Tag Archives: book reviews

Review: Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, trans. V.E. Watts

The Consolation of PhilosophyThe Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first time I read Boethius’ Consolation, I read the Loeb translation by S.J. Tester (this is the update of 1973, rather than the original by E.K. Rand from 1918). This time, it was the Penguin by V.E. Watts, and I found the read much more rewarding. I am not certain if this is because I was 21 or 22 the first time through and I’m 34 now, or if it’s because Watts has a much more fluid style. Either way, I appreciated Boethius’ philosophy and inquiry and arguments as well as connections to other thinkers a lot more now in 2017 than I did in 2004/5. And I believe that a readable translation certainly helps one grasp and enjoy a piece of literature, especially when the literature at hand is philosophy.

The Consolation is one of those ‘great books’ everyone knows about — and many have even read. It had a wide and powerful impact throughout the Middle Ages, including a translation commissioned by King Alfred and influence upon tellings of Orpheus in both Sir Orfeo and Chaucer. The philosophy of Boethius is also evident in Dante’s cosmology.

The historical circumstances of the book are that Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, having held the consulship and served in the administration of Theoderic the Great (King of Italy, 492-526) was accused of treason against the Ostrogth, imprisoned in Pavia, and executed in 525. He was not the only aristocrat to suffer in Theoderic’s final years (the great king seems to have become increasingly paranoid after the accession of Emperor Justin I in 518 — see the Anonymus Valesianus II in Ammianus Marcellinus: Roman History, Volume III, Books 27-31. Excerpta Valesiana).

While rotting prison, Boethius turned his mind to philosophy to cope with the onset of despair. Parallel with his career in the Late Antique bureaucracy, Boethius had been a great promoter, translator, and interpreter of philosophy, making use of his resources and otium (leisure) as any aristocrat would. He knew Greek and translated a lot of Aristotle into Latin. The result of his philosophical inquiry in prison is this text — a conversation with the goddess Philosophy in the literary form of Menippean Satire (a genre manipulated with scathing effect by Seneca in the Apolocyntosis), which alternates between prose and verse sections of the text. What distinguishes Boethius from many philosophers of the classical period, and which he holds to a degree in common with St Augustine, is his willingness to insert explicit allusions to Homer, Euripides, Virgil, and Lucan as philosophical exempla, besides the implicit allusions to the likes of Juvenal.

Philosophy appears to him in his prison cell in Book 1 and inquires as to why he is so downcast. What follows is a discussion of fortune, providence, fate, freewill, eternity, and more. In many ways, it could be described as ‘Aristotle baptised’, but Boethius brings in Plato and Neoplatonism much along the way, following the ideal of Late Antique philosophers that there is no contradiction between Plato and Aristotle. Here we get the famous description of the fickle Wheel of Fortune (sans Pat Sajak), but while that may be Boethius’ most famous portion of the text today, it may not be the most important.

We are reminded that what all mean seek above all else is happiness (see Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics). But the only being who can be said to truly possess absolute happiness, free from fickle fortune, is God. So anyone who possesses God, must possess true happiness. God is ultimately good, as well. Ergo, evil men may appear to prosper, but ultimately they do not; their wickedness will catch up with them. The goal, then, is to seek the summum bonum, to seek God, and find an eternal sort happiness that can endure to storms of fortune.

There is a lot more that this slim volume goes into, and I won’t chase it all now. It would be too much. I commend Boethius to you; the Consolation will not take long to read. Thus, I will draw the reader’s attention to but one final piece of discussion from this piece of philosophical discourse.

Book 5 is where Boethius deals with freewill and divine foreknowledge. Philosophy’s argument produces a classic, Christian definition of eternity. Here we see Boethius actually turning away from the Greek philosophers who dominate this discourse and picking up St Augustine and other Christian theologians. Rather than being the Hellenic view of eternity as perpetual time, Boethius defines eternity as God’s existence beyond time and his simultaneous of all time. In his own words, the eternal God is:

‘that which embraces and possesses simultaneously the whole fullness of everlasting life, which lacks nothing of the future and has lost nothing of the past, that is what may properly be said to be eternal. Of necessity it will always be present to itself, controlling itself, and have present the infinity of fleeting time.’ (Book 5.6, p. 164)

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My review of The Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe

The Citadel of the Autarch (The Book of the New Sun, #4)The Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the fourth and final volume of Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun — I’ve already reviewed The Shadow of the Torturer which comes first. The first volume helped give us the lay of the land and introduced us to Severian and his far future Urth (that is, Earth) in the last days of the Sun. At the end of that volume, Severian enters exile.

The next two volumes follow the journey motif common to much fantasy — of course, as my review of the first says, this is not quite fantasy as we know it, but a sort of ‘science fantasy’ in the far future. This volume ends the journey motif, not that Severian stops moving around.

