatibility of Aristotelian philosophy with Christian philosophy," in the words of Martin. 


Pope Leo X with 2 cardinals, including Giulio d'Medici at leftPomponazzi maintained that, according to Aristotle, the soul is mortal. This so incensed Pope Leo X (who reigned 1513-1521) that he ordered a prosecution of Pomponazzi, but thanks to his patron Cardinal Bembo he was not convicted of heresy. Nifo took the more politically correct view. "In a 1518 point-by-point refutation of Pomponazzi dedicated to Leo X, Nifo rejected the idea that the soul's immortality could not be proven by philosophy." Nifo was showered with honours by the pope and the Medici family.


In 1520 Pomponazzi write that those who wanted to condemn him of heresy should “put an end to their barking” because they “put forth a far greater heresy, since they accuse an innocent man.” The controversy still resonated more than a century later when the French writer La Mothe Le Vayer felt compelled to defend Pomponazzi. Martin writes Le Vayer said of Pomponazzi that he “rightly maintained that asserting the immortality of the soul could not be proven by Aristotelian principles.”


As this makes clear, just commenting on Aristotle's works 500 years ago in a way that suggested his views differed from Church faith could potentially end in a loss of life.


Martin gives the final verdict on Pomponazzi to the 18th century philosopher Pierre Bayle, who hails him, in Martin's words, as “an exemplar for affirming the limits to human reason and the possibility of intellectual freedom.” It is here we see the value of this book and why such esoteric controversies as the mortality of the soul matter in our own day. Those who founded modern science in the 1600's, such as Galileo and the men in London who formed the Royal Society, were a product of these controversies.


As Martin says in conclusion, “the motivations of seventeenth century innovators in natural philosophy, whether Protestant or Catholic, were deeply religious.” It was their understanding of Aristotle's deviation from Christianity that gave them “permission to seek more pious alternatives.” By tracing “the role of religion in the downfall of Aristotle,” Martin's book offers a necessary tonic to those texts that merely hold up religion as the adversary of science without explaining why.

  Subverting Aristotle: Religion, History & Philosophy in Early Modern Science (262 pages) is $54.95 from John Hopkins Univ. Press.

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“When Aristotle writes philosophy, he writes arguments. When Plato writes philosophy, he writes stories, myth, allegories.”


This distinction must always be borne in mind when reading this richly complex book by Mary Margaret McCabe, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.


This book on the method of conversation Plato employed consists of 16 chapters, nearly all of which have appeared in print between 1982 and 2012. While thus not a 'new' book, it represents three decades of intensive examination on how we should read the ancients.


Since a study of each chapter would result in a massive review, I will concentrate here on some key elements. Her chapter “Myth, Allegory, and Argument in Plato” embodies some of the finest and most problematic aspects of her prose. It was originally published in 1993.


Everyone is familiar with Ockham's razor: entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity. In other words, economy is good. McCabe tells us it was really first developed by Socrates. In reading Anaxagoras, “what Socrates hoped for was an entirely systematic and exhaustive account of the universe; instead what he got were some mechanisms - with a spare part, Mind, which ended up doing nothing at all.”


McCabe says that instead of revising the work of his predecessor, Socrates “embarks on a different investigation which culminates” in a simple-minded answer. Why is this so good she asks? “What is at issue here, I think, is the nature of scientific theorizing...The great advantage of the simple-minded answer is that it is thoroughly economical.”


The analysis is excellent, but McCabe is too tentative in her various arguments, repeatedly falling back on the “I think” or “I suggest” clause that constantly interrupts the flow of her sentences. Take page 94 as an example. In the first paragraph, we read “Scientific reasoning, I suggested, is cut short by Ockham's razor.” In the second paragraph, “Dialectic, I suggested, provided us with two opposed lines of argument.” And in the third paragraph, “Hence, I suggest, Plato's 'image' imagery.”


The oft-repeated “I think/suggest” (which permeates the book) induces a wariness in the reader that is unfortunate. Perhaps judicious editing could have eliminated these, but if the author is merely suggesting - instead of asserting - a series of pertinent points, what are we to mentally construct from this? What would Socrates say?


That aside, she does go on towards the end of the chapter to examine Plato's Timaeus. “If we put the myth of the Timaeus against the background of Socrates' complaints about Anaxagoras, we may see how the mythical context allows us to challenge its extravagance and its consistency.” McCabe comes to the important conclusion that in Plato, “myths and arguments are set up as dialectically opposed to each other, offering opposed accounts of central metaphysical questions...The judgement is up to us; we are to blame, the god is blameless.”


