City of God

0140448942-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_City of God by Augustine of Hippo
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As a backlash against Christianity grew after the sack of Roman in 410 AD, Augustine of Hippo took up his pen to respond to pagans and philosophers as well as inform Christians about their priorities between heaven and earth. The City of God is one of the cornerstones of medieval Christianity and thought that even influences the world today.

Augustine divides his work into 22 books divided into two parts. The first part was to refute the accusation by pagans that the sack of Rome in 410 AD was punishment for abandoning the gods of Rome for Christianity. Throughout the first ten books of his work, Augustine critiques the Roman religion and philosophy from the multitude of deities and the contradictory beliefs related to them as well as the conflicting philosophies that supported and opposed them. The second part, consisting of the last twelve books of the work, discussed the titular City of God and how it relates with the city of man—the present world.

Augustine’s critique of pagan religion and philosophy in the first part of the book is honestly the highlight of the book. Not only did he defend Christianity but also exposed the contradictions within pagan religious beliefs a well as numerous schools of philosophies which defended or opposed those beliefs. If there was one downside within the first part, it would have been the troubling theological ideas that Augustine espoused that seemed more based on Plato than the Bible. However, it was in the second part of book that Augustine’s faulty theology truly became apparent so much so that I had to begin skimming through the text to prevent myself from contradicting Augustine in my head instead of reading. While not all of Augustine’s theology is wrong, God’s omniscience and human free will is an example, some of the defining examples I want to cover is the following: the immortality of the soul and eternal burning in hell connected to it, the claims that passages from the Old Testament are analogies for Christ and the church, that all of Psalms are prophecies written by David, the angels were created on the third day, and many more. It became too frustrating to stay focused and I admittedly might have skimmed over some of Augustine’s better theological arguments, but it was that or tossing the book.

City of God is both the refutation of pagan Roman practices and the theological understanding of Augustine for Christian believers. It’s importance for medieval Christianity and thought cannot be underscored enough, however that does not mean that every reader should not look at it critically.

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Politics

PoliticsPolitics by Aristotle
My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

As Plato’s writings have been a cornerstone of Western thought, so have those of his pupil Aristotle through his own lectures and treatise sometimes agreed and disagreed with his teacher while shaping the views of millions over the millennia. Politics is one of the most important political treatise that has impacted society as it is studied alongside Plato’s own Republic not because they agree, but how they agree through different methods and disagree in conclusions.

Unlike the approach of Plato, Aristotle focused on the examples that the Greek political world knew of to determine the best approach for government of a polis. Classifying the types of government into six forms, three “ideal” and three “perverted”, Aristotle described them as showing their pros and cons in an effort to establish the “best”. Then his analysis turned to various functions of government from laws, offices, and how to pass or fill either. Yet, underlying everything is Aristotle’s insistence that human nature determines everything concerned with governance.

Politics, while thought-provoking and significant in its analysis and conclusions, is unfortunately not without its flaws. The biggest is Aristotle’s argument of natural rulers and natural slaves that is so opposite to the way many think today. The next biggest is that fact that the overall work seems like it is not coherently organized or even complete as many aspects that Aristotle says he will cover never appear and he writes about the bringing about his conclusive best government before actually proving what it is, though given his argument that the best government for a polis depends on how its population is constructed.

Aristotle’s Politics is at the same both thought-provoking and maddening especially given the soundness of his analysis and the disorganized state of the overall treatise. Yet it is one of the most important treatises of political thought of the Western world and is significant in political and historical terms as it has been influential for millennia.

Republic

PlatoRepublic by Plato
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The writings of Plato have been one of the cornerstones of Western thought for two and a half millennia used for both secular and religious purposes, sometimes not as he intended. Republic is one, if not the, most famous piece of Plato’s philosophical/political writings and the translation by Robin Waterfield for Oxford World’s Classics adds to the debate that surrounds it.

During a thorough 60+ page introduction to Plato’s text, Waterfield most significant translation is “morality” instead of “justice” for the Greek word dikaiosune because of the definition provided by Aristotle of the word. With this word decision and with her discussion of Plato’s complete disregard to politics, Republic turns from a work of political theory into one of philosophy concerned about the improvement of an individual’s life and not that of a Greek polis. Using the cultural terms and norms of his time, Plato sets out to express his belief that individuals can improve and better themselves outside the communal structure of Greek life. This was a radical notion given that individualism—especially as we know it today—was not a part of respectable Greek political life, the individual’s life was bound up in the community and if they went off on their own it was dangerous to the civic order and with the relationship with the gods (the charge against Socrates).

While Plato’s overall thesis is thought-provoking, some of his supporting arguments via mathematics and his lack of details about how to improve one’s morality and thus goodness are detriments to Republic’s overall quality. Although later individuals, in particular early Christian fathers, would supplement Plato with their own supporting evidence for those in the 21st Century these elements can be stumbling blocks. Even though Waterfield’s translation provided to be very readable and her notes beyond satisfactory, the constant flipping to the back of the book to read them and provide myself with the context to what she was saying while at the particular place in the text was somewhat unhelpful but footnotes at the bottom of the pages might have been worse.

Republic is one of the most significant pieces of Western literature and whether you approve of Waterfield’s translation or not, it is a very good was to look at a piece of text long-thought to mean one thing and see it as something completely different.

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The Art of War

The Art of WarThe Art of War by Sun Tzu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Within “The Art of War” are three distinct though similar treatise written across over 2000 years and three different cultures that instruct the reader not only how to succeed in war but also politics and business.

The opening treatise is the titular “Art of War”, Sun Tzu gives his readers a concise yet in-depth instruction into the how to achieve victory over one’s enemies. Though less than a hundred pages in length, it has to be read carefully to get the full meaning of what the author intends to convey. Yet when boiled down, the most important lesson is simply to be aware of one’s surroundings and other people’s intentions so as to continually be prepared for all situations.

The middle treatise is Machiavelli’s “The Prince”, a how-to course in how to gain and maintain power. The pragmatic program that councils that everything one does must be solely down to maintain one’s, if in the process you must victimize a small minority of your population, so be it, but if some of your actions improve the lives of the majority of your citizens so much the better. Yet, while Machiavelli’s thoughtful approach to studying power politics is the beginning of political theory, “The Prince” is also cutting satire on the Medici who had taken over Florence ending Machiavelli’s civil career. The astute reader realizes that “The Prince” is more than it appears while also achieving its apparent main aim.

The final treatise is Frederick the Great’s “Instructions to His Generals”, in which the celebrated Prussian monarch and military commander gave guidance to his general staff about how to fight war through his own failures and achievements. Unlike Machiavelli’s call for unity or Sun Tzu’s broad principles, Frederick main goal is for the betterment of Prussia and for detailed instructions on everything connected with a military campaign. This single-mindedness and painstaking approach is a lesson in and of itself to the reader to keep their focus on the here and now so as to achieve bigger things down the road, not dream of the far-off future while sacrificing the present.

While distinct, the three treatise in this book are in fact are three different life experiences on the same thing, achieving success at whatever one attempts.

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