Ancient Greek Flight

I imagine I’m like most younger people these days in that as a kid I never seriously felt the stereotypical desire to own a horse.  It probably goes to show how dated were the books they gave us to read in elemetary school that I’m even conscious of the motif.  All this by way of saying that I found the following passage from Xenophon suprisingly beautiful:

You might think that having to train at horsemanship in the way I have been recommending is very laborious; if so, you should reflect on the fact that athletes preparing for a competition have much more work to do… pleasure is what nearly all cavalry training involves.  It is the closest a man can get, as far as I know, to flying, and that is something people long to be able to do.

This is from Robin Waterfield’s translation of a short work called The Cavalry Commander.  It makes me wish I were a rider.

Xenophon was an Athenian and a young man during the end of the Peloponnesian war and the last years of Socrates.  His history and Socratic dialogues generally take a back seat to Thucydides and Plato.  Nonetheless, I’m tempted to say that I find a humanity in Xenophon that is lacking elsewhere.  I read On Horsemanship and The Cavalry Commander in the attempt to better picture the warfare described in Thucydides and Xenophon.  What I found wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, and if an insouciant mantle of aristocratic privilege is a drawback, Xenophon is guilty, but he still adds a particular, welcome perspective on the Golden Age.

Borges Warning

My roommate and I were discussing the ups and downs of seminars the other day and I joked that if I ever go back to school, I’m going to make sure that in every class and every discussion, no matter what the subject is, I mention “The Library of Babel”.  Somebody has to do this, and as it is I’ve got a problem with taking myself too seriously.


It really is a story I find myself coming back to fairly often and I wouldn’t be surprised if some people find a whiff of crankiness about it.  The story describes a library of hexagonal rooms containing every possible book, meaning all combinations (most of them gibberish) of a certain number of specified letters.  Such a library can easily be calculated to be larger than our universe.  It is also inhabited by people known as Librarians.  When I first sat down to write a short post, just an introduction or an advertisement of my interest, I soon found myself in difficulties.  I find the library and the hopes and sufferings of its inhabitants enormously seductive.  I’m drawn to just dream about the books that are there and also to try to pick apart and analyze the notion of such a library.


As for books, I suppose everyone would have personal favorites (please share in the comments).  Under the right circumstances, I’d love sneer, “The refutation of your argument exists in the Library of Babel.”  Then there are the lost and unwritten books:  Borges mentions Aeschylus’ Egyptians; I would like to run across the second and third volumes of The Brothers Karamazov, and of course the book on comedy from Aristotle’s Poetics.  Borges alludes to a wilder dream of more metaphysical import: The Vindications, books of wisdom that would explain and justify an individual’s place in the cosmos.  That possibility sent the Librarians into ecstasies and the search plunged them into suicidal despair.


But of the urge to fantasize and the urge to pick apart fantasies, which is stronger? There are issues beyond the sheer improbability of ever coming across a sensible page.  Consider the size of the books, and the claim that the Library contains everything that can be expressed.  The library is large, but is there any  real difference between one that contains every million-odd character book and one that contains every ten-thousand character essay?  Every fourteen line poem?  Obviously, to contain any very large narrative, multiple volumes would be needed, and then the judgment of the reader would also be needed to distinguish which is the correct successor.  Even a computer keyboard can be considered a Library of Babel for one character books, but the proportion of judgment required by the reader is then very high.  Have I really just gone to this trouble to discover that books need to have context and readers should be discerning?


Borges knows all this of course.  In the essay “The Total Library” he insists more clearly on the vanity of this dream, calling up the image of a “delirious god” in words very similar to those put in the mouth of a heretic in the Library of Babel.  He calls it a “horror”, and in another essay, “Catalogue of the Exhibition Books from Spain”, the master of infinity and the labyrinth admits to having always pictured heaven as a library “fit for a man” and containing “not too many” books.


I am tempted to say that the most interesting question about the Library of Babel is which books it does not contain.  I do not believe that the Vindications necessarily exist (Irredeemable crimes are at least theological possibilities, if not a theological commonplace, yes?); I also think that many books we might think are less fantastical also do not exist.  I’ve had the sense many times that a book I read was not quite the one I wanted to read, and it finally occurred to me to wonder whether the experience I desired was even possible.  The intelligible printed word may be too rigorous for many notions.  What is quite conceivable to us in some unclear way may be quite inconsistent with what we regard as obvious truths, or even with itself.  This state of affairs seems unexceptionable in mathematics: I doubt that mathematicians would search the Library for a proof of the parallel postulate.  On the other hand, it seems incongruous or intolerable when it is applied to philosophy and literature, but I wonder if it is nonetheless necessary.