In another chapter dealing with what the author terms a “famously vexed passage from Aristotle's de anima,” she notes several scholars have described this work as nothing more than 'lecture notes,' or “the notes taken by a sharp student.” McCabe concludes her masterful study of this passage dealing with perception that far from being lecture notes, Aristotle's work is actually “a complex reading of Plato.” Not only is she right, but it serves as a cautionary tale to modern scholars who project their own inability to understand Aristotle or other Greek philosophers onto the ancients who are unable to respond to such calumnies.


McCabe applies the same corrective lens to other texts, such as Plato's Parmenides, which, she says, “is all too often treated as ill formed and fragmented.” The author upends conventional 'wisdom' (if such a term can be applied to misguided scholars) throughout her study of Parmenides. One passage she says is “conventionally understood as a plea for teleology... but that is not what Socrates says.” By the end of the chapter, she must have convinced all but the old die-hards that “The Parmenides is not, after all, a haphazard collection of arguments, but a unified whole.”


This collection of essays should be read by anyone interested not just in ancient philosophy, but by graduate students in other fields to show them how to think critically and, if necessary, upset the proverbial apple cart.



There is a typo on page 121: 'bur' should be 'but'



Platonic Conversations (402 pages) is $75 from Oxford University Press.

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The Italian philosopher Franco Berardi gave an impassioned talk at King's College (University of Western Ontario) in late March 2017. The venue was a conference entitled "New Italian Thought", which saw several important figures visiting from Italy. Excerpts from this address about the current and future state of the world is given here:


"I don't have a recipe for the future but I can read the present, and what is the present? The present is a that new force is emerging, and this force is the general intellect.


"Now let's think about the future - the future is the internet. This is what Marx says in the text; he did not use the word internet, but he used the words general intellect. The way he explains general intellect is clearly anticipating the possibility of a collaboration of people, intellectual workers in space and in time. He says at this point force of labour multiplied by the combined general intellect is such that the necessary kind of work is destined to decrease and decrease to a point to point where, he says, the amount of time would be enough for the production of what we need.



"The force of the general intellect, of the connection of technology and knowledge, are making possible a reduction of the necessary time for the reproduction of the world. Marx says this is communism. He said communism is not the future, it is the present. It is the tendency for the reduction of the necessary time of labour. In 1977 a part of the movement in the factories and in the universities started saying strange words like 'it's time to work just one hour a day.' or more sensibly, 'let's work less, so everybody will have a job.' "



Savio at Berkeley in 1964Berardi next discusses a landmark speech entitled “An End to History” at the University of Berkeley by Mario Savio- the date was December 2, 1964. At the time Savio was a 21-year-old philosophy major. His speech has been described as a philosophical discussion of the nature of history and human agency. Here is an excerpt from his speech Berardi specifically refers to.

And that -- that brings me to the second mode of civil disobedience. There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can't take part! You can't even passively take part! And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus -- and you've got to make it stop! And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it -- that unless you're free the machine will be prevented from working at all!!”


Returning to the speech of Berardi in London, he divines the beginning of our current state of affairs in that speech from 1964:


"Among the levers, among the gears of the machine, what he is talking about? In that talk we see an extraordinary vision of the future. He understands that the problem is knowledge, the exploitation of knowledge but his political mind is unable to think in terms of information, so he speaks in terms of levers and factories like he was in a movie of Charlie Chaplin, but we are no more in “Modern Times” [the movie]. We are beyond that moment. In that beautiful speech of Mario Savio I see all the complexity of the history that we have been living in since the 60s and 70s, not only in Italy but everywhere. After 1977, the neo-liberal violence begins and the workers' movement is suddenly unable to face the new liberal values because the worker's movement says work is a value. In short, what should we do? We have to defend our job, but it is impossible because aliens are coming- all sorts of aliens, aliens from abroad, Mexico, northern Africa, and most particularly from the laboratories of Silicon Valley.


"Robots are the aliens of the future. How are we deal with them? If we think the problem is to defend the existing composition of labour the conclusion will be fascism. Now I must tell you the truth - we are too late. Now we are talking of past history, it's done: fascism is here to stay! How long, I don't know. Certainly we have to understand the energy of fascism now is such that the energy has to develop itself to the end, which may be apocalyptic. We see this in the rise of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage."