Honestly, I was not that interested in the chapters about the fighting in the war, which is why it took me so long to get through it. But immediately following those chapters, the knots start to unravel. Or maybe the loose ends start to be woven together? Whatever the metaphor, stuff happens, and things are revealed that make sense of episodes in the earlier books and various allusions Severian has made throughout.

For example, we learn about the New Sun and what it would take for it to come. We learn more about the ‘cacogens’. We learn about the Autarch and why that is his name. Big cosmic ideas come into play about time, dimensional travel, the universe. As well, my main suspicion about Dorcas was confirmed, but there was a further revelation I never suspected (ooo … the suspense!).

Tying together all these strands of narrative, of description, of enigmatic references from earlier volumes was done deftly. It could easily have descended into too much, too fast. Or large amounts of exposition. But it was done very well. However, I do recommend reading all four volumes in a short span of time. Because Wolfe ties all the strands together, and unloosens all the knots, by the end of volume 4, we have a complete but by no means exhaustive view of Severian’s society, its past, and its future. For those who like world-crafting, I believe Wolfe has done an extraordinary job in creating a rich tapestry without bogging us down all the time with explanations. Indeed, despite my reference to a ‘complete’ view, much is left unexplained — but that’s kind of the point.

All in all, a triumph.

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The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe

The Shadow of the Torturer (The Book of the New Sun, #1)The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this book because it was amongst the interesting-sounding novels discussed in A Short History of Fantasy — of course, in certain respects this sounds more like science fiction, set as it is in the extremely distant future. Nonetheless, the feel of the novel is that of fantasy, with a certain amount of low-tech material culture.

As the title of the quadrilogy says, this is the the Book of the New Sun. Some of the fantastic elements derive from the transplantation of extraterrestrial species on Urth in the generations of human space travel. Other things are possibly due to evolution. The inorganic elements of fantasy are a similar combination — extraterrestrial artefacts and creations of the deep history of human tech.

But none of this is why I heartily recommend this book. All if it is, however, partly why this is not your run-of-the-mill piece of SF. Nevertheless, the unfolding of Severian’s narrative from the Citadel and beyond is itself compelling. Once it gets going, the plot hooks you and pulls you along with it; the world of Urth and its dying sun is revealed and unfolded before you as you learn more about the main character and the various other people with whom he interacts in the Citadel and city of Nessus.

I admit, though, that I found it awkward for the first few chapters. Part of the feeling of the exotic that Wolfe gives us is the use of Greek-based words for stuff that does not exist in our world, and not always with a description of this hitherto unknown plant/object/animal. This, and the whole in medias res made the very beginning a bit difficult. But once the scene is set, and the world unfolding, then the plot gets moving and hooks you, pulls you in, and you follow Severian on his journey…

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Jesuits in space: ‘The Sparrow’ by Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow (The Sparrow, #1)The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jesuits in space! That alone would be enough for me to want to read this (how is it that this is the second/third SF novel I’ve read this academic year that features Jesuits?). The Sparrow is the tale of what happens when SETI finally pays off, and a Jesuit with his non-Jes friends birth this idea, which is funded by the Society of Jesus, to go and make first contact with an alien species whose radio broadcasts from Alpha Centauri they had encountered.

Their goal is not evangelism like the Jesuits of old. Indeed, amongst the crew of this interstellar expedition are in-the-open agnostics besides a quietly agnostic Jesuit. However, like the Jesuits of old, their purpose is to engage on this expedition ad maiorem gloriam Dei — that very reason for which the Jesuits exist to this day. They are explorers — a linguist, an engineer, an astrophysicist, a botanist, a musician, a doctor, and so forth. To the greater glory of God, they set out to find what wonders his creation holds in store for them on a planet they learn to call Rakhat.

This is not, then, what some fear — a novel that’s out to convert the reader to Catholicism or something.

Russell tells the story from both ends, which I think pays off very well, sort of like the obsessive foreshadowing of Homeric poems and mediaeval romances.

This is certainly a novel about faith. And psychological horror. About doubt. And the destruction of faith. And about wonder and glory and love (human and divine) and pain and sorrow. It is about finding faith and then being put through the wringer.

I read the ePUB version, and there some problems with the Latin, with ablatives coming out where there should have been nominatives. Not sure if the fault was the software, the publisher, or Russell, but the first two seem more likely, given the people the author thanks in the acknowledgements at the end.

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My review of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion

Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos, #1)Hyperion by Dan Simmons
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As my Goodreads progress updates from this book were imported into Facebook, a number of friends were requesting my impressions, to know what I think about Hyperion. So here we go. I started Hyperion because it was one of those books that always featured in my Science Fiction Book Club leaflets when I was a teenager. I finished it because it is an elegant book with narratological layers and a compelling story.