As I suggested above, Borges’ view of the Library is not a cheerful one, but I don’t think he would go quite as far as I do in doubting the scope of the Library.  Despite everything, he seems to insist, both in “The Library  of Babel” and in “The Total Library”, on the possibility of meaningful and wondrous texts among the “millions of meaningless cacophonies”. I don’t know what gives him the confidence, but the allure of the result is undeniable.

The Alexander of Quintus Curtius Rufus

Let’s get right into this.  I’ve been reading Curtius’ History of Alexander the Great.

This would seem like a natural continuation of my slow progress through classical history, if it really amounts to that yet.  It’s hard to keep in mind that, in contrast to Thucydides or Xenophon, I’m now dealing with a history written more than three hundred years after the events it describes.  (Alexander died in 323 BC and the timing for Curtius is extremely vague but he can safely be placed in the early Roman empire.)  I’m quite interested in how historical knowledge gets pieced together in a reader’s mind, and this gap and the different kinds of sources, immediate or later, would certainly bear on that.  I hope I can say something more about this sometime.  The other gap that should be kept in mind is the lost beginning of the history itself.  The first two books are lost and replaced in the Loeb edition with summaries by the seventeenth century editor Freinshem based on Arrian, Diodorus, Plutarch, and a few other sources.  So there are alternative routes to understanding Alexander’s time, which I do hope to explore.  I really only chose to read Curtius instead of Arrian because I found a cheap copy a while back.  In spite of all these issues I have to admit that I tend to read less critically than I probably should, and if I wanted to, I could give an utterly guileless summary of the campaign of Alexander according to Quintus Curtius, because that’s mostly what I was looking for.

I won’t do that though.  I think the best thing to set beside my tendency to that kind of naive reading is an appreciation of Curtius’ impressive skill as a storyteller.  After Alexander has pretty well overthrown the Persians, there’s naturally a kind of lull in the action.  Issues of the army’s loyalty and Alexander’s self-aggrandizement come to the fore.  Probably the biggest episode between the death of Darius and the battles in India is a plot to kill Alexander that embroils some of Alexander’s closest companions.  A small example could represent his handling of the whole affair: The first conspirator to be confronted “gave himself a severe wound with a sword” (6.7.29) before he could be arrested.  Here Curtius, with a touch I very much appreciate, does not merely describe the outcome, saying that the man killed himself, but describes the action itself.  It’s more common to read about noble generals “falling on their swords”, and so the word “wound” here is uncommonly vivid.  (To the best of my ability I have tried to verify that this is in the Latin, and not a happy introduction by translator J. C. Rolfe.)  Curtius has brought us directly into the action as we read of the man being brought before Alexander only to expire before he can reveal anything.  One of Alexander’s chief men, Philotas, is now confronted with having failed to act when warning of the conspiracy was first brought to him.  As Curtius tells it, we really don’t know whether he was guilty or not.  What follows is a dramatic account of the trial, with elaborate speeches, the eventual torture and confession of Philotas, and finally the cunningly arranged murder of Philotas’ father Parmenion, who was away in another district with a large army.  It’s an appalling episode, and I hope I can justify myself by saying that its fascination comes not just from Curtius’ descriptions of blood and betrayal but from the skillful touch he brings to questions of guilt and remorse.  How sincere is Alexander’s initial pardon of Philotas?  What about the army’s leniency (and the army plays a large role in the trials) towards those who deserted in fear of the proceedings?  There’s much more to get into here.

I did learn a few things from this besides the general outline of Alexander’s career.  First, Philip and Alexander’s involvement with Greece wasn’t all about Chaeronea.  Philip invaded under the pretense of exacting obedience already promised him by the Greeks.  At Chaeronea, they indeed defeated a confederation of Thebans and Athenians.  Later, when Philip was dead, the Thebans revolted again, and it was then that Thebes was destroyed.  Still later, when Alexander was in Asia, his governor Antipater confronted the Spartans and killed their king.  Second, Alexander comes out of this still managing to cut a pretty impressive figure.  I’m not sure how to say exactly what I mean here.  Basically, in Curtius, the big-picture politics appears to receive a more temperate treatment than I am accustomed to, but the adventure story and the Great Alexander come through still looking pretty amazing.  As I said, I am leery of reading this too naively, but I have to wonder if nowadays, with the “great man” idea of history in disrepute, we are too given to great political generalizations.  I’m sure I’ve read a lot about “the end of freedom in Greece”, usually leading up to that one name, Chaeronea.  For another example, look at the varied fortunes of the phrase “the end of history” over the past few years, not to mention the temptation to characterize whole periods of recent history as Herodotean or Thucydidean.