Trump and FarageFarage is the English politician who had a friendly meeting with President Trump recently; it was largely his effort that led Great Britain to vote to leave the European Union.


The most important take-away line from Berardi's speech is this: "Technology may be the force for a new kind of enslavement." He ended his speech by returning to the ostensible subject of his talk, the happenings of 1977, especially in Italy. 


Berardi sees 1977 as the year “in which the two conflicting but converging possibilities of technology and knowledge imply that for the first time we are able to see the kind of complexity we are dealing with; for the first time we have been able to understand the future possibility of liberation and also a new enslavement. For the most part I think we have followed the dark path, the fascist path. Rethinking 1977 may be a way to find a way out."


The threat of robots may be more real than you think. Stephen Hawking has already warned of the danger, and now the person who invented neural networks has joined in. Professor Peter Hinton at the University of Toronto has for decades pioneered the use of neural nets instead of programmable artificial intelligence as the way forward. His persistence has paid off, as traditional AI is now widely regarded as a dead end. But even he agrees limits must be placed on AI.

Hinton has signed a petition asking the United Nations to ban artifically intelligent lethal weapons. This cause is being advanced by the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

Speaking of such weapons, Hinton said "I think that's the scariest bit," in an interview with the Globe and Mail newspaper. "And that's not the distant future...That's now." Which is pretty much what Berardi was saying in his lecture.


photo of Dr. Berardi at King's College, by C. Cunningham


The Globe and Mail stoy was published April 8, 2017





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I take the title from page 76 of this book by King's College London professor William Fitzgerald both for its sparkle, and to highlight the fact the book's title is Variety. Divining the relationship between variety and diversity is one of the key elements in Fitzgerald's argument about how the concepts associated with them were understood in ancient Rome.


Fitzgerald says “as recent translations of varius and varietas with 'diversity' attest, there is a long tradition of positively loaded uses of this concept to be considered.” According to Cicero, varietas “is properly used of uneven colors, but it is transferred to many things.” Among the things he lists are: poem, character, fortune, speech and pleasure. An example of the word varius is given by Horace, who describes the color of a grape “when it begins to ripen and change in color, becoming variegated.”


The author says the word variety “now seems too lightweight a word,” so it has been replaced in modern discourse in such terms as 'cultural diversity.' His thesis is that the rich meaning of variety has been lost, and this book is an attempt to rescue a sense of its importance in the ancient world. “By staying close to the word itself,” he says in the Introduction, “I hope to reveal a distinctive bundling of ideas, values, and issues that remained remarkably stable over a long period of time.”


Fitzgerald ranges widely to examine this bundling. For example, he quotes from Christina Rossetti's poem “Goblin Market” from 1859 and the sixteenth century writer Giambattista Giraldi who employs both related words in the same sentence: “Diversity of actions carries with it variety, which is the spice of delight.” It is this spice that is liberally sprinkled throughout the book.


I cannot do justice here to all the intricate thought patterns examined by the author, so I will just describe one of them. On page 138 he quotes from Seneca, who writes “How much longer must I endure the same?” Fitzgerald says this cry “resonates across ancient philosophy, as the philosopher proves that he has seen through the variety that meets the eye and knows what it all amounts to.” He draws a link between the disillusionment expressed here with an 1867 English poem by Matthew Arnold that features at the beginning of the book.

                       Ah, love, let us be true

                       To one another, for the world, which seems

                       To lie before us like a land of dreams,

                       So various, so beautiful, so new.


Fitzgerald writes this use of the word various “is precisely the opposite of the modern sense of various. A contemporary reader finds it hard to invest enough content or feeling in the word.” It is the very “puzzling richness” of variety that launches the author on this voyage across the millennia to remind us of the “wide-eyed delight” it embodies.


By tackling such an apparently amorphous idea as 'variety', Fitzgerald ran the risk of writing a lot about nothing. Instead, he has written a lot about something, a something that - like a clue in a Sherlock Holmes mystery - has been lying in plain sight. Once the master sleuth perceives the clue, a mystery is unlocked. I therefore recommend this book to linguists, classicists and those who enjoy a good mystery.

Variety: The Life of a Roman Concept (243 pages) is $55 by University of Chicago Press.

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