Hyperion is the story of seven travellers—pilgrims—chosen to make the ‘last Shrike pilgrimage’ on the planet Hyperion (hence the title). As they make their journey, interstellar and then across Hyperion, each of them tells his or her story. This is not merely passing the time but seeking answers as to why they had been chosen by the Shrike Church to go on this pilgrimage. The end result of the pilgrimage is a place called the Time Tombs, where time itself is distorted, and where they will encounter a four-armed, metallic being called the Shrike, around whose cult the Shrike Church and Shrike pilgrimages arose.

Most of the book is taken up with the travellers’ tales. Simmons writes each tale in its own style—the ethnographer, the soldier, the mad/drunken poet, the academic, the private investigator, the diplomat. And as the stories unfold, so does the imagined universe of Hyperion and the story of the planet Hyperion. I like the narratological techniques, that the story is comprehensible at the beginning, but persevering throughout changes your understanding of earlier references either through deepening or shifting.

I have no doubt my opinion was solicited not only because this is a great piece of fiction (let alone science fiction), but also because of the various perspectives on religion represented. In this post-earth future, Christianity is almost dead (although we get the all-American favourite, a Roman Catholic priest, to represent the faith), and, as I say, cult has arisen surrounding the being called the Shrike, although not necessarily to worship it as a God, so much as to venerate it as God’s weapon of destruction. Other religions are mentioned throughout; one character is an agnostic Jew who has encounters in dreams and such that seem to be with the divine. Other characters also have dream encounters, or what seem to be dream encounters, with other intelligences. The book presents a lot to think about concerning belief and the fate of religion in a post-earth universe.

The other area of philosophical inquiry that unfolds slowly throughout the book is that of artificial intelligence and human interaction therewith. How far beyond us could AI go? Could it? How can humanity guide its future? What would the results be of super-powerful AIs that are beyond human control?

This is a great book, and now I need to read the sequel since I have no idea how any of it ends!

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The Quest of the Holy Grail – a spiritual, mediaeval romance

The Quest of the Holy GrailThe Quest of the Holy Grail by Anonymous

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After reading The Mystery of King Arthur, I was in the mood for more of the Matter of Britain, so I read this volume, one I’d received for Christmas from my brother Michael some years ago.

The Quest of the Holy Grail is excellent. Matarasso’s 20-page introduction is definitely worth the read — she gives enough information and context for one to enjoy the book, but it doesn’t feel weighed down or unbearable the way some introductions do. The key to understanding this text, as Matarasso observes, is that it is not simply a plain adventure (although there is a lot of that!). Instead, this is a spiritual text — but not properly allegorical. Rather, The Quest of the Holy Grail turns courtly love on his head, placing Christian perfection in its place.

Thus, Lancelot is taken from the heights and plunged to the depths where he must undergo penance for his full-on embrace of the worldly ideal of the knight and, especially, his full-on embrace of Queen Guenevere. Gawain, the second-greatest of Arthur’s knights, is ever on the outside in this quest, finding few adventures, and running afoul of everyone he meets — the sinner who says he’ll repent but then goes and accidentally kills a friend without remorse.

Besides the two sinners — one, a penitent, the other the kind who gets what he deserves — we have the three Grail Companions: Sir Galahad, Sir Perceval, and Sir Bors. The first two are virgins, the third a chaste penitent who once had relations with a woman but now lives in purity. If the Knights of the Round Table weren’t perpetually in their early 20s, I wonder if a faithful married man would have been able to find the Grail! Here, instead, we have the mediaeval ascetic ideal of virginity upheld as one of the greatest virtues a noble can have.

Galahad is, of course, the noblest and least sinful of the knights. He, Perceval, and Bors meet with various test and temptations, but — unlike Gawain, for example — fall into no sin. They are the model warriors; not only are they the best in a tournament, they rescue the weak and protect women; they resist sexual temptation; they live simply, eating only bread and water; they hear Mass and attend Vespers regularly; they heed the advice of the hermits, monks, and nuns they meet along the way.

Throughout the book the knights enact their own allegories, which is kind of weird but kind of fun. The meanings of the enacted allegories or allegorical dreams are unveiled to them by the various hermits and monks they meet. It seems most of England is populated by hermits and monks. Sometimes a castle. Nary a farmer in sight.

Finally, from various persons encountered by different knights as they quest, we learn throughout the book the story of the Grail and its guardians, from Joseph of Arimathea to King Pelles and Castle Corbenic.

The translation is written in a timeless English prose that, while it may feel archaic, moves with a speed and vivacity befitting the tale told herein. I highly recommend this book.

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Briefly: The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Beautiful and DamnedThe Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In brief: I liked this book, but there was a period in the middle where I found Gloria in particular very tiresome. And by the end, I disliked both the main characters. If you want to read a story about the emptiness of life led by the vainglorious, selfish, and idle, this is the book for you. It is, however, like all of Fitzgerald’s work, exquisitely written and maintains verisimilitude throughout. That’s how you are kept reading even when you tire of the protagonists.

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